In the half-dark of the small hours, she surfaces from fitful dreams – it could be less than an hour after laying her head on the pillow or eight minutes past five. In the first blush of day, shadows move and intermingle, disarranging unfamiliar surroundings. Murky shapes of wardrobe, chest-of-drawers and armchair are not only in the wrong positions but the wrong room.
Closing her eyes, she discerns the faint scent of lily of the valley, with hints of Coty powder and… freshly-picked mint? It’s familiar, a welcome mask to the undertone of urine.
She struggles with her eyelids, tempted by the growing light and dissuaded by the realisation that she doesn’t know where she will find herself. And then she feels the hand. It’s always there: in the summer, cool and calming; in the winter warm and comforting. She is a child again, with the curtains drawn and a glass of Lucozade beside the bed.
During the day she sits, sometimes in this tiny room and at others in the dining room, waiting for the next meal – that’s how she measures time. She feels the urge to clean and tidy but cannot find the energy, let alone dusters, polish and Hoover. She can’t even wash herself. Mealtimes are a trembling fork or spoon and dropped food, more in her lap than her mouth. In between, hunger grips and roars its disappointment. Where is the fridge? But she has no money to buy groceries. Where is the money?
In the lounge there are books and jigsaw puzzles, but they remain untouched. She used to love to read. What an escape that would be. But the words squirm across the page and make no sense. Jigsaws are just a puzzle. Which brings her back to the question of how she got here; what did she do that was so wrong? She once had a husband and children – where are they now?
Opening her eyes, she reaches for a glass of water from the bedside cabinet and picks out of the shadows a framed photograph. It takes her several minutes to recollect who it is. She has a granddaughter! A young woman now. Tears bubble up and prickle her eyes. The hand removes the photograph and replaces it on the cabinet. It takes hers and holds it tenderly, stroking the wrinkles smooth again. Memories surface of days at the seaside, a trip on the Thames and a day at the zoo. Was that with her granddaughter or her own children?
A stranger enters the room and the hand lets go. It’s time to get up and suffer the indignity of being washed and dressed. Who chose the pungent soap? Her limbs are manipulated into sleeves and trouser legs. She tries to push a button through its corresponding hole but her arthritic fingers miss the point. Where is that hand when she needs it?
After breakfast, the day stretches out along corridors of shuffling strangers; she confronts them with a cheery smile and wrestles with the sounds that emerge from her lips, deep-sea diving for words that make sense. She listens carefully, repeats and rolls the sentences silently in her mouth. The hand guides her back to her room for a rest when she needs it. The day is punctuated by the tea trolley and unfamiliar faces staring into hers, ‘Do I know you?’ She answers: ‘How are you?’ and ‘Let me help you,’ before moving a chair or table to allow a wheelchair or Zimmer frame to pass. She tries to hold a conversation but it slips out of her hands and off down the corridor. Shut the door, she thinks, in case it escapes.
Occasionally, she has visitors who vary between those who ask her questions as if she were a naughty schoolgirl and one or two who are really interested in her thoughts and feelings; they are few and far between. She wants to go out, breathe in fresh air and walk. The hand tugs her towards the door but it’s firmly shut and she doesn’t know how to open it.
When the rest of the residents are tucked up in bed or watching television in their rooms, she sits in the armchair, holding the hand, trying to remember whose it is. As she slips into bed, the hand draws the duvet over her frail frame. She catches the scent again and smiles at fleeting snapshots of her childhood and hopes the hand will stay and guide her through her dreams.
© Kim M. Russell, 2015
Free image found on pixabay.com