the rabbit in the room

Rosie isn’t answering the intercom or her phone, and there’s no keysafe, so it’s a stroke of luck that at that exact moment, Frieda, the scheme manager, arrives.

Frieda is a formidable figure. Tall and broad, her thick black hair tightly pulled back and fixed with a comb, her fingers knuckled with silver rings of amethyst and turquoise. ‘Show me ID’ she says, waggling them at me.
‘Come’ she says, after comparing me with the photo.
I follow her in.
Frieda’s office is a converted broom cupboard to the side of the main entrance. There’s really only room for Frieda, a desk, a chair and a filing cabinet, and all her movements have a practiced economy. She unlocks the door with a huge bundle of keys, turns on the PC, grabs sheaves of paper out of the filing cabinet, hangs her gilet up on the back of the door, runs her finger down a wall planner – the whole time talking to me about the problem they’re having with Rosie, one of their residents.

‘It happen from last September,’ she says, slamming the filing cabinet drawer shut with a vigorous sideswipe of her hip. ‘They take her to hospital for scan of head, but she totally freak out. She thought they were going to put the machine in her, and not other way round. So. They never find out what is going on in here…’
She raps her temple twice with her mobile work phone. It makes an audible clunk.
‘For example – did you hear about budgie?’
‘What d’you mean? What budgie?’
‘Rosie have budgie bird. In cage. She love it. The budgie is a very sweet little bird if you like that kind of thing. Anyway, Rosie accidentally smother this budgie.’
‘She smothered it? How?’
‘We not sure. We think she got some idea about budgie and wrapped it up in blanket. And .. well … turns out, not such a good thing for budgie. So Rosie very upset and we had funeral and everything. I had just finish jar of coffee so we put it in that, and we bury in garden. All very nice and so on. But then she was still upset, so we got plastic budgie and put it on perch. And now she think this is still same budgie, and we even have to buy it seed, although we only pretend that part, and use same box.’
‘That’s a shame!’
‘Yes. Whole thing a shame. We’ve been trying to get this thing sorted out but the doctors never do nothing. Social workers, the mental health people, they phone up, they say this meeting will happen…. that meeting will happen … but at end of day nothing happen, and Rosie is still in her flat never eating, and seeing things, and we don’t know what to do.’
‘That’s where we come in. We’ll certainly do our best to move things along.’
‘Yes? You move things along? Well. I like that, but I believe it when I see it.’
She pushes her mask more fully over nose, and glares at me over the top of it.
‘Come,’ she says. ‘We see her now.’

She body-steers me further into the hallway, turns and locks the office door.
‘I am like jailer,’ she says, twirling the bunch of keys with her index finger through the carabiner clip. ‘Good job for you I am here. I do not think she would let you in otherwise.’

Riding up in the lift, Frieda makes a couple of calls to some other residents. She’s ruthlessly pragmatic.
‘They answer phone, hello, they still alive, good,’ she says, pressing the call off. ‘Move on.’
She tells me Rosie had bloods done the day before. I knew this because I’d checked the results on the system and everything had come back as normal. It looked as if the increasing confusion Rosie was experiencing had other, less reversible causes.
‘She’s not coping,’ says Frieda as we step out of the lift. ‘If it were not for me and Junie in flat next door buying food and getting her to eat, she would be dead by now.’
‘You are good,’ I say.
She shrugs, rattles her keys.
‘Is job,’ she says.

*

Out on floor five and Frieda sweeps down the long corridor like the spirit of the place she is, with me trailing in her wake. Midway down there’s a workman kneeling, getting ready to hang a new fire door.
‘Eric’ says Frieda. He starts, almost scuffing the hinge recess with his chisel.
‘Oh!’ he says. ‘Jesus! You made me jump.’
‘Just checking you not sleeping on job,’ she says.
‘No,no,’ says Eric, but it makes me think maybe that’s a thing with Eric.

Eventually we arrive outside Rosie’s door.
Frieda gives me a look that her mask only emphasises, then knocks, loudly, twice.
‘Rosie? Hello darling! Is Frieda, Manager.’
She swings up the bunch of keys, finds the master instantly, and unlocks the door.
‘How are you, darling? I have nurse person with me today to see how you are. Is okay to come in…?’

I follow her into a dark and narrow hallway, doors closed either side and straight ahead, with one door open to the right. We go through into a tiny sitting room with a large birdcage on a coffee table with a plastic budgie taped in the middle of the perch. There are cuddly toys everywhere: rabbits, bears, mice, a knitted woolly mammoth, all of them lined up or arranged in precarious groups on shelves, on a rocking chair, on the top of the telly, on the back and arms of the sofa, on the coffee table – and in the middle of it all, in the last, clear spot of carpet, stands Rosie, her hair wild and her eyes wide, as tiny and frail and bewildered as an embroidered mouse whose plush has rubbed and whose stuffing is lost and whose whiskers, such as they are, twitch anxiously.
‘Hello my darling!’ says Frieda. ‘Is good to see you! This is Jim. He nurse assistant from hospital or something, come to see how you are and move things along.’
I nod and wave as harmlessly as I can. Rosie flinches, blinking quickly and precisely.
‘Hello, Rosie!’ I say.

*

After winning Rosie’s trust with a round of marmalade toast and a cup of tea, she lets me take her blood pressure, temperature and so on. Despite her malnourished state, her lack of personal hygiene and the fact she threw her medication away months ago, her health is surprisingly good.
‘So you’re sleeping on the sofa?’ I say.
She nods.
‘Yes. I can’t go into the bedroom any more because of all the people in there.’
‘Oh? That’s a shame! Who are they?’
‘I don’t like to ask,’ she says. ‘I keep out of their way.’
‘Shall we have a look in there now? I’m here to protect you.’
‘Well… if you think,’ she says.

I open the door into the bedroom. A pair of heavy, red velour curtains are drawn across the opposite windows. Even though it’s a bright Spring day outside, the best the sun can do is make the curtains glow, filling the room with a deep, blood-red gloom. It seems pretty neat, though – a wide, wooden double bed made up with a patchwork quilt, a line of embroidered pillows and scatter cushions at the head end, and propped up on the pillows, a large toy rabbit.
‘What a lovely bedroom!’ I say. ‘Shame you have to sleep on the sofa. And I love the rabbit!’
‘Who’s done this…?’ says Rosie, ignoring me, going up to the rabbit and fussing round it with the pillows.
‘No wonder he’s grumpy,’ I say, but my bonhomie dies a little behind my mask, because in the hectic red shade of the room, it’s hard to dodge the feeling that the rabbit is staring straight back at me, his eyebrows lowering, as Rosie fusses and clucks around it.
‘Shall we draw the curtains?’ I say. ‘Just a little. To let in some light…?’

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