THIS IS A NOVEL I AM WRITING. IT IS ABOUT CANCER RESEARCH'S RACE FOR LIFE.
JOINING THE GIRLS
It was a field peppered with pink. They looked like tiny dots from where she was standing. They could almost be flowers. Or butterflies. She smiled. Both seemed appropriate.
Florence Crabb was standing on a stage, facing thousands and thousands of people. It was a warm day - thank goodness. The sun was pleasant on her bare shoulders. The wind was gentle, softly lifting her hair. Looking round the dozens of faces, she picked out that of her husband. He was standing at the side with the other volunteers. Their eyes meet and he beamed at her. His eyes told her silently how proud he was of her.
"My name is Florence Crabb!" she announced, "and I'm running this race again for the fifth year running! My sister Lottie and I did it together in memory of our mum, Rachel every single year without fail. She died of cancer six years ago. And now..." Florence swallowed. She had promised herself she would not get upset. "Now I'm running for Lottie too. She's in hospital with bowel cancer. But, I'm going to run this race, my husband Jamie is going to film it..." she waved in his direction, "and then we're gunna run, straight to that hospital and show her the film, show her what amazing work we're doing!"
The crowd erupted. Many women had tears running down their faces. Some reached out to touch Flo's hand. She brushed fingers with several and climbed, slightly dazed, down from the stage. As her foot landed on the grass, she felt an arm around her shoulder.
"I am so proud of you," said Jamie.
"I haven't even run the race yet!" she replied.
"I got it all Flo," he said, tapping his camera, "Lottie will be beside herself when she sees it."
"In a good way, I hope," she joked weakly, "something to take her mind off the fact she had half her bowel removed a few days back."
He massaged the back of her shoulders and gave her a light kiss on the neck.
"Come on Flo," he said, "she's getting stronger every day. And if seeing you doing something like this doesn't put her right, I don't know what will."
She turned to face him. He was a lot taller than her, thin but muscular, with thick strawberry blonde hair. His eyes were blue and sharp, his nose small and his lips thin. And she loved him so much it made her heart ache.
"I love you," he said.
"I love you too."
He bent his head and kissed her passionately.
"Ok, alright," said a loud voice, "you know, some people want to run a race today and they can't do that if there're vomiting into their tee-shirts, can they?"
"Hello Sandy," said Florence breaking away from Jamie. Her best friend seemed to have appeared from nowhere.
"If you can tear yourselves away for just one second," Sandy winked at them, "the race is about to start."
"Right. I'm ready." Florence smoothed down her shorts and checked her race number. "back sign in place still?"
"Yep," said Jamie, "you're good to go, baby."
He tapped her back sign. It was large notice they had attached earlier to her tee-shirt. Many women had one and each had their own personal message. Flo's read "I am running for mum's memory and Lottie's recovery."
"Let's do this thing." said Sandy, taking hold of Flo's arm.
"Bring her back in one piece, please," Jamie called after them.
Sandy and Florence made their way to the sea of women.
"You struck gold with that one, Flo," said Sandy gesturing behind them, "a decent partner. What a rarity."
"Well, yes, Jamie has been wonderful, especially with Lottie.... anyway, I thought you like being single. Being liberated and all that."
Sandy rolled her eyes.
"You're joking aren't you?"
Florence laid a sympathetic hand on her friends arm.
"You just haven't found the right man yet. It'll happen, I promise."
"Yeah. Course it will."
"Come on," said Flo, "let's get right to the front before it starts."
She jogged ahead. Should she of looked back, she may have noticed the wistful look in Sandy's eye. The way she stroked the spot on her arm where Florence had touched her.
Jamie whipped round, almost loosing grip on his camera. His face broke into a grin.
"Hey mate!" he called back.
The voice had belonged to his friend Tyrone. He reached Jamie and greeted up with a powerful slap on the back.
"Watch my camera Ty!" said Jamie, stumbling.
"Whoops, sorry my man." Tyrone steadied Jamie's shoulders.
"What are you doing here, the Ty?" asked Jamie.
"You know me," he replied, "I'm a curious kinda guy. Came down to see what's occurring. And all for a good cause, innit."
Jamie raised his eyebrows.
