Perhaps she should just come out with it and ask her. ‘Have you written a will, and if so what’s it say?’ Then again, she doesn’t want to prompt her. If Irene dies intestate Linda has a decent claim to being next of kin.
She might have hidden it, of course. Irene loves to hide things. Loves a game of Hide and Seek. Always has done. Linda had to hunt for everything: her Easter eggs, her birthday gifts, even her new school shoes. Unravel a riddle and follow a clue. Endure her grandmother’s encouragement and subsequent disdain. Despair at her own stupidity. Her inability to crack the code; to see the joke; to read between the lines.
Every night at bedtime she would say a silent prayer. Beg for a proper family. Where gifts were freely given. Where everybody always said exactly what they meant.
It’s not in Irene’s flat. She’s pretty sure of that. There’s the leather inset on the dressing table. The paper, pen and ink. But no letters, no correspondence, no documents at all. Perhaps it’s not surprising. Given Irene’s contempt for rules and regulations. For little men in offices with shiny suits and silly jobs.
Linda thinks back to her childhood. Wracks her brain. Irene’s been to Paris. She must have had a passport. Where would that be now? There’s a record of Linda’s christening. The vicar asked to see it when they went to book their wedding. Irene was able to produce it right on cue. It must have been to hand.
Even Irene can’t carry it off completely. An ethereal existence. A paperless Nirvana. Bureaucracy-free bliss.
Linda is trying to direct the conversation. She’s struggling. She’s used to following Irene’s lead; Irene’s topic; Irene’s tone.
‘Actually,’ she says, ‘I wanted your advice.’
Yes, thinks Irene, about time. She’s been waiting for this moment, a mandate to proffer her opinion. She wonders which area of Linda’s life she’ll be invited to assess: make-up; wardrobe; hair or men.
Irene plumps for men. She says ‘I’ve seen you flirting with the Doctor. I presume you know he’s married.’
‘You could do worse.’
‘Dr Tanner’s married. And as it happens, so am I.’
Irene makes a sound that conveys her irritation, her view that this inconvenient truth is neither here nor there.
She says ‘There’s something very appealing about doctors.’
‘I thought you liked a man in uniform.’ Says Linda. ‘I’m not sure which bit qualifies. The stethoscope? The whites?’
Irene laughs. ‘The power over life or death.’
Linda says ‘I don’t think that’s the way they’re meant to see it. Don’t they take some sort of oath to say they value life above all else?’
‘It’s all about priorities.’ Says Irene. ‘And difficult decisions.’
For a fleeting moment she wonders if Irene is making some sort of argument in favour of voluntary euthanasia. If she’s going to suggest that they collude with Dr Tanner to put an end to Irene’s life.
‘Dr Sam was quite quite brilliant.’ Says Irene.
‘At the Infirmary. All the others kept their distance. Dr Sam was different. He would sit on every bed. We were all a little bit in love with him. He was the only man we ever saw.’
Irene starts to ramble.
‘He’d make everybody smile. And he could take a joke as well. We used to say he’d eaten all the chocolate biscuits, and that was why he looked the way he was.’
‘Why?’ says Linda, ‘Was he fat?’
‘No’ says Irene, ‘He wasn’t fat. He’d skin the colour of chocolate.’
‘Oh’ says Linda. ‘He was black.’
‘The first black man I ever saw.’
Linda is determined to get the conversation back on track.
‘I wanted to ask you about something in particular. This might sound a bit odd…’
‘Yes?’ says Irene, nodding in encouragement. Making a conscious effort to be approachable. Not to put Linda off.
‘I was thinking about buying some sort of filing cabinet.’
Irene is disappointed. She has strong views on most things. But not on office products.
‘Really Dear?’ she asks, with undisguised indifference. ‘Why on earth would you do that?’
‘For documents. You know. All those bits and pieces. Certificates, insurance policies. That kind of thing.’
‘Well if you want your home to look like some sort of business park.’ Irene says dismissively.
‘There are so many things you have to keep. So many bits of paper.’
