Synesthesia and time passing
A FEW GRAINS OF SAND
Robert L Fielding
They had discussed the thing rationally, and had both come to the same conclusion. It was better that she didn't know. She would only make herself worse. It was best.
The results of the initial tests had confirmed their worst fears. It was malignant, an ugly word, the two consonants in the middle forcing the back of the tongue hard against the soft palate for the 'g', and then immediately touching the hard palate with the front of the tongue for the 'n'. An ugly word formed by an action similar to vomiting.
The treatment was drastic, penetrating rays, invisible, ravaging through healthy cells and diseased alike. Destroying good and bad, malignant and benign, at the press of a button on a white console.
"We can only delay a malignant glioma, which is what your mother has." The doctor stepped back, as if the words he had just spoken would rebound upon him, condemning him to die a slow, painful death. His expression was openly sympathetic; only his eyes gave a clue to his real thoughts, and the nature of the reality the three people now had to face. His eyes were steely grey, impassive, unsmiling. He had vouchsafed similar news to countless sufferers, and to literally thousands of distressed relatives. This was one aspect of his work he had never been able to come to terms with. He had examined the cancer. He had scrutinised the guilty cells under a microscope. He had seen them, and now he could never inform either victim or relative without visualising the killer cells multiplying their way through so much human tissue like scythes through summer grass.
His eyes betrayed what he always felt at such times as these, and he turned away that son and daughter might not observe his distress.
Her life was nearly over. It had been a long one, but this fact made nothing easier to bear for son and daughter, who both knew that it was nearly time. She had had a good life, had brought up two children, and seen them in their turn,bear their own, and bring them up as she had done. The two little boys pulled at their granny's coat as she sat on a chair looking out over the garden she had helped Kenneth to tend, until he had passed quietly away. Now she found she solace in her two grandchildren, and in the garden, still in all its glory, sadly in need of tending. The drooping heads of the faded roses, white Peace, scarlet Harry Wheatcroft both in need of pruning, to make way for new buds that would burst into colour again and again until the summer was over, and the beeches at the far end of the lawn dripped in browns and duns.
But now, with the roses splashing colour in riotous splendour across the length and breadth of the front garden, she felt its glory, and she felt her husband's presence in the long, ordered beds of flowers, perennially sharing the spring and the summer of their lives, fading into autumn. She felt his absence too, remembered his long thin hands carefully rooting out the weeds that would have smothered the life of the healthy flowers and shrubs he had planted with care and diligence.
Merely thinking of her husband made here senses start, and she again noticed how memories evoked taste and smell, and the images of their life together in the garden, in the days before kneeling became too painful for both of them. The smell of the roses, and the rare whiff of tobacco from his pipe as he pondered his work, the taste of Assam tea smoking in the china set upon the white marble ballustrade at the edge of the lawn.
She had always had that, a peculiar ability to sense taste and smell, provoked by a phrase, a word, or a memory, and now she could smell roses, the tangy scent of newly cut grass, and the smell of ash from Kenneth's pipe as he knocked it out into a wet scoop on the top of the wall that surrounded their home.
She might have gone back into the house, to shy away from the senses that filled her nostrils and her mind. She might have tried to avoid thinking of a time that was past, but rather than forget, she breathed in deeply to smell, to taste a sorrow that filled her, hearing their grandchildren playing around her, seeing life continuing all around, the life her husband had bestowed on a thousand blooms, whose scent now reminded her of him.
Of course she felt a little ill, off colour was how she had put it, and so she had gone to see Dr. Waite.
"It comes to us all," he had said, "old age. It has come to me, and it has come to you." This was his way, feigning an absolute lack of any sympathy, almost trying to sound as if he couldn't care less. She knew different. He continued in like fashion.
"Why it only seems like yesterday when I would finish the morning surgery, take the car out, call for that husband of yours, then drive at breakneck speed up the A6, climb Coniston Old Man, and still be bright enough to take Evening Surgery as well, and maybe afterwards, think nothing of rounding off the day with a walk over to Lydgate for a drink or two with him. Yesterday I could do it, but today, why it takes me all my time to come here just the once, and have the patience to sit and listen to you villagers with your imaginery this, that and the other, and now this. You of all people, complaining that you can't get down to do the herbacious border."
He was in full flow now, and a stranger would have taken his mood for rudeness and ill temper. She knew him better, and listened.
"Let the damned borders grow wild, give the badgers and the foxes their land back. That husband of yours took it off them when he built the blasted place. It was always a wild and windy corner up there. It's a wonder you managed to get anything to grow there in the first place, let alone a fine young family, and the best display of dahlias every year. Away with you woman, and thank the Lord you've still got your wits about you, and your family to look after you, now that.." He could not bring himself to say what he wanted, and mumbled something as an ending. He had finished. He had worked it all out of his system, and he had a tear in his eye from remembering her family, and how she had met her husband. He remembered their courtship, their eternally walking along Winterford Road, arm in arm in all weathers. He remembered, as she did, and they both realized what the other was thinking, and quickly looked away from each other, the better to leave well alone. He turned back to her, a look of compassion uncharacteristically flickering across his face.
"Window boxes." She looked puzzled. " You could try window boxes for your blessed flowers, if you must have them." Then he added.
