Ed Higgins’ poems and short fiction have appeared in various print and online journals including: Word Riot, Monkeybicycle, Pindeldyboz, Tattoo Highway, and Blue Print Review, among others. He and his wife live on a small farm in Yamhill, OR, raising a menagerie of animals including two whippets, a manx barn cat (who doesn’t care for whippets), two Bourbon Red turkeys (King Strut and Nefra-Turkey), and an alpaca named Machu-Picchu.
“I want to get laid.”
The silence in the afternoon tea lounge was suddenly – deafening. Cups of milky Earl Grey tea remained suspended in mid-air, between saucers and lips; sandwiches with only one bite nibbled from them were returned to their plates and an errant piece of sponge cake fell to the floor, spreading a trail of crumbs as it rolled. Genteel conversation had stopped.
The innocent question had been posed by Ruth Denholme, Alberta’s Lieutenant Governor who was visiting ‘The Meadows’ retirement home. Two residents had reached the age of one hundred and each had received from Her Honour’s own hand a certificate acknowledging their longevity. Birthday cakes had been served, presents unwrapped and good wishes, along with a few appropriate jokes, had been heaped upon the two centenarians. As Ruth Denholme circulated among the tables, shaking hands, speaking a little louder than normal to accommodate various hearing aids, she came to Charlie Bright who sat in a strategic seat near one of the large windows.
Charlie, dressed for the occasion in his best sports jacket and tailored grey slacks, looked steadily at Ruth Denholme as he was introduced to the Lieutenant Governor.
“I would like you to meet Mr Charlie Bright, your Honour,” said Mrs Yates, the Retirement Home Director, as she accompanied the Lieutenant Governor around the room. “He will reach the age of one hundred next week. So this tea is, for him, a pre-birthday party. But we will make sure he has a special day for himself when his birthday actually arrives.”
Ruth Denholme extended the Honourable Hand to Charlie Bright who rose from his seat, gently took the outstretched limb and raised it to his lips. She smiled at the elegant gentleman who, at six foot two inches and with a full head of silvery hair, resembled a movie star of bygone days.
It was then that Her Honour posed the seemingly innocent question.
“And what would you like for your birthday?” she had asked, as if Charlie Bright’s childhood had never quite passed.
And Charlie Bright had continued to look straight back at her and had given his answer.
Ruth Denholme was a master at not reacting to the unusual and unexpected. Finessing the question with skill, she at once asked Charlie, who was still holding on to her,
“And do you think you will get lucky?”
Charlie Bright’s stare did not waver.
“I hope so, Madame, I really hope so,” was his answer.
And Her Honour, Ruth Denholme, the Queen’s representative, knew that Charlie wasn’t kidding. There was no embarrassed lowering of the eyes or uncomfortable giggle from either of them. Charlie Bright had told her exactly what he wanted. A rather refreshing departure, Ruth thought, from the usual wishes for visits from grandchildren and other family members, or a trip out to some local mall or a transatlantic phone call from an old friend. No, Charlie Bright wanted something he would enjoy. Good for him, she thought. The business of afternoon tea had resumed by now, but the buzz of conversation had notched up a few decibels and Charlie’s name or ‘he’ or ‘that man’ could be heard from the depths of a number of armchairs. Ruth Denholme completed her visit, checked her schedule with her aide, said a few words about how lovely it had all been and then took her farewell. On her way out, she stopped in the Director’s Office for a few words.
“You must excuse Mr Bright,” said Mrs Yates. “I never thought he would come up with – that suggestion. It was not the place to use that sort of language and I would like to offer you our most sincere apologies. I do hope you were not too offended.” She paused, trying to put the apples back into the cart.
Ruth Denholme leaned towards the Director.
“Do you know, Mrs Yates, he is probably more honest than most people when asked that question. I have seen so many people fishing around wondering what they would like for their birthday and I have heard ‘I don’t want anything at my age’ so many times that I have lost count. Mr Bright knows what he wants.”
