Near Death – Week 45 of the 52 week short story challenge

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‘Hello?’

‘Hello? Can you hear me?’

I’m pressing the button on this pendant I wear around my neck but nothing happens. Usually when I press it I get a crackly voice from the other end telling me that I have come through to the ‘We Care Service’ and what did I want?

I don’t use it often because I have difficulty hearing what the woman is saying and now, when I really need it there is nothing.

Not even the reassuring beep that tells me that although the line is busy, they will get back to me as soon as possible.

Nothing.

I can just see the clock from here. It’s still early; six o’clock and the time when I would usually be up making my first cup of tea. something to set me up for the day as I sit and listen to the news on the radio.

I could watch the news on the television that my granddaughter bought me but I prefer to listen early in the morning. I don’t want the intrusion of strangers in my house yet.

Today I would welcome anyone to my house.

Today even the lad who has been burgling houses in our area would be welcome. I would tell him where to find my money, my wife’s jewellery, my medals even, if he would call 999 as he leaves.

The floor in the hallway is cold. I should have had carpets fitted but my wife was always proud of these tiles. Minton she said they were and she wouldn’t dream of having them covered up with some old carpet.

I could have had the carpets fitted when she died, when there was only me to think of but every time I look at these tiles I think of her.

I see her as the young girl I carried across the threshold of our house; as the mother of our daughter, tired but proud in her hospital bed, and then I see her bringing our baby girl home to the bedroom I had so lovingly painted pink in her honour.

She did us proud our girl; married well and presented us with grandchildren. I had never thought of our daughter as being traditional but she named her children after her mother and me. Keeping the memories going she said. A legacy.

I never thought I would outlive her, and her mother.

When I came home from the war my lungs were useless; poison gas, cheap tobacco and a cough that never really went away. As if to remind, I cough now and the pain from my legs wracks my body.

I used to have people who came in to check on me. Cheerful young women who did my washing and made me meals. Someone to talk to four times a day; not as good as my wife, who never seemed to stop talking but at least they filled a part of the void when she was gone.

Now they are gone too. Cuts in social care.

A brisk young woman came to visit me, and decided that my care package was too large for my needs. I didn’t need all this help as I was obviously self-caring. I didn’t need to go out to lunch clubs; the transport was very expensive and they were closing down the day centres anyway. She gave me this pendant but was at pains to tell me that I would have to buy the new batteries for it.

I have batteries in the fridge but I can’t reach them.

I can’t reach the telephone.

I can’t reach the door.

I can’t go on.

I can’t.

I can’t give up.

Today of all days.

I look at my coat, hanging out of reach on the coat hook.

I can just see the poppy.

I should be getting my breakfast and making myself presentable so that when my granddaughter comes to fetch me for the parade, she will be proud of me and the part that I played.

So tired.

All I want to do is sleep.

To sleep and have the pain go from my legs.

What legs?

I can’t feel them.

I should be able to feel them. To feel the pain that has kept me awake at night for over seventy years. There is no pain. Just cold.

I look at the clock again. Where has the time gone? I don’t remember being asleep but four hours have passed since I last looked.

I want to sleep. It’s time for me to join the people who I love and miss. This is no place for old men like me – we may have been seen as heroes once but now we are just a burden on the state – a burden that the taxpayers can’t afford according to that brisk young woman.

So tired.

‘Grandad?’

The sound of her key in the door pulls me back from the place where pain has gone and there is just a soft glowing light that draws me in.

‘Grandad? Hang on in there. I’m calling an ambulance. Don’t leave me Grandad.’

It isn’t time yet. Her hands are warm as she tucks a blanket around me. Her hands are warm like her mother’s and her grandmother’s, and while I long to feel their touch again this beautiful girl pulls me back to the present.

I open my eyes and focus on her face. She looks tired and worried so I do my best to smile as if I was okay. The poppy on her coat is close to me and I reach out to touch it.

‘Not yet then?’ I ask.

‘Not yet. Not today of all days. Love you Grandad.’

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Dead or Undead – Week 22 of the 52 week short story challenge

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Another list.

A shorter one but one which tugged at her heart strings.

You blame FaceAche of course. In the days before social media people would tell each other how they felt – face to face, or on the phone – but people thought about what they were saying – usually.

Social media made it all so simple.

Snappy, ill-thought out comments typed on a computer, a tablet or a phone.

Press the send button and move on.

Blame it on auto correct or a typo if people take offence.

Shrug it off if you don’t care.

Time and experience had led you to an understanding of depression and unhappiness. You empathise with those who felt the pain and were in awe of those who fought against their demons on a daily basis.

