September 2015 Competition winners are-
First Prize: Maggie Davies of Tunbridge Wells for ‘Till Death Do Us Part’
Second Prize: Craig McEwan of Southampton for ‘Sitting Pretty’
Third Prize: Gareth Shore of Ashton on Mersey for ‘The Ties That Bind;
The Judges would like to thank all those who entered the competition for the high standard of writing submitted.
Till Death Us Do Part
I put my arms around Neil and kissed the top of his head. His hair was the colour of fresh snow but he was far from an old man. ‘We could die together,’ I said. ‘Fly to Switzerland. Make a holiday out of it. Then finish up at that special clinic they’ve got over there.’
‘Don’t be bloody ridiculous.’ He was cross. He’d always been short-tempered and the last few months had been a strain.
‘I’m serious, darling.’ I moved to sit opposite him. ‘I couldn’t bear to go on without you.’
‘You’re insane, Beth. You’re still a young woman. In perfect health.’
‘You’re only sixty.’
‘I mean it, Neil.’ I put my hand over his. ‘If you kill yourself, I’ll throw myself under a train.’
‘Then I can’t do it, can I? I’ll have to turn into a vegetable and make both our lives a misery. Is that what you want, you silly woman?’
‘No,’ I said. That wasn’t what I wanted at all.
It started after Geoff’s wife died. Madeline had been failing for years and, living next door, we’d seen the hell they went through in her final months. Her deterioration had been particularly depressing for Neil, who’d been reading articles about dementia often being hereditary.
‘It’s like my Dad, all over again,’ he’d said, with a shudder. ‘If I ever get like that, I want you to finish me off. Take the carving knife to me. Promise?’
His father’s house smelled. The bathroom, in particular, stank. It took a while for Neil to find out why. The poor old chap knew where he was supposed to go to urinate. He’d just forgotten what to do when he got there and simply peed all over the carpet. It was humiliating for everybody. When he finally died it was a relief.
‘A meat cleaver might be more final,’ I’d said, trying to lighten his mood. ‘Though messier.’
It became a sick joke between us. Nothing serious. Then, over a few months, things changed dramatically. Neil had always mislaid keys and spectacles. I did myself, but he became incapable of finding anything. I put a china bowl on the kitchen dresser and suggested he use that as a collection point, but whenever he went there for something, it was empty.
‘I’m losing the plot, aren’t I?’ he grumbled one day, after finally locating his house keys in the drawer where we kept the electrical leads. ‘Why would I put them in there? My brain’s turning to Swiss cheese.’
‘All sixty-nine-year-olds mislay things.’ I gave him a hug. ‘Tomorrow we’ll buy you some vitamins. That might help.’
Several days later he accosted me in the greenhouse. He looked as if he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. ‘Why were my spectacles in the fridge?’
‘Whatever are you talking about?’
‘My bloody spectacles were in our refrigerator. On top of the Flora.’ He slapped the side of his head with his hand, as if to knock sense into it. ‘I’m going bloody barmy, aren’t I?’
‘Darling, we all do crazy things. Remember when I started to reverse the car out of the garage? With the up-and-over door still closed?’
‘That’s true.’ He looked relieved, but not much.
However, days later, I glanced out of the kitchen window and said: ‘The bin, darling. It’s Thursday.’
Neil glanced up from The Independent. ‘It’s okay, I sorted it when I got back from the newsagents. Before I raked up those dead leaves at the bottom of the garden.’
‘So where is it, then?’
He abandoned the paper and peered outside. ‘Damned if I know. Perhaps the bin men emptied it and stuck the thing next door by mistake.’
They hadn’t, of course. It was where it always was by the side fence. Still full.
‘You meant to do it,’ I said when he eventually came back inside. ‘Sometimes I mean to clean the oven, but then conveniently forget. Probably because it’s a chore.’
Neil paced up and down, like an animal in a trap. ‘But it’s not just the bin, is it, Beth? I lost my electric razor yesterday, and my credit cards the day before. Then I left the bathroom tap running last night when I went to bed. I’ve no idea what I’m going to do next. It’s a nightmare.’
‘You’re preoccupied, that’s all. Though maybe you should see the doctor.’
‘I’m damned if I want to be asked if I know what day of the week it is.’
‘And what day is it?’
‘It’s Thursday. September the 25th.’
‘There you are, my darling. You’re fine.’
The days dragged on until Geoff wandered in through the kitchen door one morning, as he often did, with some vegetables for us from his allotment.
‘I could do with my mower back, if that’s okay,’ he said to Neil.
‘You know, mechanical thingy that cuts grass and makes a godawful racket? That you borrowed from me at the weekend?’
Neil’s fists clenched at his sides. ‘I was planning to come over and borrow it. Tomorrow.’
‘But you’ve already got it, old man. That’s why I need it back.’ There was an awkward pause. ‘Okay,’ continued Geoff, looking embarrassed. ‘Tell you what, you hang on to it and let me have it back when it’s convenient.’
‘But I don’t have it,’ Neil protested, looking at me. ‘Do I?’
‘It’s in the garage,’ I said, avoiding his eye.
There was a silence, before Geoff slapped Neil on the shoulder in a not-very-convincing show of bonhomie. ‘Not to worry. I missed the dentist last week. He still charged me for the appointment, though. Grasping bastard.’
The incident hit Neil hard. ‘I told you I was getting like Dad,’ he said. ‘This proves it.’
I wasn’t sure what to say, so I kept silent. But I put my arms round his waist, buried my face in his scratchy sweater and gave him a big hug.
‘I’d rather be six foot under than lose my dignity,’ he murmured into my hair, sounding close to tears.
‘At least get a proper diagnosis,’ I urged. ‘What if you’re wrong?’
‘What’s the point of a diagnosis? There’s no cure, is there?’ He extracted himself from my grasp and looked me in the eye. ‘I’ve got to take matters into my own hands while I still can. I could deteriorate rapidly. That’s what scares me. Leaving it too late.’
‘Don’t leave me, Neil. Please!’
‘You’ll manage. People do. Look at old Geoff.’
‘I can’t bear to talk about it.’
‘But we must. Plans have to be made.’ He took my hand in his and kissed it. ‘I need you to understand,’ he said. ‘I couldn’t bear it if you didn’t.’
‘I understand perfectly,’ I said. ‘I just don’t agree.’
‘Of course you don’t. But you will support me?’
‘You mean, hand you a full bottle of pills?’
‘And get you in trouble with the law? No way. Assisted suicide’s a crime. It wouldn’t be right to involve you in anything like that. And that Swiss clinic business raises too many legal questions. But I’ve done some research on the internet. If I crash my car into that nice, solid brick wall by the railway bridge, my worries will be over before I know what’s happened. Especially if I neglect to wear my seat belt and put my foot down. That way, the life insurance people won’t ask awkward questions.’
‘Oh, darling, you mustn’t worry about things like that. I’ve got my pension.’
‘Fat lot of good that will do you. Just think of all the money those insurance companies have had from us over the years. They owe us.’ He patted my arm. ‘You deserve some happiness after I’ve gone. I refuse to leave you hard up.’
‘Please, darling,’ I begged. ‘Don’t do this. I’ll look after you, whatever happens. We promised, for better or worse.’
‘Not another word, Beth. My mind’s made up. We’ll go away somewhere for a second honeymoon. Then come back and I’ll do it.’
When the time finally came, Neil and I kissed goodbye at the door before he went out to the car. We were both crying. Then I watched him drive off at speed into the night. Losing him like this would be hard, but he was right: life would go on.
I went back inside and picked up the phone to call Geoff. It had taken us three careful months of planning to get to this.
‘Fingers crossed, we’ve finally done it,’ I said, when he answered. ‘All we need do now is wait for the traffic police to come knocking on my door.’
I was happily lost in the streets of nineteen-fifties New York, when a sharp voice dragged me from the pages of my book.
'Hello? Mind if I join you?' it said, or repeated, judging by its tone. I kept my gaze lowered. 'May I sit here? Please?'