“Well, he’s not going to get it here,” said Mrs Yates. “I won’t allow it.”
“Is that so?” said Ruth Denholme. “My feeling is that we should try to see that his birthday wish comes true. Maybe a solution will become apparent in the next few days?”
Mrs Yates was just about to dismiss Ruth Denholme’s suggestion when she realised that perhaps the Lieutenant Governor was quite serious. She swallowed a few times, took a couple of deep breaths and looked up at the woman who was still standing in front of her.
“Are you saying that I should…we should…that Charlie Bright…I don’t know how to…”
“Let me say. Mrs Yates, that now his wishes are known, a solution will eventually present itself. No problem is unsolvable if the will is there. I would be obliged if you will let me know what the outcome is – when does he turn one hundred?”
“In ten days time,” said Mrs Yates, flustered by her guest’s request.
“Then I shall await your report, unofficial I might add, sometime later this month. Now, I regret I have to leave for my next appointment, children’s kindergarten classes at the school, quite the opposite end of the age scale. Thank you again for this opportunity to meet your staff and the residents.”
Ruth Denholme found it difficult to suppress a chuckle as she made her way out to her official car. As it drove off, she finally burst out laughing at the incredible situation she had just witnessed.
Katie Lynne Dempster, a reporter form the local newspaper who had been sent to cover the Lieutenant Governor’s visit, flipped open her cell phone and called her editor.
“Can you send someone else to the L.G’s next venue?” she asked. “I’m on to something here. Just trust me,” she replied when asked why she couldn’t keep to her appointed schedule. She snapped the lid back on her phone. Katie Lynne knew that her editor would give her the leeway she needed now that she was on to something. After fifteen years of hard work for the paper she had developed quite an ability to come up with an interesting story.
Katie Lynne Dempster was in her mid-thirties. A large woman with a homely rather than a good-looking figure, an open face and a mess of unkempt curly blonde hair, she stood just under six feet tall even in her flat shoes. Unmarried, no current boyfriend, between relationships she always told the inquisitive, no sex life whispered her co-workers, and newspaper reporting was her consuming passion. She would often work late into the night in her office, disregarding any attempt at social offers that came to her, and every week her articles were featured prominently in the city newspaper. And editors of some of the big national dailies always took notice if something of hers appeared in print or on line. Today she knew she had a winner. With an eye-catching headline she could trump local calamities and miseries of the world with a story about an unusual birthday wish. She had considerable hopes that this would stir up a real debate about what life was like for the elderly.
As soon as the visiting dignitaries had left, Katie Lynne gathered up her notepad, pen and camera. Instead of following the Lieutenant Governor out of the building, she headed over to where Charlie Bright was still sitting, savouring a final cup of tea. Switching on her most radiant smile she introduced herself to the handsome old gentleman.
“So, a reporter,” he commented after all the preliminaries were over. “Local paper interested in an old man, eh? You should be talking to these other old ladies who really are one hundred. They’re the ones Her Honour came to see.” Charlie took another sip from his tea cup.
“They will be suitably covered, Mr Bright,” said Katie Lynne. “It was about them that I came here. See, I have a whole pad of notes about them and photos with Ruth Denholme.” She waved her yellow pad in front of Charlie. “But I couldn’t help but feel intrigued by what you wished for you birthday. I think it took Her Honour by surprise.”
Charlie Bright gave her a share of the same steady look which he had turned on to the Lieutenant Governor.
“And why shouldn’t it?” he asked. “A natural part of life, I would have thought?”
Katie Lynne nodded. I suppose I would have to agree with that, she thought.
“Tell me about yourself, Mr Bright,” she said, “and then, if I may, I will take your photograph?”
Charlie Bright leaned forward.
“I’ll give you the short version,” he said. “A hundred years of my life is not going to be read by too many of your audience.”
