Friday, April 16, 2021

The Incidentals Table by Liz Breen

Vincent Frobisher is losing his sight. He lives in an old town house with large bay windows overlooking a green with mature trees which rain cherry blossom each spring. 

He reaches for his walking stick every morning and climbs out of bed with the determination of an arctic explorer. Today, I will conquer the stairs and make it to my study once more. 

With each step he’s reminded of his youthful disregard for future infirmity. He never thought this day would come. This day has come. 

The living-room reeks of camphor. The moths are back and eating the upholstery. The place needs a good clean, a spring clean. But who will come? Nobody will come, because no one knows that Vincent lives without company, conversation, help, or laughter. 

The local newspaper’s on the mat. Its headlines are a depressing reminder of a world Vincent no longer inhabits, nor wishes to inhabit. There is still time to hear the sea, the coast is not far, and to fly a kite on a windy day. There’s still time to enjoy the scent of roses that lingers after its wearer passes, and prompts a pale memory of Livvie. 

Vincent picks up the newspaper, leaning on his stick for support, praying it will hold him long enough to reach an upright position.



The armchair, placed deliberately facing out towards the green, gives Vincent his only real connection to people going about their lives: running, walking, laughing and occasionally shouting. Dogs bark, and the birds sing most days. Thank goodness the birds sing. 

The newspaper advertisements are the only things Vincent is interested in. There’s the curry house at the nearby parade of shops offering twenty per cent off each takeaway order. Then there’s a new tattoo parlour opening up above the barber’s shop. Vincent smiles and thinks how amusing it would be to get a tattoo at his age, even though he dislikes them intensely. He picks up the magnifying glass on the incidentals table. Livvie always called it that. Your incidentals are getting everywhere, Vin. I’m getting you an incidentals table! Her voice still comes to him, when he closes his eyes to catch forty winks. It’s not your glasses, Vin, it’s time to shut your eyes and listen instead. 

The personal advertisements are selling a wide range of items: prams, lawnmowers, paddling pools, dog baskets, and offering services, language tutors, personal trainers and cleaners. He could get a cleaner. He should get a cleaner, a local woman who could dust his books, hoover the rugs and scrub the bathrooms back to Livvie’s standard of cleanliness. Livvie didn’t want people ‘who did’. She told white lies that made Vincent laugh. Veronica at Bridge Club was regaled with fantastic tales of an imaginary housekeeper named Joanie, who was worth her weight in gold.

The telephone sits on the incidentals table next to Vincent’s water tablets. He picks up the receiver and dials the number of the Mick & Stan Cleaning Company.

The conversation lasts only a few minutes. A lady named Joanna will come tomorrow morning at eleven to assess the required hours and agreed tasks. The hourly rate is ten pounds, twelve for a ‘deep clean’. Vincent says thank you four times, which he regrets as soon as he puts down the 

receiver. Nobody likes a ninny who’s too emollient. He scolds himself. Vincent is reminded of Joanie, how strange that the real cleaner has a similar name to Livvie’s fictional one. 

*

Joanna will have to wait. He needs time to reach the front door. 

- Mr Frobisher?

- Yes. Please come in. It’s - Joanna - isn’t it?

- It is. This is my ID badge. It’s not a brilliant photo, but you can see it’s me. 

Vincent puts on his glasses hanging on a gold chain around his neck, to ensure they’re never mislaid. The woman in the photo bears no resemblance to the person standing in front of him. Joanna looks stern and pale in the photograph, but she’s smiling now, plumper than her ID badge shows, and younger looking, too. 

Joanna declines a cup of tea, and departs immediately after conducting her thorough assessment of the house and what’s required cleaning-wise. She won’t be doing the cleaning herself she says. Joe will be coming to clean, and will be helping him with the paperwork, the forms that need filling in because ‘offline’ is how Vincent prefers to be. Computers are confusing. I much prefer paper, Vincent insists.

*

Joe will have to wait, too. The walking stick isn’t for speed, but for safety. 

- Mr Frobisher?

- Come in. It’s - Joe - isn’t it?

Vincent leads Joe into the front living-room, with the shelves of books and the smell of camphor, the chewed upholstery, and the view of the pink confetti trees. 

- Wow. Your books, so many… I love books. I read all the time.

Joe is young. Maybe he’s a university student, earning some extra money. He has thick brown hair. He’s skinny and tall. He has it all to come.

- Take a look. Borrow some books, if you like, and bring them back when you’re finished reading them. Treat the house as a library.

Joe puts down his zinc bucket of cleaning materials and approaches the shelf where the best books, the favourite books are kept. Vincent can’t read their spines from where he stands but, like braille, if he goes over to the shelf, he can touch the books with his eyes closed and recite their title and author. 

Joe is standing in front of Vincent’s Dickens’ collection. He takes down, A Tale of Two Cities.

- I’ll get started on the cleaning, and may I take a proper look at the books afterwards?

- Of course. You still have time to read all the great books… Make it count. I shall guide you, if you like. Avoid reading anything that doesn’t nourish your soul. If a sentence trips on your tongue, it can’t rip out your heart.

Vincent hopes Joe will come each Wednesday at ten and clean the house until it’s easier to breathe. 

Vincent is taking a nap in his chair when Joe gently taps his shoulder. 

- I’m finished, Mr Frobisher. You need more toilet roll, and bleach. I can pop out now and get them if you need me to. I can bring back the receipt and add it to my invoice. 

- Please, call me Vincent. Did you know that Vincent comes from the Latin, vincere, to conquer? You are so kind to offer me help, Joe. I sometimes make it to the shop myself. My shopping is usually done by the woman who lives next door. She thinks I live with my wife. I call out to Livvie,  The shopping’s here, darling. 

- Where is your wife?

- On the desk, in my study. Well, the urn is. I like to pretend she’s still here. Do you think I’m mad?

Joe sits down in the matching armchair beside Vincent and looks out at the pink blizzard.

- Do you read anymore, Vincent?

Vincent decides to be honest. Joe knows. There’s no book on the incidentals table. The glaze is getting worse. He looked at his face in the mirror last week, just inches from the glass, and saw an old man with squinting, opaque eyes.

- Did you make my bed?

- I did. You’re wise to sleep downstairs. Good, big house this. A lot for just you. I took the initiative and rounded up all the plates, glasses and mugs, and washed them.

The mug on the bedside table has stayed there for three years since Livvie died. Joe wasn’t to know. Vincent should have said not to touch it. He made her tea in bed that morning before she left for her doctor’s appointment. The receptionist called out Livvie’s name four times but she didn’t answer. She fell asleep in the chair and never woke up. A peaceful, gentle death, the doctor said. She’d been in the right place, at least.

Vincent takes off his glasses. He’ll remember the awe Joe has for his books. He doesn’t see the dust, just the gold.

- Will you return? Will you clean for me every Wednesday?

- How else will I be able to borrow your books?

Joe gets up and goes over to the shelf.

- Read to me, please. Directly left of, A Handful of Dust you’ll find a copy of Great Expectations. 

Joe settles down in the armchair and opens the book.

- My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip.

© Liz Breen

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