So, I start another day, sat here in my small dark lounge in my big faded brown, leather armchair looking out of the front window, again.
Watching, nothing really. It’s cloudy, a bit grey, and colder than usual for a late Spring afternoon. We had rain yesterday but not today although, there is a threat of it, but the weather girl on the BBC says it’ll remain dry. I’m not sure though, you can’t always believe what they say, especially when they talk about what’s going to happen in a few days’ time. I don’t think they really know, it’s all guesswork, that is until the day of the forecast when I can just look out of my window anyway, like I’m doing now, at nothing in particular, but I know it might rain later. Not much else happening, it’s quiet, I live in a quiet road, in a quiet town, nothing happens. Well, there is some stuff going on but it’s mundane, ordinary, usual.
This is where I have arrived isn’t it, mundane, ordinary Bill. I’ve had a life though, I’ve seen things, had a few adventures, met people. Spent my money, earned some more, lost even more then, earned more again and it’s all brought me here after 79 years to my own ground floor apartment with two bedrooms, a small lounge, and compact kitchen in this old Victorian building. It’s got a nice back garden that I can sit in and watch more mundane stuff happening and a front lawn with a cherry tree in it that somewhat blocks my view of the road.
It’s a bit battered this old chair, I’ve had it for 20 odd years, bought it new from a shop on the high street. The missus went mad, said we didn’t need it, it wouldn’t last, and we couldn’t afford it. Turns out she was wrong; it’s seen her out and still serves me well even though it’s a bit tatty. It’s soft and comfortable, more so with my cushion on the seat, in spite of the fact that the leather is worn and a bit cracked. It’s wide and I can sink into it with my cup of tea and the free paper and I sometimes drop off into a light snooze, waking myself with a start, when I snore.
Margaret was only 64 when she died, 15 years ago. Cancer. Of the lungs but she never smoked ever, in her whole but short life. It was passive they said, just like Roy Castle the nurse said to me in that shouty patronising way some people adopt when speaking with old folk. As if we’re all deaf, or slow, or just stupid. And I just looked at her, this nurse, hurt, distressed that I was being handled in this manner, not knowing what to say or do. I just said thank you and closed my eyes, hoping she’d go away to attend to someone else and she did, quite quickly as it happened. My son took care of it all after that. We only had one child, Margaret thought that was enough. She didn’t like being intimate, she didn’t like being pregnant, she didn’t like giving birth, she didn’t like being a parent really. She didn’t like kids, ours was just about ok, but she just couldn’t stand other people’s. Funny really, she was quite religious and talked about caring and loving the Lord and all His people, but she wasn’t that good at practicing the theory. Margaret knew it all, all that bible stuff and the church groups where she smiled and said kind words but then, I doubt she listened to what she was saying. She’d come home from one of the groups where she was treasurer, or chair, or secretary. Margaret was always one to get involved but only when she could have some authority, put her point across, be in charge. Yes, that’s when she smiled the most when she oversaw something or someone. But she’d come home and moan about everyone in the group, what they were doing, or not doing, what they were wearing, what they said, what they meant, it went on and on. I asked her once why she went if she didn’t like it. I regretted it afterwards. Not because I was sorry to have asked, but because she turned on me. I was stupid, I was inconsiderate, I didn’t understand, I didn’t attend church and so I was fundamentally a bad person. It all came flooding out as though she’d held it all in, pent up bubbling away like a volcano only to burst free at that moment in a venomous lava, a torrent of dislike. She was 38, we both were. Since that outburst we hardly spoke, not in a civil way, not like a couple of people who got married when they were both 20 and had grown up together. We had endured 18 years of what was already a distant relationship. Our son didn’t make things better or easier. She christened him Gabriel, I’d have preferred Gary or Ian but even then, in those early days I had nothing to do with it. We were young, possibly too young but I was actually looking forward to becoming a dad. Margaret from the word go hated it. Outwardly, to the groups and acquaintances, even other family, she said all the right things, but it was me who had him on my knee. It was me who attended to him crying when he needed changing. I fed him, formula milk from a bottle, day, and night. She headed off any thought of natural breastfeeding as we left the hospital, despatching me to the shops to stock up. She needed to get fit quickly, get back to being in charge of her various groups, she needed her sleep. More than me apparently. And I let her have her own way because…I don’t know. Just because. Because that’s what happened with Margaret, she got her own way at everything. The consequence of her not getting her own way was just too much to put up with.
