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Today Lady Melville lost her glasses. She promptly rang the bell three times. I was in the kitchen chopping vegetables when I heard the ding-ding-ding. The ding-ding-ding meant that she was in the living room, if it had been a dong-dong-dong she would have been in the bedroom, and a ding-dong would have placed her in the bathroom among the crocheted toothbrush holders and velvet toilet paper covers. I knew it was a matter of urgency because it was three dings and not two, a mere ding-ding could have been the remote control out of reach or Lord Melville needing to go to the toilet or Lord Melville having a burst catheter and requiring immediate hospitalisation or Lord Melville needing to be diverted for a few minutes of wakefulness between naps or Lord Melville trying to tell a joke. One could never quite know what Lord Melville wanted so it was safe to assume that any bell-ringing on behalf of Lord Melville was a two-ding or dong situation.
[private]A lone ding or dong would be a case of absolutely no importance at all and as such it never occurred because anything that prompted Lady Melville to ring the bell was necessarily of importance. When Lady Melville rang the bell for herself, she never committed to fewer than three rings. Three delicate but pressing staccatos. If help failed to materialise it was raised to four frantic clashes of metal and a cry of ´Little One!´ Little One indicated whoever was the current carer in this perpetual cycle of Little Ones who responded to the bell.
Little One, in this case, was me.
Little One! she screeched as I washed the tomato seeds from my hands.
Little One! she bellowed as I dried them with a towel and the bell clanged four times.
Oh Little One, she smiled with relief as I appeared before her. I seem to have lost my glasses. Could you be a darling and find them for me?
But Lady Melville, you don’t normally wear glasses, do you?
Of course I do, she said. Oh darling, I must have them. Do look around, won´t you.
I crawled on the floor around the jumble of pseudo-Victorian clutter and worn-out rugs, taking care not to trip over the wires criss-crossing from the walls to the eleven lamps that illuminated the various corners of the room.
Turn on the lights, she said.
How about I open the blinds instead? I asked. It´s a beautiful day and then you can look out on the cathedral.
No, no, John and I don’t like the sun, do we John? John! Oh wake up darling, she begged. Do please wake up.
Lord Melville raised his head dutifully from his chest and opened his eyes a fraction, before the eyelids slid shut again and his head drooped slowly back down to his chest.
Oh wake up! Whistle at him! Go on, whistle. And she blew through her false teeth and clapped her hands without success.
John, you used to get up at five every morning when you were in the Navy.
Sixty years ago he was in the Navy. So much changes in sixty years. People tire. Empires fall, only to live on in the ancient volumes of Samuel Pepys´ diaries coated in sixty years of dust that one´s children and grandchildren never bothered to take down from the shelves, did they Lady Melville? One´s children grow wild and become hippies and social workers and forget all about their private boarding school education and you´ll never understand why. Dust collects too on the silver plates hanging on the wall, engraved with His Lordship, Her Ladyship, the only remnants of your crumbling feudal titles, now gone, crushed under new-fangled notions of democracy and elected Parliament. (That Blair is a Communist, you say.)
Imagine asking the people to elect their own Parliament! Lady Melville was horrified. If you looked closely you could see the last specks of the great Britannia floating in her eyes. Or was it cataracts?
It´s like asking them to elect the national cricket team, she said. At least people still play cricket.
Close the curtains, for heaven’s sake, she said. I can´t bear the light. Switch on the lamps and don´t give me this saving electricity nonsense again, John and I don’t believe in global heating, do we John? Though it wouldn’t be a bad thing in these winters. Darling, wake up! She whistled again and leaned out to reach all the way across the gap between his comfy armchair and hers to take him by his hand.
Take my hand darling, she said in despair. Why don’t you hold my hand any more?
But don’t you remember, Lady Melville, that hand was paralysed in the stroke 18 years ago, the one that took all his words away and left the thoughts stranded inside his head. It stole the words of the Naval Officer commanding his troops, the words of the Parliamentarian firing up the dumb population.
