If it would make a difference, Ben would give up orange. It’s a difficult colour and almost useless, as far as colours go. There’s the fruit but little else can be said for orange.
Ben is also willing to forgo the letter K. It’s almost a redundant letter. Nearly everything K is unaffected when replaced with C. They are essentially the same letter except for one being angular and one being curved.
Ben decided, if it really came down to it, he’d forgo right angles too. Right angles are something he can live without.
Ben would give up all these things if it meant his wife, Linda, would live.
Decades ago, in the diminished recollections of those who knew him as a boy, Ben’s mother taught him how to make a bed.
Hospital corners Ben, she’d say tucking the short end of the sheet under the mattress at the feet end.
Ben followed from his side of the bed. With his tongue pointed at the corner of his mouth he’d pull back the overhanging side, smoothing it to make a straight line when pushed back and down under the mattress.
How’s this Mum?
Perfect my love.
Ben noticed, after hours of sitting by Linda’s side, hospitals don’t do hospital corners. He whispered this to Linda before realising she’d been taken by sleep. Corners in general were almost entirely absent. Where the floor and wall joined to one, the usual corner form was a bare curve of linoleum. A small scoop ran along the edge of every room; not a predictable line but a gentle grade stopping some way up the wall like a permanent miniature wave in the sea. Angles to curves.
Angles to curves. Ben wished his angles were curves. He’d willingly give up all angles, especially this one. Marriage, work, children, retirement. Nothing could predict this obtuse turn in the line of their living; the jolt in continuity from Linda’s announcement over a late breakfast of coffee and croissant.
I’m having more tests but it looks like I’ve got the big C, she said.
Oh and pass the jam please, said Ben partly from shock, but also from anger that she could so casually change all that was known about the world.
Ben decided hair was not necessary and could be forgone. Standing behind, an arm hooked about Linda’s weakened torso, he held her heaving body. Through her nausea convulsions he thought he’d happily give up not only his hair but hair as it exists on every person, every mammal. He’d alter the definition of a class, a phylum, a kingdom to heal this woman.
It’s where your memory goes, his daughter said as she ran the clippers over the back of his neck.
She’d taken to grooming him in his serene retirement. Linda was out shopping. Their daughter arrived with her hard-sided bag of tools ready to battle the natural chaos that comes with age. Trimmers, clippers, tweezers, scissors. All angles covered. They sat in the sun of the backyard while she worked.
It’s a sacred thing, hair, both a part but separate from you, she continued, It holds the essence of who you are.
He wondered how his own kin could be so different from him; how she could be so ungrounded.
Have you had those brakes seen to yet, he said looking for more authoritative territory.
If you lose someone and you want to remember them put a lock of their hair under your pillow at night; you’ll dream about them as though they’d never gone, she replied.
One letter trade
He tested himself and tried not use to the letter K for a day. He sat by Linda’s side reading as she dozed, chatting as she roused. Each word that he read with a K he mentally read as though it simply were not there; as though the letter had been taken without pause or replacement. He spoke, choosing his words carefully, avoiding all utterances like cake, okay and leukopenia.
By day’s end Ben missed K; he longed for K. He let himself play mental dictionary in the car as he drove the worn route home letting all the K words spill about him throughout the darkness of the car and road outside. Arriving at kumquat, he was sickened with guilt. What if K really could swing Linda back and he had just squandered it for cheap titillation? Knave.
Ben had not considered the shape of the end as he entered the hospital. Routine had developed. Pattern is comfort. Looking back, he supposed the end would be an irregular shape. Perhaps lopsided and anonymous.
I’m sorry but we’ve lost her, the doctor said.
Ben did not expect formula to prevail at this intersection. It forced his pain to flat. Sorry? Lost? Was this a cameo on a daytime soap? One of the drama programmes Ben began watching during his long days at home alone?
At first, he used the television for background company. The house was still without the fussing bustle of Linda. The television, although less dimensional, was a reassuring substitute. Ben watched an occasional soapie episode. As the months rolled on, he could distinguish each overdrawn character and barely ticking plot screened between eleven and two.
What do you mean, lost her, Ben asked, sensing that his mind understood but would not permit him access to meaning.
Would you like to see her, the doctor said.
Ben nodded and followed. The doctor warped and twisted through the doors and corridors of the large curved hospital. Ben followed feeling more like he were on his way to a meeting with the bank than—
Imagine when we’re off and gone; these waves, the tide, will carry on, said Linda letting the rushing foam bubble through her costume.
Ben remembers the softness of the water; tropical blue making one with the sky.
Don’t be so morbid love, he’d said.
It’s going to happen Ben whether you—, Linda silenced, a wave pushing her words ashore.
He entered the room. Unable to look at the bed. His neck perhaps broken. Unable to turn. His eyes forced themselves to other places; window sill, skirting curve, door frame. If he were not to see her, to witness her, perhaps it would not be true. He stared at a vase of orange gerbera’s sitting squarely still on the bedside table. Ben bought them last week. A hand yanked his heart through the tangle of his guts. Gerberas were not her favourite flower. From the periphery, threatened her shape beneath the sheet. But they seemed so happy, so cheerful in their orange surety. His living lungs began to burn. Ben wished he’d bought pink. Instead.