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.’

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!’

 

schatz katze

The key safe is hanging open so I ring the bell instead. I step back and look up at the house whilst I’m waiting – a substantial Regency building, a little down-at-heel and cracking up, perhaps, but still impressive, with a wildly overgrown garden whose depths of shadow hint at stone baths and iron cold frames and other features utterly consumed with ivy.

The door opens and a bright, middle-aged woman in a carer’s uniform steps out onto the cracked mozaic tiles.
‘I’m so glad you’re here!’ she says, showing me in. ‘I think this is one for social services as much as anyone. I’m Karen, by the way!’

I stand with her in the hallway so she can tell me what she’s found so far. Helga is a ninety-five year old with no package of care and generally ‘bumping along the bottom.’ A neighbour looks in now and again. Found her on the floor, called the ambulance, hospital declined, referrals made. Karen points out a sheet of paper sellotaped to the mirror: In Emergency written in shaky green caps at the top, and below it, a handful of names and numbers, the nearest being Munich, the furthest, Hobart, Tasmania.

‘I feel so bad for her, says Karen. ‘There’s hardly any food in the house. Can I leave her with you whilst I nip round the corner and get the basics?’

Helga is lying in bed, stroking a black cat that’s sprawled on top of her, purring so loudly it fills the entire house. In an odd kind of way, it makes the place seem emptier.
I introduce myself, and explain why I’ve come. When Helga reaches out to shake my hand, her hand is so weak and light in mine it’s like the memory of a handshake that happened sometime just after the war.

I start to talk to her about the situation. How she’s feeling, how she’s been coping and so on, gently trying to tease out the facts. Helga doesn’t want to engage, though.
‘Ah! Too tired!’ she says, transferring her attention back to the cat with a philosophical pursing of the lips.
Was ist los?’ she says, feebly waggling her fingers under its chin. ‘Was ist los, shatz? Was ist los?’

learning how to land

Vera is as formidable as the tartan wrap she has over her shoulders.
‘But who sent you?’ she says.
‘The GP. I think she was a bit worried after that fall you had.’
Vera stands holding the door, hesitating on the threshold of a determination to be alone and an anxiety not to appear rude.
‘Well I suppose you’d better come in,’ she says, releasing the door and turning on the spot as ably as her ninety year old hips will allow. ‘But I’m not happy about this. Not happy at all.’