The following day, the local city paper ran the article about the Lieutenant Governor’s visit. The headline announced the centenarians’ birthdays and then there was the obligatory photograph of Ruth Denholme having tea and cake with the two ladies who were celebrating the day. Further down the page a shorter paragraph mentioned the conversation she had had with Charlie Bright. Mrs Yates initially considered quietly removing the papers from the Common room but she knew that it would be impossible to suppress the article entirely.
As Katie Lynne Dempster had expected, it didn’t take long for the eagle-eyed readers from the big national papers to become aware of Charlie Bright’s request. By noon, phone calls had been made to Katie Lynne and then to the retirement home, and a local television station had expressed an interest in Charlie’s remarks. Of course, in the present age of digital communication, comments were posted on the internet and then, as they say, ‘it all went viral.’
Mrs Yates acted fast to minimise any damage and upheaval to her residents. All reporters were barred from the place. Phones gave out a recorded message about there being ‘no comment’ and emails were transferred to a special folder so that they didn’t clog the operation of the home.
“They’re coming from as far away as Australia, Sweden and even Africa,” the secretary reported as she managed the computer.
“And the contents?” Mrs Yates asked.
“Most of them want to help him out. They would like to deliver his present in person!”
Mrs Yates thought about what Ruth Denholme had suggested. For once, her own years of experience in dealing with difficult situations had deserted her. So for the next few days she diplomatically fielded ‘enquiries’ from near and afar. She noticed that quite a number of the Home’s residents were suddenly taking advantage of the visiting hair-stylist who reported requests for ‘something new’ or ‘something that would make me stand out in a crowd’ or simply ‘make me look sexy.’
On Saturday morning, five days after the famous request, a knock came on Mrs Yates’ office door. A few residents had made ‘enquiries’ about Charlie Bright but the two ladies who entered had a somewhat more determined air about them.
Janet and Jane Clements were two sisters in their late seventies. “Only one year and a ‘t’ separate us” they would chirp merrily to anyone who was introduced to them. Usually they would chat to Mrs Yates in the public areas over coffee or talk about the weather with an eye to taking a walk downtown. But today they had come with a purpose and the first matter of business was to ask if they could close the office door?
“Certainly,” said Mrs Yates.
There was a pause.
“We thought that…we came to…” Both sisters started at once then lapsed back into silence, obviously not knowing quite how to begin.
“Janet,” said Mrs Yates in her most understanding voice. “Why don’t you tell me what’s on your mind?”
Janet Clements looked at her younger sister, took a deep breath, and started to talk in a voice that came out an octave too high. She swallowed a couple of times and began again.
“Jane and I were talking – about Charlie.” She stopped and Mrs Yates waited.
“Well, you see, we were at the tea last Monday and we couldn’t help overhearing Charlie, Charlie’s request, his birthday wish, and, well, we got to talking and we just wondered if…well, how…”
“…if we could help.” Jane assisted her floundering sister to shore.
“We’ve never been married or anything,” said Janet, grateful for the rescue, “and it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen…”
“Anytime soon,” sister Jane added.
“And I’ve never…” a pause, “never, well, you know, done – anything – it – ever in my life.”
“I did once, when I was eighteen,” said Jane.
“And Jane told me it was quite nice,” said Janet soldiering on.
Mrs Yates smiled at the choice of words. ‘Quite nice’ was an interesting quantification of the particular situation.
“And so we were wondering – I was wondering if we could – I could – deliver Charlie’s present? In person?”
Mrs Yates leaned forward in her chair.
“Janet,” she said quietly, “I am not the person who decides this matter of Mr Bright’s birthday present. It was an unusual request, or maybe it wasn’t, unexpected is probably a better word for it. All I ask is that you think very carefully about what you are suggesting.”
“Oh yes, we have both thought about that,” said Jane.
“Then why don’t you wait just a little longer to make your decision. And you might even find out that Mr Bright has plans of his own. A little judicial sleuthing on your part, perhaps?”
