The best thing about dementia is that you can really wind people up. Take the old woman I sit next to at breakfast. I’ve asked her seven times this morning what we’re having and had seven different responses – a personal record. Yesterday I only got her up to five, but I think she’s on to me. I asked the last question too quickly and now she’s looking at me over her boiled egg with a very odd expression, like a dropped clockwork toy put back together by a child. Silly mare. If you’re going to be locked up, you might as well have a little fun in the cells.
I know it’s eggs, obviously. I can do food. Food is easy to remember. 97 years on this earth and I’ve not forgotten a single meal since the day my mother spooned a little mashed banana into my mouth and I swore off breasts forever. The first piece of bacon fat I chewed with soft gums; thin mutton stew and boiled potatoes served on metal trays under orange lights that made the grease on the gravy shine; sugar tablets wrapped in brown butchers’ paper and stored next to the cigarettes.
I have to lean in closer to hear the old bird. She smells like something. Almost like almonds and almost like coffee, just in the middle where the name escapes me.
‘You’re not like the others.’
‘I bloody hope not.’
‘You remember things.’
I look around but no one is watching us. They’re watching their breakfasts or the TV on the wall. Or in some cases, the wall.
‘I remember some things. I’m not good with names.’
When my son visits with his wife and children he whispers their names when he leans in for a hug. I don’t like hugs, but I know it’s very kind of him. He’s trying to maintain the illusion that I’m still part of the family. I don’t have the heart to tell him I’ve forgotten his too.
‘We won’t need names for this,’ she says.
Her eyes are big; I can see myself in them. God, I’m old. Frosted hair and jowls down to my ankles. The sharp edges where my young face used to be have been rubbed out and smudged and stretched and now I’m just old.
‘You have to help me,’ her eyes widen even further, ‘they’re holding me here against my will.’
‘Join the club. We meet here every day, never leave, and the password is ‘who are you?’’
‘You’re not listening.’
I’m not listening. I’m looking at her cheeks. They’re white and soft, like the dumplings I ate in Hong Kong after the fall of Saigon. The blood from my hands would have stained them red if anyone could see it but me. Hers are puckered and pitted and the filling has seeped out near the bottom somewhere, under the chin hair and skin folds.
‘I’m not sick. I shouldn’t be here.’
‘And why should I believe you?’
‘Because,’ she leans in and the smell is stronger. Praline? ‘Because I’m the Queen of England.’
She looks absolutely nothing like the Queen of England. Does she? What does the Queen of England look like? She was beautiful in her day I remember. I was in the Oak Inn in Upton Snodsbury eating tinned salmon rissoles and lettuce covered in Heinz salad cream while her face flashed up on the TV between bursts of static. Her arms were so thin, I wanted to shout at someone to take that bloody great orb off her and give her wrists a rest. Seems she can handle it though, she’s carried it this long.
‘Your face is familiar.’
It is familiar. An old picture kept in the attic among the cases and kids’ toys, saved supposing the urge comes to hang it again one day.
‘Of course it is. It’s only because everyone in here has lost their minds that no one has recognised me yet.’
‘But the staff?’
‘They know, they’re in on it too. They’re my jailers, you’re all fodder.’
I do feel like fodder. Fodder with a candyfloss head and gums that hurt with the memory of teeth. If only I could remember names, maybe then they’d see I shouldn’t be in here with the oldies and the wackos. Fodder, maybe, but not a fool.
‘If you’re really the Queen of England why don’t you look anything like,’ I pull a pound coin from my pocket and hold it up next to her head, ‘this?’
I’ve been foiled, it’s the young queen, not the old one. Back when her jewels would lift her up not weigh her down. Bloody awful teeth though. This woman has bloody awful teeth too.
She smiles. ‘See? The resemblance is uncanny.’
‘I want you to help me escape.’
No one else in the room has moved, they’re still staring at their eggs or the TV or the wall. Does she know? She must. Why would she have asked me over all these people if she didn’t know I’ve escaped before?
