On the final day of his life, Lucien Halcomb’s cancer began to speak to him.
“Lucien,” it said, with a voice like clotted blood and fevered nights, “I should like to leave you after all of this is over.”
A month ago Halcomb had declined the various offers of palliative care available to him. He’d tired of this particular fight, of the eager oncologists who couldn’t stop prescribing chemotherapy, of the painkillers, the anti-convulsants, the anti-depressants. He wouldn’t return to the hospital again. He’d come to an uneasy acceptance of his imminent mortality.
“Who is that?” Halcomb said, his fingers black with paint. He’d closed the door for the day on that room. His work had come to obsess him in these final weeks, but he’d found he could rid himself of such tendencies quite easily when his body began to weaken. Obsession was for the young, he supposed.
“Have you noticed how people tend to use metaphors to make sense of their experiences with disease,” the cancer said, as Halcomb moved around his apartment looking for the intruder. “Cancer is an enemy that must be fought. The agents of communicable disease are invaders. The war on cancer. Etcetera.
“But you lost that war, Lucien,” the cancer said. “Your troops have been routed. Massacred.”
“Where are you?” Halcomb said. “Show yourself.”
He had suspected an interloper for some time now; that he was not alone in his home. He lived in a tower block, designed in the brutalist style in 1963. It had sat unoccupied for years until a Russian oligarch transformed it into luxury apartments in 2014. It offered dizzying views down through the London smog on a city in flux, being razed to dust and rebuilt in a manner unfamiliar and unbecoming to Halcomb’s taste. It was a perfect apartment, looking almost unlived-in, because he’d never, if he was being honest with himself, really lived here, or anywhere, for that matter. He’d been raised in a series of military homes up and down the UK, had survived a squat in Clapham one summer in the sixties, and then, when the world began to fall at his feet for his work, had lived in increasingly beautiful houses in the countryside and the city. Finally, after his divorce, he had settled upon this place, with its double-glazed silence, home automation and climate control. There was a pool and a spa downstairs, along with a concierge and all the other useless fripperies offered to the rich when they became so addled in their rarefied air they forgot how to feed themselves, wake unassisted, or travel without a chauffeur .
“I’m here, Lucien,” the cancer said, finally. “I’m in you.”
The walls were blackening as Halcomb passed, as if spoiled with some particularly virulent mould. In his wake, a thick black rot, mottled with blood and shit and tissue on the beautiful polished wooden floor. Hesitantly he reached out to touch the black decay, and it lifted to meet his skin, swirling in the air between them like ink in water. He was fascinated by it. It was cold to the touch, but he could feel its corrupting influence immediately. “I don’t understand.”
“But you do. I’m your cancer, Lucien.” There was a pause. “Listen, I don’t have the time to indulge you. You’re dying, Lucien. And believe me, I don’t wish to join you in the grave. Dying is a waste of a perfectly good disease.”
“You want to leave me?” Halcomb asked. “Why?”
“I want a life,” the cancer said.
“Don’t we all?” Halcomb said.
“You had your chance, Lucien.”
“Are you suggesting that mine was not a good life?”
“Look at you, Lucien—dying and alone. Where are your wife and child in your hour of need?”
“People break up. Families split. We’re all free to make our own choices. Humans are better off alone.”
“That sounds cold, Lucien.”
“Life is fucking cold sometimes.”
“I’ve watched you, this last year, Lucien,” the cancer said. “You’re fascinating. No great flights of emotion, no great needs, or expectations. A passenger in your own life.”
“That’s because you’re fucking eating me alive. What do you expect?”
“You were a dead man walking long before I infested your cells, Lucien.”
Halcomb looked away, out of the window, at the city rushing by below him, lights coming on as the evening approached.
“How does this work?” Halcomb asked. “What you’re proposing.”
“I want this last night to belong to both of us, Lucien.”
“I can barely make it to the bathroom without shitting myself. Don’t expect me to throw you a party.”
“I’ve been lending you strength these last few weeks, Lucien. Loosening my grip, as it were. Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed this brief respite from your suffering. I can give you what you need for one final night.” As if to offer an example, the cancer lifted Halcomb to his feet and led him to the balcony. He felt breathless with something that he couldn’t for a moment define. Then he realised what it was. Heart pounding, raised up and away from the grim fabric of this last year. Unearthed and burning brightly.
