Anna, the old woman who died half an hour ago, sits in the chair with her head resting back on a cushion, her hands placed neatly either side of her, as peacefully as if she’d just popped out for something but forgotten to take her body with her. Her eyes are half-open, and she stares through the window immediately opposite, at the dark green canopy of the evergreen oak that grows up from the nursing home car park, past her window to the storeys above.
The manager and a carer are in the room with Anna. The manager has Anna’s folder tucked under her right arm; in the left hand she holds a red DNAR form.
‘Aggie found her. They used to go down to lunch together,’ says the manager. ‘She’s terribly upset, as you can imagine.’
‘So who was the last person to see Anna alive?’
‘The hairdresser. Half an hour! If that! She is dead, isn’t she?’
‘I’m afraid so.’
‘Poor Anna. It’s all so – sudden.’
The manager suddenly looks pale and tearful. The carer passes her a tissue.
‘Sorry,’ she says. ‘Do you mind if I just step out for a few minutes? I could make you some tea if you’d like?’
‘That’d be great. We’ll do the paperwork and then liaise with Control about the next step.’
They leave the room and quietly shut the door behind them.
The light in the room suddenly increases threefold as the clouds break and the sun shines through. It throws everything into sharp relief, especially the little collection of things on the window-ledge: a silver framed photo of an elderly man in a yellow cardigan, two miniature porcelain cottages, all arranged around a bonsai tree in a shallow ceramic dish. Unlike the oak outside, the little tree is blackened and leafless.
There’s a knock on the door, and the manager comes back in with a tray of tea. She sets it down on a side table, then perches on the edge of the bed and helps with the paperwork, calling out drug names, the dates of operations, hospital admissions.
‘It’s the first time I’ve been in a situation like this,’ she says. ‘You know – not really doing anything.’
‘I know. It feels odd. But good, I think. It couldn’t be more peaceful. Usually it’s the complete opposite.’
The manager finishes her tea and then holds the empty cup tightly in her lap like she’s appreciating the warmth.
‘Is that Anna’s husband in the picture?’ asks Rae.
‘Richard – yes. I never met him. He died a while before Anna came here. Looks like a nice chap, though.’
She puts her cup back on the tray.
‘Maybe she’s meeting Richard right now,’ says the manager. ‘I don’t know what you think, but I believe in heaven. I don’t mean big white gates and all that, but some other place, where you all meet up again. I couldn’t believe when you died that was it, none of this meant anything. I know when I was ill it was God that kept me going. Sorry if I’m talking too much.’
‘No, no. I don’t mind.’
Rae tidies up the equipment and puts the bags aside, ready to go.
‘I think there’s an afterlife’ she says. ‘Probably nothing we’d recognise. Something purer, less human. It’s just a feeling.’
‘I know what you mean,’ says the manager. ‘Did you see that programme last night on bugs and parasites? It was amazing. Kind of disgusting, but amazing too. When you see how these things are put together. I mean, the big stuff you can understand, but when you get down to it, all the cells and atoms, floating around in space – well, there has to be a creative force behind all that, surely? I mean – what else could it be? It stands to reason.’
‘I read this interview with a palliative care nurse,’ says Rae. ‘She told this story about a patient with dementia who was absolutely raving right up till the end. The curtains had been pulled round, and the nurse stepped outside for a second to get something when she heard the woman suddenly talking in a voice she hadn’t heard before, all calm and low, you know? – full of sense – like she was talking to a whole load of people who’d suddenly turned up. And when the nurse pulled the curtain aside she found the woman had died.’
I finish my tea and put the cup on the tray next to the manager’s.
‘Thanks. That was great.’
‘You’re very welcome.’
‘I’ll make the call.’
Rae and the manager sit quietly whilst I dial the number.