Drama short story
© Susan Browne 2019
Bob has loved Donna all his life. Now she is in a nursing home, but he hasn’t given up, and finally, he has nothing to lose.
NYC Midnight challenge, 2019: Drama / Nostalgia / A chauffeur
It is a frosty morning in Hyde Park, and Bob is walking home for the last time from Marlborough Lane Chauffeur Services. All he wants is a drink. To sit by the fire and watch the squirrels play in his little white garden.
Swans weave in the mist on the lake, and he contemplates throwing his work bag into the black water. Letting it sink down. But he might only get stopped for littering. Doggy patrol are all around. With their poo bags and camera phones.
Feeling pain in his fingers, he regrets not bringing his gloves. Queen Victoria looks down at him with contempt, frost on her eyebrows. He pulls a face at her and walks on the grass to feel the crunch of frost under his feet. His boss’s words run over and over in his head.
‘You don’t work here anymore, Bob. We’ve talked about this enough now, and it’s time for you to go.’
At the kiosk just outside the park he picks up a newspaper, and the headlines make him stop dead in his tracks. Nursing Home Near Miss as Dementia Patient Walks Out into Traffic.
He’s getting an idea.
At home, he lights a fire and pours himself a glass of scotch. The idea whisps past again. His pulse quickens. Crazy but possible.
He closes his eyes and thinks of June 1965, shooting catapults with his friend Mark. Marks little sister Donna goes by, and Bob feels his face flush. She is not quite a kid any more. Twelve but sculpting into a beautiful woman. Mark is going to shoot at her, and Bob puts his hand on the catapult.
‘Urrgh, you fancy my sister. You’re disgusting, mate, you know that?’
He was disgusting. He knew. The law of the jungle is that you don’t fancy mates’ little sisters. Especially ones so much younger. But he couldn’t help it. Ever since their joint family holiday in Scotland, two years previous. He tried to make it stop. But whenever he thought of her, he felt out of control.
‘Ouch! You bastard, Mark.’
‘Don’t call me that,’ and with that Mark pounced on her. They were on the pavement, she was screaming, and Bob, stronger, broke them up. He grabbed her close, pressing her against himself. She wriggled free and glared at him.
‘What the bloody hell are you doing, perve?’ She stormed off. Bob didn’t see Mark for a while after that. Their friendship fizzled, just like many friendships do at that age with life making its own twists and forks. But he never moved on from Donna Roberts. He refused to let go, no matter how many times she rebuffed him. He thought he just had to wait until the time was right. She’d come around.
When she got married seven years later, he thought of it as just another delay. She had four children. He could wait. Her husband died of a fall in 2004. Off a ladder, such a shame, and such a careful man. Things got deferred further still as in her grief she went off travelling for years, then arrived back only to develop some brain condition or other and was later admitted to a nursing home in South London.
Now perhaps the wait is over. Now maybe it’s time. He’s running out of patience. And of reasons to hold back.
He bought her a teddy last Valentine’s Day in the shopping centre. It holds a heart across its chest that reads in white writing ‘Be Mine.’ It sits on his bed. He keeps a photo of her beside it, age twelve, that he stole from Mark’s house one day and nobody saw.
Now, already he’s outside Oakdale House again. He watches the big red, Georgian front door. It’s locked of course. You need to ring to be let in. There’s a camera. You need to sign in. And you need good reason to visit whoever you are visiting. He can’t mess it up, or they will be on alert for him.
He waits and watches from across the street. Sitting on a bench near a bus stop. He’s done this a number of times since she got here. Never been in yet. He hugs a takeaway coffee, into which he’s poured a nip of scotch from his hip flask. A retirement gift. His car is parked around the corner. Ready just in case.
He’s going to take a chance. He can just visit this time. He’ll see. Test the water, come up with a proper plan. He writes a fake name in the book. Tells them he is her cousin. A care assistant shows him the room, and she is there sitting in her chair with a blanket on her knees.
‘Hello, Donna. I bought you a teddy bear,’ he tells her. He’s trembling, and he can’t stop the smile stretching across his face. She is still so beautiful.
‘Thank you,’ she says as he puts it on her pillow. Be Mine. He can’t tell if she knows who he is. She seems like she is thinking hard and trying to make sense of something. There is a greyness to her eyes that wasn’t there before.
They sit in silence for a while. He is running over the years in his mind, and she is quiet and still.
‘Do you want to come for a walk?’ he asks her.
‘Of course,’ she smiles. ‘I love walks.’ Bob wonders if she will really come with him. He is excited and tries to calm his breath in his chest.
‘Back in a minute.’ He wanders down the hall and pauses here and there. Watching. He sees the woman at reception pressing something on the wall to release the door.
In the sitting room, just two patients are sitting there and there is a daytime chat show playing on the TV. He lights the corner of a paper napkin and puts it in the wastepaper bin, then walks hurriedly to Donna’s room. She is sitting on her bed. She looks through him when he comes in.
‘Did you miss me?’
‘Is it Monday today?’
