Today’s story from Jackie Burgoyne first appeared in ‘Still me’ an anthology of prose and poetry created by a group of Open University students and published by Pewter Rose, which raised funds for the Alzheimer’s society.
Home – by Jackie Burgoyne
Ron wakes to the sound of a particularly noisy seagull squabble. Pale grey light shines through a gap in the curtains and the air has a chill in it. Stretching, he feels a surge of energy and moves across to the edge of his low bed. He is aware of a feeling of purpose, though he can’t quite pin it down. It is 5.30 a.m; the time he rose every day for forty five years when he worked in the depot.
A deep red jumper is folded neatly on a chair. Sliding it over his head, he feels the soft warmth of the wool on his cheeks, then under his palms as he smoothes down the sleeves. His old cap peeps from the top of the wardrobe; he pokes it with his walking stick, laughing when he manages to knock it down. He plops it on his head and pulls it into just the right position, the peak in the middle of his forehead.
Ron is used to being quiet when he wakes, from years of not disturbing his wife and children. But now he doesn’t need to creep down the stairs, his bedroom is on the ground floor, in what used to be the dining room. As he walks into the hall, he sees the sun shining through the glass of the front door. He fiddles with the key for a few minutes until his hands remember the right actions and the door is unlocked and open. Closing it quietly behind him, he leans lightly on his stick and makes his way to the end of the road.
Jeannie’s head slumps heavily on her pillow. Her neck is stiff and her belly sore, from the long pull of anxiety on her muscles . Her alarm clock says 8.00 a.m; Dad must have slept in, tired from his trip to the doctor’s yesterday. Jeannie slides to the edge of the bed and puts her feet in the oversized hippo slippers, a present from her brother, Simon. Well, chosen by Helen more likely and not too diplomatic a gift. She moves slowly to the bathroom. When did she stiffen up like this?
If she leaves Dad sleeping, perhaps she’s got time for a shower. She’d risked popping out to the Co-op yesterday. Just to get some milk. Dad was sat in his armchair, listening to his Welsh choral music. Smiling, dozing. It was fine. But she’d glanced at her reflection in the shop window and realised she hadn’t brushed her hair. Unwashed clumps were sticking up all over the place.
Jeannie steps into the walk-in shower and takes advantage of the plastic seat installed for Dad. Warm water gushes over her hair and face and she sits, breathing deeply for a few moments. Working her herbal shampoo into her scalp, she feels the greasiness melt away. She soaps her heavy body and rinses, rinses until her limbs are pink. Realising she hasn’t listened out for Dad for a few minutes, she turns off the shower and wraps herself in a towel. All quiet.
Jeannie thinks of getting dressed before she checks on Dad. She knows going into his room will wake him, and then he’ll need her full attention. But it’s nearly nine now and it’s unusual for him to sleep this late. Putting on her towelling bath robe, she makes her way down the stairs. She opens the door of Dad’s bedroom quietly, wanting to wake him gently, to reassure him in those first few waking minutes when he’s especially confused. Looking across for the sight of her sleeping father, she sees only an empty bed.
Ron spots the pub on the corner, The Lamb. Here, every year in July, they offer a tot of rum to ex-navy men like himself. They’re all getting on a bit now of course and he smiles at the thought of the tottering and drunken laughter that follows. He’s forgotten that he hasn’t been able to go for a few years; with the concoction of medication he’s taking, even a tipple would have him half collapsed.
He walks on down towards the square, a collection of mis-matched shops and houses that forms the centre of this small island community. He’s passing through just before it begins to wake for the day. In the next hour the newsagents will open, the dustbin lorry will begin its noisy clatter, the paper boys and girls will stream from the shop to the surrounding streets. But for now only a fox, big and healthy, dashes across the road into the park.
Ron catches a sound, listens for it, then realises it’s coming from his own lips. He is whistling, puffing out a tuneless version of The Night has a Thousand Eyes. He has the chorus, but is trying to work out how the verse goes. His absorption in this is complete and he doesn’t look where he’s going. Instead, his legs follow a familiar pattern, taking him through the square, past the Co-op, the electrical store, the Salvation Army shop. There is a framed sign in the window, orange letters, perhaps once red, ‘Blood and Fire’. Ron has never been much of a one for religion and the thought of blood and fire doesn’t draw him closer.
Jeannie tries to swallow, but the lump in her throat prevents it. Calling for Dad, she searches the cloakroom, the living room, the kitchen. She looks upstairs, in the bathroom, her bedroom, the spare room piled with belongings. She runs back down the stairs, checks all the rooms again, and then takes the back door into the garden. For a moment, she feels hopeful; Dad sometimes sits out here, even pulls up weeds that his hand and eye recognise from long ago. But the hope is short lived; the door is locked and if he had gone out there, he couldn’t have locked it behind him. She looks in the garden anyway, but the bench is empty and the plot isn’t big enough for him to be hidden anywhere. A sob rises in her throat and she realises tears must have been streaming down her face for some time. She freezes, her arms wrapped around her body, clinging to herself, holding herself upright.
‘Come on Jeannie,’ she tells herself. ‘Panicking isn’t going to help.’ She goes back in the house and reluctantly tries the front door. It is unlocked. How could she possibly have forgotten to lock it last night? She always leaves the key in the lock, so they could get out quickly in case of fire. She had worried about doing this, but lying sleepless one night, she had imagined trying to lead Dad through a smoke filled house, trying to find the key to unlock the door.
