* * *
That afternoon Miss Twelvetrees’ niece Myra comes to visit with her daughter, Tabula, who’s sullen because she’s not allowed her mobile phone in hospital. Also the quick-thinking (and moving) Faith, unchallenged by elderly, catatonic patients and the Half-Naked Fattest Man In Britain, who can roll like a ball on his mattress but can’t get out of bed, has switched off the volume on the communal television.
There is a screen for the poor child, but it is not a window to reality TV but some old black-and-white film on Channel Four; there are only migraine-coloured adverts to alleviate Tabula’s boredom. She wears her Year 7 school uniform, the white collar orange with fake tan, and diamanté-studded fake eyelashes. Slouched on the end of the bed so her mother can have the chair, there’s no one to make envious of her kit.
‘God, isn’t hospital awful? You wouldn’t believe it, even though smoking is banned throughout the grounds, the number of revolting people in bathrobes out the front by the ambulances, smoking fags.’
Yes, thinks Miss Twelvetrees, it cheers me up.
Myra—caffeine, frustration—wears a belted mohair suit that doesn’t do its job of making her cuboid figure hour-glass-shaped. The scaffolding that passes for support underwear and witch-toed designer shoes perhaps account for her permanent scowl.
‘I don’t know why you’ve come to this dump. With your money you could have gone to a nice little BUPA hospital.’
It’s our National Health Service, thinks Miss Twelvetrees, we must use and appreciate it. Besides, why do I want to pay money to be stuck in a little room that will be just like this one? Miss Twelvetrees is too tired to go round in circles with her niece, who thinks the current American president not an abomination, but a role model.
Myra scrapes the wing-back chair along the floor as she rearranges her natty bulk. Tabula still wears her coat, eager to leave this place full of human wrecks: that gross obese man with hair on his back like an orangutan, the old people who look dead. She’s going to have lots of nightmares tonight.
Double-checking her lipstick, Myra snaps shut the compact before tossing it into her Meli Melo handbag. ‘When I get old I’m going to book a permanent cabin on a cruise ship. Eat lots of chocolate and drink Remy-Pouilly-Foussé and get myself a horny Cypriot toy-boy waiter to move to Sharma el Sheikh with.’
Tabula mimes barfing over the counterpane. ‘God, Mum. Don’t talk like that—it’s gross. I am underage, you know. You already eat lots of chocolate. And it’s Sharm el Sheikh.’
Myra rises above being corrected: deep breaths, as her pricey psychologist taught her. ‘Zip it, monster. Now, Aunt Rose, you’re not to worry about a thing. As soon as you’re well enough, you’re coming home with us.’
Caught on the hop, Miss Twelvetrees doesn’t answer. This is the last thing she wants. She’d rather hire a nurse, allow a stranger into Tŷ Gwyrdd, than go to live with Myra, her spineless husband Dan and sulk of a daughter who struggles to find an interest in anything without gorilla-glass or a WiFi connection.
‘And I won’t take any argument. I did bring you some irises, my god, they’re like an endangered species, never can find them, not even in Waitrose.’
Miss Twelvetrees hasn’t the energy to explain irises are not her favourite flower. Once were. Haven’t been since that horrendous summer in 1967.
‘Yes, I brought you irises but the nurse wouldn’t let me bring them in. Nazi storm trooper. It’d be different if Janet Hughes was on duty, we sold her house at a record—’
‘Mum, storm troopers were vicious, brutal soldiers in Hitler’s private army,’ explains Tabula. ‘I think the word you’re looking for is “jobsworth”.’
‘What,’ snaps her mother, ‘have I told you about correcting me? And get off that bed, you’re sitting on your great-aunt’s feet. Go on, shift. Go find a chair. We’re paying good money to send you to the best private school in this godforsaken country, the least you can do is sit up straight.’
‘Myra.’ Miss Twelvetrees’ voice is still weak, she has to pull at Myra’s handbag strap to get her attention. ‘Blossom?’ She’s forgotten that the consultant, Mr Arora, told her the friend whose name she cannot remember has her cat.