The crowded hospital canteen was heavy with the rumble of conversation; I flapped a hand in apology.
'Hey, I'm just gonna pull on in, and if it bothers you, speak up, okay?'
The girl's left foot was in a cast, covered with a purple stocking. Her straw-straight hair was pillar-box red, and she had as many rings in her ears as on her fingers. She was roughly my age, almost fifteen, though I must have looked ancient next to her, in my cords and polo shirt.
She must have cool parents, I thought -mine would have chickens if I so much as spiked up my hair. With a nudge at her joystick she moved her wheelchair closer, took a pack of sandwiches, crisps and an apple from the basket on the handlebars, and set them out on the table; my table. Her clothes, like her lipstick, and the stormy sky outside, were coal black.
She was fabulous.
'What you reading?' She reached over, right into my personal space, and tipped back my book. 'Catcher in the Rye: you've got taste, or your teacher has.'
I stole a glance at her chair. Like mine, it wasn't the sort you get issued with for a temporary incapacity like a broken foot. Motorised, personalised, with a cup holder and faded stickers on the back panel. Too small for her: she'd be due an upgrade soon, if her parents could afford it or were industrious fundraisers.
'I'd rather read Iain Banks.' I said.
'Oh yeah, The Wasp Factory! That book is awesome!'
'I prefer his sci-fi.' -Knucklehead!
'The Wasp Factory's great too.' Despite myself I was getting drawn into conversation. Imagine if... but who was I trying to kid? This cool, confident, gorgeous girl would never be interested in a geek like me. No one would, except a couple of the most idiotic girls at school, and who needs them? Girls are more Toby's field. My clever, kind, handsome, funny brother. I love him, but I also hate him. I wish he'd never been born sometimes, or that I hadn't.
'Have you read Carrie?' I asked.
'Stephen King? Not yet,' she said, 'Mum says I can watch the film when I'm sixteen. I heard it's fantastic.'
I twisted my brain trying to think of something to say that wouldn't make me sound like a jerk. I don't talk to girls that often, especially not ball-achingly cool and beautiful girls who read good books, and wear clothes that would give my mum a seizure.
'What's your name?' she asked. I wish I'd thought of that.
There was a pause of around two weeks as I mentally tried out and discarded about a thousand potential topics of conversation. A dimple appeared in her ghost-like cheek, and she extended her hand.
'Ellie.' She was laughing, but it was kind, not a hateful and cruel laugh; not the sort you get from one of Naomi Wood's gang at school. Her palm was cool and dry as it touched mine. I could feel my heartbeat in my hair.
Luckily, Ellie is far less dumb than me, and from that point on the conversation flowed like Niagara. We had loads in common, and she was much, much nicer than you'd expect from her hair and clothes. We were both sputtering giggles at something witty I'd said, or she'd said, when I noticed that both arms, especially the left, carried a fine tracery of white scars, barely visible beneath her bracelets. I tried not to, but Ellie caught me staring.
'I cut myself sometimes. Is that alright with you?' she said, thrusting her chin forward.
'It's your body,' I said. I shifted my chair to get more legroom, but Ellie said, 'Oh, right: roll away. Who are you to judge me?'
'I'm not judging. But your mum and dad...'
'Mum, you mean; not everyone has two parents you know, Mister Perfect-Family.'
'Your mum then, must have enough to worry about without making it worse by...' I gestured weakly at her arms, my words letting me down as usual.
'I've stopped doing it now anyway, for the exact reasons you're too tongue-tied to...'
A puce-faced woman was marching towards us. 'Eleanor Louise Rouse!' she screamed, 'Get out of that wheelchair this instant!' The woman's knuckles were white on the handles of a crappy hospital-standard wheelchair. The girl in the chair was contorted with palsy; one hand waved uselessly in the air, her stick-thin legs pushed over to one side. A few years younger than Ellie: about the right size for the wheelchair... the wheelchair that Ellie was miraculously jumping out of, looking toxic with guilt. The room spun a hundred and eighty degrees on its axis. The girls exchanged venomous stares as the woman kept shouting.
