Contest #211 shortlist ⭐️

15 comments

Fiction

This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

Forgive Me.

“I’m sorry, pet… but we need to get a move on.”

Imelda attempted a smile, flinching through clenched teeth, trying not to resist Shirley’s determined effort to wield the rough towel at speed over her fragile skin.

“There we are, pet. Now let’s get you dressed and into your chair before they send a search party.”

Imelda loved the sound of Shirley’s home cooked voice. It reminded her of her grandmother’s kitchen; the aroma of cinnamon laced apple cake straight from the oven in a world not yet defiled. 

Ablutions over, Imelda watched Shirley position the wheelchair next to her bed, before wheeling the hoist across to join them. Merriweather Court prided itself on its spacious accommodation, and the menacing contraption standing guard in the corner, overseeing her daily routine, did little to impact the generous proportions of the room.

Imelda braced herself as Shirley hooked the device beneath her armpits, wincing as it lifted her across. Suspended betwixt bed and chair, she caught sight of herself in the full-length mirror attached to the opposite wall. Without warning, decades slipped away, and she morphed into her younger self. Frieda’s heart beat fast and loud against her own as they clung together. Her father’s voice, a hollow echo from the shadows, desperate… warning her… begging her to be still. Soon those precious tiny fingers pinching her flesh would wrench free, forcing them to part.

                                                  #

“Almost done, pet. How about a touch of makeup? After all, today of all days, you want to look your best.”

Imelda returned from the brink, settling into her mobile carriage, a light dusting of face powder landing on her troubled expression. Shirley combed through her thinning hair before applying a dab of lavender water behind each ear. A final check to secure her slippered feet on the footrest and smooth her skirt over her knees completed the routine.

“Mission accomplished. Ready to face the paparazzi.”

Shirley chuckled, releasing the brake, and wheeled her into the corridor.

Imelda fidgeted, wringing her hands. What was she thinking? She couldn’t go through with it; she’d have to tell them she was ill. 

“Take me back… I, I’m not well… Shirley, I need to go….”

But Shirley was too busy chatting with another member of the staff to notice Imelda’s distress. They reached the resident’s lounge where she parked Imelda in her preferred spot next to the window and locked the wheels.

“Please, I want to…”

It was hopeless. Shirley’s attention was already elsewhere.

Imelda looked out at the purple and yellow crocuses spared from the first cut of the mower; a random splash of colour in the longer grass encircling the budding cherry tree and felt the trickle of a solitary tear on her cheek. Inside the lounge, the usual suspects lining the walls provided a familiar background noise of snores and grumbles, littered with one or two expletives, courtesy of Gladys, who struggled with Tourette’s. The permanent heating intensified the suffocating odours of cooking, incontinence, and disinfectant.

Mrs Baker’s request for volunteers to be interviewed by the local newspaper had received a disappointing response. 

“They just want to hear about your experience of living here. Maybe a brief history of your life; your likes, dislikes, regrets, that sort of thing.”

When no-one raised their hand, Imelda had felt sorry for the manager and reacted on impulse. 

Gazing through the closed windows, she yearned to breathe in the sweet smell of cut grass, to escape her useless, feeble frame, and be free of it all at last. Instead, she focussed on the task ahead, rehearsing what she had prepared in her head. 

            Brief histories, she thought. Brevity would be a challenging proposition in a home for the elderly. As for regrets? No good would come from indulging in possibilities stillborn. Apart from this interview, she had no regrets she wanted to share. Her likes and dislikes? She loved a Spring morning filled with birdsong… and dislikes? Uncomfortable underclothes, mirrors, and that poor excuse for a fish pie they served up every Friday… oh yes… and let’s not forget technology, that worldwide windup!

“All set, pet? The reporter’s on his way. They’re going to use Mrs Baker’s office.”

Shirley pushed her through the double doors into the corridor. 

Only three residents had volunteered, including Imelda. The other interviewees were Daisy Cooper and Jimmy ‘knockout’ Johnson; named thus for the number of times he landed on the floor of the boxing ring during his short, unremarkable career, and not for his good looks; Jimmy’s face was a testament to his inability to duck.

The wheels undulated across the carpeted floor, and, without warning, Imelda drifted off. It was a dangerous habit, allowing the darkness lurking on the periphery of her unconscious, the opportunity to slip past unnoticed, giving shape to shadows. 

“Come on in, Immy.” Daisy’s voice jolted her awake.

Not one to miss an opportunity to occupy centre stage, Daisy wore a too short, bright yellow dress, dotted with garish purple flowers accompanied by a somewhat vulgar glittery hair-slide that peaked out from beneath her abundant silver-grey curls. Shirley summoned another carer to help transfer Imelda into one of the high-back chairs. Daisy reached across, patting her hand. A waft of cheap perfume overpowering the delicate aroma of Imelda’s organic lavender water.

