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Relative Values
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Ken Orford

Modern Fiction

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“God, I wish we lived closer”

Paul slipped the car into gear then reached across and gave his wife’s hand a squeeze. He looked at her and smiled a rather weak smile as she turned round in the passenger seat to look at the lonely, waving figure framed in the rear window.

“Yeah, I do too!” he sighed as he stuck his arm out of the driver’s window to wave back.

“She looks more frail every time we come down here.”

“Well one thing’s for sure, Ali: she may not be physically one hundred percent, but she’s all there mentally.”

Then, with another smile, more convincing this time:

“Of course she’s completely loopy, but she is definitely sharp as a tack!”

Alison took a final look at her Aunty Ethel, standing there in clothes that had seen better days – and better days when they had fitted her properly – her cat, Kitty (what else?), under one arm with the other arm waving frantically. As Ali turned and settled back into the passenger seat, the sigh she let out left a large steamed up patch on the passenger window.

“That’s a bit unfair,” she announced in mock indignation. “She’s just eccentric. And if I can still do crosswords like she can when I’m in my late eighties then I won’t complain.”

Paul reached over again and squeezed Alison’s thigh, smiled again and said:

“Well, she’s definitely my favourite Aunt!”

“Strictly speaking she’s not your Aunt. Of course she isn’t even my Aunt!”

Paul paused:

“Listen, you are way more of a niece to her than the two real nieces she has. It’s a three hundred and eighty mile round trip for us to come and see her and we’ve been three times since Christmas. They live an hour away and she’s not seen one of them for over a year, and the other last came on New Year’s Day.”

“But they aren’t blood relatives either. They are Uncle John’s sister’s kids.”

“Maybe. But they won’t turn down the house, her jewellery and her savings when she pops her clogs, will they?”

Another patch of steam appeared on the passenger window to go with Alison’s sigh.

As they threaded their way along A30, M5 and M4, the conversation gradually changed to whatever it is that couples, who have been married for over twenty years and who are relaxed in each other’s company, talk about.

Alison rang her “Aunty” every few days – at least twice a week. If there was no answer, she’d ring later or the next day. Ethel didn’t have an answering machine or a mobile. Despite their frequency, Paul was always amazed at the length of the conversations. He jokingly put it down to their both being women, but could appreciate the lifeline that the conversations represented to Ethel.

“Her real nieces call her once in a blue moon,” Ali would protest. “And the neighbours always look out for her, but at the end of the day I think I’m the only one she really gets to talk to. Well, me and Kitty of course.”

Paul smiled. One of Ethel’s eccentricities was talking to her cat, which Paul knew to be the most spoilt animal in the West of England. It ate better than half of Devon.

It was a warm, early June Sunday morning a couple of months after the last trip to see Ethel, that Paul came in from the garden. Ali was holding the phone and had just hung up.

“Aunty Ethel?”

“Well, it should have been but it just rang out.”

“Hmm, I’m surprised she hasn’t taught Kitty to answer.”

Ali looked at her husband. Paul could see the puzzled frown. Ali bit her lower lip:

“I dunno. I’ve tried twice this morning and I tried her yesterday too. I just thought she was out, but …”

Paul asked when was the last time Ali had spoken to her.

“Tuesday morning.”

Ali’s concern was infectious. Paul moved to his wife and put his bare arm around her, and suggested they leave it an hour and try again.

“And if there’s still no reply, you can ring Mary or the other one. Never can remember the other niece’s name.”

Ali nodded and uttered that it was a good plan.

“And thanks for the hug – I needed it. Even if it was a bit of a sweaty one after your gardening exertions.”

“Haven’t finished yet! Just a quick drink and then I’m attacking the front.”

An hour later, Paul was feeling pretty proud of himself. The stripes on the front lawn were as straight as he’d ever managed. Just a few more to go. He looked up as Ali was coming towards him. He didn’t need a second look. He pulled the iPod headphones out of his ears and mower shut itself off. He knew his face was betraying his fear that the worst had happened.

“Is she alright?”

“She’s been in hospital since Wednesday. She fell down the stairs.”

