Wellcome Book Prize Shortlist: The Iceberg

Posted on 26th April 2015 by Marion Coutts
'There is going to be a destruction… the obliteration of a person'. - Marion Coutts. We continue our look at the Wellcome Book Prize Shortlist with The Iceberg.

In 2008 art critic Tom Lubbock was diagnosed with a brain tumour that was attacking the language centre of his brain. In this moving extract from her memoir The Iceberg, shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize, his widow, artist Marion Coutts, recounts the ordeal of his last months.


Something has happened. A piece of news. We have had a diagnosis that has the status of an event. The news makes a rupture with what went before: clean, complete and total. We learn something. We are mortal. You might say you know this but you don't. The news falls neatly between one moment and another. You would not think there was a gap for such a thing. You would not think there was room.

First official separation. I am a zealot, an airship on its maiden voyage packed with mother adrenaline. I have rolls of data to proclaim about his protocols: his beaker, when he likes to nap, his poo, the snacks that are allowed and the snacks that are forbidden. I am not going to let anything stop me.

The childminder lives around the corner. She is much younger than me and canny. She has heard all this before. She knows to be patient and let me play myself out. When I am done, she will take the child.

In mid-song I am interrupted. Tom arrives. I am surprised to see him and pleased. Lately we have been seriously upended. A week ago, while we were staying at the house of friends, he had a fit. We don't know why. He'd never had one before and the shock took us straight into hospital in the night. Soon we expect some test results from the hospital. I imagine a letter about high blood pressure or diet, some readily managed condition, normal, nothing beyond us.

Tom greets me directly and takes my sleeve, pulling Ev and me out of the yard away from the toys and into the street. The three of us cluster a couple of doors down alongside a low wall. Ev wriggles in my arms and I am still talking. Tom stops me. He says he has had a phone call. He has a brain tumour. It is very likely malignant.

Did I understand it before I heard it or did he finish the sentence before I understood?

Conflagration: my ship is exploded. A fireball.

We are novices. We have very little information and so repeat what we have. One phrase goes back and forth between us. The tumour is in the area of speech and language. I do not consider the idea that the tumour might one day take the mind. That thought comes later.

To make sense of what is happening, we need to say it aloud. Only then will we hear the news mouthed back by others and reshaped into words – ohs and ahs, expletives, and long out-breaths. Maybe, coming back to us in this way it will sound different; better, worse, I don't know. Maybe more comprehensible.

So this is what we do. We make an email list of our friends. Concentrating is hard and even remembering who these people are is an effort. We go back to the things we know, the building blocks of our past. Our wedding was nine years ago and at the heart of the list are the wedding guests. We liked these people then and mainly we like them still. Slotted on are new friends met since. We do not edit but add. It is construction work and we are going for solidity: mass, weight and number. Family is here too. Now is their hour. We don't want to overburden them or frighten them off. This is our disaster. They are just being called upon to witness. So together we write them a message in the form of an email.

14 September 2008

We have some troubling news that you should know. A small tumour has been detected in Tom's brain. It's not known yet whether it is malignant but that is possible. It needs taking out and he'll be operated on in about a week.

We don't know yet what any of this means, in terms of further problems or none, or possible side effects from the operation. It's a very uncertain time for us.

After the first shock, we are strong as we can be. This is largely because Tom is at the moment very well, looks well, is lucid, thoughtful, writing, working, preparing. Ev is fabulous as usual.

We will let you know when we have a date for Tom going into hospital.

In the study we bend over the computer, tight under the lamp. Tom presses send. It is serious, this action. By agreeing to its terms and conditions we elect to turn everything pertaining to us a different shade. Once the news has gone out we cannot disavow it or pretend it is not happening.

Messages come back immediately. What were they doing, these people? All hunched over screens so late at night, at home, at work, as if primed and ready to consider Tom's brain? News, News, News, News: the word scrolls down in bold text, multiplying in the subject box like a black manifesto printing over and over.

There are no rehearsals for these responses. Some remit their love directly. Some are blessedly, seriously practical. Some are brilliant: full of anecdote and funny. Most are short and this is cleverest. We get poems and photos, links to sites, mad advice, offers of dinner, invites, suggestions, jokes, clichés and generosities. Courage in all its forms, liquid and solid, is pressed upon us. But over and above the offers of help and love, precious though they are, is the fact that we are public knowledge. Our signal has been heard. By each response a friend is activated.

A new future has been handed to us. Now that it is here, it is impossible to recall what we were expecting before. Ev was born 18 months ago, so it would have been a lot. But the exact texture of past desires cannot be recalled. It is gone.

This edited extract from Marion Coutts’ memoir The Iceberg first appeared in the Observer. 

The winner will be announced on Wednesday 29th April 2015.


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