The agile, elderly woman lifted out the piping hot pie from the microwave with her oven gloved hands and plonked it on the plate.
“Sit up! Sit up straight in your chair!”
The frail, elderly gentleman shifted slightly and coughed, tapping his throat with his bony fingers as he swallowed, and coughed once again.
The clock on the kitchen wall chimed one.
“Well come on then Tom, eat it!”
Tom's gaze remained on the table, the steam from the shepherd's pie wafting into the air and around his face.
Across from the table, the kettle on the counter did a sudden jig as the water gurgled around inside, jumping up and down, hitting the loosening lid. The switch clicked to off.
A woman walked into the kitchen with a visitor.
“Hi, dad, sorry to interrupt your lunch, I'm just doing a quick refill of coffee for my pal and I before we go out. Mom has already been introduced, but you were asleep last night when she arrived. Say hi to Rachel.”
Rachel looked over at the elderly gent. His eyes moved slightly upwards and began following her shoes as she moved a few steps forward to get the milk from the fridge.
He raised his head and looked directly at her. Her heart gave a sudden thud. He gave a slight smile, nodded at her and returned his gaze to the table. The elderly couple began their lunch, neither of them saying a word.
Esther took the tray out to the living room while Rachel jotted down a few shopping reminders to get on their return home later.
A minute or so passed. The silence screamed, get out!
“What do you think of my parents then?” Esther asked as she handed Rachel a mug of coffee and closed the living room door.
“Esther, it’s great to meet your parents but I feel I might be intruding. It was lovely of you to invite me to stay in your home for the week of the conference. Hotel accommodation for a week in the UK is not something I could afford, but that can be a blessing in disguise! Your invitation was a fabulous surprise as I hadn’t planned on going.”
“How could you be intruding if I invited you? I want friends visiting. Otherwise how can I connect with those far away.
Mum is eighty years old, dad is eighty nine. When I moved into my new home I invited them to move here. They have the en-suite bedroom on the first floor. I have my rooms and a bathroom on the second. Mum likes to be independent so I gave in to her wanting her own time in the kitchen. In the mornings dad has breakfast in bed. I'm not home from work every day until 4.00 pm.
My father always had a quiet, reassuring presence about him. I never heard him say a bad word about anyone. Mum was sixteen years old when she arrived in England from south-east Ireland. She met dad at a local parish dance.”
That night as Rachel lay in bed she was thinking of Tom. It was the way he had looked at her. Why did it continue to trouble her? She finally turned over and fell asleep.
The following morning, as the car pulled out of the drive, Esther's friend caught the curtain of Nellie's room dropping back into place. The niggle of Tom's look returned to her once again but was soon lost as she walked into the town hall where three thousand Christians were gathered for their first conference held in 1989.
Mass was scheduled for 3.00 pm opening up the conference week and introducing the speakers. It was during the Mass Rachel brought Tom in prayer to the Lord.
That night at supper Rachel mentioned Tom’s meals.
“I hope you don't mind me saying, Esther, but a microwave oven is not good. I never use one. Your dad needs fresh produce and fresh veggies, the best of natural goodness.”
“I know he should not be having microwaved food every day. Funny you mention fresh produce. He used to grow all his own and boy, those fresh veggies were so good. I know I need to do something about his daily food.”
Then she told Rachel a little bit more about her father.
“Dad was a soldier in one of the battalions sent out to Burma during the Second World War. He still has bad nightmares of what happened during his time there. I wake up at night, hearing him call out. I feel a bit scared for some reason, running down to see if he is alright. Mom is over protective and asked that I do not get up at night and come down to the room. She said he talks in his sleep and it passes, that it's recurring nightmares of the war where some of his friends were killed and wounded. She says he suffers from depression.”
“There’s a big difference between depression and oppression, an oppression can be one of imposed suffering. There are those who are too quick to wrongly slap the depression tag on a person’s back.”
“Interesting,” Esther said, thinking of recent incidents.
“Dad was, still is, a man of few words. He loved to sit by the open fire in the evenings lost in a book. He’s a big fan of Malcolm Muggeridge. He’s read all his books and publications and followed his life with avid interest.
Feel free to chat to dad, and call into his room. Pass no heed on my mum. But be warned, she supervises and assesses everything.”
