The Odds

The numbers always work

Elizabeth was tall and thin, like a model, and Gary was robust and solid like a marine. Together they were the genetic ideal of modern western society, and as far as any dumpy, flab fighting, pasty skinned neighbour was concerned, appeared not to have to work at it. Elizabeth bought her clothes in Florence when attending annual scientific conferences, and Gary sported the kind of casual elegant style of any man who habitually drank and worked with actors. Together, in public at least, to those whose lives mundanely consisted of nine to five office jobs, they looked like they might have emerged from the pages of some celebrity-obsessed glossy magazine. That would be enough for most of their neighbours to hold ambiguous views of them but worse, Elizabeth was a scientist who read large quantities of fiction, and Gary was a scriptwriter who read large quantities of scientific literature. Together they were The Renaissance, and woe unto anyone who crossed them, and woe unto anyone who strayed from facts to superstition and conjecture.
“We fell in love with the house,” said their next-door neighbour, a podgy banker, prone to wearing a visible vest beneath his work shirt, “It was expensive though and we did some soul searching. But, we just knew that we were destined for this place.”
Gary could never resist rising to the occasion: “You mean, you were divinely inspired to buy your house? It had nothing to do with a good position, a fair price or the fact that the neighbourhood was obviously prestigious?”
Anyone sitting around the Simons’ dinner table, after a couple of glasses of wine, would always step into this quagmire and find themselves roundly not taken at face value. A quick “God knows” may merely be a conversational tic, but to Gary and Elizabeth, it always raised pitying eyebrows. Consequently, dinner with the Simons could be a trying ordeal and few people hurried to return the compliment, a fact usually taken to mean a lack of moral fibre by the Simons who became increasingly certain that few people were worth time and effort.
They had not always been so prickly but for reasons they could never fathom, other people seemed determined to criticise them and find, despite their outward appearance, paucity and sadness in their lives. Gary worked in a cluttered little room full of books and stacks of files for the many failed projects he had worked on, as well as a couple of photographs of himself being handed prizes he had also managed to win. And Elizabeth worked twelve to fifteen-hour days in an ill ventilated badly designed laboratory. Both facts were seen as a failure of Gary to produce enough money, and a failure of Elizabeth to act like a real wife. Real people had jobs rather than projects, were capable of boredom, and sought the company of their own sex. And real celebrities, so people seemed to believe, never had to do paper work, wash their underpants, or work. Those who did were ersatz, if not outright failures. Therefore, the Simons were nobodies who pretended to be somebodies, which made them worse than nothing.
And worse still, they were couch potatoes. Even their most intellectual, career minded friends were horrified that their living room was dominated by a huge TV set and a large sofa in which Gary and Elizabeth took great pleasure from “slobbing out” and eating large packets of crisps while watching DVD’s of their near namesake, The Simpsons. It was warm, untidy, and now that they had the garden, full of potted plants that spilled wild life of various unsavoury kinds across the floor. If it were not for their weekly cleaner, they would live in mud-splattered squalor. Outsiders found this casualness alarming, and doubly because of their extremely expensive designer clothes and their looking like a couple straight out of advertisements for luxury cars. The Simons were people whose twisted priorities always were always in need of correcting because they seemed so smug, self-contained, and happy despite their squalor and failure, despite their uppity airs, despite their scorning common prejudices, despite their hatred of bad taste and inexplicable pleasure in what they justified as merely low taste. They acted as if they were perfect and that their imperfections proved it. They never considered themselves confused and inconsistent, but everyone else did and pity was the great weapon that kept the Simons firmly and comfortably in their place. This way, others could cope with them.
Consequently, it was with some pleasure when it was miraculously known throughout the neighbourhood that Mrs Elizabeth Simons had found a piece of soft tissue in her neck that had turned rock hard.

“You know what that means?” hummed the phone lines.
“It means they won’t be so smug now!”
There was sympathy. What greater pleasure could there be than to offer one’s condolences to people who thought themselves better than one, or worse, did not think themselves better than one because they were so perfect not to even consider the niceties of the communal pecking order! They did not go to church. They did not have children. They did not confide in others. They smiled and held hands in public, despite their no longer being teenagers, or anywhere near that age group, which in itself must surely rank as reason to be miserable. They did not involve themselves in any of the local events though they did visit the local public houses.
