“Have you seen the double blank anywhere?”
“The double what?”
“The double blank.”
“What does it look like?”
“Nothing, it’s blank.”
“Are you takin’ the piss?”
“There’s no need to be crude, it was a perfectly reasonable question.” George shakes his head slowly in disdain at Dick’s response and shuffles his way back to his room.
“Ignorant oaf” he mutters as he takes out a list of names and scrolls down it, using his finger as a guide. He’s trying to distinguish the first letters of each name but his glasses aren’t up to the job for which they were initially installed; he has to push his head so far back that, by the time the word’s in focus, it’s too far away to read. “Blind glasses these are” he chunters, “how ridiculous is that? I’m wearing a bloody oxymoronic statement.” He knows it’s a waste of time complaining about them to Doris; he lifts his eyebrows and raises his voice several octaves, cocking his head to one side: “It’s not the glasses, George, it’s your eyes.” He mimics, capturing perfectly the sing-song tone which the manager uses to give the impression of boundless good humour, but which actually engenders a vexed atmosphere you could part with a comb.
“One of these days I’ll have a heart attack, right in front of her, that’ll curb her propensity for fatuous remarks.” He’s in full flow now; both sides of the conversation loud and clear. George has all his best conversations with himself, after all, he’s the most intelligent, articulate person in this place – “by a long shot”, as he habitually assures himself.
“Albert, Denis, Dick – there he is, Dick, by name and by nature.” George draws a line through Dick Watkins and it goes a bit wobbly so that it falls into the second half of Amy Turner. “Amy? Amy? I don’t know any Amy.” George stares at the name, trying to will the letters into focus. He takes off his glasses and rubs the corners of his eyes with his forefinger and thumb; then he puts his glasses on again and pushes his head back from the paper, squinting at the name. “Harry!” He says the name as if its owner has just emerged from the wardrobe, where he’s been hiding. “It says Harry, you daft bugger. Well obviously Harry hasn’t got the double blank.” And he pulls a line carefully through the first part of the name to join its existing tail. George folds the list, puts it back into the tin and puts the tin in the drawer; then he shuffles out into the corridor.
The aroma of liver and onions reaches his nostrils and he heads towards the lounge to see if Harry has come down for lunch yet.
“Liver and onions on a Thursday?” Asks George, his arms outstretched at his sides to emphasise the magnitude of his question as he passes Connie coming out of the wide doors of the lift.
“It’s not liver and onions on a Thursday.” Connie’s voice is sharp, her face stern; she used to be a dinner lady, she knows about these things.
“Exactly!” So why are we having them today?” George loves a mystery; it gives his mundane existence excitement. He looks at Connie in expectant poise, waiting to see her reaction when she absorbs this catastrophic anomaly in the fabric of their cloistered world.
“Because it’s Friday, you daft old fart.”
George’s jaw drops. He doesn’t even notice Connie moving off , like Boadicea on a Zimmer frame, her imposing bust thrust forward and her chin held high in between sideways movement. “Not so bloody clever now.” She mumbles, another point notched on the side of dinner ladies versus teaching staff.
“Bugger!” says George, pressing the button in the lift and scowling at the gap as the doors take an eternity to close.
The lounge is at the front of the building on the ground floor, and it has wide French windows which, when the weather’s hot, open onto the front garden. There are a series of settees and armchairs dotted around the room in a sort of random semi-circle with the TV in the gap. There are several more easy chairs set around coffee tables and some are placed by the big windows. The walls are magnolia, adorned with sepia prints of the town centre in the nineteen thirties and the carpet is patterned in various hues of red and pink. The room looks like some kind of statement about the fading of the past and the rosiness of the present, as if the residents need to be reminded of the correct order of those two periods in time.
Three of the female residents are sitting by the window enjoying the touch of the early spring sunshine as it pours through the glass and bathes them in light. Multitudes of dust mites glint and spiral in its beam, threatening to rush into the mouths of the women and choke them. But they seem oblivious, caught instead in a riotous monologue about euphemisms, being delivered by Ethel and accompanied by her rich, dirty laugh. Maggie and Ellen whoop and scream in delight at the bawdy soliloquy.
