First post for the Blogging from A to Z April Challenge.
Short Story. “the Announcement” 4700 words.
On a sullenly cold winter’s morning, the day before his seventy sixth birthday, Alistair Smith – Smithie to his mates, who were all dead anyway – knew that something was changing with his daughter.
She stood at the kitchen counter of their little unit, knifing through the paper, quite literally. With a knife. Their best knife, fetched out of the butcher’s block that rarely got any use. Alistair knew there were scissors somewhere around, so her using that knife did sit well, for a start.
He steadied himself against the door frame, long since given up on any ability to run from the wrath he saw wriggling its way across her face. Even with his poor eyesight, he could see the age and anger on her. Feel it more like.
Used to be such a pretty young thing.
‘What you staring at, you old bastard?’
Alistair’s hands trembled from the medicine, which at times like this was a blessing. He gazed down at them, not wanting to answer, but having to.
‘Is there something wrong, honey?’
Nicola Smith didn’t turn her attention from the paper. She slid the serrated edge of her knife along the final side of the small article she had just noticed.
She smacked her lips together and levered the article out of the paper. It stood there temptingly, sitting on top of the counter with that knife.
Alistair knew better of it, but for all his worth he couldn’t help himself. His father, who had returned from the war a hero but wrecked heap of a man, had always warned him that it was best to keep his mates close and his enemies closer. Alastair had forgotten just when and how he’d realised that his own daughter might be the enemy held closest of all. But they needed each other, and that’s what really counted.
‘Is that some news?’ he said.
Nicola snatched the clipping up and turned with her put-on smile. ‘It’s an announcement, Father. That’s all.’
Alastair’s voice also sometimes trembled from all his respiratory medicines, but not for that reason this time. It came out in a quiver, echoing thousands of similar pleadings over the years. ‘Why don’t you call me Dad anymore?’
She used to. When she was little. When she was in her teens, her twenties. When the many years of loneliness hadn’t stamped her down. When she was nicer.
He felt the tears well-up in his already weak eyes.
‘What do you want for breakfast?’ she asked.
Her eyes screwed up. ‘Father, you know that’s not the answer. You need to eat.’
‘I’ll fix myself something later. You go off to work.’ Please.
Nicola laughed that bitter little laugh he knew she kept only for them, in the privacy of their own home. It used to be his home, his and her mother. Nicola had left it once, when she was younger, set off on her own life, except it didn’t amount to enough, so she landed back here at their little unit, and that seemed to be it. There were promises she’d move out again, when she settled on a man. He fought back his own bitter laugh at that one.
‘You know you have to eat. I have to fetch you something, Father. Make up your mind, and go sit down, for heaven’s sake.’
‘Fine. Some oats then,’ he said.
Nicola sighed diva-style with big slumpy shoulders, and said, ‘You needn’t be so grumpy about it. You should be more thankful, given how late you’re making me.’
Alastair had already half turned in the turtle-motions his body allowed him. Turning back now would be senseless, just to lose the argument. He carried on, shuffling towards the little dining table rammed against the wall in the front room. Evie, his lovely wife, had decorated it with pretty table cloths, but once the unit became Nicola’s domain she’d soon got rid of them. “Nobody has table cloths anymore, Father”, she’d sneered. Except he was pretty sure they did still have them out there somewhere, and didn’t eat off the chipped MDF.
Through the kitchen door he heard the cluttering of a cereal bowl being dug out of the cupboard. She’d use water again, not the milk she liked. He hated the stodgy oats that she made with water, it was never as creamy as her own. His darling daughter had told him he couldn’t have milk under strict doctor’s instructions. “Too much protein and cholesterol”, she’d mouthed the last really slowly like he was an idiot. But there was nothing wrong with his hearing, or his mind. A mind that could work out that it was his getting fatter by the minute daughter who should be staying away from the cholesterol.
He eased himself down onto the chair to the side of the table. She hadn’t thought to pull open the drapes today – probably still quite dark out there, considering the storms brewing. Darker in here, though. Out on the street, he could make out the normal car sounds of commuters rushing by, a bus in the distance, all accompanied by the hum of the microwave in the kitchen. And those funny noises she made when he knew she was crying but didn’t want him to see her being weak.
Yes, nothing wrong with his hearing.
The microwave beeped, and within only a couple of minutes, she’d swept into the living room and deposited the hot bowl and a spoon onto the table, and had half-left the room without a word when he called out to her. ‘Are you sure everything is right with you, Nicola, honey?’
Why did he still call her honey, when she was anything but sweet?
