Mrs Wilkinson, ninety-six next week, lies on her side by the door, her head resting on the carpet between the dark corner of an ancient chest of drawers and a wicker wastepaper basket.
‘Am I dying?’ she says.
‘No. You’re okay for the minute. Let’s get you up and more comfortable.’
Around her on the walls are paintings she did in her youth – a champagne bottle and a watering can, a pot of African violets, a serious young woman standing in three quarter pose with her arms folded, staring back at the painter with a level expression of surety.
‘I loved to dabble,’ she says. ‘But not any more. I get so tired, and anyway I lost the knack.’
Mrs Wilkinson has hurt her arm; it’s as if someone has gently pierced the skin of a rice pudding and dragged it aside.
‘It’s a trip up the hospital, I’m afraid,’ says Frank. ‘You need this looking at, and then there’s the business of why you fell in the first place.’
‘You’re the boss,’ she says. ‘I don’t care what happens.’
The staff at the home form a guard of honour, waving and halloing and touching her arm as we carry her down the stairs and out through the kitchen.
Mrs Wilkinson sits comfortably on the trolley as we travel to the hospital. With her hands neatly folded in her lap, she could be a dowager duchess riding in a carriage to a social event. Her eyes are squeezed almost shut, and the fleshy corners of her mouth drawn back and upwards. She looks like someone about to cry – or burst into laughter, it’s difficult to tell. But when she speaks, the tone of her voice is clear and warm.
‘I was sure I was going to die, but if you say not – well, another time soon, I expect.’
‘Did you drink the champagne before you painted it?’
‘Did I … oh, yes. Of course. Why would you not? Any old excuse.’
She seems to sniff the air, and then pulls the blanket more closely around her.
‘I thought I might take up painting again but you know I get so tired and really I just can’t be bothered anymore.’
The ambulance jolts and I put out my hand to steady her.
‘Thank you,’ she says. And then: ‘You know, there’s not a soul left alive I know. Isn’t that strange? Who’d have thought it? Who’d have thought I would’ve made such old bones?’
‘Do they run in your family?’
‘Do what, sorry?’
‘Old bones. Do old bones run in your family? Although that sounds strange now I say it.’
‘I know what you mean dear. And no, they don’t. I had one older sister and she’s gone. She had a daughter, but poor Agnes died when she was just two. Fancy that. Two. And here’s me, ninety-six. How absurd. My father lived till he was sixty. So no, I can’t say as old bones do run in the family. Except for me, of course. But I’ll be off soon. I really can’t understand how I’ve made it this far. I thought it might be today, but you seem adamant, so there we are.’