Max Dunbar lives in West Yorkshire.
The Old Devil
A low and humming dread-sensation accompanied Brenda Halco as her train carried her mile on mile over the Pennines. Something that got to her, because she was not prone to anxiety, or even nervousness. A nurse that got twitchy and jittery wouldn’t have lasted as long as Brenda had.
She sat back in the fuzzy seat and tried to get back into the Kindle thriller, but it was one of those ones where she could work out the ending way before the end (she loved crime fiction, but the plots could be kind of predictable) and her mind drifted. Was it the self consciousness of being all dressed up on the 19-14 through Huddersfield? Was it the guilt of selling out to the dark side of management, the auxiliaries and beancounters that sucked like swollen ticks on the NHS?
Surely not, and no one on her team had said so, but she went through the justifications in her mind again. She was from Warrington, they had family there, and friends at Stepping Hill, she had only meant to stay up in Leeds for a year after she won her pin, it would coincide with the graduation ball and Alec had already driven their belongings in the van (which Alec, on some ancient male whimsy, called his ‘super-transit mobile’) and, really, if you couldn’t sell out to management at fifty-seven, when could you?
At Piccadilly she got a cab. The driver was a funny little man who reminded Brenda of a consultant she had once worked with, some kind of hyperactive Middle Easterner. The sun shrank over the high rails, slowly becoming night.
‘ – and do you know what she said to Caroline, she said she had changed her mind and didn’t want the position after all? Caroline and Jan Wray were sat outside with her talking it out and she was just adamant, she wasn’t going to work there, she was going to get a cab back to the station and over to their old house.’ Pause, and a babbled rush as his wife’s interlocutor capitalised on this silence. ‘Well, they could go over the M60 in the middle of the night, but the driver’d want petrol money, wouldn’t he?’ She raised the tempo. ‘And all the work Alec had done on that nice place in the Heatons, why, I’m sure something could be worked out, I don’t think they’d properly exchanged and it’s not my business of course, she’s such a private person and I don’t ask things like that but isn’t it just so unlike Brenda Halco?’
The problem with having your wife as designated driver was that instead of having the late night drivetime on – the show for loners, lovers and losers, as the joke went – you had to listen to your wife banging on into her headset to her innumerable friends. Women talk, he got that, but why did they have to talk so much and broadcast all of it? He could feel himself getting irritable and fought it, knowing Estelle would pick it up and it wasn’t really Estelle’s endless babble that got to him (though get to him it did).
She made the turning onto Longshut Lane and began that throat clearing – well, any-way, I should – that signalled a conversation’s close and John Outerthwaite relaxed, felt like he could lose himself in a familiar dark road filtered through a semi-drunk haze.
Still, the conversation took a while longer to wind down.
‘I just don’t understand it. They would have welcomed her back at Jimmy’s with open arms, but at her age does she still want to be doing Mr Subramaniam’s open clinic with the drunks and drug addicts and god knows what else?’ She left the question hanging there for impact and whichever daft bint she was talking to – Estelle had so many friends from the voluntary job and the book club, John couldn’t keep up – said something. ‘I know. Her story must have changed half a dozen times. She was happy and laughing when she walked in the door. Then she glanced over at us and that was it.’
Men his age would be concerned at lapses in memory and concentration, but John Outerthwaite reckoned he was getting off light. He knew men younger than him who had catheters strapped inside their jeans, men who had to shit six or eight times a day, men reliant on all sorts of complex external machinery every time they wanted to get an erection. All he had – aside from what Dr Wootton called infarcs – was the annoyance of getting up two or three times a night to piss. The GP – a fit young thing – had told John to take his last drink before eight, and that had improved matters.
‘But the wife kep hassling us to go to the doctor about this memory business, so here we go.’
The neurologist had that easy, fluid, well-spoken manner that so many doctors seemed to have. ‘I’ve got the CT scan and the other investigations back today, and there’s nothing concerning or sinister. Your word finding’s good, you got almost everything right on the thirty questions – I docked you half a mark on the name of the Prime Minister, but politics is in such a state these days you can’t be blamed for not paying attention.’ He chuckled. ‘You’ve got a little wear and tear on the scans but that’s really to be expected quite frankly for someone of, er, your –
John laughed, to save the man’s blushes. ‘Son, I know I’m a geriatric, don’t worry about offending me. Point is, the tests are saying normal, that’s all I want to know.’
Dr Wootton blinked in surprise through thick glasses. He said that many patients were not relieved about an unremarkable test result. ‘People are frightened when they have observable symptoms and our scans aren’t picking them up.’
‘So I might really be demented?’
‘Not at all – at least, not yet. Mrs Outerthwaite said these little infarcs started around six months ago, on a special occasion –‘ The doctor groped for this detail.
‘I forgot our anniversary.’
Dr Wootton sucked air through his teeth. ‘Ouch.’
‘Ouch is right.’ John chuckled. In fact he hadn’t forgotten their anniversary but confused it with another anniversary that he couldn’t disclose to anyone, ever, for very good reasons.
