The old woman sat dozing in her chair by the window. She lived in room 42. A nursing assistant, young and dark haired, knocked on the door of number 42. She received no answer and so pushed gently on the handle and walked into the room, carrying a jug full of water. She tiptoed past the sleeping woman and placed the jug next to an empty one on the bedside cabinet. Picking up the empty jug she tiptoed back out of the room. The old woman slept on, her head lowered, her mouth slightly open.
Outside in the hallway a ten year old girl skipped past the nursing assistant, her plaits swinging from side to side, tied in two large, blue bows. The assistant (her name tag read ‘Jodie’) noticed the girl’s white ankle socks and flat leather shoes. A strap crossed the top of each shoe secured by a button. ‘What pretty shoes,’ Jodie thought, as she made her way back to the kitchen. Having second thoughts, Jodie turned her head to look back down the hallway: ‘Where are you going? Are you with anyone?’ she called out to the girl. ‘Mummy isn’t far behind me,’ the girl replied and skipped out of sight. ‘Must be visiting one of the residents,’ Jodie said to herself, directing her gaze back up the hallway. A woman was standing there. Smartly dressed, she kept glancing ahead, an impatient look on her face, whilst simultaneously checking her mobile phone. She walked past Jodie. ‘That’ll be the girl’s mother,’ thought Jodie. ‘She went that way,’ she said to the woman, motioning down the hallway, and ran down the flight of stairs that led to the kitchen.
In room 42 the old woman woke up. ‘Dozing again,’ she murmured to herself and looked out of the window. It was a beautiful day. Summer days from the past came rushing at her through the open window. Her husband was waving at her from the top of a Cornish hill; far, far away. She lowered her head to block the memories. She was 89 and she lived in room 42, alone. She never confused memories with reality – there were times she wished she did. Some days she spent in reverie, re-living the past. She only had to close her eyes to take a tour of the old house; to walk down the garden to the pear and apple trees. These things she remembered clearly and yet she couldn’t recall her husband’s face. She wasn’t one to dwell on old photographs.
Her husband was dead. There were days she repeated that fact over and over, to stop herself believing that one day he might walk through the door of number 42 and take her home.
She reached for her sticks at the side of the chair and noticed the slightly blurred image of a young girl sitting on the edge of the bed. The child grinned, swinging her legs forwards and back, forwards and back like a pendulum. ‘Tick tock, tick tock, time is running out,’ thought the old woman; where those words had come from she could not say. ‘Just like Betsy used to sit,’ she said under her breath. ‘Mummy’s in the garden,’ the girl said brightly, ‘I came inside to play for a while with my sister.’ ‘Does your mummy know where you are? I don’t think you should be going into people’s rooms,’ the old woman replied. ‘But it’s such fun,’ said the child. ‘Where is your sister?’ the old woman asked. ‘I think she’s hiding in your room,’ the girl replied. ‘We’re playing hide and seek,’ The old woman’s hearing was still good even if her eyesight was failing. Surely the mother should have kept an eye on her children? She reached for her glasses to bring the girl into focus. The door knocked and the glasses dropped to the floor. ‘Come in;’ the old woman did not look away from the girl. The girl put a finger to her lips. ‘Sshh,’ she whispered. She jumped to the floor and crawled underneath the bed.
Jodie entered the room. ‘How are you Caitlin?’ she asked the old woman. ‘There’s a young girl under my bed’ said Caitlin. ‘Really?’ Jodie went to look. Caitlin was compos mentis so her relationship with the staff was more as an equal and less a frail dependent. Jodie got down on her hands and knees and peered under the bed. Caitlin watched as the child ran from the room; the hazy image of two blue bows, bobbing up and down, followed her. ‘Too late, she’s gone,’ Caitlin said and, for a split second, pain grabbed at her heart.
Jodie got up from the floor. ‘It must be the girl I saw in the hallway when I brought in your jug of water earlier. It’s visiting time. The well behaved kids are allowed to visit but I’ll have a word with the administrator. The girl shouldn’t have been in your room. Maybe she can have a word with the mother, although the mother didn’t look the friendly sort,’ Jodie confided, instinctively lowering her voice. ‘Are you coming down to the lounge? Pointless is on later.’ Caitlin knew it was visiting hours. It was then that she felt most alone.
Pointless was aptly named. Watching the communal TV, for most of the residents, was a pointless exercise. The home comprised a mix of dementia residents and those still with their wits about them, who had chosen residential living rather than face their last years entirely alone. Some, like Caitlin, were childless; others were in possession of children who did not want to be in possession of them. Caitlin got quite a few low scoring answers whilst her fellow inmates sat comatose, quietly drooling, or engaged in active conversations with imaginary relatives or friends. It could be alarming and depressing, this other world most of the residents lived in. On very down days, Caitlin wondered if she’d made a mistake in giving up her home. Would solitude have been preferable to this? ‘We’re living amongst ghosts.’ Caitlin directed this comment at Alexander Armstrong for want of anyone else.
