Just Like You And Me – Jacqueline Grima

Geoff was sitting at the kitchen table when the old man walked in. He put down his toast. ‘You okay?’ Geoff asked.

The man looked at him, nodded, his hair a halo of grey around his head. Slowly, he pulled out a chair and sat down, lifting one knee and linking his hands around it. On his feet, he wore slippers. Brown mules with a faint check, much like the ones Geoff had received from Richard the Christmas before. ‘I’m okay,’ he said.

Geoff chewed, swallowed. ‘No,’ he said. He shook his head. ‘I mean, can I help you? I mean, this is my house. You have the wrong house, I think.’ He glanced at the back door that he had opened to let in the morning air.

The old man looked around. He looked at the clock that sat high on the kitchen wall. He looked at the stove. At the sink. At the slate-grey tiles that covered the floor. ‘Are you sure?’ In the middle of his forehead, thick, grey brows knitted together.

Geoff pushed his plate away. Adjusting his position, he looked around the room, much like the old man had done. Just to be on the safe side. He nodded.

The old man hung his head low.

‘Where do you live?’ Geoff asked.

Putting a thin finger to his chin, the old man seemed to think. ‘Well, you know, I’m not so sure,’ he said. ‘Somewhere, I guess…’

Geoff fished a crumb of toast from between his teeth. He sighed. He’d had a feeling. This morning, when he woke up. Nance had been standing at the dresser, pulling on her underwear and tights and he had watched her for a few seconds, his eyes groggy with sleep.

He’d had a feeling it was going to be one of those days. He stood up. ‘I’ll call someone,’ he said to the old man. ‘Do you want me to call someone?’

The old man looked at Geoff for a moment. Then, pursing his bottom lip, he held out a hand, palm up, as if to say ‘Be my guest’. ‘Sure,’ he said. ‘You can call someone.’

Geoff thought. Walking into the hall, he found the Yellow Pages and flicked through it. He picked up the phone, looking at himself in the mirror that hung above the tall telephone table. He straightened his moustache, noticing a slight dent in the skin above his left eye. He wasn’t sure it had been there the day before. He keyed in the number.

‘Green Tree Nursing Home, Karen speaking. How can I help?’ The woman’s voice was cheerful, upbeat. Geoff thought about Nance, at the pharmacy all day, talking to customers. Talking about their boils and their blood sugars. Talking about their haemorrhoids.

‘I have a man,’ he said. ‘In my kitchen. I think he might be one of yours.’

The woman on the other end of the line was silent for a moment. Then she sighed. ‘They do that,’ she said. ‘They do that a lot. Wander.’

Geoff nodded at the mirror, saying nothing.

‘Do you have a name?’ the woman asked.

My name?’ asked Geoff.

‘His name.’

Geoff could hear the clack of computer keys in the background. He put a hand over the mouthpiece, feeling the warmth of his own breath on his skin as he spoke. ‘Sir?’ he called into the kitchen. ‘Do you have a name? She wants a name.’

Slowly, the old man stood and walked to the doorway between the kitchen and the hall, his arms dangling by his sides like heavy pendulums. To Geoff, everything the old man did seemed to take a very long time. ‘Sure,’ the old man said. ‘Sure, I have a name.’

‘What’s your name?’ Geoff asked.

The man chewed his bottom lip. ‘Frank,’ he said eventually. ‘My name’s Frank.’ Turning, he shuffled back towards the table, the soles of his slippers slapping against his heels.

Geoff turned back to the phone. ‘Frank,’ he said. ‘He says his name is Frank.’

The woman repeated the name slowly, as if she were writing it down or typing it into a computer. Then she said, ‘I’ll send someone. Someone will be there shortly.’

Geoff told her the address and hung up the phone. Looking at it for a moment, he wondered if he should call Nance. If he should tell Nancy there was a man in the house. He wondered what she would say. If she would tell him what to do, how best to handle the situation. He should have closed the door, Nance would have said before anything else. Geoff walked back to the kitchen.

The old man looked at him, his grey eyes wide and watery.

‘They’re coming,’ Geoff said. ‘Someone’s coming for you.’

The man nodded. ‘They do that,’ he said. ‘Usually’

Half an hour later, there was a knock at the door. When Geoff opened it, a short, balding man wearing a navy-blue polo shirt stepped into the hall, his hand lifted in a half-wave. Behind him, in front of the house, a minibus of sorts blocked the view of the street.

‘Frank?’ the man asked.

Geoff shook his head. ‘Frank’s in the kitchen,’ he said. ‘I made him coffee.’

The short, balding man lifted his chin. ‘Coffee,’ he said. ‘He’ll love that.’ He walked through to the kitchen, the pitch of his voice making Geoff wince. ‘Time to go, Frank.’

