The only thing out of place in Elizabeth’s flat is Elizabeth. She is lying on her left side on the hall floor, her head on a pillow and her body covered with a duvet.
‘She wouldn’t let us get her up,’ says her son. ‘We did try, but she started getting distressed so in the end we thought we’d better err on the side of caution and call you chaps. Sorry to drag you out on such a filthy night.’
Even taking into account the passage of sixty years or so, you would never believe that such a tiny, bird-like woman could ever have given birth to such a vigorous man as Thomas. He fills the hall, a casting director’s dream of a mad professor, the dome of his forehead dangerously close to the ceiling, his bass voice a rumble through the floor.
Thomas gives us space to move and retreats to the sitting room end of the hallway, filling the doorway there, relaying the information so far to his wife, who discretely turns the volume down on Casualty.
Elizabeth is talking in a garbled whisper. Disconnected from the present, she produces a constant, random sequence of words and sounds, the conversational equivalent of pretend writing.
‘Is this normal for your mother?’ I ask Thomas.
‘Yes, I’m afraid so. Ever since her stroke a few weeks back she’s been suffering from confusion and dysphasia. The consultant doesn’t think there’s much chance of a recovery. But she’s ninety-two, of course.’
‘I don’t think she’s injured herself. We’ll get her up and run through a few checks.’
In fact, getting Elizabeth up is as easy as standing up ourselves. Her wizened figure is so slight, you could probably just think about getting her up and she’d rise into the air. She doesn’t show any signs of pain, any loss of mobility; we guide her slowly back into the sitting room, and make her comfortable on the sofa. Thomas’ wife makes space for her there, and retreats to sit on a rocking chair in the corner.
The room is beautifully kept. Along with displays of photos and pictures, there is an ornately carved armoire set in pride of place against the wall.
‘Been in the family generations. My grandfather used to keep his whiskey in it,’ says Thomas, standing next to it, draping an arm across the top and stroking the front. ‘Lovely, isn’t it? Seventeenth century.’
All Elizabeth’s observations are good.
‘Now - what to do?’ I say.
‘We’re in your hands.’
‘I’ll just fill in the paperwork and then we’ll have a chat about the options.’
The TV programme has changed. Now it seems to be a wildlife programme – footage of penguins, and seals, a whale sliding through the blue. To make conversation, I look across to Thomas’ wife and say: ‘You know, when I phoned up my mum the other day and asked her how her Christmas was, she said: Oh – lovely. Mick took us for a ride out to the coast. We walked Kes on the beach, saw the whale, went for a coffee in that funny little cafe ...” and I had to stop her and say “What? What do you mean? You saw the whale?” So she says “Yes – there was a sperm whale washed up on the beach. Quite a crowd – you know. People taking photos. I was a bit worried about Kes taking a bite, so we didn’t stay long.” A whale!’
Thomas’ wife smiles at me, rocking gently backwards and forwards.
‘We went whale watching, once,’ she says. ‘A long time ago now. Nova Scotia.’
I smile, then write some more on the form.
‘Almost done,’ I say.
‘I saw some porpoises once,’ says Frank. ‘I was swimming in the sea in Cornwall, and I saw these lovely black fins breaking the water out in the bay. So I got all excited and when I came back in I said to the lifeguard “Nice porpoises” and he says “What – you mean the triathletes?’ It wasn’t fins – it was the curve of their arms in black lycra.’
‘Can I get you a coffee? Tea? Gin and tonic?’ says Thomas. ‘It’s no bother.’
‘No. Thank you. We’re good to go, now. We just need to figure out what’s to do. I don’t think Elizabeth needs to go to hospital.’
‘I agree. We’re perfectly happy to keep an eye on mum here in the flat.’
He pushes his hair back from his face and takes a breath.
‘ We’ve been staying here ever since mum had her stroke, actually. We live in Portugal now.’
‘We have a beautiful villa out there – you must come and stay sometime.’
‘Thanks. It sounds lovely.’
‘It really is. Lemon trees in the courtyard by the fountain. A pool, a grove of olive trees. Lovely little village down the ways. Heaven, really. We’ve suggested that Mum comes to live with us. She’d have her own little cottage. She’s stayed there before lots of times and really loves it. But her health’s suddenly given out as you can see, and she’s not in a position to make it clear that that’s what she’d like. She can’t speak, she can’t write or even nod particularly if you ask her a question. Which is so frustrating. We’ve been having a health visitor the last few days. He doesn’t do much – mostly just seems to tick boxes on endless forms. Perfectly well meaning but absolutely hopeless. I told him about this plan and he said quite flatly it was out of the question. He said it would be tantamount to abduction. But honestly I don’t know what to do. We can’t stay here indefinitely, but Mum’s too frail to cope on her own.’
‘I think I’d rather live out my last days in a villa with a lemon tree.’ He stands and gathers the bags together. ‘It’s just a crying shame there isn’t a box on his form marked common sense.’