the old bird

‘Really – I’m fine. I don’t know what you’re making such a fuss about.’
Mrs Roberts has a determined, no-nonsense demeanour, fussing with the arms of her jumper to even them out, then sitting straight-backed in the armchair, distributing a brave smile about the room, bright as a lighthouse, to anyone who needed or cared to see. It would be easy to think that here was a ninety year old woman perfectly and admirably in control of her life, if it wasn’t for the livid, green and black bruises extending from her eyes down both swollen cheeks, the stitches on the bridge of her nose, and the bandage on her left hand.
‘You’re not fine, though. Are you, Mum? You’re very far from fine,’ says Steven, her son, sitting in a chair opposite.
‘Rubbish!’ she says. Then turns to me. ‘You see what I have to put up with?’
Steve buries his face in his hands.
‘Are you okay?’ I ask him.
After a moment he emerges again, his eyes shining, his face red. He straightens in the chair, takes a deep breath, and nods.
‘It’s difficult,’ I say. ‘It’s difficult for everyone.’

The situation has many practical angles and complications, of course, but the crux of it is simply the frailties of old age. Mrs Roberts has managed the early years of her ninth decade with impressive self-determination, only needing carers these past six months, when a dip in her mobility meant she struggled to get ready in the morning. It was a carer who found her on the floor just last week – a heavy fall with superficial injuries, thank goodness, but there’s no getting away from the fact that she’s more vulnerable than before. Steve lives in Germany, has done for many years. His brother is in the UK somewhere, but a family rift means Steve is the one left to sort things out.
‘I’ve just got to go back tomorrow,’ he says. ‘Work…life…y’know?’
His mother smiles at him as she gently dabs at her nose with a handkerchief.
‘Don’t you worry about me,’ she sniffs. ‘I’m perfectly capable of looking after myself.’
There’s talk of getting her into a respite bed for a period of recuperation. She doesn’t want to go, but she’s willing to do it if it means Steve can get back to Germany and not worry himself to death.
‘I wouldn’t go for good, though,’ she says. ‘I’m not ready for the funny farm yet.’

There’s nothing in her observations to suggest a reason for the increased falls. She says she feels well in herself.
‘It’ll be interesting to see what the bloods show,’ I say, preparing my kit to take a sample.
Steve asks me how long it might take to get a respite bed.
‘There’s a bit of a wait,’ I tell him. ‘There just aren’t that many available, what with all the cuts. The few they have they triage pretty thoroughly.’
‘It’s just – what’ll happen when I go back? She’s really not safe. Even with the carers upped to four times a day.’
‘If you funded a place independently you could get one more quickly, but of course that’s only if you have the money. Like a lot of things, I suppose. Without getting too political…’
He thinks about that, both hands flat over his mouth, so that I can hear his breath moving over his fingers.
To distract Mrs Roberts I nod at the mirror just behind her. There’s an old, velvet parrot on a perch hanging down in the middle. One of its eyes has gone, and the whole thing leans precariously to one side. It has a tuft of faded yellow fur in the middle of its head, like a comedy wig. I get the feeling if I unhooked it from the mirror and gave it a gentle shake, much of the colour would come back.
‘I like your parrot,’ I say. ‘And that’s not something I thought I’d be saying today.’
‘Percy? He’s a love, isn’t he? Steven gave that to me when he was a little boy. He saved up his pocket money and he bought it at the school fair. Didn’t you darling?’
Steve nods, reaches over and strokes her knee.
‘Looking a bit tatty now, though’ he says.
‘Oh I don’t know,’ she says. ‘There’s life in the old bird yet.’

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