‘I’m Ellie, and this is my sister Jo. I live at the end of the road and I pop in now and again, which has been so, so handy. Jo moved to Edinburgh last year so it’s not been as easy for her. She only just flew in today, so she’s exhausted. You see – the thing is – we’ve all been taken by surprise by all this. Mum was doing pretty well up until the fall. I mean she was slow and everything. You had to watch her with those sticks. But she didn’t have carers, she went out shopping with the community transport, she cleaned for herself, she cooked her own meals, and I mean, okay, she was forgetful, but I’m the same, and I’m thirty years younger. I have to write things down. You heard about the fall, did you? It was pretty bad – well, it could’ve been worse, but bad all the same. She’d gone out in the yard to put the rubbish out when she caught her leg on the step, fell backwards and couldn’t get up. Of course, she wasn’t wearing her button. That was back inside, hanging on the kitchen trolley. So in the end it was three hours before there was anyone to help. She half froze to death. I’m pretty sure the button would’ve worked, even though she was outside. I think it would’ve been in range…’
‘Twenty feet,’ says Jo, folding her arms.
I take off my rucksack, as cautiously as a community health paratrooper shrugging off his parachute in a field. At least a field would be open. As it is, this hallway feels way too small for such an intense conversation.
I’m surprised they’re sisters. They don’t look much alike, or if they do, it’s with that light and dark, yin and yang, push-me-pull-you kind of synergy you sometimes get in families. Ellie does the talking; Jo does the listening. Maybe Jo’s just exhausted by the journey down today, but there’s something else, a watchfulness that feels more opportunistic, more controlled. As soon as I say that perhaps we should go through to the kitchen so I can meet their mother, Jo unfolds her arms.
‘We’ll be off then, Ell,’ she says. ‘Text me if you need anything.’
‘Okay. Will do.’
They kiss each other, cheek to cheek, as affectionately as two people flint-knapping.
As soon as the door’s shut, Ellie turns to me, widens her eyes, and jabs a middle finger in the air towards the space where Jo had been standing.
‘Honestly, she drives me absolutely nuts!,’ she says. ‘You wouldn’t believe how stressful it’s been the last couple of weeks. I’ve got a family of my own and a business to run. What’s she got? They’ve both just taken early retirement, so don’t ask me what they do all day. Well – actually I can tell you exactly what they do all day. Spinning classes down at the gym, planning their next holiday, and bossing me about on the phone: Have you done this? Have you done that? She’s so interfering. But it’s me that has to come running down the road every five minutes. I can’t believe it! She’s only been here an hour and she’s already buggering off. She doesn’t know the half of it. I’ve got a teenage girl going through exams and I know I haven’t been giving her enough attention. Somehow Jo ended up with power of attorney, and oh my God! Every last thing gets questioned! We had the bathroom converted into a wet room, because that made sense. Mum was struggling to get in and out of the bath, and there was more room to use her sticks and what have you. But it was a freakin’ nightmare getting Jo to agree. Well – I’m not sure it’ll add value to the house she said. Add value to the house? This is our mother we’re talking about! Who cares about adding value to the house, just so long as it makes her life easier. And anyway – a bungalow with a wet room? Hello! That’s called a selling point.’
She pushes her hair back and straightens her arms, like a Head Girl marshalling her cool.
‘En-ee-way,’ she says. ‘Sorry for the rant. You come in the door and you get landed with all that! I bet you’ve heard it all before a million times.’
‘A few. It’s always slightly different, though.’
She laughs. ‘Sorry! Come on! Mum’s in the kitchen having tea. Luckily she’s as deaf as a post.’