tender loving care 


 

 

It is a commonplace that a critical test of civilisations is the care they give to vulnerable citizens: the weak and elderly; the sick in mind and body; babies and children. In this country we provide nursing homes and rest homes for the old, hospitals for the ill, schools for our children and increasingly crèches and pre-school provision for babies and infants.

Claremont Nursing Home is specifically for those who are old and unable to look after themselves, though when the business manager says it is necessary, the matron will bend the rules. Then relatives excessively concerned for the well-being of a bothersome though perhaps sprightly dependent will be delighted to find that a room overlooking the garden has become available at short notice. At equally short notice the occupant of that room will be accommodated with two others in a north facing room overlooking the service entry.

The Claremont, as it is known locally, is immediately recognisable as a nursing home by anyone familiar with the genre. It is a large twenty bedroomed residence built when the town was a flourishing resort for the gentry who sought an alternative milieu when fashion dictated that London was no longer to be endured. Set in a landscaped garden behind splendid wrought iron gates, which open on to a gravel drive for carriages, leading past cedar trees, a lake and rhododendrons, it makes an instant impression of solid worth and enduring values: precisely those virtues which an anxious family with a troublesome parent are seeking.

In truth its high days are long gone. Those days might have survived a few more years if the army had not been allowed free use of it during the war. The young men then had other things on their minds and had not given much thought to the elegant mahogany stairs, the stucco and the gilt. When they had finished with it the auctioneers found no one was interested in returning it to its stately glory; so it became the offices of the local Health Authority. During those years they ensured the roof was maintained and the plumbing worked, but aesthetics were not within anyone’s remit; so the artifice which had brought grace and elegance to the carefully proportioned rooms was not so much ignored as unobserved by administrators and accountants who had never been drawn to see it. Function and fashion, style with flair had once been synonymous at Claremont. Now function was all and none of the meagre funding was diverted to décor.

The result was that when the Health Authority was again re-organised, the Claremont passed into the hands of a private health care company at a knock-down price. Its understanding of issues in health care may have been challenged from time to time, but it had not reached its dominant place in the market without an unrivalled mastery of presentation; so it used its expertise to spend as little as possible to the greatest effect. The original mahogany banisters were stripped and re-polished while the sweeping wide stairway was covered by a subdued pink carpet with brass stair-rods. What remained of the original doors was restored and builders’ yards were scoured for second hand doors to replace the plywood and fibre board where possible. All in all, more was expended than the accountants had anticipated but the result, if not authentic, was considered sufficient to deceive the uninitiated and to convey a cosy air of home comforts.

To the harassed or the uninformed (frequently the same person at the Claremont), it is impressive. It looks clean; it is calm and quiet; there are flowers in vases; the matron wears a cap and uniform and sounds authoritative. When you go round the place the bedrooms are perhaps rather confined but then how much room does an old person want? Some visitors comment upon a faint, diffused perfume of ‘Springtime’ or ‘CottageGarden’, vaguely familiar, redolent of a time in distant childhood. As is the imperceptible but distinct odour of urine. What had clearly been the Assembly Room, modest yet sufficient for the original occupants, is now the assembly room for the residents who are seated along the walls. The originals were anticipating an invitation to dance. Their successors are on plastic seats waiting for any diversion at all or nothing, and that is being provided in generous proportions. Before each of them is a plastic tray which is attached to their chair by a hook. At meal times their food is eaten from plastic plates on these trays: at other times it seems that they are the habitual support for their weary elbows and heads. In the corner a children’s puppet show flickers in garish colours on the television but with no sound and no interest.

This is what a typical prospective customer sees and the financial accounts show that enough of them are content: that is, those who are paying the bills, if not always those who are in residence. The Claremont is a profitable enterprise. Indeed, one of the secrets of its reputation in the town is that it has created the belief that it is not really a vibrant business showing a healthy profit, but a devoted service to the elderly which regrettably requires funds to perpetuate the good cause. Nobody has sought the opinion of the old people living there, and it has to be said that this omission is understandable since most of them are past understanding, while the remainder have been so unused to being consulted that they would have little to offer.

