A Mind All of His Own was the winning entry in our third short story competition in 2018.
A Mind All of His Own
by Alan Kahn
While picking fluff from his sleeve, Walter looks across at Olga and frowns. She’s Georgian, he thinks. We’ve been together nearly fifty years and she looks like one of those Russian dolls containing other dolls, and he has a feeling that if he lifts off her head, he’ll discover smaller versions nesting inside, and when he looks deeply enough, he’ll eventually locate Petite Babushka Olga he married.
Olga crochets, counting as she knits, a mandala taking circular shape across her broad square lap. World’s going to end tomorrow, Walter says, and she replies: will it dear? She’s not paying attention … 120, 121 … her lips mouthing muted mystical numbers, so he tries again. My cup’s full of frog spawn, he claims, and Olga doesn’t raise her chestnut eyes to his but murmurs distractedly: if you say so dear. He gives up. If you want me, I’ll be in my workshop, announces Walter, ratcheting up on his rickety legs, and Olga responds: try not to cut yourself dear.
Today has a drab greyness about it—sky, pavements, smothering air—and it reminds Walter of Hamburg where he first met Olga. She was a spy; he worked for British Military Police, arrested her, and fell in love. Hamburg too was grey that February day, and very cold. She betrayed her motherland to be rewarded with Walter’s frozen hand for life. Walter remembers it well as he walks along … Spaldingstrasse? … on way to his workshop. As usual he seems to be invisible; he affects nobody in his insignificance so nobody greets him, speaks to him, engages him in conversation. Passers-by ignore him in that same tone Olga uses when she says: if you say so, dear. Even so, too many people; he’s easily frightened by noise and crowd and street cries, so Grey Man Walter shrinks a little more each time.
Has he missed a turning? Shop windows reflect him: slate skin, dove hair, ashen beard, iron glasses, sad eyes—all grey, even a granite jumper, baggy now he’s losing weight. Pausing to stare at this stranger looking back, he spots a vivacious sweater on a rack inside, is drawn to it—such passionate colours: capsicum, orange, turmeric, lime; and it radiates with lambent light as if sunshine through stained-glass windows—and he thinks, dare I? Should I own such a thing of brightness? Inside, a shop assistant enquires: can I help you sir? He points and asks: have you that one in my size? Jah, Mein Herr, she smiles, and adds: would you like to try it on? It’s a perfect fit, and Walter glows in it, as if sun peeks down just for him, so he pays, leaves wearing his purchase, and grey-day turns to summer as he walks on. Now a woman pushing a pram nods at him, says hello as she passes, and everyone smiles, saying hello as though he’s no longer invisible. At first he’s unnerved, being accustomed to invisibility, but he enjoys this warmth from others, feels happier than for a long time. I should go home to Olga, he thinks, show her my new jumper, but … where does she live?
Music drifts from a shop—joyful music, music of memories new and revived. He pushes open a stiff glass door and is crushed by sound, the room veers unsteadily like a top, or is it he who spins? A young woman approaches, so pretty, huge chestnut eyes sparkling, painted smiling lips, flame hair, says: can I help you, sir, just like Girl in that clothes shop not long ago— when was that? She’s Olga, or a replica of Olga when she was a tiny Russian doll, smallest in a set, just as she was when he first met her, somewhere near here he can’t quite recall because his mind is disorientated by this cataract of music. He asks: who’s that singing? Paloma Faith, says Young Olga, do you like her? Yes. He likes her; she sounds ebullient, full of colour and life. Young Olga grins impishly – would you like to dance? Walter is surprised how well he dances, in almost perfect time, this pretty young woman guiding him through aisles stacked with records and albums, though she seems muted, softness blurring edges … even music now fading low so he can think, and he asks: can I buy Paloma Faith please? Of course, she replies, but still they dance, and Walter doesn’t want to let her go because she smells so nice, shimmering floral scents, but she tenderly extricates herself from his arms, fetches a CD, hands it to him, says: no charge, take it, and thank you for dancing with me, as she retreats, disappears behind a smoky screen.
Hours later, Walter finds his way home. Olga is still on her sofa, a growing mandala across copious knees, and she glances up when he comes in but she continues counting stitches. I’ll make you a cup of tea in a minute, she mumbles through a mouthful of numbers, and Walter sits opposite her to wait. He picks grey fluff from his sleeves and he’s peeved because she’s ignoring him again. He asks: do you like my jumper? Olga says without a glance: yes dear. I danced with a young woman, he continues. Really, comments Olga. I bought you a record … he adds … Paloma Faith. Did you dear …? Olga sighs … where is it then? Walter looks round him, feels down the side of his chair. I seem to have mislaid it, he says sadly. Never mind—tea, I think. She puts aside her crocheting, struggles to her feet, and Walter looks at her closely. Olga, he says as she’s about to leave. I love you.
Hesitating, she turns from her kitchen, returns instead to Walter’s side, pats away a stray strand of grey hair, nips at his grey jumper to smooth out a ruck over his shoulder, and says: I love you too, but sometimes I wish you’d remember— my name is Maureen.