Welcome to the third in my series of nine non-erotic short stories. This one is quite a short piece, written for Secret Attic about ten years ago, and which won a publication spot.
This story was inspired by a story told to me by my maths teacher, when I was about sixteen. He had actually spent time in a hospital, mistakenly, in the geriatric ward, while he was in the Armed Forces. The “shuffle man” in this story is, I hope, a sympathetic depiction of the story he told me. The rest of it? Well, how many relatives do I have who might have inspired that?! (I’m not telling them…).
Just a Thought
“We never used to take a day off because we felt a bit ill,” Dad said. “In my day…”
David closed his ears to the droning and clutched on to his stomach. “Yes,” he muttered to himself, “in your day, you were up a mountain, down the pit, in the army – all before Gran had time to squeeze the clothes through the mangle and hang them on the tree to dry.”
“…and when are you going to get married, laddo? You can’t stay cooped up in this flat with all your gadgets forever. You’re forty next year. I’d already got you by the time I was twenty-five. Just a thought.”
David said nothing. He closed his eyes and imagined himself canoodling with Lily on the settee. And Dad, plonking himself right in the middle.
“So, you’re a nurse, Lily. Maybe you’d take a look at my leg. Do you think it’s ulcerated?”
His bony leg would creak up on top of Lily’s knee, and she would wither, and make an excuse to leave the room. The door would bang and that would be the end of that. No, he would not tell Dad about Lily. It was bad enough that he’d realised he could have a bus pass before reaching sixty-five. Lily would be another reason to endure a visit.
“I’m going to make a sandwich,” David said. “Ham and tomato – is that OK?”
“Just a thought, but do think you should eat so many tomato seeds?” Dad asked. “They cause problems with your insides, you know.”
David grunted, and stood up, just as a pungent smell of fumes and melted plastic wafted through into the room. David shot into the kitchen.
“Dad, what have you been doing, for Heaven’s sake?” he screeched. He managed to remove the remainder of the melting kettle from the gas ring before the fumes annihilated the kitchen.
“Isn’t it supposed to go on the gas ring, then?” asked Dad.
“It’s an electric kettle! Can’t you see that?” David yelled.
“Well, it looks just like the one I’ve got at home.”
“It’s called Retro style, Dad,” said David. It was then that he fell to the floor.
As David bent double, clutching his stomach, he yelled, “Get an ambulance, Dad. You can do that, can’t you? You do, at least, know how to work the phone?”
Paramedics brought in the stretcher twenty minutes later and carried David out to the ambulance.
“What about my sandwich?” called Dad.
“Get it yourself,” groaned David. “And don’t burn down the kitchen.”
As he lay back on the stretcher, in agony but minus Dad, the accompanying paramedic asked, “Does your Dad live with you, then? He seems a bit of a handful.”
“Good God, no,” replied David. “The Council are renovating his kitchen. He’s just staying for a few days – I hope.”
“We don’t think you actually have appendicitis, Mr Cooper,” said the consultant. “But we want to be sure you’re not going to be aggravated by any pains tonight, so we’re keeping you in for observation.”
“So, what’s the matter with me, then?” David asked.
“It could just be your appendix grumbling,” replied the consultant.
“That would be about right,” murmured David. “Another grumbler in the house.”
“I’m afraid there’s no available bed on the main ward,” said the consultant, and shrugged. “So we’ve found you an alternative bed.
“Where?” David frowned at her.
“In the geriatric ward,” replied the consultant. She walked away rather too quickly for David’s liking.
The metal-ended beds were in long, straight rows on either side of the room. Each one came complete with an old man. To David, the room was reminiscent of Dad’s pictures of army barracks, as each patient sat to attention in his striped cotton pyjamas.
The heavy silence was sliced in two, like a spoon cutting through set custard, by the gradual wailings of Jim in the corner. His bed was against the wall to prevent another accident as he thrashed around. But most of the men just sat – all but the man with the brown and orange checked slippers and matching dressing gown from Marks and Spencer.
