David Norris: A Little Bit of Pickle
This story has a trigger warning
David Norris describes how creative writing has helped him in recovery and urges others to develop their talents as a way of managing mental health. We include his first short story, "A Little Bit of Pickle". Trigger warning: Brief references to domestic abuse and suicidal thoughts
I have suffered with psychosis and depression for 20 years. I took time out from the field of semiconductor research to recover from my episodes of illness. To help, I joined a writing group at my local library. There I have been encouraged to explore my imagination and write short stories which help me manage my illness. ‘A Little Bit of Pickle’ is my first short story and, whilst fictional, reminds me ‘..a little bit..’ of how life was like when I was young. I’m in a stable place now and I would strongly encourage others to find and pursue what they are good at.
I hope you like my story.
A little bit of pickle
The crisp, cold air circulated her bony body, despite it being thickly clad in an autumnal looking coat and a woollen scarf wrapped like a noose around her neck. Perhaps a noose would be appropriate, as her mood was not far away from implementing an action that would require one. She walked briskly home after her duties at Mrs Williams’ home. Marie Bunting was not a cleaner by trade but, to make ends meet, she took up the position. Mrs Williams was a formidable dragon who never missed a trick and managed Marie as though she was an incompetent.
She halted as she reached her blue front door centred in a row of terraced houses. Fitting the key, she entered and called out, ‘Joe, are you in?’ Although there was no response, she knew he was in. Joe Bunting was vegetating in the living room engrossed in watching his local footy team, United, on TV. Her husband was out of work and out of luck after gambling most of her hard earned money on the horses in the hope of winning enough to pay the bills. He was a spender whilst she was thrifty. The pub was his second home and he was not averse to a curry afterwards with his friends. He pulled open another beer and took a few swigs. ‘What’s for tea, love?’ he finally said as she entered the room. ‘Egg, chips and beans,’ she replied with a quiver in her voice, wondering if he is in a good mood. The bruises on her arms had now cleared so, yes, she preferred him in a good mood. It was payday yesterday and he borrowed his usual twenty quid from her. No doubt he would need reminding for it back if he won something which, in the past she knew she would regret, particularly if he lost the bet. She lived and managed his aggression by pacifying him, letting him get away with his abusive treatment when he got drunk. She often hid in the bedroom when he was out too long. For years they had tried for a baby, which she desperately wanted, but it hadn’t happened. She wanted to have it checked out by the doctor, but he hated the ‘quacks’. So, the misery, hate, abuse, depression and loneliness continued and no end seemed in sight.
It is Sunday morning and Marie prepared herself for church. She stemmed from Catholic origins although she wouldn’t class herself as devout. She prayed quite often, particularly in terms of the circumstances in which she finds herself with her husband at home. She would go to the church and sit in a rear pew and pray for forgiveness; you see she blamed herself for the situation she was in. She blamed herself for her husband’s manner. It happens that the church is attached to a convent which is overseen by the reverend mother. The nuns attend the service but sit in the choir stalls and sing hymns at the appropriate times. The service at the church was solemn and reverent. Often you could see Marie with a tear in her eye as the nuns sing, and she wishes her situation would be different. The service over, the congregation, of which there was about thirty, made their way out. On doing so, Marie was stopped by the mother superior who was swathed in her black habit. ‘How are you my child?’ ‘I am well.’ responded Marie who found it difficult to keep eye contact with the mother superior. ‘I have something for you, my dear.’ From inside her habit she produced a jar. ‘Here is a little something for you Marie. It is a little pickle I made to a very old secret recipe. You know, I think of you as a loyal and supportive member of the church and so I made this for you. Beware though, it has a very interesting flavour.’ The mother superior smiled at Marie as she passed over the gift.
On returning home, Marie felt warmed by the kindness of the mother superior and the sisters who, for some reason, always felt calm and happy. Whilst the church service made her feel somewhat uplifted, it was back to normality as, yet again, she presented her key to the blue door and entered. Joe was out, probably playing snooker at the pub and drinking his fill with his friends. Maybe he was lucky yesterday and decided to celebrate but, she didn’t get any benefit from it. The dire situation she found herself in wouldn’t get any better it seemed. At about 6pm, she heard the door slam and footsteps grew louder on the stone tiles of the hallway as Joe approached the kitchen. ‘What’s for dinner?’ he grunted. ‘Cheese omelette and chips.’ she replied getting the chip pan out of the cupboard. It didn’t take long for her to prepare the ‘elaborate’ meal. She made sure he had the bigger portion on a bigger plate to pacify him, as she preferred. ‘What’s this on the side?’ he remarked. ‘It’s only a little bit of pickle.’ she said without saying where it had come from. He remained silent and ate his dinner without any fuss. In fact, when he had finished he licked the pickle that remained on his knife and fork with pure delight. ‘Nice pickle, love.’ he said curtly before retiring to the living room to watch ‘the box’.
It was a few weeks later when she noticed a change. It wasn’t a sudden change but rather a gradual lift of the mood in the house. Never before had Joe worn anything but some baggy pants and vest around the place but, now, he seemed to have smartened himself up and started to iron clothes, shave, and make himself more presentable.
It was not only that; also, he had actually brought Marie breakfast in bed on a tray carrying a tumbler containing a brightly coloured flower. In fact, the way he treated her lately was respectful, considerate and kind and comparing his demeanour before and after was tantamount to night and day.
The shock to Marie of such a change in her husband’s behaviour was too much for her to grasp, and concerning at the same time. What had caused this change? she wondered. Looking back she could see that this now resembled the man she first met 14 years ago, when she was still young and innocent; as was he.
