Fiction: Oak Grange Retirement Home by Yvette Naden

You walk there after school / It’s your home five days a week / Your visits there have become a second education, like a after-school club you can’t seem to avoid / Like your friends who stay behind playing chess against teachers too afraid to go home / Or your sister, Eve, who slinks off to meet that boy on the motorbike / Maybe it’s a holiday / Like Jane-Anne, who flicks sand in your eyes / Fresh from Barbados, she says / Have you ever been?/ An internship, perhaps / After all, Ma says it’s a learning experience / Sometimes, she picks you up / In Johnny’s Morris Minor, a bloated ram with its legs sawn off / Swollen leather in the back / Sometimes, Ma meets you at the gates and carries your rucksack, her apron creased and stained / Either way, you find yourself in that same yard / Searching for opened cans and glass bottles, cracked like book spines / Searching for tire treads / Rubber shadows / You find none / Next time, then.

You’ve come to know it as ‘your chair’ / That’s what the others call it / So does Ma as she re-ties her apron and strokes her stiff curls / Asking, How do I look? / You sit on the not-quite-your-chair, suddenly grateful your feet can’t touch the floor / They dangle like catkins / You shouldn’t worry about your hair, you tell her / Ma smiles / You miss the way she stiffens / Her lips are tight as she offers her first lie of the night / I won’t be long /  You lean back / Get comfortable / Frowning because this isn’t your chair / They all look the same / Anyone could have died on this, shat on this, drank coffee on this / That sterile blue, white round the edges / The colour of drowning / Of drifting in and out of sleep / You take out a sketchbook / You already know you’ll leave it blank.

He must have been six-foot-four in another life / You wonder if he resents his body for shrinking / If he blames it for failing him or if he’s simply too old, too drugged or too tired to notice / You’ve seen old, but not up close / It’s strange and foreign / As if you’re intruding on a private moment between lifelong enemies trying to make amends / You sit and think about sketching him / Your hand stills / Mr. Wexler has given you notes on Hamlet / You should be making a start on Act 4 / Learning words like ‘catharsis’ and ‘hamartia’ / Maybe Hamlet was simply terrified of aging / Maybe he enjoyed the privilege of dying young / You blink / Straighten as Ma comes in, remembering her rules about posture, poise and those pursed lips / Her curls remain frozen in a photograph / Tiny blonde waves / She isn’t a natural blonde, of course / And the old man she’s about to undress seems to realise that / He winks at you / The ballroom’s that way, dear / You smile / As his bladder gives out and piss runs down his legs.

Ma smells of yellow / She sucks nicotine from her fingernails / Snacking on the job / You’ve seen her in the yard, passing Woodbines to pensioners / Old Man Smythe who coughs and swoons and says, You’re a godsend, Annie / You’ve seen her with the others, nurses with sagging cheeks / They gather round the bins and smoke / Suckling like piglets at their mother’s teats / You’ve promised not to tell Dad / Just like you promised him you wouldn’t tell Ma about the lager he hides behind the sink / Or that his night shifts end with early mornings in the pub / Part of the furniture now / People ask where they got that sculpture from and your father grunts / Oh, that’s Graham. He’s been here since the doors opened / You watch Ma fit a nappy on a man who looks like Dad.

She’s in the Common Room / She has you arrange the chairs in a circle / You wonder if they’ll be worshipping Scrabble or Daytime TV / I’ll leave you to it, says Ma / She leaves you with Mrs. Humber / Yes, the one with bunions like exploding stars / Skin bulging, pushing out from beneath the nails / And a bridge of hair over both feet / You wonder if Ma’s feet look like that beneath her standard-issue boots / If she keeps her toes wrapped in bandages like a Pharoah.

Mrs. Humber sits in the chair nearest the window / In the eye of the visitors / Not many here, you know / They come to remind themselves that death exists and head home chatting about dry cleaning and bus fares / Mrs. Humber has a son / You’ve seen him once / He comes in late, but today he’s early / Mrs. Humber squints the moment he arrives / When he says, hello / she returns to her book / Two shirtless men on the cover / And the title in peroxide pink / Backstage Pass, it says / Her son leaves early / She laughs.