Some survived the sadness.

Some didn’t, and she mourned the loss of them and that they could see no light at the end of the tunnel.

Then there were the people on the list.

People you knew and cared for.

People who you had listened to and did your best to support.

People whose unhappiness was rooted in the past, long before you knew them or was in a position to have any impact on their lives.

So why were they laying the blame at your door now?

Sitting on your shoulders, the pensive and impulsive angels watch as you scan the list.

‘Get rid of them.’ said Impulsive. ‘You don’t need people like that in your life. It’s only social media and if you block and unfriend them you can’t see what they have to say about you anyway.”

‘So sad.’ said Pensive. ‘These are people that you care about. Why do you want them out of your life?’

Does someone care about you when they send you hateful messages because you won’t do as you’re told?

Surely if people care about you they will accept you as you are – regardless of your political beliefs or whether you choose not to like the people that they like?

‘Be yourself.’ said Impulsive. ‘You don’t need people like that. They’ll sap your energies and make you feel guilty for things that aren’t your fault. Surely you should be allowed to choose your own friends and hold your own opinions without being told that you have to change to make other people happy.’

‘Yes.’ said Pensive. ‘But these are people who have been supportive to you. Friends who you trusted. Do you really want them out of your life. Do you want them to disappear?’

If they are going to blame you for their unhappiness, then yes.

Spotting phonies and parasites has always been so easy – except that spotting them long before anyone else does can cause issues. You find yourself wary and unable to trust them when everyone else is singing their praises.

Then the person concerned realises that you have seen through their facade; that you pose a risk to their life and slowly, they begin to spread the poison about you whilst proving themselves to be such a good and valuable friend to everyone.

‘I know the type.’ said Impulsive. ‘If your other friends are so blind then they can’t be worth much anyway.’

‘But they are.’ said Pensive. ‘It isn’t their fault that they are more trusting and gullible than you are. It isn’t a reason to cut them out of your life is it?’

In some cases, yes. The constant nagging to get you to change your mind wears you down. The pleading on behalf of a person who took money from you, told lies about you and put you in this unhappy situation. The hateful messages blaming you for everything that has ever gone wrong. You want them gone. You want them dead to you.

Pensive sighed, as was her way. Impulsive grinned, knowing that she had won this particular battle. They watched as the pen scratched through the first three names on the list.

‘What about these two?’ said Pensive. ‘What makes them different from the others?’

‘If they are making you unhappy, strike them off too.’ said Impulsive.

These are harder to get rid of. These two are people whose demons tell them that anyone who doesn’t think the same as them is against them. These two are people who either cut you out of their life, or who are not content to let you have your own beliefs and be true to yourself.

Before social media it didn’t matter.

Before social media you could think what you wanted about politics and it was your own business and no one else’s.

But now, you see a post that you believe in and you want to share it with your friends.

You work on the basis that if you see a post from a friend and you don’t like it, then you move on and ignore it.

These two people don’t see it that way.

One wants you to stop expressing your opinions on social media because they feel that you are wrong.

The other feels that you can only post your opinions provided you post the opposite opinion as well. This person feels that you need to provide more balance. This person insists on putting unpleasant comments on your page. Comments that upset you and your friends.

So you delete them.

The person repeats the comments and refuses to stop.

So you delete them again.

You send a message politely requesting that the person just ignore comments that they don’t like or keep their comments on their own page.

The person says they are trying to put balance on your page.

Both people blame you for their unhappiness and insist that it is you who must change to make them happy.

But that will make you unhappy.

‘You aren’t to blame for their sadness.’ said Pensive.

‘Even if you did what they asked you to do, something else would inevitably cause them distress and you would have compromised for nothing.’ said Impulsive.

That’s why they have to go.

That’s why they are on the list.

They will be missed but time will heal as it does with any mourning.

The pen strikes out the last two names.

The sun is shining through clouds.

‘Fresh air.’ said Impulsive. ‘Let’s go to the seaside and eat ice cream.’

‘Yes.’ said Pensive. ‘Time to move away from FaceAche and think more positive thoughts.’

Dead but not dead.

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A Country Never Visited – Week 17 of the 52 week short story challenge

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Assembled at the train station on a sunny July day; bowed under the weight of rucksacks and tents and all doing their best to look cool and avoid being hugged by their attendant parents.

They were a motley crew.

Four boys and two girls with an intermingling of relationships that had already raised parental eyebrows. Trisha and Lea were best friends, which was just as well because Lea was now going out with Colin, who had been Trisha’s first ever boyfriend. Trisha had started going out with Tim just before Christmas but by New Year she had dumped Tim for his best friend Wayne. They remained friends despite this because Tim was a nice guy.

