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Thursday 30th May, 2024


   ‘I call it Brain Day,’ I tell my therapist cheerily. ‘Every year I book the sixth of June off work and do something to celebrate, however small it may be.’

   My therapist just nods, smiling, her eyes creasing at the corners behind her thickly-framed glasses. No comments, just gentle encouragement. So I plough on. 

   ‘Last year I was travelling for work, but I had a nice evening meal by myself once I got there, and a walk along the Quay at golden hour. The year before that, I went to a cute local cafe full of cactuses and sat with my laptop, just writing, for myself, for hours. And in the past I’ve taken day trips to London, mini breaks abroad, one year they actually scheduled my annual MRI on that exact date which was funny…’ words are tumbling out of me at this point, and my therapist - Sarah - is frowning. So I pause, and take a sip of my water. I look around the room, because I can never maintain eye contact with her for too long. I enjoy our sessions now they’re in her living room, not in that old building I quite coincidentally used to work in. The association was a bit much, made it harder to sit comfortably and open up. I’d always worry the supposedly soundproof stage curtain concealing the door that separated us from the main office space would twitch, that one of my hot-desking ex-colleagues would be listening in. Or worse, the person who replaced me, not long after she made a pass at my then-boyfriend and before she stole my ‘work wife’. I learned an important lesson then: never espouse your colleague. I sometimes wonder if they, my wife and my replacement, also got drunk on whisky macs and had sex on her sofa. 

   Sarah’s living room is stylish but also low key, calm. All the colours are subtle; olive green and porridge beige walls, soft brown sideboards… She has step ladder shelves predictably well stocked with self help books but also some artist biographies and music theory texts. She always has a handful of fresh flowers sitting in a glass jar on her mantelpiece, their toes in water, and a sea salt-scented candle on the coffee table. She sits on the tan cracked leather sofa, while I’m on the softer white couch opposite, propped up by a collection of monochrome cushions. 

   ‘This year,’ I continue, more slowly, ‘I’m going to visit the hospital first thing in the morning. I’m getting the train over. I know it’s not a neurological centre any more, but I’m hoping I can say hi to the receptionist and have a coffee in the garden out the back, if I promise not to disrupt things or disturb anyone.’ 

   Another smile, two eyebrows raised encouragingly, but still no comment. 

   ‘Then I’ll get the train over to Brighton from there. I have a tattoo booked,’ I realise I feel a bit foolish telling her this part. Maybe there’s still a teenager somewhere in my subconscious who worries what Dad will think, dreads seeing his eyes roll and hearing the sigh. 

   ‘We have a nice dinner booked in the evening too - my parents, my partner and I. One of the posher veggie places. On Saturday I’m seeing my friends in London, to have a little party.’

   ‘Now,’ Therapist Sarah says gently, in her kind but knowing voice. It has distinctive lilts that I recognised immediately when we met - they transported me to my second home. That’s how I knew we’d get on, even if it was only for a short batch of sessions. Fast-forward to over a year later… 

   ‘It sounds like you’re making a big happy celebration of this important day,’ she says now, quite thoughtfully. 

   ‘I am.’ I beam, like a kid who got full marks on their homework. And a shiny merit sticker. 

   ‘That’s great,’ she affirms. ‘But I just wonder, when are you making room for the other feelings?’

   I blink, baffled. ‘What do you mean?’

   ‘Well Grace, it’s important to celebrate these big milestones and life-changing moments, and it’s great that you’re happy about it now and can look forward to the day, but… Where does the sadness come into it? And the grief? I think that’s equally important, don’t you?’


Friday 6th June, 2014 


   I didn’t sleep very well last night - shocking, isn’t it? Who could have expected that? Well, what was definitely unexpected was the way I treated my anxious insomnia. I’d tried all the obvious things; peppering my pillow with droplets from the lavender oil bottle Mum kindly brought along, reading until my eyes ached but barely absorbing any plot or prose, burying my phone in the bedside drawer to stop myself checking notifications on my social media platforms. Oh, everyone wanted to wish me well while at the same time nobody knew quite what to say. Heart emojis were splattered haphazardly across the screen and the most optimistic acquaintances sent promises of post-op visits, just tell me when and what to bring… I was exhausted trying to get through them all, but I had to, because I didn’t want anyone to worry about me, or be offended by my lack of reply. The only person who didn’t get an immediate response was that school bully, who for some reason found her way into my inbox waxing lyrical about those simpler sunnier old days, how sorry they were that they hadn’t been in touch, that I was to let them know if I needed anything, even if it was ‘just a shoulder’. I let that percolate for a day or so, wondering it was really worth the petty satisfaction it would bring me - then replied telling them that just because I’d had a scary diagnosis and needed major surgery didn’t mean I’d forgotten what they had done to me all those years ago, nor did it mean we could be friends now. ‘This doesn’t change anything,’ I’d written. ‘We’re not friends. Piss off.’

