BEDTIME BOOKCLUB

The Bus On Thursday By Shirley Barrett

THE BUS ON THURSDAY

I loved Shirley Barrett’s debut, Rush Oh!, for its quietly quirky heroine and her follow-up doesn’t disappoint on that front, albeit this time with a slightly louder quirkiness at the helm. Australian Eleanor takes a teaching post in the tiny town of Talbingo, at the foot of the Snowy Mountains, partly to escape a bad break-up and partly to mentally shut off from the trauma of having had a lumpectomy. The previous teacher went AWOL and very quickly it becomes clear that Eleanor is a far-from-suitable replacement. This is laugh-out-loud funny levels of inappropriateness – think Where’d You Go, Bernadette? – with a zippy pace to match the hilarity. Oh, and a beautifully dark undercurrent, too, as with all the best comedy. ER

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THE BUS ON THURSDAY

Shirley Barrett

£14.99, Fleet

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THE BUS ON THURSDAY I loved Shirley Barrett’s debut, Rush Oh!, for its quietly quirky heroine and her follow-up doesn’t disappoint on that front, albeit this time with a slightly louder quirkiness at the helm. Australian Eleanor takes a teaching post in the tiny town of Talbingo, at the foot of the Snowy Mountains, partly to escape a bad break-up and partly to mentally shut off from the trauma of having had a lumpectomy. The previous teacher went AWOL and very quickly it becomes clear that Eleanor is a far-from-suitable replacement. This is laugh-out-loud funny levels of inappropriateness – think Where’d You Go, Bernadette? – with a zippy pace to match the hilarity. Oh, and a beautifully dark undercurrent, too, as with all the best comedy. ER

Chapter:

One

I was at work scratching my armpit. I was literally at my desk scratching my pit and I felt it and I freaked out and I didn’t tell a soul and normally I’m the kind of person to blurt out everything. So I guess I panicked from the word go.

I had the mammogram first. I had several mammograms because they couldn’t get to it—it was in a really awkward spot. Also, apparently I was not relaxed enough. My not being relaxed enough while they flattened my breast like a hamburger patty and blasted it with radiation was causing them problems. They kept hauling out interesting new attachments for the mammogram machine, like it was some kind of fancy-arse Mixmaster. They were asking me questions like, ‘Are you on the pill? Have you missed any pills?’ And I was on the pill, but I’d been really slack about it because I’d broken up with Josh and I wasn’t seeing anyone. But this woman kept insisting I be precise. ‘What do you mean, you missed a day? How many days did you actually miss? Could you be pregnant?’ And she was sweating, there were literally beads of sweat breaking out on her forehead, so I knew.

They did a fine needle biopsy next. They said, ‘Anaesthetic or no anaesthetic?’ I said, ‘Give me the anaesthetic, both barrels.’ They said, ‘Word of warning: having an anaesthetic needle stuck in your breast is every bit as excruciating as the actual procedure. Possibly more so.’ I said, ‘Give me the anaesthetic anyway, I’ll take my chances.’ I was trying to be brave, you see. Which was pointless. Let us draw a veil over the fine needle biopsy.

Next they left me alone in a cubicle for a while. When they came back, they said, ‘Okay, the fine needle biopsy was inconclusive’—i.e. complete waste of time, sorry for the fact it was excruciating—‘so we’re going to try something now called a vacuum-assisted core biopsy. Have you ever had one of those before?’ Let me just say, if I had had one of those before I would have taken my cue to run screaming from the building, but instead I just shook my head meekly and followed them into the torture chamber. ‘Word of warning,’ they said, as I climbed up on the rack, clutching my hospital gown around me. ‘This will sound a little bit like we are going at your breast with an industrial staple gun. Also, it will feel like you’ve been kicked in the chest for no reason by a champion rodeo bucking bull.’

I kid you not.

Well, they didn’t actually say that, but they should have.

Anyways, I got to have three goes on that ride because the first couple of rounds were ‘inconclusive’.

After they scraped me down off the ceiling, I went back in to see the doctor. She’d obviously decided the best approach was to speak very briskly and firmly about cell reproduction. And I’m just sitting there staring at her because I had literally no fucking idea what she was talking about. So she drew this helpful diagram on her notepad, indicating how nice cells reproduce (neatly) and how my cells were reproducing (lots of random crazy circles piling up on top of each other). Then she says, ‘I’m sorry to say you have breast cancer.’

I’m like, ‘Whaaaat??

The fuuucckk??

Then I’m like, ‘Aren’t I a little on the young side to have breast cancer?’ I guess I hoped this might be what you call mitigating circumstances. I guess I was angling for a reprieve or a reduced sentence or something, but she didn’t even blink.

‘I’ve had younger,’ she says.

Then she says, ‘You’ve got an appointment with the surgeon at three o’clock.’ And I’m thinking, Wow, this is quick. And then next thing I’m thinking, Wow, this surgeon looks exactly like George Clooney—George Clooney back in his ER days—and also, this surgeon likes to get around in his scrubs a lot because it makes him look even more like George Clooney back in his ER days. And somehow having my surgeon look exactly like a handsome movie actor just made everything worse. Because ordinarily, under normal circumstances, exposing my breasts to a man who looked like George Clooney and having him stare at them intently and then fondle them (sort of— more prodding and kneading, actually), this would be a very pleasurable swoon-worthy experience. But given the fact that he was about to knock me out cold and go at my breast with a carving knife (scalpel, whatever), let me just say it wasn’t. Also, his hands were cold and he made no attempt to warm them. Also, his interpersonal skills were not tremendous. He seemed to think that if he was even one per cent charming or warm or sympathetic, women would just completely fall in love with him, so he compensated for his sensational good looks by having zero empathy and being very direct, very clinical, like he didn’t have time for any nonsense. He says, ‘It’s an aggressive tumour, and we’ve got to get it out.’

No sugar-coating the pill with George Clooney.

He doesn’t believe in it.

Long story short, I have a lumpectomy.

And you know what? It’s not too bad. Hats off to George Clooney. There’s a neat little incision, and my breast still looks pretty much like a breast. Slightly less stuffing maybe, but if I pulled my shoulders back and stuck my chest out, it still looked pretty reasonable. So for the first time since the day I scratched my armpit, I have a flash of hope. I think, Well, maybe I’m going to get out of this relatively unscathed.

Ha.

