Mrs Randall is sitting on the carpet, leaning back against an Ercol sofa, her legs in an outstretched V. She looks up at me as I come in to the lounge.
‘I hadn’t fastened the strap on my slipper,’ she says. ‘I’m all right, but I just can’t get up.’
I’m on my own, but the heaviest thing about her is probably that tartan skirt. I lift her up and help her into the nearest chair.
‘Not that one,’ she says, dabbling her feet on the carpet, something like the dance seagulls do when they’re teasing up worms. ‘That one’
I guide her over to a chair of exactly the same height. She sighs when I lower her into it, and places both hands on the table.
‘Now what do you want?’ she says.
‘I just need to get a few details.’
‘I say I just need to get a few details.’
‘You say what?’
We look at each other.
‘Do you have a hearing aid?’
‘DO YOU HAVE A HEARING AID?’
Every time I talk, her eyes drop down to look at my mouth, and her jaw bobs up and down. It’s disconcerting. I feel like a crazy ventriloquist shouting at his dummy.
‘Here,’ she says at last, scrabbling about under a pile of papers and drawing out a lump of misshapen pink plastic. She licks her index finger and thumb, moistens two prominences, then shakily raises it up to her left ear.
‘Just a minute,’ she says, scrunching up her face as she screws the thing into place. ‘There!’
I expect to hear the usual squeal as it comes alive, but nothing happens.
‘Is it working?’
‘Do what y’say?’
‘IS IT..... I DON’T THINK IT’S WORKING.’
‘It’s not working,’ she says, pulling it out again and dumping it back down on the table. ‘The battery’s gone ‘orf.’
She starts trying to open up the battery compartment, but I tap her gently on the arm and take it from her.
‘ALLOW ME,’ I say.
‘Don’t break it.’
There is a fluted glass ashtray amongst the clutter on the table. In it, amongst the paperclips, pennies and drawing pins, a spare battery. I put that next to the aid, then carefully prise open the hatch. It’s stiffer than I expected. I change my grip, apply a little more force – the hatch flips off completely, and the battery that was inside pings off across the room.
‘Let me do it!’ says Mrs Randall, rising about an inch off her chair in alarm.
‘Perhaps you’d better.’
She takes the hearing aid in one hand and holds it up to her face. ‘What have you done?’ she says, putting her left eye right up to the tiny interior.
‘It’s okay. It just needs a new battery putting in.’
She doesn’t say anything, but flicks her eyes to me without moving her head.
‘I hope you haven’t broken it,’ she says.
I slide the ashtray towards her. She dabbles around, but her fingers are so gnarled and thickened with arthritis it’s like watching someone trying to pick up a pea with a hand of bananas.
‘I can do it’ I say to her.
‘I SAY – I CAN DO IT. I’LL BE MORE CAREFUL.’
‘Don’t break it,’ she says. ‘I haven’t got another.’
I take it back from her.
It’s a horribly old specimen. The mechanism for loading the battery is a strange affair – a flimsily constructed hatch like a hinged J, that carries the battery down into a compartment that doesn’t appear to have any terminals to receive it.
‘Just put the battery in the little door and close it. That’s all you’ve got to do,’ she says. ‘It’s not difficult.’
‘This way round?’
‘THIS WAY ROUND?’ I shout, carefully placing the battery in the door and offering it up to her.
‘The other way’ she says. ‘I’d better do it.’
‘No, no. You’re all right.’
I give her the thumbs up with my other hand, carefully turn the battery over in the little hatch, then gently close it. As soon as it’s shut, there’s an ominous rattle. I hand it back to Mrs Randall.
She frowns, sensing my anxiety, but doesn’t say anything. She licks her thumb and forefinger again, wets the two prominences, screws the aid into her ear. She looks at me for a full minute.
‘Is it working?’ I say.
I raise my eyebrows and wait a second or two longer.
‘It’s not working,’ she says. ‘What have you done?’
She takes out the hearing aid and puts it on the table.
I undo the little hatch and look inside.
‘It’s not seated properly,’ I say. ‘I’LL GIVE IT ANOTHER GO.’
‘I knew I should’ve done it,’ she says.
But the battery will not come out. I shake it, tap it, prod it with the point of a pin. I make a probe with a tiny roll of tape and try to drag it into position. I use the tip of a knife, a canula. I try forceps. I rattle it, shake it, drum on it with my fingers. I lie back in the chair so I’m almost horizontal, and like a mechanic lying beneath the smallest pink car in the world, I coax the reluctant battery with infinitesimally patient movements to come to the hatch in such a way that it will drop out and let me try again.
‘I’ll get a needle,’ says Mrs Randall, dragging her three wheeler towards her chair and shuffling off to the kitchenette.
I rattle it, flick it, vibrate it, make little circular hopping movements in the air.
‘Come on. Come on.’
I hear Mrs Randall digging around in a kitchen drawer. ‘I hope you haven’t broken it,’ she says. ‘That’s the only one I’ve got.’
Just as I turn to look at her, and for no apparent reason, the battery drops out into my lap.
I retrieve the battery from where I caught it between my knees. But when I look back at the hearing aid, I see a tiny little blue and white wire with a microscopic gold terminal hanging out of the opening.
I put it back on the table with the battery, and sit upright.
Mrs Randall comes back from the kitchenette, both hands gripping onto her three wheeler, a fat bamboo knitting needle poking out from the left.
‘This any good?’ she says, stopping at the edge of the carpet.
But even from over there she can read from my posture and comedy wince that something unspeakable has happened. She sighs, then guides her three-wheeler towards me like a tank.