This is an extract from Lois Elsden’s unpublished novel, ‘The Story of Frederico Milan’, due to be published in 2017

This is Jerome

“This is Jerome,” said the nurse. “Are you sure you wouldn’t like someone else?”

“Someone else?”

“Well he’s not much more than a carrot, are you darling?”

“A carrot?” did the nurse mean a cabbage?

“Vegetable. Wasting your time with him, really. Why not go over there and see Margaret You won’t get much sense out of her but at least she’ll be able to talk to you. You won’t get anything from Jerome, he doesn’t even know you’re here, do you darling.”

“I wanted to visit someone who doesn’t have many visitors,” Frederico mumbled.

“Well, Jerome is the one, you never get anyone, do you darling?” the nurse wiped the drool from Jerome’s chin, patted him on the head and moved away.

Frederico stood awkwardly. He glanced after the nurse. He was bending over Margaret, speaking softly to her. The nurse had wide femine hips and his white tunic splayed awkwardly over his soft buttocks.

“Hello,” Frederico said to Jerome, slumped in a wheelchair.  Then what? What could he say next to Jerome who didn’t even know he was here, according to the nurse. Perhaps he should go and speak to Margaret. But the nurse was helping her from her seat and leading her from the room. Frederico looked round to the other figures, some in wheelchairs, some in ordinary upright armed chairs. Frederico had been told that two o’clock was a good time to come, it was when other visitors came but perhaps he was too early.

Frederico looked down at Jerome. He had wispy dark hair hanging lank against his round head which was slumped to one side.

“Are you a visitor?”

Frederico jumped. A tiny little man had crept up beside him.

“Um, yes, I’ve come to visit Jerome.”

“You can’t,” said the little bird-like creature.

“Oh, why not?” this little man must also be a patient – resident.

“Jerome never has visitors. You can’t visit him.”

“Stanley!” a woman in an overall and with a plastic apron tied tightly round her bustled up. “Stanley, your mother’s here, come on. Leave this gentleman.”

Stanley smiled and scampered away. Hominid. That was the word that sprang into Frederico’s mind.

“Why don’t you find a chair, take anyone that looks comfy,” the woman said then she too departed.

Obediently Frederico went and found a chair and moved it and sat beside Jerome. Except that was no good because Jerome’s head was tipped on the other shoulder. Frederico moved his chair so he sat at an angle so he was in Jerome’s line of vision. Frederico cleared his throat.

“Um, hello, Jerome. My name is Frederico. I… um…” he felt embarrassed as if he was talking to himself. He glanced round. A fat woman in a chair waved at him and grinned. She had no teeth. Frederico waved back. He felt as if he was blushing. This was ridiculous. He felt awkward and ill at ease. “How are you?” he asked.

What a stupid question. Even if Jerome was capable of answering what could he say?  Very well, thank you? Stuck in a wheelchair, incapable of doing anything, perhaps even unaware of anything.

“I’ve not been here before, seems like a nice place,” Frederico muttered.

It was a lie. It didn’t seem like a nice place. It smelt of disinfectant and biscuits and old clothes. There was a faint smell sour of urine overlaid with an ersatz lemon fragrance.

Jerome was wearing a Manchester United shirt and a brown cardigan. He had grey flannel trousers and big checked slippers fastened with Velcro straps. He had a round pale face, a slack mouth and a sore trail down his chin where saliva ran and dripped onto a sodden bib. Frederico had wondered whether to bring some fruit, then wasn’t sure. It wasn’t a hospital. And now he was glad he hadn’t. He looked at his watch. He had been here ten minutes. He couldn’t go already.

“Um, well Jerome….”

A family came in, a pregnant woman, her husband and two small children. They went to a woman in a wheel chair. Everyone kissed her and the children scrambled onto her knee and then the man wheeled her away followed by his wife. The fat woman waved again. Frederico pretended he hadn’t seen and was annoyed with himself for doing so. He looked at his watch again. Only another two minutes had gone by. A big grey haired man wheeled himself in and parked himself by a table, put a bag on it and began to rummage within.

“I live in Strand. I’ve got a flat by the harbour,” Frederico said; he didn’t like to keep looking at Jerome, as if he was staring, but his eyes drifted back. Jerome’s dead gaze was upon him, he had grey eyes. “Have you been here long?” why ask a question when the man was incapable of speech?

The nurse returned and Frederico mutely begged him to turn and say something, give him some reason to leave. The nurse stopped to talk to a younger man in a reclining wheelchair. The man smiled and spoke to the nurse. Frederico could hear his weak voice but couldn’t catch the words. A stunningly beautiful woman came in and straight to the young man. She bent and kissed his mouth. Frederico looked away, a pang of loneliness shafted through him. He glanced at Jerome. Did Jerome feel lonely? Was he aware of his condition? Was there some spark of understanding somewhere in the slumped form?

A woman walked in using sticks. Was she a resident or visitor? She sat at the same table as the grey haired man but she didn’t speak to him. The beautiful woman wheeled the young man away, bent over his shoulder as she did. A very tall very thin dark haired woman walked through but did not stop.

Frederico looked at his watch, another three minutes. He had been here less than twenty minutes. “I…” but the words died.

Jerome hadn’t moved. Frederico was not even sure he had blinked. Frederico sunk back in the chair, elbows on knees, hands dangling. A visitor walking into the room would have seen a large man with a pale preoccupied face, light curly hair. He constantly narrowed his eyes as if he was short-sighted, and sometimes they seemed unfocused as if he should wear glasses. He had a wide mouth and small teeth, he often sat with his lips slightly apart, with his open mouth and dreamy eyes he sometimes seemed almost vacant, absent from the present. And sad, Frederico seemed sad.

Two kindly grey-haired ladies and a tall elderly man brought in a tea trolley. Frederico watched their slow progression, mentally rehearsing what he would say if they asked if he wanted tea. ‘Yes, thank you, very kind.’ ‘No, no thank you, I’ve just had…’

The tea trolley arrived.

“Here’s a nice cup of tea for you, Jeremy,” said one of the ladies.

“Jerome,” said the elderly man solemnly.

It was in a plastic beaker with a lid and a beaked spout. The lady handed it to Frederico.

“Oh, um I…” but his stumbled words came too late and they had wheeled the trolley to the people sitting round the table. Frederico didn’t know what to do. Should he try and give Jerome his drink? Well, obviously he should. He moved his chair nearer. Jerome smelt of urine and old clothes.

“Would you like your tea, Jerome?”

Jerome stared blankly, his eyes glassy and seemingly unseeing, only a slight bubble of drool showed he was alive at all.  Frederico put the spout to Jerome’s lips. There was no reaction and Jerome’s head was lolling at such an angle that the tea could not reach the spout. Perhaps he should push the spout into Jerome’s mouth and hope it triggered some sucking or drinking response. Or perhaps he could lift Jerome’s head, but Frederico recoiled mentally from the idea of touching Jerome’s skin. It was pale and amphibian. Frederico chided himself for the comparison but it was lodged in his mind now. Jerome’s eyes were as blank as a toad’s.

“I’ll get someone to help you,” Frederico said. “I have to be going now. Nice to have met you,” he lied.

It was only when he was outside searching his pockets for his car keys that he realised he still had the plastic beaker in his hand. He glanced around then hurled it into the shrubs.

©Lois Elsden 2016

This is the opening chapter of ‘The Story of Frederico Milan’ by Lois Elsden, to be published summer 2017. To find Lois’s published ebooks follow this link:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=lois+elsden

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