A week later, I go back to see Mr Clooney. He says, ‘The margins weren’t clear; you’ve got mutations around the outside of the specimen.’ I’m thinking, Mutations around the outside of the specimen?? Where does he get this language? Could he possibly make me feel any more of a freak? Is there not a better word than ‘mutations’ (plural), especially used in same sentence as ‘specimen’? And then he says to me very calmly, like he’s playing a doctor in a TV show, ‘We’re going to go back in and take a little bit more.’ And at this point I’m still hopeful that I might emerge from all this with a breast that doesn’t look like it’s been cobbled together by Dr Frankenstein, so I say, ‘How much exactly?’ And then he gets this odd look on his face like he hopes this will sound reassuring but he knows in advance that it won’t, and he says, ‘Just the right amount.’

Which was pretty much when I realised that these guys haven’t got a clue—they’re basically just winging it. George Clooney’s plan in a nutshell was this: lop a bit more off and hope for the best. And of course, I’ve got no choice in the matter; I’ve just got to go along with it and hope for the best also.

So I have another operation, and my breast is starting to look a bit wonkitated now, a bit sad and deflated like a beach ball after the dog’s been at it. But I’m trying to be upbeat, because of course being a good cancer patient is all about being positive, and a week later I go back to see George Clooney and get the results. And he says, ‘Well, I’ve taken twelve cubic centimetres from here right down to behind the nipple, and the margins still aren’t clear. So this is what we have to do. You’ll have chemo now, and at the end of that, you’ll have to have a mastectomy.’

And I’m just going, Fuck.

Mastectomy.

Because that was the one word I absolutely did not want to hear.

Chemo—who cares? Hair grows back, so do eyelashes. Breasts, on the other hand, do not. In casually dropping the m-word the way he did, George Clooney was basically wiping out my femininity, my sexual desirability, my ability to look at myself naked in the mirror—everything. He might just as well have said, ‘Oh, and by the way, you’ll never have a husband, you’ll never have babies. It’s doubtful whether you’ll even have sex again.’ I felt sick. Sick to my guts. I had exactly that sick horrible doomed feeling you get when they push the safety bar down into lock position on the Wild Mouse at Luna Park. That’s the best way I can describe it. That’s exactly how I felt.

Meanwhile, before the chemo and the body-part removal, I had to go off and be a bridesmaid. My BFF Sally was getting married and naturally she turned into a fucking Bridezilla. She was like, ‘Never mind your cancer, are you still gonna be my fucking bridesmaid?’ Seriously, that’s how she talks. So I had to buy the hideous dress which cost $600; I had to fly to Orange for the kitchen tea which cost $250; and supposedly she was going to throw in for the shoes, but then she totally backed out of the shoe deal. Plus, all the bridesmaids had to pitch in for the candy-apple KitchenAid so she could sit it on her benchtop and never use it, even though she kept promising to bake me cupcakes. (What is it about breast cancer that makes people think of cupcakes? Oh. Right.) So basically Sally wiped out the small amount I had in my bank account. And I’m about to quit work because teaching is not the kind of job you can do when you’re sick on chemo. That’s when I literally had thoughts of becoming a nun, because I figured, well, I’m never going to have sex again. If I became a nun, I would at least have somewhere to live. Because I’m seriously thinking, What the fuck am I going to do now?

All the way through chemo, with the hair falling out and the mouth ulcers and the night sweats, I’m still thinking there has to be a way I can get out of the mastectomy. I was in denial, of course; I see that now. Not meaning to brag, but my breasts had probably been my best feature. Josh had been obsessed with them—ironically, we used to have enormous fights if I wore anything too low-cut. But more than that, the thing that really bothered me was the actual act of them slicing it off—it just seemed so barbaric, so macabre, like some kind of medieval punishment. I remember thinking, Well, what do they do with it? Where does it go? How do they dispose of all these body parts? And then the whole idea of this imitation breast, this thing that only does impersonations. So even when I pick up the phone to book the operation, I’m still thinking, There has to be a way out of this. It can’t be the only way.

Anyway, I make the call and I go back to see George Clooney, and I say to him, ‘Listen, do you really, really believe I have to do this?’ And he got extremely angry with me. He said, ‘Eleanor, you can bury your head in the sand all you like, but if you don’t do this, you’ll be back here in two years, you’ll have lymph nodes involved, you’ll have chemo again, and it’ll be everywhere.’ He said, ‘It’ll be fun and games for two years, then you’ll be back here.’

Fun and games for two years. So I had the mastectomy.

Two

Wow. I reread all that and I think, Who is that angry person? What’s with all the smart talk and the swearing?

That’s because I hadn’t yet started weeping. The weeping followed shortly after, and lasted maybe twelve months.

What started the weeping was Sally getting pregnant. Because of course Sally gets pregnant straight away, like I mean straight away, on the actual honeymoon in Vanuatu. Here’s how I found out: her Instagram feed. In among the beach sunsets and the bikini martinis and the breakfast buffets, there’s a shot looking out through the billowing muslin curtains of their fashioned-from-driftwood four-poster bed. Sheets conspicuously entangling a bare foot, still with bridal nail polish. Outside—like smack outside, they could not be any fucking closer—the pristine turquoise waters of their tropical paradise.

Caption: Moment of conception #perfectbliss #lovedup #misterandmissus #nofilter

To which I respond: No fucking filter, my arse.

Now, I have known Sally since year five taekwondo, and I am well aware that she is the most fiercely competitive person I have ever known—also, she is 9th Dan in the Art of Casual Cruelty. And yes, some would argue that she and Brett had been together almost six years and she is past thirty now, so no surprise that she gets herself knocked up immediately post-nuptials. But still, something about the timing of it bothered me.

Not to seem like a crazy person, but if the situation were reversed, and my best friend was dealing with a breast cancer diagnosis with all its resulting uncertainty about her reproductive future, I think I would hold off on the ‘Baby Makes Three’ shit for a year or two.

But that’s just me, I guess.

