"A horror novel about a breast cancer survivor told in the voice of your funniest but most anxious friend, The Bus on Thursday is an appealing mix of genres that is both fluffy and deeply affecting at the same time." —Maris Kreizman, Vulture
"Funny, angry, feminist . . . [Barrett is] a masterly world-builder." —Melissa Maerz, The New York Times Book Review
Bridget Jones meets The Exorcist in this wickedly funny, dark novel about one woman’s post-cancer retreat to a remote Australian town and the horrors awaiting her
It wasn’t just the bad breakup that turned Eleanor Mellett’s life upside down. It was the cancer. And all the demons that came with it.
One day she felt a bit of a bump when she was scratching her armpit at work. The next thing she knew, her breast was being dissected and removed by an inappropriately attractive doctor, and she was suddenly deluged with cupcakes, judgy support groups, and her mum knitting sweaters.
Luckily, Eleanor discovers Talbingo, a remote little town looking for a primary-school teacher. Their Miss Barker up and vanished in the night, despite being the most caring teacher ever, according to everyone. Unfortunately, Talbingo is a bit creepy. It’s not just the communion-wine-guzzling friar prone to mad rants about how cancer is caused by demons. Or the unstable, overly sensitive kids, always going on about Miss Barker and her amazing sticker system. It’s living alone in a remote cabin, with no cell or Internet service, wondering why there are so many locks on the front door and who is knocking on it late at night.
Riotously funny, deeply unsettling, and surprisingly poignant, Shirley Barrett’s The Bus on Thursday is a wickedly weird, wild ride for fans of Helen Fielding, Maria Semple, and Stephen King.
|Publisher:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
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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, "Anesthetic or no anesthetic?" I said, "Give me the anesthetic, both barrels." They said, "Word of warning: having an anesthetic needle stuck in your breast is every bit as excruciating as the actual procedure. Possibly more so." I said, "Give me the anesthetic 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??
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 fguess 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 percent 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 tumor, and we've got to get it out."
No sugarcoating 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.
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 realized 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 centimeters 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.
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.
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 ninth 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 dreamboat 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 overpriced 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 realizing 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 breakup.)
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 told 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 checkup. 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 fantasized about us getting together. Which is totally weird, but also probably totally normal.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Bus on Thursday"
Copyright © 2018 Shirley Barrett.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Also by Shirley Barrett,
A Note About the Author,