Anyway, that is how it was. I brought up Gary, that’s what I called him when she wasn’t around, and she got on with her groups and her religious do-gooding.
The postman is here now, just walking up the path. We exchange our usual wave; he posts the mail and off he goes. Normal, mundane post for me. Important information from someone selling furniture or stairlifts or garden sheds or loft insulation. Mrs Riley upstairs gets much more interesting-looking stuff. We share the hallway, so our post gets delivered together. When she picks it up, mine is left in the pigeonhole outside my front door. Sometimes I get there first, usually when she is out, and put hers on the step that leads to the door of her apartment. She gets a lot of bank mail, and from solicitors, I can tell from the postmarks and logos. She’s quite well off so I’d imagine they are updates on her investments. Anyway, she got there first, I just heard her going back upstairs. I’ll pick up my post later when I get up to make a brew.
I hope he closed the gate today, the postie that is. He didn’t last Wednesday. It kept swinging in the breeze, squeaking and banging on the gate post. I watched it for an hour or so, I was getting so mad that he could just leave it, swinging like that, without a care for the impact on people. That’s a problem with today’s world, so uncaring, no thought for anyone else. I rang the GPO or whatever they call it these days, to complain. I told them, the gate might be damaged, the gate post might get damaged, it wasn’t what I expected of a national service. I don’t think they were really bothered, they kept saying sorry and that it wouldn’t happen again, but I think they just wanted me off the phone. He said that a report would be sent to the manager of the local sorting office and that I might get a call if they wanted more details. No one rang, but then no-one ever does. Gary gave me a little mobile phone; so, I could get in touch with him if there was an emergency but there won’t be one and anyway, it’s ridiculously small and complicated. I have my phone on the table I said to him, it’s a good one and I can manage the buttons. I can take his one out with me when I go to the shops he said. Why I don’t know. I take it with me when I go to Tesco on a Tuesday and a Saturday, but I forget to switch it on, I don’t know how it works really. The gate is closed so he must have gotten a telling off.
He is 55 now, Gary. Married with grown-up kids of his own. I don’t see much of them, they live too far away for me to drive and they have busy lives. He rings from time to time, but we don’t say much. How am I, what have I done, do I eat the right food. It sometimes feels like it’s a chore for him. Gary’s wife is a nice girl, Lucy she’s called, I think and their boys Shaun and Matthew. I get a card from them on my birthday which is nice, always in Gary’s handwriting. I keep them though, they’re in my box. I have a few boxes with my things in them, it’ll be easier for Gary when I go. I mean, he’ll be able to find things that he’ll need like my insurance policies. I’ve got two, to make sure he has a bit to remember me by and help with immediate finances. Two policies and a bit leftover from Margaret’s life insurance and pension. Not that she ever thought about leaving anything for anyone, it was me who organised that. I doubt she knew it existed. Even when she had the fall, the only thing she thought about was herself. I say ‘fall’, she tripped, at the top of the stairs, head-first down to the bottom. She split her skull on the stone floor. It was a right mess; the ambulance was very quick and managed to revive her and take her to the hospital. I went too, in the ambulance. I remember just sitting there as the lady worked on Margaret. Tubes and injections, I recall. She was trying to make conversation, the nurse, but I didn’t know what to say and it was just tittle-tattle in truth. How long had we been married? That sort of thing, what did it matter? Even in the hospital room, they were making small talk, just to keep my mind off it, I think. Gary turned up after an hour