Spiced lentil soup
I am in awe when Marie video calls me. She lives about four hours away in the car. Yesterday, she showed me the old trees in the deer park. The gnarly oaks have been there far longer than we have. The phone reception isn’t very good where she lives. I blame it on the space conkers.
I looked for other places of interest in her locality on the internet. There are some hills where a music festival takes a place and a village green where a film was shot. There are towns with cobbled streets and buildings with their own historical characters. Some of them are magpie houses.
She phones me today from the quarry I mentioned. She had forgotten about this beauty spot. Marie is glowing after the bike ride. The slight breeze is fanning her hair as the sun bounces off the brilliant white chalk. I am flabbergasted. “That is so thoughtful and romantic,” I say.
Marie takes me everywhere with her video phone as I sit in my high-backed orthopaedic chair at home. “I must get back now,” she smiles. “There’s not many people about.” It is quiet. I sit feeling warm and in love. What a romantic gesture!
She texts me after an age. I have been worrying because the country roads are perilous for cyclists. She had popped to the post office on the way home and is now sat at her table with a bowl of spiced lentil soup. That memory has really stuck as it is steeped, as the hills, in a strong emotion.
“You normally have to turn the oven on to cook,” I laugh. Marie is so appreciative that someone has made her tea after work. “No-one has done that for ages,” she says. We eat our wraps filled with coleslaw, cucumber and slices of cheese. Marie has her obligatory sweet chilli sauce. “Tell me what happened again,” she continues.
“I’ve got cervical myelopathy but I didn’t know. I went all through the army without a glitch and worked in care for over 12 years. That’s including working with people in mental health with The National Health Service. I was alright until I started running three years ago. Then I started getting pins and needles. I went to the doctor’s. I went to the doctor’s again. I thought it was residual stress or something psychosomatic. At last, the doctor sent me for an MRI. Then I got a phone call on a Friday afternoon. I couldn’t take it in because of my pains and the shock.”
“The doctor told me I had cervical myelopathy. I was born with it. It’s congenital which means it happened at birth. My neck is too narrow in the middle and all the nerves seem to get sore. The pains affect my peripheral nervous system because the nerves run from the brain to my arms and legs through the narrow part in my neck.”
I told her about the operation. I was so scared that I had arranged my will and a funeral plan. But on the day, I was trying not to watch morning television in the waiting room as I lay on the bed. They gave me oxygen. Then, five hours later, I woke up from swimming with dolphins, elsewhere, back on the ward. I was gagging for a brew. I tried to lift my head off the pillow but my neck felt really weak. I was wired and bandaged with a tube protruding from the front of where they’d removed two discs. There are two discs outstanding. One of the ‘actioned’ discs decompressed but the second one didn’t. I just take it day-to-day. It’s degenerative but I try to be positive.” Marie tells me how strong I am. She says that she feels safe when I’m with her. That makes me feel stronger.
We have pet names but Marie knows I’m a private man. After she finishes work, I meet her outside with salad, vegetable samosas and her birthday prosecco. I remember cutlery and two tumblers from my kitchen. She is pleased to see me.
We head to the squirrel park through narrow roads and heavy traffic. I turn her radio off. She’s used to that by now. “Oh my goodness! I could have been raped today,” I said. “It’s a good job I didn’t answer the door in the buff. I didn’t think it was you.” It was a diminutive old lady with glasses. She said, “I’m Linda” and burst in looking for a leak in the bathroom. She totally caught me by surprise.
Marie laughed as I continued to call her “Londa.” It was a standing joke since Marie had texted ‘Hoya’ for ‘Hi-ya’ once. We managed to park eventually but the ticket machine required a PhD to enter the registration number and other details.
We laughed at the squirrel antics and tried to coax one with our cucumber. “I should have brought some nuts,” I laughed. Apparently, if you drop nuts on hard standing, the squirrels come and get them. The park was sunny and busy. We ate our food then walked to the old remains. I felt really stiff as Marie pointed from the diagram on the board to where the pantry used to be. There wasn’t much left of the castle now.
One of our favourite pictures was taken in the squirrel park. Marie says she looks like an elf and I look like a giant at a festival. She takes really interesting photos.
A Chocolate Rabbit
It is round about Easter when Marie brings her daughters to visit at my flat. I struggle to open the carton of cranberry juice. “Are you struggling?” I tell Marie that I have become more clumsy as I drop things, stumble and feel stiff when it’s cold. My pains are unbearable at times, too, and I sleep more because of the increased medications. “I’m alright,” I say, “I’m a strong chap.”
I pour the juice into tumblers for Katie and Joanne. They are always smiling and polite, I notice, from having said “hello” a few times on video calls. Joanne hides behind her mam on the sofa whilst Katie talks about school and the youth club she attends. Marie’s eldest is throwing and catching a bouncy ball as she talks. Joanne peeks out and takes some interest.
