For this flash fiction story I lucked out and was assigned romance- a genre I don’t read…or write. The object was a locket and the setting was a nursing home. These prompts made feel very tired all of a sudden but I plugged away at my story. I built the story around food and memory, which I felt comfortable doing, and consequently I didn’t have to spend much time on the ‘lovey’ part. The judges really liked this one.
Every morning it was the same. The strawberry jelly was pale and thin and melted to sugar water in her mouth. The apples were stewed for too long and with too much sugar, and they held none of the tartness she longed for. Marella sighed and wriggled her toes in weak protest. Her firm bed was a long way from the spring orchard of her youth and her feet in heavy socks could barely remember the sensation of dew-crisp grass. She had spent so many years alone in this place that being alone had become who she was.
Lunch was another beige feast. Cardboard luncheon meat, pale corn kernels, the muted red-browns of three bean mix and a splodge of grainy potato salad. The little dining hall was a long way from the red cedar table at the back of their favourite pub where she would meet him and they would devour smoked bacon soup or relish the vinegar sweetness of a crisp pickled onion with bread and sharp crumbly cheese. She would eat him with her eyes as they drank mugs of warm Guinness followed by slow malty kisses. But he was long gone now, and she had not been able to follow him so easily to the grave.
In the evening the orderly wheeled in another insipid offering. A plastic plate kept warm under a matching plastic dome. When she lifted the lid, watery condensation ran in rivulets back onto the waterlogged beans, carrots and thin gravy that drowned a quiver of grey meat, long dead. She longed for their days of courting, midnight feasts by firelight, exotic spices, strange vegetables and strong red wine. She would watch his fingers and tongue as he sucked the marrow from the bones. They would drink Turkish coffee, short and sweet, and talk until the orange dawn cracked open a new day. Now the days were interminable.
The new chef caused quite a stir with some of the residents of Coronation Terrace. The men, for the most part, did not like his effeminate countenance, his long womanly fingers or the fact he wore a round silver locket around his neck. The women simply did not know what to make of the young man. Marella was fascinated by his youth and the light way he seemed to spring about as he introduced himself. She thought he smelt like spiced peaches and clean washing. She was not ready for the intense feeling of warmth she felt when he held her hand between both of his and looked her in the eye.
That night she dreamt for the first time in a long time. She floated to a numb and comfortable place where two new lovers were wrapped in a feather quilt, drinking smoky single malt scotch and making those whispered pledges, those ethereal building blocks for a life together. She was restless when she woke and refused to leave her room. She loved him, she needed him, and he was gone. She would often go without food when she was feeling like this and her cold longing would last for days before she let someone shove some nourishing slop between her lips. But today the new chef delivered the breakfast tray to Marella’s room himself. Her body didn’t move but her eyes following as he moved around the room. He touched his hand to his locket.
“There’s a secret spice inside this locket.” She raised an eyebrow. “Promise me you’ll try your breakfast…”
When he had been gone a long while, Marella gently bought the tray closer. It looked as if bubbles had become trapped in the citrus jelly cup and beside it two apricot halves glowed like an impressionist painting. When she lifted a weak spoon to her tongue, she was transported.
It was the toast on their wedding day. He looked nervous, his hand trembled as he held the stem of the glass and a light sweat glistened on his top lip. When he looked at her, everyone else in the room faded to a blur. The room shifted and settled, leaving only the two of them. He looked into her eyes, his mouth moving in a gentle rhythm, matched by the heavy slow beating of her heart.
For lunch the chef bought a soup of spring vegetables, just like the one she made fresh from the garden on their first anniversary. She’d cut everything so small that it barely needed cooking- beans, fennel, peas, leeks and sweet white-purple spring onions- and she’d lifted the flavour to heaven with a sprinkle of lemon thyme.
Marella was growing tired now, but she waited for the evening meal with a deep longing. When he bought the plate to her room she inhaled deeply and was swept back to Sri Lanka where they travelled on their first overseas holiday. White rice, oil-dry crisp pappadums and a saffron- red curry perfumed with cardamom, cloves and cinnamon. The scent had lingered on her clothes, her hair and on his lips. The tang of pineapple sambal, the dark salt of dried anchovies, and the smoke of dried chilli paled against the passion of their lovemaking as the silk curtains stirred in the haze of the late afternoon.
When the chef came in for the last time, she felt so content that it was only a gentle flutter of her eyelashes that acknowledged his presence. He left the offering of Turkish delight and closed the door behind him.
There had been so many roses at his funeral; white, yellow, red, pink. On the day she had been mute, a shell, a whisper lost on a howling wind. She had shut herself away as the flowers faded and the pinks and reds turned brown and withered, her own life shrinking on the stem.
She finally let herself taste the scent now, the delicate rosewater, and she opened herself at last.