 

There are two, however, who you would be unlikely to meet on a visit, not at least if the weather is kind. These two are free spirits, defiantly independent, unafraid of the patronising kindness which with sweet words and gentle manoeuvring seeks to subdue one and all to dull- witted conformity. By supporting one another they go their own way, choosing to take what is offered if it suits their purposes but otherwise doing much as they please. This is disturbing for the administration since their example could have consequences, but no rules are broken and no one is disadvantaged: so with much heart-searching they are allowed to follow their inclinations. In fine weather they go into the grounds, under one of the cedars perhaps in the heat of the day, or in the rose garden for a change of view, as the fancy takes them.

One is Ruth and the other is Celia. Both in their ways are typically English in appearance and manner. Ruth is tall. Her hair, which is still brown, is parted down the middle and drawn behind in a loose bun. She has large ruminative brown eyes set in a long face with prominent cheekbones, an aquiline nose and a generous mouth. She speaks with a low musical voice and it is hard to imagine her becoming agitated though she could perhaps become emphatic in defence of women’s rights or country footpaths. Celia would have been a cuddly, pretty blonde in her youth. She is still cuddly, tending towards chubby. She retains her happy smile and sparkling eyes though what was once a rosy complexion may now perhaps be better described as hectic. Her hair is now silver, attractive nevertheless, and maintained in its precise configuration against all mishaps at no small expense. She is well aware of her qualities. When she judges it to be appropriate she can be all deference and modesty, grace and charm. On the other hand, though she can’t claim to be tall, she loses nothing by that in a confrontation, being self-possessed and assertive when that is to her advantage.

They arrived at Claremont within a few days of one another. It is no accident that each enjoys a single bedroom at the front overlooking the drive and the extensive lawns. They met in the passage outside their bedrooms one sunny morning as they were making their way to the dining room for breakfast. This in itself defines them as exceptional because residents generally eat in their rooms; but they see themselves as paying guests, there is a dining room, they prefer to eat at table, and that has now become customary.

Initially it was Ruth, as the first of the two to arrive, who had established that she intended to breakfast at table in the dining room. On the first morning she made her way downstairs and opened the door which advertised itself as the dining room.  Anticipating the busy to and fro of staff serving a meal, she was taken aback to find a few token tables with tablecloths askew, cutlery in disarray as if from a departed gathering and a solitary female sitting in a corner, cigarette in hand reading a newspaper.

“Good morning. I must be mistaken. There was a sign above the door indicating that this is the dining room. Can you tell me where I can be served my breakfast?”

The cleaner, for such she was, scrutinised Ruth through the smoke and over the top of her paper with an uncomprehending stare. It was as if a tremendous apparition of outlandish form speaking an unintelligible language had materialised. She was seized for a moment and then crushing the paper in one hand, grasping the ash tray in the other with the cigarette now precariously hanging between her lips, she managed a panicky whisper, “I’ll just go and get someone,” and she scuttled through the double doors behind her, leaving Ruth quite composed but somewhat mystified that her few words should have provoked such a scrambled response from the girl. At the same time she couldn’t help surveying the disorder and general confusion around her and determined that wherever she ate it wouldn’t be in circumstances like that.

‘Someone’ arrived in the dignified form of the matron who swept through the double doors with a bang and strode towards the deceptively languid Ruth.

“The girl tells me you require breakfast. You are mistaken Ruth. Breakfasts are served in the residents’ rooms. We have never provided them at table. If you will return to your room I shall ensure that one is sent to you.” Thus, in all confidence, without question, ‘authority’ had pronounced and the customary docile acquiescence would follow. But it didn’t.

