There is a man

There is a man in a wheelchair who is nearly always in the café where I go to write.

We have a history.

A long time ago, he stopped me on the street and asked me to take him home.

His head droops to one side. He has trouble speaking. He keeps a set of used straws down the side of his chair. He’s about 50.

I pushed him down the road to his house. An Altbau with a grand entrance hall. One small, rickety lift.

A teenage girl came out of one of the doors. I looked at her searchingly.

“Fourth floor,” she said.

Every day probably. A stranger off the street. A woman.

There wasn’t enough room for us both in the lift. I got him in, pressed the button and took the stairs.

Outside his door, he fumbled for his key. Close to him now, I thought I caught alcohol on his breath.

“Will – you – come – in?”  An age to get the words out. Huge eyes. Big lopsided smile.

“I’m sorry I can’t.”  Breezy. “I have to be somewhere. Sorry.”

He wouldn’t have the strength, I thought. From his chair.

The key was heavy and awkward. Like something from the olden days.

Finally got the door open. Pushed him inside.

He held my gaze.  “I – hope – we’ll  – see – each – other – again.”

We do. All the time. He spends his days in the café.

There have been times when, from a distance, I have seen him making his way there. His floppy head from behind. The rainbow-colored wheels. Crawling along.

And I have crossed the road. I don’t have time, I tell myself. I don’t have time today.

In the café it’s different. There undeniably, I have time.

A few months ago, he offered me a job.

“To – take – care – of – me – at – home.”

“Oh!”

“Just – small – tasks – get – me – up – in – the – morning.”

“Thanks!” Bright and breezy.  “But I already have a job. Look.”

Showed him my diary. All my shifts marked in. So busy.

“Some weeks I start at 6 am.”  Pointing elaborately, like a Kindergarten teacher. “Other times I work late. Like here. Look.”

I flicked through the pages, flustered and apologetic. Cat-like, he pounced.

“I’d – pay – you -very-well.”

“I cant quit my job.”

Pool eyes again. A wistful smile.

“Sch-ade.”

Was I a bad person for crossing the street sometimes?

Then, last week again.  The first time I’d been in the café in a while. A hot  day. Couldn’t see my laptop screen with the sun. Pen in hand instead. Old-school. Wondering why one of my characters wasn’t working. Did I even know her, I wondered.

A presence at my side.

Looked up. Smiled. Couldn’t not. Don’t have that quality. Would keep me up at night to keep my head bowed. He knows.

“Nice – to – see – you – again.”

“And you!”

We talked for a while but then they brought his Coke outside for him so he had to go.

“Enjoy the sun!” I said. Bright and breezy.

Bright and breezy.

Went back to my novel. She felt flat. Why was it that I was having trouble getting to know her?

“I – have – an – offer – for – you.”

Not even five minutes had passed.

The same one as last time.

I showed him my diary. All those shifts. Busy, busy. Breezy, breezy. “Look, this week – I’m working late. That’s the only reason I can go to the café.”

“Sch-ade.”

Half an hour later, that feeling again. Looming by my side. Took longer this time to look up. But still, couldn’t not. He knows.

“I’m – very – self-sufficient.” Huge eyes. Lopsided smile. Clever. Had he children, I wondered? Any he knew about?

“I really do have a job,” I said. “I’ll get in trouble if I stop turning up.”

“Sch-ade.” He wore an expression that, whether by accident or design, could make you cry.

Wheeled himself back to his Coke. Went back to my character. Didn’t know enough about her past. Needed to care more. Who was she even? Deep down. Who was she?

I was scribbling furiously when he returned for the last time.

More playful now. He had weighed it up. The cost of self-respect.

He had loose change in his hand.

“I – have – three- euros – thirty,” he said. Smiling. But panting too, to get the words out. Big eyes. Head collapsed to one side.

Confused, I made a leap. The wrong one.

“Oh,” I said, gesturing elaborately to my drink. “I’m good with my coffee. But thanks so much!”

He laughed and placed his hand on his chest. “I-think-you’ve-misunderstood- I’m – asking-” he moved his hand from his chest towards me – “you– for- money.” 

