My husband Kamal is in the Healing Room with a patient. It’s Betty Griffiths, cancer of the oesophagus. I don’t have to peer around the doorway to know what he’s doing. He’ll be hovering his hands about three inches above her throat. He’ll be chanting and every few minutes he will shake and sigh. Betty will have her eyes closed and she’ll be silently praying to God or even, and it has been known, to Kamal. She’ll be hopeful. They’re all hopeful. That’s why they come here. They have to be.
The phone rings and I snatch at it. “Hello, the Healing House.”
A man asks for an appointment. I want to put the phone down on him, to clear the line just in case the hospital is calling with the test results. Instead I flick through the appointments book on the desk.
“Our next available appointment is 20th April at 3pm.”
The man’s words come out in a rushed, muffled string and I have to ask him to repeat himself.
“Don’t you have anything sooner?” he says, the emphasis on sooner.
I don’t have to ask him what’s wrong; it’s there in his voice. It’ll be terminal, whatever it is. A few years ago I would have felt a terrible rush of sympathy for him and an ache between my ribs. Right now I just feel wretched. I want to tell him to get chemotherapy and if he already has and it hasn’t worked, to put down the phone and book himself a holiday or write letters, an autobiography, something to leave behind while he still can. What I don’t want is for him to put his faith in my husband, but I can’t destroy his hope, even though mine has ebbed.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “That’s the earliest appointment we’ve got but we could always call you if another patient cancels.”
“Could you? I’d really appreciate that.”
I write his name and phone number in the book, then scribble them onto an index card and place it at the bottom of the tower of cards in the drawer. There must be fifty patients requesting emergency appointments and there will be cancellations because, inevitably, no matter how much they believe, people die. And there’s that ache again and I just want to cry.
Kamal is beside me, his broad nose moist, his orange bandana dark with sweat at the sides of his brow, his white robe slightly crumpled. I want to throw my arms around him and drag him off to hospital so that it can just be the two of us – Maggie and Kamal – getting help. But I can’t.
“How’s Mrs Griffiths?”
Kamal clasps his hands together and thumps the air above his head. “Her tumour, it’s shrinking.”
I look down, unable, or unwilling, to acknowledge the look in his eyes.
“Did she finally decide to have the chemotherapy?”
“Yes, despite my advice, but I’m fighting the poison they’re pumping inside her and I’m winning. Her nausea has decreased.”
I nod, but say nothing. We can talk at length about Jasha’s new job and Minal’s new boyfriend, about the Sixties, the music festivals and the psychic healing seminars, but we don’t talk about whether Kamal can cure cancer.
“Who’s my next patient?” he asks.
“Mr Edwards. He’s got a bent finger. It broke several years ago and has never regained its normal shape.”
“He’s a reporter, writing a piece for Pennsylvania Times.”
Kamal raises his eyebrows and smiles wryly.
The reports from the press have been varied. Some of the reporters, particularly the American ones, have heaped praise on him. They claim he’s healed their skin conditions, headaches and back pain. They’ve called him the next great hope in alternative medicine. Last year the Indian reporters called him a Holy Man. The British Press have been less kind. They say he gives false hope to those who have none.
“Could you show him through?” asks Kamal.
He leans forward and kisses me gently on the mouth. I smile up at him. It is times like this that I cherish, moments when I can still see the man I married.
“I love you,” I say.
Kamal reaches down and strokes my cheek. “What prompted that?”
I shrug. “Nothing.”
“I love you too, and please don’t worry Maggie, everything will be fine.”
When Kamal leaves the reception desk I wander into the waiting room. Four pairs of eyes look hopefully up at me. We’re running late as usual. Kamal won’t leave a patient session until he is sure he’s done all he can.
A young man in his early thirties, dressed in a suit and tie with impeccably styled hair, stands up. He holds out his hand and I notice that the little finger of his right hand is curled over itself while the rest of his fingers are straight.
“Pleased to meet you,” he says. “Could we have a quick word, before I go in?”
I’m used to this. The reporters always want to get the wife’s point of view.
“Come through to reception,” I say. “We may be interrupted but I can give you five minutes.”
Mr Edwards nods and I lead him into the white walled room, decorated with a photo of Yogi Ramacharaki, Buddhist prayer flags and the smiling photos of those Kamal has cured – the smiles that make him so proud.
Mr Edwards pulls a chair up to the desk and takes a notebook and a Dictaphone out of his pocket.
“Do you mind if I record this?”
I shake my head and watch as he licks the tip of a finger and flicks through his pad.