The sixth member of the group was Kevin, Wayne’s cousin and the only real birdwatcher in the group, although Tim, Wayne and Trisha did at least have their twitcher’s cards on them and a list of birds and animals they were on the lookout for.

In the early planning stages of this trip there had been brave and foolhardy ideas about hitchhiking the 450 miles north but the mothers of the two sixteen year old girls felt that they were being permissive enough in allowing them to spend a whole fortnight camping with four eighteen year old boys.

Seats were booked on a train to Waterloo; tube stations identified in order to get them to Kings Cross station where they would board a train for Aviemore and an eleven and a half hour journey in the relative comfort of a reserved compartment.

It would have been comfortable if Trisha and Wayne hadn’t spent the previous day sunning themselves at an outdoor pool. Trisha had fallen asleep and woke up to find that her entire left side was turning lobster-red. Wayne had been slightly better covered and it was only his legs that were burnt.

Sitting down hurt. Walking with a heavy rucksack on sunburnt shoulders hurt. Trying to avoid contact with humans or carriage walls in a small compartment filled with people and luggage was impossible. Trisha and Wayne were not known for their good humour anyway but pain and anxiety made their situation worse.

It had all seemed so exciting. Going to another country – okay, so it was Scotland and joined onto the end of England – but it was still unknown territory. Kevin and Wayne had come up with the idea of visiting the Cairngorms. Although only a half-hearted birdwatcher, Trisha did not want to be left behind and neither did Tim. The idea of her daughter going away with three boys met with resistance from Trisha’s mother but Lea came to the rescue and Colin, kind calm and reasonable Colin who had no interest in birds, deer or even camping, agreed to accompany her.

Trisha had some doubts about Lea and Colin joining them. She had quite liked the idea of having all three boys to herself so having to share the experience with Lea irked a little. Trisha’s interest in Colin was far removed from romance now but would Lea start making passes at her current boyfriend?

Wayne was more handsome, more intelligent and very attentive. Perhaps too attentive at times. Perhaps veering into possessiveness occasionally, and of late he had shown signs of the angry outbursts inherited – or learned  – from both his parents.

Wayne’s mother was prone to throwing things when angry: saucepans, plates, knives, any projectile that came to hand. His father was more of slow burner whose ire was inflamed by alcohol  and whose temper led to at least one night in a cell to cool off. Trisha’s arms had already been coloured with bruises from Wayne’s controlling hands but she pushed those incidents to the back of her mind because she loved him – and she knew that he loved her because that’s what he said when he saw the bruises.

It wasn’t bruises that were bothering her now though. She had grabbed a window seat thinking that the padded arm rest would be less painful against her sunburn. It was fine while she was awake but the long journey and a restless night meant that she kept dozing off and banging against the unpadded wall.  Wayne sat next to her with a silent Tim reading NME because he thought it made him look like a musician – which he wasn’t. Lea had nabbed the other window seat, Colin dozed happily by her side and Kevin, his nose buried in his bird guide, was oblivious to everyone and everything.

Trisha woke in pain as the train went round a bend and Wayne’s full weight fell against her. She pushed him away angrily. Confused by sleep, he started to argue but the presence of four other people stopped him and he moved an inch away from Trisha and crossed his arms like a sulking child.

By the time they passed over the border, tempers in the compartment were simmering. It was too dark to read by the tiny interior lights and too dark to look at scenery. The others did their best to doze but Wayne and Trisha couldn’t get comfortable and were snapping edgily at each other.

Eventually Trisha could take no more and stepping over outstretched legs, she went in search of the toilet.

It was occupied.

She rested her head against the cool of the windowpane. Standing up – even with a full bladder – was less painful and irritating than being back in the compartment. The sun was coming up and being able to see the beauty of the mountains and trees at last, had a calming effect on her.

The toilet door opened and a man came out.

‘I’d give it a few minutes if I were you.’ he said with a grin as he walked back down the corridor.

Torn between holding her breath and having an embarrassing accident, Trisha chose the former and filling her lungs, dashed into the toilet.

It was a relief on many levels when she got back out to the corridor again. Reluctant to return to a compartment of sleeping or grumpy companions, she carried on looking out at the scenery. The train stopped for signals and there, barely feet from the track, was a squirrel. Not just any squirrel but a red squirrel. Her first.

The sight made her incredibly happy. Especially because she was the only one of the group to see the squirrel. She turned round and saw a bleary-eyed Kevin emerging from the toilet.