“Don’t be nervous, Immy. If the worst happens, just leave everything to me.”

Imelda’s condescending look at the abbreviation of her name failed to connect with the excited Daisy. It occurred to Imelda that Daisy’s ‘worst’ would almost certainly be a last-minute cancellation, which Imelda would consider a miracle.

Jimmy was the last to arrive. A man of slight stature; flyweight division, who considered himself a ‘dapper dresser’. True to form, he wore a light beige suit; crease-free despite its age. The breast pocket revealed a folded red handkerchief matching a wide, polka-dot tie. His sparse hair, arranged into a precarious comb-over, appeared stuck to his scalp.

“Wonderful morning, ladies, looking lovely as always.”

Jimmy enjoyed a latent popularity at Merriweather Court, where males were in short supply.

Imelda nodded a smile as he claimed the remaining chair, crossing his legs to reveal red polka-dot socks.

Mrs Baker entered the room, accompanied by the reporter and a much younger woman, graffitied and pierced; her short coal black hair razor cut to severe perfection. 

“Good morning, everyone. I’m Simon Cox from ‘News and Views’ and this is my colleague, Jane Beavis, who will take photographs to accompany the article.”

Imelda studied Simon Cox… in his late fifties, or maybe younger. Disillusioned, he had long since abandoned earlier ambitions of landing a top job with one of the Nationals, and resigned himself to wait out his retirement, enduring mediocre assignments for the local rag. Assuming she was right, he did a reasonable job of disguising his lack of enthusiasm.

“So, if you wouldn’t mind, Jane will take some pictures of you all and then concentrate on the rest of the place while we get on with our interview.”

Since no one objected, Jane proceeded to snap the threesome from a variety of positions around the room, while Daisy, somewhat put out by the speed of it all, tried to manoeuvre her ample body into her most flattering pose in time for each click of the camera. Satisfied with her efforts, Jane disappeared into reception. Simon turned towards them.

“Ok, so who wants to kick off?”

There followed a brief pause before Jimmy and Daisy, unable to maintain their polite façade, spoke at once, affording Imelda a temporary reprieve.

During the following hour and a half, Imelda listened to reminiscent tales of Jimmy’s boxing career and Daisy’s brief stint in show biz, praying there wouldn’t be time for Simon to ask her any in-depth questions. 

Throughout, Daisy fully embraced the opportunity to enter full ‘luvvie’ mode. 

“I was always his first choice… promised I could headline his next production; said I belonged in Hollywood, that all the big studios would fight over me.”

Daisy’s purple painted fingernails gesticulated every sentence.

“They took so long preparing the script, though, and then the war started and put an end to it all. We were in London, carried on for as long as we could, but we suffered too much damage one night and had to close. I was blonde then. He said I’d be London’s answer to Betty Grable… that with his contacts, I’d be huge… such an important man, you know….”

Only Imelda seemed to notice a slight hesitation in Daisy’s voice, and a subtle change in her body language as she sank back in her chair, her initial pizzazz spent.

“Right, thank you Mrs Cooper, that was wonderful… so who’s next?”

Jimmy sat up straight, smoothed down the plastered comb-over, and adjusted his tie. 

“I could have been Champ, you know, but the head injury finished me. Scars still there, underneath this lot.” Jimmy pointed to his hair. “Never the same after that, not as sharp, too slow.”

“That must have been tough for you, Mr Johnson?”

“Yeah, well, stopped me training, see? Took so long to recover, I couldn’t get back to where I was before. But it was ok, you know, always someone wanting me to spar or help around the gym. You can’t teach experience like mine and all the big-time promoters… well, ‘Just go see Jimmy’, they’d say. ‘He’ll put you straight’.”

And then it was Jimmy who ran out of steam. Imelda wondered if he’d lost his thread. Heaven knows how many times it happened to her these days. But her instincts told her Jimmy’s mind was elsewhere.

“Are you ok, Mr Johnson?” Imelda felt herself warm to the reporter.

“I get tired these days, the injury, you know. They said it would happen. But I brave it out….”

Simon poured a glass of water and handed it to Jimmy.

“Would you like to take a break, Mr Johnson? Perhaps we can come back to you later if there’s time?”

Aware it was her turn; Imelda felt the sleeping tiger stir inside her belly.

“I understand you are the eldest resident here, Mrs Kawalski-Drake?”

Imelda looked back and forth between Daisy and Jimmy, hoping they would resume their reverie, but they remained subdued. Simon Cox turned to a clean page in his notepad.

