I knock first, then let myself in to Olive’s flat using the key from the key safe. She’s in the galley kitchen off to the left, her slippered feet just visible below the edge of the cupboard she’s rummaging through. I know from her notes that she’s deaf and suffers from dementia, and I’m worried that my sudden appearance when she closes the cupboard door will give her such a jump-scare she’ll have a heart attack. But there’s no easy way of making my presence known. As gently but as clearly as I can I call through to her. She closes the cupboard and stands there, sniffing the air rather than seeing me directly.
‘Make us some toast,’ she says.
‘Of course. Shall I help you back to your seat first?’
‘And some tea,’ she says, reaching for my hands. ‘Two sweeteners.’
Her mobility is terrible, and her chest sounds as rough as a tractor left in a barn for years and then dragged out and cranked.
On the way through to the living room, she seems to come alive, though, squeezing my hands, shuffling her slippers and singing Dah dee dee daaah! But then the coughing overtakes her again and she has to stop.
It takes an age to get her safely back to her armchair. When eventually she’s settled and I’ve figured out how to turn the TV on, I go back into the kitchen to make breakfast. It’s a dismal scene. Sometime around nineteen fifty these kitchen units probably featured in a glossy spread; now, the only colour is a yellowing patina of sticky ghastliness on every surface,. The fridge is so filthy it would make more sense to cast it in concrete for a thousand years rather than open it and look for butter. But at least the toaster works. Whilst I wait for it to pop up, I notice a small, black and white photo propped up against an ancient biscuit tin. It’s Olive, sometime in the late thirties, I would guess, tightly buttoned in a WRAF uniform, her eyebrows plucked and pencilled, her lipstick just-so, her hair expertly gathered in a bunch.
I make her some jam toast, a cup of tea in a delicately patterned but horribly stained china cup, and carry it all through.
‘Lovely!’ she says, tucking in.
It doesn’t take much of an examination to discover that Olive is very unwell. The chest infection she’s had for a few weeks hasn’t responded to the antibiotics, and it looks like she’s sliding into sepsis. I try to explain to her that she needs to go to hospital, but between the deafness and the dementia there’s little hope of making her understand. She finishes breakfast and immediately falls asleep. I phone for an ambulance. The call taker tells me there are long delays, but says a crew will be with us as soon as they can. Meanwhile, I find a carrier bag and gather her medications ready to go, along with any notes the crew might need. Once that’s done, I phone Olive’s daughter to let her know what’s happening. She sounds as decrepit as Olive – which is probably the case. Olive is ninety-eight; her daughter must be in her seventies. She says she’ll rendezvous with the ambulance at the hospital, seeing as it’s that side of town.
With everything done that needs to be done, I settle down to wait.
Olive doesn’t so much wake up as slowly unfold. She raises her chin, puts her hands right and left on the armrests of the chair, and gradually opens her eyes.
‘Five years he’s been gone,’ she says, mournfully carrying on a conversation I wasn’t part of. ‘But I haven’t been with nobody else. We were married seventy years. He was a lovely man. I can’t believe he was took like that. I don’t believe in God no more. Not if he goes and does things like that.’
‘It must have been hard for you.’
She doesn’t seem to hear me, exactly, but orientates herself in my direction like a sea anemone sensing a change in the murky waters around her. She mumbles a few words.
‘What’s that, Olive?’
She waggles a hand in the air, like she wants me to come closer.
I go over and lean in.
‘What did you say, Olive…?’
Suddenly she reaches up with both hands, grabs me by the shoulders, tugs me towards her and kisses me on the cheek.
She laughs as I straighten, so wickedly the whole of her face seems to collapse in on itself. But then she coughs, and feels the pain of it deep in the right side of her chest.
‘Ooh – rub my back a little, rub my back,’ she says, leaning forwards. I wonder if it’s another trick, but I do it anyway. ‘Is that better?’
But she doesn’t answer.
She’s already asleep.