“You’re not the Statue of Liberty. You don’t have to hold a torch for me.”
That’s what Marjorie had told Oliver Sparks after she’d been diagnosed with terminal cancer. And twenty years after her death, on the fifteenth of January, it was time for Oliver move on. He was going to tell Astrid Henrikson how he felt about her. No more yearning. No more waiting. He glanced at his wedding photo, all those years ago. Before the bags weighed down his eyes, he’d added the tyre around his waist, his hair had started falling out and his legs still worked. He had aged a millennium, but Marjorie had never stopped being beautiful. Even when she had lost her hair, had a tube up her nose and was connected to beeping machines.
Rubbing his creased face, he heaved himself out of bed and into his wheelchair. His TV blared the Grand National. His friend had tipped him to the winning horse, and he’d wagered a decent amount, but he turned it off.
He glanced around the room he’d been living in for the last fifteen years. His bedroom in this carehome. Full of Chelsea FC posters, betting fixtures, and photos from his youth. Relics. It was time to live in the present.
Somebody knocked and opened the door. A lad in his twenties, wearing a grey tunic, walked in, almost knocking Oliver backward with his BO. He smelled little better than your average shower-refusing beatnik. His shaggy, black hair and scraggly bumfluff, only added to the out-of-time hippy image.
“Good morning, David.” Oliver addressed the lad who would be taking care of him today.
“Hello mate. We’re going to play bingo now. Are you coming?”
“Will Astrid be there?” Oliver’s nose wrinkled. The lad could really use some deodorant.
“I’m not sure.” David smiled knowingly and snorted. “Come on, I’ll take you down.”
Oliver felt the carer take hold of his wheelchair, then wheel him down the corridor, past a resident cradling a gurgling baby on his knee. Probably a grand or even great, grandchild. Oliver quietly laughed. He had never been lucky enough to have any children.
He was wheeled into the lounge which was more like entering a furnace, despite the garden doors blowing around in the January breeze. He glanced at the other residents dotted around the room gazing at the TV. Some of them were snoring away while the BBC news blared on. Another was doing a crossword. Then he spotted her. Astrid.
“David, can you put…”
“Way ahead of you.” David wheeled him to Astrid and headed away.
She looked lovely in her flowery blouse and purple skirt. Her hair must have been in rollers because it was extra-curly. Behind her thin spectacles sat two of the bluest eyes he’d ever seen. She was staring at the wood-pigeons pecking at the birdhouse, but turned and smiled, putting her knitting needles on the table next to her mobile phone.
“Good morning, my friend. How are you?” She spoke in a Danish accent. Oliver knew, that despite having lived in the UK since the end of the Second World War, she had never fully lost her accent. He was glad. It made her every word emanate with joy.
“I’m very well. Did you sleep okay? No nightmares?”
“I slept as well as I can at my age and that is very old indeed,” she laughed, which was like Oliver’s favourite piece of music.
Astrid was ninety-four years old. Not that she looked it. Unlike him who looked every one of his eighty years.
He cleared his throat. “Astrid, I would like to tell you something.”
“Yes?” She beamed.
“Is that your phone there?” He pointed at it.
“Don’t ask me how it works. My granddaughter bought it for me. She’s a whizz with these things.” She chuckled and handed it over.
It was a dementia phone, for the elderly. Simple and user-friendly. No fancy keypads, camera or touchscreen. Two buttons to answer and reject calls. And three buttons where the user could add speed dials.
“I’m pretty nifty with technology despite being an old boy. Maybe I can put my number on the speed dial? The next time you have a nightmare you can give me a call..”
She nodded and smiled. He programmed it in and returned the phone.
“Thank you. How sweet.” Astrid beamed, her cheeks turning rosy.
David handed around bingo cards and counters and stood by the TV. “Let’s make a start. First number. Seventy-one. Bang on the drum with seventy-one.”
Astrid squinted at the card. “Oh dear. My eyesight isn’t what it used to be.”
“I’ll help you,” bloody coward. Don’t tell her about how you feel, but help her play bingo. “You have seventy-one there.” Oliver covered the number with a counter, grazing the back of Astrid’s hand. Smooth like silk and she smelled like lavender. The game continued with the numbers being covered, until both Oliver and Astrid only needed one number for a full house.
“Legs eleven. This number has legs for days.”
That was the number Oliver needed, but he stayed silent.
“Thirteen. Unlucky for some. Is it lucky for you?” David asked.
“It’s lucky for Astrid. She’s won.”
A grin spread from one side of her face to the other. “So I have. Bingo!”
Oliver’s heart swelled up. Throwing away an easy win would always be worth seeing Astrid’s lovely smile.
“Congratulations, here’s your prize.” David handed her a bar of chocolate. “I’ll collect your cards.” He paused and glanced at Oliver. “I said eleven. You could have won.”
“I missed that. Silly me.” He chuckled.
“Of course you did.” David winked at him.
After lunch, Oliver returned to his room and sat on the edge of his bed. The horse racing played in the background while he flicked through his newspaper. Reading the same articles again and again. He screwed up the paper and threw it at the door. Bloody coward. Astridhad lived through Nazi-occupied Denmark, but you weren’t brave enough to tell her how you feel. His race would be coming up soon. He rooted through his bedside drawer, found the betting slip and tore it to pieces. Maybe it was for the best. This was no fairy tale and he was no Prince Charming. There would be no happily ever after.
