The radioactive sugar will feel cold as it goes in, the nurse tells me. She’s been trying to find a vein. It’s ok – no one can ever find a way in. By the time she finds a way, my sleeve has been rolled up for half an hour. By the time she brings in the syringe, it’s me that’s cold.
The syringe arrives in a box. The box is a bruise on the white hospital room. Its dark metal sides somehow soak up light instead of reflecting it. They soak up the light which comes from the walls, from the ceiling, and from the computer which knows all about me – knows that I am young, knows that my own blood could kill me.
I think about the bruise leaking onto my arm. I know these bruises well, the kind that runs down the vein and freezes like a puddle. When the nurse opens the box, I almost expect dry ice to spill out and swallow up the moment, the way time or a magic act does.
The nurse gives me the injection and leaves to let it run its course. When it finds the cancer, it will stop to leave its glow: millions of tiny hazard cones all over the roads of my body. In an hour, my radiographer will mark them on my scan, which is the closest thing I have to a map.
I lie back on the chair and watch my eyelids mop up the light. I can feel memory racing the sugar through my body. Suddenly, and without dry ice, I’m somewhere else.
We hit our first shock of silver birch an hour away from Moscow. It was late autumn, but if you looked long enough at the bark, it almost looked like it was snowing.
I peeled small pieces of eggshell into a metal bowl on my lap. The eggs were the opposite of the birch – through the cracks, there was only more white. The woman I was lodging with in Moscow had made me two hardboiled eggs for the journey. I was on my way to her country estate six hours to the east.
On the day of our planned departure, she had told me that she could not leave until the following evening, that she would be held up in Moscow. When she had asked me what I wanted to do, the answer had been obvious. I knew I should go ahead alone. I knew this not only because she was fiercely independent, but also because she often arrived from Paris at a day’s notice in the middle of the night.
With a few words, I found myself rushing towards something I had not expected. I could have worried, but then again, this felt not unlike the rest of life.
A shadowy, middle-aged man named Dmitri was driving. He was paid to shuttle my landlady’s belongings to and from her estate every few months. This time, he had come to Moscow empty-handed and was leaving with a treadmill, several antique chairs, and me.
We sped all the way to the estate, pausing only once at a gas station where I dashed into a small, plastic bathroom cubicle. An Alsatian lay hopelessly under a sign that read Avtoservis. The station was like any other pause – lumpy and misshapen, the silence that opens up around a forgotten word.
Back on the road, we passed through a string of small villages before reaching another stretch of forest. Dmitri and I had exchanged perhaps a dozen words in the three hours we had been driving, but about ten minutes into this new stretch he struck up a conversation.
At what age do women usually get married in England? He pulled some small, unappealing apples from behind the driver’s seat and offered me one. I declined, reminding him that I had just eaten two hardboiled eggs. He looked at me. It was a sweet look, playful even, but long enough to make me uncomfortable, especially since he was driving me fast down a rural road. These are my apples, he said. I grew them myself. I looked at him, then I looked at the road. We were going so fast that the silver birches were now one long spill of white. Thank you, I said. He handed me one. I took a bite.
I don’t know, I said with my mouth full. Older than me.
I took another bite even though I didn’t want to. It was all sugar water. I could tell from the look of it that the apple was going to be bad – the kind that makes up for what it lacks in flavour with excessive freckling. Turning it over in my hands, I spotted, among the freckles, several dark bruises.
In the last three hours, the roads narrowed and widened like blood vessels. When they narrowed, we held our breath, hoping we wouldn’t hit an oncoming car. When they widened, we breathed easy, letting our bodies slacken against the car’s cheap leather. Somewhere along the way, I closed my eyes.
I open my eyes. The nurse’s hand is on my arm, accidentally tugging at the skin just hard enough for the bandage to loosen. It’s time for you to go in now, she says.
It’s now, there is no choice. I shuffle to the room. For the first time, I think I can feel my blood coursing in and out of my heart, can feel each individual cell speeding towards my heart and rushing out again.
I lie down in the tube and watch the scan whirr overhead.
If you look long enough, it almost looks like it’s snowing.
Madeleine Pulman-Jones studies Russian and Spanish at the University of Cambridge. Her poems have appeared in publications including PN Review, The Mays Anthology, and The Adroit Journal, where she was a finalist for the 2020 Adroit Prize for Poetry.