I mean, Sally was actually sitting right next to me, when Doc, my beloved oncologist, was explaining the whole chemo vs babies thing to me. He’s like, ‘So, do you have a steady partner?’ And I’m like, ‘Sadly, no.’ And he says, ‘Well, we could freeze your ovarian tissue blah blah, but given you’re so young, I’m hopeful you’ll be able to conceive naturally after treatment.’ And I’m like, ‘What do you mean, “after treatment”?’ And he says, ‘Well, you’ve got six months of chemo, then your mastectomy, then five years of tamoxifen, which is some kind of fancy hormone suppressant.’ And I’m just going, Are you kidding me?? Given I’m even sexually viable after all that, I’ll be thirty-six years old with crow’s feet and spider veins and approximately one and a half eggs left per ovary—seriously, what are my chances? And meanwhile, all through this, Sally is stroking my arm and making warm empathetic noises and having the absolute time of her life playing doting best friend to tragic cancer victim, entirely for Doc’s benefit. I mean, Doc actually said to us as we were leaving something about me being lucky to have such a good friend, and Sally bats her eyelashes and says, ‘Ever since year five taekwondo. She threw me so hard I ended up in a back brace for six weeks.’ And then she goes, ‘Fighting spirit, Doc. If beating cancer’s all about fighting spirit, Eleanor’s got it licked.’

I mean, please.

I could have decked her all over again, then and there in Doc’s office.

The fact is I took the reproduction stuff hard because that was a big part of the reason why Josh and I broke up. He suddenly announced one day that he didn’t want children, and was I fine with that? Well, no, I wasn’t fine with that, Josh, and I especially wasn’t fine with the way you only just saw fit to mention this to me after four years as a couple, joint bank accounts and numerous white goods not to mention ludicrously over-priced home cinema purchased together. Even notwithstanding major household appliances, I have invested a lot of time and energy into the relationship, and now I am standing here with egg on my face, excuse pun. And he’s like, ‘Well, I just assumed you already knew this about me’, and it’s true, he was always reading gloomy books about overpopulation, but I just dismissed this as Josh being an egghead eco-warrior (why does the word ‘egg’ keep coming up when I write about this??). So anyway pretty soon after this conversation, we break up. And next thing, I’m sitting in Doc’s office realising that maybe I’d never be able to have kids anyway, which struck me as bitterly ironic. Laughed at by the gods, as Amy would say. (I played a lot of Amy Winehouse during the break-up.)

Anyway, looking back, I freely admit that I may have sunk into a bit of a depression. Which is of course completely normal after breast cancer. After all, I used to have a life, a job, a boyfriend who adored me, two exceptional breasts and a one-bedroom apartment in Annandale. Now, I’m an unemployed thirty-one-year-old living with my mother in Greenacre. With one remaining original breast and a kind of phony-looking, slightly too perky silicone lump alongside it. And yes, I sound extremely negative and I get ticked off about this constantly, especially by Mum, but the fact is, I’m just being realistic. My life has changed, and not in a good way. Yes, I am cancer-free, but look at me—what reasonable person wouldn’t feel a little down in the dumps?

But I’ve been to see my GP about that, so I’m all sorted now, pharmaceutically speaking. And you know what? I really feel like I’m starting to turn a corner. My hair is beginning to look half-decent. I’ve started exercising. I’ve started looking for work a bit more seriously. I’ve started going out and seeing people again. And this week, I’ve only had one major crying jag, and it’s Friday. So I’m doing good.

This is what caused my crying jag: I went to see Doc for my three-monthly check-up. I freely admit that I am pretty much in love with Doc, even though he is fifty-seven and balding and looks like your uncle. Actually, to judge from the waiting-room conversations I have overheard, everyone is in love with Doc because he is kind and gentle and has warm hands and is extremely good at his job, but I like to think I have an extra-special relationship with him because I am one of his younger patients and I call him ‘Doc’ and make jokes, and he thinks I’m hilarious. Sometimes I have even fantasised about us getting together. Which is totally weird, but also probably totally normal.

Anyway, he seems really pleased to see me—my scans are all clear, everything’s rosy. And we chat about this and that, and I tell him my periods have started up again, and that I intend to celebrate this by getting knocked up by the first guy I see. And then I suggest (jokingly, of course) that maybe Doc is the man for the job because I could certainly use some brains in the gene mix. And he laughs and goes red (adorable!) but then gets all sombre and says, ‘Seriously, Eleanor, I do not want you falling pregnant just yet. Have you been using contraception?’ And I say, ‘Doc, I am not an idiot, if a miracle happens and praise be, I get to have sex again, well of course I would use contraception.’ And then Doc goes on about how when I finish my five-year course of Tamoxifen, I will still be young enough to get pregnant safely so that gives me a few years yet to meet my dream guy etc. etc. And I say, ‘Yes, but my dream guy would be a cross between Bruno Mars only taller and Doc, and seriously what are the odds of such a mythical creature existing, let alone me bumping into him in Greenacre?’

And then we get on to the nightmares I’ve been having and how the Tamoxifen may or may not be causing them, and he says, ‘Well, what are the nightmares about?’ And I say, ‘What do you think they’re about? They’re about the cancer coming back, of course.’ And he says, ‘That sounds like anxiety to me, Eleanor. How about you check in with the counsellor or go back to the support group?’ And I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me? After last time?’ And then his phone beeps with obviously some kind of prearranged cue from his secretary and he glances at it and makes an apologetic face, and I realise he’s trying to think how he can wind things up with me so he can see his next patient, on account of the fact that as always he is double-booked. So I say, ‘Are we finished?’ in a kind of offended voice. And he says, ‘Unless there’s anything else you need to ask me?’ So I say, ‘Well, when do I see you again?’ And I realise that I sound extremely needy, and not appealingly patient-in-distress needy but actual bunny-boiling psycho- stalker ‘Play Misty For Me’ needy. So he says, ‘Come and see me in six months. Book an appointment with Liz on your way out.’ And here he puts his hand on the small of my back, because (I realise now) what he is actually doing is ushering me to the door. But I’m absolutely gutted that I don’t get to see him for six months, and I’m interpreting his hand on my back as him subconsciously conveying that he’s gutted also. So I say, ‘Am I still your favourite patient?’ trying to sound jokey but actually sounding desperate and pathetic. And by now he has his other hand on the door handle. And he smiles at me and says, ‘Always,’ and as he’s opening the door, I lunge in to kiss him. That’s right, I lunge. For the lips. And he deftly moves his head just in the nick of time so I kind of connect with his jaw, but not before everyone in the waiting room has witnessed the entire thought-provoking spectacle. Of me lunging at Doc. And him ducking to avoid it. So I bolted.

