CHEESE AND CRACKERS
It smelt like cheese. Not an unpleasant cheesy smell but cheesy nonetheless. At first it was quite faint. Only just noticeable when he entered the lounge. Once Bob had settled down in his favourite chair with a book or to watch the news it gradually disappeared and blended into the rest of the room's aromas. Not that Bob was equipped to be an olfactory expert. Indeed he was awaiting an operation to open up the gradually decreasing tubes that were his nasal passages. It was probably due to his diminishing sense of smell that the cheese smell stood out. Rather like the bite pepper gives to a good stew or alcohol gives to gin.
On Wednesday a letter arrived addressed to Mr Bob Squirrel, 23 Kingsway, Ansdell. It was marked 'URGENT' so Bob opened it with urgency, almost tearing the in half letter inside. I was from Blackpool Victoria hospital. There had been a cancellation. If he called today they could operate Friday and would have a bed for him until the following Thursday. He called immediately booked himself in and packed a small bag of essentials in readiness.
Bob didn't sleep very well for the next two nights. The anticipation and fear of being operated on led to active, sweat-soaked nights, punctuated by nightmares. He relived, countless times, the punch in the face that had caused the gradual nasal blockage to begin. The guy turning into a wild animal randomly and in the blink of an eye. The stranger pulling him back. The total lack of any pain whatsoever. Just numbness, confusion and distress. Bob comforted himself with the thought that by next week his nose would work again and hopefully the nightmares would end.
Despite the lack of sleep Bob didn't actually feel tired. He put that down to stress and worry. The operation meant removing a bone splinter that was nearing his brain. Skin had begun to form around the bone soon after the assault. If was as if his body was trying to prevent the splinter piercing his brain. Of course once the flesh had begun to form it didn't know when to stop and had even taken upon itself to produce extra layers along the walls of nasal passages.
The trouble now was that the additional skin was becoming a more serious problem that the bone-splinter. His doctor had described it as being like a tumour. If it wasn't removed soon it would grow into the brain and have the same effects as a tumour albeit a benign tumour. Symptoms included dizziness, disorientation, delusion, blurred vision, imbalance, nausea, sleeplessness, headaches, deafness, fits and possibly death. There were other symptoms that Bob didn't recognise.
Bob had been put on the emergency waiting list two weeks ago with a potential waiting time of two months. He wasn't quite ready for this. But he was glad all the same. He had begun to experience various symptoms from the list. Possibly even the ones he didn't recognise. Bob wasn't sure whether the symptoms he was feeling were real or psychosomatic. Either way the rapid arrival of his appointment was a relief.
Between Wednesday and Friday Bob read four books - Too Kill a Mocking Bird, The Black Dahlia, Freezer Burn and A Confederacy of Dunces. All were read whilst he sat in his favourite chair. During this time Bob thought that the cheesy smell was getting stronger. It seemed to linger for slightly longer, each time he opened the door, before being absorbed into the rich melting pot of lounge odours. Again he wasn't sure of this as lack of sleep and the various potential symptoms on the list could quite easily have accounted for the smell's increased impact.
On Friday, at ten a.m. precisely, a cab turned up at 23 Kingsway. Bob locked the back door, did a quick check of all the windows and interior doors, grabbed his bag containing underwear, socks, two tea shirts and a sweat shirt, toiletries and three books - SAVAGE NIGHT, OTHER PEOPLE and THE MIDWITCH CUCKOO. He had considered taking PERDITA DURANGO and WEAVEWORLD as he had never in the past been able to sleep in hospital but decided on this occasion he might just catch up on the rest he had lost over the previous nights. Besides which there were other patients to talk to and a book trolley.
The operation lasted three hours and was totally successful. Bob came out of the anaesthetic feeling decidedly poorly and more than a little sort around the face and head. He actually looked worse that he did when he'd been punched in the first place. He was given morphine for pain relief on the first day, then paracetamol, which really didn't do much. Fortunately the matron was sympathetic and suggested he requested a sleeping tablet for each evening.
Bob was monitored regularly and his dressings were changed every two hours. He had never seen so much blood come out of a person's nostrils before. By Sunday evening the blood was blackening. The nurse assured him it was just because it was old blood that had been held back by the interior swelling.
On Monday Bob breathed through his nose for the first time in three days. It stung like hell but Bob didn't care. He could tell the operation had worked. He hadn't been able to take a large breath through his nose for eighteen months. All he could smell was the blood.
Bob was also very pleased with the speed at which the swelling went down. Again the nurse explained it had been caused in the main by trapped blood from the operation and that the bruising would last for a few weeks yet.
On Tuesday Bob smelt his lunch for the first time and ate voraciously. Despite the relative blandness of the beef and three veg dinner it seemed to him to be the best thing he'd ever tasted. His previously reduced sense of smell had obviously affected his sense of taste.
By Tuesday evening he had read all three books and asked the man called Douglas in the next bed if he could borrow one of his paperbacks. Douglas was happy to lend it Bob. He had gone in for an eye operation and the upper half of his face was completely swathed in bandages. His wife had brought him three magazines and two paperbacks to read. Bob chose Divorcing Jack and even offered to read it to Douglas. Douglas politely declined, saying that he had read it and seen the movie. It was the same with the other book his wife had brought in - The Beach.