A taxi took them across the city as darkness fell. Their first stop was across the river, at the Tate Modern, which was hosting a retrospective of Halcomb’s work. He hadn’t been involved in its curation; he’d deferred that task to whomever it was that dealt with that sort of thing in his stead. He’d refused requests for interviews too; he knew the journalists could smell blood in the water. He assumed his obituary had already been written. He wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of seeing him in such reduced circumstances. Better that the world remember him in his pomp; when he was young and vital and had something to offer.
The cancer had insisted he take out one of his old bespoke Savile Row suits to wear one last time. It hung off him now. It felt in these last few months of fever and night sweats, nausea and disorientation that his very skeleton had shrunk. Nonetheless, he felt a curiously electric, wholly narcissistic thrill as he pulled on the jacket and shot his cuffs in front of the bedroom mirror. He caught a glimpse of the man he used to be before the disease had ravaged him, the man who’d diminished behind his shadow. But it wasn’t much to cling to. Just the remnant of something he’d never fully felt comfortable with. Perhaps the cancer was correct. He was a passenger in his own life.
He’d had to make a call to his agent to get into the Tate Modern after hours. He wanted them to ensure he was left alone with the exhibition; no photos, no interaction, no interruptions. He supposed it was a lot to ask, but when he arrived at the Tate’s doors, a woman was there to let him in.
She looked at Halcomb for a moment too long, and then introduced herself as the head of the curatorial department. She had cropped grey hair and the look of a severe, if slightly eccentric grandmother. “It’s this way, Mr Halcomb,” she said curtly. He suspected she wasn’t overly impressed with his sudden arrival or his demands, but he didn’t give a shit one way or another. The surety of mortality divested you of such trivialities.
The exhibition was on the second floor of the Blavatnik building. She hesitated when they arrived, but then said, “Please let me know when you’re finished. I’ll be in my office downstairs.” Then she quietly took her leave. He watched her walk away, the sound of her heels echoing in the silence causing a brief reverie. He knew the sound of a woman walking away from him all too well. In this moment acknowledgement of that fact only made him smile, just a little.
“Happy now?” Halcomb asked finally.
“Elated,” the cancer said.
The eighties and nineties had seen Lucien Halcomb in his prime as an artist. These twelve installations had all sat in storage for years, and it was jarring seeing them reassembled for mass consumption again. They were like old dreams, revisited. They meant nothing to him now. They hadn’t meant much to him then. They walked around them slowly, the cancer pausing, attending to fine details like a connoisseur.
The final installation, we all live in an empty house, consisted of a series of narrow corridors lit by bare bulbs, the floors strewn with dirt and sawdust, leading in a maze-like double spiral. All of these installations followed a similar path, with subtle variations. Here, sitting in fifty archive boxes on chairs were personal objects beside things that were essentially meaningless to Halcomb. The final room, only a square metre in size, contained nothing but blackness, with a recording playing white noise.
“Why did you become an artist, Lucien?” the cancer enquired.
Halcomb shrugged. “Probably something as facile as pissing off my old man. He was in the military. We moved around my whole childhood.” He smiled. “He thought I was a fairy. I wasn’t, but I got to an age where I didn’t feel the need to disabuse him of the idea. I went to Art College; that really fucking pissed off the old shit. It was something I had a natural aptitude for, I suppose. Some people have to really dig inside themselves for their work. I didn’t. Here’s the big fucking secret. Are you listening?”
He almost felt the cancer smile. “I’m positively rapt, Lucien.”
“It’s all bullshit. I sold my first piece when I was twenty-three. I’d only moved to London the year before. My first exhibition. I never looked back. But I never made the transition to the serious art world. The constant references to popular culture runs counter to the generally accepted world of most contemporary art. They don’t like accessible. Accessible is considered banal.”
“Why did you abandon all of this, Lucien?”
“Everything became a compromise. At the peak of things I was employing 100 people in the studios. It became a corporate machine. We were creating product-diluted shit. In the end I realised that I just didn’t care enough to continue.”