She paused in the doorway, with her back defying him. ‘Nothing gets past you, you old coot, does it?’
‘That’s no way to talk to your father,’ he bit back, echoing times when what he said had gotten better results. Arthritic hands clamped in his lap defiantly. It hurt. She hurt. He’d only offered her some kindness.
Quickly he adjusted his temper to fill the silence before she did, ‘You just seem a bit upset by that announcement thing, is all.’
‘You’ll keep me late for work with all this fussing,’ she replied, now stepped into the hallway. He saw partly, and heard mostly, as she started putting her coats and scarves on for the walk to her train stop.
‘I just don’t want you upset is all,’ he heard his own voice and reproached himself for how fearful he sounded. Never show your fear to the enemy, especially when you can’t see the white of his eyes. Another of his Dad’s advice.
‘I’m not upset, Father. It’s just a bit of a problem, some stupid mix up, but I’m sure I can fix this.’ Her voice sounded convincingly neutral.
She was as good an actress as her mother, he’d give her that one. But then, Evie had actually been an actress, she’d even had some minor roles on some telly adverts back in the days. Nicola had only ever done some acting through high school. He’d gone to see all two of them – she was a bit part chorus line girl in Oklahoma, and played a background mother in some other play. They always chose Nicola for the mumsy roles, it must have been her big chest, and less than hollywood looks. His fault on that last one. Still, she was pretty in her own way. Back then. Her thirties hadn’t done justice to his daughter now. Her face was slumping, she had to tackle her grey roots all the time, too. Even his watery eyes caught those. And she was running out of time to make him a grand dad. Tick tock.
‘Well,’ she called as he saw the brighter shadows of the front door window move across the hallway, ‘I’m off to work. Be good for Mrs Lebel.’ The front door shut behind her, with a gush of wind. One dried up leaf flipped into his vision, and settled on the laminate flooring.
Alastair ladled a spoonful of the oats out, and up to his mouth. He slid the goo onto his tongue, and swept it down his throat. Water. Gruel. That’s what she’d made him. Gruel. Prison gruel, which was appropriate, as he was now locked in his own house until somebody came for him.
He creaked up from his chair, and clutched the side of the bowl, taking it into the kitchen with him. The spoon clanked, and the gruel glooped against the unsteady sides of the bowl as he shuffled. He put the bowl down on the side of the sink. Should wash it out before it set like concrete, but first he had the newspaper to see to.
Nicola had dumped the newspaper into the bin. She’d never thought that he might like to read the paper too. Should be recycling, he thought, as he pulled the paper out, thumping it against the bin lid to get rid of the tea bag stuck against it. Not even a cup of tea for him this morning, either.
He found the page easily enough – she’d sliced it so that half of it stuck out as slips of newsprint from the main bundle. It was the local paper at least – sometimes she had different papers in, ones from her work, or ones she’d bought on the way home the night before. But this one was the local free paper, delivered across the city every Tuesday. The rectangular hole where her announcement had been was surrounded by small paid-fors – two births, a memoriam for someone younger than him, and one marriage. Her announcement could have been any of these.
Alastair crumpled the paper up again, and put it on top of the bin. Mrs Lebel would see to it more properly. He went to sit back on his seat in the front room and wait.
‘Mr Smith!’ Mrs Lebel’s Bulgarian shrillness woke him from his nap. He grunted and snorted his eyes open. Mrs Lebel stood over him, blinking un-naturally. He wondered about it for a moment, then realised the living room was still very dark.
‘What, Mrs Lebel?’ His throat was dry.
‘You’re wearing no trousers again. Or pants.’
Ah, that was why he was a little cold, then.
Alastair adjusted his hands over his lap, to protect his own privacy. Not that Mrs Lebel hadn’t seen it all before, but a man had to retain some of his pride where he could.
‘Why did you take them off?’ she demanded.
‘What? Do you mean you never put them on this morning?’
Alastair realised what she was thinking now, just as he thought it too. Nicola hadn’t bothered to point out his nakedness to him before she left. Alastair felt his chest and cheeks flame up.
‘I must have got myself muddled a bit, Mrs Lebel, that’s all. Must have took them off just before I came for a nap. Probably was thinking I was going to have a nice bath again. Oh yes, that’s it. I just got a bit dodderly is all – waiting for you, Mrs Lebel. And the bath.’
Who said acting only ran in the female side of the family?
‘Your daughter didn’t tell you?’
Alastair frowned at the accusation. ‘No, no. I did it after she left for work, Mrs Lebel. That’s all. Just getting a bit ready for the bath, a bit before time. That’s all. Ready for my bath now.’ He finished brightly enough, he thought. His throat was not only dry, but raw. His chest felt raw inside too. And tight.
