by Tim Love
‘OK there?’ shouts the hospital volunteer from his car.
‘It’s stuck,’ I say, leaning against my front door.
He must be twenty years older than me but he gets out, shoulder charges it half open and slips through. I hear him muttering, moving things in the passageway. The door opens.
‘It’s all this mail,’ he says, gesturing me in. ‘You must be popular.’
When I enter, smells hit me. I try to work out what they are. Perhaps it’s always been like this. He lifts my hospital bag in from the doorstep as he leaves.
‘Don’t worry Jim, you’ll get your strength back before you know it. Look after yourself.’
I wave as he drives off then slam the door and sit on the lino. From down here I can see the warped skirting board, the flaps of loose wallpaper up the stairs, the silver trails on the floor – slugs I suppose. There’s so much to do. One thing at a time they told me. I start by separating out the junk mail, counting as I make a pile. 220 envelopes. The effort makes me peckish. I check the fridge. It stinks. The light’s not on. I try the room light. Nothing. The bastards must have cut me off. I open the deep freeze. Soggy, rotten leftovers. Holding my nose, I chuck it all into a bin-liner and drag it outside the front door. While I’m in the mood I get a carrier bag for the junk mail and dump that too. Back in the kitchen I see a box of Players on the table and put that in another bag. On the way out I add the proper mail to it, dumping everything outside. A clean start. I sit at my kitchen table wondering what to do next.
In the stroke rehab ward I was the last of my bunch to leave. They were good blokes, pushing seventy at least. They knew the score, knew how lucky they’d been, even those who limped. I phone Alex. He says he can’t talk right now, but he’ll get in touch when he’s not so busy with his caravan business. Carl’s number doesn’t work. I try Matt who asks if I’d heard about Carl.
‘What’s up?’ I ask.
‘He had another one as soon as he got out, poor guy.’
Before I know what I’m doing I hang up. I’d better phone back. No, not yet. If I don’t get some food soon I’ll faint. It’ll have to be the pub.
I don’t recognise the barman. ‘Have Jake and the lads been in?’ I ask.
‘Out the back.’
The scent of fresh cigarette smoke gets stronger as I approach the beer garden. They cheer when they see me.
‘You had us worried there mate,’ says Jake, ‘How long’s it been?’
‘Five and a half weeks.’
‘Got lucky with any of the nurses?’
I remember how Ruth would sit beside me when I gave up wanting to eat.
‘Hey guys, he’s gone all shy. What are you having Jim?’
‘Go on, just the one.’
‘I’m on a diet. Doctor’s orders.’
‘Tell you what, I’ll get you a Guinness. Packed with iron. Good for the blood.’
They make room for me as they continue discussing the latest football manager sacking. I don’t know who they’re talking about.
‘Well he had it coming to him,’ Andy says.
They’re all roughly my age. Over the years people have come and gone, but nothing changes, except the smoking laws. Jake returns, puts a glass in front of me as the discussion continues.
‘I mean the board had no choice did they? Fan power. Who wants to watch a boring match each bloody week, even if they stay up?’
I take a sip, pause like a wine connoisseur waiting for the aftertaste to hit. Salami skin. Burnt porridge. After three fast gulps I feel the coolness slip down my gullet, becoming part of me.
‘Hey, where are you going Jim?’
‘Having a slash.’
‘Never could hold your liquor could you.’
In five minutes I’m looting my cupboards for grub, ripping open a cornflakes packet, filling a bowl. Needing some liquid with it, I find a ring-pull can of readymade custard and pour the yellow gloop until the cornflakes are covered, filling all the gaps.
No. I mustn’t.
I bring in the bag of mail, gathering up the hospital bag on the way, and dump them both on the kitchen table. Eenie meenie miney mo. I take the farewell present from the hospital bag, unwrap it. It’s a paper cup. A note inside says ‘The one you couldn’t crush’. Then I remember in my first week how the therapist had curled my fingers around it to test my grip. I couldn’t make a dent. In despair I’d summoned enough energy to drop it. After that the therapist helped me with my moods as well as my body. I couldn’t open my front door, but I could crush that cup now, if I wanted. If the lads at the pub had given me the pint mug that I was holding when I collapsed, they’d have been making fun of me. What have those losers done with their lives? Divorced, with kids they hardly contact. Like me. I lucky-dip into the mail bag, pull out the cigarette packet, tumble it over and over in my hand.
Poor Carl. He’d been a sound engineer, did sessions with Black Sabbath and The Tremeloes. He had bootleg tapes that he was going to post online once he’d learnt the new tech. 73, and he had all those plans. I phone Matt. No answer. No Alex either, and my phone needs charging. But is that really the actual cup I used? It looks too new. I can do something about that. I pull a fag out, light it, tap the end on the cup’s rim. No ash yet, only smoke. I watch it rising.
Tim Love’s publications are a poetry pamphlet Moving Parts (HappenStance, 2010) and a story collection By all means (Nine Arches Press, 2012). He lives in Cambridge, UK, teaching computing. His poetry and prose have appeared in Stand, Rialto, Oxford Poetry, Journal of Microliterature, Short Fiction, New Walk and more. He blogs at http://litrefs.blogspot.com/.