“Okay,” he says, leaning forward, crossing one leg over the other, “how did you and your husband meet?”
“We were attending a psychic healing seminar in the late Sixties,” same words, same tone as normal. “We were both interested in alternative healing.”
“But you chose not to continue your career while your husband did? Can I ask why?”
“We had children. I felt it was important to devote my time to them.”
The reporter scribbles something next to the question and looks intently back at me.
“And how do you feel about your husband being called a Holy Man?”
I open my mouth to speak and then close it again. I try to phrase an answer in my head, and then rephrase it, aware of the desk clock ticking.
“It’s a title that carries a lot of responsibility,” I say finally.
“And do you believe that your husband can cure people of terminal cancer?”
I look at the door, the reporter taps his pen against his teeth.
“I am very supportive of my husband.”
“So is that a yes or a no?”
I clear my throat and stand up. “You should go in. We’re running late and it’s really not fair on the other patients if we delay them any more than we have to.”
“But,” says the reporter, “if you could just…”
I force a smile and put my hand on the reporter’s shoulder and gentle angle him towards the Healing Room.
“Kamal is waiting for you.”
The hospital finally calls at 4:30pm, just as I’m about to call the next patient in.
“This is Mr Phillips from the Royal Alexander,” says the voice on the phone. “Could I please speak to Mr Kamal Nehru?”
I hurry out of reception and into the Healing Room, the phone in my hand. Kamal is sitting in a wicker chair by the window, his eyes closed, sunlight streaming through the gaps in the blinds and streaking his face.
“Kamal,” I say, “it’s the surgeon.”
My husband opens his eyes slowly and looks up at me. He seems to study my face for an age before he finally reaches out an arm and opens his hand for the phone.
“Hello,” he says, “this is Mr Nehru.”
I crouch by the chair and watch him as he listens to whatever it is the surgeon is saying. His eyes are fixed on the blinds, his lips closed, his expression unreadable. He’s not jiggling his leg or fiddling with his hair.
“So that’s that,” he says finally and then, “Good luck to you too Mr Phillips.”
“Well?” I ask, taking the phone from his hand. “Can they remove the tumour?”
For a second I think I see something, a glimmer of disappointment in his eyes, but then it is gone.
“No,” he says.
“So you’ll change your mind? You’ll have the chemotherapy?”
My husband reaches out and strokes my hair. His touch is slow, weighty. It feels as though he is trying to wipe the fear from my mind and it’s infuriating.
“No,” he says again.
I grab at his hand, squeeze it hard between mine. “You have to.”
“I don’t,” he says, with that beatific Holy Man tone I’ve come to resent so much. It’s not him, it’s not my husband that looks at me with an expression so blank, so empty that it makes me want to grab him by the shoulders and shake him back into himself.
“People believe in you, Kamal. I believe in you, but you can’t cure cancer. I’ve watched and I’ve hoped for years, but people have died. They keep dying.”
“I wasn’t strong enough for them. I didn’t try hard enough. I can try harder. Look at Mrs Griffiths. She will get well.”
“If she gets well,” I say, throwing his hands away from me and standing up, “it’s because she’s receiving chemotherapy. Chemotherapy, Kamal.”
“Chemotherapy is poison.”
“It could save your life.”
“My patients believe in me. They need me to lead by example.”
“They don’t need you to die.”
“They believe I am a Holy Man.”
I want to thump Kamal square in the jaw. Instead I pick up a marble paperweight from the bookcase beside me and hurl it across the room. It makes contact with a display case and glass splinters into the air and falls to the floor. A golden statue of Buddha topples onto its side.
“You are a fool,” I say, “a stupid, old fool who has started to believe his own press.”
Kamal stands up, walks to the other side of the room and puts the statue the right way up. I run after him, grab hold of his hands and press my nails into his palms. I won’t let him block me out.
“You are my husband and you are going to die and you’ll leave us, your family, behind. We need you too.”
There is silence as we stare at each other. I will not look away.
“Hope isn’t enough anymore,” I say finally.
Kamal looks down. His shoulders sag and his hands go limp in mine.
“Please,” he says, “please don’t make me afraid.”
The quake in his voice breaks me and I stroke his hair, sliding the bandana from his forehead so it drops to the ground.
Kamal makes no attempt to pick it up.
When he looks up at me there are tears in his eyes.
“Help me, Maggie.”
I put my arms around my husband and pull him to me, willing my energy into him. It is my turn to heal.
(published by American literary magazine ‘QWF’ in 2008)
(c) CL Taylor 2008