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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A Magical Object – Week 30 of the 52 week short story challenge

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It is hidden on the lowest shelf of the display cabinet; tucked between a Peter Rabbit christening mug, a pale blue lustre-ware coffee set and a Jubilee medal. It is only hidden to prevent small hands from taking it out – although those hands are no longer small.

She knows it is there. She has known it all her life; has been privileged to hold it, to feel the weight of it in her hand and smell the leather sheath that protects it. There are others too: larger and more frightening than this replica which sits in her hand so comfortably.

During the war her father was a Marine. He could often be distracted into telling tales of his experiences but it was when he talked about the Ghurkhas that she listened intently, hanging on to every word. Often she would curl up on his lap. She was his little Chuckles and he was her hero.

Photos and memories of that time portray him as a tall man with a mop of curly hair that he controlled with Brylcream. That is how she sees him in her mind still. Carrying her from a bus trip to see his oldest sister; her blonde head tucked into his neck, feigning sleep until they got home.

He had seen it all during the war. Death and disorder. His time in Malaya sparked his admiration of the Ghurkhas. He had stood chest high in the freezing sea helping to assist his fellow soldiers onto dry land. The sadness and futility of war saddened his mind and the bitter cold affected his heart and chest, and would be the death of him one day. Having travelled, he had little or no ambition left, would not learn to drive or rise above his steady job in a supermarket warehouse.

His wife had a lust for learning; she wanted to travel, to holiday in somewhere more exotic than Hayling Island or Highcliffe. Over the years she became more dissatisfied and found excuses to stay later at work rather than come home to a man she had begun to despise.

Her parents were not well-matched. Sometimes he would shout and sometimes he would sulk; his sulks turned into a depression that could last for weeks. Her mother was the one with the fiery temper; in snapshots of time she was shaking her fist and scowling at whoever had the temerity to take her photograph, but she was warm too, and loving and always wanted the very best for her children. She  had fallen out of love with him long before she left and it was only the children that kept them together.

He gave his children legacies though. He made them hot chocolate with rum in it; sprinkled curry powder on their dinners and got them up in the middle of the night to glory in the spectacle of a thunderstorm. As a consequence, even now, his youngest daughter loves rum and thunderstorms although she got into trouble for asking for curry powder to spice up her school dinners.

Her parents split up when she was ten years old. She was Daddy’s girl and a part of her wanted to stay with him but she was the youngest, trauma touched them all and she left in the middle of the night with her mother. She chose not to see her father for another six years.

When they met up again he had changed. No longer tall, rather portly and his glossy black hair was grizzled and grey. He looked like Albert Tatlock from Coronation Street. It didn’t matter though, he was still her Dad and she was still his little Chuckles.

When she moved into a shared house, he brought her a small black kitten so that she would have reason to come home at night. Sprog. A wild and often malicious creature that liked to hide in the bottom of sleeping bags and emerge like a bullet from a gun when the occupier’s feet made contact. He would also lay in wait for the housemate who had to go through her room to get to his own. He was no match for a fluffy black cannonball with needle sharp claws.

Once a fortnight, regular as clockwork, her father would send her a postal order for three pounds. Her maintenance, it often paid for a takeaway curry or a drink or two at the Students’ Union bar. His cooking never really improved; most things were cooked to a crisp or had a strange mixture of ingredients. She visited every week for the evening and they would watch TV together; he burping gently and she sucking a tactfully concealed indigestion tablet.

He approved of the man she chose to be her husband, and lived long enough to meet and hold both his grandsons. In the same year that his youngest grandson was born he was struck down by a fatal heart attack. He went quickly. He went the way he would have wanted to go; in the middle of making tea and coffee for a group of workmen who were installing central heating in his block of flats. They gave him CPR but it was no good. The damage done by the cruel sea all those years ago finally took its toll.

