the stone queen

There are warning signs tied to every lamppost: Road resurfacing. No parking. Tow-away zone. The silhouette of a truck dragging off a car, and a date scrawled in the space beneath. The date is tomorrow, though, so I figure I’ll probably be good to park here today. I’m prepared to take the risk. If I had to look for a parking space anywhere else I’d end up have to walk miles, and I’m behind on my visits as it is. I put my Parking Exemption ticket on the dashboard, grab my stuff and walk up the path to number 18.

Mina’s daughter, Sarah opens the door. She smiles bravely but looks exhausted, a fresh-looking perm accentuating the dark lines under her eyes, as if the energy it took to highlight and curl has used up whatever reserves she had left.

‘Mum’s upstairs,’ she says. ‘She hasn’t left the flat in a year or more – well, except for appointments.’

Despite the bright sunshine outside – or maybe because of it – the room is muted and still. There’s a large aquarium bubbling away against one wall, stunned fish drifting in and out of focus. The aquarium is so dominating, it seems to extend and occupy more than its own space, especially as the walls and the carpet are mottled green and blue, and all the furniture, too, soft and plump, making it feel like a state room on the Titanic, everything swollen with coral blooms. Mina is sitting in a scallop-backed armchair in the window, Queen of this Undersea World, except her robe of fish-scales is actually a fluffy blue dressing gown, and her trident is a walking stick.

I pull up a lobster, and ask how she’s feeling today.

She turns her sad eyes down on me, and with her knotty fingers draped over the handle of her stick, she sings me the sad, siren song of her back. A soft, sinking kind of song, as lulling as the bubbles. A song of osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis, COPD, heart failure, and diverticulitis. Of degenerative changes to lumbar vertebrae that can never be corrected. Certainly not by surgery; she wouldn’t survive the operation. All they can do is control her pain with medication. But she’s sensitive to just about everything, and they’re running out of ideas. She has all the equipment she needs. She knows the maisonette is inappropriate, as she can’t easily manage the stairs, but she’s lived there so long she couldn’t face moving – not that there’s anywhere to move to, bungalows being in such demand.

Sarah is sitting on the opposite chair, kneading her hands as she listens, as if she’s working through it by some invisible mechanism, forcing it to a conclusion. She interrupts when she can: I’ve got my own problems she says. Work. Kids. Everything else.

The questions I manage to ask have all been asked before. Mina deals with them all in turn, scarcely pausing to think, wrapping them up in words, kelp around a propeller.

‘Well – I’m limited to what I can do today,’ I say, shaking myself into action. ‘I’ll do your obs – you know – your blood pressure and so on, just to make sure there’s nothing else going on that might be making things worse, like an infection and so on. Take some blood, too. And then liaise with the GP. How does that sound?’

Mina smiles sadly, then turns her head towards the window.
‘They’re fixing the road tomorrow,’ she says, as I open my bag and set out my things.
‘I saw that! I didn’t know whether it was safe to park or not.’
‘It’s safe,’ she says. ‘I can see your car from here. The little blue one. If anyone goes near it I’ll use my stick and turn them to stone.’

And she taps it, once, on the carpet, to illustrate.

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