Leaf Pile

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Raking leaves should have been my son’s job, just as it was mine as a kid. However, my son is gone and has been for twenty-three years. He had been ten years old, a boy full of life which had been cut short.

I pause in my raking, leaning on the smooth wooden pole as I get my breath back. Looking up at the left front window of my house, I see my wife standing there. She is stroking her short white hair, her mouth moving as she speaks but her eyes are not watching me, they are staring into the distance.

The dementia has her mind in a tight grip of late and some days she doesn’t know who she is. In my heart I know she doesn’t have much longer to live but I can’t let her go. I wave at her and get no response back. She carries on playing with her hair and speaking either to herself or to someone she thinks is there but has long since passed away.

Getting back to work, I pull the dry leaves together into a pile, freeing the grass from the quilt blanket the leaves create. I wouldn’t burn them but put them on the composed heap to be used in planting my show flowers in the spring. Garden is the only thing I have left to enjoy now.

The front door opens and I hear my wife shouting. Her words are garble and it’s hard to pick out what she’s trying to say. She pulls at her hair and dress as she comes down the path.

‘What is it, Olive?’ I call.

She ignores me, trapped in a world of her own.

I go over and leaving the rake against the side of the house. She’s clearly in distress but there is no way she can tell me what’s wrong. It could be she believes she is in a different time and some moment there has triggered the upset.

I talk to her softly, calming her though she seems unaware of me, ‘it’s fine, whatever it is. I can help. You are okay. I’m here.’

I reach for her but she waves my hands away and carries on shouting out what seems to be just random words, ‘not here! Gone! Come back! Where is he? Don’t know what to do! Alex! Alex! Frog in the hallway. Frog, frog, frog! Gone! Gone!’

It’s hard when she gets like this. I want to get her back inside and sat down but she would fight me all the way and last time she pushed me down and I almost broke my arm. I know I’m too old to deal with her now and leaving her care to a specialist would be best. I can’t though. I can’t let her go….

I pick up a stray leaf and press it into her hands.

‘Look Olive, isn’t it pretty? Listen to the sound it makes,’ I say.

She crunches the leaf, tears it up and lets the bits fall from her hand. She stares in fascination.

I give her another and another. She crunches them in her fist and tosses the leaf pieces to the wind. They blow around in the breeze and she watches them go.

I take her hand and led her to the pile of raked up leaves.

‘Where is Alex?’ she asks.

‘At school, my love,’ I reply.

I can’t explain that he’s been dead for years because she won’t understand and though it hurts, it’s easier to lie.

‘School?’ she repeats as she picks up leaves and plays with them, ‘he never comes home. Never. I miss him….When will he come? When, when?’ she cries with desperation.

‘Soon, dear, soon,’ I reply gently, ‘come back inside now. It’s cold out here and you are not wearing a coat.’

I take her arm and guide her away. She starts muttering to herself again, words I can’t catch or understand.

Once inside, I get her in front of the TV, feet up and wrapped in a blanket. Her eyes are distant. She isn’t here, she’s off in the past, some place I might not remember or don’t want to recall.

I stay with her until she is settled enough to be left again. The news is on the TV but she’s not watching it but the sounds of the voices help her to feel not alone.

‘I’m going out again but I’ll be there if you need me. It’s getting dark and I want to finish,’ I say.

She says something which is lost on me.

I get up, go to the front door and on the mat is a crumbled brown leaf. I pick it up and take it outside, feeling a pain my heart that never goes.

Mind Lost

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The bell on the bus rang and with a few glances in his mirrors, the bus driver pulled up smoothly at the next stop.

I looked down the aisle and saw an elderly gentleman wearing a large brown hat and in a long, light brown coat getting to his feet with the aid of a wooden walking stick. He tottered to the hissing opening doors and looked out.

‘Wrong stop,’ he announced and hobbled back to his seat.

The bus driver with a loud sigh, closed the doors, indicted and pulled off.

The old man sit down again and looked out of the window, watching the rows of houses and small patches of green grass go by.

I returned to my open book, cursing my broken headphones as I felt the first pings of my anxiety starting up. Public transport always triggered it, even if I had taken the same journey hundreds of times. There was no stopping that strange wiggly worms sensation in my stomach and the loss of concentration on my book.

The bell rang again. The bus driver slowed and pulled over, easing the bus to a stop and opening the doors.

The same old man got up and walked over. He looked out then said loudly, ‘this isn’t my stop! This isn’t where I’m going!’

‘It’s all right. Just sit down again then,’ the driver said calmly.

Over the top of my book, I watched the elderly gentleman shuffling back to his seat again. He sat down heavily and started muttering to himself.

The engine rumbled, the indicted clicked and we were off again.

Sneakily checking out the other passengers, I saw that none of them were bothered by the elderly man’s mistakes. They all seemed to be in worlds of their own. There was a business man typing away on a small laptop, another man was reading the free newspaper and a third older man was on his phone. Of the four woman, not counting myself, one was reading a library book which I couldn’t see the cover of, two were sat at the back, heads together talking softly and the fourth woman was dozing off with a sleeping baby in her arms.

I turned my eyes back to my book and tried to get into the romantic story of an angel falling in love with a human he was banished from being with. Your typical young adult supernatural mush but I loved it. However, my mind couldn’t focus and I began to picture what would happen if the bus was suddenly to crash.

