Matthew puts one hand on the stair rail his grandson installed and shuffles his slippered foot onto the top step. They’ve grown steeper overnight. Again. Maybe he should give in and let the boy order him a chair lift. He’s resisted this so far. A chair lift would be him acknowledging he’s old. Eighty-five is the new sixty-five, his wife would have said. And he’s not old yet.
Walking stick gripped in his spare hand, Matthew begins the descent of Everest. Stiff legs don’t want to bend this early in the morning, and joints ache. He blinks in the gloom of the narrow stairwell, where only yesterday the bulb popped as he climbed the stairs to bed. He’ll have to get his grandson to put a new bulb in. The old stepladder from the garden shed will be needed.
Shuffle onto the next step. He’s nearly halfway down before it happens.
His loose-slippered foot slips on the wellworn carpet, and maybe the rod comes away. He struggles to right himself, falls forward, tripping. The faded photos on the wall arc past him upside down. The tiled hallway floor hits him with a bone-crunching slam, a fly on a windscreen, spreadeagled and squashed by the impact.
Is he dead? For a long minute he feels nothing. Doesn’t even breathe. Yes, he must be dead.
No. Breath comes wheezing back into damaged lungs with a rack of sharp pain that guts him. Tears squeeze unchecked from the corners of his eyes, as he fights to open them.
He’s lying on the cold tiles at the foot of his stairs, head towards the front door where morning light shafts in through the little stained-glass arch. In front of him, the parlour door stands shut. Somewhere south beyond his feet, the kitchen door is probably open, but he can’t move to see.
Bones are broken. Brittle, old, eighty-five-year-old bones don’t take kindly to flying. Well, the flying wasn’t the problem. The landing was.
Where does he hurt most? All over. He can’t breathe deeply, his right arm won’t even twitch, his legs and hips hurt. Can you break every bone in your body falling down the stairs? Probably, if you’re eighty-five.
He closes his eyes, determined to stem those tears that trickle saltily into his open mouth. Someone will come. His grandson, maybe, or Jenna, the woman who does for him three days a week. What day is it? He can’t remember. Friday? If it is, then Jenna will be here by nine.
He can’t move his arm to see his watch, but there’s a proper grandfather clock here in the hallway. Its ticking, that normally he never notices, fills the room.
From behind him.
He can’t move to see its face. Bugger it. He doesn’t often swear, but this situation calls for it. His wife would have frowned and shaken her head and told him profanities are the resort of those with poor vocabularies. But really, there isn’t another word to suit. So, bugger it, again.
The kitchen door creaks open. Scratchy footsteps sound. Hamish pads down the hallway and stops by Matthew’s face. He thrusts his wet nose up close, tail wagging, and licks Matthew’s nose. Where’s my breakfast?
“Hello, boy,” Matthew mutters. “Sorry about this. Jenna’ll be here soon.”
Hamish settles down beside his master, curled in a ball of spanielness, still wagging his long tail. He probably needs to go out for a pee. Heck, Matthew needs to go out for a pee too, now he thinks about it.
The grandfather clock strikes eight. Matthew counts each bong it makes, longing for that elusive ninth. An hour to go. The pressure in his bladder grows.
Hamish gets up and goes back into the kitchen and Matthew hears him licking his empty feed bowl, hopefully, hinting. Breakfast. Too much pain. Matthew’s not hungry.
Time ticks past. Hamish must have gone to sleep in his basket. Matthew dozes a little only to be disturbed by the nine bongs of the grandfather clock.
Thank God. Jenna will be here within minutes. She’s hardly ever late.
Time ticks past.
Maybe it’s not Friday after all. Or maybe she’s just late. The bus. She catches the bus and it might be late. She’ll be here soon.
Hamish comes back and licks Matthew’s face, but he doesn’t stay. His claws clack on the tiles as he plods back to his bed. Hang dog. Hungry. Disappointed his provider seems to be ignoring him.