‘Blossom. Cat. Mine. Not happy… alone.’ Eyes, coat. Also tuna, once a day.
The unsatisfactory conversation is interrupted when from the nurse’s station in the hall—Miss Twelvetrees’ bed is nearest the door—they can hear a Liverpool accent. It starts all sweetness and light.
‘Sure, Dave, I’ve got time to help you. No problem, sweetheart. I’m only at work, saving lives. “Hang on, Kevin, I can’t come check your IV, I’ve got to explain to my idiot husband how to open a friggin’ soup packet.”’
Slam would go the phone, if it were still heavy Bakelite. ‘Dickhead.’ It makes Miss Twelvetrees smile.
‘I can’t believe the language they use in here,’ says Myra. ‘Storm troopers.’ Tabula shakes her head. ‘Don’t you bloody start.’
‘Who? We did go to your house but it was empty.’
The mention of Tŷ Gwyrdd makes Miss Twelvetrees’ heart twist. ‘Want... go... home.’
Myra leans forward. Now as well as caffeine and frustration, Miss Twelvetrees can smell fury, acrid and sour. ‘What? What did you say?’
‘Home,’ whispers Miss Twelvetrees. ‘I want… to go home… when they’re … finished… with me.’ She lays back against her pillow, panting like a winded animal.
Myra allows herself a forced smile that doesn’t move much of her face. As always she’s drawn the eyebrows she burnt off as a teenager a centimetre above her skull sockets, giving herself a permanent expression of unpleasant surprise. She’s also got lipstick on her protuberant front teeth. Tabula’s noticed but it’s more fun not to say anything.
‘Of course you can’t go home. What kind of a niece would I be if I let you go back to what is obviously a death-trap?’
It exhausts Miss Twelvetrees to speak but she must. ‘I can… hire… a nurse. And Katka…’ The name! She’s remembered her friend’s name. Remembering it’s a blessing. ‘Katka… comes… every day.’
Myra shakes her head. ‘Ah, well, Katka… I didn’t want to say… ’
What? What about Katka?
‘We’ve had to let her go, Aunt Rose. I’m afraid we caught her stealing.’
You’re lying. You bloody woman, you’re lying to me.
Myra’s leap out of the wing chair, her sudden yell—‘Nurse! Nurse!’—shoots Tabula into the air like an orange cannonball.
‘Bloody NURSE. Quick to tell you off but where the hell are they when you need one?’
‘Calm down, Mother. Look. Auntie Rose’s all right.’
‘Yes, I… shall be… fine,’ gasps Miss Twelvetrees, ‘once you… tell me… what’s happened… to my friend.’
‘Katka… is my friend.’
Myra’s head jerks in contempt. ‘She’s not your friend, she’s the bloody cleaner. I caught her with twenty pounds in her tabard and your Liberty picture frame, the one you promised you’d leave me in your will, in her bag.’
Having been summoned by Faith, the nurse arrives. ‘What’s all this? You all right, Miss Twelvetrees?’
Tears springing to her eyes, Miss Twelvetrees shakes her head. No, I’m not all right. I’d like you to ask these people to leave, please.
‘Visitin’ hours are over,’ announces the nurse, who crosses her arms, an unspoken ‘shoo’.
‘I’m going, Nazi,’ huffs Myra. ‘This wouldn’t be happening if Janet Hughes were working. Storm trooper.’
‘I’m of German extraction,’ the nurse calls after Myra’s furious staccato exit. ‘I could have you up for verbal assault.’
Later Miss Twelvetrees thinks, I should have waited instead of going off half-cocked. How else am I going to find out what’s happened to my Blossom, and Katka?
Faith removes her headphones, jerking them towards the departing backs of Miss Twelvetrees’ sole family. ‘They’re a laugh and a half. Your daughter and granddaughter? What am I thinking? They don’t look anything like you. Which must be a great relief.’
She swings her legs over her bed, shoving slim feet into rabbit-faced slippers. ‘Fancy a large G & T? They’ve got a fit barman in tonight. No? Go on, I’ll buy us a tea, my treat.’