NOT HIS FAULT. Eric Handle paced the limited space in his retirement apartment. Normally he avoided watching the news. Every government crisis, every history-changing scandal made him wonder. That was usually followed by ‘nothing to do with me’ which in recent years was often followed by ‘well, maybe’. Eric had reached the age where his conscience was ready to entertain compromise. He turned off the news, closed the glowing screen and walked to the window. November, low clouds, light grey turning to dark grey as evening approached and an early dusting of snow in the parking lot below. That was definitely not his fault. No-one could blame him for the weather. A flicker of doubt, then a determined shake of the head. No, not even partly.
Pale as it was, the light that penetrated was enough to stop him from turning on the lamps. A lifetime of paying for light and heat couldn’t be erased by a few months of all-utilities-included. Not that the room couldn’t use it. The winter light sucked colour from everything it touched. Normally Eric liked his apartment. It was an appropriate place for a man who’d reached the age where single living would have meant a diet of crackers and tinned soup. After the accident he’d made the decision. The injury to his hip had made driving impossible, so when an opening become available in Wilkins Retirement Village (The Wrinkle Ranch) he jumped at it – not literally of course. Residences in The Village spanned the spectrum from full-care nursing to fully independent living. Like Eric, the inmates of the apartment complex were of retirement-age but still self-propelled. The apartments had small cooking areas but no-one bothered. Breakfast, lunch and supper were included in the rent and were served in the village’s ‘Grand Dining Room’, a banquet hall of fake beams and passable food if you didn’t have a propensity for salt. At five o’clock the room filled with elderly, grey heads ready to dissect and criticize the evening’s offerings.
Eric checked the clock. Still too early for supper, but the bar in the Club Room was open from two until four. A last look at the snow-covered parking lot decided in its favour. The Club Room had no windows. You could imagine any season you liked. With only five minutes before it closed, the chance of finding someone still behind the bar was slim, but today the village manager himself was on duty. That meant service from two to four as advertised in the brochures even though the room appeared empty. The downside to having the manager serving was the lack of entertainment potential. He had real bar-tending experience. The spotty selection of young assistants who normally served were fair game for regulars who made a point of requesting non-existent cocktails. Eric ordered a beer and carried it to one of the two prime seats. Unlike the castoffs in the rest of the room, the chairs either side of the fireplace were massive, wing-backed creations of padded leather and brass studs.
He’d been wrong about the room being empty. One of the few women capable of doing justice to those chairs filled the one opposite. Mrs. Elvira Andiri was blessed with a personality to match her size. In any gathering she was the one who commanded attention. Tightly-curled hair, brightly-coloured dresses and man-sized sandals were her trademark outfit. Merely being in her presence inspired images of warmer climates. Mrs. Andiri used her appearance to good effect. When she spoke, which she did often, you listened. To Eric’s relief she was asleep, empty sherry glass on the table beside here, knitting in her lap, lips slightly parted and emitting the gentlest of snores. He sank gently into the chair opposite and set his drink down quietly on a cardboard coaster.
“If you’re going to sit there, just do it. Don’t come creeping in like a mouse.”
Eric lifted his glass, banged it down on the table and then squirmed in his chair bringing on the satisfying squeak of real leather. He threw in a long, fake yawn for effect.
“That’s more like it.” Mrs. Andiri’s eyes had remained closed, but there are those who see just as well without them. “Lose your sticks?”
“I’m trying to get around without them.”
“You’ll have another fall.”
“I didn’t fall. I was backed into by a van.”
“And then you fell and broke your hip. Gravity’s a bitch. What time is it?”
Her face wrinkled with concentration.
“Are you going to give me a civil answer, or are we going to play games?”
“It is one minute to four, in the afternoon, on November the twenty-fourth two thousand and twenty-eight.”
The eyes opened slowly, and Mrs. Andiri employed the time-tested combination of a steady stare and a silence-that-must-be-filled.
“Tuesday,” added Eric. “Vegan delight night. The slaughter of the carrots was well under way when I passed the kitchen.”
“If they will deprive me of my meat, let us pray that they’ve discovered salt.”
“’Residents may season to taste at the table’.”
“It’s not the same and they know it. Is there really anyone here who’d die from a pinch of salt? Any chance of a refill?”
The last was said in a raised voice. The manager checked the clock, ignored the second hand sweeping past the twelve mark and, in violation of two Club Room rules, poured an after-hours sherry and added it to her previous order instead of recording it with a new time stamp. He delivered it, then vanished for the day.
“I don’t suppose,” said Mrs. Andiri addressing Eric as she centred the glass on its coaster, “that you happened to notice who was sitting in that chair before you commandeered it?”
“Sorry. Empty when I got here. Not even warm.”