Which was worse? Lying to protect his horrible daughter, or lying to protect the fact he had no idea why he had forgotten to put his bloody pants on this morning?
‘It’s not bath day today, Mr Smith,’ Mrs Lebel said.
Alastair felt all the brightness in him whoomp out of his backside with an almighty fart. Both of their pairs of eyes widened in surprise. Then Mrs Lebel, god bless her, began to laugh. It was one of her huge bulgarian laughs that shook her entire body. Alastair, despite his age, knew better than to leave off the opportunity to enjoy the jiggling of her huge bosums above his head. Sadly, the sight of the massive bounding boobs didn’t raise his old codger much under his cupped hand. Gone were his days of that, but he could still remember and enjoy.
As abruptly, Mrs Lebel stopped her laughing, becoming too intensely speculative of him.
‘I would appreciate a bath today, Mrs Lebel, as I’d like to go out to the dairy for some things.’
Mrs Lebel was good at tut-tuts. In that European motherly way. So, Alastair waited while she shook her head and tut-tutted. Then he repeated his request with more direction, ‘A bath, then I’m feeling well enough to go down to the store at the corner, just to pick up a present for the wife of my last friend who died on the weekend. He was a good mate, and I’ll miss him a lot. Everybody I know is dying, Mrs Lebel. It’s the least I can do to give his wife a little token of my sympathy. Just a card. You understand?’
He allowed his voice to croak in saying it, then waited while she settled for his lie.
He was in luck at the corner store. What with all the little units in the neighbourhood being sold up by the council, lots of god-awful semi-apartment blocks were now shadowing the streets. The local paper never got to those young block dwellers and renters. If they wanted a copy, they had to buy it. Like he did. From the store. He spent his £2.50 on the paper he already had at home. This one would have an answer in it, though.
‘Is that all you be wanting, Sir?’ Ahmed asked. Alastair remembered him as Ahmed, but likely he was another Indian or Paki that moved in when Ahmed left. Alastair could never tell the difference, and came here so infrequently now that it wasn’t worth the bother.
‘Well, a pack of fags would be nice,’ he said. Ahmed went to ask what brand, but Alastair shook his head, trembled the coins over the counter, and left without bothering to explain his joke. The jokes was on him anyway. Can’t remember the last year it was when he had a fag.
He lumped his steel walker frame over the store step and out into the cold. The sudden fresh air hit his lungs too hard, and his breath left him. Fighting through the coughs, he forgot to watch himself, and his sphincter gave way, sending a gush of wetness into his in-continentals – the name he called his adult-diapers. Red-faced, he turned in his coughs to make sure Ahmed had the good manners to not rush to his aid. Thankfully, the storekeeper had made himself disappear to the back of the counter somewhere. Younger people didn’t want to witness their own mortality like that, Alastair understood the natural order of things.
It was half an hour and halfway down the blustery footpath back to his house when he remembered his lie to Mrs Lebel – who no doubt was standing at the front door peering down the road, monitoring his shaky progress. And expecting a sympathy card.
‘Too bad,’ he said to himself. He stopped, propped himself against his walker, took the paper out of the little carry basket on the frame, and stuffed it down his trouser fronts, avoiding the front wetpatch.
After half an hour of fussing over his lack of memory, and helping him to clean up a bit, Mrs Lebel left him alone to himself. She had his bedding to do upstairs. Nicola should be grateful he could still – just – manage to get upstairs for himself. The occasional accident during the night on his bed wasn’t as bad as it would be if she found him doing the same thing on the sofa.
In the kitchen he got the paper out of his bathrobe Mrs Lebel had wrapped him into, and with a bit of trepidation turned to the Births Deaths and Announcement Section. He blinked to refocus his eyes. Without glasses, everything was very blurry. He’d misplaced his glasses years ago, he thought.
The small announcement his daughter had sliced out was an engagement notice – he could just make out the E for engagement, not a M for marriage. The frame showed a picture of the happy couple arm in arm. It was one of those local celebrity shots – you got them often enough in a university and footie town. Either some famous footballer or other well-known local who turned up at all the best city functions. The man in the blurry dots held out a glass of champers – probably the real stuff but you never knew nowadays. His fresh-faced blonde (he imagined anyway) fiance swooned up into his face, about to plant a cheek with dark lippy, by the looks.
Alastair remembered the same look on a photo of Evie and him, at a similar age. He swallowed the lump back down his throat. Maybe that was what he was seeing all along, just a memory.
