Old Rocker creaked rhythmically in time to Big Ben’s steady tick-tock.
The old rocking chair swung steadily backwards and forwards. Its occupant, with a memory and wisdom extending over eighty-four years, showed no sign of alarm when, with a great whirring and clanking of toothed cogs and wheels, it struck the half hour.
The residents within earshot of the old grandfather clock, and that covered the first floor and a goodly part of the floor below, smiled approvingly.
So long as they could hear the clock strike they knew they were still alive.
Those of harder hearing felt its vibration in their bones.
Hettie Matthews was the newest resident of Primrose Towers Nursing Home.
Since Michael had wheeled her through the self-opening security-coded doors a fortnight earlier, she had caught sight of neither primroses nor towers but had an unclouded recollection of roses blooming in her little back garden. She couldn’t recall the breathless, dark moment when her heart had grown tired and she had fallen amongst them.
The nurses and the doctors had made her well and Michael had arranged for her to have the comfortable wheelchair she now needed for moving about. Kindly neighbours had called on her each day after she returned home but it was soon apparent she wouldn’t be able to fend for herself. It was Michael who had found the Nursing Home for her. He was a good son when it mattered.
“Vinegar,” she said.
The carer was unruffled.
“Tea, coffee, squash .. . is what I was offering, Hettie.”
“No, vinegar will do fine. With a dash of cream.”
“I’ll come back in ten minutes,” said the carer with an experienced smile.
Hettie rocked vigorously in her chair until the trolley was out of the door.
Ten minutes. Ten years. What did time matter in a place like this?
Michael said he’d come once a week if he was free.
Free from what? The gym? Some undisclosed urgent project at home?
Sad to think, though, Hettie brooded, that my dear old home had to be sold to cover the cost of coming here. It wasn’t home. It had no rose garden. It was a place without primroses or towers.
Big Ben groaned as the full hour approached, composed himself with a haughty air, and struck two.
Twenty-three residents smiled contentedly. The twenty-fourth was deep in thought.
“Old Rocker, my friend,” sighed Hettie, “you and I have been chums for over eighty years.” She wiped away a small tear.
“We rocked through my childhood, we rocked through the good times, we rocked through the bad ... you comforted me when I lost George and now ...”
Hettie looked around the sparcely furnished room.
“It’s just you and me and Big Ben”.
And a bottle of aged malt whiskey.
Hettie gave a mischievous half-smile, heaved herself into the wheelchair and hauled the wheels over to the grandfather clock.
She jumped out of her skin as half-past-two arrived with alarming suddenness and reverberated around the walls of Primrose Towers.
Old Mollie Matthews nodded circumspectly to Nora who turned to give Tom the thumbs up. Tom was asleep. Life went on, albeit measured by a few wheels, cogs and pulleys.
The little brass key turned easily and the mahogany door swung open.
Leaning as far forward as she dare, Hettie reached into the deep recess beneath the heavy copper weight, felt around for a moment or two, inhaled brightly and extracted the bottle.
It was June the first.
Hettie and George had been married on June the First fifty-nine years ago. As strict Methodists, neither touched a drop of alcohol. Except on their wedding anniversary. George could not celebrate this Diamond day with her ... but perhaps just a wee nip as a toast to memories fondly recalled ... for old times sake.
She poured a tiny measure into a small tumbler, swallowed it swiftly, grimaced and returned the bottle to its clandestine location.
“Cheers, George. I miss you terribly but I’m glad you’re not here”.
Hettie peered down from her first-floor window at the neatly laid out garden below. Not a primrose to be seen.
Old Rocker creaked rhythmically in time to Big Ben’s steady tick-tock.
Time passed. The grandfather clock struck the hours and chimed the halves and Mollie, Nora, Tom and those residents within ear-shot, were satisfied they still had their place on Earth ... and time passed.
Big Ben’s pendulum swung unhurriedly back and forth ponderously measuring each second. There was all the time in the world.
The sunlight fell across the paths and tracks of Hettie’s care-worn face and filled the wrinkles with pools of liquid gold as she half-dozed, rocking, in her chair.
“There was a time,” she thought, eyes closed, lips moving silently, “when I was wrapped in your arms ...” and she recalled how, when she was very small indeed, Granddad would carefully place her in the mighty chair and gently rock her.
“Old Rocker will keep you safe,” he declared and she had spread a toddler's fingers wide and was just able to grasp the arms of the chair as her stomach lurched wildly between her head and her toes.
“Old Rocker will look after you.”
Friend and companion, passing from one generation through to the next.
"You will look after it, won't you ... you know ... one day?" Hettie had asked Michael soon after recovering from the heart attack.
He has smiled and said that of course he would. But that wouldn't be for a very long time, he had added. She wondered about both. The tiny daggers had begun stabbing her again.
Big Ben struck four. Crockery rattled and vases threatened to slip off shelves. The old folk paused, tea-cups in hand, midway through words and waited. Reassured, they took another sip, spoke another word or simply went back to sleep.
Hettie consulted the menu.
"Primrose Towers - Thursday Tea Menu".
Tuna sandwiches followed by strawberries and fresh cream. The tuna was out of a tin but the fruit was in season and strawberries were her favourite. She could do without the cream, though. Keep the dairy products down. Reduce fat intake. Maybe I could beg a few extra strawberries instead, she thought.
It had been many years before Hettie had been able to sit squarely in Old Rocker, for her arms to rest on his.
“Come on, Hettie,” her mother would call. “Out of that chair and sit at the table. Have your tea - and don’t forget you've homework to complete. You seem to do nothing but dream these days.”
She wondered just how many frivolous hours had been spent as a teenager, dreaming, as she rocked back and forth, thinking of George, the boy in her class with golden hair and bright, clear eyes. She’d dreamt a fabulous future for the two of them.
And then one day that dream became reality and reality was not a disappointment.
The tiny little daggers began to prick again.
Hettie breathed sharply and Old Rocker fell back and struggled to find the energy, the momentum, to roll forward again. Big Ben seemed momentarily to catch its breath, too, as if a second’s reflection was in order after eighty-four years of ticking its way through Hettie’s life.
All three felt a little weary. All three felt a little tired.
Big Ben struck five o’clock. For old Mollie Matthews, Nora and Tom, together with the other elder-folk of Primrose Towers ... time continued,
ticking away the minutes, the hours and the days of their lives.
For Hettie time stood still. Old Rocker was suddenly silent.
The tuna sandwiches remained uneaten and the bowl of strawberries untouched. Strawberries were her favourite fruit.
Big Ben failed to chime five-thirty.
It was June the First and down below, just out of sight of her first-floor window, and somewhere between the potting shed and the compost heap, a primrose bent slightly in the early evening breeze.
The series of Children's Stories
"WHISKERS and WINGS" (15 Tales of Countryside Companions)
"A TWIST IN THE TALE" (Stories with unexpected endings)
"THE MAN FROM BLUE ANCHOR" (Cornish tin mine, tragedy, love, family reunion)