Mrs Norbutt can’t cope at home. Despite a small militia of carers, district nurses, physio and occupational therapists, a CPN and a social worker, she still keeps falling out of her wheelchair. Another bout of respite care is arranged, with a view to something more permanent.
‘My neighbour will look after the house whilst I’m gone. If she remembers. If I ever come back,’ she says. ‘Don’t forget my bags.’
Mrs Norbutt sits like a ball of imploded matter, a dark star of misfortune. Being in her presence for any amount of time is like being an astronaut fighting with the controls of his ship to escape the Event Horizon of her gloom.
‘It’s a beautiful day today, Mrs Norbutt.’
‘Is it? I suppose it might be if you can enjoy that kind of thing.’
‘Have you been getting out much?’
‘Out much? If you mean tipping out onto the floor, then yes.’
‘Have you had lunch today?’
‘They came round. Late again.’
‘What did you have?’
‘I haven’t got much of an appetite. I had some toast.’
‘I love toast. It really hits the spot sometimes. What did you have on it? Jam? Marmite?’
‘Nothing,’ she says.
I wheel her outside.
The air is brisk and bright with an autumnal zest to it. A scattering of golden leaves across the lawn. On the other side of the road, a man is affectionately soaping down his car. He stops and waves in our direction; Mrs Norbutt sinks lower in the chair.
‘What’s he want?’ she says.
Frank is waiting with the ramp down. He’s met Mrs Norbutt before, and treats her with professional circumspection.
‘All right, Mrs Norbutt?’ he says. ‘Up we go.’
‘Mind my leg,’ she says. ‘I’ve got enough trouble as it is.’
‘Right you are.’
We help her out of the chair – not an easy thing, as she insists on doing it her way, which means no brakes, footrest turned in, wrong angle, wrong height.
‘It might be better if you…’
‘I think I might know what I’m doing by now, don’t you?’
She makes it into the ambulance seat and folds her arms.
‘I can’t do the seatbelt.’
‘How long will this take? I get sick.’
‘Not long, Mrs Norbutt. It’s a busy time of day, though.’
‘Still – lovely day for a drive.’
‘You can’t see out.’
‘No – but..’
‘Where are we going anyway?’
‘The Bedlington Residential Home.’
‘I prefer the other one.’
‘Which one was that?’
‘I can’t remember.’
‘All set to go?’ says Frank brightly. He smiles at me as he slams the door.
‘Sorry we have to slam the door like that, Mrs Norbutt. It’s just the door sensor’s dodgy and the alarm keeps sounding.’
‘I’m not surprised.’
As we move along I try all the usual routes into conversation. Nothing works. I feel like Pollyanna on Prozac, skipping anxiously through a maze, struggling to be bright despite all the wrong turns, all the blind alleys.
I sweat, and look at my watch, but the minute hand is backing-up along with all the commuter traffic we seem to have hit along the front.
‘Where does your daughter live?’ I ask her.
‘Miles away. Too far to visit.’
‘Does she ever make it over to see you?’
‘Jenny? No. She’s not well herself.’
‘Oh? Sorry to hear that. What’s up with Jenny?’
Mrs Norbutt turns her head to give it to me straight.
‘All the nerves are breaking off her spine. It won’t be long before she’s just a jelly with a brain.’
‘Oh.’ And then: ‘That sounds bad.’
‘You have no idea,’ she says. ‘Do you mind if I put my foot up on the trolley?’
‘No. Go ahead.’
She raises it up.
‘I’d put them both up but they cut the other one off.’
‘Sorry about the traffic,’ shouts Frank from the cab. ‘Shouldn’t be too much longer now.’
‘How long exactly?’
‘Ooh - not long,’ he says.
Just then a song he likes comes on the radio, and he turns it up to sing along. I have an overwhelming urge to push myself through the little serving hatch window and bathe in the sunny warmth and vitality of the cab, but I fold my arms and smile at Mrs Norbutt instead.
‘So. Not long now,’ I tell her, breezily. I put both my feet up on the trolley. She keeps quiet, and after a moment I get the feeling she is staring at my feet. And though I try not to, I find myself pushing back into a more upright position, and slowly dropping the left one.