The ball has an iris printed on it. Katie catches the blood-shot eye. I joke about bouncing it off the ceiling. Marie mentions about how much of a person’s eyeball must be hidden. I say it’s like isostasy in mountains. We only see the tip above ground. “There’s a lot we don’t see.”
People don’t see my pains. Sometimes, I wince or cry out but people either don’t see it or choose not to. We can never really know what is going on in a person’s life, below the surface, unless they choose to tell us. Marie can see that I’m deteriorating. I mask a lot but I’m a positive chap. The girls are full of life and make me laugh.
I find some Easter eggs I chose the day before and the girls are really appreciative. Marie gives me a chocolate rabbit. “Do you know what they do with the rabbits that don’t get sold? They snap an ear off and cover them in Santa Claus foil.” It was nice to see the kids at last.
The last time I had a date with Marie was just before she visited with her children. Being a man, I didn’t have enough toilet roll in so we passed through all the Saturday night revellers for our necessities. We were hungry, too. I hadn’t been to the Turkish Restaurant since I took my kids on my birthday.
I was in pains but I felt like a rock star. I was also more than aware that Marie wasn’t wearing any knickers. They were on my bedroom floor. It was freezing but she said, “I’m wearing stockings.” We joked about one of the Mr. Men with long arms as we were seated near the window. Marie and I tore through the vegetarian kebabs with rice and a side portion of chips.
Looking back, our selfie looks like we were on holiday. Marie is looking over her shoulder with a huge cocktail in view. The glass has brightly coloured straws and parasols which were in keeping with the mediterranean decor of the restaurant. I had my usual latte in a glass mug with a tiny handle. We had the sweetest baklava afterwards. I can still taste the almonds and honey. What did we talk about? We mentioned horse racing and fox hunting. Some of the horses had been injured on television during the steeplechase. I think the vegetarian option had prompted animal welfare chat again. Our last date was so varied and colourful with great food.
Nil by Mouth
I am on peg-feed now. I don’t really have any concept of night or day. It’s more a fleeting timelessness. Sometimes, I feel like I am floating, but beyond that, I can’t feel any sensations, even when I’m being bathed or hoisted. I am only anchored to this life by the weight of my memories now.
I think I can smell Marie’s favourite scent. But is her perfume a memory as she brushes her fingers through my hair? I only know she’s trying to comfort me because she is giving one of her commentaries. “I am stroking your hair and thinking about our lives.” I listen to her. Listening is all I can do. It hurts that I can’t communicate or tell her “I love you.” I’m just lucky that she spends time with me in my bedroom that I can’t see.
She tells me that she remembers that I went to Canada, with the army, and fed gophers some biscuits on the sub-zero prairie. She says how brave I am to have driven a wagon through cross-country snow. I feel happy but I can’t raise a smile.
She talks about how we each juggled separate university studies whilst raising young children. “That’s temerity,” she says. Then she is laughing about the time we had to nip out, late at night, for a plaster. “The garage forecourt assistant must have thought we wanted contraceptives at that hour.” I feel happy but I can’t convey that.
Marie sings our favourite songs and reads from children’s books. Then after I try to follow the competitive squirrels, that finally learn to share, she might read an excerpt from a novel I like. She has all the time in her world.
She knows me well enough to know that I’d still want to share my experiences. It hurts me that I can’t communicate that. But I’m happy that she persists and keeps me updated. Marie knows me well.
Marie talks about what she has eaten and what the girls are doing. Joanne volunteers with rescue animals and is studying for a veterinary degree. Her eldest, Katie, is still happily finding her feet. “Have you ‘seen’ your girls?” I can’t answer her. But my eldest talks to Marie and keeps her up-to-date on their visits and my health. My children keep me safe in this disappearing life.
Marie sings. She sings until it’s time to go. She kisses me, pulls her coat on, and I drift until her next visit.
I feel weightless as I head towards the pin-prick of light that grows brighter and wider until it engulfs me. My smile gets bigger as the last of the pain melts and I am weightless. It is all bright. The brightest.
I look for the narrow gate. But he asks me softly, “What difference did you make?” I felt confident. “I loved and acknowledged others.” He smiled. He saw what is in my heart and told me to return another day. I visit my girls. I go to Marie.
She is sobbing at her kitchen table. She looks so small because I am not governed by material laws. It would have broken my heart before. But now I am no longer following the same rules. She blows her nose. Marie dries her reddened eyes. She looks confused. I whisper. I whisper but she can not hear me on an auditory level.
Marie senses something and smiles. She laughs. Then she gets up from her chair and goes straight to her car keys. “I knew they were there all along,” she tells Katie. Then I wait for her. But it doesn’t feel like waiting.
Mark Anthony Smith was born in Hull. He graduated from The Open University with a BSc (Hons) in Social Sciences. His writing has appeared in Spelk, Nymphs, Fevers of the Mind and others. In 2020 he is due to appear in Horror Anthologies published by Eerie River and Red Cape Publishing. ‘Hearts of the matter’ is available on Amazon.