Mrs Whats-her-name

The bed was empty. Not the temporary, bladder-fuelled emptiness of a bathroom break. Not the hurried tidiness of the weekday morning rush to work. The bed was pristine, virginal. Looking at it, I could easily believe that its taut sheets and crisp pillowcase had never been sullied by human contact.

Except I knew that it had been. She’d been there, looking even older prone than when she was shuffling along the street. I turned, desperately hoping I had entered the wrong ward, but of course I hadn’t. There lay the young woman, her leg in a bed sling, her bedside locker overflowing with cards, the old woman still asleep, her features distorted by the oxygen mask.

A nurse paused on her journey, recognising my expression as one she’d seen many times.

“Looking for someone?” she asked. I nodded. “What’s her name?”

+++

I don’t know when I first saw her. Maybe she’d always been there. She was just part of the background, unremarkable, unnoticed, like the hum of air-conditioning. She lived four doors down. I’d see her most days, shuffling as slow as a minute-hand, pausing every now and then to catch her breath. She pushed a wheeled shopping bag, a large tartan affair with a long handle that seemed to be regulation issue to women over seventy. Most of the time I suspected it didn’t even have anything in it. Perhaps she was too embarrassed to use a walking frame.

The first time I really noticed her was that autumn. As I parked the car on the drive she hobbled along the pavement. I noticed her this time because, instead of pushing her trolley for support, she was dragging it behind her, labouring with every step. I walked over. One of the wheels had fallen off and the corner scraped over the paving slabs.

“Here, let me give you a hand,” I said, because what other response could there be?

“I don’t want to be any bother,” she said.

“No bother. Anyway, it’s only a couple of yards now.”

“If you’re sure.”

I picked up the bag. It hardly weighed anything, but even so she was breathing hard with the effort.

“I’m sure.”

We walked on. Each step I took ended in a five second pause as I waited for her to shuffle up level with me. I crooked my arm and she took it wordlessly.

“Where’s the other wheel?” I asked, just to break the silence.

“It fell off near the shop.”

“What? And you dragged it all this way? No-one helped?”

“I didn’t want to be a bother to anyone.”

I thought of some of the people on the estate, fit enough but living off of benefits. When did that happen? I wondered. When did people stop thinking they had a right to assistance and start thinking they were a burden?

“Nonsense. I’m walking along the street with a young woman on my arm. How can that be a burden?”

“Ha!” There was no mirth in her voice. Maybe at her age innuendos lost their appeal.

We walked on in silence. Eventually we reached her door. She fumbled for her keys and opened the door. She paused, halfway into her house, and looked at me suspiciously.

“Do you want a cup of tea?” she said.

“No, I’m fine. Here, let me take the bag into your kitchen for you.”

She looked down at the bag, grunted and entered. I followed, wiping my feet on the mat that said, against all the evidence, I was welcome.

The kitchen was sparse, but immaculately clean and tidy. I placed the bag on the floor by the table.

“Are you okay?” I said.

She nodded. “Thank you. Did you say you wanted a cup of tea?”

There was a note to her voice that was more than just a simple enquiry. She was too proud to plead, of course, but there was a suggestion there that she hadn’t forgotten what I’d said at all. I shrugged.

“Sure. Why not. But have you got any coffee?”

“Coffee?” She made it sound as though I’d asked for a dirty magazine. “Americans. They’re the ones that started all that coffee lark, during the war. I was only a little girl then, of course, but we never had no coffee. Now everyone drinks it, but it’s not a patch on a good cuppa. How do you take it?”

“White, I guess.”

“Sugar?”

“No thanks.”

“Sweet enough, eh?”

She turned to the kettle by the sink.

“Do you need a hand?”

“No. A man’s got no right to be in the kitchen. Useless, the lot of you. Go through into the parlour. Go on. Get out my way.”

Grinning, I walked through to the parlour.

This room was as clean as the kitchen, but much more cluttered. Photos covered the flat surfaces. She was there, from a blushing young bride through to a middle-aged woman. I saw her husband, a young soldier growing into an old and portly man. Another man grew from infant to young adult in some of the photographs. Some were black and white, some were colour aged into pastel. There were no recent photos.

I turned at the rattle of china. She pushed an ancient tea trolley into the room.

“Sit down, David,” she said. “You make the place look untidy.”

I sat as instructed, occupying a worn armchair.

“Simon,” I said.

“Sorry?”

“You called me David. My name’s Simon.”

“Lord, did I? Stupid. I’m so sorry. I shall forget my own name next. Oh Lord, I’m so sorry.”

“No, it’s fine.”

“I’m going batty, that’s me. David is my son.” She held out a cup. I retrieved it before her trembling hand emptied too much into the saucer.

“Does he visit you much?”

“Who? David? He’s dead, love.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

She lowered herself slowly into a chair, collapsing the last few inches.

“No need. It was a long time ago. Motorcycle accident. I told him to be careful. Death traps, they are. Do you ride a motorcycle?” I shook my head. “No, and don’t start either. It was a motorcycle killed my son, you know.”

I didn’t know what to say, so I took a sip of the tea. Despite my request it had enough sugar to keep a spoon upright.

