Martin stared at the poster on the wall. He didn’t know what it was but vaguely recollected the term from somewhere: Land Army. It was encased in one of those clip-it frames that just looked like huge sheets of glass. They were not proper photo frames at all. The poster was an illustration portraying a woman in a field of ripened corn. An exaggeratedly yellow sun beamed down on her. Along the wall there were no other photographs and Martin wondered why this one, which was no work of art, was here at all. Strangely it did not look out of place with a background of yellow paint. He peered closer, looking for more clues about its origin. There were none.
He had told the old woman, and himself, that he was trying to get as many hours as he could completed. Although the order had expressed three evenings a week that arrangement had been for his own benefit but he would have preferred getting his punishment over and done with. ‘You’ll just need to sign to say I’ve done some extra hours,’ he had explained. He had arrived suddenly, without warning, and it was clear he hadn’t been expected. The house was not as tidy as it had been on his previous visit. There was a newspaper strewn across the sitting room and the morning’s mail had not been collected but had lain waiting for something to happen, like an expectant father. He had tidied it all up: unasked and not thanked. He was in the hallway because Mrs. Chapman had asked him to fetch something from the front room of the house. He had gone in there expecting it to be much like the other rooms. It was not but had been lost somewhere in the past. It didn’t seem as if anyone had been in there for a long time. But Mrs. Chapman had told him exactly where to look for the cheque book so she must have been in there recently.
She had a bill to pay. He briefly wondered about bank accounts and the marvels of direct debits. For some reason the old lady was not so keen. He walked into the back room. ‘Just where you said it’d be,’ he said, handing her the cheque book.
‘Thank you,’ she replied, taking it from his hand. She wrote out a cheque in bold confident strokes then placed it in an envelope. The front was already addressed in impersonal bold type. ‘That should satisfy them,’ she said, pausing for breath between each word. She seemed angry with herself and shook her head. Or perhaps it was coincidence, just one of the shakes she seemed to suffer with. Martin looked on, uninterested. ‘Right, one or two more things to sort out,’ she said.
The first thing was quite a grim job. The old woman kept a rabbit and its hutch needed cleaning out. Neither Martin or his elder brother had been allowed any pets. They had no room to keep any and a dog or cats were impractical. As he cleared out the cage he was quite pleased about that. It wasn’t a pleasant experience. When he was done there was a black bin liner half full of straw and wooden shavings. His hands smelt and he asked where the bathroom was.
‘It’s upstairs,’ said the old woman.
Martin made his way to the top of the stairs and found the bathroom. It was the last room he tried. There were two others. One, at the front of the house, he assumed was the master bedroom, the other seemed to be a child’s room. He paused at the top of the stairs and then made a quick decision, opening the door to the master bedroom. There was a large double bed and some cheap looking put together furniture covered in white melamine. On top of it there was a black purse. He walked over to the chest of drawers and opened it. It was empty and he tutted under his breath. He had enjoyed a small hope that he would get something out of this but it didn’t seem it would be that easy. He walked out back onto the landing, then into the bathroom. He washed his hands using the small stale soap bar that he found and dried them on a towel that needed washing. Or perhaps it didn’t. His own mother was fastidious about washing and he had nothing else to compare it too. Then he walked down the stairs. ‘I need some coal brought in.’
‘I’m not a butler,’ muttered Martin.
‘No you’re certainly not,’ said the old lady. She looked directly at him. ‘Butlers are polite.’
There was nothing wrong with her hearing, as old as she might be. He grabbed the brass bucket that was sat next to the fireplace. He went outside in distinctly chill air and filled it from a concrete coal bunker. ‘How do they get that stuff in there? There’s no back access.’ He asked the question inconsequentially, not really expecting an answer and was surprised to hear one.
‘They don’t, I do.’
Martin knew that it must be difficult for her. The coal was heavy. How did she even get it home? He wanted to offer to do it for her but couldn’t find the words. Besides it would do his image no good if any one knew he was being kind.
