Short Story: Phantom Pains, by Ruth Guthrie

3rd Place in the Cambridge Short Story Prize 2021


Phantom Pains

‘Mum?’

‘Mmm?’

‘Mum, I’ve been thinking.’

‘Mmmm?’

‘I don’t think there really is a tooth fairy.’

‘Oh?’

‘No… I think it’s really Father Christmas.’

*

The first time, there’s just one.

 I lift the corner of her pillow, stoop and incline my head. I see it lying there, like a gristly milk tooth, waiting for some supernatural being, or a mother, to claim in exchange for a shiny pound coin. This little piggy went wee, wee, wee, bleeding into the linen. My hand recoils.

And I’m woken, with a start by the sharp blast of documentary theme tune.

tv remote‘Could you turn it down a bit, please?’ I ask John as the closing credits roll. I unfurl my crumpled body and lever myself up from my corner of the sofa to stretch out the stiffness in my legs and flex the creakiness from my elbow. For a moment I feel giddy and I grip the chair arm to steady myself.

‘Whatever do they do with them all?’ I ask him. ’Did they say? I missed the end.’

It’s difficult to visualise so many. One’s bad enough. Even a little one. Especially one belonging to someone you love. John picks up the remote control and the scrolling list of production assistants is replaced by a rugby match. I leave the room. At half time, John joins me in the kitchen. He fills the kettle.

‘So, what do they do with them all,’ I ask again.

‘Do with what?’

‘All those feet. Those legs. The toes.’

‘How should I know? Incinerate them I should think.’

‘Suppose so. That makes sense.’ I pass him the tea bags. ‘Don’t you care?’

‘Care about what?’

‘Obesity. Type 2 diabetes. 270 amputations a week.’

‘Wasn’t it a month?’

‘What does it matter? It’s still a lot. Imagine them. Toes. Feet. Legs off at the knee. An epidemic, they said.’ I take a swig of tea. It’s too hot. I wince. Gulp air. My mouth cools, but the scalding descends slowly, as though being savoured. John passes me a cup of water.

‘You should add a drop of milk to your tea,’ he tells me, but I don’t waste calories in a cuppa.

‘Don’t you care about her?’ I ask him. ‘She’s our daughter. She could be one of them. Imagine. Even it was just her little toe it would be unthinkable. And it would be your fault.’

‘My fault?’

‘Why won’t you mention it to her? She still listens to you. I’d just get my head bitten off.’ He stirs in his two sugars. ‘Don’t you care?’ I ask again. ‘She’s huge. She could develop diabetes. Lose a leg. You heard what they said on that programme.’

‘You fell asleep.’ John turns and walks back down the hallway to watch the rest of the game.

‘Who’s playing?’ I call after him. He doesn’t reply. But a few moments later he shouts from the living room,

‘She’s thirty three for God’s sake. An adult.’

Ivy, don’t you care either? Look at yourself. However did you become so big? I know you’re an adult now and make your own decisions, but what does it matter how well your career’s progressing or what a swanky flat and vibrant social life you have down there in London, if you haven’t got your health? I could help you, if only you’d answer my calls or come home once in a while. Even if you won’t listen to your old mum, don’t you read the papers or watch telly? The News? Panorama? Check it out on your laptop. Do you really want to risk an amputation?

You weren’t fat when you were a child. I made sure of that. Little Scrap, your dad called you. You would lie on your back on your blanket in front of the fire, laughing, naked after your bath, sucking on your This Little Piggy Went to Market toes. You could almost fit your whole foot in your mouth. And you grew to be such a wiry little monkey.  The moment my back was turned you’d be up that beech tree in the back garden, higher than the bedroom window. When I realised where you were, I’d put down the trowel or the washing basket and call up to you,  

‘Careful Ivy. Climb down now. How many times do I have to tell you?’ I’d shade my eyes, look up, and between the leaves I’d catch a glimpse of your lime green trainers and those bright track suits you loved to wear, moving through the branches.

‘Remember what dad says. Always maintain three points of contact.’

‘Yes mummy.’

‘Two hands and a foot, or two feet and a hand.’

‘Yes Mummy.’ And your laughter would filter down like a scalpel in the sunlight as you waved at me – with both hands – and I’d lean against the tree trunk to steady myself.

*

The next time, they’re piled high in a stainless steel bowl, like so many ripe cherries.