He waited at the kitchen for several more minutes before Mrs Lebel came down. She tutted when she saw him there.
‘Can you read out something for me, please?’
Always one to feel needed, Mrs Lebel bustled over to the paper. He made way for her, stabbed at the announcement. She peered down herself a little, her own eyes belaying her growing age.
‘Hmmm. Liverpool University is pleased to announce the engagement of Provs – what is Provs, Mr Smith?’
Alastair’s eyes watered as he peered down at the same paper. This wasn’t as easy as he hoped. Mrs Lebel’s written English was worse than her speaking.
Mrs Lebel stabbed at the word. Alastair pushed his nose to it, feeling the twist in his back as he tilted over to the paper. Thankfully, the word swam into brief focus, helped by the tears permanently in his eyes. He blinked, and the word was gone.
‘Profs, it says Profs, Mrs Lebel. That’s short for professors, I believe.’
‘Ah. Then -’ She took the paper up to her own eyes, flapping the pages around her hands so that he could no longer make anything out on the page. ‘Liverpool University is pleased to announce the engagement of Provessors Sydney Luweln and Madeleine Carter. Provessor Carter is on tenure with the university’s Biology Department, visiting from Chicago. Provessor Luweln teaches Psychology at the university. The happy couple plan a brief engagement and will wed back in Chicago within the next year.’ She finished her reading with a curt head-nod, pleased with herself.
‘Thank you, Mrs Lebel’.
‘Do you know these people, Mr Smith?’
Alastair shook his head. No, he didn’t, but somehow something in there prompted him. What was it?
‘I don’t. But my daughter obviously does. She works at the university, of course.’
‘I didn’t know she was a provessor, Mr Smith,’ Mrs Lebel looked suddenly shocked, and pleased to find herself in more creditable company. Sadly for her, she was wrong.
‘No, no. Not a professor, not a student. She works in I.T, remember?’ He pondered the irony of having to remind Mrs Lebel of something, while the niggling thought that he was missing something worked at him.
‘Computers. She works on computers, and phones. She helps the real professors out when they have some computer problems.’
They ring her up, and she sends somebody who knows what he’s doing out, more like.
‘She good at computers? Why isn’t there one here, then?’
Good point. She had a flaptop thingee, but she always kept it locked away from him, in a briefcase, took it back to work every day. He’d didn’t know how to make one work, anyway, so it was nothing missed, really.
‘She has one,’ he assured the carer.
‘Time for dinner,’ Mrs Lebel dismissed the conversation, folding up the newspaper. He picked it up and carefully took it with him, not wanting Nicola to find it.
It was three o’clock in the afternoon, but Alastair Smith didn’t mind the earliness. Mrs Lebel would make sure he had some decent food in him, and cooked the recipes to such tenderness that he could almost drink them down without needing his dentures. Best of all, she used lots of salt, despite his daughter’s orders. Salt meant he could taste it. He shuffled out of the kitchen, leaving her to it.
Upstairs, after spending forty minutes trying to drain his bladder, he paused outside his daughter’s door, the missing thought still niggling at him. She always insisted his door was kept open – something might happen – not that she would do anything if it ever did. But hers was always shut. Not locked, though. He imagined that if she’d had the spare cash, she might have had a lock installed. But helpdesk people didn’t make that much.
He’d never had a reason to go into his daughter’s room for many decades. Occasionally he’d caught glances at it when she’d opened the door. No longer the girly pink room of her childhood, she’d soon put paid to that in her teens. Now as he stood in the open doorway, not even sure how he’d come to paw open the door itself, he wondered why she’d never re-wallpapered the musty pink and grey paper of the eighties. Any man that ever came here – not that she had them over – would leave screaming of finding himself in some 80’s flashback. In this room, she was still twelve years old.
Sydney Luweln. Not that other women, she wasn’t the problem. It was Sydney Luweln. Mrs Lebel had said it like ‘Loo-wellnnnn’ with that long drawn out bulgarian way of hers. But something about it. Something that had obviously upset his daughter. Where did he know that from?
Alastair stood at the doorway of his daughter’s bedroom, and with weak eyes glanced around at anything, everything. Searching for that clue.
Downstairs, a clatter. He was still safe from Mrs Lebel’s prying eyes then. He took a step into the abyss. Nicola hadn’t made up her overstuffed bed. She still kept some of her old stuffed toys on it, which gave him the creeps. A red blinking light on the television set and set-top box indicated she’d left everything on standby also. Alastair knew not to question her on power bills or anything like that. His pension covered a lot of it, he knew.
