by Mike Fox

The envelope is small, plain and white. My name and address are hand-written in flamboyant italics, and the sender has used a fountain pen. I’ve fallen for this before—vote seeking councillors or dubious local businesses aping the personal touch.

But an envelope that someone has taken the time to address personally is like an appeal to your better nature, not to mention whatever hope you have left for the human condition. So I pick up my paper knife—lignum, a present—and carefully slit the top fold.

The letter inside consists of one pale blue sheet, creased perfectly in half. It is lined and margined, like the writing paper my grandparents used. Above the script, adjacent to the sender’s unexpected address, sits a cartoon goblin, with the words “self-portrait” printed in capitals underneath. Josie, in what could only be a retro moment, has taken the trouble to get in touch.

‘Hello Sweetie,

I’m lying here in isolation (not splendid) and you came into my mind. Just barged in to be honest. I’m assuming you’re still at this address? How are you? Demons still nibbling at your toes?’

Josie and I have never actually lost touch, but communication, over time, has thinned. This is largely, we both realise, because our friendship is only viable when neither of us is in a relationship. My partners, to a woman, take exception to Josie. Her partners, to a woman, struggle to see the point of my existence.

‘As for me, you know I always fancied renouncing the world? Well now the bloody world has renounced me. My home for the foreseeable future is a three-by-four, atmospherically controlled, white-walled box on the sixteenth floor of The Royal Whitney. The view over London should be spectacular, except the way the windows are I can only see the sky—unless I stand on a chair, which I sometimes do.’

I can easily imagine Josie on tiptoes, seeking an elevated perspective in her pyjamas—she is a great pyjama person. It is less easy to imagine her condemned to existence in a small, tightly regulated space. Josie would be to confinement what an otter would be to a goldfish bowl.

‘The medics say my blood has gone manky—well they use jargon, but that’s the gist. So I’m booked in for a bone marrow transplant and all the accessories. They zap me with chemo, then, if they can harvest enough of my cells – “harvest” is a lovely word, isn’t it? – put them back in. If not they go touring the world in search of a match – I hope they have better luck than me in that respect. Anyway, lovely one, do pop in if you’re passing, it’s time we had a catch-up.

Love, J xxx’

The train journey from south-east to north-west London takes nearly an hour and a half. When I arrive at the ward the yellow roses I bought at the station are confiscated decisively by a nurse.

‘Sterile environment,’ she explains. ‘You don’t need to wear a mask, but tie on one of the plastic aprons inside the first door and use the sanitizer from the dispenser.’

I nod, walk down the corridor, then pause outside room seventeen. Knowing Josie, I can’t help wondering if she’s calculated the numerology. I enter, and find myself in a tiny liminal space with a wash hand basin and various boxes containing protective items. I obey the nurse’s instructions, cough self-consciously, then knock on the inner door.

‘Just a mo,’ I hear Josie’s voice say, then, ‘okay—all ready.’

Inside, a version of Josie is lying on a large, metal-framed, fully adjustable bed. Her legs are elevated slightly, and her feet peep innocently out of her pyjama bottoms. The Josie-version, though pallid of face, is smiling radiantly beneath an improbable mass of black curls. Then her expression changes and I realise I’ve been staring.

‘Oh, fuck it.’ She detaches the curls and throws them on the bed. ‘Why bother? It’s like having a sodding poodle on your head anyway.’

Without the hairpiece her scalp, naked except for the odd wispy blonde strand, is perfectly smooth. For a moment she looks like an exquisite child.

‘Take a seat,’ she says, indicating a steel chair stretched with worn canvas. ‘How’s life? I hope you’re not still pissing about with that awful Monica.’

‘Not for a while.’

It’s somehow reassuring that Josie is not too ill to share an opinion.

‘You should think more carefully about the women you get involved with.’

Or to benefit me with her advice.

‘Anyone on the scene for you at the moment?’ I query.

Josie shakes her head.

‘Not that you’d notice.’

I look round at the small, featureless room. The nurse was right—sterile is the perfect word for it. I remember the multi-coloured Buddhist overtones of Josie’s flat in Camden. A rectangle of white walls and ceiling must be anathema. Then I sniff the air.

‘I’m sure I can smell linseed.’

