Who lived on my walk to work, in the ground-floor flat of a rather ugly old tenement building on a busy road. I walk past this building twice a day and on almost every occasion she was in her kitchen, sitting at what must have been a very small table set just below the window. She never seemed to notice me but I always noticed her, maybe even started looking out for her, every time I passed.
In the morning at just after eight she was having her breakfast, holding on with two hands to a chipped mug, often looking off into the distance, at other times coughing hard. Undoubtedly a hacking, rough, loud cough which I would have heard if her window had been open and the traffic noise diminished in the street. But neither ever happened so I can only imagine the disturbing sound coming from her throat.
When I walked by at around two o’clock in the afternoon on my way in for the late shift or on my way home from the early one, I could see her slowly peeling an orange or scraping out the bottom of a yoghurt pot with a dulled silver teaspoon. I never saw any other more exciting desserts like a chocolate eclair or a pink raspberry macaron. But she seemed quite happy with her lot although she always ate alone.
In the evening on the way back to my car there was soup, spooned down a little shakily, each mouthful wiped carefully with a tartan napkin in her free hand. And the cough still there, unwelcome and cruel.
All these moments, these lonely meals, were glimpsed in just a couple of seconds, maybe less, as I pounded the pavement outside her flat, notching up my daily quota of steps, slowing down as I neared her home. But I never stopped, never waved, never knocked on the window to say good morning, afternoon or evening. But how could I? She would have been scared stiff. I always intended to at least try and exchange a smile but I didn’t, and now it’s too late.
One day the shutters were shut. A trip to visit a daughter, son, niece, nephew, cousin? A surprise birthday organised by all the family in a beautiful hotel in the countryside? A shopping spree to Paris with the Women’s Institute. Or a well-deserved thermal spa break to help with the cough? Mmm, maybe not.
One week. Two weeks. A month. After three months the shutters opened again last Thursday. The curtains had been taken down. The windows cleaned. And inside I could see men in white overalls scraping, plastering, painting. The ancient wooden kitchen units had been removed. The back wall painted a beautiful midnight blue and spanking new glossy white units were being installed. I had to just stand outside and stare. This can’t have all been done for the old lady. My old lady.
So where did she go? My dumb idealistic side wishes for her a new life in Barbados, soaking up the sun, a dream-life won by playing the lottery on an afternoon when she actually ventured out to buy the winning ticket.
My optimistic side hopes for a lovely old folks’ home where the kind nurses are administering sweet, thick cough syrup. A warm, comforting place where she is playing cards and bingo with the others, sipping tea from flowery, fine bone china cups, eating eclairs, macarons and lobster bisque. My pessimistic and probably more realistic side sees first a long stay in hospital. Then it sees nothing. Nothing at all because I simply don’t want to see. She has gone, that’s all.
Maybe one day, when I was in my office working hard, not thinking about this old lady at all, she swallowed a fly. And we all know what can happen after that. I just hope, if I ever swallow a fly one day, that there will be someone by my side to help me spit it out again. Before I catch sight of a spider, crawling its way slowly across the room.