Paul Murgatroyd

Paul Murgatroyd retired two and a half years ago and started writing novels and short stories. Two of the latter have been published along with over 50 of his Latin poems.

 

Blight

Clive Quinn was seated comfortably in a morocco leather armchair looking out of the French windows at the extensive garden with its lush turf, orderly hedges of beech and yew,  and flamboyant flowerbeds of crimson roses and deep yellow tulips. His gaze moved on to the ornate Victorian bird-table where some blue tits and goldfinches were feeding on all the seeds and nuts spread out there. The sight of the birds brought to mind Anne Bird, his first girlfriend, who he’d met over half a century ago when they both started primary school. They had taken to each other at once. He’d asked her round to tea that afternoon, and she’d promptly accepted, to the great surprise of their mothers. He often thought of Anne, and tears often came to his eyes, as now, when he recalled her sad, sad story.

He could see her now. Lovely! A pretty little girl with apple cheeks, long chestnut hair and spring in her eyes. And lively too: they could hardly ever catch her at tick in the yard, as she sprinted and twisted and turned. Full of fun and mischief, always playing pranks, and when he was stairs monitor keeping an eye on the other children filing past him, she’d stand on his toes, so he’d pull her out of line, and after everyone had gone by, she’d give him a quick kiss, and run off giggling. What a sweetheart!…They must have been – what? –  eight or nine when they were joined together in holy matrimony by some of the other girls in their class at the back of Miss Manson’s room… She was also very bright – wasn’t she top of the class in geography and arithmetic? And in English she made up those wonderfully inventive stories, and acted them out later for her friends, like that one about…well, whatever it was. With the teachers they had in the last two years at their primary school she would certainly have got into grammar school, and probably gone on to university.

Clive shook his head as he recalled that she had abruptly disappeared from their school when she was ten. The story was that their randy sod of a headmaster had put his hand up her jumper (or was it her skirt?), and she had complained, and the authorities immediately got shut of her by moving her to another primary school. It was a rough one, with teachers who spent most of their time trying to impose discipline, shouting and caning rather than teaching the children anything. After that she’d ended up in an even rougher comprehensive… How had he just lost contact with her after she left? Well, he’d lived a couple of miles away from her, and he couldn’t remember ever going to her house, so maybe he never knew where she lived.

He did remember that five or six years later he’d caught sight of Anne one afternoon from the top deck of a bus inching through heavy traffic in a run-down part of the city. He’d got a shock when he saw her – trudging along, pushing a battered old pram with a screaming baby in it. She had just a thin jacket on even though it was very cold. She stopped to quiet the baby, and he saw she was quite fat now and her face had coarsened and she had red hands. Her shoulders were sagging and she seemed beaten down, defeated. As his bus passed her, she looked up with dull eyes, but didn’t see him. He could have got off at the next stop and gone back to talk to her, but he didn’t. He was on his way to play in a match for the school chess club, or badminton club, some club anyway. And clearly after all her early promise things had gone horribly wrong for her, whereas he was doing really well in the sixth form, with excellent prospects for A-levels and university, so speaking to her would only have rubbed in how she hadn’t achieved as she should have done and how blighted her life was.

Clive sighed, thinking how sad it was that he’d never seen Anne again after that. But then he reflected that it was probably for the best that they’d never met up again. He’d gone to Oxford and had a very successful career in the firm, which would only have made her even more unhappy with her own situation. He felt so sorry for her and thought he was still a bit in love with her. As he mused on all this, he drifted off to sleep.

 

He didn’t wake up when there was a tap on his door. Two carers came in – a woman in her late fifties a pretty teenager who was being shown around on her first day there and was keen to do well in the job. The older woman said quietly: ‘This is Clive Quinn. He’s a really sad case. Apparently he was a very successful businessman and made a lot of money, but, well, all the executive lunches and the stress and overwork got to him and he had a stroke. Now he’s got early onset Alzheimer’s. It’s not too bad yet, he can still remember some stuff, from long ago, but he’s definitely degenerating. His bitch of a wife divorced him and got the house and most of his money. What was left is being eaten up by this place. His son set all this up, but that’s it – the nasty little sod won’t visit him, won’t have anything to do with him. So all Clive’s success has gone for nothing, his life has been blighted and he’s sunk to this.’

