Sara Wingate Gray
We meet the day her daughter brings her a packed lunch and accidentally puts it in the wrong fridge. I always keep my pickle jars, you see, in the vegetable box bit, because that's the place the others forget to look when they want a bit of Branston for their cheddar. So I go to get out a jar, just to check what the level is, because even though they're quite well hidden, you never know when some sod's going to try and nick a bit for their lunch and not tell you they've gone and finished the whole lot off, the greedy beggar, and there is a plastic box.
Well, I know it isn't mine. But I open it and that's when I get the whiff. It is like the soft ooze of summer, all fruity and ripe and it takes me right back to the market, and me in my apron and my hair all mussed up and falling out of its bun. I might be standing behind the counter again, watching the pigeons scrabbling and shitting on the plastic corrugated roof, it is that strong. I look behind me while I am holding the box, just to see if anyone has noticed me go to the fridge, but the morning group are still dozing in their chairs and I can hear Irene, who would be the one to notice as she keeps a tight ship, asking who wants a cup of tea in the next room.
So I'm safe. I put my hand in the box and curl my fingers under the greaseproof paper, parting its shiny edges to reveal two slices of thick, white, crusty bread. I pull one half of the cut sandwich out and bite into it. It is gorgeous. A frumpy Wensleydale mashed with apricot, it stings my tongue, the crust just soft enough to stop my teeth sticking to the bread and threaten to pull them out. I am about to launch into a second bite when I hear the familiar pause and shuffle of a rubber-ended walking frame. They catch on our special non-slip laminated flooring, you see, so you'd think there was a team of lazy squash players, squeaking in training shoes through the corridors and halls all day long. So, before it rounds the corner, I quickly stoop into the fridge and bundle the box into the back of it, then swing the door closed and stand there, leaning with my back to it, huffing and puffing and out of breath at the effort and excitement of it all. For it isn't everyday that I am nearly caught red-handed stealing someone else's cheese sandwich. I can also well remember Irene banning Fred from the cocktail lounge one evening, when he had been seen nibbling on one of the nurses' sausages left in the staff fridge. I know it isn't her, as the walking frame is a giveaway, but it could be one of the South Tyne lot, come from their part of the house to spy on us, and they are an awful bunch for reporting back gossip and nonsense just out of spite.
I put my hand to my hair, feel the brittle fronds my hairdresser Janice moulded just yesterday in her weekly visit, and try to smooth them back into their stiff peaks, and at the same time catch my finger on the dangling, silver earring I wear in my left earlobe.
I am sucking this finger when the walking frame comes round the corner. I see the front two legs of the frame lift up and then the back two appear, propelled heavily down by a pair of hands wrapped round the metal top. A pair of thin, dark brown forearms follows, sliding snake-like from behind the wall, out into view. It feels almost like a striptease, this being rooted to the spot, and I am hot and all of a fluster, but I stand my ground and pretend to examine the floor. I time my look up to coincide with the walker and its owner when they are a good few feet into the lounge and kitchen area and as I glance that way it is then that I feel the first pain.
It doesn't come on slow, like Dr. Davies had said, but rather all at once, as if someone has casually lent forward and jabbed a spiky, live, electric wire, right in my chest. It hurts to buggery, it does. I've never known a pain like this, it is sharp and tight and somehow all over, as if hundreds of butterflies have suddenly left their pupae all at the same time and are stuck fluttering in my chest. I don't know what saves me, but perhaps it is the thought of dying, right there and then, in front of Mrs James and Edith, Maude and Miss Drew, all tied up in their half-finished knitting patterns and snores, so I do what I can. I press the large, red button on my alarm strap, open my mouth, and then, quite quietly, slip into unconsciousness.
Out in one.
I wake up lying on my side, with my earring sticking in my ear. It tickles so I reach a hand round to fish it out.
"Don't move much Elise, the Doctor's said you're to rest. I daresay you've had quite enough excitement for today, what with fainting and all, but that's nothing to worry about love."
I turn my head towards the sound of the speaker, and see Irene, all prim and proper in her starched white uniform, arms folded authoritatively across her chest.
"But I thought I was done for," I say. "I had a terrible pain, so I did like Dr. Davies said and pressed my alarm."
Irene coughs, as if to suppress a laugh, "Dr. Davies has already been and gone dear. We were terribly worried at first, but he said you must have just had a fainting fit. There's nothing wrong with your blood pressure, or your heart or nothing else in fact. He said you were in fighting-fit form, not like some of them here." She leans forward as she says this and makes as if to cast a quick, conspiratorial glance about the room, but then seems to change her mind.
"It could have been a lot worse if Miss Winn hadn't been there. She cushioned your fall. I daresay she's got the bruises to prove it as well, because you fell right on her dear. It was not a pretty sight, I can tell you that now, for when I came running I found her quite trapped under you, and you're not a slim one, not like some of the old dears we have here. It is not the way I would choose to introduce a new resident, but we can't have it all now, can we? So, just you bide a while, and if you want to apologise to Miss Winn you can do that now, for she's in the sick bay as well, as the Doctor thought it best to give her a check up while he was around." At that the nurse turns on her heel, and with a sharp, rubbery squeak, strides back into the main hall.
I turn onto my back, and then set about re-arranging my dress as it is sticking to the leather upholstery of the couch. At the same time I discover, and then carefully lick out, a bit of salty cheese I can feel tarmac-ed inside a tooth. I notice the water cooler next to the doorjamb and realise I'm thirsty, so I sit up, swinging my legs over the couch's side.
"I am positively sure that the Nurse just told you to rest. I presume that means you shouldn't get up."
The voice comes from behind me and I turn my head sharply at it. Too sharply, for my vision begins to blur, so I let myself slide gently back onto the couch. Giving myself a few seconds to recover, I carefully sit up in its direction.
It is then that I see her properly. She is sitting up in bed, with a magazine perched on her knees, which she must have been reading but has put aside. She has spiky brown hair, not the mousy type, and a shock of white hangs, glistening, over her brow, which she then blows at sideways, by exhaling out of the corner of her mouth. It is like she is smoking. I imagine her carefully pushing out the smoke from a long cigarette.
"How are you feeling? It must be quite a shock."
"I'm fine thank you," I say. "You must be Miss Winn, I'm terribly sorry if I hurt you at all."
"Oh not at all darling, one must be prepared for all eventualities in life, and if one can't come to the aid of a fellow in need well then . . . and indeed, it is the most marvellous way to meet someone, don't you think?" As she says this her lips curl upwards slightly to form a sort of haphazard grin, as if she is imagining other meetings with other people, in all kinds of places I've no idea about.
"But you must call me Catherine, none of this Miss Winn business."
"All right," I say. "Catherine. My name is Elise, Elise Banks, and I'm very grateful for your help earlier as I'm not at all sure what came over me, but I certainly didn't mean to fall on you."
"That's quite all right Elise, as the nurse said, and as you can see for yourself, I'm perfectly well. A few scratches and aches, but nothing I have not experienced before."
The way she says the word, experienced, it seems to stretch out beyond her and float off into our room. To tell you the truth, it makes me feel a bit strange. It is like she is trying to tell me something, but before I can work out what it is, the word has left the air. In its place there settles a silence, which seems to grow between us as I search for something else to say. I settle on the obvious and open with "when did you arrive . . . I didn't see you at dinner last night, but perhaps you got here late?"
"My daughter dropped me off yesterday morning actually, although I was supposed to come last Friday but we hadn't quite got the paperwork sorted out in time. I didn't feel like joining you all for dinner, and sometimes I can be rather unsociable, so I asked to have some dessert saved for me and put in my room. They seem rather good about that here, which is not what I was led to expect, so it is a pleasant surprise."
"Oh, it's all right really, although of course, it never is quite what things are like in your own place, is it? But you can't expect it to be, and they are a good sort, most of the nurses anyway, and will do most things for you if you ask nicely enough."
"They should do, for the price we're paying," she says, with a spot of indignation, and once again her lips curl upwards, twitching slightly, and this time I can see she is laughing at herself, just a bit.
"I'm not used to all this pampering however, so it is a nice change to be attended to. How long have you been here Elise?
I hesitate for a fraction before I tell her that Ive been at Greensprings four years come September. It is difficult to remember I have been here this long. I move my hands, cupped in my lap, and cradle my right knee, pointing my toe at the ground. I picture my garden in this pale laminate floor and as I tell her about my flat on Bridge Street I trace the shape of a daffodil head in the air.
"I'm afraid I don't know Bridge Street very well, in fact I don't know this area at all really." She begins to tap her finger absently on her knee. "I used to live in Bath, but my daughter's from round here and thought it much better I move nearer to her so she should keep an eye on me. She does like to keep her eye on things"
She moves as if to get up, lifting the bedcovers and leaning towards her metal walker, positioned next to the bed. There is a deliberate calmness to all her movements, and the small, shrugged body which hangs for a second on the edge of the bed as she angles herself up into standing position is so still and stiff it seems to freeze the very air of our room. The distance that separates us becomes a cosmos of small but significant events in which I just count the number of my breaths. One. The fingers of her hands wrap tight round the underside of the walker, her two thumbs dipping below the metal, she guides herself towards me across the floor. She reaches out a hand, and gently presses mine beneath it, and I feel the soft touch of worn leather on leather.