'How do you think Sorrel felt when she came out to find her wheelchair gone- stolen! During her physio appointment?'
Ellie wasn't cool now; she looked like a little girl caught wearing Mummy's make-up.
'Speak up girl! Stop staring at the floor!'
'I was just sitting. I have broken my foot.'
'Just sitting - in someone else's wheelchair? Does this lad think you're disabled?'
I had to speak up, but my voice stalled. Again I sat gawping as the argument continued.
'I didn't tell him anything. We were only talking! Why is everything about Sorrel? All the time, "Sorrel needs this; Sorrel needs that", appointments, groups. "No money for school trips, we spent it on Sorrel", and for once...' The fight left her, and with tears stretching black ropes of make-up down to her jaw she said quietly '... for once I sat in the chair. And people were kind to me. And a lady carried my tray for me. And I met a nice boy and - and people noticed me.'
Inside, I was screaming like a drill sergeant -Me too! We're exactly the same! But nobody heard: it was just in my head.
'I'm not...' I began, but Ellie silenced me with a glare. A set of keys dangled from her mother's outstretched hand
'Wait in the car. Try not to steal it.'
I wished, I wished more than anything in the world, that I hadn't been sitting in that chair, that I'd met Ellie on an ordinary day, when I was just being me.
She grabbed the keys and hobbled toward the stairs that led up to ground level. Was that pity on her mum's face, as she gazed down at me? Undeserved pity for a lying, spineless coward?
Was I really going to let this glorious, funny, unstable girl walk out of my life, furious and frustrated? I thought of Naomi Wood and her friends; Ellie would tear them apart, with their pathetic gossip and ill-informed opinions.
I had to move. Now. With a shrug of apology towards Sorrel, I leapt out of Toby's wheelchair.
Pushing past the overweight dawdlers blocking the stairway, I took two steps at a time to the top. She couldn't have got far, not in that cast.
I sprinted outside into the daylight, but she was nowhere in sight. I was about to ask the smokers lined up in their hospital beds if they'd seen a beautiful goth girl limp past, when I heard my name. I whirled round, and there she stood, watching me. Laughing in that way she has. A shaft of sunlight pierced the smoke and reflected off someone's drip-stand.
The Ties That Bind
Stillness ticks across the room from the mantelpiece clock. The television is switched off and dust motes drift in late afternoon sunshine filtered through the net curtains. George rests his mug on the newspaper on one leg, distracted by the heat burning through to his trousers. Too hot again. Not enough milk. They’ve plenty in; Mabel went for some this morning, not quite slamming the door whilst he was cleaning his teeth after having a lie in. His towel had been folded differently to how he left it the night before.
Across the room Mabel taps her wedding ring against her mug and glances out of the window, looking up through the net curtain. She notices the hedge between theirs and next door’s sticking out past the frame.
“That hedge of yours is getting untidy.”
“Hmmm?” answers George, putting his mug down and staring at his paper.
“Untidy.” Mabel is still looking out of the window. “You've nothing on tomorrow.” And lets the statement hang there, each word underlined by the tick-tick-tick of the carriage clock on the mantelpiece.
Mabel leans forward slightly. “Sandra will be here soon.” A quick look at the carriage clock, then back to the window. "I'm ready." She waits.
“I was going to clip it back tomorrow," George says suddenly. "In the morning. Shed needs tidying as well so I’ll do it then.”
"Better get ready. Sandra won't be long now." She nods down at her bracelet watch, frowning briefly at blue veins showing through her skin. Thin skin. Suddenly wishing she had put her long sleeved blouse on, she rubs her arms and decides to get her cardigan when they set off.
Making sure he moves unhurriedly, George stretches, winces as a joint pops somewhere. "Better get ready," he announces and gets up, having to rock forward over the edge of his chair and push up with his hands on his knees.
"Your suit's hanging up on the back of the door with your tie. That nice silk one I got you. The red one."
George stuffs his bulky paper into the rack by his chair. "Think I'll wear the blue one this time. Not had it on for a bit."
