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Visiting Jim

He dislikes lying to matron. She is, after all, a decent enough person. But if he told her the truth, she would never let him go. She would probably force him to join in more of the activities at the nursing home. He thinks activities a strange choice of word when the home only really has a dimly-lit television lounge, a large, light sitting room filled with green high-backed chairs and another activities area with card tables and board games.

Bill spends his time meandering between these three rooms in the daytime, sitting for a while, watching and listening, before he moves on. He suffers the odd game of draughts or chess with one of his fellow inmates, listening to their wheezing chest, whistling nose or slapping jaws. He dreads an invite to the TV room, as it means enduring the soaps or talk shows that dominate the  schedules.

Despite the constant noise around him, of television, nursing staff, coughs, moans and clicking joints, he sometimes finds the silence of his world suffocating. If it is warm enough, he likes to sit on a bench in the garden. He chooses one halfway across the lawn under some birch trees where he sits and listens to the leaves rustling overhead and the wood pigeon’s plaintive call.

He used to like Sundays, the main day for visitors at the home. Not that anyone ever visits him. His friends are either too frail to travel or gone now. He has no children of his own, only nieces and nephews. They send cards at Christmas and on his birthday but they don’t visit. He used to hover nearby when others had visitors, surreptitiously sharing in their conversation and family. That was until one woman complained and he was told not to bother people any more, which had annoyed him. It’s not as if he’d been doing any harm.

Now he dislikes Sundays most of all. In order to avoid them, he has to lie to matron. He doesn’t like doing it but every last Sunday of the month, he visits his old friend Jim Harris in the seaside town where they used to live. Jim is too frail to travel to see Bill. That’s what he tells matron anyway. So she allows him a day pass once a month and he gets the train on his own. To see Jim. He enjoys those visits but is finding them harder. His body aches for a week now after making the trip and he wonders how long he can continue his jaunts.

When his train pulls in at the station, he opens the door and stands for a moment on the step, inhaling the salt air and smell of grease from the chip shop. Those behind him expect him to take his time getting off the train. Those getting on wait awkwardly, not knowing whether or not to help him off. He walks towards the esplanade and sits for a while on a bench, watching the waves rise and fall. If the weather is bad, he doesn’t stop but instead walks on past the arcades and gift shops until he reaches the bright green and orange canopy of the restaurant.

He always chooses a table at the back, looking out over the restaurant and onto the seafront beyond. To his right is the bar and to the left the kitchens. He knows the menu verbatim but he and the Head Waiter go through the ritual of him studying it each time. He sucks on a bread stick, as he considers the choices. He reads the Italian first, pronouncing it perfectly in his head, then savours the description in English underneath.

It is busy today and he eats even more slowly than usual. He hears laughter and the crack of one of those tiresome party poppers: he guesses they are a hen weekend from their high heels, bare legs and short skirts. He is distracted by a squeal as sundae glasses of multi-coloured ice-cream sail towards another party, a family this time. One of the ices has a sparkler in it for the birthday girl with flushed cheeks, cowering in the middle of the table. To his right, he can hear a father rasping commands to a child, sit up, finish your pizza, stop banging the table leg, or we leave right now and go home. A line or two of ‘O sole mio’ rises in a crescendo from a table of lads by the window. He watches the waiter collect their glasses, smiling patiently and bowing his head when they finish, before moving off towards the bar.

At the other window table sits a young couple: she has long blonde hair that she flicks over her shoulders while she talks; her skin is pale and clear and squeezed into a one-shouldered black top; he sits forward awkwardly in a stiff grey shirt and scuffs his feet while he talks. The first date in a proper restaurant, Bill thinks. Her nervous giggle ripples through the restaurant and his embarrassed cough gives them away as the children they still are.

Bill orders an espresso at the end of his meal, although he knows he will pay for it later. He has had such a good evening of people-watching that he feels like rebelling. There will be another month of insipid tea when he gets back to the home. He thinks he deserves a treat. He pockets the mints for the train ride home. The coffee is sharp and hot, so he lets it cool off, as he watches the parties break up and tables clear. Jim would like it here, he thinks to himself. He realises that he has hardly given poor old Jim a thought this evening. But this would be Jim’s kind of place, he is sure. That is, it would be, if Jim actually existed.