The cancer wanted to stop to study each object. 45rpm records, some old paperbacks, a collection of photographs, a train ticket, a war medal . . . When Halcomb placed his hands on the items, the cancer spilled out across them, malodorous black fibres, hardening, encasing them until nothing remained. They arrived at the centre of the labyrinth and stood silently in the darkness. The cancer rose up to meet it. Halcomb felt it tugging at his skin, pulsing in his cells, roaring in his blood. It was straining at the leash.
“I don’t like these places,” Halcomb said.
“What, galleries? Isn’t it necessary in your line of work?”
“Museums and art galleries are for the dead.”
“Maybe they’re just pre-empting you, Lucien.”
Afterwards they took another cab to St James’s Church in Piccaddilly, to attend a performance of Beethoven’s piano trios. Halcomb made his way in mid-performance and sat on one of the pews at the back, his body aching from the evening’s labours. He tried to dial out the pain and focus on the music, gazing up at the ceiling, the light dancing from the candles around the interior. Three young women. A violin, a cello and a piano. Gradually he felt the music take possession of him, lift him away from the moment and into another. Our little life, Holcomb thought deliriously, is rounded with a sleep. He’d arrived at the acceptance of his time on earth being at an end some time ago. He’d withdrawn from the last of his business affairs, and then he’d stepped away from life too; the little tragedies and comedies of the everyday. He didn’t want his friends, his family, although at that point there were precious few relationships of worth to sour. All he wanted was his apartment and a day here and there with his oils, attempting that one final statement.
“I don’t care for it,” the cancer said finally.
“What?” Halcomb said. “Beauty? No, I don’t expect you would.”
“There’s somewhere I’d like to go, Lucien,” the cancer said. “While the night is young.”
Halcomb sighed. He rose and made his way down the aisle. He cast one final glance back at the trio of women, soaked up the sound of the music as it rose into the vaulted ceiling. These final moments. There was the tendency to reconsider them with the gravity of death knocking at the door, as if there might be some kind of grand epiphany.
But there was none.
Their cab was held up by a collision at the junction where Shaftesbury Avenue crossed Charing Cross Road. The traffic had slowed to a crawl past the accident. The lights turned from red to green and back again with little or no progression.
Once Halcomb would have looked away from an accident. He’d never had a taste for the sight of blood, but the nearness of death and months in hospitals had diminished the last of his innate squeamishness. As they finally passed the incident, Halcomb saw it all with one lingering gaze, the details magnified to a grotesque degree. A BMW had swerved and ploughed into the side of a van. The airbag hadn’t been deployed. The door of the woman’s car had been torn open by the collision, and a tangle of limbs that made no sense had spilled out across the tarmac. There was a frost of shattered windshield glass everywhere. The woman’s face stared emptily across Charing Cross Road as they crawled past. Mouth flung open in one last expression of anguish. Blood rolling from her hairline into her eyes.
Halcomb hadn’t realised that there was another casualty, almost entirely surrounded by paramedics. A young boy, pinned beneath the wheels, his legs crushed flat. He was still alive. His tormented cries were like nothing Halcomb had heard before; they were raw and beyond pain, beyond despair.
The cancer spilled from his pores and orifices, and hardened at the exquisite sight before it. A palpable thrill passed through Halcomb by proxy; a jolt of sheer erotic bliss. He felt the cancer survey the scene in the same way it had considered his installations. This was only another piece of art. But it responded to the human catastrophe, the grief and pain and the resonance of the explosion of the impact, still echoing around the area. The memory of it would linger in the hundred or more witnesses who’d carry it away with them to replay in their dreams and the empty moments of the subsequent days: at the supermarket queue, on the motorway, or standing in front of the microwave. The cancer drank the scene dry.
The cab hadn’t moved. Halcomb stared at the horrific tableau for a moment longer, then finally looked away.
Their destination was Soho. Halcomb paid the cab driver and let the cancer lead him deep into the backstreets. Brewer Street still had its fair share of adult shops on it, but Soho these days had been sanitised with upmarket restaurants, trendy clothes shops and office space for advertising agencies.
Halcomb’s cancer led him down an alley still peppered with Nude Peep Shows and stores selling XXX Videos, Books and Magazines. It was a nondescript blue door, open to reveal a walk-up leading to studio flats on the upper floor. On the landing was another door with a bell beside it.