It was through the kitchen, that’s how I found the way. The chef was new and hated us. Every time he had to shuffle through to change a tray of oil-soaked eggs he looked anywhere but our faces. We reminded him that one day, he too would be old and frail and gumming up baked beans from a plastic spoon.
‘The food today was particularly good.’
‘Mmmm.’ He looked around for an escape route but his back was to the wall.
‘I used to be a chef you know?’
‘In the navy. A bit like you I suppose, mass catering.’
‘Great,’ he started to ease past me, gently, worried I’d collapse or worse, touch him.
‘Fighting the pencil pushers over every scrap of cheese and blob of butter.’
‘It’s a bloody farce.’ Bingo.
‘Right? It’s like they don’t give a shit about what things actually taste like.’
‘I asked for cheddar for this instead of the plastic shite. They said that was “not in line with over-arching strategic budgetary goals”.’
‘I could make it taste much better with a little salt too, but you lot are too frail for that, apparently.’
‘We survived the war, but we can’t survive seasoning.’
‘Yeh,’ he smiled behind his hair-netted beard. Beard, hair tied up in a bun, shit camo trousers that would have had him picked out of the jungle foliage and shot before he could say ‘I bought these on the internet.’ I picked my next words very carefully.
‘I cooked for a President once you know?’
‘You know, the good one. The one who got shot.’
‘You did not cook for President Kennedy.’
‘Kennedy, that’s the fella. He wasn’t a president then of course, just plain old Jack Kennedy, torpedo boat commander, scourge of the Pacific Theatre and all-round general badass.’
He lowered the pan of plum puddings in custard he was carrying and looked at me properly for the first time.
‘But you’re British.’
‘Born here, raised there, married a girl and came back here. Life’s never simple is it?’ I nodded down at the pan. ‘Here, do you know the name of the island Jack was marooned on in The Solomons?’ I smiled, a real one that pulled my cheeks up as high as they’d go, ‘Plum Pudding Island.’
He looked down, bug-eyed. The coincidence of the young JFK being stranded on a scrap of land named after the dish he happened to be carrying was so tremendous that it simply could not be borne. Maybe he had a little bit of history in him after all.
He told me his shift finished at 3, would I like to come back to the kitchens to tell him more about my time with JFK? I acted grateful and played the lonely old codger desperate for conversation. Not hard.
I went back to my room and sat on the bed, on the blanket I’d carried from home when I came here. When they brought me here. I rubbed my hands over the bumpy nodules, the circles of stitches, all in bright yellow or red. She had made it. I knew that. I had a picture of her on my bedside table and on the back, someone had written a name. Idiots. I knew that name. I stroked and I stared, and I tried to remember the kind of things she used to say, but all I could see was the suppers she’d make when I’d had a long day and couldn’t face the stove. Roast duck with prunes and juniper berries; spaghetti with razor clams and capers in a tomato sauce; rabbit pappardelle from game I’d saved in the freezer after a shoot. The dishes clicked in front of my mind’s eye; an Italian film edited down to just the meals. Was she Italian?
I closed my eyes and rolled my tongue around my teeth, searching for the taste of her. She was there, somewhere. The bitter tang of her lipstick. Chalky powder caked into the corners of her mouth. Sweet, hot breath. It rises and fills my head for a brief, glorious moment, then it fades. And then there’s the smoke, and the ash, and the blood.
We swam from the sinking wreck.
Jack was ahead. How was he ahead?
Blood made the saltwater taste of iron.
The fumes of the gasoline burnt my tongue.
Jack dragged a man using a belt strap he held in his teeth.
I couldn’t outswim a shark, but they’d be after the blood, I just had to outswim the injured.
When I collapsed on the beach the sand was so fine it streamed into my mouth with every gasping breath. Those tiny grains coated my food for weeks. Months. Sometimes even now.
The island was small. No buildings, no people, no friendly dogs to train to fish for us. Just bird-shit covered bushes and coconuts which no bugger knew how to eat.