Started crying in the lift, which was chock-full of interested bystanders. Realise amid my tears that because I am coming from Oncology, everyone assumes that I’ve just been given six weeks to live, because they keep throwing me compassionate glances. One nice lady surreptitiously opens her handbag and passes me one of those mini-packs of tissues, which I accept, feeling fraudulent. Little does she know that I am crying because I just lunged at a balding, paunchy fifty-seven-year-old who feels sorry for me at best and rebuffed me. Continued crying all the way home. Went straight to my room and cried for another four or five hours. Refused dinner, then got up later after Mum had gone to bed and ate an entire packet of chocolate biscuits from Aldi.

Lesson to be drawn from this: No more lunging.

On the bright side, he did say, ‘Always.’

Three

Why blog? Good question!

To which I can only respond: Well, it is better than scrapbooking. These were two of the suggestions offered at the breast cancer support group I went to once and one time only. Those poor buggers whose cancer has metastasised got nudged toward the scrapbooking table. If they are nudging you towards the scrapbooking table, then it is basically code for, ‘You will die soon, so quick! Throw some photos in an album as a keepsake for your loved ones. Make sure you are smiling in these photos and have lots of hair. Decorate with butterfly stickers and inspirational quotes about dancing like nobody’s watching etc.’

What is wrong with me? Where does this horrible snarky voice come from? I have actually met women in exactly this predicament, desperately trying to stay well enough in their few remaining months to put a scrapbook together so their young children won’t forget them, hoping that they’ll flick through it from time to time in years to come and be reminded how much their mother loved them and how horrible it was for her to die and leave them so young, and here I am being a fucking glib fucking smart-arse about it.

The worst thing—the thing that scares me most about this voice that jumps out whenever I attempt to blog anything about this experience—is that this smart-arse funny-angry shit is exactly how everyone’s breast cancer blogs start. Before it starts getting worse and the news is bad and the latest scan shows a lesion on the liver and the posts get fewer and fewer till finally some friend or husband or mother gets on and lets us know that Amy or Genevieve or Susie finally lost her brave battle, passed away quietly, another angel in heaven, another star in the night sky. But they all start off with the funny-angry voice, and it’s exactly what mine sounds like right now, and that scares the shit out of me.

One thing for certain—I am definitely keeping this private. There is no way I am uploading any of this to the internet. Why the fuck anyone would go public with this shit is beyond me.

***

Still no job. Even though there is apparently a chronic shortage of teachers and a crisis in education to judge from the news reports. I am beginning to think about retail or even, God forbid, hospitality.

***

Here’s why I never went back to my breast cancer support group.

First, let me just say upfront, I am not at my best in a group-type situation. Generally speaking, I am the surly one in the corner, snarling if anyone tries to pat me. My problem apparently (according to Sally) is that I act like I’m better than everyone else, which I am not, so I give off hostile vibes. Truth be told, I was just really profoundly pissed off at finding myself there, and who wouldn’t be? Slumped on a beanbag surrounded by fifteen middle-aged women in aggressively cheerful headscarves, smiling bravely through their tears. Another thing, there was just way too much laughter and hugging, like cancer gives you licence to be zany. Seriously, it was painful.

The theme of the evening was ‘My Cancer Journey’, and that alone should have given me pause since all journeys have a destination, cancer journeys in particular, and it’s not a destination anyone had any intention of talking about. Instead, we were each invited to bring an item of some description to express something ‘meaningful’ about our experience so far. Here’s what some of the others brought: a beautiful card from husband, expressing his love for her; a hideous wig to be donated to third-world cancer charity as hair now growing back; scan results showing all clear; a photo of three children hugging (bald) Mummy.

Here’s what I brought: a docket from the David Jones lingerie department, where that same afternoon I had been refused a refund on two underwire bras purchased some eighteen months earlier.

‘Have you worn these?’ asked the sales girl, fingering the bras doubtfully.

‘Yes, I have, repeatedly,’ I said. ‘They gave me cancer. See? No hair.’

Here I pointed helpfully to my headscarf.

‘Well, if you’ve worn them, we can’t give you a refund.’ She didn’t give a shit about the headscarf.

Unpleasantness ensued. To be honest, I pretty much lost it. There was shouting (me), also tears (me). The point I was trying to make was that if DJs insisted on peddling known carcinogens for profit, then the very least they could do by way of compensation was give me a fucking refund so I could buy myself a pair of caramel suede ankle boots I fancied over in Footwear. A measly $139.98, that’s all I wanted. Was that going to break the bank? Or would they prefer I go to Slater and Gordon and rustle up a class action because, believe me, I would be more than happy to get cracking. Anyway, long story short, I was asked to leave by security, and on the way out I sent a rack of nighties flying down the aisle, narrowly missing an elderly customer. They let that one go, they were so happy to see me out of there.

So as I said, this incident had happened that same afternoon, and I was still feeling a little shaken up about it. I mean, I knew I’d behaved badly, and the whole underwire bra link to breast cancer is tenuous at best, and basically this had all arisen out of me being too broke to afford the boots I coveted. But still, I thought, you know what? The fact remains that I did get breast cancer, and something most certainly gave it to me, so why not the lingerie department of a large department store? And on my way to the support group, realising I had forgotten to bring along anything ‘meaningful’ about my cancer ‘journey’, I thought, well, maybe I could share the experience with the group, because at the very least everyone would likely sympathise with me, and possibly I could even get to the point of having a laugh about it.

Ha.

They came down totally on the side of David Jones. They all thought I was nuts too.

‘Underwire bras do not give you cancer.’ This from the counsellor, of all people.

‘I’m not saying they give you cancer in general,’ says me. ‘They don’t give you bladder cancer or testicular cancer. But I’m talking specifically about breast cancer.’

Shouted down by the entire group, all apparently armed with the latest research.

‘And also, I’m sorry, but having cancer is not an excuse to be rude to shop assistants,’ said Fright Wig for Africa, a shop assistant in her former life. Wife of Loving Husband Who Finally Penned Nice Card After Twenty-five Years of Marriage was appalled, hygiene-wise, that I had tried to return used underwear, except instead of saying ‘used underwear’ she kept saying ‘soiled underwear’, and I kept having to reiterate that both bras were perfectly clean as I’d gone to the trouble of washing them. Someone else couldn’t understand why I didn’t simply put the boots on lay-by. Others felt that although it was legit to play the cancer card in returning unwanted merchandise, in this instance I had overplayed the cancer card and thus made it harder for everyone else to score concessions from major department stores by deploying their bald heads.

