a tale of two women

I.

Maud is asleep on the ottoman.
‘She’s exhausted’ whispers her granddaughter, Eve. ‘We thought it best if we let her rest a while’
Maud couldn’t be more comfortable, a pile of crisp white pillows behind her head and a richly patterned duvet tucked around her.
‘Come and have a seat,’ says Eve. ‘We’ll wake her up in a minute.’
Eve leads me to a heavy oak dining table in the middle of the room, where Eve’s mother Lucy and Lucy’s sister, Beth are waiting.
‘Thanks for coming,’ says Beth, standing up to shake my hand.
‘It’s good of you,’ says Lucy. ‘Everyone’s been so kind.’
We take our seats.
It would make a good painting. The Visit. A broad and comfortable room, naturally lit by the low winter sun through the patio windows, a collection of old prints and portraits hung around the walls, ferns in planters, a baby grand covered with an antique shawl and a spread of family photos in simple, silver frames – and then the focus of the picture, the loving family leaning in on three sides of the table, me with my open folder, pen in hand, and Maud, snoozing in the background.
‘Can you just go over for me why Maud was taken to hospital in the first place?’ I say.
‘It was just before Christmas,’ says Lucy. ‘Mummy’s always been fiercely independent. She doesn’t like fuss and she’s absolutely resisted any attempt to get some help in with the garden.’
‘Imagine!’ smiles Eve.
‘Quel horreur!’ says Lucy, shaking her head.
‘Anyway. That’s the context. What we think happened is that Mummy was out there planting bulbs and having a bit of a tidy up – overdoing things as usual – came in and then suffered some sort of collapse. Not a stroke or her heart or anything. More a kind of giving out or a weakness in her legs. Whatever the reason, down she went and couldn’t get up again. Wasn’t wearing her red button, of course.’
‘I think it’s upstairs on the bathroom door,’ says Lucy.
‘Exactly. So there she was, down on the floor, and she just couldn’t get herself up again. The best she could manage was to shuffle about a bit – although not as far as the phone, sadly. Malcolm, a good friend and neighbour who lives just across the way, well Malcolm saw the light on quite late and rang Mummy to ask if everything was all right. When she didn’t answer he came over and let himself in with the key we’d given him…’
‘Thank God!’ says Beth.
‘…thank God!’ says Lucy. ‘Thank Malcolm! As soon as he found Mummy on the floor he called the ambulance. They were a while getting here, so once Malcolm had established that Mummy hadn’t broken any bones and so on, he helped her up and waited with her for the paramedics. She had every test you could think of at the hospital. Really – everyone’s been so kind….’
‘Absolutely!’ says Beth. ‘Thank you so much.’
‘…just amazing, actually. But aside from the usual wear-and-tear of Mummy’s osteoarthritis and her habit of doing too damned much, they couldn’t find anything wrong.’
‘A bit of a chest infection…’ says Beth.
‘Oh yes. The chest infection,’ says Ruth. ‘Beyond that, who can say? We’ve got some carers starting this evening. I think Mummy’s been given a bit of a frightener by all of this and she’s finally agreed to some help. One of us will stay tonight and however long it takes to get her back to strength. But she is ninety, you know. You can’t go on pretending you’re a young woman forever.’
And we all turn to look at Maud, fast asleep on the ottoman.

II.

‘I’m ninety, you know!’
‘I can’t believe that!’ I say, touching Renee lightly on the arm. I have to admit it’s a lie, though. One of her eyes is permanently closed, giving her a lopsided, leering look, and when she speaks – with difficulty – she rolls up her mouth at the end of each sentence, taking most of the lower half of her face with it.
Rene is stuck on the commode. She wasn’t able to pull up her nightie, and opening her bowels has resulted in a mess that’s going to take some deft manoeuvring to sort out. At least I’m here with my colleague, Helen, though. Together we manage to stand Renee up, and whilst Helen keeps her steady, I set to work with quantities of tissue and wet wipes.
‘Sorry about that,’ she says.
‘Don’t worry, Renee.’
After a while she says: ‘We’ll have to take the decorations down soon.’
I glance up at the walls. There are three lines of red tinsel stuck with masking tape to the crumbling plaster above the fireplace – not delicate strips of tape; the kind you tear off in a hurry and slap on.
‘Shame. It goes so quickly,’ says Helen, adjusting her position as I struggle to free some more wipes.
‘Yes,’ says Renee. ‘Still. It can’t be Christmas all the time or it wouldn’t be special.’
Her son Graham watches us from the other side of the room. He seems to do a lot of that. He was watching at the front door as I parked the car, not waving back when I did, or even saying hello, merely turning with a flat, mildly irritated look and disappearing inside, like a bear plodding back into its cave when it finds winter still has a way to go.
‘How is she?’ he says, as we struggle to get her nightie over her head.
‘Not sure.’
A microwave dings in the kitchen.
‘D’you mind if I get my dinner?’
‘Go ahead!’ says Helen, dropping the soiled clothing into a bag.
After a minute or two Graham reappears with a plastic dish of curry. Instead of taking it upstairs or out back, he sits on the side of Renee’s hospital bed, and starts tucking in with a spoon.
‘Sure you don’t mind?’ he says.
It’s disquieting to see just how exactly the food looks like the mess we’ve just dealt with.
‘Absolutely,’ I say. ‘Smells good.’

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