“Oh yes, Mrs Yates, I fully understand,” said Janet. She turned to her sister. “Let’s go and do some more research on this,” she said. “I’ll read that book again that I got from the library.”
They got up to leave.
“Were you planning to do this in Mr Bright’s suite?” asked Mrs Yates.
“Ah,” said Jane. “Another problem to solve. Come along Janet. Things to do!”
When they had left her office, Mrs Yates sat for a long time mulling over the situation. She had decided some time ago that she was not going to facilitate anything that would bring the Retirement Home into questionable repute. The readers of tabloid newspapers and viewers of on the spot television were all hoping for some titillating facts; she had even heard that a book had been planned and that Charlie Bright was to be offered a cool half a million dollars for his part in writing it. How, at the age of one hundred, she wondered, would he plan to spend that sort of money?
She was roused from her thoughts by the sudden ring of the telephone. It was Katie Lynne Dempster who wished to speak to her face to face.
“How about this afternoon, four o’clock work for you?” Mrs Yates set up the appointment, wondering what was so urgent. Perhaps this reporter who had really let the cat out of the bag could find some way of recapturing and returning it.
“I think I have a solution to this – ah – dilemma,” said Katie Lynne as she occupied the same seat that Janet and Jane had vacated earlier.
“Really!” Mrs Yates observed, dryly.
“I set this ball rolling. I didn’t expect it to travel so far but maybe I can do something to stop it.”
Mrs Yates raised her eyebrows, and waited.
“I would like to take Charlie Bright out for his birthday, a date if you want to call it something. Nice meal, a show, perhaps to the casino, whatever he fancies.”
“If he wants to come back here after that, I’ll bring him back. If not, we’ll see how things develop. I might even invite him somewhere for a nightcap.” She stopped, the innuendo hanging in the air.
The look on Mrs Yates’ face did not change as she considered the possibilities.
“I think perhaps you had better talk to Mr Bright about your date,” she said. “And I would probably do it immediately. I have had countless approaches concerning Charlie’s birthday wish. Just this morning two very spry seventy somethings sat exactly where you are now and offered to help celebrate his day. Not to mention emails from Lola and Samantha and quite a few more. And the National Press phones regularly just to see if there’s any development. So I would suggest that you arrange an itinerary with Mr Bright for next Saturday and hope that nobody follows you.”
“I’ll go and talk to him right now,” said Katie Lynne, getting up from her chair. “Where will I find him?”
Charlie Bright was outside on the garden patio enjoying a warm spring afternoon. He was tending to the roses which were starting to bloom. He looked up, secateurs in hand, as Katie Lynne approached.
“Mr Bright – Charlie – I’ve come to ask you for a date,” she began. “Here’s what I had in mind.”
Charlie lowered the secateurs. He gave Katie Lynne one of his long steady stares, the beginning of a smile growing around his lips as he listened to what she had to say..
“I get to do all this?”
“You only reach one hundred once!”
“What time shall I be ready?” was Charlie’s only other question.
Katie Lynne took special care with her appearance for Saturday night. She wore a knee-length silk dress with patterns of roses and she draped a light-weight cardigan over her shoulders. She had her hair trimmed and a couple of discreet highlights added. A new pair of leather shoes, with flat heels, completed the picture. A quick dab of perfume and she was ready.
Charlie Bright, immaculately dressed in grey slacks, blue blazer and a showy cravat, was waiting for her in his room. As she entered, she glanced at the many cards and bouquets of flowers from friends and well-wishers which filled the apartment. Charlie plucked a rose from a convenient bunch and handed it to her with a gentle bow. It matched the colour of her dress and Charlie Bright beamed with pleasure.
“Lead on,” he said. “I am entirely in your hands.”
Instead of walking the hallway and passing through the common sitting area, they took an elevator to the underground parking lot.