"It must be nice though, to have someone who wants to look after you -- " I say, "-- who cares. It can't do any harm."
She laughs at this, and it is a wonderful laugh. Her lips are thin and very red, ruby red I should say, perhaps as red as Dorothy's shoes. Her eyes, still staring into mine, seem to be full of hard things. I catch myself looking at her lips and eyes for longer than I like, and with a sharp intake of breath I pull my gaze away and fold my arms in my lap.
I awake the next day to a breakfast of porridge and then a cheese and onion roll for lunch, followed by an Eccles cake. I haven't seen Catherine since our talk in the sick bay as she left shortly afterwards to unpack the rest of her things. I feel much better today, the giddy feeling has been replaced by a sense of quietness, as if the soft weight of my body has somehow settled down inside itself. One of the nurses has put some music on the stereo in our lounge, I think it is some kind of mind-relaxing tape as it starts with an American man's voice, which keeps repeating phrases -- at one point I hear him telling the listener to imagine a cave. I ask the nurse, Julia her name is, what she's listening to. She is sitting in one of our armchairs, next to Ida with a jigsaw puzzle, and has her eyes closed and her head leaning back.
"What's this music you've put on? It's very slow. I think I quite like it actually. It makes me think of rainforests." "It's a past life regression tape," she answers, blinking one lazy eye open to see who is interrupting her.
"What does that mean?" I say.
"It's supposed to help you find out who you were in a past life, or lives, and then this helps you see what you should be doing in your life now, and maybe explains why certain things are happening." She says this very matter-of-factly, and if she hadn't seemed so serious I might have burst out laughing in her face, but it doesn't seem to be a joke.
"But don't you think we just live and die?" I say. "Perhaps our spirits might live on, but I daresay that they have nothing to do with what has happened before or what happens in the future. I mean, they can't, can they, if they are just spirits and I really wouldn't like it if I had been some horrible person like a murderer which then meant I had to make up for it the next time round, that sounds all wrong and really not fair at all."
"Just because you don't believe in it Elise doesn't mean it don't exist." She stands up and moves over to the stereo. "Why don't you give it a try? Here, let me rewind the tape and we can start again. Sit down next to Ida and just listen and do what the tape says."
"There's no harm in trying," I say, "and at my age, why, if what you say is right I must have half a dozen or more people inside me. I wonder if I was ever a merchant seaman, for I've always had a thing for the sea."
"Possibly, or maybe you were a lighthouse keeper, or just . . ." she pauses and seems to reconsider what she is going to say.
"Or maybe you think I might have drowned, that's what you were thinking, wasn't it?" I say with glee, for it is fun when the nurses say things that can get them into trouble and it's always worth having a few put by.
"That was not what I was going to say Elise, but our minds and bodies and spirits are much more powerful than people give them credit for, and the whole point of this exercise is to try to visualise not pre-empt what comes to mind, so it won't help you to think of those things, and I won't waste my time if you think this is just a game. Do you want to try this seriously or not?"
"Oh I'm serious right enough," I say. "For all I'll find out I was a nursemaid for some rich lady or died in childbirth, it's all the same to me. Let's have a go."
So she switches the tape on. I sit down on the sofa next to Ida, who seems to have her hearing aid switched off. Sometimes it is hard to tell as she has a habit of ignoring people who talk directly at her. She also has a hairdresser who likes to indulge Ida's Rita Hayworth fantasy, so often you can't see whether she's got the thing in or not. She hasn't said a word the whole time however so I give her a little friendly elbow dig. She sucks her teeth at me, slowly, but doesn't move except to grip a piece of jigsaw, which she holds in her hand, hovering: she must be in the middle of a tricky bit, and hearing aid on or off she won't speak to anyone now for hours.
The tape starts. "Let us begin. We are rich in material goods but are often spiritually left wanting and it is the times in our lives when we seek solace in material things that often lead us to the wrong path when what we really seek is enlightenment." His voice is annoying me already, even though I don't really understand what he is on about. It also has this nasal quality which makes me want to give the man a hanky and get him to blow out hard whatever is lodged up there for good.
"What is he talking about nurse? I can't understand a word."
She leans forward and gives me a good, hard stare. "Elise, just be quiet and listen or I'll switch it off and go into the staff room instead."
I know she is bluffing because otherwise she would be in there now. They have probably given her a good ribbing already about it and she must think Ida with her hearing aid off is an easier bet.