“Nothing of any value has come from any religion, no matter how ludicrous. Everything that we treasure has come about in opposition to all religious thought: freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, science and technology, sexual freedom, women’s rights, men’s rights for that matter, the right to vote, Rock n’ Roll, decent beer, capitalism, and even socialism, if you are so inclined. Religion has been and still is against it all!” Mr. Simons paused for a quick gulp of beer before embarking upon another tyrade.
“Well you can have too much of a good thing…”
“Religions all claim the exclusive truth. And are based upon nothing…”
“Whatever you say Gary, you’re paying for the next round.”
Even Gary’s habitual smile was balanced by a hint of good-humoured cynicism, self-deprecation and the occasional tinge of imperfect glee at talking to win rather than merely converse. And he always bought his round! He was irritatingly difficult to dislike despite his self-opinionatedness and that in itself set people’s teeth on edge. That was the trouble. There was no trouble with Mr and Mrs Simons!
They were city people who had moved out to the rural suburbs to find a bit more space and make it easier for Elizabeth’s commute to the New University. They were used to the talk of London’s Soho pubs and bars, which usually concerned media scandal and political outrage rather than dreams of Lottery wins, the sexual inclination of the local Church of England vicar - a pooftah by all accounts - and the workings of providence in general. But they accepted it with good grace despite their missing some of the juice of their Inner City life.
Even so, they could still grab some of it. When dining at The Groucho Club in Soho, Gary heard, “Cherie Blair turns up at the reception looking like she’s just been rogered by her driver, and makes a bee line for the Director General and says one word to him: ‘Cunt!’”
“Well, it’s nice to know that this great democracy of ours is run by deep thinkers,” said Gary, Armaniid up for the occasion and seated next to the well-known celebrity actor, writer, broadcaster, Stephen Fry, or “Steve” as he called him.
“But the DG says, ‘No thank you. But it’s very kind of you to offer!’”
When Gary told her that conversation, Elizabeth laughed so much that she nearly choked to death. If she had still been a lecturer at Kings College Hospital she might have been able to join him for lunch. She missed that. They both missed it, but at the same time wanted the space of their new house and had become tired of the city routine. In theory they wanted the theatres, the restaurants, the buzz, but the reality was that they spent more time in their apartment than on the London streets and all their old friends were married, with demanding children and had disappeared to the suburbs themselves. They no longer felt the need to be in the middle of it all, all the time, and despite the odd gem of conversation, the initial excitement of creativity and research had turned into embittered battles for grants or slices of development funding. So, middle-aged and a little weary, they both wanted to get back to basics again, him to write the novel instead of endlessly schmoozing for film projects, and she to run her own research team even if it was with the dubious facilities of the New University.
However, now, instead of making headway with the big thumping hard back biographies they bought to read at Christmas, they were reading up the facts about lumps in the thyroid gland and learning that there were a range of possibilities, most of which were happily benign. But it did mean that Elizabeth should have the lump examined in order to assess whether it was a common lump, or something a little special. They were set up for the fall down, which Mrs Simons’ sister noticed, and said to Elizabeth, “I shall pray for you.”
“She said what?”
“She does it just to creep me out.”
“The last thing we need to think right now is that we’re so desperate we need her casting spells!”
“She just likes the drama.”
“I prefer my drama on the stage, where it should be.”
On closer examination the lump proved something a little special and immediately the telephone began ringing.
“I’m sorry to hear you’re wife’s having some problems. If there’s anything I can do.”
“No there’s nothing.”
“It must all be very worrying for you.”
“We don’t worry, we just get on with things.”
“I know how you must feel. We had a big health scare the other year. You don’t want to know what we went through. It was hell. A lump as big as a melon!”
“Sounds like an ovarian cyst.”
“That’s right. How did you know?”
“Women get lumps that big in their ovaries. It’s unpleasant, but not unknown.”
“Well, my wife can tell you a few things. She thought she was dying. I mean, I turned to the bottle. Got drunk and was hitting things. Couldn’t believe that we were chosen for this sort of suffering, know what I mean?”
“It’s life threatening but not fatal if treated.”