Josie points to the window sill, set above head height. On it, shadowed by the morning sun, sit a pair of mahogany Buddhas, one resting, one laughing, each formerly residents of Josie’s balcony and carefully oiled, as was her habit.

‘I had to negotiate with the nurses,’ she explains. ‘As long as they’re up there it’s alright.’

I’m further reassured to see Josie’s powers of persuasion are still intact.

‘How’s all this come about, then?’ I ask.

‘I was feeling a bit tired, that’s all, so I asked my GP for some blood tests. Once they came through I was pretty much hauled in off the street.’

I try to read Josie’s face. I’ve never heard her talk about being tired before.

‘So you’re in for a while?’

‘As far as I can tell—there are different narratives. A mad woman—a psychotherapist would you believe—popped in one day and told me to be prepared to die. When I mentioned that to my consultant he said “not if I have anything to do with it.” Take your pick.’

I remember seeing The Tibetan Book of the Dead on Josie’s self-help shelf. Somehow I never associated her with the contents. Now she pulls herself up to a sitting position and pats a space on the mattress beside her. I get up and perch there. She leans forward so I can put my arm round her shoulders, before quietly resting her head on my chest. Then I have a thought.

‘Is this okay? I mean am I sterile enough?’

‘Oh for fuck’s sake,’ Josie casts her eyes to a heaven beyond the low ceiling. ‘It’s not as if we’re going to fornicate. If anyone comes in we can say you’re a compulsive hand-washer. Actually, you are, aren’t you?’

‘I stopped that at least two years ago.’

A brief and on my part resentful silence ensues during which my hand continues to knead Josie’s shoulder while her head continues to nuzzle my chest. Then her voice resumes.

‘I’ve got a favour to ask.’

‘I’m listening.’

‘There’s a Cornelia Parker exhibition on at Tate Britain—will you go and see it for me?’

‘See it for you?’

‘Yes. Have a look and report back. The blurb says she talks about “sympathetic magic.” I could do with a bit of that.’

I find myself frowning.

‘I think I’ve heard the name. Who is she?’

‘A conceptual artist.’

‘Like Tracey Emin?’

‘No. Not a bit like Tracey Emin. She’s a rare soul.’

‘You do realise I know nothing about conceptual art?’

‘Of course I realise—you’re a blank slate. Just go there and tell me how it makes you feel.’

I walk away from the hospital wondering how I feel about being called “a blank slate,” while acknowledging there’s a certain truth in the description. The bunch of envelopes Josie has given me to post seem, under the circumstances, like emblems of trust, as if I’m holding her conduit to the world—especially as she’s decided to go cold turkey on her laptop and confine her mobile use to Sudoku.

As my head clears a little, I begin to think of all the things I didn’t ask, like how the hell is she paying her mortgage? Presumably Josie still has what she calls a portfolio career—several jobs, all freelance, all tenuous. I make a mental note to see if there’s anything I can do, with the caveat that tact will need to be of the essence.

When I get home I Google Cornelia Parker. I enlarge an image, and a Marcel Marceau figure looks out from the screen—humorous, curious of the world, and immediately empathetic. A long face beneath a striking pudding bowl fringe, a person who must always have been singular. No surprise that Josie likes her. I consult my diary, do some rearranging, and book the first slot possible. Josie, whatever could be said about her, has always been there for me. And she will be impatient.

Walking down the slope to the side entrance of Tate Britain at ten on Friday morning, I stop for a moment and look up at the walls, thickly built, grandiose, and even now pock-marked from shrapnel. I feel the thrill that Josie might have felt, of being here, at such a place, when in most other circumstances I’d be at work.

Inside I try to navigate the gorgeous maze that transpires—spiral staircases leading to floors with vast atriums of stone and marble, a building that seems to grow before you as you walk. Space opens onto space and I wander, the floor quiet underfoot, the signage cryptic, until I think of Josie taking me forcefully by the elbow, and seek directions from a steward.

When I reach it, the exhibition replicates the layout of the main building, but on a smaller scale. Rooms lead to other rooms, each containing day-to-day artefacts that seem to have undergone some violent alchemical process. Silver plated cutlery, steamrollered flat, hangs in parallel clusters from the ceiling. Likewise, squashed instruments from a brass band float in a broad circle. A shed has been blown to bits, and its components carefully re-gathered and suspended on wires. In each instance a central light throws distorted shadows on the walls around, my own shadow overlapping as I tiptoe round seeking different perspectives. Everywhere, it seems to me, there’s a sense of absence, of things that should be present but are not. It’s hard to put this into words, and I wonder what I’ll tell Josie, until I realise that each installation is accompanied by the artist’s description of how it came about. I retrace my footsteps, and scribble notes.