“Lovely,” I said, swallowing and fixing a smile on my lips.

The next day was Saturday. That afternoon I knocked on her door. It opened a crack.

“Who is it?” she demanded, with all the suspicion of a camp sentry.

“Simon. From yesterday, remember? I helped you home with your shopping?”

“Wait a minute.”

I listened to the chain being dragged across, then the door opened.

“Yes?” She looked up at me, nervous and suspicious.

“I saw one of these in town, and thought you might want it.” I lifted the new tartan shopping bag, replete with extending handle and wheels. It’s true, I had seen one in town, but it had taken a good two hours of searching before I’d seen it. “We can’t have you dragging that three-wheeled monster.”

“How much?”

“Nothing. Seriously, it’s a gift.”

“I don’t take charity. How much?”

“You gave me a wonderful cup of tea yesterday. This is payment for it.”

“Ha! A cup of tea don’t cost anything.”

I thought of my thrice-daily double espresso habit.

“Actually, I spend more on cups of coffee in a day than I did on this,” I said.

“More fool you then. Well? You’re letting the warmth out. Come in so I can shut the door. I suppose you want another cup of tea, eh?”

And from there it became a habit. We’d nod when we saw each other in the street. On Saturday afternoon I’d drop round to collect my weekly cup of disgusting tea, check things were okay, and listen to her reminisce. Occasionally I’d include her shopping list in mine, though she scrupulously went through the receipts and berated me if I dared undercharge her. To be honest, I could have spent the extra on her shopping and not notice the difference, but I had to admire her pride.

One Saturday I was late. I’d been watching a film on TV and didn’t realise the time had slipped by. It wasn’t that we had a formal arrangement, but it was always about three when I visited. Early enough that she didn’t have to open the door in the dark, but late enough that I could escape without being rude when the winter evening drew in. I knocked on her door, but there was no answer. Feeling like a burglar, I looked into her parlour window. It was dark, but I couldn’t see anything out of place.

Where could she be? She’d not mentioned going anywhere. Her entire itinerary revolved around dragging her bag to the shop and back. Was she ill, lying semi-conscious in bed? Had she slipped and fallen? My God, was she …?

I pushed the thought away. What to do? Call the police? And say what? Social Services? Did they have an emergency line? I let myself through the gate into her tiny back yard. Yellow light spilled from the kitchen window. So she was home. She was too frugal to leave a light on when she left the house. I looked in. My stomach lurched at the sight of the tiny figure lying on the floor.

I hammered on the door, as if she were lying on the floor for amusement, and would leap up at the sound of a knock. I put my shoulder to the door and bounced harmlessly off the wood a few times. Finally I kicked at it. At the third kick the wood splintered. Another couple of kicks and the door finally flew open. No-one appeared at neighbouring windows to challenge me. So much for a caring society.

She was breathing. Thank God she was still breathing. I dialled the emergency services whilst I gave her a cursory look over. No blood, no protruding bones. I gave the address to the operator and then sat there, feeling like the most useless person on the planet, patting her hand. After an eternity she stirred and opened her eyes.

“David?” she whispered.

“No, it’s Simon. What happened? Are you hurt?”

“Felt dizzy. Daft old woman. Help me up.”

“No. You just lie there. The ambulance is on its way.”

“Ambulance? I don’t want to be a bother.”

“Don’t be silly. That’s their job. You just lie there and we’ll see what they say, okay?”

She closed her eyes again. “You’re a good boy, David.” She squeezed my hand weakly. “A good boy.”

“You just lie still,” I said, my voice as hoarse as hers.

+++

“What’s her name?” said the nurse.

“I, um, I don’t know. I’m a neighbour. I was the one who found her. She was there, in that bed.”

I felt stupid, ashamed. How could I not know her name? All those afternoons when she shared her family with me, and I had no idea what to call her.

“I mean, we were friends. I used to visit her regularly, but you get to a point when you know someone too well to ask their name. Do you know what I mean?”

“Sure,” she said, in a tone that made it obvious she had no idea. “That bed? Then that would have been Mrs Anderson.”

“Okay. Do you know what happened to her?”

“You need to ask the staff nurse. There.” She pointed to a nurse seated at a desk by the ward entrance.

I walked up to the desk. She looked up, an expression of polite enquiry on her face.

“Mrs Anderson,” I said. “She was over there, in that bed. She’s not there now.”

Somehow I just couldn’t ask the question. If I didn’t ask, then she couldn’t give me bad news, could she? If I didn’t ask, maybe it will turn out she was moved to another ward, or discharged, or transferred to a home. Anything else but that.

The staff nurse gave me a look of professional sympathy that was all I needed to know.

“Are you a relative?” she asked gently.

I kneaded my eye with the ball of my hand and nodded.

“David,” I said.

Advertisements

About snodlander
Snodlander is the nom de plume of Bob Simms. He is an IT trainer, but it's not as glamourous as it sounds. When he's not enthralling classes with adventures through SQL Server, he writes, draws and drinks his own home-brew. Buy his novel on Amazon Kindle at The Young Demon Keeper, It's 74p, for crying out loud!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: