It’s a reasonable request. Could Queenie provide me with a specimen of urine? (She has dementia and short term memory loss, but lately she’s been a bit more confused, and I’ve been sent round to screen out the obvious things first). I have a papier mache kidney bowl to put in the toilet. All she has to do is sit and go as normal, then leave it in situ for me to dip.
‘It doesn’t have to be much.’
‘It won’t be much.’
‘Whatever you can manage, Queenie. And don’t forget – don’t flush.’
She holds my hands as I lead her through the kitchen, down the two perilous concrete steps to the tiny toilet out back. She gives me a brave, astronaut-going-into-the-module kind of wave, and then closes the door very slowly and precisely. There’s a pause, some muttering, and then the sound of a bolt being slid firmly into place.
‘Shout if you need me.’
That was an hour ago.
Since then I’ve tried everything I can think of to tempt her out. Good cop, bad cop. Pleading. Subtle psychological manipulation. Tea and biscuits.
‘Come on, Queenie. I can’t stay here all day.’
Well go then.
‘I can’t do that either.’
‘Because I’d worry something was wrong.’
‘Well prove it and open the door.’
I could close my eyes and draw this door. Tongue and groove panelling, black gloss paint as heavy as if it had been dipped in a vat of tar before it was hung.
‘Come on, Queenie. You must be finished by now, surely.’
No! Just – go and sit in the lounge. Read the newspaper or something.
‘Are you stuck?’
Why would I be stuck?
‘Because you’ve got a history of getting stuck.’
Don’t be ridiculous.
‘And when you do get stuck you don’t use your pendant.’
‘Exactly. The pendant on your wrist.’
Why can’t you just leave me alone?
‘I’ve got a duty of care.’
‘I can’t just walk away, can I? Your carer’s not due in till tea-time. You could be stuck in there for hours.’
I’m not stuck.
‘I just can’t think why else you’d take so long to come out.’
Go away and give me five minutes, would you?
‘What’s keeping you?’
What’s keeping me?
‘Yes. What’s keeping you?’
‘Can’t you come out and have those thoughts back in the lounge? You’d be more comfortable.’
Five minutes! Is that too much to ask?
‘You said five minutes five minutes ago. I can’t keep giving you five minutes-es. It’s been an hour already.’
Why don’t you both leave me alone?
‘What do you mean, both?’
She grumbles and grunts unintelligibly. There’s some non-specific shuffling, the sound of a hand on the bolt – and then nothing.
‘Are you all right in there?’
Of course I’m all right.
‘I’ve made you a nice cup of tea.’
Put it in the lounge and I’ll drink it later.
‘It’s a shame to let it go cold.’
Why don’t you just go back to the hospital and leave me be?
‘I have to see you first before I go. I have to know that you’re all right.’
‘This isn’t reasonable behaviour, Queenie.’
Of course it is.
‘I wouldn’t say so. Locking yourself in the toilet for an hour when you have company isn’t reasonable behaviour.’
And you’d know all about it, would you?
‘I do now.’
I don’t know what you’re on about.
‘Look. Here’s the plan. I’ll give you five more minutes to finish off and open the door. If you don’t, I’m afraid I’m going to have to break in.’
You’ll pay for it if you do.
‘I’m afraid you’re leaving me no choice. You’ve got a history of falling, getting stuck and not calling for help. So I’d be failing in my job if I just walked away.’
No you wouldn’t.
‘So I’m giving you five more minutes. After that, I’m going to unscrew the handle and open the door by force.’
It’s a threat easier made than carried out. The screws are all glooped over with paint, and I haven’t got a screwdriver.
‘All right? Five more minutes, and then I’m coming in.’
I move away into the kitchen, fold my arms, lean back against the sink.
In a picture frame on the window ledge is a black and white picture of a man in a naval uniform. He’s leaning in to the camera with his hat tipped back and a grin like a music hall turn. The kitchen itself is set up like a ship’s galley, optimising the narrow space with a bank of cupboards on one side, and an aluminium work surface facing it. But if it started out ship-shape, it’s spent too long in dry docks now. There are dark cobwebs high up in the corners, and the only clean cups and utensils are the ones on the draining board the carers are washing and reusing.
‘Right! That’s your five minutes up, Queenie. I’m coming in!’
I rattle the handle.
Wait! Just wait!
More shuffling noises, curses and grunts.
‘And don’t flush the…’
The toilet flushes.
A bolt thrown back and the door opens.
‘You can go off people, you know’ she says.