what would mellie say

‘Phew! I can’t tell you how relieved I am to get that essay out of the way!’ says Rachel, dropping an armful of files and folders on to the desk next to me and then herself into the chair. ‘It took me right back to when I was a student. And not in a good way.’
‘Writing essays?’
‘I just find it so stressful. But there! It’s done. And you know, the other good thing? It reminded me of Mellie’
‘Who’s Mellie?’
‘She was great, in an odd kind of way. I could never quite figure her out, whether she knew she was being odd, or she just was.’
‘It’s hard to know sometimes.’
‘Our first day, the tutor told us to introduce ourselves with our name and then one interesting fact.’
‘I hate that.’
‘Yeah. Me too. I think I said something lame about how I fell off my skateboard and knocked myself out when I was ten. And that was pretty much how it went round the circle till we got to Mellie. After this strange little pause she always did, y’know? It always slightly put you on edge. After one of her little pauses she said, really quietly: I’ve got a dog. And then there was this silence. And then the tutor said, really gently, like he’s encouraging someone terribly shy: And what’s your dog called, Mellie? And she said Jism.’
Jism?’
‘I know!’
‘That’s great! Mind you – there’s a teacher at Jess’ school called Mr Chisholm.’
‘Euch! You’d change your name, wouldn’t you?’
‘What to?’
‘I don’t know. Spunkmeyer? Anyway. That’s what Mellie was like. We did this session on diabetes once. An introductory thing, looking at the equipment and stuff, and the tutor held up the blood sugar machine and said What would you tell the patient if you had a reading that just said High? So Mellie put up her hand. Yes. Mellie. What would you say? And Mellie put her head on one side, like she was doing an impression of someone being sympathetic, and she said I’m sorry to have to tell you but you’ve got diabetes?’
‘That’s hilarious.’
‘You just couldn’t figure out if she was being serious or not. The worst thing time was when we were taking the psychiatric module. We had this tutor who was completely insane. I mean – my god! She always looked as if she was on the edge of something – y’know? Her hair out here, her eyes…’. Rachel widens her eyes, twists her mouth and leans towards me. ‘Her hands in her pockets. Anyway, she completley terrified us. And she had this trigger light temper, and anything would throw her into a rage. Anyway, she’d set us some reading to do, some incredibly heavyweight and tedious article about something or other, and we’d all been out that night and no-one had read it. That session we were all sitting in the classroom, and she started asking us questions about the article. And it was obvious really quickly that no-one had read it. So instead of moving on or making some general comment about how disappointed she was or how important it was to keep up with the reading that she set, she started to make this big personal deal, going round the whole room to see who had read it or not. Everyone said no and looked away, because the more people she asked the more furious she got, until I really thought she’d explode. Then she got to Mellie. And what about you? she said to her, fumbling in her pocket like she’s got a knife in there and she’s getting ready to use it. Did you read my article? So Mellie paused like she used to, looking a bit pale and vacant, and then she said Yes, I did. Oh? said the Tutor. I see! Finally! At least one person as the common courtesy to do as I asked. And she was about to move on, but then she stopped, and turned back to Mellie. And what did you find most interesting about my article? she said. And we were all willing her to say something smart. But instead she put her head on the side like she did in diabetes, and she said The bit at the beginning?’
‘What a legend! I wonder what she’s doing now?’
‘Last I heard, she was working in intensive care. Which is something else. I mean – imagine coming out of your coma and seeing Mellie leaning over you with her head on one side. God knows what she’d say…’

the good neighbours

I’d been worried about taking this assessment so late in the day. There are often snags, so many things that can go wrong, and you can find yourself struggling to make it all right long after your finishing time. But as I hurry back to the car with all my things, checking my watch, rehearsing the best route to the hospital to beat the evening traffic, I can’t help thinking it had all gone so much better than I could have hoped. In fact, it had been an ideal kind of assessment. Maud had been a charming patient, radiantly pleased to be home again after a couple of weeks in hospital, stroking the arms of her favourite chair like she fully expected them to close around her in a welcoming hug. The Red Cross ambulance crew that brought her home had been as meticulously kind and attentive as you could possibly get without actually hiring them from a catalogue called Angels in the Community. They’d even bought a week’s shopping for her, ready meals, bread, margarine and long-life milk, and put it all neatly away. There had been no medical complications. There was mention in the hospital referral of neighbours who were active in her support. So all in all, it had taken very little sorting out, and I had a reasonable chance of finishing on time.

