When Vera tripped over the pavement and pitched head-first into the road – narrowly avoiding a passing taxi – the only thing she broke was the wrist of the hand she put out to save herself. A few people stopped, helping her up, fetching a chair, gathering her shopping together, calling for an ambulance. And now she sits on the truck cradling her arm, as frail and tremulous as a mouse that’s been rescued from a hawk.
‘Why do these things happen?’ she says, her voice breaking with emotion. ‘Ted’s due back from the day centre in half an hour and I won’t be there to meet him.’
A rummage through her handbag produces a scrunched up piece of paper with a couple of emergency numbers. I ring her son Keith to let him know what’s happened, and to organise something for Ted.
‘Keith’s had his problems, too. This is the last thing he needs. His wife left him the other day and ran off with his best friend. Oh, why do these things have to happen?’
‘You’ve got a lot going on, Vera. Let’s just take it one step at a time and take care of you for now. We can think about the rest in a minute.’
I put her arm in a sling along with a cool pack to reduce the swelling, and we set off for hospital.
After crying for a few minutes, she seems to settle down.
‘I’m seventy-eight,’ she says. ‘My husband’s got dementia and he’s going into a home for respite care. It’s all so unfair. These things shouldn’t happen to you when you get old. They just shouldn’t. I don’t have the energy anymore.’
I pass her some fresh tissues. She dabs at her nose.
‘What do you think?’ she says.
‘I think it’s a stressful time, Vera. And then breaking your wrist like that. It’s no wonder you’re upset.’
‘It is stressful,’ she says.
She looks down at her injured arm, and wiggles the fingers a little. ‘
How long do you think it’ll be in plaster?’
‘It’s hard to say. It depends what they find with the x-ray. I should think at least three weeks, though.’
She clicks her tongue, and then blows her nose again.
‘It’s just so unfair. I’m seventy-eight, you know.’
‘It’s a hard thing to say, but fairness doesn’t really come into it. Don’t you think? Bad things happen, young, old, who knows why? It’s just chance, I suppose. It never gets any easier. I mean, I heard this thing on the news the other day, about all the refugees crossing over into Turkey from Syria because of all the fighting. And this journalist said one of them was an old woman of a hundred. Imagine that! A hundred years old and running for your life.’
‘It is terrible. So I suppose there’s always someone worse off. Not that it helps your situation, of course. You’ve still got a lot on your plate. But it’s worth thinking about from time to time.’
‘She was a hundred?’
‘It’s a cruel world.’
‘I just don’t understand it.’
‘Anyway, let’s think about you for now. Let’s get a doctor to examine your wrist and see what needs doing. Keith’s taking care of things at home. And you’ve got a few weeks coming up with your husband in respite to rest and recover from your accident. Don’t worry. It’ll all work out.’
We ride to the hospital in silence for a while.
Eventually she looks at me again, a little more brightly.
‘Will it be busy up there? Will I have to wait a long time?’
‘There may be a little bit of a wait, it’s hard to say. The hospital’s been pretty hectic lately. Not just here – all over the country. It’s a national problem.’
‘All us old crocks,’ she says.
I laugh and shake my head.
‘It’s a number of things. But they’re working on it.’
‘I was up there a few months ago. With something else. I was waiting for hours in the waiting room.’
‘Sorry to hear it.’
‘Hours, it was. And then this pregnant lady came and sat down, and they called her straight in. Five minutes later she was walking out the door!’
‘I know. It’s confusing sometimes. But what happens is they triage the patients, so the ones who are potentially more serious get seen first. I don’t know about that pregnant lady, but it could be they referred her on to maternity.’
‘The worst thing is, she was black.’
I’ve come across this casual racism before, of course, quite often in older patients. It’s a chilling, disorienting experience. You think things are one way, suddenly they’re completely reversed. And all the empathetic feeling you’d built up vanishes, with as much of a lurch as if the floor had fallen away taking everything with it, and you’re left struggling to hold on to anything but the barest social nicety.
‘I don’t think that’s got anything to do with it,’ I say. ‘We’re all people, Vera.’
She detects a shift in the air, and wipes her nose on the tissue again.
‘It’s not right,’ she says after a moment or two. ‘I’m seventy-eight, you know.’
The ambulance rocks from side to side.
‘We’ll be there in a minute’ I say, and start gathering things together for a quick exit.