Part 2 of 4. Part 1 is here.

Her geraniums are flowering. Nita shifts the pot onto the semi-covered balcony, pushes her nose into the vibrant red petals. She has always loved the sharp scent, like rusty iron baking under a hot sun.

Ada is here today. She is Nita’s neighbour who also does the weekly clean in exchange for cash under the table. Ada is from Albania, following a husband who followed the money. Ada has a boy, eleven, and a girl, eight, and at night through the thin walls Nita can hear the boy practice his violin, every repeated phrase and every squeaky mistake but also, occasionally, a stretch of perfect melody. ‘He’s growing too big to share a room with his sister,’ says Ada as she sweeps the floor. ‘But what can I do? You know we can’t afford bigger. I put up one of them Japanese screens. They hate it.’

‘Wipe the skirting boards,’ Nita instructs. If she doesn’t say anything Ada would never think to do it. Nita used to get down on her hands and knees after the girl left, to go over the work one more time, but lately she doesn’t have the energy.

‘My sister is getting married this summer in Montenegro,’ says Ada, running a rag over the top of the skirting boards. ‘We’re all going, even the kids.’

‘Simon’s going to Naples this summer to visit his cousins,’ Nita says.

Ada observes her critically. ‘Who will look after you?’

‘I have my visitors, don’t I? And St George’s. I’ll put my name down for respite.’

The hospice offers two weeks of respite care a year. And she’s invited to the weekly fun-days even when she’s not staying there. Every Tuesday they do a three-course lunch: soup, roast, and pudding, and they hire a professional for an hour of singing in the afternoon. She’s starting to dread going, because the familiar faces are disappearing at a rate that seems to be accelerating. Mary died in the winter. Old Joe, incorrigible Joe with his sailor’s mouth, went just like that a month ago with no warning. In his sleep. Nita allows herself to think for a moment that it wouldn’t be a bad way to go, but then she feels the cold rising up between her shoulder blades. She has to sidle past it carefully, and turn up the telly to drown out the soft mutterings in the back of her mind.

‘Maybe you can go to Naples with Simon?’ Ada suggests.

Nita shakes her head. The planes won’t let her on anymore, not since the cancer diagnosis. It’s still growing inside her; she thinks of it like soft white mould on the surface of her intestines, the kind you find on root vegetables at the bottom of the fridge. They think it’s too risky to open her up at her age. ‘That’s the good thing when your cell growth slows as you get older,’ explained the consultant. ‘Cancers grow slowly, too.’

‘So I’ll die of old age before the cancer can kill me,’ joked Nita, except the consultant looked at her gravely and said yes, he supposed that was exactly right.

Ada finishes up. ‘I’m cooking chicken. Any visitors today? Want to come eat with us?’

Nita thanks her but politely declines. She won’t be that sad old crone next door who holds her neighbours hostage to their kindness.

Photo by Jacqueline O'Gara on Unsplash