“Luckily we caught it in time. Put us under a lot of strain. Tears. Arguments. I mean, she blamed me she did. And what was I to do with it? I swear I suffered more than she did in the end. Put us right through the ringer. It changes your outlook I tell you.”
“I dare say it does.”
Gary could not see why it should change anyone’s outlook, but maybe it did. What concerned the Simons more was how it was that so many people knew what was going on. It could only have been gossip from a receptionist at the doctors. So much for confidentiality! It always irritated, though never amazed them, how corrupt and sleazy other people could be.
“We’ll have to tell your parents,” said Gary, “because they are bound to find out and think things are much worse.”
“And your parents? There are only six degrees of separation between each individual.”
“It only works if someone deliberately targets someone. We can forget about them for the time being. They live too far away and your sister would never call them.”
On even closer examination, the consultant probing the lump with a fine needle and drawing off whatever fluid could be found, the lump proved to be a little more special than they bargained for. It was not a cyst therefore it was something else. At this point the odds were looking a little less in their favour. The information they gathered on the Internet and through the doctor indicated that there was a ninety per cent chance that the lump was benign. This meant that for one in ten of people, the lump was cancerous. Ninety per cent was psychologically manageable but one in ten sounded uncomfortably bad odds. This was when the Simons panic button began to quiver and even more e-mails and phone calls arrived from people demanding to be kept informed. How they sensed this moment was something neither Gary nor Elizabeth could understand, except that people did know a test was afoot, and perhaps they also knew Gary and Elizabeth’s tendency to keep their business strictly to themselves, presenting only the most polished look to the outside world. This was their way of being polite despite living in a culture become more and more impolite as people appeared keener and keener on confessing indecencies before a TV camera. Gary and Elizabeth could never see the pleasure others gained from knowing their favourite celebrity was addicted to amphetamine, abused alcohol, or indulged in pitiable sexual mania, all of which came under the one problem that nobody seemed to even consider seeking a cure for: bad taste.
“Don’t worry, we’ll let you know when we know anything.”
“If you need something…”
“We don’t need anything.”
“Have you asked the doctor about whether…”
“We’ve all the available information that we can know at the moment.”
“But maybe you should talk to…”
“She had breast cancer. This is a lump in the thyroid. It is quite different.”
“I can put you in touch with a real expert in these matters…”
“We have a real expert.”
“You can tell me…”
“There’s nothing to tell.”
Gary hated the assumption that because he did not know the answer to a question he was either hiding the truth or incompetent and should be more aggressively pursuing the surgeon for more information. Did he not strive to give the impression of competence, even if he felt horribly inadequate at all times but had decided long ago not to let that blight his life? He did not mind people seeing through the façade, so long as they did not think they were any better. “Give me some credit in these matters,” he thought. And because he was dealing with the local health service, everyone seemed to think that going private might be the more sensible option despite the fact that a private hospital would wait for the results of exactly the same test, probably analysed at exactly the same laboratory.
“Well, you never know do you? I mean, if you go private, they take more care of you. On the National Health though, well, they lose things don’t they?”
“Private or National Health, they use the same test facilities and none of the bottles contain the words ‘
Private: Priority!’”
“If it was my wife I would want the best, that’s all I’m saying.”
What seemed to be behind this apparent desire that he spend money on this problem was a strange assumption that men, and him being a man, had a natural tendency to put their wallet before their wife. He personally had a natural tendency to give his wallet to his wife and say, “buy whatever you want!” His failing was in the form of never being able to buy anything for her that she really liked, though she always thanked him for it before taking it back to the shop. It was one of their private jokes about themselves. It was a fact of their life that facts were hard to come by, but they did believe in facts and the last thing they needed were people trying to undermine his faith in facts. Facts gave them a sense of solidity where everything else failed.
“Have you tried alternative therapy? Non-invasive, non-toxic, a gentle and natural alternative to Western medicine?”
“It doesn’t work.”
“I know you have a closed mind about these matters, but these doctors don’t know everything. There are a lot of spiritual factors involved in these things.”
“It doesn’t work.”
“You have to give it a chance. There’s no harm in trying and if the lump doesn’t go away, then you can always go back to the doctor.”
“It’s a waste of time. And that could be fatal.”
“But it also helps in the healing process in conjunction with conventional medicine.”
