The Importance Of Being Nearest by Chris Green
‘Milk,’ I say. ‘Malted Milk.’
‘In the cold compartment behind you,’ says Karim.
‘My mate Marmite,’
‘On the shelf over there,’
‘Maybe Mimi might make more marmalade,’
‘What?’ says Karim. ‘Come on! I’ve got customers waiting.’
‘Maureen may marry Marvin Monday morning,’ I say. ‘Mild mann …..’
‘Get out of my shop!’ says Karim.
He is shaking his fist at me. I leave the milk on the counter.
No one seems to understand that I have to practice my resonance exercises. Little and often throughout the day, my speech therapist Nerys says. She tells me I should try to work the phrases into everyday conversations. Living on my own and having an arthritic hip, I don’t really get to have everyday conversations every day. Unless you count talking to Roger, my cat. Roger, bless him, is getting old, though. He is eighty-three in cat years. That’s eight years older than me. He spends most of his time sleeping. The main chance I have to practice my phrases is when I go out shopping.
In the post office, I try to strike up a conversation with the cashier with the purple hair and the nasal jewellery.
‘Many men make mountains out of molehills,’ I say. ‘Minced meat never manages to minimise my migraines.’
‘Have you come about disability benefits?’
‘Mac Macnamara manages a military museum in Miami.’
The cashier makes a politically incorrect loony tunes gesture and calls for help. Her manager, a pro-wrestler type covered in tattoos, comes over. She glares at me and roughly grabs the parcel I have brought in to send to my eldest daughter, Claire, in Canada. She takes the tenner I am holding out and roughly throws my change down the steel chute. It lands on the floor. I struggle to pick it up. Old people are not treated with much respect these days, especially here in Downmarket. I would not stay if I could afford to move. Mimi says that I can move in with her and Malcolm. But I don’t know. Even though Noel and Liam have grown up and left home, it wouldn’t be fair. Apart from this, I still have my pride.
I tell Nerys about my unfortunate experiences. She sympathises. She is very professional. I have had nine sessions with her now since I lost my voice. She says I am suffering from muscle tension dysphonia. The condition is the result of the bronchial tract infection that I had at the end of my Deltacron covid over the winter. My vocal cords do not meet properly. She showed me a film of this on her monitor. It was scary seeing my internal organs there on the screen. Over the nine weeks I have been coming along to the hospital, we have progressed from basic humming sounds to words to phrases. Each exercise Nerys gives me concentrates on the Em sound. She says this sound encourages forward resonance.
‘The problem is that people around here don’t seem to understand that I need opportunities to develop my forward resonance,’ I tell her. ‘They don’t take into consideration that I have no one at home.’
‘Perhaps you could ease the phrases more gently into your conversations, Doug,’ Nerys says. ‘Start off by saying something about the weather or The Great British Bake Off.’
‘But I don’t watch The Great British Bake Off,’ I say. ‘And the weather is always the same, wet and windy.’
‘Well, there you are then,’ says Nerys. ‘You could remark how wet and windy the weather is.’
I’m not much good in the kitchen. Brenda always did the cooking. Brenda died three years ago. Liver failure. I feel that part of me went with her, but you have to carry on, don’t you? When you are old and live on your own, though, you don’t tend to cook anything fancy. You just put something in the microwave. You have enough to do every day, just remembering to take all your medications and supplements, without learning how to cook Beef Wellington or Baked Alaska.
To get myself up to speed on The Great British Bake Off, I watch three episodes back to back on iPlayer. The aim of Bake Off seems to be to put the contestants under so much pressure they forget to put a key ingredient in the cake they are making, so that the celebrity cooks can tell them how hopeless they are, in front of millions of viewers. But at least, I have something to bring into the conversation next time I go to the shops.
I start to practice my conversations about the weather on Roger. It is as well to try them out at home before taking them out into the real world.
‘There’s a real storm blowing out there today, Roger,’ I say. ‘In fact, you could say it is raining cats and dogs. Cats and dogs, get it?’
Roger doesn’t stir.
‘There’s a strong north-easterly, Roger. That’s unusual, don’t you think for this time of year? We mostly get mild to moderate south-westerlies. Maybe it might be milder on Monday morning.’
Roger doesn’t stir. He hasn’t stirred all day. He didn’t stir much yesterday either.
‘The weather forecast for the next few days isn’t good either, Roger. Blustery showers with more persistent rain arriving from the west later.’
Roger’s ears twitch a little.
‘I think it might be to do with El Niño.’
Roger pricks up his ears. He clearly likes this development in the narrative. He has consistently shown an interest in the climate change debate. He always sits up and takes notice when Attenborough is on the television. Who says dogs are cleverer than cats? When he puts his mind to it, Roger is a match for any mutt.
‘Oh, look!’ I say. ‘There’s someone at the door, Roger. He looks like one of those charity workers. We haven’t got any more money to give away, have we? Not since we lost our pension top-ups. ……. Never mind. I expect he’ll go away.’
My visitor doggedly stands his ground. He is young, and it seems, determined. When he rings the bell a third time, I slowly make my way to the door.
The young man in the red anorak stands there for a moment, not saying anything. I look him up and down. His anorak has an unfamiliar logo on it. Something to do with communities in crisis. At least, he’s come to the right place. Downmarket fits the bill. Things have been getting steadily worse for years. The decline of textile manufacturing marked the beginning of the end for the town. No one has wanted to invest here and there’s now no work to be had anywhere.
