An Elderly Couple, Half An Earth Apart
An Elderly Couple, Half An Earth Apart
Elmore Clutterbuck, aged 99, has lived the majority of his life within a dusty ventricle offset from the heart of Surprise, Arizona. He drives a rusted red ’74 sedan that rolled from the production line beneath a Pisces moon with an indigo corona. He prefers to drive it in reverse, believing he can see much further looking backwards.
On this particular day, he has reversed into a group of children stood across the road. They were children doing what children do: clustering like unripe grapes, laughing like squealing tyres, waiting for the tooth fairy. “I’d run out of goddam pickled onions.” He was reported to have said having inched his way out of the car, before surveying the children, bent like cornstalks.
He had stood by the rear of his car supporting himself with one hand on the warm, flaking paintwork. Ambulances had come to a halt at strange angles. More people than he had seen in one place for a long time eddied around him like river rapids. Elmore wished he had brought the pickled onions out from the passenger seat. Craning his neck he took in the three feet or so back to the car, but decided against it. Some journeys were just too far back.
Some time later police tape lazed around the scene in a warm summer wind and his sedan was towed away by a police truck. Watching it trundle away, knowing each and every bump in the road by its squeak, Elmore felt like an amputee. Minutes later he was taken away in the back of a police car.
Sat in the hot offices of the Sheriff he had wanted that jar of pickled onions more than ever. His daughter had been prised from her 80th birthday party to collect him from the Sheriff’s station. She had arrived hot and swearing, a gold paper party hat wedged on her head, strands of lurid coral coloured hair escaping under the rim.
In the car journey back to his small, wooden home there was talk of his licence being taken away. Elmore had reacted by announcing that in the event of this happening he would be moving into the car. “If I can’t have it as a goddamn car, I’ll sure as hell have it as a home!” Minutes later he had also said, “Those goddamn bastard kids.” His somewhat estranged daughter could not be sure whether he had meant it, like that, or not.
Meanwhile, in Haworth, West Yorkshire, Ms. Stoke, a woman of 73 is being urged up a very steep hill in an N.H.S. wheelchair; a broken bird bundled in bandages. The wheelchair is pushed by a seventeen-year old girl called Aimee who has rough cut pink hair and a pasty gut that peeps from the tail of her navy blue tabard like an undercooked crescent moon. The girl pushes, stops, braces her weight against the back of the chair, sends a text message, then hoiks up her navy blue trousers before beginning the routine again. It is a long climb for both of them.
At the top, having squeezed the wheelchair down a tight, cobbled alleyway, a chilly wizened cottage waits for them. It is the only gapped tooth in the whole of the Haworth smile; the kind of cottage sent repeated rejection letters from fairytales. Aimee is sweating under her uniform. Ms. Stoke is sweating under her bandages and waits in the chair with her arms folded.
Aimee sighs as she punches four digits into a key safe on the wall beside the front door, the small metal box the only addition to the cottage in over forty years. Once the door opens Aimee knows they will go inside, lost to a world of twenty watt light bulbs and a strange sour smell that Aimee recognises as the same as the one she gets when she forgets to rinse out the Tupperware lunch box she uses for work.
At night Aimee sleeps badly, her boyfriend all drunken hands and horrible mouth as she thinks about her future. There are times, as he wrestles his way through foreplay, she has found herself thinking about Ms. Stoke. The first time they had met, Aimee had called her ‘Miss Stoke’. “It’s ‘Muss’, not ‘Miss’. No man has ever scaled my battlements.” Ms. Stokes had shouted at her. Aimee often wonders about how a life as a ‘Muss’ might be different.
Ms. Stoke has just given Aimee her orders. The camera will be waiting with fresh film. She will photograph the bandaging today. In time she will photograph the wound.
In a few weeks time she will take the photographs to be developed. Ms. Stoke will give her just enough money for the developing and the bus fare there and back. Together - at least in the sense they will be in the same sad, poorly lit sitting room - they will stick the photographs carefully into an album with a black cover. Written on the inside page in Ms. Stoke’s raging hand are the words Operations 2010 -.
Ms. Stoke has a roadmap of scars that wind across her body from one N.H.S. holiday to the next. Eventually the album will be full, or Ms. Stoke will die before she completes it. There is already a place reserved on an old oak bookshelf at the right-hand end of a series of identical albums. Operations 1997-2003 is Ms. Stoke’s personal favourite. Aimee has heard the stories more times than she can count; the two trips to London, the Doctor “with hands like glue”. The slow progression of scar tissue knitting together captured in a series of daily images.
Aimee has been gone three hours now.
Ms. Stoke, 73 is bleeding through her recent bandage.
She watches the setting sun outside her window. It is the third she has seen this week, having fallen asleep for the others.
His daughter left three hours ago.
Elmore Clutterbuck, 99 sniffs his long fingernails satisfied to find they smell strongly of pickling vinegar.
He watches the setting sun outside his window. It is the sixth he has seen this week. He was unable to see the other one from inside the offices of the Arizona Sheriff’s Department.