‘Thank you. I’m fine. I’m quite able to manage.’
‘Well, any time – the offer’s always there. Are you coming to see Olive soon then?’
‘Yes. I don’t know which day. But of course I’ll come – did you think I’d abandon her after all these years? Is that what kind of a person I seem to you?’
‘Of course not.’
‘Tell her I’m coming to see her.’
‘I’ll try and come later. Or tomorrow.’
She made it sound as if something might prevent her. Busy life. Things to do.
She had nothing to do. She could go now.
She went back to quietly filling the bird feeder. That was it. Quiet. It had not been quiet with Olive for so long, not without anger and anxiety and resentment, except during the brief times she had been in one home or another. Lenny looked out of the window. The birds were fluttering about in confusion, trying to find the feeder. There was no sound. She used to have the radio on most of the time but now she rarely did, the silence was so much more precious.
The phone rang again but this time she did not answer it.
‘Come on, Olive. Let’s go back into the house.’
Lorraine tried to steer her towards the steps into the sitting room but Olive simply stood.
‘Olive? It’s cold now, come on.’ The girl tugged her arm gently.
Olive gave a series of little grunts.
It took almost ten more minutes to persuade her in, step by reluctant, shuffling step.
There were two other residents in the home, one of them in the sitting room, which was bright and light, airy and pale, and smelled of new paint, new carpet, new upholstery. But for how much longer? Lorraine thought, remembering the other places she had worked in, the smell that came at you however hard the rooms were cleaned.
She had hold of Olive’s hand but, as they went up the last step and in through the open French windows, Lorraine felt a sharp tug and then Olive was on the floor.
‘Olive? Oh, for goodness’ sake, now what have you done? Come here, let’s see if you’re hurt.’
Olive had crumpled like a puppet inside her wide cotton skirt, but as Lorraine bent over her she pulled at her arm until the girl almost fell on top of her.
‘Olive, don’t do that. Come on now, I’m going to help you up, just take my hand.’
‘Lorraine?’ Moira Fison had been on the phone to Lenny only half an hour before. Now this.
‘I’m not sure if she tripped or – honestly, I think she went down deliberately –’
Olive suddenly put her hands over her face.
‘Now, have you hurt yourself? Come on, let me look.’ She touched the woman’s hands, arms, legs. ‘Sit up.’ Olive took her hands and sat. ‘There. No damage. Now stand.’
Between them they pulled her easily to her feet. She weighed as little as a bird.
‘Right. Let’s get her sitting down. She can go back to her room in a minute. Was she all right out there?’
‘Seemed to be.’
‘Did she say anything?’
‘Not really. Only muttered under her breath a bit. That woman again.’
‘No, it’s not Agatha.’
‘What’s the other woman’s name? Her – you know.’
‘This Wilcox says she doesn’t know an Agatha.’
Olive was rocking to and fro and moaning, and the moans were loud then soft, loud then soft.
‘Where’s Mrs Sanders?’
‘Coming down before long – just cleaned up.’
‘Right, well, Mrs Sanders really doesn’t need this one upsetting her. Come on.’
‘Do you think she should maybe have a rest now?’
‘I’ll see if my husband’s about. He’ll decide.’
Which meant, Lorraine thought, that Olive would get a rest. Give them all a break. She knew perfectly well what people thought about sedation but they weren’t the ones who had to cope and it wasn’t like giving chemical coshes to normal healthy kids who were just over-lively and needed some discipline. This place couldn’t function at all if the patients didn’t get a sedative now and again.
‘Ahhhhhhh!’ Olive shrieked so suddenly, and so loudly, that Lorraine and Moira Fison both jumped.
‘All right, Olive. That’s enough.’
They each took hold of her under an arm, hauled her up and walked her between them out of the room.
‘A …’ she whispered. ‘Ag …’
‘Can you get it now?’
Lorraine shook her head. ‘I don’t think it’s a name. I think it’s just noises.’
