Elena Croitoru is based in London and is working on short stories, novels and poetry. She followed University of Oxford's Advanced Creative Writing Course and is currently studying for the Diploma in Creative Writing at the University of Cambridge. Her work has appeared in Ekphrasis - A Poetry Journal, Amaryllis Poetry, Foliate Oak, The Front Porch Review and other magazines. One of her stories has been selected as an Editors' Choice in Bewildering Stories' Fourth Quarterly Review of 2015. She also works as a software developer.
"Da Capo Al Fine"
Going to TK Maxx for dresses seemed silly but I had to save time. Every hour counted now which is why I went to the store on my way home. Hangers screeched on the steel rails and the shoppers crammed into every aisle. The air was warm. At the back of the store, it smelled like old shoes. I browsed through the discounted items and chose a purple empire-waist jersey dress. I imagined somebody finding it hundreds of years from that Monday, under layers of dirt, under damp soil, under an assortment of bone fragments, under who-knows-what-else.
I didn't go into the big bookshop on Gracechurch Street like I used to. My mind was focused on what I was going to say to the doctor. I walked past the shaded entrance to Danson Park and heard the screams of kids echoing in my ears. I never was the maternal type yet I had planned to have kids by the age of forty, just like I had planned to visit Peru and Japan. Whenever my niece wanted to play, I'd give her a plastic yellow car and leave her to it. My sister would look disappointed just like she was when we were kids and I would refuse to play hide-and-seek but listen to 1001 Arabian nights on vinyl instead.
At home, it smelled of coriander and curry. Tom was mixing a pot of Jalfrezi with a wooden spoon. The sky was deep blue against his red jumper and sunlight spread from behind his curls as he looked at me. I smiled and in my head, I asked for forgiveness for what I was going to do.
“I can't believe you're going to be staying home the entire week,” he said.
I took his cold hand into mine and held it tight. “I'll just rest and cook. Maybe play a bit of Tchaikovsky,” I said while trying to detect any incredulity in his green-blue eyes.
He ran a finger through my hair. ”It's so unlike you to stay put.” He kissed me on my right cheek. His lips were softer and warmer than ever before.
I hugged him a bit longer. I wasn't planning to go back to work but I couldn't tell him that. I pictured Tom the way he was when we first met. He used to lean back into his leather chair, hold his fingers on the ergonomic keyboard and tap away at his emails while glancing at my desk from time to time. I couldn't stand remembering how many more dreams I had back then.
“I have an appointment,” I said, “But I'll try to be quick.”
Tom raised his eyebrows but he was used to me not telling him where I went. For all he knew, I was going to the hairdresser. Innocence was the spine of his soul. As it crossed my mind that the pain coming his way might change him, I let go of his hand and put on my trench coat. “Do have dinner before me tonight,” I said.
The doctor stared at the scan for a few minutes. He pursed his dry lips and opened his mouth. It was as if his words got stuck in his throat. I smiled to ease him into it.
“I'm sorry that I have to agree with my colleague.”
“That's not why I'm here.”
“Oh,” he said and took his thick glasses off.
“Uh, well.” I touched my cheek with the back of my hands. “I need to know how long I have left.”
The doctor coughed and looked out of the window.
“Well, with treatments, a good two-three years. Dr Lim might have told you that the chances of surviving an operation for a brain tumour like this are quite...” he sighed and scratched his head, “...small.” He squinted at his screen.
I waved my hand. “What if...” I sighed not knowing how to phrase things. “How long without the treatments?”
“You're still young Mrs Lowry. And with the chemo, it could even be longer than three years.” He coughed again. “I mean, we don't know for sure.”
I frowned slightly. He noticed.
“About a year.” He rubbed his temples and sighed. “Plus or minus two months?”
“Not less than ten right?”
“I don't think so but -”
I stood up and put my coat back on.
“That's good,” I said smiling. “And apart from my mind which will obviously... “ I paused to think of an evasive word. ”But the rest of me will function normally. Would you say that?”
The doctor tilted his head to a side and then nodded.
“And how long until people will notice?”
“Oh, that's difficult to anticipate.” He looked at the scan again. “Maybe nine months?”
I winced as I thought of how Tom liked talking about accounting. Would I give myself away while discussing some simple figures? Would my tongue stumble right in the middle of my commenting on a some new film?
“When shall I come for my next check-up?” I wasn't planning on turning up but I didn't want him to call me unexpectedly either.
“Three weeks from now. You can begin the treatment and by then we'll get to see how you're progressing.”
I nodded but knew I wouldn't take the pills.
The next day, I spent all afternoon practicing the opening of the Piano Concerto No. 1. My fingers were stiff. I kept thinking that it didn't matter if I got better at it. When Tom came back from work and kissed me on my neck, I said, “Do you remember saying that if I wanted a baby, I should just tell you?”
Tom stared at me and then smiled. His pupils dilated and his eyes turned moist. I wondered if he would remember that evening, the smell of lilacs coming in from the front garden, my warm hands on his arms.
“I'm ready,” I said and pulled him closer.
© Elena Croitoru