Wispy white hair halos his head like smoke, desperately clinging on to wrinkled skin stretched too tight over his scaly scalp. Red drops dribble down his chin despite The Woman’s best effort to feed him carefully. They stain his faded once-white shirt like blood spatter. Tomato today. Pity.
He wheezes to The Woman with a weak, dry voice aged by both time and smoke. She smiles wearily but somehow still manages a patronisingly chirpy reply despite all odds.
“Oh? And how would you know, Mr Man?”
“Well, if you’re going to be a grumpy goat, guess I will!”
The Woman drops the spoon into the bowl. More blood, this time targeting the tray resting over his useless legs which like so much of him, now feel nothing.
She stands and walks slowly from his room, perhaps hoping he’ll apologise before she reaches the door. He doesn’t and instead opts to stare at her ass as she leaves. Is she his nurse? His carer? His daughter? He can’t remember. With the way he admired her ample assets, he hopes it’s not the latter but does it really matter now? Does anything?
The door creaks and sighs as she closes it behind her. The single energy efficient bulb hangs naked and exposed above him. It flickers, fades and finally dies, leaving him all alone in the darkness.
‘She’ll be back’.
His frail fingers tremble as the shadowy spectre of a memory rises up to haunt him once more. Another dark room. He hears their screams again and smells oil and smoke.
Three panicked people in the darkness, their clothes torn. Their arms tied behind their backs. Their voices loud and desperate but nobody would hear them. Was he once one of them or was he the masked man who stood before them carrying a can of oil?
The masked man poured oil over two of the screaming strangers, happily humming Beethoven’s 9th as he did so. The two women (Mothers? Daughters? Does it matter?) wept and whined, their cacophonous chorus weaving its way through the tune he hummed.
The masked man stopped humming, smiled and turned to the third tied stranger, who still sat screaming and struggling with his bonds.
“Wait your turn” whispered the masked man. “Watch first”.
He swiftly lit two matches and expertly threw them both to their intended targets.
The smell of flesh burning. The sound of their screams. Too late, the stranger broke his bonds. Roaring, he leapt at the masked man, sending him hurtling to the floor.
Seemingly oblivious to the fire spreading all around him, the stranger wrapped his arms around the masked man’s neck and began to squeeze.
The bulb burst above them, spreading shards of glass across the basement floor like tiny, tearing mirrors. A dark room illuminated by burning bodies but dulled by the ravages of time – the details faded from memory a lifetime ago. A bloody battle. A murderous rage. One man left as nought but broken kindling whilst the other dragged his injured legs behind him and emerged exhausted into the harsh sunlight. He would never be whole again.
Back in the present, tears trickle down the old man’s cheeks even as a smile stretches across his face.
‘Which was I? Victim or villain? Which would I prefer to be true?’
Does it really matter? Does anything? He wipes away the tears and hums happily to himself. Beethoven’s 9th. The Woman returns to his little lonely bedroom, lights a lamp and looks at him hopefully.
“You sure seem happier now. Ready to say sorry?” she asks.
He smiles, shaking his head.
Copyright © 2016 Philip Craddock. All rights reserved.