- Lucy Rumble
The Retirement Treatment
By Lucy Rumble
It was 2pm on a Thursday, a sweltering July afternoon, and Annie was inside. Slippers on, tea in hand, some news channel murmuring in the background. She positioned herself in an armchair facing the dappled light and watched the world below. The girls on the street with their rosy cheeks and red-rimmed sunnies. The essence of summer radiating from the glistening tarmac beneath their feet, the drained clumps of yellowish grass hanging off its sides. The workers who had started on Mr Carter’s place opposite clutching their chips from Mrs Cod’s below.
This was all she knew of the outside world: stolen glimpses through shuttered eyes. She missed it, full of talk and luminescence and birdsong. She missed the thrill of swindled cash and liquid truth, the secrets sold to a higher power. She missed Ralph and she missed how she felt before the paranoia.
Lovely Ralph, her raison d’être. Gone now, but filtering through Annie’s drowsy days in kaleidoscopic memories. Cups of hot cocoa over lavender-scented sheets at dusk. Hot, flush touches on a sultry summer’s eve. A flash of crimson on cobbled dirt. Scorched fingertips held by Neptune’s grasp. An empty shadow on her arm as she walked home from dinner. Eyeless sockets staring from the river’s edge. An anniversary hard to forget.
It had started with dizzy spells and a kitchen fall. Then came the blood, coughed up and tossed away on spoiled hankies. Annie had begged him to see a doctor, but with an admonishing look he had said: “There’s a reason we aren’t registered with a GP, my dear. You remember how they are with aliases.”
She wondered how she might sneak out to the telephone in the shop below, enquire after a chemist’s advice, anonymously of course, and purchase whatever concoction was required to keep him healthy. Sneak it into his morning tea.
These thoughts had hardly germinated when Ralph proposed a dinner at their old haunt: the Angel on the Bridge, for their anniversary. Such occasions were rare and knowing how Annie liked to pamper herself for them, he had left early in the morning. She was so excited that she failed to notice the new set of kitchen knives, still in their packet, missing from the counter. Or that her favourite of Ralph’s cloaks remained on its hook, pockets heavy with his antique watch and gold cufflinks. Instead, she focused on her reflection, proud of its beaming smile and newly tamed hair, and hurried out the door.
She was sat at their table in the Angel for two hours before she got the sense that something was wrong. Ralph did have a penchant for lateness, granted, but this was too long.
Hurrying home, she was interrupted by a shrill cry. A crowd quickly developed on the opposite bank of the Thames, congregating beside what seemed to be a human figure. It was dressed in clothes unknown to her and doused in crimson, but there was no doubt in her mind that it was Ralph. She cursed herself for not suspecting his plan sooner. His body was slumped against the concrete supports of the walkway, peacefully, had it not been for the lacerations. His eyes had been gouged out, his tongue removed, and the tips of his ears cut off. A set of kitchen knives lay at his side, coloured by his artistry. One remained in his hand, following the ghost of a motion which had rather haphazardly cut his neck.
To Annie’s surprise, she was smiling. This was her anniversary gift. Ralph had given her the rest of her life. Free from health worries and covert medications, she could live out her retirement quietly, just as she had always wanted. She resumed her walk home, slower now, scoffing that the old git had got the last laugh: she had really liked those knives.
But it wasn’t long before the visits began. How they had linked Ralph to their little flat she never could work out, but the fact is they had, and she needed to stay alert. She’d been by the book, of course, but that didn’t exclude her from the “retirement treatment”. They liked their records clean. So, they would send people like her after people like them and the wheel would roll on.
“Act the fool when they come asking questions.” Ralph had said. “You were always good at that.” Annie would nudge him in the ribs and tut disapprovingly, but now she heeded his advice. Not so difficult in a decaying flat and a 91-year-old body.
“Look at the state of things,” they’d said, staring at the peeling walls and deep-set ridges of the wooden floors. Loose screws rising from mismatched panels, trip-hazards hiding the dormant duffle bags beneath.
“She can barely take care of herself,” they’d said, as usually nimble fingers fumbled with the tin of biscuits. “We should just leave her be”. Ralph’s old Swiss knife tucked away under a pillow on the couch for any slip-ups.
“Do let us know if you see anything fishy,” they’d said, sharing a knowing smirk at their oh-so-clever joke. Too clever for poor old Annie. They’d smile sympathetically. “We don’t like to make a fuss. It’ll just be our secret,” they’d said with a wink. She offered a polite laugh and a dutiful nod; after all, she knew the price of a good secret. She shuffled across the room, shaky hands and kind eyes uttering their goodbyes. The closing door slowly obscured her unruly hair and the eccentric print of her living room wallpaper. The faulty lock was hammered back into place.
They came less frequently now. She supposed word had got round about the mad old lady above the chip shop, washed out by the noise of life. Yet, she remained inside. Life wasn’t so bad, Annie thought. In fact, she didn’t half mind sitting in her faded chair, peering out at the world from the blinkered, murky windows of her high-street flat.
About Lucy Rumble:
Lucy Rumble is a Durham graduate in History / Classics who is currently studying for an MA at UCL. She is passionate about history, literature, and art, and has been writing short fiction for some years. However, she has only recently gained the confidence to share her stories with a wider audience. Find her on Twitter at: @lucyrumble12