The shrill ringing of his alarm clock woke Frank at 7.00 am. He attempted to roll over, to thump his hand down on the small button on the top of the clock, to shut the annoying noise off. That was what he intended to do, but this morning it seemed an impossible feat. For some inexplicable reason, he was unable to do this simple thing. Instead, all he could manage was an uncoordinated thrashing of his limbs. He could feel himself beginning to panic, his heart rate accelerating and beads of sweat breaking out on his forehead. ‘Calm down’ he told himself ‘You’re just not awake properly. Take a few deep breathes and try again.’ Meanwhile the clock’s incessant noise continued to fill the room, making it hard to concentrate or think straight. Frank tried again, but all he succeeded in doing was winding his top sheet and blanket around his legs. He needed help, but although he was thinking ‘Shout for help.’ He was unable to formulate the words, all that emerged from his mouth was an unrecognisable jumble of grunts. ‘I’ve had a stroke.’ And still the relentless, strident ringing of his alarm continued, and then ‘I’m going to wet myself’. Almost instantaneously, he felt the rush of warm fluid across his thigh, and then the sheet below him become damp, and then wet as a night’s worth of urine escaped from his bladder.
It was still only 7.15 am, he was not due across the road at the factory until 8.00 am. ‘It’ll be hours before anyone comes to find me. I’m going to die.’ Tears of self-pity, dread and frustration slid slowly from the corner of Frank’s eyes, down his temples onto the pillow, which supported his head.
Three quarters of an hour later, his sisters, Dolly and Gladys clocked on for another day at work. The middle-aged spinsters wore matching pink gingham, button-through overalls, and turbans fashioned out of head scarves covering their dyed dark brown, tightly permed hair. They both sported a touch of coral lipstick and face powder. Neither were adorned by jewellery. They carried large black handbags, fastened by fake gold clasps. Sensible brown lace-up shoes completed their outfits. They lived together in a modest house, in a neighbouring street to Frank’s home.
The three siblings worked in the window factory, in the centre of a garden village. Their homes had been constructed to house the factory’s employees. Most of the works’ employees lived in the village. Consequently, they all knew each other and their families. The two women made their way to the packing room, where they took their place amongst twenty other women along a long table, littered with cardboard and rolls of extra strong, adhesive tape. The radio was blaring and the ‘girls’ often sang along to the latest hits as they worked. There was always a constant barrage of chatter. Frank worked in the adjoining workshop, where he operated machinery, which formed part of the process for constructing metal window frames.
At 10.00 am a single whistle sounded, signifying the start of the morning’s ten-minute tea break. The entire workforce made their way to the canteen, where cups and saucers were laid out, alongside metal spouted, glass sugar pourers, teaspoons and plates of biscuits on Formica tables. Groups of workers either sat or stood around talking as they quickly selected and drank their tea. Dolly and Gladys stood with three other women from the packing room, and were discussing the merits of the village’s newly built Co-op shop, when the khaki coated foreman from the workshop approached them.
‘Morning Mr Spiller.’
‘Your Frank not well, Dolly?’
‘As far as I know, he’s alright.’
‘He’s not shown up today.’
‘It’s not like him. We’ll pop round at lunchtime and see what’s wrong.’
‘Thanks girls. Let me know what’s up with him will you.’
Another sharp blow on the whistle signalled that tea break was over. There was an almost musical cacophony, as spoons and crockery were replaced onto the tables, and the employees began to file back to their workstations. Most went in small groups, laughing and continuing conversations as they went. There was the occasional loner, conspicuous as they walked alone amongst the gaggles of women and gangs of men.
Dolly and Gladys formed part of the procession, huddled together forming a small, tight unit of their own.
‘What do you think’s up with him?’
‘I’m not psychic.’ Anxiety was making the older Dolly brusque.
‘He seemed alright yesterday.’
‘Mmm. Well, we’ll just have to wait until lunchtime to find out, won’t we.’
By this time, the sisters were back at their bench, and they resumed their tasks of packing window hinges for transportation. It was repetitive, manual work and so both were able to mull over their concern for their baby brother, Frank. He was four years younger than Dolly, two years younger than Gladys. He had never married, never had a girlfriend as far as the sisters knew, and had continued living in their family home when his sisters left to live independently. When his parents died, he elected to stay in their terraced home. His siblings offered him a place with them, but were secretly relieved when he refused. Their house only had two bedrooms, and so to accommodate him, they would have needed to share a bedroom again – something they had not done since they were in their twenties. Additionally, by this time, they had lived together for over twenty years and had established their own routines and ways of doing things. To suddenly add their brother into the mix, with his trips to the local pub, smoking and sloppy habits, would have represented a major upheaval to their well-ordered lives.
The ever-pragmatic Dolly wondered if they should stop off at the Co-op on their way round to Frank’s. If he had a stomach upset, he might fancy a bit of soup. He never kept anything like that in his larder. And he might be out of cigarettes (not that she approved of the dirty habit), or perhaps he would appreciate a newspaper. He would probably need his bed changing, he didn’t do that nearly often enough, and that would mean taking his washing back to their house. If his house was in the same state as it was last time she dropped in, she would definitely give him a piece of her mind about that. After she’d put it to rights, of course. And so, her mind ran on.