Years ago, Downmarket was a nice, friendly easy-going place, a prosperous town awash with opportunity. It had a Third Division football team, three cinemas and a gymnasium where you could learn to box. There used to be a thriving Sunday morning market and a dog track. There were bingo halls and a selection of pubs where you could go to play darts or skittles. Now, what is there? Boarded-up shops, street drinkers, kerb crawlers, joyriders. I’m afraid to go out at night. The Mature Times that I picked up in the post office says the government has failed local communities. It says the demise of the town centre is a major contributing factor towards loneliness and isolation. Small towns like Downmarket are the worst affected. There’s even talk that they might close the hospital. How will I manage then? The nearest one will be forty miles away in Slumpton.
The youngster brings me out of my reverie.
‘A big bag of baking powder’ he says. ‘And baked a batch of biscuits.’
At least, that’s how it sounds to me, but my tinnitus has flared up today, so it is difficult to tell exactly what he is saying.
I don’t get a lot of visitors, and given different circumstances, I might have welcomed the opportunity to stop and chat with him. But I don’t want to start a conversation about the weather as it is raining heavily. He is drenched. He might see it as an invitation to step inside. At my age, you do have to be careful who you let into your house. Mrs Spurlock at number fifty-seven had someone call on her who said he was from British Gas. Next thing she knew, he had run off with her prized collection of crocheted kestrels. PCSO Nice says that they are called distraction burglars.
‘I’m not interested, thank you,’ I say politely.
‘A big bug bit a bold bald bear badly,’
Once again, it is difficult to tell exactly what he is saying. The rain is beating down and his articulation is poor, this on top of the background noise from my tinnitus.
‘I already donate to charity,’ I tell him. ‘I buy all my clothes at British Heart Foundation.’
‘Ben bought a big black bag of banned beta-blockers,’ he says. Or something similar. His voice is now cracking a little. He does seem a little nervous.
I have been slow on the uptake. I find this happens more often as I get older. The whipper-snapper on the doorstep, young though he might be, has articulation problems and is also on a programme of speech therapy. Perhaps his therapist isn’t aware of the benefits of practising the em sound, or misguidedly thinks that the be sound is more beneficial. The lad needs to learn to open a conversation with a more general topic. Perhaps he might begin by introducing himself and saying what he is calling about. Nerys is right. Kicking off with the resonance exercises is the wrong approach. You don’t notice how off-putting this alliterative nonsense can be until you hear someone else coming out with it.
‘Have you thought of starting off by saying who you are?’ I say. ‘Or perhaps commenting on the weather? It puts people off when you dive straight in with gibberish sentences. I realise that you have to practise your phrases, but you need to learn to work these in gradually. Why don’t you come in and dry off and I will show you? We could watch Celebrity Bake Off on iPlayer if you want. That’s a good topic for conversation. Nearly everyone you meet watches Celebrity Bake Off. I think they have Paul Gascoigne, Samantha Fox and Morrisey on the next heat.’
‘I’m not big on baking,’ says the youngster. ‘I’m uh, Billy by the way.’
‘Pleased to meet you, Bobby,’ I say. ‘Celebrity Bake Off wouldn’t have been my cup of tea either, but it is helpful to be able to talk about this stuff. I was able to hold a conversation in the convenience store yesterday when I went in to buy Roger’s pilchards because I knew what they were talking about. Or was that Cash in the Attic? That’s another programme I never used to watch. If you’ve got time, we could have a go at that after Celebrity Bake Off.’
Over a cup of Yorkshire tea, Bobby and I watch Bake Off and have a nice chat about speech therapy, the state of the NHS, and the difficulty in getting your point across. Bobby seems a nice young chap.
It is not until the next day that I discover the money from under my mattress is missing along with most of my military medals.
I might move in with Mimi and Malcolm. Mimi and Malcolm moved to Monmouth in March. Mimi was horrified that I had been robbed and practically ordered me to join them. There is so much for old people to worry about these days. The importance of being nearest should anything else happen ought not to be overlooked, they said. Monmouth seems like a nice place. It’s a prosperous small rural market town two miles over the Welsh border. Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, it says on Wikipedia. Malcolm says he will take me fishing on the River Wye. It looks lovely. Although Monmouth hospital closed recently, Mimi thinks I should be able to get my hip done at a nearby hospital. I can’t remember the name of the place. They look after people better in Wales; she says. The country air might also perk Roger up a bit.
PCSO Nice tells me I can claim for the medals on my insurance, so I should have a little money coming. He has even offered to help me fill out the forms. He doesn’t think I will be able to claim for the cash that was stolen, though. You should never leave money lying around the house, he says. But it was only a hundred or so. He says they haven’t caught Bobby yet but he thinks that Bobby may not have been his real name, anyway. There’s been a lot of distraction burglary lately. Pretending to be charity workers is pretty low, but their latest trick is to pretend they have something wrong with them too. To get your sympathy and catch you off-guard. It is easy to target elderly or vulnerable people this way. I’m by no means the only one to have been taken in, PCSO Nice says. The rogue that robbed me is a prime example of how opportune they can be. He says that, as well as losing their money and possessions, victims can lose their confidence and peace of mind. I mustn’t let that happen. I must make my misfortune motivation to move on.
Copyright © Chris Green, 2022: All rights reserved