When I met Dorothy in the dayroom, I did my best to hide my astonishment. To put it mildly, she’d changed. Her cheeks were jowly now. The skin on her face was made up of rosy patches surrounded by doughy blanched patches. Red spindly veins stitched these patches together. Her mouth was reduced to a threadlike crease and she seemed to have no eyelashes. Her hair was as black as ever, though, but lacklustre, droopy and thinning.
‘How have you been doing?’ I asked.
‘You’re late. Thought you’d decided not to bother.’
‘I drove around a bit before I came here. As the weather’s so nice I popped round to see the old place.’
Looking at the house on Warminster Road, I’d felt it drawing me in, trying to inflict its new crumbly, shabby appearance onto my childhood memories.
‘It’s still there, is it? You had a bike, I think. Blue. You cycled round the garden.’
An old woman was sitting in the corner of the room. She looked ninety or more, and had the eyes of a portrait that seem to follow you wherever you go. But I didn’t feel watched; she gave the impression she was elsewhere, focusing on some internal landscape.
‘That’s right,’ I said. ‘That bike certainly got a lot of wear and tear.’
‘Round and round,’ Dorothy said. ‘Where’s that young wife of yours and the kiddies, then?’
‘They’re coming next week. Judy wanted me to tell you. She’s a bit busy just now what with her mother, you know. But they’ll be here next week. They’re looking forward to it.’
Dorothy stood up and started making for the door. ‘Fag break,’ she said, motioning me to follow. Her steps were short and rapid. She leaned forward as she moved.
Just outside the back door there was a seating area with a couple of white plastic tables and chairs and two white parasols. Dorothy took one of the chairs nearest the door and I sat opposite her. From a pocket in her shorts she withdrew a packet of Silk Cut and a red lighter. She lit a cigarette, drew on it and blew out a great plume of smoke.
‘You still don’t indulge? Haven’t taken up the ciggies?’
‘Well, that’s a blessing. I had a dream about Fiona.’
It was only when she extracted the cigarettes and lighter from her shorts that I registered what she was wearing. The shorts were big and baggy and constructed of a fine material that made me think of parachute silk. They were electric blue. She was also wearing white socks and a pair of trainers, and a loose T-shirt – green with a smattering of brown stains down the front.
‘My friend,’ Dorothy said. ‘She died. Fiona.’
‘Yes, that’s right,’ I said. ‘Judy mentioned it. Fiona. She lived here?’
‘Two rooms down. Guess where she is now.’
‘City Road Cemetery?’
Dorothy took another drag, glancing to the side. She waved her Silk Cut backwards indicating the door we’d come out of.
‘She’s there in my room. That’s what she said.’
‘In the dream?’
‘Uh-huh. She’s gone to heaven. Heaven for her was the painting in my room. You know, the painting by that Australian? The burnt trees and dust and all that? She talked a lot about that painting. Said she wanted to go into it.’
‘I wouldn’t fancy that,’ I said. ‘She’s looking out at you, then, from the painting?’
‘No, nothing like that. Not looking out.’ Dorothy slumped forward. She rested her hands on the table and looked me right in the eyes.
The woman who brought us the coffee was young, maybe eighteen. She dumped our coffees on the table, seized the ashtray and emptied it in the bin by the door. Auxiliary Nurse Vanessa was written on her nametag.
‘There you are,’ she said in a falsetto voice. ‘Is everything all right, Mrs. Cunningham?’
Dorothy looked at her and paused before replying, holding this young fawn of a woman in her gaze.
‘This man here,’ she said, pointing her cigarette, ‘is my nephew.’
‘Pleased to meet you,’ Vanessa said, although she didn’t look pleased. She whipped a grey cloth from the belt around her dress and scraped it across the table. Suddenly I could smell disinfectant.
‘He is here because I am dying.’
Vanessa looked up from the table at Dorothy. ‘Now, now – we mustn’t talk like that, must we?’
She tucked her cloth back under her belt and jutted out her chin. Then she spun away from us back into the building.
‘That whippersnapper,’ Dorothy said. ‘She’s too naive for this place. Doesn’t have the … what is it?’
‘The gumption. She’s too young. And I don’t have the patience. She’s at the beginning and I’m at the end. Where are we supposed to meet?’
‘Dorothy,’ I said. ‘You never had kids. What do you think about…?’
‘Here, look at this.’
She withdrew a small black-and-white photo from her shorts. I took it by a corner.
‘My wedding day. Cutting the cake. Well, you’ve seen it before. There’s Uncle Jack. I wasn’t bothered when he died. Except that we were supposed to get old together. More coffee?’