Tick-tick-tick. "I hope that stain came out properly."
"It's fine. Dark blue. You can't tell, even if it is there."
Tick-tick-tick. "Well, Sandra won't be long now."
George's right foot steps on the rug as he crosses the room, his slipper flattening the fur at one corner. He closes the door behind him.
Her eyes drift to the black and white photograph next to the television, the one where they pose young and awkwardly on a cold windy beach somewhere (Blackpool?) with the sea grey and flat and endless behind them. She goes over, stepping over the rug, unfolds George’s newspaper and slot it neatly back into the rack. Two strangers in the photo grin at her. Is that really them? George had such smooth skin. And such dark hair. He always combed it straight back. Made him look slightly Italian. Call me Georgio, he'd joke, the Lancashire lothario.
"Makes sure that blue tie's not stained!” she shouts up at the ceiling.
"It's fine. I've already got it on!"
Upstairs, George holds it in his hand. It looks past its best. A bit worn, a bit faded, but he has to wear it now.
A car crunches onto the pavement outside and stops. "Sandra's here," Mabel shouts a second before George does.
Sandra bounces through the door breathlessly and hugs Mabel, her voice loud in the small hallway. "They're nearly all there, mum! Place looks full already. The kids have been blowing balloons up all morning. I've left them there with Danny - Hi dad! You up there?"
"Hi San!” George comes down the stairs and smiles as Sandra kisses him on the cheek.
"You smell nice, dad. Watch yourself, don't forget Roamin' Rita's going to be there!" She pokes him on the lapel and straightens the folded handkerchief in his pocket.
George chuckles, puts his hands into his jacket pockets and shrugs. "Thought I’d try that aftershave you got me. Smells like the one I used to wear when me and your mum were courting."
Mabel, who has been frowning faintly at George's tie glances up at him in surprise. He is looking at her. She pretends to cough and rummages in her big brown handbag, murmuring "Keys". She inhales the scent quietly.
And suddenly she can feel sand gritting between her toes. The sea is huge and flat all the way to the horizon, it seems. And dark blue shot through with green. A breeze rolls cooling over her hair and she realises that her hat has blown off, gone cartwheeling and bouncing along the beach. And there goes George, bounding after it, so light on his feet, his dark hair combed straight back, shouting. Her Lancashire Lothario. She bursts out laughing and runs after him, holding her skirt down.
"Mum? What have you lost?"
"Hmm?" Mabel looks up, frowning. She doesn't look at George who has gone to the door. Half-hearing the sea, she says, "Thought I'd lost my keys, but they're here." She looks at George, not quite silhouetted in the day glare, just enough to hide the details and almost leave an outline she remembers well. She almost, almost expects him to turn to her with a grin and slicked-back hair.
He does turn, but his face is wrinkled, his hair white and wispy as he pats his pockets, mentally going through his usual checklist: tablets; wallet; watch. Even a comb to tease the few strands left across his spotted scalp.
"Right you two, are you ready to meet your public?" Sandra jingles the car keys on the way out. "I'll steer you through the paparazzi. They've surrounded the club but we can get in the back way." She looks at the two of them and smiles.
"Sandra, don't be silly. Go on, George, get in the front with Sandra."
George exchanges a brief look with Sandra, then walks round the car and stiffly gets in. Mabel resists the urge to check the switches in the kitchen are off, takes the key out of the front door and locks it behind her. That hedge really needs cutting back, she thinks.
She jumps as Sandra toots the car horn. She smooths down her skirt and unhurriedly closes the gate. "Right," Sandra announces as she starts the engine, "let’s go! Seatbelt on, mum."
"You've left something on the back seat, Sandra. An envelope."
"Yes! Good job you reminded me. I promised the kids you’d walk in holding their card!"
Mabel is quiet as she carefully peels the flap back and slides the card out. It is made of folded paper, but is stiff with big dollops and swirls of paint. It flakes onto her skirt but she doesn't notice. Two stick people (one has big curly hair) smile and hold hands on the front amid exclamations of primary colours. Underneath them is a big yellow circle (a wedding ring, she presumes) and a '50' in shaky orange. Wobbly red hearts form a border.