Standing in the doorway, Geoff watched as Frank slowly pushed himself up from the table, the old man’s breathing laboured as if he were carrying a heavy load. He moved aside to let the two men pass.

Frank looked at Geoff. ‘Thanks for the coffee,’ he said.

Geoff nodded. He stood at the open front door and watched as the two men walked the length of the driveway, the balding man’s hand cupping Frank’s elbow. Closing the door, he walked back into the kitchen.

***

After dinner, Geoff told Nance about the old man.

‘In the house?’ Nance asked. Nance looked tired. Dark smudges circled her eyes and, leaning slightly to one side, she held a hand to her hip.

Geoff nodded. He indicated the back door. ‘Just walked in,’ he said. ‘Just like you and me. Cool as a cucumber.’

‘A cucumber?’

Geoff nodded.

‘And they picked him up?’ Nance’s brow creased.

‘Just as if he were a parcel,’ Geoff said. Sitting at the kitchen table, one leg crossed over the other, he watched his wife as she moved around the room, noting how, every few minutes, her lips peeled back against her teeth. Then she would close her eyes. Just for a second. Watching her, Geoff remembered what she had been like when she was young. She had been thinner then. Always talking about how she would like a fuller figure. A fuller chest and hips. Straighter hair. She had had a little dog that she had carried with her everywhere. Like an accessory. Like a handbag or something.

Nance wiped a teatowel across the plates before putting them away. Clutching cutlery in one hand, she wiped the knives, forks and spoons then dropped them into the drawer where they landed with a clank. This was their routine. Every night since Geoff had retired. Geoff would cook, Nance tidy up.

Geoff lit a cigarette, pulling the ashtray across the table towards him. The ashtray was white, with a picture of the Eiffel Tower inside. It had been a present from their son Richard, who had gone to Paris on the Eurostar with his girlfriend Claire. Claire had liked the Eurostar. She had told Geoff that coming out at the end of the tunnel was like waking up from a dream. Geoff looked at the ashtray for a minute. Then he said, ‘Do you fancy a drink?’ Looking past Nance, he stared at the cupboard where they kept the Christmas whisky. He couldn’t remember the last time he had had a drink.

Nance shook her head. ‘No, I don’t fancy a drink. Do you fancy a drink?’

Geoff nodded, then shook his head. ‘Never mind,’ he said. He pulled slowly on his cigarette.

Nance was wiping around the sink with a sponge. ‘Have you seen my ring?’ she asked.

Geoff raised an eyebrow. ‘Your ring?’

‘Yeah. My ring. My wedding ring. I left it here by the sink last night. After dinner. I forgot to put it back on.’

Geoff frowned. He wondered how Nance could have forgotten. ‘No, I haven’t seen it,’ he said. ‘Where did you leave it?’

‘I told you, right here.’ Nance pointed at the sink, her shoulders stooped. ‘I swear, I left it right here. Now it’s gone.’

Geoff stubbed out his cigarette. Stubbed it right into the tip of the Eiffel Tower. Standing, he walked over to the sink. ‘Are you sure you didn’t knock it down?’ he asked, peering into the drain. ‘When you were washing the dishes?’

Nance scoffed. ‘Well, no, I’m not sure. Not a hundred percent.’ She put both of her hands on her hips, making a triangle with each arm. On her left hand, Geoff could see a white band circling the third finger where her ring should have been. ‘I’ll tell you what I am sure of though.’

‘What?’ Geoff asked. ‘What are you sure of?’ He wondered what it was his wife could be so sure of when he himself didn’t feel sure of anything. Waking up every morning, he couldn’t even be sure what day it was.

‘I’m sure,’ Nance said, ‘that there’s more of a chance your old man took it than of me knocking it down the sink.’

Geoff’s mouth fell open. Moving back to the table, he fell heavily into a chair. He took another cigarette from the packet and put it in his mouth. Then he took it out again and held it between his fingers. Whilst Nance and he had been talking about the ring, he had completely forgotten about the old man.

‘The old man,’ he said.

‘Yeah, sure. The old man,’ Nance agreed. She lifted one shoulder. ‘Who else?’

Geoff looked at the back door. He thought about the old man, wandering in. He thought about him shuffling between the table and the doorway in his slippers whilst Geoff was on the phone. Shuffling back again. He thought about the short, balding guy who had come to pick up Frank, walking the old man down the driveway, guiding him by the elbow. He shrugged. ‘Hell, I don’t know,’ he said.

Nance’s face was turning red. She stood at the sink, one hand resting against the counter, the other pointing a forefinger at Geoff. ‘Well, I sure know,’ Nance said. ‘I know that, tomorrow, you’ll have to go and see this…this…’ she spread her hands, ‘this whatshisname…’

‘Frank’ Geoff said.

‘This Frank,’ Nance said. ‘Go see this Frank and ask him where the hell my ring is.’