As if prompted into conversation the old lady asked him a question. ‘What did you do to find yourself here?’
‘I took a car without permission.’
‘O.K I stole one.’ He had admitted that much to himself. ‘So now I’m paying for it.’
‘It seems to me you don’t have to pay much.’
The comment angered Martin. ‘I’ve heard that before. I expect you think they should bring back hanging.’
‘They should, for some things. Not taking cars though.’
‘Glad to hear it.’
They both chuckled then.
Maybe she wasn’t so bad after all.
The second big job involved moving the washing machine. The cat had dragged something in from outside. Whatever it was, she had hidden it behind the washing machine and a putrid smell was now beginning to colour the air. As it turned out it was a mass of tangled hair that the cat must have found in someone’s drain. Martin couldn’t tell the colour of the hair: it was covered in dirt. ‘Probably from the hairdressers along the road,’ he had said, trying to explain it away. He wasn’t sure if the cat travelled that far. For the first time he looked at the old lady. She had long hair. He thought about it. It was unusual for an old woman to have long hair. He wondered why. Was there an unwritten rule about it? Did your hair get dry when you grew older and difficult to manage? He wasn’t sure. She probably washed it regularly and strands would travel down the plughole. Eventually they would clog up the drain. Perhaps the cat had aspirations to be a plumber. He smiled at that.
‘You smile quite a lot, especially when no-one’s saying anything.’
Martin grew embarrassed. ‘Yeah, I mean yes. Yes I do.’
That was all he said and she nodded at him as if she knew something he didn’t. They walked back into the kitchen. ‘I expect you’ve got to get back soon.’
All that waited for him at home was a debate about John’s choice of occupation. ‘No, not yet. I can stay a while.’
They had a little food. Martin cooked the fish fingers and was quite pleased with himself but the old woman didn’t seem so grateful.
‘These are a bit rubbery,’ she said.
‘Their sell by date was over a week ago. They should have been in a freezer, not a fridge.’ Martin defended himself not with anger but with force nonetheless.
‘Fair enough,’ said Rose and nothing else.
They continued eating in silence.
Martin broke it. ‘Have you got any sauce?’
‘Yes, thank you very much.’
‘Can I have some?’
‘It’s ‘may’ I have some?’’
‘O.K, may I have some?’
‘It’s in the kitchen cupboard, above the sink.’
When Martin opened the cupboard he was greeted by not one, but seven tomato sauce bottles, all at various stages of use. ‘Why have you got so many bottles of tomato sauce?’ His curiosity had been awakened. He wanted to know.
‘I like it,’ she replied.
He noticed then her teeth, brittle and yellow looking. He wondered if they were all hers. Old people had never been a concern to him before. ‘Where’s your husband then?’
‘He’s dead,’ she replied flatly. Martin could detect no emotion in her face, just indifference. He was shocked.
‘Oh….’ he muttered. ‘You don’t have any photos about. Why not?’
‘They remind me of him and I don’t want to be reminded.’
Martin thought that was a strange answer. ‘What was he like?’
‘He was a very loyal man,’ replied Rose Chambers. ‘What about you?’ she continued.
‘I’m too young to be married,’ grinned Martin.
‘That is not what I meant.’
She still spoke flatly but this time Martin detected a slight smile on her lips.
‘There are a few girls around I ‘spose.’
‘Anyone in particular.’
He thought briefly of Charlotte. ‘There is a girl I like but I’m not really her type,’ he said.
‘I know the feeling,’ replied the old woman. Then there was a moment of silence but it did not seem uncomfortable. ‘So you’re young, free and single. We need to warn the world.’ Martin took the comment in the gentle way it was offered.
He was encouraged by her friendliness. ‘What’s that poster in the hallway, why’s that there?’