Paul wanted to say Oh thank God. Then it sunk in – a fall for someone that age could be disastrous. By now she was in his arms.

“How bad?”

“Broken arm and she’s black and blue all over.”

“And of course they never thought to ring you and let you know. Bloody bastards!”

“Mary said that Aunty had asked her to ring me, but that she’d decided she didn’t want to worry me unnecessarily.”

“Aw that’s nice of her, to make up your mind for you. What a …”

Paul took a deep breath, and glanced at his watch. Nearly one o’clock. An hour maybe less to shower, three plus hours on the road…

He held Ali at arm’s length:

“Right, let’s get sorted and we’ll be down there for visiting time. I’ll call Dave and get him to stand in for me tomorrow, nothing he can’t handle. We’ll stay over and sort out a few things for her. I bet the lazy bitches haven’t even been to see her.”

Black and blue was an understatement. Paul noticed Ali visibly blanche as they approached the bed with a dozing Aunty Ethel in it. He whispered to Ali that she looked like she’d been run over by a tank!

Talking quietly, the story emerged. She had been upstairs when she heard the front door bell. She’d gone to answer it but tripped over Kitty. The person at the door was a neighbour come to see if she needed anything from the shops. They heard the fall and got the key from next door, and got an ambulance. The hospital had contacted the next of kin.

“I’m glad Mary contacted you – I asked her to when she came yesterday.”

Ali and Paul glanced at each other; the brief look was an entire conversation …

Don’t tell her she didn’t, it’ll only upset her.

Agreed!

Does that mean they didn’t come down here straight away?

Obviously not.

They were interrupted by a staff nurse come to check up. Ethel introduced Ali and Paul as “my niece and her husband”.

“Ah you must be Mary’s sister, Margaret.”

“No, this is my other niece, Alison. Errm, can you add her as my next of kin? She must have dropped off the list.”

Paul hid a grin. She may be bruised to hell, but she’s all there.

The nurse said that she would and asked Alison to stop by the desk with her details when she left. At the end of visiting time, they told Aunty they’d be back tomorrow and went to the nurse’s station. Having given their details they asked when they would be sending her home. The sister said they’d do an evaluation in a couple of days – to check on how she could cope with her broken arm, and decide then if she was fit to be discharged.

Back at the hotel restaurant, Ali picked at her food. Despite his best efforts to lighten the mood Paul realised it was a lost cause.

“I really hope she’s going to be okay. Did you see the bruises?”

“Look, we’ve done – we do – all we can. We’ve tried loads of times since John died to get her to move, but she just won’t. So we’ll just have to keep travelling up and down as often as we can.”

The conversation went round and round, getting nowhere – apart from making Alison even more upset.

The next morning they visited Ethel’s home and gave Kitty a cuddle (a neighbour was feeding her), went through the post and sorted the junk from the important looking, ready to take to the hospital. Alison set about watering Ethel’s plants while David gave the small back lawn a trim. When they’d finished they headed off to grab a quick sandwich and get to the hospital for afternoon visiting. Over a sunny lunch in a pub garden, not far from the hospital, David remarked how awkward that small lawn was to cut.

“It’s a funny shape, and that bloody stone bird table in the middle is a devil to cut round.”

Alison smiled:

“Oh dear, I rather like it. In fact, I was going to ask Aunty if we can have it after she’s gone. It will be a nice reminder of her. She loves feeding and watching the birds.”

In the hospital they went through the post, said they would get bill payments sorted and generally reassured Ethel that everything was under control. When Ethel’s tea arrived, they hugged and kissed each other, and left. Alison reassured her that she would come down a stay with her for a few days when she got out.

In the event it was Friday she was discharged from hospital, and so Alison drove down and collected her and took her home. A carer had been arranged to visit her for the first few weeks until she was back to normal – whatever that meant, thought Alison.

On the second day she was home, Ethel was sitting with Alison in the garden, and she remarked she’d seen a warbler a few weeks earlier, and that she adored having her bird table. Alison said:

“Yes, I like it too, in fact, I don’t want to sound horrible or anything, but after you’ve gone – you know, several years after your telegram from the Queen – I’d really like to have it. It would remind me of you and afternoons like this.”

