‘Wait a minute. I’ll just give Barbara a call.’
Dorothy is holding a scrap of paper with something like runes written on it in shaky black marker pen.
‘The number’s upside down,’ says Frank, reaching across and turning it the right way up for her. ‘Would you like me to dial?’
‘No. Thank you. I can manage.’
She picks up the receiver, puts it to her ear suspiciously to check the tone, scrutinises the scrap of paper a nose and a half distant, then extends a withered finger. ‘Eight.... four....zero....’
It’s been a while since I’ve seen an old phone with a circular dial. I love the way Dorothy jabs a finger in each number hole, drags it round with that congested whirring noise inside, then pulls it out and lets the dial wind backwards with a clatter. It all seems so mechanical, agricultural. Amazing that anyone should be on the other end. And of course, they’re not.
‘Out,’ she says, replacing the receiver. ‘Still at work, I ‘spect.’
‘You can always ring them from the hospital.’
She looks pained.
‘What’s the matter, Dorothy?’ says her friend Sylvie from the opposite chair. ‘What are you worrying about?’
‘Where’s my purse?’
‘In the kitchen under the monkey. Shall I get it for you?’
‘Could you, pet? And whilst you’re there, could you fetch me in my glasses? And a dress – the white cotton one, not the one with pleats. And my best slippers. And I’ll need a coat. And shut the window ‘cos I’ve left it wide open.’
Dorothy is ninety three but only looks seventy. She’s had hip pain all week, but today it’s much worse and she hasn’t been able to go outside. She could see Sylvie waiting for her on the bench down in the square, and shouted out the window for her to come up.
‘I’ve never seen her like this,’ says Sylvie, her head waggling from side to side with the excitement of it all. ‘Never. She’s normally such a fighter.’
‘Yes. Well. I am a fighter.’
‘But sometimes you just run out of fight.’
To illustrate the point, she sighs, and rests her head back on the cushions Sylvie has plumped up behind her. After a second or two when everything goes quiet and nothing seems to happen, she opens her eyes and lifts her head again.
‘Oh – and while you’re in there, can you bring me my green cardy hanging off the back of the door? And a bottle of water out of the fridge?’
Sylvie smiles and crowbars herself out of her chair with her walking stick. She seems even more decrepit than Dorothy, even though she’s twenty years younger – a fact that Dorothy has emphasised at least four times since we got here.
‘It’s bad,’ says Dorothy, ‘Very bad. I’ve never known pain like it.’
‘If you had to give the pain a score out of ten, with ten being unbearable pain and nought being nothing, what would you give it, Dorothy?’
‘Well I wouldn’t say it was unbearable.’
‘So – marks out of ten?
‘It’s not too bad when I sit still like this.’
‘No – but when you move, what score might you give it?’
‘Score? I don’t know. What do you think?’
‘It’s not what I think. It’s what the pain feels like to you.’
‘Excruciating hot. Right deep in here.’
‘Does it go anywhere else?’
‘Right in deep.’
‘And what mark would you give it out of ten? You know. For the pain. Marks out of ten.’
Sylvie comes back in with an armful of stuff.
‘Where do you want it?’ she says, breathing heavily.
‘Oh I don’t know,’ says Dorothy, holding the scrap of paper up to the light again and almost pressing it to the tip of her nose. ‘I just wish I could get through to Barbara.’