I declined another cup. Dorothy snatched the photo from my fingers, squashed her cigarette in the ashtray and stood up and made for the door. She beckoned me to follow. We went through the dayroom and into the hall leading to her room, Dorothy forging ahead with her busy steps.
We passed a couple of nurses and she looked back over her shoulder and said quite cheerily, ‘Hello, Sue! Hello, Trish!’ Then she said to me, ‘I never dream about my husband. What does that mean, do you think?’
Unable to think of a reply, I raised my eyebrows.
‘Exactly,’ Dorothy said. ‘It means what it means.’
We entered her room and I was surprised to see a fat grey cat there. Curled on the bed, it raised its head and yawned. There was a filthy cat bowl on the floor. Half under the bed, it looked like a chamber pot. There seemed to be some mashed food in it.
‘Jack! Dorothy said. With one smooth motion she hoisted herself onto the bed and lay on her side. ‘Yes, I know,’ she said to the cat. ‘It’s Uncle Jack back from the dead. Reincarnated.’ She winked up at me.
A stale smell of cat and geriatrics permeated the room, or maybe it was the stuff in the bowl. I sat on the chair next to the bed and examined the double-glazed window but couldn’t see how to open it. Dorothy stroked Jack with slow affectionate sweeps of her hand.
‘Do you like music?’ she asked.
‘I suppose so,’ I said. ‘Depends.’
‘Well, I’ve got a cassette here.’ She reached over to the cassette player and pressed the play button. ‘You’ll like this. Jack does, don’t you, Jack?’
Are You Lonesome Tonight began to play softly as Dorothy returned to her stroking. It was warm in the room. The cat was dozing and Dorothy was lying on her side again. I leaned back in the chair and looked up at the ceiling, allowing my vision to blur. I wanted to let the slow pace of the nursing home seep into me. I closed my eyes and listened to the background noises of chatter and rattling cutlery. A phone rang somewhere. From outside the realm of this place came the low sound of traffic. It was easy to do nothing, to be still, to take account of time passing.
One of the nurses we’d seen in the corridor, Trish or Sue, came into the room. She was carrying a small plastic tray in the palm of her hand as if she were a waitress arriving with the bill. On the tray were five tablets of varying sizes. She, too, had a grey cloth tucked into her belt.
‘Brace yourself, Pet – it’s tablet time.’
Dorothy roused herself, pushing herself up until she was sitting on the bed. I noticed Jack was gone and the tape player had turned itself off. I wondered how long we’d been there, comatose in what felt to me a fairly public arena. I gathered myself together and read Nurse Trish on the nurse’s nametag.
‘At least you don’t call me Mrs. Cunningham. Not like the other one, that Vanessa girl.’
‘Here you are,’ Trish said, setting the tray on the bed. She went to the sink and filled a glass with water before returning to Dorothy. ‘Take your beauty pills.’
‘Oh, don’t talk such rot!’ Dorothy said. ‘This man here,’ she fluttered her fingers in my direction, ‘he is here because I am dying, Trish.’
‘Hello,’ Trish said, glancing up at me. ‘Who’s talking rot now?’
I was unsure whether the question was directed at me since Trish hadn’t looked away from me while speaking, but as I was wondering she placed the water on the bedside table and was suddenly gone.
‘Awful,’ Dorothy said. ‘Always tablets. I’m a walking apothecary.’
She lay down again but on her back this time. She closed her eyes abruptly as if wincing in pain. She lay completely still, scarcely seeming to breathe. I looked at the painting on the wall to my right. It wasn’t a painting, of course, but a print. From this distance I could read only some of the text underneath: Sydney Nolan, Ku-ring-gai Chase 1948. It seemed an unlikely image for a nursing home, a riot of yellow ochre and burnt sienna depicting some sort of damaged landscape. Heat and dust and stunted trees and bush. It didn’t look like heaven to me. Maybe Dorothy’s friend was thinking along the lines of burning and renewal. She was nowhere to be seen.
‘Come on then.’ Dorothy sat up and slid off the bed. ‘The cat’s gone. We might as well do the same. Smoke?’
Before I could answer she went off down the hall. After a couple of moments I got up from the chair and went through the hall and out into the open air again, but Dorothy was not there. I sat down at the same table as before. There was nobody else around and after five minutes I went back inside to the dayroom.
Here, it was full to bursting. There was a TV in the corner, bracketed up near the ceiling, and it seemed that most of the patients – those who were mobile and of sound mind – were gathered beneath it, gazing upwards. I stood behind them and looked up too. It appeared that a reporter was interviewing one of the nurses outside the entrance to the nursing home. It was raining on the TV. The reporter was outlining the recent cuts in health and welfare programs and their effect on community care budgets. The nurse stared into the camera. I couldn’t see Dorothy anywhere. I went over to the person nearest me, a grey man in pyjamas and terrycloth dressing gown.
