Miss Ellingham is lying on her side on the rough path that runs above the harbour. A woman is crouched down beside her holding a golfing umbrella to shield her from the sun; the woman’s husband stands beside them both with a border terrier straining impatiently on a lead. There is an audience of tourists outside the café, sunning themselves like seals on the ice flows of the picnic benches. They nudge each other and raise their ice creams as we approach.
‘It’s my stupid arm,’ says Miss Ellingham. ‘Or to be more anatomically precise, my wrist. I think I may have fractured it.’
‘First of all, let’s make sure you haven’t hurt yourself anywhere else.’
‘Of course. Yes. I know you have your routine. I’m a first aider myself.’
When everything looks okay, we help her into a sitting position.
‘Of course my instinct was to go onto all fours and push myself up, but that was impossible with this injury. One feels so stupid.’
The tourists nod, pointing out details to each other, enjoying the scene as much as the cones that they turn expertly round and round.
‘Thank you so much for your help,’ says Miss Ellingham, squinting up at the umbrella woman as Frank ties a triangular bandage. ‘Most kind.’
‘Are you okay to walk over to the ambulance?’ I ask her.
‘Yes. I only lay there because I knew you would expect me to. I would’ve been quite happy to have got myself up and sat on a bench. As soon as I fell I checked myself over mentally and I knew it was just the wrist. But I’m fully aware of the procedure. I’m a first aider myself you see and I’m used to giving directions. I asked this kind lady to take my rucksack off me and use it as a pillow, then lay still and waited for the emergency services to give the all-clear. Look – could you clip my hip pack back around my waist again? It’s got all my essentials and I need to have it on me at all times. I like to be ready to go. When I’m hostelling I sleep with it over my pyjamas. Well – if there’s a fire in the middle of the night and you have to walk straight out, at least I’d have my essentials. I might not have any clothes but at least I’d have my essentials. That’s why I don’t go swimming in the sea. I wouldn’t want to leave them on the beach.’
‘Come on. Let’s get you on board.’
I half expect the tourists to clap and throw coins.
‘I like to get out and about,’ says Miss Ellingham. She is eighty going on twenty, her lank, grey hair cut in a youthful bob and held in place with a flowery clip. She wears an arctic fleece and walking boots so massively squared off with tread she could be trekking in the Kush. But despite her survivalist presentation she looks at us with a brittle, slightly pained expression, like an ancient girl-guide used to making the best of it.
‘I suppose it’s fractured,’ she says.
‘I think so. It looks like a Colles’ fracture. Just here at the end where your radius joins the wrist.’
‘Yes. I know. Well. What a nuisance. I suppose they’ll be putting it in a cast, then? So I won’t be able to go for my swim tomorrow. I won’t be up to much with my wing in a sling, will I?’
She smiles, a thoroughly brave affair, and then looks blankly around her as she carries out a further audit. ‘No cycling,’ she says eventually. ‘No St Johns. Baths will be tricky so showers instead. Half my clothes won’t fit. Still. When you live on your own you get used to coping with these things. I suppose many of your customers would be feeling pretty down on their luck. But what’s the point? It’s happened, there you are. Deal with it. At least it’s only my wrist. And at least I fell where there were people to help. What would’ve happened if I’d been way out on the shore? And fell more heavily, so I couldn’t get up? And my phone was broken. And the tide was coming in?’ She grimaces at the thought of that. ‘Well – I suppose I’d have got up somehow in that instance. But the important thing is I’m here, it’s done, minor injury, there you are. We’re coping. Have you got my bag?’
I point to the trolley.
‘I’ve got my essentials in my hip bag.’ She adjusts her pack with her good hand and smiles at me again. ‘You might think I’m too independent but I say there’s no such thing. I never have appreciated fuss. I’ll be eighty one in December and I’ve just learned the front crawl. I did a quarter mile the other day. John is doing his best to get me to do what he likes to call alternate breathing but I have to admit I pretty much drown if I don’t stick to the right, but I do understand what he means about balance. I’ll get there. If you set your mind to it you can do it.’
I put my hand on her shoulder and apologise when the ambulance goes over a bump, but the rough road only seems to be shaking more words out of her.
‘I’m particularly interested in geology, you see. I used to be an accountant but now I’ve got the time and opportunity to look at other things, things that really interest me, so why not? I’m doing one of those degrees at the university of the third age. Earth Sciences – how the land was formed, rocks and fossils and so forth. That’s why I like to get out, to see as much of it as I can, to see how it was all made. I’ve always liked the outdoors. It’s one of the benefits of living on one’s own. You don’t have to think about anyone else. You can just take off wherever you like and please yourself. It may sound selfish but I enjoy it. It’s how I live. It’s how I’ve always done it. You don’t suppose I could have a sip of water do you? I’ve got a sports bottle there in my rucksack?’
‘Just a little sip to wet your mouth,’ I say, passing her the bottle.
‘Thanks.’ I offer to pull the tip of it out for her but she shakes her head, bites it out, and takes a slug.
‘How long will I be in a cast?’
‘A few weeks,’ I say. ‘And then some kind of physiotherapy, maybe.’
‘Damn,’ she says, and takes another slug of water. ‘I feel so stupid. Still – that’s accidents for you.’ She pushes the tip of the bottle back into place with her chin and then hands the bottle back to me.
‘Thank you,’ she says. ‘I’ll be going home from a different train station. I wonder if they’ll honour my ticket?’
‘Oh, I’m sure they will. You’ll have your arm in a cast. You’ll have the paperwork. I can’t think they’d worry about a little detail like that.’
‘Ah yes – but you see, it’s just precisely the little details one worries about.’