The edges of the photograph were the same shade of yellow that her hair used to be. She'd never thought of herself as blonde; its connotations of low-intelligence irked her. It was in that moment that she realised the irony of this. She'd always been yellow, like the nicotine stained-edges of her fingers.
Before she came to El Perelló, on the Spanish coast, she'd been reading about the burial traditions of non-Western cultures. The sky burial, practised by Tibetan monks, resonated with her. To be given to nature so brutally seemed beautiful to her. It was a shame that she had only two options: cremation or interment. How was she supposed to decide? The act of having the flesh stripped from her bones and her eyes pecked to mush seemed like the way to go.
The photograph rested between her palm and thumb. Her fingertips traced the curve of her own face – even in youth she hadn't been pretty. The photo had been taken on her twenty-second birthday. It wasn't a particularly special day, they'd drunk warm gin and lemonade out of plastic cups on Brighton beach, and thrown stones at cans placed on the support beams of the pier.
In March two-thousand-and-three, the same year she was given her first diagnosis, that pier burnt down. The doctors said they'd 'caught it on time', as though the disease was some kind of explosive fish, and she was clear two years later. Everything had already exploded by the time she was diagnosed with inoperable tumours in both breasts.
The people in the photo were now either dead or married with grandchildren. The dead had died young - they hadn't been selective in their consumption of illegal substances. It didn't matter what they swallowed, smoked or snorted. They lived and died in pretty corpses.
She often imagined how she would look once she was dead. This morbid curiosity led her to watch videos on human decomposition, and read medical journals whose focus was death and dying. Somehow, she felt this prepared her for her own death. It certainly organised the mystery of the dying process into logical steps, but it didn't change the fact that by her next birthday, her body would be a bloated, blackened mess.
A toddler filled a bucket with wet sand not five feet from her. The boy slapped the sand from his hands onto the bib of his dungarees before rubbing the sun from his eyes with sand speckled fists. His skin whitened around his knuckles, exposing their delicate bones. Her thoughts turned to her own bones. They had failed her - her bones and everyone else.
She closed her eyelids against the sun and exhaled as though trying to expel something destructive from her body. They were of no importance to her now, she'd die in sun drooling and shitting herself before they had the chance to miss her.
They'd spent the nineties snorting cocaine off toilet seats in dirty London clubs. The eighties had been spent experimenting with their identities as they were defined by fashion - the post-punk/grunge look of eighty-nine was particularly memorable, along with her Robert Smith circa nineteen-eighty-five look. They'd embraced subcultures, integrated into opposing cliques. She'd sucked dick in the back of a Mini Metro for a fiver more than twice, and she'd felt the relief of going home and shutting the door on the world after a three day squat party – reeking of cider and vomit and wearing (what had a high probability of being) a tramp's jacket. If happiness is relative the she was relatively happy at her most destructive.
She stroked the puckered edge of the scar poking over the top of her dress and looked at her nipples. They were darker than before, and not in the right place. Her dress betrayed her. It revealed more than the near-dead should show and nothing at all. The place where her breasts used to be was a dead zone – an uneven landscape pitted with scars. The only features that made it recognisable as a chest were her pink scraps of nipples – their nerve endings cut and incinerated. Cremation would be like paying homage to her tits.
She'd gone past worrying about her external representation but cancer was her best look yet. Androgyny looked good on her. She laughed at this thought, startling the boy who was so intent on perfecting the intricate architecture of his castle that he'd been oblivious to her presence. He squinted against the sun and smiled.