This story is by M.H.Fleming and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Hand of fate
“Good grief, Robert! Why have you jammed your underpants behind the radiator?” Helen exclaimed as she entered her husband’s tidy but dated bedroom. Sitting to attention on the edge of the neatly made bed, Robert resembled a rabbit caught in the headlights. Using both hands to slowly heave up his bulky body, he shuffled to the radiator by the bay window.
“Look at that! I have no idea how that happened,” Robert said, genuinely surprised. He reached over to pry out the offending underwear. An unexpected flick on his wrist stopped him in his tracks. “I’ll deal with that,” Helen snapped. Robert bowed his head and padded back to the edge of the bed.
Sighing heavily, Helen pulled out the soiled boxers, pinching them between her forefinger and thumb. Dangling the unmentionables at arms’ length, she carried them out of the room and dropped them from a height into the brimming laundry basket. Scrunching her nose, she mumbled, ‘Thankfully I won’t have to wash those. The home carer will see to the laundry next week.’
Irritated with Robert’s incontinence, Helen went to prepare lunch. Unwilling to delve into the truth, she was of the opinion his memory lapses and erratic conversations were the result of old age. Any other explanation would have been too horrid to contemplate.
Robert made his way into the kitchen in his old leather slippers, scuffling his feet. ‘You’d think he’s forgotten how to walk properly,’ Helen mused, ignoring Robert as he sat down at the small round table, licking his lips. ‘Just like a little kid,’ she grumbled, glancing over her shoulder to make sure he hadn’t heard. ‘Why can’t he just leave me in peace?’
“Listen, love,” Robert said. “We’re going to have to look at our budget expenses today.” Helen remained silent. Robert continued, “The abrupt and unexpected downturn in the economy means that —” Helen left Robert to prattle on without hearing a word of what he was saying while she stirred the Bolognese sauce more vigorously than was warranted. ‘Should I cook fusilli or penne to go with the sauce?’ she pondered, gazing into the distance.
She snapped out of her reverie when she heard Robert’s tone of voice change. “We still haven’t been to see the kangaroos, Helen.”
Looking at him with sadness laced with contempt, Helen said, “What kangaroos?”
“The ones in Australia, love,” Robert said patiently, tenderness in his eyes. “Remember we talked about going there after I retire? We could do that this year if you like.”
Helen was torn between annoyance and compassion at her husband’s unexpected remark. Her annoyance got the better of her. “I do wish you’d forget about that useless pipe dream, Robert. We’re not going anywhere.” Glaring at Robert, she thought, ‘Except to an early grave, at the rate I have to look after you.’
Oblivious to Helen’s mood, Robert had taken out an old spreadsheet and was engrossed in examining the figures. Looking up, he said, “We’re going to have to cut down on spending this month, dear. Otherwise we risk a backslide, and you know we can’t afford that, don’t you, love?”
Despairing of his senseless ramblings and feeling desolate, Helen was close to tears. For a moment, she was not sure which was worse; this state of affairs or the hard life she had had to endure when he was still working. ‘He sounds so kind,’ Helen reflected, and said, “Yes dear, whatever you say. I’ll be more mindful of spending this month. You’re the financial credit officer, after all.”
The afternoons, like the mornings, followed much the same pattern every day. They sat in the living room while Helen read out loud to Robert. They had afternoon tea at 2 pm; a pot of Assam and custard creams – just one each on account of their diabetes. The late afternoon hours were the worst, when Helen felt stifled by the inane conversation with her husband.
If only she could ease the oppressive atmosphere by listening to Bach – anything to replenish her soul and distract her mind! But Robert became irritable and agitated whenever there was music. She could not risk aggravating him. If pressed, Helen feared he could easily revert to his violent, drunken behaviour. Three decades of sobriety were not enough to convince her otherwise. Helen has not forgotten; she could not forget.
The regular tick-tock of the grandfather clock was the one sound that seemed to soothe Robert. ‘Perhaps it reminds him of his mother’s heartbeat,’ Helen reflected. ‘Who knows about the vagaries of a decaying mind.’ Unable to tolerate her sense of isolation, Helen rang her daughter. Just a quick call to vent the worst of her bad mood.
“Hi, mum, what’s up?” Jill answered the phone, sounding slightly breathless.
“What are you doing, honey? Are you out jogging? You sound out of breath,” Helen said, doing her best to sound casual but eager to know what her daughter was up to.
“Never mind that, mum. What are you calling about?”
“Guess what your dad’s latest grand idea is,” Helen said, trying hard to put excitement in her voice.
“Who’s that on the phone, dear?” Robert shouted from his bedroom.
Helen gritted her teeth in frustration. “No one, I’m just talking with Jill,” she shouted back.
“Well, make it short, won’t you, dear. You know I need my afternoon nap,” Robert said.
Meanwhile, Jill carried on the conversation with her mother, ignoring the interruption. “No idea. Tell me,” Jill said, and Helen heard the almost imperceptible sigh.
“He fancies we should travel to Australia to see the kangaroos! He talked about it for years, remember? I —”
“Listen, mum,” Jill cut her mother short. “I have a million things to do before I need to go and pick up Alex from his training. Call me some other time and we can talk more.”
“Okay, but —”
More upset than before the call, Helen felt even more lonely. Huffing, she mumbled, ‘No matter what I do or whoever I try to talk with, Robert always ends up spoiling things,’ and headed to the kitchen to treat herself to an extra custard cream for comfort.
The next morning, Helen dialled Jill’s number from the hospital payphone with shaking hands. She was feeling slightly faint, having neglected to eat for more hours than she cared to think.
“Your father fell out of bed again last night. It was a nasty fall this time and he’s been hospitalised,” Helen said in a stony voice. “I didn’t want to disturb you in the night, seeing as you have so many important things to do.”
“My goodness, mum! Is he going to be alright?”
“We came here by ambulance. Didn’t want to disturb you, you know,” Helen reiterated, probing to get a reaction out of Jill. She wanted to hear her daughter show remorse for having been so insensitive on the phone the day before.
To Helen’s disappointment, Jill replied instead, “Thank God for good ambulance services! What’s the prognosis, mum? Is dad going to recover?”
“It’s too early to say. He’s had a bad blow to his head. We have to wait for the cranial CT scans,” Helen said with a touch of pompousness in her voice.
“I’m so sorry to hear that, mum. Be sure to call me once you get the results.”
“I will,” Helen replied and abruptly slammed the receiver back on the hook, hoping to make Jill experience just a little of what she had had to endure during their earlier telephone conversation.
Returning to Robert’s ward, Helen was greeted by the news she had been dreading for five years – Alzheimer’s. It was at once a shock and a relief.
The hospital organised a place for Robert in a care home once he was discharged. Back home, listening to Bach’s Easter Oratorio, Helen stared with a heavy heart at the empty spaces Jill left after she moved Robert’s possessions to the care home.
The blanks in the household became a manifestation of the gaping holes in Helen’s soul. Too late, Helen recognised that the structure of everyday life had been founded on her cooking a shared meal; Robert’s jumbled natter had brought moments of diversion to the tedium of old age; the afternoon hours of reading to her husband had meant togetherness.
Hunching down, Helen let out a harrowing cry. She wanted her husband back.