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Sunday 28 September 2014

The Oughties. Worth a damn? 10

Medication and Mobiles
Short story. 1815 words
His face was a damn blur; any minute now he’d cut himself, sure as eggs. Nor would specs help, the hot sink would steam them blind. The kitchen sink these days.

Damn razor was as blunt as a book-end but that was his fault, he hung on to disposables too long. A false economy one carer had told him. That had angered him and he’d sat down to do the arithmetic that would prove the young man wrong. But the urge had left him when he couldn’t find the receipt from the supermarket.

The blade bumped round the gaunt contours of his cheeks, scratching at the bristle.  Did bristles get stiffer? Seemed like it. The sound was harsher. Ten years ago it would have…

Bugger it! There it was! A deep one too, with blood oozing quickly into the foam.  Chemists used to sell a styptic pencil but it never worked. The only sure thing was a scrap of wet toilet paper but that meant going round into the lav.

Even so he’d have to wait. Yesterday he’d ironed his shirt and it hung from the picture rail. Putting it on he’d bloody it, sure as eggs. And blood was hard to get off. Ethel must have told him a hundred times: use cold water. But he’d never listened. Never had to. Better to wait until the gash scabbed over. Sitting by the window in his dressing gown.

Outside, people stopped at the traffic light then streamed into the supermarket. All of them from council houses half a mile round the back, thank God. Some of them fat, rolling from hip to hip, looking for a trolley to lean on. Pathetic.  He’d never put on an ounce. One of the fatties, pushing past for cheap potatoes, had called him a scarecrow. Bit of a compliment when you thought about it.

But it wasn’t the fatties he was watching, it was the younger lot, the teenagers. It was coolish but they wore next to nothing, even the girls. Mainly tee-shirts, often with messages. Why? Surely not advertising. Once he’d tried to read a shirt – a vest really - but gave up hurriedly because the lad had scowled. As to reading a girl’s shirt… well, there were breasts.

Older folk, like those living here in The Court, wore lots of clothes. To keep warm, of course, but also out of pride. Proper clothes showed you were still up to it, prepared to keep yourself trim. Being old wasn’t wearing rags. He himself took things a stage further, not just a shirt but a tie. You didn’t see many ties these days. Only managers at the supermarket, the tie knotted loosely as if the chap couldn’t wait to get it off.

He touched his new wound but the finger still came away pink. Perhaps he dozed a little. In any case the carer knocked on the door early. Thank God it was Sunil and not one of the women. With him still in his dressing gown. He explained about the cut and about waiting but Sunil wanted to talk about the pills.

That made him cranky."After breakfast, you said. After food. I haven’t had time. Waiting for the blood to scab over. Then I’ll need to get dressed.”

Caught out by his own advice Sunil looked round the cramped living room for something to care about. All was frustratingly neat.

“The pills, Mr Allchester, they’re important. For a better quality of life.”

Talk like that depressed Allchester. At his age “life” tended to arrive with an unseen, unspoken companion who set him thinking. “Unhealthy thoughts” Ethel had called them in her attempts to gee him up. The expectation being that he’d go first and she’d be there to keep him cheerful or whatever you did for those who were busy croaking. Neither of them knowing then how quickly pancreatic cancer worked. As it did with her.

“I know all about the pills,” he said testily.

“Ah, but do you?  Your doctor may soon be adding another drug to your prescription? Nothing other than the humble aspirin.”

“Aspirin,” said Allchester, astonished. “But that’s just for toothache.”

“Not only that, Mr A. One a day can reduce cardio-vascular disease, even cut cancer risks.”

He wasn’t re-assured. Drugs were expensive, he was told that repeatedly, whereas aspirin cost pennies. This couldn’t be good news. He tried to ask a question but Sunil was opening the sideboard drawer to take out boxes and spread them on the tiny table where Allchester had his meals.

“Just a little reminder, Mr Allchester. You need to know why you’re taking these drugs. Thinking positively helps them help you.”

Sounded nonsense but he’d no time to dispute it. Already he’d forgotten that Atenolol worked with Coracten to lower his blood pressure. Also it was Naproxen, not Simvastin,  that controlled pain in his arthritic fingers. Sunil twitted him mildly for these errors but Allchester took it badly, reckoning he was being treated like an infant. Long after Sunil had left he sat on in the living room, still in his dressing grown, working out why he resented those boxes.

