The stale odour of decay pervaded the warm air in the dayroom. Liz climbed a stepladder to secure the Christmas garland to a yellowing ceiling tile. The pin sunk in like a knife puncturing soft cheese.
She had a fisheye view over rows of elderly residents swallowed up by enormous geriatric chairs. Their frail bodies lay in varying degrees of tilt as if the nurses arranged them according to some mysterious Feng Shui ritual.
Just beneath her, she watched Monica lean over an old lady, chatting away. How sweet, maybe she has an empathetic streak after all, Liz thought. Suddenly Monica’s hand darted down inside the woman’s handbag. Distracted, the woman didn’t notice. Within an instant a wad of banknotes was deftly stashed inside Monica’s trouser pocket. Liz took a sharp intake of breath and felt the ladder wobble.
‘Mind you don’t fall there,’ Monica said.
‘Stop!’ Liz replied. ‘Hold it still!’
‘Keep your mouth shut,’ Monica thrust four green fifty-pound notes at her. ‘Hide it.’
‘Monica! That’s stealing!’ Liz whispered and pushed the fistful back.
‘Quick! Before someone sees!’ Monica shoved the cash at Liz.
Liz shoved it down her bra. She felt a pang in her throat.
Liz endured Monica’s drilling glare as she folded the stepladder and stored it away. The moment was shattered when she heard a trickle – building to a constant flow of urine forming a pool on the floor. An acrid odour of human piss persisted. Liz glanced at the wet patch on the old man’s trousers. His bottom lip trembled.
‘Don’t worry, I’ll get help,’ she patted his arm.
‘Shit!’ Monica stamped her foot, ‘I can’t stand another minute in this place!’
Liz zig zagged her way through the armchairs, catching her rounded hips on their wings, to try and catch the attention of a carer.
Christmas tradition dictated that a group of students help decorate the geriatric home that backed on to their college. This year, through lack of volunteers, Liz and Monica found themselves seconded to the task.
After securing an assistant, Liz slipped into the toilet. She locked the door and sat on the seat to check the money. Four green, not red, fifty-pound notes. Scottish banknotes: English ones are red. Her heart pounded; a lump formed in her throat. She recalled all those Sunday School stories about stealing. ‘Thou shalt not steal,’ the eighth commandment. It was wrong. She knew. But still. It was only two-hundred pounds. The old lady was so gaga that she wouldn’t notice it missing. But her soul would be damned – forever. Although, it was half a month’s rent. What the hell.
‘Liz?’ Monica’s voice interrupted her thoughts, ‘are you in here?’
She stuffed the notes in her pocket, ‘coming.’
Back in the dayroom, Monica scowled while she recced the room, ‘what took you so long? Counting it were you?’
‘What?’ Liz replied. ‘You gave me no choice.’
‘Give it back then.’
Back in the dayroom, a commotion erupted.
‘My cash!’ A woman screamed, ‘which one of you Sassenachs has taken it?’
An assistant rushed over to her, ‘Maud, calm down.’
‘Where’s my money?’ Maud yelled.
‘Maud, take it easy,’ the assistant placated her.
Liz and Monica eyeballed each other. Liz sensed her cheeks reddening.
‘Girls, girls! You can go now,’ the Matron approached them. ‘Come back at ten tomorrow to finish up.’
Once outside, Liz and Monica parted company. As Liz walked back to her house share, she passed a homeless person crouched inside a doorway. The woman shook a tatty paper cup. Liz shook her head and continued on. Two of her housemates had returned home for Christmas already and the other one spent most of her time at the boyfriend’s. Liz was home alone.
She emptied her pockets out on to the table: lip balm, housekeys, tissues, inhaler and the scrunched up fifty-pound notes. She felt a knot growing in her chest. Just above her sternum. A winding, whirling tangle, like an expanding ball of elastic bands being wound one on top of the other.
The fridge was empty bar an out-of-date egg, a piece of mouldy cheese and half a carton of milk. A tin of baked beans stood forlornly in the kitchen cupboard. Supper.
Liz sat on the motheaten sofa, sucking lukewarm beans off a fork. Slurp. Slurp. She flicked through the tv channels, searching for a mind-numbing soap to qualm her angst, settling finally upon a re-run of a sitcom about six friends.