George squints at the clock over the fireplace; 12:10 pm, twenty minutes before lunch will be ready. Not enough time to get to Harry’s room for an update on the search, they’ll have to debrief over lunch.
“Morning, George.” Ethel calls her cheery greeting to him, her tale now finished. Maggie and Ellen are dabbing their eyes with the corner of their handkerchiefs and sniffing, gradually recomposing themselves from the effects of excessive laughter.
“Good afternoon, Ethel, Maggie, Ellen.” He nods acknowledgement to each of the women in turn. “Have any of you ladies seen one of my dominoes?”
The three women break out into renewed hoots and shrieks of hilarity and George is at a complete loss to know what could possibly be so funny about a missing domino. He feels his face flush as he watches the three in helpless laughter. The mirth shows no sign of abating and, disgruntled, he slopes off towards the visitors’ lounge, checking his flies as he goes…just in case. As he passes the manager’s office, he hears Doris on the telephone: “Yes, this evening would be fine, see you later, Doctor.” He hears the click of the telephone as it’s replaced in its cradle, and he resumes his route along the corridor, past the kitchen and into the visitors’ lounge.
Once there, George sits down on one of the hard backed chairs, takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes. He wonders what’s bringing Doctor Lester out on an unscheduled visit; he doesn’t usually come unless someone’s getting bad news about test results or a revised prognosis. He replaces his glasses and gets out the dominoes box. He pours the contents onto the large table and begins to sort the pieces from the double six downwards. He sighs heavily when he confirms the still missing piece, “not been put back then,” he mutters to himself. He puts all the other dominoes back into the box and puts the box back onto the shelf with the Scrabble, the Monopoly, the backgammon, the multitudes of jigsaws with pieces missing, assorted packs of playing cards, Old Maid and the chess set with 15 pawns and a cracked egg cup which passes for the sixteenth.
George heads back to the dining room and takes his usual seat next to Harry. The room is almost full and Doris and Anne are cheerfully bringing the plates of food through from the kitchen.
“There you are, Ellen, no onions, just the way you like it.”
“I can’t stand liver.” says Ellen, tucking in with gusto.
“We’ll see about getting those glasses changed for you next week, George.” Doris puts a plate of liver, onions and mash down in front of George and one in front of Harry.
“I reckon you must be dyin’, mate.” Harry’s Australian accent puts most of the emphasis on the words ‘dying’ and ‘mate’, as he leans over and pats the back of George’s hand.
George remembers the conversation he’s overheard outside Sister’s office and his appetite instantly deserts him.
“Only kiddin’, mate, they wouldn’t waste good money on glasses for a gonner, now would they?”
Good point, thinks George, his appetite returned from its short vacation.
“Now, what progress do we have on the double blank?” George asks.
“Well nobody’s owning up to anything but,” and Harry leans forward towards George, checking over his shoulder as he does so, “I have my suspicions.”
“Connie Baxter? Why on earth would Connie Baxter take it?”
“Shhh! She’ll hear you! Just to spite us I reckon, mate. I just heard her say to Ethel and Maggie that she had, and I quote, brought The Professor down a peg or two.”
Both men look over at Ethel’s table and, as far as either one of them can tell, the ladies are taking not one iota of notice of anyone. Unwilling to reveal his earlier slip up, George goes for the deflection:
“What does she mean, ‘The Professor’? How do you know she means us?”
The deflection turns into a genuine concern and Harry is forced to reveal that George is known as The Professor by most of the residents and staff “in a caring sort of way, mate”
George sighs, his day started badly with his interrogation of Dick and now it’s going slowly downhill like a reluctant bob sleigh.
Doris passes with the jugs of water for the table, “Was Frank alright when you saw him this morning, Harry?”
“What? Yeah, I reckon. Why?”
“Well he’s not here for lunch and it’s not like him to miss his favourite. I’ll pop and see him shortly.”
“You’ve asked Frank then?” George was keen to hear progress, “I take it I can cross him off?”
“Yeah, you can cross Frank off; he’s got nothing to say” And he giggles like a cartoon character, his shoulders moving up and down and his hand cupped over his mouth.
George looks at the slightly blurred features of his friend and wonders if all Australians go this odd when they get older. After a little consideration, he decides there is a high probability that they do.
