© Mike Hanson
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Fred Pendleton awoke with a whimper. He’d fallen asleep on that hip again; the one that caused him never ending misery. Maureen had been nagging him to get checked out for years
But Fred didn’t listen to Maureen. He’d stopped giving in to her a long time ago. It drove him crazy that even though she’d been dead for nine months he could still hear her nagging.
His face contorted with pain, Fred slid his hands underneath his thighs and lifted his legs off the bed. “I used to be a runner,” he said. “A runner!” He laughed. It was a laugh which ended in a coughing fit.
She always said I carried on running for too long, he thought. “Why do you always have to be right?” he shouted at the photo of the two of them propped up on the dresser.
He remembered the photo well. It was a good one – remarkable considering Maureen’s mood at the time. It’d been taken at a friend’s ruby wedding anniversary party. Fred had forgotten the present and card - a fact that had only dawned on him as he pulled up outside the venue.
“You’ll have to go back and get it,” Maureen had yelled.
“I’ll miss the party if I go,” he’d protested. They lived a good hour away. “I’ll bring it tomorrow. Peter and Geraldine won’t mind. It’s the thought that counts.”
The party was forever etched in Fred’s memory, especially the end when Maureen was told for the hundredth time to stop apologising for turning up without a gift. ‘It’s the thought that counts,’ Peter had said to Maureen and Fred had winked at her in triumph.
“It’s the thought that counts,” he muttered to the photograph. Good old Peter. It'd cost him a pint to get Peter to say that. Fred resolved to visit him and Geraldine soon.
Knees creaked and cracked as Fred shuffled to the bathroom, walking past the peeling walls, which he’d been meaning to decorate for ages…which he’d been promising to decorate for ages. It’s funny how these things drift.
He reached his hand over to the toothbrush holder and plucked out the blue brush. All the bristles were flattened out, not like the bristles on the pink one. The pink one, Maureen’s tooth brush, had only been used three or four times - a waste really. He’d have to throw it out soon. Maybe. He couldn’t use it himself. That just wouldn’t be right.
He sat on the side of the bath and leant over the sink while he brushed, taking care to avoid those teeth near the back that sent electric shocks through his skull each time he touched upon them. Everything was an exercise in pain avoidance these days.
He pushed himself free from the edge of the bath, grimacing at the stabbing pain caused by his hip. It used to make him scream out loud--it annoyed Maureen something rotten--but he’d stopped doing that lately.
‘Will you just bloody go to the doctors for goodness sake, Fred,’ she’d yell at him. ‘I’m fine,’ he’d reply. Fine. It seemed ironic that he’d managed to stop his screaming now, now that there was nobody to annoy. He missed annoying her.
He moved towards the top of the stairs and contemplated the long, painful journey down. Why he’d been so against the idea of moving to a bungalow he couldn’t remember now. It had been something to do with cost, he supposed. Besides why should he be forced out of his own house? He’d lived there since 1953, the year of the Queen’s coronation. She still lived in bloody Buckingham Palace. She didn’t need a bungalow. And she was a good seven years older than he was. He was a spring chicken.
Maureen was too.
“It’s not fair,” Fred said softly. He shook his head. “It’s not fair.”
He sat at the top of the stairs and looked down. Thirteen stairs looked an awful lot from where he was sitting. He went down the stairs one at a time sitting on his bottom, using his hands more than his legs to ease himself along. He’d being going down the stairs this way for a few weeks now. Shuffling on his backside was easier than walking; less painful, less risky.
Maureen would’ve had a field day if she’d seen him. He could imagine the cackles, the goading, the gloating. Oh, she’d never let him get away with it.
‘You can’t even walk down the stairs you silly old bugger and you still won’t admit we need to move.’
He wouldn’t move. Why should he? It was his house. His house since 1953. She didn’t understand. His hip wasn’t as bad as she made out.
He raised his body from the final stair and shuffled towards the kitchen. Opening the fridge he let out an exasperated sigh.
“Well, that’s just bloody great.” No milk. Again.
A conversation dug its way into his mind. He could hear Maureen trying to reason with him:
“We can’t cancel the milkman. He’s delivered to us for years.”
“Of course we can. He charges too much. Everyone goes to the supermarket these days. It’s miles cheaper.”
“He’ll go out of business."
“What am I? A charity? We’re pensioners. We need to look after the pennies, not line his pockets. I’m sorry, Maureen, I’ve made my mind up. We’ll get our milk at the supermarket from now on.”
The problem was: the milk kept running out, by mid-week usually. Who could’ve known at the time that they used so much? Well, Maureen could, apparently, as she kept reminding him. Presumably, it was his fault too that by the time he reversed his decision and admitted they needed milk delivering daily the dairy had stopped the service. Not enough business to carry on.
‘Serves you right,’ he recalled her saying when she’d once spotted him tipping his cornflakes back from the bowl into the packet.
He smiled at the memory. At least he hadn’t gone as far as tipping out the cereal today. He’d have toast.
He placed the bread under the grill. The toaster had been idle for a long time. It no longer popped out the toast when done. It was one of many electrical items that Fred had on a list of things that needed replacing.
