An entry for a two-thousand word short story writing competition organised by Writers & Artists in February. This piece is a short story about an elderly lady leaving home for the first time in months following isolation.
The cold water bottle falling out of the bed wakes her. In cold weather, she sleeps in her dressing gown too, because modern hot water bottles don’t hold the heat for long when compared to old thicker types. A bottle bought from Boots years ago did a great job. It was still in the cupboard somewhere and perished. She should throw it away, but you know.
Her warm hand pierces the cold of the room as she leans out of bed and pulls aside the nearest curtain, letting more bright sunshine in. The thin curtains should have been thicker for the winter, but she didn’t have strength or the inclination to hang lined ones. Even opening a lighter curtain was an effort. And besides, the days are getting longer now.
She throws the bedclothes off and slowly twists herself out of bed. Letting out a long groan, she pushes open the remaining curtains with help from one of her sticks. Then she checks her alarm clock; nine o’clock, which never ceases to amaze her. In the summer she’s up at six, never this late. A lack of sun, she concludes.
Kids have such a huge choice of sweets now. In her day, only pear drops, or liquorice if she was lucky, yet she’d worn false teeth on a plate for decades. The remaining pearly whites grow crooked and discoloured, but they’re hers. She picks up her dentures from the bedside table, slips the plate in her mouth, and adjusts it with her tongue. A quick smile in the mirror reveals more than a few hairs adrift, but a good volume of colour for a woman her age.
The population finds living without central heating an inconvenience, but not her. She’s never had it. Not in the sixty years living here, and she only knew fireplaces and ash for warmth before this bungalow. She’s hardened to winter months. The house had gas once, but she thought it was dangerous all those years ago, so they took the pipe out. There is an electric night storage heater in the hall. Walking by, she feels a little warmth. Another stands in the sitting room, on the blink, as it throws out sparks when it gets too hot. Near to the kitchen, she passes the airing cupboard and flicks the switch of the emersion.
Tea first, and a news catch-up on local radio, always before dressing. She listens to the presenter, with the volume turned up, and awaits the weather forecast to plan the day’s gardening tasks and clothes washing. The neighbours never complained about the blaring radio or TV to her; probably just as deaf. A bowl of cereal loops with tropical fruit juice, and not because she’s lactose intolerant, but they taste nice and sweet. Milk’s for tea only.
Presently, she’ll get a hearing aid, but she makes do for now.
A quick game of Boggle to keep the brain in trim while the kitchen warms with a dodgy ring on the electric cooker, which doesn’t turn down; the other front one doesn’t work. Another thing to replace.
‘I wonder if demic is a word?’ she says to the slowly warming kitchen. ‘It must be. We are in the middle of one.’
She reaches across to the windowsill for the scrabble dictionary, and flicks through. ‘D, d, d, deme, de-mes-nes, demic: adjective, of population. Thought so.’
With breakfast finished, she leaves her cup and bowl in the sink to wash-up later. No point wasting water.
Off to the bathroom. Today isn’t a bath day, thank the Lord, because bathing is a struggle and dangerous getting in and out of the tub with her knees and hips. Today is a flannel wash and scrub, same as most days.
Underwear is doable sitting on the bed, although her thick, red tights aren’t easy, but a few tugs and they’re on. Fleece-lined dark-blue tartan trousers worn over the top keep her legs warm, even though they make her look fat; she doesn’t care. A yellow woolly jumper and purple fleece zip-through over the top creates enough layers. Although the temperature was only a few degrees above zero, there was no frost last night. And she feels toasty.
Thick blue socks and green Crocs are the easiest. Slip-on shoes are good in winter and summer; in fact, she never takes them off. A wide fit, and a small tuft of real sheep’s fleece tucked in the toes to add comfort for her corns, makes them comfy. And there are no awkward laces to bend over and tie.
She pulls her jacket on, leaving it unzipped. Otherwise she’ll roast. Then sticks her head through the strap of her handbag, grabs her sticks and is ready for her adventure. In the hall mirror, she notices all the bright colours she’s wearing; perfect.
In the last few months, she’d been very lucky to have one of those volunteers call to drop off food and repeat medicines. She’d tried giving them a tip for the help, but they took nothing. She was grateful, but make no mistake, she missed the chat most and would have paid for a good old natter. But the busy volunteer talked a tiny amount, only dropping shopping on the doorstep, then off to another needy person. Good things end, and the young man needed to go back to work after his furlough. She has been out of the house, but only with another volunteer, a driver taking her to the surgery for her jabs. Today is different.
Next, she fixes her mask. The damn thing is a pain, but better to sort problems here so as not to embarrass herself with the inevitable struggle later on. Goodness knows how it would work with a hearing aid in the way, another reason to put off making an appointment.
Done, she slides her forearms into crutches, the pair she’s been depending on for the last few years following her knee and hip ops, and especially if she walks further than down the garden. She opens the door; there’s nobody there. She didn’t expect anyone, but a familiar face would be nice. She checks her handbag for door keys and steps out. It’s cold but dry.
The sound of the front door closing echoes around the quiet road. Not a soul to hear the noise, as nobody seems to use their front gardens anymore. They all stay in these days watching TV, and the kids play on their computers instead; no fresh air. Unlike everyone else, she didn’t have the internet, or knew what it did; she used books if she wanted to find information. She’d never owned a computer; used one once, years ago for audience research. Such a great job, all those people she’d met and chatted with, the tales and stories. One day she’d write them all out by hand and let someone else type them up.
People had no time to talk these days. They just jumped into their cars and whizzed down the road. Some said hello walking by, but only when she was too busy to talk in the garden, bum in the air and weeds in hand.
As she walks up the drive, she hears the shriek of a red kite; common nowadays, not like years ago, which is a good thing she supposes. Thankfully, her garden is too small for them to land and steal the other birds’ food, as over the years the lawn area reduced in favour of planted borders and the many specimens she’s cultivated from cuttings; and why weeding is an endless task.
From the drive, she waddles along the pavement on her crutches. At the junction, she needs to be careful, so steps into the road. The quiet cul-de-sac has little traffic, although the vehicles are not the problem. Last spring, she’d fallen up the kerb. No one came to her rescue and thankfully she hadn’t hurt herself. She was glad nobody saw her tripping over the pavement, making a fool of herself, but remembers her lesson and wants to avoid further risk and embarrassment, so walks in the road instead, just for a bit, until she’s across the junction.
She recalls neighbours, not by their houses, but by the flowers and shrubs in their gardens, the neatness, the leaves and buds, the smells, or by vegetation missing, dug up, or just dead because the owners were not competent gardeners. Plants were easy to remember, people’s names not so, and none of the original people lived here anymore, but their flowers and shrubs lived on in her memory. For now, she lived on; the last original resident in the close. The divorcees, the deaths, and those drifted away. Some who moved away still wrote to her, and she to them. They kept her going with their news and kind words. Greater sense of friendship from miles away at the end of a pen than those over the fence. Talking of which he’ll never cut his damn trees down, the overgrown firs, the ones overshadowing her darkened garden, twice as high as they should be; obscuring the winter sun and shading most of the summer. Stifling her garden’s potential.
At least her dahlias and chrysanths where talk of the village show, or were. The village horticultural club newsletters are regular and still come through the letterbox. Yet if only there was a face-to-face show, not one held online with photographs. You can’t smell a photo or feel the stems or examine the petals on a computer screen. She has no screen, but doesn’t stop her growing them all the same.
She raced along with her gammy hips, as much as she could with crutches, keen to be on time. At the end of the road, she double-double-checks each way and crosses in the chilly air, thinking about a similar walk of the past. A trip to the local outdoor school pool for a dip in the sunshine. The thought warms her.
Finally, her destiny appears in the distance. Not far now.
Along the path around another bend and she hobbles by the strawberry tree, which reminds her of that silly woman. The one always complaining and ruining others’ enjoyment. She was sure the woman had moaned about her garden to neighbours, but couldn’t prove anything. And written to the council about this very tree, saying the fallen fruit on the pavement was dangerous. Ridiculous, didn’t even mention it to the owner who could have cut it back had they been aware. Oh no, the council was best informed, along with a litany of complaints. People have too much time. The woman covered her garden in shingle and moaned because there were no butterflies. Well, they’ve nothing to enjoy, have they?
An unknown dog walker approaches her, and their dog barks. The owner doesn’t cross, and the dog doesn’t stop barking. So she steps aside, making room.
‘Mustn’t like the crutches,’ she says.
The walker mumbles something, but she can’t hear exactly what because of her hearing, but smiles and nods. The walker is swift to pull the dog away and goes about their business.
Another one with no time.
Onward, past unkempt gardens and unruly shrubs, which could really do with a decent chop. And then the beautiful sweet smell from a peace rose drifts. She stops and looks around to see where the rose grows and is pleased to see it. No matter what time of year it is the plant always emits a lovely aroma, which is a happy reminder of the summer ahead.
At the door of her destination, she’s proud of her achievement. A chore which wasn’t as bad as she first thought. Her endeavour is over for now, although she struggles to open the heavy door with her cumbersome crutches. Through the shopfront glass, she sees a staff member running to assist her and the door opens wide.
‘Hello, Mrs Blackford,’ the hairdresser says. ‘We thought you’d died in the pandemic!’
Edited from an original short story writing Competition Entry at: