The silence is oppressive, over-powering. Everybody’s talking in hushed tones. As though illness is sacred. She longs for the clatter of the Infirmary. Chattering nurses, spluttering pipes. She’s not sure how much longer she can bare it. The silence and the cold. The two go hand and hand. She likes to hear the heat. She keeps trying to tell the nurses. To stop their infernal whispering. To crank the heating up.
But no one listens to her now. Another pale old woman. She is nothing without make-up; her armoury; her weapons. That was Irene’s battle. To pit English polish and perfection against Hitler’s skewed ideas. His belief that women should be ‘natural’: lumpen, pallid, plain. She’ll feel better once she has her war paint. Maybe then she’ll find her voice.
Linda is standing in the doorway. Eyeing her grandmother in bed.
Irene says ‘Where’s my vanity case?’
Linda says ‘Sorry, I forgot.’
‘We’ve had a complaint.’ Says Lester.
I say ‘We always get complaints.’
‘From Doctor Tanner. About upsetting his patient. There’s a note from Irene too. She says you didn’t strike her as particularly professional.’
‘No.’ I say. ‘I don’t suppose we did.’
‘The Oral History Society is pretty pissed off as well.’
‘I thought they’d be delighted.’
‘They want nostalgia. Local colour. Apple bobbing. Maypole dancing. Knees Up Mother Brown. Funnily enough they’re not so keen on….’
Lester taps his keyboard. Finds the email. He wants to get this right.
‘Door-to-door narcotics distribution during wartime and early experiments in abortion within the NHS.’
‘Actually,’ I say, ‘it’s not quite that straightforward…’
I’m trying to choose my words.
I needn’t bother. Lester has his hands over his ears. His words come out like bullets.
‘I. don’t. want. to. HEAR. IT.’
Here we go…
‘What ever it fucking is, it’s a smokescreen, a distraction. A waste of fucking time. We’ve got a project that doesn’t stack up. Objections on all sides. The last thing I need is more excuses to hold the whole thing up. Do your fucking day job. Stop fucking about with stuff that’s irrelevant. Academic. If you want to write a fucking dissertation go back to fucking college and do a fucking Phd.’
Linda Kirkby’s wandered in. As though she has a right to be here. As though she works here too. She sits down on her sofa. Makes herself at home.
I say ‘So how’s the patient?’
She says ‘Rambling. About the silence and the cold. And how Dr Sam and Bruno are the exact same shade of brown.’
We all turn to look at Bruno. As if we’ve never looked at him before. As though we’re not entirely clear about the colour of his skin.
Linda stands up and walks towards him. As though she needs a closer look.
‘It’s funny’ she says archly, ‘to think how times have changed. To think we used to frown on inter-racial breeding.’
If I didn’t know any better I’d swear she’d just brushed Bruno’s thigh.
She says ‘I’d say it should be positively encouraged.’
Bruno and I stare after her as she slams the kitchen door.
I can hear her pottering the kitchen. In the kitchenette. I think she’s tidying up.
I say ‘Is that her idea of flirting?’
Bruno says ‘I think it’s her idea of a joke.’
‘You must admit she’s odd.’
‘She’s certainly unusual.’
I say ‘I think she’s barking mad.’
Elsie Tanner strides into the bungalow. Puffed up. Self-important. Buoyed by the unequivocal support of sixty-seven residents. She has a petition. Against the plans to bring back Bonfire Night. The community is behind her. She has the signatures to prove it.
She’s not sure who to give it to. Lester, me, or Bruno. And why is Linda Kirkby here? Fraternising with the enemy. It’s unsettling, disconcerting. Elsie likes things to be black and white. Good and bad. Them and us. She doesn’t like her boundaries to be blurred.
Lester says ‘Can we help you?’
Elsie looks confused.
He says ‘Is that for us?’
A gentle prompt. He really wants to help.
She doesn’t want to hand it over. Not with Linda Kirkby here. She doesn’t like the way she’s looking at her. Enquiring. As though Elsie has no right to be here. As though she should state her business; justify her presence. Haughty. Like her grandmother. She really is just like her. It’s strange she’s never noticed it before.
Bruno says ‘Why don’t you let me have a look?’
I read it over Bruno’s shoulder. There is a long list of concerns. The threat to wildlife and ecology. The risk of drunk and disorderly behaviour. Possible pressures on the local police force. The implications for the public purse.
There’s a paragraph on fireworks. About the psychological impact of loud noises. Especially with regard to household pets.
‘You’ve given this a lot of thought.’ Says Bruno. ‘We really do appreciate the time you’ve spent to think the issues through.’
He hands Elsie her petition.
He says ‘Perhaps we’ll hold a barbecue instead.’
Elsie looks deflated. It wasn’t meant to be like this. She was going to brandish it triumphantly. Thrust it in their faces. Take the wind out of their sails.
She can’t help feeling she’s been tricked.
Irene longs for oblivion. Respite from recollections; nightmares; dreams. The insistent spiteful chanting; the stench of burning flesh.
Burn him in a tub of tar
Burn him like a blazing star
Burn his body from his head
Then we’ll say the Pope is dead
Linda says ‘I think I know your husband.’
Elsie Tanner looks surprised.
‘It’s Dr Tanner isn’t it? My grandmother’s in hospital. She says he’s very kind. Professional. She likes his Bedside Manner.’
Elsie Tanner doesn’t answer.
‘She speaks very highly of him. She wasn’t sure at first. He just seemed down, a bit depressed.’
No one speaks.
Linda carries on, as though she’s talking to herself.
‘He’s completely different now. Always smiling. A changed man.’
Elsie Tanner makes a sound I can’t decipher. Despondency? Dismay? Despair?
‘Irene says he’s got a real spring in his step.’
Elsie Tanner has found her tongue.
‘Irene Grover is a silly woman who talks too much.’
Linda smiles serenely. Bruno looks a little startled. I am fiddling with my laptop.
Linda’s phone is ringing. Thank God for the distraction.
She says. ‘It’s Doctor Tanner. I have to take this call.’
Everyone falls silent. Linda is listening intently. She says ‘It’s probably a blessing. Thanks for letting me know.’
Linda turns to Elsie Tanner. She pauses for a moment. Before delivering her punch line. Before she has the final word.
‘Well,’ she says angelically ‘she won’t be talking now.’