or so and he dealt with it all from thereon. Gary is good like that. I was sat next to Margaret watching her sleep, with all the equipment beeping and flashing and I was just hoping that we wouldn’t be long. When she opened her eyes, I looked at her, hoping she wasn’t going to be mad. When her eyes focussed and she recognised me she sort of looked away, out through the curtain towards the window. She asked me where Gabriel was, quietly in a strained rasping voice and I said I didn’t know who that was. I felt strong for the first time ever and I quite liked it as I could see the rage in her eyes, on her horrible hate-filled face but she was helpless and couldn’t move. She recovered enough to go home after about three weeks, but she needed care. I got used to her being around again and the hostility that filled the air in the house when she was there. Her carer was a lovely lady, Julie. She was almost angelic and was experienced enough to be able to control Margaret and her moods, the fact Margaret now struggled with her mobility helped. She was still loud and spiteful towards me, but Julie had an effect on both of us and I found myself looking forward to the times each day when she would merrily appear at our house. We talked and got on well and it was possibly the nicest time I’d had living in that house. It was Julie who first remarked that Margaret’s cough had got worse and perhaps we should get the doctor round as a precaution. She kindly organised that and Dr. Gill quickly had Margaret admitted to hospital, as a precaution and undertake a few tests. Margaret was in hospital for a few days, Julie popped by to make sure I was ok and make me my dinner and we talked some more. Turns out Julie had been a carer for 20 years and loved her job which I struggled with, seeing as how she had to deal with people like Margaret. That said, she had a nature that was calming and interested, very endearing was Julie. After three days in hospital, Margaret was diagnosed with stage 3 lung cancer. Julie stopped coming after that which was a shame, but her work was to care for people in their homes, people with specific difficulties and I could manage on my own, or so they said.
The Asian man from the Indian takeaway just posted a leaflet through the letterbox. They have an offer on this week; 10% off the family meal for 4. It all sounds genuinely nice but it’s no use to me, I’ll leave it for Mrs. Riley to find. She might use it when some of her friends come round. I’ve never had Indian food, Margaret wouldn’t allow it in the house, she didn’t like the smell and couldn’t cope with so much spice in her food. It gave her an upset stomach. I don’t know how she knew as she’d never tried it and as such, neither had I. Gary says it’s nice. I have a pizza from Tesco now and again, chicken and sweetcorn. I quite like it and it can be tasty if I don’t burn it. I like toast with egg and baked beans, I have that a lot. With a cup of tea. No sugar if you’re making one!
The consultant at the hospital suggested that the cancer had been dormant for some time and the recent fall might have contributed to its rapid development. The stress of it all may have taken its toll and Margaret, who whilst usually strong had quite a delicate defence system. In fact, he went on and on, waffling about what may or may not have caused it, given she was a non-smoker and a god-fearing woman, whatever that had to do with anything. Anyway, I got to the end of my tether and just asked him how long we had. Two weeks took me aback, to be honest.
She was moved quite quickly to a hospice where she had her own room. She knew little about it given the drugs and appeared to be comfortable. I visited every day, it got me out of the house, and I was getting on well with one of the carers. He was my age and we had similar interests according to the little chats we had. He liked his Jaguar and the horses, and I liked my Mercedes and the horses too. In all honesty, it was a good distraction for me, and I think he liked the break from his routine, which must have been quite difficult most of the time.