It soon becomes apparent that Cornelia Parker is very good at getting people to do things. The Army School of Ammunition, UK Customs and Excise, officials of the Houses of Parliament—not to mention various artisans, traction engine drivers, occupants of Her Majesty’s prisons and members of the public—comprise a list of those she’s involved in her projects. She’s obviously a skilled dissolver of obstacles, and I can’t help smiling. It is not in Josie’s nature to be denied access, either.

At some point I find myself alone in a tent-like room, lined wall and ceiling with strips of perforated red card, apparently, from which commemorative poppies have been punched. The ventilation somehow makes it feel as if the room itself is breathing, and I think of Josie in her atmospherically controlled cell. I realise I’ve taken in as much as I can, and it’s time to leave.

Early the next afternoon, having checked weekend visiting hours, I sanitise, pull on a fresh apron, and tap at Josie’s door.

‘I’m receiving guests,’ I hear her say.

Her voice sounds cheerful, but unexpectedly frail, and I pause a moment before turning the door handle. Inside, Josie is lying very still, eyes closed. Some peeled fruit rests uneaten on a plate on her bedside cabinet, and a bright orange wig lies discarded at the foot of her bed. One of her mantras comes to mind: “You get your hair right and everything else follows.”

‘Are you okay, Josie?’ I ask, stupidly. ‘Shall I come back another time?’

‘No, you dickhead. I’m just resting.’

‘Has something happened then?’

Josie opens her eyes, swivels them sideways, then closes them again.

‘You could say. This morning they did the harvesting bit. Apparently they found plenty of cells, so the transplant goes ahead tomorrow. So right at this moment I have zero immunity, which is pretty much how it feels.’

‘I can imagine.’

‘No you can’t.’

A pause ensues.

‘I’ve been to the exhibition and bought you one of the books they were selling. Would like me to read a bit to you?’

‘No, just tell me about it in your own words.’

Josie composes her features and settles herself. There’s something trusting in the way she does this, and I resist an impulse to stroke her forehead. Instead I draw breath.

‘Well, in a nutshell, she has very odd ideas that need permission and all sorts of people to get on board, and basically everybody says yes to her. Perhaps that’s part of the “sympathetic magic” thing you mentioned. I mean, can you imagine getting the go-ahead to fly a drone in the House of Commons? Or getting the army to blow up a shed then help you find all the bits so you can hang them from a ceiling with a light bulb in the middle? And that’s just two of the exhibits. Then when you read what she says about them it all seems to make sense, almost as if it’s just life unfolding and she’s given it a gentle steer.’

Josie nods just perceptibly and I continue.

‘And she calls art a digestive system—a way of processing things—I think I can understand that. She’s always exploding objects or flattening them or cutting them up, but it seems to me that she doesn’t really destroy at all, she transmutes.’

Josie opens her eyes and glances at me again without moving her head. The glance manages to express both surprise and approval. Her eyelids close, and a quiet smile shapes itself on her lips and cheeks.

‘It might sound strange—I don’t know what she believes, and I don’t know what I believe—but I came away thinking she must be close to god.’

‘If there is such a thing as god,’ Josie murmurs.

For a few moments there’s silence between us. I pick up the book and open it randomly, not expecting to take it in. When I look again at Josie her mouth is slightly open and she’s breathing rhythmically. I examine her face, the gauntness now apparent in her features.

‘And if there isn’t there should be,’ I think, but don’t say.

oOo

Mike Fox has co-authored a book and published many articles on the human repercussions of illness. Now writing fiction, his stories have been nominated for Best of Net and the Pushcart Prize, listed in Best British and Irish Flash Fiction (BIFFY50), and included in Best British Stories 2018 (Salt), His story, The Violet Eye, was published by Nightjar Press as a limited edition chapbook. A collection of new stories is being prepared for publication by Cōnfingō Publishing in 2023. 

Learn more at www.polyscribe.co.uk.