Short Fiction By Esther Cann
In the time I had been watching other people going to work, the individual components of my muesli were no longer floating in the milk. They had absorbed it. The oats, seeds and sultanas were now engorged and too disgusting to eat.
Recycling bins clattered outside and the engine of a large vehicle screamed. It was either a Monday or a Friday. I looked to the calendar for help, but it was still showing March. The bins would be left rudely in the middle of the path, like always, but I barely even felt annoyed.
I leaned over to switch on the radio and looked out at the window box, daffs and crocuses all flopped into a brown, papery tangle. Between them swelled bumps of green where the tulips were coming up. I hated them for their growth.
The news was soothing. It wasn’t that I welcomed the stream of terrible events, but there was a familiarity to the voice of the newsreader and the catastrophes she was announcing. I bit my thumbnail, half-listening, until the voice faltered over a word. I began to pay attention as she described the forceful explosion of an Icelandic volcano with a complicated name. I would be able to watch footage of glowing lava streaking through the air, the insides coming out, everything gone upside down.
I balanced my bowl of muesli in the sink where it would harden problematically and went to lie on my bed, reaching down to where the other set of pillows lay on the floor. I pushed them under the bed. It was getting crowded under there.
After a few hours, I watched the news on my iPad. The volcano was still erupting, sending vast plumes of ash into the atmosphere. A scientist explained that the eruption was occurring two hundred metres below a glacier. How the huge volume of meltwater was pouring back into the caldera, causing magma to cool so quickly that it shattered into billions of tiny glassy particles. I watched images of billowing ash before it cut to weather projections in different shades of blue. The jet stream swished across the screen, distributing ash over northern and central Europe.
The word airspace provoked an avalanche of worrying thoughts. Flights across Europe had been grounded. At work, we hadn’t predicted this event as even a moderately likely risk. Most policies would be affected, and the other analysts would be frantic, recalculating premiums for all volcanic-adjacent regions. Everyone would have loads to do, especially with me not being there. Images of my empty desk and harried colleagues clustered together in a huddle of guilt. My sick note could no longer be extended.
The bad feelings made it almost bearable to think of Gina, whose movements I couldn’t stop tracking, as if my inner GPS had not updated. She would be in Zurich right now at a conference. With a tug of anxiety, I combined her location with the position of the ash cloud, factoring in the necessity of her boarding a plane to come home, plus our dinner on Friday. It was a date we’d set over two months ago, just after she left. I was oriented towards it like a dog whose ball is about to be thrown.
The day before my sick note ran out, the stables rang. Listening to the woman on the other end of the phone, I stared at the dust on the ceiling rose. The weight of the duvet against my arm disappeared, the smell of the sheets peeled away, and I went really quiet, I wasn’t even thinking anything until the woman said my name twice.
“It’s Cheltenham,” she said. “He’s really not well.”
I would have to get up. Properly. He was all on his own and I had to get to him, but my bones were light like the marrow had fallen out of them. My legs could barely cross the bedroom. My mind, whenever I needed it to focus, showed me Gina balanced on one leg, putting her tights on, Gina throwing her coat over the back of the chair, Gina cleaning the kitchen with the radio on.
I got myself to the bathroom and stood in front of the shower curtain. Gina’s things would have to come out of the bath. The curtain blurred the shapes of her possessions, smoothing their edges and corners to stop them punching at me from around the flat. But it wasn’t completely effective. The plastic material with lime green squiggles reminded me of her. She’d ordered it online from IKEA and been so pleased with herself, then realised it would have to be picked up from the store. I hadn’t minded going in the car.
After clearing the shower I stood under it, head to one side, avoiding wetting my hair. The temperature had really dipped lately. Water rose to my ankles then hung there refusing to drain, even after I turned off the shower. I went for the caustic soda and then paused by the cupboard under the sink. Whatever was blocking the drain was some combination of me and Gina. Eight years of hair, skin cells and products. All melded together into something which, if I could see it, would be repulsive. But I couldn’t see it. And as a concept, I Iiked it. I put the soda crystals back under the sink. The water would drain eventually.
While dressing my head went light, but when I looked in the kitchen, the things in the fridge and the fruit bowl seemed strange and distant, objects from a still life rather than things to be eaten. I needed to make myself work properly. I had an oatcake.
In the car, I talked myself through the function of each pedal and flicked the wipers to shoo tree pollen off the windscreen. I drove the quiet way, down Spainfield Lane, through the estate, onto the tops and past the reservoir. I hadn’t been to see Cheltenham for over a month. Not intentionally, but in the same way I’d been ignoring the calls of my dad and my friends. I felt allergic to love.
