Tales from the Retirement Home

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Published Date:31-07-2017
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1 Tales from the Retirement Home TWO SHORT STORIES BY ‘A MASTER OF THE WEIRD AND WONDERFUL’ Michael Allen2 Copyright © Michael Allen 2003 First published in 2003 by Kingsfield Publications www.kingsfieldpublications.co.uk The stories in this book are works of fiction. All characters and events are products of the author’s imagination, and any resemblance to real persons or events is entirely coincidental. ISBN 1 903988 08 X 3 CONTENTS The man who was overlooked 4 The testimony of Araminta Sashburn 174 The Man Who Was Overlooked One afternoon towards the end of October, Mr Wilberforce discovered that the angel of death was wearing a Savile-Row suit. But he did not find that at all surprising; for Mr Wilberforce, at a hundred and eight years of age, belonged to a generation which believed in dressing for the occasion. And if collecting somebody for transfer to the afterlife did not call for a well-cut dark suit, then Mr Wilberforce was not sure what did. What happened, you see, was this: Mr Wilberforce had first noticed this rather elegant gentleman about three years earlier. Mr Wilberforce had a room on the first floor of the retirement home, at the front – a plum position, which was only right because he was the oldest inhabitant. And he spent a lot of time looking out of his window, because there’s not a lot else to do when you’re over a hundred. Every so often – three or four times a year, perhaps – Mr Wilberforce would see a splendid example of the traditional English gentleman come walking up the drive, 5 from the direction of the car park. Mr Wilberforce never saw the man’s car, but he got the feeling – just from the way the fellow conducted himself, you understand – that the vehicle was probably a Bentley. On about the third or fourth occasion, Mr Wilberforce also noticed a couple of other things: first, that while he often saw the man arrive, he never saw him leave; and second, it was invariably the case that, later in the day of the gentleman’s visit, the residents would be told that one of their number had died. In due course Mr Wilberforce came to the obvious conclusion: namely, that the gentleman in question was the angel of death. The purpose of this man’s visits to the retirement home was obviously to escort one of the elderly folk who lived there into whatever sort of afterlife came next. What that form of life was, exactly, Mr Wilberforce didn’t know; but he was pretty sure that the chap in the dark suit, who looked like a helpful sort, would explain it all when the appropriate time came. Mr Wilberforce could not help thinking that, where some of the residents were concerned, the visit from the gentleman caller came not a moment too soon. Some of the older fellows, and the ladies too, often remarked that they would positively welcome a meeting with the grim reaper. And what about Mr Wilberforce himself, for that 6 matter? He was now a hundred and eight, and surely he wouldn’t be kept waiting much longer? It was therefore something of a relief, one glorious autumn afternoon, when Mr Wilberforce found himself with the opportunity to actually speak to the visitor, face to face. Mr Wilberforce was walking down the drive, out for his usual stroll to the village and back, when the gentleman in question came round the corner of a yew hedge, briefcase in hand, and began to walk purposefully towards the grand old house. ‘Oh Good afternoon,’ said Mr Wilberforce cheerfully. The visitor seemed briefly taken aback. Just a fraction. But then, as you would expect of a man who was wearing such an elegant suit, he recovered himself and immediately responded. ‘Good afternoon,’ he said warmly, and paused as he came level with Mr Wilberforce. ‘Come to collect me, have you?’ asked Mr Wilberforce. And he found that the very asking of the question made his heart beat a little faster. When all was said and done, he was about to venture into the unknown, and a chap couldn’t help feeling nervous. ‘Er, well, no, I don’t believe I have come for you,’ said the visitor. ‘At least I don’t think so. But perhaps I have 7 become confused – we are going through a bit of a busy spell at the moment.’ He looked about him and spotted a wooden bench, one of several which were placed strategically around the grounds so that residents could pause and rest if necessary. ‘Perhaps we ought to just take a seat while I sort this out,’ he suggested. ‘By all means,’ said Mr Wilberforce. And the two men, one barely half the age of the other, sat down side by side. ‘Wilberforce is the name,’ said Mr Wilberforce helpfully. ‘Bernard Wilberforce.’ ‘Chappell,’ returned the visitor. ‘Roderick Chappell.’ And they gravely shook hands. Mr Chappell opened his briefcase and began to search through some papers. Mr Wilberforce, meanwhile, took the opportunity to study the visitor’s suit more closely. He was something of a connoisseur of suits; his late wife had accused him of being funny about them. In this case, it was as much as he could do not to reach out and feel the quality of the cloth. ‘Is that suit by any chance the work of Merkins and Bradwell?’ he asked after a moment.8 Mr Chappell paused and seemed quite astonished. ‘Well no, it isn’t. But you’re jolly close. Cranberry and Darlington actually, two doors down. How on earth did you know it was Savile Row?’ ‘Oh, something about the stitching,’ said Mr Wilberforce airily, rather pleased with himself. ‘And the cut of the lapels, don’t you know.’ ‘Now you come to mention it,’ said Mr Chappell, ‘I do remember hearing that Cranberry and Darlington poached one of their cutters from Merkins and Bradwell, so you may be spot on.’ ‘Wouldn’t be a bit surprised,’ said Mr Wilberforce. ‘I was a customer of Merkins and Bradwell for many years.’ ‘I say, were you really?’ Mr Chappell spoke with great warmth, obviously impressed to meet a chap possessed of such outstanding good taste as himself. ‘Yes, indeed. Mind you, I didn’t have much call for good suits even when I was a younger man. I was a schoolmaster, so it was sports jackets and flannels most of the time.’ ‘Goodness me,’ said Mr Chappell. His paperwork was temporarily forgotten. ‘Tell me, where did you teach?’ ‘Salcey,’ said Mr Wilberforce. ‘Not one of the very top 9 schools, of course, even in my day, and I’ve been retired for forty years. But it was a good solid middle-of-the-road sort of place. We did a fine job for most of the boys. When I first went there I intended to move on after a few years – perhaps to Marlborough, or even Winchester. But you know how it is – one gets used to a place.’ ‘Oh yes indeed,’ said Mr Chappell, obviously recalling fond memories of his own schooldays. ‘I was at Eton myself.’ ‘Ah yes. And Balliol too, I see – from your tie.’ Mr Chappell looked down and examined his tie: it had diagonal half-inch stripes of maroon and dark grey, separated by thinner white stripes. ‘My word,’ he said, ‘you really are on the ball if you can identify a chap’s college from his tie.’ ‘Oh, at one time I knew all the big school colours. And all the better colleges at the older universities. Could spot ’em at fifty paces. And what you learn early in life tends to stick.... It’s what happened yesterday that I find hard to remember.’ ‘Yes, that’s certainly true,’ agreed Mr Chappell. ‘Very common problem among my clients.’ And then his sense of duty overcame him, and he abandoned gossip for his papers once again. 10 Eventually he completed his checks. ‘Hmm,’ he said thoughtfully. ‘I must say, Mr Wilberforce, that while it is a great pleasure to meet someone like yourself, you do place me in something of a quandary. You see, you’re not supposed to be able to see me at all.’ ‘Aren’t I?’ ‘No. You see, I’m only supposed to be visible to the person I’ve come to collect.’ ‘Ah. And I suppose that’s Mrs Cornwell-Heath, is it? She’s been suffering for a long time, poor dear.’ Mr Chappell scratched his head. ‘Well no, as a matter of fact it’s not Mrs Cornwell-Heath. Today it’s a Mrs Knight.’ ‘Oh.’ Mr Chappell paused for thought. ‘Um, do I gather that this is not the first time you’ve seen me?’ ‘Oh no, it isn’t. I suppose I’ve been seeing you for about three years now.’ ‘Oh dear.’ Mr Chappell went a trifle pale. ‘That isn’t right at all. I wonder if there’s been some mistake.’ Mr Wilberforce thought about it. ‘You mean... You think I might have been overlooked?’11 ‘Well it’s a possibility, certainly. You see, we do operate under quite a lot of pressure, and to be perfectly honest we just can’t seem to get the staff these days. Our work is largely a question of matching horses to courses, you see. Where children are involved you obviously need a nice motherly type. And for those who’ve overdosed on some ghastly drug or other you need a reformed hippie. And then, for a place like this, you need... Well...’ ‘Someone with a bit of breeding,’ concluded Mr Wilberforce. ‘Well quite,’ said Mr Chappell thankfully. ‘Quite. Anyway, it does seem as if there might have been an administrative balls-up. I shall have to look into it and report back.’ He looked at his watch, closed the briefcase, and stood up. ‘Meanwhile, delightful though it is to chat to you, I really must go and see to Mrs Knight.’ Mr Wilberforce rose to his feet. ‘Do see if you can take Mrs Cornwell-Heath as well,’ he said. ‘The poor woman is having a really miserable time of it. It would be a great mercy.’ Mr Chappell held out his hand again. ‘I’ll see what I can do,’ he said, and continued briskly towards the house. Mrs Knight died that same afternoon, peacefully, while 12 watching television. Her favourite programme was on at the time: horse racing. A few days later there was the usual short ceremony at the crematorium, and afterwards, also as usual, the residents of the retirement home were given the opportunity to walk round the adjacent rose garden. It was there that Mr Wilberforce met Mr Chappell for the second time. ‘I’m afraid you were right,’ said Mr Chappell glumly. ‘I’ve been overlooked, you mean.’ Mr Chappell sighed. ‘Yes. It’s all very unfortunate. Caused a bit of a stir, I can tell you. Messes up the performance indicators in the worst possible way when that sort of thing happens. Anyway, after a certain amount of discussion I have been able to effect a deal, as I believe it’s called these days. You did express some concern about Mrs Cornwell-Heath, who is not in fact due to join us for some time. However, my superiors have agreed to make an exception. We will agree to take her early, together with you yourself, of course, subject to one condition.’ ‘Oh? And what is that?’ ‘Well, Mr Wilberforce, my superiors and I would really be greatly obliged if, once you get to the other side, you 13 keep our little confusion to yourself. It makes us jolly unpopular, you see, if people realise that some fellows have had a lot longer on earth than they were supposed to have. Even if the deceased are in a much better place, they do get fearfully cross about that sort of thing.’ ‘Oh well, we certainly can’t have that,’ said Mr Wilberforce. ‘Honest mistakes should not be allowed to cause bad feeling. So you can certainly depend on me to keep it all confidential. But what about the timescale – when are you planning to put this plan into effect?’ ‘Ah. Well now, next Tuesday afternoon is the first available slot. I can’t be absolutely precise, I’m afraid, but I can guarantee to do the job somewhere between two and four.’ ‘Splendid,’ said Mr Wilberforce. ‘Splendid. And I’m so glad to hear about Mrs Cornwell-Heath – it’s quite pointless to keep her waiting any longer. And of course I shan’t be sorry to go myself.’ ‘And we’ll keep it all under our hat, Mr Wilberforce?’ ‘Oh yes.’ Mr Wilberforce was emphatic. ‘Not a word to anyone, once I get to the other side. My lips will be firmly sealed.’ 14 Back at the retirement home, Mr Wilberforce busied himself with making a list of the things he ought to do before he departed this life. Fortunately it wasn’t a very long list, because after reaching the age of a hundred he had pared his existence down to a bare minimum of possessions and involvements. At five o’clock his tea was brought into his room by his favourite carer, Mrs O’Reilly, and half an hour later she called again to collect the tray. ‘Well you’ve done very well there, Mr Wilberforce,’ she said, as she removed the tray from his knee. ‘Eaten every last crumb of it. Not like some I could mention. But then sardines on toast always was your favourite.’ ‘Yes indeed,’ said Mr Wilberforce. ‘And the cake was excellent too.’ ‘Good. Will you finish this last drop of tea, Mr Wilberforce?’ ‘No thank you. I’ve had quite enough for the present.’ As was her wont, Mrs O’Reilly busied herself with checking that Mr Wilberforce had everything that he might need for the evening: the printed television programme within easy reach, his reading glasses, and the remote control.15 ‘And how did the funeral service go, Mr Wilberforce?’ ‘Oh very well, thank you, very well. Not too sentimental, you understand. Sad, but sensible. Because she was ninety-three, after all.’ ‘Ah yes. But that’s nothing when compared with your age.’ ‘No, that’s true. But then I shan’t be here much longer myself.’ Mrs O’Reilly was not impressed. ‘Ah, sure now, you’ve been saying that for years. You’ll outlive the lot of us, so you will.’ Mr Wilberforce regarded her gravely. ‘Oh no. No, this time, Mrs O’Reilly, it’s true. Strictly between ourselves, I shall die next Tuesday afternoon.’ ‘Oh you will, will you?’ Mr Wilberforce nodded solemnly. ‘Oh yes. Next Tuesday afternoon is definite. I’ve been overlooked, you see. I should have been taken years ago.’ ‘Should you now.’ Mrs O’Reilly tucked the rug around his knees. ‘Oh yes. But fortunately I’ve been able to have a word with the angel of death, and between us we’ve straightened things out.’16 ‘I see.’ Mrs O’Reilly stepped back and gave him a hard look. ‘Next Tuesday afternoon, is it?’ ‘It is.’ ‘You seem very sure of yourself, Mr Wilberforce.’ ‘Oh I am,’ said Mr Wilberforce earnestly. ‘Very sure.’ ‘But how can you be so certain about the day and the time?’ Mr Wilberforce was now on firm ground. ‘Ah well, you see, it’s all a matter of character, Mrs O’Reilly. Character. With some people you couldn’t rely on them to tell you the right year, never mind the right day. But in this case the angel of death is a very sound man. Eton and Balliol, you know.’ ‘I see,’ said Mrs O’Reilly, who didn’t really see at all; she wasn’t well versed in the English educational system. ‘And the angel of death has given you his word, has he?’ ‘Oh yes.’ Mr Wilberforce nodded. ‘And I have no doubt that he will stick to it.’ Mr Wilberforce fixed his carer with a stern look. ‘There are not many things that you can be sure of in this life, Mrs O’Reilly. But one of them is this – when an Eton and Balliol man gives you his word on something, you can be quite sure that he won’t let you down.’17 The Testimony of Araminta Sashburn I: Foreword by Jane Haskins Do you believe in fairies? No, I rather thought not. And neither do I. But I once met an old lady who did; and now that she has died, at a great age, I have decided to tell you about her. I am a solicitor by profession, and just over a year ago I was instructed by one of the senior partners in my firm to go and see an elderly client of ours. Mrs Reynolds was a moderately wealthy woman, and she was resident in a private retirement home. She had sent word that she wanted to make some minor changes to her will, and it was thought that a newly qualified member of staff could do the job perfectly well. So I was dispatched. It was a simple enough job, soon done. But curiously enough I became rather fond of Mrs Reynolds, and as she was a lonely person who had few family and friends to visit her, I took to going to see her about once a week. In my own time, I may say. One afternoon I had to leave the office on a separate 18 matter, and when the meeting was over I found myself not far from the retirement home. I decided to call in and see Mrs Reynolds. I parked my car, and began to walk towards the main house. As I did so, I saw a white-haired old lady standing at one of the first-floor windows. She was smiling broadly, and was waving at me with great enthusiasm, as if very pleased to see me. Naturally I smiled and waved back. After a few visits to such a place one soon learns how to humour the old dears. No sooner had I waved back than the old lady made beckoning signs: it was obvious that she wanted me to go and see her. Well, I had certainly never met this particular resident before, but as Mrs Reynolds’s room was also on the first floor I thought I could probably locate the old lady without any trouble. I went in at the front door and found that there was no one on duty at the reception desk. But that wasn’t unusual, so I just signed the visitors’ book and continued up the stairs. I turned on to the first-floor corridor, and found the window lady standing by the open door of her room. No 19 one else was in sight. ‘Come in, come in’ she said, in a sort of hissed whisper, as if she were anxious not to be overheard, and she looked up and down the corridor to check that we were alone. When I approached she almost pushed me through the door, with a surprising amount of force for someone so small and frail-looking; then she closed the door behind us. I found myself in an unusually spacious sitting-room; the walls were covered with paintings which I assumed the lady had brought with her when she entered the home. But I didn’t really spend much time looking at them, because I was wondering what sort of an eccentric I was dealing with. Some of the old dears, I’m afraid, are distinctly dotty. ‘Did you want a word?’ I asked. ‘Yes, my dear, I do. Sit down, sit down’ She smiled at me again, with great warmth. So, slightly reluctantly, I sat down. The old lady seemed amazingly alert and bright-eyed. In fact she was so hyper that if I had been dealing with someone in their twenties I would have assumed that they’d just done a line of coke.20 After a moment she sat down opposite me. ‘Do you know who I am, my dear?’ ‘Er, no, I’m afraid not.’ ‘My name is Sashburn. Araminta Sashburn.’ ‘Good afternoon, Miss Sashburn,’ I said gravely. ‘My name is Jane Haskins.’ ‘Yes, my dear, I know who you are. But do you know how old I am?’ ‘Er, no. But you do seem to be very young in heart.’ My how she laughed. That tickled her. ‘Yes, yes, young in heart indeed Young in heart But in fact I am a hundred and three.’ ‘Good heavens’ I said. Though I didn’t quite believe it. I thought she was probably making a joke of some kind – adding ten years or so to her real age. ‘Yes.... A hundred and three.’ Miss Sashburn paused, as if reflecting upon that. ‘And you, my dear, are a solicitor.’ ‘Yes.’ ‘And you have done so well for Mrs Reynolds. She is very pleased with you.’ ‘I’m glad to hear it.’

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