"Nothing to do with the fact that there's hundreds of women her in tight tops and running shorts."
"Hadn't noticed, dude," said Tyrone with a wink, "Is Flo all set? I haven't seen her today."
"Just missed her. She and Sandy just left to warm up, the race is due to start any minute."
"Sandy," said Tyrone slowly, "the chick with legs up too her arms?"
"That's the one."
"Have you seen her eyes man? There're like...like two almonds set in her head. And her hair - I mean most girls don't look that great with short hair in my opinion but with her it looks...what?"
Jamie was chuckling.
"I dunno. Don't think you're her type."
Tyrone's face fell.
"Does she only like tall guys?"
"Don't be stupid Ty. Look, I've never meet any of her partners so I can't judge. Come on, let's get to the front."
He was already making his way through the throngs of people. Tyrone frowned as he took what Jamie said.
"So there could be a chance then?" he yelled at Jamie's retreating back.
"Sure. Maybe." Jamie called back.
Tyrone quickened his pace so he was beside Jamie, at the starting line. Jamie already had camera poised, pointing directly at Flo.
The girls were ready. Flo's heart was beating painfully hard. It thudded inside her head. She did her best to block it out with the noise that was around her but only succeeded in filling her mind with voices from the past few years.
"I'm sorry Mrs. Taylor, it is cancer...there's nothing we can do...I'm sorry...Miss. Taylor - Florence, your sister - it is cancer..."
The thoughts were suddenly interrupted. Sandy had slipped her hand into hers. The two friends smiled at each other and for a moment, there was total and complete understanding between them.
The starting pistol fired.
Hundreds of women dressed in pink surged forwards. The air was thick with laughter. Hundreds of woman, from all over the city. They had never meet or spoken before, but each and every woman was there for the same purpose. As they left the starting line, they ran under a banner that sported the slogan "Join the Girls." The girls had indeed joined together. An army to fight cancer.
The hospital room smelt has her mother's had. Florence was sure of it. It was difficult not to baulk. That smell brought so many unpleasant memories.
"I asked them to give me pink bed sheets," said Lottie from the bed, "I thought it would be a nice gesture for today."
Florence was standing in the empty space by Lottie's bed where the bedside cabinet had been. It had been dragged to face the them by Tyrone and Jamie and a TV was placed upon it. Now, the two men tinkered with the TV and camera, trying to connect the two.
"That's sweet," said Flo, "I think it looks a million times better than the normal blue that they use."
It might have just been her imagination but she thought her sister looked stronger than usual. She hasn't bothered with a head scarf today - why should she? In fact, she looked quite elegant bald. Her lips weren't so blue and her eyes didn't look so tired. At least she thought they didn't. Lottie looked more herself, more my sister, Florence thought. Amazing, considering she'd been under the knife a few days before. There were the full lips they shared, the bright blue eyes. It was difficult to picture Lottie's hair now - thick and curly like their mother's had been. Flo's hair hung blonde, the same colour, but straight. Maybe it was her wishful thinking that made Lottie seem better. The image of her mother hunted Flo. Once the cancer has taken hold, their mother, the woman who had seemed so youthful and strong had become alarmingly fragile. Towards the end, her skin had been nearly translucent. Florence hadn't liked to look too closely at her - afraid she would see her mother's crumbling bones and failing organs. Her hands had become like claws and her eyeballs yellow and vacant. The disease had her in an iron first and mercilessly gnawed like a dog chewing a bone. Rachel had died a long time before her body did.
But no. Lottie would not end up like this. She was looking healthier, happier. Smiling - positively beaming at the TV, which now showed a rather breathless Florence finishing her race.
"Rewind it, quick!" said Jamie.
Tyrone leapt into action, just as Sandy entered the room, ladened down with a tray sporting four cups of coffee.
"Brilliant, thanks," said Flo, going to take a cup.
"Bet you could do with the caffeine," said Lottie, "you must be shattered after that race."
"Oh no quick!" Sandy set down the coffees next to the boys and rushed over too Lottie's beside, "cover her eyes! You don't want to see the race all backwards!"
Florence chuckled and covered one of Lottie's eyes while Sandy covered the other.
"Nearly there," said Jamie, "aren't we, Ty? Ty?"
