Winner 2017

The Colour of Fresh Air

By Georgie Bowen (17)

Ah there it was again. That delightful stench of bleach and boiled cabbage. Mrs Lavender Grey wrinkled her nose as they wheeled her through the double doors, past the reception desk and into the “recreation room”. It was full of the usual mirth. Bert being force-fed cottage pie and Ribena; Giles engrossed in the Daily Star; and June staring blankly into the distance, a thin trickle of saliva dribbling over the crest of her mouth. The theme tune of the Jeremy Kyle Show crackled out feebly from the back of a television as geriatric as its fellow inmates. It had been broken for several weeks now - the screen spasmodically switching to black and white at random intervals. It was about the most unpredictable thing in the place.
Lavender would escape tonight.
“Open wide please, Miss Grey”.
A teaspoon of evening medicine held in the hand of Linda, the overly enthusiastic nurse, assaulted Lavender’s vision.
She was about to interject and remind her that it was Mrs Lavender Grey thank you very much, when she remembered. It had been almost three years now since his passing, though in truth she had parted with Dennis long before then.
Not waiting for a response, the cool colourless liquid was thrust at Lavender and the acrid taste filled her mouth like an unwanted kiss. She spluttered.
“Take me to bed.”
Though she had no intention of staying there.

Lavender’s room was about the same size as her bathroom had been before they moved her here. The walls, originally painted purple had now faded into the colour of a bruise, and pictures of daffodils concealed patches of damp. She was the only resident without family photos. She never heard from the boys now anyway. But then again why would they want to speak to her.
Once two of her incarcerators had lifted Lavender into bed and turned out the light, she let her weary head drop onto the pillow. The exhaustion that only idleness can bring had solidified on Lavender’s face. Bags hung like weights from her eyes, whose white-gloss had yellowed from years of scrutiny. Well, and from a bit of wine.
Someone had forgotten to shut her curtains, and the distant moon cast thin silvery rays on the sheets. Lavender longed to open the window and let the cold night air relieve the room of its mustiness, but it had been painted shut after an incident.
Sleep was overcoming her, and the old lady’s consciousness began to dissolve into her pillow.

All of a sudden she was moving down, down, down, plummeting into a mattress that was not there. Feeling desperately for something to grab onto she tensed her frail arms to catch herself. The reassuring surface of the bed jerked Lavender awake. Cold sweat clung to the loose skin of her body. Exhaling, Lavender fumbled on the bedside table for her glasses. Nebulous shapes of the room were brought into sharp focus as she slotted the frame over the bridge of her nose. The flimsy IKEA clock on the wall read twelve minutes past four. It was time. With considerable effort she swung her legs over the bed and hoisted herself into the wheelchair. Peeping out of her room, she saw the doors of the other residents shut and the corridor empty. It was safe.

Dressed in only a nighty and a pair of ageing white trainers, the old woman trundled out of the automatic doors of the home that had been her prison for two years, five months and three days. Outside the sky was red as an open wound, as if some jealous God had slashed away at its midnight beauty. Red sky at dawn, shepherds warn, as Dennis used to say. Wind stabbed at her clothing yet she did not feel cold. Lavender breathed in deeply and loudly, regenerating herself with the fresh air of the night. She was free.

*

Nigel Peters was in desperate need of a cigarette. It was on the last hour of his shift driving the night bus, and he needed to get home so he could finish watching the latest episode of Mega Truckers. And he needed to pick up some food for the dog. Though why the wife couldn’t bloody well get it herself he didn’t know. Rain drummed like shrapnel on the windows, and he could see a stout outline in the distance waiting at the next stop. As the bus approached, the figure appeared to be in a wheelchair. Nigel soon realised it was an old woman. He opened the doors.
A voice mumbled from beneath a pale blue headscarf.
“Sorry, love?” He said, peering down at her.
She repeated herself. “One ticket, please driver”
“Where to?”
“Where are you going?” She did not look up.
“Final stop is Saltmouth Bay.”
A pause.
“There’s fine.”
“Single or return?”
No answer. Clearly she was deaf.
“Single or return?” He was getting impatient.
“Single…yes, single.”
“That’ll be three pound fifty then.”
She handed over some coins.
A sickly ticket machine wheezed and printed her receipt.

