Happy Birthday, Eileen
Short Fiction ~ Hannah Mitchell
Second Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 14
Eileen’s 83rd birthday was three days ago.
She celebrated it the same way she celebrated the last eight birthdays: by buying an iced bun from the bakers opposite and sitting on the bench by the pond to watch the ducklings swim behind their mamas. She threw the crumbs as far as she could despite her arthritis and, in turn, they chattered their bills and crowded her for more. She reached in her handbag for the bag of frozen peas. Eileen decided to stay by the pond awhile before visiting Johnny and then sitting by the television alone that night to watch Alexander Bradley referee the Quizzers against the Einsteins.
Johnny was Eileen’s husband and he was not dead. He lay in an institution, unblinking, his skin turning greyer day by day. Eileen visited him every day. But the only memory he had of her was when he looked at the black and white photograph of the two of them and murmured “they look happy”. And, every time, she would pat his withering hand and say “they are”. The nurse knew Eileen as a regular and escorted her in and out and greeted her by name. Over tea, Eileen would tell her the stories of Johnny and their marriage, as much as she could listen to, before leaving her alone with Johnny to take care of the other patients.
From across the pond, Eileen saw a pair of lovers, two young men, holding each other. They noticed her watching and ducked their heads. She wasn’t offended; she was saddened. The world still wasn’t there yet. She remembered her brother, Jacob, and finding letters from his lover after he died. Eileen’s mother had told everyone that Jacob was killed in action; Eileen knew he put a bullet through his head in the trenches. The diagnosis was shellshock but in those letters to Frederick, she knew that he couldn’t live with himself, in this cold world, where men like him were tortured and imprisoned. Frederick mourned for years over the man he could never marry. Jacob wrote how he wished for a better time, a utopia, where he could love his sweetheart, even if that world was Beyond. Eileen grew close to Freddy, he even proposed, but she accepted Johnny instead. They adored Freddy like a brother and, when he died in the 80s, Eileen wondered if he was reunited with Jacob and if they were happy and free now in the Beyond.
Johnny had said “They are.”
Eileen glanced at the young couple, who were still smiling and kissing, despite the world around them. She smiled at their bravery and adoration. She wanted to talk to them, offer her help to them, but couldn’t bear to break their hands apart for even a second like Jacob’s and Frederick’s had been. So, she reassured herself. In addition to all else she mumbled to herself, Eileen, over the next three days, kept muttering to Jacob “Are they happy even though the world isn’t there yet?” and she thought Jacob would answer, “They are”.
Before her solitary birthday dinner, Eileen went to visit Johnny. As usual the young nurse greeted her. She told both the nurse and Johnny about the bun, the ducks, the young couple, about Freddy and Jacob. Johnny stared at the ceiling the whole time then turned his head to the photograph. In his toothless slur, he said “They look happy.” Eileen squeezed his fingers. “They are.”
Three days after Eileen’s birthday, Johnny was dead. The photograph was shattered and his hand was resting on the table as if he had reached for it in his final breaths.
Eileen watched him being carted out of the institution, solemn, knowing that no one was left for her now. Her thoughts strayed to arthritis medication and her bed and her empty mantlepiece. She thought about how tired she was, how she needed a good, long sleep. She was so tired she could have slept forever. So, Eileen walked home.
When two nurses cleared Johnny’s room, they carefully picked up the photograph. They stared at it for quite some time, staring at the two young, happy people in their little, monochrome world.
“Wow, I wish I could love someone like that one day. They look really happy.”
“Yes,” said the nurse. “They were.”
Hannah Mitchell: I currently study English with Creative Writing (BA) at Leicester University. Although I have dreamed of being a writer for many years and have written for my own enjoyment, this is my first publication. It’s an honour for Strands Publishers to give me my first step into the writing world and I hope there’s more to come.
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