Dusty Bottles by Julia Spargo – Winning Story

Jean paces around the house, repeating a familiar phrase like the groove in a well-worn path. She waves her arms continually into the darkening air around her. Grubby furniture turns to shadow. When she trips over the stool in the kitchen, she pays no thought to the need for light, merely lying on the sticky lino, dabbing at the stale crumbs around her.

No one has visited for some time now. The streets are quiet. The sun grazes lazily along the pavements, broken only by the shadows of elderly men walking decrepit terriers. Sometimes she points and laughs shrilly at how funny they look, all stooped and slow. She has noticed some people wearing face masks. Probably that Chernobyl accident. Terrible business, that. Who knows what it will lead to, over the next few years. The children seem too scared to play outside as well. She hasn’t been banging on the window as much, shouting at them to get their hair cut, can’t your mother see you look like a girl? Jean tries to remember her last conversation with another human being but it is lost to her.

She rises, stiffly, and meanders about the house with no obvious purpose, pausing whenever a vision of Robert’s smiling face comes to her. She screeches for him then, becoming increasingly cross when he fails to materialise. She tears into the back of the wardrobe, rummaging through Robert’s things, and finds – among the old coats, the medals, his slippers – the pills which had kept him alive. Until they hadn’t anymore. It comes back to her then, as it does, usually, each time with the suffocating grief of the last. Jean turns the pills over and over in her hand. Would they take her pain away? Would they slow her breathing or raise her pulse until it shakes free of her veins? What would it be like to swallow them all? Who would come? Who would touch her? Who might she talk to?

The room has turned to dark and then light again. She kneels and opens the sideboard. Among the motes of dust swims a fragmented vision of happiness; laughter, paper hats and spherical grey blobs masquerading as vegetables. She smiles and then shakes it away. She reaches in, knee cracking under her weight, her fingers curling around the top of the bottle. The brown glass is dusty, label like an old circus poster in winter; bleached by sunlight and peeling from a window. Unscrewing the cap is tricky because sugar granules have formed over the grooves of the bottle neck.

When at last it gives, it gives so much more. Warmth, the cloying smell of turkey steaming up the kitchen. Vegetables rattling in the pan. Robert, humming tunelessly to himself as he stirs the gravy, glasses steamed up and a smile playing on his lips.

She sits back on the floor and puts the bottle to her lips. She is warmed from the inside. Draining the sickly contents of the bottle in no time, she uses only the last dregs to swallow the pills. She crams them into her mouth, greedily, choking a little with the urgency. It is done. She seizes the button around her neck. For a moment she is lost to a fleeting vision of Robert, naked chest, lying on the bed. She presses the button.


green trousers, heavy boots
“Jean, can you hear…..”
metallic clanging
fleece and waffle
radio static
engine noise
cold dawn
bright light, sterile smell…
faces, faces…faeces..
more light
a hand
a hand.
A human hand.

Jean opens her eyes and looks straight into those of another. The rest of the face obscured by a mask. The hand belonging to these eyes lies, warm like sunlight, on Jean’s wrist.

“Hello Jean, love,” the crinkly blue eyes say. The hand squeezes hers, gently, like a kiss.
These eyes are like sinking into a warm bath. The thumb begins to rub her wrist.
The tear slips down beside Jean’s nose and slides off her chin to the gown beneath it, making a tiny dark stain on the fabric.

“Is there anyone you would like us to call, Jean?”

Jean shakes her head. Not anymore.

Still the hand remains. It’s like the sun on her face in the garden, her kneeling amongst the roses while Robert turns the soil. Warm earth smell. The Archers theme coming from the kitchen.

“I’ll sit with you a bit longer then. My name is Kate.”

Jean places her free hand over Kate’s.

“That’s better, love,” Kate soothes. “You have some rest, now.”

“Robert,” croaks Jean.

“Is that your husband?”

Jean likes the way Kate asks about him in the present tense. Present. A present.

Jean nods. Another tear slides.

“You miss him.” Not a question.

Another nod.

“No children.”

The tears falling now are for the three little buds under the rosebushes in the old house. Each time they planted a rosebush, another bit of her had broken. She had cared for those roses, and what nurtured them from beneath, until Robert’s illness forced the sale of the house. He didn’t have the strength, by that point, to dig the bushes up, and she couldn’t make any of those women in floaty clothes understand her anguish at leaving them there. When they guided her, gently, from her home, they thought it was just the house she would miss.

Kate squeezes her hand a little firmer now. Jean looks around her. Notices the lack of machines. No wires. No intervention, here. She looks back to Kate. Kate has removed the mask, letting it fall to the floor.

“I’m here,” Kate whispers, and strokes Jean’s arm with her free hand. She gives a tight smile but her eyes do the smiling for her whole face.

Jean sinks back into the cushions. She has everything she needs. Her eyes are closing now. She smiles at Kate.

“Robert,” she whispers.

“Soon, love,” replies Kate, nodding. “Soon.”