Brendan is still thinking about what the doctor told him when he hears keys jingle outside. Maria calls him as soon as the front door opens. ‘Brendan? Brendan, love, are you back? How did it go?’
He continues to stand by the kitchen window, staring at the ivy-choked wall beside the shed in the back garden. He can hear Sarah Kinsella’s two children screaming next-door, driven mad by the recent, almost unnatural, spell of hot weather. At first, it was received with a mixture of delight and relief. A proper summer at last. Ballyheigue, Banna and Fenit were mobbed every day with locals and tourists looking to make the most of the heat wave. Six weeks on, however, there is talk that the reservoirs supplying the town are running low, that there may have to be rationing. Even the people Brendan talks to and sees on the street seem weary of it, sapped of some inner resolve by the unrelenting heat.
Maria calls him again. She steps into the kitchen and notices the bottle of whiskey on the heavy wooden table.
Brendan turns to his wife. Early evening light that comes in the window has caught in her hair, making dishevelled strands of auburn seem to burn. He admires her for a moment. She still looks as slim and attractive as she did twenty years ago when they first met. The nightly swims in the sports complex, the healthy food she eats and tries to force on him – things like salads, hummus, wholewheat bread and multivitamins – all seem to have done the trick.
Looking down, he notices how baggy his green, sweat-stained t-shirt is on him. He has lost weight recently. The only problem is that it has nothing to do with healthy living.
Brendan walks to the table and picks up the bottle of Jameson. ‘When I got back from Dr McKenna’s I thought about having a drink, just to help me understand all this. In the end, I decided against it.’
Maria gives him a puzzled frown. She wanted to go with him to Dr McKenna’s to hear the results from the latest scans. He told her to go to work instead. One of them needs to be bringing in proper money, especially with him on sick leave these past few months. She agreed grudgingly but is anxious now to hear how the appointment went.
Except Brendan isn’t sure how it went. All he knows is that he has been in Dr McKenna’s office too often in recent times and has come to hate how it always smells faintly of antiseptic. He has studied the family pictures hanging over the blue, floral wallpaper so often that he feels confident he could pick every McKenna out of a line-up.
‘How have you been feeling?’ Dr McKenna asked as soon as Brendan sat opposite him this morning. Burst blood vessels in the doctor’s cheeks made it look like he was blushing.
‘A fair bit better, actually. The pain hasn’t been as bad the last week and I haven’t coughed up any blood in a while. Maria has me drinking buckets of green tea; she says it’ll help fight off the cancerous cells.’ He laughed. ‘Maybe it’s working.’
‘I doubt that,’ Dr McKenna said.
The doctor coughed, his cheeks reddening further. ‘Because you don’t have cancer.’
‘Because you don’t have cancer,’ he reiterated. ‘After studying your most recent X-rays and CT scan, as well as consulting with some of my colleagues, it has been concluded that what is growing inside your lung is not a tumour.’
Brendan leaned forward. He tried to keep the exasperation out of his voice. ‘Not a tumour? But what is it then?’
Dr McKenna hesitated before answering.
Brendan stared at him, his first instinct to laugh. This was a joke. It had to be.
Dr McKenna continued: ‘The theory we have put together is that you inhaled a seed. This seed then somehow proceeded to sprout inside your lung. Judging by the latest scan, it currently measures about five centimetres. It has been piercing blood capillaries as it’s grown – this is what’s caused the chest pain and blood.’
Brendan stared blankly ahead. All he could think about was the morning he had first been told it was lung cancer. How he said that the diagnosis must be wrong. After all, he had never smoked a cigarette in his life.
When he refocused, he asked Dr McKenna to explain it to him again.
Maria stands half in the kitchen, half in the shadowed hallway. He has told her what Dr McKenna said and watches now as she tries to make sense of it. Her hands fidget with one another as if trying to untie something. The scent of fresh-cut grass drifts in the open window from the back garden.
‘Well, what does this mean? What are they going to do about this?’
‘They want to take it out.’
Dr McKenna told him how there had been one other case like this. It happened quite recently to a man in Russia. They had removed the tree, he explained, and the man returned to full health. Dr McKenna wants to operate straight away. He says that if the tree grows anymore it will pierce his lung.
‘When?’ she asks.
‘Tomorrow, first thing.’
‘And then you’ll go back to normal? Everything will go back to normal?’
Brendan shrugs. ‘So he says.’
Maria drops her handbag onto the linoleum. ‘Okay, this is good news, right? We should celebrate.’ She looks around. ‘Wine, wine, do we have any wine?’
‘There’s a bottle of white in the fridge.’
Brendan watches as she moves around the kitchen, searching for the cork screw. ‘Got it,’ she exclaims, snatching it out of the cutlery drawer. She grabs the bottle from the fridge and carries it to the table. He pretends not to notice the way she holds the cork screw: like it’s a weapon and she’s ready to attack.
He remembers the night he first realised something was wrong with him. He was sleeping in the spare room at that stage and woke in darkness, unable to stop coughing. His chest felt ready to burst open. Blood sloshed around in his mouth. He tried to call out but only succeeded in falling off the bed.
