‘Look at me.’ Jonty holds both her hands out in front of her, zombie-style. ‘I’ve got the bloomin’ DTs. Do you know what that means? The DTs? It means I’m desperate for a tea. That’s the only thing that’ll sort me out. Just look at me.’ She laughs, a sweetly burbling, schoolgirl laugh. Her hands are not the only part of her jiggling about. Her jaw waggles up and down as if she’s eating a hot potato; only her hair has peace, rolled up in curlers and tightly bagged in a lincoln green scarf. ‘What a misfortunate article I am. Would you like some tea?’
We’ve just picked Jonty off the floor and helped her back into her favourite chair. Behind her through the window a beautiful blue stretch of sea and sky.
‘Do you know they want to make you pay more for a sea view? Add it on to your rates? I said not likely. I said you’ll have a Class A fight on your hands, mister. They don’t know what I’m like when I get going.’ She makes her hands into fists and holds them at eye level. ‘Pow! I can deal ‘em out when I need to. Mind you, my right shoulder’s frozen, and I can only lift my arm so high. I haven’t got the swing I used to have. And my husband died twenty years ago, so I’m out of practice.’ She gives me an elaborate stage-wink, and pats me twice on the hand. ‘But don’t worry. You’re safe with me. For now.’
The familial branches from Jonty’s ninety six years have spread across the walls story-board style: glasses raised at a work do, a man fishing, assorted bridal compositions by cake, by tree, by registry book; babies paraded to camera; gap-toothed children segueing into gowned adults; an inflated woman in shorts and sunglasses waving briskly from a summer garden a thousand miles and fifty years distant. And then amongst all these photos, Jonty has sellotaped up pictures of tigers torn from magazines.
‘Oh, do you like my tigers? I love my tigers. Here. Stroke this.’ She fetches out a stuffed tiger from behind a colourised photo of a soldier and a vase of plastic ox-eye daisies. ‘He likes his back roughing up - like this.’
I play with the tiger a little – ‘No! Really rough it up! Use your knuckles, man.’ I hand it back to her. She kisses it, then carefully places it back behind the photo – a man in a scarlet dress uniform and gold buttons, embalmed by a heavy-handed studio assistant.
‘My father. What a wonderful man. Looked after seven kids and had a job in the city. I don’t know how he did it. Mother had a heart condition, in hospital most of the time. He did have a woman who helped a bit with cleaning and chores, but mostly he’d come home from work and get straight down to it. Wonderful cook. Grew vegetables. Taught me to march around the garden – Boom! Bosh! Bosh! Just like him.’
We ask Jonty if she would like to go to hospital.
‘Would I like to go to hospital? Why? Whatever for? I’ve been in this body ninety six years. I think I should know by now when it’s not working properly. All I need to do is sit down, watch some boats, drink some tea. Okay?’
Her jaw works up and down, her head nods, every part of her not stabilised by an aspect of the chair trembling and ticking, as that ancient body like a vintage Bugatti gradually shakes itself out of whack. She pats my hand again as the home help brings her over a cup of tea and places it next to her on the trolley. I have no idea how she will manage to drink it.
‘Thank you dear,’ she says, then gives me a wink.
‘I just couldn’t get up off the floor, that’s all. ’