I’ve seen dead people; Rita isn’t one of them.
It’s not because she’s holding her eyes shut, and her mouth closed, and it’s not because her skin is a lovely pink colour. And it isn’t because even from the doorway I can see she’s breathing. It’s because someone buzzed me through the main door when I rang, and she’s the only one in the flat.
‘Rita? It’s Jim, from the hospital. I’ve come to see how you are.’
‘How are things?’
I put my bag down and go over to her.
It was supposed to be easy. A handful of calls first thing. A quick trip back to the hospital to catch up on admin. Out again without lunch, all the omens good for a prompt finish. Father’s Day and all that. Cake and cards…
‘Could you just ring this patient before you go?’ says Michaela, handing me a file, super energised as usual, despite the chaos. ‘We need to know how she’s getting on with the equipment that was delivered yesterday. Thank you, Jim!’
Michaela has a way of getting you do stuff even though you’re exhausted. I don’t know how she does it. Drugs, mind control, religion – even if I had the time, I’d be too scared to ask.
I skim the notes. All pretty straight-forward. Elderly woman, independent, no package of care. Family involvement. Low to moderate health problems. Toilet frame and kitchen trolley dropped round the day before. Nothing to report.
I pick up the phone.
‘Hello? Is that Rita? Hello, Rita. My name’s Jim. I’m calling from the Rapid Response Team at the hospital.’
‘How are you today?’
‘Oh. I’m sorry to hear that. In what way are you ill?’
‘Are you in pain? Do you feel short of breath?’
‘No. Look – I’m far too ill to talk about it.’
And she hangs up.
I re-order my calls as I drive over there. I might just make it…
All Rita’s obs are fine. In fact, many are better than mine. But despite encouragement she still sits in the chair like a WRVS version of The Death of Chatterton. (It’s not a stroke. Her neuro obs are as sound as everything else. And I’m pretty sure it’s not arsenic).
I hardly know how to put the next question to her, but I’m horribly conscious of the time, something the novelty bird clock on the wall behind her cruelly accentuates with a cuckoo.
‘The button to open the main door downstairs – it’s in the hall, isn’t it?’ I ask, leading her on like some shabby prosecutor.
‘So how did you manage to get from the chair to the button and back again before I came in?’
‘I crawled,’ she says.
‘Yes. I crawled.’
I try to picture how that would have looked. A marine would’ve been sweating, covering that amount of carpet and back in the time given.
‘I’ve never felt so unwell,’ she says.
‘Rita? What we need to do is find out exactly what you mean when you say unwell.’
‘Unwell! I don’t know how else to describe it.’
‘Do you feel sick?’
‘Short of breath?’
She shakes her head.
‘And you don’t have any pain anywhere?’
‘Any strange sensations of any kind anywhere at all?’
‘I feel ill.’
I pause, write something – anything – down.
‘I want to go to hospital,’ she says.
‘I’d be safe there.’
Well – that’s true. You would be safe there. But you’re doing pretty well here, too. You’ve got your red button to press if anything happens. You’ve got your son a few streets away. You’ve got the telephone in easy reach. The thing is, Rita – it’s difficult to find a reason to send you in to hospital. Especially today. It’s incredibly busy down there. You’d probably end up on a trolley for ages, and then sent home with nothing changed.’
‘I just want to die,’ she says. ‘I’ve had my time. Sorry to be a nuisance.’
‘You’re not a nuisance, Rita. And I’m sorry you’re feeling so low.’
Her eyes snap open and she looks straight at me.
‘There’s nothing wrong with my mind,’ she says. ‘There’s nothing wrong with the way I feel.’
‘No! Absolutely! It’s perfectly understandable and natural to get fed up sometimes and want someone to talk to.’
‘Just leave me. Just leave me to die.’
She closes her eyes again and reverts to pose.
Maybe if I had an easel – and the time – I’d set up and paint her. I could do with the practice and she could do with the company. But I’ve got a lot to get through, and my dream of an easy day is fast disintegrating.
‘What are we going to do, Rita? Hey? What are we going to do?’
But Rita doesn’t say anything, and keeps her eyes closed. And a silence fills the room, the dizzying breadth and depth of it marked by a sudden burst of skylark from the bird clock on the wall.