Over But Not Out by Bruce Costello

A girl starts work in a care home and finds herself dreaming about the past life of one of the men in her care; by Bruce Costello.

Mr Smythe was a skeleton with staring eyes. Mumbled sounds came from his mouth, but no words. His right arm shook as he reached out to the caregiver. She took his hand and pressed his fingers, which were twisted into claws.

Mary was a petite woman, just out of her teens, with smiling lips and the frown of a thinker.

"Just need to turn you over and clean you up," she said. Then she faced away and dry retched.

After throwing the sheet into the laundry trolley in the hall and helping him lean back against the pillows, Mary sat with Mr Smythe and held his hand.

The sun was low in the autumn sky. It entered the room through a gap in the curtains and lit up a portrait on the wall across from the bed. It showed an officer in a blue uniform, with a flowing moustache, a square chin and piercing eyes. Wow, she thought. What a hunk.

"Is that you in the photo?"

Mr Smythe moved his mouth and winked.

"How was your first day?" Mary's father asked, when she arrived home.

"Freaked me out. Pretty yukky. Don't know if I'll be able to do it."

"Don't be silly, dear," said her mother. "It's a big thing to have any sort of a job, these days."

"I don't want to ever get old."

"Better than dying young," said her father.

"Is it?"

Mary yawned her way through Coronation Street. During the ads, she picked up a book her mother had been reading. On the cover was a young woman in a blue RAF uniform with wavy, brunette hair, pensive brown eyes and a pursed, anxious mouth. She was looking skyward towards approaching aircraft, dark against the dawn light.

Mary took the book to her room, lay down and skimmed through it, with creased brow. When her head began to droop, she undressed and got into bed. She fell asleep immediately, but soon awoke, and stayed awake for hours, finally drifting into a disturbed sleep and beginning to dream.

"I reckon Peter Smythe has eyes for you," Mary's friend whispers, over lunch at the WAAF's table.

"Don't talk so daft," Mary replies.

"He's ever so nice."

"Is he?"

"Didn't you see how he looked at you when he came into the R/T room this morning?"

"This meat's half raw," mutters Mary, struggling to cut through gristle. She glances across the mess at Flight Lieutenant Smythe sitting with the men and feels her face redden.

No, no, no. Must stop thinking about him. Relationships are discouraged between WAAFs and aircrew on the same station - especially on bomber squadrons. More important things to be getting on with. Like typing up the wireless frequencies for tonight's ops. And parachute packing.

Mary woke from the dream with a start. She tossed for a time, then went to the kitchen, took two of her mother's sleeping pills, returned to bed and immediately began to dream again.

Yellow flak bursts outside the starboard wing tip. The aircraft lurches but continues its run to the target.

"Fighter, above and behind, closing fast! Junkers 88!" calls the rear gunner over the intercom.

"Hell!" Flight lieutenant Peter Smythe flings the aircraft to the left. The fighter has them silhouetted against the glow of fires blazing on the ground far below. Tracer bullets fly towards the port wing and strike with sharp cracks. The inner engine vibrates, a tongue of flame appears...

Mary's pyjamas were drenched with sweat. She threw off the blankets, and lay with eyes shut, trying to remember the dream. Only fragments remained, fading fast.

Next morning, she arrived at work early.

"How was yesterday?" her supervisor asked. "Any questions or worries?"

"I found it pretty tough," Mary said, after a pause. "All the smells 'n' that, and having to clean up messes, wiping other people and so on. To be honest, I don't know if I've got the stomach for this job."

The supervisor laughed. "We all go through that at the start. You soon get used to it. I think you're a natural."

Mr Smythe was propped up on pillows, his eyes towards the photo on the wall. He was scarcely blinking.

"Hullo, Mr Smythe. How are you today?"

She held a tea spoon to his mouth and he sipped the soup, specially thickened so he wouldn't choke.

She wiped his chin and took off his bib.

Mr Smythe lifted his head in a jerky motion to peer up at her. His lips made sounds. Mary bent over him.

"What's that?"

She stood back and looked into his eyes. They were bright and clear and intense.

He raised a hand and touched his forehead, where Mary noticed a scar, barely visible through wrinkles. A dream fragment flashed across her mind, like a shooting star.

Mr Smythe reached out. Mary took his hand and sat with him until he fell asleep.

She went to the wall and looked closely at the photo. Handwritten at the bottom it read '1944.75 Squadron.'

He had fallen to one side on the pillows, so she straightened him.

"There, we don't want you waking up with a sore neck, do we?"

"What's it like being old," she asked her supervisor later, "if you have a lifetime of memories, with feelings and thoughts and stories to share, but you can't talk?"

"There're more ways to communicate than with words," the supervisor replied.

That night Mary went to bed exhausted. She read only briefly, turned the light off and slept soundly. In the morning, drifting in and out of slumber, she found herself walking along a country lane... and then sitting on a stile beside a man with piercing eyes, an upturned moustache and laughing lips. They were both in uniform, gazing at each other and holding hands.

It was a warm day with blue sky, golden sun and a whispering breeze that stirred the trees around them.

She leaned across and kissed the bandage around the top of the man's head.


  1. I enjoyed this very much. A sensitively told story about those age-old questions of how youth meets age, and the significance of memories in a person's life, (and in how they are perceived by others). Helping people to communicate their stories, when their faculties are failing is critical to their well-being in older age, and helps those around them to see them as so much more than a shadow. You have portrayed this beautifully. I thought that Mary, and her crises of confidence was entirely believable, and the potential shown in her character hopeful and optimistic.
    Thank you,
    Ceinwen Haydon

  2. Particularly liked reading about her thoughts and dreams. Very sweet story. Charlotte Hayden

  3. An interesting angle, especially as young people seldom think what it must be like to be old, which is quite natural. The portrayal of Mary as a caring, empathetic young woman was cleverly done. As Charlotte says, a sweet story!

  4. A well told tale. Revealing and compelling. Age sucks! Not the elderly.

  5. Bruce Costello crafts a well-told story of a young caregiver's first impressions on the job. It's a short story. Its brevity begs us to pose a continuing question the shortness of the story suggests: what is life all about anyway? What's it about when all the memories we have, all the knowledge we accumulate, all the relationships we make, all the plans, hopes, dreams we possess will all end with debilitating old age and death? I had a dear friend who used to say when it came to life, "The whole is greater than the sum of its parts." Everything in the universe appears to have a life cycle. Maybe it's our job to pass on what we know to our children, the the next generation so the cycle--the sum of the parts--continues.

    James Shaffer

  6. The supervisor's words are the key for me in this story; 'there's more ways to communicate than with words.' I liked the feel of other- worldness ...birth, death, just all part of the process.

  7. Thanks, folk, for your encouraging comments

  8. The magic of ‘what if’ has few boarders and often strikes when there is little reason to connect. Also, about having the courage to expand your horizons and confront your fears.

    Enjoyed the story and thoughtful style.

    Arthur Davis