the longest hour

Joan is lying in bed, a beanie wrap-around cushion supporting her neck, her long white hair wild on her shoulders.
‘I’m quite alright as I am, thank you,’ she says fussing ineffectually at the sheets. ‘I don’t want anything.’

Joan is ninety-five, tiny, translucent, tethered to the world by her watch and her will and the pictures on the wall.

‘I had a twin brother,’ she says, not to me, I don’t think, particularly, or anyone else in the room I can see. ‘Flew with the RAF. Never came back.’
‘Sorry to hear that.’
She doesn’t react.

I’ve come to see how Joan is after her fall yesterday. The ambulance picked her up, although a mouse could’ve done it. I can’t imagine Joan falling – or at least, only as a dried leaf might fall, slowly, with a soundless settling to the forest floor.

‘I was an hour older,’ she says, closing her eyes, to bring it clearer to mind. Then adds: ‘It’s a little more than that now.’

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!’

 

liza of lambeth

nah! I’m a proper Londoner, me
Lambeth Walk – heard of it?
‘Course you ‘av!
Doin’ the Lambeth Walk – Oi!
Charlie Chaplin, he was round the corner
Genius, he was. Genius.
They didn’t none of ‘em understand him
They thought he was a Commonist
So he married that Pickford gel
and they run orf to Sweden or someink
I don’t mind telling you
I get a bit blue now and again
– don’t you go writing that down!
stands to reason, though, dunnit?
I’ve got a lot on me plate
what with me feet and me chest
Specially now me husband’s gone n’left me
we used to do everythink together
me n’Stanley. Everythink.
proper team we was
only now it’s just me
on me Jack Jones
‘cept for the girls who come round
helpin’ me aht
they’re good girls
one of ‘em’s a dancer
legs up to ‘ere
she only does this to keep her
‘ed above water
although you’d fink
wiv legs like that
she’d be alright, eh?
Family? Yes and No.
I got four sisters
and I hate the lot of ‘em
Jes’ because you share the same farver
don’ mean to say you’ll get along
anyway, there’s only two left now
so all’s well that ends well
during the war?
I worked in a factory
making bullets
I didn’t want to, mind
they ‘ad to drag me orf
kicking and screaming
still. I made some good friends
course – they’re all dead now
either that or too tight
to send a card at Christmas
my family? Or-straylia
I know. It is a long way
probably why they chose it
I’ve been there a coupla times
didn’t like it
I couldn’t never open me eyes
d’you know what I mean?
it was all too bright
Swimming? You must be joking!
Only if you want to get et by a shark
taking aht the laundry weren’t no joke, neither
what with all them widowy
spiders waiting for you
under the rim of the basket
they got fangs like this, mate
and poison what’ll turn yer air green
Nah. I’m alright here, fankyouverymuch
So long as I’ve got the girls
me CSI Friday and me
Saturday night strictly
How many children you got?
Two? Tha’s nice!
‘Cos you know what they say
two’s company three’s a whasisname
I bet they give you the runaround.
Nah then. What’ve you gone and done
wiv me slippers?

 

 

one hell of a grip

There’s a black and white photo of Glenda on the wall taken when she was a young woman in the Land Army. She’d obviously dressed up for the picture, because although she’s still in fatigues, her hair is nicely swept back in a wide band, and her lipstick is in a perfect bow. It’s a great shot. Glenda’s smile is so bright and enthusiastic and full of energy, I can imagine her pulling the spade out of the soil and advancing on the world, waving it overhead.

‘They shipped us off to Berkshire,’ she says. ‘I hated that farmer. We all did. Picking potatoes in the rain. He always used to drive the tractor too quick for us. We couldn’t keep up. I used to throw potatoes at him to slow him down. And he’d shout back You throw another one of them fuckin’ potatoes at me, Glenda, and you see what happens.
‘And did you?’
‘Course I did. He didn’t scare me.’
‘What happened?’
‘We all went on strike. We sat down in the middle of the field and refused to budge. He ranted and raved. You get back to work now or you’ll see what for he said. But he was like that. Full of wind.’
‘He sounds horrible.’
‘Oh – he wasn’t too bad once you got to know his ways. He just needed someone to show him who was the real boss round there. I remember this one time, I was up on a hay rick and I saw a mouse. Well – if there’s one thing I absolutely detest and cannot abide, it’s a mouse. But where you goin’ to run when you’re standing on the top of a hay rick? You silly cow – it’s only a fucking mouse he said. You come up here and deal with it, if you’re such an expert I said, and threw the pitchfork at him. But he didn’t know, you see? He didn’t know how much I hate mice. And rats. I can’t stand rats.’
‘Maybe he should’ve got a dog. To catch the rats.’
‘He did have a dog, a Jack Russell, called Gravel. Vicious, pointy little thing.’
‘So I’m guessing you didn’t have such a great time in the Land Army then?’
‘Oh no. We had a great laugh. There was a prisoner of war camp down the road, full of Eye-talians. We used to hang around the fence and pass carrots through the wire. ‘Ere. Get away from there! the guards used to say. Drop them carrots! Didn’t bother us, though. They needed fresh food and attention. And so did we.’

Whilst we’re talking, there’s a sudden, soggy thump behind me, like an albatross just flew into the window.

‘Window man’s here,’ says Glenda, easing her position in the chair. ‘They have to do it on a long pole these days, ever since the last one fell off his ladder. D’you know something? I was brought up in a tenement block in Ladbroke Grove. Six floors up we were. And every Sunday my mum used to sit out on the ledge to clean the outside. Hold me legs, Glenda she used to say. And I’d be hanging on for dear life, her stockings slipping down, and I’d be shouting For God’s sake, Mum. Haven’t you finished yet? I’m losing yah! And she’d shout back Don’t be so silly, Glenda. Just hold me legs! Her voice all muffled like, because she was the other side of the window, and I had one ear in her lap. And she’d be out there, cheerful as you like, scrubbing the window singing away as easy as if she was polishing the mirror in the bathroom. She was good, my mum. And she certainly had a head for heights.’

Glenda seems distracted for a moment, brushing some biscuit crumbs from her lap.

‘And you might not think to look at me now,’ she carries on at last. ‘But I tell you what – I had one hell of a grip.’

 

stars in battledress

‘I’ve never been what you might call quiet,’ says Elsa, tugging the bedclothes up around her neck. ‘That’s one thing you could never accuse me of. I suppose you’re either a talker or you’re not. You never have to worry about awkward silences with me. It’s just the way I’m built. Like being left-handed. Or having a head for heights…’

I’m waiting with Elsa for the ambulance to come. I’d been sent round for an initial assessment, ECG and bloods. But it was clear as soon as I walked in the bedroom that Elsa was acutely unwell. A closer examination led me to suspect she was suffering a serious internal bleed, so I called 999.

‘They’ll be here soon,’ I told her, putting the phone down. ‘Try not to worry. Meanwhile, I’ll get a few things together…’

*

It’s been a while, now. Three-quarters of an hour.

When I go next door to phone ambulance control for an update, I’m told that they’re doing their best, an ambulance will be dispatched just as soon as one is available – only, people are having heart attacks, strokes…. surely I can understand? I know it’s difficult, I tell him, but the fact remains, we need to get Elsa to hospital as soon as possible. She’s compensating reasonably well at the moment, but I don’t think that’ll last much longer. We’re doing our best, they say. Of course, I say. I appreciate your help.

When I hang up I carefully document the delay.

‘Not long now,’ I tell Elsa, going back into the bedroom.

Before what, I wonder. She looks so fragile, lying on the bed like this, the sockets of her eyes ghosting through the pallid stretch of her face.

‘I’m glad you’re here,’ she says. ‘I wouldn’t want to do this on my own.’

‘I’m glad I’m here, too,’ I tell her, sitting beside her to do another set of obs. ‘So – go on. You were telling me about Stars in Battledress…’

She’d always been mad on the stage, she says. Singing, dancing, doing sketches. And that was what they wanted. A friend of hers put her up to it. She said I was just the kind of girl they were looking for. It was such a shame what happened to her.

‘Why? What happened?’

‘It was a famous murder case. She was on a cruise ship coming back from a show in South Africa and she was murdered by one of the ship stewards. He tried to make out she’d agreed to have sex with him, but then died of a fit or something, and he panicked and shoved her body out of the porthole. They never did find her body. He was convicted, of course. I think he only escaped hanging because of some loophole or other. Died in prison, years later. Funny how these things work out. Poor Gay. She was such a kind girl, a lovely girl. But these things happen, I suppose. On a ship or anywhere else. You’ve just got to be careful and lucky and hope for the best.’

Elsa tells me about the shows she was in. About one in particular.

‘As well as performing, everyone had a job to do. Mine was to put together these wooden steps for the big dance number in the second half. I was just tightening up the screws when someone dropped a curtain pole straight on my head. Knocked me clean out! When I came to there was only a minute to go before I was on. I had no idea who I was or where I was, but the lights came up, they pointed me in the right direction, and I walked out into the light. Anyway, the words seemed to come from somewhere, so it worked out in the end.’

‘When that show was over I moved into the intelligence corps. I remember – we were all lined up in the corridor, six girls in front, about thirty men behind. You can imagine what that was like. I was the last girl to be called forward. When I heard my name I thought – right! I’ll show these men a thing or two! – so I marched as smartly as I could up to the desk, swinging my arms and hips. But you see, what I didn’t realise was there was this rug just in front of the desk, and the floor was highly polished. As soon as my feet touched the rug it flew out from under me and I slid the rest of the way on my aris, disappearing up to my shoulders in the footwell. The Major he stood up and peered over the edge of the desk.

‘Are you alright down there?’ he said.

‘Yes Sir!’ I said, and saluted, flat on my back, and everyone laughed. But it didn’t do me any harm, apart from a few bruises. They took me on.’

The flat door buzzes. I’m relieved to hear it’s the ambulance.

Two paramedics walk in.

‘Alright?’ says one I vaguely recognise. ‘Wait a minute… didn’t you use to work for us?’