Gladys on the other hand, worried more about why Frank had not arrived at the factory. Everyone was assuming that he was ill, but suppose her brother had disturbed a burglar as he ransacked his home. He could be lying dead from a stab wound! Or he might have fallen down the stairs, broken a leg, and be laying in the hall unable to get to the ‘phone. Or maybe he was ill, but it was something terrible like a heart attack. Her thoughts were beginning to get out of hand.
Nearly, two hours later, when the factory whistle announced that it was lunchtime, the sisters grabbed their handbags from beneath the table, and rapidly left the premises. They crossed the main road, down an alley between two rows of terraces, into Hunnable Gardens, where their parents had lived and raised them. Walking quickly, hardly speaking they came to the low brick wall, which surrounded their brother’s front garden. Frank wasn’t much of a gardener, so it was an unkempt patch of land, sharply contrasting against his neighbours’ gardens of neatly trimmed lawns and well-tended flower beds. His was merely an overgrown area of straggling weeds and long grass, impossible to tell where their father had once planted bedding plants and bulbs and hoed the fine soil. Through the front gate, hanging lopsidedly on one hinge, layers of paint peeling to reveal previous years’ colours, down the short, cracked concrete path to Frank’s front door. Dolly rapped sharply with the knocker, noting as she did so that, her slovenly brother really needed to give it a polish. As she waited for an answer, she glanced at the downstairs and upstairs windows, and noticed that both sets of curtains remained firmly shut. Receiving no reply, she began to root in her voluminous handbag for her brother’s spare key. Finding it she threw open the door, calling.
‘Frank! Frank! It’s only us.’ As she did so.
Laying upstairs in not only damp, but now soiled sheets too, Frank was aware of the knocking at the door. The alarm clock had finally ceased ringing, and he had been laying in the semi-darkness of his room waiting for help to arrive. He knew that his sisters would come at lunchtime. The hours had passed slowly. Periodically, he had tried to move. He’d attempted to push himself up to a sitting position, using his feet and legs, as levers. In another effort, he had endeavoured to roll himself sideways off the bed. All he had managed was an uncontrolled flailing of his legs and arms. Shouting was equally unsuccessful, the only sounds emanating from his mouth were honking mumbles, more like the sounds of an injured animal than a human. He prayed to a god who he no longer believed in.
‘Dear God. I’m sorry for all the bad things that I’ve done in my life, but please, please help me. If you’ll only rescue me this one time, I’ll come to church every Sunday, and give all my money to charity. I’m begging you, please just let me move or speak. I’ll do anything, if you’ll just help me. Please, please.’ There was no response. In an effort to distract himself from his hopeless situation, he looked around the dimly lit room and tried to count the roses on the faded wallpaper. He tried to remember the names of all the children who he had been to school with. Until finally with relief, he heard the door knocker, then the door being opened and Dolly calling him. In answer, he tried to call and in agitation squirmed on his soiled bedding. He heard his sisters speedily ascending the stairs, their feet beating a rapid tattoo on each tread.
Dolly entered the room first, her nose involuntarily wrinkling in distaste, as the noxious combined smells of stale urine and excreta reached her. Gladys behind, peering apprehensively over her sister’s shoulder. As Dolly neared his bed, he noticed shock pass over her features, and her face become ashen beneath its coating of powder.
‘Glad, go and ring for an ambulance.’ He felt remote from reality, as he saw the younger sister, turn, leave the room and head downstairs to the two-tone grey, plastic telephone, which stood, hardly used on the semi-circular hall table.
‘Frank. Can you hear me?’ His reply was a strange, unworldly, hushed howl. Dolly put her hand on his forehead, feeling the clammy heat beneath her palm. Peering into his eyes, she noted his dilated pupils. They were both vaguely aware of their sister downstairs, asking for the ambulance service, and in a shaking voice giving Frank’s address.
‘It’s all right Frankie, we’ll soon get you to hospital.’ He tried to speak again. His answer was the same unintelligible mixture of sounds.
‘Hush now. Don’t try to talk. I’m here.’ Frank realised that Dolly was soothing him, just as she had when he was a small boy. Gladys appeared in the doorway.
‘What’s wrong with him? Is he going to die?’
‘Shut up, Glad. Make yourself useful, go and put the kettle on.’ The last thing Dolly wanted was a cup of tea, but she needed to keep her sister busy, to stop Gladys’ dread spreading to her and Frank. As it was, Dolly’s legs were trembling and she was fighting to retain her self-control.
It must have been about 15 minutes before they heard the distant wail of a siren, gradually becoming louder. All the time, Dolly stood holding her brother’s limp hand in hers, whilst stroking his forehead with the other. Throughout, she was murmuring comforting phrases to him, such as.
