The Iceberg

Marion Coutts

April 7, 2016 
The following is from Marion Coutts’s memoir, The Iceberg. Marion Coutts works in sculpture, film and video and has exhibited widely nationally and internationally, including the Foksal Gallery, Warsaw; Yorkshire Sculpture Park; and the Wellcome Collection, London. She has held fellowships at Kettle1s Yard, Cambridge and Tate Liverpool. She is a Lecturer in Fine Art at Goldsmiths College. She lives in London with her son. This is her first book.

A book about the future must be written in advance. Later I won’t have the energy to speak. So I will do it now.

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The others are near. I can touch them, call them to me and they are here. We are all here, Tom, my husband, and Ev, our child. Tom is his real name and Ev is not really called Ev but Ev means him. He is eighteen months old and still so fluid that to identify him is futile. We will all be changed by this. He the most.

The home is the arena for our tri-part drama: the set for everything that occurs in the main. We go out, in fact all the time, yet this is where we are most relaxed. This is the place where you will find us most ourselves.

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 save in one respect. It seems that after the event, the decision we make is to remain. Our unit stands. This alone will not save us but whenever we look, it is the case. The decision is joint and tacit and I am surprised to realise this. Though we talked about countless things – talk is all we ever do – we did not address it directly. So not a decision then, more a mode, arrived at together.

The news is given verbally. 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. The threat has two aspects: a current fact and an obscure outcome – the manifestation of the fact. The first is immediate and the second talks of duration. The fact has coherent force and nothing, no person or thought or thing, escapes its shift. It is as if a new physical law has been described for us bespoke: absolute as all the others are, yet terrifyingly casual. It is a law of perception. It says, You will lose everything that catches your eye. Under this illumination there is no downtime and no off-gaze. For its duration, looking can never be idle. Seeing is active: it is an action like aiming or hitting.

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Yet afterwards – more strangeness – we carry on in many ways as before, but crosswise to what might be expected, we are not plunged into night. It is still day, but the light is unnatural. The glare on daily life is blinding. Everything is equally illumined, without shade. These are early days. Our house becomes porous. I am high and bleached and whited out. We are air and the walls are air. On hearing the news, our instinct is to tell it. Once known it cannot be unlearned; once told, not rescinded. So we start to speak, and the family, we three, are dissolved in fluid and drunk up by others. People appear, they come and go. They are always to hand. Ev is in his element and we are in ours. As I say, these are early days. Maybe it will always be like this.


It is Ev’s first day at the childminder’s. I arrive at nine, anxious and grave and trying not to show it. This is our first official separation. The mother of one is a volatile mix of niche knowledge and inexperience. I am a zealot. I have rolls of data to proclaim about his protocols: his beaker, when he likes to nap, his poo, his play, his pleasures, 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. I eye her up and scan the house for flaws as I recite my speech. Is that a very sharp edge? That stair-gate looks shaky. The kitchen could be tidier. I know she has dogs; where are they? Why am I putting him in a house with dogs? We both understand that my rhetoric is symbolic, the words a verse-chorus lament to mark the movement of the child out of my orbit and into another: out of the home and into the world.

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 never had one before and the shock took us straight into hospital in the night. In the wake of this we have been unnerved, though slowly calming as he has been fine since and anyway, there is Ev to think about. 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, nothing outwith the stretch of mid-life or span of circumstance. If you were to ask me, that’s what I would say. But really I am not imagining anything. I am thinking about Ev.

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Tom greets me directly and takes my sleeve, pulling Ev and me out of the yard away from the toys and into the street. It’s good he is here. He recognises the importance of my mission and is come in solidarity to support me. I am an airship on its maiden voyage packed with mother adrenalin. The band is playing. Ascent is the most dangerous moment. I have already left the ground, my skin taut with the child and his real and imagined needs. The three of us cluster a couple of doors down alongside a white house with a low lilac wall. Number 36. Alpines, succulents and tiny sedum rooted in the shallowest scattering of earth are planted in gaps along its brickwork. Ev wriggles in my arms and I am still talking. Ev is so relaxed. He likes her. He will be happy here. 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. Tears fall as burning fuel. There is no time for anything to be saved. There is no time for anything to sink in. There is no time. The word is the deed. The deed is done before knowledge can release its meaning. It is the quickest poison.

I am crushing Ev and my crying escalates. When did it start – before, or after? I don’t understand. It seems I was crying before I heard it. Ev starts to wail and this brings the childminder on to the street and frightens the other child in her care, Ev’s new friend-in-waiting. He runs to the gate and looks at us blankly. What are they doing? The ceremony is over. Ev’s rite of passage is abandoned. Tom gives him into the arms of a stranger and we flee.

