by Scott Morris
Edith stops to smell her fingers. She does not consider how this appears to her fellow shoppers, nor does she execute the action with any obvious enthusiasm. It’s a tick, a spasm. Every twenty minutes, half an hour (and the frequency fluctuates depending on various factors: how late has she been getting to bed, what did she cook for herself this morning, how long ago since these clothes were washed) her left hand jerks to her face, where it hovers casually for a few seconds, oscillates before falling to her side. Again, it really does depend on the various, aforementioned mitigating factors as to whether we get to see the right hand mimic its opposite. If not, we can be sure that in quarter of an hour’s time (approx.), it will be the right hand that jerks, hovers, oscillates, and tempts the left to follow its lead. Edith stops, smells the fingers of her left hand, then her right hand. Then (not unprecedented, but exceptional all the same), the left hand is brought to hover, to oscillate below her nose once again. Edith conceals all behind her remarkable smile, framed in remarkable lipstick, but the casual lifting of hands three times to her face betrays (to those of us who’ve come to understand this lady, to measure her existence via the mechanics of her remarkable body) an anxiety. Edith stops to smell her fingers quite regularly because she is still convinced that beneath the aroma of expensively packaged perfume and palm moisturiser and tea tree oil and breakfast and Fairy liquid, the stench of clinical mouthwash lingers there still. Edith is not at all senile (not yet) and so we must not dismiss her conviction as the by-product of an eroded sensorium (not quite yet). We must be prepared to acknowledge that our otherwise thoroughly rational Edith (consistently suspicious, seldom superstitious) makes her assertions based on at least quasi-solid grounds. Not that these assertions are ever vocalised, it is important to emphasise that. As adamant and as convinced and as assured as Edith might be that she is haunted still by the stenches of Eugenol, of acrylic retainers, she is equally convinced that her cappuccino-drinking comrades (a fleeting introduction here to Eileen, Thelma, Iris, Vin and Ern) will grow concerned and force connections that don’t yet need connecting until they end up speaking slower, more loudly, phoning her more frequently and inconveniently and pulling their vowels out into sounds sympathetic and tiresome. This is why whenever Thelma or Ern or Eye notice her fingers floating beneath those half-curious nostrils, Edith is sure to retreat behind her remarkable smile and slide her hands onto her lap, out of sight. Out of mind, too, as this small action, repeated often enough, has conditioned her friends into redirecting conversation immediately onto the subject of that remarkable smile. “Still in the clear,” she replies, “these teeth aren’t going anywhere just yet.” And Ern will wobble his dentures and throw the back of his hand against his forehead, mock-dramatically, and Eileen and Thelma and Vin will laugh and laugh and Iris will curse Edith with mock envy and Edith will, teasingly, suggest that Eye tries her coffee without the usual excess of sugar next time and Ern will launch into the concluding punchline, “A little too late to be telling our Eye that, Eedie!” and Iris will mock slap his wrist and ask for the bill. All in time for Edith to risk an invisible sniff as she turns to collect her jacket, her friends none the wiser. In the company of these people, she often comes close to discarding the whole enterprise as a waste of time (the few times she mutters the words “silly” or “stupid” to herself, she does so with a voice smelling of coffee). It has been almost twenty years since she put away the white uniform and left the surgery in order to concentrate on her own smile. She teases Ern about his ghost stories (though never aggressively, she respects her friend’s wish to be reunited with poor late Mrs Ern in every power cut, in every feather found upon his doorstep, every time his net curtains twitch on a breezeless day) so why should she let these convictions get the better of her? It’s a ghost story in itself. This is why we can follow Edith on her bus ride home, after meeting the gang for nostalgic cappuccinos, watch her as she waits patiently for the 476, as she is carried through the suburbs of her town and as she walks the final hundred metres to her front gate, and for those forty minutes, her hands will not have jerked (neither left nor right), they will not have hovered and they most certainly will not have oscillated. She hardly pays them any attention, hardly glances at them. Her eyes and smile are occupied with joggers prams ex-neighbours builders cyclists widows businessmenandwomen parking inspectors school kids patients. She has no time for them, her hands. (A Friday cappuccino should be classified as one of the aforementioned mitigating factors). It is only once she is through her front door and her hands are pulled out of the sleeves of her jacket that she brings them, finally, to her nose (hardly jerked, this time) and inhales. And still, she fancies, it’s there, dimly.