‘Kev! Look! A red squirrel!’

He rushed over to the window, even then, taking care not to get too close unless he bumped into her sunburn. They looked at the squirrel, and the squirrel looked back. It was a magic moment.

The engine started up again and the resultant noise made the squirrel bolt for the safety of the trees. Kevin looked at his watch.

‘We should be arriving at Aviemore in about twenty minutes. I suppose we’d better wake up the others up.’

‘Do we have to?’ said Trisha.

Kevin, reasonable and sensible as always, pulled a bus timetable out of his pocket.

‘The first bus to the campsite leaves at ten o’clock. I think we’ll all be much happier once we’ve had something to eat and stretched our legs. The station buffet should be open when we get in.’

Trisha smiled and followed him back to the compartment. She woke Wayne with a gentle kiss on top of his head. Showing rare self-control, she sat down next to him while an excited Kevin told everyone about the red squirrel.

‘Trisha spotted it first.’ he said. ‘We’re really here. It must be a good omen. Just think, ospreys, golden eagles, dippers, even ptarmigan if we can get up on to the mountain.’

HIs enthusiasm did the trick and the thought of breakfast and the final leg of their trip  to the campsite galvanised even a tired and sullen Wayne.

The station buffet was open – just  – and fairly basic but the food was hot and there was coffee to wake them up.

The bus trip out to the campsite was uncomfortably bumpy; they weren’t the only campers and there wasn’t much room for all the luggage in the boot. It overflowed into the aisle and fell against Wayne’s sunburnt legs so that he was gritting his teeth by the time they arrived.

It was worth it though. The campsite was at the foot of the Cairngorms; well supplied with toilets and showers, a shop selling food and mementos, and the three pitches they had reserved were grassy and level. The sun shone and tents went up quickly – mostly due to Kevin’s expertise and the compliance of Colin and Tim. Wayne argued about everything  –  because he could – Trisha and Lea sat on a blanket and looked at the scenery having decided that this was the most practical help they could offer.

Looking back years later, Trisha remembered seeing the ospreys after a long, hot trek to Loch Garten. She remembered sitting by a waterfall watching the dippers. It was blissfully cool under the trees by the river’s side. There was the happiness of time spent at Loch an Eilein on the hottest day of the year when they were all feeling lazy and content, mellow on cheap cider, bread and cheese from the camp site shop.

They never made it up the mountain; the golden eagles stayed hidden and by the end of the fortnight entente was no longer cordiale.

Lea and Trisha fell out. Fuelled by cheap cider, Trisha decided  that not content with taking up with Colin, Lea was after Wayne as well. Wayne, equally fuelled, felt that Colin and Tim were after Trisha. Tim and Colin were confused. Lea took it out on Colin. Kevin – who had come for a lovely bird watching holiday and not to be surrounded by anger and jealousy – was sad and disillusioned. They had to tough it out because their tickets were booked and none of them had enough money to buy another ticket.

The journey home at the end of the fortnight was worse than the original trip; none of them wanted to spend nearly twelve hours in the same small train compartment with hastily packed tents and rucksacks. Tim and Kevin were the only people on speaking terms. Trisha was wearing her hair down in order to hide the black eye and swollen cheek. Wayne made no attempt to cover up the livid scratches left by Trisha’s nails after he punched her when she wouldn’t shut up.

They were rescued at the journey’s end by their parents and taken home with piles of dirty washing. Goodbyes were short and definitely not sweet.

Trisha and Wayne’s relationship continued for another couple of weeks until he decided that head butting her was the only way to get her to behave. His mother had suggested a good slap, his father had suggested getting engaged. Trisha’s mother looked her daughter squarely in the eye and told her she was worth far more than this.

Wayne shouted, threatened and cried when Trisha ended it. She lost contact with Tim and Kevin as a consequence because they were Wayne’s friends after all. In the rush of getting things sorted out so that she could start at college to do her ‘A’ levels, Trisha lost contact with Lea and Colin too.

There were lessons learnt in that other country; it was a place of great beauty and Trisha had no regrets about going there. Perhaps, if the six of them hadn’t gone on holiday together it might have taken longer for Wayne’s violence to emerge. Perhaps, Trisha would have borne more than the bruises, bumps and black eyes.

Many years later she heard that Wayne had married. That he had children and a wife who often wore her hair long to hide the black eyes and the bruises.

She saw the red squirrel though. She had to go to another country but she saw the red squirrel.

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‘Sally Forth’

Her husband held her particularly close that morning as he left for work. She waved him goodbye and checked her watch.  Six fifteen. Shower first or breakfast?

