1958. She is eight years old, bored, waiting in the car on a hot day. They have come into town from the farm, she waits while her mother nips in to see her grandmother in her office. She says she will only be a moment. The moment grows longer and longer, boredom expands like oil in a hot pan, it spreads, the car is cloaked in oily viscosity. She suspects that behind closed doors her mother and grandmother are arguing. She does not know what it is that they argue about, but she does know her mother will return flushed and irritable, frayed, untouchable. Unspeakable to.
Then there is a tap at the window. She has been warned never to wind down the window and talk to strangers, but this woman is not exactly a stranger, she and her husband have a farm in the same part of the country as her parents. She is pretty and has two young children. The girl has never seen her like this: Distraught, her hair in disarray, cheeks streaked, eyes reddened and mascara smudged. “Where is your mother?” Her voice is jagged, the question an appeal. “I have to run, everyone is waiting, but tell your mother something for me. Tell her … tell her I’ve got cancer. Do you understand?” She says this—do you understand—in a tone of acerbic despair, as though she knows no one will ever understand least of all this child. And yet it is important that she understand, she is the one chosen to be the bearer of knowledge, she is charged with a secret. “Don’t tell anyone else, just your mother. This is a secret. But you must tell your mother.”
The woman leaves, the car turns cold and clammy. Eventually her mother returns, flushed and irritable. “Don’t talk to me,” she says. The girl rehearses how to say it, she does not know what it is this thing called cancer that the woman has. Where did she get it, did she buy it or was it given to her, where does she have it, in her purse, in a safe with her jewels, tucked into her bra with a spare five pound note for emergencies? But she senses that to say the word entails repercussions. She knows the news she has to impart is lethal. Eventually she whispers to her mother, so as not to crack the brittleness of the air. “I have a secret to tell you,” she whispers. “Not now,” the mother snaps. Head on the steering wheel, hands in her hair, pulling. Then, more gently, though still exasperated by the demands of the child, “later, tell me later.”
But later never comes. She tries but cannot find the moment, the right moment when she can say the word, pass on the secret. The word becomes cheese-like, heavy and sweaty in her pocket, it grows moldy, accruing guilt. The secret stays with her.