I’m sitting in the car with the window down, putting my sunglasses on and turning the engine over ready to set off, when a door across the road opens and an anguished woman hurries out. Her hair is dyed a dusky yellow and held in a clump straight up by a thick green band, making her look like an anguished pineapple. She is barefoot.
‘Have you seen Maud?’ she pants.
‘Yes. I’ve just finished there. I’m from the hospital.’
‘Good. Then I need to talk to you,’ she says – and then waits for me to turn the engine off again and get out of the car, glancing up and down the street, one hand on the roof, like she’s ready to hold me back if I decide to make a dash for it.
‘What’s the problem?’ I say when I’m out, leaning back against the car.
‘A terrible thing happened,’ she says.
‘What terrible thing? When?’
‘We’ve known her for years. We all of us have. We’re in and out all the time. Well it’s like that round here. It’s a friendly street. We look out for each other. I must have twenty keys in my kitchen. Can you feed the cat? Can you water the plants?’
‘That’s what you want’ I say. ‘So – what’s this terrible thing?’
‘We couldn’t do enough for her. There’s me, there’s my husband Nikolai. There’s Enda. She’s a retired nurse. Her nerves are shot. We’ve picked Maud off the floor. We’ve gone to the supermarket twice a week. Got the paper, fixed her water when she had that flood. We’ve moved furniture. We’ve done just about everything for that woman…’
‘Sorry – I don’t even know your name…’
‘Gloria. I’m Gloria,’ she says, holding out her hand. I shake it. It feels soft and damp.
‘Do you think we should talk about this inside, Gloria?’
‘Yes, of course.’
She pads back across the road with the high, tentative steps and arms out to the side like a holidaymaker on the beach. Her husband Nikolai – I’m guessing it’s him – has appeared at the door. He’s the exact opposite of Gloria – monosyllabic, graven. He squeezes my hand in his great, fleshy paw of a hand, whilst dropping his other hand weightily onto my shoulder at the same time, making me buckle on that side.
‘Come!’ he says. ‘Would you like drink? Eat?’
‘That’s kind,’ I say, starting to feel desperate. ‘But I can’t be long.’
‘Nonsense!’ says Nikolai. ‘I get you something.’
He thumps off into the back kitchen whilst Gloria carries on with her frantic monologue in the lounge.
‘‘… because of course we none of us mind doing any of these things for Maud. I’ve had elderly parents. Nikolai’s father. The Tremletts next door, the Parkinsons at number eight. We’ve been there for them. Because that’s what we’d expect for ourselves, and we’d do it all again in a heartbeat. But then this thing happened and I can’t tell you… it’s horrible…. awful….’
‘What happened? I have to be quick, only…’
‘All these years. Thirty eight years. And the irony is, we’ve paid out quite a bit. We ran a kind of tab, you know? A week’s shopping, bits and pieces for the house. She’d get one bill or another and of course she doesn’t have any cards or a bank account so it’d be Gloria – do you think you could sort this out for me and we’ll settle up at the end of the month. And sometimes she would, and sometimes she wouldn’t.’
‘Has she accused you of stealing money?’
Gloria blanches and stops talking, and for a second I think she’s going to faint.
‘It was awful,’ she says. ‘Terrible. Horrible. You see, she’s so paranoid about burglars. She’s getting worse. Isn’t she, Nikolai?’
He’s coming back into the room with a tray of tea and a plate of tiny square pastries.
‘Here. Come,’ he says, putting the tray on the coffee table and then gesturing to the sofa. I sink down onto it, take a pastry. And maybe it’s because I’m hot and a little wired, but this pastry is far and away the driest, sweetest thing I’ve ever put in my mouth, a triple honey, sugared pistachio desiccant sachet.
‘Mmm,’ I say, half-choking and hurriedly reaching for my tea. ‘Thanks. So – then what happened?’
‘We went to see her in hospital. Didn’t we, Nikolai?’
‘Ye-es!’ he says, spreading his hands. ‘Of course!’
‘So she was saying all this and that about her house. How many people knew she was away. Who had a key and who didn’t. So I said to her: Come on, Maud. We’ve all been friends for donkeys years. And she said Yes, but I don’t know – you might have relatives who are burglars.’
Nikolai pops a pastry in his mouth like it’s really nothing at all, and smacks his hands.
‘Aah!’ he says, then wipes his beard.
‘No, Nikolai,’ says Gloria, like she understands the real meaning behind that gesture. ‘I know she’s ninety-five, but there’s nothing wrong with her up here,’ she says, tapping the side of her head. ‘Nothing at all. And that’s what makes it so hard to take. I mean it’d be alright if she had dementia. If you know what I mean.’
‘I know what you mean,’ I say, red in the face. The tea is superheated, but I have to drink as much of it as I can so as not to appear rude.
‘So then she says Oh Gloria – I’ve got all that money upstairs. And all my rings. Could you take care of it for me? So I said Of course I will, Maud. And the first thing I did when I got back from the hospital, I went over there, and I got it all together in one big envelope – and it had to be a big envelope, because there was eleven hundred pound in total – eleven hundred! – and you can count it yourself if you don’t believe me. And I put it all safe here. And the next day when we went back to see her, I told her what I’d done. And honestly, Jim – you should’ve seen her face. I didn’t tell you to take my money! she said, everyone looking, all the nurses and people. What have you done, stealing all my money! I’ve a good mind to call the police on you. Well! I felt so sick. I wanted the floor to open up and swallow me whole.’
‘She was upset,’ says Nikolai, closing his eyes and slowly shaking his head.
‘I said to her I’m perfectly happy to put it all back for you, Maud. I was only trying to help. So I came straight back, got the envelope and put everything back how it was. And I haven’t been in to see her since, because I can’t have that hanging over me. I can’t expose myself to accusations like that, can I? I mean – what d’you think? You do your best for someone and then this happens.’

