© Paula Daly
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Considerate Vera (Short Story)
The first time my leg fell off I was twenty-seven.
And this was long before that dreadful Heather Mills woman was whipping hers on and off willy-nilly. Back then, I’d do anything I could to remain invisible; anything not to draw attention to myself.
It fell off for the second time last week.
I was descending the stairs outside my GP’s surgery and well, I really can’t say what happened. One minute I was upright, nodding at the young man delivering the post, and the next I was supine at the base of the steps - minus my leg.
Regrettably, the prosthesis was damaged in the fall and since my spare is currently cruising its way around the Mediterranean (in the bottom drawer of a luxury cabin aboard The Queen Mary 2), I am legless. Literally. And I now find myself at the mercy of a live-in carer. I acquiesced to appease my son, Robin. He lives in Epsom and wanted ‘peace of mind’. “After all,” he argued, “imagine if you were to fall in the middle of the night.”
“But I don’t get up in the middle of the night,” I told him. Never have. I’ve learned to hold my water.
Anyway, I let it drop because if I didn’t he’d feel compelled to send his wife up to keep an eye on me. And his wife and I are *not* on good terms. Ever since she made a big song and dance about the standards of care her mother was receiving at the nursing home she’d stuck her into.
“Vera,” she said to me, “you’ll never believe what state I found mummy in when I went on Saturday…”
“Tell me,” I replied.
“Not only was she wearing someone else’s cardigan – a cheap polyester thing – but she was wearing someone else’s TEETH!…I cried when I realised…I actually cried for her….
"Well,” she continued, “the first thing I did upon leaving was get straight on to Social Services. I mean Vera, this type of neglect just shouldn’t be happening to the elderly should it? Especially when they can’t speak up for themselves.”
I’d heard all this before. Valerie could witter on for hours about her mother’s sub-standard care. I think in a strange way being hyper-critical made her feel less guilty about deserting her.
“There’s only one thing you can do, Valerie,” I said firmly. “Remove your mother at once from that institution and take her home with you…”
Valerie burst into tears and I received a stern phone call from Robin the following day instructing me to show more sensitivity. Of course I feigned innocence, proclaiming I was just trying to offer a solution to what seemed to be an ongoing problem but Robin wasn’t fooled. “Mother,” he said to me, “I know what you’re up to.”
So, to keep in his good books, I agreed to his suggestion of the carer and now find myself staring down at the plate in front of me and tutting out loud. I’d asked the agency for a non-smoking, agnostic driver - with her own car.
I was sent an imbecile.
“Michelle?” I call out. She’s in the kitchen doing goodness knows what. She pops her head around the door and fixes a smile on her face for me. I’ve been patient with her up until now, but this…this is unacceptable. “You’ve cut my meat up again,” I say to her.
“Oh,” she replies, averting her gaze.
“It’s a leg that I’m missing, you know?” and she flinches. “Not an arm.”
She’s an odd looking woman, Michelle. A cloud of nesty hair orbits her unusually small head and her huge eyes, set wide apart, seem to take up the whole of her face. I can’t make my mind up if she’s pretty as a doll or favours the look of an Eastern European prostitute.
“I’m so sorry,” she says looking down at my plate. “Most of the ladies I work for like me to cut their meat up for them. Should I get you a fresh plate?”
“No.” I say, spearing a rectangular piece of Bernard Matthews’ Turkey Roast into my mouth. “No point wasting it,” and I shoo her away again.
I’ll keep her one week, I decide.
One week will be enough time to satiate Robin. One week will be ample time for my new prosthesis to arrive. And I can make use of her while she’s here - she can do my high level dusting. Actually, now that I’m looking at them, I see the sitting room curtains could do with a wash as well. And that light fitting’s not been down in well over a year. “Michelle?” I sing, sweetly this time and smile to her as she comes into the room drying her hands on her apron.
“You finished?” she asks.
“Mmm, yes thank you, it was lovely.”
“Really?” she’s says, eyeing me suspiciously.
“Well, maybe not lovely. Bernard sure as hell doesn’t eat his own turkey or he’d know it tastes like meat-flavoured blancmange, but I appreciate your making it all the same…The vegetables were very nice, but less gravy next time. I like it just on the meat, not swimming all over the plate.”
“I’ll remember that,” she says with a hint of sarcasm that I choose to ignore for now. She’s almost out of the room when she stops and turns, “I need to go down to the chemist for a few bits later, you need anything?”
“No, nothing thank you.”
“Nothing at all?” she asks me. “No prescriptions you need ‘cause I don’t want to have to go out again later.”
“No. I don’t take any medication.”
She looks puzzled for a second. “How old are you, eighty? and you don’t take any tablets at all? You must be on somethin’.”
“Just the occasional Senakot,” I tell her and she’s pacified.
I hear her rinse my plate under the kitchen tap and then open the cupboard by the front door to retrieve her coat. The door slams just as the phone starts to ring and I use my crutches to get across the room. This is the really ridiculous thing: I can get around quite nicely without my leg. I could, in fact drive, since it’s my left leg that’s missing and my car’s an automatic. Just about the only thing I can’t do is transfer a cup of tea from the kitchen to the sitting room. I told Robin this. Told him I could manage quite adequately on my own but he wouldn’t have it. Said he’d never forgive himself if anything happened to me. What he really means is he wants to get on with his day to day living and not have to think about me.
