First Homework

Turn on the radio and make a note of the first thing you hear.  Then use this as the basis of a story, or the beginning of one (500 words). This is what I heard: ‘He’s on the lawn by the bird table, look!’

‘He’s on the lawn by the bird table, look!’

Of course it’s Isobel who sees him first. After she’s practically forced her way in with her patronising biscuits and her nosy parker copy of the parish newsletter. So Brenda can feel guilty about that later, on top of everything else, that she failed to notice her own husband face down in the front garden having a stroke. She can hear Isobel’s self-righteous recounting of it, the ‘we all know’ and the ‘key was in the lock, would you believe’ and the ‘not even wearing any trousers’. She’ll pause before the word ‘trousers’ and whisper it for full effect, and the other women’s eyebrows will shoot up in mock concern and glee.

Isobel’s very good, ringing the ambulance and all that, talking to them when they come about pills and history, telling Brenda what to pack in Alan’s overnight bag. Not that Brenda can’t manage it herself, she just comes over as a bit incompetent, unfortunately. Always has, she’d be the first to admit it. That’s why she got passed over for promotion all those times. Stayed at her desk with her spider plant and her photos of the dogs and the one of Alan up a hill on holiday, watching for thirty-seven years while all the new ones got moved up over her head.

Like now. Everyone else seems to be going in before her. Isobel’s gone, after much hand-patting and promises to call in tomorrow wi. She’s got the family coming for tea, granddaughter’s birthday. And Brenda’s got a bolted-down seat in an NHS corridor full of bustling knees and sensible shoes, and this huge expanse of waiting.

They come, eventually, and lead her through endless double doors past trolleys and community artwork and discarded paper cones from the water dispenser and then he’s there in the bright lights, with his two day stubble and his stained yellow teeth and his mouth all crusty with dried spit. The good news is that the brain seems fine, they tell her, and she laughs. Well, they say, embarrassed, as fine as can be expected. They take the head support away and there’s soil all down the side of his head, in his ear, all over. Brenda picks a bit of leaf out of his hair.

They tried to do it in the park once, years ago. Broad daylight, up against a horse chestnut tree, but they couldn’t. Couldn’t connect. Something to do with the angle, and the smallness of Alan’s penis. They’d tried a bit of manoeuvring, bending knees, standing on something, she can’t remember what, but it didn’t work. Oh well, they’d said, doesn’t matter, but of course it did. That was in the days before the disease that’s come over from Europe, she can’t remember what it’s called, there was an article in the paper. A Latin name, she’d like to have learned Latin. And no cure, apparently. But back then it was unheard of. The leaves weren’t riddled with dark blotches, but green and healthy-looking. Like us, she thinks: we used to be green and healthy-looking. Reasonably, anyway. Now look at us.

Alan’s awake, sort of, and reaching for her hand. She takes it, and looks at their two hands in the harsh light, against the sterile hospital gown. His filthy nails and her swollen joints, and the age spots soft-edged and spreading, quietly shameful. The beginning of the end.

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