She didn’t answer him straight away but looked directly at him. ‘A poster for the land army,’ she said eventually. He recalled the expression from his history lessons but could not remember any details. At the mention of anything to do with the second world war his ears usually clammed up. It was in the distant past and nothing to do with him.
‘It’s in the past,’ said the old woman, as if reading his thoughts.
It was getting late so Martin reluctantly said goodbye and began his journey home. Although the nights were beginning to get longer with spring, summer had not yet come. It was a dusky time and because there was not a cloud to be seen it was clear in a refreshing, swimming-pool kind of way. He was in quite a good mood but the closer he got home the more he feared what would be awaiting him. The conversation would begin with the words: ‘we need to talk.’ His mother would be there, extra ammunition to throw at him. For reasons, not understood by him, his approval of John would need to be given. But there was no way he could approve of John. He was a policeman and as soon as anyone found out Martin’s life would not be worth living. All his carefully crafted masks would lose credibility instantly. No longer would he be o.k. He would be bullied, rejected and distrusted. He could handle the physical bullying. It was the isolation that concerned him.
To get to the flat entrance, an imposing block that cast an intense black shadow in the street light, he needed to pass the park and the basketball court. There were only a few people there. Faces he recognised but no real friends. Richmond was not there. ‘Yo, bro,’ called one of the boys. Martin raised his hand in salute. It was like being a member of the cubs, with secret signals and unwritten rules. There was a lot of trouble on the estate and it was not wise to fall out with the wrong people. He smiled and called out a greeting. ‘In for a mugging,’ he said. They didn’t hear him but shook their heads vigorously as if they did.
He didn’t have his key and had to press the buzzer for the main door to open so they knew he was coming up. When he had walked up the stairs he noted there was fresh graffiti on the walls. The council came and cleaned it off about once a month. It had recently been cleaned so there was still space left for more. ‘The kingdom has come’ it said in big colourful letters. It was signed by ‘R’. Martin did not recognise the signature and he was confused by the quote. He did not know what it referred to. Perhaps someone was just messing around. He walked up another flight of stairs and saw that the door to the flat was open. ‘Here goes,’ he muttered and walked in.
His first ploy was to go upstairs, straight to his room but he was foiled by a basket of washing on the stairs. ‘We’re in here,’ came a voice. It was his mother. He walked into the living room. He might as well get it over and done with. ‘Hi mum,’ he said.
‘Hello Martin,’ she replied. She was sat on the sofa, with John next to her. She picked up the remote control and switched the television set off. ‘Where have you been?’ she asked in a small quiet voice.
Martin wasn’t sure how much she knew. He had told John all of it but was not sure how much he would have told her. ‘Around,’ he replied.
‘Around,’ repeated his mother in a tone he knew well: exasperation. ‘I tried to ring your phone.’
He had switched it of deliberately, fearing a summons. Martin peered at his mother a little closer in an attempt to determine her mood. She seemed to be putting on a little weight these days, which was good because extra flesh seemed to cover the lines that dominated the landscape of her face. Her dyed blonde hair fell about her shoulders uncombed. There were marks around her eyes where her make up had been disturbed. She had been crying. Immediately he felt guilty. He did not want to make his mother cry. But it was a misplaced emotion. He was not the cause. ‘It’s Richmond,’ said his mother. ‘He’s in hospital.’
They travelled down there together. John had a car and although Martin felt uncomfortable getting into it he wanted to see Richmond with some urgency. No one knew what had happened to him. What had started as a harmless cold had evolved into something else and later in the day he had been admitted into the casualty wing of the local hospital. Richmond had lain in casualty for some hours. Martin did not know if this was good or bad news. Surely someone with a serious problem did not stay in casualty for long.