There’s Mrs. Humber and then there’s Scrooge / You don’t know if that’s his name or a nickname or if you’re simply trying to revise for your English Literature exam / His neck unfurls from the base of his skull, like the toffee apple from last Halloween / Scrooge looks up / Don’t try the lasagne, he says / I won’t, you reply / I can’t, He smiles. My nurse has wandered off. / His wheelchair is large and black, but you decide against calling it a throne / Sit down then. Unless you want to listen to Mrs. Humber trying to pronounce ‘prolapse’ / He blinks / You leave the Mrs. Humber book club and sit opposite the man in the wheelchair / You wish he looked older / You wish his hair was silver, not white gold / It would make him easier to abandon / Bring me that Chess set, he says. I can’t get anyone to challenge me. You do know Chess, don’t you? / You shake your head / He laughs with his eyes and nothing else / Well then, he says. You haven’t lived.

You know the names but he makes you re-learn / The squares, too / Each of them, across the board / D5, E6, F8 / You move for him, stating the name—Rook—and the square: D6 / He sighs when you get it wrong / Can I stay longer? you ask / Not up to me, he says / I’ll have to ask Ma / Scrooge smiles / You do that, he says. I’m not going anywhere / You wonder if he feuds with his body, like the white bishops and black bishops feud on the chessboard / Squares become diamonds /  You wonder if he’s locked in a secret war / Or if he’s simply cracking jokes to pass the time / And you wonder if that’s all there is here / Time and chess and the odd birthday announcement over the tannoy to which no one responds / If I wanted to be reminded how old I am, I’d phone my daughters, says Scrooge in the chair with the chessboard, and the king that never topples.

At his request, you make friends with your castles / More useful than they first appear, he says / You lose your castles twice in one game before remembering that / He teaches you to bring the Queen out early / You learn what it means to have a stranger wipe your arse and lift you from the toilet / He teaches you the frontal assault, two Rooks cornering the King / You watch him being spoon fed in the canteen / He teaches you about his time in the war / You learn his excuses for calling them ‘Pakis’ / He’s adamant they all add up / You take his Queen in three moves flat / Your Rooks snort with hunger, spittle / Tickle the board / His wrinkles and that too-white beard / Part of a disguise, you think / Perfect camouflage for horrid and outdated words.

You come by after school / Walk all the way, clutching his king from your last game / Bag bouncing like a tortoise shell / Snapdragon doors and a pair of nurses passing spliffs in the corridor / The only way to get through / Better to arrive sky-high when you turn up at a food bank / Another nurse does her Sudoku in pen / Brave thing, Ma says / And Ma, wrestling Mrs. Gibbons into her pyjamas / Fighting folds and a large crescent lump, often mistaken for a third shoulder blade / Ma doesn’t mind when you sneak to the Common Room.

The king is purpling / Your grip is a stranglehold / Hands slick with sweat as you see the empty table / No Scrooge / No chair / No chess set / The walls wrap your back as you pull up one of the metal stools / You stare at the wall while waiting / Make potpourri shadows with your hands / Solid, malleable shapes / You could pluck them from the air and crumple them / Scrooge doesn’t come.

This nurse wears Old Spice / There’s grease on his nametag, blotched around what’s either an ‘a’ or an ‘e’ / Old Spice almost runs into you / He’s tangled in your rucksack / You can’t find Scrooge anywhere.

Ma comes by in the dark / Can’t find him? she says. He’s out for the day, you know. His daughters came to visit.

He’s a chair and a Scrooge and this is his King / The chessboard is scuffed, you decide / And it smells all wrong in the Common Room / Still

You ask when he’ll be back.

Yvette Naden’s work has previously featured in the Wizards in Space Anthology, Horla Magazine, and the Roadrunner Review. In 2021, Yvette won the Zealous Short Story Competition and the Elmbridge Literary Prize for Poetry. When Yvette’s not writing, Yvette attends the University of York, where Yvette is a second-year student majoring in English.

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