Tick, tock: repetition, routine; the things we cling to at the bookends of our lives, from the toddler watching the same videos over and over until the parents pray, or perhaps arrange, for a malfunction, to the OAP sitting in a retirement home fretting because her normally punctual eleven o’clock tea is a quarter-hour late.
I’d ignored the morning’s commotion, the usual noises of mayhem and distress. Berrylands is not the quietest of places at the best of times and if you’d been here as long as I had, you’d get used to the incoherent screams of frustration as Mrs. Woods and her helper search once again for her missing upper dentures. Perhaps I’d been unwise to turn a deaf ear. Perhaps the noises—the thuds, the crashes, the animal howls—and my missing cup of under-brewed, over-milked lukewarm tea were somehow connected.
Still, it’s quiet now. Even the usual car alarms and police sirens from the busy London street outside have fallen silent. I wonder if I’ve been forgotten. Or is this punishment for flipping Ms. Prenderghast—the thickset and sullen manager of this moldering nursing home—the bird? I can’t even remember why I’d done so, but this, I am quite sure, is not a sign of senility. This is having too many reasons to recall which particular offense might have sent me over the edge.
And anyway, aren’t us old folk allowed to misbehave? Don’t my grey hair, wrinkled features, and Zimmer frame give me free rein to say and do as I feel?
I don’t think Ms. Prenderghast would agree. I’m sure she’d be far happier if we were all permanently drugged to the eyeballs, and not just on ecstasy, either.
Oh, that’s really rather clever. Wasn’t ecstasy originally invented as a cure for dementia? I must tell Muriel that. Unless, of course, it was LSD? Or something else altogether? I was born a little too late for all that stuff, though it pays, I think, to drop the odd comment into the conversation. Stops them thinking I’m some sort of fossil. Stops them forgetting about me.
The little mantel clock with its fat green arms shows twenty-five past, and still no tea. Definitely, incontrovertibly late. Very well then, it is time to sally forth. I will make my own blasted cuppa! At least I’ll get the color right, and maybe it will be scaldingly hot, just how I like it.
I creak as I push myself upright, click and pop as I pull the Zimmer towards me. I am serenaded by my very own orchestra of arthritic and aging joints. Such is old age. I shuffle my way to the door.
Which is locked.
They’ve never gone this far before—this is more than willful neglect. As I hover in my crouched forward position, I imagine smuggling a letter out to the local newspaper. Social services raiding the home, finding me frail but stoic, the reporter breaking down in tears as I describe my distressing plight, Ms. Prenderghast taken away in chains, a blanket thrown over her bovine features.
Though come to think of it, didn’t the local paper close down fifteen years ago? Perhaps I should tweet it instead:
Hashtag SOS. Elderly lady imprisoned in Berrylands Nursing home. May not survive the night. Send help, urgent! P.S. Bring a thermos of hot tea.
Like I said, I wouldn’t want them to think I’m a fossil.
How many followers did I have last time I checked? Two, I think: Derek and some guy from Zimbabwe who claims I hold the key to our mutual fortune. I somehow doubt he will be coming to my rescue. But blast it, this daydreaming isn’t getting me anywhere. I drag the Zimmer and my own protesting frame over to the patio door that leads onto the little courtyard and try the handle: NOT locked! This is one pensioner they can’t keep down!
I ignore the other curtained bedrooms and head straight for the double doors to the day lounge. Stupid bloody name for a room, that. It’s not as if we have a night lounge, though maybe we should. Soft lights, cocktails, maybe even a piano. Now that would be a way to run a home.
I slide the glass-paned door back and see my first glimpse of a human since Jennie brought me my breakfast at around eight. And Jennie hardly counts, she’s not exactly the chatty sort and this morning she was even worse than usual: distracted, jittery, must have asked me at least three times if I’d taken my meds.
From the pink cardie it looks like it’s Silvia. Though what she’s doing on the floor, I can’t imagine—she’s probably dropped a Murray Mint or something. She looks up as I call her name, looks up through bloodshot eyes, her face contorted, a ragged, oozing wound reaching from one cheek all the way down to the little silver clasp at her throat, a glimpse of something white behind the red, and that’s when I realize that she doesn’t really count as human either. Not anymore.
She snarls, and starts towards me, and in an instant it’s only the Zimmer keeping her false teeth and her nicotine-stained hands at bay. I twist the frame sideways, spilling her to the floor, and as she tumbles, I lift the Zimmer and bring it down sharpish on the hip that has been on the NHS waiting list for some eighteen months now. She howls and glares at me, but this time stays down, one hand clutching at her side as I totter past, sans Zimmer, into the hallway.
Truth is, I don’t really need it—the Zimmer—not most days, anyway. But when you’re the archetypal little old lady competing for corridor space with walking sticks, wheelchairs, and the occasional gurney, a Zimmer gives you a certain intransigence, an uncompromising width that demands and gets respect.
Though I do feel a little naked without it, especially as I turn the corner and come face to face with a similarly zombified Muriel. Which is a horrific shock to the system and a dirty rotten shame to boot, because at my age, cribbage partners who still have their marbles intact are a rare breed indeed. I think she’s as surprised to see me as I am her, and I dodge past before she manages more than a guttural groan. I don’t tell her my quip about Ms. Prenderghast feeding us ecstasy. I kind of think it would be wasted on Muriel, as she seems to be missing both of her ears.