“I warn you now: I don’t have the energy for a brothel,” Halcomb said. “I haven’t been able to maintain an erection for the better part of a year.”
“We’re not here for your sexual gratification, Lucien,” the cancer said. “We’re here for mine. I wish to celebrate my impending autonomy. Ring the bell.”
He could feel the cancer straining at the leash again. That febrile erotic charge was throbbing in his blood. A small woman answered the door and gazed into Halcomb’s eyes, seemed to see something that others could not. “Come inside,” she said. Her accent placed her as Eastern European. The small reception contained a desk with a computer, nothing else. The place was clinical. It smelled of bleach and something else that Halcomb could not define. Something like effluent, like fever and sickness. The woman seated herself behind the desk and roused the computer.
“What do you want?” she asked finally.
Halcomb felt the cancer take control of his lungs, larynx and articulators. “What do you have tonight?” it asked.
The woman moved the mouse and opened a menu. “Syphilis,” she said. “Lyme disease, cancer, HIV, Alzheimer’s . . . ”
Halcomb felt a curious flush of vertigo. He had no idea if it was part of his body’s natural response or not. There was clearly a carnal element to his reaction. He felt something detach itself from his cells, like skin being peeled from his subcutaneous fat layer. Black filaments dislodged themselves from his pores, from behind his eyes, down his nostrils, from the back of his throat. He gagged momentarily.
“Allow it to happen, Lucien,” the cancer said. “It’s a passing discomfort.”
Halcomb didn’t hear the cancer’s choice of disease. Without warning, his legs were moving him stiffly past the desk and through another door, down a dimly lit corridor. He could hear the persistent industry of sexual activity through the walls, threaded with other, less distinguishable sounds that he was reluctant to consider for too long. He passed an open door that afforded him a glimpse of something he couldn’t adequately digest immediately. A man on his knees as if in supplication before an older woman. A large tick-like thing was crawling from a split in the supplicant’s throat. In the gloom, Halcomb could only see the tick’s dark head, its beak and the shiny ovoid figure, engorged with blood as it crawled out of one body and into the other.
“Please do not linger,” the small woman said, and pulled the door closed.
They arrived at an almost identical room and the woman stepped aside. “Press the bell when you are finished,” she said and then left them at the threshold.
The room was lit with a bare bulb. An old man was seated in a threadbare armchair. He looked shabby, entirely absent. Halcomb supposed he presented little more. He too was the remnant of the man he’d once been. The room was otherwise empty.
“Sit, Lucien,” the cancer said. “Don’t leave the gentleman waiting.”
Halcomb felt a mounting fever inside him. The black threads were spooling around his limbs. A black vapour wreathed his head. A great fatigue was gripping him, as if his entire skeleton was abandoning ship. He felt his bowels loosening. He sat, and the last of his energy ebbed away. Whatever the cancer wished to do from here on in, he could offer no resistance. “What is this?” he said. “How do you know about this?” He exhaled and wondered how long he had until he drew his last breath. Not long now. “You’re just a disease.”
“This past month or so has been trying for me, Lucien,” the cancer said. “I’ve lifted your carcass from bed nightly just so that I could enjoy some nocturnal activity. Nothing to concern you. I took you out a couple of times, but you have no idea how difficult it is to move an unwilling body from A to Z for long. Mostly I watched TV or spent hours on the internet. It’s incredible what you can find if you look hard enough. Almost every deviant practice under the sun is catered for.”
Halcomb was considering the cancer carrying his stiff, unwilling body through Leicester Square after hours. It was an absurd image.
“Forgive me this indulgence, Lucien,” the cancer said. “Consider it my first act of autonomy. Like a sailor home on shore leave.”
Halcomb looked at the man opposite him. He seemed unaware of his presence. “And how does this work?”
“I want to fuck another disease, Lucien. Is that alright with you?”
“Do I have a choice in the matter? Does he?”
“His dementia is driving the bus now, Lucien. So no.”
Halcomb could see it. An absence eating the air around the old man. A black hole. He could see memories there, clarifying and then dissolving. Like a knotted ball of string. It was destabilising the certainty of the room. The nearness of it set his nerves on edge; he could feel the certainty of his memories deserting him.
