Dennis Spencer held up his knight and hesitated, before placing it down.
David sighed and stroked his straggly beard. He picked up his queen and paused. He sighed again, forcing a hand through his thick hair. Shrugging he moved his queen.
“That’s checkmate, my friend.”
“Checkmate again? That must be the 1000th time you’ve beaten me.” Dennis laughed.
“It looks like Kasparov versus Fischer in here.”
Dennis smiled at this new voice. Standing over him was his son, Tony. He was a skinny rake of a man, dressed in a long black puffer jacket over a football shirt. His hair had lost most of its colour and was now an odd greyish-brown. It fell in waves down his face. It was a little too long, Dennis thought. He looked like one of those dogs with fur over their eyes.
“I don’t know about Fischer and Kasparov, but he just beat me again.”
Tony scowled at David. “You beat my dad again and I’m going to report you to the manager,” he paused before laughing, “I’m only joking. Sorry mate. In all seriousness thanks for playing chess with dad. It’s good of you to find the time.”
“No worries. I like playing with Den.”
“Because you always beat me.” Dennis laughed. A laugh that turned into a cough.
David tidied away the chess set and stood up. “I’ll leave you two alone now.”
“Actually, could you…” Dennis whispered, pointing downwards.
“Sure thing. Do you want to come back in 15 minutes, Tony?”
“I’ll go see mum. If she’s alright, I’ll bring her down here.”
“Thanks mate, but only if she’s okay. You know I don’t like seeing her if she’s not.”
Tony left and closed the door behind him. David disappeared into the en-suite bathroom to get everything ready. He reappeared and picked up the remote for the mechanical bed. He pressed a button and Dennis felt the top half of the bed descending. Another button and he felt himself rising up. He stared at David.
“Your hair is growing as long as Tony’s.”
“It looks better than his though. He looks a bit like a Cocker Spaniel, although I’m not really one to talk.”
“I was thinking the same actually.” Dennis chuckled.
“Alright, mate, can you turn to your left for me?”
Using all of his strength, Dennis heaved himself toward the wall. It didn’t help that his bloated stomach was in the way, but he turned so his back was to David. He felt him remove his pad and grimaced as he started cleaning him. He knew it was being as gentle as possible and this had to happen, but this didn’t make it any more pleasant. To go from 80 years of independence to not being able to clean himself when he was dirty. When he did get so helpless?
“Do you miss Claire in here? You were married for … how long has it been?” David asked.
“It’s going to be 60 years in a couple of days, well 62 years if you count the time we were courting. Sometimes I miss her, but I think of how she is and how she can be. Sometimes it’s easier not seeing her at all.” He cleared his throat, swallowing down a lump of coal. He rubbed a tear from his eye, as a new pad slid underneath him.
“60th wedding anniversary? That’s really something. You can come on your back now.”
“Not that would mean much to her.” He spoke into his chest.
“Sorry, maybe I shouldn’t have said anything.”
Dennis shook his head. “Don’t worry about it. Claire has her good days and her bad days. On her bad days, she doesn’t recognise me. Not me or the girls, just Tony.”
David removed his rubber gloves and threw them in a bag. He went into the bathroom and returned with a razor and a small mirror.
“Hopefully today is a good day. How about I give you a shave, make you look nice for her?”
Dennis smiled and gestured for the mirror. When did he get so old? True, his face wasn’t wrinkled but his skin was so pale. There were deep shadows underneath his blue eyes. His grey hair clung onto his head and there was three days’ stubble on his chin. He did need a shave. David pulled up a chair and applied some shaving cream to his face.
“What work did you do, mate? I’ve never asked you.”
“I did National Service. Served in Cyprus mainly except for a couple of weeks in the Suez. After that I signed up to be a milkman.”
“You were a soldier? That must have been intense.”
“It was. When we were in Cyprus, a roadside bomb blew four of my mates to kingdom come. I went to school with these lads, we went through training together…” Dennis trailed off, breaking eye contact. He stared down at his hands and stifled a sob. When he did become so emotional?
“Jesus. I shouldn’t have asked. I’m really putting my foot in my mouth today, aren’t I?”
“It’s fine, mate. Don’t worry.”
David put the razor down. “I’m all done. There’s that handsome young man.”
Dennis looked in the mirror. “That’s great, mate. Thanks a lot.”
