Maud’s designated next of kin, Alan, lets me in. A tidy man in his early sixties, his grey beard is as scrupulously clipped and pressed as his Nordic woolly jumper.
‘Just through there, in the living room,’ he whispers, giving a little bow of the head, his eyes closing momentarily behind a glint of steel-rimmed glasses, like a kindly psychoanalyst welcoming a new client. ‘The social worker’s with her at the moment. I don’t suppose Maud will mind the two of you.’
Maud is sitting out of bed in an armchair, still wearing her cat-print pyjamas, looking around with a detached, slightly befuddled air. Beside her, on a hospital table, is a selection of the things she needs: tissues, beaker of tea, remote control, reading glasses, and a copy of Anna Karenina.
I introduce myself. When I shake hands with Maud she holds her hand out limply, looking up at me like someone who thinks they might still be asleep.
‘I can’t believe you’re a hundred years old,’ I say to her, sitting down opposite.
‘Am I?’ she says. ‘Well, then. Neither can I.’
The social worker fills me in on the situation. Maud has Alzheimer’s, but has been coping pretty well with care support and so on. Just recently there’s been a bit of a decline, and people were worried.
‘It doesn’t look like an infection, so that’s good,’ says the social worker. ‘Maud would like to stay in her home, but we’ve just been talking about that, and what we might be able to do to help.’
‘I’m in your hands,’ says Maud, then nods at Alan. ‘You’ll know what to do, won’t you, dear?’
‘It’s whatever you want, Maud,’ says Alan, smiling. ‘But don’t worry. Nothing’s decided til it’s decided.’
I carry out a quick set of observations whilst the social worker reads through the notes. Everything seems fine. Maud seems to be in rude health, considering her extreme old age.
‘The thing that bothers me most,’ says Maud, ‘is I can’t get up the stairs to look after Mum and Dad. And if I can’t do it, who will?’
‘By upstairs do you mean – upstairs? In the bedroom?’
‘Where else would they sleep?’
‘It’s understandable that you’re worried about them,’ says the social worker, pausing a moment to choose her words. ‘But I think they’re safe now. I think they’re pretty much at rest.’
‘I know that!’ says Maud. ‘I’m a hundred years old! I’m not daft!’
‘No,’ says the social worker. ‘You’re certainly not.’
‘It’s just they’re upstairs waiting for me, and I’m stuck down here, and I can’t do anything about it.’
When it’s time for me to go, Alan shows me to the kitchen door. I take this opportunity to ask him what he thinks about Maud. He stops to listen, adopting a thoughtful attitude, supporting the elbow of his right arm with the hand of his left, gently pinching his upper lip.
‘I haven’t met her before,’ I tell him. ‘So I don’t know how much of this is new.’
‘You mean this thing about her parents?’
‘Has she talked about them before?’
‘Off and on,’ he says. ‘I know how it sounds, but I suppose there are two ways of looking at it. One is that it’s all just a symptom of her cognitive decline, some organic disease and so on. The other is to say that perhaps, yes, she can actually see her parents. You might think it odd to hear me say that; other people, in other cultures, with certain religious beliefs, would probably understand it quite well. You see, it’s been my experience in circumstances like this that people nearing the end of life are – how shall I put this? – met?’
‘That’s certainly a different way of looking at it.’
‘It is, isn’t it!’ he says, brightly, patting me on the shoulder. ‘Now then. Good to see you, and thank you so much for coming!’
I walk over the road to my car and throw my bags in the boot. When I turn round to look, Alan’s still there, watching me from the kitchen door.
He waves back, then turns and goes inside.
For the life of me, I can’t help glancing up at the bedroom window.