I tell her that she’s quite right to withdraw contact, at least for the time being, until things settle down. I tell her I’ll report back to the nurse in charge, and we’ll come up with a plan.
‘We’ll be putting in temporary care and so on, so you don’t have to worry about that. And I’ll have a word with the social workers to see what they think.’
Gloria tells me about the effect all this is having on the other neighbour, Enda, and Nikolai starts to pour me another cup of tea – so I have to act decisively if I’m not to be caught here for another hour.
‘Thank you so much for the tea and everything – and for being so frank about what happened,’ I say, backing towards the door, the two of them standing together and advancing on me. I reach out and shake their hands in an effort to underline the fact that the meeting is over. Nikolai holds on to my hand, though, alternating a squeeze with a nod of his head and a closing of his eyes. I squeeze his hand back, but still he doesn’t release, and it goes on for an interminable length of time, until I manage to free my hand and move purposefully to the front door.
‘Bye then.’
Gloria follows me outside and across the road, still in her bare feet.
I open the car door by touch and slip inside, winding down the window to make some allowance for the fact that Gloria’s still talking.
‘That’s fine,’ I say, starting the engine. ‘I know it’s easy for me to say, but try not to worry. I think Maud’s been upset by her stay in hospital. It can be quite disorienting, and she is pretty elderly. Anyway – it’s been lovely to meet you.’
I put on my sunglasses.
‘I’m really sorry, though, Gloria – I have to go now.’
‘Yes,’ she says. ‘Of course. You do understand, though, don’t you? We’ve always had her best interests at heart.’
‘I can see that,’ I tell her. ‘I can see you’re good neighbours. Try not to worry.’
When I drive away, I catch a glimpse of her in the rear view mirror, standing forlornly in the middle of the street in her bare feet, looking back at me.