Later in bed, she tossed and turned, her thoughts wandered in all directions, like small children let loose in a theme park. Why did she acquiesce and become complicit in Monica’s act? Was she afraid of Monica or of conflict in general? Once a people pleaser, always one, that’s what Mother would say. She got up and poured herself a glass of milk; the sell by date was yesterday – what’s a day? On the street outside she saw a fox meander between the houses, sniffing at dustbins. Suddenly it stopped and stared up at her, holding its gaze, until spooked, she looked away.
The bank notes lay on the table where she’d left them. Burning a hole in the wood. Etching a sin on her brain. Liz sighed, grabbed a blanket and got back into bed.
For hours she lay awake listening to the heating pipes muttering along the walls. Niggling thoughts ran through her head like mice scuttling across an attic floor. Vulnerable, that’s what Maud was, and Monica took full advantage. Cruel Monica. Complicit Liz.
Next morning, her weary face reflected back at her from the speckled bathroom mirror. Ochre coloured hammocks nestled under her eyes. A matted, tousled mop of curly hair protruded and flopped down at random angles like a cartoon villain. Liz brushed her teeth and spat the foamy bubbles into the sink. The burden of guilt was too heavy; she was going to give the money back.
Liz texted Monica:
‘Put the money back where you found it.’
Her smartphone beeped with the reply.
‘I’m giving mine back,’ she typed.
‘WARNING – don’t!’
Just before ten, Liz entered the day room. When Monica arrived, Liz was taking cardboard boxes of Christmas decorations out of the storeroom. Monica pinched the skin on her arm hard.
‘Ouch!’ Liz yelped.
‘You’ll get more than that if you squeal,’ Monica sneered.
They carried the box into the dayroom. Enveloped in an invalid chair, an old lady sang to herself. A man counted the windowpanes with his finger. Liz scanned the room in vain for Maud.
A bare, fake Christmas tree stood in the corner. Monica cursed as she untangled the Christmas tree lights. Liz laid out strands of silver tinsel in rows, ready to go. Together, they snaked the lamps in and out of the branches before threading the tinsel in-between. Liz rummaged in the box for glass ornaments and started to hang them on the tree.
The tree finished, Liz fingered the banknotes in her pocket and looked around the dayroom for Maud. She tried to recall where Maud’s chair was positioned yesterday. Then she remembered the garland she had pinned to the ceiling. From one corner of the room to the other, her eyes followed the gaudy paper garland overhanging the residents; when they reached the pin, she glanced down at the chair. Her heart skipped a beat. It was empty.
‘Stop gawping and give me power,’ Monica handed Liz the plug.
Liz plugged it into the socket. A chorus of oohs chimed throughout the room. She smiled at their faded wrinkled faces crumpling with joy.
The tea-lady offered Liz and Monica a drink. One glance at the worn, no-spill, green baby mugs was enough to convince the girls to politely refuse. She pressed a plate of Custard Creams upon them without waiting for an answer. Liz rushed after her and touched her arm lightly.
‘Excuse me. Where’s Maud?’
‘She passed away during the night love,’ the tea-lady replied before giving a mug to an elderly man. ‘There you go chuck.’ She turned back to Liz. ‘No family. Sad, isn’t it?’ She sighed. ‘Mind, she was ninety-eight. A good innings.’ The tea-lady looked at Liz, ‘You’ve done a grand job with that tree. You can ask Matron if you want, about Maud I mean.’
‘Thanks,’ Liz’s eyes welled up on her way back to the tree.
Monica spoke through gritted teeth, ‘what did you want with her?’
‘Maud died,’ Liz said.
‘The woman you stole from,’ Liz replied. ‘You don’t even remember her name!’
Monica shrugged, ‘no witness then.’
Liz shuddered at her callousness.
It snowed during Liz’s walk home. The knot in her chest hardened; and tears trickled over her plump cheeks. The path was icy underfoot. She took pin steps to avoid stumbling. She felt the folded notes of her ill-gotten gains scorching a hole in her pocket. Liz dragged her leaden feet past the shops. Suddenly a person stepped out of a doorway; gloveless hands thrust a paper cup at her. Liz slipped the neat bundle inside the receptacle and heaved a sigh of relief.
‘Here’s mud in your eye Maud,’ she said to the puzzled recipient.
Belgium based writer Sheila Kinsella’s short stories draw inspiration from her Irish upbringing. An avid watcher of people’s behaviour, and blessed with abundant natural curiosity, Sheila lures the reader into a shrewdly observed world via imagery and comedy.
Sheila graduated with an MA in Creative Writing (Distance Learning) from Lancaster University in the United Kingdom in 2017.