------------------------An Elementary Christmas
By Lily Mulholland
Feeling every one of his seventy-six years, Ellery Scott was at war with the world. Not the entire world exactly, just his sphere of influence. Well, not even that. He didn’t hold much sway these days. He’d never been a happy man. He’d had his successes, sure, but life had been one long series of failures and disappointments. The final and he thought most fitting was being placed in ‘care’ by his family. What there was left of them. That had been two years ago and none of them had paid a visit since. Ellery spent his days in a wheelchair looking out the picture windows at a garden that looked like it had been manicured by his sadist podiatrist. Everything had been Gillette-trimmed with a triple blade – he doubted the garden could survive much more shaving.
Ellery still shaved. Every day. He’d never admit it to himself, but he wanted to keep up appearances on the outside, no matter how far the inside had decayed. Ellery knew he didn’t have too many years left, and he didn’t give a dang about death. But somewhere, locked deep inside, was a flicker of hope someone from his family would come and visit him. He wanted to know someone, anyone really, remembered him and cared just enough to get in the car and make the trip out to Pleasant Gardens.
Some of this subconscious monologue was beginning to surface, like a submarine – slowly, stealthily and surely. Ellery didn’t want to have this conversation and was battling his inner demons, all the while maintaining his customary severe look. He didn’t want any of the inmates or staff to notice he was going a bit cuckoo again. Staring fiercely at the garden without seeing, Ellery got himself back under control. He reminded himself he didn’t care anymore and was simply waiting for death to seek out his company.
Catching movement in the inside reflection of the glass, Ellery’s eyes slowly refocused on the mirror image of the man coming towards him. Damn, it’s that goddamn annoying orderly again.
‘Mr Scott? It’s time for your appointment with Dr Skrynka.’
Ellery didn’t respond in any way that would let the man know he’d heard him. Perhaps he’d go away.
‘Come on Mr Scott. I know you saw me. Ignoring me won’t make me go away. And, since you’re in a wheelchair and can’t get away from me, I’m just going to take you to see the doc.’
Ellery swore quietly. He knew there was no point in resisting. He also knew the young upstart was much physically stronger and had orders to take him forcibly if he refused to go. One of the endless joys of being interned in this place.
The young man wheeled Ellery down the length of the gallery, a large sitting room filled with chesterfield lounges, ornate side tables topped with large floral arrangements in glass vases. It was a nicely fitted out place if you went in for that kind of thing and Ellery was almost grateful his family had not chosen one of the budget nursing homes. The thought made his skin crawl and he shuddered.
‘Are you all right, Mr Scott?’
‘You can call me Jake.’
‘Why would I want to do that?’
‘Well I do see you every week. It would be polite.’
‘You want polite? Make an appointment. I charge by the hour.’ Ellery knew he was coming across as particularly thorny today, but he didn’t care.
Jacob Marley laughed. He’d seen it all before. He’d been working here for four years while he pursued his medical degree. This was his last year and he looked forward to getting out and practising what he’d been learning. He wasn’t going into geriatrics – four years of looking after incapacitated seniors had taught him that wasn’t a good idea.
‘That an accounting joke?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, you used to be an accountant.’
‘How the hell did you know that?’
‘I’ve read your file Mr Scott.’
‘But you’re a goddamn orderly!’ Ellery could feel the apoplexy rising. He knew he shouldn’t get openly angry, especially before an appointment with the psychiatrist, but he was pissed at the insubordinate attitude. He was a man used to respect. Not that he’d had much in a long time, but he never let go of his superior attitude. He was a professional. Not some schmuck wheeling oldies around a loony bin.
‘Actually I’m not. I’m a fourth-year medical student and I’m here working as an assistant to Dr Skrynka.’
‘Apology accepted,’ said Jake, not missing a beat as he wheeled Ellery through a labyrinth of corridors and meeting rooms.
Ellery was disgusted to see Christmas decorations taped to every wall and ceiling. He noted several Christmas trees, all with gold and silver baubles. Some even had those ridiculous optical fibre lights in their so-called leaves. Up on each pinboard, in addition to the mandatory emergency drills and safety notices was a number of small posters advertising all number of events. There was a full social calendar at Pleasant Gardens, designed to keep the patients occupied and distract them from their troubles and pain.
Jacob asked Ellery if he was in the choir this year, at which Ellery nearly choked on his saliva. He managed to splutter, ‘Over my dead body!’ before being overcome with a coughing fit.
‘Why not?’ asked Jake, ignoring the outburst.
‘To sing a bunch of Christmas carols with the nearly dead? Somebody kill me now.’
‘Now, now, Mr Scott, you know suicidal talk is reportable.’ Ellery couldn’t tell if Jacob was joking or not. He didn’t respond, choosing instead to glower at the floor as his chair was pushed interminably along the route to the professional suites on the other side of the building.
‘I can’t stand Christmas,’ he said finally.
‘Too many bad associations. And it’s just a commercial free for all. There’s no soul to it anymore. It’s all what can I get? with young kids these days. Parents spending too much money on crap their kids don’t need. I tell you, in my day we were happy with a stick and a jam tin.’
