Is There Anything You Want?

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9780099472131: Is There Anything You Want?

What do Mrs H., Rachel, Edwina, Ida, Sarah, Dot, Chrissie have in common? They're all women, but they're fat, thin, old, young, married or single - and appear as diverse as human nature can be. But they are all survivors. This enthralling novel follows the ripples that go out into ordinary lives that have been changed by a shared experience, all connected by the same hospital clinic in a small Northern town. This is a novel about what it means to live in the shadow of disease, and with scars, whether mental or physical. From the marvellous ambivalence of the title question, it leaves us with a whole lot more to consider about life and its infinite variety.

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About the Author:

Born in Carlisle, Margaret Forster was the author of many successful and acclaimed novels, including Have the Men Had Enough?, Lady's Maid, Diary of an Ordinary Woman, Is There Anything You Want? , Keeping the World Away, Over and The Unknown Bridesmaid. She also wrote bestselling memoirs - Hidden Lives, Precious Lives and, most recently, My Life in Houses - and biographies. She was married to writer and journalist Hunter Davies and lived in London and the Lake District. She died in February 2016, just before her last novel, How to Measure a Cow, was published.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1

The Clinic

Mrs. Hibbert was a Friend. In her own mind, it gave her a status she otherwise lacked: she was a Friend of St Mary's Hospital, someone known to give her time to help others. She was the most senior of all those who belonged to this association of Friends and was regarded with respect and, in some cases, awe. She rarely spoke to the other Friends, except to say a polite good afternoon, and her arrival in the little room off the hospital's main entrance hall, where Friends met and deposited their coats, stopped any conversation instantly. This did not worry Mrs Hibbert in the slightest. She was perfectly comfortable with the sudden silence, taking it as a tribute to her seniority. There was work to be done, serious work, and it ought to be approached solemnly. She took off her jacket and busied herself fixing her armband to her sleeve. The armband was red with 'Friend of St Mary's' stamped in black letters upon it. It fastened with a Velcro strip, making it easy to fit on to any arm except for the very fattest. Mrs Hibbert's arm was stout and strong but the armband encompassed it easily. Ready to take up her position, she nodded at the other Friends and walked out into the entrance hall to begin her particular duties. As ever, she felt alert and eager, ready to support all those who were coming in fear and trembling for their appointments and unsure how to make their way. She would sort them out. She would give them confidence. She would soothe their troubled spirits.

Taking up her position in the centre of the busy entrance hall, to the left of the reception desk and immediately in front of the doors, Mrs Hibbert hummed. She hummed to the tune of her favourite hymn 'Who would true valour see', knowing that such was the constant commotion no one could possibly hear her. While she hummed, she scanned the faces of everyone entering, trying to assess to whom she would need to offer help. Some were easy to spot. Those who went on hovering near the desk, even though they had been given directions, were approached by her before they had any more time to worry. 'Can I help you?' she would say, and their gratitude was touching. Sometimes, she took very nervous patients all the way to wherever they were supposed to go, chatting to encourage them to relax. Their appreciation was gratifying. She would hear moving stories of suffering and try to reassure the narrators. 'Never give up hope,' she would say. But sometimes, nerves made patients utterly silent. Who knew what was going on in their heads? Who knew how great was their need?

Mrs Hibbert was in her element.

* * * * *

Edwina talked to herself in her head. Avoid that woman, that Friend, she said, that creature out to catch people. Edwina sidestepped her, as she always did. She would follow the yellow line, oh yes, follow the thin yellow line, that was all she needed to do, that was what she'd been told to do at reception, the first time, just follow the yellow line. It wasn't yellow, not what she would call yellow, it was cream, a sickly cream. The red beside it wasn't red either, it was maroon. Were they colour-blind? Only the green was green, fresh and bright beside the others. She wished she had to follow the green, but where did it lead to? No, hers was the yellow line: follow it, pretend to be Dorothy, pretend the Tin Man and the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion are beside you. Dance along, think of the magic. Oh, it's what is wanted. Magic!

End of the yellow line. Full stop. No, not a full stop, a right turning, an arrow. Bye-bye red and green lines, wherever you are going. The clinic. Mr Wallis's clinic. Quite small, the area. A square. Metal chairs, arranged in rows. Grey metal chairs, three rows of ten. All joined together, riveted to the floor. Who would want to steal them? Who would want to throw them? Such hard seats, uncomfortable, no cushions. Where should she sit? Oh, at the end of a row, certainly. Nearest to the door, yes. At the end of a row, then she won't be stuck between two others. Good thinking. Near the door, then she could escape easily. If she had to, if she dared, if she was silly. Silly to think of escape. This is not a prison. Isn't it? No. Nobody is here yet. Well of course they're not. She is early, very early; not even the clinic's own receptionist is here yet. Much too early. No one else is foolish enough to come forty minutes before the clinic begins. But it isn't foolish. It is smart. It shows she is experienced, an old hand. They can't fool her. Come for 2 p.m., the time on her card, the time of her appointment? Three other women will have been given the same time. She knows they will. She can't be fooled. First card handed in, first patient seen. Simple. She will be first.

