The business fuss of our visit is over. Nell has refused hospital despite everything, every threat, blandishment, trick and treat we know. The carer has gone, Nell is propped up on a dozen rotten pillows contentedly spooning a yogurt. Frank is on the phone in the sitting room talking to the out of hours doctor.
I look round the room.
‘Where are you from originally, Nell?’
‘Liverpool. I’m a scouser. D’you know what? When my sister Patty rings, she says “Are you okay, our wack?”
‘Our wack. I like that.’
‘She’s always said it.’
There are several photographs, framed or otherwise, spread across the walls. I point to one, a luminously pretty woman in a tightly buttoned uniformed, her lipstick mouth in a formal forties cupid. She has tried to control her hair, but it still looks as though someone filled her cap with springs and then dumped it on her head.
‘So is this you in the uniform, Nell?’
‘Is this what?’
‘Is this you during the war?’
‘WRAF, Carlisle. Nineteen forty two.’
‘I went all over the place. Norway. Sweden. London.’
She points at me with the spoon.
‘Intake, compression, power, exhaust.’
‘What’s that then?’
‘I was a mechanic. I fixed the trucks. They said to me “Nell, what do you know about the workings of it all?” And I told them. Intake, compression, power, exhaust. The internal combustion engine. In a nutshell.’
She hangs on the memory for a moment, then dives back into her fruit corner.
‘Did you do it after the war?’
‘Did you do it after the war? Mechanics?’
‘I was Head Usherette at the Hippodrome. See that one there?’
‘That one there. He came and sang there once and he gave me that.’
‘He’s a fine looking feller.’
‘He’s a fool. He had a sack of them. Everyone got a picture, whether they wanted one or not.’
Frank comes back into the room.
‘The doctor says you’re to come to hospital with us, Nell.’
‘Well the doctor can mind her own business.’
‘You’re not yourself.’
‘There’s nothing the matter with me. I’m not going to hospital, and you can’t make me.’
‘You’re right there.’
‘I just want to be left alone.’
She scrapes round the yogurt carton then chucks it to the side.
‘That’s me Dad,’ she says, wiping her mouth on her cardigan then pointing at the wardrobe. For a moment I think Poor Nell. She really is confused. But then I realise there is a framed picture of a man on the very top of the wardrobe, the top edge of the frame almost touching the ceiling.
Frank rearranges the pillows behind her.
‘Have you got everything you need, Nell? Can we make you a tea?’
‘Nell - the doctor says she’s coming straight over to have a word. We’ll wait in the sitting room till she gets here.’
‘Righto. But I’m not going to the hospital.’
‘Talk to the doctor about it.’
We go next door, into a low-ceilinged room sparsely furnished with a display cabinet of dusty trinkets, a TV, a threadbare Ercol settee and coffee table, everything strewn with toffees, celebrity magazines and random scraps of paper. One of them has shaky handwriting covering one side, notes that Nell had obviously made for a letter to a newspaper: I fought for my country, she writes. This green and pleasant land, so called. And now what do I see out the window? Students marching in the street because they can’t go to college because the government won’t give them any money. I never had the chance of an education so I got it where I could and that was that and I don’t complain. But I didn’t go through a war just to see kids not given a fair chance. Something must be done. This old woman supports the students.
There is a photo book there too – A Day in the Life of Norway. The cover shows a young couple sprawled on a grassy bank beneath a pine tree. The girl is smiling as the boy points something out across the fjord. Behind them, two tethered horses are grazing – except for some reason the horse in the foreground is arching its back and neck, its mouth wide open, just as if it were about to be sick all over the boy. I show Frank.
‘What the hell is this one doing?’
‘I don’t know, Spence. A hairball.’
‘Why would you put a picture like that on a book about Norway, Frank?’
‘They’re trying to tell you something. Norway’s all right if you go by bike.’
Suddenly Nell shouts out from the bedroom. We both go back in.
‘I need the loo.’
We help her up. Even with her stick she wobbles about.
‘Are you okay?’ I say. She stops, plants herself as firmly as she’s able, and looks right at me.
‘You know all that business about Wayne Rooney? You know what Patty says?’
‘What does she say?’
‘She says if I was his wife I’d cut his nob off.’