Pillows at Dawn by Hannah McKinnon

An ageing man reflects bitterly on being in an old people's home, until he bumps into an unexpectedly invigorating companion; by Hannah McKinnon.

"Aquafit?" I peered over my glasses at the bright orange poster hanging on the retirement home wall. The boisterous colour did little to brighten up the place and everything to darken my mood.

"Aquafit," I repeated, shaking my head. "What the Jiminy Cricket is that?"

"A fitness class."

I glanced down at the woman who'd appeared next to me.

"You know," she said and smiled, her face crinkling up like a used paper bag. "Aerobics. At the pool. Aqua means water."

I grunted, squinted at the poster, then looked down at her again. She was so short, the top of her head barely reached my shoulders. Good figure though. Probably had a fine ass at one point.

"Do you fancy it?" she said.

Christ, did I say that out loud? I cleared my throat. "Sorry?"

She pointed. "The class."

I shook my head. Watching a bunch of old, saggy bits bouncing around was not my kind of Sunday afternoon fun. Besides, I had a bottle of Scotch in my room. A present from my dear son Mark when he dropped me off here two weeks ago. He said it was a 'Welcome to your new home' gift. Who was he kidding? More like a 'Thank god you're leaving ours'.

Mark had only called once since. Packed his son off to university and got rid of his dad in one clean swoop. Ungrateful prick. I grunted again.

"I'm Maggie." The woman held out her hand.

"Stan," I mumbled as I shook it.

"You're new," she said.


"I can tell."


"Oh, yes."

Curiosity got the better of me. "Because...?"

"Because you're still in the annoying 'woe is me' stage."

I raised my eyebrows.

She shrugged. "Happens to almost everyone. Abandonment sucks."

A laugh - my first of the day - escaped my lips.

"Very insightful, Maggie," I said. Perhaps I could endure watching her bounce around in the pool. At least it would pass the time. "So," I nodded towards the bright orange poster, "you going?"

"Good lord, no." She shuddered. "Hate sports. Always have." Shaking her head she dug around in the pocket of her baby blue cardigan. She pulled out a silver case and popped it open. "Smoke?" she said.

Jesus, this woman was something else. "Well... I -"

She smiled. "We can go outside if you're chicken."

The loud, squeaking noise of wheels on the rubber floor stopped me from answering. We watched as Charlene, my least favourite person in the home, pushed a cart with towels and bedding out of one room and into the next. I was grateful she ignored us. Last time I saw her she told me off for not eating my broccoli.

"In here," I growled and pulled Maggie into the empty bedroom that stank of industrial strength disinfectant.

"God, I hate that smell," Maggie said and wrinkled up her nose.

I nodded. "It's as if they're deliberately trying to wipe away our lives."

The door clicked shut behind us. I took three determined strides to the French doors at the front of the room, and yanked them open. We stepped outside into the crisp April air, huddling against the wall, out of the wind.

"Here you go." Maggie held out the lighter and the cigarettes and I grabbed them greedily. It had been forty years but I still knew the first drag would be the best.

I inhaled deeply, paused, then exhaled. Without thinking I said, "Ohhhh, fuck me."

"Well, we've only just met," Maggie said with her eyes closed, face tilted towards the sun. "But I might consider a blow job."

I almost choked, then guffawed and she grinned at me. She took a big drag on her cigarette and blew smoke rings so thick, they would have fit around her neck like a scarf. Yep. Maggie was my kind of woman. I might even have asked her out if we were thirty years younger. I sighed. This getting old stuff was starting to, well, get old.

"You okay?" she asked.

I grunted. "No. I hate it here," I answered quietly, took another puff. "It's so goddamn tedious."

"Oh, come now," Maggie said and patted my arm. "There's the aquafit and croquet, painting and bridge. I even saw a flyer for an Elvis night on Friday. Just the kind of thing us wrinklies enjoy, right?" She rolled her eyes, clicked her tongue. "Why can't they get One Direction instead? I quite fancy Harry Styles."


She waved a hand. "You'd better watch out. Charlene will have you doing the chicken dance by the end of the week."

I puffed out my cheeks. "I never felt like I had one foot in the grave until I came here," I said. "Now they might as well nail the goddamn coffin shut."

"You know it's all up here, right?" Maggie tapped the side of her head with her finger.

I sniffed. "Tell that to my old bones. Or my bladder."

"As long as you're still young in the mind," Maggie said. "That's what really matters. You're never too old to have a bit of fun." She looked at her watch, flicked her cigarette butt into the bushes. "I should get back or my daughter Jen will release the bloodhounds." She pulled some Life Saver mints from her cardigan pocket, popped one in her mouth and held the pack out to me. "These ones mask the smell the best," she said with a knowing smile.