Blah blah blah blah.

When they’d finally finished, I said, ‘You know what? I’m actually sorry I mentioned it.’ And then I said, ‘Are you sure this is a support group? Because I don’t feel like I’m getting a lot of support here.’

‘Eleanor, I feel you need to give yourself permission to acknowledge you may have some unresolved anger issues,’ said the counsellor.

‘You know what? I’m giving myself permission to get the fuck out of here,’ I said. And that was the last time I went to breast cancer support group.

***

So I went on a date. The first proper date since I broke up with Josh and got cancer.

Sally set it up—it was a guy from her work. She’s been getting impatient with what she calls my whole ‘Oh poor me, I had cancer’ thing. She’s like, ‘Yes, but you’re better now and your hair has grown back, so can we talk about something else for a change?’ This is pretty typical of Sally; she is very no nonsense and calls a spade a spade—i.e. she is totally lacking in empathy. Also, she believes I have created a shrine for Lost Love—i.e. Josh—and I am going to end up like Miss Havisham if I don’t kick the shrine over and get on with life (her words).

Anyway, she’s been telling me about this guy at work called Harry, who is long-term single and no one can understand why because he is the greatest guy ever and also, btw, drives a Lexus. The other small detail about Harry which she finally got around to mentioning is that he has a cleft palate. Well, he’s had the surgery, but you can tell there’s been some work there. So I guess Sally’s reasoning was this: guy with funny lip plus girl with funny boob equals Romance.

And in fact, I actually thought Harry was kind of cute. He’s one of those guys who thinks, Okay, well, I’m a bit on the fugly side, so let’s make up for it with lots of personality and a great sense of humour. Because he was fucking hilarious! Also, he had a really nice body. Anyway, we met at the Coogee Bay for a drink, except I’m not really drinking these days, so I just had one glass of wine and he meanwhile got pretty hammered because he was nervous, which was kind of endearing. I myself was extremely nervous—I’d been stressing about it all week. I spent the entire day giving myself beauty treatments, and actually had to wash my hair twice because I totally stuffed up my first attempt with the curling tongs and basically frazzled all the ends. Also, Mum bought me a new dress from Iconic, which was sweet of her—it was on sale so only $59, and I have to admit I looked pretty damn sexy in it.

Anyway, so Harry and I get on like a house on fire, and seriously he made me laugh more than anyone I’ve met in a long time, and that was nice because there hasn’t been a whole lot of laughs in the last year or so. And although I’d agreed under duress to go on a date with him, I didn’t seriously ever contemplate that I would end up in bed with him or anything. Because I’m so totally not ready for that yet. I mean, I still don’t have a nipple. But anyway, we actually started kissing, tongues and everything, while we’re still at the pub, and then he says, ‘Do you want to come back to mine?’ And I really, really like the guy so I say, ‘Well, okay . . . ’

So we get back to his apartment in Bronte, and he makes me a cup of camomile tea and then we start seriously getting it on, right there on the sofa. And we’re pulling each other’s clothes off and all the while I’m thinking, Does he know about the fake boob? Because he seemed to know I’d had cancer, but I wasn’t sure how much detail Sally had gone into on the subject. So we’re making out and he’s having a good old grope and I’m thinking, Well, maybe he knows and he’s fine about it, because he sure seems pretty enthusiastic. I mean, he was all over the fake boob along with the real boob, and so far, so good, like he hadn’t recoiled with horror or anything. And by now I’ve got my top off and he’s undoing my bra and then the next thing he puts his head down between my tits and then he freezes. Like he literally freezes. And he says, ‘What the fuck’s going on there?’

That’s right: ‘What the fuck’s going on there?’

Those were his exact words.

And I say, ‘Oh, sorry, I thought you knew, that’s my fake boob, it doesn’t have a nipple yet. Sorry, I should have warned you.’ I actually apologise (twice!), can you believe that???? The reality is, in spite of the apologising, I was actually feeling really fucking angry. Because in all honesty, this guy was a very, very ordinary kisser. It was all just way too wet and slobbery, possibly because of the cleft palate thing, possibly not, but my point is I didn’t think to complain about it. I was absolutely prepared to put up with it, to make allowances, because I thought he was such a great guy. But obviously he was not prepared to make allowances for me. Because he went off the boil immediately, by which I mean that he sat right back on the couch and said, ‘Whoa. Whoa,’ like I’d turned into a rattlesnake. So I immediately put my bra back on and, in my desperation, start undoing his pants and fishing my hand down there, but he pulls me off and says, ‘Oh, I’ve had too much to drink. I don’t think I’m going to be able to get it up.’

Really, it doesn’t get much more humiliating than that.

So I got dressed and hot-footed it out of there. He basically hid in the bathroom till I’d gone.

Anyway, next day I text Sally: Thanks a lot. Completely fucking humiliated by Harry the Harelip. And she obviously gets the lowdown from him the minute she gets in to work because she rings me up mid-morning and says, ‘Harry is really sorry—he was just totally thrown by the no-nipple thing. Also the scar. Like, he’s super apologetic and he says he thinks you’re fantastic, but maybe because he’s had so much surgery himself, that sort of thing just freaks him out.’ And then she has a go at me for not getting the nipple done, and hence bringing this whole thing upon myself. And then she ticks me off for calling him Harry the Harelip, which she said was offensive.

I hung up on her.

Firstly, I am really, really upset that she is discussing me, her supposed best friend, in such intimate detail with this insensitive fucking prick. Probably over the coffee machine in the kitchen, with anyone else who wants to join in and trade horror stories about unpleasant surprises in the bedroom. Second of all, I am furious at her for setting me up with this dick in the first place. How extensively did she actually vet this creep before throwing me, her supposed best friend, at his mercy? And lastly, how fucking dare she have a go at me about my nipple?!

So the deal with the nipple is I have to have it tattooed on, and then they do this needlework to pucker the skin up and make it look sort-of-kind-of-not-really like a nipple at all. I mean, would any sane person think that sounded like a happy solution? And yes, I will get it done eventually because I have no better option, but let’s face it, would the needle- work nipple have passed muster with oversensitive Harry and his delicate sensibilities? I absolutely doubt it because Harry, like all guys, expects perfection.

I’m so angry with Sally, I’m just going to cut her off for a while. This whole thing has set me back emotionally six months, just when I was starting to feel strong again. Not to mention confirmed all my fears about dating.