At luncheon, the mother superior was sat at a large table in the refectory surrounded by the other sisters eating, in silence, a meal consisting of bread and cheese with an assortment of salads grown in the convent garden. There was, in addition, the tangy pickle that, this time, was presented in bowls around the table. The sisters were tucking into their meal, placing large blobs of the pickle on their cheese and licking their lips gleefully with each mouthful.
If only they knew, the mother superior thought to herself.
The front door slams and a patter of feet quickly make it to the kitchen whereupon Joe finds Marie cooking a meal.
‘How was your first day?’ she asks. ‘Great, love. They showed me what to do. I know it’s just packing biscuits but there’s a lot to it with all the machines.’ ‘Tea’s ready. Burger and chips.’ She smiles warmly knowing how nervous he was before he went to work this morning. She puts the plate on the table with the jar of pickle. He glances at the jar. ‘We need to get some more, love. It’s nearly gone,’ he says opening the jar. ‘Oh, I’ll try to get some more in the morning. You eat your tea, now. You need your energy after a hard day,’ she said thinking about how she will approach the reverend mother. She adds, ‘Early night tonight, you need to be up bright and early tomorrow.’ He smiled at that, then he looked at her and gave a surreptitious wink. Immediately she recognised his intention.
The congregation was about sixty at the church that Sunday. Marie sat in her usual spot at the rear of the church and thought about what to say to the reverend mother. Once the service was over, Marie made her approach.
‘Reverend Mother, I wanted to ask you…’ but before she could say anything further the mother superior waved her hand solemnly and then presented her with a further jar of pickle.
‘Please accept this with my most sincere regards,’ the gracious nun remarked. ‘It is an improved recipe and I hope you will find it most delicious.’
‘Thank you Reverend Mother. You are too kind.’ Marie responded with a small bob of the head.
‘You will always both be welcome here. You know that, don’t you my dear?’ said the reverend mother.
Marie nodded with a sense of belonging she had never considered before. The reverend mother looked down towards Marie’s belly, looked back up and smiled.
‘Good day, dear.’
With that the reverend mother drifted back down the aisle towards the altar while Marie made her way out.
A few months passed and Marie becomes unwell. Not wanting to cause worry, she visits the doctor whilst Joe is at work and explains her symptoms. She is overwhelmed by the doctor’s response. She is pregnant.
It is evening time and Marie is waiting for Joe to return from work. He seems often to work later than usual which she puts down to Christmas coming up and an increased workload. She noticed his confidence in himself had grown inexorably and he seemed to feel ‘on top of the world’.
Eventually the blue door opens and Joe comes inside to the living room. Marie has made an effort to create a calm ambience with subtle lighting of candles and scent effusions. Joe clambers unsteadily into the armchair; a hint of booze faintly emanating from him and clashing with the scent of the room. His eyes are glazed and he cannot maintain contact with those of Marie. She can tell something is wrong, but she knows how happy he will be when she tells him their wonderful news. Joe looks up and opens his mouth to utter the words: ‘I’m leaving you.’
It transpires that Joe had been involved with divorcee Maggie from the biscuit factory and they have been having an affair for a number of months now. His charm and good dress sense attracted her immediately and she was of the type that didn’t care if there was baggage attached, although Joe made no initial attempt to declare his marriage. She was all too happy to take what she could and to hell with the consequences.
The inevitable outcome came when he found out that Maggie was going to have his first child. She had two teenage children already and he felt compelled to make this a new life altogether. He felt he needed to support Maggie and move in with her, and he was determined to leave Marie. The consequences of his actions were not at the forefront of his mind.
Marie was in turmoil, the elation of knowing she was with child, and the devastation of losing her husband hadn’t registered in her fragile mind. She had nowhere to go. After falling pregnant she gave up her job with Mrs Williams and now, without him, she couldn’t afford to keep going. There was only one thing to do.
She put on her coat and tied the noose around her neck and walked out of the empty house. She walked with desperation, despite the jumbled thoughts circulating her brain. Eventually, she reached the church and entered to sit in her usual spot.
The reverend mother appeared.
Marie recalled her saying, ‘You are both welcome here.’ and she now realized she was referring to mother and child and not husband and wife.
The reverend mother approached Marie and embraced her.
‘Wipe away the tears my child, you are safe here.’
With that Marie broke down and wept.
In the confines of the reverend mother’s chambers, Marie wiped away her tears and asked, ‘What has happened? It all started with that blasted pickle!’
The reverend mother started to explain, ‘The pickle is made with a special ingredient from the Guava plant which is a known natural antidepressant. The pickle contains a concentration which is enough to affect the recipient and relieve low mood. You both would feel the effects, after consuming it, in a few weeks.’
Marie was shocked, ‘I didn’t have any though.’
‘That is unfortunate. It is also known to enhance male fertility in those who find it difficult to conceive. What you don’t realise Marie, is that I’ve been interested in the passage of your life for many years now.’
Marie was surprised and responded curtly, ‘But why? There is nothing special about me.’
‘Oh yes Marie. You are very special to me, my dear,’
‘Yes,’ she paused, ‘because I named you, my child.’ she paused again. ’You are my daughter.’ She closed her eyes after she revealed these words with a solemn look upon her face. ‘I gave you up when you were born to protect you. I was confused, but now shines the light and I have you back. You’re child will be looked after, as will you.’
Marie looked at the reverend mother in disbelief. What proof was there of what she has asserted.
‘Here is a locket containing a photo of you when you were a small baby. It was the only thing that I cherished, as I do you now, my child, my beautiful child.’