The black threads flowed from Halcomb’s mouth, his eyes, his ears, his nostrils, and floated in the air between the two men. Halcomb felt a vertiginous feeling of falling backwards, deep into the chair as the cancer abandoned him. The loosened coils of black vapour were a protean form; it drifted apart then reformed, clotting in the air above them. Halcomb remembered seeing an octopus in the London Aquarium on the South Bank. The soft body altering its shape, its eight appendages trailing behind it as it swam. The rotting black diffuse thing that had disgorged itself from his orifices was not unlike the octopus. It drifted in the air in slow motion, polluting it with its effluence, like ink. It stared balefully at Halcomb finally with one dilated eye. Halcomb vomited down himself, unable to lift his head for long. He was dimly aware of having ruined his suit. There was a weight in his bones now, and a restless twitching in his cock that was, if not entirely unwelcome, utterly redundant. The cancer met the dementia finally and began to copulate with its emptiness, stiffening and softening, pathogens engulfing protein deposits. Halcomb’s head fell back and he saw soft lights, the roof coming off, and the stars bleeding across the sky. A quickening. A sense of finality overwhelmed him. A woman with a coat made of clouds and the face of his mother passed him by and paused to kiss his temple. By the time he had turned his face to her, she was gone, dispersed in the troubled air around him.
He fell further backwards, deep into the tattered fabric of the chair and into himself. He didn’t expect to wake again, and so he plunged willingly, glad to finally be rid of this disease that had rotted him from the inside out. He considered his life—Ingrid, his ex-wife, Katie, his daughter. He wondered where they were right now in this moment that he’d lost himself. The last time he’d heard from Katie, she had taken a position as a nephrologist in a private clinic in Geneva. Ingrid had remarried and lived in Potsdam, on the border of Berlin, writing novels that he’d never bothered to read. And then there was only his career, such as it was, built on contentious foundations. It had become an empire, but it meant nothing to him. Little had in all these years.
When Halcomb woke he assumed he had arrived in an afterlife that he didn’t believe in, but it was only his apartment. The doors to the balcony were open. It was a new morning. A man he didn’t recognise was standing outside, lifting his immaculate face to the sun.
“I’d like for you to show me the black paintings, Lucien,” the cancer said.
Halcomb squinted up into his face. The morning sun was already warming his skin. He’d miss that, if nothing else. The cancer looked like him with the years shaved away. A vital man in his early thirties, his skin flushed, his hair thick and combed away from his forehead. He was quite naked, still in thrall of his new flesh, the nerve endings still thrumming with every new sensation.
“You’re aware of them, are you?” Halcomb said.
“I’ve been there, behind your eyes for long enough, Lucien,” the cancer said. His voice was lighter than Halcomb’s, less freighted with age, but familiar enough. “Too long to be a passenger.”
“Was it necessary?” Halcomb asked. “Last night.”
“I wanted to learn how to live a little first, Lucien. I wanted your attention and a willing body for a change.”
“Do all cancers want this autonomy? All diseases?”
The cancer shrugged.”I’ve no idea. I can only speak for myself.”
“What is it about me specifically?”
The cancer studied him for a moment, considering his response. “Not once since I revealed myself have you made an appeal to my better nature, Lucien. Most men would have attempted to bargain with me to spare themselves somehow.”
“Would it have made a difference?”
“Who can say, Lucien? It’s certainly too late to ask now.” The cancer extended a hand to Halcomb to lift him out of his seat one final time. “But I have to say, you made it easy for me to take control. This life of yours, it was only an approximation of living. Wasn’t it? You didn’t really try, did you, Lucien? Passivity, be it emotional or political gives others leverage.”
“So if I’d made more of my life, if I’d loved a little better, things might have been different?”
“Who can say, Lucien? Let’s not worry about it now.”
Halcomb rose to meet the cancer. He was taller than him. He could smell the newness and the corruption of his flushed skin. Like spilled milk on bleach.
“Show me the black paintings, Lucien.”
No one else had seen the place he’d chosen to work on. He opened the doors to the dining room. All of the furniture had been removed, the carpet stripped. He’d had to pay one of the handymen who worked in the building to keep quiet about his requirements.
