‘How much do you know about – the situation?’
Charlotte is standing with me and my colleague Olufemi where we agreed to rendezvous outside the house. She seems anxious, her long blond hair tied back in a purposeful ponytail, her eyes drawn and tired.
‘Not much, only that Alma has been going downhill a bit lately, at risk of self-neglect.’
‘If it wasn’t for me she would’ve died already – sorry to be so blunt.’
‘No. That’s okay. It’s good to be clear.’
Charlotte unconsciously moves Alma’s keys from hand to hand, as if they’re too hot to hold for long.
‘The fact is we’re moving,’ she says. ‘And I’ve no idea what’ll happen when we’re gone.’
‘Does she have family?’
‘No. A niece somewhere. I’ve never seen her.’
‘That is a pity,’ says Olufemi. ‘That is sad for the lady.’
‘What about carers?’
‘You’re looking at her. Not that I meant to do it, or even wanted to, really. But what can you do? I used to be a nurse, too. About a thousand years ago.’
‘So you’ve been providing a measure of care for Alma? Doing what, exactly?’
‘It started off just buying her food. Bit and pieces here and there. Clearing up. Domestic stuff. She never paid for any of it, but what could I do? I couldn’t just let her starve. But then lately she’s been unwell and I’ve had to start cleaning her up. She’s started falling, staying in bed. Been incontinent – that sort of thing. I’ve changed the sheets and quilt any number of times. Thrown them out, bought new. It’s been quite stressful. On top of all the hassle of moving. That’s why I had to get social services involved.’
‘Sounds like you’ve done everything you could and more.’
‘You are a good friend and neighbour,’ says Olufemi. ‘The best.’
‘The other thing I need to tell you is – she says hurtful things.’
‘And I know it probably comes from a place of fear. I don’t doubt she’s scared people are going to take her independence away. It just makes it all even more difficult to handle.’
‘What hurtful things?’
‘Well. No doubt you’ll see when we go in. Don’t get me wrong. Deep down Alma’s okay. A little eccentric, in her own way. But erm…you really have to brace yourself.’
‘Okay. Thanks for the heads up.’
‘Let’s see what she’s like today, then, shall we?’
Charlotte gives us both a brave smile, then pushes open the gate and we all walk in a line down the overgrown path to Alma’s front door.
I’m guessing the house was built sometime in the thirties. A little down-at-heel now, it still has that air of moneyed class-consciousness you see in some suburban homes. When Alma dies I imagine it’ll be sold off and re-developed into separate flats. There’s certainly space for it. Inside it’s hard to imagine one person living on their own here, let alone a ninety-five year old confined to one room upstairs.
‘It’s cold,’ says Olufemi.
‘I put the heating on but she turns it off again,’ says Charlotte. ‘Doesn’t want to spend the money.’
‘But a person needs heating,’ he says. ‘This is not good. Not good at all.’
We’re all of us standing in the gloomy hallway looking round. Archways leading off into dark, unoccupied rooms. It’s early morning, and a thin light sparsely illuminates the kitchen.
‘It’s a mess,’ says Charlotte. ‘I’ve done my best, but…’
She stands at the bottom of the staircase with one hand on the balustrade.
‘It’s no good calling because she won’t hear you,’ she says. ‘We may as well just go up.’
So we do.
The landing is as cold and resonantly empty as the rest of the place. All the doors stand open and dark apart from the door to Alma’s bedroom, which is closed, with a little light spilling out from under it. A radio is playing loudly – a gardening programme, something about azaleas.
Charlotte knocks, then turns the handle.
Alma is lying on the floor.
‘Oh Alma!’ says Charlotte, hurrying over.
‘Get away from me!’ says Alma. ‘And whilst you’re at it, lose some weight.’
‘Don’t be like that, Alma. Look. I’ve brought some people to see you. Some nurses from the hospital.’
‘Nurses from the hospital? Whatever for?’
Olufemi and I go over to her to introduce ourselves and see if she’s alright.
‘How did you end up on the floor?’ I ask her.
‘I slipped! D’you think this is some sort of game? Concentrate, boy! Why not try using your mind for once? You might like it.’
‘Let’s help you up…’
She’s obviously uncomfortable, though, because once we’ve ascertained she hasn’t hurt herself, she lets us gently help her up and back onto the bed.
She’s wearing a t-shirt and nothing else, her withered legs scarcely able to support her.
Alma catches her breath, and when she’s ready, divides her attention between me and Olufemi. It’s like being scrutinised by a giant, partially denuded chicken, her eyes preternaturally bright and sharp.
‘You!’ she says to me, suddenly clawing at the air between us so unexpectedly that I have to lean back. ‘Pah!’ she says. ‘You’re no use.’
‘Please, Mrs Alma. We’ve only come here to help you,’ says Olufemi, kneeling beside the bed.
‘And as for you,’ she says, turning slowly to smile down at him in a horribly leering way. ‘YOU – my little pickaninny friend. You can go and kneel somewhere else.’