I set them down on the counter. One dislodges from its place and rolls onto the surface.  With index finger and thumb, I take hold of this piece of flesh and bone. I sniff it, wrinkle my nose, and hold it up to the light. The suppurating wound is festering beneath the amber crust of the toenail. My fingertip touches the bright bluey white of the bone which was once attached to the rest of the foot. Then I squeeze this little piggy. My fingers sink into the flesh. I avert my eyes, my stomach flips, and I’m awake.

John’s rattling pots downstairs. A knife on a plate. A stirring teaspoon chinks in a teacup then clatters into the sink. The kitchen radio mumbles too loudly. I peel off my sweat soaked pyjamas, roll them into a ball and bundle them into the laundry basket.

When I join John at the kitchen table, he’s checking out sports fixtures in yesterday’s paper. I pick up my magazine; it falls open at the article.

‘Which do you think she is? I ask, looking up, ‘Clinically or morbidly?’

‘Clinically or morbidly what?’

‘Obese. Haven’t you been listening?’ I take off my reading glasses and tuck a strand of hair, still wet from the shower, behind my ear. ‘How much would you say she weighs? We could work out her BMI.’ I turn back to the article. ‘Do you think she could be over 20 stone? Have you seen her latest Facebook photos?’

‘I thought she unfriended you.’

‘I can still see her public profile. She’s massive. How many stone do you think?’

John screws the lid back on the marmalade jar and licks his fingers. I gather toast crumbs from the table, brush them into the sink and rinse my hands. The sound of running water drowns out his reply.

‘Sorry, John. What did you say?’

He stands. Chair legs scrape across terracotta tiles. He returns the margarine tub to its place in the fridge, steps into the scullery and slips his feet into his old galoshes. As he opens the back door he turns.

‘Give it a rest, will you.’

I can’t give it a rest, Ivy. I don’t understand. And I’m frightened. I did everything I could to keep you safe and healthy. Gave you a happy childhood. Now you’re obese. It’s serious. Your size isn’t some kind of fantasy space-claiming self-expression or a kick in the teeth for me. You won’t be thinking This is one in the eye for the body police and the fat shamers when the surgeon snips off your ulcerous toe, or when that stainless steel angled bone saw slices into your tibia. Is that what you want? A violent intervention? Face reality. It’s not a tooth extraction.

I found something when I was clearing out your room. I’m taking your childhood to the tip and building a bonfire; you’ve clearly finished with everything here. It was tucked away at the back of your top drawer; a small box that you decorated years ago, with gel pens and those tiny spiralled sea shells you collected on holiday. Remember? You wouldn’t believe Dad at first, when he told you the shells were skeletons.

‘Skeletons? No way, dad.’

‘Exoskeletons, Ivy. The creature grows a hard layer on the outside to protect the soft parts inside.’

‘Really?’ He showed you a cluster of mussels in the rock pool and smashed one with a stone. He prised the blue grey shell apart to reveal the yellowy insides, stretching and glistening with life.

Inside your shell covered box, a handful of teeth nestled in a coil of tinsel. Pieces of your much younger body. Remnants. Residue. You. No longer you, but definitely still yours. A wobble, a tug, a little shock of blood. Your gappy smile at the prospect of the fairy and a coin. I selected a tooth. It lay bright in my palm and shone precious between my finger and thumb. It tasted of nothing; just cold on my tongue, and hard and smooth against the ridges of the roof of my mouth. Then a sharp edge. I swallowed.

*

I can see it from my bedroom window.

It’s streaked by the blurring rain, bright pink in the wet grass beneath the beech tree. Her sugar plum fairy dance bag, crammed full, bulging. A ballet shoe spills out. I press my forehead against the cold glass and peer through the darkness of the afternoon storm. An incision in the sky, lightning, illuminates a snug foot inside the little shoe, which is sinking into blood sodden ground. Another flash reveals a higgledy piggledy heap of limbs beyond the tree, a bonfire, freshly ignited, its flames defying the rain. Thunder shakes my body, and I grasp the sill.

When I get my breath back and compose myself, I sit on the bed, open my laptop and continue my research.

‘Ah, there you are,’ says John as he enters the room and sits beside me.

‘I’m just checking this out, love,’ I tell him. ‘The Human Tissue Act.’

‘You’re what?’

‘In case it happens to Ivy. Aren’t you curious? There’s a section on stump care on one of the other sites. You should see some of them. Fascinating.’

‘Jesus Christ.’

‘If it was your leg, John, would you feel a sense of ownership? Bereavement? Would you want to keep it? Or you could donate it to a medical college or -’

John closes the laptop and takes my arm. Squeezes.

‘Come on love. Downstairs. There’s a semi-final about to start.’ At half time, I turn to him.