It was the mystique he didn’t like. Manufactured names which were not only ugly but sneered at him. Set him at a low level, typed him as old and falling to pieces, emphasised his dependency. The boxes, or rather the drugs inside, were in effect comments on the life he had led, implying – condescendingly – they would keep propping him up. For his own good.

Allchester thought briefly about old age, then thrust the whole idea away. Youth was in the past but not the innocent stupidity of youth. He felt a sudden desire to behave stupidly, to give the finger to condescension and things that were good for him. He would stop taking the pills. All of them. It would be risky but it would be an act of independence and it seemed to work. Tying his shoe laces was less of a toil.

He  decided on a walk. Put on his most expensive tie, bought years ago at Liberty in London,because he knew it would make Ethel gasp publicly, but approve secretly. He didn’t walk far, only to the children’s playground. It had been a late discovery, watching children at play, and it was not an indulgence he needed to be fearful about. His age and obvious decreptitude stripped him of being thought a lurking menace. Occasionally mothers with push chairs smiled as they passed by.

The children ran randomly between the swings and the climbing frames, their short legs imparting a jerky side-to-side motion. He prayed to a secular deity that they would not, in later years, become fat, condemned to a way of walking that was inescapable. Prayed quite hard.

The shrill cries of the children should theoretically have irritated him since his deaf ears were sensitive to sharp noises. But he pretended to enjoy the shrieks. For the moment he was part of the playground; an unthinking world for them, a stupid world for him. No pills. The act of an idiot but a decisive act. Exhilarating too, helped by a watery sun. He drifted away, dozing but conscious of the noise and the movement around him.

As he came to he noticed a boy sitting at the other end of his bench. Older than the children playing nearby and wearing one of those articulate tee-shirts. The boy’s face was resentful and he stared beyond the playground to an open area where youths of his own age were kicking a football.

“You look glum,” said Allchester, surprised by his own audacity.

“They won’t let me play.”

“Why’s that?”

The boy shrugged. “They all have Iphones.”

Allchester took the thick Saturday edition of The Guardian – it was all he could afford. It had told him over and over what an Iphone was. He said, “But you have a mobile phone too.”

The boy relaxed his fingers and stared intensely at the silvery device in his palm, as if it were a wart he’d temporarily forgotten. When he stared at Allchester, his face contorted with hatred. Now he got up, trying, but failing, to walk away nonchalantly.

Disturbed by the lad’s expression, conscious too that the pale sun had clouded over, Allchester walked slowly back to The Court. Later, switching on the electric kettle for a cup of Nescafé, he noticed a twinge in his right index finger but thought nothing about it.

The policewoman wore one of those facetious uniform hats, like a bowler with an excessively curly brim – as if her job were to tell jokes. Allchester ushered her in and offered her Nescafé. On the brink of saying no she changed her mind and the two of them sat down, unnervingly close, at the table. She was quite pretty in a heavyish way, but her face was grubby. The bowler remained on her head.

“A minor traffic accident,” she said. “A few bumps and grazes, the driver was travelling very slowly. But the lad was with other boys and it could be one of them pushed him. Normally we wouldn’t investigate horseplay but in this neighbourhood…”

“We’re a bit middle-class,” said Allchester, smiling.

“Exactly.” The PCW smiled back. “Seems you’re a bit of a fixture at the playground. That’s to say – they like you there. No hanky-panky.”

It would be very reserved hanky-panky, thought Allchester.

“Two of the mothers saw the lad talk to you. I wondered if you’d anything to add.”

He told her that the lad had been excluded from the kick-about. But admitted he, Allchester, was mystified about the Iphone.

The PCW laughed. “You’ve got to keep up-to-date, Mr Allchester. The lad’s one down in the world. His mobile’s just a mobile. For letting his parents know where he is. The kids with Iphones hardly ever use their phones to talk. They Google, they watch the naughty bits on Facebook, text like mad. But phone home? Where’s the fun in that? It’s a techno-snob thing if you like.”