Did I go back and pick him up at four? I don’t remember how he came home but somehow at the end of the day he is back with us. By his face I see he is content in the new world he has inherited so precipitately: dogs, children, a yard outside to play in, plastic toys stained with rain. It is strange. He is entirely unblemished. Not a mark on him. He is unharmed, happy even. When we left the house that morning we were blithe. We were not conscious of death. We knew it existed, but not for us.

That day, the first near-coherent thing I say after many hours is to Tom. I cannot lose all of you to all of him. I will not.

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Right from the start see how I set myself up. Let us see how this thing goes.


The day of the diagnosis delivered by phone we abandon Ev and start walking. Impact has fused us and made us mutual. We are a four-legged creature and we operate manually. Our instinct is to keep in motion. We head south. We talk, but we don’t look at anything. The suburbs are good for this kind of inattentiveness. This is what they are for.

After some hours we arrive at Dulwich Picture Gallery. We did not aim to come here and I don’t know where else we have been. But now that we are here, Tom needs to look at a painting. When the phone call came he was in the middle of something and there is a picture he wants to look at. Though we both try to recall it, we never again remember which. Perhaps this is the first thing to be noted. That time is continuous. For him the action of looking at a picture is instinctive. It is his work and so familiar, so unremarkable an action that only much later do I wonder at it. There is a particular painting still to be considered. Time hasn’t stopped even now. But it spools new. I can feel it – not faster, not slower but with an undertone, a tiny subjective pulse.

Tom’s mind is busy. He has a brain tumour but he still has a mind. Where is his mind? Where it was this morning. The brain tumour is in it but the brain tumour is not it. Yesterday and the day before, the day before that, and all the days for however long since, the tumour was already there but we did not know. A thing first hidden in the site of consciousness later becomes knowledge. 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. The tumour is in the area of speech and language. There is tumour and there is area. They sound separate, like two entities, one collaged on the other. I do not consider the idea that the tumour might one day take the mind. That thought comes later. Mind trumps tumour. Art trumps everything.

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Tom goes into the gallery.

In blankness of mind I remain outside. In the garden is a skeletal cypress, blanched sepia and white as if struck by lightning and still erect in its death agony. I stretch out on the grass under this tree and look straight along its length to the point of sky touched by its tip as if it might be showing me something. Some time elapses that I can’t describe at all and I am still there when he returns.

Four days later, Ev starts to talk. His sounds have been buffering at meaning for weeks, but now they emerge as his own handiwork and he sets them gently one beside another in lines. I am surprised by this development but everything in this time is unfamiliar: other people, preparing meals, the view outside the window, the first thought in the morning when I wake, Ev’s face. It is all something I must get used to, and so his talking is just another thing that has occurred that runs along in parallel to the main.

Children are born into language. They understand the nuances of speech at birth and Ev has been listening to our ceaseless chatter for months in the womb. He has been read to and sung to and laughed at. He knows the pattern of our voices and by its cadence he knows too that something is happening. My face signals it, and the sudden sparks of urgent conversation, the gaps that follow. Ev is spared the violence of knowledge but all the rest he experiences with us. We will learn to be articulate about this together. We are at the beginning.

The impact on our house feels physical. It is as if we have reconfigured the internal architecture or moved the position of the house subtly by degrees with respect to the sun so that the light falls oddly within it. But in the midst of this derangement, Ev’s vocabulary as he presents it to us is superlatively normal. He has no words for fear. He says Daddy to mean either of us, kee for monkey and Oh no! at all upsets. Ssss serves for snake, the letter S, and any linear thing like a belt or bit of his railway track. He says click for light and sta for monster, gakator for tractor and soon has a small handy clip of words like digger, apple, spoon, butter, cardi, eye, toast, brushSeem means machine. He can do two, three and four.

And in a way that is entirely normal too, we poke him and spur him on. This is what you do with children, goad them for your own enjoyment. Make a noise like a volcano, we say. Make a noise like a firework. Make a noise like a dinosaur. His eyes are merry. A small, sweet, plosive sound comes from his lips, after each entreaty the same noise, a breath out and a consonant mixed with spit.


It is my birthday. One week on. We go to a restaurant and take a table in the sun. Radiant September. When they are very young we do not regard our children with much clarity at the best of times and at the table I can scarcely fix Ev in my sight. He is the size of a cat; a thing of gold fur and whitened sunshine. His hands paw and pat the textures of the food as he draws each substance one by one into his mouth: sour, sweet, char, salt, pulp, oil and leaf. It is thrilling to sit with him so grown up. We are here to mark my birthday and something else besides. We make a toast, the least frivolous I will ever make.

To us. To the time that is to come.