I follow her through to the sitting room, a ruthlessly bare place with just a television, an armchair, a pouffe and a side table. There are half a dozen framed photographs on the walls, arranged in a regular pattern. The photos are mostly black and white, one of a wedding but I can’t be sure from here. She sits in her armchair and gestures for me to take the pouffe. I sink into it, my knees pressed into my chin, and I squat there looking up at her like an acolyte at the feet of a master.
‘The important thing to remember is that you’re the boss of you,’ I say.
‘What on earth do you mean? Of course I’m the boss of me.’
‘That’s great! It’s just – sometimes I think it’s easy to lose sight of that with all these different people and agencies piling in all the time. You tell them what you want and don’t want, and so long as you understand the consequences, no-one will mind.’
‘Of course I understand the consequences. I do the Times crossword every morning. Do you?’
‘I don’t understand cryptic clues. I can only manage the quick crossword.’
‘It’s not the same thing at all,’ she says. ‘But you’re right. You have to tune your ear to the language.’
She adjusts her shawl, loosening it a little. I hug my knees and try to rock into a more comfortable position.
‘I just don’t want all this fuss,’ says Vera, warming to her theme. ‘People barging in all hours of the day and night, left right and centre. I haven’t asked for any of it. They want to give me frames and trolleys and contraptions for the toilet and goodness knows what. But I simply don’t want them. They clutter the place up. I want to be able to move, freely, in my own time. Can you understand that?’
‘Yes. Completely. But you know – they’re only making these suggestions because you had that fall. They want you to be safe.’
‘You see – I fundamentally don’t understand why these people can’t leave me to live my life as I want to live it. I have my cleaner who comes in once a week. My granddaughter does the shopping. I’m perfectly happy with the way things are. I pay them to help me, and there we are.’
‘Do you pay your granddaughter?’
‘Well of course I pay her? She wouldn’t do it for free, would she?’
‘Family… I don’t know.’
‘That’s not the arrangement I want. It has to be clear. Everyone has to know where they stand. I’ve had people say to me why don’t you live with your son or your daughter? In a granny flat? A granny flat! I can’t think of anything more ghastly – for them or for me. Being walled-up somewhere, like a nun, perhaps… Why in heaven’s name would I want that? They have their lives and I have mine.’
‘That’s perfectly fine. It’s a free country.’
‘So far as I was aware, yes, it is. So if you don’t mind, I’d like not to be bothered in future.’
‘I’ll say goodbye then. And of course, if anything changes, your GP can always make another referral. What I would say though, is it’s probably a good idea to wear your alarm pendant.’
‘I won’t do it. I’m not having that plastic monstrosity anywhere near me.’
‘The thing is, if you fell again and – worse case scenario – broke your hip, you might be lying on the floor for a long time…’
‘No I wouldn’t.’
‘I’ve seen it happen.’
‘Not to me, it hasn’t.’
‘I’m just saying – it’s worth thinking about.’
‘When I fell last week I crawled to the phone.’
‘Next time you might not be able to crawl’
She fixes me with her sternest look, making little circular grinding motions with her mouth.
‘Listen,’ she says at last. ‘I used to race horses. Have you any idea what it’s like to fall off one of those things?’
‘Pretty hard, I expect. I fell off a motorbike once and that was bad enough.’
‘Well I don’t know about motorbikes, but falling from a galloping horse is a significant prospect. I should know – I’ve done it more times than I care to remember.’
‘Did you break anything?’
‘Only my pride. The crucial things is, one must learn how to land, and then get back in the saddle. There’s nothing else for it.’
I’m tempted to carry on the discussion by pointing out the number of years that have passed between that young woman cartwheeling through the air, and the older, osteoporotic version going over in the bathroom, but I can see that nothing’s going to persuade her. I struggle to my feet from the pouffe, collect my things together and shake her hand.
‘Goodbye then, Vera. It’s been lovely to meet you, and I’m sorry for disturbing your morning.’
‘That’s quite alright,’ she says, hobbling after me to the door. ‘It’s been a pleasure to meet you, too. But please – and I mean this in the nicest possible way – don’t come back.’

met

Maud’s designated next of kin, Alan, lets me in. A tidy man in his early sixties, his grey beard is as scrupulously clipped and pressed as his Nordic woolly jumper.
‘Just through there, in the living room,’ he whispers, giving a little bow of the head, his eyes closing momentarily behind a glint of steel-rimmed glasses, like a kindly psychoanalyst welcoming a new client. ‘The social worker’s with her at the moment. I don’t suppose Maud will mind the two of you.’

Maud is sitting out of bed in an armchair, still wearing her cat-print pyjamas, looking around with a detached, slightly befuddled air. Beside her, on a hospital table, is a selection of the things she needs: tissues, beaker of tea, remote control, reading glasses, and a copy of Anna Karenina.

I introduce myself. When I shake hands with Maud she holds her hand out limply, looking up at me like someone who thinks they might still be asleep.
‘I can’t believe you’re a hundred years old,’ I say to her, sitting down opposite.
‘Am I?’ she says. ‘Well, then. Neither can I.’
The social worker fills me in on the situation. Maud has Alzheimer’s, but has been coping pretty well with care support and so on. Just recently there’s been a bit of a decline, and people were worried.
‘It doesn’t look like an infection, so that’s good,’ says the social worker. ‘Maud would like to stay in her home, but we’ve just been talking about that, and what we might be able to do to help.’
‘I’m in your hands,’ says Maud, then nods at Alan. ‘You’ll know what to do, won’t you, dear?’
‘It’s whatever you want, Maud,’ says Alan, smiling. ‘But don’t worry. Nothing’s decided til it’s decided.’

I carry out a quick set of observations whilst the social worker reads through the notes. Everything seems fine. Maud seems to be in rude health, considering her extreme old age.
‘The thing that bothers me most,’ says Maud, ‘is I can’t get up the stairs to look after Mum and Dad. And if I can’t do it, who will?’
‘By upstairs do you mean – upstairs? In the bedroom?’
‘Where else would they sleep?’
‘It’s understandable that you’re worried about them,’ says the social worker, pausing a moment to choose her words. ‘But I think they’re safe now. I think they’re pretty much at rest.’
‘I know that!’ says Maud. ‘I’m a hundred years old! I’m not daft!’
‘No,’ says the social worker. ‘You’re certainly not.’
‘It’s just they’re upstairs waiting for me, and I’m stuck down here, and I can’t do anything about it.’