The grandfather clock strikes ten. Jenna can’t be coming. Perhaps she has a crisis at home with her little girl. The one she’s shown Matthew pictures of. She’s… what was it? Autistic. She goes to a special school because she doesn’t speak, Jenna’s explained. Sometimes she has meltdowns and won’t go, but it’s never happened on a day when Jenna’s meant to be here. Bugger it, again. It would happen now, on the day when Matthew needs her most. Bugger. Bugger. Bugger.
He hears his wife’s voice in his head. Now, Matthew. What do I always say? No swearing in this house.
Well, she’s not here now, so she has no say in what he says any longer. He’ll bloody well swear if he wants to. He tries it out loud. “Bugger. Bugger.” It cheers him, but only a bit.
Hamish comes to see what he’s shouting about, tail wagging. His wet chin betrays that he’s just drunk. Matthew could do with a drink. He always has a black coffee first thing, then orange juice with a bowl of porridge made in the microwave. That wonder of science. His mother used to start cooking her porridge on the stove the night before, and now you can do it in four minutes. What a world this is.
The letter box rattles. A letter tumbles onto the mat by the door, and a second one follows. The postman! A saviour!
“Hey!” Matthew musters another shout, tinny and feeble in the hollow cavern of the hallway. “Help! I need help!”
Silence. The postman, always in a hurry, has gone.
Time ticks past. The grandfather clock marks the snail-like progress of the hours.
By midday, Matthew’s need to pee is so great he can hold it in no longer. His ageing bladder releases, and a torrent of urine floods the tiles, soaking into his clothes, warm and strong smelling. The relief is so great he forgets for a while to be embarrassed, until he thinks of his grandson finding him like this, and horror floods over him much as the pee already has.
His grandson is at college studying to be a… what? He can’t remember. The boy’s told him often enough but the fact eludes him. What time is it? Will the boy be calling in on his way home this afternoon? He often does. Although sometimes he goes off with his mates for a kickabout in the park, then home to his mother for tea.
Of course, today is a day when he goes for a kickabout. Four comes and goes, then five. Matthew lies in a pool of cold pee. A pool of stinking cold pee. Now he doesn’t care who finds him. He’s no longer embarrassed but desperate. Surely, someone will come?
His lips are parchment. His mouth is dry with no spit to swallow. He tries calling Hamish, but his voice has died to nothing but a croak, and Hamish doesn’t come. He sounds like the old bullfrog he once caught and put in his big sister’s bed. Was that yesterday? How she screamed. He manages a chuckle at the memory, until he remembers she died ten years ago.
If someone doesn’t come soon, he’ll be joining her. His need for a drink consumes him. How long can a person go without water? He has no idea. Jenna would know. Right now, it feels like not long.
Hamish comes back at six, because that’s when he has his dinner. He licks Matthew’s face with a long, wet tongue and pokes him with his nose, urging him to get up and come and feed him. Fat chance. Poor boy. He must be starving. Tail down, he goes away again and soon snoring rumbles from the kitchen.
Shadows fill the hallway as evening approaches. Matthew licks his lips, unsure if he feels no pangs of hunger because of the pain or because he’s so thirsty. The need for water bulges inside his head, frying his nerve endings. He’s crisping up and dessicating like some Egyptian mummy.
Is it really Friday? Maybe he’s wrong. What did he watch on TV last night? He can’t remember. Rubbish, probably, all aimed at youngsters like his grandson. I’m a Celebrity Give me a Bowl of Insects to Eat. His grandson laps it up and tells him all about it on his visits. Matthew pretends to be interested, but really, he prefers Countdown.
Wait. What’s that? His ears prick. In the kitchen, a tap drips. Water. Hamish’s water bowl is on the floor in there. Why didn’t he think of that earlier? If he can get there… Inch by painful inch, he shuffles his damaged body back, down the hall towards that partly open door. Bones grate on bones, broken ends rubbing, the crunch throbbing from his nerve endings as pain stabs through his chest. He can barely lift his head from the cold tiles.
