An old man remembers
Sheol Care Home
A passing lorry broke the tranquillity of the small room with a deep rumble, shaking the window and furniture from the street outside, forcing the old man to look up from his pondering. Suddenly reminded of the world beyond his recollections, his face was overcome with sorrow, the reality of his existence drifting back to him. The old man braced his forehead with a large wrinkled hand, drawing it down over his face, emerging from its shadow with flickering eyes adjusting to this world. He closed the photo album on the table before him, resting the palm of his hand firmly on its ageing cover, preventing a return to the memories held within.
Something heavy banged against the door to his room in sudden rhythmic frustration. The door swung open violently as Nancy the cleaner pushed forth with sweeping movements of her vacuum cleaner.
“Looking at your pictures again are we? Did you make it out today? No? They had some kids down from the school today, show and tell, not that they would want to see any of this I spose. My Gareth is into the war stuff you know. D-Day and all that. There was something on the telly about that the other night, the war. Did you see it? No? Don’t care for it myself, I make myself scarce when he puts them on. No time for it. You know? Why look back at all that black and white stuff? Stuffy things, you know? Why look back? No sense in it, enough to worry about here and now I always say. Legs up please.”
The old man strained to lift his tired limbs to one side. He longed for the strength to kick the vacuum cleaner from beneath him and stamp upon its plastic hood. But those days were long behind him. Instead he patiently allowed the annoying woman to go about her duties, her words muffled in his ears, indiscernible and unimportant. He pondered his small collection of possessions carefully, willing her to leave as he ignored her presence. The few books he had been allowed to keep rested on the sideboard. A pocket-sized Classical Philosophers collection, the memoirs of Winston Churchill, a very decrepit copy of The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and the Good News Bible. The final volume in the small collection was weary from its arduous journey through life, with a badly battered red cover and split spine, its title omitted from view by dirt, only the word “Courage” remaining.
Next to the books he had photos grouped in diverse, mismatched frames. A family group, colourful but now dated, from a wedding. Next a black and white photo of a man and woman, both in uniform; her hair worn high, his cap perching at a jaunty angle on his head. Two small photos of children faced each other; hinged at the centre and free standing. Finally, an old sepia group photo, of men in uniform sat on a waggon. Upon gazing at the final photo, the old man grasped at a distant memory, the recollections returned with full vigour and he smiled momentarily.
The cleaner bashed the sideboard without a care for the valuable items it proudly displayed. A dark framed display case, holding 3 medals and their dimly coloured ribbons clattered to the floor. The old man thrust himself forward, both arms outstretched, groaning in anger and resentment.
“Who put them there like that? That was silly wasn’t it? Could do with a dust. Here, let’s put them out of the way up here, less trouble that way,“ the woman cackled.
While maintaining her cleaning strokes she scooped up the frame and placed it face down on a shelf above the sideboard, pushing a pewter tankard to one side, thus obscuring its engraving from view. Rage reached its crescendo within the quiet man as he imagined what he would do to stop this scene from unfolding, given the strength to enact his punishment. Instead he sat, powerless and inanimate as the clumsy woman handled and belittled his objects of admiration. He remained silent, watching with an intense stare. The cleaner mumbled on to herself as she went about her chores, the old man’s attention then drifted from her towards the photos he cherished so greatly.
His mind began to drift from the present scene of anguish, to a safer memory, recollecting a dinner dance in a dimly lit hall. A smell came to him, the scent of tobacco and Brylcreem. The old man smiled. Couples shuffled together locked in tight embrace while a band played its serenade to the young lovers in uniform. A large Union flag hung above the stage between two windows, their view to the world beyond blotted out by black paper and tape. A warden dressed in black with a steel helmet daubed with the letters “ARP” pushed through the dancing throng to reach the windows, where he stood for a short while inspecting the black-out preparations with the air of authority expected of a General inspecting his brigade.
The old man looked at the couples near him, scrutinising their faces. The expressions entrenched upon the lovers’ faces told a bleak story. He had seen this before, a long time before. A woman staring up into the eyes of her lover, a smile firmly set upon her face but her eyes did not sparkle with joy, instead they quivered in the lamp light and at last a drawn out blink of her long-lashed eyelids dislodged a tear. Another woman, resting her head upon a soldier’s shoulder, clutched at her darling’s back with a talon like grip. As they slowly turned on their special spot the old man caught sight of shaking red lips and trails of mascara running over her pale cheeks. The men, on the other hand, displayed no such emotion.
The old man could feel their hidden excitement as he watched the soldiers catching glances of each other, sharing smiles and raised eyebrows. He too remembered this from a time long ago. These men longed for one thing, to be together once more, as a unit, with aspirations for heroic deeds on the battlefields of Europe; a secretive, exclusive faculty of comrades, experiencing life and adventure as no civilian could ever truly understand or rationalise. Many would spend the evening exploring the smooth lithe contents of stockings and frilled undergarments, but in truth their minds were transfixed on the day ahead of them. They would for this short while allow their partners to believe they were the soldier’s muse. They were shipping out in the morning.
The old man briefly recalled a more distant memory, a troop train slowly puffing out of Taunton station many years before, the platform crammed with waving children, wives and sweethearts, obscured at once with a huge plume of white smoke from the engine. With family blotted out from the minds of the men on board they turned to each other, rejoining that sacred union of Army life which would stay in their hearts for the rest of their days.
Back in the dance hall a handsome young man, his dark hair swept tightly to the top of his head beneath an army cap, pushed his way through the crowd with a pint of mild in each hand and a cigarette clamped firmly between his lips. His right eye squinted to avoid the smoke which drifted upwards over his face.
“Here y’ar Dad,” announced the Artillery corporal passing a thick handled glass to the old man.
“Thomas!” the old man exclaimed with a croak.
“Eh?” barked the cleaner, soon returning to her duties upon receiving no response.
“Let’s sit, can we?” enquired the young soldier.
They made their way to some booths along one side of the hall where couples were enjoying a respite from the dancing. Finding a table, they sat, Thomas throwing a packet of cigarettes and a lighter on the table. The old man stared.
“Still have that old thing then?” he asked.
“Of course,” proclaimed Thomas proudly.
“All set then I spose,” the old man announced in a sombre tone.
“First train tomorrow. Will take us down to Southampton, over by noon they say.“
The old man did not respond. His son scoured his father’s face but could not meet his downward gaze.
The old man took a large gulp of his drink and lurched for the packet of cigarettes without objection. Having retrieved a Lucky Strike he paused for a moment, looking down at the disk-shaped lighter. He reached into a pocket and withdrew his own. He took a long drag on the virgin cigarette. His shoulders sank back and he exhaled with an almost coital gasp of pleasure.
“You alright love?” asked the cleaner, pausing from her dusting.
“You’ve got those socks I gave you?”
“And you’ll make sure you tie your puttees like I showed you, not too tight at first cos when they get damp it will constrict your shins.”
“I know Dad,” Thomas smiled.
“Always a round in the breach as well as your ten in the clip, like I showed you, eleven is the magic number. Saved me many a time.”
“I know Dad, it’s all up here,” Thomas tapped his head, “You’ve told me so many times. The stories, the tips you gave me, how could I forget any of it? It’s half the reason I’m here today wearing this.”
“Don’t put this on me Tom,” the old man’s demeanour changed in an instant, “This is your choice, just like it was mine. Nobody else makes you, you do this for you, you hear me! I’d have you here with me, on the farm if it were up to me,” the old man snapped.
“You’d deny me all of this and what’s to come, for the farm? No, you wouldn’t do that. It’s in our blood Dad, in yours, in mine. You wouldn’t stop me.”
“I would this time,” the old man shook his head.
“Poor old fool,” muttered the cleaner.
“This was your life, the only thing that meant anything to you. She pleaded didn’t she, she begged you not to leave again? But off you went and re-enlisted. You’d only been out for a few short years and yet, you couldn’t ignore the call of the colours, could you? Get back to where you belonged. How did she react when you went? Did you feel anything that day, watching the crowds as the train pulled away? Me on the way and sis only, what three or four?” Thomas countered angrily.
“Don’t bring her into it,” the old man was cut short.
“Look,” Thomas calmed himself, “Can we just try to, to put all this behind us, talk about something else, I’m sorry. I’m sorry you don’t understand,” Thomas drew another cigarette from the packet, the old man watched him as he used the old lighter once more.
“I understand son,” the old man said softly.
“You don’t, you should but you don’t.”
The two men sipped at their drinks for a while, looking everywhere but at each other, the old man finally breaking the silence.
“Lying out there, on the 1st of July 1916, in that damned shell hole, I had plenty of time to think, to properly think for the first time, about leaving them and what would have happened if I hadn’t gone. Did I feel guilty, did I do the right thing? Given the chance again, would I do anything different, you know?”
“No son. Plenty of regrets but that wasn’t one of them. The Army was the only family I ever truly wanted or felt part of.”
Thomas looked away, wrestling with his emotions as his father continued.
“But now, I know that I was wrong, misplaced see. I wasn’t well. In here,” the old man raised his eyes momentarily and looked to the ceiling, “And being in the Army, that illness was, well suppressed, no, managed. Son when you get home, the civvies they don’t get any of it, they can’t, how could they? You only find solitude with more of your own kind once you’ve been out there.”
The old man stared at the burning cigarette, transfixed by the glowing embers and swirling smoke. He remembered this cigarette like it was yesterday, with such clarity, a moment in time fixed in place with a smell and a taste.
“Look out for your mates and they will look out for you,” the old man composed himself and once more took up the mantle of instructor.
“Yes Dad, I know.”
The old man thought for a moment.
“Helmet strap on your chin, not under here,” he tapped his throat, “Pulled a young lad out of the dirt by his feet, after a shell had buried him.”
“And the weight of the soil broke his neck, yes Dad, I remember.”
“Fine then,” the old man stubbed his cigarette out aggressively twisting it onto the tabletop.
“Don’t be like that Dad, not on my last night,” Thomas pleaded.
“This whole thing will be done and dusted by Christmas Dad, we’ll have ‘em beat soon, everyone is saying it. Then I’ll be home.”
The old man chuckled at the irony as a single tear ran down the right side of his face. Unblinking, his eyes swelled with moisture. He made no effort to wipe the display of grief, quite the opposite, he seemed to deny it was there.
“Dad don’t, please. You went over, you did your bit, now let me,” Thomas leaned forward, his brow furrowed, his voice stern.
“Oh Son,” the old man sighed, “I couldn’t stop you then and it’s too late to stop you now. I’m proud of you son, always have been, more than you ever knew, don’t think it’s any other way, but it don't make it any easier every time I sit here.”
“I’ll write you, send when I can,” Thomas reached over and cupped his dad’s hand with his.
“I know. Five times, eight pages in all.”
The old man turned his hand and grasped Thomas’ tightly, “Eight pages is what I have of you now.“
Suddenly, Nancy stood upright, adjusting her apron which had become sandwiched beneath her belly and her trousers. Tapping the vacuum cleaner off with her slippered toe she stood tall for the first time, hands on her hips. Without invite she began to talk at the window.
“It’s murder, that’s what it is I tell you. Honest to god, it’s a crime. There’s no excuse, it’s not human,“ she moaned.
The old man’s mind became sharp for a moment as he studied her words. They struck out at him with punishing clarity, ushering forth tormented images he had forced away from casual acknowledgement. What was she referring to? What did she know? He dared not ask.
“All those poor men. My Gareth is beside himself, you should hear him cursing at the telly of an evening. It’s a crime see. First the miners now the newspapers. They should be ashamed of themselves. Replaced them with machines you see. Now there ain't no need for them. Those poor families, what will they do? Gareth says he might drive down on the weekend and join the picket. Silly man, he wouldn’t cope without me of course, where would he get his dinner? And he has to sign on this Tuesday,“ she laughed suddenly with a shrill annoyance which startled the old man.
Having almost choked on her own expression of joy she launched headlong into another rant.
“Well I said you should stay out of it, it’s no business of yours. He said it’s principle, what’s next? Nothing is safe. These bloody businessmen and politicians think they can play with people’s lives, like we can be discarded. I mean how will they cope? All on the dole like our Gareth, can you imagine? Horrible times we live in, don’t we? Dark days is what my Gareth says. Dark days.”
With a sniff the cleaner whipped a duster out of a large pocket at the front of her apron and started to give the ornaments and surfaces a cursory going over. With every item she touched the old man felt more anguish and resentment. Her lack of respect for his important things was more tortuous than any of the draconian rules imposed on the inmates of the retirement home. The daily demeaning by the staff and the erosion of personal dignities were insignificant annoyances compared to the violation of his precious artefacts by this wicked woman.
“Where’s Mary?” the old man enquired quietly.
“Mary? Who’s Mary m’dear?” she responded.
“It’s normally Mary that comes,” he insisted.
The cleaner stopped and stood upright with both hands on her hips and scrutinised the old man properly for the first time. She paused for what seemed like an eternity, the inner ruminations of her mind made evident by the flickering of her eyes and turning of her lip. She moved to the door and pushed it closed, trapping the vacuum cleaner cable beneath it.
