Hilda is still on the phone to ambulance Control as we walk in the door.
‘Just a minute’ she says, holding up a gnarly old digit more like a twig than a finger.
‘It’s okay, Hilda. You can hang up now.’
Hilda frowns, makes an impatient gabbling noise and puts her finger up again.
‘What’s that you said? Someone was talking to me.’
‘Hilda? You can hang up. We’re here now.’
She stares at us, then speaks loudly into the phone again. ‘They say I’m to hang up.’ She does, then rests her head forwards on the table and closes her eyes.
‘I just want to sleep,’ she says.
Hilda is ninety-four, and so resolutely independent she may as well be living in a stockade.
‘I’ve outlived everyone I knew,’ she says. ‘I’ve got to shift for myself.’
The chest pain she called us out for looks muscular in origin. Yesterday Hilda tried to drag an old tumble drier from the pantry; she’s had sharp twinges in her left side ever since.
‘Ooh, I had a bad night last night,’ she says.
‘Was that the pain keeping you awake?’
‘What? No. It was windy. Didn’t you hear it?’
‘Yep. Now that you mention it.’
‘If I could only sleep it’d all come right.’
Hilda is adamant that she doesn’t want to go to hospital, but she’s not safe to be left alone like this.
To buy us a little more bargaining time, I offer to make her a cup of tea.
‘Through here, is it?’
The little kitchen is cold and dimly lit, its fifties’ work surfaces only clear in small patches where some minimal activity has stopped the detritus from settling. Here and there the ruins of previous meals are composting into richly-colored patterns of mould. The fridge has one ready meal and a packet of ham, the milk busily converting to solid through four stages of lactic horror. But there is some edible food here, in two neatly stacked columns of boxes – fondant lemon fancies to the left, chicken and mushroom cup-o-soup to the right. When I manage to locate a cup and saucer in the sink – exhuming them carefully, at gloved fingertip – the Spode tea cup and saucer are actually so cute they wouldn’t look out of place in a chintzy cake shop (once you bead-blasted the tannin).
‘There you go,’ I say, giving her the tea. ‘Sorry it’s black. Who gets your shopping for you?’
‘Who does what, dear?’
‘All your cakes and things. Who buys them for you?’
‘My lovely next door neighbour, whenever he goes down Morrison’s. But he’s on holiday at the moment so I don’t know when I’ll see him next. He got me plenty last time, though, so I think I’m all right.’
I don’t think the neighbour could ever come in with the shopping, though. Anyone who saw the state of that kitchen would back out slowly and reach for the phone.
‘I really think you should come with us to hospital, Hilda,’ says Rae. ‘You’re obviously in some pain from your side, you say you get dizzy when you stand up, and there’s no-one here to keep an eye on you.’
‘I shall be all right, love. I’ve got my tea.’
‘But what if you fall over, Hilda? You’ll only hurt yourself and end up having to stay even longer in hospital. Why don’t you come in with us now, let the doctors have a look at you, sort you out, and then maybe think about getting you some help at home. You’re ninety-four, Hilda. I think you’ve earned a rest.’
She doesn’t say anything, but carries on drinking her tea.
Propped up on top of the TV is a paint-by-numbers picture of a tiger, its head slightly tipped back, looking down its nose. Whether it’s the fault of the design or the way the painter followed the pattern, but the tiger has a strange expression, like a cross-eyed clown who just remembered where he left his hat.
‘I like your tiger,’ I tell her. ‘Did you do it?’
‘Did I what?’
‘Did you do the tiger?’
She carefully puts her cup down on the saucer.‘No,’ she says.