Half asleep, Maria stumbled into the room. ‘Brendan, what is it? What are you doing?’ She switched on the light. Saw the blood on the pillowcase, the quilt and the timber floor.
He was only able to groan in response.
‘To trees,’ Maria toasts. She gulps down her glass of wine in one go and pours herself another.
Brendan, sitting opposite her, sips from his glass of water. He turned down the wine, as well as the offer from Maria to cook. Dr McKenna ordered that he fast for twenty-four hours before the operation.
Maria’s cheeks are already reddening from the wine. Her eyes dart around the wooden table as if there’s something jumping from spot to spot on it, something she desperately wants to fix in place with her gaze.
He wonders if she is thinking back to before he got sick, attempting to figure out why they drifted away from one another. Neither had an affair, there had been no violence, nor any other dramatics. Instead it seemed to happen naturally, like the changing of a season – say a mild autumn to a cold, sudden winter – and been all the more inevitable for that.
Then he was told about the lung cancer. Maria and he decided to use the news selfishly. As an excuse to forget what had become of them, to pretend none of it happened and they were still happy. One night lying in bed together, Maria described it as ‘the strangest of gifts’. When she saw Brendan’s reaction, she added: ‘I know that doesn’t sound right, but you get what I mean, don’t you?’
He nodded, glad to be back in his own bed again.
Maria finishes the first bottle of wine and roots out a second, a Chilean Merlot, from someplace upstairs. She begins working her way through it diligently. Outside, the intense heat of the day is relenting. The sun has already fallen behind the ivy-choked wall in the back garden, the sky above it a strange kind of pinkish-purple. It’s the type of colour only seen in the sky after a real scorcher of a day, as if the heat has melted the colours together in some new and surprising way.
Maria never had much of a tolerance for alcohol and Brendan can tell that, with her stained lips and blurry eyes, she is already out of it. Sipping his water, he waits for what is to come. He knows Maria, knows she is building up to something.
She finishes off most of the Merlot before saying anything.
‘You could keep it.’
Brendan frowns. He tries to respond but Maria pushes ahead. ‘You told me yourself that it hasn’t hurt recently. Maybe it will stop now? Maybe it won’t grow anymore? This tree has been good for us. It has changed us, been our second chance. Leaving it in could be a good thing.’
‘Maria, Dr McKenna said it’ll pierce my lung if it grows anymore.’
She scoffs. ‘He doesn’t know for sure. Would you not think about it?’
Brendan sighs, but still nods.
He tries to speak a couple of times after that, but can’t find any words that feel right. Sitting on his side of the heavy wooden table, he watches Maria, who, after a small pause, returns to the wine.
Three large gulps and her eyes bulge. She bolts out of the chair.
‘Oh God, oh God, oh God,’ she mutters.
The moment she reaches the sink it bursts out of her.
Brendan rushes over and pulls her hair back from her face. She coughs a few more times, gags and straightens herself. Only then does he let her hair fall back in place.
‘Maybe it’s time for you to go to bed,’ he suggests.
She nods, her pale lips trembling.
He follows her into the hallway and up the carpeted stairs. She mumbles as she climbs, her eyes half-closed. Once in the bedroom, she passes out on the bed before he has a chance to move aside the blankets.
Brendan walks to the open window beside the bed. The strange colour he noticed earlier in the sky is nearly gone now; the breeze that drifts in the window seems far cooler than anything he has felt the past few weeks.
He glances over his shoulder at Maria, spread-eagled on the bed. Her breathing is heavy, on the brink of snoring, and Brendan is surprised by the anger he feels listening to it.
He will have to sneak out early in the morning. She will only try and change his mind again if she wakes up before he leaves. He realises that she is just afraid. After all, the tree has saved them in a strange way. But getting rid of it won’t return them to how they were before. It is crazy to think otherwise. It would be like saying that the tree is the only thing holding them together.
There is more to them than this lung tree. Brendan wholeheartedly believes this.
And he is almost certain Maria does too.
In my opinion, Claire Keegan is the finest contemporary short story writer. She should be read by everyone who’s passionate about the form for her beautifully restrained and suggestive prose. Philip O’ Ceallaigh’s Notes from a Turkish Whorehouse is one of the best short story collections to come out of Ireland in the past decade. Its originality and the manner in which it discards tradition has been a huge inspiration to me. Everything of Carver’s is essential reading, including his poetry. Hemingway’s ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber’ remains one of my favourite stories. Alistair MacLeod’s short stories are also a must-read for their humanity and truth.
Noel O’ Regan was born in County Kerry, Ireland. He is the recipient of a 2012 Leonard A. Koval Memorial Prize and was the second prize winner in the 2011 Writing Spirit Award. He was also shortlisted for the 2011 Over the Edge New Writer of the Year and his work has appeared in Wordlegs, Gem Street, Writing4all: Best of 2011 andWordlegs Presents: 30 under 30. He lives in London.