Counting the Cobwebs

Kathleen Jamie

Under the gutter of our house are many cobwebs, each attached at a slightly different angle to the wall. It’s an east-facing wall, so on sunny mornings the cobwebs are alight. A whole quarter of cobwebs, like an Eastern bazaar or a medieval marketplace with all the cobblers, all the spice sellers, all the drapers together in the same alley. The biggest measured about a handspan and a half. A pianist’s handspan. I wondered if the spiders were related, a family group.

In the house behind me, my husband was ill and rapidly getting worse. He’d had a temperature of 40° for four days now. He sweated at night, and slumbered by day. When he slept, and when the children were at school or nursery, a rare, spacious, elegant air came over the house. I sat on the step – you enter our house on the upper floor, via an outside staircase – in the late summer sun and noticed the bright cobwebs under the gutter. I looked at the cobwebs and the tiny flies adrift in the morning air, and I remember thinking that some of the flies would surely find their way into the cobwebs. I noticed, or rather felt, the sun intensifying and fading on the stone wall, and for a moment remembered the contractions of labour. Greenfly and cobwebs. When I went in and put my head round the bedroom door to check on Phil, I watched for a moment the light refracted by our old window, which formed a rippling silent pond on the bedroom ceiling.

He was hot, half-asleep, his back to me. He asked only for more water. His skin had a grey-yellow pallor. The doctor had looked at him in silence for a long moment, then shaken his head. We knew, from tests urgently processed, that Phil’s blood was destroying itself. ‘We’ve got to get to the bottom of this.’

When the phone rang, I jumped. It was our GP, giving instructions about the hospital, the number of a ward, the name of a professor. I went to help Phil get ready, and make arrangements to have the children collected after school.

Neither of us had ever been to the hospital before. It was like an international airport. We entered a shopping mall, with opticians and hairdressers and cafés. As in an airport, destination boards were suspended over our heads, and arrows pointed to wide corridors leading towards Assisted Conception, School of Anaesthesia, Phlebotomy Unit, Haematology. We walked slowly along one of these corridors, a distance of perhaps half the length of our garden, until Phil collapsed. I got a wheelchair from the front desk and valiantly we found our way to where we had been sent.

In a small consulting room, screened by a half-drawn curtain, the senior nurse explained that although this ward was part of the oncology unit, not everyone here had cancer. She brought a fan into the room, plugged it in, switched it on. We learned new words: ‘pyrexic’. Phil lay back on the narrow bed. The door opened often as junior doctors and nurses entered and opened drawers and plastic tubs to take out phials and needles, tubes, latex gloves. One of them took several samples of Phil’s blood.

The consultant was a brisk woman in her fifties. She was crisply dressed, in a blouse, tailored hounds-tooth skirt, Italian shoes. Slowly Phil sat up, and pulled off his T-shirt. Already his body had lost some of his carpenter’s muscle-tone and taken on a submissive slump. Leaning behind him across the bed, the doctor placed her stethoscope at precise points on his back, and began to listen. As she listened, her eyes disengaged. She folded herself into the stethoscope, in towards Phil’s back, attending the way musicians do when they’re tuning their instruments.

Then she began concentrating on an area midway down his right side. She was tracking something. Moving the stethoscope an inch to the left, an inch to the right, then back again, as if comparing two notes. Then suddenly she was satisfied, and leaned back and tugged the stethoscope out of her ears.

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