waving, and calling

The outside of the building has kept its elegant facade, and the cool black and white tiles of the hallway, the low-hanging chandelier and the multicoloured blaze of the leaded light window are about as perfect as you’d want for a Regency costume drama – so long as you were careful to keep the burnished steel lift out of shot.

The voice on the intercom was pretty direct.
Come inside, get in the lift, don’t touch the buttons.

I do as I’m told, and wait.
Nothing happens.
Did I hear her right? I can’t understand why I shouldn’t press anything. Maybe she thinks I’ll be confused by the mezzanine floors? Maybe when the place was converted into flats there was some architectural kink, and people are always getting lost. I can’t believe it, though. It all seems straightforward.
I wait some more – for what, I’m not sure.
Eventually the lift shudders and I start moving up.

Mrs Rouncewell is there to meet me.
‘Hello!’ I say, slipping off my shoes and then immediately wondering where to leave them.
‘Oh – you don’t have to do that,’ she says, obviously relieved that I have. I put them down as neatly as I can side-by-side beneath the enormous, floor to ceiling artwork that dominates the hallway. We both look at them a moment, in the confused and slightly disappointed way two people visiting an art gallery might look at something they’re not sure is an exhibit or littering.
‘So… what’s with the buttons?’ I say at last, as she leads me through to the lounge.
Mrs Rouncewell gives me a measured smile that I take to mean she’s explained this a few times before.
‘The lift opens directly out into the flat. You have to use a code to make it work, but that’s too difficult to explain over the intercom, so it’s easier just to say don’t touch the buttons.’
‘That explains it!’
‘It’s a security issue.’
‘Unusual? In what way?’
‘Having a lift that opens directly into a flat. I’d never thought about that before.’
‘Yes. Well.’
She waits to see if there’s anything else, then leads me up a short staircase into a gigantic room that must be the footprint of the house, the furthest wall replaced by a panoramic plate glass window, a section of which stands open, revealing an immaculate rooftop garden, bistro table and chairs, and beyond the filigree railings at the edge, a wide city vista of houses and office blocks, all on a shining blue sky.

Her mother is lying in a riser-recliner chair, a halo of fine white hair ruffled by the breeze from the window. She looks comfortable, but her dementia has left her with a flushed and approximate look. She orientates herself to the change in the room like a newly-hatched chick.
‘Hello’ I say, putting my bag and folder down and offering my hand for her to shake. ‘Lovely to meet you.’
She reaches up and takes my hand – then suddenly cups it with both of hers, so strongly it’s quite a shock, and keeps it there, like she’s scared if I let go she’ll rise up and float off through the window, and see the two of us, her daughter and me, hurrying out onto the patio, waving from the railings as she trails helplessly away across the rooftops.
Calling out, maybe.
Waving, and calling.

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.’

living in the dark

Mrs Butterworth is wearing a cornflower blue chenille dressing gown, its plump collar falling open at the neck. She talks in a soft, sadly undifferentiated way, like fog flowing over the brow of a hill. And whilst she talks, she gently rubs the side of her tummy, in the unconscious way pregnant women sometimes stroke their bumps, although the last time Mrs Butterworth was pregnant it was back in the sixties, and the swelling in her abdomen is now diverticula disease. Behind her on the wall is a photograph – the seventies, I’d guess, with Mrs Butterworth in the centre, smiling brightly, her arms left and right around a smart looking boy standing straight-backed, and a younger girl with bright yellow hair, leaning forwards, her face a little out of shot.

‘Gilly’s not a bad daughter. She’s got her own problems. It goes back a long way. It’s all diagnosed. She’s been on Prozac for twenty years or more. Who knows what she’d be like if she ever came off. She’s had therapy and a few stays in hospital, but nothing seems to do the trick. She’s just fundamentally unhappy, I suppose, and I can’t help blaming myself. But it’s just – I don’t know – what with my recent scare and all this and that, I wish it could be different. Like normal families. My eldest child Peter, he lives in Australia, and he does what he can from there. He rings every other day and whenever his business takes him this way he makes a point of stopping over. What do you need? he’ll say. Just like that. Name it. He’s such a good boy. You wouldn’t think they came from the same place. I know he gets cross with Gilly, but he holds it back because he knows it’ll only make things worse. There’s nothing anyone can do. It’s just such a shame. She only lives three streets away but I’ll tell you something: Australia seems closer. I haven’t seen her since January. To be fair, she did come to the hospital with me that time, when I went in for the operation. I mean – it was a serious thing. They didn’t know if I’d come out of it. I had to sign papers. And the morning of the operation, there I was, sitting in bed waiting to get wheeled through, with this terrible thing hanging over me, and Gilly was pacing up and down, sighing like she does, checking her phone every five seconds. And then she turns round to me and she says I can’t wait here all day. I’ve got things to do!  And she left. And that was that. I didn’t make a fuss. I knew it wouldn’t help. I told Peter about it and I know he was furious, but what could he do? I think he did ring her, though, because when I was discharged she came over to see me. I kept the conversation as light as I could. I mean – what was there to say? But my grandson, James – not the most prepossessing boy in the world. Well James was sitting on this chair with his head down in his phone, jabbing away with his thumbs, and it was all very quiet, so I just thought I’d ask him about school. Right! That’s it! she said. I don’t have to stand here and listen to this! And they left. And that was the last I heard from them. Although I did try ringing her last week, when I needed a bulb changing in the living room. Her husband Trevor answered the phone. Well. He’s not what you might call an attentive son-in-law. Do you know what he said to me? He said Can’t you just stand on a ladder and do it? Me! On a ladder! That’s okay, Trevor I said. I’m getting used to living in the dark.’