a two o’clock monster kinda deal

Minnie opens the door.
‘Good morning,’ she says. ‘Please. Come in.’
As soon as I’m in the hall I slip my shoes off.
‘My word! You are domesticated!’ she says, then formally gestures to one of her kitchen chairs.
‘Do take a seat,’ she says.

Despite the painful crook of her back, the palsied tremor of her head and the general wear and tear of her ninety-eight years, Minnie is remarkably chipper.
‘I was a dancer,’ she says as I go through the examination. ‘Ballet first, then contemporary. Although you wouldn’t think it to look at me now.’
I don’t agree, though. There’s a poise to her that suggests years of training and performance. It certainly goes some way to explaining her sparkling demeanour. I imagine she’d jump up if I asked her and attempt a pirhouette on the spot, sweeping all her medications off the table with a velcro slipper.
‘And when my performance days were done I went into dance therapy. D’you know, when I used to say that to people they’d often say Ah yes! That’s when you put your arms out and tell them to be a tree. Be a tree, they’d say! But of course, they’d got it completely wrong. The only thing that can be a tree is a tree! No – what you say is: Think about a tree. Now – hold that feeling, and let it start to move you. D’you see the difference?’
I tell her I do, that it’s a subtle distinction but a good one.
‘Or they’d say Be a boat on a wavy sea! What utter nonsense! They don’t know what they’re talking about.’

We go through the examination. Apart from some recent dizziness, everything seems pretty good.
‘Yes, well, the family was blessed with old bones. Or cursed, I’m not sure,’ she says, buttoning up her sleeve. ‘My two elder sisters are both gone now, poor souls, but they lived to their hundreds. I don’t doubt Agatha could’ve gone on a lot longer, but she fell out with her doctor, threw out her pills and that was that.’

At the end of it all I shake her warmly by the hand.
‘Lovely to meet you, Minnie,’ I say.
‘You too, dear,’ she says. ‘Now don’t forget your shoes.’

*

Back at the hospital, I’m in the middle of handing over my patients for the day.
‘Ah, now – Minnie!’ I say, pulling out her report. ‘She was an absolute delight!’
Jess, one of the nurses, is sitting right behind me. She turns round in her chair and leans forward to look over my shoulder.
‘Thought so,’ she says. ‘There aren’t too many Minnies around. Thank God.’
‘Why? What d’you mean? Didn’t you like her?’
‘No. She was absolutely vile. Her and her daughter.’
‘What happened?’
‘I phoned her up to arrange an appointment. Two o’clock alright? I said. Fine, lovely. Great. See you then, sort of thing. So I get there dot on two and knock and knock and ring the bell. Nothing, no reply. I phone the landline. No answer. And I’m looking around, wondering what to do, just about to call the office to get some advice when I hear a rumble from inside, and when I look through the letterbox I can see someone coming down on the chair lift. Well – eventually after about ten years the door flies open. What the hell d’you think you’re playing at! she says. I was upstairs having my nap. So I say how sorry I am to have disturbed her and everything, but I did phone and ask what time. She completely ignores that, of course. You people just think you can barge in any time of the day or night. Rah rah rah. To be honest I’m so shocked by all of this I just stand there and take it – and that’s when her daughter comes running over from the Co-op. Have you met Minnie’s daughter?’
‘No. I saw a picture of her on the wall though. She looks nice.’
‘Nice? Satan in a bad wig and red lippy nice. She comes racing over, stopping the traffic, apples everywhere. What d’you think you’re doing? she’s shouting. Who are you? Why wasn’t I informed? and so on. And everyone in the street’s stopping to look, like I’m some kind of evil bailiff or something, come to turf them out of their house.’
‘Oh. Well. I’m shocked.’
‘So go on, then. How come she was nice to you and so horrible to me?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘Maybe she’s worse when the daughter’s there?’
‘Hmm,’ says Jess, turning back to her desk. ‘Maybe. Or maybe it’s just a two o’clock monster kinda deal.’

