Monica wasn’t superstitious but she knew that her day wasn’t going to run smoothly for a Friday 13th. Having dropped her breakfast, peanut butter on toast, on the floor to be devoured by Jinx the Labrador, catching her finger in the kitchen cupboard, and tripping over a conker on the path outside her house, work at Craven Care Home wasn’t much of an improvement.
‘I’m not sitting by her, she’s a thief.’ Olive’s bony hands rattled her walking frame as she came to a standstill next to the dining table.
Beryl, seated at the table, shook her mop of grey hair. ‘The cheek of her! She’s the thief and a liar!’
‘Ladies please.’ Monica, already used to playing referee to these two after only a few days, was finding it particularly tiresome today. She’d only been on shift for a few hours and was already counting down to being home alone Jinx. ‘Let’s be nice.’
‘I’m not eating with her. I’d rather starve,’ said Olive.
‘Go on then,’ said Beryl. ‘Starve to death.’
Monica was frustrated that these grown up women were acting like toddlers. ‘Mrs McQuillan, come and sit over here.’
She steered Olive towards a table on the opposite side of the dining room and helped her to sit down, placing the walking frame by the side, like a playpen barrier. The dining room was heavy with the smell of cooked cabbage and disinfectant and the noise of pots and pans bashing about overshadowed the smatter of chatter from the residents awaiting their food.
‘She stole my hair slide.’ Olive’s eyes, milky with cataracts, stared at Monica.
Nodding, Monica glanced around the room. ‘I’m sure it will turn up.’ She caught sight of the metal food trolley with the wonky wheel heading their way. ‘Look, Joanne’s coming round with lunch now. Cod and parsley sauce, your favourite.’
‘I hope it’s not lumpy sauce like last week.’ Olive removed her false teeth and plonked them on the table.
Monica watched a globule of spittle slide from denture to table. ‘I’m sure it’ll be lovely.’ She walked away to the small tea room next to the kitchen. She didn’t feel hungry anymore.
Kyla had a coffee waiting on the worktop in the tiny tea room for Monica and stood drinking hers from a mug with the slogan I’m a carer what’s your superpower. ‘Thought we were going to have fisticuffs then.’
Monica grimaced and picked up her mug. ‘Thanks.’ It was a souvenir mug from Cleethorpes. No member of staff was from Cleethorpes or had ever been to Cleethorpes so it was a mystery mug in the staff cupboard that Monica had adopted. ‘I don’t know why they annoy each other so much. Ever since Olive arrived, Beryl has been more cranky than normal.’ She took a big slurp of coffee.
‘Cranky? That’s polite, she’s been a right pain in the ass. It’s not helping that Olive keeps going on about the bloody hair slide.’ Kyla rummaged under the work top and brought out a biscuit tin and yanked off the tight lid. ‘Custard cream or soggy gingernut?’
Monica still had the image of Olive’s saliva coated false teeth in her mind. ‘I’ll pass. Is there a hair slide? I haven’t seen one.’
‘Probably not.’ Kyla shoved a whole custard cream in her mouth. ‘Remember deaf Gordon? Swore blind he had a dog in here.’
Monica laughed. ‘Yes, the imaginary Goldie. Please shoot me if I get like that when I’m old.’
Kyla raised her eyebrows. ‘When?’
‘Cheeky mare, I’m forty-five not eighty.’
‘That’s old to me.’ Kyla reached for another biscuit.
The sounds of a busy canteen mingling with Chris Rea’s Driving Home for Christmas. Monica shook her head. ‘Look, just because you’re young enough to be my…’
‘No, younger sister, doesn’t mean I’m old.’
‘Yeah, whatever,’ said Kyla, brushing some crumbs from the front of her tunic. ‘Have you made it up with your sister yet?’
‘No. Not going to.’ Monica drank some more coffee.
‘But it’s going to be Christmas soon.’
‘And? What’s that got to do with anything?’
‘You don’t wanna be alone on Christmas Day.’
‘I won’t be. I have Jinx.’ Monica faked a cheesy grin, she didn’t want to talk about her sister, it was still too raw.
‘He’s a dog.’
‘Exactly. Loving, loyal and doesn’t betray me. Plus I’ve put my name down for the Christmas Day shift here. I see you’ve got it off, what are your plans?’
‘Staying in bed with our Liam and eating chocolate all day. Probably pop over to his mam’s house for tea when we’ve finished shagging.’
‘What? You could be having that too. I mean, not with our Liam obvs, but if you got yourself another man, a nice one, not like Geoff, he was a prick.’
Monica pictured Kyla’s Liam in bed. It wasn’t a sexy image. The first time she met him he was waiting outside the home for Kyla. He was swigging from a can of supermarket own cider and had a collection of dubious stains decorating his t-shirt. Monica imagined his underwear would be equally, if not more, dubious. ‘I’m happy waking up with Jinx and then spending the day here.’
‘See, senile already.’
‘Thief!’ Olive’s shout echoed through to the tea room.
‘Bloody hell.’ Kyla rammed another custard cream in her mouth and shoved the lid back on the tin.
Brian the odd job man appeared at the doorway holding a sprig of mistletoe. ‘Alright ladies?’ A waft of Brut aftershave entered the room.
Monica put down her empty mug and turned to Kyla. ‘Finish your cuppa, I’ll sort her out.’ She smiled as she watched Kyla take the lid back off the biscuit tin and squeezed herself awkwardly past Brian’s teddy-bear tummy. ‘Sorry Brian, duty calls.’