I laughed then, too. At myself, and in relief. “Do you want me to get you another drink?”

“Zi -ga-re-tten.”

“Oh. Em. Okay. How much do you need?”

“How – much-are-you-willing-to-give?” There it was again. That look. The smile. His big green eyes.

Charm written into his facial features. The only physical force he still possessed.

“You can have two euros, if you like.”What did I even have in my purse? How much were cigarettes? What were you supposed to give? Anything even? If he wasn’t in a wheelchair, what would I have done?

“Danke!” he said as I dropped the coin into his hand.

Big, lopsided smile. Power in incapacity, too.

“I – won’t-bother-you-again.”

“No worries! Enjoy your smoke.”

He never approaches men, I thought. I have never seen him with another man.

Later, as I was leaving the café, I saw him again. A cigarette in his drooping mouth.

A middle-aged woman pushing his chair. Unsure exactly where he wanted her to take him.

I looked at him and he gazed right back.

Something sheepish in his expression. Triumphant too.

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On bonnets and bunnies

For the last three months, LSH and I have been washing our clothes and dishes in the bathtub.

At first it felt kind of rustic. I imagined myself in a bonnet, whistling as I wrung out a sopping pair of jeans.

But the glamor faded faster than the stains.

“This moving-apartment-melarky isn’t all it’s cracked up to be,” I grumbled as I watched LSH arched like a cat over the bathtub.

“What?”

“This moving-apartment mel…”

But I didn’t finish because LSH likes to listen to podcasts as he scrubs the saucepan ferociously with a scouring pad.

haiku

This poem is about a very weird experience we had when looking for an apartment.

I took to writing poems instead.  Some are deeply personal accounts of ringing internet providers and power companies. Others chronicle the 76 times we traipsed between our old and new apartment with suitcases full of books we will never read. A select few are odes to the hot plate we borrowed from a friend.

Poetry can help but it is no replacement for the Internet, and so I kept calling 02. Months later, a young man from Bavaria arrived at our door.

He loooked exhausted.

It was hot that day, and there are 92 steps up to our apartment.

I should have mentioned that in one of my poems. Pathos is one of literature’s greatest powers.

“I’m not from around here,” he said, pausing to catch his breath.

“I know,” I said. “You’re from Bavaria. You sound like my relatives.”

“They’re so short-staffed in Berlin, they had to bring us up.”

Demand for basic digital infrastructure is high in the German capital.

But if you want something done, ask a Bavarian.

Within fifteen minutes, he had re-connected us to the world.

I didn’t think he wanted me to hug him though, so instead I asked: “Can I give you a Lindt bunny as a thank you?”

bunnies

LSH is excellent at displays.

“Pardon?”

“Would you like a Lindt bunny? As a token of my appreciation?”

“I don’t really like sweet things,” he said, his eyes widening in fright as he discovered the army of chocolate bunnies on the table behind me.

Let me explain.

A while back, I was having a tough day. In desperate need of attention, I fired off a flurry of self-pitying messages to LSH on Whatsapp.

He sent the right kind of emoji back and so I thought the matter was resolved. I was working a late shift and when I got back home around 1 am, I tiptoed into the bedroom, where LSH was in a sleepy stupor.

“Katzi,” he murmured. “I think I left the radiator in the living room on. Would you mind turning it off?”

Ugh, fine, I thought to myself. But does he remember what a tough day I’ve had? How emotionally exhausted I am?

I flung open the living room door and made a beeline for the raditator.

And then I saw them.

An army of bunnies. Lined up as if for a school photograph. Flanked by nougat eggs.

The radiator was off.

“You said you had a tough day,” LSH murmured as I burst back into the bedroom.

“How did you…. ”

“They were on special offer. Got some fierce weird looks on the S-Bahn though. The big one comes in a transparent box with a handle.”

There were always many reasons to marry LSH, but this is now officially in my top three.

Anyway, all that was a few weeks ago. Since then, even without the help of my Bavarian hero, my army has shrunk dramatically.