Ruth retained her posture but her face tightened and her gentle eyes took on a steely glint. “There have been misunderstandings madam. The first is that only my friends refer to me by my Christian name. I made that clear on my arrival and I don’t regard you as a friend. The second is that I chose to come here because Daddy, when he was alive, became close to the Chairman of this company who assured me that staying here was like being at a hotel. I reserved a place here on that understanding and shall insist upon it being so. My needs are small, but they are not to be meddled with.” She said this last as though ordering a Rolls Royce without the extras. “Now that you understand the position I will leave you to prepare this room so that it meets what I’m sure are your very exacting standards and will return for my breakfast in half an hour.”

There are people who ordinarily speak in paragraphs as though they have the last phrase in mind when they begin. Ruth reserved that form of address for occasions which she thought required it. She had the invaluable gift of remaining calm when assaulted, especially by people who assumed superiority. She believed them to be so unutterably presumptuous since she knew she was a superior being, to be compared with very few. This being so she had no cause for anger, only astonishment, and she had no difficulty in conveying her certainty. She swayed out of the room without a glance leaving the matron to gather the pieces of her self-respect and decide how she would explain this volte-face to the staff. That was no concern of Ruth’s, but she ate her breakfast half an hour later in regal isolation and enjoyed it very much, not for the victuals, which were meagre enough, but for the confidence that her rightful ascendancy remained intact.

As already mentioned, Ruth met Celia in the corridor outside their bedrooms as they were about to go to the dining room for breakfast. Like Ruth, Celia had assumed that meals were to be served downstairs and was unaware of the turmoil which her new-found friend had caused or that they were the pioneers of a subversive influence. As they made their way downstairs, Ruth was pleased to be her guide and companion and since they were the only ones in the room they shared one another’s company over the porridge and toast. Dispatching it with some distaste, they were pleased to wander out and across the entrance hall and down the flight of steps onto the drive. They were about to take a turn round the park when a voice hailed them from the top of the steps.

“Ladies. You are not to leave the grounds without our knowledge. We are responsible for you at all times. It is strictly forbidden to pass beyond the gates.” This was the matron who had been observing their movements from the moment they rose from the table. It had taken a deal of courage to pronounce so boldly after her recent rebuff, but she was not used to being defied on her own territory: she knew she was right and this was her chance to re-establish herself.

“Will you deal with this Celia or shall I?” Ruth murmured. “I’m surprised that with all her experience, this lady hasn’t grasped the nuances of polite conversation or even of conveying straightforward information.”

Without waiting for Celia, Ruth sauntered towards the bottom of the steps and staring fixedly at the matron, who was astride the top step with hands on hips reminiscent of a figurehead on the prow of a ship, she said in her most controlled manner, “Madam. It seems that you and I will become well acquainted sooner than either of us would wish. I admire your tenacity and respect the concern you show for our well-being. However, you should try to distinguish between the different requirements of your guests. Old we may be and I admit to some infirmity. I cannot speak for my friend. But I can assure you that we both came here in full possession of our faculties and we accepted the rules as published in the brochure. We neither of us have any wish to leave the grounds but both relish our independence. No doubt preparations for lunch will be making calls upon your time and I won’t delay you.”

Both withdrew bristling but without a word. The two ladies ambled towards the cedar trees where circling its trunk they found a convenient seat which gave them a view of the lake with its reeds and waterfowl. Here they settled to contemplate the dappled shadows on the water and the darting coot among the reeds. Nothing was said, in part because neither felt there was a call to say anything, and of course they had only recently met and so were unable to exchange the easy small talk in which both were expert. Time passed pleasantly enough until Celia began to feel a chill from the breeze off the water and so they wended their way back up the slope and into the shadow of the house. It was in any case almost time for lunch and so they made their way to their rooms after agreeing to meet in the dining room. This time their meal passed off uneventfully though at another time Ruth may have made a comment to the staff regarding the amateurish, almost slovenly service. She decided that enough had passed between them for that day and she would reserve her words for another opportune moment. In the afternoon they retired to their rooms and promised to meet for dinner.