Olive went on making them, deep in her throat.
When Lenny arrived in the late afternoon Olive was asleep, lying on her bed, shoes off, the covers pulled loosely over her, groaning softly.
‘Is she all right?’
‘Yes. She had a bit of a fall this morning – she tripped over the step coming in from the garden so it was better to let her rest. Dr Fison looked her over and she wasn’t hurt but you can’t be too careful. Do you want to sit with her?’
Lenny touched the hand that was splayed out from under the coverlet. It was the colour of wax, the nails pale and cut short. Her hands. She had loved those hands. Loved to stroke the soft backs of them, link her own little finger in one of Olive’s.
‘Should she be making that noise?’
‘She’s just snoring, bless her.’
‘She doesn’t snore.’
‘Most old people snore.’
‘I said she doesn’t snore. I should know. What have you given her?’
‘After a shock like that a wee sedative is a good idea – calming, you know.’
‘You’ve no right to stupefy her with drugs. She can’t protest, she doesn’t know.’
Moira Fison spoke very carefully. Patiently. ‘I would never use the word “stupefy”, Miss Wilcox.’
‘Oh, I would.’
‘You see, Olive was very agitated earlier. She was worrying over this name – she was asking for Agatha.’
‘There’s no one called Agatha,’ Lenny said, pushing past the woman. Behind her, Olive, lay too still, too deeply asleep, the yellow-white hand outstretched and limp against the covers.
He was coming up the stairs as she went down and Lenny would have pushed past him too. She had met him once, the day she had brought Olive, and had disliked him but only because she disliked all doctors, disliked the way they assumed power, claimed superior knowledge, passed judgement. He had talked plausibly about new ideas, new ways of caring for dementia patients, new approaches, stimulation, one-to-one care, small steps, memory hints, making the best of … Lenny could have trotted it all back at him. She hadn’t believed much of it. Nothing here seemed different from any of the other places except that it was new, the carpets were still shedding fluff, the paint smelled. Give it time, she knew, give it only a very short time and it would smell of pee and Listerine and stewing meat, the same as they all did.
She got into the van. A treecreeper was going up the trunk of an ash tree nearby, a bird she had rarely seen and one that Olive had tried over years to attract to their own garden without success. This one was camouflaged against the trunk and only its deft, expert movement upwards gave it away. Lenny watched.
‘Come here, quick,’ she would have said. ‘Look, O, isn’t that what you’ve always wanted to see?’
And Olive would have come over, her movements neat and purposeful as the bird’s, taken up the binoculars that were always on the window ledge, and focused them.
‘It is, isn’t it?’ Lenny would have said, and after a moment’s excited, waiting silence, breath held, Olive would have turned to her, lowering the glasses, her face lit with her particular smile, eyes slightly narrowed, as if against the bright sun – what Lenny had always called her ‘giving smile’.
‘Sorry, is this a bad time?’
‘It’s just … I’m on my way to Kenneth’s room. He’s in bed, he hasn’t been well.’
‘I’ll hang up.’
‘No, don’t …’
‘I can call you again?’
‘No – I don’t mean no, I mean, no, listen … don’t go. Hang on.’ Her voice was muffled. She said a word or two. Then footsteps. ‘Sorry. I’m in the kitchen. Simon?’
‘I’m still here.’
‘What for? You don’t have to apologise … I – I just wanted to hear your voice.’
‘And me. Me yours, I mean. I hear enough of my own.’
‘I can’t believe that. Anyway, I’m sorry – I’d better go.’
‘No, don’t, please don’t. It seems ages.’
‘It is. Are you all right?’
‘Yes. It’s just, when Ken gets ill he gets more ill because of the Parkinson’s – he only had a cold but it’s now a chest infection. I was just taking him a drink. He’s got so many blasted drugs he has to take … Sorry. You don’t want to hear me talk about my husband.’
‘I’ve told you, I just want to hear you talk. Can I see you?’