Outside mist lingered in the atmosphere like cobwebs dressing the wounded sky. It began to thicken; surrounding the bus so intensely that all Lavender Grey could see was a clotted mass of impenetrable white. The bus rattled blindly into the distance and she thought it odd that the driver could still see where to go.
Dark rounded walls began to enclose the bus as they entered a tunnel that was not lit. Though the pitch-black did not seem to faze the driver. The concentrated dot of brightness at the opening hurtled nearer and nearer until they were catapulted back into the dawn like loosed arrows. She never remembered there being a tunnel in this town.

The sun had risen now and the sky was a distinct colour of blue that brushed the depths of Lavender’s memory, the same way a certain smell can unlock something long forgotten. Yes, that’s right. She remembered. It’s the same colour as the house the first time we painted it. Dennis had insisted they did themselves. They had flicked through those paint colour charts together for weeks.

‘Darling, what do you think of this one here?’
Dennis was staring down at the kitchen table in front of a small flipbook of colours, his glasses slipping off the end of his nose.
‘What, that one?’ Lavender smiled ‘ “Parmesan yellow”? You’re not seriously suggesting we paint our house the colour of a cheese?”
“Well I thought it was rather nice.”
“Look, what about this one,” Lavender pointed at a pale blue on the adjacent page.
Dennis looked down at it then back up at her, pushing his glasses back onto his nose.
“fresh air?”

“Madam? Excuse me, madam?” The voice of the driver lifted the old lady from the daze. “This is the final stop. You have to get off here.”

*

The bus left Lavender Grey outside a row of small village shops, next to a path leading down to the bay. There was no one to be seen, and silence hung in the air of the sleeping town. Where was the sound of the waves? With no notion of her destination in mind, Lavender began to roll along the pavement.

Had she been here before? With Teddy perhaps. On one of their spontaneous outings while Dennis was working in London. They had shared a bottle of wine on that beach, and he had told her that he was in love.

“With who, Teddy? Come on tell me!” She giggled and pleaded with him.
“No, no I couldn’t possibly say.” Suddenly he was embarrassed. He shouldn’t have said anything.
“Come on Ted, it’s me!” poking him playfully, “You can tell me anything. I won’t say a word to anyone. Swear.”
“Lavender -”
“It’s Beverly isn’t it?”
“Lavender -”
“Uh I knew it! Yes, you’re always talking to her after church - ”
“Lavender, it’s you.”

She had been so young then. Married, but not even twenty-one. And Dennis was always so much older. I suppose that was half the problem.
“Excuse me.”
A hand was tapping her on the shoulder.
A small boy stood behind, blinking up at her through floppy brown hair. He was clutching something.
“You dropped this” He handed her a single red glove.
Before she could reply to tell him that they couldn’t possibly be hers, as she wasn’t wearing any gloves, he had scurried off in the opposite direction. He must’ve been no older than nine.
She looked at the garment in her hand. But it was her glove! It was from that nice velvet pair Dennis had bought for her. She was sure she had lost them years ago. How on earth…? The old lady sighed and dismissed it. When would her mind stop playing tricks on her?
Now that she thought about it, that boy had bared a striking resemblance to Jem, her youngest, when he was that age. The hair, the look on his face. The colour of his eyes. He would have been in his forties by now, her darling boy. She wondered whether he could see her from up there, his daft mother, sitting outside in her nighty and trainers at five thirty in the morning on a cold February day. And suddenly she could visualise his face, the hot tears streaming from his eyes on the night that she had left.

“ – I will not be lied to under my own roof, Lavender!” He was shouting; she had never heard him raise his voice like this.
“Dennis, please I -”
“Don’t. Enough. I’ve had enough.” Her husband’s voice was low now. Devoid of emotion.
“It isn’t what you think, I -”
“I gave you everything, Lavender. Everything! I’ve worked my fingers to the bone so that you and the boys could have a good life and what do I get? What do I damn well get in return for it? That man coming into my house, under my roof and -”
“Daddy?” A small figure stood at the foot of the stairs. “Mummy?”
“Go back to bed, Jem. Your mother and I are having an important discussion -”
“I heard shouting.” He was clutching his teddy bear. It was disgusting and falling to pieces yet he treasured that smelly thing as if it was all he owned.

