My Dad took me to the opera when I was seven, she is telling me, it was Aida. I was entranced, she says, it was so beautiful.
Seven. A year before, just after her sixth birthday, her mother had died. She was always a sickly child. I had my own cow, she tells me again, my own special cow. I had to have milk, you see, she says, her tiny hand on my arm. Her mouth smells sour. Rancid. She is ninety-three now and outlived all her more robust siblings.
She manoeuvres an open sandwich from a plate and takes a bite. She eats like a bird. Tiny mouthfuls. Ah, my pills, she says, I mustn’t forget these. There are three, in a little plastic measuring cup. Look at that one, she says pointing at a monster pill, before proceeding to bite it into three, more manageable pieces. She chokes on her milk, spraying white spots onto her already stained dark blue sweat pants. I stroke her back. It’s OK, she says, I’m OK. We both stare at her trainers. Ugly aren’t they, she says. We laugh.
She still shines. Her smile is a sun. Her hair a host of white light. I love her. All around her, in that mean room, are forgotten bodies. They barely move. They are static forms, some in wheelchairs, others on chairs. It’s 10.00am. It’s breakfast. They all eat in here. The music, classical, has stopped. There is an upright piano in the corner. It’s wood bleached by the sun. A splash of bleach has left a large blotch of white on its lid. Yes, the bodies. For that is in the main what they are. Some eat. Slowly. Others just stare, heads leaning to one side, spittle like yarn dripping from mouths. Others tap their fingers. What’s that noise? she says. Tap, tap, tap. A man in a wheelchair. A slumped body is knocking his long fingers against the metal of his chair. God, she says, what a noise, I can’t think. She talks loudly. The tapping stops.
Her friend arrives. I introduce myself. He shuffles over to his usual seat next to her. She is attentive. He takes her hand. Opposite her, a woman is eating. I don’t talk to her, she says, she isn’t my friend. A man is wheeled over to join our table. I shift my stool. His sandwiches have been cut into tiny circles. His eyes are staring. There is no recognition. He too starts to choke. I move to help. Don’t, she says, don’t interfere. They don’t care for him. It is too bad. After his choking subsides, she asks if he is hungry, offering her half-eaten plate of sandwiches. His hand reaches over. Shaking he manages to grasp a piece of bread, lifting it to his mouth. The process takes minutes, seems like hours.
I ask her friend how long he has been here. Five years. A gentleman. Quiet, reserved but there is grace and kindness in him. I see this. She seeks out the men. Always has done. They are her security. She needs their attention. She defers to them – seeing more than there is. Because she needs to. I show her the photographs I have brought. Who is he? she asks. I tell her. Your old friend. Don’t you remember? He was her friend for years. Her constant companion. No, she says, I don’t remember him. She is no longer interested. This is her life now. I accept it, she says. She has a view of the balcony from her room. There are plants that will flower in the spring. She says she goes out. She does not. Her legs are caved in. Her knees bending inward. Her walk is a shuffle. She propels herself forward on two sticks.
She is a troublemaker. I’m giving him the eye, she says pointing at a tall, blonde male nurse. She doesn’t mean what I think she means. She is glaring at him. He gives her a wide berth. There is only one carer who smiles at her, likes her, touches her.
She kisses me. Holding on to me. Her kiss is wet on my cheek.
Outside, I realise I forgot to give her the chocolate. I leave it on a sleeping bag beside the old cinema. I hope you like chocolate, I whisper.