by Adam Lock
Che points and asks, ‘What is it, Nanny?’
Gabby, hands on hips, breathless, says, ‘Old folks’ home.’
Che looks along the hoarding, reads an advertisement: ‘Autumn Gardens. Retirement Living.’
‘Fancy name for old folks’ home,’ Gabby says.
Che’s looking at another large advertisement: a photograph of two women and two men, white-haired, laughing.
‘You and Grandad Joe going to live here, Nanny?’
‘Why would we want to do that?’
Hospital, 2009. Che born by caesarean section, 39 weeks. Tell Jess not going anywhere. Heartbeats on monitor. Doctor, nurses, faces covered. Smell of sterilisation, of blood. Doctor lifts Che out of Jess. Hear Che crying. Doctor’s slow movements, questions, commands, instructions. Nurse holds Che. Wish Ettie was here when all is over. Jess given Che. No Ettie when all is over.
‘Look.’ Che points to another advertisement: a large photograph of an elderly man and woman walking through a garden hand in hand. The woman is pointing to a border filled with yellow flowers. In the background, a sunset. ‘Look Nanny. The garden.’
‘And where would Grandad Joe be without his garden?’
Che’s shoulders drop.
Birthday party, 2002. Ettie’s daughter, Harriet, blowing out eighteen candles. Harriet strong-willed, forthright, honest, like Ettie. End of night, all tired, all drunk too much. Ettie says how always been there for each other. Ettie upset, wants to talk. Ettie asks: be there for Harriet? Tell Ettie no need, will get through it together.
‘How old are you and Grandad Joe?’
‘Old. We’re old.’
Che’s eyes narrow, her lips pouting.
‘63. Your Grandad’s 65.’
Holding Gabby’s hand and forearm, Che says, ‘Mrs Fellows says all mammals, no matter how big or small, get one and a half billion heartbeats in a lifetime.’
‘That’s a lot,’ Gabby says.
Che’s eyes focus on Gabby’s chest. ‘A lot. Even if it’s a mouse or an elephant, they get that many heartbeats. As long as they’re not eaten or anything.’ Che makes a face like a snarl, like an angry animal. ‘But Mrs Fellows says people get double, three billion.’
Che counts on her fingers, ‘Because of clean water, and houses, and hospitals.’
New Year’s Eve, 1989. Tradition for someone with dark hair to enter house first after midnight. Wait outside for Joe—only one with dark hair. Joe disappears to enter house through back door. Joe appears at front door, calls us inside. Jess and Harriet run into house. Feel Ettie’s arms around stomach, breasts pushed against back, breath against neck, warm smell of alcohol. Ettie kisses neck. Close eyes. Heartbeat in throat. Taste of heartbeats. See Ettie’s warm breath in cold air. Then all in living room for one more drink. Ettie on settee: dress, nylon, red fingernails against wine glass.
‘When I grow up,’ Che says, ‘I’ll have a big house.’
‘Husband called Jeremiah, and three children: boy called Joshua, girl called Lizzie, another girl called Beth.’
‘Have it all planned out.’
‘Uh huh,’ Che says. ‘And in summer, we’ll go to Cornwall for six weeks.’
‘Every day we’ll go to the beach and the children will bury Jeremiah so all you can see is his head. And then all in the swimming pool to wash off the sand.’
Falmouth, 1984. Ettie stood in swimming pool holding baby Harriet. Ettie’s eyes sad. Tell Ettie not to cry. Ettie shrugs—can’t help it, all different now there’s baby. Can’t explain. Always sad, always tired, always alone. Take Harriet from Ettie, rest on own stomach, on own baby, on Jess. Ettie rests head on shoulder. Give time to cry before telling Ettie to stop. Look into eyes, tell Ettie always be there, tell Ettie never alone.
‘And then when the children are grown up,’ Che says, ‘Jeremiah and me will live here.’ She points to another advertisement: a nurse holding a birthday cake with one lit candle, offering it to a group of elderly people sat around a table.
‘But I’d make sure there were way more candles.’
‘And not those candles you blow out and they lights themselves again. Those candles are mean.’
Heatwave, 1976. Ettie in underwear, lying on back, on lawn. Feet crossed at ankles, arms by side, eyes closed. White bra, black underwear. Smell of coconut. Each breath moves skin over ribs. Neck like vase, sweeping to jaw line, to curve of back of head where grass mixes with hair. Underwear rolled over on hip-bone like thin piece of rope, cutting into top of thighs. Elastic of underwear stretched from one hip to other, leaving shadow between sunken stomach and cotton. Hairs on stomach, blonde. Faint quaking beneath ribcage, heart beating in chest. All the time heartbeats. All the time heartbeats. All the time heartbeats.
‘I’m nine next week, Nanny.’
‘I know you are, beautiful.’
‘You remember being nine, Nanny?’
‘I do. Your Great Nan made a cake in the shape of a number 9.’
Che holds Gabby’s arm tight, pulling it towards her, ‘Can I have one of those Nanny? Can I?’
‘Sure, I can manage that.’
School, 1969. Maths. Ettie holds six inch ruler against stomach, says, this big. Narrow eyebrows, say, not all that big. Ettie holds twelve inch ruler next to stomach, smiles, bites lip, says, some bigger. Shrug, ask how it fits. Ettie shakes head, laughs, says, no idea.
Che looks at a man climbing a ladder. ‘There’ll be lots of old people living here won’t there, Nanny?’
‘All with lots of heartbeats left?’ Che loosens her grip on Gabby’s arm.
Gabby kisses Che on the top of her head. ‘Millions of heartbeats to go. Millions.’
Adam wakes far too early in the morning, in the Black Country, UK, to write stories that attempt to explode the small happenings in life. He has been published in Fictive Dream twice before, and has stories published in STORGY, Retreat West, Spelk, Ellipsis Zine, Vending Machine Press, Fiction Pool, Ghost Parachute, Occulum, Flash Fiction Magazine, and others.