He leaves a wet snail-trail of urine.
Whatever made him put Hamish’s bed and bowls by the back door? He has to drag himself across the worn vinyl of the kitchen floor, where the furniture has scuffed patches bare. Past the two chairs shoved under the small table, past the cooker he needs to renew when he has the money, and the fridge with the broken light and so much ice in the icebox he can’t shut the door properly. Past the taunting drip drip drip of the tap in the sink.
The grandfather clock strikes eight. Hamish hears him coming and gets out of his bed and comes and licks his face again, pleased to see him or perhaps hoping he’ll get fed. Cupboard love, his wife called it, when she was here. That dog only loves you because you feed it. She was jealous of Hamish. He always knew. She thought he gave Hamish too much attention – attention she should have had. Well, the dog loved him back far better than she ever did.
Bugger her. Bugger, bugger, bugger her. Only now he can’t say it out loud to challenge her shade, because his tongue is glued to the roof of his oven-dried mouth and she’ll be laughing at him from wherever it is she’s gone.
Hamish’s water bowl is empty. Dry, like Matthew’s mouth. Licked clean. Greedy bugger’s drunk it all. Bugger. Bugger. Bugger.
Hamish regards his master out of soulful brown eyes. Are you going to fill it for me?
Matthew lets his head sink down onto the floor, his cheek pressed out of shape, and closes his eyes.
The grandfather clock strikes three.
Wait. What? He prises open gummy, dry eyes to darkness. Has he slept?
Cold has seeped into his bones, and the smell of fresh urine has changed to ammonia, acrid in his nostrils. He stinks so much even Hamish has abandoned him, his pale form just visible curled in his basket by the door.
Drip. Drip. Drip.
Who was taunted in Hades with water? Tantalus. He remembers a Latin passage he had to translate at school. Up to his neck in water, boughs of fruit above his head, always out of reach. He’s Tantalus all right.
Drip. Drip. Drip.
With morning’s first light, Hamish comes to nudge him awake, his damp nose poking
at Matthew’s face. Matthew’s body is numb. Is it with cold? Is he dying? No tears left to cry.
Get up off that floor and clear up this mess. A familiar voice, sharp like a whip’s lash. You stink. I’ve got Martha coming round for coffee later. You’ll need to go to the library for a while.
Where did she come from? Will she help him? He can’t move his head, but his eyes swivel in their sockets. Feet. Feet in low-heeled, well-polished court shoes. Legs in her favourite sheer ten denier stockings. Never tights. No ventilation in tights. She wouldn’t be seen dead in tights. Only she was, wasn’t she? Because after she died and he had to take some clothes to the undertakers for them to dress her, he went out and bought tights. Especially.
Small revenge for all the years of torment.
Has she come for him? Is he dying? Please don’t let it be her. Surely, they must be going to different places. An eternity of her would be hell. Is that where he’s going? He closes his eyes and lets sleep take him.
No one comes.
The grandfather clock strikes midday. Matthew drifts on a cloud of nothingness, the cold deep in his old bones.
No one comes.
The grandfather clock strikes six and darkness begins to fall. How many days has he lain here? One? Two? Three? A week? Where is his grandson? Where is Jenna? Have they all forgotten him?
Drip. Drip. Drip.
The grandfather clock strikes again, ten times, far away in another room, another house, another town. Hamish licks his face, and sharp teeth graze his skin. Poor boy. He must be starving. Thoughts bubble in his mind, popping and vanishing as they burst, and he can’t catch hold of any of them. His tongue is bloated and dry, filling his mouth. His throat gets dryer with every breath, his lungs crackling like autumn leaves.
Another darkness presses closer. Darker than the evening twilight. Dark as the grave.
Are those teeth nibbling at his ankle?