Thursday 18 January 2024

The Cloud by David Rudd, London Fog tea

Martha would clamber aboard her ‘magic Wishing-Chair’ and ask it to take her upstairs. Since her legs had become unreliable, it had been a boon. Before that, she and Albert had struggled. They’d found themselves increasingly confined downstairs, each sleeping in an armchair in their back room. It was fortunate that they still had a privy, accessible through the kitchen.


   It was Albert’s stroke that had brought things to a head. A team of carers had arrived to support them, and the chairlift had been installed. Martha had soon christened it the magic Wishing-Chair, recalling a favourite childhood book by Enid Blyton. The stories featured a chair that would whisk its occupants off to exciting fantasy lands. Nowadays, though, Martha found it exciting enough to go up and down the stairs.


   They’d had a few good months before Albert deteriorated further and couldn’t manage the chairlift. A bed had then been set up in the lounge, which, before that, had been little used — kept ‘for best’. As Albert became increasingly bed-bound, Martha forsook her own bed, spending the nights by Albert’s side in what had been his favourite chair, a high-backed Windsor. To help her keep warm, she left the heating on all night.


   But one morning, she found that her feet had swollen out of her slippers like freshly baked loaves. Agata, Martha’s most favoured carer, had told her off. Agata had had to prise out Martha’s feet, and Martha had never found her old slippers fitted after that. She’d felt like one of the ugly sisters in Cinderella.


   Thereafter, Martha always did what Agata advised. Having given Albert his goodnight kiss, Martha would strap herself into the Wishing-Chair and, taking hold of the control toggle, order it ‘Up the apples and pears.’ It was something her Dad used to say to her when, as a child, he would carry her up to bed.


   When Albert died, which he did not long after, Martha found herself more dependent on the caring team, Agata especially. It was she who’d first mentioned the Cloud. She’d been showing Martha pictures of her own family: her husband and young daughter, together with her relatives, back in Poland. Martha had watched in amazement as Agata prodded at what looked like a compact mirror nestling in her palm. Martha was mesmerised at the way Agata scrolled through screen after screen, each containing a wealth of gem-like images. When Agata touched any one of these pearls, it would magically spring out, filling the screen.


   However, despite all the new technology, Martha was moved to see Agata make the sign of the cross whenever she came across one of her older relatives, someone who had clearly passed on. Agata would complete the sign by pointing to the ceiling with her index finger, her eyes glancing upwards. Agata’s ties with her family were clearly very strong. In turn, Martha found herself adopting this pointing gesture, but only to indicate the boxes of photographs up in her attic. Martha imagined the Wishing-Chair transporting her there; or, even better, whisking her off to this magic Cloud.


   ‘I keep whole life on Cloud,’ Agata had informed her. ‘Life there — it has better time than me!’ Agata had laughed and Martha had joined in, even though she didn’t quite understand the joke. What she did realise, though, was that it had been a long time since she’d exercised what Albert used to refer to as ‘your chuckle muscles’. Agata had broken this spell of despondency.


   The carers called several times a day. It was not quite as hectic as it had been towards the end of Albert’s life, but Martha knew she’d never manage to stay in her home without their support. After helping her to bed at nights, Agata or one of the others would be back first thing in the morning to prepare her for the day. She loved seeing these young things about the place. Without them, life would have been not only impossible but joyless. The girls kept her cheerful and seemed genuinely interested — well, some of them, anyway — in Martha’s family history.


   She would have liked to show them — Agata in particular — some of those photos of herself and Albert back in their heyday. Thanks to Albert having acquired a camera for his twenty-first, there were pictures going back to their first date. There were also countless photos of Johnny, their son, who now lived in Canada. Martha had occasionally asked the Wishing-Chair to transport her there, but it wouldn’t cooperate.


   ‘Take me to the Cloud, then,’ she’d say. She recalled that Johnny’s favourite childhood reading had been Rupert the Bear, an enthusiasm that Albert had passed on from his own childhood. Rupert, she remembered, occasionally travelled up to the clouds and was pictured strolling about on them. The Rupert annuals, Martha thought, should also be somewhere up there, in their loft.


