by Jenny Palmer
‘Let’s go out today,’ Lily suggested, when the new girl arrived one Monday morning. ‘I’m sick of looking at these four walls.’
She knew Jean would be only too willing to oblige, even if it did mean pushing the wheelchair. She wished she’d be a bit more careful over the kerbs, though. Sometimes she had the feeling the wheelchair was running away with her.
Lily lived in a one-bedroom flat just off Church Street. It wasn’t what she was used to. She used to live in a large house, full of family, and family pets. But her husband was long dead, and all her family grown. Her son called in from time to time but he lived out of town. Still she had friends she could call if she wanted a chat and she had the birds. The budgies were her pride and joy: one blue and one green.
‘Blue and green should never be seen,’ her mother used to say but budgies were invariably blue or green. Sometimes Lily didn’t know what she’d do without the birds. They were company and she liked to talk to them. Some people didn’t understand about things like that. They had a lot to learn.
Her flat was small, but it was adequate. At eighty-nine, Lily could get around at home with the help of the Zimmer frame. If she went out, she had to use the wheelchair. When she’d downsized, she’d salvaged some of the furniture from the old house. She had arranged her life. There hadn’t been enough room for everything. Her nick-knacks and family photos were on the chest of drawers along with the plants. Two boys came in from the agency. They were fun. They sometimes had dinner parties together.
This new girl was from Australia or New Zealand? Lily wasn’t sure. She wasn’t a nurse or a proper carer, but she did what you asked her. There was one thing, though. She seemed to have an aversion to the birds. She’d only clean them out under sufferance. It was strange for a teacher to be cleaning houses, anyway. But you never knew what young people got up to these days.
Lily was in the middle of breakfast when a piece of toast went down the wrong way and stuck in her throat. She gasped for breath and tried to cry out. She was already turning blue in the face before the girl came running out of the kitchen to see what was going on. Jean took one look at her and thumped Lily hard on the back. Somehow or other it did the trick and the toast was dislodged.
‘You’re not supposed to hit people on the back, you know, when they’re choking,’ Lily admonished afterwards. ‘You’re supposed to stand behind them and squeeze them on their stomach.’
She didn’t want to say too much. The girl had saved her life, after all.
How life had changed! Lily had always been a busy person. She’d married young and had her children early. There’d never been a spare moment, especially after her husband had died, leaving her with two children to bring up. She’d trained as a nurse and ended up becoming a matron. It had paid her a good salary and given her a reasonable pension. At least she could pay for help if need be. Thankfully, these days, the government had a policy of keeping people in their own homes.
Jean had claimed the job was a welcome change from all the travelling she’d been doing. She’d been all round Europe and Morocco, visiting historic sights, haggling in Arabic bazaars and meeting all sorts of people. She’d apparently spent Christmas in Marrakech and New Year in the Atlas Mountains and by the time she’d got to London, her money had run out. She’d signed up with the agency and now worked for Lily two days a week and cleaned houses for another two. Working for Lily wasn’t hard. All she had to do was heat up a few meals and do a bit of shopping and cleaning.
They both liked a bargain. When they went out, they headed for the charity shops. Jean was saving up for her return trip. She didn’t to want to waste money on new clothes. Lily could always do with something new for the house.
‘Do be careful over the kerbs,’ said Lily. ‘This is a very bumpy ride. I’d rather not be tipped onto the pavement, if you don’t mind.’
‘It’s alright,’ said Jean. ‘I know what I’m doing.’
‘Let’s go in here,’ said Lily, as soon as she spied the Oxfam shop.
‘You go on in and have look round,’ she said, as soon as they got inside. ‘I’ll stay here and have a chat.’
Jean wandered around the shop, while Lily caught up on the gossip. After a while she came back with a pair of trainers, a shirt and a china teapot for Lily. They stopped off at the pet shop on the way back to get some cuttlefish for the birds.
‘They do like their little treats, you know,’ Lily said. ‘They are just like humans. They understand if you talk to them. It’s the same with plants. They like encouragement too. They grow better if you talk to them.’
Lily had plants growing everywhere, on the dresser, on shelves, hanging from hooks in the ceiling. Her flat was like a tropical greenhouse.
One morning Jean arrived to find Lily in a state of dismay.
‘It’s the birds,’ she cried. ‘There is something wrong with them, I’m sure. I can’t hear them. Can you have a look?’
Jean uncovered the cage. One of the birds was lying flat on the bottom of the cage. It was clearly dead. The other was sitting on its perch. It wasn’t uttering a sound and looked distinctly sickly.
‘Don’t worry,’ Jean said. ‘I’ll take them to the pet shop. I’m sure they’ll be able to fix them.’
‘There’s not much we can do,’ the pet shop owner said. ‘That one is definitely dead and the other won’t last long by the looks of things. They’ve probably caught a virus. I can replace them for you. Given the circumstances, I’ll give you two for the price of one.’
Jean recognised a bargain when she saw one. She bought two new budgies, one green and one blue, to replace the old ones and took them back home to Lily.
‘There,’ she said. ‘They are alright now. I told you they’d be able to do something at the pet shop.’
In a supreme effort, she stood in front of the cage and spoke out loud.
‘You’re alright now, aren’t you?’
‘Cheap’ went the birds, ‘Cheap.’
About the author
Jenny Palmer has published two memoirs Nowhere better than home and Pastures New,’ a family history Whipps, Watsons and Bulcocks: a Pendle family history, 1560-1960, available from the Pendle Heritage Centre, Barrowford and a collection of short stories ‘Keepsake and other stories’ available on Amazon. Her short stories appear on the Cafelit website, in the Best of Café lit anthologies 3, 5 and 6 and in Citizens of Nowhere. She is about to publish her first collection of poems.