On Wednesday Bob began to get anxious. He wasn't sure whether they were actually going to discharge him the following day. The nurses were none committal about the possibility and the duty doctor ignored the question with a highly professional bedside manner. Bob couldn't eat all his tea that evening nor could he read comfortably. He spent most of the time talking to Douglas about books and movies and saving the world.
Douglas' had wife paid him another visit. She brought her husband a copy of Empire magazine and another book - Perfume. The Story of a Murderer - saying she knew he enjoyed the film so she thought he might like the book. Douglas politely refrained from telling her he had read in ten years ago. Although he did tell this to Bob after she'd left and gave him the book with a hearty recommendation.
At ten thirty Thursday morning the doctor did his usual round of the ward with a flock of haggard looking junior doctors and student nurses in tow. He prodded Bob's face and clicked his tongue. He tilted Bob's head back and shone a torch up his nose and made a routine sounding remark on the reinstatement of the membrane and the reduction of surgical fissures around the nasal cavity. The flock made frantic notes. Then the Dr began a brief Q and A session, firing unfathomable medical questions at will towards the bleary eyed students-of-vocation with relish. Answers were fired back with forced enthusiasm. After several minutes of this the Dr seemed to deflate as if he realised he was wasting his time. As he left Bob's bedside he announced that he thought Mr Squirrel was doing very well indeed and was fit to go home after lunch.
It was the longest morning of Bob's life. But, as fortune would have it, the sympathetic matron had switched her shift to mornings and let him sneak off before lunch was served. He said his goodbyes to Douglas and wrote down his address and telephone number on the inside cover of The Beach. They promised to meet up sometime soon so Douglas could see what his new friend looked like. Bob felt slightly sad as he vacated the ward but the feeling soon faded when he stepped out of the front door of the hospital and climbed into a taxi.
Twenty minutes later Bob walked in his front door and dropped his bag in the hallway. The house smelt a bit musty. He decided he must have some damp and made a mental note to check it out. He went into the kitchen and filled the kettle. The water smelt of cold metal. When the kettle boiled the steam made his nose itch. He went to the buzzing fridge and opened it. The stink made him retch. He unlocked the back door quickly and threw it open. He then rummaged under the sink grabbing a roll of black bags and tore one off sending a thin cloud of dust and dried up soap powder into the air. As he emptied the fridge's rotting contents into the black bag, Bob began to sneeze uncontrollably sending a fine spray of pinkish spit and snot onto the sides of the fridge.
By the time he'd put the bag in the wheelie bin he had a slight nose bleed. He blew his nose into a piece of kitchen towel and wiped his face. He noticed that the blood on the triple-ply tissue was mainly purple clots. He breathed in, realised the bleeding had stopped and once again marvelled at his ability to draw large breaths though his nasal passages.
The kettle boiled and he made himself a mug of instant hot chocolate, as there was no milk for tea or coffee. He went into the hallway and took the book Douglas had given him to read out of his bag and tucked it under his arm. Bob found the idea of reading a story about smells amusing and began to chuckle to himself.
The chuckling came to an abrupt halt when he opened the door to the lounge and stepped into the room. The smell was overpowering. His mug hit the floor showering the carpet in steamy drinking chocolate and losing its handle. The book followed quickly and if it was not for the close vicinity of his favourite chair Bob would have been next to hit the floor. He managed to grab onto the arm of the chair and steady himself. He felt sick. The smell of rancid cheese was one hundredfold the strength of a week ago. Nor did it dissipate and blend into the overall ether that was the room's atmosphere. It burned his eyes and wrenched mercilessly at his stomach.
Bob stumbled across the room to the windows. His hands shook violently and he struggled to open them all. Then there was a blast of cold air. The back door was still open and the through draft made the smell marginally less intense. Bob slumped in his favourite chair exhausted. Tears ran down his cheeks and he tasted bile. He looked on the floor by the door and saw the book his friend had given him soaking up the drinking chocolate.
He counted to ten and dared to breathe through his nose again. The cheesy smell was there again. Still very strong and unwholesome but somehow it seemed more controlled. Bob sniffed a few more times. Then he got up and walked slowly around the room sniffing methodically.
After five minutes of olfactory investigation he concluded that the smell was actually coming from his favourite chair. He lifted the seat cushion and found thirty seven pence in change, a half eaten water biscuit, a sweet wrapper and a totally faded lottery ticket. He stared intently at the base cushion then reached out and slid his hand down the side of the upholstery at the front right side of the chair. It felt damp and rough. Years of clumped and congealed dust, more sweet wrappers and another seven pence. He worked his way round towards the left side of the chair and had just reached the top corner when he touched something hard and rough.
Bob's first instinct was to whip his hand out. Whatever was down there felt weird. It was both hard and soft. Smooth yet rough in parts. It was wedge shaped and about the size of a large matchbox. He took hold of it and pulled it from its grave. The smell was again horrendous but Bob was already braced in anticipation. He held up the offending object. It was indeed a small wedge of cheese. It was mouldy and yellow with corners as hard as bone and sections that seemed to be oozing milky liquid.
Bob knew exactly what it was. It was matured apple-wood smoked Lancashire. He had bought it at Booths. He had eaten cheese and biscuits for supper one evening and had gone to the kitchen to refill his wine glass. He remembered distinctly that when he came back into the lounge he had been certain he had plated up more cheese but shrugged it off as a trick of the wine. It was good cheese too. That was seven months ago. He'd brought several more blocks of the stuff since. Bob decided to start a shopping list.