Four

I keep having these twinges. In the right breast, near the armpit, around where the lump used to be. Just these strange, sharp little twinges that send a kind of shudder right up my neck and around the back of my skull. I don’t like it. I keep thinking, What’s that? Is that the cancer spreading?

Can you feel cancer spreading?

And a few days ago in the shower, in the other armpit, I felt a tiny lump on one of the glands or tendons or whatever the hell those cordy things are. (Lymph node? Could that be a palpable lymph node? Palpable’s bad, that much I know.) But weirdly I haven’t felt anything there since, even though I spend a lot of time in front of the bathroom mirror, prodding and poking and trying to find it. And yet I know I definitely felt something, quite distinctly. So where’s it gone? And what’s that all about?

Here’s a tip: Never google what does breast cancer metastasis feel like. Turns out it feels like just about anything! Here are some metastasis symptoms I’ve experienced in the past three days: feeling tired, feeling under the weather, cold or flu-like symptoms, headache, feeling like you’ve pulled a muscle, tingling sensation in arms, blah blah blah blah blah.

Clearly I am riddled with the fucker.

I have to keep reminding myself that all my last scans were clear. So what’s with the twinging? Maybe I should ring Doc up and ask him ...

***

So I rang him up and left a message, and good old Doc, he’s so fantastic, he gets back to me straight away. And I explain the whole twinging thing to him. (I didn’t mention the tiny disappearing lymph node because it suddenly felt a bit ridiculous, and I’m conscious of not wanting to look like I’m just trying to get his attention, especially after the lunging incident.) And he’s like, ‘How long has this been going on?’ And I’m like, ‘Maybe a month?’ And he says, ‘I’m pretty sure it’s just your tissue healing itself—it takes a long time after surgery, and patients often experience strange sensations.’ And I’m like, ‘What tissue? Do I even have any tissue in that breast? Isn’t it all just implant?’ And he gives me a lengthy, detailed description of what sort of tissue and nerve endings surrounding the implant could be twinging, and finally I interrupt and I say, ‘I’ve just got a bad, bad feeling about this in my gut.’ So then he says, ‘When are you due in to see me again?’ And I’m like, ‘Four months.’ And he says, ‘Well, we could bring you in earlier, but I think we should just see if it settles of its own accord. Let’s give it a couple of months.’ And I suddenly feel this wave of anxiety that maybe he doesn’t want to see me because he’s worried I’m going to lunge at him again. So I fall silent. And he’s like, ‘Eleanor? Are you there?’ And I say, ‘Yeah, I’m here,’ and he says, ‘Would you feel better if we booked you in to see George Clooney again and you talked it through with him?’ And I’m like, ‘No, I do not want to see George Clooney again, he will just want to lop the other one off.’ And he laughs, because we always joke about George Clooney and his terrible interpersonal bedside skills.

And then, I don’t know what possessed me, but I suddenly blurt out that I’m sorry I lunged at him at my last appointment, and I hope he didn’t think I was just dreaming up excuses to come and see him and lunge at him again, and he says, ‘Of course I don’t think that,’ and I say, ‘I really am twinging, I’m not just pretending I’m twinging,’ but somehow the very fact that I say this out loud makes it seem like that’s exactly what I am doing, and finally I am so struck by how tragic and needy I sound that I hang up on him.

So of course, good old Doc, he calls me back right away. And he says, ‘Are you doing okay, Eleanor? Emotionally? I’m just a bit concerned about you.’ Whereupon I immediately burst into tears as I always do whenever anyone’s nice to me. And he says, ‘Do you need to go and talk to your GP again?’ which is code for ‘up your anti-depressants asap’, and I’m blubbering, ‘I just want my old life back!’ And in the background on his end, I can hear his secretary saying something to him, and I imagine him covering the receiver with his hand and gesturing at her that he has a crazy one on the line (not that he would ever do such a thing) and suddenly I have this vision, this vision of all those women in his waiting room in their headscarves and beanies, waiting for him right now as he tries to deal with me; women who have it in their bones and brains and livers, women who are coming to the end of the line of possible chemo cocktails that will do anything for them, and when they walk into his office and find him staring at their terrible scans, the tumours all coming back, different organs this time, poor harried Doc will have to tell them that he’s finally run out of options, and unfortunately he’ll have to pass them on to Palliative Care.

I feel so ashamed of myself, I apologise for wasting his time and hang up on him again.

***

A small miracle, just when I most desperately need it! I have a job, and a kind of dream job, the answer to all my prayers!

So . . . the story is that it’s a tiny school (eleven students!!!) in a place called Talbingo, miles away from anywhere! I just googled it. Unbelievably picturesque, to judge by the photos. ‘In the foothills of the Snowy Mountains, on the shores of the Jounama Pondage . . . ’ Population—get this—241!!! Except now it must be 240, because the teacher’s gone AWOL.

I am not sure why they have so carelessly misplaced their teacher in the middle of the school year, but anyway, they need a replacement pronto. Like, they rang me this morning, and they asked if I could possibly get there by tomorrow. I said, ‘Tomorrow? I’ll be there this afternoon!!’ And then I said, ‘Just kidding,’ because it’s actually a six-hour drive away. (Jesus, I hope the Corolla can manage it. It’s totally overdue for a service, also the clutch keeps slipping.)

These sorts of events, when they happen, make me almost believe there is a God or some kind of larger force that looks after me. I mean, this job could not be more perfect for me right now. Eleven students. Clean mountain air. How stressful could that be? The best thing is I get my own house! Hooray! (Just tried to see what the house looks like on Google Maps, but failed. It’s so fucking isolated, Street View hasn’t made it there yet.)

Mum came in just before with some clothes she’d ironed for me, and then she hung around watching me pack, and I could tell she was worrying and I said, ‘Mum, I’m going to be fine!’ And she said, ‘I’m just worried you’ll get lonely.’ But frankly, I am so over everyone right now that I basically can’t wait to get away from them all. Except Mum, of course, but she can visit. I mean my ‘friends’, ironic use of punctuation intended. I’m still not talking to Sally, obviously, after the Harry the Harelip fiasco. And the other night I went to the pub with Fee and Nicki and a few other chicks from school, and Nicki basically said to me, when we were talking about the causes of breast cancer, she actually said to me, ‘Well, you have always been a stresser.’ And I sort of stiffened and said, ‘What do you mean?’ And she said, ‘Well, you know, you just always get wound up over things.’ And I know she’s saying this because earlier I asked her if she could blow her smoke away from me because it was making me feel ill. So I said, ‘You mean, like now? Because you keep blowing smoke in my face when I’ve just had cancer? What you are basically saying to me is that I had it coming?’ And I just got up and walked out of there. She messaged me the next morning, very apologetic, with about a zillion sad faces and xxxxx, and I responded, No problem forget about it, with one x and a winky face, but truly I’m so over the lot of them, I really am.

