Cures For The Common Cold
She opened the door that August. They said it would be good for her chest. She fell into the world like a party trick, the kind where you hold a lit match to the mouth of a wine bottle, and the egg balanced on top of it falls in, against all laws of nature and travel.
If only more people knew how easy that trick was, there would be fewer closed doors in this world. Or eggs, for that matter.
The worry is that hardly anyone carries matches anymore.
The woman has been nursing a terrible cough for weeks now. Everyone knows this means the worst is yet to come. She has a pile of seventy-three overdue library books and seventy-three matching envelopes marked ‘URGENT DO NOT IGNORE’, which she keeps in a shoebox inside her oven.
A letter arrives on a Tuesday morning (wet, trees unkempt against the windows). It says she has come into a great fortune and that to claim it by her thirtieth birthday she must show up to a cemetery at nightfall, and leave an open bowl of cream and three figs by the gatepost. Then she will come into riches greater than any she could have imagined, so great they will make everything easy and obsolete. She will forget to look out the window counting drizzle patches. She will be busying herself out on the Eastern strip.
The letter doesn’t really arrive. The ill woman made that part up. Everyone knows this means the worst is yet to come.
Sometimes, after eight o’clock, when she has exhausted all other options, memories of her childhood will come to her. She remembers: sisters. She remembers: us, ours, we. She remembers like this:
In the dusk, our mother would draw the patterned curtains tightly around the house and light white candles and we would play guessing games in the flicker. She would hold up a pair of gloves and we would chant, “Holding hands!” She would hold up a tangerine, paled from a week at the back of the cupboard, and we would reply, “Common cold!” For we knew the names of all the vitamins and what they could be used to cure. Then she held up a pincushion in the shape of a heart, made from red felting, hemmed with a gingham frill. And our faces darkened and we said, ‘Knife, knife, knife.’
She remembers other feelings, a sense of unbidden space, like gulls flying over high clear water. A feeling she could cup to her ear. She remembers reading her sisters a book about the varied types of English gardens. She tells them about a kind of sunken fence called the ‘ha-ha’, which lonely Edwardian aristocrats used to keep bears and enemies out. She repeats its name louder this time with a proper deep breath, and the sound of it mists up the windows.
They read about wing-backed armchairs, which are the best sort of chairs for keeping yourself hidden. They read about jugs of milk left out on sunny tables, and let themselves imagine a life slow and safe enough to necessitate the possession of a large green china jug. Thinking about this, they grow wide-eyed and speak so fast that the windows become flecked with child spittle. How can they have made themselves so ridiculous by dreaming?
Bedside. The physician checks for a fever, holds his thermometer up to the light. She fears he’s going to start singing an opera, or worse, make a joke. Instead, he says, “I think what you need is a trip to the seaside.” She is wearing a white blouse which froths up at the throat. She feels like a tense, sparkling soap bubble.
She books a room, packs her suitcases. Through the train window, everything a furious purple, sky and sea. The word ‘craggy’ comes to mind. She watches as words that had previously only existed in the pages of novels to her, like ‘sea bird’, ‘lichen’, and ‘yew’, suddenly start to take form. From the taxi, the rest follows very smoothly, a walk down white parquet floor stamped with red aces of diamonds. She rings a bell, raps at a glass entrance, watches a man come hurrying out of the house. “You’re early,” he says, not unkindly. Because the door to the house is made entirely of glass, she could see him moving towards her before he opened it, which made their meeting feel like it happened in two acts, the moments before and after speech. He tells her to come in and says, “Esther shall be down shortly.” She likes that he says ‘shall’, it feels somehow more comfortable than a cold, iron-grated ‘will’.
In the minutes before the door closes, the back of her neck and spine feel suddenly exposed, buttonless and cool, touched by wind and sunlight.
The ill woman writes letters to all her friends while she is staying in her room by the sea. They all say something like this:
I feel I should gather long palm leaves that sweep the floor, you know, or sprigs of heather or the receipts for library fines or something, and leave them in every place in this town that I feel peace in.
Can a place miss a person? What if all my trails of library receipts get washed out like black honey and stop leading back to me?
I think it will all work out. I think, what I really mean is I must invent a new way of communicating with myself from at least three different directions:
- The first is a left angle like a very long elbow in green taffeta crooked towards me, a tender ‘may I have this dance’ elbow – the least threatening kind of love proposal.
- The second, a trapdoor labelled ‘this is not the night you think it is’ (also known as an Exit Angle). Like the nights my sisters couldn’t sleep and dreaded being awake in the musty rented house, so I baked us the tallest bread to prove we could go mountaineering or to China or be anywhere else in the world if we wanted – we’d just rather stay in and bake. And the ladybirds had never been louder, so I said ‘let’s go into the archway and listen to them, it’s yellow in there…’
- The third, an elbow in my side meaning ‘come back, detective’, a friend we could all use when things get bleak. Come out and sleuth the campus, there is a long list of public gardens in my coat sleeve you can use to tempt out your curiosity like a shy piñata donkey, and when it comes out, how it comes! Nothing but gold foil paper falling from the sky for days.
Sarah de Souza works in book publishing and lives in London. She has had writing published in Ambit Magazine, Poor Lass Zine and 3 a.m. Magazine amongst others. She is interested in the politics of embroidery, the teenage girl’s diary as art form, culinary indulgence, silliness in pre-war cinema, and the pursuit of joy and beauty under capitalism.