An amusing, but thoroughly irreverent short story of 2,300 words
Rosalina Orsini was Italian by lineage, English by birth and old by God’s decree. She could, and did, live with those first two characterisations, the last, however, she denied as loudly as anyone would listen.
It had been years since she lived in a suite of rooms overlooking Piccadilly from the Ritz Hotel, but her mind was still there. Unfortunately, her body would no longer fit into the flowing gowns she wore in those days. It had sagged in all the wrong places, widen where once it was trim and shrunken where once it stood tall.
“Funny isn’t it, no matter how old one gets the mind is the last to age,” she was speaking to her friend of more than fifty years just as her friend’s daughter entered the room carrying a wooden tray laden with two cups and saucers, a small jug of milk and a makeshift plastic bowl containing sugar with a spoon sticking up from it. There was an addition that she hadn’t first noticed, a packet of digestive biscuits. I hate them, but at least I’ll have something to throw at any of these cats if one comes close, she thought to herself.
“Sorry Rosa, couldn’t remember if you took two or three spoonfuls of sugar. It’s been some while since you were here.” At that, she sat on the sofa next to Rosalina facing her mother who was beside the roaring fire in the hearth.
When she had poured the tea, and added the accompaniments in response to Rosa’s “two spoonfuls, please.” She turned towards her visitor and spoke in an almost conspiratorial fashion, quietly and deliberate. The fact that no one else was there did not matter to her, it was always the actions that counted for her.
“She won’t wake-up you know for at least a couple of hours and when she does she won’t recognise you, Rosa. The pills the doctor has her on now have calmed her down all right.”
“I did know she was ill,” Rosalina whispered. “When you said on the telephone that she’d had an accident I thought you meant with her, well, you know,” Rosalina paused, frowned, screwed her face up by moving her closed lips from one side to another, then finally spoke. “Her waterworks! And that was why you hung up on me so quickly.”
“No, Rosa, I had to run after the ambulance! Mum fell over her shopping trolley in Sainsbury’s, last Thursday. She tripped when one of the wheels seized up! Graham says we should sue, but as mum was on her own there’s no one else to back up her story. The store manager says that she is regularly seen wandering through the aisles as if she’s lost. We think she’s got the onset of dementia, but the doctor says it’s just old age.”
“Oh, goodness,” Rosalina replied.
“Two days before her fall Graham took her to see my sister, Ruth. Mum got out of the car and asked where she was!”
“Perhaps the journey confused her. Graham can drive a bit fast at times as far as I can remember, but that wasn’t what I was commenting on. Thursday’s are terrible in Sainsbury’s. I don’t know about the one that you shop in, but the one near me never has those small bars of Bournville plain chocolate on the shelves. I blame the Arabs, you know. They seem to multiply overnight where I live. Doubt they stock them in their own shops so they raid Sainsbury’s every Thursday.”
“Can’t you get them on Wednesday then?” The daughter asked as she sipped her tea.
Oh, yes, of course, I can. Actually, I’m two steps ahead of them. I get mine on Tuesday! But what happens if I forget. Then where will I be?”
“Suppose so, but I don’t think mum was anywhere near the sweet shelves when she fell. She was buying washing powder, even though I get that as I do all our washing.”
“As you say, very strange; unless there was an offer going on. That could explain it,” Rosalina offered as a reason for her friend’s behaviour.
“No, that was last week. I think it is dementia. I’ll tell you a secret if you promise not to repeat it.”
Back in the days when Rosalina had more friends than it was possible to name, she was being told secrets daily, some days they came as thick and fast as buses driving through Oxford Street nose to tail. As hard as she then tried to remember them all, it was impossible, so quite understandable that a few were mentioned in a harmless way. Never on purpose. “I didn’t do it on purpose,” she would declare to the aggrieved party. “I didn’t know that so-and-so was having an affair with him as well. How could I? She only told me after I heard it from so-and-so.” The names altered depending on the circumstances and, of course, on occasions, it wasn’t a she having an affair with a he, it was a she with a she or, less frequently, a he with a he. She could keep secrets as long as she was told who to keep them from.
“Who shall I keep it from, dear, this secret of yours?” guiltily she asked.
“Everyone, Rosa! Simply everyone!”
“Oh, that’s fine then. Just as long as I know.”
“Well,” having finished her tea she could now get closer to Rosalina, which she did before continuing in the same low voice. “Graham says she’s been in his greenhouse moving pots about at night. He’s hoping she has got dementia and forgets where the greenhouse is!”
“That’s a terrible thing to say! Why can’t he simply move the greenhouse?”
“That’s the problem, he can’t. It’s rotted his says. Doesn’t know how it’s standing up. He’ll be home shortly, you can ask him yourself. More tea, dear? she asked.
Albert Chapel was not a Methodist, nor was he a relative of Queen Victoria’s consort, but what he was he could not say, as he was born with no voice box nor vocal cords. He was speechless by God’s decree. In some degree, he was luckier than others suffering from those conditions. He had no wheezing or a cough to add to the agony of not being able to communicate unless sign language was understood, but often he wished to be able to swear and curse at those who just kept droning on at him as though he was an imbecile. Those times were becoming more frequent since he moved pubs!
His local, The White Horse, a short ten-minute stroll from his flat, had a new landlord installed by the brewery who despite how hard Albert tried, he could not get along with. The man had committed several cardinal sins in the first few weeks of his tenancy without once consulting Albert, the pubs longest-serving supper of ale.
