Mrs Framlingham hands me a dish of sliced banana and cold custard.
‘Would you be a dear and put those back in the fridge? I’ll have them as a little treat when I get back. Will you be bringing me back? ’
Mrs Framlingham is as a delicate and perfectly formed as one of those carved wooden gazelles on the sideboard. Over a hundred years have passed since Mrs Framlingham was laid in a cot on a bright winter’s morning such as this, but in all that time the essential spirit of her hasn’t diminished by one candle.
‘Now then. What do I need? Not much, I expect. What am I going in for again?’
‘You had a fall and you hurt your shoulder. The doctor wants you to have an X-ray.’
‘An X-ray?’ She raises her eyebrows. Marie Curie probably met much the same response.
‘Well – if you think it’ll help. Now where are my shoes with the grip?’
We offer to put Mrs Framlingham in our carry chair. After all, there’s quite a journey back to the truck. We parked as near as we could, but Mrs Framlingham lives in a flat on the furthest corner of the estate, inaccessible by car, with a series of steps through the landscaped gardens and two flights of stairs up to her front door.
‘Yes, well, that’s why we chose it. We wanted somewhere quiet, out of the general melee. And we have a super, uninterrupted view over the hills.’
She refuses the chair.
‘If you walk a little in front of me and don’t mind me throwing myself on you if I go, then I’m happy to walk,’ she says. ‘Oh yes, I’m quite active, you know. That’s how I first injured my shoulder.’
‘Skiing. Now, where are my blasted keys?’
There are, in fact, round her neck. It’s an elderly rite of passage. They probably hang keys round your neck like a medal at City Hall once you hit eighty.
‘I don’t normally take this route,’ says Mrs Framlingham, squeezing my arm. ‘The landlord put me off these steps when he fell down them last month. No – I normally go off piste, through there...’ she points with her stick to a wide expanse of lawn and flower beds off to our left. ‘The benefit is not only is it quicker and more direct, but if I were to fall, I’d fall into that hedge. And then I could live there, quite comfortably, with my legs sticking out, like a scarecrow.’
‘So. A hundred years old, eh?’
She stops and pokes her tongue out at me.
‘Watch it!’ she says. ‘I’ve got my stick and you’re well within reach.’
She waves it sword-style in front of her.
‘Look at that,’ she says. ‘Still got it.’
Mrs Framlingham’s feet barely reach the ambulance floor. There’s something endearingly child-like about the way she holds on to the armrests as the truck bounces along.
‘Oh my goodness!’ she says. ‘Not built for comfort, are they? If you weren’t sick before you came on, you certainly will be afterwards.’
We chat about this and that, where she’s lived, her children, what she did for a living – a teacher, some years in Africa and the Middle East.
She tells me about the war.
‘Rotten old business,’ she says. ‘Early on I was given the job of looking after a bunch of girls up in Manchester. When the train pulled into the station the whole city was in flames. Everything was burning, you couldn’t go anywhere, couldn’t move. But I wasn’t afraid. I don’t know why. I wasn’t overly philosophical or anything like that, it was just something I seemed to take in my stride. I remember once I had gone to the butcher’s to pick up some sausages. Well you see I’d been saving up my coupons, one sausage a week, for quite some time. I knew the girls liked sausages and I wanted to give them a treat. I came out of the butcher’s with my dish of sausages just as another damn air raid started up. And there was shrapnel flying about and buildings coming down, dust everywhere, flames, the lot. And all I could think of was getting those blessed sausages back to my girls. So I ran through it all, with one arm over the plate, to keep off the dust. Silly really. But my word they did enjoy them. Mind you, I haven’t touched a sausage since. Well – you don’t really know what’s in them, do you? They pack them out with all sorts of rubbish.’