‘We should say something to her. Will you give her a ring?’

‘It’s none of our business.’

Oh but Ivy, it is our business. I’m your mum. I’d do it for you if I could. Starve myself. Harness some psychic power. Pray. How can I make you understand the risks? Shock you into action. But I’m afraid you’ll become depressed or develop an eating disorder and try something drastic; have you seen those slimming pills available on-line? Don’t ever go there.

You’re named after John’s mother. You know that, of course. It was his idea; she paid for that last round of fertility treatment. I wanted you so badly; I put everything I could into raising you. And I promised myself I’d always be honest with you. It’s so important to be truthful. But you put my belief to the test one Saturday when I popped into your room to say it was time to set off for your dancing lesson. There you were, sitting on your bed, half dressed, twiddling your nipples.

‘This is nice, mum.’

‘Come on, Ivy, it’s time for Miss Marianne.’

‘Do you like doing this?’

‘Hurry up, we don’t want to be late.’

‘I mean when you were a little girl, mum. Did you like doing this this when you were little?’

I could indeed reply truthfully, as I bundled your arms into leotard sleeves.

‘When I was little?’

‘Ow, mum. Ouch.’

‘So long ago. Other arm. Hurry up.’

‘Ouch, mum.’

‘I honestly can’t remember.’

‘Come on Skinny Ribs,’ your dad called up the stairs. ‘Time to go.’

‘I hate it when he calls me that, mummy.’

‘He’s only teasing, Ivy. Come on. Is your bag packed?’

‘Mum, why does Dad always say A big smile and no knickers when we go to dancing class?’

‘Miss Marianne’s instructions.  When you were practicing for your Grade 1. Remember? She said No knickers under your leotard, and always wear a big smile.

‘I do remember. But why does Dad think it’s funny?’

*

Orange and cinnamon. Christ. The smell hit me when I opened your bedroom door. Christmas, mixed with burnt hair and singed wool. And your feet sticking out from under the bed. I grabbed your ankles, dragged you out, then scrambled back under to retrieve the matches and extinguish my Christmas candles. And I walloped you. Yelled at you.  And you sat crying on the rug, gulping for air while I leaned against the wall to catch my breath. Then I sat down beside you and held you so tightly you yelped, you stupid, stupid girl.

Next day, on Christmas Eve, I found you curled up crying in the corner of your room.

‘What’s the matter, Ivy?’

‘Nothing.’

‘Let me see.’ I unclenched your hand.

‘Why ever didn’t you tell me?’

‘Too scared,’ you replied. I kissed the burst blisters on your fingers and led you down to the kitchen. Too scared.

*

The last time they’re hung from the chimney, with care. It’s not lying, Ivy. It isn’t a trick. It’s just something made up by the grown-ups as a bit of fun and excitement for the children.

T’is the night before Christmas. No sugar plums dance in this vision, but the stocking bulges. My hand reaches inside to withdraw the gifts. Human tissue. Anatomical waste. The miniature slay. And it’s my own leg that I am holding, caressing, clutching to my chest. I tremble under its weight.  

John’s shaking my shoulder.

‘Merry Christmas, love.’

‘Merry Christmas, John.’ A cup of milky tea steams on the bedside table. I sit up, plump my pillow and take a sip.

‘John.’

‘Mmm?’

‘It always feels strange and empty, not having Ivy home at Christmas.’

‘She’s got her own life now, love. Her own home.’

‘I’ll never get used to it. Will you phone her?’

‘Of course.’

‘No, I mean will you speak to her. About her weight?’

‘On Christmas day?’

I climb out of bed and set off for the bathroom.

‘What’s that?’ asks John, pointing.

I look down at my right leg. A blue line circles my calf and shin. I scrub vigorously in the shower and rub as hard as I can with the towel, but the ink’s indelible. From the landing, I hear John’s voice, down in the hallway.

‘Merry Christmas Ivy. Sorry to disturb you on Christmas day, but I’m worried about your mother.’

***

Ruth Guthrie is a local government officer who lives near Cockermouth in Cumbria where she fills her life with village hall committee matters, chairing the local Amnesty group and babysitting her grown up daughter’s guinea pig. Ruth completed an MA in Creative Writing with the Open University, and she is delighted to continue her success with TSS, having had stories shortlisted in the previous two competitions.


We’re a small team of volunteers who spend hundreds of hours working to build TSS and the short fiction and non-fiction community. We read, edit, and publish work we love (and pay for it). If you enjoy the site, please consider helping us through the long nights, thank you.