content note: death, vomit
We’ve moved onto a street full of busybodies, I just know it.
What other reason could there be for me lugging this hedge trimmer along the pavement — god, it’s heavy — when a pair of secateurs would have done the job just as well? I’m not hugely enamoured with this serrated blade flag-poling above my head, either. But, come on: it was nice of Mr. Gilbert to lend it to you. And if you will think aloud about the state of your garden in a room fullof your elderly neighbours, this is what you’ll get.
Mr. Gilbert’s own hedge could do with a trim — crap, did that catch my coat?
Maybe he won’t be in… it’s so quiet at this end of the street.
They’re lucky to have us, really, to bring some life back to it.
‘Oh, hello there, Mrs. Marsh… to what do I owe the pleasure?’ Mr. Gilbert asked, mock-debonair, clutching the inner handle of his blue front door. There was a jam smear on his Argyle jumper and his cheap slipper toes were scuffed. Pebble glasses made his pupils enormous.
‘Hello, Mr. Gilbert! I wanted to get your hedge trimmer back to you, before you missed it,’ I said, surprised that it was necessary to draw attention to the huge piece of machinery in my arms. ‘I’m so grateful to you for letting us borrow it. Our hedges are looking a hundred times better.’
‘My pleasure, Mrs. Marsh — my little way of welcoming you to the neighbourhood. Though, of course, you’re welcome to borrow it whenever you need it. Just knock on my door, I’m always in…’
I shifted my grip.
Didn’t he realise that it was heavy?
‘Oh, my dear, do come in. Would you mind carrying it to the back door? César will be round to look at the garden tomorrow and he’ll need to use it,’ he said, shuffling aside to let me pass. I lumbered with it through his narrow house and leant it against the kitchen door jamb, which lead out into his garden. It was dark — such a towering incline to the gardens on this side of the street…
I realised that I’d walked into a rat hole.
‘Thank you, my dear,’ he whispered, close behind me. Hot, smelly breath.
I turned to face him, very measured. Smiled.
I’d have to knock him down to get back to the front door.
‘No, thank you, Mr. Gilbert,’ I shouted, in case anybody was passing, ‘I should get back, my husband will be home soon, and he’ll wonder where I am!’
A cloud passed over his face.
My skin prickled —
‘Of course, Mrs. Marsh, don’t let me keep you…’
He shuffled back into the hallway.
‘Oh, my dear, you mustn’t go without having a truffle,’ he said, lifting an open box with his shaking hand — I jumped a mile. Truffles jittered in their plastic divots, old and stale, the fat bloom rife. ‘My son brought them over at Christmas — we had one with a whisky before he had to go. It’ll be months before I get through all of them myself… just me, on my own…’
Doom oil-spilled through me.
‘Thank you, lovely, what a treat,’ I enthused, taking the freshest-looking one and putting it in my mouth. The cheap fat screamed and stuck to my teeth as I munched it. He took one as well, and put the box down. Everything was quiet for a moment. Then Mr. Gilbert made a strange noise, airless — more of a gesture, really, towards his throat.
‘I’m sorry? Mr. Gilbert, are you choking?’ I enquired, knowing in the back of my mind that I should be doing something more dynamic. Something that would cross the line of propriety.
‘Mr. Gilbert?’ I asked, a little wan now, as he smacked the wall with a jerk of his arm, grabbed for my coat and yanked me down towards him, before his hand went slack. He fell to his knees, then the floor. My heart was pounding, but it had been pounding since the kitchen door, so I wasn’t sure what that meant. Lying prone, he was blue-tinged, like his carpet, which combined a geometric pattern with a blowsy, baffling floral. A flattened path in the nap ran between the front door and the kitchen, right under Mr. Gilbert’s body, like the scent path of a wild animal. He had gone still — oh, hang on. No; he was still. I didn’t know how to acknowledge the situation, so I stayed statue-still, as if this were some deeply distressing game, gone on a little long.
A clock ticked in the front room.
I tentatively exhaled, and then let out a great, gut-deep sigh.
I looked down again… there he was. I nudged him with my foot. A little late for the Heimlich manoeuvre? He seemed less like a person now, and more like an object. The truffles were open, on a side table, just inside the living room.
A truffle had killed him.
Clearly, I had been right to hesitate.
Oh God, but I was with him. Maybe it was all my fault?
I grabbed the truffle box — five of them left. If I got rid of them, nobody would know that they ever existed.
I took three in a handful and pushed them into my mouth, chewing through them, soft and almost flaky where they should have been firm. Slick fat coated my teeth. Ugh, swallow. Two more. I couldn’t taste these ones as they were nothing new: I was so full of metallic chocolate.
They were gone. I jumped over him and ran to the kitchen, separated the packaging for the recycling, and then realised he only had one bin. Flipping old people, not caring about the environment, I thought, as I stuffed the packaging down into his bin and used a teaspoon to flick teabags and greasy chip shop wrapping over the top.
Was that it?
What else was there?
I tried to breathe in time with the clock, faint from the other room.
In a quiet part of my brain, the word ‘ambulance’ formed. Yes, I thought. Ambulance.