Her brother had the big Ghurkha knives after their father died but he remembered her attachment to the little replica knife and this is why it sits in her display cabinet now, why she takes it out sometimes to stroke it and smell the leather sheath, and remember the man who brought it home from the war.

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The War – Week 8 of the 52 week short story challenge

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The warm weather was turning Jenny’s small square patio into an idyllic sun trap. She had everything she needed within arms’ reach; the small picnic table held a choice of reading material, a bottle of water, cool from the fridge, sunglasses and her trusty Walkman. She leaned back in the deckchair, put her earphones in and began to re-read a favourite Dickens novel to the dulcet sounds of Neil Young. A strange mix perhaps, but one that suited her mood.

She’d been out on the patio for less than an hour when it started. A loud and very unpleasant rendering of ‘You Ain’t Nothing But a Hound Dog‘. It was coming from a garden to the rear of hers and what the singer lost in tone and accuracy, they made up for in ear-splitting noise.

Turning off the Walkman and putting down her book, she got up and risked a look up the garden to the source of the noise. The most brief of glances was sufficient to confirm that the music was not about to stop.

They had been warned about potentially troublesome neighbours by the rather snobbish estate agent when they bought the house back in November.  Their end-of-terrace house was ex-council stock and extremely solid. Most of their neighbours had lived in the area since the houses were built after World War II, and had taken up the option to buy their homes when it was offered. Jenny had been born on a council estate however, and based on her own experiences, didn’t foresee any issues with this.

It had been cold when they moved into their new house.

Quiet and cold.

They had apologised to their close neighbours for the noise made when the central heating was put in but the occupants of the house joined to theirs were out at work all day, and the neighbour on the other side had the width of two garden paths between him and the noise of the drilling, added to which he was out on his scooter visiting family for most of the day as well.

Christmas was warm and cosy once the heating was in. Their first proper home together.

When Spring came Jenny and her husband-to-be spent some time in the garden trying to shift the pile of builders’ rubble left outside the back door so that they would actually have a paved area to sit on. They dug out a pathway up the steeply sloping garden and laid paving stones in order to have a stable surface on which to walk when hanging out the washing.

The garden wasn’t large but it was enclosed by larch lap fence panels and once the rubble was removed, grass began to emerge and a couple of patches of daffodils planted by a previous owner. Jenny bought a batch of twigs that were supposed to grow into roses eventually. She planted them with optimism.

House and garden were put on hold at the end of April as they made preparations for their May wedding. Nearly everything went to plan, and the things that didn’t quite work out were manageable. Who knew that their honeymoon room in a New Forest hotel would have a radiator that wouldn’t turn off, or that the wedding taking place in the grounds would be so noisy that they couldn’t have the windows open? They were moved out of the romantic room with the four-poster bed and relocated to a quiet and more substantial suite at the back of the hotel.

It was quiet and cold.

It was good to be away  and exploring new territories on their honeymoon, but equally  wonderful to come home to their little house and the growing garden. Good to return as a married couple with life ahead of them. Jenny was looking forward to the warmer weather and being able to sit out in their garden.

Reluctantly she brought her relaxing-in-the-garden equipment indoors as the Elvis impersonators at the top of the garden completely drowned out her own music and made it impossible to read. Jenny’s husband was at work and the only way to escape from the noise was to shut herself in the front room with the kitchen door and windows shut, and the TV on loud.

She dug out her husband’s binoculars and, hiding behind the new curtains in the back bedroom, she identified the source of the noise. The occupants of the house that backed onto a house three doors down from theirs were having a karaoke party.  The hideous racket was being created by a group of only four people; three males and a female.  From the number of empty – and full – beer cans observed, the party was set to go on all day. The karaoke machine was set up on a huge TV plugged into an extension lead hanging out of a downstairs window. The garden was reminiscent of a rag and bone yard; piles of rusting metal objects, a shopping trolley with only three wheels, damp cardboard boxes sagging in heaps,  and three ancient kitchen chairs around the kitchen door step.

