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.

I drove home alone, back across the bridge over the Tay. The tide was out, exposing long tear-shaped sandbanks. I took the minor road, the scenic route high above the shining water. Soon it would be time to pick up the kids, and to explain to them why their father had vanished, and how relieved I felt that he was being properly looked after. But first I went out into the garden. Our garden is long and thin. Three years ago Phil planted a beech hedge half its length, which has filled out from spindly saplings into a thickness of bright green. I passed the young rowan tree and reached the door of the larch shed he built last summer. It has stained glass windows and a shingle roof, and above its door he hung a plaque of a green man, fronds of plum trees issuing from his mouth. Beyond the shed is the plum orchard; beyond that the old apple trees, one with a half-finished tree-house he was building before he fell ill.

If the alveoli from our lungs were unpacked and spread out, they would cover the area of a tennis court, 78 feet by 27. Or from the wall to the hedge, breadthwise, and the bench to the shed, longways – an area the mellow sun was now casting with long afternoon shadows. I stood with my back to the shed and surveyed the area, tried to imagine, what? What are we to imagine, the breathing area of our lungs, the 600 million alveoli? Spread out like what? Tarpaulin? Frost? A fine, fine cobweb, exchanging gases with the open air? And what of our nerves? There are hundreds of miles of neurons in our brains. I tried to imagine this, all that nerve, all that awareness and alertness spread out around me. All that listening. This is how we travel through the world.

That night, at bedtime, I took our son’s Child’s World Encyclopedia and showed the kids pictures of lungs, of blood, of nerves. They never asked if their dad might die. Perhaps it never occurred to them that people who fall ill may die.

The X-ray is an image that has to be drawn out of ourselves that we might see it in front of our eyes and so take it within ourselves again. Out of the lungs and into the brain. From Phil’s hospital bed we could see the lightbox where the doctors examine X-rays. There was a shape, a shadow on the right lung. Two doctors in white coats stood side by side pointing to it. One glanced back over her shoulder at us. This was his pneumonia, this was what the examining doctor could hear when she listened so intently. I recalled her professional satisfaction: ‘I would be very interested to see this gentleman’s chest X-ray.’

The image of the disease, though, is an image of the way things were some time ago. Pneumonia leaves a scar behind, then moves on. The shadow we can see on the X-ray, like the images our telescopes receive from the distant Universe, is an image of something already in the past.

Pneumonia, nowadays, is easily dealt with. Phil’s real problem is that it has caused him to produce antibodies which are wreaking havoc on his red blood cells. That’s why he had been sent to this ward, haematology. Perhaps even now someone was attending to a smear of his blood, focusing through a microscope.

On the ward, no one was sitting up. There was a man with sickle-cell anaemia; all I could see of him were his slim black feet sticking out from the sheet. Two of the other men were bald, perhaps as a result of chemotherapy. A third man slept most of the time, his back turned to his wife, who sat at his bedside, reading a paperback. When he died, without warning, the next day, Phil told me she’d cried: ‘Don’t leave me! Don’t leave me!’

When my mother was a child, during the Second World War, what few antibiotics could be manufactured were sent to the Front. When she contracted pneumonia, none were available. She was four, an only child. She told me this story perhaps three times when I was a child and once more, quite recently, when my own child, her grandson, himself turned four. We were in the café of the Queen Street Gallery in Edinburgh, conveniently close to the offices of the firm of solicitors where she worked. My mother was her stylish, professional self. A short while after that, when she was 60, she had a severe, paralysing stroke. But at that last telling, I understood. I had by then stood in the doorway of a baby’s room, leaned over a cot, and listened for the small, blessed exchange of air in his new lungs.

My mother lived in a small tenement flat. A room and kitchen. Her father was away at the war. The flat – I remember it well – had a sink in the window and a bed in the kitchen recess. It smelled of town gas and coal. The window on the common stair was still painted in wartime blackout, right into the 1960s. There was no bathroom, the toilet was down at the turn of the stair. Two households shared it. There was no garden. Clothes were dried on a pulley which you operated from the window on the common stair. My mother remembers the doctor being called. She told me two things about him. One, that he never sent a bill, and two, that he never entered the room. Not from snobbery or fear of contagion. It was how he made his diagnosis, how he gauged the severity of the disease: he stood in the door, listening.