I threw my smoke away, took a mint and then opened the French doors for her. She waved me in first.

As I made my way across the room, I wondered if she had any plans for dinner. Bit of a stupid question. Who here ever had any plans that didn't involve a bowl of soup and mushy broccoli? Or being in bed by eight thirty? Oh, what the heck. I could use the company.

I cleared my throat. "I don't suppose -" But I didn't finish my sentence because Maggie suddenly, and very loudly, screamed, "Attack!"

Before I could even move, something soft and spongy walloped me on the back of the head.

"What the?" I muttered, adjusting my glasses and turning around. Maggie had a fluffy white pillow in her hand and a victorious smirk on her face, clearly pleased the element of surprise had been on her side.

"What are you waiting for?" She weaved from side to side like Muhammad Ali in his early days. "Christmas?"

I grinned and picked up a pillow, smoothed it down with the palm of my hand, then eyeballed her. "Be careful what you wish for, Maggie."

"Sock it to me, you old bugger," she said, hopping from one foot to the other. "You know you want to. Or are you all mouth and no trousers?"

I lunged forwards but she deftly moved out of reach then spun around. Whack. Her pillow hit me squarely on the back of the head again and she giggled.

"Slow poke. You really are ready for that coffin, aren't you?"

I tried again, only grazing her left arm this time. She stuck out her tongue before striking me once more, right in the face.

"Aarf," I said, then brought my pillow down a third time. It got stuck on the bedframe so I gave it a big old yank, ripping a gaping hole clean down the middle of the fabric.

"Wheeee!" Maggie tossed her pillow on the floor and grabbed mine instead. She pulled out the feathers and threw them up into the air. "Yee-haw!"

I bent over to retrieve her pillow, then ripped the seams open and pulled out more feathers, all the while laughing so hard I thought I might piss my pants. I'd never been more grateful for my enlarged prostate.

Maggie grinned from ear to ear. "See," she said. "You're not past having fun just yet."

I laughed again, went to grab another pillow from the bed. "You just wait, I'm going to -"

The door was flung open - the handle thudded against the wall so hard, I thought it might get lodged in it.

"What in heaven's name," Charlene shouted, "is going on?" She stood in the doorway, her large frame almost blocking it entirely, hands planted squarely on her hips and a thunderous expression on her face.

I froze in mid-air, pillow raised above my head.

Maggie blew a feather off her lips.

I blinked, trying not to laugh again. The room had turned into a gigantic, fuzzy - and very surreal - snow globe.

Another woman, a younger version of Maggie, pushed past Charlene.

"Mom!" She grabbed Maggie's arm.

"Oh goody," Maggie said, as she brushed a feather from her cardigan, "you found me. Jen, this is Stan."

I gave Jen an awkward wave but she ignored me and continued talking to Maggie.

"What the heck are you doing, Mom?" she said. "I can't leave you alone for five minutes. You're worse than a three-year old." Jen turned to Charlene. "I'm so sorry. Really I am."

"Uh-huh," Charlene said, hands still on her hips. "I'm going to get the vacuum. And y'all better not still be in this room when I get back."

"I've been looking for you everywhere, Mom," Jen said as Charlene stomped off. "Auntie Fran's asleep. We have to go home."

"Home?" I said, finally lowering my half-empty pillow. "Wait a second. You don't live here?"

"Me?" Maggie said. "You must be joking. It's quite enough visiting my sister once a week."

As Jen guided her firmly towards the door, Maggie turned around and looked at me.

"But I'll see you next Tuesday." She winked. "You old fart."


  1. Wickedly funny, pacey and well told. Thank you for an entertaining read with underpinning depth,

  2. Amusingly phrased, well constructed and choreographed, though at one point I felt in need of a stage direction as to how Maggie and Stan had got into a room with a bed in it. Nevertheless in my experience of the world of care homes hideously realistic!
    B r o o k e

  3. Lively fun - I enjoyed it. Thank you.

  4. Oh, yes, this was a fun ride ---- well done!

  5. I felt like i saw it all happen. Thanks for the jolly ride.amazing it is.

  6. Great story. So well told with real characters. i could feel Stan's disappointment when he found out Maggie was visiting
    Mike Mc

  7. Love this story - wicked fun! More Stan and Maggie please... :o)

  8. Good story. It'll be good to know if they meet next Tuesday :)

  9. This will give residents of old age homes some ideas on how to make life interesting - and cause the staff to have palpitations! A fun read.

  10. This was a very well written short that was most enjoyable to read, from start to finish. I appreciated the back and forth dialog, and the clever ending. It forces the reader to really wonder about Stan's thoughts once his new friend has left.

    Good job!