‘Aah, that’s so sad,’ said the younger carer, frowning in sympathy. ‘The poor old man.’

‘Yes it is sad,’ said the older one with a catch in her voice. ‘I feel really sorry for him. Things have turned out badly for him and he’s really come down in the world. I should know. I knew him when we were both a lot younger.’

‘Really?’

‘Yeah,’ said Anne Bird, pursing her lips. ‘We went to primary school together. He was my first boyfriend, and I was his first girlfriend. We were love’s young dream. I still have feelings for him.’

‘Aah, that’s sweet,’ said the teenager with a sad half-smile. ‘Does he know who you are?’

‘No. Well, what with the Alzheimer’s, and I have changed quite a lot in the years since he last saw me, and he’ll have forgotten all about me by now anyway. I don’t like to tell him who I am, because if he could take it in, it’d only make him feel bad – him being in this pathetic state and me being perfectly OK physically and mentally.’

‘Aah, that’s nice of you, Anne, thoughtful.’

‘Yes well, that’s the job isn’t it – doing things for people in need, making life easier for them? It was a bit of a shock when I moved from my last home and started working here a week ago and found Clive was here. But I saw it as a heaven-sent opportunity, bearing in mind our history. I could give him some extra-special treatment. I can’t do as much as I’d like, but little things can make a difference, can’t they?’

‘Yeah, they can. I think it’s dead romantic what you’re doing.’

‘Yes well, that’s enough of that,’ said Anne briskly, looking a bit embarrassed. ‘We’ve got to get on. Let’s wake him up and get him into bed and settle him down for the night…Clive, wake up, wake up, love. It’s me, with young Jean here. She’s new. She’s lovely, very gentle. You’ll like her. We’ve come to help you into bed. And I can see you’re tired already. So we’ve timed it just right, haven’t we?’

‘What?’ asked Clive, bewildered.

‘Time for bed, my love,’ said Anne. Then, with a twinkle in her eye, she said: ‘You’re tired. Have you had a really busy day then, Clive?’

‘What – here?’ said Clive, and laughed at her joke.

Jean also laughed, and put her hand on his arm and stroked it. He looked up at her and smiled as Anne went on: ‘Yeah – busy doing nothing. A gentleman of leisure. I wish I had it as easy as you do here. You are a lucky man, aren’t you, my love? OK, Jean will turn the sheets back and get you your pajamas. Can you undress yourself today, sweetheart?’

She waited patiently as he took his jacket and trousers off. When he couldn’t manage his tie, she gently undid that and helped him out of the rest of his clothes and into his pajamas. Then she said: ‘Righty-ho, Clive. Off to the loo now, hey? Just shout if you need any help. I’m here waiting for you. Your plastic mug is on the shelf over the sink, the usual place.’

As he tottered off into the en-suite bathroom, she closed the door behind him and said to Jean in a low voice: ‘You can’t imagine how I feel seeing him like this…Right, it’s important to let people here maintain a bit of dignity. They don’t have much else in their lives. Clive is very sensitive about his dentures. He doesn’t want anyone to know he’s got false teeth. So he takes them out and puts them in to soak overnight in there, so nobody can see them.’

Jean nodded and carefully took all that in. After a while the bathroom door opened and Clive wandered out, with his lips pressed together, so he wouldn’t reveal the absence of teeth. Anne helped him into bed, tucked him up and kissed him tenderly on the forehead, whispering: ‘Good night, Clive, sleep tight.’ Then she said to Jean: ‘If you want to go on to Alan in the next room along and make a start with him, I’ll finish off here, flushing the loo and so on.’

‘OK,’ said Jean. ‘I’ll look after Alan. Don’t hurry. You have some time with Clive on your own. I know you want that.’

‘Thanks, Jean love,’ said Anne gratefully.