For three weeks she lay in the last bed in the adult ward for chest diseases, next to the window. Her mother and grandmother walked out of town to see her every day. Twice they went during the night, when a message was somehow sent into town and up the turning stair to their door, before the age of telephones for the working classes, that she wasn’t expected to live till morning. What she remembers, what has lived with her all these years, was that her mother and grandmother were not allowed to see her. Or rather, she was not allowed to see them. A screen or curtain was pulled round the bed, and they were hidden behind it. All except their shoes. My mother remembers catching sight of their sturdy, wartime shoes below the hem of the screen, as they stood there listening to her breathe. When she was on the mend, and allowed to sit outside in the fresh air, away from the town gas and coal, the nurses dressed her up in their starched cuffs and hats. This is what she remembers. That a display of emotion, a sudden fit of crying, would cost her her life. Emotional control as survival mechanism: that is what I, as her daughter, think of as her legacy from that disease. It never occurred to me that Phil might have pneumonia, because I knew my mother’s story so well, about the doctor standing in the doorway, listening to her hauling breath.

The next day, I took the children to visit their dad, but we left quickly. Some of the ambulatory patients were wandering around, hooked up to a vertical web of tubing they trundled along beside them on wheels, as if their own circulatory systems were external to them. I began to wonder if we fear hospitals not because they present us with death, and mortality, but because of the opposite: un-death, sterility. Plastic sacs of blood and saline dripped slowly through tubes into limp arms. I was scared that the kids, who were already bored with their father, and who were sliding around the floor, might cause one of these people and their apparatus on wheels to trip over in a tangle of blood and plastic tubing and frail, mortal, pyjama’d body. On the way out again, they wanted to show me a bird. We were walking along the wide corridor which would take us back to the shopping mall and the covered walkway to the carpark. There were windows that overlooked a flat asphalt roof, and on the roof was a bird, a starling, lying on its back.

‘It’s dead! Look, Mummy! It’s dead!’

‘No it isn’t! Mummy, look! It’s moving its legs! But it will soon be dead.’

I pulled them away from the window and past the door to the School of Anaesthesia, towards the car.

‘Who do you pray to?’ a friend asked me once.

‘No one,’ I replied. ‘Absolutely nothing.’ We were eating fish and chips. I remember that I felt not adolescent defiance but puzzlement. I never pray. Why should one pray? What do you do? Supplicate? Haggle? Haggle with God?

Maybe if my child was behind a screen and mortally ill, I’d pray, but it would be self-conscious. Hope is an appalling feeling. We pray, I guess, to displace for a moment the crush of hope.

I don’t believe in God. I believe in spiders, alveoli, starlings. If my friend ever asks me again I might suggest that prayer-in-the-world isn’t supplication, but the quality of attention we can bring to a task, the intensity of listening, through the instruments we have designed for the purpose. It might be the outermost reaches of the Universe, the innermost changes at the bottom of a lung, the words on a page, or a smear of blood on a slide. I think it’s about repairing and maintaining the web of our noticing, a way of being in the world. Or is that worship?

I couldn’t have told my friend that, then, over our chips, but I carried the question around with me for a while. Really, I carried it around until Phil was so ill, then berated myself for not praying. Could I explain to Phil that, though there was a time, maybe 24 hours, when I genuinely believed his life to be in danger, I had not prayed for him? But I had noticed, more than noticed, the cobwebs, and the shoaling light, and the way the doctor listened, and the flecked tweed of her skirt, and the sickle-cell man’s slim feet.

‘What about you?’ I asked my friend. ‘Who do you pray to?’

He took another chip and shrugged. ‘Dunno. But she’s female. Great Mother, or something.’

We went for a walk up Ormiston Hill, the children and me. The land rises steeply in a series of terraces. It’s rough grazing, with banks of whin. The kids, in their blue wellies, struggled along well through the long grass. We could see the town below us. ‘There’s Ben’s house!’ they said. ‘There’s the school!’