“I thought it better to park down here,” said Katie Lynne. “Then we wouldn’t have to run the gauntlet of anyone waiting for you at the front of the building. There was a small group of press people near the front door, so this exit will avoid them.”
“You’ve been watching too many spy movies,” he told her. “Shall I also slump down in my seat?”
“As you wish,” said Katie Lynne. “Now where shall we go first?”
They returned at eleven thirty. The Home was quiet, most guests having retired for the night. This time Katie Lynne pulled up to the front entrance and she and Charlie got out of the car.
“I should tell Mrs Yates that I have brought you home safely,” Katie Lynne said, slipping her hand through Charlie’s arm. “Then I’ll walk you to your room.”
“It was a wonderful evening,” said Charlie. “The casino, the restaurant, the dancing – I haven’t done all that since, since…” he paused.
“I understand,” said Katie Lynne, “and from what you told me this evening you have had such a wonderful life. I’m so glad that I have been this tiny part of it.”
“We’ll do it again next year,” said Charlie as they went inside.
Mrs Yates came out of her office and welcomed the two of them.
“You will have to tell me the story of your adventures when you get a moment,” she said.
“This young lady has been so kind to me,” said Charlie. “We both had a wonderful evening.”
“It’s not over yet,” said Mrs Yates. “There’s a visitor waiting for you. I said that you would probably come through the common room area and that you wouldn’t be hard to miss.” She winked at Katie Lynne.
Charlie Bright looked puzzled.
“Who on earth…at this time of night…it’s nearly midnight?” And he strode off towards the central common room. He pulled up short when he saw his visitor waiting for him.
“Bertram?” he said quietly. Then, louder, “Bertram? Bertie!!” he shouted.
Bertram Thwaite rose slowly to his feet and turned towards Charlie. A grin stretched across his face as the two men fell into each others arms and hugged and slapped each other on the back. When they drew apart, Bertram picked up a small bag.
“I came with your present, Charlie,” he said. “I know it’s rather late but…better late then never, eh?”
Charlie Bright unlocked his door. He put his arm around Bertram’s shoulder and just before he disappeared, he gave Katie Lynne and Mrs Yates a little wave.
“Who is Bertram?” Katie Lynne asked Mrs Yates.
Mrs Yates looked around her as if making sure nobody else was listening.
“We had a really interesting long chat when he arrived. He told me about himself, his whole life, practically. He’s ninety years old, would you believe! Then he told me why he came here. He said he wanted to bring Charlie’s birthday present in person.”
Mrs Yates paused.
“He’s Charlie’s special boyfriend!” she whispered.
Jonathan Dean was born and educated in England. He came to Alberta in 1968 where he taught instrumental and choral music and a Grade 4 classroom and introduced his students to quality literature. He has written many stories since then. In 2008 he produced the audio programme ‘Stone Soup’ for Voiceprint. This series of original stories and poems from current authors across Canada won a Gold Medal at the annual International Association of Audio Information Services at Cincinnati, Ohio in 2009. He is an occasional reporter for the Lethbridge Herald newspaper, a keen gardener and enthusiastic home chef.
Matzoh! Matzoh! King of Bread!
Your time to shine is here again!
Come in, bless you, we’ll toast you (let’s!)
with a glass of Manishewitz.
Square, uneven bumpy rows.
Perhaps you are a little dry,
But really quite better
Spread with some butter.
Bagels may be nice to eat
But I enjoy a simpler fare.
Screw gefilte fish and lox!
Bring in matzoh, box by box.
What you may lack in levity
You make up in other ways.
I think your soul is brevity.
You harken back to ancient days,
Cooked and eaten speedily.
Some people eating matzoh dread –
The blandness makes them ill at ease.
But friend, they cannot see you through my eyes.
So many possibilities:
Egg matzoh, wheat matzoh,
Matzoh in balls!
Matzoh with chocolate!
Matzoh with jam!
Matzoh with anything
(Except for ham)!