Ron and Phyllis are a struggling couple in their late 70s. Until recently they lived directly opposite me in our quiet, friendly suburban street. Well, mostly quiet and friendly during the twenty years that I’ve lived here, the only exceptions being, two cases of arson, one accidental kitchen fire started by the computer geek in the cottage adjoining mine, and two murders. But those are stories for another time. Here I aim to recount what I’ve seen of Ron’s story, one about the private hells churning beneath the tranquil surface of daily pleasantries about the lovely sunny weather and the need for some rain to favour our summer-stressed gardens.
A short while before they left, on a Saturday morning, I was up to my elbows in soap suds at the kitchen sink, trying to reverse the entropy generated by the previous evening’s meal, when I heard a thump from the direction of the front door – an errant bird hitting the front window maybe? Hands dripping, I went through to investigate and found Ron standing uncertainly on the front stoep, looking like he was on the verge of leaving before he’d arrived. He was in slippers, wearing his usual baggy brown sweater, and his gaunt face was unshaven. The morning back-lighting accentuated a drip suspended from his lean nose, and his eyes were red.
“Ron,” I said, “what’s the matter?”
“Phyllis is dead,” he squeezed out between a couple of stifled sobs. “The hospital called to tell me this morning.”
I knew she had been hospitalized few days earlier and had been admitted to ICU to deal with an acute case of septic gall stones. I also knew that his sister-in-law, Phyllis’ sister, was seeing to his needs.
“Have you let Phyllis’ sister know?,” I asked after some awkward attempts at sympathetic consolation.
“No, I don’t know how to use the cell phone she’s left me.”
“Let me try,” I suggested, taking the phone and going to the contact list to look for ‘Ingrid’. She answered almost immediately, and was flabbergasted at the news, but also level-headed enough to say she’d call back after she’d spoken to the hospital. Minutes later the phone rang and the sister could report the good news that Phyllis was in good spirits and recovering well.
When I moved into my house two decades ago, Ron had an old brown Ford Escort with a seriously noisy silencer parked in their driveway. He only drove it occasionally, and after a while not at all. He seemed to be retired, while she went off to work every day at an insurance company, and played golf with a work colleague at the week-ends. The going started getting tough for them when she was retrenched. The car lapsed into total disuse, and the weeds grew up around it. One day, several years after its last outing, it was towed away by a rough and ready backyard mechanic for spare parts. So the sliding steel gate became a pedestrian portal to the property, and the electric motor was only called upon to make a 2-foot wide gap for Phyllis to take her daily walk up to the village to visit the library, buy supplies and probably meet a friend for coffee. Once a week it needed to be opened a little extra to accommodate the passage of her bag of golf clubs out and into the BMW boot of her ex-work colleague. In time this pattern also fell by the wayside, possibly because the green fees had become a drain on their now meagre resources. The next thing to go was the gate motor. For a while Ron took to unlocking the mechanism so that he could slide it by hand to let Phyllis out on her daily excursions. I never saw her operate the gate manually herself, and don’t know if it was beyond her physical strength, or whether Ron regarded it as his male role to be the gate-keeper. He would let her out, go back inside to do whatever he spent his time doing, then returning to gate duty to watch out for her to let her in again, sometimes posting himself there for up to an hour, peering up the road waiting for her to come around the corner.
I more or less got to know Ron through the bars of his gate during this period. Sometimes I would take advantage of his ritual guard duty to go across the road and put in an appearance to do a non-invasive neighbourly check on their well-being over a short chat.
If I waved and shouted “Hi Ron,” he would chirpily respond with one of two standard greetings – either: “Hail to thee, blithe Spirit! Bird thou never wert,” or otherwise a wave and: “Good morrow kind sir.” If I were to ask him about his state of well-being, he would usually dig for a Scottish accent and respond with: “Nae sa wirse.” The first quote I Googled as being from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s To a Skylark, but the last has evaded me.
The next stage of the compounding gate crisis was when the override mechanism also failed. The procedure that Ron applied to get the gate open was one often used by strong-arm burglars wanting access to a property. Lifting one end of the tonne of steel off its tracks will disengage the driving gear from the toothed rack on the gate, making it possible to edge the gate sideways until there is enough room to provide passage for burglars and their swag, or in this case the gangly septuagenarian body of Phyllis.
