Martha insists on buttoning up the dressing gown herself, a slow and difficult operation with ninety-six-year-old hands.
‘Jes’ a minute,’ she says. ‘Last two.’
She hardly needs it. The night is so oppressively hot it’s exhausting just to breathe. In Martha’s airless kitchen even the mantelpiece clock has given up. It sits there, sweating the time.
We’ve been trying to hurry things along, conscious of the storm that’s been brewing through the night, a series of wild and hectic flashes growing in ferocity, and like monstrous footsteps heading our way, the whumps and thumps of thunder so low you feel it in your chest.
‘We ought to get a move on, Martha. We don’t want to get caught in the rain.’
‘Jes’ a minute.’
Her cottage is set back down a rocky lane. Getting her out to the ambulance on our carry chair is going to be difficult; in the pouring rain, it’ll be worse.
The dimly lit kitchen is suddenly illuminated by a pulse of silvery white light, so intense every detail holds its image for a moment after.
‘One and two and three and four and ...’
A monstrous tearing sound low overhead.
‘Let’s get you comfy in our seat,’ I tell her.
It’s a delicate process. She shuffle-turns with difficulty, and like anyone who’s suffered falls in the past, finds it difficult to trust that the same thing won’t happen again. But our desire to be out and on the truck before the rain comes makes us even more positive than normal. We actively sit her down, apply the straps, and hurry outside.
Another crack of lightning, this one so close all my hairs line up in one direction. I try to remember what I read about lightning; nothing I can think of is reassuring: how it branches out from the strike point, how it’s attracted to tall objects (like these trees, like that lamppost); how susceptible you are on high ground (Martha’s road, for instance).
‘One and two and three and ..’
Another dreadful rack of thunder.
We’re almost running with her now, lifting the wheels of the chair clear of all the ruts and stones. Despite all the frantic jiggling, Martha is perfectly composed.
‘Okay?’ I ask her.
‘Fine,’ she says. ‘Don’t drop me’
By the time we’ve reached the ambulance, risen up on the tail lift, settle her comfortably on the trolley and packed everything away, the first of the rain has started to fall – fat, warm drops that feel good in the heat.
We shelter in the ambulance just as the storm hits, watching through the slats of the cabin window as terrifying blasts of electricity arc from sky to earth, leaping down in vertical rivers of energy, or drift off across the sky like demonic hair.
‘Oh my God!’
‘Are you okay, Martha?’ says Rae, shouting above the sound of the rain as it cannonades across the roof of the ambulance. She reaches out to the old woman and holds her hand. ‘I hope you’re not scared of the storm’
‘No dear,’ says Martha, laying her free hand on top, and resting her head back on the cushion. ‘No. I’m not scared of the storm.’