‘You’ll get a review appointment in three months, because it’s always worth keeping an eye.’ He looks so young, John thought, even though he’s losing his hair. ‘There are more options for memory problems than you think. Psychological impacts. Many retired people experience low mood, irrational worries. And we men, we tend to bottle it up.’ And then Dr Wootton, demonstrating a wisdom perhaps beyond his experience, said: ‘This sort of thing can happen when you have something you want to hide.’
Then he was hanging about in the waiting room for the cab to arrive. It was alright for the other patients in the outreach clinic, who could play with their little phones or negotiate with badly behaved children, but for John Outerthwaite there weren’t even magazines to read. He’d asked the young slip on the desk why not and she’d said something about infection control. Infection control! This country was going to the dogs.
The driver helped him load his clubs into the boot (this driver was Brenda Halco’s ‘funny little man’, though John never knew it) and kept up his prattle about the World Cup and makes of cars all the way to the golf club. ‘You talk more than my wife,’ John Outerthwaite said, and the guy said thankyou, and John said: ‘It ain’t a compliment.’ The silly prick shut up finally after that.
You have to like, or love something. That was the key to staying sane in retirement. John had taken up golf. These days it was the only thing that kept his head clear. The heatwave had dissipated soon after Southgate’s England squad had finally bombed out, leaving only the misty humidity of the British summer, but still the light would break through at random moments, shining spectacular on the hills. I should never have left Cheshire, John thought in the glory of these moments, but he knew that even had that strange young urge not carried him to the cities of Yorkshire, he would still have found a way to poison this home place somehow.
In the clubhouse it was easy to lose track of time. The sky was getting that wan twilight colour when he staggered out to the car park. This was the kind of village where men drank all day and then bounced home behind the wheel… or just to the nearest pub. It made him feel self-conscious to turn down the lifts. Fuck, big John, they told him, half the cops drink here anyway! Still, though, John Outerthwaite had got well into his seventies without establishing a criminal record of any kind, not even for a motoring offence… and since around 1984, when some bright spark had pioneered the use of what Dr Wootton would call deoxyribonucleic acid in criminal investigations, it hadn’t been a good idea even to risk a parking ticket.
The cab driver took him round the houses, but at least he wasn’t a talker, so John let him off. Being in a car, on the ragged outstreets of the big city (where were they, Longsight? Levenshulme?) made him feel young.
He recalled a couple of the younger lads in the club today, talking about the whores they’d banged on stag nights abroad. And then Big Bill had said he could remember when women had a drink in the pub then went, in groups, onto the street for trade. John remembered it too (although he did not say so). Most of them were out there because the regular work wouldn’t pay enough to support a family, to put a deposit down, to have any real life. Now the women were all on tax credits, flexitime, maternity leave.
Still, all that was being chipped away. On his circuitous ride home John saw that every other business was tinned. Only places seemed to be doing trade were the cash-for-gold places, and the food banks.
So maybe, one day soon, the English streetwalker would revive.
It was unfair to say John’s son had disappointed him, but he had certainly disappointed him by surprising them that evening, dropping in on the way to Faye’s parents down south. Evenings after the golf club you wanted to relax in front of the sports, but of course Estelle was in raptures, and nothing would do but that she whip up a buffet supper, and they must stay the night, and the toddler stumbling about and throwing his food. John himself never knew what to say at these occasions – his son, and his daughter in law, had jobs in digital marketing, and stories to tell: what was he going to do, go on about his twenty years in hospital estate management?
The worst thing was his daughter in law was stuck to her electronic tablet thing. She would look up, make a sally into the conversation, then her head would dart down into the screen again. Eventually his son had to make an excuse. ‘Clemmie’s into all this true-crime stuff… there’s this message board where people obsess about cold cases and unsolved murders.’
‘I used to get the weeklies.’ Estelle had her mouth full of quiche but still couldn’t stop talking. ‘You know: Explore the twisted world of Peter Sutcliffe. Every week a new serial killer!’ She tittered madly.
‘And that whole true crime thing is back in fashion now, with all these documentaries and books out – god, I can see why Clemmie’s so obsessed. Her chatstream’s focused on this one guy, who they call the Trinity Killer. This was some maniac in the early to mid eighties, used to follow prostitutes around at night and strangle them –‘
Estelle almost choked on quiche in the click of recognition. ‘Student nurses, as well! Used to creep about in the student parts of Leeds! Some a them he’d just rape and beat, not kill, but –‘
Clemmie looked up. ‘I know it sounds morbid, but some of these people on the boards have turned over evidence that the police would never have found at the time, done stuff the police would never have time or resources to do – they’ve interviewed people, crosschecked phone records, lifted samples, all off their own bat.’
‘Everyone’s an amateur detective these days,’ said John Outerthwaite.
He awoke much later on, with nature’s familiar call. He pissed in the dark, not because he didn’t want to wake Estelle. The window on this side was buried in terraces and treetops but still the sense was strong – some kind of brightness out there, searching for him, and gaining.
© 2020 Max Dunbar