It was the pandemic that got me out of my room in the nursing home. It's hard to believe I'd spent the 6 months prior confined to my own four walls, depending entirely on nurses and visits from the outside to keep me company.
When COVID hit, the outside visits from friends and family stopped entirely. The nurses talked less, distracted by the new regulations of face-masks, gloves and hand sanitiser. Loneliness crept up. It was there, stalking me, but I was too slow to whack it over the head with my walking stick.
"Get out and mingle with the other residents, make a friend or two," my daughter suggested over the phone one day. 'They've got a games room, you know?'
"Socialise with that bunch of sad sacks? Drooling into their soup and stroking their stuffed animals! Over my dead--"
"Please don't say that, Dad," she said quickly.
I spent another three days in my room critically comparing the newspaper weather forecast to the reality outside my window. My daughter's words repeated over and over in my head.
Finally I cracked. I hobbled out the door and up the hall, peering into rooms as I passed and looking for something that resembled a games room. Eventually I found it: an open area next to a sunny courtyard. Residents at tables playing board games. I sat down at an empty table, contemplating my next move.
A tall, grey man came over to the table. "I know you." He pointed a long, wrinkly finger directly at my nose, then sat down in the chair opposite me.
I looked around, hoping to see a nurse that would take this clearly delusional resident away from me and leave me in peace. But then he said my name.
"Jimmy Penfold. You had a terrific phone number. 7532. Prime numbers in reverse."
Jeffrey Lyle. It had to be. We went to primary school together. We'd go get milkshakes and lollies after school with whatever money I'd been able to steal from my grandmother's purse.
Jimmy Penfold. You had a terrific phone number. 7532. Prime numbers in reverse ...
He pulled out a chess board from a drawer at the side of the table and unfolded it in front of me. "It was your 86th birthday last Tuesday. Our birthdates are exactly 100 days apart. I got a head start in life. That's what you used to say whenever I beat you at quizzes. Which was every time."
I watched Jeffrey set up the chess pieces. When we were friends, we'd meet at the front gate after school, then head up the street together. We'd go to the milk bar, then wander past the old pub on the corner and gaze up at the mechanical fortune teller in the wall.
I smiled thinking of life back then.
Jeffrey tilted his head, studying my face. "You're thinking of Zoltar."
Zoltar! That was his name. Every afternoon, without fail, we'd stop at the mysterious Zoltar, with his yellow jewelled vest and turban. I spent the whole of high school trying to replicate his handlebar moustache, with little success.
Only once did we get to see Zoltar in action. When buying our milkshakes one day I found an extra twenty cents on the footpath outside. We both knew exactly where the money was going and hurried to the pub.
I slid the money into the slot and we sipped our milkshakes waiting for the show to start.
In front of my eyes, Zoltar came to life. He lifted his arm in a wave and I instinctively waved back. He rolled his head from side to side, but kept his gaze locked to mine. His red lips parted and he spoke slowly - "Who comes here to learn their chosen path?" - I fumbled my words: "M-m-m-me, sir."
The world around me melted away and all I saw was Zoltar. His eyes burned holes into my soul. He saw my dreams, my hopes. He knew my future. His head turned again and his arm lifted, pointing his perfectly manicured finger directly at my nose.
And then he winked.
Music signalled the end of my reading, and out popped a small card, with Zoltar's personal advice to me: BE THE CHESS PLAYER. NOT THE CHESS PIECE.
I didn't know what it meant at the time, but the card remained pinned to my bedroom wall for the next three years.
Jeffrey had finished lining up the pieces on the board so I asked him, "Do you remember that time Zoltar spoke to us?"
He looked confused. "Spoke?"
I clarified. "The afternoon we put the two-bob in."
"Oh, you mean when we triggered the mechanics. Of course, I remember! Head did four turns side-to-side for each raise of the left arm, the right arm just one. Head went back after three left arms. Jaw opened five times as head came back down, timed with the voice over. Left eyelid closed just once, timed with the second drop of the right arm. Come to think of it, the other eye was probably meant to close too - there was a tiny shudder as it tried to drop, but a tooth must have been missing from the gear behind it. The same shaft that turned the head, delivered the fortune card, because the head stopped when the gears for the card engaged. It's a simple 4-2-4-5-1. Returning all gears back to their original starting point."
My jaw dropped open like Zoltar's when he asked who wanted to learn their chosen path.
Jeffrey blinked four times, then shrugged. "Now, where was I? Oh, yes. How about a game of chess?"
I looked at the way Jeffrey's eyes darted around the black and white squares on the board, eagerly awaiting my first move.
I smiled. "It's pretty obvious who's going to win. How about a walk in the courtyard instead?"
Jeffrey nodded, probably thinking of his 100-day advantage. We reached for our walking sticks, pulled up out of our chairs, and headed towards the door outside.
Jessie Ansons, of Adamstown Heights, the author of this piece, is a finalist in the Newcastle Herald short story competition.