An old lady sits, dwarfed by her floral armchair, babbling endlessly to the empty room around her like an early bird on a telephone line does to the world.
Nobody is listening.
“Bloody darkies. It’s always the darkies. What are they doing for England, eh? Nothing…” she bickers to the empty seat opposite, eyes haggard and edged with stress, darkened from the seemingly endless days in this cozy tomb of hers.
She is not long for this world.
The walls and ceiling of her bungalow are a hideous mottled yellow from a lifetime of slow-drifting cigarette smoke - not hers, her husband, Errol’s. He was a heavy smoker, but she never minded him smoking one bit. He passed on thirty years ago or more, bless him. There are scrub marks in one corner of the room; a former attempt by her younger self to scour away the faded lemon coloured sky. She hasn’t noticed the yellowness for a long time now.
“…bloody everywhere and they should get jobs, the lowlifes…”
Everyday, in her calmer moments she tries to recall Errol; his personality, things he said, their times together. She tries to maintain him in her steadily disappearing mind. Sometimes she can summons a perfect image of him, sometimes entire moments, conversations, weekends away together. In all those figments he is perfect, clean-shaven with his hair combed and gelled back, shirt neatly pressed with polished cufflinks like a gentleman fit for attendance with the Queen. Even recalling his time dying, yellow cheeked, in that god-awful hospital bed he is somehow perfect looking. But then at other times she can barely recall his face, let alone what they did in the summer of ‘67 with the Smythes down in Cornwall. Over 50 years of marriage slipping slowly through her mind’s fingers.
“What’s wrong with ‘em, walking around with guns and knives,” she continues. “I’ve read th’papers and it’s always the dark skinned ones – bloody blacks…”
These moments of forgetfulness are more edged with terror than sadness, especially when seated, here, alone, in her cavernous house. So fear sometimes overtakes her in the depths of the long, melancholic, tea-soaked afternoons. Today, however, seems to be a good day and her memory is functioning clearly. Seems to be. But breakdowns can come at any time.
“…this certainly isn’t a safe neighbourhood anymore...”
She stops her diatribe briefly; white bubble-specked spittle at the corners of her downturned mouth and her sigh fills the room, not for the first or the last time today. The curtains undulate gently with the sliver of breeze pushing through the window that has been ajar since spring started.
“Those new ones across the road,” she razors, pointing a bony purple veined finger, “I don’t like them. Carl say’s they’re Arabs, but they’re just as bad as all the other darkies, if you ask me.”
It’s not that she’s racist – not truly racist – it’s just that she is terrified and this is its manifestation. This is the stress of age and fear of the end taking form; a metamorphosis into this bleak, rambling, blur of enmity.
Along the mantelpiece runs photo after photo of family and friends, some alive and well, some not so alive, some decades gone; Errol for example. More sit cluttering the small table next to the armchair, staring out from the table at the window and the world beyond, trapped, much like she is. One photo, in a gilded frame, is of her and Errol standing on a stretch of Whitby Pier on a hazy autumn day, a rainbow stretching and yawning its way across an otherwise dull sky. The line of the horizon beyond the two figures is a mirror of her expressionless mouth as she picks it up and stares at it intently, conjuring the memories of an age bygone. Their smiles are winsome and buoyant, a morbid juxtaposition to that seated in the tatty, crochet laden armchair now. Moments later that peculiar feeling of remembrance sweeps over her and she recalls the wonder of the day and the photo comes to life as intangible memories flood her. The fish and chips upon the shore. The afternoon in the penny arcades. The ever-present seagulls cawing in the distance. And the tiny dusty bed’n breakfast where they enjoyed the sleep-in the next day. It’s all there for her, somehow brought up from the depths of her hippocampus and beyond. Her eyes water, just a touch and she places the photo lovingly back on the table.
“…we should never have let them in, they take take take…” her rant continues briefly with a shake of the head and a sniff. “Never…” Another sigh.
Next on the table is a photo of her as a girl picking berries with her Grandmother Beryl along the bramble and hedgerows in the North. They’re standing in a field that stretches off into the distance with woodlands beyond. The sky is that kind of radiant blue you can only find in forgotten old photos. This photo isn’t forgotten, however – not yet. And to prove it she grabs it with two desperate, unsteady hands and tries to recall that day too. It is perfect and she feels her cheeks redden with the heat of the sharp early-summer sun. The smell of hay from the field fills her olfactory senses and Grandma Beryl’s dress rustles and flaps in the soft breeze. Great chestnut horses flick their tails placidly in the distance. The raspberry and blackberry brambles are so full of berries you can smell the sweetness in the air. Her fingers are young, plump, purpled with juice. It truly is wonderful and so realistic. The last time she tried to recall the day in question she couldn’t even recall her Grandma’s name. That was followed by her forgetting why she wanted to remember in the first place and confusion then consumed her further as she held the strange photo containing two unrecognizable people from long ago. “What am I doing? Who are these people?” she had mewed to the lamp stand, perplexed. “Uh, uh, Errol! Errol! Where are you?” she called turning to look at the door, but a shadow, somewhere in her mind, secretly knew he wouldn’t be walking through with his what-is-it-dear look on his handsome face. But today – no problems for the diminutive old woman.
She jerks and continues her vociferation.
“Mrs Gabbison is gone now. Replaced by bloody blacks. Mr Barlow at number 23 is gone and their house is now filled with some strange Turkish family that can barely speak a word of the Queen’s. The children play in the streets until 1am. I’ve heard them at all hours...”