Comments

John Wiswell
Reply

The degrees of resignation to loneliness in this are things I wonder about in my own grandfather. I speak to him regularly, trying to lift his spirits and give him hope, but there are always our resignations.

kath
Reply

I think you can only continue to do what you’re already doing, John, and that is, to spend time with your grandfather. The only resignations we can fight are our own, unfortunately, although we can temporarily alleviate how others feel about theirs.

Debs
Reply

I wonder how many invisible people there are in the restaurants, shops and places we visit and hurry through each day?

kath
Reply

More than we imagine, I would think, Debs, but maybe if we all make an effort to smile or chat to those we do notice, it might make them feel less so?

Fennie Somerville
Reply

A lovely evocative story, Kath, which also tells a reader much about age and loneliness and maybe about institutions, too. The need to belong, which you have so beautifully captured here, affects some people more than others, but if you need to belong – and most of us do – then the need is as acute at eight as it is at eighty – or ninety in Bill’s case. The need for escape, the (almost) illicit cup of coffee, to turn back the clock is also tellingly rehearsed in this story.
I do hope you are making a collection of these pieces.

kath
Reply

Thank you, Fennie. x

Chris Stovell
Reply

I particularly like that image of Bill pocketing his mints for a later treat, saving a little piece of his freedom for when he’s back in the place where his day is dictated by other people.

This piece touched me, not just for the quality of your writing, but because it reminds me of someone I loved. I’m leaving it hoping that Bill will have more days of ‘visiting Jim’.

kath
Reply

Thanks so much, Chris. I’ve spent a lot of time visiting relatives in homes like the one Bill lives in and it’s heart-breaking to have to walk away and leave them there, so I very much hope that Bill continues with his visits for as long as he can.

Icy Sedgwick
Reply

Aw this was an absolutely beautiful piece. I felt both sad, and elated, for him by the end.

kath
Reply

Thanks, Icy, that was what I was hoping for!

Steve Green
Reply

Loneliness is a tangible and destructive force for the sufferer. I find it saddening that many elderly people are thought of as being slow-witted and incapable of making their own decisions, because their body is failing it doesn’t mean that their mind is too.

I love the character capture in this story, it evokes both sadness and happiness. One can only hope that Bill continues to enjoy his “Visits” to Jim for many years to come.

Also one would hope that attitudes towards Bill at the Home would change in his favour too.

kath
Reply

I would hope so, too, Steve, and I agree with you. I loathe the way that people are considered to have a best-by date, after which they apparently no longer serve a useful purpose or are of any interest. It’s a stupid, limited view of society.

Dan Waters
Reply

I really liked this story, thought provoking and evocative, it made me think of the home my Grandmother is in, and although she isn’t aware of her surroundings, there are people there who are perfectly complis mentis, who I can very easily associate with Bill in there.
It almost becomes heartbreaking that his life has come down to his one free day out to visit a fictional friend, just to escape the tedium of daily life.

kath
Reply

Thanks for stopping by and for your kind words, Dan.

Bill’s life is heartbreaking and, sadly, there are real people out there probably living it, but I am cheering him on in his monthly rebellion and hope he continues it for as long as he’s able.

Deanna Schrayer
Reply

This is an absolute outstanding story Kath! Your descriptions are so palpable I felt as if I were Bill’s shadow.
Yes, it must be such a lonely life when you’re under other people’s control and there’s so little you can do about it. I’m glad he found a way around that and hope his visits with “Jim” continue for many days to come.
Fennie mentioned a series which made me think how great it would be to hear the stories of the other residents of the home….yes, that’s a hint. 🙂

kath
Reply

What amazing feedback! Thanks so much for taking the time to read and leave such a great comment, Deanna. I hadn’t thought to tell any of the other residents’ stories but I’ll let you know if any of them want me to tell theirs. Thanks again!

Craig Smith (@CraigWFSmith)
Reply

Never got the chance to get to know either my grandfathers, but hopefully one day I will be able to be a good one myself.

And like Bill will most probably do anything to get out and do something on my own for a while.

Nicely done Kath!

kath
Reply

Thanks Craig. Appreciate you stopping by and reading.

Virginia Moffatt
Reply

Ah that’s a lovely story of defiance and individuality. Really nice touch Jim is fictional!

kath
Reply

Thanks Virginia, both for stopping by and reading, and for leaving a comment.

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