Geoff looked at Nance. He looked at the threads of grey that ran through her hair. He looked at the spidery veins that travelled her cheeks. He nodded. ‘Okay,’ he said.

***

The next day, Geoff looked in the Yellow Pages for the nursing home’s address. Finding his car keys, he took off his slippers and put on his shoes, tying the laces into small, neat knots. He went out of the door and, climbing into the car, backed it out of the drive. He drove to the end of the road before turning right, then left, then right again. The nursing home was only ten minutes away, Geoff having passed it many times on his way home from work. After parking and climbing out, Geoff looked up. The day’s weather was grey and drizzly, the sky a blanket of cloud that stretched from one horizon to the other. He walked towards the home, the gravel crunching beneath his feet, rows of dim windows staring at him.

Geoff pressed the entrance buzzer, announced himself. The door slid open. Behind the reception desk, a tall woman smiled, a shock of curly red hair piled up high on her large head. One of her front teeth crossed over the other. Geoff wondered if it was the same girl he had spoken to on the phone the day before. He smiled back. ‘Frank,’ he said. ‘I’m here to see Frank.’ He thought about Nance and how he had gone to visit her when she had had her hip done, taking magazines for her to read. A book. A clean nightdress. Underwear. Perhaps he should have called ahead. Perhaps the nursing home had set visiting times.

The woman nodded, pointing to an open notebook that lay on the desk in front of her. ‘Sign in here, please.’

Geoff signed and the woman gave him a lanyard to wear around his neck, the sharp-cornered, plastic pendant bearing the word ‘Visitor’ in large, black letters.

The woman pointed along the corridor. ‘Frank’s in the day room.’

The day room was decorated in tones of beige and brown, an array of various-sized, leatherette chairs sitting in circles around wooden tables. Walking in, Geoff looked around. A dozen or so elderly men and women were scattered around the room, most of them sitting at the tables, some of them leaning forward, chatting to each other animatedly. Some, gathered around a tea trolley, poked their gnarled fingers into a variety box of biscuits before taking cups of tea poured for them by a careworker in a blue and white striped tabard. To Geoff, it seemed that all of them moved very slowly, almost in slow motion, as if anything sudden might cause them to have an aneurism. An aneurism or, maybe, a fall. One or the other. One or two of them sat slumped in the most comfortable-looking of the chairs, their mouths hanging open as they dozed. Geoff wondered how long they had been there. Imagined a cleaner giving them a once over with a yellow duster before the place shut down for the evening. He looked at a woman in a chair near to the door, her chin shining with a trail of saliva. Geoff heard a soft snore coming from her mouth.

Moving further into the room, he spotted Frank, sitting at a table by himself. In front of him, a chessboard lay open, the pieces having been moved to various positions around the board. Geoff walked over, lifting his hand in a half-wave.

‘Hey, Frank.’ Pulling out a chair, he sat opposite the old man.

Frank frowned. Lifting his head, he looked at Geoff then looked back down at the chessboard.

Geoff leaned forward. To get Frank’s attention, he touched the old man’s hand, the skin dry and leathery. ‘Hey, Frank’ he said. ‘It’s me, Geoff. Remember? You came to my house yesterday. Remember?’

Frank nodded slowly. He didn’t look at Geoff. ‘Yeah, I remember.’ He pointed a finger at the chessboard. ‘You play?’

Geoff shook his head. ‘Nah, I never learned.’ He remembered how Nance had tried to teach him once. Nance was good at chess. She had taught Richard to play when he was just eight or so. Eight or something like that. ‘My wife,’ he said. ‘She plays.’ He wondered how long Frank’s game had been going. Imagined the old man taking an age to make a move. Like, a decade or something. Some other poor soul wandering along to counteract it. Another age.

Frank nodded. He put a finger to his lips, then pointed it at Geoff. ‘I used to live in that house,’ he said.

Geoff blinked. He held a hand to his chest. ‘My house?’ He pictured Frank at the kitchen table in his slippers. Frank at the kitchen table whilst Nance moved around him, tidying away the dishes.

Frank nodded. ‘Yeah. Yeah, your house.’

Geoff thought for a moment. Then he shook his head. ‘Boy,’ he said. ‘That must’ve been some years ago.’ Looking at the ceiling, the long, harsh strip lights causing his eyes to crinkle, he tried to work out how long he and Nance had lived in the house. It must have been some three decades, he thought. More. Since just before Richard was born. They had moved in when Richard was a baby, Geoff clearly remembering the day his son had started to walk, pulling himself up by a table in the hall of the house at only ten or eleven months old like some kind of mountaineer. That’s what he had looked like. Something like that. Nance had taken a photograph. Geoff looked across the table at Frank, seeing the old man’s hand, hovering above the head of a bishop, quivering slightly. He wondered if the entire board was in danger of crashing to the floor.

