Monday, March 16, 2009


Ute is sitting on the floor, half in and half out of the kitchen, a baggy black felt bathrobe plumped up around her.
‘I’d have helped her up but she told me not to. She didn’t want me to see her naked.’
The meals on wheels guy is standing in the hallway looking on as Frank and I squat down beside her. ‘She passed the key through the letterbox.’
‘I tell you I want women ambulance only,’ Ute says in a trembling Germanic accent. ‘Where are the women I had last time?’
‘Ute – have you hurt yourself? Are you in pain?’
She rubs her shin. ‘There perhaps. Here – not so much. My bottom, where I’ve been sitting.’ She looks up at us. ‘And who did you say you were?’
‘The ambulance, Ute. We’ve come to get you up off the floor and see how you are.’
‘I’m not going to hospital. They’ll put me straight in the loony box.’
We help her into a chair, but as soon as she’s settled she says she wants her teeth.
‘I’ll get them for you. Where are they?’
‘In a cup in the bath.’

The flat could not be tidier if it were laid out on a grid. There is a measured distance between the Ercol chairs, the salt and pepper cruet and commemoration tankard, the oil painting of a barge on the sea at sunset, that group of cherubs flying in blessed formation over the gas fire.
Her teeth are where she said they would be, stewing at the bottom of an orange tumbler in the bathtub. The arrangement of teeth seem strangely chaotic; have they worn away into those positions, or did she have an irregular set made for authenticity? Either way, they don’t fit. When she stuffs them into place and tries to talk, she may just as well have crammed a handful of Lego into her mouth.
‘Do what you will – but I’m not going to hospital.’
We thank the meals on wheels man for his help.
‘What would’ve happened if you’d not come round when you did?’ I say to him.
He slaps me on the shoulder.
‘Roast pork and vegetables, Apple pie and custard,’ he says to Ute. ‘See you tomorrow. And stay off the floor.’
‘What did he say?’
‘Roast pork and vegetables,’ says Frank. ‘And if you don’t want it I’ll have it.’
‘Oh.’ She smiles, and her teeth almost pop out.
‘We’ll just give you a check up to see everything’s okay.’
‘Come on then.’ She bunches up her bathrobe.
As I’m taking her blood pressure, she straightens in the chair and points at the door.
‘Who’s that coming in?’
‘No-one. The door’s on the latch and it’s blown open a little.’
She settles back as I pump up the cuff. Then she says:
‘I thought it was the nuns.’
‘Nuns? What nuns?’
‘But they only come out at night, so it couldn’t be them.’
Frank brings over Ute’s care folder and points at a section that describes her hallucinations. The list of medications alone are testament to her on-going mental health problems.
‘Where are you from, originally?’
‘Vienna. I came to this country in 1948.’
‘My mother-in-law’s German, too. Prussian.’
‘Really? What part?’
‘Stolp. Of course it’s Poland now.’
She frowns at me.
‘Your blood pressure’s absolutely fine, Ute. Everything’s looking good.’
I roll up the sphyg and pack it away.
‘Yes. She escaped with her life in 1939. She’s Jewish. She just made it out. The British borders were already closed by then, so she ended up in Northern Rhodesia. What’s now Zambia.’
Ute leans forward.
‘Are you Jewish, too?’
‘Me? No.’
‘Of course, Hitler was quite mad, you know,’ she says finally, easing back in the chair. ‘Quite, quite mad.’
Frank writes out the form whilst I make Ute a cup of tea.
‘Thank you,’ she says as I place it on the little wooden table by her side. ‘You’ve even matched the saucer.’
Just behind her on the sideboard is a large old ceramic: an elephant with a tiger on its back. The elephant must have held that expression of terror now for a hundred years or more. Next to it is a small silver picture frame: a man in a yellow t-shirt, grinning massively behind a curly red beard.
‘My son,’ says Ute, replacing the tea cup onto the saucer with barely a click. ‘I haven’t seen him in ten years. Disappeared. Gone. The Salvation Army say he might never be back.’
‘So what happened?’
‘Drugs. The spoon and the candle. And then one day – poof! Not a trace.’
She picks up the tea again.
‘A nice colour, too. You really are kind. I don’t mind a bit you were not women.’

Back outside in the truck, we’ve just closed the door when we hear Rae come on the radio, somewhere the other side of town, updating Control on the outcome of the job they were sent on:

‘The patient was very drunk, abusive, aggressive, declined all assistance, told us to Foxtrot Oscar in no uncertain terms. He’s headed off in the direction of the shopping centre shouting and swearing, and we wondered if you could make the police aware.’
‘Roger to that. Could you pass a description?’
‘Yep. Can’t really miss him. Sixty year old male, big white beard, red skirt, wellington boots, carrying a basket with a toy fox in it.’


Michael Morse said...