Jack had made it, but he was in a bad way. I used the butt of my flick knife to crack a hole in the biggest nut I could find. The water inside sloshed out, but I handed the remains to Jack to drink. I portioned out the rest of the sweet, dripping flesh. The juice dripped down our throats; manna from a heaven we didn’t believe in.
Ten men sat on the shore of an island that was nothing but shore, stared at the blue horizon, and wondered how Jack was going to get us the hell out of here.
‘Is that the shell he kept in the Oval Office?’
The chef had sat and smoked and inhaled my life with every breath.
‘The very same.’
‘This is insane. Can I take a picture with you for the re-enactment society?’
‘I’ve been petitioning them to do the Pacific Theatre but no one wants to play the Japanese.’
‘It’s no problem.’
‘Something about a can of worms.’
‘Knock yourself out.’
‘Steve’s half Korean but he won’t do it.’
‘Really, it’s fine.’
‘I’ll get my phone from my locker.’
And with that, he was gone. And with that, I was gone, out of the propped open back door and away.
The Queen of England hasn’t said anything for a while, she just watches me and spoons a runny yolk into the gap where her front teeth are missing.
‘How do you know about me?’
‘The Prince told me.’
‘My son, he visits me sometimes. I don’t talk to him, he’s the reason I’m here. He thinks I can’t talk, but I can. I don’t want to give him the satisfaction.’
The home is surrounded by fields, it’s one of the draws; beautiful country views. I opened the gate and shuffled through as fast as a tortoise with a race to run. The single-track road cut the horizon, hazy in the punishing September heat. My shoes pinched. My feet had spread along with my arse. There was a stile to my left. I eased myself over it, slipped into the rows of harvest-ready wheat and sunk to my knees.
The silence descended, cracked and dry as the earth I crawled over. The stalks stretched above my head, ears heavy with the potential of bread, sweeping the clouds from the blue sky. Just a little further. I’d hide and head back to the road after dark. I’d go to the sea, it’s never far away. I’d find a ship and barter my way on board. I could work. I could cook. You don’t need names to cook. I’d take the fresh fish from the men and rip their guts out with my bent fingers and fry them off with butter. I’d season it with dried seaweed and serve it with sticky rice and the men would say, he’s alright that old man, he can stay. Then no roads would slash that line where blue meets blue and I could stare and breathe in the salt in the air and maybe, maybe, remember.
They rang my phone to find me. I was lying on the ground, thirsty and tired. I’d forgotten I had it on me. My son had bought it for me for emergencies, but I barely knew how to turn it on. It was a miracle, they said, no other way they could have found me until the harvester came through and turned me into floured baps. I wouldn’t have minded that, to be warmed and spread with butter and served with soup. There are worse ways to go.
The Queen of England knows all this. She knows that my son shouted at me for upsetting the family and then cried and hugged me, again. She knows the staff were warned about me, he makes up stories they said, he’s a liar, don’t trust him. She knows: she was in the room. My son kissed her head and stroked her hair and whispered kind words into her ear. He must know her. I must know her.
Her eyes look like the woman’s eyes from the photo on my bedside table, olive green with a dark ring around the iris.
‘Are you going to help me or not? It’s your civic duty actually, it would be treason to refuse me.’
It always was.
‘I’ll help you, Your Majesty. We just need a grappling hook and the keys to the attic.’
‘No, but I’ll help you.’
How is she supposed to remember in here, with plastic food and no salt or butter or fat or flavour? We’ll break away and find a tiny restaurant with a red door and sit at the back with a glass of Chianti and share a tiramisu. That’s what she smells of, coffee and chocolate and cream.
My queen’s face is shining.
‘We’ll run, together.’
Anna Thomas writes short stories and radio plays in the worst pubs in Nottingham. She is currently working on a radio sitcom and her first novel, and hopes to finish both before she dies of old age. In 2018 she won BBC Radio Essex’s Playwright of the Year with her radio comedy, ‘Crocodile’. Her play “Birds” will be performed at Ink Festival 2021. Her short fiction has been published by Prole Magazine.
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