In which an old woman remembers the past, little knowing how it will effect her future
Fear is a terrible thing. It’s not a feeling I’ve known much in all my 89 years, until now. But I recognised it instantly in Annabelle, the little girl who came to visit. Years ago now. I can still see her sitting in my room, with her creased uniform and untidy hair, holding her plastic cup of tea, happy to have found a sanctuary. I entertained her with stories of the past, especially the one about how I met my husband.
Of how one day a stranger stole the last place on the number 3 bus from me, that was him. Then, a stranger tripped right over my outstretched legs on a train back to Manchester, straightened up, and tutted loudly at me, also him. The third time we met was quite by chance at a party my brother was holding. James, as he turned out to be, didn’t know my brother – he came with his friend. Who much later told me that when they’d been leaving James had turned to him and said, ‘I’m going to marry that girl’.
Annabelle’s eyes lit up at that last bit. ‘He knew!’ she said, ‘And it was as though fate was trying to push you together all along.’ I recognised in her at that moment a kindred spirit.
The past draws me in more and more. It’s clearer and certainly brighter than the present. I have a lot of time to remember. I remember my husband, and son. Both now gone. And I often find I’m remembering Annabelle.
She was from St Theresa’s, the expensive school nearby. Our old people’s home was one of their extra-curricular activities. Every Wednesday night for a year. I suppose coming to entertain the ancients was considered character building. It probably was, with most of my fellow inmates. Poor Annabelle had spent her first two visits by the bedsides of dribbling unfortunates, earnestly trying to talk to Marjorie who only repeated confused half sentences. I think she’d wandered from room to room, trying to be ‘good’ and finding it was fruitless, until she found me.
I’m not beautiful any longer, of course. Age has taken me by stealthy surprise. I wasn’t expecting it: somehow I thought it only happened to other people. But, I’ve still got something about me. Annabel at least recognised a port in the storm. She was such a terrified little thing; a full boarder, abandoned, gawky, quiet. She spoke of being sent to Coventry, of her gym kit being hidden, of her chair in the break room being occupied to show she wasn’t wanted.
She arrived sometimes so tired she couldn’t keep her eyes open, ‘They were talking all night in the dormitory,’ she’d say, ‘They wouldn’t stop, they speak in a made up language so I can’t understand.’ I let her sleep in my soft double bed. Before I woke her, I stroked her forehead and whispered a prayer for her safe keeping.
That was when I was younger, and stronger. When I still had something to offer another human being. I’m not sure I’d be such a refuge now.
The management of the home has changed. Two years ago the family who owned it were bought out by a large company. I fear how much worse things are going to get.
The first thing was that we were no longer allowed to have our rooms the way we wanted. It was deemed bad for health and safety. So my paintings in their gold frames, my Persian rug and my vases were taken away and put into storage. All the rooms were repainted in lurid green, gone was my lovely pink. How the pink paint was a safety hazard, I’m not sure. I was ignored when I asked.
It smells of disinfectant now. Sometimes I can’t bear to go down, sit at the long dining table and listen to the sounds of slurping, the senseless mutterings, see the food spilt down chins and bibs, a parody of dining with toddlers. Before, they were happy to let me eat supper in my room, at the table looking out over the garden. They’ve put a stop to that. Sometimes I just don’t go at all, but if I try that more than once someone will come and knock on my door and wheel me down. They won’t bring a tray up, but they won’t let you not eat. I wonder if they’d force feed me if I refused.
I had pneumonia last month. I was so weak they nearly had to take me into hospital, but not quite. Instead I had to endure sponge baths from a different member of staff every few days. And every week being heaved out of bed so they could change the sheets. The night they forgot to leave the bed pan in the room – I ended up wetting myself, half on the bed, half on the floor. Nurse Medway shouted at me. I’m reminded again of a second childhood. I’m reduced to being scolded like a naughty little girl. To nurse Medway I’m not a fellow woman with nearly 90 years of life behind her. I’m an inconvenience embodied.
Tonight I’m looking out of the window and I’ve decided not to go down to supper. I didn’t go last night either. They can try to make me, but I won’t go. Janey, a fellow inmate, got into an altercation with the new nurse last week, a blonde with strapping arms and a tongue stud – why a woman would mutilate herself – anyway, Janey called her something unmentionable and the blonde hit her. Denied it after, and since Janey often doesn’t know what day of the week it is, no one believed her. If she comes to try to get me, I will stay as polite as a glacier.
I hear the ping of the lift doors; voices coming down the corridor. The fear that’s been growing in recent months crystallises into this moment. They’re coming for me. I turn in my chair, ready to defend myself.
Nurse Medway, all smiles now, ushers in a young woman.
‘Elizabeth, you’ve got a visitor.’ The girl, who has glossy brown hair and a smart skirt suit, runs forward and takes my hands.
‘Mrs Deakin, Elizabeth, do you remember me?’ she asks.
‘Annabelle?’ She bends down to me and I kiss her, ‘My dear girl! You’ve grown so fast! I can’t…’
When she smiles there are lovely dimples in her cheeks. ‘It’s been thirteen years!’
Nurse Medway brings tea. Annabelle tells me she’s a journalist now, writing about finance. She makes good money, she almost says as much.
‘I got married last year,’ she says, and looks even prouder about that. ‘We ran off to Hawaii for it without telling anyone. Guess what he’s called? James!’ In talking about him, she glows just the way I did when I was young and newly married.
She asks how I am and how the home is, she misses my pictures and Persian rug. Tells me of how once she’d survived that school, University opened up a whole new world of friends and interests. I know she meant well coming to see me, but I can’t reconcile this confident woman with the little girl I knew. There’s a distance between us. She’s so very happy, she seems out of reach.
Eventually she looks at her watch. She leaves, reluctant. ‘I’ll visit again,’ she promises. I say I’ll look forward to it. But I can tell from her air of disappointment that, somehow, the visit has been a failure. I know I’ll never see her again.
After she’s gone I remember the letters I used to send her once she couldn’t visit because school was so busy. She’d write of her unhappiness. I’d reply, ‘As long as you respect yourself, nothing anyone says or does can hurt you’. I’m not sure I believe it anymore.
Her presence in my room was like throwing open a window and letting in fresh air and sunlight, now everything seems darker. I look at the window now – sealed shut – health and safety. I wonder how many more meals I can miss without anyone noticing. I study the orange carpet in front of me, the green walls. Still, I won’t have to see them much longer, I hope. I can’t last much longer.
The door opens so fast it bangs against the wall making me jump. Annabelle rushes back in and drops to her knees beside my chair, a blur of shiny hair and flushed cheeks, grabs my hands.
‘You’re unhappy here, aren’t you?’ she looks into my face.
I can’t speak. Tears overflow.
Her own eyes are bright as she says, ‘We just bought a house with a flat attached to it. James was thinking of renting it out, but if I tell him I want it for you, he’ll agree. He is crazily in love with me, after all,’ she twinkles up at me now. ‘I came here to ask you, but then, I… I wasn’t sure you still liked me.’
I shake my head in mute denial.
She presses on, ‘I’ve worked it all out. I know you need carers in twice a day, and that’s no problem. I can visit every day, and you can eat with us all the time. You were there for me when I had no one. I can’t have you here with that horrible nurse and this horrible carpet. I can’t see you like this. Say you’ll come back with me, please?’
I can’t answer, but I squeeze her hands hard in return.