The dog’s soft whine and imploring eyes were a momentary distraction from her purpose. She stuffed her feet into a pair of old suede boots, pulled on her duffel coat and opened the patio doors.  He ran out into the garden with a joyous abandon that made her smile initially, then feel slightly envious. Picking up his lead and some doggy treats, she gingerly stepped out in the courtyard to join him.

There were few cars and even fewer people around at that time of the morning.  The dog performed a ten-second wee, then dragged her back towards the house.  His momentary distraction by a low-flying wood-pigeon nearly pulled her off-balance and she felt the racing pulse of fear begin. The dog seemed to sense that something was wrong however, He stopped pulling and waited patiently for her to open the gate that would let them back into the safety of the courtyard.

Back inside the house, she sat down briefly in order to calm herself.  The doggy brown eyes worked their charm again; he was soon settled with his breakfast and she was free to continue with her own preparations. She checked the clock. Twenty to seven.

Breakfast first and she took the easy way out with cereal and fruit juice.  Knocking back the parade of pills lined up on the counter top, she wondered if she would ever get back to a time when she was pill-free? Pain-free? Panic-free?

The dog joined her on the sofa as she crunched her way through the cereal.  The BBC news provided a slight distraction but the dog’s warmth on her leg, the touch of his silky ears and the occasional grateful lick, all these provided her with the reassurance she needed for now.

She washed up her bowl and glass, leaving them on the drainer to put away when she returned.  If she returned.  How silly! Of course she would return.

Giving the dog a brief hug, she went off for a shower, hoping that the hot water would wash the muzziness away and help her to think more clearly.

The stimulus lasted long enough to help her choose her clothes for the day. Nothing sloppy but nothing too restrictive or uncomfortable.  She needed to be comfortable.  The last thing she wanted to worry about was her appearance but she took extra time drying her hair, applying her brave face and finally, getting dressed. She checked her watch. Had a whole hour and a half gone past?

There was still no need to rush though.  They had arranged to meet at ten o’clock. It took five minutes to walk to the bus stop (ten to allow for her reduced speed of walking).  She had checked the bus timetables on-line and the journey took twenty-five minutes provided the bus arrived on time.  She had a back up  bus going from the other side of the road in case the first bus failed to turn up.  She dared not think any further than that because the panic rally would set in and she’d never leave the house.

Standing in the kitchen, fully dressed now, she checked that everything was there. Keys, purse, phone and rucksack so that she could carry her worldly goods and still have her hands free.  The Midas card that she and her husband had purchased two days earlier so that she didn’t have to get anxious about having the correct money for the bus.  The walking stick.  Her constant companion for the past nine months, only ever replaced by the support and comfort of her husband’s arm.

She went back in and gave the dog another hug, knowing that she was procrastinating.  It was time to go. Her heart pounded as she pulled on her coat, filled the pockets with the items she needed immediately and pushed her arms through the straps of the rucksack.

Locking the door was achievable, so was walking down the garden path to the point where the dog regularly watered the shrubs by the front door. Opening the gate was harder.  She took a deep breath and hurried through, pulling it closed behind with a clang.  The stick!  She forgot the walking stick! Retracing her steps with a speed that had been alien to her for so many months, she unlocked the door, grabbed the hated stick, locked up again and was back onto the pavement before she realised it.

She checked her watch. Only seven minutes to get to the bus stop! Concentrate. Walk fast but don’t fall.  The stick will help you.  She could see people waiting at the bus stop.  Would they ask the driver to wait for her if they saw her hobbling down the road? Would she fall? Would she lie there like a stranded fish; unable to get up, embarrassed by the concern and kindness of other people again?

She put on an exceptionally brave spurt of speed and got to the bus stop with time to spare, joining the queue of elderly people and their walking sticks.  She looked down at hers, feeling less resentful and more grateful for the support it had provided.

The bus arrived. There were plenty of seats. The Midas card worked and as she picked up her ticket and sat down, she could feel some of the anxieties ebbing away; each one a hurdle that she had overcome.

She checked her watch again. On time and only one more obstacle along the way.

As the bus neared town, she felt herself grow cold. As she approached the scene of the accident she grew hot again. For nine months they had driven the other way, had avoided the place where the careless driver had hit her as she crossed the road, throwing her into the air and against a wall, where she lay, winded, confused and in such pain. Nine months ago.

Nine months of struggling to walk again.  Nine months of being too afraid to go out alone in case she fell. Nine months of falling in the house, of not being strong enough to take the dog out for a walk, of needing her husband’s arm to support her.

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, trying desperately hard not to panic. She had to do this.

The bus stopped and opening her eyes, she realised that the danger had passed.  They were at the bus station.  She was safe again.  She got to her feet to join the other passengers and as she and the stick got off the bus she heard a sound that made her smile and banished all the fear. She turned and saw her friend, grinning like a loon and hurrying towards her.

“Sally! You did it! I’m so proud of you! ”

 

“Rage, rage against the dying of the light” Dylan Thomas

Something written a couple of years ago after my lovely step dad died in hospital; his ending was not as we would have wanted it to be, not what he deserved.

It was her stillness that first caught his attention.  Glimpsed through a half-open door; she was serene.  Other visitors watched the television screen, read magazines, kept up a stream of inane chatter and occasionally fell asleep.  She did none of these things but sat quietly holding the hand of the man in the bed.  A man who slept most of the time but when he was awake, shouted and screamed foul abuse at her.

Ben marvelled at her composure.  He had been in his new job for two days and could see her from his office across the corridor.  He never heard her so much as raise her voice in response to the vile accusations and recriminations that poured forth and polluted the otherwise tranquil atmosphere of the hospice.  Fearful for this woman’s safety, Ben sought advice from his supervisor Marian.  She had smiled at him benignly.

“Speak to her.  It’s the only way that you’ll understand.  I could tell you all about them but not as eloquently as she can.  Her name is Lily.” She looked at her watch.   “I expect you’ll see her out in the corridor in about half an hour when the nurses carry out their obs.  Take her for a coffee?”

Ben returned to the office and left the door wide open.  He wanted to cheat and check the computer system but Marian’s words had made him curious and he felt that he owed it to this obviously dedicated woman to let her explain why she suffered the abuse so calmly.

A sound in the corridor outside made him look up and Lily was standing in the doorway.  He got to his feet quickly and walked towards her, extending his hand.

“Hi, my name’s Ben.  I’m new here. I’m an advocate; I speak for people who don’t have anyone who can make their wishes known.”

She took his hand in both of hers; warm soft hands that gripped but didn’t crush.  “Marian asked me to come and see you whilst the nurses are seeing to my Tommy.  Are you free to come for coffee?”

“Yes,” he replied, slightly taken aback. “I’d love to.”

Closing the office door behind him, he followed her into the lounge and Lily poured them both some filter coffee.  She led the way to two armchairs that had a view of the sensory garden; a place guaranteed to both stimulate and soothe.  Ben could smell lavender and rosemary in the breeze.

“I hope Tommy hasn’t disturbed you; he does shout so but he doesn’t mean any of it.”  Lily took a sip of coffee and smiled at Ben.

“I was a bit concerned; for you having to listen to all that abuse.”

She shook her head and smiled again.  “He would never hurt me.  We’ve been together sixty years and he never so much as raised a hand to me.  We’ve always sorted things out between us.  I wish you could have known him when he was younger.”

“Sixty years is a long time to be married.” said Ben.

“He was such a charmer; when I first met him he was running a greengrocer’s.  My friend Sylvia introduced me to him and I used to pop into the shop in my lunch hour.  I worked in the haberdasher’s across the road.  He was a stickler for business though.   If I went into the shop for just an apple I had to pay for it, but when he took me out for the evening he’d pay for everything and make me feel really special.  He was so dashing; always well-turned out.  He’d been around a bit too, he did his National Service in the RAF and I think I fell in love with him the first time I saw him in uniform.”  Lily giggled and smiled to herself, remembering the moment and the handsome young man in his airforce blue.

Ben still looked dubious and she leaned across and touched his hand.   “We have two children; two lovely girls.  They married well and I have seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren all together.  Not all of them live close by any more but they visit regularly, and we used to go and stay with them till Tommy took ill.  My eldest granddaughter keeps asking me to have a break from all this but I can’t leave him, not now.”

“This must be terribly draining for you.  Marian says you stay here all the time.” said Ben.

“No, no.  I have a little break when the nurses see to him.  He doesn’t like me to be present when they do the personal things.  Tommy’s always been a proud man like that. He’s in so much pain and I can’t bear the thought of not being there when he finally leaves me.  The only time we’ve ever been parted was when I was in hospital after I had the first baby.  I had my second at home.  They didn’t make such a fuss about having babies at home then.  You just got on with it.  Like dying really.  Part of me wants Tommy to let go; just go to sleep and not wake up but that’s not what we agreed to.”

“What do you mean?” asked Ben.

