the hitcher

‘Goodness!’ says Ian, opening the door. ‘There must be a line of you waiting out in the street!’
‘It’s like that, sometimes. Especially at the beginning. We all tend to just pile in.’
‘And a jolly good thing it is, too!’ he says, showing me inside. ‘I must say, it’s been rather overwhelming. But in a good way – you know. In a good way.’

He shows me through to his mother, Peggy, who is propped up on several pillows, doing The Times crossword. She sets the newspaper aside to shake my hand, takes off her reading glasses and puts them on the bedside table next to a porcelain saucer with one partially nibbled, white chocolate biscuit.

‘So kind of you to come,’ she says. ‘Do please have a seat. Is there anything we can get you?’
I tell her I’m fine. She smiles and then nods at Ian, who almost seems to give a little bow before turning and quietly leaving the room.
‘I’ll just be out here,’ he says.
‘Thank you, darling,’ says Peggy. Then once he’s gone, she adds: ‘I’d be lost without him.’

Peggy is almost a hundred years old. Although she’s been pretty independent up until a month ago, it’s all suddenly caught up with her, and now her body is starting to fail in earnest, the flesh retreating from her bones in the most cruelly anatomical way, revealing all the hollows and protruberances, the cords of her neck, the scoop of her temples. Her eyes are still bright, though, as I’ve no doubt they always were – she seems such a poised and intelligent woman – but perhaps with a cooler, more intense grade of light, the fire of a star at night.

‘I was just admiring your frogs,’ I tell her after introducing myself and unpacking my things.
‘Yes. Aren’t they a wonder?’ she says. ‘I used to spend hours out there, crouched down by the edge, watching them come and go. I’m sure the neighbours thought I was quite potty. But there’s no shortage of things to admire in nature, don’t you find?’
‘I certainly do. We’ve got a wildlife pond at home.’
‘Have you?’
‘Lots of frogs. Newts, too.’
‘And all those marvellous insects, skimming about on the surface…’
‘You’re right! Plenty of things to look at.’
‘Do they make much noise, your frogs?’
‘No, not really. Except in mating season, when they all get terribly exercised. Or when one of the cats fetches one out, which is horrible, of course, and I’ve tried my damndest to stop them. We haven’t got any newts, though, so I’m jealous on that score. I do so love my frogs!’

I conduct the examination and everything is pretty much as expected, given the circumstances.
‘Well, one thing’s for sure,’ says Peggy, suddenly serious. ‘I will not be going to hospital. You can do whatever else you like with me, but I will not be agreeing to that.’
‘No. I understand.’
‘I mean – for goodness sake! Look at me! What ever is the point?’
‘You are the boss of you, Peggy. We’ll do whatever’s best for you.’
‘That’s kind,’ she says. ‘It’s so easy to get swept up in these things sometimes – don’t you find?’

As I’m filling out the paperwork I ask her what she did when she was working.
‘I messed about in the government during the war. Started off in the typing pool but after one thing and another found myself in the Foreign Office, helping out in the Middle East. All frightfully interesting. I travelled about quite a bit afterwards, of course. There was nothing I liked better when I had a bit of free time than to stick out my thumb and hitchhike. I travelled right the way through Syria like that. Fascinating country. Breaks my heart to see what’s happening there now, of course. Those poor people.’
‘Did you hitchhike on your own?’
‘Of course!’ she says, ‘although, these days…’ and she spreads her arms wide and smiles just as broadly, ‘I don’t suppose I’d get all that far!’


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