Now it’s only “Big Berta” who remains standing. Her bell is so loud that we used it to entertain the cat we recently babysat.

Berta watches us as we wash our clothes, and cook yet another batch of tortelli on the hotplate. She was there when the hat stand was delivered and when LSH heroically proved his masculinity by bleeding the radiator. She will possibly still be there when our kitchen is delivered.

She is a reminder, in more ways than one, that good things come to those who wait.

 

Melanija

This piece was originally published by a great online literary magazine called The Wild Word

Nobody believed that I pushed Irena into the Sava. But I did. I didn’t even feel anything as I watched her flounder. I knew one of the boys would jump in to save her.

Her shorts and t-shirt were sticking to her as she scrambled back up the bank.  The boy who’d pulled her out tossed her a dry shirt. She draped it around her shoulders and stared at me. She was one of those people who looked prettier wet.

No one said a word at first. Then one of the boys spoke. “Melanija, what did you do that for?”

I could feel their eyes boring into me. Wondering what could have possessed a creature as delicate as me to perform such a brutal act.

She’d called me stupid. In class beforehand, under her breath. For insisting Milan was the capital of Italy. But anyone could have made that mistake. My mother was always talking about the shows there. All the magazines she brought home from work had spreads from Milan. It was a logical thing to assume. Why wouldn’t the center of fashion be the capital too? It was for Paris.

I shrugged. “I guess I’m too stupid to know.” The boys looked at me like they never had before. Some of them were impressed, I think. And others a bit afraid. Their worlds were opening up.

I was younger than my son is now when I threw Irena into the Sava. A good bit actually, now that I think about it. Definitely no more than ten. The memory came flooding back earlier when I got another invitation to our school reunion. Last time, in 2014, they’d sent it to my agent’s address. This time, the envelope was presented on a silver tray, along with some fan mail from schoolchildren in Uganda and a letter of appreciation from a group of women who support my husband. They put a lot of effort into curating my mail and even go the bother of resealing the envelopes after they’ve been checked. I appreciate those little touches. More than they know.

Dear Melanija, Please join us for an afternoon of reminiscing about our time at Sevnica national school. No special mention of my current situation, or of the logistical challenges attending would present. I folded it and slipped it back inside the envelope.  Surely, this must be the first time an invitation to a Slovenian school reunion had been screened by the US government.

Irena’s never spoken to the press. As far as I know anyway. But even if she did, what evidence would she have of what happened that day? There were no phones, then. And it would be easy to deny such a story. Most of what they write about me is a lie anyway.

I might even do it again, if I were back there, in the same circumstances. Irena was one of those annoying children who had lots of knowledge but no instincts. It was infuriating for her to think that she was cleverer than me. Especially when I knew that it was her destiny to be ordinary, and that it was mine not to be.

When I think back to that day, I realize that I’ve always been allergic to humiliation. It’s something I have in common with Donald. Even a glimmer of it makes us both ruthless. I think we recognized that in each other early on. Part of the attraction, probably.

But there are differences in our antipathy. These days, I can cope with ridicule. Let them paint me as vacuous. You don’t get to where I am with nothing between your ears. Where is Irena now? Teaching math in dingy classroom somewhere? Auditing accounts for a financial services company? I couldn’t care less how stupid she thinks I am. Let her mock my improbable fate.

Donald has no such composure. To him, laughter is as dangerous and foreign as Slovenian is. The principles of both languages are impossible for him to understand. He’d rather bathe in victimhood than be ridiculed. I’m the complete opposite. To me, nothing stings like pity.

The media is at its cruelest when it pretends to show compassion. The moment I batted Donald’s hand away, in slow motion. The way I stopped smiling when I thought we were out of shot. Miserable Melania, they say. She cried on election night.

People who think I’m sad or lonely have a mistaken view of what marriage is. A simplistic one, based on ideals they’ve read about in fairytales. The truth that the small-minded fail to acknowledge is that every relationship is a transaction. And when you have an instinct for business, like Donald and I do, you can see the beauty in the way marriage enables an exchange between equals.