Every day, the Shuffle Man, as he was known to the regular nursing staff, got out of the right hand side of his bed, put on his slippers, and his dressing gown, and shuffled round the room. He manoeuvred his way through trickles of, “Hello, Pedro,” to the door at the end, then back along the other side of the room. When he reached his bed, the nurse on duty would often say, as she ushered him back to his sheets, “You’re going to stay there, now, aren’t you, Pedro?”
Pedro would nod, and off came the slippers and dressing gown, and he shuffled around in his bed until he lay back down and shut his eyes.
Two minutes later, on went the slippers and round the room he went again. David watched this process for hours, fascinated. He stared with incredulity at the exactness of the Shuffle Man’s routine, as it was repeated constantly through the waking hours.
After teatime, the squawking started. And the shouting. No-one in the room had ever seen behind the curtain which was pulled around the bed at the end of the room, nearest the door. The sounds lingered, though, as echoes and little nightmares, even once all was quiet once more. The noise rang like clanging warning bells for the staff. Three came running at once. David could detect shapes of nurses bumping into the curtain. Occasionally, a yelp would be heard, followed by, “Mr Dumas, no. Be good and lay down.”
A groan swept up and over the top of the curtain, and the youngest of the nurses, a tall, dark haired fledgling, stumbled out with her hand over her mouth. A more experienced nurse, in her forties, perhaps, stuck her head round the curtain and snapped, “Fetch a change of bed sheets. Bring a clean rubber sheet, would you? And a clean bed gown.”
Another nurse, on cue, appeared through the doors with a bowl of water and cleaning implements on a trolley. She, and the objects of sterilisation, disappeared behind the curtain. The fledgling, somewhat ashen grey, reappeared laden with bedding, and disappeared, too.
And all the while, most of the men, filling their beds, sat still in their standard issue pyjamas, and Pedro got out of bed, shuffled the length of his walk, returned to bed, took off his slippers, and began all over again. He never spoke, or looked up.
“It’s so sad, really,” commented the nurse who came to check on David. “Poor Pedro. He’s sixty-five at the end of the year. He should be thinking about enjoying himself, but he’s stuck in here, like…well, you’ve seen for yourself. And he’s all alone day after day. No-one comes to visit.”
The nurse carried on with her duties. And David wanted to know how many hours it would be until he could go home.
David paid the taxi driver and walked towards the front door. Would Dad be sitting in David’s chair? Just as David reached out to put the key in the latch, the door opened.
“Hello, laddo,” Dad said, and put his hand on David’s shoulder. “I telephoned the hospital and they said you were coming out. Come and sit down.”
Dad ushered David towards his chair. “No, Dad,” said David. “You sit there.”
“I threw away the tomatoes in the fridge,” said Dad. “Just a thought, but I did tell you that the seeds would give you trouble.”
David looked over at his sad specimen who had brought him up virtually single-handedly, after Mum died, and tried not to think of his tomatoes – the ones he’d taken great pains to grow in his window box. David broke the silence.
“Listen, Dad, I’ve been thinking,” David said. “It seems a bit daft, really, to have you rattling around in that house, all on your own.”
David saw Dad’s eyes widen, as he leant forward on the edge of David’s chair. David swallowed. “Well, what I mean is, why don’t you come and live here with me. You won’t be on your own, and I can keep an eye on you – to make sure you don’t destroy any more kettles.”
Dad rocked back on the chair. Then he laughed. “You must be joking, laddo,” he said. “Stay here with you, cooped up in this place? Talk about cramping my style. Anyway, there’s a new lady, just retired, moving in next-door in a few days. You never know what might happen there! I might have my bus pass, but I’m not dead yet.”
David tried to stop looking quite so shocked, and allowed himself to smile. And he let go of a little sigh, too – just small enough to go undetected by Dad. “Just a thought, Dad,” David said. “Just a thought.”