The glossy cover of the clinic’s brochure mirrored the view now before him. Rex appraised the whitewashed lighthouse fused to the cliff side, the glass turret with its Cyclops lens revolving silently. Edna had sent off for the brochure, announcing: ‘We can use the money your dad left,’ as if it really were a joint decision. The brochure contained photographs of satisfied clients, posing alongside cardboard cutouts of their former selves, the blurb claiming how their lives had changed forever once they’d started on Dr Excelsior’s revolutionary diet.
Edna had taken over the driving for the last stage of the journey into North Devon, as Rex had polished off a large glass of Rioja over lunch. At the roadside pub he mused, ‘It’ll be some bloke in a lab coat slapping your knuckles with a leather belt every time you reach for a biscuit. I’m not having electrodes wired to my genitals.’
‘Would you notice if they did?’ Edna had replied, pulling the cheese board towards her.
When they finally arrived at the lighthouse there was no sign on the solid green door announcing it to be Dr Excelsior’s famous clinic. The Sat Nav had given up two miles back when Edna turned the Volvo down the single-track road, pockmarked with potholes, sloping scree on one side and a plunging drop into the sea on the other. The granite steps down from the car park were almost vertical. Would they ever make it back up? Not unless the weekend worked its promised miracle, and they both shed a married lifetime of accumulated weight, or somebody from the clinic carried their bags to the car.
‘Are you sure this is it?’ said Rex.
Edna folded chubby arms over the shelf of her chest. ‘It’s a lighthouse, monkey brain.’
Before their tenth wedding anniversary her pet name for him had been Puppy Boy, because of his big brown eyes. She’d once been his Sweet Kitten, because of how she purred with delight when he kissed her. Once they stopped counting the anniversaries, he started calling her Edna.
Across the Bristol Channel low-slung rain clouds masked the Welsh coastline. As a boy Rex loved to draw seascapes where the sea and sky blurred around a lighthouse tower, banded red and black, its beam scorching the paper. The Aga-warmed air of the kitchen infused with cinnamon and nutmeg, crayons rolling into flour drifts while his mother baked scones, Victoria sponges spilling crimson jam, or his father’s Sunday favourite: roly-poly suet pudding.
A buzzer on the wall summoned the clinic’s receptionist, a willow-thin brunette who swept them inside and quickly showed them to their suite. Oddly, they had separate bedrooms but there was an adjoining door, which the receptionist explained would be left unlocked since they were a couple. Within an hour Rex and Edna were swathed in pale lemon bathrobes, flopping about the hardwood floors in slippers and awaiting collection by a dedicated member of the Team.
Tony came for Edna. He towered above her, solid broad shoulders and a thick unmoving neck, making Rex think of a James Bond henchman. While Lucy, her blond ponytail swishing in synchrony to the rhythm of her tight round bottom, cupped Rex’s elbow. She led him to a square, low-lit room containing a single chair, all stainless steel and black leather, disturbingly similar to the one at the dentist’s. Electrical leads dangled from the ceiling, directly above where the top of his head would soon rest. At least they couldn’t stretch to his crotch – or so he hoped. Lucy motioned for Rex to sit.
She made eye contact and smiled. ‘There’s nothing to worry about, the process is completely painless.’
Rex blinked quickly at the mention of pain. His stare stuck on the wires, now untwisting like Medusa snakes. ‘What’s going to happen?’ he said.
‘Until the patent application is successful I can’t divulge the exact details of Dr Excelsior’s technique.’
A panel slid up in the white wall beside him to reveal a flat screen.
‘I have the questionnaire results that you completed online,’ continued Lucy.
To keep Edna happy he’d gone along with her idea to book the clinic for their anniversary weekend. Any time spent together was usually defined by where and what they ate. He’d secretly been relieved that Edna had recognised that maybe their dining habits needed to change and the lighthouse clinic could be the start of a new life for both of them. The questionnaire had comprised an extensive list of food and drink, each with a delicious photograph, trailing across multiple screens and with additional space for comments. Rex wished he could remember exactly what he’d clicked.
Moist fingertips lightly held both sides of his face. ‘Please look at me, Rex. We’re going to play a word association game, a bit of fun to find out your eating habits. This afternoon you will meet Dr Excelsior.’
‘What about my wife?’
‘She’ll be meeting Dr Excelsior this morning.’ Lucy squeezed his arm. ‘You’ll see her at lunch.’
The wires entwined into a rigid halo around his head, ends pulsing with light. Rex became aware of images flashing on the screen in the wall but didn’t dare move.
‘Listen to my voice and let your thoughts go where they wish.’ Lucy leant close to his left ear and whispered an indistinct word. Rex began to imagine a pint of beer, dark old ale with a creamy white froth. He could smell hops mingling with wood smoke, heard the spit and crackle of logs and thought of the hearthside table, his favourite spot in The Red Lion.
Lucy whispered again. Rex licked his lips tasting blackberries, the fruity tang of a rich Merlot. Surprisingly, he saw Melissa, his first serious girlfriend. Fox-red hair tumbled over freckled breasts, as she lay naked on the tiny bed in his university bedsit, giggling as he wrestled off skinny jeans. When had he last worn denim jeans? Now he lived in sweatpants with elasticated waists.
‘Here comes the final word for this morning’s session,’ said Lucy. She leant in close again, her minty breath blowing into his ear.
Rex was back home, at the oak table in his mother’s kitchen. She was popping out golden-topped scones onto a wire tray. Dad was stomping damp wellies, criss-crossed with hay, in the porch. Meg, the Border collie, pushed a cold nose into Rex’s palm, her tail thumping the table leg.
‘And we’re done.’ Lucy’s voice resonated like a gunshot. ‘You must be ready for lunch.’
Rex was astonished to discover over two hours had elapsed since he’d sat in the chair. He was ravenous.
* * *
Lucy waved Rex towards the luncheon table. A bowl of jacket potatoes steamed at the centre. ‘Eat as much salad as you like.’
She left him to eat alone with Edna, who was already tucking into a potato. There were bowls of coleslaw, mayonnaise infused tuna, heaps of yellow grated Cheddar and slabs of aromatic blue cheese. Surprisingly, Edna had left the cheese untouched; her plain baked potato surrounded by a sea of red and green lettuce leaves. Not even a dollop of butter oozed on top.
‘How was your morning?’ said Rex.
Edna looked up from her plate, mouth full of greenery. For a second her eyes were blank.
He emptied a dish of chilli onto his potato; it flowed over the sides like red-hot lava. ‘Don’t you fancy the cheese?’ Stilton was her favourite.
‘Cheese?’ Edna repeated the word, rolling it around in her mouth, each time it sounded different as if she were trying it out for the first time.
Rex gave up after that. He should know by now never to attempt conversation when there was food present. It had been a long time since his wife had paid any attention to what came out of his mouth when there were more interesting things to stuff into hers.
For dessert Rex was amazed when Edna ignored the fudge cake, usually her pudding of choice, instead settling back at the table with a cup of peppermint tea.
‘I feel lighter already,’ she said, her cheeks flushing. ‘Tony reckons half a stone. Maybe more by the end of the day.’
Before Rex could tell her that was impossible the two assistants re-appeared in the doorway.
It was time for him to meet Dr Excelsior.
* * *
Back in the dentist’s chair, Rex eyed the leads with suspicion. Once again they writhed above his head like snakes about to strike. Dr Excelsior stood behind him, only visible from his reflection in the wall-mounted screen. The little man was a copycat Gandhi with liquorice black eyebrows and matching moustache. His hands were hidden behind his starched white coat.
A table had been placed underneath the window. It held three objects: a pint of beer, a glass of red wine and a lopsided scone.
‘Look,’ said Rex, ‘before we go any further I need to understand what’s happening. How exactly does this diet work?’ Edna hadn’t given anything away at lunch about her treatment session. Now he regretted not bothering to search out his glasses and read the small print at the back of the brochure.
The circling wires stiffened then latched onto his scalp. Rex didn’t feel anything, but was aware of a humming sound as if the leads were singing. He frowned as his head bubbled with terms such as cognitive process, linear association and others he didn’t even recognise as words. Dr Excelsior’s lips were hardly moving.
Lucy picked up the pint glass, a froth of beer splashed onto her sleeve. ‘One sip, that’s all you need and then Dr Excelsior’s procedure will eradicate the substance from your palette. You will no longer crave hops in any form. Beer and any associated foods or snacks will cease to exist in your life.’
Rex had read the clinic’s blurb but didn’t believe a word of it. He was certain Edna’s odd aversion to cheese over lunch was temporary. More likely her faking a bout of newly discovered willpower to justify the weekend’s expense. Rex had fancied a painting retreat, something they could do together without involving food.
The sweet tang of barley hit his nostrils as she brought the beer glass up to Rex’s lips. Images of The Red Lion flickered on the screen in the wall like a slideshow on a digital photo frame. Steak and ale pie steaming on the fireside table. Pastry flakes in his lap.
