September 6, 2009 by markstani
(this story first published in First Edition)
On her eighty-fifth birthday, Alice Johnson changed her name by deed poll and had tiger stripes dyed into her hair. She proudly paraded her new look around the old folks’ home, and announced that from this moment on she would refuse to answer to any name other than Sunbeam. Five years later, she decided she needed a man.
Sunbeam Johnson joked that she had allowed fact and fiction to fuse so much over the years, it took the fortnightly visits of her daughter-in-law to remind her that she was not still a virgin, and to wish she was. She owned an almost complete set of Black Lace books and sat them alphabetically on the extra bookshelves she had had specially built: Animal Passions. Avenging Angels. Barbarian Geisha. Bedding The Burglar. Bound in Blue. Cassandra’s Conflict. Conquered. Dance of Obsession. Dark Designs. Feminine Wiles. Forbidden Crusade. Gothic Blue. Handmaiden of Palmyra. Insomnia. La Basquaise. Like Mother, Like Daughter. Lure of Satryia. Make You a Man. Mistress. Moon of Desire. Naked Flame. Peep Show. Raw Silk Rude Awakening. Runners and Riders. Searching for Venus. Silent Seduction. Sleazy Rider. Stallion. Sticky Fingers. Strictly Confidential. Stripped to the Bone. Summer of Enlightenment. The Devil Inside. The Lion Lover. The Ninety Days of Genevieve. The Reluctant Princess. The Society of Sin. Undercover Secrets. Undressing The Devil. Valentina’s Rules. Volcanic Affair. Wicked Work. Wild Kingdom.
Her hairdresser, Kayleigh, had cautioned against the tiger stripes, insisting that with Sunbeam’s hair the way it was these days, so thin and brittle, it would be more a case of having to paint the stripes straight onto her scalp, and the bleach could burn.
‘Burn?’ Sunbeam had screwed up her face in mock disgust. ‘I lived through the Blitz, darling. Do you really think I’m bothered about a little bit of burn?’
Since the tiger stripes, Sunbeam and Kayleigh came up with a new garish colour scheme every couple of months. Navy blue. Salmon pink. Polka dots. She insisted Kayleigh push her around the communal areas to show off her new hairdo each time.
‘Wait till the blue rinse brigade get an eyeful of this,’ she’d say, pushing open her door and clacking the bangles together on her thin arm to let everyone know she was coming. ‘We’ll give the old buggers heart attacks.’
Sunbeam had the end room in the new annex. Her window looked out directly over Back South Lane and the flat crop fields beyond. She seldom mixed with the other residents. She demanded to be brought all her meals, saying she would eat her meals where she damn well wanted, and how would an eighty-nine year old hunger striker go down in their glossy healthcare brochures. She resisted all attempts by nurses and social workers to impinge upon her daily routine for any longer than to change the bedsheets and empty her commode.
She generally left her room only for her hair parades or to see her daughter-in-law, whom she insisted on meeting in the foyer. Her daughter-in-law refused point-blank to call her Sunbeam. Sunbeam took turns between feigning dementia and pretending to be profoundly deaf. She told Kayleigh her daughter-in-law only kept coming round so she could keep a rough check on how long she’d have to wait for her inheritance.
Her daughter-in-law would take one look and plead with the nurses as if Sunbeam wasn’t there.
‘Can’t you do something about this? Look what she’s doing to herself! Look at the state of her!’ She would turn and jab a finger towards Sunbeam’s chest and move close enough for Sunbeam to smell her office-break coffee breath. ‘Is this how you wanted it all to end? Is it? We had no choice, Alice. You don’t understand. It’s for your own good.’
Her daughter-in-law would stamp out of the foyer in frustration. A nurse would begin wheeling Sunbeam back to her room.
‘If I want to spend my life savings on a mint choc chip hairdo, I’m going to spend my life savings on a mint choc chip hairdo,’ Sunbeam would cackle triumphantly when she’d gone. ‘And there isn’t a thing you’re going to be able to do about it, lady.’
The nurse would keep pushing, and stifle a smile.