It didn’t help that he was terrible at DIY. Even the little jobs seemed to take forever. And if things broke—especially electrical things—well, they couldn’t be repaired. Not a chance. He wasn’t the DIY type, Fred, and, boy, didn’t he know about it. He’d got into a routine of not confessing when things broke. Such breakages were kept quiet for as long as possible.
He scraped the burnt surface of the toast (bloody grill – it’s impossible to tell how long to leave it) and buttered it. A slender helping at first, and then, when he remembered he wasn’t being watched, a much more generous dollop. He could afford to eat as much butter as he liked. It wasn’t his weight that bothered him. It was everything else.
He moved through to the living room and managed to lower himself into his armchair with only a little discomfort. He placed his plate of toast on the arm and switched on the TV. It was no longer a crime to eat in the living room. He’d never understood why they’d always had to eat at the table. He’d never questioned it either. It was just one of those things that they did - always ate at the table.
Morning TV sprang into life as Fred took his first bite. He took three more bites in quick succession and was rewarded with heartburn. He rubbed at his chest, but it didn’t do him any good. He found himself coughing again, coughing until his eyes watered.
Who’s punishing me? he thought. I don’t drink, don’t smoke. Why has everything gone to pot?
He picked up his plate of toast, took it into the dining room and finished his breakfast at the dining room table. Noise from the TV drifted through the house. Was it too loud? He was always being told it was too loud. Not that it was ever on when they ate dinner. At meal times they used to talk. He missed talking.
It was midday, when the taxi arrived. Fred looked out of the kitchen window and saw a young skinny Asian man sitting in a white car at the end of his drive. He looks about twelve, Fred thought. I bet he hasn’t even got a licence.
The man got out the car as Fred approached and opened one of the back doors. “Good morning, Sir,” he said.
Fred looked at his watch. It was six minutes past twelve. It was afternoon, not morning. Maureen was a stickler for this kind of thing. Fred never used to be. Perhaps she’d bequeathed this habit to him.
“Sir, are you OK?” the taxi-driver asked.
“Pardon? Oh…erm…I…” Fred realised he must have been looking at his watch for longer than was necessary. He stared at the young driver. Something didn’t seem right. He looked too young. His English was too good. His hair too spiky, too sparkly (did he have glitter in it?). “I’m fine. Look, I don’t want to be rude but…”
“How old are you?”
“Oh,” Fred said, feeling his skin flush. Thirty-three. He didn’t look thirty-three. Fred stared at him again. On close inspection, the sparkles in hair could’ve been grey flecks. He probably was thirty-three after all. Everyone under the age of forty-five looked like a teenager these days.
“Are you sure you’re OK, Sir?”
“I said I’m fine.” Fred brushed past him and settled into the car. He closed his eyes and bit his lip as the pain in his hip speared through his pelvis and up his spine.
The taxi-driver made no attempt at small talk during the short journey. Fred imagined him thinking ‘grumpy old bugger.’ Had Maureen been sat alongside him she’d have been saying the same. He was a bit grumpy, he supposed. He’d got grumpier since she’d been gone, since he’d been allowed to be grumpy without constant reproach.
The taxi pulled up at the cemetery and the driver got out of the vehicle. He opened Fred’s door and offered his hand.
“I can get up on my own, thank you very much,” Fred said.
He lifted his right leg out of the car, followed by the left. When he started moving towards a standing position the pain was so bad he fell back into the car.
“Come on, let me help you,” the driver said.
Water clouded Fred’s eyes as the driver took hold of his hand and pulled him to his feet. Another pain dug in, though this time Fred was able to withstand it.
“Thank you,” Fred said, handing over a fiver. “I’ve got a bad hip. Wife’s been nagging me to go to the doctors.”
“Sounds like a very sensible woman,” the driver said.
“She is,” Fred said, before correcting himself. “She was.”
He looked at the thirty-three year old teenage driver and felt miserable. He was probably a nice kid. Someone who didn’t deserve Fred’s grumpiness offloaded on him. He dumped his bad moods on anyone who’d listen nowadays. He never used to be so miserable. He’d been happy-go-lucky once. He used to do nice things all the time, say nice things.
“You speak good English,” Fred said. It had been meant as a compliment.
“Thanks,” the taxi-driver laughed. Before he got back in the vehicle he said, “You speak pretty good English too.”
It didn’t take long for Fred to reach Maureen’s grave. The white marble tombstone was small—around two feet square--but neat. Fred removed the flowers he’d left last week and tossed them amongst the protruding roots of a nearby oak tree. He replaced them with a new bunch, a far grander bouquet than those left previously. He leant down and slid a large pink envelope beneath.
“Happy birthday, beautiful.”
He chatted to Maureen for the next hour, anticipating her responses and occasionally adjusting his own conversation accordingly. He told her about his week, about the jobs he’d be getting round to, about his letter to the MP about the lack of milk delivery in the village. Most of all, he told her how much he missed her.
When his return taxi turned up, he walked away knowing that the birthday card would never be opened. Not that it mattered. It was the thought that counted – he was sure of that.