So. Here she is. Early. Sitting alone in this dreary place. Heuga felt squares on the floor, moved around many times, stains on them all. Doesn't seem hygienic. Why not lino? Why not wood? Such a dusty rubber plant in the corner. Needs cleaning, needs some cotton wool, soaked in milk, wiped over each leaf. Tin wastepaper basket, lined with a black bin-liner. A black plastic table, coffee-table size, piles of magazines. Old, torn magazines, much thumbed. At least look through them. Mostly women's magazines, the covers promising makeovers of rooms and faces, offering free packets of shampoo attached inside, but taken out long ago, naturally. One copy of a wildlife magazine at the bottom, mysteriously pristine. She takes it to her seat. Lovely photographs. Lovely birds. Lovely colours. She can't read the words, though. They blur. She blinks repeatedly, to clear the blur. She blinks in time to a beating in her head. She tells herself to stop it. Be calm. Calm.

Footsteps. Brisk, confident footsteps. It's the receptionist. Good afternoon, she says, snapping on the lights in her corner. It isn't a corner really, more of an alcove. Has she said good afternoon in reply? No, just grunted, but the receptionist doesn't notice. She is busy. She bustles. The small space is filled with her bustling. Switching switches on, connecting unseen things, emptying her bag, listening to messages on the answerphone, making notes. Arranging herself, getting ready. She's organised now. Get up and present the card. Accepted. Return to seat, no words spoken except thank you, by both of them. More footsteps. Other early arrivals, though not really so early, it's two minutes to two. Do not look up. Fatal. No eye contact, ever. Still, two people are within her line of vision even as she studiously avoids looking up at them. Two sets of legs, both wearing trousers, but one set obviously female, one male. The man here as a support. Crowded clinics because of women's support systems. Hardly anyone comes on her own. Husbands, partners, brought to endure with them, willing or not. Sometimes mothers, sisters, friends, all taking up places on the thirty chairs. Feeble. She should not be scornful, why shouldn't women have support, if it helps, but momentarily she is proud of herself. She is terrified, sick with apprehension, but she manages alone. Why put Harry through this misery, why drag Emma or Laura through it? No. She will manage. And not just to spare them. Harry would make her even more nervous. He can't sit still. Up, down, up, down, fussing, complaining. It would drive her mad. Harry doesn't do waiting, for anything. Emma might cry, she's sensitive, and Laura might get angry. Easier to be on her own. Easier not even to have told them she's here. Harry forgets the date. She doesn't conceal appointments from him but she doesn't draw attention to them either. He ought to remember, but he doesn't. She won't even tell him she's been today, unless she has to. Unless she is obliged to because . . . No. Please, no.

These other early arrivals have chosen to sit in the middle of the left-hand row of seats. The legs are seated. The man is wearing trainers, the woman moccasin-type shoes. Rather jolly ones, red, with little tassels. She can just glimpse their hands hanging down in the narrow space between the seats. They are holding hands, slightly furtively. They are talking. The man is saying something very quietly. Something personal, she's sure. Comforting, maybe. She can't quite hear. There is a sound of sniffing. Is the woman crying? Possibly. The hands separate and a tissue is pushed into the woman's hand. Well, there's often crying going on, if it is crying, in this place. Never laughter. She's never heard laughter among those waiting, though sometimes there are inexplicable bursts of it from staff rushing through. It's always a shocking sound, such hilarity. But now there's another familiar noise. Rumblings, squeakings. She knows what it means. A bed. In a minute, through the open door, a bed passes, wheeled along by a porter with a nurse in attendance, holding a drip steady. There's a woman lying in the bed, eyes open and staring upwards. She's quite young. Hair scraped back, bones of the face startlingly prominent, a yellow tinge to the skin. Her hands, above the bedcovers, are plucking at the white, open-weave blanket. She is travelling from one ward to another, or perhaps from or to an operating theatre. Travelling like a Pharaoh to another world, but where are her worldly goods? The bed has sides to it, which are pulled up, and as it passes the clinic door the woman suddenly switches her stare, gazes through the bars into the clinic. Help me, her eyes plead. But that's fanciful. Probably she is doped up. Mercifully, she probably has no idea where she is or what is happening.

Edwina feels nauseous. She swallows repeatedly, but can't prevent the rush of saliva into her mouth, filling it. Hastily, she takes a handkerchief from her bag and surreptitiously spits into it. Then she delves into her bag again and finds some tissues and blows her nose. This helps. A glass of water would help more, but she does not want to draw attention to herself by going in search of one. Her discomfort is her own fault. She broke her own rules. She looked up, she saw that woman in the bed. Never look at anyone, it is the only way. She ...

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