Kayleigh was the only one who could reason with her, but she had long since stopped trying. Because of Sunbeam’s hair, and the complaints it generated from her official next of kin, Kayleigh had been asked to stop coming to the home three times.
The first time, Sunbeam gave the replacement hairdresser such a hard time over her inability to blend a suitable aquamarine that she fled in tears. The second time, she refused to take any of her medication until Kayleigh returned, and said she was prepared to die for the cause. The last time, she had wheeled herself half-way down Back South Lane in her undergarments before they realised she had gone. When they caught her, she announced with a straight face that she was heading where the action is.
The way Kayleigh saw it, Sunbeam had lived long enough to choose whatever kind of colour of hairdo she wanted. She brought new bleaches every time and would carefully line them up on Sunbeam’s dressing table for her to examine.
‘How about a little bit of fuchsia today?’ Sunbeam would smile into the mirror through her smeared hot pink lips.
‘Fuchsia’s good,’ Kayleigh would shrug back.
‘Fuchsia and lime?’
‘You think that’d clash?’
‘I think it sounds like vomit.’
‘You do? Then fuchsia and lime it is.’
Kayleigh would carefully mix the colours in her little bedside sink while Sunbeam parked her back against the door and responded to any knocks or pushes by telling the potential visitor to go to hell.
Sunbeam asked Kayleigh to tell her about her life. ‘Do you have a boyfriend?’ she said. ‘You certainly ought to. If I could be your age and look like you, I’d be flat on my back every night of the damn week.’
Kayleigh had the kind of fit, fake-tanned figure that always got a second look if she wore the right clothes. Her own hair was dyed a more conservative black, arranged loosely around the loopy silver ear-rings which hung down each side of her face, and hacked back at the neck. She generally wore the right clothes: tight, low tops that made most of the men in the home who could still see count down the days to her next visit. If anyone was going to excite them into an early grave, it was unlikely to be Sunbeam.
When Sunbeam told Kayleigh she wanted a man for her ninetieth birthday, Kayleigh didn’t laugh. She asked Sunbeam what kind of man she wanted exactly. Sunbeam said preferably a young one, with darkish hair, and as much like the boy out of Cocktail as possible.
‘You don’t find too many Tom Cruises round here,’ Kayleigh laughed.
Sunbeam pulled a handful of ten pound notes from her handbag and pressed them into Kayleigh’s hand, ignoring her usual protestations. ‘Have a little more inheritance. Hell, I’d rather you than them. There’s going to be nothing left over by the time I’ve finished. You find me one of those Cocktail types, and I might be finished sooner than you think.’
Kayleigh smiled, shook her head, and tried to kiss Sunbeam goodbye. Sunbeam coiled away. ‘Haven’t you forgotten something?’ she said. ‘The parade.’
Kayleigh moved around the back of Sunbeam’s wheelchair. ‘Ready?’
‘How do I look?’
‘Out of this world.’
‘Well, let’s let ‘em have it.’
One month before her birthday, Sunbeam allowed the nurse to wheel her out to meet her daughter-in-law. The Union Jack she had had done to mark the occasion had bled into a mass of messy purple.
She saw her daughter-in-law before she could see Sunbeam, feigning interest in the notice board and glancing at her watch.
‘Jesus,’ hissed her daughter-in-law, in a way she did not intend Sunbeam to hear. She crouched in front of the wheelchair, stretching her business suit.
‘I know we’ve had our differences recently, but David and I were hoping to take you out to celebrate your birthday. It’s not every day you’re ninety, after all. We know a place that does a lovely carvery. And you do love a carvery. It’s such good value, too. And it’s our treat.’
On cue, Sunbeam allowed a string of dribble to escape from the left corner of her mouth and soak into the folds of her night dress. Her daughter-in-law sighed. ‘I know you can hear me. You don’t think they tell me everything? Why do you always have to be like this?’
She rose to her feet and her eyes filled with tears. ‘She’s so infuriating,’ she said to a passing nurse. Sunbeam’s face twisted into a smile. ‘You try to do your best for them and what do you get in return?’
She walked towards the door, and left without saying goodbye.