“It’s bollocks.”
“You really should try and give these things a chance. You don’t know what you are playing with here.”
“I do know. The fact is that she has to undergo a nasty operation to remove part of her thyroid. The facts have it that if this were a benign growth it would probably be accompanied by low thyroid activity and she probably would not need an operation, merely hormone treatment. But since she shows no sign of low thyroid activity, and is of a risky age, and has been exposed to radiation over the course of thirty years working in laboratories, she needs to have the operation.”
“But you said yourself that there is a nine out of ten chance that the lump isn’t cancerous. So maybe if you tried something less drastic it would work. Operations are dangerous and they can’t put back what they take out!”
Gary knew the facts were a little fuzzy, but was it worth taking a one in ten risk of leaving a deadly tumour untreated?
“Not untreated! I’m not saying leave it untreated. I’m saying, investigate some alternative treatments.”
“There aren’t any with any scientific credentials. There is only one way of knowing whether it is cancerous or not, and that is to take it out and slice it up and look at it under the microscope. Then we have a number of options. Not so bad if it is not cancerous. Not so good if it is.”
“But scientists don’t know everything. You yourself say that.”
“They know when something doesn’t work.”
“You just think about what I’m saying, that’s all.”
A problem with facts for the Simons, despite their faith in them and apart from life being full of imponderables like whether turquoise was really blue or green, was that Elizabeth, being a scientist, knew how contingent these generalizations could be. If Professor so and so said something was a fact, Elizabeth, ever in the know, would raise her eyes and shake her head. So it had long been a rule of their lives that they avoid encouraging confused and uncritical thinking around them because it was so easy, so comforting, so disastrous and miserable to fall into it. Facts were contingent, but fantasy was not a solution, despite appealing to emotions. And the emotional who found contingency impossible and fantasy more acceptable were that way because their irrationality made their lives so miserable that all they could do was cry or laugh hysterically. Was this, they wondered, the source of the mysterious popular appeal of America’s hysterical, but not in the funny sense, Jim Carey or England’s remarkably bland TV hosts, Richard and Judy? Civilisation had its downs as well as its ups and for the Simons, rationality and critical testing of facts, were all that held back the barbarians.
The facts were now getting worrying. The last thing Gary or Elizabeth wanted was to be distracted from the cold, dispassionate, truth of what they confronted and so they took to monitoring all telephone calls to avoid having to listen to the advice of well-meaning people. Even so, there were some people they could not avoid.
“But on the Internet,” said Elizabeth’s sister, “It recommends that you have the whole thing taken out.” Their surgeon was a conservative with regards to the treatment of these lumps. Unlike some surgeons he preferred to do a partial thyroidectomy rather than carve the whole thing out. The doctor had decided to go with the odds and hoped that another operation would not be necessary.
“American surgeons chop it all out. Maybe they get paid more for doing that.”
“Of course they won’t get paid more!”
“Maybe their experience is different from our surgeon’s.”
“Maybe they know better!”
“Maybe they treat a different group of patients living in a different area, with different environmental factors!”
“But you might have come from an area of high environmental factors!”
“A lot of factors come into making one man cautious and another man gung ho. Our man is cautious.”
“Can you trust him?” 
This was something that Gary did not know. His wife trusted the surgeon. Being a lecturer in a medical school meant that she knew the surgeon’s reputation. But they both knew that one of her complaints about the University’ scientific establishment was that they were so cautious that they could never make any decision. Which made Gary wonder whether conservatism in this matter was the proper course or merely another example of the indecisive nature of provincials. But in science, they knew that the odds meant something, even if the layman often misinterpreted them. And if one was going to latch onto a cultural stereotype to undermine one's faith, one might as well latch onto a stereotype that boosted them as well: the surgeon was a little red-faced Irishman notorious in the hospital for his love of betting on the horses. Rather than a sign of a profligate, ill disciplined temperament, Gary and Elizabeth thought that perhaps he understood the odds not just at an intellectual level, but also an instinctual level. Their man was therefore not being timid, but just very shrewd at assessing the true odds.
“Unless of course he loses all the time?” said Elizabeth.
“Judging by the suit he’s wearing, I’d say he does pretty well.”