"Imagine you are in a cave," his voice suddenly comes in again, so I lean back, close my eyes and try to think what this cave might look like. Well, it is dark really -- I've never had much imagination -- but then I suddenly see a patch of light on the side of a wall and a whole load of funny-shaped drawings. Why, where've these come from, I think? I move over to look a bit closer at them and realise they are those cave painting type pictures, as there is a man shape with a long, straight spear and some running animals. I don't quite know how I see them so well for I've never in my whole life seen real ones at all, and these look so real. There are all sorts of dark colours, and I can feel a slight chill as if the cave has a breeze coming in to it from somewhere. I am quite pleased with myself at this point and think it is going quite well until I listen in to the tape and realise that I am still in my cave and for some reason the man is now outside and telling us to walk under the branches of a tree we imagine in another place. Always the last one I think, always getting left behind. Well, so where am I now? It seems like a big hall and there is an archway in front of me, I have to step over some brambles to climb through into it. It isn't very bright, and it seems quite empty as I step inside. I begin walking down the corridor and looking to each side of me I see pictures dangling at very odd angles all over the walls. In front of each one there is a side table, covered with long, silver candlesticks and chunks of big, thick books. This is very strange indeed. Again, I've never seen anything like it before. I stop to look at one of the paintings, it is a picture of a dog, a Spaniel, I think. Tilted as it is, it seems to give the dog a certain canine poignancy, as if it can sense the inevitability of gravity on the worn, tight double line of a cotton thread, whose twirls I can see spiralling out either side from behind the frame. I lean on the side table in front of it, to get a better look, and then the next thing I know the damn thing falls off onto me and knocks me flat on my back.
I wake up and catch myself drooling into the shoulder of Ida's cardigan, which she has helpfully wedged between us to prop up my head. I wipe the drying saliva from my chin and try to focus on Ida's jigsaw that is on the table in front of us. She has nearly finished what appears to be a picture of haystacks stuck in the middle of a field, with a gaping blue backdrop which, as my eyes begin to focus properly, I see is missing a piece. I slowly hoist myself up into sitting position and watch Ida nosing about in the jigsaw box. It looks like she hasn't found the final piece. Just then, Nurse Julia swoops down behind us and leans in between our heads.
"You've been out for over an hour Elise, the tape stopped a good twenty minutes ago but I thought a little nap wouldn't do you any harm. Although you're not supposed to fall asleep to it, you know. I must say it didn't do anything for me this time, though on Tuesday I tried it and I was in Saudi Arabia driving a jeep. I don't know what that was all about though, as I didn't think they had jeeps there now to be honest, let alone whatever past life this was supposed to be. Here, Ida, you've missed a bit. It goes here."
She thrusts her arm out and pops the final piece of the jigsaw into the gap, then stands up and walks off. Ida looks at me, opens her mouth as if to say something, and then begins gathering the pieces up, one by one, and dropping them into the box. I wait for her to speak but she just keeps on letting the individual pieces fall out of her hands and plop into the box on the floor. She doesn't seem to want me to help so I sit for a minute and think about what it might be for dinner tonight. It's not for several hours yet but I'm getting peckish, so I decide to go to my room and have a piece of chocolate I know is stashed away in my knickers drawer. I push myself up out of the armchair and walk a little stiffly round the corner, stopping by the TV group to catch my breath. They are not so much watching as ignoring the television, and with the sound turned down to an almost inaudible whisper, all the noise I hear is the rip of a car exhaust bursting in on us from the outside. I continue the walk to my room and when inside half-close the door behind me, only leaving a small gap of light so that I can spot anyone coming near. I pick out the chocolate and sit on the edge of my bed. I bite into the soft truffle, at the same time gently easing myself onto the bed. I finish the chocolate and then try and decide whether to let myself have another one. I am not sure. Instead I chew the side of my thumbnail and where it joins the skin, it begins to bleed.
I do not see the door move and slowly span open until her walking frame is over the entrance. She has come round the corner very quietly: I did not hear a thing. She tilts her head and looks up at me, then propels herself round the corner in one small, swing. A plastic bag hanging off the walker bumps against the door and it swings open fully, letting her and the light in. I watch her come towards me and as she moves it's as if she is hovering across the floor, only her hands holding the metal walker are holding her down. When she reaches my bed she gently lowers herself down and slots herself in the curve of my bent knees. She reaches into her carrier bag and lifts out a plastic box. I know what is inside. She carefully grips the lid of the box and peels it back, slowly, until it removes itself entirely with a small, soft, oomph'. She reaches in and pulls out half a sandwich. It has a perfect half o' at its centre, where my teeth have been. I try not too look. She smiles and carefully puts the sandwich back in the box.
"Perhaps you would like to try the other half?" She offers me the box.
I take it and our fingers brush and it is like electric fire, and we are paper. Dry, rustling paper.
I watch her lick her ruby red lips and as I take out the other sandwich half and bite into it, I feel a pain in my chest.