The next time Kayleigh came to visit, Sunbeam stuffed a fifty pound note down her cleavage as she leaned over to straighten her fringe, and told her to get her in the mood by telling her something dirty.
‘I see the lights down there every night,’ Sunbeam nodded out of the window in the direction of Back South Lane. ‘It’s the best soap opera I’ve ever watched. When I die, I want you to take my ashes and sprinkle them down there. I’d hate to miss any episodes once I’m gone.’
Kayleigh blushed awkwardly. ‘Don’t talk like that.’
‘I want you to promise.’
‘Haven’t you got enough dirty stuff to be getting on with ?’ Kayleigh nodded towards the book shelf.
‘I’ve read the lot of them twice over. They’re not dirty. They’re about as dirty as this whole damn disinfectant-smelling hole they’ve shut us up in. I mean really dirty.’
‘You sound desperate.’
‘Darling, I’ve been desperate for longer than I can ever remember. I don’t ever remember not being desperate. Talking of desperate, how are you getting on with finding me a man?’
‘I haven’t bumped into Tom Cruise yet, but I’m working on it.’
Kayleigh told Sunbeam she had a couple in mind. She described their faces and physiques. Sunbeam started listening intently, but her concentration faded before the end.
‘Either will do,’ she said at last. ‘At my age, beggars can’t be choosers. As long as they’ve got a pulse, that’d be something.’ She chose peroxide blonde for her colour that week, told Kayleigh to make her look a dead ringer for Marilyn Monroe.
On the morning of her ninetieth birthday, Sunbeam sat up to take her breakfast on a tray and waved away the nurse’s nervous congratulations.
‘Enough of your pointless platitudes,’ she said. ‘Apart from the hair girl, I don’t want any more visitors until after lunch at least. And even then only if I really must.’
After the nurse clicked her door shut, Sunbeam pushed the tray aside and reached for her make-up bag. Holding her small vanity mirror in her left hand, she went through her usual routine. She smudged on layers of hot pink lipstick. She plastered mascara around the bottom of her eyes, and smeared her lids with light blue shadow. She smiled at her reflection.
At eleven o’clock, Kayleigh arrived. Sunbeam motioned for her to click the lock, and told her not to give her any of that ‘Happy Birthday’ crap.
‘I’ve got you something,’ said Kayleigh, handing Sunbeam a small, well-wrapped parcel with a pink ribbon.
‘Is it what I think it is?’
Sunbeam clawed at the paper like an eager teenager and unfurled the flimsy black neglige over her chest.
‘It’s perfect, darling. It’s exactly what I need.’
Kayleigh smiled and started lining up the bleaches as usual. ‘I was thinking something really out of this world, like a rainbow or something, you know, to celebrate in style?’
‘You can forget all that,’ said Sunbeam, pushing back her covers and beginning to struggle out of bed. Kayleigh looked surprised. Sunbeam grabbed the corner of the book shelf for support as she levered herself towards her chair. ‘Take it off. All of it. Get rid of it.’
Kayleigh knew she didn’t need to ask her twice.
Afterwards, Sunbeam inspected herself in the mirror, tipping her bare head at different angles to check the whole lot had gone. ‘Nice,’ she said, noting the nicks and streaks, an inevitable consequence of how sensitive her scalp had become. Kayleigh arched her eyebrows. ‘All right, I’ll be honest with you,’ said Sunbeam. ‘That stuff always burned like hell. I feel like I’ve been undergoing radiation therapy for the last five years. The stupid thing is, now I finally look like it.’
Kayleigh started helping Sunbeam take off her old nightie. She tried not to look, embarrassed by the nakedness of the frail old woman in front of her. Sunbeam sensed her unease. She tried to stick another fifty pound note down Kayleight’s cleavage for the trouble. Kayleigh pulled away, upset that Sunbeam had sensed her unease.
‘What do you want with this shrivelled old prune,’ said Sunbeam, softly. Kayleigh pretended not to hear.