And that is what we’ve always been.

Of course, there are power struggles. They exist in all equal transactions, including in ours. But in this particular, peculiar situation, I have the upper hand. We both know that. I would have no trouble walking, if the humiliation became too great.

I’m not like the other, dispensable members of his administration. Those who woo him with adulation, then anger him with gentle reason. For Donald, there is only deference and defiance. Anything in between he files under treachery.

Not with me though. Through the marital bond, I am afforded the freedom of thought. My husband’s brilliance, like that of many powerful men, resides in his simplicity. FLOTUS, he knows, can’t be easily replaced.

When the grab-‘em-by-the-pussy tape came out during the campaign, I called him disgusting and told him I was leaving. “You can’t,” he said. His face was red. His voice was soft. The words came out like a question.

I looked him right in the eye. “I will.” And he believed me. It’s why he married me. Power has nothing to do with following through. It’s about having the courage to craft a noose and to hold it around the necks, even of those you love.

Since then I’ve been calling the shots. New York until Baron finished the school year. My own schedule. Interviews, only at my whim. No more snatching migrant children from their parents. What is he, a monster?

The liberal media’s too blinded by my beauty to see my brains. But since they insist on painting me in their own image, I’d rather be ornamental than oppressed.

Ornaments are powerful. It doesn’t matter whether they are diamonds, wives, husbands or handbags. All are accessories with the possibility to harness the most powerful currency in the world: attention. To be looked at, feared. Envied, adored. Only hypocrites say the surface doesn’t matter. Even the ugly duckling turns out beautiful in the end.

It maddens me when people say I have been lucky. Implying that I drifted listlessly to the top. Nothing could be further from the truth. Everything I have done is a calculation. I had the looks. But if it had been something else, I would have capitalized on that. I don’t understand people who don’t make the best of themselves.

If you think I’m heartless, you’re wrong. Only the jealous would jump to such a conclusion. I would do anything for those who brought me here. My mother, who spent her evenings sewing me dresses from the excess fabric she picked up on the factory floor. Who wouldn’t let me leave the apartment unless I was looking smart. She knew what it was to be best. My father, who worked and worked so we could move up and out. From Sevnica to Ljubljana all the way to New York City. Never look back, he said. He, who came from nothing.

I remember once, when Baron was very young, my parents came to Manhattan. I’d been out with my mother for the afternoon and when we came back, the sitting room door was ajar. We tip-toed down the hallway and peered inside.

Baron was curled up on my father’s lap. They were reading from a book. Kaj je to?  – what’s that? my father said, pointing at a picture. And Baron babbled back at him in Slovenian. Then my father said something I didn’t catch. But whatever it was, it made Baron giggle and dig his nose into my father’s chest. And as my mother and I stood hidden in the doorway, she caught the tear falling down my cheek with her freshly painted nail.

Former classmates of mine have complained in interviews that I never answer their invitation to the school reunion. They’re held every five years in a restaurant in Sevnica, just around the corner from where our school once stood. They have always invited me, they said. Even before I was First Lady. But she never comes, they say. She doesn’t even bother writing to decline.

Well, here’s what I have to say to them. Not everyone in life gets stuck. Some of us move up. Some of us make the best out of ourselves.

And maybe there are times when I would sacrifice everything I have now to be back there. Among the timbered houses that line the hills along the Sava. Breathing in the dewy air I remember from my childhood. Re-walking the trail where I once twirled proudly in the skirt my mother sewed.

I’d go, you know. I really would. If only they could guarantee that Irena wouldn’t be there. But how on earth, could I, FLOTUS, get away with making such a demand?

* This is a work of fiction. All characters, events, and situations as represented in this story are the product of the author’s imagination, and should not considered to be true or a statement of fact.

My right honorable wife Theresa May

Everyone always talks about how Benazir introduced us. As if she were the catalyst that ignited a fire destined to burn in our bellies as soon as our eyes locked. But it wasn’t like that at all. Especially not for Theresa.

I remember watching her on the dancefloor that night and thinking she moved a bit like a pump. Expanding and contracting, carving out her own space. Graceless but full of conviction.