They went to the casualty department first because they did not know where Richmond had been moved. A distraught phone call from his friend’s mother had only revealed that he was no longer in casualty. After a long wait Martin’s mum returned from her quest for information to report Richmond was now on a general ward and had some vague directions. To get to the general wards they had to leave casualty via its entrance and walk into a separate building. They then attempted to translate the complicated map. An elderly man in a starched blue uniform walked over and helped them. ‘I’m a volunteer,’ he announced proudly. Martin would never volunteer for anything: he did not see the point. The man gave them a second set of directions which they followed. In all this time John had not left his mother’s side but had been muttering reassurances. Anyone would have thought it was her friend who was here.
There was no one at the nurse’s station. It was obviously visiting time because the ward was full of inane conversations about all sorts of things. The constant background noise was incessant and Martin wondered how anyone got any rest. The noise was coloured further by the output of small televisions which swung out on huge metal arms above each bed. A nurse seemed to magically appear. ‘Can I help?’ she asked in a vague, uninterested way.
Martin’s mother replied. That suited him. Adults always liked to deal with adults, as if it were a generic and logical belief that children could not deal with serious issues and were simply ill equipped to deal with any circumstance out of the ordinary. Martin knew this was not true and if anything the reverse was. He saw Richmond before the nurse had identified him. He was sat in the bed opposite the nurse’s station. Richmond’s mother was there and a burly pair of shoulders, which Martin did not recognise. He grabbed his mother’s arm and they walked over.
Martin was shocked by what he saw. Richmond’s face seemed split into two. One half did not seem to match the other and it was as if all the muscles in it had collapsed. His mouth turned downwards and his right eye leered at him whilst at the same time not seeing him. ‘Hi Richmond,’ Martin said as if the greeting would alter the situation and somehow redress it. There was no reply.
‘He can’t hear you,’ explained Richmond’s mother. He looked at her dark face and saw the glistening trails of tears. ‘They’re not quite sure what’s happened to him but they’ve mentioned a stroke.’
It couldn’t possibly be. Strokes happened to old people, like the Chambers woman. Richmond was sixteen, the same age as him. Martin looked desperately at his mother but there was only confusion in her eyes. He looked at the stranger, who seemed calm. ‘This is Lucius, Richmond’s father.’ He was a big man, with huge hands and a thick neck. He did not have a beard but neither did he seem keen on shaving because there were a few days growth of hair on his chin. He wore a deep black suit, as if in mourning, and a scarlet tie, with small yellow triangles emblazoned on it, which did not go with the suit.
‘Hello,’ Martin mumbled. He had never heard Richmond talk about his father. He just knew the man had left his home and family, like his own had. That was enough to instil an instant dislike. Circumstances surrounding the departure did not even occur to him.
There was only one chair, next to the bed. It had a pillow on it. Someone had sat there and the pillow was bent, with an imprint in it. The man, aided by John, went in search of chairs. They came back with three and both mothers sat. John joined them and Martin stood with the stranger, the enemy, and felt odd as if their joint standing bonded them in some way.
The vigil continued for a few hours and it really bit into the core of Martin’s being. He was young. He shouldn’t be near a hospital, especially in circumstances like this. He wished for a moment that he was like Richmond and not aware of his surroundings but almost immediately he realised the nature of the wish was both callous and selfish. He dismissed it. Why shouldn’t he think of himself? His mother suggested they go home. ‘He’s having a scan tomorrow’, said Richmond’s mother, ‘MRI or something. I’m not really sure.’ In reply Martin’s mum leant over and gave her a hug, but said nothing. Richmond’s father shook John’s hand. Then he turned and took Martins. This time he gripped it with two hands. Brown eyes looked directly into his. He could not make out the deep Nigerian accent very well but he caught the gist of the words. ‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘he is a close friend.’
Later that night, safely harbouring in his bed, Martin could not sleep. John had disappeared, presumably to go to work although no mention was made of it. His mother had gone to bed fairly early. He had made a feeble effort to watch MTV and indulge his love of music videos but it did not last long. Thoughts kept pounding in his mind, striving for attention and he found he could not concentrate. But when he had lain in bed the thoughts dissolved like sugar in water. He could not grasp them and so only reached vague conclusions that did not address any of his real concerns.