On entering the dining room her smile slipped away when she saw that Olive had thrown her lunch on the floor and was continuing to shout insults across to Beryl. Joanne the kitchen assistant was swooping in with cloths and a mop. Monica, being careful not to slide in the lumpy parsley sauce, escorted the still shouting Olive to her room.
Olive flopped down into the wipe clean faux leather chair. The bedroom was generic beige with white plastic blinds at the window. A painting of a lavender field was above her bed. ‘She’s stolen my hair slide. I don’t want her here.’
‘Well she has to stay here, her old care home has closed down.’
‘I don’t want her here.’
Monica sat on the end of the bed facing Olive. ‘Now come on, don’t get yourself all upset. I’m sure if you got to know her you could be good friends.’
‘I don’t want to be friends with someone like her.’ Olive turned her head and stared out of the window, grinding her gums together in a gurning grimace.
‘OK.’ Monica hoped that Olive’s teeth hadn’t been swept into the bin. Retrieving gunky dentures from the rubbish wasn’t a thought she relished. ‘Well, have a little rest here and try to calm yourself down. Getting upset like this isn’t good for your blood pressure is it?’
Olive ignored her and carried on staring.
Monica stood up and smoothed the bed down where she’d been sitting. ‘Anything you need before I go?’ When no answer came she turned to leave the room.
Monica stopped at the door, turning back towards Olive. ‘Forgiveness?’ She waited for an answer but Olive just continued to stare out of the window. ‘Don’t worry about the broken plate lovely.’
When a reply still didn’t come Monica left to go and find the false teeth.
Olive closed her eyes for the last time..
Monica showed the funeral directors out and walked back to Olive’s room. She always felt sad having to bag up belongings of patients with no next of kin. Throwing treasured items into the trash always seemed so tragic to her. Lost in her thoughts she was startled when entering the room. There in Olive’s chair sat Beryl. For a split second Monica thought it was Olive.
She placed her hand on her chest and exhaled deeply. ‘What are you doing in here Beryl?’
Beryl was staring at the empty bed. ‘Forgiveness.’
Monica had started to walk towards Beryl but stopped dead. Déjà vu prickled through her body. ‘Sorry?’
‘Forgiveness. Looking for forgiveness.’ Beryl was still, her eyes unmoving from the sterile bed.
Monica glanced down to Beryl’s lap as a sparkle caught her eye. A hair slide of marquisate and silver was being slowly twiddled between Beryl’s fingers. ‘Is that Olive’s hair slide?’
Beryl’s looked down at the hair slide and nodded.
‘You took it?’
Beryl nodded again. ‘Yes.’ Tears leaked down the wrinkles on her face. ‘I’m sorry.’
Monica sat on the corner of the bed, just as she’d done with Olive on that last time with her. ‘It’s ok.’
Beryl smudged her tears away with her hand. ‘I wanted to take something of hers.’
‘She stole from me. I wanted her to know how that felt.’ Beryl stared at the hair slide.
‘I’m confused now. What did she steal from you?’
Monica hoped this wasn’t another imaginary dog situation. ‘Bill?’
‘Bill was my fiancé.’
Monica would have preferred an imaginary dog, they were more easier to deal with than betrayal. She tried not to think of her ex-fiancé Geoff but his face launched into her mind evoking emotions she didn’t want to deal with. She focussed her attention back to Beryl. ‘When was this?’
‘When I was nineteen.’
Monica did the maths. ‘You knew Olive sixty-seven years ago?’
Beryl nodded again and let out a sigh. ‘She stole him from me and married him. He was my fiancé and she stole him.’ She turned her head and looked out the window. The rain was running down the glass in crinkled lines. In her reflection the rain appeared like tears navigating her wrinkles.
‘Were you friends then?’ Monica leaned forward slightly when Beryl didn’t answer. ‘All those years ago?’
Beryl carried on watching the rain. ‘No. We were sisters.’
Monica sat upright, she was confused, or thought maybe Beryl was confused. ‘Olive said she had no next of kin. I knew she was a widow but I didn’t know she had you.’
‘She didn’t.’ Beryl turned to face Monica. ‘I stopped talking to her when she married my Bill, when she stole the life I should’ve had.’
Monica frowned. ‘But she was a young widow. She told me her husband had died six months after they were married.’
Beryl stopped twirling the hair slide between her fingers and her eyes widened.
‘You didn’t know that?’
‘No.’ Beryl swallowed hard. She closed her eyes and exhaled deeply.
Monica’s pulse was increasing and her mouth was dry. She was wishing she hadn’t delivered that news and was concerned that Beryl was going to go the same way and in the same chair as her sister. She was relieved when Beryl opened her eyes.
‘I left the country after their wedding.’ Beryl stared at the now unmoving hair slide in her hands. ‘I moved to France. I couldn’t bear to watch them live a happy life. They were both dead to me from that day.’ She started to cry silently and closed her eyes.
Monica leaned forward and placed her hand on Beryl’s. Monica thought of her own sister and their falling out. She made a promise to herself to drive over to Amanda’s straight after work, before she could have time to talk herself out of it. She didn’t want to be bitter and resentful. She needed to forgive, to move on. She didn’t want to become Beryl.
Beryl let go of the hair slide and held Monica’s hand. The distant sound of carols echoed gently through the corridors of the care home. Beryl squeezed Monica’s hand and Monica squeezed back. They sat in silence and the hair slide slid to the floor.