‘I’ll never want another pint?’ said Rex.
Lucy smiled. ‘One sip is all you need.’
He wanted to push the glass away, but his arms wouldn’t move. They may as well have been strapped to the chair. The humming leads prickled on his scalp. On the screen flashing images merged to a multi-coloured blur, reminding Rex of a recent disastrous visit with Edna to the Tate Modern. He wanted to spit out the foul substance contaminating his mouth. Was she trying to poison him?
‘Try this,’ said Lucy offering him the wine glass.
‘Oh, that’s better.’ Rex drank the wine, but then began to retch. ‘God, no, that tastes like engine oil.’ As he sprayed Lucy’s apron with blackcurrant spittle he caught sight of the screen now jumping with indistinct shapes, the pictures flashed so quickly he couldn’t make sense of the story.
Dr Excelsior stepped forward holding the plate. The scone had been sliced in half, spread with strawberry jam and clotted cream. Rex wanted to protest, tell them the jam should go on last, when Lucy squeezed his arm. On the screen the film slowed to normal speed. Was that his mother? He felt Meg’s wet nose press his palm. Heard his father ask if the tea was brewed. He blinked several times causing a teary dribble to run under his nose.
Lucy whispered something to Dr Excelsior and he returned the plate to the table. The wires retracted from Rex’s head to disappear back into the ceiling.
‘We’ll continue tomorrow,’ said Lucy, ‘and identify some alternative triggers for you.’
Rex was overcome with a sudden urge to hug her. Silly to get so emotional over a scone. ‘Thank you,’ he said, almost sobbing.
* * *
Edna chose to eat dinner in her room after her sessions with Dr Excelsior, so Rex ate alone at the long thin dining table. He pondered on where the other guests were, as he not seen anyone other than Edna and the staff since their arrival at the clinic. Sipping his sparkling water he watched the lighthouse beam slice the darkening sea.
On the way to breakfast the following morning Rex met Edna heading for the treatment room. Her shoulder edged away as she waddled past without acknowledging him. ‘Good morning to you too,’ he muttered. The silent treatment should have been a blessing but this was supposed to be a weekend of bonding as they lost weight together.
Tony brought him a plate of scrambled eggs.
‘May I ask about my wife’s trigger foods?’ said Rex. ‘Do you know what Dr Excelsior selected for her?’
The henchman glanced towards the door. ‘I shouldn’t really say.’
‘Chocolate, I expect.’ Rex grinned. ‘And cheese! She lives for cheese.’
Tony relaxed a little. ‘The usual suspects. Most guests select all the naughty carbs. The odd thing was she specifically asked for a slice of traditional wedding cake, royal icing and all the trimmings, along with a glass of bubbly.’
Rex nodded slowly and put down his fork. ‘Sounds a bit strange, but I want to change my selection for today’s session. Can I have exactly the same as my wife: wedding cake and champagne?’
‘Sure, if that’s what you want.’ said Tony. ‘I’ll let Lucy know.’
* * *
Rex bounded up the steep steps to the car park swinging his suitcase. Sucking in the warm salt-breeze he pulled at the waistband of his trousers, which had started to slip. The cloudless sky was a broad brush-stoke of cobalt blue. His mobile phone jangled in his pocket.
‘Hello Mum,’ he sang out, answering the call. ‘I’m just leaving. Should be with you before lunch.’ He let her chatter on while his mood soared higher. ‘You’ve been baking, brilliant!’
As Lucy had promised the taxi was waiting for him. The driver was a woman; slim and tanned with short brown hair she welcomed him with a dimpled smile. He wondered if she wouldn’t mind stopping off in Porlock, where he could buy a sketchbook and some basic watercolours. The urge to paint was overwhelming. A vague memory stirred Rex’s thoughts. He’d arrived at the clinic with another woman. She’d driven him there. Rex struggled to recall her name; she’d been red-faced, fleshy and rather morose. No, it couldn’t be the same woman driving because the other car had been a silver Volvo. He was certain of that. This time it was a red Nissan, gleaming in the morning sun like a glacé cocktail cherry.
TRACY FELLS’ short fiction has been published in online and print journals including Granta, Brittle Star, The Nottingham Review, Spelk, Reflex Fiction, and Popshot. She won the 2017 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for Canada and Europe and has been shortlisted for the Fish, Bridport, Brighton and Willesden Herald Prizes.
Image via Pixabay