Part 3 of 4.
A rare heatwave blankets the city, leaving its inhabitants sweltering and bewildered. Lena, the volunteer shopper, pops around to check that Nita’s got the fan on, that she’s taking her liquids. Nita offers hot tea and Lena looks at her as though she has finally lost the plot, but Nita doesn’t feel the heat the way she used to. The cold sits deep in her bones, as though winter was a living thing, an animal that had burrowed in to hibernate and starved to death while dreaming of spring.
‘You call me if you feel unwell, day or night,’ Lena tells her, lingering at the door. ‘When is your son back?’
In a fortnight, Nita tells her. By then her neighbour Ada will be back too. She doesn’t bring up the fact that she feels untethered without the constant family noises next door. In the evenings only silence permeates the wall between the two flats. She has taken to going to bed at eight, with the sun still high on the horizon.
‘And you’ve got your button?’
The literal big red button that she wears on a chain about her neck. Simon made her get it before he left for Naples. She’s managed to set it off twice already. The people on the phone are very nice about it. ‘Ninety-five percent of our calls are false alarms,’ one of them told her. ‘We prefer that to the alternative.’
Still, she hates it when it happens. No one seems to care anymore about the stiff upper lip, the shame of being an inconvenience. She remembers being taken to the boarding house in the country, overrun with children evacuated from London. In hindsight the planning was atrocious; there was one adult to fifty children, and she went nearly the entire summer without washing. Her head was crawling with lice by the time they finally noticed, and they had to burn her clothes and shave her hair. Her mother had burst into hysterical tears when they were reunited. At the time she had felt unloved and abandoned, no doubt because she was so ugly, but now she thinks back and realises what she must have looked like to the adults. They had relatives who didn’t make it out of Bergen-Belsen.
Lena leaves, and Nita rises to make herself another cup of tea. Her foot catches a kink in the rug. The world tilts and she teeters off-balance, terror flashing through her like a cold flood. Her mind is still quick, though, and somehow she manages to angle herself so that she falls face-first into the sofa rather than onto the floor. She lays prone across the soft cushions, gasping for air, her heart jackhammering in her chest.
Later she finds a fist-sized bruise on her hip where she had hit the armrest. Still, she is fully aware how lucky she is. Mary at the hospice went downhill fast after she broke her leg. That’s the way old age happens: not a linear slope but a ziggurat, with one descent after the next. A fall and your quality of life is reduced, and you stagger along, holding onto doorframes and the edges of furniture, thinking this is only a temporary setback, that you’ll return to yourself soon enough. But as you lumber along in that reduced state it happens again. A change of meds, a mini-stroke, or the heavens forbid another fall, and you stumble down another step, and another after that. Soon enough you lay spread-eagled at the bottom, staring up at the sky, and you finally realise your true self is not up there in the clouds. Your true self is here, without capacity for motion or self-reliance, and somewhere over your shoulder, just out of sight, the darkness creeps in.
She makes herself canned soup for dinner, same as the night before and the night before that. This time a year ago she was still able to stand in the kitchen and cook an entire meal without having to sit down for breaks. Soup is easier. Soup only requires opening the can (using the electric can-opener that Ada got for her) and heating it up in a saucepan. She’s careful to use the smallest saucepan and she won’t try pouring it anymore, not after the last time. She uses a ladle instead. It inevitably means she leaves a third of the soup in the saucepan, but it’s better than the alternative. She won’t be carted off to the care home. She proves, every day, that she can still live on her own.