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The Care Home by Joy Wilkinson

[This story was short listed for the Bedford prize in the 2016 Bedford International Writing Competition]

 

 

 

He watched as the family arrived.

"Is everything ready?" he asked.

"Yes", came the reply.

 

*********************************************************************************************

 

"Are you sure this is the right place?"

 

"Yes!" Julia answered, exasperated with her husband, Peter.  But then he was a bit of a worry wort when it came to his mother.

 

"It's just, it looks, are you sure we can afford it?"

 

Through the car windscreen the tree-lined driveway pointed to an elegant stone building, regimented Georgian windows overlooking an immaculate lawn.  A gardener in a wide brimmed hat and khaki shirt tended flowering rose bushes.  He raised an arm and waved at the approaching car.  

 

It did look very impressive admitted Julia to herself.  They had offered an excellent package to look after her mother-in-law with very affordable monthly payments.  Pretty cheap actually.  The previous place had begun to look very tatty and when they raised their prices that was the last straw.  It hadn't taken long to move Peter's mother, he'd left all the arrangements to her, as usual, citing busy times at work.  As if she had all the time in the world to deal with things.

 

They drew up next to a shiny grey Mercedes and got out of their ageing Astra.  Miserable Susanna slammed the passenger door to remind her parents she really did not want to be there.  Why did they have to visit Granny when all her friends had arranged to go into town this afternoon?  It was all pointless anyway, Granny had gone spacey years ago and didn't know or even care who she was anymore.

 

The family crunched their way across gravel towards the entrance door, Peter pushing the large brass doorbell.  "Greensleeves" echoed inside as they heard approaching footsteps.  The mouth of the door opened to reveal a middle aged slimly elegant lady in a blue trouser suit and black heels.

 

"Mr and Mrs Whittlestone?  Welcome to ‘Stairway to Heaven'.  Come in".  Her perfectly painted scarlet lips parted revealing gleaming white teeth as she smiled and waved them inside.  She held the door open as they entered a hallway, scraping their shoes on a rough welcome mat.

 

"I trust you had a good journey down, Mrs Whittlestone," she said, looking at Julia.  She turned her gaze to Peter, thrusting out a dainty hand with immaculately painted nails. "We haven't met before, I'm Amanda Conway, Head Carer.  And you must be...?"  "Our daughter, Susanna," chipped in Peter before Susanna had chance to make up an obnoxious answer.  "Well, I'm sure you're all anxious to see how your mother / grandmother is, follow me."

 

Leaving no time for questions, she turned and started walking briskly down a corridor on the right.

 

Bit of a cold bitch, Susanna thought as she glanced around her.  Yep, definitely old people's home.  White handrails everywhere, tick.  Ancient pink floral wall paper, tick.  Emergency defibrillator on the wall, tick.  She wrinkled her nose.  Yuck.  Stale urine disguised with scent of lavender, tick.  At least that’s what it smelled like to her.  She sighed.  At least they shouldn't have to stay too long, it's not as if Granny had much to talk about.

 

It still looks clean, thought Julia, at least my first visit wasn't a one off.  She couldn't see any fingerprints on the glass door they passed, and there were no cobwebs hanging from the light fittings.  Surreptitiously she reached down to tie her shoelaces and look at the state of the skirting boards.  No dust.  The previous home had friendly and caring people working there but Julia had always felt they were over-stretched.  Cleanliness had not been a priority for them.  Everything here looked very sanitary, even good enough to eat your dinner off the floor as her own mother liked to say.  

 

It's very quiet, noted Peter to himself.  Just a faint hum seeming to come from beneath the floor if you listened very carefully.  More like a gentle vibration rather than a noise as such.  Probably the air conditioning.  It all looks very neat and tidy anyway, very reassuring.  Mother will be fine here.

 

Beautifully printed labels adorned the doors on either side of the corridor: "Mrs Eleanor Goodall", "Mrs Rachel Trainer", "Mr Robert Everson".  Finally: "Mrs Lydia Whittlestone".

 

"Here we are!" exclaimed Amanda brightly.  She opened the door with a flourish, inviting the others inside.  Dutifully, they trooped in, finding themselves in a cosy bed-sitting room.  To the left sat a two seater sofa in a soft lilac with purple cushions.  Behind it rose a bookcase, silver frames of portraits and family groups filling the shelves.  To the right stood a bureau with an armchair alongside.  A door led to the ensuite.  Framed landscapes adorned the walls, providing colour to the otherwise plain magnolia walls.

 

"Well, I'll leave you to it.  If you need my help just press this button here and I'll be right with you."  Amanda pointed to a button by the main doorway, then turned and left the room, closing the door behind her and leaving a faint trace of White Musk on the air.

 

Peter walked further into the room to where his mother lay on a bed underneath the window.  Though the bed was high, it didn't look like a hospital bed and his mother appeared to be peacefully asleep.  The wrinkles on her face had softened as if she was not quite in focus, and her wispy hair looked like fine silky threads rather than its usual wiry grey.  She was still very small but now she looked more like a child lying on an adult's bed rather than a shrunken wizened old lady.  She smiled in her sleep and he thought he heard her sigh contentedly.