He had been so sweet, so innocent. She should have cherished the time she had with him. “I’m sorry, my love.” she whispered. But it was the past. And you could never change the past. Lavender had learnt that the hard way.

The sound of a wave breaking made Lavender look up. She was on the beach. When had she got onto the beach? And the glove. It was gone.

The sky rumbled. Its former blue had been swamped by a menacing expanse of cloud, leaving the sand below as grey as her name. The sea washed it clean as a blank canvas; ready to be distorted by nature and the impending storm. The air was damp and Lavender could soon feel heavy droplets of rain pounding against her skin, relentless as guilt. And suddenly she was tired, and she wanted to go to bed, and she wanted to be home. But the house was sold and her bed was gone and some new couple had probably painted over their fresh air that they had chosen so carefully. The droplets were becoming sheets of water and Lavender felt as if she was being baptised. She pictured Jem running and jumping and laughing alongside her as he had done that fatal Sunday in June. The day she had forgotten his inhaler. And even then she could still see him collapsing and Dennis shouting and rummaging frantically for it but it wasn’t there. It wasn’t there. And she, Mrs Lavender Grey, standing there. Standing there as her son, her precious boy, struggled for breath and gasped and coughed. And even when Dennis was next to him, crouching over his limp lifeless body and screaming at him to breathe, to suck in air, pumping at his chest, Lavender had stood there. Frozen in the moment. Locked in a limbo.
And to think that things had finally been going well that day. They had been talking about her moving back in, and they were going to start afresh. And they did. After that day they were forced to. But not in that way. Not in that way.

The old lady felt the weight of her years as she had never done before. She was back up at the pavement now but the rain was so profuse that she could see nothing but streaks against her glasses. Her nighty was plastered to her body and she raised a hand in front to shield herself as she tried to manoeuvre the wheelchair over the slippery tarmac. And tears were running down her face now but they were drowned and made insignificant by the torrents. Why had she not brought an umbrella? She had no idea where she was going, but kept moving nonetheless.

But suddenly she could no longer feel the rain, only hear it. She looked up. She was under a roof. A bus shelter. The same one where she had waited for the night bus. But she couldn’t possibly have come back that far. Could she? The pulsating rain on the roof eased. Lavender took off her glasses and wiped them with her nighty. She was back, opposite the care-home. It stood, looking exactly as it had done two hours ago. Unchanged minus one missing resident. Her. She felt an odd desire to go inside.

*

Lavender stood outside the automatic doors. They opened obligingly, welcoming her back like an old friend. But something was different. The walls, they were a different colour. Blue. The same colour the house had been. And the smell was gone. She sniffed. Why, the air was almost fresh.

The place was quiet. Dead quiet. No soft murmur of the television, no clinking plates in the kitchen. She took the lift back up to her floor, and traversed the corridor to her bedroom. The door was open. But the metal slot which usually held her name was empty. The room too. Stark. The mattress was bare, her things were gone, the pictures had vanished. But the window was open.

A voice.

“Mummy?”

She turned.

It was Jem. Looking the same as he had done, that day on the beach. He extended an arm, and held out his hand. She took it.

“My darling. My baby boy.”

And suddenly she understood.

Georgie Bowen, 17, UK

Georgie Bowen

A compulsive tea-drinker, ukulele-player and sleeper, Georgie lives in London and is currently being subjected to A-levels. One way or another, writing has always been a part of her life. Georgie’s first ‘piece’ was put together entirely through dictation to her granny, since - aged five - her writing capabilities were inadequate. At ten, Georgie contracted a ‘poetry writing’ bug, inducing her to compose one depicting her headmistress as a witch, which Georgie proceeded to recite in front of her (and the whole school). She later moved onto songwriting, transcribing her sporadic existential crises into angsty lyrics. For Georgie, literature is a medium for empathy, and creative writing represents the torturous yet thrilling process of trying to allow someone else to see the world through your lens.