Even so, surges of panic rose up and the Simons privately entertained many irrational thoughts, but they never allowed them to run wild outside of their own private nightmares. Gary made a point of finding out what car the surgeon drove. He asked a nurse and she told him it was a motorbike, an old Triumph which the man, so Gary imagined, must have lovingly restored. Then he saw it for himself and decided that he must have bought it very cheap from a student who rescued it from a scrap heap. Elizabeth noticed that the surgeon wore a digital watch given away free at a petrol station and hoped that Gary would not notice because Gary had a thing about digital time blanding out the very fabric of existence, let alone it indicating a man a little strapped for cash. So when speaking to each other they stuck to the facts. They made it their policy to consider the odds and await the outcome of the tests. Which meant that Elizabeth had to endure a painful operation.
“Facts are our friends,” said Elizabeth to console Gary.
“These operations are routine,” said Gary to console Elizabeth.
“The thyroid is not very deep under the skin and apart from a slight risk to the vocal chords and a slight risk of choking on blood, a skilled surgeon can get the whole thing over and done with in an hour,” said Elizabeth cheerfully as Gary drove her to the hospital.
“You’ll be up and eating within twenty-four hours,” said Gary.
Elizabeth entered the hospital for the operation and despite nursing staff with rudimentary English, TV sets with no working controls, and a sad looking food menu, none of these things worried her. Gary and Elizabeth pretended that they were camping out. They had been in far worse hotels and had felt far worse on their many varied and expensive adventure tours. Compared to a hotel room in Siberia and a bout of food poisoning in Tashkent, this was a doddle. 
But it frightened Gary who hastily left Elizabeth to her fate, lest she think he even imagined it was the last time that they would see each other, and she gladly let him go because she had marking to do and what better time to find to do it when nothing else would interrupt? Gary went home also claiming he had to get some work done and tried to deal with the many people leaving frantic messages and ungrammatical e-mails demanding to know what was happening. His parents seemed to have a sixth sense that something was up.  "You seem to be very quiet. You must be very busy," said the e-mail. But Gary still did not tell them, or deal with any of the other messages, because right then the facts were fluid and he found that he could not work on anything but searching the Internet for more facts. 
He woke up early in the morning, contemplated phoning his wife, and then thought maybe she was still asleep. So he had his breakfast and then phoned only to find she had already gone for the operation. It crossed his mind that that might have been his very last chance to speak to her, but he quickly reviewed the facts. If the facts had said otherwise, he would have made damn sure that he was actually at the hospital. But the facts did not say otherwise. This was merely a routine operation. Unnerving, but not to be taken out of context and blown up into anything more than say a couple of clicks beyond an impacted wisdom tooth. His calm, helped her calm. Her calm helped his. And there was their entire life in a nutshell.
Gary was now under orders from Elizabeth’s sister, deciding, on Gary’s recommendation to take her long booked holiday in Miami rather than sacrifice it in the name of irritating Elizabeth with a visit, to purchase flowers in her name for his wife. He deeply resented having to do anything for anyone but his wife, and toyed with the idea of buying the most expensive flowers he could find, sending the sister the bill and not telling his wife they came from her! But then he decided that not sending her the bill was even better and simply buying the flowers in his name, with his money, just as he intended to do anyway, despite the fear that she would not like them. He considered that if anyone else wanted to send bloody flowers they could do it themselves and not expect him to upstage himself. But were roses suitable? It was the only flower he could think of that never seemed to fail. Lilies reminded him of funerals and carnations meant weddings and those little daisy things seemed to indicate pregnancy and so roses. But were they suitable this time? Would she think him odd? Nobody else in the hospital seemed to have roses. They had big bouquets plastered with “get well” cards. He just had a dozen roses.
Somewhere in an old box in a cupboard were the mildewed remnants of the first Valentine’s rose he bought and he wondered if he was the only man who had ever remembered that such things are saved, though never looked at again and if accidentally uncovered treated with amusement rather than heart warming sentiment. Photos fade, flowers fade, ornaments and clothes, crack, rot, get lost in transit and memories become garbled, jumbled messes with blanks where names and even faces are concerned. His grandmother, in her last ten years, repeatedly asked him: “Who are you to me?” Confusion was the end, no matter how one stocked the archives for some future moment when one supposedly had the time and inclination to sit and look back. One day he would wonder who that woman was in that photograph, or maybe, who that woman was sitting opposite him? And she would be just as clueless. He hoped he would remember to buy her some roses then.
The operation took a lot longer than anticipated and when Elizabeth was wheeled back into her room she did not look good. Her skin hung off her. It was a strange colour. And she had duct tap across her throat. She was crotchety. She was too hot. She felt sick. The nurses seemed bewildered by her demand to have a cold flannel put on her head to keep her cool and a plastic bag, in case of sickness, stuffed into her hand.  Keeping cool and worrying about where to vomit seemed very strange concerns but Gary understood. Keep cool and know where the sick bag is, was their refrain to each other whenever the frequent long haul flights they took, hit some turbulence. It amused him to know that even while barely conscious, Elizabeth stayed true to her colours.
However, Gary had imagined this scene as the one where he went to the bedside, clutching a bunch of roses, took his wife’s hand and they would both smile reassuringly at each other. But it was not quite like that. He did smile reassuringly. In reply, this wild insane glare came back at him. He was in the scene from a sci-fi movie where the hero discovers that the aliens have taken over the body of his wife. How anyone can become addicted to morphine was a mystery to Gary.
A few hours later the morphine wore off, the insane eyes softened, the sickness was replaced by pain and something more akin to his wife emerged. Gary decided to kill all the birds with one mobile phone. He phoned up her parents, sister, and friends and told them that his wife had had the operation, was OK and could say a few words to them. He gave the phone to her and she muttered a few things and they muttered the sort of depressing things that one never wants to hear but so many people mutter on cue.
“I’m so sorry that you’re not feeling well…”
Why they were sorry, he did not know. It was not their fault. But that was the way people reacted. They wanted a role in the drama but had no idea what the drama was all about so they played their part badly. And the fact that Elizabeth had managed to speak on the phone reassured him that there she was and everything was right.
Gary had anticipated that he would spend the morning checking that she was fine and then go home and try to do some work, but no matter that he knew she was functioning, there was no way that he was going to leave her alone in that state in that bleak place. Perhaps going private would have been better? At least the TV set in the room would have worked.
He stayed and read some women's magazines, looked out of the window, paced up and down a bit and gave Elizabeth a few sips of decent coffee that he had brought in a flask. He fell into making the sort of conversation that other people find horrendously pretentious when in earshot of the Simons. He discussed the nature of the late Ming society and the role Jesuits were trying to play in it and cheered her up when he checked her e-mail and found that she had another paper accepted for publication. These were the things that occupied their lives. Other people had pets, children, interior-decoration or tango lessons, but the Simons thrived on creating new facts or telling new fictions. This way they had some conception of the true odds they had to deal with. Gary’s business as usual good cheer was hard work, being largely one sided, with Elizabeth drifting in and out of the nothingness that remains when the personality switches off, and Gary wondered if there was better value in just breaking down and screaming and shouting and leaving all responsibility to other people. The noise would fill the emptiness, would bring those who heard within the cycle of life and suffering that so many people believed was all there was. Then he reasoned that the only reason others did that, was because they were too stupid to be able to make the right decisions and needed to signal for others to take over. Could he really trust others to know better than he did? From what he knew of other people, they were prone to irrationality and allowing emotions to make their decisions regardless of the facts of any matter. They seemed to think this made them somehow lovable, whereas most of the time it just made them irritating, and at worse despicable. The daily news was full of the explosions of the irrational, while all that was good, grew from the workings of the reasonable, the arguers, those who worked over their thoughts until they moved smoothly from premise to conclusion.
Eventually the surgeon arrived to tell his hopefully factual story. The operation had gone on for so long because they had found things in the lymph nodes that they did not wish to find. They had to test these and decide whether to go for the full dissection or stick with the current plan. They did a test and decided to stick with the plan.  But now they had to wait for the biopsy on the thyroid itself.
Gary recalled a piece of information that said that if there was cancer it was likely to affect the lymph nodes as well. It did not say, "every time," but the implication was that it would be rare if it did not. However, there are rare kinds of cancer that would not show up this way. And these were of the kind that one wanted to avoid at all costs. So the facts that Google indicated gave Gary two conflicting pieces of information. It was very likely that the lump was benign, but there was now a chance that if it were not benign, it might not be easily treatable.
