Ellen is waiting for us in the bedroom, so ravaged by cancer, her body so cadaverous, you would think a thousand year old woman had risen from the tomb, put on a fluffy white towelling bathrobe, and sat herself down at the dressing table to reapply her make-up. The skin of her face is tight across her skull, jaundiced and papery, her dry lips drawn back from teeth which seem too big for her head. She sits serenely, blessed by Zomorph, smiling on her family - her husband in a wheelchair, her daughter sitting on the bed, her son-in-law in the hallway, letting us in. We step inside and introduce ourselves.
She’s ready to go, her medications, clothes and things in two bright green plastic bags and a small, black wheeled suitcase with a handle. The daughter wants to travel with her in the ambulance, but Ellen says no, she’d rather they all followed in the car. They watch as we carry her out and make her comfortable on the trolley, then turn back inside to get ready to follow.
‘I’m sorry the ambulance rocks about so much, Ellen.’
‘Oh don’t worry about that, darling. They don’t make them comfortable because they don’t want people to like riding in them. But I don’t mind. I don’t mind a bit. So long as I’ve got someone to talk to and a hand to hold, I’m all right.’
‘I liked that photo in your bedroom, the one with the dog.’
‘Barney? Oh I miss Barney. He was a lovely dog. Lovely.’
‘What was he? An English Bull terrier?’
‘No! He was just a scrap of a thing – a Jack Russell! He just pushed his nose up against the camera and ended up looking bigger than he was. But he always was like that. Getting into mischief. He was a lovely dog. He’d curl up in his basket and wait until the lights were out, then he’d sneak on the bed and cuddle up. And Bill’d say “Can’t we do something about that dog, Ellie?” And I’d say “Well what do you suggest?”. He was a lovely dog. If I’m talking too much, just say.’
‘No. It’s nice to chat.’
‘I think so. I like to chat.’
The morphine takes her away to another place for a while and we travel in silence. But then she moves her head and carries on talking as if nothing had happened.
‘Do you have children?’
‘Yep. Two girls. Six and ten.’
‘Two girls! How lovely.’
‘I’m outnumbered. The only other male is Buzz, our oldest dog, and even he’s been done.’
‘Even he’s been done! Lovely. Still. I expect you’re all right.’
‘Yeah. I’m all right.’
‘I lost my first child.’
‘Did you? I’m sorry to hear that.’
‘She was lovely, lovely. I had her, and then she was gone. You never get over something like that, you know. But I had her for a little while, and that was something.’
She rests her head back on the pillow as the ambulance tips and sways.
‘Can I get you some water, Ellen?’
‘No dear. No - I was just thinking. About a cousin I had once. A long time ago now. He was lovely. Lovely. All the girls loved him. And you know – after he loved them back ...’ She walks her fingers slowly across the blanket. Her fingers are so thin, it seems to perfectly animate the stroll of a man into the distance. ‘And then of course he was off for good. Australia. And we never saw hide nor hair of him again.’
She flattens her hand on the cover, smoothes out a crease there, pats the spot, and then holds her hand out to me. When I take it, she looks at me, and her eyes are dilute and indistinct.
‘Of course Bill will be there at the hospital’ she says. ‘And I know exactly what he’ll say when you open the doors.’
‘What’ll he say?’
She leans forward an inch, squeezes my hand and gives it a little shake.
‘He’ll say “How on earth did you put up with her? I’d have thrown her out at the traffic lights.”’