"Get that son of yours to knock a few together for you. Then you can have your herbacious borders at eye level, instead of kneeling down in wet grass. There's your answer." She left quickly, only giving him a nod for thanks. He returned the nod, as he had always done, and it meant more than words. It meant sharing a time, and a place. It meant a shared experience of life, undefined, and probably incapable of being defined, yet tangible for those who shared the same unspoken knowledge, whose feet had stood in the same soil. She left, comforted by familiar affections that had the power to overcome the unfamilar sensations she had somewhere deep inside her self, where her dead husband still dwelt.
The bleakness of the winter had passed, and the beeches at the end of the lawn were slowly drying out. The time had come to plant out the seedlings from their little pots in the shed. The children had done most of the work, although they had rushed a little in their impatience to get out into the sunshine again. Still, the seedlings had appeared, and now they were reaching up, pale green, searching for the light.
The new window boxes lay in the corner of the shed, oblong boxes of pinewood, just long enough to fit in the windows overlooking the side garden. They would get more sunlight there. She moved one of them, and slowly picked it up and put it onto the low wooden bench in front of her chair. The wood was new, still green in places, and distorted because it had been cut early. She lowered her face to the green and yellow pinewood. She smelt it, and breathed in deeply. Images grew out of the fragrance of pine that filled her nostrils and her mind.
The bags of peat lay waiting. The window boxes would have to be filled. She could do it. She had done it a thousand times. She looked at her hands, her fingers were bony and stiff, gnarled by the arthritis. She knew that holding wet earth would hurt her for days. She picked up the green and silver trowel, feeling the familar smoothness of its handle. The varnish had worn off most of it, but it was still warm and smooth, even on cold days. She opened one of the bags. The string threaded through the top to keep it secure had been cut, and it was easy to unfold the top to see the brown peat in folds, dark, within the thick brown paper sacking.
She plunged the trowel deep into its softness, and brought a lump of it out. It had the fine, delicate structure of sphagnum moss running through it, and it reminded her of the leaf patterns on chinaware. She thought of the peat cutters standing in their square cut trenches, troubled by the wind and the rain that tore at their poor clothing. She brought the lump of peat up to look at it more closely. It smelt of bracken in the wet, and reminded her of journeys time had overlaid, like footprints under snow. She uncovered them.
The peat wasn't as firm as she would have liked. She knew it needed to be firmer, but she hadn't the strength, either in her arms or her hands to push it down any harder. She was tired out from the exertion of filling the box. The seedlings would be smothered by the sphagnum peat, and so she looked for the bag of sand. It was away in the corner, out of reach. She got up and felt its deadweight, and rather than try to move it, she thrust the trowel down into it. She sprinkled sand over the peat. It glinted in the weak sunlight as it fell from the trowel's rounded edges onto the peat below. She closed her eyes. Memories showered down like sand through an hour glass, and every sparkling grain that gaily peppered down onto the conical pile of her days brought her long life nearer to its end. Her eyes were closed, but the glinting sand had burnt an image into her eyes, and the shining points of light stirred her.
The boxes looked lovely. They made the house somehow lighter, and the fragrance of the flowers filled the hall and stairs. It percolated up to the bedrooms, and strangled the smells of cooking which emanated from the kitchen. The whole house had become a garden. She now kept the lounge door open. She loved even a glimpse of greenery, and through the long evenings when she did not feel like going out, she could still imagine and enjoy her beloved garden, to which the badgers and foxes were beginning to return.
It was becoming neglected, and although her son and her daughter, and the children came up at the weekends to help, it was still sadly not enough. The most that could be done was to ensure that the grass did not get overlong and that the borders, full of the shrubs and roses that Kenneth had planted, were not overcome by rank weeds and grass.
As she sat alone, reading the evening paper, or listening to the radio, she could sense the life in the boxes of peat and sand. She thought of the growing plants in the window boxes taking in the air she was breathing out, and using the carbon and the oxygen to provide her with new air to breathe in. They were all together in the house, in a mutual life support system. She knew the flowers would not fail her, and so she tended them carefully, watering them regularly and giving them the nutrients they needed to grow. They were her plants, and so she took care to give them what they needed to flourish, and give her joy. She thought of her life, she had given nourishment and love, and most of all, she had given life to the souls that had filled her life. Now Kenneth had gone, but there was still her children, and her children's children, and the plants that surrounded her. They had all given her so much, and they were still giving, and accepting what they needed to survive when she would no longer be here to look after them.
"Malignant is," the doctor paused," an ugly word, but as you both know, what your mother has is malignant, and," he paused again, "your mother's glioma is in its advanced stage."
Both son and daughter hung their heads while the doctor pronounced his sentence. He continued after a period that seemed too long.
"Although now there is no hope, I can tell you that she is not in any pain. She will feel no discomfort, other than the cerebral discomfort of knowing that she must leave.." His voice petered out, and a soft gurgling noise emanated from his throat, as if his vocal chords would not permit the words to pass into audible sounds.
His memories stirred in him, and he coughed to disguise his emotions.
"Her life has been a good one," his voice was still wavering, but it was steadier with every word.
"Your mother, and of course, your father," he coughed again, "were, erm are er both very good friends of mine." He paused again, looking down at the floor. He didn't really know how to continue. He knew what it was he wanted to say, but he could not find the words, and almost gasped at the enormity of what it was he wanted to say but just couldn't. Stuart could feel the doctor's plight, and eased his way.
"We know, Doctor, we know," and he smiled to reassure the man, that they did indeed know. He remained confused and silent.
They left, and only the memories remained, inscribed indelibly on the minds of son and daughter, grandchildren, and friends. The hourglass had only a few grains of sand, and those were about to run helter skelter out onto a little conical pile.