“We can eliminate Dick too,” George reports. “I questioned him this morning and he knows nothing – about anything I shouldn’t wonder.” He glances over at Dick who’s licking gravy off his knife and staring out the window. “Right, well I’ll have to consult the list, but I think that just leaves Hughie for the men and about another fifteen ladies. I’ll check with Doris again too in case she saw it when she was vacuuming this morning.”
George wipes his mouth with his napkin and drags himself to his feet, using the table as a lever. “I’ll ask Hughie now, he’s just finishing lunch. You check this room once everyone’s gone. Rendezvous at 18:30 hours in the visitors’ lounge then?”
“Right oh, mate.”
George shuffles off to where Hughie is pushing his empty plate away from him and he touches the blurred outline on the shoulder. “Afternoon, Hughie.”
“Hello, George, what can I do for you?”
“Have you seen the double blank anywhere?”
George’s heart leaps.
”It’s one of the dominoes in a set.”
George just stands and stares at him, so Hughie asks: “Anything else?”
“No, no, nothing else. Thank you for that, Hughie.”
Hughie smiles: “Don’t mention it, George.”
“By a long shot” mumbles George as he works his way slowly out of the dining room, navigating around tables and chairs and very nearly coming a cropper in the handle of Lillian’s handbag, which she’s left on the ground like a noose.
George takes the opportunity to shorten the list further:
“Have you seen any of the dominoes, Lillian?”
“I might have done. Are they the ones that did that record with the guitars where they all danced in a row and then they went on holiday in a bus? I liked the one with the big glasses, what was his name now?”
She shouts across the table: “Ellen, what was the name of that chap with the glasses who was in the Dominoes?”
George slides away from the table and leaves the conversation to continue on its wayward path, oblivious of the course originally set for it. I’m the only one in here who still has any faculties intact, he concludes, heading for the lift and the sanctuary of his room, where he intends to update the list before he forgets who he’s spoken to.
The effort of finding the names and striking them off the list leaves George exhausted, his eyes have a dull ache at the back of them, like they’re trying to escape from the sockets in a bid to dodge the constant demands being put upon them. He takes his glasses off, lies down on the top of his bed and closes his eyes, I’ll just have five minutes he thinks.
It takes a while for the urgent whisper to register in George’s brain and then to classify it as belonging to the real world as opposed to the absurd dream he’s just been having where’s he’s standing at a bus stop, trying to keep a giant jigsaw puzzle piece from falling over, and for some perfectly valid reason which now escapes him, he isn’t wearing any trousers.
George opens his eyes to see Doris shaking him. For a couple of moments, he’s completely disoriented; his bedside light is on and it seems to be almost dark outside.
“What time is it?” he asks, squinting at the bedside table for his glasses but unable to open the lids properly because of the glare from the lamp which is blinding him.
“Here. It’s half past five.” Doris gives him his glasses and gently helps him to his feet, one hand on his elbow.
“We need you in the office, George, there’s been a bit of a do, the police need to talk to you.”
George stares at Doris as he manoeuvres his feet into his slippers and flattens down the wisps of hair at the side of his head. “What do you mean, a bit of a do?”
“Come on, it’s best you hear it all together,” and she leads the way down the corridor.
George is sitting in the familiar office, a cup of tea and some fig biscuits on the desk, and he’s looking at the extremely young man in a police sergeant’s uniform who’s standing in front of him, his hat on the desk, his radio crackling at his breast. Doris and Doctor Lester are sitting in the room too, they’re all waiting for the sergeant to speak.
“Mr Brookes, I wonder if you could tell me when you last saw Mr Turner?”
George stares at him.
“Harry” whispers Doris, leaning towards George and smiling at the police sergeant.
“Oh, Harry? Lunch, it was lunch today. Why? What’s happened to Harry?”
“What time was that?”
“Twelve thirty” Doris informs him, helpfully.
“I would like Mr Brooks to answer the questions if you don’t mind, Mrs Fields.”
Doris shuffles in her seat and her cheeks darken. She looks to Doctor Lester for moral support but the doctor is watching George and doesn’t oblige, so she stretches her neck and folds her hands on her knee, furious at being downgraded to second in command in her own office.
George smiles at her, warming to his role as the centre of attention. “I think it was about ten past one when I left Harry sitting at the table. Why?”