Ruth had intended to rest on her bed but remembered what she called her ‘kit’ which was stored away in and on top of the wardrobe. She had been a keen painter since her youth in watercolour and oil and occasionally dabbled in pastel. Her father had been a notable professional and had exhibited widely. In his heyday he had been famous for his society portraits and as an illustrator of children’s books. It seemed almost inevitable that as a precious and well brought up girl she would take up painting, but her parents were surprised and delighted that she showed talent such that she was sometimes permitted to assist him by completing backgrounds and minor details. It was never proposed or even contemplated that she would in turn seek commissions. It wasn’t part of the plan and she accepted that her future would be as a wife and mother.

She assembled her easel, brushes, palette, colours, crayon, pencils and handled them fondly; inspecting and arranging them precisely. They had not been out since she had arrived, but now, after meeting Celia who was a likeable companion, and her two satisfying brushes with the matron, she felt the future held promise. This optimism inclined her to try her hand at a sketch from the window and she was soon absorbed in what was a most appealing outlook and not without its challenges to someone who was aware of them. By supper time it was nearly finished and by dusk she was happy to leave it for what it was - a competent well-made sketch. The concentrated effort had left her weary and she was ready for bed. She slept unusually well.

 

The following morning after breakfast they again took the gravel drive and cut across towards the lake. Seeing Ruth with her kit Celia went back for her book which an old friend had given her, more with a view to its length than its quality - she might be there a long time and would want something to pass the time! Celia settled down under the cedar while Ruth arranged herself to begin in the methodical way her father had insisted upon. She had mentally prepared herself to work up a view of the reeds and the willow behind it, when she saw her friend already engrossed in the doings of Miss Robinson, the doctor and the solicitor. Now here was an opportunity not to be missed. She may never be given another chance to have a sitter willing and with the time to stay put for as long as necessary. She almost thought of beginning without Celia being aware of it, but to do that seemed to be an invasion of her privacy and so she lightly mentioned it but the response was as if Celia had barely heard, so deep was she in her book. Etiquette required the sitter’s permission so she returned to her original notion. The result, after a couple of hours concentrated effort was a well-made picture and a remarkable feeling for her subject.  She was pleased with it but disappointed that she hadn’t done a portrait of her friend. They had asked for sandwiches and to their surprise were supplied without demur almost as though the staff were grateful for their absence! So they were able to remain alone with the lapping water and the rustle of the reeds; think their thoughts and speak or not as the moment took them.

“Did I tell you about my husband?” said Ruth, knowing perfectly well that she hadn’t, if for no other reason than that there had been no time. “He was in mining you know. Any kind of mining. He was an engineering consultant. Always going off to somewhere he’d never heard of on the other side of the world. I went with him once. Never again. Absolutely frightful. These mines are never anywhere you’d want to stay. It was just a track of wooden shacks with a bar and a police station and this frightful hotel with brown running water coming out and I’ll swear there were creatures in it. Even then I didn’t see him for days. The maddening thing is that after he’s been to these places they invest money in them and before you know where you are it’s a modern town with proper hotels, schools, air conditioning and good clubs for people like us.”

She waited for a response from Celia feeling that she had given her enough of a lead for her to pick up any of the trails she wanted to follow. But she seemed strangely slow as if the book was more interesting than anything she had to say, which Ruth found surprising and frankly un-companionable. So she ploughed on, determined to break her down.

“Of course it plays hell with family life. We never knew when to expect him and it was useless trying to plan anything. He couldn’t refuse a job because he didn’t have a regular income. It was all a bit hand to mouth really, but my goodness we did live well when he got paid.”

Still no response from Celia. Now Ruth had never been ignored and though their friendship was recent she thought she knew her well enough to find this incomprehensible. Her upbringing precluded any gentle probing of hurt feelings or human sensitivities and though not upset she was perplexed. This was not a confrontation, so she could walk away without loss of dignity, so with complete composure she rose from her seat, leaving her kit where it was and strolled across the grass and along the waterside. She had not met a situation like this before and hoped that it would not be left to her to resolve it. Perhaps it needed time.