It was a restless night and in the morning he woke early, images of all sorts of things struggling for attention in his head. He did not have a shower but put his clothes on straight away. It was Saturday morning. Normally he would have spent the day with Richmond watching the geordie boys on television, not aware that the hours were evaporating. In the afternoon they would either watch sport or visit the basketball court to catch up on the latest gossip and comment on what was cool and what wasn’t. He liked football and supported the local side. He would like to watch them play but could not afford the ticket prices. He wondered how they ever got any supporters at all with such prices. This Saturday was different. He rose late although he had been awake for hours. In the afternoon, after a lunch of tea and crisps, he went to the hospital. On this occasion he went by himself. He travelled on the bus and did not harbour a grudge about bus fare, as he normally would have. It did not even occur to him to entertain such feelings. He had a bus pass to show he was under sixteen. It would run out in three days time. He stared thoughtfully at the photo. He wasn’t smiling in it but trying to look cool. He remembered the photo booth in town were it had been taken. He remembered the occasion. Richmond had been with him. A vibrant Richmond.
The ward was awash with a creeping background of conversation. The mood of the place did not seem to equate to the severity with which Martin viewed it. Even the nurses seemed to be ambivalent about their tasks. A few of them sat at what had been described as the nurse’s station, as if they physically owned it. An open box of quality street chocolate lay before them. Martin had never really liked sweets. Big tins like this reminded him of Christmas and of absence. One of the nurses looked up at him. She finished eating her chocolate then spoke to him. ‘Can I help?’
‘I’m here to visit my friend.’ The nurse waited for him to finish. ‘His name’s Richmond. He was in that bed over there,’ he said indicating a close by bed with a point of his hand, ‘but he’s not there anymore. Is he alright?’ He asked the question having not really considered the possible answers he might be given. Only now did he contemplate that Richmond might get worse, not better.
‘Good news,’ said the nurse. ‘He’s improved a lot. He’s talking now. I’ll take you to see him.’ The ward was shaped in a series of ‘u’s but there were a few side rooms as well. It was into one of these that Martin was led. Richmond was sat up in his bed, watching the flat screen television set, which swivelled around from a bracket on the wall. He was watching a football match. He looked up at Martin. ‘Hi,’ he said, as if everything was quite normal, ‘they’ve got every thing on this.’ He turned back to the game. Martin had seen large, yellow dispensers of TV cards, populating the otherwise empty hallways. He was going to give one to Richmond as a gift but he could not afford it and realised it would have been a waste of money. His view of Richmond’s illness had been peppered by pessimism. He was glad to be wrong. Someone had already thought of it anyway.
He took a seat by the bed. ‘Nice room,’ he quipped.
‘Better than before,’ answered Richmond.
Martin addressed more serious issues. ‘Have they found out what happened to you?’
Richmond looked at him as if the question had caused offence, but he answered. ‘No man. I’ve confused them.’
‘Perhaps they’ll sus it soon.’
‘Not today. No docs around.’
Martin hadn’t really noticed but he had no real reason to.
‘Must get boring in here,’ he said, posing a question.
‘Nah,’ replied Richmond. ‘TVs great. Loads of channels. Films and that.’
‘Right’ concurred Martin, not so sure himself.
‘Gotta go for another test on Monday.’ Martin raised his eyebrows in reply. ‘An angie somethin’. Not quite sure.’
‘Probably another scan.’
They spent the rest of the afternoon split between watching the telly, talking and playing Top Trumps. The afternoon passed quickly and when a woman came in bearing Richmond’s tea Martin thought it must have been a late lunch. Realising the time he decided to go. ‘I’ll catch you soon mate,’ he said as he left.
The septicaemia that had begun as a simple cold invaded the tissues of his cerebella and created a cerebral abscess. On the Sunday morning at 2.00 a.m Richmond suffered a second cerebral haemorrhage.