A Hammer Horror kind of night. Dismal and dank and positively soupy with adjectives. Instead of my Mini I should be visiting patients in a Victorian hansom cab, the candle lamp guttering, the horse stamping restively as I step out of the carriage and grimace in front of the house that rises up before me.
‘Wait here, driver’
‘Right you are, sir’
I tap my top hat firmly on my head, twirl my cape, stride across the pavement.
Sofia’s son Diego is waiting for me, silhouetted against the light from the hallway. A quick, stooped figure, he bounds up the stairs behind him, leading me to his mother’s bedroom.
Sofia is sitting enthroned in a high-backed chair, imperial flannel dressing gown, granite velcro shoes, graven smile.
‘Come in,’ she says. ‘Please.’
‘I’ll leave you to it,’ says Diego, backing away.
‘Ah!’ says Sofia. ‘He cannot BEAR to see me walk.’
I’ve only come for a care call. One of the carers has had to go home sick, and I’m the only one available to cover her evening visits. I was expecting to give medications, make Sofia something to eat, get her ready for bed – but apparently Diego can do everything except the personal care, and Sofia says she’ll do this herself. Instead she wants me to stay with her whilst she gets out of the chair, walks with the frame to the landing, and then walks back again.
‘Okay,’ I say. ‘Shall we do it?’
She screws up her face.
‘Are you sure you have the time? I don’t want to keep you…’’
‘Of course!’ I say, lying. Mentally I’ve priced the job – Sofia’s condition, weight, the distance from the chair to the landing and back again. ‘No rush. I’m here to help however I can.’
To say it’s a painful process for Sofia is to vastly underestimate the challenge she faces. Her joints are so arthritic I can feel them creaking through the floor. It’s like watching an ancient tree uproot itself, extend two branches down to use as walking sticks, and then lumber imperceptibly forwards, one knotty inch at a time.
It gives me plenty of time to glance around the bedroom. It seems more like a shrine with a bed in the middle. All round the walls are ancient photographs, formal, black and white family portraits of austere looking men leaning in to austere looking women holding stupefied babies, the prints so faded that mostly all you can make out is hair and eyebrows.
‘What do you think of what’s happening in Ukraine?’ says Sofia, pausing to catch her breath about a hundred miles from the landing.
‘Absolutely dreadful,’ I say. ‘Putin’s a madman. I wish someone would knock him off.’
‘They’d never get close enough,’ she says. ‘His tables are long for a purpose.’
She starts forward again.
‘I know about these things,’ she says.
‘I was just a little girl when my father was killed in the civil war,’ she says. ‘Franco! Pah!’
‘He went away, we never saw him again. My poor mother! Four children to look after. If it wasn’t for my grandmother we would never have survived. Backwards and forwards, like this. Backwards… and then forwards. So you see – I have some feelings for the subject.’
She carries on towards the landing.
Diego comes halfway up the stairs and stands there uncertainly, one hand on the bannister. ‘Oh!’ he says. ‘You’re up!’
‘Por la gracia de Dios’
He nods, turns, and hurries back down again.
Sofia shakes her head and slaps the crossbar of the zimmer frame.
‘Okay, my friend!’ she says – whether to me or the frame I’m not too sure – ‘I’m afraid the time has come for us to return to the chair.’