Oh do something for him, she cried. Can´t you? Play a game with him.
And I sat before him, the game of Scrabble between us and the television muttering behind, spewing out words and more words about rivers in Norway and treasures in the attic and win ten thousand pounds today and Saddam Hussein is dead and refugees in Darfur and Paris Hilton was drunk and Big Brother and snow at Heathrow Airport, the voice of the television pouring into the silence that used to be filled with the chatter of family and friends.
Lord Melville laughed. Planes were delayed for 24 hours, people couldn’t get home for Christmas. He laughed. Saddam´s head came off. He laughed. Paris Hilton fell out of the taxi. He laughed. Amy from Birmingham had the winning lottery numbers and Lord Melville laughed and shook his head and laughed still harder until a tear rolled from his left eye and he tried to wipe it with his paralysed hand that wouldn’t move.
Why are you laughing? Lady Melville said. Darling, why don’t you ever laugh with me?
A malnourished African child stared out of the screen, eyes wide and ribs protruding and Lord Melville stopped laughing. He nodded at the screen as though he and the child understood something no one else knew and he tried to mouth a word but we would never hear it.
I just don’t understand. Lady Melville scrunched up a piece of paper in frustration. They keep sending me letters telling me I have won money but they never send me the money.
Who are ´they´?
She turned the torn piece of paper in her hand. I can´t read it, shesaid. The Merchants´ Association of such-and-such.
´Congratulations you have been randomly selected as the winner of £250,000 pounds´, I read. ´To claim your prize, simply make a purchase of £200 or more´.
How many times have you been a random winner? I asked.
I don’t know. She screwed up her face. Ten or twelve? And I keep making the purchases and then I don’t hear anything from them about the money and I write a letter to complain and they never respond.
Ten or twelve times you´ve been a random winner, I said. What are the chances of that? Life is full of miracles.
The £200 purchases pile up unused in the store room. Vacuum cleaners, maternity dresses, ultra-body workout machines and deluxe hot dog makers.
FURY, I wrote on the Scrabble board. 10 points. Double word score. 20 points. Your turn, Lord Melville.
Lord Melville raised his head. He picked up a letter with his good hand, raised it in mid-air and I watched it gradually lower in the same tempo as his eyelids and head, the tile still clutched in his paw.
Wake up! trilled his wife and he snapped to attention and held it for the entirety of his play, placing each tile one by one thoughtfully on the board. TFXOLP.
Not a word, sorry. He sighed, picked up his letters and replaced them. LOXFTP.
Let´s call it 25 points, I scored. Not bad eh?
Darling, play properly or I don’t know why you bother playing at all, Lady Melville said, forgetting whose idea it had been. But old Melville just snoozed out her words.
I can´t see the TV, she complained. Did you find my glasses?
No, not yet, I can´t see them anywhere.
She rapped distractedly on the bell three times. But Lady Melville, I´m right here, I said.
Oh yes, well what time is it?
It´s just after twelve o´clock.
Too early for lunch then. What shall we do next?
I shrugged. Time was our enemy, to be conquered day after day. TV was our only dependable ally.
Well, never mind, she said. Let´s have lunch anyway. What´s for lunch?
I was making a salad.
Oh no, John and I don’t eat salad. How about a roast, a lovely roast would be super, cover it in bacon would you and don’t cut off those delicious juicy bits, make sure they drip down into the meat and well, I suppose we should have some veg. How about you cut a tomato and cook it in the oven and be sure to put two spoonfuls of sugar on it won´t you?
She popped a cholesterol-reduction pill in her mouth.
Mashed totty too! She called out after me, Nice and creamy with butter. And tell Alice – no best leave her, she’s enjoying the cleaning.
Alice, are you enjoying the cleaning? I said over the tray of silverware the maid was busy polishing. She muttered something under her breath in Romanian.
The glasses still hadn’t turned up by afternoon nap time.