Irene has lost interest. She is eyeing Linda’s outfit. Wondering what made her choose that jacket with that shirt.
‘I’m worried about security.’ Says Linda. ‘With the new houses they’re building on the field. All those outsiders moving in.’
Linda hits the spot. Irene loves this sort of talk. Lower classes, enemy forces, threats to house and home. Linda has her grandmother on board.
‘You’ll have to find a hiding place.’ Says Irene, with a sparkle in her eye. ‘You need to think of somewhere that’s so obvious that no-one thinks to look.’
‘You were always clever at hiding things.’ Says Linda.
‘That’s what we did. We hid things. Cigarettes under mattresses; bottles of whiskey in prams. And of course,’ she says theatrically. ‘You had to hide the holes.’
Irene doesn’t answer. She is far away, lost in thought. Looking at the lino in the kitchen of her mother’s rented house. Mint-coloured linoleum. Like the floor here in the hospital. But riddled with holes. Like a good Swiss cheese. If you cut a disc the same size as a shilling you could you put it in the metre and buy yourself some gas.
She remembers the kerfuffle when a knock came at the door. The dash to rearrange the furniture; to cover every hole like an outsize dot-to-dot. Chair legs, rugs and dog bowls strategically arranged to hide a multitude of sins. If the landlord caught you out you could be sleeping on the streets.
Linda is losing interest. She scans the ward to see if there’s a clock. She wonders if Irene will be offended if she checks her mobile phone. She wonders if it matters; if she cares.
Irene hates to lose an audience. To feel she’s lost her grip. She grabs Linda by the arm.
‘What you have to do,’ she says conspiratorially, ‘is make sure people see the things you want them to and miss the things you’d rather hide.’
Linda hates it when Irene talks in riddles. She has had enough of pussyfooting round the conversation. She brings the conversation back to solid ground.
‘So if you had something important – some sort of secret document – where would you choose to hide it?’
‘It’s quite obvious.’ says Irene. ‘You need to have a War Room if you want to win a war.’
Dr Tanner’s just outside. Flirting with the nurses. In a half-hearted sort of way.
Linda clocks his wedding ring. She’s surprised she didn’t notice it before.
She says ‘You must be Elsie Tanner’s husband.’
He smiles and says ‘I am’. As though it’s something to be proud of.
Linda says ‘Have you been married long?’
‘Nearly thirty years. We met at college.’
‘Ahhh.’ says Linda knowingly. As though to say that makes more sense.
‘I suppose she would have been quite pretty when you met her?’
She’s started so she’ll finish.
She adds ‘Or young and fresh at least.’
She notes with satisfaction she is making quite an impact.
Dr Tanner has lost his cool; his composure; his professional ennui.
His mouth is open and then shut again. He can’t think what to say.
Linda gives him a look that she’s been practicing. Worried, hopeful, vulnerable. In need of reassurance.
She says ‘I’m sorry. It’s the worry. I’m not myself today.’
Irene wonders whether Linda has picked up on her clue. If it’s even crossed her mind that Irene’s playing a game.
It’s a shame her granddaughter’s so literal, so dull-witted. You couldn’t call her stupid, not exactly. Just…straightforward. Averse to lateral thinking. Incapable of insinuation. Oblivious to nuance. Mind you, she’s been a bit sly recently. The pitiful attempts to wheedle secrets out of Irene. Clumsy shots at casual conversation. Leading questions. As though she might persuade her grandmother to say something she shouldn’t. That she might outwit Irene. As if there’s any chance of that.
Irene reviews the situation with a certain satisfaction. She may be consigned to bed, but she can still be in control. Exert an influence. Put ideas in people’s heads, make them act in certain ways. Go to certain places, look for certain things. To see what Irene wants them to, and not the things she’d rather hide. She’s always loved a treasure hunt, a game of hide and seek.
That’s the thing about her granddaughter. She sees what’s straight ahead of her. She won’t look left and right. Not like Billy. Billy looked around him, used his eyes. Billy saw things he was never meant to see.