When we get home Moses turns up to deliver the sofa. We ordered it from his shop before the diagnosis and here it is after. We can’t say no, though it is ridiculous. A second-hand sofa? No, it wasn’t us. Regime change. All deals are void. Keep the money but take it away please. But here he is maneuvering it up the stairs before we can do anything about it. We have guests and five of us sit flattened, glasses in hand, on the other two sofas in the room where it is to go. When Moses sets it down, it looks as if it has always been here. We decide that it may stay. More guests can come to sit shiva. It will make room for more sitters.


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, hisses, clicks 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, lists from subsequent parties, lone figures and friends from more recent, interlocking spheres of the social. We do not edit but add. It is construction work and we are going for solidity: mass, weight and number. Some, who provide their own reason and context or inhabit a singular niche unconnected to the rest by profession or inclination, get left off at first by accident. How on earth did we forget them? We are aware that new friends might be made and added, though it feels fraudulent to make friends who know us only in our changed state. We should whisper, This is not who we really are. The list is a net: personal, professional, loves and links, close and near, from getting warmer to very hot. Family is here too. Their names are on the computer: itemised, digitised and alphabetical. Now is their hour.

So far only a few people know. The first thing to understand is that endless retelling is overwhelming. It is boring, draining, dispiriting. A tumour is hard to speak of and harder still to hear. I don’t have anything else to talk about, but even after the first few attempts, my words sound dulled. It makes a poor recitation. Everyone who hears us wants all the details and the details will be the same: a fit – hospital – a scan – a tumour – cancer – surgery – treatment – uncertainty. The framing of the sequence can be stressed to suit different audiences or the whole might need retelling again from the beginning. Hearing can be veiled by not listening. And our friends and families have their own responses that must be attended to. That is our responsibility. We owe them. We don’t want to overburden them or frighten them off. This is our disaster. They are just being called upon to witness.

And where does the stress lie? We don’t know. The facts are not many – surgery followed by radiotherapy followed by chemo followed by monitoring. The way the facts fall depends on how you tell it. Is it a story of disaster directly or a version of survival? What route does it take? Is it a story of duration? We don’t want to give people the wrong idea but what is the idea? The thing is an ugly knot of accuracy and projection, dead weight and measured hope. Tied up in there somewhere are the statistics. Tom is beginning to describe it. I can barely speak. So together we write them a message in the form of an email.

14 September 2008
Dear Friends

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.

At the time of the operation and after, we may need some help. We don’t know yet what form this might best take, it could be practical, or just to have our friends in contact, to be phoned up, thought of, emailed, visited.

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

With love

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. I cannot say I am prepared. I don’t have a coherent idea what Send means.

I don’t have to wait. 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. Now we are visible. We can be found. The sky has rolled back, revealing the perpetual plains below ceding into darkness. We are isolated and illuminated. From a distance, I can look into our house and see the small family inside it. How easily we may be overrun! How defenceless we are! It is pitiful.

At first, before I understand how it works, I analyse the replies forensically, sifting the words and weighing them. I am searching for signs. It is the most basic superstition, like reading tea-leaves or looking for pictures in a fire. I make instant judgements based on how the words fall and I react in proportion to how dear I hold the friendship. How much do you love us? Do you know us really? How can you protect us? I cannot help myself. I might easily hate those who fall short or whose response is lacking. We are in mortal danger and we want to bring our people near, to gather and shield us, stroke us and sing to us. Isolation is death. We will be picked off. That is certain. But email is too crude for divination. The little fonts in stubby lines cannot take it. Words merge and swim about, scarcely readable. Quickly, mercifully the judgements fall away. I have it wrong! This is not about us but about them. We are simply refracted and talked about at second-hand.

There are no rehearsals for these responses. Some have had prior experience in death but whatever they do with us is a first take. All must improvise. Some talk firmly about themselves in long and looping, myopic paragraphs. 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. Some come out wrong, missing a connection of word or tone, like an unfinished puzzle or an arrow fired off into a hedge. There are straight-up reminiscences, protestations of love and notes on shock. There are brief, businesslike missives. Thank you for keeping me informed – this is perfect and suits very well the sender, like a pair of smart breeches or brogues. Some are hapless. Some do not reply at all and nor do we think less of them. Sending is all and lack of response never deletes them. This is not a group from which you unsubscribe.

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, pressed and patted, poured and shaped to suit us. But over and above the offers of help and love, precious and determined though they are, is the fact that we are public knowledge. Our signal has been heard. By each response a friend is activated. Our message had a single note. Here is its returning chord.

It goes without saying that I am crying all through this time, except in front of Ev, before whom there seems to be nothing to cry about.



From THE ICEBERG. Used with permission of Grove Atlantic. Copyright © 2016 by Marion Coutts.

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