That night Caitlin dreamt of Betsy for the first time in nearly 40 years. They were back at the stream, two young sisters paddling around at the water’s edge. The rope swing was hanging from a tree behind them. There were no adults around. There never were in those days. Caitlin looked back at the rope swing – there was now a hangman’s noose swinging in the breeze. She woke up with a jolt.
It hadn’t been her fault. No nine year old should be expected to look out for her wayward sister. No nine year old should be given that level of responsibility. Mother had told Betsy not to do anything dangerous and relied on Caitlin’s steadier nature, but Betsy never did as she was told, and mother hadn’t known about the rope swing. They were different times back then, weren’t they? That supposed idyllic era of childhood when mothers let their children roam free. That was a mistake Caitlin would never have made had fate allowed her to become a mother. Once again Caitlin felt pity for her younger self. Pity for the nine year old Caitlin watching her sister smash her head against a rock in the sun dappled stream. Pity for the Caitlin who never heard the patter of tiny feet. And now pity for the old Caitlin who felt so alone.
Mother had never forgiven herself. Father couldn’t cope and had left. ‘One day the three of us will be back together,’ her mother had said, over and over again.
The pain in her chest was worse tonight. She hoped it was indigestion. She was 89 and death still scared her. Oh to be like Miriam in the room next door, a touch of dementia and stuck in time, at roughly 35 years old. Miriam had a daughter who never came to see her. With child, or childless, towards the end it didn’t seem to matter.
At breakfast Caitlin sat next to Miriam. ‘I’m going home today on the number 3 bus,’ Miriam said with quiet desperation. Caitlin was used to Miriam’s obsessive, deluded single topic of conversation. ‘My daughter came to see me this morning, she said she’d help me get home. That I didn’t have to stay here if I didn’t want to. “You don’t have to do as you’re told you know,” that’s what she said. ‘Jenny let me comb and plait her hair ready for school. She’d brought ribbons.’ ‘Were they blue?’ Caitlin asked. ‘Sky blue,’ said Miriam. This time Caitlin believed her.
Miriam died that afternoon. ‘She managed to catch that number 3 bus after all,’ Caitlin remarked to Jodie when she brought in another jug of water. Jodie felt this was a rather cynical view of the situation but then Caitlin was compos mentis – a rare quality in the nursing home – which more than made up for her occasional lapses in empathic judgement. Caitlin noticed the look on Jodie’s face. ‘Well she escaped at last didn’t she? It’s what she always wanted.’ ‘That’s one way of looking at it, I suppose’ Jodie said. ‘I was talking to Miriam at breakfast.’ Caitlin continued. ‘A young girl paid her a visit this morning. Miriam thought she was her daughter of course, but I think it was the girl under my bed.’ ‘There are no visiting hours in the morning Caitlin, you know that. Miriam was probably seeing things like she always does…..I mean did; she faltered momentarily. ‘That child will have gone home hours ago.’ ‘Miriam mentioned she put blue ribbons in her daughter’s hair. The child in my room wore blue ribbons, I saw two blue bows.’ Jodie remembered the child in the hallway and the plaits and the blue bows. ‘Just a coincidence,’ Jodie said and left the room. ‘No harm in checking with the security people,’ Jodie thought when she was out in the hallway.
Caitlin sat in her chair by the window, adjusted her glasses and picked up her book from the occasional table. No, it wasn’t a coincidence. There was a ghost running round the nursing home in broad daylight, one they could all see, they just didn’t know it. Caitlin knew the girl was Betsy. Of course she did. Her hand trembled as she held the open book and it fell to the floor. Betsy picked it up for her. ‘Here’s your book Cat, looks boring.’ Betsy had never been much of a reader. ‘That was a good game of hide and seek but I found you!’ She clapped her hands in delight. ‘Mummy will be pleased, she’s outside in the garden.’ Betsy smiled broadly and pointed towards the window.
Caitlin glanced in the wardrobe mirror. She saw an old woman. White hair, sunken eyes, hunched around the shoulders, parchment like skin, more of a husk really than an actual person; almost a ghost. She believed in Betsy more than she believed in the stranger in the mirror. ‘I’m 89 Betsy, there are too many years between us.’ ‘What do you mean Cat?’ the child asked, with earnest eyes. ‘Oh, come to the window Cat, wave at mummy!’ Caitlin jumped up from the chair and ran to the open window. ‘Mummy,’ she breathed. It was mummy in her green cloche hat and the old beige cardigan. She was wearing the necklace Caitlin had bought her for her last birthday. ‘Betsy, did the hospital people mend you?’ asked Caitlin, the tears stinging her eyes. ‘Come on,’ Betsy cried, ‘we can jump from this window. It’s not much of a drop.’ ‘No, that’s too dangerous Betsy, and you know it. I know the way out.’ Mummy waved up at them. Caitlin grabbed Betsy’s hand. In the chair beside them the old woman’s heart stopped.
Outside in the hallway the two sisters ran past Jodie, their laughter bouncing off the walls. Jodie knocked on the door of number 42 and received no answer.