So anyway, I am frantically trying to get my shit together, but I just wanted to take this moment to collect myself and gather my thoughts. Give myself a bit of a talking-to. Yes, I had a spot of cancer, but I am well now and it is time to STOP WALLOWING and look to the future. I have been given this opportunity, the sort of posting I’ve always fantasised about, even before the cancer, and it’s important that I don’t succumb to my usual issues, but instead make the most of it. Also, try to be more positive, less judgemental about people. Eat healthy, get fit. Also, I’m packing my yoga mat. All that mountain air will be so good for me. I am really going to try to get into some kind of routine with my meditation.

***

Well, that was awkward! Also a little weird.

Okay, so I get here after this six-hour drive, and the last thirty minutes were like the opening titles in The Shining except no snow, just kangaroos and lakes and rivers and mountains and the sun getting low and flaring through the windscreen—just all so exhilaratingly beautiful, I could actually feel my heart almost bursting in my chest. And then you come around the corner and there’s Talbingo, and sure enough it’s this tiny little collection of cottages nestled in the foothills of the Snowy Mountains, and it’s dead quiet, like NO ONE around. I mean, it’s so small and so deserted that I can hardly believe it actually warrants a school?! Anyway, I find my house no worries, and it’s in a prime position overlooking what I think might be a golf course (though I haven’t seen any golfers), which in turn overlooks the Pondage, which seems to be a fancy name for a pretty little lake. The house itself is this nice little weatherboard, very plain, very simply furnished, all a bit Nanna but clean and tidy and kind of sweet. Neatly pressed tea towel hanging from the oven. Old-fashioned chenille bedspread on the bed. Embroidered cushion in the living room: Let your smile change the world but don’t let the world change your smile! Anyway, I’m feeling pretty happy unloading the car, enjoying the mountain air really crisp and cool on my face, when suddenly this woman comes careening up the driveway carrying these shopping bags, and it’s Glenda, who apparently works in the office at the school. And she’s like, ‘Are you Miss Mellett, the new teacher?’ and I’m like, ‘Yes, but please call me Eleanor,’ and she’s brought all this milk and bread and stuff, even a chicken casserole for my dinner tonight, which was really nice of her, and she starts telling me how grateful they are that I’ve come at such short notice etc. etc. And I’m trying really hard to be super friendly, which is part of my new positive life strategy (let your smile change the world!), so I say, ‘Come in and have a cup of tea,’ and she presses her lips together and shakes her head, then she goes all red in the face and starts to cry.

And she’s saying, ‘Nothing against you, Miss Mellett, I’m sure you’re lovely, but just being here with a replacement teacher, it’s all very, very distressing.’ This is all blubbering through her tears while I’m just standing there like an idiot, holding the chicken casserole. And she’s going, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, it’s just that we all loved Miss Barker so much!’, and I’m going, ‘Of course, of course, please, won’t you have a cup of tea?’ and then she shouts, ‘IT’S TOO SOON! IT’S TOO SOON!’ Like, she literally shouts it at me, and she has a look on her face like she could hit me. Then she immediately launches into this apology which goes on for about five minutes and it’s all about how she hasn’t been herself since Miss Barker left etc. etc. and I’m thinking, could we maybe not talk about Miss Barker and how wonderful she was the entire time you’re supposed to be welcoming me? Anyway, she composes herself a bit and starts telling me about the school, and what time to rock up tomorrow, and then all of a sudden she blurts out, ‘I’ve got all her belongings packed up in our spare bedroom. That’s all we have of her—six boxes!—but it’s ready—it’s ready for her when she needs it!’ And then she takes off, like she actually hurtles off down the driveway.

So that was my welcome to Talbingo.

Obviously the wonderful Miss Barker—she who has seen fit to suddenly abscond in the middle of the school term—used to live in this house too. Can I blame the decor on her? Probably not. But someone has certainly been very paranoid about security because there are about a zillion locks on the doors.

Five

Well, my first day went pretty well.

The school is just beyond gorgeous. I mean, hats off to Miss Barker—she must have been an absolute legend. I have a lot to live up to there. Sustainable vegetable garden (grey water only)—check! Sustainable chickens in charming coop constructed from recycled locally sourced timber—check! Mural depicting Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme, designed by the children themselves—check! Self-published book Tommy the Talbingo Turtle, starring classroom pet turtle—check! Three-foot-high maze (once again I’m reminded of The Shining) planted by Miss Barker and the kids three years ago—I mean, what kind of dementedly zealous teacher plants a maze? And for what possible fucking purpose? Even as they were showing me around, one of the littlies got lost in it and started howling and it took me twenty solid minutes to calm her down. No—thank you, Miss Barker!

The school itself has one large classroom, a small yet well-stocked library, an indoor games room for rainy days and an office in which Glenda lurks, like a large, dumpy passive-aggressive spider (stop it!). The classroom is festooned with the children’s artwork and lovingly hand-crafted posters: Save our planet; Our daily routine; Be happy, be bright, be YOU! And labels! She’s labelled everything that couldn’t get up and run away from her, as far as I can see: door, chair, pot plant, fish tank, electric sharpener. All carefully inscribed in blue texta in her nice round hand, then laminated. She’s an absolute fiend with the laminator.

Seriously, she’s clearly one of those ‘Teaching Is My Life, and The Children Are Everything To Me’ kind of teachers, and I didn’t mean that to sound as mean-spirited as it came out. She’s just super dedicated. And obviously the kids are very bonded to her and are not coping brilliantly with her departure. They’re a bit shy, a bit stand-offish, but I guess that’s understandable given they’ve only ever had Miss Barker in their lives, and whatever has gone down, it’s happened pretty suddenly and unexpectedly. So I guess I just need to give it time. Meanwhile, I’m being super fun and super nice! Like this morning I spent all this time chatting and playing games, and letting them show me around the school, and we did ‘Fun Facts’ and ‘Find A Word’ and read the bum jokes book, which usually always goes down a treat but they didn’t actually laugh that much, and then this little girl (Brody) put up her hand, and I say, ‘Yes, Brody?’ and she says, ‘When is Miss Barker coming back?’