Elizabeth took the dismal view of the information believing it must be cancer otherwise the lymph nodes would not have looked suspect and Gary kept quiet about his position feeling that this was not the moment to going into the details of his wife’s failure of logic. He opted for distraction techniques; after all he did not know the facts for a fact! Good home-made coffee, more chocolate biscuits and a promise to go home and return with some home-cooked pasta instead of leaving Elizabeth to the fate of the Hospital's kitchens, did wonders for the moral even if the last thing Elizabeth wanted to do was eat.
She had hit a low point. She still felt sick. She felt weak. And all the prospects of another operation and an uncertain future of radiation therapy preyed upon her mind. For distraction she allowed herself thoughts of past glories, childhood moments of joy or pain, memories of the strange journey made with Gary, who was such a downbeat character when she met him. And she was such a misfit. The two had miraculously met when neither had a future, when her PhD was unfinishable as far as she was concerned, and he was a desperate young man in a bed-sit with a typewriter. They clung together and the world became controllable. On seeing Gary arrive the next day, she perked up. At that point their whole relationship was stripped down to the raw desire to be with each other. All the clutter of life had fallen away, and they were left with the fact that for whatever reason, they simply liked each other and the presence of the other made them feel better. Which was far more than they could say for the presence of other people, who either ignored them entirely, which irritated, or seemed determined to discover cracks in the edifice that they had constructed to protect themselves and make them feel worse. The two of them together created a wall behind which they could hide and be happy.
“Everyone has their ups and downs!” said infuriating, but smiling dinner guests, when the conversation bounced off the lack of children in the Simons’ life - a pity apparently - onto the nature of the marriage relationship.
“We never have our ups and downs,” said the Elizabeth, “We don't argue. Never have. We cannot see the attraction of a life of divorces and trying to date like teenagers into your fifties. What makes people so fickle? Why don't they do things with each other? Why don't they discuss things? Plan projects together?”
“You have to be able to live your own life! You can’t be in each other’s pockets all the time!”
“We look at the separate lives supposedly married people lead and cannot understand why they want to be alone so much. We never want "our space". We always want to be together. Our constant battle with hotels is the battle for a double bed instead of the twin beds they insist that we should have.”
“Oh I love a single bed for a change!”
“We’re confused by the complications of other people's relationships. Don't you actually like each other? If you don't, whatever brought you together? And if you do, why do you organize your lives in such a way to keep you apart?”
“We don’t organise our lives. This is just what happens!”
“Then why don’t you organise your lives? You make them sound so miserable.”
“There’s nothing dismal about our lives. Is there? We’re fine! We like it this way.”
“There is a forty three per cent chance of divorce for all couples,” said Gary, spotting blood and going in for the kill. “Though obviously separate activities increases the opportunity for adultery, which is the cause of twenty nine per cent of divorces. A hefty forty five per cent of them are caused by the behaviour of one or the other and I suppose that means there are more downs than ups in their case.”
“Well, we’re not a statistic!”
“Everyone is. Nobody bucks the trend. Everyone creates it. Everyone has to adjust to it. Everyone must strike their bargain with it. Everyone must adjust their behaviour either to swing with trends they approve of or to slip themselves into one of the thinner tail ends of the bell curve. So when you say, ‘Like everyone we have our ups and downs,’ you are saying, ‘Like everyone, we stand a forty three per cent chance of divorcing.’”
As the day in the hospital progressed, Elizabeth began feeling better. They ate chocolate, drank coffee, discussed their books, wrote e-mails promising to get the illustrations for her paper to the printers, arranged meetings about film projects, told people about visiting times, and worked out when they might take an extra holiday to recover from the ordeal. They fancied Sydney for the food, weather, friendly Australians, and the presence of the great outdoors and most of all, the lack of everyone they had to deal with in London. And they discussed what might happen if the biopsy showed that she had to have the other operation.
The odds were that seventy percent of these thyroid cancers were curable. Those were good odds.  Seventy percent of the one percent means that you have to be very unlucky indeed to be in that nasty thirty percent of the one percent. But it is a small population, and there is more room for error in the figures, and surgeons, so they reasoned, must go by the feel for the situation. Their surgeon was conservative because, in his experience, the odds were even better than the official ones. Or was it merely because he was a dull, cautious sort of man?