The lone female was perched precariously on a stool that looked as if it had  been pilfered from a pub; she was wearing a very small pair of shorts made from cut-off jeans, and a white boob tube that had lost its elasticity, neither of which did much to cover her extremely pale and substantial body. Two of the males appeared to be of a similar age to her, whilst the other seemed to be of a younger generation. They all sported tattoos but Jenny’s husband’s binoculars were not strong enough to see whether the spelling was correct or not.

Curiosity made her careless and as the curtain dropped back, the female in the garden caught sight of Jenny and let fly a stream of obscenities that completely drowned out the karaoke machine. Jenny left the bedroom quickly, her heart beating double-time, and retreated to the safety of the front room after making sure that all the doors were locked and the kitchen blinds were down.

This was how her husband found her some hours later when he came home; curled up on the sofa under a blanket, curtains drawn and TV tuned to a loud and particularly appalling cable channel.

Jenny cried when she told him about the nasty neighbours and they both hoped that the incident was a one-off.

It wasn’t.

As soon as Jenny settled to read and relax on the patio, the noise would start. Weekends or weekdays, it made no difference. Other neighbours asked the family to turn the noise down and were met with the customary obscene gestures and insults. The female would get very excited and pull down her boob tube, exposing a pair of pallid and pendulous breasts to anyone unfortunate  enough to be looking.

In order to regain some privacy if not peace, Jenny’s husband and a couple of friends laid some paving stones at top end of the garden and erected a garden shed which effectively blocked the view of the patio from the noisy neighbours, who screamed abuse  throughout but were unable to prevent progress.

That was when the warfare started in earnest.

First of all their car boot was broken into in the night. The offenders didn’t steal much and the insurance covered the damage and what was taken but it was another blot on the landscape of their first home together.

Then someone set fire to the front garden gate – in the middle of the night again. The fire was soon put out but the attendance of the fire brigade and the police escalated the incident to a new level. Jenny had no proof of who was behind the fire but the fact that the noisy neighbours were spotted grinning and jeering in the crowd watching the fire engine, was a possible clue.

The son of the family tried to set the garden shed alight but was caught in the act and went off for a spell of juvenile detention.

The loss of her only son inflamed the female even further; their house was next door to the local convenience store and she took to watching from her front room window and pouncing like some malevolent trapdoor spider on anyone that she felt might have reported her son to the police.

Jenny and her husband stuck to the safety of supermarket shopping.

The end of summer was welcomed as a respite from the karaoke parties and nocturnal nastiness, but the return of the prodigal son caused an unwitting end to the hostilities anyway. The police kept him under surveillance once he came home and within a very short time the house was successfully raided for drugs and stolen goods.

The neighbourhood had been under the impression that the horrendous family had bought the house years before and that was why they behaved in such a proprietorial way. Not so. They were  council tenants and the housing department were gleeful at having finally found a solid reason to evict them.

Some of the neighbours came out to watch on the day of the eviction; arms folded and grim smiles as the bailiffs changed the locks and two of the older males were arrested for assaulting a female police officer. This was before the age of ASBOs but the evicted tenants were left under no illusions about what might happen – legally or illegally – if they returned to the property.

When the summer came round again, being able to sit out in the garden was something Jenny had looked forward to but the damage had been done and she never felt that she could relax there again.

It was a relief when they had to move North for her husband’s work.

The little house was rented to a young couple with a child who treated it with a complete lack of care and respect. When their tenancy came to an end, the house was put on the market and managed by the most inept bunch of estate agents going.

Miles away, in a rented house herself, Jenny received a phone call to say that the house had been broken into. The estate agent had left the back door keys in the kitchen drawer and as a consequence the burglars had been able remove the fridge freezer and the washing machine – both of which had been wedding presents just a few years before. They tried to remove the boiler too but failed and the estate agent had to foot the repair bill.

Jenny and her husband sold the house eventually and after a few trips South to visit family, they stopped feeling the need to drive past their old home.