cynthia’s view

Cynthia’s flat is above a laptop repair place on the high street.
‘Shame they don’t do people,’ she says. ‘I could do with some of that.’
It’s about as central as it’s possible to be, though, and handy for the shops, if only Cynthia didn’t have to negotiate a set of stairs so steep they may as well be a ladder.
‘I used to run up and down when I was younger,’ she says. ‘Not any more. Not with these knees. But what can you do? At least they match the rest of me.’
Cynthia has been referred to us for help following a bad chest infection, something she’s prone to after years of respiratory problems. By rights she should probably be in hospital, but she refuses to go.
‘I’m not going in just when Ted’s coming out,’ she says. ‘Who’d look after him?’
They’ve been married sixty years, the last three overshadowed by Ted’s dementia. He was admitted after a fall – ‘the bathroom, not the stairs,’ she says, crossing herself – and other complications. ‘He gets so distressed. That’s the hardest thing. Most of the time when he’s home he’s not too bad. He goes downstairs to have a smoke in the street. I have to keep watch out the window to make sure he doesn’t wander off, but he’s only done it a couple of times, and people know him round here. I get so exhausted the end of the day I hardly know what to do with myself. And I know what everyone thinks, the rest of the family, the doctor and everyone. They all think I should just put him in a home. But I couldn’t do it to him. He went into one a while back, to give me a break, and when I went to see him he was so upset I just said right, I’m fetching you back home with me and that was that. One day he had in there, and that was one day too many.’
I tell her we can have a look at how much help she’s getting at home. There are always things to be done.
‘That’s kind of you but don’t worry,’ she says. ‘I’m coping alright at the minute. I mean – he gets up at six! The carers don’t show till nine or half past – and by that time I’ve washed and dressed him myself. So they end up looking around for something to do, and I feel guilty I’m wasting their time.’
I tell her it’s something to bear in mind, though.
‘I went to see him yesterday at the hospital,’ she says. ‘You should’ve seen him. He was sitting on the side of the bed with all his bags packed around him. The nurses said he’d been like that for hours. He keeps telling us he’s got to get home because he’s supposed to be looking after his wife.’
She laughs and shakes her head.
‘Honestly! He’s got no idea. But you know what? I think when he completely loses the plot and doesn’t know me or what’s going on, then I might think about putting him in a home. I don’t think we’re quite there yet, though. I suppose you just have to stay strong and take it a day at a time, don’t you? One day at a time. l mean – nothing lasts forever, does it? Hey?’

I’m guessing Cynthia is sitting in the same seat she uses to keep an eye on Ted when he’s down on the pavement, smoking. She stares out of the window now. It’s a bright, busy weekday lunchtime, and the street is pretty crowded – shoppers, school kids, office workers striding so purposefully their lanyards swing from side to side as they head for the fast food places.
‘Busy,’ I say.
‘Yes,’ she says. ‘But it quietens down at night.’

the hitcher

‘Goodness!’ says Ian, opening the door. ‘There must be a line of you waiting out in the street!’
‘It’s like that, sometimes. Especially at the beginning. We all tend to just pile in.’
‘And a jolly good thing it is, too!’ he says, showing me inside. ‘I must say, it’s been rather overwhelming. But in a good way – you know. In a good way.’

He shows me through to his mother, Peggy, who is propped up on several pillows, doing The Times crossword. She sets the newspaper aside to shake my hand, takes off her reading glasses and puts them on the bedside table next to a porcelain saucer with one partially nibbled, white chocolate biscuit.