“I didn’t realise eight-year-olds were snobs.”

“Ooooh, none worse.” The PCW drank the rest of her Nescafé. “I must be off. Just a minute, silly me. I never did any identification. The lad’s Jamie Ockton.”

“I never knew his name. But I can describe him. Jeans, a black tee-shirt with white lettering. I wasn’t close enough to… “

“Oh, it’s about soccer. By that French clever-arse, Camus.” She pronounced it Kay-muss. “More middle-class nonsense.”

“Even the kids are middle-class,” said Allchester, wonderingly.

“That’s why you’re seeing me,” she said. “Don’t want complaints from the Volvo brigade. Thanks for the bit about them shoo-ing young Jamie away. It might help. Good night Mr Allchester.

As he washed up the mugs he realised the pain in his index finger had got a lot worse. Which set him thinking about Simvastin. No, damnit, Naproxen.


  1. It is great to discover another of your stories. The day that unfolds in the life of Allchester is filled with a strange tension, in which daily activities take on a disturbing menace. The oldness of the body is not reflected in the alert questioning consciousness. The ironic way that medication seems to comment on the integrity of the psyche of this now-isolated individual removes any sense that we are meant to feel sorry for him, rather to applaud his silent act of rebellion in not taking the pills. The fact that he has been observed talking to the boy also tells a lot about the alienation of Allchester as a married bereft partner. Even at his mature age the information he gives to the police woman is less significant than his discovery of mobile phone snobbery. The story starts and finishes with a cut. Like this a lot.

  2. Lucas: Generous comments with back-up - I couldn't ask for anything more.

    This one started out as two separates (Allchester; the "deprived" lad) and then mysteriously combined. After a while I realised it was becoming more biographical than is usual for a short story, but with each biographical detail helping to push the narrative. Hence longer. Am toying with the idea of publishing them as a collection. I presently have 22 stories, totalling 36,000 words. Will aim for 50,000 words.

    Perhaps renaming this one as Twin Cut, in honour of your observation.

  3. Impressive! If I were an Editor I would have a thrash and get into the corners.......put some flesh on the encounter with the boy. I liked the interior thoughts of Allchester, want to know more about him. Could he be meaner about the fatties.......I know you have some acidic humour in you.

  4. I agree with Stella, this one seems more sketchy than most of the oughties. It seems to leap through characters and locations a little too quickly. This may be the way life appears to those eighty-odd. Perhaps you should title it "pell-mell".

  5. Stella: As to the lad he is intended as a device rather than a character: a "thing" that informs Allchester then causes him, via the PCW, to reflect on, then question, his mad decision. Rather than flesh him out (which would interfere - for good or evil - with what I regard as the story's rhythm) I might well consider reducing him still further, say to information Allchester catches on a poster or overhears from a couple of anonymous people passing. Better still turn him into reported speech

    That said if you find the story's weak there I can see that's a perfectly legitimate observation. No doubt I cut the lad down horribly, given that I'd first imagined him as the central character in an entirely separate story. Perhaps I've betrayed him by carving up his irreducible essence. However by the time I'd reached him other ideas were beginning to emerge, as I explain to MikeM.

    'ppreciate your comments, though

    MikeM: Sketchy. All previous nine Oughties stories were just under 1000 words, this is nearly double. But that doesn't exculpate me from sketchiness, of course. Right from the start I faced a problem in that Allchester was alone for a third of the story; rather than go "reflective" I chose to animate him through what he was doing and what he saw. This seemed to impose an abrupt rhythm which I can see you might well find uncongenial.

    However by the time I reached the young lad I realised that the nature of the story had changed. More than anything else it had turned into a mini-biography. I wondered if this broke one of the unwritten rules of short-story writing (the subject of my long-running argument with Joe) but decided anyway to go with the flow.

    The result is a sort of cameo of Allchester's life, possibly at the expense of ceasing to be a story. So far, in the 22 stories I've written, only three of them qualify (as stories). But that's the problem with unwritten rules so who am I to say. Warts and all I'm chalking it up to experience. The next one will be better which is, I suspect, the mantra by which all aspirant story writers proceed.

    Thanks for the comment, though.