“Can you tell me how Mr Turner seemed to you, Mr Brooks?
George, remembered his earlier thoughts regarding Harry’s sometimes odd behaviour of late; “He’s Australian”, he says.
Doris, Doctor Lester and the policeman all stare at George in silence, as the finger of accusation of loss of faculties slowly shifts in his direction.
“He seemed fine.” George adds quickly, hoping to re-establish credibility. “Why?”
“Have you seen this before?” the sergeant holds up a plastic bag and there, sitting innocently in the corner, is the double blank.
“It’s the double blank! We’ve been looking everywhere for that! Where was it?”
“In Frank Butler’s throat.” It‘s the first time Doctor Lester has spoken, he’s chosen his moment well for best effect; it knocks George’s brain sideways. He stares, open-mouthed at the doctor.
“Why did Frank Butler eat the double blank?” He asks.
Even as the words leave his mouth, George is aware of the absurdity of them, but he can’t think what else to ask.
“At this point in time, we are keeping our options open. As yet, we have no reason to believe the domino was ingested voluntarily.” The sergeant is closing his notebook and tucking it into his top pocket. “We confidently expect the Coroner’s report to give us more information. In the meantime, Mr Butler, if you remember anything that you feel may be useful to us, please let Mrs Walters know and I’ll come back out to talk to you, in complete confidence of course.”
He lifts his hat from the desk and, reaching over the table, shakes Doctor Lester’s hand, then George’s.
“I’ll see you out.” Doris is only too pleased to escort the officer off the premises and out of her jurisdiction.
“Are you alright?” Doctor Lester moves his chair next to George.
“I don’t know. I really don’t know what’s happening anymore, I seem to occupy a parallel universe to everyone else in here. What’s happened, Doctor, and what’s Harry got to do with it?”
“Doris found Frank in Harry’s room this afternoon and called me right away. When I examined Frank, I found the domino wedged in his throat. Doris and I tried speaking to Harry but he wasn’t capable of understanding, I’m afraid he’s had a breakdown, George. I’ve referred him to the Royal for their assessment but he’s likely to need some time to recover.”
George takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes, then he pulls his handkerchief from his trouser pocket and wipes the moisture away.
“Eyes giving you gip?”
“Can’t see much of anything anymore, these glasses are useless.”
“Are they? We’ll re-test next week and change the prescription. But you know it won’t make a huge difference don’t you, George.”
“I know.” He puts the glasses back on. George is well aware of the gradual loss of his sight, it just seems to have accelerated recently and he’s having some trouble adjusting, especially today. Today has been a very odd day altogether; he can’t get his brain to accept the turn of events that seems to have played out while he was carrying a giant jigsaw piece around the streets in his cardigan and underpants. “Did Harry really try to choke Frank?”
“Frank had a heart attack, that’s clear, the question is whether it was brought on by the obstruction in his throat, or whether the domino was inserted after Frank was already dead. In my estimation, he died some time mid-morning. The autopsy will confirm one way or another and then we can clear this mess up.”
George sits quietly while Doctor Lester talks. In his mind’s eye, he sees Harry as the ventriloquist with Frank, the life-sized dummy, sitting on his knee, sucking the domino like it’s a harmonica, while Harry drinks a glass of milk.
“I’m sorry about your domino, I’m afraid you won’t see that for a while. Oddly enough, I was coming to see you this evening anyway, to give you these.” Doctor Lester reaches into his bag, takes out a rectangular wooden box and puts it on the desk. The box reminds George of the pencil case he used to have when he was at school. He slides back the lid to reveal an outsized set of dominoes with raised white dots instead of the usual inverted circles. He takes out the top domino and runs his finger along the surface, easily distinguishing three dots on one half, a ridge across the centre and two dots on the other half. Then he takes out the double six and turns it over in his hands, feeling the twelve symmetrical bubbles on its surface. He sniffs and looks at Doctor Lester down the length of his nose and out through the thick lenses.
“They’re perfect. Thank you, Doctor.” Then he sighs and lets his hands fall softly to his knee, the double six held between his fingers.
“I still can’t believe it”, he says.
“That Frank’s dead you mean?”
“No. That Harry had the double blank all along.”