‘Excuse me, have you seen Dorothy? Dorothy Cunningham?’
The man continued staring upward. ‘This could be the end of the nursing home,’ he said. ‘The end. Everything dies in the end, you know. Even this.’ He extended his arms and held them there for a moment before letting them sink to his sides.
A woman next to him said, ‘We have seen better days. Dorothy, did you say?’
‘Yes. I’ve lost her.’
‘Well, it’s easily done. She’ll be out there. Through the kitchen and out the back. It’s her favourite spot.’
‘Thank you. I didn’t know that,’ I said.
‘Just there,’ another woman said. It was the ninety year old with the eyes that follow you. Her crooked finger pointed to a door on my left.
I walked through the kitchen, smelling of chicken and rice, and into another, smaller, room. This room was cool, dark and silent. I had a peculiar, fleeting impression that there might be things here that were hidden from me. A greyish mist seemed to curl in the air, visible from the corners of my eyes. There were no windows and I couldn’t make out much apart from what looked like a stretcher trolley in a corner. I went through the next door and found myself outside again, standing in a bright garden.
Dorothy was in the far corner slouched in a deckchair beneath a sycamore. She was waving her cigarette. I went over to her, padding on the soft cropped grass. As it was surrounded on all sides by high laurel hedges the garden was peaceful, though some noises broke through: the hum of traffic, the sound of a barking dog, children playing up the road somewhere, and chirping birds.
Dorothy looked relaxed, she looked comatose even, and it seemed she hadn’t closed her mouth after her last Silk Cut exhalation. Just as I was settling into the deckchair opposite her, I was startled to see her top row of teeth collapse neatly down on to her bottom teeth with a brittle clatter. She sat up and began probing in her mouth.
‘Heavens!’ she said. ‘My choppers!’
‘I didn’t realise you had false teeth,’ I said, recovering.
‘Top and bottom,’ Dorothy said. ‘Had it done a couple of years back. I’m all gums now. Only stick my choppers in for guests. And food.’
Tearing my gaze from her mouth, I looked at Dorothy’s eyes. ‘I remember those false eyelashes you had once.’
Dorothy closed her right eye and drew a finger across it.
‘But that was years ago. I only had them for a giggle. Need them now though, don’t I?’
She finished with her right eye, closed her left and drew a finger across that.
‘I don’t get many giggles now. Not here in this place. Never mind – if I find happiness again, total real happiness, I might not want to die.’
A light breeze disturbed the flowers behind her and rose up into the sycamore, flapping her shorts along the way so that their resplendent blue flashed like the plumage of a kingfisher. Dorothy finished off her cigarette and dropped it in the ashtray beside her deckchair.
‘Between you and me,’ she said, ‘I don’t think I’ve got enough time left to find much of anything now.’
‘What’s that room for?’ I said in an effort to lighten things. I pointed to the nursing home. ‘That room behind the kitchen. It’s pretty dark in there. No windows.’
‘Well, I suppose it’s a storeroom.’
‘A kind of pantry? They ought to make use of it. Right there by the kitchen and everything.’
‘Oh, they do. That’s where they keep the bodies.’
‘The sudden deaths. They’ve got to dump them somewhere while waiting for the cleaners to arrive.’
Dorothy shoved her cigarettes and lighter into her shorts pocket, and yawned.
‘It’s the tablets, you know,’ she said. ‘They’re real knocker-outers.’
I stood up and made a move towards her.
‘No, no,’ she said. ‘No need for that.’
She reached out and took my hand. ‘There,’ she said, patting it. ‘This is what we can manage. The best goodbyes are short and sweet.’
Dorothy let go of my hand and I straightened up.
‘Goodbye then,’ I said. ‘And don’t forget – Judy and the kids are coming next week.’
I turned around and started back towards the nursing home. Nurse Trish and Auxiliary Nurse Vanessa were walking across the lawn towards me. As I passed them I said my goodbyes and continued on. When I reached the door to the storeroom I heard Dorothy talking to them.
‘It was fun being young,’ she was saying. ‘I had a giggle, you know. But now I’m at the wrong end of it all. This whole place is one big near-death experience.’
‘We mustn’t talk that way, Mrs. Cunningham,’ Auxiliary Nurse Vanessa said.
‘Oh, do shut up, woman,’ Dorothy replied.
About the Author:
Matthew Davies lives in Norway. In the curious circumstances in which his characters often find themselves, they are left to reveal their motivations through their behaviour, dialogue and interactions. Matthew’s fiction has appeared in Horla – The Home of Intelligent Horror.