This morning I went to see my Aunty Elsie in the old people's home. I escort mum as she is having trouble seeing out of her left eye. On the way to West Croydon a bus stops alongside the tram. On the side is Stonewall's SOME PEOPLE ARE GAY. GET OVER IT! advert.
"Look at that!" I say
"What?" she says.
"The bus," I say. "On the side. See what it says?"
"Yes, a bus," she says. "I can see the bus."
I don't say anything more but just nod, thinking about the days when I would have pointed out a bus to her from my pushchair and that the bus would have been the thing I was interested in, because a bus was more than enough.
We arrive and Elsie is asleep, slumped forwards so her head is angled near her chest. There is a big cancerous growth on the balding side of her head which I can't look at. I stand on the other side where her hair is bobbed and still growing. From this point of view she looks fine. I take hold of her hand, knowing that touching is better than speaking. It brings her eyes into focus on my face. She's deaf and makes little straining noises, like she is lifting something too heavy for her wrists. The carer wheels her into a side room. Mum gets out a box of Maltesers. I pull off the cellophane as Mum says her fingers aren't working today.
I notice Elsie looks like her sister, my mum's mother, my grandmother. It's the look of being old, crumpled and tired. Her legs have lost all shape of ankle. I go into the room to fetch her cardigan and skim the row of old folks in the main room. 'This Morning' is on TV and I start praying that I don't end up sat in a room filled with sleeping strangers, watching Eamon Holmes' equivalent. But then again they probably prayed not to be old once too. I stop myself from welling up. I think how all the people look strangely alike. Then as I put Elsie's cardi over her shoulders, I notice she has painted fingernails, coral pink. The lady shuffling past hasn't had her nails done. The lady looks at me, her hair is white and in a style of post-electric shock.
"Why are you here?" she says.
"Elsie, I've come to see Elsie," I say, loudly.
"That woman over there, she's come to see her." A carer comes from round the corner and shouts into her ear. Then a man is coming out the lounge and is smiling at me, his eyes are alive and blue, as his hands push down hard on his zimmer frame.
"Hello there," he says. "I'm Bill. There was a frost last night." I smile back, wondering what is wrong with him apart from needing a bit of balance. He is mentally quick enough to be leading a fuller life than this one.
We eat Maltesers and drink tea. Mum says for me to go and find that old photo album in Elsie's bedroom. I walk through the kitchen where the man with the zimmer frame is now sat with his daughter, who has arrived with her daughter and a little boy. An Easter egg is between them on the table. On the wall there are children's paintings of houses and blue skies and big suns. Then I realise they have been done by the residents. I find Elsie's, hers is of a neat tree with a corner of blue sky. The old guy is talkative, and being funny, telling a story and his family all look relaxed, at home, as if they are relieved to have lively Dad/Granddad back at the helm. I go into Elsie's room and use the toilet. Above the sink is a laminated piece of paper. It reads:
My name is Elsie
In the morning I like to brush my hair in front of the mirror. I will go along with what you say as long as you keep speaking to me. I like to have a choice of two outfits put out on the bed. In the evening I don't have my hair brushed. I like to be given a choice at all times. I use talc under my arms.
I am moved by the small story of her habits and how a glimpse of Elsie's spirit still shines through. When everything recognisable about a person starts to drop away, the hair, the shape, their thoughts, the cleverness, it turns out that the packaging is not anything to do with the person they were all along.
I close the door and see a picture of Elsie on her door, a smiling Elsie next to a London Underground sign. Then there is crying in the kitchen. The little boy is sobbing, wanting to go home. The old man starts to shout at the boy.
"You are a wicked, evil little boy. Wicked. Wicked." No one knows what to say to the old man whose face has changed to hatred. The mother takes the boy outside.
I go back to Elsie. We look at her photos. Her face is animated. Time passes with Maltesers being shared, then Mum and me decide we'll get the next train.
"We've got to go now," I say to Elsie. She's clearly not bothered. The carer comes to unbolt the door.
"You don't have to go," she says in a matter of fact way. I wonder what she means.
"You know, we don't have to go." I say to Mum as we walk up the drive.
"No, it's time. Did I say we're going to sign the house over to you and your sister next week?" Mum says as we walk away. "For you know when."
We go to Homebase and Mum buys a new doorbell and she buys me the Dulux paint tester pot.