PHANTOM PAINS

BY RUTH GUTHRIE

‘Mum?’

‘Mmm?’

‘Mum, I’ve been thinking.’

‘Mmmm?’

‘I don’t think there really is a tooth fairy.’

‘Oh?’

‘No… I think it’s really Father Christmas.’

*

The first time, there’s just one.

 I lift the corner of her pillow, stoop and incline my head. I see it lying there, like a gristly milk tooth, waiting for some supernatural being, or a mother, to claim in exchange for a shiny pound coin. This little piggy went wee, wee, wee, bleeding into the linen. My hand recoils.

And I’m woken, with a start by the sharp blast of documentary theme tune.

‘Could you turn it down a bit, please?’ I ask John as the closing credits roll. I unfurl my crumpled body and lever myself up from my corner of the sofa to stretch out the stiffness in my legs and flex the creakiness from my elbow. For a moment I feel giddy and I grip the chair arm to steady myself.

‘Whatever do they do with them all?’ I ask him. ’Did they say? I missed the end.’

It’s difficult to visualise so many. One’s bad enough. Even a little one. Especially one belonging to someone you love. John picks up the remote control and the scrolling list of production assistants is replaced by a rugby match. I leave the room. At half time, John joins me in the kitchen. He fills the kettle.

‘So, what do they do with them all,’ I ask again.

‘Do with what?’

‘All those feet. Those legs. The toes.’

‘How should I know? Incinerate them I should think.’

‘Suppose so. That makes sense.’ I pass him the tea bags. ‘Don’t you care?’

‘Care about what?’

‘Obesity. Type 2 diabetes. 270 amputations a week.’

‘Wasn’t it a month?’

‘What does it matter? It’s still a lot. Imagine them. Toes. Feet. Legs off at the knee. An epidemic, they said.’ I take a swig of tea. It’s too hot. I wince. Gulp air. My mouth cools, but the scalding descends slowly, as though being savoured. John passes me a cup of water.

‘You should add a drop of milk to your tea,’ he tells me, but I don’t waste calories in a cuppa.

‘Don’t you care about her?’ I ask him. ‘She’s our daughter. She could be one of them. Imagine. Even it was just her little toe it would be unthinkable. And it would be your fault.’

‘My fault?’

‘Why won’t you mention it to her? She still listens to you. I’d just get my head bitten off.’ He stirs in his two sugars. ‘Don’t you care?’ I ask again. ‘She’s huge. She could develop diabetes. Lose a leg. You heard what they said on that programme.’

‘You fell asleep.’ John turns and walks back down the hallway to watch the rest of the game.

‘Who’s playing?’ I call after him. He doesn’t reply. But a few moments later he shouts from the living room,

‘She’s thirty three for God’s sake. An adult.’

Ivy, don’t you care either? Look at yourself. However did you become so big? I know you’re an adult now and make your own decisions, but what does it matter how well your career’s progressing or what a swanky flat and vibrant social life you have down there in London, if you haven’t got your health? I could help you, if only you’d answer my calls or come home once in a while. Even if you won’t listen to your old mum, don’t you read the papers or watch telly? The News? Panorama? Check it out on your laptop. Do you really want to risk an amputation?

You weren’t fat when you were a child. I made sure of that. Little Scrap, your dad called you. You would lie on your back on your blanket in front of the fire, laughing, naked after your bath, sucking on your This Little Piggy Went to Market toes. You could almost fit your whole foot in your mouth. And you grew to be such a wiry little monkey.  The moment my back was turned you’d be up that beech tree in the back garden, higher than the bedroom window. When I realised where you were, I’d put down the trowel or the washing basket and call up to you,  

‘Careful Ivy. Climb down now. How many times do I have to tell you?’ I’d shade my eyes, look up, and between the leaves I’d catch a glimpse of your lime green trainers and those bright track suits you loved to wear, moving through the branches.

‘Remember what dad says. Always maintain three points of contact.’

‘Yes mummy.’

‘Two hands and a foot, or two feet and a hand.’

‘Yes Mummy.’ And your laughter would filter down like a scalpel in the sunlight as you waved at me – with both hands – and I’d lean against the tree trunk to steady myself.

*

The next time, they’re piled high in a stainless steel bowl, like so many ripe cherries.

I set them down on the counter. One dislodges from its place and rolls onto the surface.  With index finger and thumb, I take hold of this piece of flesh and bone. I sniff it, wrinkle my nose, and hold it up to the light. The suppurating wound is festering beneath the amber crust of the toenail. My fingertip touches the bright bluey white of the bone which was once attached to the rest of the foot. Then I squeeze this little piggy. My fingers sink into the flesh. I avert my eyes, my stomach flips, and I’m awake.

John’s rattling pots downstairs. A knife on a plate. A stirring teaspoon chinks in a teacup then clatters into the sink. The kitchen radio mumbles too loudly. I peel off my sweat soaked pyjamas, roll them into a ball and bundle them into the laundry basket.

When I join John at the kitchen table, he’s checking out sports fixtures in yesterday’s paper. I pick up my magazine; it falls open at the article.

‘Which do you think she is? I ask, looking up, ‘Clinically or morbidly?’

‘Clinically or morbidly what?’

‘Obese. Haven’t you been listening?’ I take off my reading glasses and tuck a strand of hair, still wet from the shower, behind my ear. ‘How much would you say she weighs? We could work out her BMI.’ I turn back to the article. ‘Do you think she could be over 20 stone? Have you seen her latest Facebook photos?’

‘I thought she unfriended you.’

‘I can still see her public profile. She’s massive. How many stone do you think?’

John screws the lid back on the marmalade jar and licks his fingers. I gather toast crumbs from the table, brush them into the sink and rinse my hands. The sound of running water drowns out his reply.

‘Sorry, John. What did you say?’

Read more https://theshortstory.co.uk/short-story-phantom-pains-by-ruth-guthrie/

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