Mary hasn’t made it to the intercom yet, but whilst I’m waiting a guy on the ground floor comes out. I think my uniform, badge and equipment probably reassure him I’m bona fide, but just as a little extra I tell him I’m here to visit flat twenty-one.
‘Good luck!’ he says, holding the door open and slapping me on the shoulder as I pass.
She’s waiting for me in the dark cave of her hallway, hunched over and scowling like an ancient, denuded bear, furious to be found still in her nightie.
‘I haven’t had my peach yet,’ she snaps, turning and shuffling back into the bedroom.
It’s quite a contrast to the hallway, a wide, bay window overlooking the local park, bright morning sunshine filtering through trees, joggers in fluorescent tops running round the perimeter, a collie dog leaping for a frisbee.
‘Great view!’ I say, putting my bag down.
‘ Great view? What good’s a view to me?’ she says. ‘How’s a bit of green supposed to help? I’m sick. My back’s killing me, my eyes are falling out. I’ve got no appetite. I suppose you think I’m rich? This isn’t my flat, you know. It’s council. Or housing association. Same thing. Just ‘cos you can see a few trees out the window doesn’t mean I’ve got money to burn.’
‘No. I’m sorry you’re not feeling so good today, Mary.’
‘You don’t know the half of it. But what do you care? That doctor was here last night. I’d just started telling him how I was and suddenly he says: That’s it! That’s your eight minutes. I’m off. And anyway, where do they get off telling you not to eat and smoke when they’re the worst of the lot? You see ‘em all out there, stuffing themselves with crisps and fags. Nothing surprises me anymore, though. No-one cares. I went up the hospital for that MRI the other day. The ambulance what took me might as well have been loading a wardrobe. They slung me in the back and then rode me all round the houses. I could hardly keep myself in the chair, my bits and pieces flying everywhere. Ooh you do look ill says the nurse when I got there. Is it any wonder after a shocking ride like that? I said. But she didn’t want to know. And then I was hours waiting before they picked me up again. The journey back was even worse. I said to them: Are you trying to kill me or what? But they didn’t say nothing, just smiled at each other like it was some kind of joke. Then they tipped me out and went down the pub. They looked like drinkers. I know the signs. My dad was the same. My poor old mum didn’t have two halfpennies to rub together but he always managed to find enough to spend every night down the boozer.’
She pulls on her dressing gown, tightens the cord and frowns at me.
‘And watch out when he came home,’ she says.