“My Tommy didn’t hold with painkillers.  He wouldn’t even have a jab when he went to the dentist, and when he started getting these pains in his stomach I had the devil’s own job getting him to the doctor.  I only went with him the once, after that he went on his own and he wouldn’t tell me what the consultant said.  He didn’t want to worry me but of course I knew things weren’t right.  He stopped eating and drinking; I tried everything to tempt him but nothing appealed to him.  I came home from doing some shopping with my granddaughter and found him on the floor.  His hands and feet were purple and swollen; I’d only been out a couple of hours.  We had to call an ambulance and I thought he was going to die.”  She gasped a little at the memory and pulled a tissue from her cardigan sleeve, dabbing it at her eyes but smiling nevertheless.

“Tommy won’t take the drugs that would help him.  He says that they will take his memories away; he wanted to see my face and always know that I was there with him.  The doctors and nurses tried to explain to him that the pain would become unbearable and that there were things they could do to keep him comfortable but he won’t have it.  It comes in waves you see, the pain.  He sleeps for a while but when he wakes up it hurts him so much and the only way he can cope is to shout and scream at me.  He doesn’t mean those dreadful things and he can’t say them to anyone but me because no one else in the world loves him the way I do.  No one else understands him like me.  Marian says that eventually his body will stop fighting but his mind is still so alive and scared.”

“I could sit with him, if you wanted a longer break, to get out of here for a while.”  Ben desperately wanted to do something but no amount of training could help him think of any other way to help.  She took his hand in hers again and shook her head gently.

“Bless you.  You are such a lovely young man.  He wouldn’t be happy if I wasn’t there and I couldn’t bear that.  Our time together is precious; I love to watch him sleeping peacefully but when he wakes and shouts, that’s when I see my Tommy again.  I know that I have a heart full of memories and that I’ll never lose them, but Tommy is still here and being the man that he is, he can’t go down without a fight.”  She rummaged in her handbag and brought out a small green leather-covered book, the gilt lettering on the cover worn off through much use.

“Do you know the work of Dylan Thomas at all?  I love his poems.  My granddaughter bought me this little book because I remembered a poem we were taught at school. “Do not go gentle into that good night, rage, rage against the dying of the light’.  Such beautiful words, and so true to the way I feel about my Tommy.  Anger isn’t always a bad thing Ben.  If you’re going to make a career out of this advocacy thing, you need to look at things from all sides before you make your mind up.  You’d written my Tommy off as a bully and marked me down as a victim but I’ve had a happy life and I’ve no doubt that my children and their children will do their best to make sure my life is as good as possible once Tommy has gone.  I must get back to him now.  I’ll see you tomorrow I hope.”

He watched her go; squaring her shoulders in readiness for the next onslaught and felt humbled.

Ben arrived early the next morning; fired up with a new determination to listen more and keep his mind open.  The door to Tommy’s room was ajar but Lily wasn’t there.  Ben knocked on Marian’s door.

“Where’s Lily?  I really enjoyed meeting her yesterday. I have a few more questions for her though.”

Marian motioned him to sit down.  “She died just after midnight.  A massive coronary and totally unexpected.  It was Tommy’s shouting that alerted us.  We had to sedate him; not a choice we wanted to take in view of his strong feelings about pain relief but there’s no one to sit with him, his family are on the way but won’t be here for some hours.”

“I’ll sit with him.  I’d like to – for Lily’s sake.”

Ben sat next to the bed and steeled himself for the time when Tommy came round from the sedative.   This was what it was really about; making sure that Tommy had his wishes respected even though Lily couldn’t be there to see him rage against the dying of the light.

Frail, confused, in pain and sometimes wanting to give up the fight –  we can’t choose the ending but we can show tolerance and compassion to those who are vulnerable, whether their history is known to us or not.  Spare a thought for those who care because it doesn’t always come easy.

 

‘”Bah, humbug!” No, that’s too strong ’cause it’s my favourite holiday. But all this year’s been a busy blur, don’t think I have the energy’

Well, the PAM has brought new meaning to ‘that’s you off my Christmas List then!’  The list has been cut by half due to circumstances beyond our control.

Not that I’m complaining – she has to sit still with this poor old foot up when she’s writing Christmas cards – and to some extent when she’s wrapping up presents – though she tends to wriggle and fidget a bit more with the latter.

The last two days have been difficult here in V-toe land.

On Friday the teen had to be taken to his Muay Thai lesson as the teacher had no transport (some weird sort of martial art if you must know).  This entailed a trip to the outer reaches but the PAM’s face lit up when she found that these reaches touched on the Trafford Centre.  Truculent teen was dropped off and PAM and the other half hit the TC – she with glee – but not he.