The park, the river – almost the whole compass of their lives. Downriver, we could see Dundee, where their father was in hospital. The Firth of Tay is wide here. The tide’s inhalations and exhalations move vast tonnages of water. Water retreats and exposes sandbanks. Upstream the water folds itself into the hills. It pulls into itself the light of the sky, moves through the land like a bright coil. We ate some brambles. They clambered over a five-bar gate, noted the ditch which is all that remains of the Iron Age fort built on the hilltop, and passed through the wicket gate onto the summit. I tried to show them how to treat the jaggy whin. ‘Just go, don’t be scared. Just barge into it. It won’t hurt half as much as you think. It’s your own fear that’s stopping you.’ But they baulked and demanded to be lifted over.

At the summit I sat and looked at the countryside, while the kids, having demanded the biscuits we’d brought, scrambled on the summit cairn. The hill’s not high, only a thousand feet or so, but we could see forestry plantations and mountains to the west, farmland and lochs to the south and east. A visitor from Texas once told us our landscape was human-scale. The wind packed itself into our lungs and hair.

Some of the rocks on the cairn were loose, and Duncan moved one in his scrambling, disturbing a long-legged spider. Duncan hesitated for half a moment, then, deliberately, before I could stop him, he rolled the stone and then lifted it up again. The spider was still alive, but three of its legs had been crushed. With the other five it scrambled and scrambled on empty air.

The nurse who came to scoosh the syringe full of saline and antibiotics into the little faucet in Phil’s wrist had done this task so often she barely needed to look. The antibiotics were already taking effect. She was talking amiably about books, what Phil was reading. He was well enough to read now. She had just finished Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. She looked back over her shoulder, laughing with the jolly tea-lady, as she scooshed the big syringe.

Attend! I wanted to say to her, though she hardly needed to. Here, I’ll do it. I’ll kill the infection. I’ll do it with attention. Prayerfully, if you like.

The bed where the woman had read her paperback and the man had died was occupied again. The thin man with sickle-cell had been visited by his granddaughter, but she was only six or so, and had to be taken away, screaming, from the sacs of blood and tubes and hairless people and trolleys and X-rays and needles.

We went, en famille, to collect Phil on the Sunday. Six days’ intravenous antibiotics had the infection on the run. His red-blood count was rising. He’d had, he was told, ‘cold aglutinin disease’. We walked Phil slowly along the corridor which would lead to the shopping mall, the hospital doors, and back into the air of the outside world. The kids skipped about, demanding attention he wasn’t yet well enough to give. As we passed the window, they said: ‘Daddy, we’ve got something to show you. Look!’

‘What is it?’

‘A dead bird!’

Its chest cavity was burst open. Sparrowhawk, carrion-crows or something had eaten away at the flesh of its breast, its ribs, its lungs.

‘You did well,’ I said to my mother, ‘to survive that pneumonia, just a bairn and no antibiotics.’

She was sitting in the chair she used daily now, after her stroke, the sudden escape of blood into the synapses of her brain. She nodded. ‘I can still remember the smell of the poultices. I was so weak, they had to bring me home in a baby’s pram.’

If they’d had to bring her home in a box, none of this would have happened. Her life would not have been lived, nor my sister’s, nor my brother’s, nor my own, nor those of my brother’s daughters, nor my own daughter’s, nor my son’s. It’s unimaginable: you can’t think yourself out of the world.

Writing this, I wanted to look again at the cobwebs. I hadn’t noticed them with such intensity since. Not the webs nor anything else. I went down to the door and looked up at the gutter, but the webs were hard to make out in the flat afternoon light. I could see, though, that they were tattered, and hung with fireweed seeds. We’d had our first frosts. Perhaps the spiders were hibernating. Do spiders hibernate? I went indoors and looked them up in my own encyclopedia. The entry had been written by someone obviously enchanted by spiders, someone who must have spent hours watching, noticing, attending to spiders. The young hatch and then disperse ‘by climbing onto a vantage point, spinning a silk thread and waiting for the wind to catch it and whisk them away’.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences