The Red Chair
by Emma Lee
As I push my dark brown fringe out of my eyes, I notice him push a red-framed wheelchair with a cushion in the seat along the street past cramped bedsits. The chair is empty. It doesn't squeak as he pushes and fallen autumn leaves don't appear to hinder the movement of the chair. The man stoops as he pushes with shuffling, hesitant steps. In contrast to the wheelchair, his clothes, an old grey suit and worn boots, look as if they would disintegrate on contact with a washing machine: the dirt seems to be holding them together. His hair is beginning to turn into dreadlocks and his beard is turning brown with dirt. Despite his glasses, he screws up his eyes to look at me as I walk past.
As I pass him, I can hear him mumbling apparently to himself. I can't make out his words, but the tone is tender, loving. And I realize he is talking to an imagined occupant of the chair. Or perhaps a previous occupant.
I slowly shake my head as I fumble for keys to the place I live. I can't really call it home. Home seems too friendly a name for somewhere with a black mildew-speckled bathroom with dingy beige woodchip wallpaper just about still clinging to the walls, a threadbare carpet and that many draughts counting them provides an alternative way of getting to sleep. However, it's as far as my shop assistant's wage goes.
As I make a cup of tea, I begin to think about the old man and his wheelchair. I know it's not worth contacting the authorities. As soon as I mention the area, they'll log the call as low priority. This being the red light district, peopled by low or no income households and the combination of low rents and its proximity to the railway station seems to make it a magnet for those down on their luck.
And besides, what could I tell them exactly? There's an old man wandering around talking to a wheelchair, who doesn't appear to have had a bath for a long time? He's not dangerous, not a threat and this is the first time I've seen him. Besides, wasn't I almost caught the other day talking to a photocopier in exasperation because a customer wouldn't understand that if you have a crap original, you get crap copies. So who am I to judge an old guy talking to a wheelchair?
I find myself looking out for him as I trudge back from the copy shop. On those occasions when I don't see him, I worry something has happened, then remind myself I'm not his neighbour. I don't even know where he lives, so I couldn't check up on him even if I wanted to.
As autumn gives way to winter and I bury myself under two quilts with a hot water bottle, I notice the old man's acquired a woolly hat. A hat as grey as his suit. But the wheelchair's been re-painted. He must have really cared for whoever the chair belonged to.
Gradually I conclude that he's probably better off walking the winter streets with his wheelchair than stuck at home. Given his general air of neglect, I imagine his home to be reduced to the use of one room with a decrepit, stuffingless chair, a dodgy ill-maintained gas fire and layers of dust with a smell so bad that, if he passed away in front of the fire, it would be weeks before any neighbours would notice. At least outside someone could see him.
He never appears to get mugged. Residents and the homeless seem to walk past him as if he's invisible. Even the kids will ignore him, maybe taking in the suit and deciding he's not worth mugging. Either way he's become untouchable, like there's a protective bubble around him.
But something did happen. One night I shivered my way back from work. As I rounded the corner, I see him lying on the pavement as if he'd just collapsed, like he'd had a heart attack or something. I rushed over. Momentarily I hesitated as his smell hit me, then I reached down to find a pulse. There was one, although it was very faint.
I dashed to the phone box, picking my way over shattered glass as I went. Thankfully the phone was actually working. I asked for an ambulance and described where he'd fallen.
Slowly I ambled back to the old man. Underneath the ingrained grime, his skin seemed very pale, bloodless almost. Though he still seemed to be breathing, laboured, but breathing. A good thing really as I didn't know any first aid. I blew on my fingertips as they were growing numb. My breath was as cold as the night air.
All of a sudden he croaked: a strangled noise came from his throat. I tried to ignore the smell as I crouched near him.
"Ambulance is on its way," I said, trying to sound cheerful, although I really wanted to be tucked under my quilts.
"You . . . Look . . . Like . . . her," he managed.
I had to strain to catch his voice. Once glance at his face told me not to ask who he was on about. His eyes had misted over and he was staring past me.
"She was a real beauty. So gentle, so beautiful. . . "
I began looking round for the ambulance, just in case I'd missed the siren and it was crawling up the road. I hunched further into my coat. Lying on the pavement must be freezing, but I thought it best not to move him in case he'd injured himself falling.
"She had dark hair too," a smile creased at the corners of his lips.
Then silence. He seemed to have drifted off into some reminiscence.
I had to reach for his pulse again as I began thinking he'd died on me. Granted I didn't think he'd much time left, but I'd rather he hung on until the ambulance got here.
"She have brown eyes, too?" I asked, hoping he'd start talking again. I shifted my weight from hip to hip, trying to keep some warmth in them. My feet had already gone numb.
"A dancer," he said, "a time to dance."
A siren sounded. I heard a screech of brakes behind me. Gradually I stood up. My knees complained.
"We'll take over," said an authoritative voice. "Know his name?"
I shrugged and shook my head.
Two uniformed men asked the old man questions I didn't hear him answer as they rolled him onto a stretcher and carried him to the ambulance.
Meanwhile I tried to rub some life back into my knees.
The ambulance drove off.
I felt as if I'd been dismissed. As soon as I'd confessed to not knowing the old man's name, I'd made myself redundant. His smell lingered, but the pavement suddenly looked empty.
I took a step in the direction of my bedsit. Then nearly screamed in agony. The cold had really got to my legs.
I saw the wheelchair.
Swallowing my cries, I hobbled towards it. Tentatively I pushed it. The chair moved easily. I pulled it back towards me. Gingerly I sat in the chair. The flowery cushion seemed lumpy, until I realized there was a seat belt and I was sitting on it. I reached down to the handles on the wheels and pushed myself forward. It took less effort than I anticipated.
I wheeled myself back to my bedsit and dragged it in with me. As I waited for the kettle to boil so I could do a hot water bottle, I wiped a duster over the chair and shook the cushion.
The chair's still here now. I've never used it since. Although I do occasionally wheel it round the room to check the wheels still work and have re-sprayed it a couple of times. It's virtually part of the furniture. I keep telling myself I'll be able to return it one day.
Copyright©2004 Emma Lee