He did not fool Imelda with his feigned interest. Nor did she blame him for presuming the old lady in front of him would remember nothing worth writing about. In fact, she depended on it. Falling back on her sense of humour, she quipped.

“But not for long, I imagine.”

Curbed for the time being, the horrors receded into the secret vaults of human wretchedness as she navigated her very own minefield using stories of her grandchildren, the bungalow she left to come to Merriweather Court, and how she missed her garden; the rich earthy scent of damp compost running through her gloved fingers. She described every shrub and flower, using their common and Latin names, hardly stopping to breathe until the reporter’s colleague returned, summoning him to the local pub for lunch.

The bustle of other residents preparing for dinner, and the aroma of meat and two veg heralded the major event of the day. Seizing the opportunity to take his leave, Simon shook hands with each of them, just as Shirley arrived with Imelda’s wheelchair.

Sharing a table, the threesome sat in silence moving food around their plates uneaten before engaging in polite small talk. It was Jimmy who ended the farce.

“I never wanted to be a fighter,” he said. “Truth is, it’s not in my nature.”

Daisy went to respond, but Imelda placed a gentle hand on her arm.

“It was the old man who insisted. Thought it would ‘butch’ me up. In those days, there wasn’t much choice for someone like me. So, I went along with it; it was that or take the beatings.” He looked up, gesturing towards his face. “I still got beaten, just not by him.”

He dabbed his eyes with his red handkerchief, pushed his plate away, and stood up to leave.

“Forgive me, ladies. I’m not feeling very hungry.”

Imelda made a mental note to look in on him later.

“Poor man,” said Daisy.

For the first time, Imelda noticed that Daisy’s grey curls were running amok, her eyes were red, and her lipstick smudged.

“Are you ok, Daisy?” Imelda asked.

“It’s talking about the past. Brings it all back, doesn’t it, Immy? Things you’ve buried.”

Imelda laid her hand on Daisy’s arm once again and waited.

“He used me, you know. I was never going to be England’s answer to anything, least of all Betty Grable.”

She glanced up at Imelda. There was wisdom in her eyes that Imelda hadn’t noticed before. This time, Imelda did not object to the abbreviation of her name.

“I guess it’s the same for everyone. We’ve all got stuff we can’t handle, so we make up our own version; one we can live with. I think I’d like to lie down now, Immy. It’s been a long morning.”

Alone with her thoughts, Imelda waited for Shirley to wheel her back to her room. They slowed down as they passed Jimmy’s door, but it was closed, the ‘Do not disturb’ sign visible.

Depleted, Imelda gave in to a troubled sleep. The scene never changed. They lay side by side behind the barbed wire fence, their emaciated bodies indistinguishable from those that piled up behind them. She called out, reaching for them, grappling with the fence tearing into her bare flesh. Then, just as she made it through, torn and bleeding, they stood up, turned their backs, and walked away. 

Shirley woke her. She’d missed her tea. A ham and cheese salad waited on her tray beside a cup of lukewarm tea; a thin papery film floating on its surface.

“Let’s get you ready for bed, pet, then I’ll leave you in peace to watch a bit of tele.”

At the end of a busy day, Shirley’s morning zeal gave way to a lighter touch and never felt as bad as first thing, when Imelda’s bones still ached from the night before. 

“I wonder if you’d fetch something from the wardrobe for me?”

“Of course, pet, what is it you want?”

“It’s in the bottom on the left… an old shoe box.”

Shirley retrieved the box and handed it to Imelda.

“So what you got in there, pet, the Crown Jewels?”

“Not quite… just some memories.”

Shirley smiled and left her to it.

“Goodnight, pet.”

Imelda scanned the room… the hoist stared back at her from the shadows, expectant. She turned her attention to the box. It had remained unopened in the wardrobe since she moved to Merriweather Court, and in the bottom draw of her chest of drawers for the thirty-five years she lived in her bungalow. Before that, she couldn’t remember where she’d kept it, only that she had.

With tender care, she opened the box. Family photos taken before the war smiled up at her. The silver brooch, a favourite of her mother’s, still sparkled in her gnarled hands. She breathed in the pungent aroma of her father’s tobacco tin before opening the diary she had kept during their darkest hours. Her tears spilled unchecked onto the pages, blurring the words. She put it aside, turning back to the box. Beneath a cotton handkerchief embroidered with the letter ‘F’ lay Frieda’s hand-painted nesting dolls, the only toy she’d been allowed to keep. Imelda separated them, standing all four side by side on her food tray. Chipped and grubby, they stared back at her, waiting. She offered no resistance.

