An elderly woman opens the door to us. Securely riveted into a scarlet three piece suit patterned with golden leaves and tendrils, with her hair – if it is her hair – sprayed, coloured and moulded into an extraordinary shape like a vast spiral space helmet, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if she turned out to be the visiting President of some alien colony from Mars.
‘She’s just through here, love. Did Colin let you in? He’s such a lovely man, Colin. I don’t know what we’d do without him.’
Colin is the caretaker of the block. Not only did he let us in, but he showed us to the shining chrome and brushed steel lift, pressed the button for us, told us he was there if we needed anything, watched over us as the door closed.
The woman rolls ahead of us on bad hips into a wide and comfortable lounge where two other elderly women are sitting. One of them, Mrs Silverman, holds a bloody tea towel mid-way down her leg.
‘Oh dear!’ says Rae. ‘What’ve you been up to?’
‘She wants to take more water with it,’ says her friend, rocking backwards and forwards on her chair with the excitement of it all.
Mrs Silverman laughs.
‘I’ve been so stupid,’ she says. ‘I just got up to fetch Maura something to eat, because she can’t be bothered to get it herself...’
‘...And I came over a bit dizzy. I lost my balance and just caught the front of my leg on that nest of tables. It doesn’t half hurt.’
‘Tell them about that time you were blown up in the war, Beth.’
‘I was! By a bloody great German mine. It didn’t go off right away, you see. It just kind of sat there, waiting for me. It blew me right across the street. I wasn’t badly hurt, though. Just ruined my hearing. So you see – it takes a lot to knock me off my feet.’
‘Maybe the Germans should’ve dropped a nest of tables instead.’
Mrs Silverman doesn’t appear to have heard that. She just carries on pressing the tea towel to her leg.
‘Let’s see what you’ve done, then,’ says Rae. But just before she takes the tea towel away, she opens her bag ready, sets an inco pad just below Mrs Silverman’s foot, and preps a gauze pad with some sterile water.
It’s a substantial wound, almost full-thickness, about a hand’s breadth across the top of Mrs Silverman’s lower leg.
‘That’s nasty,’ says Rae. ‘I’ll clean it up a little and put a dressing on there, but I’m afraid it means a trip down the road.’
‘’Fraid so. That needs some attention. We’ve got a chair here for you.’
‘Don’t worry, Beth,’ says her friend. ‘We’ll look after the place till you’re back.’
‘They’re my girls,’ says Mrs Silverman proudly. ‘My gang. We make quite a team. A bunch of old dinosaurs but we get by, don’t we?’
The others agree.
Whilst Rae finishes dressing the wound, they bustle about making an enormous fuss involving keys, taxi money, glasses. To see them busily exchanging items, arguing, putting things in, taking things out, you would think they were sending her off to the South Pole. Through it all, Mrs Silverman tries to keep control.
‘Honestly, don’t fuss! I’m only going down the road,’ she says. Then she turns anxiously to me. ‘They won’t keep me in, will they?’
‘It’s hard to say for sure. Your blood pressure’s high at the moment, and they might want to monitor that. And given that it’s almost midnight, they’ll be reluctant to release you back into the wild in the early hours. But it’s hard to second-guess what they’ll say. Take what you need.’
‘I’ll fetch your winter coat,’ says one of the friends.
‘Not the best one.’
Sometime later, we go.
‘We’re all over ninety,’ says Mrs Silverman on the trolley, her hands clutching the bag on her lap. ‘Think of that. Or don’t think of it, more to the point.’
‘It’s lovely you all have each other.’
‘Ye-es. It keeps us going. But you know, I lost my husband a couple of years ago, and it’s not the same anymore.’
She checks the contents of the bag again, sighs, and then her thoughts seem to wander inwards for a while.
She looks across at me.
‘It’s all wrong of course,’ she says.
‘How d’you mean?’
‘In what way?’
‘It’s all very well and good coming up with a cure for everything, for old age. But you’ve got to die of something. And what it means is nowadays you’re expected to live forever.’
‘But I thought you seemed pretty happy? You’ve got the gang.’
‘I know, and if it wasn’t for them who knows how I’d cope. But really I’m ready to go now. I’ve got all these niggles, all these stupid things going on. And what do they do? They fiddle around and so on – and it’s nice of them to do it – but really I’ve had my time and I’m ready to go.’
‘It’s a difficult subject.’
‘It is a difficult subject, particularly when it’s you that has to live it.’
She raises her eyebrows and leans towards me.
‘What’s the name of that clinic? In Sweden or somewhere, isn’t it?’
‘Dignitas. In Switzerland.’
‘That’s the one. Well. Apparently it’s all very nice. They give you two drinks. A milkshake to make you feel relaxed, and then something stronger to pop you off. All very easy. I must admit I like the idea. It’s just such a long way to go.’
She leans back.
‘Because it’ll never happen here. And you know why?’
‘Because of all those old bishops in the House of Lords. It’s against their religion, so whenever the Bill comes up, they vote it down. And I just wish they wouldn’t.’ She glances around the cabin. ‘Because it means all this. Bashing your leg open. Trips to hospital in the middle of the night. Not that I’m not grateful for all you’ve done, of course.’
‘I should’ve gone when Bill went. He always was very tidy. He just kind of rolled over and that was it. And the funny thing is, I’ve always been the one with all the problems – it doesn’t make sense. And now look. Here I am, hanging around, when all I want to do is be off. It’s difficult to know what to do, sometimes.’
‘It’s late. You’ve had a nasty fall. I’m not surprised you’re out of sorts.’
‘You don’t mind me talking like this, do you? I’m not upsetting you, am I?’
‘No. I think people should talk about it.’
‘You don’t think I’m being morbid? Maura always says I’m being morbid. She doesn’t like to hear about it.’
‘No. Some people don’t.’
‘But you don’t mind.’
‘Two drinks. That’s it. One to relax you, one to send you on your way. Done.’ She stares at me. ‘Now that’s an appointment I wouldn’t mind keeping.’