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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It’s Halloween – and I have my cushion ready

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We didn’t really do Halloween when I was a child.

I’ve never lived in an environment where small children dressed up for Halloween and walked round the neighbourhood after dark, blagging sweets and threatening retribution if the treats were not forthcoming.

I’ve seen it on the TV – usually in some film set in America though. Who can forget the sight of ET staggering along a street full of zombies, fairies and mini mock axe murderers?

When I worked in children’s homes, we did our best to discourage the children from going out on Halloween – we usually had enough trouble with the neighbours as it was and the sight of anyone emerging from the Home dressed up as a witch or skeleton would have brought forth a multitude of phone calls and the inevitable blue lights flashing outside.

Not In My Backyard.

So we looked at the situation in a more lateral manner and decided to have a Halloween party instead.  We invited social workers, our favourite policeman and a couple of parents who were actually grateful for the work we were doing with their children.

We worked with the children to decorate the building and make tantalising food.  My drama school training came in very useful as I painted faces and fashioned costumes out of whatever could be found in the store cupboards or begged from staff who weren’t that  fussed about attending but didn’t mind contributing.

It became an annual event and only ever attracted adverse attention once from a particularly right-on newly-qualified social worker who felt that we were encouraging  the children to participate in pagan celebrations. For a while we thought that we were going to have to abandon the party but assistance came from a very high place.

It appeared that the assistant director of children’s services had intervened and basically told the social worker to wind her neck in.  We weren’t sacrificing the children, nor encouraging them to go out and persecute the neighbours – in fact we were keeping them occupied and – dare I say it – happy!  The AD even contributed a tenner to the party fund. They don’t make assistant directors like that anymore.

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Two very heavily disguised members of staff having a jolly time.

Unfortunately the management team changed after that and the local authority decided to shut down  several of the homes. In the reshuffle I moved to a larger observation and assessment centre where children were only supposed to stay for a period of six weeks at the most while we observed and assessed them. In reality many of them were stranded there for several months before anything practical was done about their futures.

It was a much larger establishment and had a huge dining room  – ideal for parties! I moved there in the spring and by autumn, had managed to convince the other staff – and more importantly the children – that we should have a Halloween party – with a disco!  Well, when I say disco I mean a record player someone donated to us, and my ever-growing collection of singles – which I still have. There were obvious gaps as I changed records and this was long before the days of  scratching and mixing but the children seemed to like it.

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This photo and the following two photos were taken at one of our Halloween discos. There are better photos but I have no idea where the children in them are now so I can’t get their permission  to use them here. I’ve chopped off the naughty boy who was trying to remove my headphones, and the other two children fell victim to my facepainting skills so that even their own mothers wouldn’t have recognised them.

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You can at least see the lengths we went to with black and orange crepe paper, inflatable skeletons and false spider webs. We played games too; apple dunking, eating a donut off a piece of elastic and that good old standby – can you eat three cream crackers in three minutes?

Not easy.

Nearly as hard as eating a sugary donut without licking your lips.

The cook even allowed us into the kitchen for the evening and as well as the usual buffet favourites, we served up chips in newspaper squares, and sent the kids into a fizzy frenzy with elaborately decorated mocktails of cheap lemonade and fruit juice (they’d have preferred Coke or Pepsi but the budget didn’t run to that). It’s amazing what gory things you can do however, with glace cherries, cocktail sticks, marshmallows and cochineal.

Life in a children’s home – however big or small – isn’t the way it’s portrayed on the TV.  There’s a lot more arguing and fighting – and that’s just the staff.

I learned a great deal about life in the ten years I spent in children’s services. I also acquired a social work degree and a level of cynicism about social care that has increased over the years.  You do your best but it is often a thankless job due to a lack of resources, unimaginative management and children that have been desperately damaged by their families before they even get to you.

I got out of childcare. I got out of social care entirely for a number of years I spent enjoying life with Hub and subsequently Uni Boy, Gap Boy and a large number of cats.

I forgot about Halloween.

And we moved Up North.

One night, in the middle of September, I answered the door to a pair of hoody-clad yoofs wearing fright masks.