                                                      #

The rhythmic sound of heavy marching boots grew louder, closer, transporting her back inside the dark, dank cellar. She held her breath to avoid choking on the suffocating mix of mildew and human excrement emanating from the unemptied bucket. Was she shaking, or was it Frieda’s tiny body wrapped around her own? The trapdoor wrenched opened, exposing their sanctuary. Light penetrated, blinding her, forcing her eyes shut. The following minutes passed in slow, paralysing motion. Her father signalled for them to remain silent. She tightened her arms around her terrified sister, watching in horror as her father climbed out, heavy blows raining down on his weakened body. Her mother followed, unnecessary force, dragging her fragile body away from them. Rough, unwashed hands, serrated, blackened fingernails reaching down. Her beautiful, gentle mother; her screams reverberating through the corridors of time, merging with the harrowing, gut-wrenching cries of her father’s panic, in pitiful contrast to the cruel banter of the Gestapo. And then, the ear-splitting sound of gunfire, convulsing her body and ending his life. She’d held on to Frieda as tightly as she could, but in the end, there was nothing she could do. A small, single-minded inconsolable child needing the reassurance of her mother’s arms, rendering Imelda powerless to keep her safe. She watched her sister disappear into the light, abandoning her in their hellish sanctuary.

They took them away, not suspecting another remained in the darkness. Imelda imagined her mother, stripped of her pride and dignity, bereft, her traumatised body struggling to function, Frieda’s face buried in what remained of her mother’s skirt.

She would never see them again. Doomed to live her life in shame, never forgiving herself for surviving. They had satisfied their needs with her mother. They’d not bothered to look further.

Imelda reached out, picking up the smallest of the dolls. Clutching it against her shattered heart, she whispered into the night.

“Forgive me…”

                                                     #

The following morning, as they gathered in the resident’s lounge of Merriweather Court, a spot next to the window overlooking the grounds remained empty. The crocuses drooped and faded had passed their former glory, and the groundsman prepared to cut the longer grass encircling the cherry tree.

August 17, 2023 15:11

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15 comments

Shirley Medhurst
15:30 Sep 26, 2023

Powerful and unexpected! I was totally unprepared for Imelda’s private horror story. Well done 👏

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Chris Belton
20:25 Oct 10, 2023

Thanks Shirley, I appreciate your comments.

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Amanda Lieser
15:23 Sep 16, 2023

Hi Chris! Welcome, welcome and congratulations on the shortlist! I thought it was very poignant the way that you chose to write about a care facility, I think that we, sometimes on purpose. forget the stories that people have to tell when they end up in places out of sight and mind. I appreciate it that each of the residents had something to say beyond with the initially told in the interview. My favorite line was your observation about the stories that we tell ourselves in order to live with the past. Nice work!!

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Chris Belton
00:18 Sep 19, 2023

Thanks Amanda. I appreciate your comments.

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Mary Bendickson
19:53 Aug 27, 2023

Tough theme. Delicate delivery. Powerful punch. Congrats on shortlist. Welcome to Reedsy

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Chris Belton
22:33 Aug 28, 2023

Thank you, I’m glad you liked it and appreciate your feedback.

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Philip Ebuluofor
11:07 Aug 27, 2023

Fine work. First submission, first shortlist. Congrats. Not easy.

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Chris Belton
11:14 Aug 27, 2023

Thank you. I am encouraged and humbled by the response to my story.

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Hannah Lynn
21:13 Aug 24, 2023

Moving story referencing a devastating time in history. It’s important to never forget. It stirred up a lot of emotions. Very well done!

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Chris Belton
12:30 Aug 25, 2023

Thank you for taking the time to read my story. I appreciate your comments.

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Hannah Lynn
17:42 Aug 25, 2023

Congratulations on the success of your story! Exciting :)

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Chris Belton
23:37 Aug 25, 2023

Thank you Hannah, it is very encouraging.

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R W Mack
14:58 Aug 22, 2023

This is easily the strongest submission ive seen all week and it's a delight to judge and shortlist it. The title and ending sealed my decisions. The subject was strong and evocative without beating readers over the hwad with overly-descript language, the pace well-managed, and all that made it a string contender. What proved you put real thought and heart into it was the title and the ending. People forget those are also important elements in any story. The title didn't give up the story at all and got me curious before I even started readi...

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Chris Belton
12:29 Aug 25, 2023

Thank you so much for short listing my story. I am encouraged by your comments.

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R W Mack
16:22 Aug 26, 2023

Don't thank me. Thank the final round of judges. They're the ones who ultimately put you on THEIR shortlist. I only marked you as shortlisted on mine. Apparently, I'm not the only one who saw your quality of work and I'm glad to know someone saw you beyond just myself. Great work and keep going because I look forward to more.

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