‘Well, Mr Scott, I don’t agree with you. Christmas should be a time to reflect on what you’ve been given and to celebrate with your family. Have you been in touch with your family lately?’
‘They’re dead to me,’ Ellery said, with a trace of venom entering his voice.
‘I’m truly sorry to hear it,’ said Jacob, as he wheeled Ellery in through Dr Skrynka’s door. ‘Perhaps you should reach out to them. You might be surprised what good could come of it.’
Ellery sat quietly while he waited for the doctor to arrive. He shook his head at the suggestion of talking to his son or daughter. They’d made the arrangements to put him here in the first place, without consulting with him. He’d had a fall at home not long after Margaret had died and had to have a hip replacement; the operation did not go well. When he did not recover full mobility the decision to move him into care had been made without him. He could never forgive them for that.
Dr Skrynka entered the room from an adjoining suite and sat down on a sofa opposite Ellery. He took up an electronic tablet Ellery supposed had replaced the old clipboard and paper sheets, with which he was very familiar.
‘A new toy?’ ventured Ellery.
‘Indeed.’ Dr Skrynka was a man without much humour. That suited Ellery fine most weeks, but this week, for some reason, he felt the need to needle the man.
‘Make sure you’ve got the right file there. I don’t want you to confuse me with someone who gives a damn.’
‘Indeed,’ repeated Dr Skrynka, effectively silencing Ellery. ‘Have you thought about what I suggested last week?’
Ellery played dumb. He didn’t want to talk about his past anymore. What had happened had happened and he didn’t see what relevance it had to the present.
‘I can see that you have not,’ said Dr Skrynka. ‘I am also informed that you have been moodier than normal since we last met.’
Ellery squirmed. Jacob. He must be Dr Skrynka’s spy. Damn him.
‘Well, Ellery, I cannot help you. You must help yourself. Write a letter to your son-in-law, I urge you. Do not go to your grave with unfinished business. You might not care, but he is the one who will be left wondering. What will he tell your granddaughter?’
Ellery’s head shot up at the mention of Maggie. Although he had not seen her since she was a babe in arms, the young girl held the only soft place left in Ellery’s heart.
‘Why don’t you invite them to come and see you? It is Christmas after all.’
‘I told you. I never want to see that bastard again.’
‘I remember. You hold him responsible for your daughter’s death. Ellery, you must find a way to forgive him. He has surely suffered enough.’
‘He could never suffer enough. He killed Ellen. On Christmas Eve.’
‘It was a car accident. An accident, Ellery. You know that.’
‘He killed my Ellen. She meant everything to me. She was the only one of my children who understood me.’ Ellery stopped speaking. From somewhere unbidden, emotion arrived in a rush, strangling his throat and making his eyes water.
Dr Skrynka played his final card.
‘Do you want to see the child before you die?’
Ellery did not respond. He bowed his head and withdrew his mind from the conversation.
‘And so.’ Dr Skrynka got up and went to his desk, where he picked up the phone and spoke into it, requesting an orderly to take Ellery to his room.
‘I cannot help you any further Ellery. I don’t want to see you again until you call Peter. You know what you need to do.’
A young woman in jeans and a sparkly top came into the room and reversed Ellery’s chair around the furniture and out the door. Her Christmas earrings chimed as she walked. The sound was like a knife stabbing deep into Ellery’s brain. His knuckles whitened as his grip on the chair’s armrests tightened. Mercifully the trip to his room wasn’t far and he only had to put up with the torture for five minutes.
‘There ya go love,’ said the woman. ‘You want me to help you up onto the bed?
She was chewing gum, a habit Ellery found most distasteful.
‘No. I can do it myself, if you position the bar over my chair.’
‘As you wish,’ she said. ‘Did you see a letter came for you?’
Ellery’s head whipped around. The woman was holding a white envelope in her hand.
‘Just put it on the bedside please.’
‘Okay love. Enjoy your dinner. Plum pudding tonight!’ she said as she sailed out the door, taking her jingling ears with her.
Ellery heaved himself up onto the bed. It took most of his strength, so he had to rest against the pillows for a minute before reaching for the letter. He knew he should let the staff help him, but he was a pig-headed man and couldn’t bring himself to ask. The envelope had no return address. He wondered who it was from and slid his gnarled thumbnail under the flap to lift enough paper to be able to grasp it with two fingers and rip the envelope open. Inside was a single folded sheet of writing paper. He opened it and saw with surprise it was from his son-in-law. Ellery throbbed with instant rage. He screwed up the unread paper and threw it as far from him as he could.
‘Damn him, damn him, damn him!’
‘And damn that cursed interfering fool of a psychologist. I’ll have him for this!’
The other patients and staff heard his outburst the length of the corridor. Hurried footsteps echoed as one of the staff rushed in to his room.
‘Mr Scott! Are you okay?’
‘NO I AM NOT ALL RIGHT!’
‘Please calm down Mr Scott. You’re scaring the other patients and we’ll have to sedate you unless you can control yourself.’
