Friday, July 04, 2008

the elephant in the sailor suit

The house is as perfect as a Georgian doll’s house in a toy museum. A scarlet climbing rose flowers abundantly between the well-proportioned windows and the peacock patterned stained glass panels of the front door, whilst lavender and box in lead planters stand formally clipped along the stone flagged front path. I flip the brass, lion’s paw knocker and we wait.
Eventually the blurred image of an elderly woman coalesces behind the coloured glass and the door opens.
She is a magically animated old lady doll, slightly curved in the back, filled out in a heavy tweed skirt and white blouse, her hair as lovingly tied and tended as the plants in the front garden.
‘Hello. It’s the ambulance. We had a call to this address. Something about a woman feeling sick or peculiar in some way. Can I ask – are you the woman who made the call?’
‘Oh. Yes. I believe I did. Do come in.’
She turns round and leads us across a neat little hallway tiled in black and white squares and guarded by a beautifully sonorous grandfather clock. We follow her into a sitting room, and we all sit down, each in a chair with lion’s feet and vivid brocade.
‘My name’s Spence. This is Rae. Can I ask what your name is?’
‘So. Jennifer. What seems to be the trouble?’
'Well. It’s all most unusual. I woke up this morning and found myself in this strange house. I seem to have been taken up somehow and put here. And that’s not all. Someone’s gone to the trouble of taking some of my things, some things I recognise very well, and put them here with me. I can’t think why on earth they would have done that. Can you?’
Jennifer tells us about her abduction with only a mild concern, as if she is describing an unexpected order of milk.
‘Do you feel unwell in any way? Are you in pain?’
‘No. I feel absolutely fine. The only thing is – I did suffer terrible burns to my legs. Look.’
She pulls up her skirt, and shows us some scarring to her lower legs.
‘That looks quite old to me,’ I tell her. ‘When did that happen?’
‘When I was two or three,’ she says. ‘It was quite horrible, and still gives me pain from time to time.’
‘Apart from your legs, how do you feel in yourself?’
‘Fine. Fine. Just a bit – well, concerned, you could say.’
Rae gets up and has a look around the room for clues - care folders, prescriptions, ambulance sheets, but doesn’t find any. She picks out one of a number of anniversary cards on the mantelpiece. ‘To James and Jennifer,’ she reads. ‘Happy Fiftieth.’ She puts the card back. ‘Who’s James?’
‘Oh James. He’s my husband. I’ve no idea what’s happened to him. But perhaps he’d know what all this is about.’
She looks at us, and folds her hands in her lap.
‘It really is so nice of you to take the trouble.’
I ask her if she’d mind if I checked her blood sugar levels and blood pressure, and she smiles and says of course not. All her observations are fine.

Suddenly the front door opens, and a moment later an elderly man in brown corduroy trousers and a crisply ironed shirt steps into the room. ‘Hello,’ he says, but the concern in his eyes undermines the warmth of his smile.
‘James,’ she says, giving a little clap. ‘Perhaps you can help us get to the bottom of this. Where on earth am I?’
He strokes her head, kisses the top of it.
‘Just a moment, Jennie’ he says, then discretely nods to me to follow him into the kitchen. He tells me that his wife has dementia, that he is the sole carer, but does get help three times a week. Unfortunately this morning there was some hitch and he needed to nip round the corner to the shops, leaving his wife alone for a half an hour. She’s been fine before, but he tells me that her condition is worsening.

After James has given me all the details I need for my form, we go back into the sitting room. Jennifer is laughing at something that Rae has said.
‘That’s priceless,’ she says. ‘Well – I do thank you for coming, even if you couldn’t solve my little mystery.’

James leads us back out across the hallway. I notice an ancient, knitted elephant in a sailor suit propped up on a chair by the clock.
‘That elephant,’ he sighs. ‘She was carrying him around when she got up this morning. I should know by now. It’s always a bad sign.’
He thanks us again for coming, and we walk back to the ambulance, just visible through the jasmine that coils vigorously around and above the filigree iron gate.


Anonymous said...

Hey Spence, well you've done it again, a beautiful insight into dementia. thank you.

Spence Kennedy said...

Thanks, Ellie. It was a particularly poignant incident - the beautiful house, the fact that they'd just celebrated fifty years together, the cute knitted elephant. James was coping really well, but it was clear that things were progressing beyond his control and the future was looking bleak. A lovely couple, though.

Unknown said...

Unbelievably touching. Another lovely post. Well done Spence.

Judith said...

You see it all, don't you. What a contrast with poor old George and his unfortunate dog.

cogidubnus said...

What a lovely old admit things were as they much he must love her...

loveinvienna said...

What a horrible thing dementia can be. At least she has someone loving and caring to look after her - for the moment at least. I can see that putting her in a Care Home would tear them apart but so would having her dementia worsen to a point where she was violent against him. That would be heart-breaking. I hope they get the support they need!
Another great post, Spence :)
Liv xxx

uphilldowndale said...

A beautiful, delicate post.

Anonymous said...

Lovely writing, remarkable people.

Anonymous said...

I can't imagine how distressing it must be to not know who or where you are any more. This is my biggest fear - losing my memory.
At least she knew her husband.

When Badger's grandpa died, grandma kept forgetting he'd passed away, and every time we told her it was like breaking the news for the first time.
In the end we had to pretend he was off down the shops to spare her the trauma.

Another friend stopped recognising her own son and believed she was back in war-time when her husband was in the army abroad. She kept slamming the front door on her son, believing him to be a debt collector.

So sad.

Spence Kennedy said...

Scary stories, B. In my own family, my grandma became convinced she had two husbands - both evil - and took to wandering the streets in her nightdress. Thought I was a cousin who was killed in the war. And my next door neighbour's husband, a friend of the family for years, developed alzheimers and spent months sitting in the corner of the kitchen drawing squiggly lines in a notebook.

I suppose there must be an element of permanent dream state for them; for the relatives, the reality is pretty crushing.


Thanks for all for your lovely comments, BTW! :)