She tuts and then exhales. She hasn’t had a visitor for days – in fact, she doesn’t even remember who that last visitor was. Something stirs in her, some kind of ... anticipation, something shining on the edge of her mind – something good. Her flat mouth curves upward at the edges momentarily before she mutes it and her rant ignites further.
“I mean, they leave me here all alone, weeks and months at a time.”
She looks to her window, curtain still dancing in the soft breeze. She always leaves a window open this time of year, always has, but she has been warned by neighbours and well-wishers before that leaving it open till God-knows-when in the morning is just inviting trouble.
“What if one of those Turkish louts from next dear were to break in here and mug me – or rape me and leave me for dead, eh? That’s what happened to Jenny Garrison.”
Jenny Garrison is a character from a movie she watched a fortnight previous. She is right though, her neighbourhood used to be safe; the families were good, everyone knew each other. There was never a thought of any drugs, apart from the drinks and fags down the local, maybe a Disprin for a headache. As for guns, well this is England, not bloody Colombia. Nowadays the pages are splashed with violence and youths doing all kinds of terrible things around her beloved Britain.
Despite these random rants of bigotry, she is in good form today and her memory is functioning well. But attacks can come at any moment and leave her wasted and exhausted.
She grabs the next framed photo off the small table with a grey wrinkled hand. It trembles slightly, but jitters are completely normal at her age. She focuses in on the image, hard, eyes squinting slightly and the new silence mounts as her thoughts grapple at nothingness. This fellow in the photo has dark skin.
Unbeknownst to her, a man she would describe as ‘ethnic’ stands downstairs and knocks softly at her front door before digging his hands into his pockets. He waits, looks up and down the street and knocks again, slightly louder this time. She, of course, hears nothing. He waits some more and then inspects the street again before checking the door handle. It's unlocked. He smiles.
“Who is this then?” she blurts, picture in hand. “This isn't mine! Someone has been in here planting photos to fool me. They’ll be in here to rob me next! Errol!” Like an avalanche it comes and she hurls the portrait across the room with surprising strength and it crashes into the ornate plate hung on the wall, pieces of glass and porcelain falling to the carpet.
The man, in her hallway now, blankly looks up the stairwell and then softly pads down the hallway towards the lounge area; towards the old woman; he’s been here before.
“Someone is trying to rape me!” The woman screams from the chair whilst the man stands behind her, unseen in the doorway. “Errol! A black man is coming after me!”
The man’s eyes water as he watches her shout. He breathes deeply, gathering his wits and raps loudly on the deer frosted-glass door to the living room.
The old woman jerks around, terror in her eyes and she stares at him whilst her mind searches behind the scenes for something to prompt her recognition. The fear rages and then slowly, knowledge floods her mind, sweet, soothing knowledge, that this man in the doorway is no rapist, he is her Grandson, Carl.
“Carl!” she says sweetly, the smile erupting from her face like the sun cutting its way through dark clouds. “Carl, sweetie!” She personifies love.
“Hey, Gran, what’s the matter? Are you okay?”
“Yes. Yes. I was just – ” she looks at him and then at the picture of him lying amongst the shards of a broken plate on the carpet. “just, ah – ” Confusion threatens her frailty again.
“It’s okay, Gran. It must’ve fallen off. Don’t you worry, I’ll clean it up,” Carl says softly.
He walks across the room and picks the picture with the glass now split down the middle. He places it gently back on the table next to her armchair and smiles.
“There. All better, right?”
“Yes.” She beams. “Carl, how are you dear?”
“Fine, fine. Look what I have brought you.” He presents her with a jar of apricot jam. “Straight from Annika’s kitchen to you, Gran.”
“That’ll be lovely, thank you.”
“Shall I make us some tea and toast for afternoon tea?”
“Oh, yes,” she chimes. “Thank you, love.”
He walks through to the kitchen and places the jar on the bench next four others sat there. He opens the cupboard and there are dozens more jars of preserves and relishes, some half eaten, some unopened. He brings her a jar of jam or relish every time he visits her, which is basically every day on his lunch break, if he can escape his busy office.
He walks back through to the lounge with a tray full of fruit toast, blackberry jam and tea.
“Oh, looks lovely!” she says, chuffed, all traces of the rambling bigot well gone.
“Does, doesn’t it. It’s like the jam you used to make! Not quite as good though.” He sends her a sneaky smile. They sit there quietly and comfortably munching on toast and sipping at tea.
“Gran, tell me about that time you went to Whitby with Grandad,” he asks.
“Whitby? Well, I’m not sure if I can remember, dear… Oh, yes.” The elderly woman then chuckles warmly before launching confidently into her story. Not a detail is missed, not about the sky, the seagulls, how handsome his grandfather was or the wonderful bed’n breakfast the next day. She recounts every subtlety with a radiant smile.
Later, after the centimeter of tea left in the bottom of the cups have cooled, he asks her what her grandmother was like, as he always does.
“My grandmother. Well that’s your . . . Great Great Grandmother Beryl. Ooh, she was lovely.”
“What did you do with her?”
“We used to go berry picking up north every summer, we did,” she intones before launching into the same story she unknowingly delivers to him every day. This act of kindness, this fractional sacrifice of Carl’s, is his service to his heritage and he sits there with his smile mirroring hers as she glows and escapes her dreariness for an hour. Carl has his grandmother’s mouth. He has his Grandfather Errol’s nose too.