Two sharp raps of hard knuckles on the door roused George from his afternoon nap, cruelly interrupting his dreamtime. The hydraulic door stopper resisted at first, but then released its grip with a loud sigh and the squeaky door swung open wide. An overly-cheerful voice announced:
“Got a visitor for you George. New girl. Cheer you up”.
It was that dragon of a social worker again, grumbled George to himself as he fumbled for his glasses on the bedside table. Towing along behind was the latest in a row of reluctant delinquents in community service, who reckoned visiting oldies was an easy option. George had lost count, hardly remembered any names and definitely no faces. Most just wanted to fill their hours, thought George, and he had to do most of the talking. Treat me like some therapist. Who’s the patient here?
“This is George”, said the social worker, half turning to the shadowy figure behind her. “Bit grumpy, not one for social chit-chat, needs cheering up a bit.”
Stepping up to where George half-lay in his bed, she announced as though George were interested, “This is Lee! She’ll be visiting for a while. I’m sure you’ll get on fine.” George snorted, louder than he had planned. The social worker raised a stern eyebrow: “Be kind to Lee now George, she’s had a rough ride!” Lee flinched, no way she was going to talk with this old man.
“We’ll start with an hour today just to get acquainted, see how you get on together“, continued the social worker. “Come by my office on the way out Lee. “And George”, she said wagging her finger, “no nonsense and keep your hands to yourself.”
The door thudded as it closed behind her, leaving the room silent as in a vacuum. George turned to look out of the small window, while Lee remained standing just inside the door, keeping a safe distance and looking sullenly down at the floor, both avoiding eye contact.
Nobody spoke for several long minutes. Finally George nodded towards the worn sleazy brown armchair at the foot of the bed: “You c’n sit down if you want. Can’t stand there for ‘n hour.” Lee waited a minute or so and then flopped down in the chair with a sigh, not wanting to seem keen.
“How many” asked George after a while.
“Fifty”, she mumbled.
“Serious stuff. Wanna’ talk ‘bout it?” asked George in his friendliest voice.
They returned to silent mode, trying hard to ignore each other. “Well, I tried”, said George to himself. “No way I’m gonna’ tell him anything”, thought Lee.
“Okay if I get my book out?”asked George eventually.
“It’s under the bed.”
“Why you hidin’ it there?”
“So’s the dragon doesn’t find it.”
“Your social woman.”
Hiding a slight smile, Lee got down on her knees, dragged the book out and heaved it up onto the bed.
“Ouch!” shouted George, “that was my leg.”
“Your fault for reading heavy books.”
“It’s the Koran.”
“No shit! You one of them Muslims then?”
“Nope, but it’s useful.”
Lee retreated to the chair, curling up protectively as she recalled the social worker’s warning to George. She slid out her phone from a back pocket and hunched over the screen, in a world of her own. She checked that she had the number to the social worker, just in case.
George sat up in bed, holding the Koran against his chest, and started doing a series of sit-ups. The bed springs creaked, disturbing Lee who looked up from the screen.
“What ye’ doin’?”
“Training, can’t ye’ see?”
“Not allowed to train in here. They’re ‘fraid I’ll get too strong, dangerous. Don’t you go tellin’ the dragon now!”
“S’long as you keep quiet about this”, said Lee, holding up the phone.
“Done deal”, said George.
They both resumed their forbidden pastimes, comrades in sin, until George feeling uneasy at her presence, announced: ”Time’s up. See you tomorrow then?”
Lee slipped the phone back into her pocket and slouched out of the door, leaving only silence behind. George slipped the Koran under the bed and fell asleep, exhausted after his sit-ups.
George didn’t expect her to turn up again, they didn’t usually. Ten past the hour she pushed open the door with her shoulder and made for the chair.
“You didn’t knock” said George.
“So! Why should I?”
“Could have caught me in a compromising situation.”
“An embarrassing moment.”
“Yea, right. Such as doing sit-ups with the book. Well, you weren’t.”
“Good to hear you’re in a talkative mood today Lee”, said George smiling.
“Whatever”, said Lee, with an exaggerated grimace, slipped out her phone and slumped in the armchair.
George’s response was to heave up the Koran and start his training programme, in slow motion.
Lee pretended to ignore George but after a few minutes she sighed: “D’you have to do that when I’m here?”.
“Best time. Dragon won’t come in when you’re here. Doesn’t want to disturb our social dialog.”
“Talking. You and me. Supposed to develop your social skills, and provide me with some company.”
“No shit! Not doing so well there then are we?”
“Just read the book and leave me be.”
“It’s in Arabic.”
“Can’t read Arabic.”
“Why buy a book you can’t read?”
“Don’t you get it?” said George irritably, “I bought it for the weight, for training, not to read.”
“Could ‘ave bought one in English.”
“The Arab one was heavier, and cheaper .”
Lee stared at George for a minute or two, not speaking, a puzzled look on her face. George studied the deep furrow on her forehead. It deepened as she asked:
“What you in ‘ere for? Don’t seem sick to me. What’s your problem?”
George didn’t like talking about himself, his problems, but her face demanded an answer:
“Dangerous, they said.”
“Seriously. Old people don’t OD.”
“You’d be surprised.”
“If you’re so dangerous, how come they let me sit here by myself? I’m only sixteen.”
“Maybe they’re testing us.”
“See what’ll happen maybe”, said George. “Anyway, you must be dangerous too if you’re in the programme.”
“You’ve got it all wrong, I’m not dangerous” said Lee emphatically.
“Why’re you in the programme then?” said George triumphantly.
“Did a few things, small stuff.”
“Wanna’ talk about it?” asked George, feeling she was opening up a trifle.
“No, you first.”
“Tell me about the OD. What makes you so dangerous?”
George hesitated and fell silent, not convinced this was a good idea. He cleared his throat, thinking, but an insistent knocking on the door changed everything. George and Lee exchanged glances. She seemed scared but quick as a flash jumped up, slid her phone under his pillow and then fell back into the chair, pretending to be half asleep.
The dragon pushed open the door. George suspected that she had been eavesdropping, but said nothing.
“Overtime today Lee. That’s a good sign. George keeping you busy with his tales. Off you go then, see you again tomorrow.”
Lee stared hard at George, before making a barely noticeable nod towards the pillow and then left.
“How you two getting on George,” asked the dragon.
“All right I guess. Not very talkative. Rather be with her friends than an oldie like me. What kinda trouble she in?”
“You know that’s confidential George. “
“Fifty hours is a long stretch for one that young. Must be serious.”
“My lips are sealed,” said the dragon, pretending to zip them up.
Day 2, late
It had been a tiring, intense day for George so he rested most of the evening. He forgot about the phone, until at about nine he heard it ring from under his pillow. He lifted the pillow and looked at the phone. The signal got louder. It was silver coloured with a large blue illuminated screen. George didn’t know what to do, how to stop it. On the screen there was a green button with the word ANSWER inside. George tried pressing it but the message just slid away. He wrapped the phone up in some old socks and hid it behind the bedside table.
Lee was early, walked right up to George and whispered loudly: “Why didn’t you answer the phone. Called you lots of times. What’s up with you?” She held out her hand: ”Give it here!”
“Couldn’t figure out how to answer. Hid it away so’s the dragon wouldn’t find it”, said George, retrieving the phone and handing it over to Lee.
“Thanks, at least it’s safe”, said Lee, sitting down at the end of the bed. “Let me show you what to do.”
She was surprisingly patient with George, who had never owned or even held a cell phone before. He made notes in a small worn black notebook, using the stump of a thick lead pencil.
After the phone lesson, Lee retreated to her armchair. George sat with the Koran, flicking through the pages, following the strange snake-like writing with his finger. He didn’t feel like doing any sit-ups. The only sound in the room was George flicking through the pages, and Lee tapping the screen with her long, scarlet fingernails.
George was nervous. He wanted to ask Lee what she had done to end up in the programme, try to help her maybe. Finally he plucked up courage:
“Do you regret what you’ve done Lee?”
She looked up from the phone; “Whaddya mean, regret?”
“You must have done something. If you wish you hadn’t, you regret it” explained George.
“No, he got what was coming to him.”
“No. But somebody had to do it.”
“Ask a lot of questions for an old man, don’t you.”
“Trying to figure out why you look so unhappy.”
Lee felt cornered, huddled up again in the chair, feeling safer with the phone for company. George returned to his book, wishing he had kept quiet. But he couldn’t let go:
“If that chair could take you back in time, or forward into the future, which would you choose?” Lee didn’t answer, but he felt that she was thinking about it.
After a few minutes George answered his own question: “I’d go back in time, to fix some stuff, things I did wrong, hurt people.”
“Well what’d be the point of you going into the future when you don’t have one,” said Lee.
“No, I guess you’re right.”
“What stuff would you change, do different?” asked Lee, a little curious.
“Things I said, without thinking, hurt people close to me, lost ’em. Ran away from problems. Didn’t love enough.”
“ You sit here thinking about that all day long?”
“Some times. Try to forget.”
“What about you Lee?” asked George again.
Lee hesitated. George thought she would resist again, but he was wrong.
“I’d go back too. That’s all I’m gonna say.”
“All right Lee, no more.”
They both sat quietly, smiling occasionally, until the hour was gone.
Lee handed over the phone on her way out: “I’ll call you tonight, old man.”
Day 3, late
Late that night the phone rang, waking George. It took some time for him to find it and remember how to answer. It was Lee.
“Hello” said George, slowly and deliberately.
Reception was poor, outside somewhere, heavy truck growling in the background.
“It’s me”, said Lee in a tense, speeded voice, “It’s all over now. No regrets. Goodbye old man.” Then she was gone.
George waited but Lee didn’t turn up. He was standing near the window, when he heard the door open and the bustling social worker stepped inside. She seemed in a hurry:
“Lee won’t be coming again George.”
He half turned and looked, trying to interpret the expression on her professionally empty face.
“Don’t worry, George, there’s more waiting in the queue”, she said in a flat voice.
“NO MORE!” shouted George in a wavering voice as he turned towards the window, looking out over nowhere.