The almshouse cottages are laid out on three sides of an immaculately kept croquet lawn. The white enamel paint is a little chipped on the hoops, showing patches of dark iron underneath. Maybe that’s through being struck with croquet balls over the years, but I’ve never actually seen anyone play. In fact the most life I’ve ever seen on the green is that crow, hopping around in the misty rain like a sexton in a frock coat, his hands under his tails, inspecting the lawn for worms.
Helen won’t be out playing croquet anytime soon, rain or shine. It’s enough of an adventure just making it from the armchair to the bathroom and back. I can imagine she would have been good at it though, sometime before the war, bobbing down to line up the final shot, giving the ball a hearty thwack, snatching off her cap, throwing it in the air, and then jogging over to the judging desk, the croquet mallet balanced on her shoulder. But of course, she wouldn’t have been living in an almshouse then. She would have been in nursing accommodation in London, excitedly practicing the air raid drill, hurrying out to dances, learning her craft.
Seventy years or more have passed since then, and Helen’s world has contracted to the size of a single room. It was small to begin with, but in an effort to stop her from falling the bed has been brought into the living room, leaving just enough room for a commode, a zimmer frame, an armchair and a side table. She still has her shelves of books, of course – one case devoted to Miss Read, whose name is repeated with dizzying regularity up and down the spines – but if you wanted to fetch one out you’d have to move a stack of things first.
Helen has been sitting this whole time with her head resting on the open palm of her right hand. She straightens now and again to look between her daughter Karen and me with an anguished look on her face.
‘I simply don’t understand what it is I have to do,’ she says.
‘You don’t have to do anything, mum. We’re just talking about things we can do to help you get better.’
‘Is it money? I think I have enough. But if you need more I can get another job.’
‘No, mummy. Don’t fret. We’ve got enough money. You’re job is to rest and focus on getting better.’
‘But all these people,’ says Helen, frowning at me. ‘I don’t know who they are or what they want. What do they want, Karen?’
‘They want what’s best for you, mummy. Like we all do. Try not to worry.’
‘But I do worry! I can’t stop worrying!’
Karen goes over to give her mum a hug, but Helen irritably pushes her away and then slumps forward again.
It’s an impossible position for Karen. Not only does she have the grindingly practical business of caring for an elderly mother whilst running a family of her own, she has to do it without the one person she’d naturally have turned to for advice and support, as she did all through her childhood, adolescence and beyond, the single parent who’d trained and worked as a nurse, the woman who’d seen things and suffered things and come out the other side with her hands and her uniform clean, who’d always somehow managed to be just as strong and as resourceful as she needed to be, the woman that was somehow in the room and yet out of it at the same time, as remote as that black and white photograph of a newly qualified nurse in a pristine uniform, sitting with a straight back behind the glass.
‘Anything you could do to help would be great,’ says Karen, smiling weakly at me. Then reaches over to squeeze her mum’s shoulder.