Because of the demanding nature of the new opening technique, Ron would take considerably longer to open and close the gate. It was quite a noisy process as well, involving a metre and a half of heavy duty chain wrapped around gate and gate post several times, a sturdy padlock, and an enormous bunch of keys that, somewhere in its midst, was the one that fitted the lock. So from inside my house I would know by the clinks, rattles, clanks and creaks when an exit was being prepared for Phyllis … and then the reverse process to maintain security while she was out, and the whole procedure repeated in reverse when she returned.
This operational system was maintained for at least a year. I sometimes tried to help him lift the gate, but he would become irritated by my interference, while Phyllis stood by waiting to get in or out with a beatific smile.
That was until the gate jammed. One day I was aware of the opening ritual being in progress, but at a certain point I realized that the usual sequence of auditory markers didn’t reach the end of its cycle. It was replaced by random, indeterminate klinks and klanks, but no sound of a rolling steel wheel. I ventured out onto my front porch, and saw Ron doing battle to shift his cold steel nemesis. I sensed an element of panic rising out of their potential incarceration.
I crossed the road and waved a hullo to Phyllis, who stood on the steps of the house, her shopping bag over her arm, while Ron, straining, with his back to me, was putting in weight-lifting efforts trying to budge the jammed portal. Without being invited, I added my own energy, but to no avail. Sensing an opportunity, I went back home and rounded up a likely arsenal of heavy tools: crow-bar, pick-axe, sledge-hammer, hack-saw, monkey-wrench, and a few others. I first set to work with my long steel crow-bar to force a skinny-person sized gap so that I could be in direct contact with the offending mechanism. It was time for liberation! Ron hardly protested as I set about removing the rusty and seized electric motor, smashing the concrete pedestal to which it was bolted, and levering it out like a rotten wisdom tooth. It took me the best part of a sweaty hour to remove the machinery, but after that, with a dollop of grease on each of the little wheels, the gate could move relatively easily along its track. It was during that hour that I got some insight into Ron’s condition which I hadn’t picked up in my previous short interactions and pleasantries with him. The motorsectomy was an energetic one person job, necessitating him to stand back as a spectator, out of range of flying crow-bars and picks. While I was toiling away he said to no-one in particular: “At this point in the movie, someone will say ‘Son of a gun! This is one helluva stubborn customer’.” I responded with a between-swings chuckle of agreement. But for the remainder of the operation he repeated that piece of dialogue, word for word, about five times before I had finished the task and was ready to enter into conversation with him. I’m sure that each time he presented the line it was, in his mind, equally fresh, innovative and witty.
Phyllis was highly appreciative of the physical and psychological release, and the next day they came together across the road and gave me a punnet of cloyingly sweet home-made fudge prepared from contents in her meagre social security grant kitchen.
Unfortunately, as life proceeds, small victories start to lose their promise as building blocks for a brighter future, and take on the role of softening the blows of mortality. Phyllis’ daily solo outings over the railway bridge and up into the village became weekly trips to the nearer convenience store, now with a walking stick and Ron for support and company.
Shortly after the taming of the gate, the two of them went out to do some shopping one day, but on the way they lost the keys to the front door. I happened to coincide with them on the street, and they explained the problem. There was a spare key, Phyllis said, in the bread bin standing on a table close to the back door, but how could we reach it? Luckily an adjacent window was not securely fastened and, with the help of sticks and wire found in the chaos of the back yard, we managed to pull the bread bin close enough to lift the prize between the burglar bars. I hoped that this would not prompt another batch of thank-you fudge. What fascinated me, though, was the fibre-glass body of a Dart sports car, which, like the Escort in the driveway, was in the process of being overtaken by the feral grass. The GSM Dart was a South African made sports car produced in small numbers in the late 50s/early 60s. It was surely a very valuable item, even in its current state of neglect. I asked Ron about it.
“I’ve got two engines for it in the garage. It’s a project I must get back to now that I’ve got rid of the bee colony.” Indeed, for a couple of years or more, the back corner of his garage had been taken over by a swarm of bees. They had built a large irregular hive easily the size of my writing desk, which took a bee expert nearly a week to remove.
Ron’s obsession with security went deeper than chains and locks, keys and gates. We were talking about security one day through the gate when he told me that if I ever had trouble with intruders, I should call him. He would come over, he said, and sort things out with his Smith and Wesson 38. I baulked at the thought of Ron’s infirm hand waving around a snub-nosed revolver and firing it into the darkness from between the bars of his securely locked gate at my assailant. “I don’t believe in guns,” was the limp response I could give in my state of shock.