Never, I hope, because I want this job.

I didn’t actually say that. But I thought it. And it was a bit awkward, because it seems like the children might be under the impression that she’s coming back soon. I don’t think anyone’s explained anything to them. Because when the guy from the Department rang me up, it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, can you fill in for a month or two?’ I was definitely given the impression that this gig was permanent.

So after school, I tackle Glenda on the subject—carefully, of course, because I’m fully expecting the waterworks. I say, ‘Glenda, I don’t mean to pry, but could you tell me what’s the story with Miss Barker? It’s only that the children are asking me when she’ll be back, and I don’t know what to say.’ And sure enough, the waterworks commence immediately. ‘We don’t know, that’s the trouble! We don’t know what’s happened to her! She just vanished! Up and left in the middle of the night!’ And I’m like patting her on the sleeve and mumbling about how sorry I am. And she says, ‘We miss her terribly! She was just the most inspirational person!’ And then she goes on about how Miss Barker used to suffer with her period pains. ‘I’d tell her, stay in bed! Take the day off!’ And she’d say to me, ‘I can’t do that, Glenny, I can’t let the children down.’

To which I’m thinking: big deal. Doesn’t take a day off when she gets her period. Her and seventy billion other women. Still, I nod sympathetically, and Glenda takes a deep shaky breath and pulls herself together, and then she turns to me, and says brightly, ‘But enough of that—what about you? How can I support you? What do you need? Just tell me!’

So I ask her about the wi-fi situation, because I’ve noticed there’s no wi-fi in the house, and sure enough, although the school boasts several computers, one exclusively for my own use, THERE’S NO WI-FI AT THE SCHOOL EITHER!! They’re on some antiquated dial-up system, which Glenda considers perfectly adequate. Apparently, rather than usher the children of Talbingo into the twenty-first century by updating their communications, Miss Barker elected to spend the entire Schools Bonus on a sustainable watering system for the vegie garden—I kid you not.

So then I ask Glenda about phone reception, because I don’t seem to have any bars at all on my phone. And she gets all bewildered, and says, ‘No phone reception?’ because she thinks I mean the landline. And when I say mobile reception, she gets all short with me. Apparently, there is no mobile reception in Talbingo, nor will there ever be BECAUSE LANDLINES WORK PERFECTLY FINE. By this point, I am in absolute disbelief, and I say straight up, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ I suddenly feel like I’m in a reality show where they withdraw all electronic privileges and see how long before you crack. And she gets all shrill and she’s saying, ‘What difference does it make? You have a perfectly decent landline! A phone is a phone is a phone!’ And I say, ‘Yes, but all my friends only contact me on my mobile!’ and she shrieks, ‘Well, I don’t know what kind of friends they can be if they’re that fussy!’ To which I think, Well, yes, point taken, they are not the greatest friends in the world but they’re all I have currently. And then she says, ‘If you’re really that desperate, there’s a spot up on the Ridge where you can sometimes get reception.’ And I say, ‘Where is this Ridge? Can I walk there?’ And she says, ‘Oh God, no, you’ll have to drive—that’s what I mean, you’d have to be desperate.’

Not wishing to sound paranoid, but I really get the feeling she doesn’t like me.

Anyway, we calm down and we chat about other things, and I tell her how much I enjoyed the chicken casserole and that seems to please her, so by the end of it we’re quite civil with each other. And then I come home and I get in the car and I drive straight up to the Ridge.

The Ridge is this spot high up overlooking the Reservoir, where, judging by the amount of empty vodka cruisers lying about, Talbingo’s teenagers (not that I’ve seen any) go to party, or maybe just go to try to make contact with the outside world. It’s a little bit eerie because the sun is getting low by now, and it’s very deserted and some strange bird is making these odd cries that spook the bejesus out of me. I take a few steps towards the edge and I peer over. And I think, Fuck, it’s a long way down, because way, way below, there’s the water. Why isn’t there some kind of railing? What stops those drunken teenagers from plummeting over? But anyway, I find a nice rock and I sit down and I look at my phone and, seriously, there is a tiny bar or two of reception wavering away. It’s a very dicey thing, and it seems to entirely depend on a critical set of climatic conditions because it changes by the moment. So I sit there and I think, Who am I going to call?

And for a moment I feel this sudden intense rush of loneliness, because there is no one, no one I really want to talk to right now except Doc, and I can’t very well call up Doc just because I’m lonely. I mean, he always says to call him if I need anything, but can I just ring him up because I’m sad?

I know I should call Mum and let her know I’m okay, but for some reason I just don’t feel like talking to her, so I figure I’ll call her tomorrow. And I think about Josh. Once upon a time I probably would have called Josh, but ever since he started going out with Delores or whatever the fuck her name is, things aren’t the same between us. I get the distinct impression he is Establishing Boundaries with me, as per Delores’s instructions. Quite often, especially after 8pm, he just won’t take my call anymore. Well, in the words of the great song, Josh: ‘Fuck you, and uh, fuck her too.’

So then I think about my various girlfriends, and finally I call Sally because even though she really upset me with the Harry the Harelip debacle, she’s still probably the one I like best. I mean, she’s at least funny, some of the time anyway. And of course, it’s not the same since the bub came along, and now she’s had to go back to work to pay off the mortgage of their stupid big house, but I still feel like, underneath it all, she is actually there for me. Anyway, whatever, after several attempts, it finally connects: she doesn’t answer and it goes through to voicemail.

So I leave a message, very jokey ha-ha about things, and tell her next time you’d better bloody well pick up, you stupid moll. Then I hang up, get the lonely rush again (tears pricking, manage to fight them back, take a few big breaths) and then I suddenly think, It’s Friday evening! What the hell, I’m going to drink wine! And that thought suddenly cheers me up immensely. So I drive back into Talbingo and stop at the Talbingo General Store—which is licensed, fortunately— and buy myself a bottle of Jacob’s Creek sav blanc and a packet of salt and vinegar chips. Which was dinner.

I’m suddenly buggered. Also drunk. Off to bed.

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Shirley Barrett
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