When she returned Celia was still seated but her book was folded in her lap and her eyes were closed. There were few things which troubled Ruth but the intricacies of human nature were one of them. Sympathy came after striving and considerable reservation. As we have seen, if she felt threatened it was instinctive to be brusque and even overbearing, but she couldn’t handle what she referred to as ‘weepy wailers’. As she came nearer she had a strong feeling that this was going to be one of those moments. Celia had heard her approaching and when she sat down again, opened her eyes rather sheepishly to reveal that she had been crying. This was exactly what Ruth wished to avoid but Celia came to her rescue.

“If you think I want to talk about it, I don’t. There are some things better left unsaid,” she whispered.

Exactly Ruth’s sentiments! Though to her surprise and against her nature she found herself wondering if she had inadvertently brought it about. “Well dear, let’s go back. It’s been a long day. We’re both tired and it will all be different to-morrow.” Ruth was quite pleased with this effort which had the effect she desired. They gathered up their things and wended their way back in silence. And in silence they parted outside their bedroom doors, Ruth to clean her materials and Celia to read yet again the letter which had arrived that morning.

It was from her younger daughter Elizabeth in Portugal. Betts, as she was commonly known in the family, had written to confirm what her mother feared. She was a property developer in the Algarve and after eight years out there had established herself with a name for high-class residences aimed at the second-home market among the younger set. She had an instinctive understanding of that sector because she was of that type herself. She had left home at the first decent opportunity and, determined to show her independence, had disappeared into London and emerged as a wheeler-dealer though in what her mother could never establish. Her contacts with home had never been better than perfunctory and intermittent and now she had written to say that she had decided to settle and England had no attraction for her. It was that last part which was so hurtful. Celia knew that it was meant to hurt and even after all this time it stabbed her. She still couldn’t comprehend what they had done wrong. They had done everything for both the girls. It’s true they weren’t short of money, but she knew people who had not done as much as they had. The girls lacked nothing. They had their ponies when they came home in the school holidays; dances with all the nice young families in the area; they were sent for holidays to Switzerland, Austria, wherever they wanted. They even had their own sports car. What more could she and Roger have done for them? She felt sure it began when Roger died. As soon as he was gone they went off the rails. Sarah was just as bad. Neither of them seemed to care about her and they were all she had. They had both left her to lead their own lives without another thought, and where was Sarah now? South Africa! Married to a black man and happy with it! How could they?! She tumbled onto the bed and wept in self-pity and sorrow for what had happened to her two daughters.

 

The morning was bright and sunny again. Ruth resolved to be at table first determined to have the psychological advantage of being able to greet the other from a distance and observe her manner as she came across the floor. She seemed normal enough. They only had each other and so each had decided to mend whatever was broken though for the life of her Ruth couldn’t see what she’d done wrong. She resolved to pretend that nothing had happened and trust to the good manners of the other to do the same. Celia resolved to present an edited version of the truth. She simply couldn’t tell Ruth her troubles: her pride wouldn’t let her; Ruth would be overcome by embarrassment and she wouldn’t understand anyway.

Breakfast was a series of staccato sentences each interrupting the other as they strained for the relaxed informal attitude which neither felt. It was a relief to break out of the house, so much so that Ruth forgot her materials and had to return for them. Celia was sure that she needed no book today. They decided to amble round to the other side of the lake and the house would then be a background to their view. Unencumbered herself Celia made a gesture of reconciliation by carrying some of the kit. It is at times when they are most needed that words are most elusive. Each knew that she was the other’s future and both knew that gentle words tended to slip through their fingers.

Ruth began: “You remember what I was saying yesterday. No not that about Bob, my husband. About doing your portrait. Didn’t I ask you? I thought I had. Well, anyway, what do you say? We won’t show it to anyone. Well who is there to show it to? But if you like it you could put it in your room and if you don’t I won’t sulk. I can make a picture and we can just chat you know. About anything really.”

“Well, I need to talk about yesterday,” said Celia. “I haven’t spoken about it for years and I don’t know what set me off yesterday. Can I tell you? It will help me, but I don’t expect you to say anything, just listen, and then I’ll have said it and that will be the end of it.”

