Barbara, an elderly woman pop riveted into a substantial, tobacco brown combo, hairdo struck from a block of granite, steps out onto the porch to greet us. The door clicks shut behind her.
‘Oh shit! I’ve left the damned keys inside.’
‘Do you have a spare anywhere?’
‘Hang on, now. Let me think. There’s a set with Mrs Ferguson at number twenty eight, but she’s out at the centre till lunchtime at least. Shit, shit, shit.’
‘There’s a key safe down there. Might there still be a key in it?’
‘Yes! Yes! My God, you’re a genius!’
Despite the suit she manages to bend sufficiently to begin dabbing at the key safe buttons with a leathery finger. The front garden of bolting roses, dark veins of clematis and bramble-spoiled thickets of juniper and lavender, thrashes behind us in gusts of wind as we shelter in the porch.
‘I just need to fill you in on a few things before we go in,’ she says, straightening up and brandishing the key in the air. We take a step back. ‘Mrs Adams has dementia, no living relatives. I’m Barbara, neighbour and friend of some forty years. I have full power of attorney, over everything.’ She squints at us as if to make it clear this means us, too. Then with another abrupt change of pace she turns again and sticks the key in the lock.
‘She falls quite a bit, especially this past year. I only live round the corner so you see I’m here a great deal. And then there are the carers who come in four times a day. Crack squad of angels, to a man. But between us we simply can’t provide twenty four hour protection. Of course we can’t. We’re not nurses – or prison wardens, goodness knows. We’ve tried, but no power on earth can stop Stephanie attempting to do the impossible – by which I mean the things she used to be able to do but can’t anymore. It’s a sad fact, but time moves on. I mean look at this place. There’s only so much one can do.’
‘Okay. Fair enough. Shall we get inside and see how Mrs Adams is doing?’
‘Yes. Of course. The job in-hand. Follow me. She’s in the bedroom.’
Barbara opens the door and leads us inside.
‘Stephanie,’ she calls out, leaning forwards with the deferential stoop of a private secretary. ‘Stephanie? The ambulance people are here.’
Then she turns to us in the hallway and whispers: ‘Mrs Adams has fallen from the bed to the floor whilst trying to get on the commode. I don’t think she’s hurt herself, but I couldn’t get her up on my own, and anyway I thought it best to leave her in situ. I chucked a blanket over her, though. Hope that’s okay. Over to you, the experts.’ And she stands aside.
Mrs Adams’ bedroom has that yeasty odour of rooms lived in too long with the windows closed. Spotted wallpaper rises up to a margin of shadows, a ceiling rose in the middle of it all, cracked and obscure, like a planet viewed through a dirty telescope. And then around us on the walls, a dozen pound-shop portraits of Jesus, the Polish Pope, The Holy Virgin, and stretched on the wall over the headboard, a faded panorama of a convent school, class of fifty two.
Mrs Adams lies on the floor between the bed and the commode, bundled up in a coverless duvet. When I crouch down next to her and ask her how she got there, she says:
‘There was a man in here. A strange, heavy man. Bald. Squinty. I don’t know what he wanted. He just appeared at the foot of the bed. Didn’t say a word. When I asked him what he wanted, he shook his head. So I went to get up, but fell down, and then he came and lay on top of me. All night. And the best I could do was lie there quietly and hope he’d go. Which he did. Most peculiar.’
I look at Barbara. She smiles, shakes her head, and tosses the key from one hand to the other.