She conjured associations I found reassuring. Girls playing tennis with their socks pulled up to their knees. Hymns in church. But also, a schoolboy’s desire to be put in his place.

She was holding a glass of orange juice when Benazir pulled her towards me and said: “Theresa, do you know Philip?”

“No.” Not a hint of expectation in her voice. Neither impressed nor disappointed by the sight of me. I felt immediately at ease.

“I suppose I quite liked him,” was what she told Kirsty Young on Desert Island Discs a few years ago. I had to laugh when I heard that. It was only marginally better than the truth: that I was neither especially desirable nor particularly objectionable.

But those traits stood to me. Theresa has always been a pragmatist. And I suppose she figured I was as good a catch as any other.

On our wedding day, I watched her tuck a blanket round her mother’s knees. She even insisted on pushing the chair from the church to the parish hall. She’d have made a good matron, if she wasn’t so clever.

Our early years together were shaped by her mother’s decline. At university, we would spend our Saturdays stuffing envelopes for the Conservative Association. In the evenings, we would drive down to her parents to deliver the beef casseroles she’d made the night before.

It seemed to me at the time that the prospect of her father being left alone was more painful to Theresa than her own grief.

But even in that regard, fate wasn’t kind to her. The more pragmatic she is, the more the universe conspires to smite her.

One evening, a year into our marriage, I came home from work and found the lights in the hallway off and the telephone hanging loose. Strange – Theresa was almost always home before me. Back then, the Bank of England wasn’t the tight ship it is now. I called her name but there was no reply.

I raced upstairs and found her on the bedroom floor, crouched in the fetal position.

I thought she’d been attacked. Violated. I looked stupidly at the bedroom window for signs of an attacker’s escape.

“Theresa?”

I squatted beside her. “Theresa, are you alright?” I took her hand. It was bone dry and cold.

“Theresa, what’s happened? Answer me.”

Her breathing was shallow. She didn’t move.

I wanted to shake her. But I managed to keep my voice gentle. “Theresa. What’s happened? You need to tell me what happened.”

“Daddy’s gone. Killed in a car crash.”

It came out matter-of-fact. Like she was reporting the death of a dog.

“What?”

But that was all she said that evening. It was only as I made one excruciating phone call after the other that I discovered the rest.

SONY DSC

Attribution: ukhomeoffice [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

She stayed on the bedroom floor and barely moved all night. In the early hours of the morning, she let me pick her up and bring her to bed. When I put her down, she drew me towards her and clung to me with a ferocity I had never before encountered.

There was no gradual decline like with her mother. No opportunity to pre-emptively fill the holes left by grief with stews and custard tarts. It was just a case that one day he was there, and the next he was not.

On Desert Island Discs they talked about how she has 100 cookbooks. She name-dropped Ottolenghi and dismissed Delia as too precise. The future prime minister, Theresa told the country, in no words at all, is more of a handful-of-this-and-a-handful-of-that kind of cook.

But really she cooked her grief away. For two whole years. First for her father as he watched his wife decline. Then for her mother as she waited, unaccompanied and in need of constant care, for her own early death. Afterwards, out of habit, for me.

“You just get on with things,” Theresa told Kirsty.

You get on with things and then you die. That has been my only guiding principle for the last two years as I watch our lives and country.

Last night I got a drink with my friend Richard. He asked me how I was doing. I told him I felt like I was living in a dystopia where nothing except doom was a certainty.

I could tell he wasn’t sure if I was joking or not.

“How is Theresa?” he asked.

“I think she might be dying.”

“What?”

“There’s no other way to describe it.”

“She’s been very courageous,” Richard said, carefully. “There aren’t many who would have kept going.”

Richard voted to remain, obviously. But he, like I, wished he’d never been given the choice. There is nothing in the world that unites us more than our shared hatred for David. The man who did this to my wife.

“Nothing feels real anymore.”

“It’s too much for a single person, isn’t it?” he said. “Those pricks have left her out to dry. It makes my blood boil.”

I said nothing.

