Human heart for supper. (A short story)

Once upon a time there were two friends called ‘Give’ and ‘Take’ who lived together. Give was wiry, energetic, kind, and – you guessed it – generous in every way. Take was overweight and self-absorbed, though he could be charming and seductive on occasion. He had a discerning palate and he knew how to relax.
Give looked after the house and worked to pay the rent. He cooked delicious meals for Take and washed up afterwards. He did their laundry and ironing, dusted the high shelves and would massage Take late into the night and listen carefully to his accounts of his inner process. Take supervised all Give’s activities and gave him direct feedback on how he was doing. Neither of them questioned these arrangements. They seemed to fit together perfectly.
On the few occasions that Give invited his old friends home, however, Take was so rude to them and sulked so long afterwards that Give learnt not to bring anyone home and lost touch with his friends. It didn’t matter of course because he still had Take, and that made up for everything.
But although Give anticipated and tried to meet Take’s every need, he didn’t manage to make him happy. Indeed Take spent most of his time in bed and became increasingly depressed and bad tempered. Whatever Give did it wasn’t right. The soup was too hot or too cold or too salty or too tasteless, or he hadn’t wanted it anyway. He made more and more demands of Give and supervised his work ever more closely in a pitch towards a receding perfection.
Give worked hard to try and meet these demands. He didn’t complain. It wasn’t that he was repressing his resentment, he had no resentment. Take was a wonderful person and he was so very lucky to live with him. He admired in particular how forthright and honest he was.
As the weeks and years passed Take’s demands increased. He became fascinated with food and asked Give to prepare a series of exotic dishes. Give gladly complied – he learnt the different cuisines: Chinese then Thai, then Indian, Mexican, Japanese, Cordon-Bleu. Little by little, knowing that Take would never settle for the same dish twice, no matter how delicious, he learnt every cuisine. He worked by day and shopped in his lunch breaks. In the evenings he ran a high class restaurant for one. After supper he would clear up then read about cookery deep into the night. At the weekend he attended cookery courses or searched out new ingredients: shark fin, fresh truffles, dolphin, quail eggs, mountain gorilla. He kept the larder fully stocked and cultivated unusual vegetables and herbs in the garden. He had to admire how adventurous and discriminating Take had become. He had such refined tastes now that he could only eat the best part of every animal, cooked in the subtlest, most flavoursome way. It was an honour to serve him.
The day came when Take had sampled the best part of every edible bird, fish and animal known to man, except one final one. Realising this he instructed Give to cook the final dish: “I want a human heart for supper. Cook it so that its’ tenderness is unsurpassed and its juicy taste beyond compare. Serve it on a silver platter, with a glass of vintage wine. Only this will satisfy me now.”
Give of course was anxious to oblige. All morning at work he made secret calls to the mortuaries. He was surprised when they didn’t believe him and those he did persuade of his seriousness didn’t seem to understand how important it was to meet his friend’s need. By midday he despaired of ever being able to persuade a mortuary, so he took the afternoon off and walked about town wondering what to do.
Stopping by a children’s playground he spent some time watching a lone boy on a swing. It would be easy to smother him in the bushes at the side of the park. Then he could return with his best kitchen knife and cut out the boy’s heart. That would be straightforward – his skills as a butcher had honed over the years. And a child’s heart might be extra tender and tasty. He entered the park and started helping the boy to swing, by way of gaining his confidence. The boy giggled with joy and Give knew that this was the time to strike – before anyone else came into the park. Now that he had the boy’s confidence he could find some pretext for persuading him to come into the bushes. It was an excellent opportunity. But he thought perhaps he should go home to get the knife first and come back later…
Leaving the boy swinging, and angry with himself for not having seized the opportunity, Give ran back home for the knife. He entered the house quietly by the back door, anxious not to disturb Take who would be having his afternoon nap. He tested the blade of his largest knife. It was very sharp already. But perhaps it could do with a little extra sharpening.
