She said: ‘four green olives’.
Try to put this sentence into some kind of context. It might be about a martini. It might be about a garnish. Or nibbles during drinks.
But it is very specific, isn’t it? It’s something about the colour and the quantity that makes it memorable. And something more than perhaps a throwaway line regarding drinks or nibbles.
But there is also this: these words were said in an apartment high above the city with views right down to Sorrento, and looming over Williamstown, a little land bump that seemed so close as to be nudged.
It all lines up as a vignette scattered with party favours and glitter. In truth, this phrase of green olives heralded something quite else.
This was my mother’s request for lunch.
The expected vignette hesitates.
And neither is the apartment what it seems, with views blocked by blinds, and windows kept shut, and heating turning the air thick.
Something is amiss.
Indeed. Mum had cancer, and these were the last months.
Mum – while not courting death in any sense – was resolved to die. The cancer was everywhere, and it was moving her slowly towards silence. She felt the slowness keenly and, sometimes, in the afternoons, she would smile and say: ‘this dying business, it just takes so long’.
The long business Mum had accepted; but Dad had declared war.
But he didn’t rail against the too warm air, the closed windows. He didn’t rage at the doctors or the treatments.
His battleground was her appetite.
She ate almost nothing – four green olives were a feast – and he cooked almost endlessly.
He would light on something he thought would coax her to eat – now soups, now stews – and would then cook it in every incarnation. In the soup phase, there were jars and jugs filled with pureed pumpkin and mushroom and tomato and pea crowding the fridge. Dad would announce each new dish by crashing a bowl of it onto their highly polished, granite kitchen bench at high speed. Like the giant cymbals in an opera.
This clash of ceramic and granite was the only moment of triumph in his war.
If he were lucky, she would eat a spoonful or two.
So he upped his game – the best quality salmon, sushi quality tuna, caviar, oysters – and so did she.
‘What will you have for lunch?’ he would demand of her.
She would hesitate, think, and then offer the rules of engagement:
‘Thin soup. Perhaps miso. Weak tea. Toast? Toast very dry.’
When she had made her request for food, Dad would stretch tight as if a violin being tuned, and then he would snap. Her miso-soup-from-a-packet (that she asked to take through a straw) would morph into consommé on good china. The weak tea (‘just wave the teabag over the water’) with plenty of milk and dry toast would become grilled salmon with perfectly cooked straw potatoes. And, without her prompting, she would get vanilla panna cotta for dessert. As each dish was cooked, he would land the plates so hard on the bench that little chips would fly off. (They would be captured by the vacuum cleaner later in the day – click, click, click.)
She would take a mouthful of the broth, and then abandon it. While he watched her like a hawk, she would flake the salmon into the potatoes, and then push a spoon into the quivering dessert. He would then scrape it all into the bin and wash the dishes as if they were on fire.
She would then ask for the tea she didn’t get. He would stop just short of throwing the kettle across the kitchen.
There are few ways to convey how thin she was. Her knees were the thickest part of her legs.
Even at the end, even when the cancer was breaking the tape of the finish line, and we could offer her nothing but our hands, and could witness nothing but her suffering, he continued to fight in the only way he could, asking her – every single day:
‘What will you have for lunch?’
And she, in a gesture of appreciation for his fight, always answered him, and always gave him a challenge.
‘four green olives’.