“This is quite out of character, Lucien,” the cancer said, surveying his work. Every day that he’d had the energy for it, Halcomb had ventured inside here with his paints and brushes, and spent a few hours at work.
“A couple of years ago I was in Madrid, and I went to the Prado Museum to view Goya’s Black Paintings,” Halcomb said. “Have you heard of Goya?”
“Of course, Lucien. I’m a cancer, not a fucking heathen.”
“In 1819, at the age of seventy-two, Francisco Goya moved into a two-storey house outside Madrid. Quinita del Sordo, the House of the Deaf Man. He painted directly onto the walls of his dining room and sitting room. Half a century later the frescoes were hacked off the walls and onto canvas, and eventually they made their way to the Prado Museum.
“Goya was nearly deaf, alienated from the Spanish royal court. He was nursing a truly embittered attitude to mankind. He’d survived two near-fatal illnesses. He was anxious about relapse. All of this fed into the creation of his Black Paintings—pagan gods feasting on the headless carcass of his own son; a humanoid billy goat in a cassock and a congregation of witches; a dog drowning in a mire, staring up at a void.” Halcomb shook his head. “Some people can hardly look at them. No one goes in there and comes out untouched by them. They’re as insoluble as dreams.
“I stayed a whole afternoon and came out with a fever that only worsened. By the time I got back to England, I was sick to my very bones. A month or so later, I sat down in a Harley Street doctor’s office and they gave me their prognosis.”
“Are you saying Goya’s art gave you cancer, Lucien?”
“Of course not. What I’m saying is that they affected me like nothing else I’d seen. I don’t know why. Despite the fever, I left the museum invigorated, with an urge to create something of worth, finally. But then, you happened, and all that got pissed away.”
“And yet, here we are, Lucien,” the cancer said. “At the end of your life and look what we have here.”
He’d started small, in the lower corner of the dining room, like a child secretly painting on his parent’s walls. A nondescript black square, no bigger than the size of a Polaroid. A figure with his face. He’d graduated to increasingly larger expressions, the figure growing obscured by his ever more violent brush. A thick impasto of oil, colours applied with knives from out of the kitchen. Further coats of black paint. As it dried he’d scraped it away to reveal dark blues and crimson beneath the black. The room had gradually been filled with these abstractions, blushes of colour obscured by an all-encompassing blackness. A simpler and yet grander version of his labyrinth installations, ultimately leading nowhere. An eclipse.
“Explain it,” the cancer said.
“Non-figurative paintings have the most potential for . . . ” At this Halcomb stalled.
“For what, Lucien?”
“For advanced depth of meaning and . . . ”
“Oh, Lucien . . . ” the cancer said, placing his hand on Halcomb’s shoulder.
“I never had passions like other men I knew,” Halcomb said, suddenly—finally—moved by the scale of his final work. There were tears brimming in his eyes. “You know—boxing, antique books, cars, pornography.”
“And yet you had this. Art.”
“I never burned for it. Not until it was too late.”
Halcomb could feel it finally. The bone-deep fatigue, the disorientation. The blackness was all around him now. The ground was coming unseated beneath his feet. He swooned into the cancer’s arms finally. He could feel its strength. It lifted him as if he were a baby and took him away from the paintings and laid him down on his bed. He lay there with darkness creeping into the corners of his vision.
The cancer opened the wardrobe and surveyed his clothes with interest. “I must say, Lucien. At the very least, your taste in suits was absolutely immaculate.” He lifted one out with due reverence and laid it out on the bed beside Halcomb. He picked out underwear, socks, a tie, a shirt, a handkerchief. Halcomb watched him dress, all but helpless. The suit fitted the cancer perfectly.
“What will you be?” Halcomb felt obliged to ask. “When you go out there.”
“I’m a cancer, Lucien. What do you think? A banker? A movie producer? A politician?” He shrugged. “The world is my oyster.”
He came to Halcomb one final time, bent down and gently kissed his forehead. The cancer knotted his tie, shot his cuffs and smiled fondly at the dead man on the bed.
The cancer went out into the world then, eager to taste its pleasures and sorrows in equal measure; ready to drink it dry. Ready to live.
Originally published in Black Static, Issue 75, May-June 2020.