“Do you talk about things?” Richard asked.

“Never.”

“Never?”

“When we’re together, I carry her to bed, then I switch off the light and we just lie there. The only thing I ever ask is if she’s had her insulin.”

We pretended to ignore the TV screen behind the bar. But there she was again, locked in the car. Angela Merkel waiting outside. The puddles on the ground glistening in anticipation. Ready for my wife’s next humiliation.

That was just over 24 hours ago.

Now my wife is sitting across from me on the couch. Even in the flesh, she no longer seems real.

We’re in a back room of Downing Street, waiting for Sky News to deliver the Conservative Party’s verdict on her leadership.

We both know she’s survived well before the vote is in.

An aide has made a pot of tea. The cups sit absurdly in their saucers.

Empty vessels one of us should fill. But neither of us makes a move.

Finally, the tally comes in.

200 to 117 in favor of our lives continuing to slip away from each other.

“She’s survived but that’s a whole lot of Tory MPs who want her out. And don’t forget Chris, she still needs to get that deal through parliament.”

“That’s right Sam … She’s certainly not out of the woods yet. Plenty more turmoil to come…”

Theresa’s eyes are closing. Her chin falls to her chest. Like a mouse spat out of a bored cat’s mouth.

I want to lean across the cushions and take her hand.

But there is something sacred in the chasm between us.

The space wehre words have been dispensed of. Where we both dared to hope that this might indeed, by some miracle, have been the end.

Please note: This is a fictional piece written from the imagined perspective of Theresa May’s husband and inspired by current political events. It is not intended as political commentary.

The story of Stella Goldschlag

Last night I went to a small Berlin theatre to see a one-woman play called Blonde Poison.

It tells the story of Stella Goldschlag, a German woman who collaborated with the Nazis to send hundreds, if not thousands of people to their deaths.

Using a poisonous cocktail of good looks and charm, she infiltrated hiding places and revealed them to the Gestapo.

Ferocious in her pursuit of victims, she was a dream come true for the Führer and his followers.

Blue-eyed and blonde, she epitomized the Aryan ideal.

Except for one thing.

She was Jewish.

Yes, you read that right.

Stella Goldschlag was a Jewish woman who embodied Nazi terror.

It’s an uncomfortable thing to write. Especially here in Germany, where the horrors inflicted on six million Jews are omnipresent – carved, literally, into the pavements and our consciousness.

The notion of a Jewish woman engineering the brutal deaths of her own people is something we might prefer not to think about.

Except, of course, that we must.

Because whether you consider her a monster, a victim of one, or something in between, Stella Goldschlag was a real person.

And real people do grotesque things. Most of the time, without considering themselves vile.

In the production I saw at the Brotfabrik, Stella Goldschlag is brilliantly portrayed by Dulcie Smart as an old woman waiting for a journalist to come and interview her.

As she paces nervously about the stage, counting down the minutes until she can put the coffee on, we witness an extraordinary pyschological range, which reveals not only the intelligence but also the empathy of the actress, who flits seamlessly from one state of heightened emotion to the next.

We see the girlish traces of vanity and vivaciousness and the suggestion of how they could have morphed into tools of treachery and deceit.

The flickers of innocence and pride as she recalls the way her father used to call her “Pünktchen” – and tell her she was destined to become a star.

We learn that Stella Goldschlag continued to betray Jews even after her parents were murdered at Auschwitz.

dulcie

Dulcie Smart as Stella Goldschlag Source: Brotfabrik

We watch in horror as her thoughts advance unrestrained.

She speaks of the mortification which must be experienced by those who get spinach stuck in their teeth. To tell them or not to? That is the question.

She is proud of her clean, white smile and examines it frequently in the mirror.

Her anti-Semitism is expressed in the disgust she has for the hooked noses and black hair of her fellow Jews.

Is she mad or bad or both, we wonder.

A victim or an engine of a totalitarian regime?

You will leave the theatre with an unsettled feeling in the pit of your stomach.

Embrace it.

It’s the sting of a painful truth.

Despite our enormous appetite for it, there is no such thing as a single story.

