Irene can’t get warm. She’s tried blankets, heating, extra clothes. But the cold is on the inside. In her bones. She’s tried hot tea, brandy, sherry, soup. What she needs is Guinness. Hot Guinness with sugar and ginger. The way her mother used to make it. When the cold was overwhelming. When the fever settled in.
She can see her now. Whipping the red-hot poker out of the fire and into the jug. Quick as a flash. The fizz as the Guinness turns frothy with heat. Her mother makes her drink the whole lot down in one. So the iron in the poker will make her big and strong.
Something’s happened. Something’s wrong. Linda is standing outside Irene’s door. She’s been knocking for fifteen minutes. Maybe more. She can see the lights are on. Irene would never leave the lights on. She’s phoned Irene countless times. She can hear the landline ringing every time she calls. Why doesn’t she have a key? She ought to have one. She must have had one once. This used to be her home.
A door opens below her. Footfall on the stairs. Jenny from the sewing shop.
Jenny says ‘I was wondering if there’s any news?’
Linda is confused. It seems an odd thing to say.
Jenny looks embarrassed. She says ‘Oh God, I’m so sorry.’
Linda says ‘Sorry? About what?’
Jenny says. ‘I just assumed they’d told you.’
Linda says ‘Told me what?’
‘Irene’s had an accident. She’s fine.’ Says Jenny hurriedly. ‘I mean, I’m sure she’ll be OK.’
‘Where is she now?’
‘They took her off to hospital.’
‘I don’t understand. What happened?’
‘I’m not quite sure. They think she fell into the fire.’
‘She had a fall?’
‘And burns. Both hands. I think it was quite serious.’
‘Was she conscious when they found her?’
‘She was definitely conscious…she was talking…but I’m not sure she was quite herself.’
‘Why? What was she saying?’
‘Just a lot of nonsense really. That she was trying to feel the heat. To feel the pain. She said she had cold bones. That she just wanted to be warm.’
Linda is disconcerted. She has been willing Irene to lose her mind. And now it seems she has. She is disorientated. Daunted by the power of her own imagination. She’s not usually so fanciful. Quite the opposite. She can’t think what to say. Irene would know, of course, if the roles had been reversed. Irene would say you shouldn’t play with fire.
Irene is sitting up in bed. Her face is free of make-up. Indistinct. Invisible. She barely registers. The nurses think she doesn’t notice. The way they take a stealthy look at the name-tag on her bedstead before calling her by name.
She has never trusted nurses. Mind you, the nurses at the Infirmary were particularly bad. They couldn’t pick and choose. There were more glamorous jobs on offer: tending injured soldiers, nursing victims of the Blitz. The Infirmary got lumbered with the oddballs and the misfits. The dregs of the profession. If they were qualified at all.
They struggled to command respect. Heaven knows they tried. Withdrawing food or soap or medicine. Dispensing arbitrary favours. Wielding whatever powers they had. They pounced on anyone with any spirit. Thrashed Irene with a cane. Slapped the inside of her elbow with a hairbrush – not the bristles, the hard bit at the back. She’d rather have it this way round. Better a single painful blow than a thousand tiny stings.
Irene cannot bear the anonymity. It takes her back to the beginning. The early days. When she first entered the Infirmary. A Nobody. Last in the queue for everything. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, bath. She still remembers word for word the poster on the wall. A Bath a Day Keeps Germs at Bay. A reminder of the war time regulations – water not too hot and not too cold, five inches deep at most. The older girls were meant to change the water. But they were weak and ill themselves. Irene got the dregs. Water dark as pewter. And pretty much stone cold.
It changed of course, once word got round. Once Irene started selling make-up. A stick of Nantern Red could buy you clean baths for a month.
She feels unwashed without her make-up. Robbed of her personality. Soiled. Unclean. Exposed.
Doctors ask the strangest things.
‘Does your grandmother drink Guinness?’
‘She doesn’t drink at all.’
The Doctor looks at her as though he knows she’s lying. As though she could try harder. As though she’s let him down.
Linda tries to concentrate.
‘Tea, of course. And sherry. Champagne on Christmas Day.’
The Doctor taps the table. As though he knows there’s more to come.
‘Buck’s Fizz for Christmas breakfast. Another glass with dinner.’
The doctor raises an eyebrow.
‘Hot brandy for a headache.’
He says ‘The evidence suggests that she was on some sort of binge.’
Linda giggles. She can’t help it. The thought of Irene binging.
The doctor looks disapproving.
‘We think she’d been drinking sherry and then brandy and significant quantities of Guinness.’
Wow, thinks Linda, dumbstruck. She really has gone off the rails.
Irene looks at her granddaughter approvingly. At last. A proper haircut. Still no make-up. Not a trace. Irene can’t understand it. Doesn’t she want her husband back? She doesn’t have the energy to argue. She keeps these thoughts inside her head. At least, she thinks that’s what she’s doing.
Linda says ‘No-one’s looking. No-one cares.’
Irene is taken by surprise. She wonders now if perhaps she did say something after all. Or can Linda read her mind?
Imagine if they’d thought like that back then. There was nobody to see them. You might have the odd visit. But it was hardly worth the bother. You had to speak through a closed window, if you could call it that at all. A latticework of thick black tape. Bomb-proof, blast-proof, pretty much light-proof. You could count the men who crossed the threshold on the fingers of one hand: the Governors, the Chaplain, Dr Sam. Still they spent hours on their make-up. Irene can see it now. Girls who looked like children pretending to be grown-ups. Adolescent make-up inexpertly applied.
Irene looks at Linda sternly and summons up the strength to speak.
‘It’s every woman’s duty to look her personal best.’
Billy looks dejected. Bruno and Lester have gone home. Linda’s been gone forever. I say ‘You better come home with me.’
Billy scuffs his shoes, kicks at stones. He could at least look grateful.
He says ‘I never know where she is.’
I call her number for the umpteenth time. This time she picks it up.
She says ‘Irene’s been taken into hospital.’
She starts to gabble. ‘It’s like I said. She’s gone quite mad. Playing with fire. Irrational.’
She sounds distinctly dazed.
‘I did it.’ She says dreamily. ‘I made it happen.’
A confession. Oh God, don’t tell me it’s all true. That Linda really is some sort of psychopath. We were just pretending. Me and Bruno. To make life more exciting. I don’t have the energy to think about this now. I have more mundane concerns: Kit’s impending pirate party; deadlines; drawings; pasta bake.
I say ‘Linda, tell me honestly. Did you have anything to do with it? With Irene’s accident?’
The question seems to calm her down.
She is quiet for a minute or two. When she speaks her voice is calm.
She says ‘Well no. Not really. I don’t think so.’
It’s not the answer I’m expecting.
‘But you might have?’
She says ‘Do you think it’s possible to make someone go insane just by willing it to happen?’
I say ‘Have you been drinking?’
‘I haven’t, but Irene has.’