Isolated by Rick Houghton

Photo by Isaac Quesada on Unsplash

‘I’m young enough to be President of America.’ 

Tracey shook her head and her bun wobbled like the stumped tail of a cheery bulldog. ‘That may be, John, but right now, you’re in my care.’ 

‘I don’t need care.’ John grimaced and shuffled back in his seat. ‘And you don’t need that bloody mask on in here.’

‘We’ve been through this already.’ She fiddled with some plastic contraption, and then turned toward the sofa where he sat. ‘It’s for your own protection, and mine.’

‘We’re in Bolton, not bloody Chernobyl.’

‘I’m not going to argue with you today, John.’ 

‘Where’s Sally Ann?’ He pushed up from the sofa on scrawny arms. ‘She’ll take care of me.’  

Tracey leaned forward and scooped his elbow in her hand. ‘I’m not supposed to do this, John.’ 

‘Then get out of my way.’

‘If you fall, I can’t help you.’ She shuffled back with one hand on his arm. ‘You’d be on the floor until the paramedics arrive.’ 

‘Where is she?’  

‘Who?’

‘My wife.’ 

Tracey glanced at the urn on the mantle, and silence hung between them like a ghost. ‘They didn’t tell me anything about your wife, John.’ 

#

Later that day, John watched from the living room window whilst his neighbour, Josie, and her son chatted across a square of lawn that was patched yellow by cat piss.  

‘Could you make me a cup of tea?’ John called to the kitchen.

‘Kettle’s already on,’ Tracey said, leaning through the doorway. ‘Pain any better today?’

‘I fought in the Falklands, I can handle a bung shoulder.’ He reached for his glass and sent it clattering; water sloshed over the table and dripped to the carpet. ‘Bollocks.’

‘Don’t worry,’ Tracey said, then she went into the kitchen for a moment and returned with a roll of kitchen paper. She pulled off three sheets, squatted beside the table, and started soaking up the mess. ‘Not to worry, John, it happens to us all.’

John blushed and his throat throbbed. ‘It’s the damn pills.’ 

She looked up at him. ‘Do you keep in touch with anybody from your army days?’

He looked out of the window for a long time before shaking his head. ‘Your pills are keeping me from getting better.’

‘That’s not true, John,’ she said in a soft voice. 

‘I need to get out of this house.’ 

Tracey stood beside him in a half-squat. ‘Give it time.’ 

‘I’m losing my marbles.’ 

‘You need to adjust to the medication is all, you’ll see.’   

‘Then what?’ He picked up the glass, tipped it, and sat it down again. ‘You can’t keep me dosed up for the rest of my days.’

Tracey smiled. ‘You’ll leave our service and you’ll either move to further care, or hopefully you’ll be self sufficient.’ 

‘Self sufficient?’ John frowned. ‘I’ve been married for forty-five years.’

‘Something to be proud of. Not many folks can say that, John.’ 

‘It was a big wedding,’ he said with a smile. ‘Like to see some photos?’

Tracey’s face lifted around the mask. ‘I’ve another visit, so let’s make it quick.’

‘Over there,’ he said, pointing with a tremble toward a two-tier book-case. 

Tracey slid two burgundy albums from the bottom shelf, lay them both on the table and peeled back the cover of one. The first page housed faded photos of John in his youth; tall with hair that sat on top of his head like the springs of a mattress, he was trim with arms that bulged out of his sleeves. Another had him in an army uniform, stripped to the waist with an arm around another soldier, rifles lay at their feet.

‘Look at you,’ Tracey said. She hovered over the photos with a pointing finger and settled on a picture of John and Sally Ann.   

‘That’s her,’ he said, smiling.  

The colour was washed from the image; Sally Ann’s teal dress was blotched white and cream, her skin pale. Yet her beauty was obvious.  

‘You never told me she was such a stunner.’ 

‘I was somebody back then.’  

Tracey chuckled, squeezed some sanitizer into her hands, and then pulled on a pair of blue vinyl gloves. ‘Time for your medication, John.’ 

‘I don’t want your pills.’

Tracey scoffed and pulled back. ‘I don’t have time for this, John. I thought we agreed–’

‘I don’t want your pills and I don’t want that bloody commode that you tried to sneak in earlier.’ 

Tracey sighed. ‘I didn’t sneak it in, John, we spoke about it yesterday.’

‘Bullshit.’

‘Don’t swear at me please.’

‘A man should not have to shit in his own living room.’

‘Well you can’t walk to the bathroom.’

‘Yes I can.’ He eased himself up from the velvet sofa and stood for a moment. ‘If you ever let me attempt it, you’d see.’

‘Please sit, John.’

He waved her away and set off at a hobble, toward the door. ‘I can do whatever I put my mind to.’  

#

John woke with a start when the front door banged. ‘Sally Ann?’