It was a reoccurring image brought on by the anxiety. I was caught up in it for a few moments, wondering what everyone would do if we became trip in the turned over bus. There’d be smoke, screaming, blood. People would die – the driver, maybe the old man and baby. Maybe even me…

I shook the thoughts away and placed down my book. My fingers still inside the closing pages. Oh, how I wished for my music! The loud beating and fast lyrics of heavy metal noise that I could fade into and forget about everything.

The bell ring and this time the man with the laptop got up. He hardly waited for the bus to stop and the doors to open, before he leaped to the pavement and hurried away.

The elderly man seemed not to have noticed the bus stopping. He was looking out of the window. He was still muttering, but I could not make out what he was saying.

The bus driver lingered for a few minutes, perhaps waiting for the old man to get off or maybe for a big enough gap in the traffic.

I looked through the open doors, feeling the cold winter breeze on my face and trying to relax. We were next to the old Jewish cemetery. The curling gates at the top of the driveway were locked but the smaller side one was half open. I could just make out the tops of the headstones. New apartments flanked both sides of the cemetery, looking out of place and making me recall an argument about the developers wanting to move the headstones and bodies to another location.

The bus doors hissed shut and with the engine sounding grumpy, the driver cut through the traffic and drove us on.

I saw the old man reach for the bell button and touch it. He got up and went to the doors as the bus pulled up only a little bit down the road. The doors opened and I really hoped, though it was so mean of me, that he was getting off this time.

‘Is this Courtly Way? No, it’s not,’ the old man began rambling, ‘I don’t know those trees there. Driver? Where are we going? You’ve taken the wrong route again! I want to go home!’

‘It’s okay,’ the driver said calmly, ‘I’ll take you home. Just go and sit down.’

The old man huffed and began hobbling back to his seat.

The bus moved off again. A car horn blaring from beside us as a car sped passed and jumped the changing traffic lights.

How could the bus driver be so calm? I wondered, surely he’s getting annoyed with all of this now?

‘Hello, Annie!’ the old man cried.

I looked and saw he was staring at me.

‘Why didn’t you tell me you were getting this bus?’ he asked.

‘I’m not Annie,’ I replied, ‘I don’t think we know each other.’

‘Of course, you’re Annie! I’d know you anywhere!’

‘No. You’ve made a mistake. My name is Eleanor.’

‘What are you taking about? We’ve been married fifty odd years, Annie!’ the old man shouted.

I shook my head, sinking back into the hard seat as my anxiety rose. My book began to tremble in my hands and my breaths started catching in my throat. Those stomach worms wiggled more, causing a dull pain to start up. Terrible thoughts came to me. The bus crashing, people dying, blood, fire, the scent of smoke, the smell of death, the whiff of leaking fumes, my book laying upwards with it’s open pages crushed against the roof as the bus land upside down.

‘Annie! Annie! What’s wrong!’ the old man was shouting, ‘Driver stop! My wife has been taken ill!’

For the first time, the bus driver slammed his brakes on at a stop. Passengers were thrown about and my head knocked into the wall of the driver’s cabin. I felt fuzzy and my ears were ringing. I shut my eyes and counted backwards as around me complaining voices rose and the baby started crying.

‘Are you alright, love? Do you want to get off?’ a new voice was asking me.

I opened my eyes and saw the bus driver looking at me.

‘He thinks I’m his wife,’ I muttered.

‘What?’ the driver asked, glancing at the old man who was hanging onto the newspaper tray.

‘He says I’m his wife,’ I repeated louder.

‘Oh. He says that to all the young pretty girls. He’s harmless,’ the bus driver added.

‘My wife?’ the old man suddenly said, ‘where is my wife?’

‘Come on now, Bert,’ the bus driver said politely, ‘sit here and be quiet now. We’re almost home.’

‘Home? Ah yes, that’s where we are going. My wife should be there. She’ll have tea on the table and wondering what’s taking so long. Get on with it, driver,’ the old man snapped and rudely waved the driver away.

The urge to question what was going on here grew but as the driver passed me I couldn’t say anything.

The bus started again and a few stops later, we slowed down and pulled up. The doors opened and the driver got out of his cabin. He walked past me and to the old man.

‘Bert, you’re home now, time to get off,’ the driver said softly.

‘Ah yes. Thank you,’ Bert replied.

The driver helped him up then off the bus. I looked out the window and saw the sign for an old people’s home in the front garden of a large building. At the bus stop, a woman dressed in dark blue trousers and a uniform looking top greeted the bus driver and Bert. I watched her link arms with Bert and take him towards the house. They were talking but I couldn’t hear the words.

The driver got back on and headed for his seat.

‘Is he okay?’ I asked.

The driver looked at me and nodded, ‘he has dementia. Some days he’s okay, other days he believes we’re in a past year and the worse days are when he forgets who he is. It’s a horrible thing and I should know! My dad had it and I had to watch him slowly forget me, everyone else and himself.’

I just nodded, not sure what to say to that.

‘Are you all right? He really didn’t mean you any harm,’ the bus driver added.

‘I’m fine…I suffer from anxiety attacks. It had nothing to do with him,’ I explained.

‘I see. You okay, now though?’ he said

I nodded, thanked him and he climbed into the driver’s cabin.

The bus started again, the seat vibrating underneath me and the voices of the disgruntled passengers muttering. My mind was far away though, reflecting on the bus driver’s words.