ken the ox

I’ve come to see Vera, but it’s Ken who does all the talking. Getting a direct answer from Vera without being interrupted or guided by her husband is like rowing away from a whirlpool; I know that if I ship the oars and look back at him even momentarily I’ll be lost. So for the moment, at least, I struggle on, throwing out a line for Vera’s version of events.
Not that I think Ken is a bully. It just feels as if their relationship has developed like this over the sixty-odd years they’ve been together, in that tense, unbalanced but still vaguely symbiotic arrangement you sometimes see in nature; Ken the ox, Vera the tickbird riding on his flank.
Their flat is cosy and well-kempt, though. And Ken certainly seems to be on top of medication regimes, appointments and so on. It’s just he can’t avoid dressing everything up in anecdote and performance. He’s even dragged a kitchen chair over so he can sit between us. It creaks alarmingly as he shifts about, coming at each new conversational opportunity from a different angle.
‘Talking of keeping clean,’ he says. ‘I was brought up in an orphanage, down in Kent. Thirty-six boys! You can imagine what that was like! Anyway, there was this matron there, a huge woman she was, massive, like this…’
He places a hoof on each knee, leans forwards and frowns;Vera and I lean back.
‘Terrifying she was! Come bedtime, you’d do anything not to land up in the bathroom she was running. Because she used to clean you with a floor brush, like this…’ (he mimes a ferocious scrubbing) ‘…and whack you on the back of the head with it if you made a fuss.’
‘That sounds terrible!’ I say. ‘Abusive.’
‘Well – it was different in those days,’ he says, relaxing back again. ‘It wasn’t as bad as all that.’
I make a surprised face at Vera; she raises her eyebrows and gives a little shake of her head.
‘I remember once,’ he says, ‘this doctor came to see us all. He told me to take my shirt off, and when he saw the welts on my back and asked me how I got them, I went like this…’ Ken purses his lips and then draws his forefinger and thumb across them from left to right, like he’s zipping up a bag. ‘Because we were all too scared to say anything about it,’ he adds, the zip nowhere near strong enough to hold for more than a second.
‘What did the doctor do about it?’
‘Nothing. Not a sausage. It was the matron, you see? She was a monster. Everyone was terrified of her. I remember once, I was playing ghosts with Kipper…’
‘Surname Fish.’
‘And it was Kipper’s turn in the cupboard. And I was just about to go back in the room when I saw Matron coming up the stairs, so of course I hid round the corner. She goes in, and the next thing, I hear this almighty crash, and screams and a dreadful carry-on. And what happened of course was Kipper jumped out the cupboard in front of Matron, and that was that. I never saw him again.’
‘You never saw him again?’
‘Not till breakfast. And he looked sore, I can tell you! But it was fine. I left when I was fourteen and got a job on a farm…’
I look at Vera. She’s got the same expression on her face, not so much acceptance as numb adaptation.
‘What d’you think?’ she says. ‘Will I live?’
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘But keep taking the tablets.’

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