 

She did want time on her own with Clive. She had started the night shift that day, and this was the first occasion when she’d got him all to herself without anyone else around. There were things she wanted to say to him, in private. As Jean softly closed the door behind her, Anne looked at Clive lying there with his eyes closed. She waited until his breathing became deep and regular, and then she whispered: ‘Clive? Clive? Are you asleep, Clive? I think you are…Yes, you are, you fat fucking bastard. I’m sick to death of men, buggering me up, men like you. You think you’ve got it bad, cunt-face? This is nothing. It’s not enough, what’s happened to you so far, not nearly enough, you nasty bastard. I was your girlfriend, for Christ’s sake, you told me you loved me, but you never came round to see me after I was kicked out of school after complaining about that dirty old sod. And when you were on the bus and saw me, you never got off to talk to me, did you, when I could have really done with a bit of support, a single mum, having a really bad time of things? And when you passed me in the street a few years later, wearing your fucking college scarf, with your fucking snooty friends, you looked the other way, you pretended you didn’t see me, didn’t you, you college-pudden, you stuck up fucking twat? Fucking men! But the worm has turned, at last.’

She eyed him contemptuously, and then went on in a slightly louder voice: ‘You’ve had a nice comfy life, haven’t you, you plutocratic prick – dreaming spires of Oxford, taking over daddy’s little firm, expanding it, big house and all that? I’ve had a hard life, a shit life…Raped by me fucking Uncle Jeff at thirteen, and when I told me dad, the bastard wouldn’t believe me, wouldn’t believe his brother would do that, and me mum was too cowed to do anything. Then I got to bring up five kids in a slum, stuck for their sake with a vicious shit of a husband who knocks me around when he gets pissed – another man fucking up me life. Not that I let him get away with it any more. When he reached a new low two Saturdays ago and knocked out one of me teeth, and then passed out, I pissed all over his crotch, and next morning I told him he did it, he pissed himself…He’s an arsehole, my husband, but at least he had a job, that brought in some sort of wage, until your bloody company took over the firm where he worked a few years ago, downsized and sacked hundreds, including him, in his mid-fifties. Which means he can’t get another proper job – not that he tried very hard, the lazy bugger. So I’ve got to go out to work again at my age to make ends meet, earning a pittance and demeaning meself as a carer (ha, as if I cared!), wiping the shitty backsides of horrible rich twats like you.’

She grimaced bitterly, and then smiled, adding: ‘I thought it was a small world when I moved here and found that Mister fucking fat cat Clive Quinn was in this home, and in my hands. I was thrilled, I creamed me jeans in anticipation, I felt empowered…I’ve been spreading the story about us going together at primary school, and before other people I’m always disgustingly tender and affectionate to you, so nobody would imagine that nice, kind Anne could possibly be behind anything unpleasant that happened to her dear old boyfriend. Now that I’m covered, I’ve started getting me own back, a nice little bit of revenge – oh, don’t worry, it’s no worse than what you deserve.

You’ve probably forgotten it, but it was me who slipped you the slab of laxative chocolate just before I finished me shift the other afternoon, knowing that I wouldn’t have to deal with the fall-out, but that dirty bastard Sexual Harrison would. You gobbled down the whole bar, you greedy sod, as I knew you would. I gather later that evening when you were getting undressed there was a great explosion, and Sexual Harrison caught some of the flak. Serve him right – staring at me tits all the time. That was really neat: Anne Bird kills two birds with one stone. And now for my next trick…’

She went into the bathroom, grinning. She popped a Steradent tablet into the mug containing Clive’s dentures, and spat into it. Then she looked thoughtfully at the mug, and fished out the top denture, leaving the lower partial denture alone. With an expansive gesture she tossed the top one into the lavatory and flushed it away.

When she emerged a few seconds later, she went over to Clive, bent down and whispered in his ear: ‘Oh dear, it looks as if you put your denture down the bog instead of into the mug, you silly old twat. You really are losing it, so to speak. What a pity. That means the big secret about you having false teeth will be revealed to all and sundry tomorrow. Shame about that. And you’re not going to find it that easy to stuff your fat fucking face now, are you? No doubt you’ll manage to eat some pap, but when you come to clean your remaining six teeth, if you wonder why your toothbrush tastes of tuna, it’s because I’ve just shoved it up me fanny…Right. See you tomorrow evening for some more fun and games. I’ll think up something really good for then, don’t you worry. Good night, Clive. Sweet dreams , my love.’

She didn’t realize it, but Clive was already dreaming – about his lovely little girlfriend Anne, mischievously standing on his toes and then giving him a kiss and giggling.

© 2019 Paul Murgatroyd