Even for an old horse, he looked thin. His hay hadn’t been touched and I fluffed it up, but he hardly seemed to register I was there. I sat on the stool and rested my cheek against his dark brown hair. Belly height. The same height I had stood when he first became mine.
I don’t remember the funeral, but I remember the time we got Cheltenham. It was the summer holidays and Dad let me visit the stables as much as I wanted, which was every day, and Cheltenham was happy and I was happy and as long as I was brushing him or talking to him or out riding, there was nothing wrong with that. At home, I pierced dad with aspects of myself I was unaware of. The arch of mum’s eyebrows, the soft wave of her hair, the dark flecks in the irises. I knew, in the way children do, that I had become inherently painful to him.
Cheltenham made a cuffing snort as if drawing in snot while expelling it at the same time. Then he went quiet. After a while, he leaned into the pressure of my face and I braced my neck, shoulder resting into the solid curve of him. I’m sorry for not coming sooner, I told him silently. You’re going to be ok. It’s probably a UTI, which you’ve had before. It can be cleared with antibiotics. Definitely.
Cheltenham stood very still. We waited like this until the vet came.
Back home, I lay on the sofa with my legs up the back, tips of my hair resting on the floor. Instead of gathering at my chin, the tears ran up my forehead. They met the grease barrier at my hairline and formed a salty crust. It was efficient, in that it reduced the need for tissues.
According to the vet, it was possible that the tumour would recede, but it would take lots of care. The whole area would need to be massaged for twenty minutes, three times daily, for as long as it took. I had known the vet for almost thirty years, ever since getting Cheltenham. He didn’t talk about Cheltenham’s age or what a great life he had had. He talked about the type of carcinoma, the statistical prevalence in horses this age, and how to stimulate lymphatic drainage. He wouldn’t discuss the probability of recovery in percentage terms. He just pulled on the ends of his black fleece scarf, tucking them into the top of his jacket.
After a while, I went upright then lay on the carpet and pulled my laptop towards me. I wanted to learn about Cheltenham’s illness, but the combination of his species and the afflicted part of his anatomy was sending the search engine in a terrible direction. Most of the sites wouldn’t even open.
The information I did find was confusing, talking about chemotherapy or excision, but the vet hadn’t mentioned either of these. I flicked to the news online. It was dominated by volcano footage, showing rose grey puffs of ash ballooning above the icy landscape. I liked it. Something so hot, coming from somewhere so cold.
At five the next morning I made coffee and held it under my chin, blowing to bring the steam up to my face. I hadn’t seen my colleagues in over two months. The waistband of my skirt was resting on my hips and my face was a bad colour. I put on a lot of make-up, stroking foundation onto my cheeks while thinking about which shop to stop at. Cheltenham needed things to encourage him to eat. He liked grapes and he liked strawberries. He also liked celery. The shop on the corner sold these things. My own feeding situation felt more difficult. I hadn’t been bothering much but this suddenly seemed selfish, so I ate part of an apple and a piece of cheese.
At the stables I balanced my handbag on the stool, its little metal feet clicking against the wood. I laid my coat over the top and put on pale blue plastic gloves, pretending not to notice the girls from the stables, who gathered nervously in case they were needed.
Cheltenham stayed still while I gently rubbed the pouchy folds of his sheath until he was relaxed enough to extend. I’m sorry, I said in my head. I know this is really weird, but I have to do it. The skin of his penis was dark and bubbled. Small beads of yellow oozed out, and he shifted from side to side, cringing. I made myself carry on, and after the twenty minutes were up, I threw away the gloves and sat down. I didn’t want to leave yet. It seemed wrong to sit there staring at him or to harass him with purposeless affection. I decided to brush him very thoroughly.
At work, everyone was extra pleased to see me and kept asking was I ok, and did I need anything. They had put cards on my desk and offered cups of tea repeatedly. After a while, I couldn’t drink any more tea or stand the way their eyes kept sliding towards me, like an accident you know you shouldn’t be looking at. I locked myself in the disabled toilet, made a pillow of paper towels and curled up on the floor.
At lunchtime I drove quickly to do the second treatment, just making it back within the hour. After work, I went back for the third. Cheltenham accepted a grape but wouldn’t touch the strawberries or celery. I changed the straw in his stall the next morning, then every morning. The stable girls thought I was wasteful and histrionic, but after years of pandering to their despotic teenage scorn, I suddenly didn’t care.