‘Yes,’ he lies. He starts putting some of her clothes in a plastic shopping bag. Cleaning items and all he can grab quickly. The teddy. A coat smelling of must in a wardrobe. A nightdress. Underwear. Socks and slippers.
‘Who are you again?’ she asks.
‘I’m your chauffeur, and we’re going on a grand adventure. You must get bored in here, with all these old cronies. A young woman like you.’
‘Is it raining outside?’
‘Frosty. So put this jumper on. That’s the girl.’
And they walk arm in arm as the fire alarm sounds. People are rushing around. Even the receptionist has left her chair, and he says to Donna ‘open the door in a second, when I say. Okay?’ He puts her hand on the door handle and shows her how to open it.
And it works. They are out. Down the slope and onto the street. She stops, frozen. ‘What is that awful noise?’
‘The alarm, we had to get out. Everyone is. Are you ready to come for a drive with me?’ He flips on his hat that he stole from work.
‘Is there champagne?’
‘By God there will be. For you my darling. Champagne it is. The best money can buy.’
He guides her into the passenger seat and she looks around. He locks the doors. Before long the A40 turns into the M40 and all is going to plan. He looks over at her from time to time. He wonders how it would be if she were suddenly to start yelling and trying to get out. Attracting attention. He wonders about the cameras in and around London. His fingerprints on the sign in book. No going back now.
He’s low on petrol at around Stoke-on-Trent. She is asleep, so he leaves the motorway at the next service station. Parking up he gets out as quiet as he can. Tank full and she’s still sleeping, her head lolled to the side. When he goes to pay he’s conscious but tries to smile and relax. She’s just out of view from the queue. He buys what food he can grab, and pays by card. Another traceability – he curses himself for not thinking things through more.
Then his heart jumps in his chest. Donna isn’t there. His first reaction is to wonder where to hide. Perhaps the police have got her. But they haven’t. She’s there chatting to a woman filling up her tank. Stay calm.
‘Come on my lovely, better get back on the road.’
She looks at him sharply, a confused and slightly suspicious look. ‘Who are you again?’ she asks. The woman, about forty with a black fur hat on, frowns a little as she replaces the nozzle and screws her petrol cap back on.
‘Here I got your favourite chocolate,’ and he gently pushes her back into the passenger seat and her body yields.
‘That’s so nice of you,’ she says and looks at it as though she has no idea how to unwrap it. He takes it from her and removes the wrapper, and she tastes it. ‘I love chocolate.’
The log cabin is nestled on the banks of Loch Lomond, with a view of Ben Nevis. Very like the big one they stayed in all those years ago. He gets her inside, and then he can’t rest. Pacing and wondering what to do, trying to make her comfortable. He makes her tea. Shows her the patio then brings her in again.
‘Do you remember, Donna? When we were here last?’
She looks at him, bird-like. Her head a little to the side. He just can’t tell, but he likes to think that she is remembering too. She has chocolate at the side of her mouth which instinctively makes him wipe his own.
‘I’ll tell you about it to jog your memory. In August 1967 my family and your family holidayed together. Our parents were the best of friends. And Mark and me, and you. I was fifteen, and you were ten.’ It’s clear she’s not listening now but he continues anyway.
‘One day, you fell and sprained your ankle, playing in the waterfall, and I saved you, carried you all the way back to the cabin. It was very like this one. Not far from here either.’ Bob closes his eyes and goes back there, feeling her small frame in his arms. The way she looked at him. Like he was some big strong mountain man. Tarzan. She seemed to be enjoying it as much as him. She rested her head on his chest and closed her eyes.
The adults told him he was brave and responsible and caring and he and she were silent. Sharing a special moment that couldn’t be spoiled by speaking.
That night time the parents drank at the pub on wooden benches on the bank of the lough. Bob made sure to include Donna in their games. The sun stayed up very late into the night as though it didn’t want it to end either. They paddled in the clear shallow waters edge, splashed and skimmed stones. Mark made fun of Bob for being unable to swim. Bob didn’t care, and Donna said ‘at least he’s not afraid of the dark like you are,’ and they both laughed.
Now, Donna just sits there, tea in hand. An almost-smile on her lips.
Later, she is sitting in front of the television. He doesn’t know how she switched it on. She can’t seem to do very much independently. But the news is on. Her picture. A woman is believed to have been abducted from a nursing home in Kensington and the man…. He switches it off in a panic.
‘The world is cruel. What life have you got, a good-looking woman in your sixties in a nursing home? Life’s only beginning for us, darling.’ Perhaps he can take her away to another country. Make her better. And she will marry him as she knows this is true love which is as rare as diamonds in the night sky.
Donna wakes at four in the morning. There is a strange man beside her, and she doesn’t know where she is. She just thinks she should be really quiet. She slips out of the door and walks in her nightdress out into the night. It’s so cold. She wishes she had her coat, but now she can’t remember where she came from. A pathway leads her onto a track, and the moon lights it for her. She keeps walking until she reaches the waters edge.
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