It was unexpected. A boon. It comes at just the right time. Naturally. Times have been lean. I am grateful. More than I can say. He wants to spend it, and pulls my leg. My instinct is always to save. Just in case. Put it away nice and safe. Maybe a little treat. Why not?
A glorious day. I walked to meet him. Shall I come and get you? he asked. No, let me walk. Let me walk a little in this sun. I watched a man waiting to cross Llanbadarn Road, his hand up shielding his eyes from it. Never. There’s always the sun, sang The Stranglers. Somewhere, yes, but rarely here these wintry days. I love it. Look at that blue. My soul rejoices. Hallelujah.
I went. I was a little nervous. It made me cold. Do you want me to take you coat? she asked. No, thanks, I think I’ll keep it on. She talked fast. So much information. My head ached with it by the end. I think it’s going to be good. I liked it there. As well as anyone can ‘like’ an institution. It’s the best I’ve seen. It was clean, light, airy. Most of the floors have to be carpeted, she said, otherwise it looks too much like an institution. We had laminated floors, no not laminate, lino, in the rooms for the very incontinent, but that’s all. It makes a difference. Lots of windows too. And each room with its own shower. Can they have their own furniture? I asked. We don’t encourage it, she said. The family heirloom with woodworm. And think of the fire hazard. Yes, I do see. They all have varying degrees of dementia, she said, settling down into the sofa. No, that’s not strictly true there is one gentleman who doesn’t but he keeps to himself. I’m so excited about this, I’ve even told the papers. I look around me and notice a picture of The Last Supper by Leonardo in cross stitch. Three of the women residents are sitting among us. One has a bruised face, another is sitting at a table, poker-faced. This is a piss-awful day, she shouts. The woman behind the café counter ignores her, as do we. She’s been asked to join in in the art activity upstairs, says my companion, but she doesn’t want to. The woman near to us smiles at us. My companion explains to her what I intend to do. She smiles. That’s nice, she says, it’s good to be busy. She is tiny, her shoulders are like a child’s. On her feet she wears heavily embroidered, blue velvet slippers. The woman with the bruised face stares into space. I walk over to her. You’re looking well, she says. Thank you, I reply, so are you. I complement her on her cardigan. She touches it. She has a Liverpuddlian accent. Are you from Liverpool? I ask. She doesn’t respond. She’s still stroking her cardigan. She looks up. You’re looking well, she says.
The thing to remember is that they don’t see things the way we do, says my guide. She shows me into two other wings. She is bright and breezy, making conversations with staff and residents alike. One woman kisses her. She is wearing pink pyjamas and has bare feet. Are you off for your bath? she asks. The woman giggles. Off you go. Another woman is calling out. We go to her room. She asks if she is OK. I want to go to the toilet, she says. I think you’ve already been, she says. What am I supposed to be doing now? she asks. You’re waiting for tea and cake, my companion says. I notice a picture on her wall, just by the door. Its a series of photographs with the word FAMILY cut out in wood and stuck underneath. It is her. A younger version. An elegant woman with her husband and children. She sits hunched in her chair, her hair a wild, wiry nest of grey. I want to go to the toilet. When we walk past her door ten minutes later she is crying.
Can I make a difference? She seemed to think so. We like them to see people from outside, from the community. Can I call you our artist in residence? she asked. She thinks they will talk to me. They will certainly try to tidy things away, she says. A euphemism. Things go walkabout, she says. Be careful with scissors. When one of the residents died her family found three pairs of scissors in her drawers. She’d been a midwife, she said, I think she was trying to keep us all safe. Perhaps she just liked to have tools around her, I said. Perhaps, you may be right.
The New Year then. Yes. And see what happens. I won’t ask you to wear the T-shirt, she said. No, I said.
He liked it. Wonderful and immersive, he said. I’m so relieved. Thank you. Thank you.