It wasn’t too bad to start off with but the other half had to go to collect the teen and left the PAM in a queue a million miles long.  Goods bought and paid for eventually, she lugged me off to that newsworthy coffee shop where, after some suitably comic moments, she finally managed to heave us all up onto a bar stool with an excellent people-watching advantage and a venti gingerbread latte.

The other half and the teen were supposed to meet her there, they’d go for lunch and have another little spot of retail therapy.

Ha!

The world descended on the TC at lunchtime.

The other half and the teen had a falling-out which resulted in both of them phoning the PAM separately to complain about the other. I sat smugly tucked up under the bar stool (I was wearing one of my little black WWs with sparkly black trim and a white ribbon bow – so cute).

It was a race to see who was the most cross and therefore walked the fastest.  The teen won but in his haste completely overshot the coffee-house and had to be texted to bring him back.

The PAM and I were captive; all the effort that it took to get us up on the stool was sapped by the animosity being expressed to each other by her menfolk ( the rest of the toes and I NEVER fall out with each other – although there have been occasions where we’ve been more than a little squashed and tetchy).

The other half helped her down and the consensus was to get the flock out of there; the TC is no place to be with an over-sensitive toe, grumpy husband and deeply morose son.

Usually the car is a safe haven but not on that day.  It is a large car but not with two miserable men in it.  Food was essential to restore the equilibrium and after a long and winding route back into civilisation, sustenance was obtained from the other fast food place with a drive-thru (not the chicken-y one).

After the morning’s traumas, I thought the PAM would be kind and tuck me up on her cushion whilst she tackled the ominous essay.  No such luck.   Some of the other half’s temper was caused by an achy-breaky back but luckily the physio with the magical fingers had a five o’clock slot and so we were off out into the rain again in the rush hour.  Plenty of over the top Christmas decorations to be appalled at on the way though.

The other half  had his back cracked and was more cheerful but still no chance of going home.  They have run out of food again and a trip to the supermarket is the only solution.

I’m getting used to the cold – changes in temperature will cause the stinging stuff and occasional jab of white-hot pain – but RAIN!  The holy boot I wear is no protection against rain and on the way back from the car, hands full of shopping, the PAM went straight through the water feature that gathers on the paving stones outside the kitchen door.

Cold!  Wet! Pain!  My chic little WW was soaked as was my boot.  Thank heaven for radiators (although not for drying wet clothes on  – you get that horrible rank false-dry odour that often wafts past you in the office, or supermarket, or TC).

Everyone was talking to each other again and the evening was spent in cushion cuddling bliss for me – essay-agitation for the PAM.  Don’t know why – she should be an expert on corporate harm and negligence by now – ooh – controversial!

Up with the lark on Saturday to collect the other one from Uni. Various issues conspired to make us all late – as usual; my outfit for today was the giant Christmas WW which allows me to peek cheekily out of the boot in scarlet splendour and has apparently caused male envy due to it’s size (the one that accommodates me AND the the other four toes).

It was a long drive North but the heat was ON – and I was content.  The PAM and the other half were singing along to 80’s hits and all was reasonably well with the world – especially when it stopped raining.

The other one is in a shared house now but  there was no frantic cleaning of the communal kitchen or washing up flamingo-style this year  – his housemates are tidy ladies and he meets their exacting standards.  There was a huge pile of recycling to take, but the other half likes doing this and the PAM and I merely sat in the still-warm car and made silly comments.

What looked like several weeks worth of washing and ironing, together with enough equipment to supply a small independent office, was packed into the car and we stopped en route for home to have a late but extremely civilised lunch.  We all avoided alcohol – well nearly – the PAM was seduced by a coffee laced with Tia Maria and was therefore a tad merry when clambering back into the car – hey  – it is Christmas nearly!

Homeward bound and the roads weren’t too bad considering.  A slight detour to buy more fast food for the teen – who had been left home in bed with strict instructions to clean up his mess – instructions that were ignored of course.

Getting his priorities right – the other one unpacked his computer gear first and ensured that he had Internet access before he touched  anything else.

I’d like to say that we all had a peaceful night – I’d like to – but the teen was playing with the other kids in America and the yattering went on all night so that it was almost a relief to get up with the other half who was heading off to work at some ungodly hour.  It should be mentioned that his bad back was caused by a combination of crouching ready to pounce at paintball and spending most of Thursday sitting in the jump seat of an Airbus 317 whilst it went to Madrid and back via Valencia.

The PAM was suitably sympathetic and the other half had a nice time despite his back.

Oooooh, time for Christmas wrapping – but not the waitress sort.