Don´t worry, I said, cleaning up the crumbs from the roast and wiping her chin with a napkin. We´ll find them when you wake up.
Oh Little One, she said dreamily, Did I ever tell you about that cruise John and I went on in the Greek Islands? It was a painting holiday and we all packed our canvases and set off to Crete to draw those jolly castles. Close the blinds, would you?
They were closed so I switched off the lamps and kept the day out. It only wanted to be napped away.
Mulberry pies, she said as drifted away into pleasant childhood memories of pony-riding and skiing holidays and picking mulberries with her mother to be baked into jolly pies. Did your mother bake mulberry pies?
We never had mulberry pies.
With her eyes closed she murmured, You poor dear. Tomorrow you can fix us a lovely mulberry pie.
The afternoon floated in lazily and hovered over their heads as they snored in their armchairs with the muted TV still flickering its neon images across the quiet of the house that entombed them, the embers of the day wafted out again over the crackle of the dying fire. The glow of the coals danced across the embroidered tapestries and black-and-white photographs, played in the shadows of the stacks of antique and modern junk and settled along the ridges under the heavy eyes of the old couple sleeping softly.
The bell rang just once as I was preparing supper. The single toll fell away into a silence. I dropped the knife and ran to the living room.
What is it? What´s happened?
Oh hello, Lady Melville smiled at me. Let me see, what did I want? What time is it? Oh no, did you find my glasses? What time is it?
No, I said, and it´s nearly six o´clock.
She looked disappointed. Too early for dinner then I suppose. What´s for dinner?
What would you like for dinner?
She wrung her hands and seemed distressed. I don’t know. It just kind of goes on doesn´t it, this business of eating I mean, she said vaguely. What do you eat for dinner?
I like vegetables.
Ugh, she frowned. Well that´s no good is it. I suppose you´re on a diet like all the girls. Tell you what, how about we order takeout for a treat. We always get takeaway when the children come. Let´s order takeaway now.
She had hundreds of takeout brochures stored in a drawer and I had to read the menus of each one for her, even the ones that were old and yellowing and belonged to restaurants that had no doubt closed their doors years ago. Chinese is John’s favourite, she assured me, isn’t it John? And he lifted his chin in confirmation.
We ordered a banquet of food. I unloaded it onto the trolley and wheeled it in front of her, her eyes shining with delight. We ate Mongolian lamb and fried rice and Peking Duck and tofu and beef stir-fry. We ate until we could eat no more. Store the leftovers, she said as I packed them into airtight containers. Put them in the freezer. Waste not, want not. The freezer is overflowing with the leftovers from yesterday´s takeaway.
Give them to the homeless then, she said.
And I put them into plastic bags and headed for the street below.
Where are you going? Lady Melville said. I was only joking. Throw them out, won´t you?
The phone rang on the coffee table next to the armchair. She muted the television with the remote control in one hand and picked up the receiver with the other. Hello darling, she said. I´m so glad you called. The most terrible thing has happened. I´ve lost my glasses and I can´t see a thing.
They´re gone aren´t they, she lamented as I put her and Lord Melville into their wheelchairs and pushed them to the bedroom. I lifted each one onto the bed and helped them change into their pyjamas. I pulled up the covers and read them their nightly Bible story. Lord Melville was already fast asleep as I tucked the blankets around him. I brought Lady Melville a hot milk and placed it on the night table next to the bed.
What are these? I asked as I picked up a pair of glasses resting on the night stand.
That´s them! she said. Aren´t you clever! Oh they were there all along! Gosh how forgetful I am!
But they don’t have any lenses in them. I showed her the empty frames and the holes where the glass should have been.
Of course not, she answered. I lost the lenses years ago, as she adjusted the frames over her ears. And I didn’t bother getting any others. I´m completely blind anyway.[/private]
Claire Harris is an Australian who has spent the last few years travelling and working around the world. She has taught English in the Middle East and Africa and art classes in Bolivia, and looked after ageing aristocrats in England. She recently returned to Sydney to study creative writing.