 

He sat on the sofa and looked around the room.  No problems here he thought.  She seems okay to me.  He put his head back and closed his eyes, it had been very busy at work lately.

 

There must be a TV here thought Susanna.  Have they hidden it away?  She shuffled around the room to the only place it must be and opened the bureau.  Sure enough, a flat screen TV lay inside.  She grabbed the remote control and switched it on, scrolling through to a music channel.

 

"Keep the volume down!" hissed Julia.  "I don't mind you having it on but I don't want you waking up Granny!"  Susanna sat down next to her Dad and took out her phone.  Time to catch up with her friends on Whatsapp.

 

Julia walked over to the bookcase and picked up one of the silver frames.  A happy family of mother, father, and two young children sat on a picnic blanket and smiled up at her.  Strange, she thought, who are these people?  She picked up another frame and a young man with tanned face held his arm protectively around a young woman with a bulging belly.  In the next, two children splashed in a paddling pool.  She looked along the row of frames and recognised none of the faces.

 

"Peter!" she called quietly.  "Mmm," he grunted.  "I think there's been a mistake with the photos, they've got the wrong ones in your mother's room.  I'll go and find Amanda and let her know".  "Ok," came the sleepy reply. "Susanna," I'll be back soon, " Julia added, opening the door and entering the corridor.

 

She headed back towards the entrance hallway.  There was an office overlooking the front lawn, it was where she had met Amanda at her previous visit.  But the door was shut with no signs of life despite her persistent knocking.  Turning round, she noticed a door on the left labelled "Staff only".  It was slightly ajar.  Maybe she would find Amanda in there.  With that thought, Julia pushed the door wider and stepped into a long corridor that stretched off into the far distance.  It looked like a hotel with doors on either side, all identical with just numbers on the doors.  

 

The first door on her left was open.  Maybe Amanda was in here.  She pushed the door wider and went in.  No Amanda, just cardboard boxes that lined every wall of the windowless room, sitting on shelving that rose to the ceiling.  A small step ladder leaned against one side.  Each box had a large white label on the front with a six digit number.  Intrigued, she slid one of the boxes towards her, opening the top to reveal a stack of framed photographs.  She opened another box.  More photos.  A third box had similar contents.  Well, she thought, I can understand a couple of boxes for guests in the process of moving in, but a roomful?  That's very strange.

 

She returned to the main corridor.  Bright fluorescent lights down the centre of the ceiling gave the corridor a clinical look, everything appearing white and sterile.  Actually, now she thought about it, it felt more like a hospital corridor than a hotel.  The soft humming she had noticed before was much louder here.

 

She started to feel uncomfortable. I really shouldn't be here, she thought.  But what are all these rooms for?  Curiosity overcame her discomfort and she walked hesitantly further along the corridor.  One of the doors on her right had a glass pane in the door.  She walked closer and peered through the glass.  The room appeared to be full of large shelves, stacked closely together like book cases in a library.  But she couldn’t see any books on these shelves, in fact, it looked as if each shelf held a body.

 

Julia gasped and took a step back with a hand over her mouth.  She rubbed her eyes and looked again.  Had she really seen bodies?  Maybe she was mistaken, the lighting in the room was very dim.  But she had to know.  She tried the handle of the door and pushed.  Committed now, she walked gingerly over to the first row of shelving she saw.  Five shelves rose from the floor to the ceiling with one at eye level.  The end of each shelf held a label with a six digit number.  

 

Yes, definitely a body lying on the shelf, not something she had imagined when looking through the glass.  What was this place?  Was it a morgue where they held bodies until the families claimed them for burial?  But there were so many bodies, it didn’t make sense.  She shivered and ignored the clenching of her stomach and the thumping of her heart as she took a closer look.  An elderly face lay smiling serenely, eyes closed, a short white tunic covering her modesty.  Her face twitched and her eyes opened.  She looked vacantly at Julia, before closing her eyes again and falling back to sleep, her lips curving into a contented smile.  The shock sent Julia tumbling and she fell to the floor.

 

In front of her face a shelf held another elderly lady, her chest rising and falling almost imperceptibly beneath her tunic.  Unable to move, Julia allowed her eyes to travel to the end of the shelf where she could see the left ankle was anchored with a white strap.  An intravenous line containing clear fluid fed into a thin blue ankle vein.  Another tube with yellow coloured liquid trailed along the left leg, disappearing into the tunic.  She followed the IV lines up along the support of the shelving unit, where it joined other lines, making the room look as if it had been invaded by long strands of pale spaghetti.  Looking up, she could see that the ceiling was threaded with lines from all the shelves in the room, finally reaching the far side where they were swallowed by a pipe through a hole in the wall.  The humming noise was much louder now and seemed to be coming from the pipe.

