A&E is overrun, has been all week. Pushing Mrs Riseborough on the trolley through the swing doors, it’s as if we’ve just stepped into the blood and carnage of an epic painting by Delacroix, with a health care assistant waving an x-ray form in the air, rallying the charge.
‘I’ll just go and have a chat with the nurse,’ says Frank, sauntering off through the chaos.
‘How are you feeling?’ I ask Mrs Riseborough. Her breathing is dreadful, a chronic rattle-bag of wheezes and rubs. She didn’t want to bring the nasal canula she uses at home because the respiratory nurse had told her not to take any equipment out of the house. Instead, she’s using one of our low-flow oxygen masks, holding it off a little way from her nose and mouth, like a dowager sniffing an exotic plant.
‘I’m feeling hot and I don’t want anything to make me hotter,’ she says. ‘I hate to feel restricted.’
‘I can understand that.’
A drunk tries to throw himself off a trolley, and his equally drunk friend thinks sitting on him will help. Security run from place to place, restoring order with fat, black leather gloves.
‘I’m sorry it’s all a bit of a mess at the moment,’ I say to Mrs Riseborough. ‘Time of year or something. But hopefully we won’t be too long.’
‘Don’t worry about me, dear. I’m quite comfortable, thank you.’
A scream from behind some curtains. A kid wrapped in a blanket drifts past in bare feet.
‘So. What did you do before you retired?’ I ask Mrs R. to distract her from her surroundings.
‘You’d never guess to look at me now but I was a dancer. I auditioned for the Continental up in town – quite famous in its time. Have you heard of it?
‘Yes. Very famous. A kind of Moulin Rouge cafe revue place, wasn’t it? With comedians and singers between dances?’
‘That’s it. I went up town and auditioned and they said “Okay. You can dance all right, but we need to see how you go.” So they took me on for a week, and renewed the contract every week after that, and that’s how I went on for eight years. I had a wonderful time.’
‘When was that?’
‘Just after the war. About nineteen forty-nine, I should think. A really wonderful time. I worked with all the famous stars. Whatsisname – thought himself a real ladies man. He wasn’t all that, but he wouldn’t be told. And you-know who, off of the telly. We had these skimpy costumes – feathers and lace, all very arty, you know - nothing sordid. I met my Bill there.’
‘How did that happen?’
‘He’d just been demobbed and was up town working. He came by the theatre once and saw me on the stage and really took a fancy to me. So he used to come every night from then on, and in the end he plucked up the courage to have a word with Harry on the stage door – Harry was a lovely man, really knew what was what, really looked after us girls. So Harry said “Of course. Come through and say hello.” So he let him backstage one night. Well, I was coming off stage and there was Bill, looking all shy and shifty and holding out my dressing gown. He was such a dear. So he takes me out to dinner and that was that. And here we are, sixty years later – sixty two actually, if you count the last two, which I do, even though he’s gone now.’
‘Sorry to hear that.’
‘What can you do?’ she says, taking another gasp of air. ‘It’s life and you’ve just got to make the best of it. I said to the doctor “Be straight with me now. I want to know what’s wrong with me and how long I’ve got”. “Are you sure?” he said. And I told him. I said “Absolutely” I said. “I want to be like Bill. I want it laid out flat so I can have a good look at what I’ve got and know what it is I’ve got to do about it.” “Well,” he said, “There’s not an awful lot that can be done about it,” he said. “I should think you’ve got about four to five weeks.” “Good,” I said. “Thank you very much.” Because you know I’ve had a wonderful life and I’m not sorry about going. I’ve had my lot. I danced at The Continental, I married a lovely man, I had a lovely family, and what more can you say about it?”
She lays a frail hand on mine and smiles at me. Her face has been ravaged by illness, but the cheekbones are as high and fine as they must always have been, and her eyes as blue.
‘I was a fabulous dancer,’ she says. ‘And you know what my daughter Chloe said? She said “When you’re gone, Mum, don’t for Gawd’s sake let anyone else have them photos.”