Thanks for that, gives me hope to think of the possibilities.

Rob Walker said...

Spence... another outstanding entry. I've made mention of your blog on mine. Your writing is so good, I'm happy to point more people in your direction.

loveinvienna said...

:) Love this story (3 guesses as to why). What an interesting lady! An apple short of a strudel of course :) but I love talking to people like that! Shame about her son though.

I'd love to talk to your mother-in-law, Spence, I bet she's got some stories!

Liv xxx

uphilldowndale said...

Yet again a joy to read. Around here 'meals on wheels' are delivered frozen, once a week (social services will provide a microwave) but it's not the same is it, because its not the food that feeds the soul, it's the people.
Matching cup and saucer, you'll go far boy.

Anonymous said...

Well of course she would frown, Vienna is in Austria, not Germany :)
Common mistake to make, but it does get tiring after a while. We just start ignoring it...


Spence Kennedy said...

Hi Mike
How are you?
When you say possibilities, do you mean what to wear when you go to the shopping centre?

Hi Medic7
Thanks v much for that. I owe you!

Hi Liv
'Apple short of a strudel' LOL.
I bet my MIL would love to talk to you, too. Aside from her experiences as a child and the places she grew up in, she spent her life working in the field of academic research.
:) x

That MOW guy (don't you love these stupid acronyms) was great. The food looked good, too. And I suspect he does the whole thing on a voluntary basis.
As far as the matching cup / saucer thing - I was v self-conscious about getting that right. I had a feeling that if it didn't match, alarms would sound throughout the flat.

Hi Anon
I was really talking about the war, though, when Austria was annexed - the whole klein/Grossdeutschland thing that Hitler was so keen on. But I know it's a sensitive subject - seeing as it was an occupation and everything. Apologies.

Thanks for all your comments!

Anonymous said...

Spence, I just read all of your back stuff. I now owe my boss 4 hours of work.

This is mostly grim and depressing, but also uplifting. Your writing just kept me in glued to the screen.

How do you do all of that dialog? It is so intense, detailed, and believable. Yet, you have so much to do when you are working. How do you reconstruct it when you sit down to write?

Thanks for caring for your charges, and caring to let us know what it is like.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant as always! The toy fox in the basket did it for me...I couldn't stop chuckling. Thank you for your amazing writing, you really have a talent.

Spence Kennedy said...

Thanks MM
I owe you 4 hours. Car washing, shopping, dog walking ... you decide.
I agree - it is pretty grim stuff often, and more like a string of dramatised witness statements than anything else. Thanks for reading through them. I really appreciate it.
As far as the dialogue goes, I try to remember a couple of key phrases that the person used, and then put the rest together to sound 'right' alongside that. I also carry around a notebook, but it's difficult to use that discretely! Sometimes I'll write down key phrases when I get a moment later on...

Hey Anon!
Thanks for the comment. We laughed a lot when we heard the description come over the radio. I can't wait to meet that particular character!

Unknown said...

Am I the only one wondering what it is in this lady's past that makes her insistent on a female-only crew? If so, to be told "I don't mind a bit that you weren't women" is higher praise than you might think. The matching cup thing will only have helped. Once again Spence, your humanity is truly touching.

Spence Kennedy said...

Hi Katharine
I know she'd had a crew out for a similar fall a few weeks previously. Maybe she misunderstood and thought that an all female crew had been dispatched because of her particular situation. Anyway, I suppose it was a compliment that in the end she didn't mind!

I got lucky with the saucer. It was all so neat in the kitchen, everything just fell to hand.

Hope you're well

Michael Morse said...

Hello Spence,

The book is in the mail, (two days ago, actually) I would have gotten to it earlier but I couldn't decide what to wear to the post office!

Spence Kennedy said...

Thanks Mike,
Look forward to reading it.

Anonymous said...

So it's four in the morning and I can't sleep so I go wandering about the blogosphere and find the perfect image: all of us leaving the old country as it becomes something else, headed for sanctuary in a new world that will soon become someplace else, armed only with a toy fox and the hope that someone, somewhere, will be kind enough to match the cup and saucer just one more time. Odd kind of comfort, but warming. Thanks for that.

Spence Kennedy said...

Hey Gerry
That reminded me of 'Travels with Charley' by Steinbeck - where he talks about 'the urge to be someplace else' right at the beginning of the book. That feeling of moving towards something / away from something, but not knowing quite what. I suppose everything always has been in a state of flux, it's just hard to see it or understand it sometimes.

Thanks for your lovely comment.

Pat said...

Hmmm....when I heard the description of a man with a white beard, I thought of Ute's son, long since unaccounted for. Has he gotten older, grayer, and prone to carrying little foxes in baskets?

Spence Kennedy said...

I hadn't thought of that! And it's just the kind of coincidence that probably happens all the time (but goes unnoticed). x