Mrs Barnes is already washed and dressed, sitting on the end of the bed with a soft and rather bemused expression, like the shoemaker astonished to find all the wonderful things the elves accomplished overnight.
‘Shall we see about some breakfast and your medication, then?’
‘I think I can manage that,’ she says. ‘I’m not doolally.’
But half way down the stairs she stops and turns round.
‘What are we doing?’
‘Going down to the sitting room. To get some breakfast.’
And on we go.
The old place feels more like a house of doors than rooms. It has an eery, abandoned feeling, as if I’d closed my eyes for a second, every door had slammed shut, and the echo had run on through the years.
‘Here we are,’ I say, opening the door to the lounge.
She shakes her head sadly, and lumbers bad-hip first towards her favourite chair.
‘Ahh!’ she says, dropping back into it and caressing then tapping the armrests. ‘Lovely. Now then. Who are you and what do you want?’
With everything done I sit opposite Mrs Barnes, filling in the yellow sheet.
‘Where are you off to now?’ she says, sipping her tea.
‘The middle of town.’
‘That’ll be nice.’
‘So if there’s nothing more I can do for you, I’ll be off.’
‘Thank you for coming,’ she says. ‘I do appreciate it.’
‘You’re welcome. And don’t worry. I’ll put the key back in the key safe.’.
‘This one. The one I used to let myself in this morning.’
‘And where are you going to put it?’
‘I’ll show you, if you like.’
She follows me to the front door. I demonstrate the keysafe, tucked away down to the right of the door, by a desiccated fuchsia in a cracked plastic pot.
‘The key goes in here like this – and then when anyone needs to use it, like the carers or the ambulance – God forbid – they can just fish it out. See? It’s all perfectly safe.’
‘If you say so.’
‘Loads of people have them. But don’t worry. You don’t need to have anything to do with it.’
‘Bye then, Mrs Barnes. Lovely to see you.’
‘Lovely to see you, too. Take care.’
I turn round at the top of the path expecting to see the door closed, but Mrs Barnes is still standing there, looking around. I wave to her. She stares in my direction and doesn’t react at all.
Just as I’m getting in the car – which is parked on the road at the end of the path – I see her suddenly waving to me. I hurry down again.
‘I haven’t got my keys. What have you done with them?’
‘I didn’t use them, Mrs Barnes. I used the keysafe to get in.’
I point to it, but I think she thinks I mean the plant.
‘The keysafe. Look.’
I go through it again; she watches over my shoulder.
‘So what have you done with my keys, then?’
‘Nothing. I don’t know where your keys are. It might be worth checking your pockets. I wouldn’t mind betting you put them in there and then hung your coat up or something. Or have a look on the furniture, the tables and chairs.’
‘Tables and chairs?’ she says, amazed at the thought.
‘It’s easy to put things down. You know – to lose track.’
‘How am I going to get in and out if I haven’t got my keys?’
I go back into the house and have a quick look round, but there’s no trace of the keys. Mrs Barnes is still standing by the front door, and I’m just wondering what to do about the keys and how to explain it all to her when she waves me over.
‘Where can I get that fixed?’ she says.
She’s pointing to the concrete path, which is crumbling in places.
‘I don’t know. You could try the council.’
‘This isn’t council,’ she says.
‘No? Well – maybe the best thing to do is ask a member of your family to do some ringing around.’
She looks blank.
‘Have you got any family? Sons, daughters…’
‘What do you mean?’
‘You know. Relatives. Nieces. Nephews, friends…’
I trail off uncertainly.
Her eyes cloud over and she bites her lip.
But the moment is gone just as soon as it came, and her face relaxes again.
‘And what have you come for?’ she says.