Ute is sitting on the floor, half in and half out of the kitchen, a baggy black felt bathrobe plumped up around her.
‘I’d have helped her up but she told me not to. She didn’t want me to see her naked.’
The meals on wheels guy is standing in the hallway looking on as Frank and I squat down beside her. ‘She passed the key through the letterbox.’
‘I tell you I want women ambulance only,’ Ute says in a trembling Germanic accent. ‘Where are the women I had last time?’
‘Ute – have you hurt yourself? Are you in pain?’
She rubs her shin. ‘There perhaps. Here – not so much. My bottom, where I’ve been sitting.’ She looks up at us. ‘And who did you say you were?’
‘The ambulance, Ute. We’ve come to get you up off the floor and see how you are.’
‘I’m not going to hospital. They’ll put me straight in the loony box.’
We help her into a chair, but as soon as she’s settled she says she wants her teeth.
‘I’ll get them for you. Where are they?’
‘In a cup in the bath.’
The flat could not be tidier if it were laid out on a grid. There is a measured distance between the Ercol chairs, the salt and pepper cruet and commemoration tankard, the oil painting of a barge on the sea at sunset, that group of cherubs flying in blessed formation over the gas fire.
Her teeth are where she said they would be, stewing at the bottom of an orange tumbler in the bathtub. The arrangement of teeth seem strangely chaotic; have they worn away into those positions, or did she have an irregular set made for authenticity? Either way, they don’t fit. When she stuffs them into place and tries to talk, she may just as well have crammed a handful of Lego into her mouth.
‘Do what you will – but I’m not going to hospital.’
We thank the meals on wheels man for his help.
‘What would’ve happened if you’d not come round when you did?’ I say to him.
He slaps me on the shoulder.
‘Roast pork and vegetables, Apple pie and custard,’ he says to Ute. ‘See you tomorrow. And stay off the floor.’
‘What did he say?’
‘Roast pork and vegetables,’ says Frank. ‘And if you don’t want it I’ll have it.’
‘Oh.’ She smiles, and her teeth almost pop out.
‘We’ll just give you a check up to see everything’s okay.’
‘Come on then.’ She bunches up her bathrobe.
As I’m taking her blood pressure, she straightens in the chair and points at the door.
‘Who’s that coming in?’
‘No-one. The door’s on the latch and it’s blown open a little.’
She settles back as I pump up the cuff. Then she says:
‘I thought it was the nuns.’
‘Nuns? What nuns?’
‘But they only come out at night, so it couldn’t be them.’
Frank brings over Ute’s care folder and points at a section that describes her hallucinations. The list of medications alone are testament to her on-going mental health problems.
‘Where are you from, originally?’
‘Vienna. I came to this country in 1948.’
‘My mother-in-law’s German, too. Prussian.’
‘Really? What part?’
‘Stolp. Of course it’s Poland now.’
She frowns at me.
‘Your blood pressure’s absolutely fine, Ute. Everything’s looking good.’
I roll up the sphyg and pack it away.
‘Yes. She escaped with her life in 1939. She’s Jewish. She just made it out. The British borders were already closed by then, so she ended up in Northern Rhodesia. What’s now Zambia.’
Ute leans forward.
‘Are you Jewish, too?’
‘Of course, Hitler was quite mad, you know,’ she says finally, easing back in the chair. ‘Quite, quite mad.’
Frank writes out the form whilst I make Ute a cup of tea.
‘Thank you,’ she says as I place it on the little wooden table by her side. ‘You’ve even matched the saucer.’
Just behind her on the sideboard is a large old ceramic: an elephant with a tiger on its back. The elephant must have held that expression of terror now for a hundred years or more. Next to it is a small silver picture frame: a man in a yellow t-shirt, grinning massively behind a curly red beard.
‘My son,’ says Ute, replacing the tea cup onto the saucer with barely a click. ‘I haven’t seen him in ten years. Disappeared. Gone. The Salvation Army say he might never be back.’
‘So what happened?’
‘Drugs. The spoon and the candle. And then one day – poof! Not a trace.’
She picks up the tea again.
‘A nice colour, too. You really are kind. I don’t mind a bit you were not women.’
Back outside in the truck, we’ve just closed the door when we hear Rae come on the radio, somewhere the other side of town, updating Control on the outcome of the job they were sent on:
‘The patient was very drunk, abusive, aggressive, declined all assistance, told us to Foxtrot Oscar in no uncertain terms. He’s headed off in the direction of the shopping centre shouting and swearing, and we wondered if you could make the police aware.’
‘Roger to that. Could you pass a description?’
‘Yep. Can’t really miss him. Sixty year old male, big white beard, red skirt, wellington boots, carrying a basket with a toy fox in it.’