ERR ON THE SIDE OF CAUTION
By Kate Larkindale
It was hot and the pavement was crowded. I stumbled as a large woman in a too-tight scarlet shirt pushed past me.
“Excuse me!” I snarled under my breath. “No manners!”
“What was that, dear?” My wife Martha turned from where she was studying a row of crocheted doilies.
“Nothing.” I tried to move myself out of the line of traffic, but there didn’t appear to be anywhere out of the line of traffic. It seemed as if everyone in the entire city had turned out for the Sunday market.
The stalls snaked their way down the esplanade, only a low stone wall separating them from the beach below. I breathed in the scent of ocean, mixed with the smells of grilling sausages, roasting nuts and assorted others. I was exhausted, the heat having drained my energy completely. My feet and knees ached, not to mention my arms, laden as they were with the seven shopping bags Martha had loaded on me.
“I’m too old for this,” I muttered to myself, trying not to lose sight of Martha who was darting tirelessly in and out of the crowd, looking at the various wares the stalls had to offer.
Between two stalls I spied a bench, thankfully unoccupied. I hurried across to it, lowering myself and the packages onto it.
“Thank goodness!” I sighed, shifting around until I found a comfortable position for my long legs. As I moved my left foot, it hit something that rolled away, striking the leg of the bench with a dull metallic thud. I bent stiffly and reached under the seat, pulling up a small brown glass bottle, liquid sloshing away inside.
The sun shone through the brown glass, making it gleam like amber. I held it away from my face, squinting at the faded type on the tattered paper label.
“Youth Serum,” I read then started, staring back at the label. “Must be some kind of joke!” But I held the bottle up again, studying the liquid within. Carefully I tugged at the stopper, easing it from the neck of the bottle with my gnarled, arthritic hands. It was a struggle, but finally it came away with a gentle hissing sound.
The smell that emanated from the bottle was faint, but gave me an instant shock of recognition. I bent my head, plunging my nose into the opening. I breathed deeply, recognising the scent of the hydrangeas that had grown around the house I’d grown up in. Underlying this was the smell of starch and bleach, of sheets that had been dried outside in the sun. A note of spice was in there too, an aroma that reminded me of baking, of fruit buns and homemade gingerbread. I breathed deeply again, realising all of a sudden that what I smelt was the scent of my childhood.
I stoppered the bottle, not wanting the liquid and heavenly scent within to evaporate in the baking sun. Glancing around, I spotted Martha a few yards away, talking animatedly with a stallholder who held up colourful painted mobiles of hanging jungle animals. I smiled a benevolent smile. The grandchildren were spoiled enough, but Martha just couldn’t help herself. I waved at her as she moved away from the stall, carried along by the crowd towards the next one. She knew where to find me now. And she would, when she was finished with her browsing and shopping.
I turned back to the bottle, smoothing the paper label down with my thumb. There was more writing on it, under the bold letters that announced it to be Youth Serum. I’d left my glasses in the car. I held out the bottle, wishing, not for the first time, that I had a few more inches of arm. My sight seemed to get longer every year. Finally the type came into focus, blurry, but still readable. Use with care, the label warned. Each drop will take one year from your age. Err on the side of caution in all instances.
One drop, one year. My mind whirred as I tried to figure out how many drops it would take to get me back to thirty-six, the best year of my life, the year I met Martha. It took longer than I care to admit. Finally I decided a single sip from the bottle would be enough; it’s not as if I couldn’t hold onto it, administer more as needed. I couldn’t wait to do it. I wanted to have done the deed before Martha returned so she’d see the new, youthful me when she returned. Then I could give some to her and we could be young together again.
My fantasy excited me so much that my hands shook as I re-opened the bottle, that heavenly nostalgic scent filling my nostrils again. I tipped the bottle towards my mouth, lips parted, but tight, to limit the amount of serum that would fall on my tongue. Just as the bottle met my mouth, someone in the crowd brushed by, knocking my elbow. A great gush of liquid spilled from the bottle, into my mouth. I gulped, swallowing involuntarily.
A strange sensation filled me, as if my blood had sped up and was now rushing through my veins at great speed. I looked down and was startled to see my clothes puddling around me, pants legs limp against the slats of the bench. I raised my hand towards my face, a small, plump thing, pink and unwrinkled, devoid of the liver spots that had covered them for the last fifteen years or so. My mind was my own, filled with the memories and experiences of the eighty-six years I’d lived on earth, but my body had changed.
I opened my mouth to call out as I saw Martha shouldering her way through the crowd towards me. But all I could hear was the pitiful wailing of a baby, somewhere very close by.