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.
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.