I wake up in a strange bed, in a strange room. This is not my bedroom. This is not my house.
An old man is sitting in the armchair, facing away from me. His pale, spotted hand rests on the arm. I can see the fabric of the chair through it. ‘Hello?’
He doesn’t reply. He can’t hear me.
The door creaks open and a young girl walks in. I recognise her face, though I cannot recall her name or how I know her. She is dressed like a nurse.
‘Merry Christmas!’ she says cheerfully, then strides across the room and opens the curtains. The room is flooded with light. I blink and the man is gone.
‘How are you today, Anita?’
She knows my name, so she must know me. ‘What’s your name?’
‘There was a man in here, Ellie. Just now. He was sat there.’ I point to the armchair.
‘You must have been dreaming.’
‘He’s hiding. Check the wardrobe.’
Ellie checks the wardrobe, then under the bed. ‘There’s no one here, darling.’
I clutch the blankets. It’s cold in here. So, so cold. ‘I’m so frightened.’
Ellie sits on the end of the bed. ‘There’s no need to be frightened. You’re safe here.’
‘I don’t even know where I am.’
‘You’re at Bright Star Care Home.’
‘A care home? But I’m not barmy, am I?’
Ellie smiles and pats my hand. ‘You’re not barmy, Anita. You just need a bit of extra help.’
‘Help with what?’
I wonder what happened to my home. Does it even exist any more?
‘Are you ready to get washed and dressed, Anita? Your son is coming to pick you up to take you to church.’
I hate getting washed and dressed. The water always goes cold.
‘I just want to go home.’
‘You are going home. After church.’
Ellie fills a bowl with water from the sink and grabs two flannels and two little towels. She helps me to sit up in bed and swing my legs around so that I’m on the edge. We struggle together to take my nightie off. I can’t hold my arms up for very long, the effort is exhausting.
I look at the wall as she washes me. I hate my sagging breasts, my bulging stomach, my swollen, scaly legs.
She struggles to dress me, and I can’t help her. My poor old body is stiff and useless.
‘Will my husband George be coming too?’
Ellie frowns. ‘No, but you’ll see him later.’
‘Not likely, dear. He’s six-feet under.’
She sighs. ‘Then why did you ask if he was coming?’
‘To see if you people are lying to me. And you are.’
She pulls my shoes over my swollen feet and starts to tie the laces, annoyingly slowly.
‘Get away! I can tie my own laces for God’s sake.’
Ellie moves away, and I try to tie the laces. My fat, clumsy fingers won’t grip them. I try and try. It’s like I don’t have control over my own hands any more.
I feel like crying. I have been tying my own laces since I started school. What on earth has happened to me?
‘I can’t do it,’ I say.
Ellie’s face is full of pity. I hate it when people look at me like that.
She finishes tying my laces, then brings over a big metal machine. I stand on the machine, and she rolls me over to the armchair.
‘Would you like a cup of tea before you go?’ she asks.
‘Will you have one with me, dear? I’m so lonely.’
‘Sorry darling, I’m really busy. You won’t be lonely today. You’re going home.’
She leaves, and I am on my own again. I spend most of my days alone. I always do the same thing. Read the newspaper. Watch TV. I hate it. This is not a life. People tell me when to get up, when to eat, when to go to bed. If my legs worked properly, I could run away and escape this place. I want to be outside, to feel the air on my face. To feel like I’m still alive, like I’m still a part of this world. I hate this place. At least today, I can go home again.
The old man is back. He is sitting on my bed. I recognise him now. I have waited so long to see him again, but his eyes frighten me. They should be a warm brown, but they are pale and clouded over. He doesn’t blink, just stares straight ahead with those horrid eyes.
* * *
Tiny white pinpricks of snow dot the blanket over my lap and tickle my face as we leave church. I remember when I was younger; the service was always full of friends and neighbours. Service was almost empty today. It’s sad that people don’t go to church any more. I didn’t recognise any faces, not even the Vicar. He has changed too.
My son Mark pushes me along the narrow gravel path to the cemetery. I used to push him down this path in his pram when he was a baby. Isn’t it funny how things change?
We stop at George’s grave. I used to visit him every Sunday after church. Now I can only make it every two weeks. I rely on Mark to take me. The care home doesn’t have enough staff for someone to take me.
The flowers on George’s grave have shrivelled and died. Mark picks up the old bouquet and replaces it with the one I bought today.
George stands beside his grave. His milky-white eyes are fixed on me. A withered bunch of flowers falls to pieces in his hands.
‘I’m sorry about the flowers,’ I whisper. ‘It’s not because I forget. I can’t come as often now. I’ve never forgotten you.’
George only stares at me.
I feel a hand on my shoulder. Mark is looking at me, concerned. ‘Are you all right, Mum?’
He can’t see George. I wonder why it’s only me who can see him. Maybe I am barmy.
‘I’m fine,’ I say.