Tyrone's eyes seemed to be fixated on Sandy . Jamie sighed and nudged his friend. Tyrone blinked and turned back too the telly.
Florence and Lottie giggled whilst Sandy looked bemused.
"There we go," said Jamie triumphantly.
He moved aside. The TV showed Flo, just before she was about give her speech. Florence slipped her hand into her sister's.
"Anyone got popcorn?" Sandy yawned.
Florence hoped Lottie wouldn't cry during the viewing. Crying was bad and they all needed to be positive. But by the end of Flo's speech on the screen, all five of them had tears in their eyes.
"You're an inspiration Flo," Lottie whispered, not taking her eyes away from the screen, "to me, to mum...to anyone who experiences cancer."
Florence swallowed hard and wrapped her arms round her sister. She held her like she never wanted to let go.
"Mum would..." Lottie began.
"Don't," gulped Flo.
Tears were streaming down her cheeks. Furious with herself, she shook her head violently. Sandy shifted uncomfortably.
"Do you want a tissue, Flo?" she said.
She held Lottie even tighter.
"Let me breathe, Flo," said Lottie, laughing weakly.
Florence loosened but kept her sister close to her. She wouldn't - just couldn't let her get away too.
"I wish I could have been there with you," said Lottie, her eyes still fixed on the screen.
"You will be. Next year. Or the year after, definitely," said Florence firmly, "we'll run together, just like we always did."
"I hope so," replied her sister with a smile.
After the showing, Sandy left, shortly followed by Tyrone, who muttered some excuse that was inaudible.
"I suppose we'd better make a move too, babe," said Jamie, unplugging his camera.
"Would you mind," said Lottie, "if Florence and I just had a moment."
"Of course. I'll see you at home Flo."
"Thank you Jamie," said Lottie, "for filming the race I mean. Really made my day."
"No problem. I'll see you tomorrow probably."
Lottie blinked at him.
Jamie frowned slightly but nevertheless picked up his camera, blew his wife a kiss and left the room.
Flo watched him go then turned back to Lottie. She smiled uncertainly at her. Her sister's face had clouded over.
"Still feeling weird from the operation, babe?"
"I'm in pain, yeah. Doctors said I would be for a few days."
"Is it really bad?"
"Nothing I can't handle"
There was a moment of silence. Then Lottie spoke again.
"Looks like you had a good day."
"Would have been better if you'd been there."
Florence took her sister's hand.
"I mean it. Was there something you wanted to say?"
"Yes. No. Not really. I don't know."
"I can stay as long as you want."
"It's just..." Lottie shifted slightly and Florence noticed her flinch in pain, "I wanted to say thank you."
"You already have."
"Not just for the video and the race. For everything. For being my sister."
Florence was unsure how to take this.
"Well...right back at you, Lottie. We're a great team."
"Not so great at the moment, eh?"
"Yeah but," Flo said earnestly, "we will be again. I promise."
Until now, Lottie had been looking down. Now, she raised her head and stared her sister full in the face.
"And if we don't?"
Flo's heart skipped a beat.
"What do you mean?"
Lottie shut her eyes and took a deep breath.
"I'm just tired Flo. I'm so sick of fighting."
"You don't have to fight," said Flo, struggling to hide the panic in her voice, "that's what the drugs do, the doctors..."
"The drugs make me so sick sometimes I think I'm loosing my mind. The doctors treat me like a child. I'm trapped in stupid body that doesn't work. I'm just like mum now..."
"You're not!" Florence fiercely, gripping Lottie's shoulders, "she was older, she was weaker! She gave up! You are stronger than that!"
Lottie's eyes were blank and her face expressionless.
"I am?" she mumbled.
Florence released her hold on Lottie's shoulders. She took a moment to compose herself, turning her head away from Lottie. When she turned back, she was smiling oddly, brightly, as if the smile had been sewn onto her lips.
"You're tired, Lottie. We shouldn't have come in all guns blazing. We shouldn't have bought in Sandy and Ty."
"Flo, please listen to me..."
"I have sweetheart. And I can see you're shattered. So, I'll leave to to get some rest and come back tomorrow."
Lottie shook her head.
"I'm not a child anymore, Flo. Not your baby sister. I can't just obey every command you make."