Frank nodded. ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘You’re right. A long time.’

Geoff looked up as the tea trolley approached, one wheel rattling loudly as the woman in the blue and white tabard pushed it towards them. Her hair, bunched together in a net beneath a square blue cap, brought to Geoff’s mind an air hostess he remembered from the holiday he and Nance had taken in Turkey three or four years before. Geoff had still been working then. He had been glad of the time off.

‘Tea, Frank?’ The woman’s voice was deep, almost like a man’s. A thin wisp of steam rose from the pot in front of her.

Frank shrugged. He didn’t look up.

The woman poured the tea. She added milk and, putting a biscuit on the saucer, placed the cup in front of Frank, perching it on the edge of the table beside the chessboard. She turned to Geoff. ‘Tea?’

Geoff smiled. Taking a cup and saucer from the woman, he steadied it to stop it rattling. Insipid brown liquid sloshed over the side, creating a dark patch on the plain digestive beneath. Resting it against the edge of the table, he watched the woman move away. He looked at Frank. ‘My wife,’ he said, ‘she lost a ring.’

Frank looked up. ‘A ring?’

Geoff hesitated. He nodded. ‘Her wedding ring. She lost it. Yesterday.’

Frank blinked. ‘Yesterday?’

Geoff thought for a moment. Then he shook his head. ‘Never mind,’ he said. He took a sip of his tea, expecting it to burn his lip. Instead, it was lukewarm and bitter. The biscuit on the saucer looked soggy, as if it would break into a million pieces if he attempted to pick it up. He looked around the room. He looked back at Frank. ‘You lived here long?’ he asked.

Frank shrugged. He pursed his lips. ‘A while,’ he said. ‘A while, I guess.’

Geoff nodded. In the far corner of the room, past Frank’s shoulder, he could see an elderly lady being led away by a nurse, a dark stain filling the chair she had left behind. Geoff looked down at the table. He pushed his cup and saucer away. Patting the top pocket of his jacket, he felt for his cigarettes. As he looked up, he saw Frank pointing to a sign on the wall.

‘No smoking,’ Frank said.

Geoff sighed. Of course, no smoking. Clearing his throat, he half-stood and hitched up the leg of his trousers. He sat down again, wondering what Nance was doing. Right at that moment. What she was doing. From somewhere further down the room the smell of boiled cabbage was beginning to fill the air. Geoff pointed a thumb at the door. ‘I’ll be off then.’

The old man looked at him for a long moment, his nose seeming to twitch like that of a small dog. Grey hairs, sprouting from his nostrils, moved as if of their own accord. Frank blinked. Then he pointed at the chessboard. ‘You play?’ he asked.

Geoff rubbed a hand across his chin. He swallowed and sat back. ‘Nah,’ he said. ‘I never learned.’

***

When Geoff got home, Nance’s car was in the drive. He walked inside, headed for the kitchen. Nance was standing at the sink, scooping painkillers into her mouth and swallowing them with water.

‘Hey,’ Geoff said. He took off his jacket, hung it on the back of a chair, tiny rainspots darkening the shoulders. Taking the pack of cigarettes from the pocket, he threw them onto the table where they collided with the ashtray. He slipped off his shoes, collected his slippers from the hall and put them on.

Nance swilled out her glass and stood it on the drainer upside down. Turning, she held her hand in the air as if she were about to start counting on her fingers, like a child might. ‘Found my ring,’ she said.

Geoff looked at her. Sure enough, on the third finger of his wife’s left hand was Nance’s wedding ring. A chunky, gold band that he had bought for her on their twentieth-fifth wedding anniversary, replacing the original that had become too small. Geoff still remembered that first ring. Still remembered how much it had cost. ‘Great,’ he said. ‘Great. Where’d you find it?’

Nance let out a short laugh. ‘It was in my bag all along,’ she said. She filled the kettle, switched it on. ‘All this time, there it was at the bottom of my bag. I must have forgotten putting it in there.’

Geoff pulled out a chair and sat. Taking a cigarette from the pack, he lit it, pulling the ashtray towards him. Looking down at the Eiffel Tower, he thought about Frank. About Frank playing chess in the nursing home. About Frank’s slippers and how they slapped against his heels. Blowing smoke through his nose, he wondered if Frank was a smoker. Geoff had been smoking for a long time. Since before Richard was born. Since before Nance.

He looked at his wife. ‘I’m glad,’ he said. ‘I’m glad you found it.’

The smoke rose in front of him, blurring Nancy’s face.

 

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Jacqueline Grima has recently completed an MA in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. Her debut novel will be released in spring 2018 by Manatee Books. Follow her on Twitter @GrimaJgrima

 

Image: Max Pixel

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