This road is famous. Every other large old house has been turned into a nursing home, apparently by the same company. Half a dozen houses, evenly spread along the road, behind dense, leylandii screens.
We’ve already been to the wrong home.
‘We have no issues here today,’ the woman had said at the door. It was only when we got back into the truck that we realised we had the right name but the wrong number.
Further along, now, driving into an identical crescent drive, to an identical porch.
‘Ah lovely. You here quick,’ says a Filipino nurse, the warmth of her smile and the blue of her uniform accentuated by the sombre tones of the riveted, old oak door behind her. ‘Mrs Layton had one episode vomiting coffee ground this morning. All obs are normal, BP and so on. But the doctor she want her for check-out at the hospital. I show you to her if you’d like to follow me, please.’
She leads us through a creaky warren of corridors. It’s like some kind of geriatric hive, each cell with a blaring TV, and a decrepit figure in an armchair or a bed.
‘Don’t worry. I show you out again!’ smiles the nurse.
Finally we make it to Mrs Layton’s room.
‘Here we are!’ says the nurse. ‘Ambulance for you.’
‘Oh no. Not them.’
‘What matter, Mrs Layton? You not want go hospital?’
‘No I do not. Oh for goodness sake. I hate hospitals. Why can’t you just leave me alone?’
She tries to turn away from us onto her side, struggling to pull the covers over her head with her arthritic hands.
‘Come on, Mrs Layton!’ says the nurse, going up to the bed and gently stroking her on the shoulder. ‘Don’t be so grum-pee.’
The way she says the word gives it a whole new weight, the very quintessence of grumpiness.
‘Wouldn’t you be?’ she says.
‘Of course! But you want get better, Mrs Layton? Come on then.’
The nurse straightens up and smiles at us, unfazed.
‘She used be a ballet dancer,’ she says.
The room is as perfectly decorated as a page from a nursing home catalogue. The only thing that stands out is Mrs Layton’s black and white wedding photo on a ledge just above the little TV. A man in a soldier’s uniform is leaning in to his bride, with confetti being thrown in from either side. The strange thing is that someone has cut out another photo of the same man – a studio portrait, leaning in, Niven-style – and slipped it into the bottom right corner of the frame. So in a strange way, it looks like the man is marrying himself.
‘Do I really have to go to that wretched place again?’ says Mrs Layton.
‘Yes you do. You vomit coffee ground. But don’t worry. You back in no time. Look. I put slipper on for you.’
The nurse turns back the covers and stretches two, white canvas slippers around Mrs Layton’s crooked feet.
‘There! Like you dancing again.’
We help her into our chair.
Out on the ambulance, Mrs Layton grumbles in a tetchy, non-specific way for much of the journey.
‘Who did you dance for?’ I ask her.
‘Who did you dance for? What company?’
‘Don’t patronise me.’
‘No, no. I mean it. I’m genuinely interested. I sounds a lovely thing to do.’
‘I don’t want your pity.’
‘But if you don’t want to talk about it, that’s fine. We can just be quiet. I don’t mind. I was just interested, that’s all.’
‘I wasn’t a ballet dancer.’
‘But I thought...’
She turns her eyes on me.
‘Look. Years and years ago I used to help a friend out who ran a dancing school for children. Occasionally. That was all. I was never a ballet dancer.’
‘So you see now?’
She turns back, and closes her eyes.
After a moment I ask her: ‘Are you okay?’
She doesn’t reply.
She sighs, opens her eyes, and stares at the back door of the ambulance.
‘I’m old. That’s what’s wrong,’ she says.