Beyond the rumours of him being a gambling Irishman, it was hard to tell what sort of man the surgeon really was. He was definitely a hard-working man. He got up early. He worked late at night. And he was ruthlessly efficient. Everything about him apart from his digital watch and old motorbike spelt business. His suit was sharp. His manner brusque and though a bit shy in Gary’s overbearing presence, he joked with Elizabeth in his charming Irish manner about VIP problems suggesting that she was being given special treatment. He probably told everyone that they were VIPs. But it worked for the Simons. And he gave facts and nothing more, then quickly left the room before anyone could draw him into long discussions that could easily spiral out of control as fear grips people.
There followed a couple of days of uncertainty but Elizabeth recovered from the anaesthetic and they persuaded the surgeon to let them go home where she could have a weekend of rest and recreation with some decent DVDs, a soft sofa, a bar of Fruit N Nut and a Spit Roast Chicken from the deli. They decided to restart their ever promised fitness regime after the ordeal but until then, whatever they liked, they would eat. 
Elizabeth’s appetite indicated to Gary that cancer was even more unlikely an outcome, but every now and then a wave of terror emerged until the phone call came.
“You’ll be happy to know,” said the Surgeon, “that there’ll be no need for a second operation. The biopsy shows much as we expected. Nothing malignant but you have a fine example of Hashmoto’s disease. Make an appointment for next week and we’ll start you on your medication.”
The surgeon seemed quite cheerful about it and Elizabeth felt almost relieved that she did actually have some kind of ailment. She would have hated to have wasted his time for purely cosmetic reasons, but thankfully all she was facing then was the inconvenience of monitoring hormonal functions and taking a few pills. The worst of the crisis was over and a warm glow of relief quickly dissipated the tension and they found themselves back with their life. It was something of an anti-climax, but they looked at each other and nodded and said that everything was as they knew it would be all along.
“Well, I don’t know. These things are never really cleared up,” grumbled the neighbourhood watch on their phones.
“They’re in denial! That’s what the Americans would say.”
“Wouldn’t be surprised if we found them dead in their beds. They are just the sort of people to top themselves. They are never out of each other’s sight. That’s probably what put her in there in the first place.”
“Probably found the only bit of her that wasn’t malignant!”
“They’ve always been pleasant to me. A bit superior perhaps, but they’re always laughing about something.”
“Probably about you! They have some private joke that irritates the hell out of me whenever I see them.”

That night they discussed how they had reached an age when the prospect of their death had become real. Beforehand, death happened to one's grandparents and friends in accidents, but as far as oneself was concerned, death seemed impossibly remote. Now it was not. The facts were that despite longevity being pushed up, they would die thirty or forty odd years from now.  The facts that constantly comforted them and kept the worst nightmares at bay, would one day run the other way, and the Simons wondered if they would find them quite so friendly?
However, with the facts, good or otherwise, they could make real plans for the future, even if they knew the future was short. They had obligations that they felt had to be fulfilled. They would like to leave their things in order, though they also relished the thought of some of the chaos they could leave behind. There were people who they could be generous to without fearing they would think the Simons wished to spend time with them. There were also people they would no longer need to suck up to. They could get rid of time wasters they presently suffered for fear they might have a need of them at some future date. They could drop everything for that rainbow out of the window, or that moment when all they would want is to be with each other. 
As it was, the odds were on the Simons’ side right from the word go. They knew they were. There were no miracles, merely professionalism, rationality, and them being their usual selves. And now their little brush with mortality made them far less tolerant of the murky insanity of others. They closed their doors. Time was running out. They had work to do, and they had each other. 
"Why didn't you tell us," said Gary’s parents when he finally told them.
"I wanted to tell you the facts when we knew them."
"But you should have told us!"
"Because we're old!"
"So? You might have died old and happy knowing that we were all right whether we were or we weren't."
"But that wouldn't have been true."
"But it would have been. We just didn't know it. And, besides, you're not dead and you will see the scar this Christmas."
The neighbours smiled.
“Feeling better?”
“Oh yes.”
“That’s nice.”
“If you need anything, let us know.”
“We will.”
They won’t.