Eleanor sits in the chair with her head resting back on the cushion, her hands lightly clasping the arm rests. The nurse stands beside her with an open folder, and gives us the low-down.
‘Good morning, gentlemen. This is Eleanor. Eleanor is ninety-five. Eleanor has been with us for rehab and physio since two weeks post mechanical fall one month query fractured pubic rami. Formerly of reasonable health other than an arthritic left shoulder replaced two thousand four, hysterectomy post CA bowel resolved ten years approximately, nothing much else. Independent living, good mobility up until the accident, can weight bear now using the gutter frame here. Unfortunately Eleanor has developed a lower respiratory tract infection seven days, increasing haemoptysis for three, not responding all that well to oral antibiotics. The GP came out and said he wanted her back in the hospital for further review.’
She closes the file, leans in and rests a hand on Eleanor’s shoulder. She opens her eyes.
‘Eleanor, love. These gentlemen have come to take you back to the hospital. Okay?’
The nurse smiles and straightens again.
‘Shall we fetch the trolley in? Plenty of room.’
Mid-morning and the clouds have finally cleared. The sunshine has freshened everything, drawing crowds out along the front, the outline and colour of everything suddenly distinct, from the sharp white seagulls turning overhead to the deepening blue of the sea.
‘It’s a shame we don’t have better windows,’ I say to Eleanor, opening the blinds as best I can as we ride along in the ambulance. ‘It’s a beautiful day.’
‘Yes. I thought it might be,’ she says. ‘One can taste it.’
She is in the same position on the trolley that she was in on the nursing home chair, her head resting back and her hands holding on to the rails. But every now and again she lifts her head and turns her face slightly left and right without opening her eyes, as if she was sensing some change in the air, like a hyper-sensitive creature responding to tiny movements or sounds.
‘Are we there yet?’
‘No. About another ten minutes or so, I should think. The sun’s brought the traffic out as well.’
‘Has it? Yes. I expect it has.’
She relaxes again.
‘Have you always lived here?’ I ask her.
‘Me? Goodness, no. I was born in London, but then I moved to South Africa with my husband. My second husband, I should say. Around nineteen forty-nine. That caused quite a shock.’
‘Why? What happened?’
‘Well, I had a cloistered kind of childhood, you know? Quite limiting, and so on. My parents were pretty strict about where I went and who I saw. So consequently I had a small circle of friends, and early on they had fixed ideas about who might be suitable for me to marry. An arranged marriage, really. I was young and didn’t know my own mind, you see. One simply finds oneself in these situations and there you are. So I married Peter. He was a charming man, very considerate, but the awful thing was although I liked him and respected him I didn’t love him. Do you see? Hopeless, really. But it wasn’t long after that Geoffrey came over from Rhodesia. He was a businessman, you know? A distant friend of a friend. And he came over to England to watch the West Indies play, for some reason. Anyway, we met at this party, and silly as it sounds – I just knew. One does. One simply does. You meet someone for the first time and there it is, this shock – of recognition, I would say. Here he is, the person I want to spend the rest of my life with. Of course, we didn’t have long. Just a couple of weeks, in fact. The whole family were up in arms about it. My friends – everyone. Outrage. Calamity. The scandal to end all scandals. But when it happens one simply has to act. Anyway, I think it would’ve been harder not to do anything than to weather the storm and jolly well get on and be happy. So I ran away with him back to South Africa. A beautiful, beautiful country with a beautiful, beautiful man. We got married when the divorce finally came through, and when Geoffrey died a couple of years ago we’d been together almost seventy years. Seventy years!’
She raises her head and opens her eyes to look at me.‘When did I get so old?’ she says.