He stared up at the ceiling, the room closing in around him. The fan whirled painfully humming through the heavy air counting the muffled seconds with him.
“Thirty-eight, thirty-nine, forty…”
His fists clenched, his joints tense waited restless in bed, aching to move. Two weeks, fourteen days, he had waited; crawled through the minutes of exercise, therapy and the slop they called food. Waiting for the fortnightly shift change, the day with fewer of them. The creak of the wheels brought word of the cart, the check of the night. The wheel rattled on the hard floor worn down by years of watchful surveillance. Three checks, three checks; they felt he warranted. The wheels clattered closer, footsteps behind it audible now, faint. He was expecting them so he heard them earlier than usual. His hand closed over the cloth bundle at his side feeling his tools, his plan; the broken spoon, the razor blade, the pen torch he’d stolen from his son the last time they’d met.
The wheels paused outside his door, a shadow passed, it was Muriel, he’d know her anywhere, that bulky large head with that frizzled shock of hair that hung over her shoulders, her frame was unmistakable. The wheels scraped on, his eyes flicked to the rafters splitting the ceiling; he’d once considered it, letting it all go; only if I fail he thought rising slowly as the sounds faded around the corner.
He closed his hand around his only weapon, his only companion, holding it close and with the clothed bundle walked silently towards the door. His breath caught in his throat as he bent to the keyhole. Swallowing he winced as he felt the pressure rise on his bruised knees. He jammed the stem of the spoon into the hole jimmying it, rattling it, decibels echoing within and without.
A click, the knob eases, the door swung inwards noiseless. He rose, weapon in hand, his alpenstock and shuffled silent into the familiar corridor. Fingers brushing, felt the flaky paint, the rough cracked cement beneath as he trod cautiously in the dark. Slow, ever forward. Muriel’s voice resounding rang through the hallways. Laughter, mocking, deriding. Getting caught meant expulsion, expulsion not escape. Banishment not freedom. A world of downers, sedatives, masked emotions and blank faces. Memories lost, lives squandered, forgotten; freedom from life itself.
He could see it now, the chute. Daily he’d observed them drop, soiled sheets, stained with lives, trapped, waylaid; dropped into a bottomless pit wiped clean to return, their struggles, their journeys, hollow, trivial. Escape lay at the bottom of the pit, salvation. His knees ached as he edged forward, step by agonizing step; his breath raspy, seemed loud. They would hear him, they would hear him; Why weren’t they talking, had they heard him; they’d heard him. Paranoia flew through his mind as his hand felt the cold metal of the laundry chute door.
Muriel laughed. It was her last night. From tomorrow she was warden. No more changing sheets, soiled linens, vitriolic taunts. She was free, finally free. She raised her tea to her lips. A loud thud echoed through the halls startling Muriel. She rose hurried; a fall, a broken hip, what was it this time. She strode angry towards the maintenance closet, the cart noisy ahead of her, its wheels swivelling dangerously close to freedom from their axes.
The laundry chute door next to the closet swung creaking softly on its hinges. Panic flickered on Muriel’s face, she ran now, the cart; her tea forgotten, rousing the guards running down to the laundry. Baskets of sullied linen lay, Muriel flung them, her hands wet with bodily fluids. Angry she delved into baskets, sheets flew free billowing across the room. Her hands closed on a firm bundle, she drew it out; a walking stick with a metal knob heavy lay in her hand. A guttural roar escaped Muriel’s throat, her freedom now snatched away.
He walked slowly out of the closet willing his old knees to walk down the flight of stairs. Each step tougher, bereft of his support, his staff. Each step lighter, each step eager, he walked past the main doors below the lit sign, ‘Azaad Old Age Home’.