It didn’t smell like piss and the loss of all mortal hope, like I’d thought it might. Feared it might. In fact, it was dead normal, really – it was just that instead of hustle and bustle there was a slowness to it all, a gentle deceleration. Like looking at eighty years of memories through steamed up glasses.
“Hello, Nanna,” I said, and from her chair in the corner she stopped talking to my Aunt, mid-sentence, and looked up, smiling. The kind of smile that doesn’t hold you up to the responsibility of not having visited in fifteen months, and floods your very bones with regret because of it.
“Ay up, Laura,” she said. I could hardly hear her over the theme tune to This Morning on the flat screen beside her. “Have you seen the chicks?”
All that time, passed, unrecoverable, and the first thing she asked me about was the birds.
“Eeeee, don’t you look lovely?” she added, satisfied with me.
A nurse came and asked, in broad Derbyshire accent, how she was today. Nanna nodded. Introduced me. “Another one who does her make-up all nice, Joyce. Beautiful family you’ve made, haven’t you?” Nanna nodded again, appeased. I suppose at 86 that’s what it comes to, isn’t it: family. The people who are your proof. This is the result of my life, this is what I made, this is what I will leave behind. I thanked the nurse for her kindness. Let that be her legacy, I thought.
Elsie and Elsie had a fist fight yesterday, I was told, and that woman over there? Oh, she’s a witch. An actual witch? I marvelled, careful not to meet her eye. Nanna smiled brightly. A horrible, horrible woman, she said.
“What you and I would refer to as a witch with a ‘b’, Laura,” Mama Janie told me.
Ah, I said, and as she was wheeled by we hushed and let the conversation fall. Still smiling, Nanna reiterated, “A horrible, Scottish, witch.”
Mama explained, she had to get moved to another dinner table. She was making everyone blue with misery. It made me wonder if they all wear pink on Tuesdays.
Lambert ambled through then, in his pyjamas and a knitted jumper, almost knocking into the men who’d come to fix the extraction fans. “Dirty work, is it?” Mama Janie had asked, avoiding their ladder. “Nah duck,” the taller of the two replied. “It’s not filth that gets ‘em blocked so much as talcum powder. You know what these old folks are like, wafting it around like I don’t know what. I go home smelling like a poof’s parlour.”
Oh, she replied.
“Are you not bothering today Lambert?” we then asked, and he replied, with the utter conviction of a man who has earned the right to do whatever he goddamn pleases etched into his wrinkled frown, “I’m not.” He carried on walking the corridor to investigate how much longer until lunch. We heard him say, “Another seven minutes? Well I wouldn’t have come down if I’d have known I had seven minutes!”
“Let’s go and see those chicks,” Nanna said.
A local council initiative, designed, I imagine, to provoke hope and engagement and marvel at the miracle of life and living, meant in the lobby were two incubators: one warming hatching eggs, and the other with fluffy yellow and brown birds, wobbly and whiny and brave.
Popular spot, the incubators, with the crowd of elderly retirees crowded around beginning lives. Awwww, int it nice? somebody said.
And then, Ooooh god, they don’t like that one very much, do they?
Nanna’s voice echoed in my mind: horrible, Scottish witch.
In the middle of the box was a lame chick, on its belly, eyes closed and heart beating fast through its tiny furry chest. The other chicks were taking turns to peck at it – along its body, first, and then at its eyes. Peck, peck, peck, over and over again, and we stood and watched and tutted and panicked.
It was heartbreaking and sad and hilarious and in that moment, there, and as somebody reached in to rescue the helpless, bloody little thing, there was irony and poetry and tears welling in my soul.
Life is strange. Old age is so incredibly confronting. We’re scared of it. I’m scared of it. Maybe that’s why I hadn’t visited in so long. There was panic about what to do with the dying chick, the one who didn’t stand a chance, and eventually it was put in with the hatching eggs, where it will have been far too hot but what else was to be done? What else was to be done but for this chick not designed to live to pass away in amongst the new life.
“What will you be having for lunch today, then?” Mama said, changing the subject.