One day I arrived home to find an ambulance outside their house. Phyllis had been loaded into it by the friendly pair of paramedics, while Ron came and went between the ambulance and the house looking for her ID book, in a bit of a spin. There was some support from Phyllis’s sister, who would keep an eye on things, but essentially Ron was going to be on his own while the hospital was sorting out Phyllis’ painful gall stone problem. I took the precaution of taking the sister’s phone number.
A morning, two or three days after her admission to hospital, I came out of my house to take my dog for a walk and to pick up the newspaper, and found Ron peering up and down the road in agitation.
“What’s the problem?” I asked.
“It’s Phyllis. She’s just disappeared. She went out and hasn’t come back. This is absolutely atypical behaviour. She always tells me where she’s going, and when she’ll be back.”
“Isn’t she still in hospital?” I suggested.
“I’m very worried,” he said, ignoring my suggestion. “This is not like her.”
I emptily consoled him and assured him that she would probably be back very soon. He was still there at his post when I returned from the corner store with the newspaper. I called his sister-in-law, and she said she would be fetching him within half an hour to go and see Phyllis. I reported that to him, but his eyes reflected fear and confusion and remained fixed on the horizon.
Ron’s dementia didn’t allow him much rest while Phyllis was absent, even with the support and care of Precious, a care-giver arranged by his sister-in-law. Precious was a cheerful young woman with a broad smile, and someone familiar with geriatric problems and the quirks of mentally disturbed souls.
A couple of mornings later, at the crack of dawn, Ron wandered out again before Precious arrived, and knocked on another door in the immediate neighbourhood, that of Hermione, a retired magistrate. There was something to discuss that was criminal. I paraphrase the conversation told me by Hermione:
Ron: “Phyllis is dead.”
Hermione: “Oh no! I’m so sorry.”
Ron: “My gun has been stolen. It was in a plastic bag hanging on the back of a dining room chair, but now it’s gone and I believe has been used to kill Phyllis.”
Hermione: “Who stole the gun?”
Ron: “Precious. She’s a thief and steals everything, and also hides my keys. I don’t trust her an inch. The gun is probably in some Eastern Cape village by now, in the hands of criminals or anarchists.”
Hermione: “Is Phyllis’s body still in the house?”
Ron: “I can’t find it … But there’s a well in the back yard …”
At this point Hermione was sure that this was paranoid dementia speaking.
Hermione: “Ron, you have to report this to the police, both the stolen gun and the suspected murder. Do you have a valid firearm licence?”
Ron: “No, I don’t need a licence. It was issued to me as part of a Special Forces operation to assassinate Robert Mugabe.”
Ron was correct in saying that the gun had been removed from behind the dining-room chair. But it wasn’t the much maligned Precious who did it. This was the work of Phyllis’s sister and her husband, Billybob. They had spirited it away and taken it to the local Police Station where it was checked in with an appropriate affidavit to the Officer responsible for gun and liquor licences. On interrogation of the firearms register, he determined that, yes, the gun was registered to Ronald S of said address, but no valid licence had been issued. This is a serious offence that can carry a prison sentence. The records also revealed that there were three other unlicensed firearms registered to Ron. The Officer said that they would need to conduct a search of the house in an attempt to recover them. He made a concession that they could arrange to take Ron out, and that they would conduct the search in his absence. This was done, and indeed these items, plus ammunition, were found and confiscated.
Not long after this that Phyllis was discharged from hospital. I saw Ron the day she arrived back. If before this he had been drifting, panic-stricken through deep oceanic water with no land in sight and unseen predators circling beneath his feet hanging into the dark water, he now at least had been provided with a friendly bobbing life-boat. The storm clouds moved off. Light and hope were restored, and the panic paranoia of torture and torment were discernible only as miniscule dots on the horizon, easy enough to ignore in favour of unfettered fantasy.
Plans were already afoot to relocate the couple to a home where Phyllis would have a private room on the first floor, and Ron would be cared for in the ground-floor dementia ward. Probably uninformed about some of the details, Ron seemed happy with the arrangement and said that he would finish rebuilding the Dart so that he could get out and about, and would be able to drive around on occasions to say hello to his former neighbours on the street. This was a different story to the one I heard from Billybob later that same day. He confided that he had managed to find a buyer for the pieces of the little Dart sports car, and got a good price that would cover at least three months of their accommodation in the old age home.
What will Ron remember about the gate, the guns and the Dart? What dim and fragmented memories will give him joy, and what dark voids will remain to haunt him?
Hail to thee, blithe Spirit…bird thou never wert
*Photo credit: Pixabay