There’s a body in the hallway, on my new street.
I took my phone out of my bag and, like a grown-up, called the emergency services. I’d never done it before, but I was pleased to find that I knew the answers to many of their questions. He was in his eighties; single… widowed? That was a guess. The address — I swung open the front door to check the number nailed onto it in brass. Seventeen, I proclaimed. The woman on the line asked if I’d attempted resuscitation and I squeaked an indeterminate noise, which she seemed to take as a ‘yes.’ She moved on with another question, so I felt I was off the hook. In all my answers, I didn’t mention the word ‘truffle’ once —
A voice rang out: ‘Hello, Cyril?’
I looked up. Red hair in the doorway. She’d told me at our housewarming that she was a beautician: Patricia.
I made a noise. Patricia stepped into the hallway and gasped.
It all came gushing out: ‘He’s dead, I was returning the hedge trimmer, the lady’s on the phone, an ambulance is coming. I did try to resuscitate him, but he’s so old, I mean, this is what happens?’
She stepped over him, rolled him over. I had to look away.
‘Why is he so — chocolatey?’ Patricia asked, looking at me funny. ‘And what’s that all over your hand?’
I looked down, almost in slow motion, knowing what I would find. I swallowed, feeling sick. God, those truffles had been old.
‘It’s chocolate,’ I whined. ‘He offered me a truffle… he took one too…’
I shrugged and started to cry.
‘Oh, my darling, oh, you poor thing,’ she said. She dropped Mr. Gilbert’s purple hand and stepped over him to put an arm around my shoulders. She can see that we’re a little past the point of mouth-to-mouth too, I thought. She enveloped me, my face to her pink nylon uniform. She smelt delicious, like soap and flowers.
‘What a shock this must be for you, my darling,’ she said. ‘You’re so new to the street — what an angel you are for coming around and seeing him. I pop in, or I try to, everyday, to see if he needs anything – though between you and me, I stay on the doorstep so he can’t get handsy,’ she whispered. I knew it. ‘But, he was very old, my dear — aren’t all old men lechers, in their way? I felt for him, not able to get out. His knees,’ she said, sadly, as if knees will get us all in the end. ‘How lovely to have you visit, though. And how lovely for him to not have died alone, in the end.’
The ambulance pulled up, and, at a wave from Patricia, reversed up onto his driveway. One of the paramedics snagged their uniform on the overgrown hedge. Then they were in the hallway, feeling Mr. Gilbert’s neck. Patricia told them what I’d said. We had to wait for the police, they said, with a shrug — as if to say, yes, he was old, but what can we do?
‘We’re best just to wait outside,’ one of them said, a tall Black man with a Birmingham accent.
What if the packaging wasn’t far enough down in the bin?
‘Sorry, I left my handbag in the kitchen,’ I said, sunny. ‘I’ll just go and get it.’
‘There’ll be time for that,’ the paramedic said, stern, stopping me in my tracks. He narrowed his eyes at the bag on my shoulder. Patricia was looking at me too.
Outside, it was cold in the shade. When the police arrived, I said words. I felt a little strange, but they seemed disposed to believe whatever I said. After all, was it more likely that he’d died from natural causes, or because of an inauspicious truffle that I’d failed to knock from his hand before it got to his mouth?
Not that I had to tell them about that, master-sleuths that they were:
‘We can see that you attempted mouth-to-mouth with the necessary vigour,’ the older officer said. ‘There’s chocolate all over your face.’
The other one took notes and nodded with approval.
Patricia encircled my shoulders.
‘She’s a credit to us, our dear Kate,’ she said to the police officers, clutching me to her side. ‘You write that down. The salt of the earth, you are, my dear,’ she said, turning to me. ‘I’ll tell everyone how kind you were to Cyril in his final moments.’
At length, the police said something to the paramedics, and the paramedics nodded. They drove away, with Cyril in the back, one of his truffles still lodged in his throat. Would it melt, now that he was so cold? Or would it be there, eternally incriminating, forever?
Patricia was talking to me again, reassuring me. The things she was saying were so nice, so encouraging. I pictured myself as she described it: the toast of the street’s garden parties, the mulled wine get-togethers, forever. Old people didn’t forget things like this, I knew that much. A kindness to Cyril in his final moments would garland me in their eyes forever.
‘…and you must say a few words at his funeral, it would mean so much to people…’
I looked Patricia in the eye, her blue eye. Blue like the carpet.
‘I’d be happy to, if it’s helpful to people?’ I said.
She nodded and embraced me again.
Yes, this was the street for us. We could be happy here. We could really bring some life back to it.
Feeling happy, I turned my face away and threw up chocolate, all over Cyril’s hedge.
work has appeared in NEWMAG, Litro, Belle Ombre, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, The Oxford Writing Circle Anthology, and elsewhere. She won the Reflex Fiction Prize Summer 2018 and has shortlisted for the HISSAC and Yeovil Prizes. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Oxford Brookes.
Copyright for all work remains with the author thereof and any requests to reprint should be made directly.
Issue 1 © SPOONFEED Magazine
SPOONFEED x New Writing © Caitlin Allen
Issue 2 © Louise Crosby