“Any chance I can persuade you to get out of bed?”
“No chance at all.” Dennis dropped his head.
“I hate seeing you in bed all the time.”
“I don’t care.”
“It’ll be good for Claire to see you up.”
“I’m not coming out of bed. Now, drop it.”
David sighed. “I’ll tell Tony I’m finished.”
Dennis rubbed his face. He shouldn’t have snapped like that. David was a good lad who only wanted the best for him. But staying in bed was his choice and it needed to be respected. He smiled, as he heard a voice he knew. Dry and husky, but undoubtedly Claire. Tony wheeled her in. She was hunched over with her arms folded. Her skin was creased, and her grey hair fell to her shoulders. Her teeth were yellow and crooked, but her eyes still had that sparkle. That sparkle that made her beautiful. Even now.
“It’s nice and sunny outside.” Claire said.
Dennis chuckled. He could see through the window that it was overcast, but that didn’t matter.
“How are you today, sweetheart?” He asked.
“Did you get the shopping in?” Claire replied.
“Don’t worry, mum. We’re going to get it delivered later.”
“Good, I’ll get dinner on then.”
“Why don’t we have a chat first?” Tony suggested.
Claire smiled and nodded. She looked around and stared at Dennis as if only noticing him for the first time. “You alright?”
“I’m alright, love. It’s going to be our 60th in a couple days.”
“You want me to put £60 on trap 2? It’ll have to wait until after I pick the girls up from school.”
Dennis nodded. “Did you watch the match last night?”
“United did alright, I thought. They’ve not been playing too badly this season,” Tony replied.
Claire scowled. “You men and your football. I would rather stick hot needles in my eyes than watch 90 minutes of football.”
Dennis and Tony cracked up, their laughter filling the room.
“Straight-talking as always. That’s why I love you, Claire.” Dennis hoped she would say it back. That at least a word of what he had said had reached her.
She cocked her head and narrowed her eyes. “Don’t let my husband hear you say that. He wouldn’t be happy with you.”
Dennis puffed out his cheeks. “Love, I am your husband.”
“You’re not my husband,” Claire looked at Tony, “where’s Den?”
“I’m right here.”
“Dad, stop it.”
“I’m here, Claire. Can’t you see me? I’m your husband.”
“You’re not my Dennis. Piss off.”
“Claire, why are you saying this? I love you.”
“No Tony. I just want to know that my wife loves me.”
“She does, mate. Course she does…”
“What are you talking about? I don’t love this person. I don’t even know him. And he’s saying he’s my husband. What’s wrong with you? Piss off. You heard me. Bugger off. Go on, get out of here.” Claire lashed out, striking Dennis in the stomach.
“Sorry mate, I’ll take her out.” Tony brushed hair from his eyes. Refusing to look at his dad, he left with his mum.
Dennis scrunched his eyes shut, as his throat closed up. He breathed out and swallowed the lump down. He picked up the paper, tried reading it as his hands trembled. He threw it down, as the emotion exploded from him. As he yelled and cursed, as the tears streamed down his face, mixing with his snot. He was a blubbering mess. A pathetic excuse of a man. He jumped, as there was a knock on the door. He wiped his eyes on his sleeve, as David walked in.
“You alright, mate?” He picked up the paper from the floor.
“I’m fine,” he lied, burying his face in his hand, “sorry. Men shouldn’t be doing this.”
David scowled. “Yeah, Den, if you haven’t noticed, this isn’t the 1940’s anymore. So, you can forget all that macho masculinity bollocks. I’m your friend. Talk to me.” He sat down and held his hand.
“I love Claire. I love her so much. And it kills to see her like this. She doesn’t even know who I am. I just want to know she loves me too.”
“You know she does. It’s her dementia. Her mind might be failing, but she’s always going to love you. Those emotions will always be there, and nothing can change that.”
“I know, but it doesn’t make it any easier. Can you understand why I can’t leave this room? Even if my legs still worked, I can’t leave. Not when Claire is waiting out there.”
“We’ll face her together. Tomorrow, we’re coming out of your room. Deal?” David held out his hand.
Dennis took it and forced a smile. He hoped it was convincing. “What time is it now?”
“Lunchtime. Do you fancy anything today?”
“Not really. What’s for pudding?”
“Jam sponge. I’ll tell the kitchen to save an extra portion for you.”