"Lottie," said Flo, "you never obeyed anything I said anyway. But you'll always be my baby sister. Even when we're eighty, knitting side by side in the old people's home our children have put us in."
"I wish you'd take me seriously. We need to get things in order. Just in case."
"No need babe, no need. We'll be back running that race in a couple of years."
Lottie cast down her eyes. She felt the last of her strength to argue leave her.
"Ok. You're right Flo."
"That's more like it!" Flo grinned and embraced her, "now, I'd better get going. Don't want to be too late or Jamie might try and cook dinner."
"Goodness how awful."
"Better go and put a stop it."
Flo kissed her sister lightly on the cheek.
"See you tomorrow, sis."
"Yeah, ok," said Lottie, with a smile that did not reach her eyes.
Flo walked the twenty minutes home. She was shaking slightly and wasn't sure if it was because of what Lottie had said or the fact she had not eaten since the race. She decided on the latter - she was not going to let Lottie's words get her down. The poor girl was knackered and probably didn't know what she was saying. Lottie had had major surgery less than a week ago and was over excited. She needed to rest. She would be better tomorrow. Flo need not worry. She thought this over and over, until she reached her front door.
She and Jamie lived in a small flat in an estate on the edge of town. Their flat was small but cosy. Flo had decorated herself, using brightly coloured drapes and rugs. Putting her degree in art to some use, she had printed flowers on the living room walls - stars in the bedroom and fish in the bathroom. In the living room was a huge squashy soft they'd got off freecycle, Jamie's Ipod player and his pride and joy - a wide screen TV. They had a false fire - given to them as a wedding present, that flickered up into synthetic flames when it was switched on. As the room was so tiny, it radiated a lot of warmth. They had no dinning room, so the couple would often spend winter nights eating in front of the fire. Flo would have liked a dinning room. But for now, she was happy.
"We'll have a house soon, baby," Jamie had said, "if we both keep saving like we do."
He was a maths teacher in a secondary school. Flo would shudder at the thought of having to do maths every day. She was a PA to the boss of a large company in the city, a short commute from the tube just down the road. She knew enough about the business to organise her bosses agenda. Alongside that, Florence did any art work she could lay her hands on - from helping a friend's child with their homework to paid graphic designing. There was not, however, as much of that work that she would have liked.
It was a summer night, so there would be no need to eat in front of the fire. As Florence opened the door, she caught a whiff of fried chicken. Her stomach murmured.
"I'm doing that salad you like," called Jamie from the kitchen, "the one with the goats cheese."
"Great. I'm starving."
She yanked her key from the lock and slung her coat a peg.
"What did Lottie want," he asked as she entered the kitchen.
Flo took a second to answer. She was not prepared to tell Jamie what her sister had said. He would make a bigger thing of it that she wanted
"She just..." Florence chose her words carefully so as not to provoke more questions, "wanted to talk about mum."
"Aha. I get you. I won't say anymore."
"Nothing bad," said Florence quickly, not wanted him to think she was in a 'delicate mood,' "just memories. Happy ones."
Jamie smiled, wiping his hands on a dishcloth.
"Best sort of memories, happy ones."
Flo nodded, hoping the conversation was over. Their kitchen was just big enough for a fridge, sink, oven and work surface. Most of this was taken up for an aging microwave and Jamie took up the rest with his chopping board and vegetables.
"Dinner won't be long," he said, "get a drink and relax."
He gestured towards the fridge. She pulled it open and took out a bottle of her favorite white wine.
"Bought it on the way home," he said, "thought we should celebrate."
"I shouldn't really," Flo said, thinking of Lottie.
She checked herself.
"I don't know," she said lamely.
Jamie gave a bemused snort and handed her a glass.
"Get it down you, silly girl. Go switch the TV on, I'll bring the food in."
She smiled gratefully at the back of his head, poured herself some wine and left the room.
Both the wine and the food had little effect on her. Her hunger seemed melted away and now she just felt a little sick.
"Can't you eat a bit more," asked Jamie, "you've probably worn yourself out today."
"Stick it in the fridge, I'll have it later."
Flo sighed and tucked her feet up under her. All she really wanted to do now was go to sleep but it was still too early. He would get worried. He would ask her what was wrong.