‘There, there. You’ll be ok.’ And ‘Don’t you worry, help is coming.’ She and Frank heard their sister pull open the front door to admit the ambulance crew, before they even knocked. Then, three sets of footsteps coming swiftly up the stairs to the bedroom. Dolly stood to one side, as the green uniformed man and woman spoke to Frank and began their initial assessment. Gladys followed then into the room, and joined her sister standing in the corner. They clung to each, anxiously watching the proceedings. The female paramedic said.
‘I think we’d best get you to hospital, don’t you?’ Her colleague was already leaving the room, presumably to fetch the necessary equipment to transport Frank into the ambulance.
‘I’ll come with him.’ Said Dolly.
‘And me.’ Piped up Gladys. The ambulance woman was firm.
‘Only one person can accompany Frank in the vehicle.’
‘Run over to the factory, Glad. Tell them what’s happened and see if someone can bring you to the hospital in their car.’ Gladys was used to doing what Dolly told her to, and so left the house, heading back to their place of employment.
Fourteen days later, the two sisters sat side by side, stiffly upright, in a small side-room in the hospital, their knees squeezed tight together, their handbags on top, hands firmly clutching them. They were perched on wooden framed, plastic covered, cushioned, utilitarian ‘easy chairs.’ The walls of the room were grey painted and decorated with posters, which demonstrated the correct way to wash your hands, and gave information about how to contact your local GUM clinic, if you believed that you had contracted a sexually transmitted disease. They could hear the muted sounds of hospital life, as the wheels of trollies and wheelchairs squeaked passing by in the corridor outside, hurried footsteps on the linoleum floor, and staff conversing. The room had that unmistakable hospital aroma of cheap disinfectant, over-cooked cabbage and surgical spirit. A young, white coated doctor sat opposite them, earnestly explaining.
‘Your brother’s condition is now stable. We’ve done all we can for him. There has been some improvement. He has regained use of his right hand and arm.’
‘Will he get any better?’ queried Dolly.
‘We can never be sure with strokes, but any differences will be slight and slow. He’s ready to be discharged. We’ll start looking for a suitable nursing home, or if you have private health care, they may provide somewhere.’
‘Can’t he come home?’
‘He can, but he needs 24-hour care.’
‘We’ll do it.’
The sister’s returned home. Gladys moved into Dolly’s room. A hospital bed was delivered and installed into Glady’s old room. Dolly went to the factory and spoke to the Human Resources department, explaining that she needed to hand her notice in with immediate effect. Everyone in the factory and its surrounding village knew of the siblings’ situation, and so the woman who she spoke to was sympathetic. She was only two months away from retirement age. The company generously agreed to pay the company pension early without incurring any penalties. The woman from HR added.
‘Once Frank is home, and things have settled down a little, a member of our staff will come over and see you. She specialises in welfare rights, and will help you to claim any benefits that you might be entitled to.’
Three days after the bed’s delivery, hospital transport brought Frank home. Gladys returned to work. Initially, it felt strange being in the packing room without her sister, but she began to relish the feeling of being an individual. Community nurses visited and taught Dolly how to care for Frank. She reflected that she had always wanted a baby and finally her wish had been granted.
By the time, Miss Baines from the factory called, Dolly was managing independently. She showed the young woman up to Frank’s room. He sat propped up on a pristine pillow on a bed of crisp white sheets. He was facing a window, and in one corner of the room, a small television sat on a card table. A transistor radio quietly played music alongside it.
‘You’ve got a visitor Frank, Miss Baines from the factory.’ The young woman pulled up a conveniently placed stool to the bedside, and sat down. She took Frank’s hand and awkwardly shook it. He looked at her, and thought how pretty she was.
‘Now, I’ve brought some forms to fill in. I just need to check a few details. Is that, ok?’ Frank realised that it was a long time since anyone had spoken directly, especially in anything other than a tone reserved for imbeciles. He listened as Dolly explained the extent of his disability to Miss Baines. Her heard her outline: if she heard him shuffling in the bed, she knew that he had soiled himself, and, if he made any vocal noise, it usually meant that he was hungry. He stared at the vibrant, young woman beside him and began to cry. She noticed.
‘Oh, Poor thing. I think he’s crying.’ Dolly replied.
‘He does that sometimes. It’s just his eyes watering.’
Frank thought back to how he had taken for granted simple pleasures: changing the tv channel, walking to the shop to buy a paper, lighting a fag. Now, he was trapped in his body, with no means of communication. His sisters looking after him like they used to their baby dolls when they were young. He thought: ‘This is my worst nightmare.’
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Fantastic writing, it was a thrill to read how you structured sentences together so well. Frank's journey was interesting too.
Thank you for your kind words Eric. I'm not submitting on here at the moment, as I'm busy with my degree. It always gives me a thrill when someone 'likes' one of my pieces.
Wish you the best pursuing what you love! No harm in taking a nice break from here though! Sometimes I get serious writers block but completing 33 stories is something to be proud of. (: