Vera is as formidable as the tartan wrap she has over her shoulders.
‘But who sent you?’ she says.
‘The GP. I think she was a bit worried after that fall you had.’
Vera stands holding the door, hesitating on the threshold of a determination to be alone and an anxiety not to appear rude.
‘Well I suppose you’d better come in,’ she says, releasing the door and turning on the spot as ably as her ninety year old hips will allow. ‘But I’m not happy about this. Not happy at all.’
I follow her through to the sitting room, a ruthlessly bare place with just a television, an armchair, a pouffe and a side table. There are half a dozen framed photographs on the walls, arranged in a regular pattern. The photos are mostly black and white, one of a wedding but I can’t be sure from here. She sits in her armchair and gestures for me to take the pouffe. I sink into it, my knees pressed into my chin, and I squat there looking up at her like an acolyte at the feet of a master.
‘The important thing to remember is that you’re the boss of you,’ I say.
‘What on earth do you mean? Of course I’m the boss of me.’
‘That’s great! It’s just – sometimes I think it’s easy to lose sight of that with all these different people and agencies piling in all the time. You tell them what you want and don’t want, and so long as you understand the consequences, no-one will mind.’
‘Of course I understand the consequences. I do the Times crossword every morning. Do you?’
‘I don’t understand cryptic clues. I can only manage the quick crossword.’
‘It’s not the same thing at all,’ she says. ‘But you’re right. You have to tune your ear to the language.’
She adjusts her shawl, loosening it a little. I hug my knees and try to rock into a more comfortable position.
‘I just don’t want all this fuss,’ says Vera, warming to her theme. ‘People barging in all hours of the day and night, left right and centre. I haven’t asked for any of it. They want to give me frames and trolleys and contraptions for the toilet and goodness knows what. But I simply don’t want them. They clutter the place up. I want to be able to move, freely, in my own time. Can you understand that?’
‘Yes. Completely. But you know – they’re only making these suggestions because you had that fall. They want you to be safe.’
‘You see – I fundamentally don’t understand why these people can’t leave me to live my life as I want to live it. I have my cleaner who comes in once a week. My granddaughter does the shopping. I’m perfectly happy with the way things are. I pay them to help me, and there we are.’
‘Do you pay your granddaughter?’
‘Well of course I pay her? She wouldn’t do it for free, would she?’
‘Family… I don’t know.’
‘That’s not the arrangement I want. It has to be clear. Everyone has to know where they stand. I’ve had people say to me why don’t you live with your son or your daughter? In a granny flat? A granny flat! I can’t think of anything more ghastly – for them or for me. Being walled-up somewhere, like a nun, perhaps… Why in heaven’s name would I want that? They have their lives and I have mine.’
‘That’s perfectly fine. It’s a free country.’
‘So far as I was aware, yes, it is. So if you don’t mind, I’d like not to be bothered in future.’
‘I’ll say goodbye then. And of course, if anything changes, your GP can always make another referral. What I would say though, is it’s probably a good idea to wear your alarm pendant.’
‘I won’t do it. I’m not having that plastic monstrosity anywhere near me.’
‘The thing is, if you fell again and – worse case scenario – broke your hip, you might be lying on the floor for a long time…’
‘No I wouldn’t.’
‘I’ve seen it happen.’
‘Not to me, it hasn’t.’
‘I’m just saying – it’s worth thinking about.’
‘When I fell last week I crawled to the phone.’
‘Next time you might not be able to crawl’
She fixes me with her sternest look, making little circular grinding motions with her mouth.
‘Listen,’ she says at last. ‘I used to race horses. Have you any idea what it’s like to fall off one of those things?’
‘Pretty hard, I expect. I fell off a motorbike once and that was bad enough.’
‘Well I don’t know about motorbikes, but falling from a galloping horse is a significant prospect. I should know – I’ve done it more times than I care to remember.’
‘Did you break anything?’
‘Only my pride. The crucial things is, one must learn how to land, and then get back in the saddle. There’s nothing else for it.’
I’m tempted to carry on the discussion by pointing out the number of years that have passed between that young woman cartwheeling through the air, and the older, osteoporotic version going over in the bathroom, but I can see that nothing’s going to persuade her. I struggle to my feet from the pouffe, collect my things together and shake her hand.
‘Goodbye then, Vera. It’s been lovely to meet you, and I’m sorry for disturbing your morning.’
‘That’s quite alright,’ she says, hobbling after me to the door. ‘It’s been a pleasure to meet you, too. But please – and I mean this in the nicest possible way – don’t come back.’