David left and Dennis leafed through the newspaper. Flicked through the TV channels. But he couldn’t concentrate. He kept thinking about tomorrow. Could he really do it? Could he leave his room? Could he go see his Claire? He would try. That’s all he could do.
Dennis flicked open his eyes and saw David standing over him. His hair was looking as wavy as ever.
“What time is it?” He asked.
“Half 10. Tony’s upstairs with Claire. He’ll bring her down soon. Shall we get you up and ready for her?”
Dennis inwardly groaned. He was hoping David would have forgotten about that.
“Let’s do this, mate.” Den didn’t make eye contact.
David cleaned, washed, dressed and hoisted him into a wheelchair, all while the knot in Dennis’ stomach grew tighter and tighter. His palms sweated. He wanted to go back to bed. David pushed him out of the room just as the lift down the corridor wooshed open. Out emerged Tony and Claire. Dennis saw her slumped over with her arms crossed. His chest tightened and his stomach somersaulted.
“Take me back in.”
“David, take me in now.”
David wheeled him inside and left, shutting the door. Dennis heard him whispering to Tony, as he waited with his face in his hands. He looked up, as David returned.
“You can’t hide in here forever.”
“I can try.” Dennis refused to look at him.
David crouched down. “What happened to our deal? You know you have to face her sometime.”
Dennis shook his head and spread his hands. He took a deep breath and looked David in the eye.
“How can I face her? That woman out there is not the woman I fell in love with. Not the woman I married.”
“Mate, I’m not going to give you some bollocks about me knowing how you feel. How could I? I’m 23, I’ve never been married. But I know that Claire is your wife. I know that she’s the woman you’ve been together with for 62 years. Yes, she has dementia, but she’s still there and she needs you. She still loves you. That’s why you need to leave this room. You owe her that much.”
Dennis laughed and looked around. “It’s funny. I was a soldier. I fought in Cyprus, the Suez. I had men shooting at me, bombs exploding all around me, but leaving my room and seeing Claire scares me more than being in a warzone ever did.”
“That must have been terrifying, but what did Dennis Spencer do? Did he run and hide? No. He did his duty. He fought for what was right. And that’s what you’re going to do tomorrow. You’re going to fight for your wife on the day of your 60th anniversary. Do you understand me, Private Spencer?”
Dennis saluted. “Yes sir.”
The next morning, Dennis woke up nice and early. The knot in his stomach had gone, his chest was lighter, and his head was clearer. He was determined to leave his bedroom today. There was a knock on the door and David walked in. It was 10:30 and Tony would be here soon with Claire. And Dennis would be waiting for them in the lounge.
15 minutes later, David pushed him out of his room. Dennis willed himself to remain calm. His breath thudded from his chest. His palms sweated. He forced himself to breathee deeply, as he was wheeled along the corridor. Past two photoboards displaying pictures of the staff and the residents of the Willow Tree care home. At the end of the corridor were toilets with bright yellow doors. Standing outside one was a lady in a pink coat mumbling angrily to herself.
Dennis was pushed into the lounge. There were two residents already in there sitting in green armchairs. A man with blue eyes and thinning white hair and another man – a skinhead with a big beard.
“David, have you seen my Val anywhere?” The first man said.
“She’s still in bed, Albert. She’ll be up soon,” he crouched by Dennis, “Tony will be here soon with Claire. Do you want me to stay with you?”
“I need to do this by myself, but thanks for everything.” Dennis held up his hand and David shook it, before leaving.
Dennis took a deep breath and tapped his fingers. He breathed deeply. He had to do this. No running away. He looked out the window at the raindrops tumbling down. He looked at the huge stack of CDs, at the TV showing another bloody singing competition, at the dusty piano in the corner. He smiled as Tony wheeled Claire in. Balloons were tied to her wheelchair. As usual she was slumped down with her arms crossed, but she had a big smile on her face.
“You look like you’re in a good mood,” Dennis remarked.
“It’s a lovely day outside,” Claire said.
Dennis chuckled, as he heard a rumble of thunder.
“It’s nice seeing you like this,” he breathed in and held her hand, “happy 60th anniversary, sweetheart. I love you; you know that?”
Claire smiled at him and frowned. “Of course, I know that, Den. You’re my husband. I love you too.”
Dedicated to the real life Claire and Dennis. I hope you found each other again.