‘So kind of you to come,’ she says. ‘Do please have a seat. Is there anything we can get you?’
I tell her I’m fine. She smiles and then nods at Ian, who almost seems to give a little bow before turning and quietly leaving the room.
‘I’ll just be out here,’ he says.
‘Thank you, darling,’ says Peggy. Then once he’s gone, she adds: ‘I’d be lost without him.’

Peggy is almost a hundred years old. Although she’s been pretty independent up until a month ago, it’s all suddenly caught up with her, and now her body is starting to fail in earnest, the flesh retreating from her bones in the most cruelly anatomical way, revealing all the hollows and protruberances, the cords of her neck, the scoop of her temples. Her eyes are still bright, though, as I’ve no doubt they always were – she seems such a poised and intelligent woman – but perhaps with a cooler, more intense grade of light, the fire of a star at night.

‘I was just admiring your frogs,’ I tell her after introducing myself and unpacking my things.
‘Yes. Aren’t they a wonder?’ she says. ‘I used to spend hours out there, crouched down by the edge, watching them come and go. I’m sure the neighbours thought I was quite potty. But there’s no shortage of things to admire in nature, don’t you find?’
‘I certainly do. We’ve got a wildlife pond at home.’
‘Have you?’
‘Lots of frogs. Newts, too.’
‘And all those marvellous insects, skimming about on the surface…’
‘You’re right! Plenty of things to look at.’
‘Yes!’
‘Do they make much noise, your frogs?’
‘No, not really. Except in mating season, when they all get terribly exercised. Or when one of the cats fetches one out, which is horrible, of course, and I’ve tried my damndest to stop them. We haven’t got any newts, though, so I’m jealous on that score. I do so love my frogs!’

I conduct the examination and everything is pretty much as expected, given the circumstances.
‘Well, one thing’s for sure,’ says Peggy, suddenly serious. ‘I will not be going to hospital. You can do whatever else you like with me, but I will not be agreeing to that.’
‘No. I understand.’
‘I mean – for goodness sake! Look at me! What ever is the point?’
‘You are the boss of you, Peggy. We’ll do whatever’s best for you.’
‘That’s kind,’ she says. ‘It’s so easy to get swept up in these things sometimes – don’t you find?’
‘Absolutely.’

As I’m filling out the paperwork I ask her what she did when she was working.
‘I messed about in the government during the war. Started off in the typing pool but after one thing and another found myself in the Foreign Office, helping out in the Middle East. All frightfully interesting. I travelled about quite a bit afterwards, of course. There was nothing I liked better when I had a bit of free time than to stick out my thumb and hitchhike. I travelled right the way through Syria like that. Fascinating country. Breaks my heart to see what’s happening there now, of course. Those poor people.’
‘Did you hitchhike on your own?’
‘Of course!’ she says, ‘although, these days…’ and she spreads her arms wide and smiles just as broadly, ‘I don’t suppose I’d get all that far!’

 

the things he’s seen

‘Is that a bird in the corner?’
‘A bird?’
‘A blackbird. Or a rat. Could be a rat. Something.’
I go over to check, cautiously moving junk around.
‘No. Nothing here.’
‘Oh. I thought I saw something.’
I put the junk back.
‘Do you think you might be hallucinating?’
‘No, no! I definitely saw it. This place – I don’t know. Sometimes things just come in the door.’

I don’t know what to think. Steve’s had a recent history of infection, and he certainly doesn’t take care of himself, with his heavy drinking, his poor diabetes control, and the general state of his flat. But despite all this his obs are normal, and – so far at least – he’s been pretty rational. And he’s certainly right about the place. A tenement block you could use as a film set for the roughest quarter of New Orleans, with a dark, central courtyard, an old tree in a ruined brick planter, and all around rising up six storeys a crumbling iron fire escape.

