If he is being honest, the chair in which he is sitting has never really been all that comfortable. He hasn’t actually complained out loud, ever, about the lump in the lumbar support (what would’ve been the point?) but he’s recently wanted to give it a good, hard punch. A good kicking, even. Just to let it know he really has had enough now, and that the end of his tether has been reached. Finally, and unequivocally.
The end of one’s tether – an interesting concept, he muses to himself. It implies that he is fastened or anchored to a fixed point. Am I? he wonders. Am I somehow tied to a past that suggests I have no options today?
In the past, putting up with things had always just been his way: going with the flow, keeping the peace, que sera, sera, and all that. Like the time they went to Casa Mama’s on the High Street for their wedding anniversary and the waiter had insisted that the wine they’d ordered had been from the posh wine list, when he knew he’d ordered the house red; he’d smiled, a bit too embarrassed to make a scene, and paid the bill in full. Barbara had glared at him, her eyes somehow flashing contempt and disappointment at the same time. She’d always seemed on the brink of a fight with the world – her default response had been to bristle and quiver like a terrier waiting to bring down any genuinely unsuspecting wrong-doer.
Had she always been like that?
He is finding it increasingly hard to remember her as each day blends into another – her face seems to slip in and out of focus, like he’s looking at her under water. Murky water. Feeling the fluid edges swirl away, he tries hard to grip them in his memory, hold them steady, but the more he tries, the more shimmery they become. It reminds him of the fuzzy edges of the water lilies in that painting Barbara liked. Monet, was it? She’d bought a poster of it for their kitchen wall. He hadn’t liked it. But he didn’t say.
Today, he sits in his uncomfortable chair and allows his eyes to rest gently on the windowpane, unfocused, swirly. It’s raining again, and the oily streaks distort the garden beyond. He used to like April – fresh colours, new life, a shifting in the dark soul of the earth as it pushed itself up through damp layers of resistance to the pale light above. Such a beautiful strength, so easy to underestimate. This year, it’s different. April this year cannot be relied upon to bring a sense of life and living; this year it lurks in the recesses of the shrubbery, wraps itself in a sinuous threat around the grey bones of his ash tree, and whispers warnings about how things will never be the same again. Not now. Not for him.
When Barbara died, he thought he’d be ok. It’s been 16 weeks and 4 days now and, again if he’s being honest, he’s quite relieved that the nightmare of her last few weeks of decline at Sunnyside Residential are over. For eight months, without fail, every Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday at 2pm he’d gone to visit her – the trial of the number 34A bus winding through the miserable city to the other side of the industrial estate borne with fortitude and a sense of duty. Duty, not love; and he’s not really sure when one took over from the other. More blurriness around the edges of reality.
There was nothing sunny about Sunnyside Residential; it had been grey, sad, lonely, and – let’s face it – smelly. It had worried him that he’d finally got used to that lingering odour. On his last visit, he had left Barbara in her seat in the lounge, gazing emptily at the TV and pulling the wool thread from her shabby cardigan, and he had taken the 34A bus back toward home with a steely determination never to return. Never, ever would he step foot in such a place again. It was dehumanising, and wrong on so many levels that a human being should end their days in such oblivion.
It will not happen to me. It will not happen to me. It will not happen to me. He plays the refrain like a Beatles song over and over in his head, each and every day.
The greasy rain is slowing now and his eyes adjust their focus through the streaks to the gate beyond the unkempt lawn, once so manicured and pristine. Shifting his weight against the discomfort of the chair, he dabs again at his nose with the grey-once-was-white handkerchief and clears his throat. He’s doing that a lot these days – catching his breath in his throat where there’s a sort of thickness, a sense of choking every so often. Barbara would tell him to go and see old Johnson at the surgery up on Priory Street. “Get yourself seen to,” he can hear her say. Well there is no way on this earth he is going there. Look at what happened to Barbara! She was never away from the place, what with one ailment or another; she was rattling with all the pills that were prescribed for her, and did it do her any good? No. She still ended up in that hellhole of a Sunnyside.
It will not happen to me. It will not happen to me. It will not happen to me.
A movement at the gate catches his attention and he sits up, alert and wary. It’s the red wool scarf and matching gloves again. What now? He thought he’d made it clear the last time she came that he wasn’t interested in anything she was offering. She’d tried to come into the hallway and he’d had to be quite rude in the end, pushing the door shut and refusing to open it again when she rang the bell over and over. Go away. Leave me alone. I’m fine. People need to listen to him, take him seriously. He’s an easy-going type – a gentle giant Barbara used to call him – but… There is now a but…
Rising slowly from his chair, he coughs again and shakes his head to get rid of the fuzzy feeling that sits behind his nose. She’s seen him through the window and is waving energetically, just a bit too enthusiastically – like you would to a recalcitrant toddler who you were about to cajole into submission. He growls quietly. Red Scarf scurries up the path to his porch and forces the bell to ring with a cheeriness he didn’t know it possessed. He makes his way from the sitting room and down the hallway, firmly closing the door to the dining room as he passes, and watches Little Red Scarf and Gloves in silhouette through the mottled glass of the diamond pane in the upper half of the front door.
Maybe he could just not open the door at all, ignore her and whatever she wants this time. He is certainly within his rights. After all, look what happened to Mr Richard Walker at no.15 last November when he, without a thought for his own safety, opened his front door to two strangers who had then proceeded to tie him up, hit him over the head with his own walking stick, and rob him of the money he had put away in the little Toby jug in the hall cupboard. And he was 85, for heaven’s sake! He was taken away in an ambulance, and still hasn’t come back. And his little spaniel, Sadie, has had to go to the RSPCA kennels because there is no one to care for her. She must be feeling so confused on her own right now. He’d liked Sadie, and Mr Richard Walker; they’d pass his house every day and Mr Richard Walker had always raised a hand in greeting to him as he sat in his lumpy chair in the window; sat watching, and waiting. Now they are gone too; and their options have been removed, their independence compromised. He growls again, and coughs. He breathes. He opens the front door.
The rain has finally stopped. April shadows lurk with menace at the edges of his vision as the day closes in, and he sits with his cup of tea (three sugars and semi-skimmed milk – the latter a nod to Barbara’s attempts to reduce his fat intake) waiting for the news on TV at six o’clock. It’ll be more doom and gloom; you can’t seem to get away from it these days. But at least the choice of what to watch is his – he’s in control, he has the options, he makes the decisions, and no one is going to take that away from him with their sneaking around. He knows what they’re up to as they try to catch him out, to remove him from his own home, lock him up in some twisted version of Sunnyside Residential. Well, it’s not happening. Not to him. Not now. Not ever.
They’d tried to “make arrangements” for old Mrs Quinn last month, her who used to live in the flat over the bookies in Briar Avenue. They’d said she “wasn’t capable of independent living”, just because the stairs were getting a bit much for her, and because she was keeping too many cats. When they came to fetch her – he remembers it was a Monday morning because that was the day the young man from Age Concern came to see him – she was dead. Having stacked up box after box of painkillers prescribed for her dodgy hip, she’d taken them all in one go with a bottle of Jameson’s Irish whiskey on the Saturday night.
Way to go, Mrs Quinn! He smiles his admiration. She’d made her own choices. And he approved of Jameson’s.
He stands up and opens the window just a little; it might be chilly, but he needs some fresh air in the stuffy sitting room. Little Red Scarf and Gloves is still here. She’d been ever so pushy at the front door. With her over-large briefcase, she’d wedged herself in and, short of chopping off her left hand at the wrist with a sharp slam of the door, he’d had to let her in. The business card she’d thrust at him, and which he has put in his trouser pocket for safe-keeping, tells him she is “Ms Amy Deacon – Department of Health and Social Care”. She’d looked a bit uncomfortable in his hallway, a bit less chipper and chirpy than she had on the doorstep, and she’d kept the scarf pulled up over her nose and mouth; said she had a cold, but her muffled words were quite clear to him as she rattled on about what was in his “long-term best interests” and how she could “ease the transition”.
There will be no transition, of that he is sure. Not for him anyway. She, of course, can transition away to her heart’s content.
She’s over there. On the sofa. Where Barbara always used to sit. Next to the little coffee table where their faded wedding picture in a chipped, grubby frame lies face down. Ms Amy Deacon in her red scarf and gloves has nothing whatsoever in common with Barbara – except for the fact that she’s also now dead. Well, it was her own fault, he reasons to himself; don’t carry such a heavy briefcase if you don’t want to be hit over the head with it!
So yes; she’s now dead. As is Ben, from Age Concern. And Nurse-Smyth-You-Must-Call-Me-Lucy from the health centre on Priory Street. And patronising Kyle who’d said he was from some bereavement charity that had just set up in the city to help support older people who had lost loved ones. Huh! They are all in the dining room. Also dead. In fact, they’d been dead a while now. He holds the handkerchief to his nose. Oh, and that cheeky little bugger of a paperboy who tried to nick his wallet off the hall table – he too is very much dead, in the shed.
These people thought they could get one over on him. But not him, not Ted – he’s too smart for them all. No one’s taking away his options, thank you very much. He is very much staying safely put, behind his unkempt lawn and greasy window. Watching, and waiting.
It will not happen to him. It will not happen to him. It will not happen to him. He smiles. And dabs at his nose with his handkerchief again.