“Do you think that's why there is so much tension in the house?” Rachel asked.
“So there is tension, as I thought! I was reared on a clinical attitude rather than a loving one, I don't mind admitting. I'm not sure everything is alright here, but I don't know what I'm trying to say. Does that sound daft?”
“Not daft at all, Esther. Don't be afraid, Let those niggles speak. Remember, we pull down the shutters of our hearts when fear speaks. But the breath of divine love moves through those shutters, if or when we are ready to invite Him in.”
It was the following evening, after the conference, Rachel decided it was time to pop into Tom. The visit was to end abruptly.
“Thank you for calling in dear, but Tom is tired and likes to rest.”
Rachel walked past Nellie and went over to Tom who was sitting in his chair by the window.
“Hi, Tom. I was at the conference today. It was really good. There were lots of people to meet and some really interesting speakers.”
Tom opened his eyes. He looked over at his wife who was standing at the open door. Then he smiled and nodded at Rachel before closing his eyes.
“Tom, I am here all week. I leave next Monday morning. I will call in again tomorrow to say hello,” she said quietly, placing her hand on his shoulder, before leaving the room.
The rain fell in a light drizzle, a heavenly hose giving earth its much needed shower. The suppressed mood, hanging in the air outside and in the house, was about to give way.
Rachel couldn't sleep. She drew back the curtains, to see the yellow dimmed street lights casting ghostly shadows on the deserted road. Now the rain poured down in heavy streams, the sound cascading like a heavenly waterfall over parched lawns, plants and flowers. The tree branches outside the window gratefully accepted the generous drops, like open-handed leaves outstretched, receiving the awaited downpour. Soon the shower was over, leaving nature refreshed and satisfied. Everything became still and quiet once again. She opened her pad and reached for a pen.
Then she heard the cry.
“Stop it! You're hurting me, you're hurting me, I say.”
It was Tom. Rachel listened, her eyes wide and alert, her pen still poised in mid-air.
“Be quiet you old fool. You'll wake Esther and I'm warning you.”
Rachel didn't wait. She raced down the stairs, her bare feet connecting instantly with the natural fibre from Esther's new carpet.
She stopped outside Nellie's room, her heart pounding. What should I do? She asked herself. Knock on the door? No! Wait, listen!
Then it happened again.
“Help me,” Tom cried out. “You're killing me, stop it. Mother! Mother, please help me.”
“Be quiet, I said! Your mother is long dead, you stupid man. If you don't be quiet I'll make you quiet, and you will have no lunch again tomorrow.”
Rachel walked into the room. Nellie was standing at Tom's bed, leaning over, her hand on his shoulder and speaking in a low, threatening tone. She swung around at the sound of the door.
“How dare you walk into my room without knocking,” she said, trying to contain her anger.
“I heard Tom crying out,” Rachel replied unapologetically.
Tom was breathing with difficulty, his trembling fingers tapping on his throat as he continued to swallow and gulp.
Tom opened his eyes and looked around. Esther arrived in behind Rachel. He began to cry, soft helpless sobs.
“Get out; get out the two of you. Now Esther, see how your Irish friend has upset your father.”
Rachel walked over to Tom's bed and stood in front of Nellie who was blocking her from assisting Tom.
“Stand out of my way, please.” Rachel said to her.
Esther watched on, her face turning white with fear.
Nellie refused to budge and clenched her fists as she looked at Rachel.
“Leave my bedroom, now,” she ordered Rachel.
“Stand out of my way or I will make an urgent night call to the Health Services,” Rachel persisted.
Nellie went over to her bed, grabbed her dressing gown and marched into the bathroom, closing the door.
Esther helped her dad sit up and asked Rachel to get a glass of water. There was nothing on his bedside locker. His shaking hands held the glass as if clinging on to some comfort. Rachel eased back Tom's pyjama sleeve and saw dark bruises on his upper arm.
“Have you been taking my dad's arm roughly,” Esther asked her mother in a shocked voice, as she emerged from the bathroom.
“Of course not, that's ridiculous. I just help him along and he's so slow. Sometimes I have to take his arm. He's thin so he bruises easily.”