“Everything must be so confusing. Bless you. One day to the next, there’s no difference between them, endless goings and comings out there yet nobody to see you.”
The old man turned to look out the window.
“Why do they send these demons to torment me?” he pondered in frustration.
“You must have a terrible time…” she said, slowly opening the first drawer of the sideboard.
She waited to gauge his reaction at the indiscretion. The old man looked at her almost casually then restored his gaze to the outside world with tired capitulating eyes.
“…remembering where you put things. I bet you lose stuff, don’t you? Poor thing. My Gareth says it doesn’t matter if things go missing. You won’t be long here and then it’s no use to you anyways. You won’t even know it’s gone. Put it to better use where it’s needed, he says. Not gathering dust, that’s no good to anyone.”
Moving to the second drawer her approach became more thorough, initial nervousness subsiding. Moving gloves aside and pulling a scarf from its dark containment she came across a leather wallet, softened by age, its rigid form a distant memory now malleable in her fingers. She stopped. Allowing the flap of the wallet to fall open she quickly peered within. Noticing the enticing disclosure of paper edges, she delved further.
“What’s these?” she snapped, “No good to me, letters, are they? No good at all.”
She shoved the wallet unceremoniously back from whence it came, eight old pages of notebook paper crumpled into their dark leather recess. Doing so she nudged something which had resided at the back of the drawer, unseen until now.
“Oh,” she exclaimed, ”Naughty old so and so aren’t we? You know you can’t have this in here. I’ll be taking this away for you own safety. You’ll be lucky if I don’t tell the warden about this. Oh dear oh dear. There will be fall out over this you know.”
In her stubby fingers she turned a brass disk-shaped object back and forth, admiring the embossed surface carefully. Her eyes widened as the circular brass lid flipped open to reveal a keepsake compartment. Within, a crudely cut sepia photo of a man in uniform had been wedged in place. The corners of her mouth turned downward as her attention diminished.
“Does it work?” her face became animated like that of a child opening a present.
With a flick of her fingers the flint of the lighter was engaged. She spun the small wheel once more and it grated on the flint within. A small spark lived its brief existence. Once more the lighter’s wheel bit at the flint and this time a family of sparks dived and jumped in momentary ecstasy. A flame sprang forth, dancing triumphantly for its audience.
“Smoker then I’m guessing? Spose everyone was at it back then weren’t they? No idea of the dangers. Can’t imagine it these days, can you? My Gareth says we need something to keep our chin up in these dark days and if it’s the cigs then so be it. With everything that’s happening in the world, I mean the bombings and that, one minute it’s a bar somewhere, next it’s a plane, where will that end? Three million out of work here and strikes and that all the time. Scandals in the news whichever way you look. I’m surprised we all aren’t smoking ourselves to an early grave with the worry of it. How shall we ever survive? Dear oh dear.”
She turned to the old man and acknowledged his stern glare.
“It’s not like the good old days is it?” she squeaked in a patronising tone fit for a child.
She was right of course; it was not like the old days and it had been this way for longer than he cared to remember. The stifling rules, the curfew, dreadful cafeteria food and almost total isolation, save for the occasional trip into the town, albeit with supervision. His treatment all amounted to an indefinite prison sentence. This one-dimensional banshee, was she just another tortuous tool employed by Sheol to break his resolve? Like so many others over time they would fail, he pondered, they underestimated him. Indeed, this lack of foresight on their part would be their undoing. Every petty attempt to unhinge him was bolstering his stubborn exterior armour.
The old man suppressed a smirk from within his frail shell; an involuntary reaction to a momentary thought which had presented itself in the limelight of his clouded mind. He eyed the drawer in which the wretched creature had discovered the lighter. Losing his precious item was a brief setback, a minor engagement in a war long fought. The real treasure lay undiscovered, he gloated internally. The small yellow pills they had attempted to trick him with every morning, safely stowed away in a brown envelope at the back of the drawer; they remained undiscovered. Acknowledging this minor victory, the room fell silent, he was alone. He would not be distracted from his memories any longer.
Murder she had said, a figure of speech surely? She could not know the truth, did they? There was murder, there were many. A long time ago, in a distant place where killing was a daily habitual pastime. The old man winced as the old memories began to invade his mind. A guilt struck out at him, tearing at his abeyant heart, forcing him to remember feelings which had been suppressed for so long.
“No,” he raged, thumping the windowsill with a clenched fist, “Not like this! We’ll start at the beginning, like we always do, in that damned hole.”