“Of course you can have it. Those useless nieces of mine won’t miss it. I’d like to leave you more but I don’t want to change John’s will – and of course they’ll get everything. Well, almost. He knew how much you loved my engagement ring, so we did put into the will that you can have it.”

The lump in Alison’s throat was betraying her, and she found she couldn’t make words come out. So, she just reached across and squeezed her Aunt’s hand. Ethel just smiled back:

“Oh don’t get upset, none of us lasts for ever. Oh, and don’t let on but the ring’s probably worth more than all the rest of my stuff put together… and then some.”

A couple of days later, Alison left in the knowledge that the carer would come in a couple of times a day and keep an eye on her Aunt, and she said she’d keep calling every other day or so.

As Summer drifted towards Autumn, Alison noticed a change, hardly perceptible, but Aunt Ethel was definitely slowing down. Anyone over the age of fifty will insist on telling you things they told you last week. But with Ethel it was getting to be things she’d told you five minutes ago!

It was a Friday night when the call came. Paul and Ali were just relaxing, finishing a bottle of wine off after a pleasant dinner. Ali went to answer the phone, and was only gone a few minutes. As soon as she came back into the room Paul saw there was a problem, he jumped up and she fell into his arms, quietly sobbing. Despite having a good idea what it was, Paul asked what was the matter. Ali said nothing for minutes, before looking up with reddening, moist eyes and mouthing “Ethel’s gone”.

The funeral date was set for late the next week, but in the intervening few days a letter arrived from Ethel’s solicitor. The contents were no surprise, Ali had been left her engagement ring. Ali and Paul made the long journey to the small West Country village for the last time. Throughout the journey Paul kept squeezing Ali’s hand and smiling. At one point he looked over:

“You know, I can’t say I’m going to miss this trek, but I’d have been quite happy to do it four times a year for the next ten years.”

“I know.” Ali smiled back and squeezed his hand in return.

The service in the small village church was very thinly attended. Apart from the two of them there were the nieces and their spouses and just a handful of neighbours. Ali thought the service was rather cold and plain, but afterwards she found herself talking to Ethel’s nieces while Paul was talking to a neighbour.

In the middle of the conversation Margaret, the older (and Ali always felt colder) of the two sisters, blurted out:

“Oh by the way, we can’t find the ring.”

Ali was a bit taken aback:

“Sorry?”

“The ring. The one she left you. We can’t find it. No idea where it is, have we?”

Margaret looked at Mary for corroboration. She shuffled around a bit looking at the floor:

“No we searched high and low.”

With a distinct lack of conviction, Ali said that she was sure it would turn up and they could send it to her. Then she added:

“Oh by the way, I hope it’s alright but I’d like to call by the house and take the bird table from the garden. I’ve always liked it and it will remind me of her.”

As she probably had done for most of their lives, Margaret answered for the two of them:

“Oh go right ahead, we certainly don’t want it, do we?”

Mary just shook her head in agreement.

The conversation drifted on and eventually they left to make the short trip to the house to collect the bird table. As Ali looked round the garden for a last time she heard Paul muttering to himself about getting the table apart. The flat top came off the stone plinth surprisingly easily. Paul carried it to the boot of the car and returned for the base. Ali was just thinking about taking a couple of cuttings when she heard Paul laughing.

Looking round she saw Paul was holding a ziplock bag which he’d opened. He was holding out a letter with Ali’s name on it. The envelope had a lump in it. Paul handed it over:

“It was in the hollow of the plinth. Well, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work it out, do you? Don’t drop anything out of the envelope.”

The ring fell into her hand. She glanced at Paul and started to read:

“Dearest Alison,

I assume that I have moved on to be with John, which is why you’re reading this. I know you will think I am awful but I don’t trust my nieces. I have therefore had a cheap copy made of my engagement ring, and the real one is here.

It seems like a small way to say thank you for always being there when I needed you.

I hope you enjoy the bird table as much as I have,

Much love

Aunty Ethel
xx”




Acknowledgement: Thanks to Janet Berry for her extensive proof-reading for this story, and for suggesting the title when I was really struggling...Ken




© Ken Orford, 2009





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