The special bar stool he used being confined to the builders skip in the car park was the first. He accepted that it was old, and to some extent wobbly, but he knew its nuances and adjusted his sitting position appropriately. That first night, when the pub had changed hands and was full of strangers come to see the new man in charge, had long ago faded from Albert’s memory, but not it seemed from the mind of the man wielding the fresh broom in his vengeful clean out!
He was definitely not ‘playing with himself’ as some girl had complained that opening night. She wasn’t attractive enough to warrant even thinking of that. He was simply getting balanced on his stool, which any sensible person would have realised, but being speechless his conduct presented particular problems to explain! He could never come to terms with why it was necessary to call the police no matter how much beer was presented to him as an apology. All he had done was hold the stool above his head and waggle it a bit, showing that it had some loose screws that needed tightening, that’s all. The fact that some rowdy idiot had shouted – fight – had nothing to do with him.
When The White Horse reopened, after the insurance assessor had agreed on the cost of repairs and the painters, decorators, electricians, builders and glazier’s had been paid, Albert returned to find not only his stool had been dumped, but there no stools around the bar; at all! What’s more, there was no dartboard! The transformation from tobacco stained walls and ceilings, with the odd carved engraving that added character to the old place, into a food palace with chalkboard menus adorning those iconic ramparts was obscene to Albert. It was rational to him to place a dartboard on one and take out his arrows. It was a complete accident that a stray throw bounced from a wire onto an elderly gentleman’s table just as his cup of latte and prawn cocktail was being served!
If his new friend had been with him that night then honour could have been saved he told himself, and not made worse by his apparent reluctance to say sorry. She would have reasoned with that elderly, bad-tempered man saving Albert from the bruises that were inflicted causing the ignominious retreat from his local.
By the time he plucked up the courage to visit the nearest pub to his flat, his notoriety was known far and wide. The local newspaper’s coverage had added spice to the story of why his old local had changed its name to The Hungry Horse with the headline of No White Horses For Those Who Cannot Speak appealing to both the liberal-minded and the reactionaries, who for a time advocated the burning down of the food palace and replacing it with the headquarters of the British Party. That protest ended when the police had a running fight with a few hundred or so skinheads resulting in the National Health Service being stretched to cope one Saturday night!
See No Evil
The coming together of Rosalina Orsini and Albert Chapel was not in St Peter’s in Rome, nor did any Pope of the ancient Orsini dynasty order their partnership, it was decreed by God; and a train strike!
“Good gracious is it time for your husband’s return from work already? I thought it was only around three in the afternoon!” Rosalina exclaimed on hearing the news of Graham’s imminent arrival. “I must be on my way, my dear.”
“But you’ve only just arrived, Rosa. Stay a while longer in case the greenhouse falls down and wakes mother. She will be so disappointed not to meet you. I’m sure you could have chatted about something, but if you must go then I’ll tell her you called. Just don’t be upset if she never rings you, will you.” she sighed then instantly composed himself. “It’s quicker to get to the station going out the back way, it saves a good ten minutes. The only thing is you’ll have to walk through that greenhouse I’ve mentioned, but I’m sure mother is destined for that. You’ll be fine.”
“That’s why I must leave so soon. The trains are on strike. Well, of course, it’s not the trains on strike, they go puff-puff without claiming more money every week. It’s the drivers, or the guards, or the ticket office personnel, or the stationmaster. One of that lot, not sure which! That’s why it took me over three hours to get here. Difficult, arduous journey by bus.”
“You shouldn’t have come today, Rosa. You ask too much of yourself. You’re not getting any younger, you know.”
“But I wanted to see the old dear before she popped her clogs, so to speak. By the sound of your glass structure and her tendency to wander that won’t be long!”
Donning her hat and coat and carrying her red imitation leather handbag with her umbrella under her arm, she ran through the empty derelict outbuilding holding her breath and crossing anything that was free to be crossed. As she jumped onto the first paving slab that led to the safety of the street, the structure fell with an almighty crash spraying splintered flying glass onto the flowerbed slicing three expansive rose bushes into shreds.
“My, that was lucky,” Rosa said.
“Not for my best roses it wasn’t. Just look at them!” her friend’s daughter angrily replied.
Unbeknown to both women the shock of the outside desolating explosion had woken Rosalina’s friend who promptly keeled over and died falling to the floor, lying there in an undignified bundle of clothing which Graham tripped over as he entered the room still reading the evening paper. As he fell, he not only knocked over the tea bearing tray into the fire, but also the armchair that had previously supported his wife’s mother!
If the fire could have put words to its sparks and hissing then, “I love you, Graham,” would have been one of its first sentences, but, of course, fires can’t speak. What they can do, however, is spread and feast merrily when left alone!
By the time Rosalina reached the end of the street, from her friend’s daughters’ back garden, she could just about smell the pungent fumes of burning wood. She didn’t stop to look behind. Why would she suspect the house she had left was ablaze with flames thirty foot high, she was preoccupied with needs of her own than thoughts of disaster? It was then that she saw what she was after. An oasis arising from a desert of yellow brick.
She walked faster in case it was a mirage that would disappear before she could grasp that all invigorating glass of Gordon’s gin and Schweppes tonic, with ice and a slice to enhance its delivery down a dry dusty throat.
“The place I’ve just got away from stunk of cats pee,” she said as Albert Chapel held open the door to his new adopted local; The Blind Beggar.
You know what they say: Speak no evil. Hear no evil. See no evil.
Danny Kemp, with a wry smile on his face.