She had almost dozed off when Jamie came back from washing up. He chuckled at her.
"I'm guessing you don't fancy going into town."
She shook her head.
"Have they asked you out?"
"Ty and a few of the lads yeah."
"You go. I'm fine."
He flicked open his mobile and his mouth twitched.
"Nah," he said eventually, "not in the mood. Lets watch a film instead."
She was secretly relieved and snuggled up to him the second he sat down. His body was warm. His hands touched her gently, stroking her hair. She took little notice of the film, just of the way he made her feel safe. Although he could stop bad things happening just by holding her.
By eleven, the film had finished and Flo could no longer keep her eyes open. She half fell of the sofa and stumbled into the bedroom. Jamie followed, winding his arm around her waist. Flo went straight to bathroom. She scrubbed her face and her teeth hastily before collapsing into bed. Before Jamie even had one leg of his trousers off, she was fast asleep.
The room was freezing. Flo could feel bumps all over her body. Her skin was pale, with an almost sickly greenish glow to it. She was confused. Where was she? How had she got here?
She jumped. Her own voice had echoed strangely and had come out a lot louder than she had expected.
"Florrie? Is that you?"
Florence's head whipped round. She realized she had been standing facing a wall. The room was perfectly still, yet it seemed to shift as she watched it. There was a bed and a mantelpiece. There were cards on the mantelpiece and photographs but she could not make out any faces. The room was too dark to see the beds occupant. It seemed horribly familiar somehow.
Who was calling her Florrie? She hated the name. There was only one person in the world who used to call her that...
Again, her voice jarred and bounced off the wall.
"Not so loud, Florrie," Rachel's voice was weak and full of tears, "my head...my head..."
"I'm sorry, mum," Flo spoke as low as she could.
"Come... come and see me..."
Flo stepped forwards and her foot made a clanging sound as she did so. There was a cry from the bed.
All at once, Flo felt afraid.
"But mum," she whispered, "you're dead."
Flo took another step, tiptoeing this time.
"I've missed you Florrie,"
"I've missed you too, mum."
She was nearly at the bed now.
"Your hand...Florrie, your hand..."
Flo extended her hand. She pushed it into the darkness that seemed to cling to the bed. She still couldn't make out her mother. For a moment, she felt nothing. Then, something cold and clammy snapped around her fingers. Flo started and instinctively tried to pull her arm away. Back through the darkness her arm came. Wrapped around were brittle yellow fingers. The skin on the arm was scaly, almost like that of a lizard's. The nails on the hands were milky and over grown. They stabbed her skin like miniature knifes. And, all up and down, were jagged black scars. They were set into the old woman's skin in a way that they looked like some terrible lopsided face.
Flo yelled and tried to wrench her arm away. But the grip on her was tight and she could feel herself tipping forwards.
Flo cried out at the desperation in her mother's voice but continued to fight.
There was something on her back. With a sudden rush of power, she pulled free and spun to face her attacker behind her. She hit something warm and soft.
Jamie was almost on top of her, pinning her down. She was in bed, writhing like a snake. She was suddenly aware that she was screaming. Her throat burned.
"I...I...I" Florence jabbered.
For a moment, she fought him. Then, as she came to herself again, she relaxed.
"I had the dream about mum again," she whimpered into the pillow, "and she..."
She stopped abruptly. Jamie had rolled off her and was panting slightly. Flo sat up. The phone by their bed was ringing. She glanced at her alarm. 3.30am. Her eyes met with Jamie's and her blood ran cold.
"No..." it was a tiny noise that came from her mouth.
The phone rang again, violently. It might as well of been bellowing at her. Flo's face was a mask of fear. She was shuddering and catching her breath in short, sharp gasps. She felt as though someone had sliced her open with a blunt, rusty knife.
Jamie laid a hand on her shoulder.
"Do you want me to answer it?" he offered gently.
She knew what they had to say. Why else would they ring at three in the morning? Yet, she still couldn't touch the receiver. Her hand was hovering above it although it might scald her. Perhaps if she didn't answer, it wouldn't be true.
Jamie kissed her bare shoulder. Tears began to pour down her cheeks. On the tenth ring, Flo took the call.
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