   …anyway, the thing that got me to sleep eventually? I dug out my iPod classic (30GB) and played the tracks I’d downloaded during Freshers fortnight, back in 2011. Oh, yes. ‘Price Tag’, ‘We Found Love’, ‘Mr Saxobeat’... I remembered it all. Those nights felt like so long ago, and thinking back to some of the things we got up to made me cringe now. Kissing competitions amongst friends at foam parties. Climbing up lampposts on cold midnight walks to town from campus. Jumping up and down on the dancefloor and screaming with delight as coked-up DJs with bright neon water guns fired UV paint at us from the stage.

   Dominos vans doing three-point turns on the main strip of the student village, several times a night. Drinking games demanding we down dirty pints out of welly boots and washing up bowls. Deciding that sex was merely a fun little add-on to any blossoming friendship. 

   We really lived those first few weeks - hell, the past few years - as if we were indestructible. 

   Being curled up in that hospital bed trying to get to sleep was like the cold slap of reality that always came, be it later that night, the next day, or some weeks after, even. It was the cold trudge back to halls, clothes dripping wet and sticky fluid seeping out of our shoes, because who knew those big blobs of foam would turn into soapy water so quickly? And whose idea was it to stay til the very end of the UV rave, meaning by the time we got home the communal showers would be out of order? 

   It was the garlicky burps you’d swallow in 9am lectures, having indulged in the Two for Tuesdays offer by yourself, again. It was the bruises that bloomed between your legs following a brave attempt to mount the horse statue round the corner from the club. It was the moment you saw your ‘close friend’ whose lines were so casually blurred, kissing someone else under the strobe lights. 

   I think I fell asleep somewhere between ‘Party Rock Anthem’ and ‘Moves Like Jagger’. 


   I’m told I need to shower, and reminded that I’m on a nil by mouth fast, so no sneaking any illegal snacks and definitely no coffee. A tragedy. The shower apparently has to be cold, and I’m given some special soap in a hefty prescription bottle. I laugh to myself when I wonder if I can allow any drops of water from the shower to fall into my mouth and quench my thirst - a wicked thirst that came upon me the second I was told I couldn’t drink anything. I think about texting my boyfriend, and asking him for his input on the matter. Light-hearted, just joking. I decide against it; he’s got a work training day today and I wouldn’t want to distract him. I’ve already compromised his concentration enough. His bosses are aware that he may have to bolt from the conference room at any moment, as his girlfriend is having major surgery. It’s so dramatic. I cringe again when I think how much of a burden I must be to him - we’d only been together three months when my symptoms started, and now it’s been, what? Six? We should still be in the honeymoon phase. Snuggling, snogging and sexting. Instead he’s been propping me up - literally - for weeks as I’ve deteriorated, taking me to appointments in the hospital, holding my hand diligently, not romantically, as we’ve walked down roads so I didn’t fall into the traffic - telling me I’m still beautiful, yes, even with my wonky face. And now we’re however many miles apart, in completely different but equally stressful situations. I won’t text him. 


   Was there really a need to wheel me in? I might have slightly skewed vision and some serious issues with balance, but I definitely could have walked/staggered down this tiny stretch of corridor to the theatre, from my private room with the painting of poppy fields at the end of the bed. I feel so exposed, and like I’m asking for attention. It can’t be easy for my parents to see me like this; they put their bravest faces on as they kiss me goodbye and babble hopefully about seeing me later - ‘we’ll be right here’, ‘be good!’ - and then just like that we’re in the unknown. Two men in masks either side of my bed, fussing about with tubes and asking me irrelevant questions like what are my plans for the rest of the summer? Is that an Australian accent? Then they’re telling me to stay awake, keep my eyes open as long as I can, while they attach one of those many tubes to a needle and press a hand on my arm. 

   ‘What’s your favourite beach in Australia, then?’ one of them - I’m sure he said his surname was Bacon - asks me. 

   ‘Diggers Beach,’ I reply immediately, noticing the slur in my voice. ‘In Coffs Harbour. It’s the best one.’

   And then I’m gone. 