He sharpened, and sharpened but he didn’t return to the park. Slowly he realised that he just wasn’t going to be able to kill the boy. He felt so ashamed and disappointed with himself. Take would be furious…
But then he had an extraordinary thought. Perhaps he could prepare the dish with his own heart. He felt suddenly thrilled. It would be the ultimate in self-sacrifice. He could prepare all the accompanying ingredients, set them cooking in a casserole dish, set the alarm on the cooker so that Take would know when it was ready, suspend himself over the dish and his last action would be to gouge out his own heart – with a deft twist of the knife – so that it fell into the bubbling stew below.
Working quickly and skilfully he prepared the vegetables and began to cook them in his largest casserole dish. He set the alarm then laid out the silver platter beside the cooker and a glass of vintage wine beside it to breathe. This meal would surpass all others! Whilst the vegetables were cooking he carefully constructed a harness using ropes attached to meat hooks in the ceiling. He took off his shirt and winched himself up over the dish using a pulley. Once in position with his chest directly over the dish he tied off the rope, pointed the sharp knife to his chest and took a deep breath.
But for the second time that day he balked. And slowly he realised that he wasn’t going to be able to do this either. He was overwhelmed with shame at his own inadequacy. He couldn’t bear to disappoint Take. With tears rushing down his cheeks he climbed out of the harness and, grabbing his shirt and a coat, rushed out of the house.
It was raining outside and there was a bitter wind. Give walked aimlessly, knowing only that there was no going back now. He was too ashamed and would never be able to meet Take’s ultimate request.
After he had been walking for a while he passed a beggar and without thinking gave him his wallet and his credit cards. After all he himself had nothing worth living for. He gave his coat to a passer-by who looked like she could use it and his shoes to someone else who looked like they needed them. Before long he was cold and wet and hungry and with no means to get warm or dry, or to feed himself. Over the next few days he became increasingly destitute. He was too depressed to go back to work and lost his job. He slept outside at first, then one evening, and for the nights that followed, he ended up in the town’s night shelter. There was no one else to turn to. He hated being there because he felt so undeserving. He worried that he might use a bed that was needed. Every night there was a long queue for soup and in the mornings a queue for porridge. He made sure he was always the last in the queue, least the food ran out and he deprived someone else.
When Take awoke from his afternoon nap and noticed his friend’s absence he didn’t wonder where Give was or why he wasn’t there. He was worried only that Give wasn’t answering his calls for service. He’d been looking forward all day to the human heart and was getting hungrier by the minute. Give should have brought the meal by now…
As the hours passed and still Give failed to return it didn’t occur to Take to get up and make himself something to eat, or even to pour himself a drink. He heard the alarm go off on the cooker but decided to ignore it. That was Give’s job. He lay in bed increasingly furious. How could Give have been so selfish? How could he have let him down so?
When Give wasn’t there the following morning Take remained in bed all day, and the days that followed. As he got hungrier and hungrier, his tongue swelled and his throat grew painfully dry. He began to screech out with increasingly loud howls of pain and anguish. Eventually a passing pedestrian heard him and called the emergency services. The ambulance men broke in and found him groaning on his bed. They rushed him to hospital and placed him on a drip feed.
Take quickly recovered in hospital and soon began to make demands of the nurses and catering staff. With raised eyebrows they obliged for a bit. But they made sure he was sent promptly home as soon as they thought he was ready. Back in the empty house Take retired again to bed. Again he didn’t eat or drink. He was waiting for Give. But Give didn’t come. Soon he became hungry and thirsty again and cried and shouted again until once more he was rushed to hospital. Once more they discharged him again, as soon as he was recovered. But this time he was given a social worker. She took him home and left him. But every day she visited to check how he was doing. It soon became apparent that he was doing badly and nothing would induce him to eat. So the social worker sectioned him and he was admitted compulsorily to a mental hospital.