‘It’s me, John,’ Tracey called, ‘tea-time visit.’

He shifted his weight on the sofa, fumbled for the remote, and turned on the television. ‘I’ve missed Countdown.’ 

‘It’ll be on again,’ she called from the hallway, before appearing at the door. ‘Beans-on-toast for tea?’ 

‘Beans make me fart.’ 

Tracey frowned. ‘Spaghetti then?’

His stomach was like a shrivelled prune, but it livened at the thought. ‘Thanks Sally.’ 

‘Tracey.’

He craned his neck toward the doorway. ‘What?’

Hands on either side of the frame, Tracey leaned further into the room. ‘You called me Sally, but I’m Tracey, your carer.’

‘I know that,’ he snapped. His throat slicked, and he gripped the remote with a splotched hand. ‘It just slipped out.’

‘Don’t apologise.’ She turned away. ‘I’ll be back in a moment with your food.’

John’s eye was drawn to a photo of him and Sally Ann. Happy twenty-somethings, excited about their future. Then he glanced up at the ash-coloured urn and he deflated, sinking into the sofa. 

‘Here we go.’ Tracey said when she returned with the food on a tray. Steam rolled over the rim of the plate. ‘I’ve got to get to my next visit, but I’ll be back in the morning.’

John looked up at her, and straightened. ‘Not too early.’  

Her brow tightened. ‘Why not?’

‘I’m going to the pub tonight.’

Tracey smirked. ‘You’re shielding, John. You can’t–’

‘I’m sick of being told what I can’t do. I’m a grown man and I need to get away from this bloody bungalow.’

‘You’re high risk.’ Her face turned red. ‘You’ve just had surgery.’

John scoffed. ‘I don’t need a babysitter.’

‘Don’t be like that, John.’ Her eyes softened and she cocked her head. ‘I’ll speak with the assessment team, see if they can figure a way to get you out of here for a bit. Please, just don’t try to go anywhere on your own.’ 

John huffed and leaned forward to fork his spaghetti. ‘It’s bloody torture this.’

‘I know, and I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘Watch some telly, have a good rest and we can discuss it tomorrow.’  

#

By the time the sun rose the next day, John was sat at the table with his second cup of tea and a shoe box full of memories. He peeled back the old tape from the cardboard, removed the lid and breathed deeply. It still smelled of her, sweet and alluring. He rifled through the box with a smile. She’d be embarrassed by the things I’ve saved, he thought. 

He took out what he was looking for with a lump in his throat, and tucked it into his pocket. Then he stood and shuffled over to the kitchen counter with one of the wooden dining chairs, and climbed onto it, kneeling. Then, leaning heavy against the back of it, he pushed himself onto his feet and reached a hand onto the top of a dusty kitchen cabinet. 

He retrieved a wooden box, weighed it in his hands and lowered himself back down. With the box tucked under his arm, John made his way into the living room to press a kiss into the urn, and then set out into the morning wearing his best tweed suit. 

When he reached his destination, the day was bright. Squinting, he made his way to a flaky green bench to catch his breath, and there he waited.  

The first person to arrive at the bank was a woman in a blue jacket and skirt. She opened up and John set out across the road. Midway up the ramp to the door, he paused to take Sally Ann’s stockings out of his pocket and pulled them over his head. He fumbled to free the Enfield Revolver from the wooden box, which clattered to the cold ground, and then entered the bank. 

The cashier looked up with a frown. ‘Sir, excuse me.’ 

John kept going.  

‘Sir.’ She wagged a finger in front of her face. ‘There’s a one way system in place.’

He leaned on a rail and looked around. ‘I’m the only person in the bank.’

The cashier shook her head and circled her face with a clawed finger. ‘And that’s hardly an adequate face covering, Sir.’

‘Excuse me?’ He started to remove the stockings, but was stopped by the weight in his hand. He turned the weapon over to look at it, then raised the revolver and continued toward the counter.  

‘Oh my god,’ the cashier screamed, backing up from the counter. ‘I’m sorry, your mask is perfectly fine.’ 

‘Just fill a bag, I’ve got a flight to catch.’ 

She looked up, hands still working. ‘I don’t think there are any flights at the moment, Sir.’ 

‘What?’

‘The pandemic.’ Her red lips pursed together. ‘Where are you trying to get to?’

John lowered the weapon to his side. ‘Uh, Spain.’  

The woman shoved wads of cash into the bag and then dropped it out of sight. ‘Open the drawer.’

At the front of the counter, was a handle. John pulled it and a drawer rolled open with the bag inside it. He retrieved it and started for the exit.  

‘Coaches are still running,’ she called to him. ‘But you’ll need a proper face covering.’  

About The Author

Rick Houghton works a a chef in Manchester, where he lives with his wife and two daughters. He is currently exploring the art of the short story whilst revising his first novel.  

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