“Look: you get yourself comfortable so that you can stay still for a couple of hours and then we can chat away while I get on. No, you don’t have to look at me when you talk. I think a half turn away will be better.” It may or may not have made a better picture but it certainly avoided Ruth having to meet Celia’s eyes during what promised to be an embarrassing session.

“It was thirty years ago,” began Celia. “We had been married for five years. We weren’t young when we married. People tended to get married later then I think. We’d had a good time before we got married and after five years we had a comfortable home. Roger had a good future in the city, so we decided to start a family. That’s when we found out that nature provides and denies equally to the rich and the poor, the weak and the strong. We tried and waited, but nothing happened. We went to the best advice there was and were told that nothing could be done. Of course that was then. Perhaps things would be different now. Well what do you do when you can’t have children? You adopt. But just try it. I simply don’t understand. They’re having sex all over the place; there’s babies found in dustbins and doorsteps and yet we couldn’t get one.”

“Let’s have a break,” said Ruth concerned that it was all getting a bit dramatic. So they broke off for a coffee and Celia got up to stretch her legs before setting herself in her pose once more.

“One night Roger came home earlier than usual. He was restless while we had our usual gin and tonic and he wasn’t interested in the dinner cook had provided. He left the table as soon as he could and stood in front of the fire with his brandy waiting for me. When I was ready he started. He said he been in a bar at lunchtime and there was a man he’d been talking to who’d heard something about getting orphans from Romania. You could more or less buy them and choose which ones you want. I thought this sounded like one of his bar stories but soon after that I saw it on the television. When it comes to big decisions I leave it to Roger but I did say I would be happy if he thought we could do it so I left it to him. The next thing was he said he was going to Romania and he’d be back with two. He was too. Two lovely little girls with big dark eyes and pale faces. We looked after them and they were doing well. We had a nursery made for them and they had everything we could think of. We’d had them about six months when there was a knock on the door one day and there stood two police men. The rest you can imagine. Roger had been stupid. He’d paid a lot of money and then they’d gone to the police. There was a case in the courts and he got off basically because he could afford a good lawyer. But it finished us. We kept on quarrelling and he left me. He was generous, I will say that but what’s money when you haven’t got a life? So that’s why I was crying. In this story I’m reading there’s this woman who has two daughters and they both leave home and never come back. They just don’t care. Hard and selfish. And her husband leaves and takes to the bottle. Fancy them giving me a book like that!”

“Now you’ll have to sit still. Put your mouth how you want it.” So said Ruth before she suspected that something with a touch more sensitivity might be appropriate. “How very sad. To think that what you’ve told me really happened. It sounds much more unlikely than the book you’re reading. Well dear, I think you’ve managed very well considering. As you can’t talk for now, I’ll finish what I was telling you yesterday. You’re what they call a captive audience I believe. Fortunately I can talk and paint, or should it be the other way round!? When I’m on my own painting I think I talk to myself so I’ll just carry on and you can listen if you like! Where was I? So there was Bob trotting off round the world, never knowing when he was going or coming back again. Frankly I’m not sure that he was always too keen to come home, but perhaps that’s being a bit unfair. It always seemed to take him a while to settle down when he’d been away and I once found a photo caught up in the lining of his case, but men are like that aren’t they? 

Then we thought, what’s the point of this? What’s being married for? When you start asking questions like that you know it’s serious. So I became pregnant and we had a boy. He was abroad of course, but when I ’phoned him he sounded thrilled. Tom was a super chap, just like his father I thought, but people said he was more like me. When you start it’s hard to stop and next time he came home he hit the jackpot again and so I had two babies with not much more than a year between them. Another boy. He was working hard at that time so we could afford help and we managed well enough: in fact better than if he’d been at home.

Then he went away again and he never came back. He wrote to say he’d met another woman and was sorry and would see I was alright. What he meant by that I don’t know because if it hadn’t been for daddy I wouldn’t have managed.