On her desk, tucked up against the only good window, there was a whole collection of picture frames, and books, surrounding a space kept ready for her flaptop. He listened. Mrs Lebel was still busy in the kitchen, humming some Russian-sounding tune. He shuffled over closer to the desk, almost tripping on her patchwork rug (grey and pink, washed away by time). The frames showed various snapshots of Nicola, mostly taken recently. He hadn’t expected her to have ones of her mother, and certainly not him. His daughter had never been sentimental.
Older shots showed younger Nicola, sometimes on a girls night out. Most of her friends were married with kids now. Some married more than once, she’d moaned at him. She didn’t have girls nights out anymore. Nothing in common with them. But when she got married, hah! Then she’d promised that she would have plenty of nights out, and rub their noses all in it. He believed her, his daughter. She always made good on her threats, and in this case he’d been just happy to not be the focus of those promises.
Alastair wobbled in front of the desk. It was funny how he could see things better if he stood away from the frames a little, squinting at them from a distance. But he couldn’t do the same for the books, without propping them up against the printer sitting at the back, and he didn’t want to do that because she would notice.
Old age sixth sense told him he needed to look in the books, though. Or maybe it was just outright nosey-parkey-ness. Still, someone his age was entitled to a little knowledge and detective work occasionally. God knew how boring the rest of his life was. And how dangerous it might be to him if he didn’t work it out before she got home. She was angry over something. He wanted to know what before the anger came out on him.
The first book on top was thick and padded. He knew what it was before opening it. A scrapbook. Inside, the first page held some fuzzy photos possibly taken at one of Nicola’s university dos. She made sure she always attended them, if she could. Sometimes he suspected she wasn’t invited, but if any event included general staff, Nicola made the best of her opportunities to continue her husband search. A husband who would free her of the drudgery of this prison, who would love her unreservedly, and who she could rub the noses of her old school friends with. “Love unreservedly”. Whenever he heard her say that, he always thought of a pet. Probably a dog. Or cat. Alastair wondered when Nicola would get her first cat. He wouldn’t really care, at least it would keep him company, and might mean more milk could be sneaked aside from her.
He stopped himself from laughing out loud, his chest couldn’t take the spasms today.
He turned the page of the scrapbook. On the left, Nicola had slotted in a big full page drawing. It was a big heart, like one of those that young school girls did for their loves. Alastair felt the heckles raise on the back of his neck, though. This one was new. She’d only recently drawn it. It stank of wrongness, to see a heart like that, drawn by a thirty-five year old woman, but then maybe not. Who was he to judge? At least she had finally found a man. At that thought, Alastair felt the pang of fear and hopelessness again. If she really had found somebody, then what would happen to him?
On top of the heart, there was her name, in her scrawling adult signature – “Nicola Smith”. In the heart, the word “Engaged” and below the point, another name in large red writing. “Sydney Llewelynn”. A welsh name.
Alastair felt the sudden need to visit the toilet again. He shut the scrapbook, shut the pages on the little knife-cut announcement she’d slotted in the right hand page only this morning. He backed out of the room, and shut the door quietly as he could.
He knew he’d heard it before. Sydney. Sydney Llewelynn. She’d once said that was the man who would be his son-in-law soon. He remembered now. Not many people around with that kind of name. Professor Sydney, she’d called him.
As he jerked into the bathroom, he felt his own fear meld into anger on behalf of his once-beautiful daughter. What a tosser, that Professor was, to let down poor Nicola like that. As quickly as it had sprung up, the anger re-arranged itself rightfully to the fear again, as he eased his trousers down. A coughing fit took over his body. He doubled over on the toilet pan as his body shuddered to breathe.
Whatever anger he had held was misplaced. The problem might lie for the Professor, not him. Nicola had promised she’d put it all right. She always made good on her promises.
‘Mrs Lebel,’ he cried out, but his voice was too weak. Racked with pain, the air left his lungs as he coughed and sucked for air. Spots of blood spattered the tile floor.
This post participated in the Blogging from A to Z April Challenge. Find many other worthwhile bloggers to read, comment with, and follow through the A to Z Challenge blog.
A word from the author:
The above short story is guaranteed to be reasonably raw, possibly incoherent and certainly only semi-edited. It was written as a challenge to post up something for 26 days of this month, often on the same day, and with little time to re-do. Comments are welcomed, but please realise that all the short stories appearing on this blog over April are in a rough state, and once the month is over, I will return to the work as a learning lesson in self-editing and discipline. Now, for the rest of the day, you’ll find me going around the A-Z Challenge bloggers and reading their blogs too.