   Martha sighed. It was all so long ago, and now Martha seemed to have come full circle. She was aware that she was increasingly dependent on others, needing help with the most mundane of tasks. As Agata bathed and dressed her, such thoughts were always on Martha’s mind. Agata would then follow Martha’s chair as she trundled downstairs, before she’d help Martha with her breakfast.


   One day, they’d barely finished this routine when there was a knock at the front door. ‘That is manager,’ said Agata, going to answer it. But the two didn’t return to the back room. Instead, Martha could hear them talking in the hallway. She caught something about being put in a home.


   ‘I’m already in one,’ Martha shouted through.


   There followed a brief silence before she heard them move into the lounge. That room had been mothballed since Albert’s death.


   After what seemed an age, Agata came to fetch Martha, leading her through into her own parlour, where she could see the care manager ensconced in Albert’s Windsor chair. It made Martha feel as though she were the interloper, as though she were there attending an interview. Having helped her into the only other chair in the room, Agata took herself off to make tea. As soon as the door closed, the woman began speaking.


   ‘How are we today, Mrs Hilton — Martha, isn’t it?’ The woman was older than Agata, Martha thought, though she wasn’t sure by how much. Fortyish, perhaps? She found it difficult guessing the ages of younger people. ‘I’m here to do an assessment,’ continued the woman.


   On hearing the word ‘assessment’, Martha was off: ‘Martha Alice Hilton,’ she said. ‘Twelve twelves are 144. Caracas is the capital of Venezuela. The Nile is the longest river in the world …’ She’d always had a good memory but, she had to admit, she’d surprised herself with the way all these facts, learned over seventy years ago, tumbled out so readily.


   She managed no more, however, for the woman intervened. ‘That’s very good, Mrs – er, Martha. But I’d like you to tell me something far simpler. What day is it today?’


   Martha was nonplussed. How was she supposed to know that? I mean, the Nile ran for a predictable 4,000 miles, whereas the days, well, they just ran on meaninglessly, one into another. Martha tried to explain this to the woman occupying Albert’s chair. She hadn’t even introduced herself, had she? Martha might have drawn attention to such impoliteness, but she had an inkling that she might have met the woman before. Martha knew she was not good recalling recent events.


   Instead, Martha suggested that it would be a good idea to be given advance notice of the questions that needed answering. That, explained Martha, was what proper tests did. You were told what areas to learn, and then you could prepare accordingly. None of these sudden surprises from strangers armed with clipboards and tick boxes! She didn’t say this last bit, though.


   While they were talking, Agata had sneaked in with a tray of tea. Martha was pleased to see that there were three cups, so Agata would be joining them. As Agata passed them round, Martha took in the rest of her front parlour. It had been ages since she’d been in here. Having been reserved for ‘best’, it had become ‘the worst’ after Albert had died in here, so she’d avoided it ever since. However, as Martha looked towards Agata’s small frame propping up the mantelpiece, she spotted two framed photographs there. One was of herself and Albert, standing outside the church on their wedding day, all dressed up in their finery; and next to the young couple was a photo — in colour! — of Johnny. He would have been eleven, dressed in his school uniform for his final year at primary school.


   It was catching sight of Albert, so young and so dapper, that caused Martha to interrupt the care manager’s script. ‘Albert!’ she cried out. ‘God rest his soul!’


   The manager looked at Martha as though the old woman had just confirmed she was losing it and needed putting in a home. Agata simply crossed herself, ending with that habitually raised finger. The manager frowned at the younger woman before concluding her ‘assessment’ and packing up her papers.


   Martha, though, had more to say. She moved across the room, blocking the care manager’s exit. She was determined to voice Agata’s praises Agata’, as she stressed (not ‘Agatha’, as the care manager persisted in calling her). The manager finally managed to extricate herself and left.


   Agata and Martha exchanged a smile. Agata reached behind her and took the two photographs from the mantelpiece. ‘We put these in other room,’ she said, ‘to see every day, just like photos on my phone.’ 


