The care home has a sound. The disembodied chatter of TV gameshow hosts, a distant timpani of plates and cutlery, the tectonic rumble of industrial washing machines. The residents themselves speak in broken syntax, haunted parentheses. Mouths yawning, forgetful.
Yulya starts her shift at seven. By the time she gets her first break at noon she is exhausted. A day in this place feels like circumnavigating the globe in a submarine.
A glance at her phone. Instagram — marriages, babies, dinners that aren’t just shades of beige on chipped plates. Staying in touch used to mean something, before the concept devolved via some fucked-up process into the click of a button, a digital heart against a stage-managed photo. Now we all stare at a world far away from the one we inhabit. A world that looks awfully bright, from behind a screen.
There is one text, from her mother — come home soon. Yulya came here to make a better life and to help her family but her resolve weakens when, with knotted limbs and bleach-chapped hands, she reads about unskilled workers in the newspapers, gets invited to fuck off back to your own country by thugs on buses.
She walks past Maurice, playing his usual game of chess. He’s playing black today (playing white too, of course).
“Knight to f6 I think Maurice, Petrov defence.” He looks up, a flicker of understanding, the revenant of a mischievous grin. He doesn’t move the piece.
Today, Agnes has received a letter. Her face lights up expectantly when she sees it in Yulya’s hand.
“Shall I read it to you Agnes?”
“Oh, yes please. Is it from Henry?”
It’s a copy of a solicitor’s letter, regarding her son’s power of attorney.
“My darling Agnes,” Yulya reads, “I am doing well on my travels, the weather is lovely and I am working very hard.”
There’s a subtlety to this — keep it vague but uplifting, too many details can be confusing.
“I will be home soon dearest, I cannot wait to see you. All my love, Henry.”
“Oh, thank you.” says Agnes, a little candle, glowing.
Agnes’s son was here last week, complaining as usual. Practically accused Yulya of stealing a piece of jewellery. Yulya could steal anything she wanted, not from Agnes — she never would — but from him. A simple distraction, a sleight of hand, she could lift his wallet and put it back without him noticing. That’s what you learn when your family can’t afford food.
She pretended her English wasn’t so good and let him rant. People who are used to getting whatever they want, find it hard to look death in the face or hold its bony hand.
Yulya rests Agnes’s head on her pillow, smooths her cotton hair over her baby-pink scalp. The light in her eyes is beginning to fade as she slips gently back into the static. Waiting for the last faint crackle of vinyl, the scratch of the needle, before the long silence.
Rick White lives in Manchester. His work can be found in the BIFFY50, Milk Candy Review and Storgy among others. @ricketywhite