“Trick or treat.” Their voices alternately squeaked and rumbled which gave me a clue to their approximate ages.

“It’s not even October yet.” Quite bravely considering it was nine o’clock at night and I was alone in the house with two small children.(and five cats who were lined up behind me being curious).

“Yeah, well we’ll be in Tenerife over Halloween. It’s half-term.”

“I have a couple of bars of chocolate in the fridge but they’ll probably melt in Tenerife.”

They looked at me, then at each other and pulled faces that implied that I might be lacking in the brain cell department.

“We don’t want chocolate. We want money.”

I drew myself up to my full five feet two inches and tried to forget the fact that I was wearing huge padded comedy slippers purporting to be the Queen and Prince Phillip.

“Right, so you are attempting to extort money from me by use of menace then?”

“What?!’ They both took a step back from my door.

“Oh yes.” I was warming to my subject now. “It is nine o’clock at night and I have two males dressed in dark clothing, wearing masks to cover their identities and demanding money from me. I’ll phone the police now then.”

They legged it up the road before I could count to five.

Result!

I shut the door  and managed to navigate my comedy slippers through the cat barricade and collapsed with trembling knees on the sofa. The cats followed me into the front room and I could have sworn they were laughing – or maybe just smirking. My cats had seen through my bravado – you can’t fool cats.

My own little cherubs didn’t fancy venturing into the cold Northern nights and neither did many other children from our area. The Coffee Morning Group Mums (alter known as OptiMums)  including my Lovely Friend, took action. We decided to have – yes – you guessed – Halloween discos!

These were the best though; we made costumes and painted faces, decked the halls with crepe paper and cooked up a storm with such delights as Dead Man’s Fingers (cocktail sausages), Slime Soup (LF’s wonderful pea and ham soup), the entire range of additive filled Halloween sweets and those wonderful orange and raspberry drinks in plastic cups that you inserted a straw into. They were cheap and cheerful and invariable made the kids hyper – but they were our kids so nobody minded!

It’s twenty-past seven now and there have been no Halloween knocks at our door.  Our neighbourhood now consists of elderly people or families like ours – whose children are no longer children and  too old for such frivolities.

The only small children in the road have gone away for half-term and thank goodness, so has the naughty boy who used to live across the road and chuck eggs at the windows regardless of whether you tried to bribe him with chocolate  – or money.

Bezzie Mate has just told me that in his part of the world, the streets are busy with large women clad in black with cats ears shepherding large groups of suitably garbed children from door to door. They are also having fireworks there as well.

I’m not sure but probably word has got around that there is a large black dog on the other side of our front door and he doesn’t like VISITORS! Or fireworks.

To compensate for no-longer children and lack of trick or treaters, Hub and took a parcel of Halloween goodies with us when we went to visit Dear Friend and her lovely family. They sampled Vampire’s Veins, chocolate eyeballs, green slime cakes and marshmallow skulls.  I wish we’d had such a variety of naughtiness to offer my  broken-homed children, or even my own two monsters.

Here they are; Uni Boy as a pumpkin and Gap Boy (rather appropriately) as a little devil. I have been told recently that I abused my boys by dressing them in such bright colours – Gap Boy can be really ridiculous sometimes – they looked so cute in those days – sigh.

robjay

Oh, the cushion! I nearly forgot! have to confess that I cannot watch horror films without having a cushion in front of my face for the really scary bits. I can remember watching ‘Halloween’ with a group of older teenaged girls one night .

“What’s happening? Who’s screaming?”

“I don’t know. I’ve got a cushion over my face.”

“So have I.”

“And me.”

“Me too.”

Giggles.  In this age of technology I prefer to ‘watch’  horror films on DVD so that I can fast forward them when a scary bit rears its ugly head – only works well  if you know the film already.

No blogs during November unless something really exciting happens – I will be busy doing NaNoWriMo and none of that goes to Blogland after the disastrous events of 2012 which resulted in all sorts of people getting offended and my having to become self-employed.

1600 words a day is quite enough thank you.

Happy Halloween – however you choose to celebrate it.