Looking up and down the road, she sees only the paperboy.
‘Tom – you haven’t seen my dad have you?’
He shakes his head. Should she dash down the road, to see if she can spot him in the square? But she knows she’d be slow and is dressed in her robe and slippers. The police. She must ring them. The conversation is tortuous. The clerk who responds to her 999 call insists on taking all her details first. As she gives her name, address, age and phone number, she can see the hands on the wall clock marking the passing minutes. A missing person. Is it a child? No. Has he been missing for 24 hours? No, but … From somewhere, she drags up language from a carers’ training course, taken long ago.
‘He’s a vulnerable adult.’ That seems to give the right signals, fit with whatever’s written on their checklist. They realise it’s urgent. They’ll send someone over. She’s told she must try and find a recent photograph. But first, Jeannie thinks, she must phone her brother and sister.
Ron makes his way up the long, steep hill to the top of the island. There are few houses in this part, a Community Hall, the recycling depot. When he reaches the top, he sits for a moment outside a disused petrol garage. His sense of purpose remains, but he is relying on intuition to fulfil it. At the side of the pavement opposite is a landmark that he recognises, an old milestone. He wanders across the road, sweeps his hand across its smooth stone and fingers its rough lettering. His legs take him across a piece of scrubland to the steep cliff path, which descends to the bottom of the island. He looks over the edge and stands there, staring at the coast sprawling out below him. But he feels the biting cold blowing deep into his legs and turns back. Instead, he makes his way back to the road and follows the curving pavement of this gentler decline.
Jeannie fumbles with the phone, dropping it as she tries to take it from its recharger. Laura isn’t answering. Taking the kids to school probably. Each ring seems to stretch into minutes. She tries Simon. Thank goodness, he answers.
‘I’m on my way into work Jeannie, can you ring me back later?’
‘No, Simon, Simon, it’s Dad’.
‘Oh God Jeannie, you’re not panicking again are you?’
‘Yes – no, he’s missing, Simon.’
‘Missing, what on earth do you mean?’
‘Missing, gone, not at bloody home, I don’t know where he is. What do you think I mean?’
‘For Christ’s sake, I thought you were meant to be looking after him. I said he’d be better off in a care home. Have you called the police?’
‘Yes, they’re on their way.’
‘Well there’s more point talking to them than me. There’s not much I can do from up here. Ring me when you know something.’
‘Simon, can you ring Laura?’
But he had gone.
Ron walks down the hill, way marked by more pubs, The Victoria, The King’s Arms, The Dolphin, all familiar to him from years gone by. He pictures his hand raised, holding a dart, poised, delicate. Throwing it, at just the right angle, with just the right pressure, to hit the bullseye. A bull finish. He hears the roar of his team mates around him, feels the slaps on his back, tastes the frothy edge of the celebratory beers.
Turning the corner, he sees the chip shop, now an Indian restaurant and feels his first pang of hunger. He continues down a lane, the position and shape of which is familiar, but the houses that he remembers as wrecks are refurbished as holiday homes. Crossing the car park at the bottom, he makes his way to the destination he has held not in his head, but his heart.
Jeannie is sitting in her living room, clutching a photograph of her dad, taken at Laura’s wedding, ten years ago. Someone, she’s not sure who, has made her a cup of tea. She has described the red jumper she knows Dad is wearing, a present from Simon, left unworn on the chair because of the label: Wool and mohair. Gentle hand-wash only. Dry flat. The policeman is talking in a low monotone.
‘Research suggests that missing vulnerable adults are most frequently found in the vicinity of their home.’ Research? What the hell was he talking about?
‘We have a squad car driving round the top of the island and two officers making house to house enquiries.’
Jeannie gathers her wits to try and explain.
‘You know that most of the island isn’t accessible by road? He could wander for miles round the old quarries and no one would see him.’
‘I know it’s hard for you Mrs … er …’
‘Miss. Stanforth. The same as my dad. You did get his name didn’t you? What about the helicopter? Shall I call the coastguard?’
‘Yes of course. Stanforth. We have our tried and tested procedures Mrs Stanforth, let’s see what the officers can find out before we go down the route of contacting our coastguard colleagues.’
‘There you are my lovely,’ Ron says. ‘There you are my beauty.’
The beach. The waves roar a welcome to him. The pebbles fall and crunch under his feet. More agile people stumble on this shingle bank, but Ron’s feet know just how to move to accommodate the drifting of the pebbles beneath them. He makes his way to the sea. The wind is now a gale, but is South Easterly, so supports him in his place on the water’s edge. The spray washes into his face. Images form, whether these are in front of his eyes or behind them, he cannot be sure. A sunny day, children, two girls and a boy, playing, squabbling. A dark haired woman, beautiful, unpacking sandwiches from greaseproof paper. A small fishing tent, a paraffin fire that keeps going out. He feels the tug of a fishing rod as he hauls out mackerel after mackerel, as big and handsome as tabby cats. The sea air is as familiar to him as his own skin. He is suffused with a feeling he cannot name, but he mouths his closest approximation:
‘Home,’ he says. ‘Home.’ A little further around the bay, a dog walker looks across and sees a windswept old man, wearing a jumper over pyjama trousers and slippers. She feels in her pocket for her mobile phone.