‘Rachel, I know I shouldn’t ring you and I know I shouldn’t ask to see you but I so want to. I so need to.’
Eventually, she said ‘Yes’, very quietly.
‘I meant, I want to see you. I need to. As well.’
‘I don’t know … it’s difficult at the moment …’
‘Just a drink? Just for an hour?’
‘It wouldn’t be an hour though, would it?’
‘It would. Anything you say. I can set my watch. Please.’
‘I’ll ring. You’re busy, aren’t you?’
‘Yes, but I do get time off.’
‘Can I ring then, when I see a way?’
‘He’ll be fine, won’t he? Your husband. He’s got antibiotics presumably … all that.’
‘It takes him longer to recover … not like you and me.’
‘I’m always terrified for him.’
He was silent.
‘I understand.’ He did but he hated that he did.
‘Listen … he’s my husband. I’m responsible for him.’
‘I know that. Of course I do. What kind of a shit do you think I am? I know you have to put him first, I know that.’
‘I don’t think you’re any kind of a shit, I think you’re …’
‘What? Rachel? What do you think of me?’ It was the only thing in the world he wanted to know. Was desperate to know.
‘I have to go. Sorry. I’ll ring you. I promise I’ll ring.’
‘Simon, it’s Judith.’
‘Yes. How are you?’
‘Your formal tone. Are you on duty?’
‘I’m always on duty.’
‘No you’re not. You’re annoyed with me and I don’t altogether blame you but can we meet all the same? Always better to be annoyed face to face, I find.’
‘I’m pretty up to my eyes.’
‘Yes, but you have to eat. Your father’s out tomorrow night so I wondered if you and I could have a quiet supper somewhere.’
‘When you say “somewhere” …’
‘I meant I could do without cooking and this house isn’t conducive to our having the best conversations, is it?’
‘I suppose not.’
‘I’m sure not. So – may I take you out to supper at that nice Italian place of yours? It worked for us before.’
‘You’re making it sound as if we’ve fallen out over something.’
‘I rather think we might have, don’t you? Crossed wires and misunderstandings anyway.’
But she was right. He was just finding it hard to admit, as ever.
‘I‘d like to. Should be fine, but things are surfacing at odd times on this Lowther case so there’s a chance I might have to cry off.’
‘There is always a chance you might have to do that, isn’t there?’
‘I’ll pick you up.’
‘That would be lovely, then I can have a drink or two and get a taxi home. Thank you, darling.’
His mother had called him that. Now Judith. No one else, other than this woman or that, to whom the word came easily and meant little. It was not an endearment word he used himself.
‘Is everything all right?’
‘Talk about it tomorrow. You?’
He had told her about Rachel, and what he had not told, Judith had deduced, from his face, his tone of voice, and from the silences between the half-uttered phrases. She was the only person he could have told and he didn’t know what reaction he had expected from her – certainly not anything like the one he would have got from Cat. She had listened with care and said little but he had sensed hesitation, a holding back of something – sympathy? Approval? He had needed both. He realised that he always did. But Judith did not rush into anything and so he had flared up, wishing he had never spoken to her, tense and irritable and confused about his feelings. They had parted on abrasive terms.
She had dressed with some care, he thought, as they took her coat in the restaurant. His mother had dressed elegantly and strikingly, Judith was always well presented but drew little attention to herself with her clothes. Tonight, though, she had a black top with a deep red silk stole, a black-and-gold heavy necklace. People glanced round.
But when they were sitting opposite one another at his favourite table in the window, he saw that her eyes were sad, that she had concealed the shadows and hollows beneath them, that she had lost enough weight for it to show in her face – and she had not needed to lose it.
He ordered a bottle of prosecco.
‘Guilt offering,’ Simon said. ‘But we don’t need an excuse.’
The menus came, the old-fashioned huge menus, with the slip of paper clipped to the bottom on which the specials of the day were handwritten, the menus that went with the time warp within which the restaurant operated to serve the best food in Lafferton.