Stewed apples and custard. Yoghurt, strawberry, or apricot flavoured and squeezed from a tube. Hot water flavoured with stock or a little miso. These are the things she will eat now. Mashed potato dropped off the menu a week ago, followed by lentil soup.
In the morning, my sister searches frantically for ideas for things to take, scrolling through recipe websites and rifling through cupboards, eventually resorting to blending an avocado with grey powder from a packet to form a bitter smoothie that will certainly be refused. My father finds her in the kitchen pouring it from the blender into a flask and says, gently, “Let’s leave that here.” Her head lowers in defeat.
We pile into the car to the hospital and traipse through the beige corridors that lead to the ward, empty-handed but for yoghurt tubes and cool gel patches that we will place on her forehead.
We sit with her, taking turns to speak, to stroke her hand, to offer lemon-flavoured boiled sweets or sips of orange squash.
I am stunned by the calm in our voices, the steadiness of our fleshy, muscular fingers as they become interwoven with her skeletal ones. My voice does not waver as I tell her of a sparrow that has been pecking seeds from the birdfeeder she put up in the garden, and see a smile pull at the corners of her mouth.
The things we say are always in the past tense. No one dares mention the future until the final moment when we say, as cheerily as we can, “See you tomorrow!” She nods and smiles. If she is wondering the same as us – whether tomorrow will arrive – she does not let on.
“Watch what you’re doing, try to eat your dinner,” dad will say to her, lingering a moment longer than us at the door to her room, just managing to keep the desperation from his voice.
At home, in the evening, our own diet comes into focus, for we must keep up our strength, too. That is what the nurses, with their world-weary demeanours and stern voices, say. Compliant in our almost-grief, we take their words to heart.
For dinner, we eat shop-bought pies from foil tins with oozing molten centres containing scraps of soya meant to resemble meat. Combined with thin, salty gravy, the pastry turns to mush and sticks to the roof of my mouth. The broccoli we have with them is boiled so soft it slides down my gullet. On weekends – takeaways. Egg-fried rice, chow mein and spring rolls give us protruding bellies and the reassurance that we will be sustained by fat and salt for a good while longer.
Between meals, enamel-eroding fizzy sweets provide energy for hanging out loads of washing and vacuuming floors. The house is tidier than it has ever been. Family packets of posh crisps with flavours like roast beef and balsamic vinegar distract us during quiet evenings in front of the television. We are deserving of these treats, we tell ourselves with absolute conviction.
My middle is growing wide and squashy, my ankles thickening, becoming indistinguishable from my calves. I stare in the mirror as though at a stranger, fascinated but unsurprised by this transformation of my body to coincide with the transformation in my self. From carefree to careworn. Slender to stout. Mothered to motherless.
At night I slip easily into sleep and dream consistently, mercifully, of food. Of eating until my overstuffed body aches, my ribs shift, and my tongue stings from spice and heat. The dream meals bear no resemblance to those of my real life. I have never had them, nor will I; at least not anytime soon. Each night the fantasy changes.
- Fried fish tacos doused in mayonnaise eaten on a beach in Mexico.
- Oily red curry with whole chillies floating in it, served with rice, jewelled with black cumin seeds.
- Thick-crusted cherry pie from an American diner, the kind with black and white checked floors and neon signs. Served with vanilla custard.
- Long tables laden with spits of roasting meat (though I am a vegetarian).
- Swirls of spaghetti coated in orange-coloured sauce piled high on silver platters.
- Towers of pastel-coloured ice cream spheres in frosted glass bowls.
Sometimes, when I awake, I lie still for a moment, eyes shut, the smells from the dream meal lingering in my nostrils, the flavours tingling on my tongue. The fantasy fades, gradually, and I am left hungry for a time when carnal pleasures will become realities again. My cavernous belly growls. I open my eyes.
Downstairs, in the kitchen, I pour almond milk over a bowl of bran flakes.
Even though she is thin, she is not pale. Her cheeks retain their pink colour. Her hair, while limp, has a glossy sheen.
We start to wonder if food is really needed for survival. If she might be getting all she needs from sips of tea and the fluids flowing into her through clear, slender tubes. If she might be able to remain, permanently, in this quiet, liminal state, the cancer stymied on its journey around her body by the drugs they are filling her with. I wonder how much longer I can stand the waiting.
Then, late one night, the hospital calls. A voice tells us, gently, to return.
We are suddenly unprepared, panicky, slipping out of pyjamas and into shoes before piling into the car, filled with fear that we are forgetting something important. But what? There is nothing to bring her now.
In the room we gather around the bed where she lies, asleep, chest rising and falling almost imperceptibly. We’ve been gifted an extra chair by a nurse, so no one is made to stand this time.
We ignore the ginger biscuits and cashew nuts that lie open on the table at her bedside, which we picked at absentmindedly during past visits. Our bodies are interested, now, only in expulsion – of fluids, utterances, groans. These come for hours until emptied, husk-like, we recline in our chairs, or slump forward, torsos resting on the bed, hands clasping for hers.
Her still body – as though sensing our exhaustion and wanting to help – grows ever so slightly stiller.
Fresh, familiar pain washes over us, as unsparing as the bright sunlight that is now streaming through the window. For somehow, morning has arrived.
At home, an indeterminable number of hours later, we sit in the living room. It is chilly and desolate, like a place lain empty for years. Sleep eludes us, but the time for phone calls, for planning, scheduling, organising, has yet to arrive.
“Shall we order pizza?” Dad says, eventually. The first words that have been spoken in an age; they sound strange and distant in our ears, like noises emitted underwater. Our sobs turn to sniffled laughter at their incongruousness. I discover I am also nodding in answer to his question.
The pizza, when it arrives, is crisp-crusted and drowning in cheese.
We tear into it, ravenous, relishing the chew of blackened dough between our teeth, the salty tang of tomato on our tongues. Not minding as the scorching hot mozzarella strips the skin from the rooves of our mouths. We let our minds empty, briefly, of pain, as our bodies refill. Surprised by our hunger. Overtaken by it.
About the author:
Emma Raymond is a curator and writer of fiction. She lives in London. Her work has appeared in The London Reader, and Flash Fiction Magazine, among other places. She enjoys running, reading and baking.