No one embodiment of monstrosity.

No defined point at which democracy erodes.

No real wisdom that can fit into 142 characters or less.

We may be closer to the truth in the theatre than on Twitter.

But even then, the sign of a good production is one that reminds us that in a functioning democracy, the absolute truth is allowed to elude us.

Their spines contain their highlight reel

Here I am on a Monday morning in the Staatsbibliothek.

With my folders and flashcards.

And the Microsoft Word document open before me.

Surrounded by faces scowling in concentration, I am blank as a slate.

Here, where minds bathe in luxury, anything is possible.

All it takes is the scratch of a pen, the tap of a key, the turn of a page.

“Read over document as a netural, distant reader might,” it says on my to-do-list.

I breathe in. And out. And in again as I begin:

It was the day everything began to change and bit by bit, the threads of Dora Danckelmann’s past became unraveled…..

I scroll through the document.

Then 40 minutes later, the verdict.

The neutral, distant reader shakes their head apologetically.

They are neither kind nor unkind.  Neither my champion nor my challenger.

Their task is indepenent arbitration.

The words (all 54,375 of them) the reader says carefully, refuse to dance together.

Some shoot out in vulgar bursts. And others crawl too carefully along.

Too uncertain and at once too brash to form a bond.

Less than the sum of their parts.

I thank the reader and survey the truth:

The story has no flow. In 54,375 ways, it has steered off course.

A sorry tribute to its source.

It doesn’t work. Not because I am in the mood for self-destruction; but because it’s the plain and simple truth.

My story isn’t any good.

Not yet.

The shelves around me bulge with books. Thousands of them, forced into neat rows.

Like soldiers in waiting.

Their spines contain their highlight reel. The anguish that made them, rubbed away like sadness on your Facebook timeline.

Their polished boots ready for inspection, ready to deny the battles they’ve seen.

Like them, I’ve got no choice but to soldier on.

54,375 ways I’ve gone wrong. 54,375 ways to make it right.

One word; one battle at a time.

The rabbit cage

A few years ago, a large grey rabbit appeared in the hallway of the nursing home.

Residents would park their Zimmer frames and wheelchairs by its cage and stick their fingers through the bars.

The rabbit would twitch its nose in curiosity, and in response they’d exchange satisfied smiles.

Frau B told me it belonged to Alessandro, one of the care-workers. She said his girlfriend had thrown him out of the flat they shared and ordered him to take the rabbit with him.

This wasn’t true. But it was amusing, and so I went along with it.

I wasn’t sure Frau B really, truly believed it either.

Sometimes, when Alessandro came into the room, Frau B would say, “Here he is! The rabbit’s daddy.”

“It’s NOT my rabbit,” Alessandro would reply through gritted teeth. Then he’d slam the little cup that contained her painkillers down on the table and leave before she could say another word.

Frau B’s stories always had a dramatic narrative arc. When an old man named Mr Klein moved into the room next to her, she swore he was having a liaison with one of the women at her table.

She said she’d caught them looking at each other across the dining hall.

It was a most appealing tale which conveniently erased Mr Klein’s wife, who lives downstairs.

Still, I nodded indulgently.

As time went by, Frau B’s stories changed. They became less Mills and Boon.

She became increasingly paranoid.

The care-workers were coming into her room at night and eating her pears.

The cleaners were stealing her money and helping themselves to her jewelry.

The other residents were giving her dirty looks and talking about her behind her back.

She had deliberately been given a wheelchair with a faulty brake.

Frau B didn’t respond well to my attempts at gentle persuasion, so I mastered the art of deflection.

I’d listen as she catalogued the slights against her, then change the subject. I’d tell her about my friends’ love lives, or read to her from the Erich Kästner book.

For a while, it seemed to work.

But things are different now.

She insists that the staff  hate her.

And that the people she sits with at mealtimes are conspiring against her.

She sits in her room all day, ruminating about their treachery.

As a result of these perceived slights, this year, she is boycotting the Christmas party I’ve accompanied her to for the past five years.

