Caitlin is sitting in an armchair with her arms folded whilst a cat equally as decrepit staggers around the carpet in front of her, like an old Victorian toy magically brought to life, its one button eye shining, the ticking showing through its fur.
‘Now, now, Teagie,’ says Caitlin, leaning forwards to reach down and swish her fingers together. ‘Don’t carry on so.’ The cat sashays arthritically to the side of the armchair, and begins rubbing the side of its head against her hand.
‘She’s upset. She doesn’t want me to go – nor do I, come to that. So that’s two of us against it, then.’
The District Nurse called us because she’s worried Caitlin’s angina has become unstable. Caitlin’s had a rough night, off and on the GTN with decreasing success. She looks pale and waxy.
‘Can’t I just stay here?’ she says, settling back in the chair. The cat sits on its haunches and rawls plaintively.
‘I’m an ex-nurse, you know. I’m grateful for you coming out to me like this, but I’m tired and I don’t want all the moving about. I’ve had a good life. I won’t make a fuss.’
We’re all sympathetic, but leaving her alone in the flat is unthinkable in her condition. Reluctantly we persuade her to come with us to hospital, on the understanding that after things have stabilised, she’ll be in a better position to arrange more appropriate care at home.
‘Well – if I must. But let me just make a few calls first, and sort something out for Teagie,’ she says. I pass her the phone. She holds the screen of it right up to her nose.
Caitlin is comfortable on the ambulance trolley. She directs her attention to the back of the truck, and the patterns of slatted light that sweep across the interior as we move and turn.
‘I was a nurse for forty years,’ she says. ‘I worked all over the world, you know. I had a grand old time, really. I have to say.’
‘What countries did you work in, Caitlin?’
‘Me? Oh – all over. Different parts of America, South America. Germany, yes. Greece. I think my favourite place was New York, though. Oh yes – I have to say. Of all the places I worked, New York was the best.’
‘Where did you work in New York?’
‘The Brooklyn Methodist. This was in the sixties, mind. There was dreadful poverty. Dreadful. Upstairs it was private, but they had the poor wards downstairs, seventy to a room. Can you imagine that? But we did what we could. There were some wonderful people there. I remember when President Kennedy was shot. I hadn’t been there a month or so. I barely knew who he was. President. Big catholic family, that was about it. But there were doctors and nurses there, fainting right away – fainting, to the floor, when they heard the news. Amazing.’
She re-arranges the blanket across her legs, and then holds her right hand up in front of her, and turns it around, examining it, like she’s surprised to see something so aged so connected with her. Then she rests it back down and looks at me.
‘I remember this one woman – god! I can see her plain as day, sitting in her chair. She was a poor Italian woman, and her husband was dying of the cancer. They’d left it pretty late like they all did, but even if they’d had all the money in the world I don’t suppose it’d have made much difference. Anyhow, she used to sit with him all day and all night, and to keep herself busy and to make a bit of extra money she had a bag of cotton handkerchiefs she used to embroider little roses on. She used to work away at these handkerchiefs, some of them she’d give away as presents to the nurses and what have you, but the rest she’d sell. Well, this particular day some important, Methodist bishop comes round, collecting for the hospital, upsetting everyone. He makes his way down the ward until he comes to the woman, and he stands there all filled with a love of himself, rattling his tin and saying she should hand over the few cents she’d made as a contribution. In my younger days I was a bit headstrong, you know. I couldn’t let things alone. So I went over to him, tapped him on the shoulder, and asked what in Holy Joseph’s name he thought he was up to? Didn’t he think he ought to leave that poor woman alone? So then of course he demands to know who I am, and I tell him exactly who I am, and he says good because now he’s going to have me put out on my ear for insubordination. I had to go up in front of the hospital board and explain what happened, of course. But I didn’t care. I told them exactly what I thought about it, and a few other things beside. I was always lucky, though. They said would I try to moderate my temper, because this sort of behaviour doesn’t do me or the hospital any kind of credit. I said fine, they let me keep my job, and I worked there quite a few years after that. I never saw your man the bishop again - or the Italian woman, come to that. Her husband died later that night. But she left me one of her rose handkerchiefs on the night desk. I’ve still got it at home. In a little frame.’
She laughs, reaches out and taps me on the knee.‘And if you’re lucky, and it’s you again to take me home, I’ll show it you!’