Take didn’t like the hospital. He complained bitterly about everything, most of all the food. When he spoke about Give and Give’s wonderful cooking, people looked at him vacantly. Nothing felt right and his misery intensified so much that now he would do nothing for himself. He would no longer lift a spoon or fork, or even go to the toilet. All day he lay inert and furious.
But nothing annoyed him quite so much as the nurse who was supposed to feed him. She irritated him beyond belief. In the morning she brought him cups of freshly ground coffee then left them just beyond his reach. And when he hollered for her to hold the mug to his lips she would wink at him slowly as if she didn’t understand his need. On one occasion when he’d been screaming for help for some time she brought in a mirror and held it up so that he could see his own face. Another time she made his bed around him but didn’t seem to notice that she had left his feet exposed to the cold air. When he harangued her for this she looked down at his feet with a smile and tickled the sole of one of them with her little finger – but still didn’t adjust the quilt. And whenever she fed him she had an irritating habit of holding the spoon to his ear rather than his mouth. She seemed to find this funny. It exasperated him enormously, not least because he was now very hungry. Surely she could see that. One time that she did this it maddened him so much that he grabbed the spoon and rammed it into his mouth by himself. The food tasted good, and the nurse surprised him by smiling sweetly.
After that Take began to help himself more. He would reach a little for the coffee, though every morning she seemed to place it slightly further away. He would turn his head for the spoon. And when one day she left him for hours in a bed wet from with his own urine he decided to start going to the toilet again. Little by little he began to do more. And reluctantly he admitted to himself that it was actually easier that way and not un-enjoyable. He wouldn’t tell the nurse that of course.
The day came when Take was discharged home once more. This time he fed himself. He ate the contents of the freezer which Give had filled with single portions of exotic puddings. When those ran out he ordered take-aways. The sink filled up with dirty dishes and every part of the house with take-away containers. And he overdrew his bank account. After that he got himself a job at the entrance to a cinema, taking people’s money. He didn’t earn much doing this and it meant he had to spend his money carefully – which meant giving up on the take-aways. Little by little he began to cook for himself and to clean up afterwards.
At last he’d learnt to do a few things for himself. But still he wasn’t happy – he had no friends and his life felt desolate and lonely.
One day, on the way back on foot from the supermarket carrying a large number of plastic bags he tripped on the curb and scattered his shopping all over the pavement. A man he hadn’t seen, but who had been lying at the side of the pavement, immediately got up, helped him to his feet, and began gathering up his things for him. Take could see that the man wasn’t well. He was dirty, with bare feet, and torn clothes. He’d never seen anyone who looked so thin. But the man seemed prepared to help despite all this. The last thing the man picked up for was a French baguette that had rolled into the gutter. He asked Take if he wanted to keep the bread, since it was now so dirty. Take looked again at the man, noticing once more how appallingly thin he was. Then he remembered the times that he too had been thin from not eating and how terrible that had felt. Without thinking he pushed the bread towards the man’s mouth. “Here, take it for your trouble.” As he did this their eyes met for the first time, and they recognised each other – the man was Give.
And as Give recognised Take he allowed himself to take a small mouthful of bread – he was so desperately hungry, and the bread was dirty and would probably have been thrown away anyway, and Take had once been his friend…
It tasted wonderfully fresh and sweet.
As he watched Give eat, Take felt unaccountably pleased. Impulsively he invited him home.
“But I cannot cook you human heart.” said Give, apologetically.
Then Take recalled his last order all those months ago, and paused to take a deep breath before saying proudly: “It doesn’t matter. I can cook for myself now.”
So it was that the two began living together again. And, although they were not always happy, things were different from before. So much so that on rare occasions Give would even allow Take to bring him breakfast in bed – though as soon as he’d finished eating he would rush downstairs to do the washing up. The two grew closer in a new way and with a shared understanding. And both decided separately that the time had come to change their name.


2 thoughts on “Human heart for supper. (A short story)

  1. I praise you for your variances in mood and style. This one feels like a fairy story quite appropriate to “Once upon a time…” A good read – you are very prolific!
    Congratulations, Jane

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