The one where one of her favourite care-workers dresses up as Santa Claus and distributes gifts to every single one of the residents.

When I suggested she may regret not going, she became angry.

I didn’t bring it up again.

Last Sunday, when LSH and I came to visit, we found her looking for money.

She’d hidden it envelopes all around the room and couldn’t remember where she’d put it.

I offered to help, but she refused, in a tone that suggested she thought I wanted to pocket it.

We unpacked the shopping she’d ordered on the phone the day before: pears; hair slides (the long ones; she can’t grip the shorter ones with her arthritis-ridden fingers); two bars of chocolate and baby powder. We’d also picked up her jumper from the dry-cleaners.

“Is that all?” she said.

“Oh?” I said. “Did you need anything else?”

“You know I did,” she said. “Why didn’t you get grapes?”

I tried to explain as politely as I could that she hadn’t asked for any.

“And what about the pine branch?” she asked.

On this, she had a point.

She’d been talking about getting a small festive centerpiece for her table.

I’d actually bought her one already. But when I’d arrived with it last week, I discovered that her niece from Hamburg had been around in the interim and had supplied her with an alternative. It featured a glittery cut-out of a reindeer wedged inside a box of festive vegetation.

Frau B preferred mine, but thought it would be too risky to switch them in case her niece came back. On her instructions, I took the little pot home back home.

Photo from Katzi

Photo: LSH aka Andrew Hayden: instagram.com/andrewchayden

She did mention pimping her inferior centerpiece with a real pine branch. But she hadn’t brought it up again when I called, and – after a tiring week of getting up at half past three for work every morning – it had slipped my mind.

“So you’ve begun to exploit me too,” she said. “You think you can do what you like because I’ll forget.”

“That’s not fair,” I said, calmly.

“I told you I wanted a pine branch,” she said, her voice rising in anger.

“I’m sorry I didn’t get you one,” I said, curtly now. “I’ll get one this week.”

“You’re playing me for a fool.”

“Let’s read,” I suggested.

I thought it would help.

But she interrupted and said she needed the bathroom.

I let her wheel herself in and closed the door behind her – a small dignity she still insists on.

“Let me know if you need help,” I called after her.

LSH and I sat there, looking at our phones and whispering about how this wasn’t a very enjoyable visit.

Suddenly, a terrible cry came from the toilet.

I shot up and found Frau B hovering over the seat, clutching the bar with one hand and trying to pull her soiled underpants back over her knees with the other.

I re-inserted the sanitary towel that had slid down the inside of her tights, pulled up her underpants and tucked her vest into them.

Then she slid back into her wheelchair, and broke down.

“I can’t do this anymore,” she said. “I can’t go on.”

I bent down before her, and looked her right in the eye.

“Today is a bad day,” I said. “Tomorrow will be better.”

“I’ve been horrible to you,” she said.

“Don’t worry.”

“I need to get out,” she said. “I need to leave this room.”

We left LSH in the bedroom to ward of the thieves and I wheeled her up and down the corridor.

When we came back, some of the darkness had lifted. I made up stories about my baby niece I knew would make her laugh.

Still, a heaviness accompanied LSH and me home that evening.

The next day, I called her on my way home from work.

“Who’s this?” she said.

She sounded agitated and I realised she would have to strain to hear me above the traffic.

“Das Kätchen!”

“Kätchen?”

“Yep, it’s me.”

“I wasn’t expecting you.”

“I just wanted to see how you were.”

“I’m feeling ashamed,” she said.

“Don’t,” I said.

“I treated you terribly.”

“It’s nothing.”

“And to think that after everything I said, you still call me.”

“I was worried about you.”

There was a pause on the other end of the line.

“I often think I’m no longer capable of crying,” she said finally. “But the thought that there’s still someone who worries about me is enough to make me shed tears of joy.”

Now it was my turn to pause.

Then, in a matronly tone designed to stop me from welling up, I said: “Of course I care! How could I not?”

We hung up just as it began to drizzle.

As I walked on towards the train station, I imagined her watching the clouds form from her bedroom window, imprisoned in a cage she had a part in making.