   Once again, Martha started quizzing Agata about the Cloud. ‘It’s all over my head,’ she admitted.

   Agata looked perplexed. ‘You make joke?’ she asked. ‘Clouds over head?’ She pointed upwards, and they both tracked her upraised finger.


   This time it was Martha who led their laughter, her facial muscles again familiar with the manoeuvre. Wiping away her tears, Martha felt cleansed, even if the Cloud still mystified her. How did you get your photos up there, she wondered, as she looked at her own, newly rediscovered treasures.


   That evening, Albert shared the ride up to bed with her, their wedding photo in her lap. Agata stood it next to Martha’s bed, giving her a goodnight peck on the cheek, something she’d recently taken to doing.


   Lying there, Martha found she couldn’t sleep. That framed photograph had whetted her appetite. She thought of the many other images mouldering in the loft, just over her head. How wonderful it would be to have all those pictures cradled in the palm of her hand, at her beck and call, especially those of Johnny growing up! How she longed to see them again. If only she could gain access to this Cloud … Once more, she gazed up at the ceiling. She could almost hear the photos rustling up there, calling to her.


   It seemed an age that Martha lay there. Her mind wouldn’t rest. She knew that the care manager was planning to have her moved into a home. A home, indeed! Her home was here, and she had no intention of leaving it. Just because she didn’t know what day it was! What did that matter? She still knew who she was, and who Albert and Johnny were, let alone her late brother and two older sisters. Tonight, she felt particularly close to them. Not that that woman had shown any interest in either her or her family!


   Suddenly, Martha had an idea. She hauled herself out of bed and shakily made her way to the landing where the Wishing-Chair glimmered in the dark, just waiting for an adventure. Naturally, it was locked in place, positioned round the corner from the stairs to avoid accidents.


   Martha fastened herself in. As the chair cradled her in its arms, she asked it to carry her to the Cloud. Of course, from its current location, the chair could only go downwards, but Martha didn’t seem to notice. She simply enjoyed the chair’s embrace, the comforting whir and lilt of its mechanism. She imagined herself back on the fairground at Blackpool, where she and Albert had spent their honeymoon. They’d been to the Pleasure Beach, where they’d ridden the Big Dipper. It felt like Albert’s arms were holding her now.


   Martha must have sat on her chair at the bottom of the stairs for quite some while before she once more became aware of Albert’s arms about her. He suggested she’d be more comfortable up above. Yes, she thought, up on the Cloud! She took hold of the toggle and, tread by tread, they ascended. They did not halt at the top stair, however. Martha felt them continue to climb, up through the loft hatch and out into the night sky.


   Martha discovered that Agata had been right about the Cloud. Everything was up there. Not just pictures, either, but people. Her parents, aunts and uncles, old neighbours and schoolfriends. They were all there waiting to greet her. And at her side was Albert. It was only Johnny who was absent, but that was because he was still down below. One day, though, he’d join them.




After receiving a distraught call from Agata the following morning, the care manager had returned to Martha’s house. The two women stood in the hallway, awaiting the police. Agata was openly tearful. Martha had been her favourite.


   ‘She must have frozen to death in that chair all night. What was she thinking of?’ said the care manager. ‘If only she’d listened to me, she could have been safe in a home.’


   ‘She was in home,’ replied Agata, ‘and Wishing-Chair now taken her to new home.’ Agata crossed herself and pointed heavenwards.


   ‘Must you keep doing that? And what’s all this ‘wishing-chair’ nonsense?’


   But the care manager didn’t stop to hear. There was a rap at the door. She went to answer it.


   Agata looked across at Martha, slumped in her chair, a smile on those thin lips. Agata hugged the small figure before pushing her way past her manager and the policewoman and out into the street. Tears were in her eyes, but they were ones of joy. She pointed up at the clouds and smiled.


About the author 

Dr David Rudd is an emeritus professor who, after 40 years, turned from academic prose to creative writing and found fulfilment. Recent stories have appeared in Aphelion, Bandit Fiction, The Blotter, Corner Bar Magazine, Dribble Drabble Review, Jerry Jazz Musician, and Literally Stories. 

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