When I arrived on that Tuesday morning the hospice was really quiet. It was usually respectfully quiet but there was always a gentle buzz as the staff and visitors went about their business but on that day, it was very still. Even Courtney on reception appeared a bit subdued. She was quite young and had a natural, bouncy disposition. Very pretty and chatty, always had a nice word to say and a pleasant smile. Even today she had that smile, but it was somehow different. Perhaps in hindsight, it was just me subconsciously preparing for the day ahead. I went to see my carer friend in the canteen area, but he wasn’t there, just a tired-looking middle-aged lady, holding her coffee close to her chin with both hands. I smiled, she smiled. Margaret was asleep when I entered the room, or that’s what it looked like, her eyes were closed, and she was still. So, I sat on the large chair in the corner, facing the window and watching the view. It was a nice one of open countryside, green with trees and birds. I’d been there about 15 mins when Margaret asked me why I came every day. I was startled and turned to see her looking at me. She said she’d watched me since I entered the room and had noted I hadn’t looked at her or checked the notes to see how she was. She asked me why I bothered coming out to see her when I clearly had no feelings for her. I told her she was right and that I came not out of a sense of duty to her, not to see how she was, but to get out of the house and speak with people, nicely. She struggled breathing and her heart monitor machine beeped faster as she spat out some venomous words that I didn’t understand. She steadied herself and tightly screwed up her face. I didn’t know if it was through pain or hatred, of me. She hissed at me and asked where her son was. I leant over the bed and again for the second time in my life, I felt in control of our relationship. I told her that Gary was on his way, he was due to visit today and would be about half an hour. I saw for the first time ever what looked like a tear in her eye. She asked me to come closer and still being the obedient, subservient fool, I had been all my life, I did so. She spat in my face and then said she wasn’t sorry, not for anything.
Gary walked through the doorway just at the moment she died. Neither of us cried. We held each other for a moment, in fact, it was more than that, we hugged each other, and Gary said, it’s ok now dad, she’s gone. The nurses came rushing in with a doctor and Gary dealt with them.
Mrs. Riley is going out, looks like she’s going to see someone special because she has her best coat on, and I think lipstick too. She waved at me as she went through the gate and I waved back. We spoke a few weeks ago in the back garden. We share that too. It was only a short conversation, but I enjoyed it. I think she in her 50’s, she lives on her own, a widow without children. She has friends and lots of visitors though, most days there are people knocking or ringing the bell to her flat. They sometimes ring mine by mistake which can be annoying but at least I can open the door and say hello to someone.
After Margaret’s funeral, Gary sold my house and bought me this place. I liked the funeral, there were about 100 people there, not many cried. There were church types and people from her other busy body groups all saying what a good job she did and how much she’d be missed, and how sorry they were for me and that I must keep in touch with them and if I ever needed anything, anything at all I must let them know. I remember saying to Gary that no-one said how nice she was or how funny she was or even how loving or Christian she was. He laughed. The church put on a buffet and I paid for some wine and that was it. No more Margaret, no more pain.
Gary thought it best that I had a ground floor place. No stairs to fall down, lesson learned sort of thing. When we were moving out of the old house, Gary sat for a rest at the top of the stairs. I wasn’t sure if he was thinking about his mother and her fall or whether he was genuinely tired. He and the removal men carried on and moved my things out over the course of the day. The things I wanted came to my new flat and the stuff I didn’t want went to the family or a clearance sale. I gave the money from the clearance sale to Gary for his boys, it wasn’t a lot, a few hundred each maybe. It was nice to get a thank you card from them; written by Gary I think but nice all the same.
It was a few days after that Gary asked me if I knew what the screw holes were in the banister at the old house, at the top of the stairs. I told him that I had no idea and after living there all those years I’d never even noticed.
I’m thinking now, as I’m sat here in my tired old leather armchair, looking out of my tired old window at nothing in particular, speaking to nobody other than myself. I’m thinking if that was my opportunity to confess that I’d put down a tripwire across the top of the stairs and watched as Margaret tripped over it that day, falling head-first to what I hoped had been her death. I regret not telling him because if I did, maybe I would be in a real prison now. A prison occupied by people, with a cellmate and someone to cook proper food for me. If only I had thought about it, maybe I wouldn’t be in the prison I am in today.
C H Elton is the pen name of Steve Chelton who lives with his wife in Newton Le Willows. They have 5 children between them and at present, 3 grandchildren. Steve has been a self-employed consultant working in the UK Insurance industry for several years but is currently not working because of the impact COVID-19 has had across the industry.