She holds it up to George. He is also quiet as his eyes trace across the paper. Sandra is smiling in the rear view mirror. “It took them hours. They wanted it to be special.” She turns the engine off. A silence fills the car.
Mabel opens the card. More wild colours and hearts. Another stick couple; this time the man is dressed in a grey suit and top hat and the woman is beaming in a long wedding dress painted bright white. Sandra's neat handwriting fills the rest of the space.
"They wanted me to tell you that they both worked on the card and did most of the colouring themselves. I had to do the writing, of course, but it's their words."
George clears his throat. Gives a little cough. "Read it out Mabel."
The silence is there again and George watches Mabel's eyes move from side to side, down, then side to side. Apart from the eyes, she is perfectly still.
She doesn't look up but to George her eyes seem shiny in the gloom of the car.
"Here," she says. "You read it."
George takes the card and reads it.
"No," says Mabel quietly, "read it out loud."
Sandra reaches over and touches his forearm. "Go on dad. It's their words."
George seems to take in a long, deep breath. "Dear grandma and granddad, happy wedding anniversary. We hope you are married for ever and ever from now on so we can have a million more parties. Lots and lots and LOTS of love, Declan and Ella."
George presumes the painted squiggles underneath are their names. There are lots of big black crosses.
Sandra breaks the silence. "They wanted to do fifty kisses, but ran out of room." She is still smiling.
George sits, head bowed over the card. He gently brushes a hair off it, very carefully closes it and hands it back to Mabel. She is staring at the envelope and George is still looking down, but their fingers still find each other, briefly touching. It is still very quiet in the car as Mabel slides the card back into the envelope and carefully into her handbag.
George suddenly unclicks his seatbelt. "Don't start the car up yet, Sandra. Forgotten my wallet."
"Oh dad! Everyone'll want to buy you a drink, anyway, you know that."
George holds his grin, but his eyes flick to Mabel, who is sliding the card into her handbag beside her. It sticks out of the top a bit. "Don't want the lovely Roamin' Rita to think I'm a cheapskate, do I?"
Sandra laughs. "Better empty your tin under the bed then. Remember, Rita only drinks doubles!"
George pushes himself out of the car and goes to slam the door. Mabel stops him with a "Keys" and gives them to Sandra to give to him. "Will you get my cardigan while you're there? The cream one with gold buttons. It's hanging up." Mabel sits back, her handbag clutched on her lap. "It said on the weather it's going to cloud over later."
Sandra gives George a toot when he gets outs and laughs when he jumps. He clutches his chest, mock-staggers, then waves, smiling, and goes into the house.
"I see you've got your good jewellery on, mum. Not seen that necklace for years. You'll blow Rita right out of the water!"
"All fur coat, no knickers, that one."
"Mum!" Sandra laughs out loud.
"You know Rita used to fancy dad, back in his younger days. Said he looked a bit like that old actor. You know, from those really old films they don't even show on telly anymore. Not even on Sundays."
"Yes, has she said before?" Sandra lets the silence return for a few moments. She looks out through the windscreen and says quietly, "You know that dad never gave her a second look."
"Like I say, all fur coat. George never went for that."
"He also says that she never held a candle to you."
Mabel allows herself a brief smile and her look lingers for a second, maybe two, in the rear view mirror. "I know."
"Here's Rudolph now!" announces Sandra.
Mabel cranes her neck to see George struggling with the front door. He's forgotten you have to bang it or the lock sticks. He should have oiled it yesterday. She reminded him. His trousers are creased at the back of the knees. She can't see her cardigan in his hand, either. She sighs, taps her wedding ring against her handbag and frowns up at the sky.
Rudolph Valentino, she muses. My Georgio.
George turns and ambles down the path, definitely no cardigan in his hand. He stops to straighten his tie. It is that nice silk one she got him. The red one.
“Right!” he says as he gets in. "Andiamo!”