 

It was too much to take in.  As Julia stared incomprehensibly around her, thinking perhaps she had had some kind of turn and was dreaming all this, the door opened wide and bright fluorescent light hit her eyes.

 

"So this is where you got to!" came Amanda's voice.  Julia turned to the dark silhouette outlined in the opening.  "Let me help you get up.  I think you probably had a bit of a shock.  Come back to my office and I'll make you a cup of tea."

 

Julia felt herself pulled up by the arm.  Her body had turned to jelly and she took strength from the other woman.  Too many questions were crowding her mind and she stayed silent, following Amanda back along the corridor.  This time, the "Staff Only" door shut firmly behind her with a loud thunk.

 

"Sit here," commanded Amanda, and Julia sank into an upholstered chair as Amanda switched the kettle on.

 

"Mmm," mused Amanda as she sat leaning forward on a large desk, her arms partially crossed in front of her.  "You weren't meant to see that, but now that you have, perhaps you have some questions?"  She raised her eyebrows and looked quizzically at the other woman, seemingly untroubled by the situation they were in.

 

Julia looked into predatory eyes, her mind still swirling with images that came in and out of focus, of bodies that lay peacefully, then wakening with mouths open wide to scream soundlessly, before falling back to sleep again.  She shuddered.  "Whaaaaat....?"

 

"What are we doing?" completed Amanda for her.  "We are caring for our guests in the best way possible," she continued.  "They are happy dreaming away their days.  And they are still able to see their families."  She paused, then added, "When the families can be bothered to visit, of course."

 

"But, but, but...." Single words were all that Julia could articulate.

"But it's not the care you thought your mother-in-law would get?  But what we are doing is not right? Most of our guests are already living in another world by the time they arrive here.  We just help them to stay there.”

 

“But it’s degrading!”  Julia finally managed.

 

“Is it?  Don’t you think it’s more degrading to be doubly incontinent?  Isn’t it more degrading to be spoon-fed mush like a baby because you can’t manage proper food?”

 

“But it’s not living!  It’s not a life!”

 

“What is living anyway?  Before they come here, most of our guests don’t have much of a life, feeling unwanted and lying in bed all day unable to get around.  A lot of the families are pretty desperate to off-load the care burden onto someone else, especially if the price is right, don't you think?  And we give the best possible physical care.  Who can complain about that?" offered Amanda, shifting her weight and putting her hands behind her head as if she were a tutor explaining something to a particularly dull student.

 

Julia felt trapped, as if she had been kidnapped and locked into a room with her captor.  But the words were hypnotic and sounded soothing and reasonable and she found it difficult to argue against them, even though she knew it was all completely wrong.  She sipped at the mug of sweet tea Amanda had handed her and everything started to feel more solid again.  She looked around her at the office furnishings, all reassuringly efficient and normal.  Through the window she could hear a regular “snip snip” as the gardener continued to prune the roses.

 

"But it's all wrong!  How can you treat people like that?" she finally responded.

 

"Treat people like what?  All our guests are happy.  The families are happy because we have relieved them of a burden they couldn't handle.  No one ever complains."

 

"That's because they don't know what you are doing!"

 

"Don't you think so?  They may not know exactly how we do it, but don't you think people wonder how we are able to offer our services so cheaply?  In the end, though, they know their relatives are fine and that's all they want to know."

 

"I'll go to the authorities!"

 

"Fine, if that's what you think you need to do," Amanda said reasonably.  "Before you do though, just think through the consequences for your own family.  I'll take you back to them now."

 

She got up, unfurling herself from her chair like a large cat, and invited Julia to follow her back to the guest corridor.

 

"Here we are again!"  Why did Amanda have to sound so cheerful?

 

Peter opened his eyes, Susanna's stayed glued to her phone.

 

"I understand there's a problem with the photographs.  I'm ever so sorry for the mistake, there must have been a mix up with the removals people.  We'll sort it out for you."

 

"No problem," came Peter, "I understand how these things happen."

 

No you don't, thought Julia, but kept quiet.

 

"And thank you for looking after my mother, she certainly looks happy.  And if she's happy, then I'm happy."

 

Julia looked over at her mother-in-law, seeing the peaceful sleep for the drug-induced torpor it really was.  But was it so bad?  She did look peaceful and content.  And there was no chance here of her being left in a soiled nappy for hours on end as she had been at the other place.  Maybe it wasn't so bad after all.  And it would be difficult, well, impossible, really, to find another place that they could afford.  And Peter didn’t need to know.  Maybe she wouldn't go to the authorities after all.

 

*********************************************************************************************

 

"What went wrong?" he asked.

 

"Not sure yet, but I've started an investigation.  It won't happen again, sir."

 

"It bloody well better not do!  Will she keep quiet?"

 

"I'm pretty sure she will.  It's not her mother after all, and they can't afford to go anywhere else."

 

He turned his head back towards the window.  "It won’t matter anyway, not now we’ve got the contract signed with the local authority, they won’t want any noise.  Just make sure no one sees what we have in the basement, then we really would be in trouble”.