Three times now I’ve called Rosa to the intercom. She knows enough to answer, but not enough to buzz the door and let me in. Luckily another resident arrives back from the shops and lets me in.
‘Number fourteen?’ she says.
‘I can’t really say,’ I tell her.
‘It’s Rosa’ says the woman, holding the door open for me whilst I struggle in with all my bags. ‘It’s always Rosa. I’m in number six. Let me know if there’s anything you need.’
Up on the second floor Rosa’s door is standing open, propped with a chair. Rosa herself is standing in the doorway, half-dressed, wringing her hands.
‘What should I do? I know there are thousands of people dying all over the world but I just can’t bear feeling like this a minute longer.’
‘Come and sit down Rosa and let’s have a chat about what’s happening.’
She studies me with empty grey eyes for a moment, then straightens and turns back into the flat.
‘Just a minute’ she says, her tone of voice suddenly brisk and capable. ‘I’ll get my skirt on.’
It’s an extraordinary change, an abrupt flip from existential terror to domestic routine.
‘Are you all right?’ I say to her. She seems perfectly mobile though. The door to her bedroom is open and she’s putting on her skirt, standing on one leg to get the other through.
‘I’ll be in the sitting room,’ I tell her, and go through.
I look for a care folder and medication in all the usual places, but can’t find them. The flat is perfectly warm and tidy, nothing to indicate that anyone with any chronic health problems lives there.
Rosa walks in.
‘Would you like some tea?’ she says.
‘That’s very kind, Rosa. But first of all I’d like to find out why we’ve been called today.’
‘Who called you?’
‘I don’t know. I thought you did.’
‘Oh no!’ she says, putting one hand up to the pearls around her throat, as if they’d suddenly got tight and she was struggling to loosen them. ‘I haven’t done it again, have I?’
‘It’s okay, Rosa. Don’t worry. I just want to find out what’s been going on. So – do you think you might have called but don’t have any memory of it?’
‘I hope I’m not being a nuisance’
‘Don’t worry about that, Rosa. First things first. Do you have any pain at all?’
‘Do you feel sick? Dizzy? Short of breath?’
‘No – thank goodness!’
‘What’s your past medical history? What do you suffer with? Anything?’
‘I don’t know. You’d have to ask Stella, my daughter in law.’
‘Okay. Shall I give her a call?’
‘Be my guest!’
She gestures to the phone, where the names of four contacts are written in block capitals on a pad of paper.
Stella seems to know it’s the ambulance calling even as she answers.
‘What’s happened now?’ she says.
I start to tell her as much as I know, but Stella interrupts.
‘Look – I can’t understand what you’re doing there. They have specific instructions. You shouldn’t be going. Have you met Rosa before? I’d be amazed if you haven’t. I think everyone knows her – police, fire brigade, the army for all I know. Rosa has Alzheimer’s. We’re trying to get her a live-in carer, but for the moment she has someone in twice a day. Once between ten and three and once between five and nine. The problem we have is that outside of those hours she gets distressed and starts calling for help. Ultimately I think she can’t go on living at home any more. It’s not safe and it’s causing so much disruption. We get calls throughout the day almost and it’s beginning to tell on our health, too. Poor Rosa. She’s perfectly healthy other than this. But look – I really can’t understand why you’re there. We’ve had this discussion time and time again, with everyone you can think of, including the ambulance. You’re supposed to ring us if ever she calls 999. There’s a Samsonite suitcase with all her medication and information in, hidden behind an armchair. The padlock number is 9292 – but don’t let her see you work it. She’s perfectly able to write it down somewhere, and if she gets hold of it who knows what she’ll do....’
It’s difficult talking to Stella. I think she’s naturally pretty chatty anyway, but the stress of the situation has pushed her into overdrive. I have to talk over her and carry on talking before she stops to listen to what I have to say.
‘Stella? Stella? I think the problem from the ambulance point of view is that if anyone rings and says they have breathing problems or chest pain or something serious like that, they will always send an ambulance, regardless of any other notes on the system.’
‘Well. I don’t know then. I don’t know what else to do. As soon as you go she’ll be on the phone calling for help again...’
‘Let’s see what we can do. Shall I pass you over to speak to Rosa?’
I hand the phone across, and write up my notes as the two of them speak.
Rosa watches me as I finish writing, smiling as I look up. She takes a sip of her tea, carefully replaces the cup, then says: ‘What brought you here today? Not that I’m complaining – it’s nice to have a bit of company.‘
‘It looks as if you got a bit upset and rang 999 for help, Rosa.’
The smile fades and her eyes shine with tears.
‘Oh no, I didn’t! Please say it’s not true.’
‘Sorry, Rosa. Unfortunately I think memory loss is a symptom of your condition. But don’t worry. Everything’s in hand. Your son and daughter in law are both on the case. You’ve got a carer coming in any minute, so it’s not too bad.’
‘But I can’t carry on like this, can I? I don’t know my own mind. How can you carry on if you don’t know your own mind?’
I take a sip of the tea she’s made me – perfectly presented in a china cup, a biscuit balanced on the saucer.
‘Thanks for the tea’ I tell her. ‘That’s very kind of you.’
‘Well – thank you for coming!’ she says. And smiling warmly again, she contentedly folds her hands in her lap.