Alexander Street is the only original feature left in this quarter, a Victorian terrace jutting out into the melee of a building site, looking as perfectly realised and out of place as a film set. Judith’s flat is round the back, through a broken up gate, under a ramshackle pergola thickly hung with jasmine and honeysuckle. A tiny courtyard garden just round the corner, with a single seat, a scattering of concrete figures, and strings hanging down from the branches of an old apple tree: mirrors, shells, stones with holes.
Judith looks like a twelve year old girl who took sixty years getting ready for school. Her lank grey hair is kept in place by grease and an Alice band; her skirt and blouse are flecked and shiny. ‘You were quick,’ she says, then opening the door wide, ‘Excuse the mess.’
It’s as if the contents of three houses have been packed into one, with most of it – the plates, ornaments, pictures, calendars, dream-catchers, plaques of pithy sayings, mirrors and narrow cabinets of thimbles and Whimsies and cut-crystal figures – stuck up on the walls. The dominating theme is cats, except for a kind of shrine in the front room to a collie dog. There is an oil painting above the gas fire, with a poem wedged in a corner of the frame, entitled Eyes of Love, and two painted ceramic statues of collies, sitting right and left, looking up.
‘I didn’t know what to do,’ says Judith, gently lowering herself onto the sofa, then lying on her side and hugging a pillow. ‘I felt so bad.’
It quickly becomes apparent there’s nothing physically wrong with Judith other than the symptoms of anxiety. When we get her talking about her cat, or the building work going on outside, she’s instantly more stable and calm, but when her attention is allowed to re-focus on herself, she starts puffing out her cheeks and saying how ill she feels.
‘My brother’s gone away on holiday, with my sister. I try not to be jealous, but why couldn’t they take me? What’s wrong with me? They always go away together. They’ve had an easy life. They don’t know what I have to face.’
When she looks straight at me, her eyes are small and filmy. There’s a kind of implosive grief about Judith. Despite Rae’s pragmatic, ultra-positive approach, the warmth of her questioning runs flat. It’s like shining a torch into a gigantic, black cave; the beam just peters out.
‘I can’t go out. I’m scared of collapsing. And what would people think? Look at me. Look at my hair. I shouldn’t be like this, I know I shouldn’t, but I can’t do anything about it. People say they’re going to help but they don’t. Sharon said she’d come and take me out for a coffee but she hasn’t. I’m left here on my own and I don’t know what to do with myself. It gets lonely.’
Rae gets more information. It seems that Judith has lots of help, from family and friends and a variety of agencies. To hear her talk you’d think she never saw a soul.
The phone rings.
‘Can you get it?’ she says, dropping her head down onto the pillow. ‘I can’t talk to anyone.’
I take the call.
‘Judith’s phone’ I say.
A brisk, Northern voice. In the context of the flat, as bracing as a bucket of water.
- Oh, hello, love. It’s Sharon.
- Hi, Sharon. My name’s Spence. I’m with the ambulance.
- I thought so. Has she had another bad do?
- It looks like it.
- She does struggle, poor thing. I’m her friend Sharon. The woman with the dog. I thought she might be heading for another set-back, what with her brother being away on holiday and one thing and another. He does everything he can, but it’s starting to get a bit much for him. Is she too upset to come to the phone?
- Yes. I think so.
- I understand. The thing is, I only recently moved a bit further out, and it’s not so easy to get over. I’ll make sure I catch a bus over this afternoon and take her somewhere. But anyway, look – I won’t keep you. I know you’ve got things to do. Just tell her Sharon called. Tell her I’ll ring back in half an hour.
- Okay, Sharon. See you.
- Bye, pet. Bye.
‘That was Sharon. She’s going to call back in half an hour.’
Judith covers her face with her hands.
‘Everyone moves away,’ she says.
Suddenly there’s a couple of sharp raps on the window. Judith looks up.
A seagull, outside on the ledge, flicking its head from side to side, scrutinising the sitting room. When it sees some movement, it draws its beak back, and raps on the window again.
Judith is up on her feet, now, reaching out to a pile of cat food sachets by the side of the sofa. She takes it over to the window. The seagull knows what’s coming; it hops back onto a lower aspect of the ledge, so Judith can slide the window up and empty the cat sachet. The seagull immediately starts pecking it up.
Judith watches the bird fondly.
‘Sonny, my beautiful bird,’ she says. ‘Have you brought me some sunshine today, my bonnie little sunshine boy? Have you?’
The bird pauses momentarily, fixing her with its fierce, orange eyes, then with an infinitesimal shrug of its wings, looks back down at the ledge, and carries on snapping up the meat.