When it’s time for me to go, Alan shows me to the kitchen door. I take this opportunity to ask him what he thinks about Maud. He stops to listen, adopting a thoughtful attitude, supporting the elbow of his right arm with the hand of his left, gently pinching his upper lip.
‘I haven’t met her before,’ I tell him. ‘So I don’t know how much of this is new.’
‘You mean this thing about her parents?’
‘Has she talked about them before?’
‘Off and on,’ he says. ‘I know how it sounds, but I suppose there are two ways of looking at it. One is that it’s all just a symptom of her cognitive decline, some organic disease and so on. The other is to say that perhaps, yes, she can actually see her parents. You might think it odd to hear me say that; other people, in other cultures, with certain religious beliefs, would probably understand it quite well. You see, it’s been my experience in circumstances like this that people nearing the end of life are – how shall I put this? – met?’
‘That’s certainly a different way of looking at it.’
‘It is, isn’t it!’ he says, brightly, patting me on the shoulder. ‘Now then. Good to see you, and thank you so much for coming!’

I walk over the road to my car and throw my bags in the boot. When I turn round to look, Alan’s still there, watching me from the kitchen door.
I wave.
He waves back, then turns and goes inside.

For the life of me, I can’t help glancing up at the bedroom window.

rita’s chairs

In the time it takes to walk from the front door to the sitting room, Rita has recalled my name, the names of my children and their musical aspirations, the village I live in and even the breed and name of our dog.
‘I’m amazed!’ I tell her. ‘And there was me struggling to think if I’d been here before.’
‘Dear oh dear!’ she says, a little wheezily. ‘I’m obviously not that memorable, then. Or perhaps it’s because you see so many people. Yes – I think for the sake of my vanity I’ll go with that explanation.’
She’s quiet for the rest of the time it takes her to return to her chair and catch her breath. I wait until she’s settled, fetching the yellow folder and having a quick read through.
‘I’m afraid my breathing’s not what it was,’ she says, ‘but there’s nothing wrong with my brain, thank goodness.’
‘It must have been six months ago, at least.’
‘What do you remember then?’
‘I don’t know. These chairs.’
‘The chairs did you say?’
‘Straight out of the seventies. All that chrome and leather. You just don’t see them that often.’
‘Well there you are, then. I remember people, you remember furniture.’
‘When you put it like that it sounds bad.’
She laughs.
‘I’m just having a little fun at your expense,’ she says. ‘Would you like some tea?’
‘I’ll make it.’
‘Would you? I’m worn out with all that exercise. I think you’ll find it all pretty self-explanatory.’

*

When I’ve made the tea and she’s quite recovered, we chat as I take her observations and so on.
‘I don’t suppose anyone can believe the old bird is still around,’ she says as I unwrap the blood pressure cuff. ‘Least of all the old bird herself. I’ll be ninety-four next month.’
I shake my head.
‘What’s your secret?’ I say.
‘Stay away from medication! You don’t know what’s in it. You’re much safer with the odd glass of whiskey. Malted barley, spring water, a few years in an oak barrel and there you have it.’
‘Did you work for a distillery or something?’
‘Me? No! Although that sounds like fun. No – I was a teacher for many years. Loved every second.’
‘I bet you were amazing.’
She shakes her head.
‘I don’t suppose my students would have agreed with you particularly. But one did one’s best.’
She watches as I fill out the chart.
‘All okay, is it?’ she says.
‘Better than mine!’
‘Damn!’
‘What d’you mean?’
‘We-ell. That’s the thing about advanced decrepitude, y’see? It’s the practical things. All of my friends are dead. I’ve got family of course, but they’re liberally spread about in the North and Australia and what have you, and I don’t see them all that much. I’m afraid to say I’m beginning to feel as if I’ve rather outstayed my welcome.’
She smiles, and gently strokes the armrests.
‘But you like my chairs?’ she says.