They are clever boys and both have done well. The oldest has gone into interior design. You may have seen him on the television. The other’s in advertising making pots of money but not enjoying it particularly. The trouble is that the more successful you are the more they ask you to do and they simply don’t have time to turn round. One of them had a girl friend but she gave him up because they had no life together. It’s just as well the other doesn’t seem interested in girls. They’re devoted to me of course, and I’m expecting them round any time, and I’m sure they would if they weren’t so in demand. Well that’s not bad. What do you think?” So saying she stood back and made room for Celia to stand before it.

“Is that how I look to you? Well I must say I’ve worn better than I thought. I should take this round with me. I’m all in favour of artistic truth.” Celia was genuinely pleased and so she should be because it showed a lady proving that age has its own attractive qualities.

Ruth in turn enjoyed the compliment and nobody did gracious generosity better than her.

“By all means have it my dear. What would I do with it? Put it in your room and when I’m gone you can remember today and the good friend who painted it.”

“Are you sure? I’ll have it framed. I’ve never had a real painting before. It’s a lovely present. I can look at it lying in bed and make up stories about the happy life of this lady sitting in a country garden wearing a summer dress.” With this she took it in her hands and admired it again before turning with Ruth towards the house and the setting sun.

 

It seems to be a pre-ordained condition of residence in nursing homes that those who cherish life shall die and those who seek oblivion shall live. There is daily evidence of the latter in the bleak misery of the assembly room at Claremont where the almost insensible inmates are foregathered to be wheedled and cajoled and to share their intimacies with young people they know nothing of. The former occurred some weeks after the day of the portrait. Ruth and Celia, having been drawn by need and circumstance, found true friendship and a trust in humanity which till then their lives had denied them. As a result they became more vulnerable which they had spent a deal of their lives guarding against.

One morning, Celia was waiting for her friend to join her for breakfast. Ruth was punctual to a fault and when the tea in the pot and the toast were no more than body heat she became increasingly agitated and finally left the room and returned to the landing to find the door to Ruth’s room open. The matron was bending over the bed talking in a low voice. Ruth was lying half turned on her side; dishevelled hair, drawn perspiring face, toothless mouth.        

“I know it hurts dear. We’ve sent for the ambulance. Just try to be brave. There’s a good girl,” and more such.

Celia felt nothing at all: not sick, not frightened, nothing. She believed what she saw but it made no impression. It was like a tableau. This is what happens when you are ill. She stood and watched transfixed. She felt a slight push from behind and the ambulance men with their stretcher eased her out of the way. Despite their best efforts Ruth gave a full-throated groan as they lifted her from the bed. Nothing was said but the looks between the men and the matron would have said everything to someone more aware than Celia. And that was the last she saw of her. She later was told that Ruth had slipped in the bath and fractured her hip. They had set the bone but she developed pneumonia and died.

Soon after Celia had been told of her death, she saw the staff  come to remove her belongings. They were little enough. One or two charcoal and ink sketches, her materials and a bundle of clothes in a plastic bag. Surely they couldn’t just take it away without a word to anyone? Where was it going? What about the relatives? Wouldn’t her boys want their mother’s things as a reminder?

“What are you dong with those things?”

“Do you want them love?” said the cleaner. “They’re going to a charity shop.”

“But you can’t just take them away without telling the family.”

“What family? Matron says she never had a family. No will: nothing. She lived on the money from her insurance and that’s all there was.”  

So that’s what her life had amounted to, Celia thought. There were no sons; no husband. She had no-one in the world. Had she really wanted a family or was it simple pride which drove her to invent it all? How sad.

“What about my life?” she wondered. Ruth had pretended she had a family. She had a family, yet at the end of her life when we should all be able to face the truth, she couldn’t admit even to herself what a mess she had made. So she had made up a sob-story but the truth was far more hurtful. She had failed her children. No children. No husband. No home. What had she got? Then she remembered the last days she had shared with Ruth; the colour and texture and warmth they had given each other. Her best days had come at the end when she thought she had nothing to give and no one to give it to. If only Betts and Sarah could be with her now.

 

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