During the next two weeks, the frenzy about the ash cloud calmed down. People at work stopped asking if I was okay, and I was absorbed back into the regular mid-morning tea round. The following Monday morning I set off for the stables, taking the kitchen scissors and straightening the bins on my way out.
Cheltenham’s tail bandage had been bothering me. It was necessary, because otherwise when he flicked his tail, the hairs got caught as I massaged him. But the bandage made him look strange and crestfallen. It made him look ill. While the stable girls were occupied, I undid the long gauze strip, took the scissors and made several cuts, blades crunching through the thick hairs. Having docked his tail, I held it for a while, then laid it around my neck like a scarf. I drove back to work like this, then pulled out my hairband and stretched it to its limit, binding the hairs of the tail together at one end. I put it on the back seat, out of the way. I would think about what to do with it later.
At lunchtime, the tumour was much the same, but Cheltenham seemed different. After ten minutes he craned his neck around, pushing his face into my shoulder. I took off the gloves, threw them in the straw and put my arms around his neck, resting into the thick musk of his mane. After a minute or two, he barged me sideways, then shook his head and whipped his tail tuft from side to side. I smiled and gave him some strawberries. He was perking up.
That night, I took out a packet of expensive ravioli which Gina had frozen months ago. She loved fresh pasta. While the kettle boiled, I remembered crouching by the freezer to search for space, ice scratching my hands.
“You’re mad,” I’d told her. “How can it be fresh if you’ve frozen it?” She laughed, kissed the top of my head, then put all the shopping away in the wrong places.
Dipping the frilled pouches into the boiling water, I thought about how Gina would not now eat her ravioli. I would eat it. I set the timer on my phone for four minutes and put it on the countertop. She would have her own packets of ravioli now. The freezer in her new flat, wherever it was, was probably full of it. It was probably already icing up from being overfilled, with nobody to organise the boxes and packets correctly. I sat back on the chair, took off my shoes, and waited for the bleep.
After dinner I lay on the sofa and watched a four-hour documentary about the holocaust, first scanning the summary for scenes of romance or old sick horses. There weren’t any, but I stayed upside down as a precaution. I watched the pictures and listened to the commentary while running my tongue over a rough patch of gum. The first ravioli had puffed out hot steam when bitten, burning the inside of my mouth. As Poland was invaded, the tip of my tongue tore the damaged tissue loose. I nibbled at it, then swallowed it.
Gina rescheduled our dinner several times, and I hovered in a horrible kind of limbo. When we finally met, it was at a place neither of us had been to before. She drank sparkling water and talked about Zurich and Eyjafjallajökull, pronouncing the name of the volcano perfectly. I imagined her practising alone in her hotel room, ready to entertain her colleagues by mentioning it casually in conversation. How they would have laughed and tried to copy her, failing monumentally. Gina was talented at languages, which was useful, as she was always wanting to talk about things.
I watched her hands as they sketched the scale of the ash cloud, the size of the Renault Espace they’d hired, and the length of the road trip across Switzerland and France. I watched the delicate way she touched her glass, the tableware, a strand of hair being returned to its clip. I didn’t want her to stop. She was talking, which meant we were talking, which showed that I had no problem talking about things. The long flow of her words was wrapping us tight, safely insulated from now, from then, from the subject of us and whether that was even a valid word anymore.
As we walked through the car park, she asked whether I’d been seeing anyone lately, hair blowing across her face. I couldn’t read her expression, but I knew it wasn’t really a question. It was the prelude to a statement I was not ready to hear. We stopped by my car and I rested a hand on the boot. I thought how much easier it would be once we were sitting side by side, and that I’d let her choose the radio station. I wondered what part of town she was living in, and whether she’d invite me in.
“How’s Cheltenham?” she asked.
I thought about how well he was doing. I said that Cheltenham was fine; that he had never been better, then realised his tail was still lying on the back seat.
“Well,” said Gina, glancing at the car, then checking her watch. “My bus is due.”
Everything I hadn’t said battered against the inside of my lips like a swarm of insects, wanting to fly after her, to catch her with their tiny legs and arms and bring her back. I watched her walk away, then got in the car and put Cheltenham’s tail around my neck.
That night, Gina’s things came all the way out of the bathroom. I put them into carrier bags, lined them up in the hallway, then laid my winter coats over the top of them. It was warm enough not to need them now.
By the time I had filed my quarterly reports at work, Cheltenham’s tumour had disappeared. His penis was smooth, clean and tucked in tight, behaving just like it had before. The girls at the stables were vocally astonished, and while I knew they thought I was really odd, they smiled and were polite.