‘Anyway. I wouldn’t go to hospital, Jim. Not even if I was dying.’
‘Oh? Why’s that?’
‘My son! I haven’t seen him for ten years and he turns up yesterday.’
‘Wow! That’s great!’
‘Yeah. He’s off with his mates the other side of town. I ‘spect I’ll see him later.’

There’s a map of the world pinned to the wall above Steve’s bed. He tells me about his life as the skipper of a yacht, sailing the world, navigating the oceans through a haze of booze, smoke and other substances until unexpectedly running aground on a reef of detritus in this godforsaken flat.

‘I’ve been through storms like you wouldn’t believe. End of the World type storms. Did you know hurricanes give birth to tornadoes?’
‘Do they?’
‘I’ve seen it. The Devil’s spawn. Evil snakes, twisting you into knots. I was always lucky, though. I’ve got a strong stomach. And a strong grip!’

Later that day, back at the hospital, his blood results come in – as bleak a set of figures as the worst severe weather warning. I book him an ambulance to go to hospital, and then call him to give him the news.
‘I won’t go without seeing my son,’ he says.
‘Can’t you call him on his mobile?’
‘I haven’t got any credit on my phone, and he’s left his at home.’
‘I could call his landline and leave a message.’
‘He lives in El Salvador.’
‘Still, I could try…’
He gives me the number, but the number’s unobtainable.
I ring Steve back and tell him what I think.
‘The ambulance are on a two-hour response,’ I tell him. ‘So there’s time. I’m not going to stand the ambulance down, Steve, because your blood results are so out of whack I couldn’t be responsible for that. Fingers crossed your son turns up between now and then. But your health’s the most important thing.’
‘I don’t care about that,’ he says. ‘I’m not going anywhere till I’ve seen my son again.’

A little later I ring the hospital to check Steve went in. There’s no record, so I ring him to find out what happened. When he answers the phone he sounds loud and emphatic, like he’s speaking in the middle of a storm. I wonder if he’s been drinking.
‘No, Jim! He didn’t show up!’ he bellows. ‘But even if he had I couldn’t possibly go now.’
‘Why’s that?’
‘It’s all these kids.’
‘What d’you mean? What kids?’
‘All these seven year olds! Their mums’ve just dumped them on me. And it’s kinda weird, Jim – you know? Because they’ve done that thing kids do these days. They’ve painted their faces yellow and black. Fierce stripes, y’know! Like wasps…!’

I ring ambulance control again. Get the response time upgraded to immediate.

when the time comes

Margaret’s daughter-in-law Sandy is standing over by one of the bookcases, casting her eye over the spines, taking the odd book out and idly flipping through.
‘Quite what we’ll do with all these when the time comes I don’t know,’ she says. ‘I mean – it’s a shame. These Dickens might’ve fetched something, but the sun’s got to them and they’ve gone a bit foxy.’

It makes me feel uncomfortable, but it’s my own fault, of course.

I’d started setting up to take blood from Margaret, and Sandy and the two carers had been standing round the bed, saying nothing, just watching.
‘I’ve never had such an audience,’ I said, just to break the tension, because it didn’t really bother me whether I was observed or not. ‘Talk amongst yourselves.’
‘Sorry!’ Sandy said, and that’s when she started to walk round the room, pricing things up.

As it turns out, though, I’m glad the attention has switched to Little Dorrit. Margaret is quite poorly, and getting anything remotely viable is like trying to tap-up a strand of hair. I’m not even sure why I’ve been asked to try. Margaret has steadfastly refused hospital – and I’m completely with her on that. She’s in her nineties, for goodness sake. If I was her I’d be refusing hospital, too. The only thing I might do differently is ask them turn my bed around so I could face out into the courtyard garden and that flowering cherry, so vibrantly and abundantly pink it would gladden even a dying heart.

‘Alright?’ says Sandy, coming back over. ‘Getting any?’