At exactly midday, there was a knock on the window. Kayleigh got up and pushed back the curtains. A nervous blond boy peered over the ledge. His eyes widened when he saw the state of Sunbeam. She twisted her mouth into a smile and patted the bed beside her in the most lewd manner she could possibly muster. Kayleigh clicked open the window. ‘Quick,’ she said, looking around anxiously. The boy climbed in and stood, unsure what to do. Sunbeam examined him. He couldn’t have been much more than eighteen years old and he couldn’t have looked any less like Tom Cruise if he had tried. His hair hung down over most of the front of his face. He wore a loose red tee-shirt and scruffy denim jeans.
‘This is Jack,’ said Kayleigh nervously, standing between them.
‘Tom, Dick, Harry,’ shrugged Sunbeam. ‘This ain’t Blind Date. You know the deal.’
The boy looked at Kayleigh, unsure. Kayleigh suppressed a smile. Sunbeam waited impatiently for a moment, then reached for the fifty pound note Kayleigh had rejected and tossed it at the boy’s feet.
‘Strip,’ she ordered. ‘I’m ninety years old, for Christ’s sake. Time is of the essence.’
As the boy began to unclip his belt, Sunbeam caught Kayleigh’s eye, and they shared a smirk.
The boy kicked off his shoes, unbuttoned his jeans and allowed them to drop to the floor. Sunbeam reached for her reading glasses, and watched intently. Kayleigh looked away, stifling laughter. The boy reached up to tug his tee-shirt over his head. He stood before her in black boxer shorts and socks.
‘Well, well,’ said Sunbeam. She admired the boy’s contoured chest, sprouting tufts of hair and acne. His face blazed red. He fixed his gaze to the carpet.
‘It’s just till they come in, right?’
Sunbeam ignored him and threw another fifty pound note. ‘Fetch!’ she barked. Kayleigh snorted, and busied herself with her make-up bag. Sunbeam shifted across to the side of the bed nearest the door, and patted the mattress again. ‘I don’t bite,’ she said.
Kayleigh gathered the boy’s clothes and stuffed them into her bag as best she could. She leaned over to kiss Sunbeam’s forehead and Sunbeam clasped both her cheeks and looked into her eyes and whispered: ‘I’ll never forget this, girl. I’ll see you right.’
Kayleigh left, and Sunbeam sat in silence, ignoring the boy, who itched beside her. Ten minutes later there were three sharp raps on the door.
‘What do you want now?’
‘Your son and daughter-in-law are here to see you. Shall I take you down?’
‘What the hell, bring them in,’ said Sunbeam. ‘It’s my birthday, after all. Let them make the effort for once.’
A short time later the door clicked open. Her daughter-in-law was first to appear wearing the kind of trouser suit that suggested she thought they were going out to somewhere she might be seen. Then her son, peering over her shoulder, uncomfortable in a custard yellow sweater and holding a box of Black Magic they hadn’t even bothered to wrap.
‘Happy birthday!’ they were saying together, but they stopped half way through when they saw Sunbeam with her head shaved and then the boy, who threw back the covers and leaped straight out of the still-open window. He ran across the field and they watched in silence until he was out of sight.
Sunbeam sat in her new black neglige, and broke the shocked silence with a sigh.
‘Your timing’s impeccable, as ever.’
Her daughter-in-law didn’t know whether to be more shocked by the boy, by Sunbeam’s appearance, or by her elocution.
‘You scheming old bitch,’ she hissed. Sunbeam smirked. The smirk became a laugh, and the laugh soon turned into a cough which nobody stepped forward to help to try to stop.
‘Here I am choking to death and there’s the two of you just standing there like the pair of gormless morons you’ve always been,’ said Sunbeam when she had recovered. A crowd of nurses had gathered because of the commotion.
‘Anyone would think you were hoping I’d keep on choking a little more until I turned to ashes and you got your hands on all my swag. Well, I know what you’re doing and it’s not going to work.’
Her son knelt by her bed and tried to take her hand and said, ‘you’re coming home, mother. We’re getting you out of this place.’ Her daughter-in-law flinched, but did not protest. Sunbeam retched with laughter again. ‘I’ve got everything I need right here,’ she said. ‘I’m ninety years old, and I’m having the time of my life.’