An ancient woman opens the door to us. She is smiling serenely, perfectly insulated from the buffetings of the world in a full length, bottle green quilted house jacket.
‘Are you the patient?’ I ask her.
She shakes her head and moves sideways without a sound; her coat is so long, you would think she was on casters.
‘Upstairs,’ she beams.
The house is so perfect it’s like we’ve been miniaturised and put inside a Regency dolls house. At the foot of the stairs is a white door. I open it, and we go up.
‘Ambulance,’ I call ahead.
A fierce voice answers.
‘For Gott’s sake, here, here, bitte. How long must you be in the coming? In here. Why do you take so long about it?’
‘Okay. Almost with you.’
We follow the sound of intense muttering, and find another elderly woman sitting on a lounge floor in her nightie, both legs straight out in front of her, supporting herself on her arms. She looks straight at us as we come in the door, a savagely uncompromising squint.
‘What is the matter with you? Can you not see the trouble I’m in? Look. Qvick. I tell you what to do and you help me because I’m in such pain.’
‘First things first. My name’s Spence, this is Frank. What - ?’
‘I don’t care who you are. Why won’t you listen? I’m telling you what to do. Now. Move that chair. Come here.’
‘I need to know your name, though.’
She sighs explosively and sinks an inch. After a murderous pause she fixes me with her eyes again and says: ‘You will address me as Mrs Ramstein.’
‘Mrs Ramstein. Thank you. Now. How can we help?’
‘How can we help he says. Mein Gott, if you would only listen you would know. I have fallen down onto my sitting bones and I am unable to stand. Now. If you would both take hold and give me assistance, I can get off the floor and in to bed. Do you think it is comfortable here? Do you?’
‘Why did you fall, do you think?’
‘I fell because I fell! What is this nonsense you are asking?’
‘Was it because you lost your balance, or did you pass out?’
‘Come on. Enough. Take my arms. This is ridiculous.’
‘Okay. But let’s quickly see if you’ve hurt yourself.’
‘I’ve already told you I hurt myself. I fell down on my sitting bones and I have brrr-oosed them.’
‘Can you just lift this leg for me?’
‘I know what you are thinking, but let me tell you, I have forty years a nurse been. Do you think I do not know what is the difference between a fracture, a dislocation, a haematoma or some simple brrr-oosing? Now will you stop all this nonsense and get me up.’
We help her up.
‘There,’ says Frank. ‘Good as new.’
‘Good as new,’ spits Mrs Ramstein. ‘What do you think? How many years you been ambulance?’
‘I’ve lost count,’ says Frank. ‘It’s all a pleasant blur.’
‘Well let me tell you something. In all my years I have never met such incompetence. Now. You will help me to the bedroom and I will rest on my bed. Not that way – this way. More slowly! Mind that!’
We help her into her bedroom – a forensically tidy space, with starched and ironed squares of pure white linen draped over the brushes on her dressing table, the books and pill packets on her trolley, and even over the top half of a cheval mirror.
‘On to the bed. No! Pull the qvilt to one side first. Not like that. In half, neatly, down the middle. Who taught you to make beds?’
‘Come on, Spence, sharpen up,’ says Frank.
‘There. Now. Gently down. Gently…gently….ahh.’
She stretches out, closes her eyes and folds her hands across her stomach.
After a moment – in which you would think she had fallen instantly to sleep – I dare to speak again.
‘We just need to do some basic observations, Mrs Ramstein, then we’ll leave you to rest.’
The eyes snap open.
‘Be qvick,’ she says.
Frank writes out the ticket as I canter through some obs.
‘Never in all my years have I met such incompetence, she says, but her voice is easier now – albeit the ease of a sated lioness. As I check her over I cannot resist finding out a little more about her.
‘So. Are you from Germany, Mrs Ramstein?’
The lioness roars.
‘Germany? No! I am Austrian. I would have thought you would have known that, at least? Are you really that stupid?’
Around us on the walls are some family photos – recent colour pictures of young women graduating; older, more faded photos of family groups with a stout blond matriarch in the background; a black and white photo of an athletic blond woman in a bathing suit waving cheerfully by a lake, and a dim, sepia photo of two dark figures posing side by side.
‘My mother-in-law’s German,’ I say.
Frank smacks his head and hides behind the clipboard.
‘German? I’ve already told you – I am not German, I am Austrian! What will it take to get through to you? You seem completely unable to understand anything.’
But she is frowning at me like a ferocious beast whose interest has been piqued by an unexpected titbit. As I finish taking her blood pressure and unwrap the cuff she says: ‘Where for in Germany is this mother-in-law from?’
‘Where for in Prussia?’
‘Stolp. Well – used to be Prussia.’ And I add as an afterthought, as if someone had been careless: ‘They moved the borders.’
‘I have not heard of Stolp.’
I put the cuff away. ‘Everything checks out,’ I say.
‘Is your mother in law there now?’
‘No. She left in 1939. Well – I say left. She escaped with her life. She’s Jewish, you see.’
Mrs Ramstein adjusts her position and examines me more closely from the bed.
After a pause she sighs and says: ‘They were difficult times. Terrible times. I was just a girl. I expect your mother in law was the same. It is terrible the things that happen in the name of politics. I escaped with my life also. From the Russians. I came to this country after a while here and there. A woman at the hospital was kind enough to get me some training. How is your mother in law?’
‘Yes – she’s good. Health problems, but an incredibly resilient and resourceful woman.’
‘You had to be. We all were. It was the times. Terrible times. You wouldn’t believe.’
The moment passes. Even Frank seems a little more comforted, more confident. He hands me the clipboard, then notices a cat peacefully grooming out on the landing. He squats down, puts his hand out and makes kissy kissy noises.
‘Hello mate,’ he says. ‘You’re gorgeous, aren’t you?’
Mrs Ramstein’s eyes blaze.
‘Jessie! She must not be up here! Who let her up? You must have left the door open! My Gott – has she come up? Quick. Take her down. Take her down.’
Jessie looks up disdainfully, then carries on licking her paw.
Frank moves towards the cat to pick her up.
‘No! Don’t pick her up!’ shouts Mrs Ramstein. ‘If you just simply walk she will run ahead. Drive her out! And make sure you shut the door so she doesn’t come back.’
Frank disappears with the cat.
‘Anything else we can do for you tonight?’ I say after a while.
She relaxes into the bed. ‘No. You have done qvite enough.’
Frank comes back into the room.
‘Jessie has left the building,’ he says, then picks up the bags ready to go.
‘Pull the quilt over me a bit more. That’s it. Now I sleep.’
And with her eyes closed she says: ‘You know, till recently I would get up at six and go schwimming. But now? I am fit for nothing.’
‘Maybe you could do with a little more help. We could sort something for you. At least get the wheels in motion.’
She opens her eyes.
‘There is one thing you could do perhaps,’ she says. ‘And that is make sure I don’t wake up in the morning.’
‘Well – that’s a little beyond our remit, Mrs Ramstein.’
‘Ach!’ she spits. ‘Hopeless ambulance.’
As we shut the white door carefully behind us, the sweet old lady who greeted us is standing in the hallway.
‘Everything all right?’ she says.
‘A little brr-ooosing, but she’s resting in bed now.’
‘Good!’ says the woman. Behind her on an immaculate Regency chair, Jessie looks up from a busy grooming of her tail with her back leg in the air, and I could swear the expression on her face was the same as the expression on the face of the old woman in the housecoat.
‘Thank you so much for coming,’ she beams.