I open my eyes. The ceiling is covered in cork tiles that appear to have been there for a while. A dried up water stain spreads across a number of tiles. I wonder when that happened.
There are no paintings or pictures on the walls, no pictures of recognisable faces anywhere, no mirror.
The room is sparsely furnished. It is sliced in half by a bed that looks like it spent a better part of its life in a hospital. There is a window on one side overlooking a car park. A small television sits on an old credenza.
There is a chair opposite me. Its weathered upholstered seat looks recently sat in. At its feet, embedded in the dark carpet is what appears to be a sprinkle of sand.
I get down on my knees and pick up some of the grains in my fingertips. They are course. Is there a beach nearby? Did I go to the beach this morning?
There are two doors. The one next to the credenza opens and I hear a woman’s voice “Excuse me, Mr Kowalski, can I come in?” A small head peers around the door; she hasn’t noticed me on the ground. “Mr Kowalski are you here?”
I am shocked by how black her skin is. Almost like boot polish. Her white teeth cut through the blackness as she sees me and smiles.
“Ah, there you are, Mr Kowalski. You had me going for a while.”
“I did?” I must have a confused look on my face, because she kneels down beside me and looks into my face.
“Oh dear, you don’t recognise me do you, Mr Kowalski? I am Emily. Remember? Your nurse? I look after you every Wednesday. Today is Wednesday.”
I don’t say anything. I try to smile but I can feel it’s all coming out wrong, like I’m retarded. Am I retarded?
“Now tell me, what are you doing down here?” says Emily. I can’t take my eyes off her teeth.
“I was looking at this sand … in my room…here look” I bring up my cupped hand proudly displaying the grains of sand. “Did I go to the beach?”
“The beach? I think the closest is over 1000 kilometers away. That’s from the desert outside. We’re surrounded by the desert. They say it’s getting closer to the town every day. It is swallowing up all the greenery. Your son must have brought it in. That’s your son.”
I look at the sand rolling around in the deep grooves of my palm. “This is my son?”
Emily laughs loudly like she really enjoys a good laugh. “No, you duffer, your son was here this morning. Don’t you remember?”
“He was here?”
“Has been here every day this week. He’s here for your birthday in a couple of days. Now let’s get you up on your chair so I can get some medicine in you. I have work to do, Mr Kowalski.” She helps me back into the chair.
“My birthday. How old am I?”
“Well, Mr Kowalski, today you look 160, but I think you’re much younger, maybe half that. Here you go, now I want to see you take all the pills.”
As I take each one, another person as dark and dressed like Emily comes in with a vacuum cleaner. “Good afternoon, Mr Kowalski, Emily.” she says over the noise.
“Hello, Josie” says Emily turning back to me, “Come along, Mr Kowalski, now take the next one.”
I watch Josie vacuum under the chair. The sand disappears up the head of the machine. My son is gone.
I open my eyes. I am standing in front of the window looking out over the car park. The wind is blowing drifts of sand across the empty lines. Further on I can see the dessert. There it is. I can’t remember seeing it before. Has it come out of nowhere? “Swallowing up all of the greenery” as someone said recently. Who was that?
I sit back in my chair and watch the window as the outside goes dark. In front of me is another chair, its upholstery tattered and at its feet is a sprinkle of sand. That’s something new. I have never seen that before. I wonder if it’s the first signs of the desert starting to swallow up my room.
I open my eyes. A girl whose skin is as black as the ace of spades is putting a colourful, conical hat on my head. The elastic band is placed under my chin. I look at her apprehensively.
“Oh dear, Mr Kowalski, it’s ok. Today is your birthday. And this is your birthday hat. My you’re looking quite handsome for an old bloke.” She looks around to make sure no one is listening and then whispers in my ear, “I promise not to tell any of the ladies your real age.” she winks and then goes off placing hats on the other old people in the room.
They are really old. They’re in wheelchairs, they can barely move their heads, there’s saliva dripping out of one man’s mouth, and another is asleep. Am I as old as these people? What do I look like to them?
The two black women wearing the same uniforms bring over a cake. It is covered in cream and it has a large 84 on it and it says “Happy birthday, dad”.
“Look, Mr Kowalski, a cake. Doesn’t it look delicious?”
“Who is ‘dad’?” I say.
“That’s the best part, Mr Kowalski. That’s you. It’s from your son. He’s here.”
They point to a man walking toward me. He smiles as our eyes meet. I see something in his face, something from a long time ago, but I don’t recognise who he is. He is much older than I expected.
I look him up and down. I notice the soles of his shoes are covered in a thin layer of sand which has followed him in.
“Hello, dad, it’s me August.” He takes my hand. His is warm and slightly damp.
I look up at him, not knowing what to say. “I hope you like the cake, dad.”
“Thank you,” I hear myself say. I look around him, “Is your mother here as well? Did she come?”
“You ask me that every day, dad” he says quietly. “No, she’s not here. She passed away about 5 years ago.”
I start to cry. I can feel my shoulders flopping up and down through the effort of my tears. No sound, just tears. August holds my hand tighter. The two Nurses notice my tears and they come over.
“Oh dear, Mr Kowalski” says one “Now I didn’t come in on my day off to see you in tears. This is a grand occasion. Your birthday. Come on Josie, come on everybody, you too Mr August, let’s sing.”
She starts “Haaaaaaappppy birthday to you …. come on, Happy birthday to you…”
Josie joins and then my son, August joins, “Happy birthday, Mr Kowalski, happy birthday to you.”
My son. My son. I look at him. “How are you today dad?”
“Same as yesterday, I suppose, just a year older.” He laughs. I try to see something in that smile, a child that used to be, a wife I once loved, a memory, please God provide me with a memory. Anything.
“Now’s the best part,” shouts the black girl called Josie, “Cake time. Who apart from me wants some?”
“Dad, happy birthday” August bends over and kisses me.
I open my eyes; I look out at night falling over the desert. From my window, I can see an empty car park leading out to a barren landscape. As someone recently said, “It’s swallowing us up. It’s all swallowing us up.”
There is a knock on the door and it opens. “Excuse Mr Kowalski, I just need to vacuum. I’ll be very quick. Let me just turn the light on.”
“No!” I shout.
“I’m sorry?” says the black girl looking alarmed at the tone of my voice.
“Not tonight, please. Just not tonight.”
“Well, I need to …”
“Please. Please. One night won’t make any difference.”
“Let me clean that bit of sand there on the carpet. You just can’t keep the desert out…”
“No, not that. Please. I wan’t you to leave it. I don’t really know why. Please. I don’t need you to swallow it up. Please.”
“Very well, then, MrKowalski. Have a good evening. And happy birthday again.” She closes the door.
Was it my birthday today? How old am I? I can’t remember.
I sit down, tired. Why would I be so tired?
I look at the chair in front of me. At its feet, embedded in the dark carpet, is what appears to be a sprinkle of sand.