I’m beginning to fear the worst, and half think about returning to the safety of my room, but I’d have to go past Silvia and Muriel on my way back and by now I’m marginally closer to the kitchen. I wish I had my iPhone with me, though, much as the damn thing baffles the heck out of me. I’d call my nephew, Derek, and ask to speak to his nine-year-old son, Alfie. Last Christmas—the same Christmas Derek gifted me his reconditioned phone while trying to hide his brand-spanking–new generation one—Alfie shoved an Xbox controller into my hands and instructed me in the fine art of killing zombies. “Shoot them in the head, Nan!” he’d hollered as his parents had prepared dinner.
I wonder where the nearest gunshop is. It hadn’t seemed particularly difficult on the screen, even for an old duffer like me, and I kind of liked the colorful way the zombie heads exploded when I shot them right.
Not quite as colorful or realistic as Jennie’s head, which I pass a good few meters before I have to pick my way over her fallen body. She’s got a bunch of keys clutched in her hand: room keys. I guess it was she who locked me in. Probably saved my life, or what little I have left of it. If this is the end of the world and if the game my grandnephew was playing was anything to go by, then all that will be left by now is a few hardy souls desperately fighting for survival and power-ups. The game had been remarkably coy on the prospects for a geriatric with a heart murmur.
The hallway lights blink off and then back on again, and I quicken my tottering pace with one single-minded and all-consuming aim: a cup of tea before the power and gas goes out, forever. A last post-apocalyptic cuppa. And I’m close now, real close.
I should have known Ms. Prenderghast would be waiting for me in the kitchen. Or rather, the ex-Ms. Prenderghast, the recently departed, but not gone very far and certainly not gone far enough Ms. Prenderghast. Ms. Prenderghast, undead. She’s not alone, either, and as Mr. Robbins rears up, I deal him a swift clout to the ear, and his glazed-over eyes roll back and into his head as his top-of-the-range hearing aid takes a direct hit. Even I cringe at the piercing whine that spills from the shattered device. Thick black blood runs out of his other ear, and he wobbles and then drops untidily to lie on the recently mopped linoleum floor.
Ms. Prenderghast will not be so easy to defeat. Ms. Prenderghast is not an eighty-year-old man in a bowtie and with a thin wisp of hair carefully combed over his shiny pink pate. Ms. Prenderghast is a pitbull of a woman with matronly hips and a fearsome chest, her sleeves rolled up to show her muscular arms, her sensible shoes dangling below prodigious ankles, and with a lifetime of suppressed rage suddenly cut loose.
She snarls, baring her bloodied teeth, and I experience a warm stillness as she lumbers towards me. Silvia, Muriel, the decapitated Jeannie, even Mr. Robbins: this isn’t a zombie plague spread like wildfire by the infected. I have no idea whether or not my fellow denizens of the home have the inclination, but what I am damned sure of is that most of us simply don’t have the teeth for it. No, this is a one-woman crusade, a zombie Typhoid Mary, the simmering fury born of years trapped in the job she hates, of looking after the incontinent, the infirm, the senile, erupting like a dynamited dam into a mind swept clear of all other thoughts. Ms. Prenderghast is a malevolent force of nature, a berserker, and here am I standing directly in her murderous path.
I’m kind of surprised my heart doesn’t give up then and there. Perhaps it’s the sight of the hot water urn gently steaming away behind her. Perhaps it’s just that I already know how this is going to play out, so what’s the point of getting overly excited about it?
Only, as the calm descends and as I take a half step back to press against the tiled wall, something red catches my eye. It’s the defibrillator unit, ripped open, and with the charge light blinking green.
Oh well, it’s worth a try, at least.
I grab the paddles, and Ms. Prenderghast does the rest. Really, I don’t move after that; I’m not sure I could have if I’d wanted to. She stumbles forward, trips over poor Mr. Robbins, and her bullet-shaped head connects with a sharp zap as I’m still trying to read the upside-down sign on the paddles that warns: “FOR USE ON THE CHEST ONLY.”
I’m not certain she’s dead. I mean, deader: no longer undead. So, when the green light flashes once again, I stoop and carefully hold the paddles against the greying hair at her temples, hold until the unit is discharged, until there’s a faint and unpleasant smell of burning. Even so, I’d do it again, just to make sure, but my knees can’t take any more. I’m too exhausted and, like the defibrillator, spent.
I totter over to the urn, bypass it, and with shaking hands reach for the backup kettle. This cup of tea demands properly boiling water. I’m even going to warm the cup up first. It’s just a shame it’s not bone china, that delicately thin pottery that elevates a mug of tea into something epic.
I’m just taking my first tentative sip when there’s a soft exhalation from behind me and I turn to see a once-again vertical Mr. Robbins looking at me with undisguised hunger. At the door, a couple more mashed-up faces lurk: Muriel, and Silvia, and even Mrs. Woods, her denture-less gums dribbling bloody saliva down her wrinkled chin. Liver-spotted hands reach across the threshold; a chorus of bronchial moans fill the air. I know what drives them on, and I suspect I’m the last person alive in Berrylands who can give them what their turned-to-mush brains ache for.
I slowly put my cup down and as clearly and as loudly as I can, I say: “I’ll make a pot then, shall I?”
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