“Maybe you can stop brushing him now,” said the older one, “he’s going to have hardly any hair left.”
I called the vet at lunchtime, paper bag bumping against my leg as I walked through the high street towards the car. The vet was pleased and told me there was no need to continue the programme of massage. I got into the car, ate all of my lunch, then held onto the smooth cold steering wheel until it was time to go back to the office.
When my friend took the carrier bags out from under my coats and drove them away, I felt strange. The hallway looked enormous. I saw friends, went to the gym, and was out most nights. I had almost mastered the ability to look at a menu without guessing what Gina would order. I still went to see Cheltenham daily and took him presents every week. He seemed quiet but happy.
In early June I was out playing tennis with a friend when I missed the call from the stables. I rang back from the changing room cubicle, towel tucked around me, hair dripping into the phone.
At the stables the manager came out to discuss options, leaning on the back gate. She gave me a piece of cardboard with two telephone numbers on it and said things about the grieving process. The words drifted past me and out across the stubbled muck-spread fields, over piles of hay bales wrapped in black plastic.
“Thank you,” I said.
I parked a few blocks from home, stopping at the corner shop on my way back.
“No grapes today darlin’?” asked the man as he scanned my milk and box of raspberries.
I stood there looking up at his dark beard stretched in a smile. My eyes went hot. “You alright?” he asked.
“I lost someone,” I told him quietly. “Somebody close.”
He leaned forward over the Wispas and Toffee Crisps. His fingers hovered delicately, then swooped to close around the ears of a chocolate rabbit covered in gold foil. He held it out to me, gently shaking the bell which hung around its neck. “You take care of yourself.”
Next morning the raspberries bobbed in my bowl, suspended above the muesli like tiny pink boats. They weren’t the bright, tumescent kind you get in the supermarket. They were small and dusky looking. I used my spoon to push them lower and watched them fill with milk. They still floated.
Outside, the last of the tulips had opened its shiny red petals, showing deep yellow and orange on the inside. It was growing at an angle and bent its head against the glass, looking in at me with concern.
On the other side of the square, a man’s voice shouted and a large engine revved. It was Monday. I took the piece of cardboard from my handbag. The first number was a farm with heavy digging machinery for burials, which I didn’t like the thought of. The second was for the pet cemetery. I called them, pinning the phone to my shoulder while I searched for a pen and something to write on. The woman explained that under the mid-range plan, I would receive an urn-full of mixed ashes from the cremation of multiple horses.
“No,” I said quietly, then more loudly. “No.” A solo cremation was possible, she added, but it would produce around 60 to 80 pounds of ash.
Approximately half my own weight, but presumably it would occupy a lot more space. I imagined a giant version of myself made entirely of ash, sitting at the kitchen table.
“Well?” asked the woman.
I said that an urn-full would be fine. She tapped away at her computer, then asked whether I wanted a love drop urn, an artisan urn or a gold tea light urn.
“I’ll have to think about that,” I told her, promising to call back.
Several weeks after the cremation, the urn still sat on the kitchen table. Cheltenham’s tail lay over the back of the empty chair. I was late for work, but it didn’t feel like time to leave yet. The problem of the ashes was pressing on me. I thought about Cheltenham and all he had given me. The way he had extended the painful end of his life, making himself available as a temporary vessel for my unwanted love. He had held it carefully until I was ready to re-accommodate it. Until it had transfused into all the other areas of my life, now pink and beating again.
I thought of him trotting about in equine heaven, frolicking in lush fields and sniffing at hedgerows, with no tugging reins to bother him. The probability seemed low. But strictly speaking, it was neither low nor high. It was not something I could assess, due to insufficient information.
Gina had believed firmly in the afterlife, but more in a karmic, reincarnation kind of way. I thought of the ball of our hair and skin which had finally been despatched using corrosive chemicals. The part that Gina had played in the dust on the bedroom windowsills. The imprint she had left on my mind.
I emptied the contents of my handbag onto the kitchen table, keys skidding to clink against the urn. I opened my iPad, performed three price comparisons, then booked a flight to Reykjavík. In a separate tab, I logged in remotely to the server at work, then analysed the risk of imminent re-eruption. The connection was fast and the algorithms ran in under forty-five seconds. The risk was low. I googled car hire, then ordered an extra-secure leak-proof Tupperware box on Amazon.
Everything has an afterlife, I thought, coiling up Cheltenham’s tail and tucking it into my handbag. I floated my phone, keys and purse on top, put my bowl in the sink and set off for work.