When I came here by myself, I used to stay for hours and I talked out loud to George. I know it sounds silly, but sometimes the wind would rustle the grass or the sun would shine a little brighter and I would know that he had heard me. Now I always feel a little guilty for lingering much longer than it takes to change the flowers. I’m taking up my son’s time. His family are waiting for him, especially today.
Mark pulls his coat tighter around himself. I don’t want him to get cold.
‘Merry Christmas, George,’ I say quietly, and then we leave. I had so much more to say.
* * *
There is something I do every Christmas, after dinner. I sit outside on the wooden porch, where I can see the lake. I used to sip a little glass of brandy, but I can’t drink any more with all my medication, so I have a cup of tea. The little china mug warms my hands. It’s still snowing, and my face is going numb from the cold, but I do this every year, rain or snow.
Mark sits next to me, a brandy in one hand, and the other rests lightly on mine.
I was twenty-two when George and I bought this house. On our first Christmas here, the lake was iced over. We went out, in our nice clothes and hiking boots, drunk and full of cheer, and danced on the frozen lake.
Sometimes, I can see my precious memories play out in front of my eyes. I am the outsider, watching myself. Sometimes the memory pauses, and my loved ones - my son, my George - turn to me and whisper the word ‘Dementia’. Then the scene fades, even as I desperately try to hold on to it. This evil thing has stolen most of my memories, most of my life, but I thank God every day that it hasn’t taken this one.
I ask Mark to leave me alone for a few minutes. He’s reluctant, but I need some time to be alone, to remember.
I close my eyes, and I can see George in front of me, as he was that night—with that mop of sandy hair, dressed in his favourite waistcoat. We are dancing on the lake. I see my hands in his—a young woman’s hands. I watch fat flakes of snow land in his hair until it turns white. I remember that this was the moment I was sure I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him, that there would never be anyone else. And there never was.
* * *
Someone is calling my name.
I open my eyes and George is standing in front of me, smiling. Twenty-two year-old George. His eyes are warm and brown, just as they should be.
‘Hello, George. It’s been a long time.’
There are tears in my eyes. ‘You have no idea.’
‘You look beautiful, Anita.’
I smile. ‘Liar.’
He holds out his hand. ‘Will you dance with me?’
‘Oh, George.’ I push the blanket off of my hideous swollen legs. ‘I can’t walk.’
He takes my hand, and somehow I am walking. I can’t feel the ground beneath my feet. It feels like I am floating. I’m so surprised that I drop the teacup, and hear it smash.
We reach the lake. My lips stretch into the widest smile, and tears run down my cheeks. Ever since George passed away, I have prayed to be able to go back to this moment.
I remember the steps, the steps we made up that night, pulling them from somewhere deep in my memory. We are dancing on the ice. George’s hands are warm and his cheeks are pink from laughing. I glance at my feet, to marvel, to make a new memory, and those boots. I recognise those boots. My old hiking boots. The first pair I ever bought.
I stop. My legs are thin and womanly again. The ugly scales have gone. The skirt of a red dress falls to my knees. I let go of George’s hands and hold mine in front of me. Smooth, unblemished, the hands of a young woman.
I look behind me. An old woman is watching us from the porch. She is in a wheelchair. A blanket has fallen from her lap. Pieces of broken china lie at her feet. Her eyes are a chilling pale blue. There are little specks of ice on her cheeks. Frozen tears. She hasn’t been happy, that woman, not for a long time.
‘Am I dead?’
I feel nothing. Not fear, not sadness, not regret.
Mark comes back out on to the porch. I don’t want him to find my body. He’ll be so sad.
‘Is it too late to go back?’ I ask George.
‘Not if you really want to.’
I take George’s hand. I don’t want to go back to my prison of a life. I don’t want to go back to the pain, and the loneliness. I want to stay with George.
Mark is knelt by my body, shaking my shoulder. He stops, and buries his head in his hands.
‘I’m worried about him,’ I say.
George squeezes my hand. ‘He’ll be all right.’
‘Where do we go from here?’
‘Wherever you want.’
‘I would like to go home.’
‘You can go home again. Just as it was. Just as you remember it, when we lived in it together.’
I call out to Mark. He raises his head and looks at us. I wave, and so does George. See, we’re fine. We’re together again.
I wonder if he recognises us now that we look so young again. He looks at us for a long time, then waves back, and then I’m confident that he’ll be okay.
Slowly, my son and my body fade away. The doors to the porch open, and a warm golden light spills over the porch, over the snow, all the way to our feet.
I hold on tighter to George’s hand and walk towards the door, following the light that is guiding us home.
Georgina Bull © 2018
Disclaimer: All characters, scenarios, and places of business in this story are a work of fiction.
First published 27/12/18 on the 42 Worcester website. All copyright remains with the author.
Georgie Bull is a freelance writer and published author living in Worcester, England.
Author: Georgie Bull
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