The following morning the two women sat down to breakfast heavy hearted.
“I made a few phone calls, one to the doctor's surgery, the other to a local nursing home to see if they have a room for my mother. They have a counselling unit there.” Esther said, the absence of sleep showing on her eyes that had cried.
“If someone suffers any kind of psychological abuse, is it possible they lose weight?” she asked Rachel surprised at how peaceful she was taking it all now that she had looked at it all over a long night and had faced a long time fear.
“Yes, they can lose weight, quite a lot. They are threatened with being put away, so they live in fear and anxiety. Very often they are not given food, only in front of family or friends when they are visiting, or they often lose their appetite because of the way they are treated.”
“I feel so ashamed. Why did I not look at what was in front of me?” Esther asked.
“You have done what many won't do Esther. You did face it. This kind of abuse is also a hidden horror in Ireland and no doubt other countries. Elderly men and women are suffering silently. From what a social worker friend told me recently, the percentage of elderly men being abused is much higher and very hidden behind closed doors and false pious fronts.”
“Quick, quick!” Nellie cried, running into the kitchen.
“Tom slipped in the bathroom and I can't get him up. He's just lying so still and he does not seem to be able to speak.”
Esther grabbed the mobile house phone from its stand and ran upstairs after Rachel, telling her mother to go downstairs, unlock the front door for the doctor and wait there until he arrives.
She knelt by her father, checking the way he lay on the floor. She placed a blanket over him and slipped a pillow under his head. Rachel sat on the floor beside Tom while Esther called the doctor's surgery.
“You are going to be just fine, Tom,” Rachel smiled.
A faint smile appeared on his face. No words spoken. It was a smile that had them both holding back tears of angry and sad emotion.
“Tom, I'd like to ask you a few questions. I hope that's alright with you but there is no need to try and speak. Do you think you might be able to give one blink of your eyes to me in answer for 'yes', two blinks for 'no', and three blinks for 'I don't know.' Would you be able to do that, do you think?”
Tom gave one blink.
“Thank you, Tom. Are you in pain?”
Esther sat down beside her dad and took his hand in hers.
“Can you move?”
“Tom, this is a personal question, and you do not have to answer . Has your wife been cruel to you or putting you down when no one is around, causing you fear and anxiety?”
Silence for a few moments, then one blink as he held on to his daughter's hand.
“One more question, Tom, but only if you feel up to answering it. Did your wife push you?”
No blinks, only silence. Tom's eyes looked up at his daughter and then Rachel saw it – the look that Tom gave her on the first day they met in the kitchen - the silent cry.
“Thank you, Tom. You have nothing to fear. Esther is with you now and she won't leave you.”
Rachel stood up. The ambulance was pulling into the drive.
Esther was thankful for a year's leave of absence granted by her employer. Somehow she knew that time was precious with her dad. The doctor could not say when Tom would be ready to go home. The hair-line fracture would take time to heal and Tom needed to be built up with a weight target to be achieved first. Nellie was not permitted to visit her husband unless Esther was present with her dad and only if Tom agreed to her requested visit. The only other visitor allowed in was Tom's parish priest.
Over the following weeks, Esther enjoyed two daily visits to her dad, wheeling him out to the garden after lunch and reading to him before ending the day. His eyes lit up when Esther arrived in one evening with Malcolm Muggeridge's latest publication, ‘Conversion’.
“The sunlight is back in my heart,” he said to his daughter as they chatted together.
“The shutters in my own heart are up,” Esther said, knowing now that all was well again and Tom was happy once more.
It was late in the night when Tom woke up. A woman stood to the side of the bed, smiling at him.
“Mother? Mother! I knew you would return.”
The youthful serene lady leaned over and kissed her son lightly on the forehead.
The night nurse who was passing by Tom's bed heard what he said and wrote it down. She then called another nurse. Tom lay back on his pillows, his heart restful and peaceful, but his colour beginning to fade.
Esther woke up. It was 5.00am. She stared at the phone ringing beside her, the hospital number visible on the caller display.
The roads were empty of traffic. Another set of lights turned green as she drove through the next empty street. She had known fear, so many times in the past, now she knew interior peace. Tom was about to begin his journey home to God. Esther would just make it to the hospital in time.
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