Congratulations to Sheila Blackburn who won the NorthWrite 2018 Short Story Competition. Here is her story. The second and third place getters will be published here over the next couple of week.
A Medical Definition
by Sheila Blackburn
Dementia: the loss of mental ability severe enough to interfere with normal activities of daily living, lasting more than six months, not present since birth, and not associated with a loss or alteration of consciousness.
Words, words, too many words. They danced and skittered through his head, disappearing when he needed them only to leap into his mouth unexpectedly, when they shouldn’t be there, spewing forth with a life of their own, startling, strange and uncontrollable. Elusive meanings that careered away down dark alleys, hiding out of sight. He watched their eyes and knew they thought him mad, gaga, deranged, so better to keep quiet and float in that world of soft touch, smells, flashes of familiarity, fragments of memories, strings of disconnected consciousness. Repetitive movement soothing his head. Stroking the familiar patch on the arm of the chair. Turning the key. Easy and satisfying patterns that led away from the jungle of words and the harsh, demanding faces of the people he didn’t know. They assaulted his senses and scared him with their expectation of answers. He drifted in an amorphous universe spangled with briefly winking moments of understanding that died as quickly as they were born. Shining stars of memory glowing down through a life time of days. A universe of existence with an all-consuming black hole at its centre growing, swallowing life while he drifted ever inwards with no sense of place or time or purpose other than the fear. Always the fear. It consumed him though he couldn’t say why. Waiting for that last, tiny, fragile spangle of star light to be consumed and then…stroke the fabric turn the key, stroke the fabric turn the key, soft so soft…keep going, keep going.
Fuck, Fuck, Fuck. The smell of piss was strong and acidic, animal in its intensity. That stupid old cow did it deliberately. She’d have to drag her out of the chair and change her again! Sod it, she could just sit there and wait till someone else came. She’d done it twice this week already. Her eyes raked the room as she turned to go. Only that one in the corner and he wasn’t going to tell anyone. He couldn’t even remember his own name. If he wasn’t sitting there stroking the arm of the chair he was wandering round with that bloody key jamming it in the door locks then screaming at her ‘cos it wouldn’t come out again. Look at him! He was doing it now, stroking the chair like it was a fucking dog. It was creepy. He’d wear right through it in a few more weeks. She looked away. At least he didn’t piss his pants or throw things at you like that skinny bitch down the hall. Why did they have to be so bad-tempered? Like spoiled kids, they were. Throwing food around, shouting and screaming, talking gibberish then getting mad ‘cos you didn’t know what they wanted. She didn’t have time to run after them or sit and hold their bloody hands. Each day was eight hours of stripping pissy sheets, forcing tablets into gormless mouths and washing shitty arses. Her back ached from pulling up and lowering down creaking bodies. Her feet ached from going up and down the stairs looking for lost glasses, missing teeth, fucking hearing aids. Why bother? Waste of time talking to them. They forgot what you said before you were out of the room. She wanted to go home but she had agreed to do an extra shift. She needed the money. The pay was shit and without overtime she wouldn’t make enough to pay the bills. She felt sorry for some of them, she did, but she was tired and tomorrow would be the same round of shit and piss and puke and shouting and screaming and throwing and scratching and there was nothing she could do about it. She was just doing a job ‘cos she needed the pay check. She left the room. So tired. It was all she could do to just keep going.
She slammed the car boot and spun around.
“Just go. I’m not telling you again. You’re going whether you like it or not. We paid a fortune for these lessons and for that bloody piano and now you think it’s boring. Well, just get in there and be bloody bored. I don’t have time for this.”
“You never have time for anything to do with me. It’s not fair. My friends don’t have to go to stupid piano lessons. Everyone else can… “And on and on and on. So young, so ungrateful, so entitled and so unaware of just how unfair life could really be.
She climbed back into the car and began to pull away. Through the rear window she watched her daughter kick her back pack before picking it up and moving away. Had her father watched her do the same thing? Had she been as selfish, as consumed by her own world that she hadn’t even seen how hard his life was? A sickly wife, a son who brought only trouble to the door, a daughter railing against the unfairness of being expected to help. Tears burning. Breathe, breathe, keep it together. Guilt, frustration, helplessness, duty, love, loss, anxiety, pain, fear. Her head roaring. Again, every visit, every time all over again. Wanting to go, not wanting to go. Watching for that illusive flicker of cognizance. Desperate for a thimbleful of the person who had once been a flood. Watching as he was wasted on parched earth that absorbed him without leaving a trace. Seeing him shrivel and dry. An inexorable march to nothingness. And what could she do? She was so busy – her husband, her job, her children, her life. Did he know he was lost? Guilt crawling across her skin. Was he terrified, grabbing for hand holds, screaming silent screams? Tears slipping down her cheek. Turning into the car park. He must hate her. She sent him here. She deserted him. Too many demands. She couldn’t do anymore. “It’s not fair.” No, it’s not fair, is it. She wiped her face. Go through those doors and smile. She put her feet onto the black tarmac and started to walk… keep going… keep going…
She sat across the table from him and smiled. Something scratched at his brain. Someone he should know? Say nothing …silence. Better than getting it wrong.
“How are you today?”
“Oh, you know.” He trailed off, watching her face for the effect of his tentative step onto the tightrope of conversation. She smiled again.
“What have you been doing?”
“Oh… not much.” He paused, waiting, and the sound slithered into his mouth: “Fishing.” The word felt comfortable like well-worn fabric against his skin. “I went fishing.”
She nodded. “Yes, you always liked fishing. Sometimes you used to take Si and me with you. Do you remember?
Tumbling names. Si and Susan, Mary and Tom, who, when, where?
He looked at her waiting.
“What did you have for lunch today?”
“We had a nice pie. Mary makes a nice pie.” Mary, Mary. The word felt right. A key turn, opening doors, fluttering memories…. Mary, Mary quite contrary…. A picture of a woman in a garden.
“Good. And did you eat it all?” Words spun in his head then slipped into place.
“Where’s Mary? I want to go home. Mary will be looking for me.”
The woman smiled at him and patted his hand. “Dad, Mum died years ago. You live here now.”
He looked at her, this strange woman saying incomprehensible things. The fear bubbled up in great gouts of blackness.
“Not. Not, no, my home, out out, Mary…” The words gyrated and danced in his head and forced their way out of his mouth in strings of dissonance. The tightrope snapped. He didn’t want her here saying those things.
He got up, turned and walked back to his chair in the corner, sat, and started stroking, letting the tactile burst of soft sensation fill his head and calm him. He didn’t like the strange women. He closed his eyes. His hand in his pocket closed around the key. For the briefest instant he knew what it was. He saw the home, the wife, the family, the life. He started to turn the key and was lost in the rhythm of the movement. Stroke the fabric turn the key, stroke the fabric turn the key… keep going.
His daughter watched as he settled into the chair. Both helpless. No more today. She turned to the door and kept going.
Judges’ comments can be found here.