A once reasonably successful ice hockey player and a highly respected tradesman for most of his life, Vania realised one morning that neither had earned him nearly as much praise as the way he coped with his imminent death.
The thought struck him while he put on his tracksuit bottoms and tightened the cord around his waist. His right hand slipped into the pocket and cupped his penis and testicles, pushing them gently against his body. He knew now that he did this almost all the time. His sister in law had alerted his brother to the fact that he seemed to be constantly playing with his balls, even while talking to people. She was concerned they might think him rude for it and told her husband to make sure Vania didn’t have a fungal infection. She said the meds could do that. There was nothing wrong with his cock and balls as far as he was concerned. He was just so aware of them. They seemed to take up much more space now there was so much less of him; they were the only part of him he still recognised. He put on a t-shirt and walked into the kitchen, careful not to put too much weight on the sore heel of his right foot.
Vania didn’t know what it was that people expected of someone in his situation and what it was that made them say He’s coping really well, given his condition all the time, but they did and it started to irritate him. As if being consumed by multiple tumours was something you could do with more or less skill, Vania thought, as if it was something you could be given marks for.
Vania counted tablets out of the Wednesday morning compartment of a transparent blue plastic dispenser and lined them up on the kitchen table. He made himself a cup of coffee, lit a Blue Ribbon and picked up the phone to postpone the appointment with his oncologist.
The nearby church bells weren’t done tolling ten o’clock when Beatrice rang his doorbell. He put out the cigarette and picked up the ski pole he had used as a cane for a few days now, tracing his movements with small circular indentations on the parquet floor. He walked to the door and leaning against the frame with his left arm he struggled to slide the key into the lock. His fine motor skills were impaired by the tablets, though the doctor couldn’t say by which ones. There was no way to tell, apparently.
Beatrice has changed, was Vania’s first thought, but then he tried to compare her current face to the one she had had in the early eighties and found he had no clue what she had looked like back then. He had all but forgotten her and it had taken him a while to figure out whom he was talking to when she had called a week earlier. Good to hear from you, yes, it’s been ages, remind me: how long? Five minutes into the conversation, which, truth be told had been more of a monologue, he’d finally pieced together who she was. There had been a few occasions where he hadn’t recognised the caller at all and had ended up having to ask who they were.
Now she was standing there in front of his door, still mostly a stranger, hair cropped short in a way that said she’s a mother now who doesn’t have the time to fuss with her hair in the morning. She smiled, it was a nice smile, but her eyes gave away that she could remember what his face had looked like in the early eighties. They kissed each other on the cheeks three times after bumping their noses together because each wanted to start on the other side.
She hung up her coat in the hallway and followed him into the living room where they sat down on his brown leather couch, leaving enough space between them for an imaginary third person. Beatrice didn’t pussyfoot around the subject like most of the others, no references to the ghastly weather, no cries of astonishment about the huge new flat screen TV, just a quiet How are you? He told her and saw her relax. People generally did once it became clear he wasn’t in denial about his situation or gone mad in a terminal panic. Vania let Beatrice fix cups of tea for them, which she brought into the living room on a tray. He was slightly embarrassed about the thick glasslike crust in the sugar bowl, deposited by frequent double dipping with his spoon. It used to be just two spoons of sugar to a cup of tea, but his taste buds no longer recognised any amount smaller than five spoonfuls as sweet. Beatrice had brought a bag of chocolate truffles, which he hated. He tried to eat one to be polite, but it made him gag. I’m sorry, he said, not much of an eater anymore.
They’d talked for a half an hour when she said I’m still so sorry about that time, you know. It’s alright, he said, and though he remembered the incident and the pain it had caused him, it had stopped being relevant years before he had near-forgotten Beatrice. Water under the bridge, he said. Honestly. She was relieved, he could tell, and before long the topics they discussed became lighter, funny things her children had said, amazing shows she had seen that time in New York and how she couldn’t believe that creep Antonio had made it big in the catering business. Vania didn’t remember Antonio very well, but he still could have drawn his canary yellow moped that every single boy in town would have killed to own. That creep?, he said. I wonder what happened to his moped. She grinned and he asked her if she was happy. She hesitated at first, surely she had a good life compared to his, but then she told him, the bullies at her workplace, disciplinary issues with the children, the eldest facing charges over vandalism. Uncaring parents who left her nothing but a mountain of debt. She got up abruptly and said sorry, will you excuse me for a moment. She upended her handbag in an attempt to pick it up by the strap and several items slid out. While she was in the bathroom, Vania picked up her keys, which had a disc of wood turned into the shape of an angel attached to them. He held it for a moment and traced its smooth and slightly greasy edges with a finger. He put them down again and waited for her to come back. He knew she wasn’t going to stay much longer, she’d most likely return to the topic of his illness for a moment and then excuse herself because she probably needed to go now if she wanted to avoid heavy traffic.
Vania insisted on seeing her to the door, thanked her for the visit – sorry about the truffles – and wished her a safe trip home. He returned to the couch and sat down in her corner, which was still warm. He switched on the TV and fell asleep during a documentary about termite mounds.
He woke up some time in the afternoon because the phone rang. He reached for the handset on the coffee table and squinted at the green display.
He didn’t recognise the number.
About the Contributor
Myriam Frey is a Swiss translator, occasional illustrator and former architect. She is in her final year of an MA course in Applied Linguistics at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences. Myriam lives in Switzerland with her husband and two children. Her stories have appeared in publications such as Ambit Magazine, Shadows & Tall Trees and Paraxis.
The Existential Detective - Alice Thompson
The death of a loved one can distort our senses, inducing an almost dreamlike state. Our hands and feet suddenly appear too far away. Ambient sounds become strangely muffled, yet the tiniest click of a doorknob might pierce our eardrums like sonic shrapnel. Even gravity feels as though it's been dialled down a notch. The Existential Detective also plays with our perception. The novel's surreal, uncanny atmosphere beautifully mirrors its main themes of loss and disorientation.
More from Issue Nine:
- The Place That He Can Never Return To
- The Cyclops
- The Girl with Many Names by Kristin LaFollette
- Three by Deb Scudder
- The Mourner by Louise Burgess
- Margot by Marni Appleton
- Pebbles on a Shore by Lynne E Blackwood
- blindfolded minds by Rachel Hawkins
- Phantom habits by Blakeley Bartee
- Dementia’s Mantra by Mike Ferguson
- Pack Animals