The nurse patted her pocket and Ellery knew that was where she kept the tranquiliser. He’d seen the staff jab patients before and he’d seen the instant slump that followed. He had no intention of being similarly dosed and strapped to his bed. It was undignified and he was determined to die a dignified death, if nothing else.
‘Now what has happened?’
She wasn’t convinced. Ellery gave in.
‘I received a letter from someone I wish to never see or hear from again. He ruined my life and I refuse to let him be a part of mine.’
‘I can see why that would upset you Mr Scott, but you need to calm down. Now, I am going to give you something to help you settle down. Don’t look so worried, it’s a mild relaxant. It will help you sleep.’
Ellery submitted and swallowed the two round pearly white pills.
‘The drowsiness should kick in not long after dinner. Enjoy your Christmas turkey and try not to think about the letter too much. I’ll be back later to check on you. You had better be asleep, Mr Scott.’
Ellery watched her leave the room and leant his head back against the pillows and closed his eyes. Immediately images of Ellen danced before him and, as always, he welcomed the memories and the feeling of peace they bestowed. Ellen on her sixth birthday, missing a front tooth, gazing at him over the birthday cake, the candles reflected in her eyes. Ellen at her confirmation, in her little bride’s dress and veil, suddenly looking all serious and grown up. Ellen graduating from university, her graduand’s robes swamping her tiny frame, but the same high-wattage smile and shimmering eyes peering out from under her mortar board. Ellen on her wedding day. Ellen with her new baby. Ellen, his Ellen, his special Ellen.
Tears rolled down Ellery’s cheeks as the memories ran out and the one he was left with was Ellen lying on a trolley at the morgue. He’d had to identify her. Peter and Maggie were in hospital and Margaret was in no shape to view the body. He knew Ellen was dead; what he wasn’t prepared for were the injuries, the bruising. The image of Ellen covered in welts, her skin a livid purple, had haunted him every day since. He could not get it out of his head.
The squeaking wheel of the dinner trolley shook him from his reverie. The Filipina lady who brought in his dinner tray never spoke to him, nor he to her. But tonight, he said thank you. She didn’t look at him, but simply placed his dinner on the table, wheeled it over to his bed and left the room. Ellery looked at his plate with its lonely piece of cheap tinsel and felt something snap deep inside his body. He pushed his dinner away uneaten and succumbed to the sleep that tugged at his eyes.
Despite the tablets, Ellery did not sleep well. He dreamt vividly of Margaret and Ellen, and of Michelle and David, his older children. He finally fell into a deep sleep around dawn and did not stir until breakfast arrived. Waiting for the plates to be cleared, Ellery was fighting a very personal battle. He longed to see his granddaughter. Maggie, named for her grandmother, would be six now. He wondered whether she had lost her first tooth yet. He had missed so much. All because of his stubbornness and belligerence. He felt an unease settle upon him; he did not want to die without seeing her, but that would mean talking to Peter. He hadn’t seen him since Ellen’s funeral five years earlier.
With the effects of the sleeping pills sitting upon him heavily, Ellery allowed himself to doze for another hour. He fell again into a dream-filled sleep. This time he was in his bed at the nursing home, his head turned toward the door, which was backlit by the streaming morning sunlight. Suddenly the aged-six Ellen materialised in the doorway, smiling that unforgettable grin. Ellery held out his hand to her and the little girl came forward. Ellery returned her smile. When he awoke, Ellery felt a strange sense of peace deep in his bones. He rang for the nurse to assist him with his toilette and made a decision. He would write to Peter asking to see Maggie. It was time.
The nurse arrived and helped him walk slowly into his bathroom. She expertly removed yesterday’s clothes and helped Ellery shower and dress. She laid out his shaving gear and leant on the metal railing that ran around the room while Ellery shaved. His hand was still steady enough to scrape away the white hairs that insisted growing on the lower part of his face, despite having refused to grow on his pate for the past forty years. As he shaved the nurse spoke to him.
‘You had a visitor this morning. Two actually.’
In his surprise Ellery nicked his neck. He ignored the pain and the small trickle of blood to look up at the nurse.
‘Yes, a man and a little girl. They came while you were asleep after breakfast.’
Ellery stared at her in amazement. He tried to stand up.
‘Where have they gone? I have to go after them!’ The panic was rising and propelled him into action despite his body’s protest.
‘Please! Sit down Mr Scott. It’s okay. They’ve gone for a drive and they said they’ll come back this afternoon after lunch.’
Ellery sat down. He took in what the nurse had said and realised he was holding his breath. He released the tension and took a great shuddering breath. It was then that he asked the nurse to help him finish his shave; his hand had started shaking.
‘Make sure you do a good job of it please nurse. I have some very important guests arriving and I want to look my best. It’s, it’s my granddaughter. My Maggie.’
The nurse smiled at Ellery. She thought he looked different. Younger. Happier.
‘Merry Christmas, Mr Scott.’
‘Merry Christmas, my dear.’
This story was first published in the Soft Whispers Magazine 2009 Christmas Special.