Thursday, 17 March 2016

Our Battle

Below is my entry for the Writers' & Artists' Yearbook Short Story Competition 2016 (theme: ageing): ‘Our Battle'. I wrote this short story in November 2015.

Our Battle

By Simon Duke

I don't know why but my wife thinks she lives across the street.
She walks up to me, determination and purpose evident in her pace, and points at the house the other side of the street. 'I've got to go there,' she says.

'No you don't. That's Keith Robertson's house,' I reply as I hit the mute button on the TV remote control, putting a sudden halt to John Motson's commentary. Man U and Liverpool are level at 1-1.

Clearly having none of it, my wife continues, 'No, I live there.'

For drama's sake, she looks me down with fiery and unforgiving eyes. She's suspicious and somewhat austere. The football match goes on in silence.

'No, you don't live there,' I say, turning my gaze away from the screen for the first time.

'I want to go home!' she hollers.

'But you are home, Judy, darling.'

She turns on her heel and storms across the living-room, yanks nervously at the front door handle.
I don't have enough time to rise from the armchair and intervene; the door is wide open and she's already halfway across the dimly-lit street.

I stand up and gaze at her from the window as she continues her furious march toward our neighbour's house. I then watch her ring the bell. She waits for the door to open, somewhat awkward in her posture.

A minute or so later she walks back and I come to meet her on the porch. Her disappointment is almost tangible. She says to me, 'There's nobody home.'

I do my best to speak clearly and naturally in a warm and calm voice. 'Where did you go?'

'I went home,' she says earnestly, in her usual animated tone.

'But this is your home', I insist, hoping I don't hurt her feelings.

She walks inside briskly, brushes past me, nearly bumping into me in the process.

'I'll make supper,' I say while shutting the front door and turning the key in the lock.

She turns around and looks at me with inquisitive yet softer eyes. 'Don't leave me alone,' she pleads.

It's better not to argue with her and change the subject. I've come to the realisation that it's OK to let delusions and misstatements go.

'Perhaps you could lay the table, darling?'

A cue. A purpose. A new challenge.

Judy says nothing. She heads for the kitchen, full sail ahead.

I search for the remote control to turn the TV off but am momentarily distracted by the game. Man U are a goal ahead. 2-1. Rooney must've scored while I was watching Judy from the window. Liverpool have a corner kick and about another half-hour to draw.

I eventually switch off and join Judy in the kitchen. To my surprise, she is pacing around aimlessly, looking disoriented. She is opening cupboards and shutting them for no apparent reason.

'What are you doing, darling?' I say, warm and calm again.

'Nothing. I…' The rest of what she says is incomprehensible. Utter gibberish. None of the words make sense or are real words at all. She's talking to herself, feeling confused and panicked.

'Can you grab us two plates, darling?'

A cue. A purpose. A new challenge.

She reaches for not two but all six plates in the cupboard above the sink. She accidentally knocks over a glass into the sink with her elbow. I hear it shatter. Judy remains unfazed but holds all six plates in both hands. I tell myself that it's only a glass. No need to cause a fuss, or worse, spread panic to my wife.

Her grasp on the plates isn't firm. She turns around and looks at me. All of a sudden she can't remember why she is here, in the kitchen. I focus on the plates as she shakes them. Her hands are arthritic, clumsy, and hard to bend. She doesn't know where to go next, can't decide what to do.
Yet she staggers away, eventually finds the living-room and sets the plates on the coffee table.

She says, 'OK'. She pauses, obviously regrouping, trying to organize her mind, acknowledging each little step made.

She studies the plates on the table, maybe trying to figure out what's missing. But then she tells me that she's got nothing to do. So she gives up.

I sometimes think that's her biggest problem.

'It's getting a bit chilly,’ I say. ‘Why don't you put on your lovely white sweater, you know the one I got you for Christmas?'

A cue. A purpose. A new challenge.

She heads for the stairs, climbs them, finds our bedroom. I hear clanging and banging of drawers and cupboard doors opening and closing, the hustle and bustle, and endless racket of mayhem and despair as the search for the sweater begins.

Judy suddenly talks to herself again, surely responding to the constant jabbering going on in her head.

'I'm hearing all this stuff and I can't turn it off,' she used to tell me back when we didn't know she was living with dementia - dementia that was here to stay, cruel and unforgiving in its hold over Judy.

I listen to the ongoing noise of drawers slamming and the hurried footsteps on the floor above.

I sigh and take a deep breath before climbing upstairs myself. Witnessing my wife working herself into a frenzy is a painful and disheartening sight, perhaps the one facet of her manic behavior I have the most difficulty getting used to.

I press my back against the doorframe and look at the mess she has created.

'This is most annoying,' she says standing amidst clothes spread all over the carpet. Looking for a sweater and not finding it can do that to you if you are unfortunate to have her condition.

She opens another drawer and pulls out half its contents, dumps it all on the bed in a new heap. 'This is not a sweater,' she protests frantically, holding a skirt. 'This certainly isn't my white sweater!'

She flings the skirt on top of the pile of clothes and proceeds to open the last drawer, the right one. She seizes all her sweaters in a bundle.

'OK, sweaters found,' she mutters. One small step made.

'OK, I think I've found the white sweater.' Another step. The elimination process continues but she unloads the bundle on the bed. The desired clothing item is lost in the heap. Eventually she bends over, feeling confused, no longer knowing what she’s supposed to do.

She starts folding all the clothes on the bed, forgets that she was looking for a white sweater. The white sweater is in her grasp but she folds it along with everything else.

Moments later Judy sits on the bed out of sheer frustration, visibly unhappy and lost. I push a few clothes aside and sit next to her, wrap a reassuring arm around her shoulders. 'You're doing OK', I lie. And we sit there in fidgety silence.

'I'll make your supper now,' I say to put an end to the lull. 'Don't worry about the white sweater. Just put something on that'll keep you warm and join me downstairs.'

A cue. A purpose. A new challenge.

Five minutes later I realise my wife has once again lost the notion of time. Her bowl of soup and her hot melted cheddar sandwich are ready and starting to cool down.

I call her name again. Judy soon staggers into the kitchen wearing her old fur coat, looking a bit eccentric. I'd like to voice an opinion and ask her to remove the coat she herself is supposed to find old-fashioned. But as I said, it's simply better not to argue with her. Now I can't help but smile as she sits down like a stubborn queen waiting to be served.

In spite of her condition and regal posture, Judy loves to eat. I make her supper every night. After the chaos of the day it's a comforting ritual for us both, a few shared moments when things rarely go wrong.

I set the bowl of soup and the plate with her sandwich in front of her on the table. She looks down at her food with delight and says, 'You made that?' Joy fuels her gaze but her manner is still suspicious.

I shrug, big smile smacked on my face, 'I'm a good cook.'

I don't tell her that some of stuff on her plate comes from the nutritionist's, some I got from the supermarket. It's only a hot cheese sandwich but she thinks it's great.

I watch her munch on the sarnie and slurp the soup with pride.

My cue. My purpose. A challenge I gladly take up.

I return moments later with pudding. I give her coffee and then I give her a slice of carrot cake.
She's happy. She never says I'm not hungry.

I kneel down and hold her hand. I gently massage her palm, softly reviving the intimate bond I crave for. My wife is peaceful.

I look up at her. We maintain eye contact and smile simultaneously. I see the beautiful woman I fell in love with all those years ago; the woman I married and with whom I had two wonderful children; with whom I will finish the final chapter of my life.

I say to myself that I'm lucky at this point. But what it's going to be like down the road, I don't know.