Short story by Denise Bloom
The nursing home smelt of lavender furniture polish with a faint odour of urine. It was not a place I ever imagined I would have to be. I gently pushed the door, not wanting to surprise him, but thankfully he was asleep. The high seated moquette chair at the side of the bed held two stripy towels folded as though he was in a Hilton Hotel. His dinner was still on the bedside table, untouched, a sausage basking in congealed gravy, mashed potatoes with obvious lumps and green broad beans. I looked at the bed and didn’t recognise the man there. I glanced at the beans again. The man I knew appeared in my mind; I could now smell the broad beans. Can you smell a colour? Yes you can, you could also taste feel and hear the colour green?
It was 1960 and we were on holiday in Norfolk, unknown to me and my younger brother, my Mum and Dad had spent all of the holiday money on camp sites and other expenses they needed money for petrol and food for the next few days. We had swum in the sea, played hide and seek in forests, and our last days were to be spent looking around small village graveyards, my father’s hobby. Social history that’s what it is, he would say. All my friends thought it was ghoulish, but I loved it. You can tell so much from the head stones; plagues, famines, death and murder. My brother was too much of a coward to enjoy the tales my dad told, but it was permissible, he was only six. I was the older one, the first born. I shared the same loves as my father, we were one. I would soak in the excitement and the atmosphere he created as he told his ghost stories.
The sun lit the sky and we basked in the heat. It threw out the occasional cloud making shapes of animals and fiery dragons. It was hot, as it was every summer when I was young. The larks were high in the sky and butterflies fluttered between the long grasses. The day before we had been promised the best day ever, building our enthusiasm up to a virtual frenzy of anticipation. There was to be a race and the one who filled the most sacks with broad beans would win a prize, a bar of Caramac.
My dad picked me of course to be his champion, my mother was left with a sulking Andrew. A tartan rug was laid on the grass with a picnic of delicious soggy tomato sandwiches, boiled eggs with salt and barley water. To add spice to the occasion, a group of gypsies arrived crammed into a cart pulled by a shire horse that was taller than my six-foot six dad. Our faces bewildered by the women in long, colourful skirts and clattering jewellery, something we rarely saw in a Mill Town. The men had long hair tied in ponytails with red ribbons. My brother and I were warned not to get too close. I never knew why we shouldn’t get too close, but we were obedient children so heeded my mother’s words.
The farmer gave us our first sack to fill and off we went at breakneck speed. After half an hour the enjoyment of racing started to disappear. The gypsies, who were skilled bean pickers, had cleared four rows before us. My mother and father encouraged hard labour and reminded us of the prize. I could now feel green, the tips of my fingers a beautiful shade of pea. Opening a pod with my finger I felt the contour of the kidney shaped bean. It was a lighter colour than the pod, smooth and silk like. I loved podded peas, they must be the same. I bit into its outer flesh, which was hard, and inside a bitter green slimy vegetation. I spat the offending material out, yes it tasted of green. The pod was different, the small hambers that held the beans were lined with soft velvet down. It was beautiful. How strange its treasure tasted so vile. The row upon row of bean stalks loomed before us; it was then that I wondered if the bar of Caramac was worth it. Being only eight years old, the sack was almost the size of me, but it was now full of the offending vegetable. With my brothers help we dragged the sack to the farmer, who was sat on a bale of hay with a wooden table pressed against his huge belly. Placed on the grass at the side of him was a giant set of weighing scales, rusted at the edges, having served many years in the field. He helped us balance the sack on the scale, the steel finger pointing to its goal. Smiling he handed us a red ticket with one shilling written in bold black plate. My brother and I ran back to my mother to give her the ticket. The lid of the biscuit tin was opened, and Andrew counted the tokens, five. I thought it was a lot of work for very little reward.
Mid-afternoon and another sack full, we did as before, dragging the sack across the field of now downtrodden bean stalks. I could taste the green at the back of my throat, even a swig of barley water couldn’t take the bitter essence away. There was a queue at the weighing scales. We stood patiently. I passed the time by observing my fellow workers in the snake like tail of the chain. The gold bangle on the gypsy women’s wrist was engraved with oak leaves and around her neck hung three or four crucifixes. I didn’t know gypsies had a religion, they certainly weren’t Chapel. I allowed my gaze to fall on every inch of her, even down to her feet and her open toed sandals, showing gold rings around her toes. Then my heart skipped a beat, there was a roll of the red tickets each with the one-shilling rippling in the summer breeze.
I wondered if they could have been dropped by the woman, but there was no way she could have collected so many and they were still on a roll. I slowly lifted my sandaled foot and placed it over the roll, nudging the gypsy slightly. She looked down at me and I apologised, she smiled showing a golden front tooth. I gasped and turned away. I thought she looked like a pirate. My brother started to say something, but I put my hand across his mouth and put a finger to mine. Then bobbing down as though to fasten my shoe buckle, I buried the tickets into my fist.
After taking our turn at the scales we both ran back to my mother excitement brimming over. Andrew handed his sole ticket to my mother then triumphantly I handed her the roll of tickets. Mother questioned us both of how we came across them, the interrogation making me feel guilty about not handing them to the farmer. She eventually accepted what we said was true and they just happened to be laid on the grass. We filled another sack, then my mother took the tickets to be redeemed to the farmer. I couldn’t watch and hid under the tartan rug, just in case the police came to take me to prison. When she returned, she held out four ten-shilling notes. Mother gave us all one. I had never been so rich in all of my eight years. Mother took the ten shillings from my Dad and put it with hers into her purse. My Dad shouted family hug and we all wrapped our arms around each other. I felt clever and happy, lucky and loved. We had a supper of fish and chips and told scary stories in the dark.
My memory was interrupted by a cough that came from the body in the bed and the bitter taste of reality was on my tongue. I stroked the damp forehead then ran my hand over the hills and mountains of veins that were stretched over his withered frame. His mouth with thin dry lips grimaced, barely showing his wonderful tombstone teeth. At ninety-two he was so proud of not visiting the dentist until he was seventy and then had only had to have one filling. The smile that would fill me with joy as he told me tales from Edgar Allen Poe, or when we would sit close to the radio listening to the Navy Lark. The smile had disappeared, but it was etched in my heart forever. An alarm sounded from another room reminding me that we weren’t alone. But I would be alone soon, no more jokes, no more Easter eggs he had dutifully bought for sixty-seven years. He had been a father, like no other; strong, proud, funny creative and loving. He made a short gasp, his lips parting and his wonderful life left his body and I could smell green again.