   In 9.5 hours I’ll wake up in the ITU and complain to the nurse because my head hurts, and I was right in the middle of a conversation with these men in masks but then they put me to sleep. How rude. 

Thursday 6th of June, 2024.


   She’s back again, I think to myself as I stand at the entrance to the neurological centre. Except it isn’t that any more, is it? I’m not quite sure what purpose this place serves now. I know it was used as an additional space for Covid patients back in 2020; an overspill from the gargantuan hospital it sits quietly behind, connected by just one lumpy tunnel. But now? It’s a mystery. I noticed the NHS ‘wash your hands’ sign between the car park and the entrance - the one with the photo of an alarmingly happy nurse, that took up nearly a whole wall - has gone. Everything else outside seems the same, though. Both sets of heavy mechanical doors creak open as I approach, and I clutch the brown paper bag I’ve brought with me, which contains a last minute gift I bought at the train station before I climbed into a taxi because I really hadn’t fancied the 36-minute walk after all, ready to hand it over to the kind ladies behind the cloudy sepia glass at the reception desk. 

   Except, nobody’s at the reception desk. The brownish glass seems even darker, but I can just about make out the shapes of abandoned computer chairs and stacks of cardboard boxes behind it. I continue through to the cold blue corridors, which don’t seem to have changed; the swirly patterned lino still makes my eyeballs wobble, various outdated important documents on the notice boards are curling at the edges, I hear the unmistakable beep-beep-beeps of the monitors in the distance. Attendants shuffle along pushing trolleys and outpatients on their way to appointments stride past, golden ticket envelopes tucked in pockets. I try to look purposeful, like I know exactly where I’m going, but as I walk further I notice more changes not unlike the sad state of the reception desk; the specialists’ offices I’ve visited in the past are now being used for storage, private rooms I’ve slept in have been closed off completely… Then dread starts to creep in when I approach my old ward. I knew the departments were moving around here, and that my surgeon and his team have now officially emigrated to Brighton after years flitting inconsistently between the two, but I didn’t realise this peaceful little space had been so disrupted.

   As I come to the open entrance to the former womens’ ward, a nurse in blue scrubs with fair hair clipped back from her freckled face appears. ‘Hey there,’ she says warmly. ‘Do you have an appointment?’

   I sneak a look over her shoulder and see desks with monitors, keyboards and files - what was one end of the ward space now seems to be an office-type area. Some of the staff look up at me as they type, their faces blank. I turn back to this woman greeting me and realise I need to speak now, but I’ve been on the verge of tears since I got out of the taxi at the main hospital entrance and I’ve held it together for so long but maybe that’s because I haven’t had to speak to anyone besides the cheerful older lady who made my coffee at the League of Friends cafe - oh god, please don’t let me start blubbering now in this kind stranger’s face. 

   ‘I don’t have an appointment,’ I admit. It’s a good start, but my voice sounds like I’m swallowing hiccups. ‘I was here ten years ago. Sorry, this is strange. I had a craniotomy just down there-’ I point down the corridor, as if this medical professional has no idea where the operating theatres would be in her place of work, ‘and I wanted to visit today and… mark the occasion. I hope that’s okay.’ I tack on the last few words in a whisper, equal parts apologetic and pathetic. 

   I had forgotten how unflappable nurses and healthcare assistants are. Nothing shocks them. This woman nods and tells me she’s touched that I took the time to visit, and how funny, she actually worked here ten years ago! Maybe our paths crossed? Neither of us remember each other, and it’s okay, it’s no wonder. She asks me calmly if there’s anywhere else I want to go and see here, on this momentous occasion. I tell her I just want to sit in the garden with my coffee - lifting my cute pink Keep Cup in my right hand, the hand that didn’t work all those years ago, until I came here. She says of course, take your time, do whatever you need to.


   So, finally, I’m in the garden. I’m sitting on the bench where my parents sat for nine whole hours, that absurdly and ironically sunny day all those years ago, waiting for news and sending updates to my uni friends, my boyfriend, their close friends and anyone else they could think of. It’s also the bench where I received the call from my high school principal, checking in, and saying I’ve made him and all my old teachers proud. It’s where my best friend Clare and I sat when she came to visit me with her mum, who’d not only once worked here many decades ago, she’d fallen in love with one of her patients - Clare’s dad. What a funny coincidence. Although, are there really any coincidences here? 

   I sip from my cup, and watch the trees sway in the breeze. I remember what my therapist said - when are you making room for the other feelings?

   So I start to cry. Wow, I’m such a good client. 


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