His phone screamed into life. He jammed it to his ear.
“Help me. They’re coming. The Nazis. They’re coming for me.”
“Astrid? It’s me, Oliver.
“I don’t care who’s there. Save me. I don’t want to die.”
She must have pressed my speed dial by accident.“I’m coming.” He stumbled into his wheelchair, knocking over his cup, which shattered on the floor. He headed to the door and flung it open.
“David, are you there?” He yelled down the corridor.
The carer ran out of another room. “What’s wrong?”
“Take me to Astrid. She’s having a nightmare.”
Without a word, David whisked him down the corridor, almost barging into the nurse giving out medication, then into Astrid’s room, before running to get help.
Oliver wheeled himself closer. “Astrid?” He ducked as she threw a glass at him.
“It’s Oliver. Your friend.”
She peered around her armchair and squinted at him with red eyes. “Get away, Nazi møgdyr.”
He edged closer. “You were having a nightmare. That’s all.”
“You’re not taking me.”
“We were playing bingo earlier,” he wheeled himself before her.
She sniffled and squeezed her eyes shut.
“Look at me.” He said, softly.
She opened those amazing blue eyes. “I know you.”
He took her hand. “You’re safe now.”
She buried her face in his chest, howling and sobbing. He held onto her, stroking her hair, so warm and soft.
“It’s okay. I’m with you.”
She snorted and raised her head. “I’m a silly old woman,” her voice cracked, “but it was so real. Everyday could be the last time you’re seeing a neighbour, a friend, a family member. But you never think it’ll happen to you.” She took a tissue and blew her nose. “I heard the gunfire, the screams. They rounded us into the trains. It was so loud and then so quiet. The trains screeched with every inch, but nobody screamed any more. It was so hot. The trains stopped. They took our clothes. They cut my hair,” she whimpered as a tear rolled down her cheek.
Oliver’s heart twinged. “It was only a bad dream.”
“It wasn’t a dream. It happened. We died. We were murdered,” she shunted him aside.
Oliver wrung his hands together, swallowing the lump in his throat.
“Get out. You heard me. Get out of here. Get away from me,” Astrid’s eyes turned to ice.
David arrived with the nurse. They tiptoed over the broken glass.
“Take me to my room,” Oliver said.
Once back in his room, David closed the door and leant on it.
“Do you like Astrid?” He asked.
“What?” Oliver stared at him.
“You have a sweet spot for her.”
“Don’t be stupid, boy.” He waved his hand.
“If you like her, you should tell her.”
“What did I say about being stupid?”
“What’s stupid about that?” David crouched by him.
“I’m eighty. She’s ninety-four. We live in a care home. Do you think we’re going to have candle-lit dinners? Or go for a walk on the beach? Do you think we’re going to get married? Have children? Grandchildren?”
“Love doesn’t know age. Love is love.” He smiled.
“Leave me alone. I don’t need relationship advice from a twenty-year-old boy who needs a haircut and industrial-strength deodorant. This isn’t the 1960’s any more.”
David rubbed his eyes. “When you’ve stopped being a grumpy, old boomer, ask Astrid for dinner tomorrow night. I’m going to talk to the manager and sort something out.” He slipped out.
Oliver stared at his wedding photo. Marjorie’s words echoed around his skull. It was finally time to lower his arm.
Later that day, he knocked on Astrid’s door. “It’s Oliver. Can I come in?”
She turned around, placing her knitting in her lap. “Of course, my friend.”
Oliver wheeled himself forwards; the glass had been swept up. “I’m sorry about what I said earlier. I didn’t mean to upset you.”
She gently laughed. “I should be the one apologising. I was very cruel and you were only trying to help. And help you did. Your hugs have healing powers. I feel much better now.”
He took her hand. Now or never. “Astriddinnertomorrowhoyournightme.”
“I beg your pardon?” She raised an eyebrow.
“Will you have dinner with me tomorrow night?”
She raised his hand to her heart. “I’d be delighted.”
At 6pm, the following evening, Oliver entered the transformed dining room. Candles lit up a table covered in a rouge tablecloth, crystal glasses and the finest China. A vase of red roses stood proudly in the centre. It was accompanied by a bottle of alcohol-free wine. In the background, Vera Lynn was singing. Something about a nightingale and the Ritz.
Oliver headed to the table and clicked on the brakes to his wheelchair. He loosened his tie. He’d definitely overdressed. And too much cologne as well. Not that it mattered. Astrid wouldn’t show. This was all just a cruel joke. A way to punish him for his insensitivity earlier. But there she was with her rosy cheeks, red lips, pearl necklace and matching earrings. Her hair was straightened and high in a bun. David wheeled her to the table, winked at Oliver, and left.
“Good evening,” she beamed.
“Good evening,” Oliver picked up the wine bottle, “shall I pour?”
I originally wrote this for a love story competition. Alas it didn’t place for neither that or the second competition I entered it into, so it’s now available for you all to see! It’s continuing my series of stories set within the Willow Tree care home.