To look at Ellen you’d think she was dead. But it turns out she’s just deeply asleep, propped up on a stack of pillows on the sofa, her ancient face slack, her eyes not quite closed.
Her daughter, Sophie – an elderly woman herself – tells us about the doctor’s visit earlier in the evening.
‘Sorry to come barging in when it’s so late,’ I say to Sophie. ‘It seems almost criminal to wake Ellen up now. But the doctor wants her in tonight, so we have to go with that.’
‘Last time she was in for weeks with her chest, so it’s best to get it sorted earlier on this time.’
Rae fetches in the chair.
* * *
The difference between Ellen asleep on the sofa and Ellen awake on the ambulance trolley is as marked as the difference between Off and On. She is sitting upright, swaddled in blankets, her hands resting lightly in her lap, the nails perfectly painted coral pink. There’s a sparkling focus to her attention, accentuated by the overhead spots. With a flush to her cheeks and her mouth rolled up in a smile, she looks like one of those ancient Chinese carvings, a wise old woman, laughing at the endless mischief of the world.
‘Comfortable?’ I say.
‘Oh yes. Very comfortable, thank you.’
‘How’s your chest feeling?’
It’s not, of course, but the fact we both know it only seems to add to her appreciation of the joke.
‘I would never have guessed you were ninety-eight’ I tell her.
She stares at me, glittering.
‘Nineteen-fifteen!’ I say, writing it down.
‘A nice surprise for my parents,’ she says. ‘Well – they needed one!’
‘It’s a long time ago, isn’t it?’ she says.
‘My father had a motorcycle. GCF One Two Three. I used to ride pillion with him.’
‘What sort of bike was it?’
‘Calthorpe? I’ve not heard of them. Was that a British bike?’
‘I’m impressed you can remember the bike’s plate.’
She nods again, then adds:
‘He was an excellent rider, my father. Mind you, I was absolutely fearless.’
Her hands flutter in the air.
‘Who does your nails?’ I say. ‘They look amazing.’
‘My daughter, Sophie. They’re pretty good, aren’t they?’
She holds out both hands for me to look, thumbs together, the fingers all in a row. Suddenly she starts a strange little mirror exercise, moving out each little finger together, then the little and third fingers in pairs together, then middle, third and little together, then splitting the fingers in pairs... it’s hypnotic, and extremely difficult to copy.
She laughs at my clumsy attempts.
‘I worked in a telephone exchange,’ she says, relaxing her hands back on to her lap.
I have to finish off the paperwork before we get to the hospital.
She watches me as I write, the ambulance gently rocking and hushing along.
Suddenly, she starts singing: ‘z y x, w v, u t s, r q p, o n m, l k j, i h g f, e d c b a’
‘Oh my good God,’ I say. ‘Is that the alphabet backwards?’
‘That’s incredible! Now, Ellen. One last, quick question for the notes. Are you allergic to anything?’
She studies me a moment, like she’s finally found it, the most endearingly ridiculous creature ever to walk the earth.‘Now how on earth would I know that?’ she says.