I am a minor nuisance to him – I know that – but give him credit, he hides it well. I hear him typing emails quietly when I phone him of an evening for a chat. At least he’s considerate if nothing else.
Oh, but if only he lived closer.
Perhaps if we hadn’t spent so much money on his education he wouldn’t have strayed so far. It would be such a comfort to me if he could just pop in on his way home from work like the son of the lady opposite.
Not that she appreciates him.
She leaves him waiting on the doorstep for over a minute and a half to give the impression that she’s bad on her legs. She doesn’t seem to have any trouble dragging her wheelie bin out at seven-thirty in the morning though, I’ve noticed.
At the fifth ring I pick up the receiver. “Is this Mrs Selby?” The voice asks. It’s unfamiliar, nasal sounding and I can tell immediately that something terrible has happened.
“Yes,” I reply. “This is she.”
“Ah, good. I’m in quite an awkward situation here…I’ve been given your number by a neighbour of your son’s…”
“Robin? Why what’s happened to him? Is he sick?”
“I believe he’s fine Mrs Selby. It’s his wife who’s not okay – Valerie.”
“Oh,” I say and exhale, the relief clear in my voice. Then I gather myself, “With whom am I speaking?” I ask officiously.
“I apologise – what with all of the commotion I forgot to introduce myself – I’m Doctor Burlington, your son’s doctor and his friend actually, we play squash together.”
Squash? Why is he telling me this? “Where is Robin now, Doctor?”
He clears his throat and pauses, “We don’t know…That’s the problem.”
“Well what about Valerie – can’t she tell you where he is?”
“He’s left her Mrs Selby.” He waits for a second to allow me to process this news before saying, “He left her last night, that’s why I’ve been called to the house. Valerie’s in a bit of a state.”
Good God. I bet she is.
“Put her on the phone, Doctor. I’ll have a word with her, see if I can’t talk—“
He interrupts me, “I’ve had to sedate her.”
“Oh,” I say again, not quite sure where to go from here. “Well what about the neighbour, can’t she stay with her? And what about Robin? Where the hell is he?”
“This is why I’m ringing you, Mrs Selby. Unfortunately, the neighbour and Valerie are not on speaking-terms anymore. She noticed Valerie outside in the garden…undressed…and called the practice. She really won’t have anything to do with her. And Robin? well he’s not answering his mobile. I’ve had my receptionist try him for the past hour.”
“Well I really don’t know what you want me to do about it, Doctor. I’m all but an invalid myself nowadays. In fact I have to have a live-in nurse as I’m completely housebound.”
“How about Valerie’s family, do you have a contact number for them?”
“She has a sister in Florida, that’s it. Oh, apart from her mother, but she’s in a home.”
He pauses then before saying, cautiously, “Perhaps you could help her?”
“Well I don’t see how,” I reply and take the receiver away from my ear for a second; has this fool listened to a word I’ve said? When I lift my head again I see Michelle is back and standing in the doorway, eyebrows raised, expectant. ‘What?’ I mouth at her and she makes a ‘V’ sign in front of her lips, which means she’s off for a cigarette. “Doctor,” I say curtly, “I’ll call you straight back,” and I put the telephone down and stare at it on the table.
Michelle is driving my car at eighty-eight miles an hour, faster than it has ever been before, down the outside lane of the M6. So far we have pulled off twice for her to have a smoke as there is no way I am allowing her drive and smoke simultaneously - she loses concentration when checking her mirror.
I’ve no idea how I talked myself into this. It’s not as if I even like Valerie. What I am supposed to say to her, I don’t know. In my opinion Robin should’ve left her years ago and if he wasn’t such a goody-goody, he would have.
There must be another woman.
Another woman who has demanded he leave Valerie. That’s why he’s upped and gone so suddenly.
There is no other explanation.
I turn to Michelle and say, “He doesn’t do one interesting thing in his whole life and then waits until I’m incapacitated to spring this trick on us? It’s so unlike his usual behaviour that there *has* to be another woman involved.”
Michelle is keeping quiet on the subject of adultery. She thinks I’m jumping the gun. She says we should wait until Valerie is lucid and we’ve had the full story before we go forming opinions and blaming anyone.
Patiently, I begin to explain to Michelle that you don’t reach eighty without learning a thing or two about men. They leave their wives because (a) there is another woman or (b) because they are in a whole heap of debt (and there’s another woman).
Michelle says her husband left her because, ‘He simply didn’t want to be married anymore.’
“And you believed that?” I ask her.
“I respected his need for freedom, yes,” she says, quite serious.
I resist the urge to snort. “Well, you’re dafter than you look,” I tell her and she doesn’t speak to me again until we’re south of Wolverhampton.
By the time we get to Surrey I’ve a fair idea of what to expect. With any luck Valerie will be fast asleep and we can get ourselves settled in before any real consolatory talk is necessary.
We pull up and every light in the house is on. “Not a good sign,” Michelle says and she’s out the car before I have chance to question her further. She’s making her way to the front bay window and all I can do is sit tight as my crutches are locked in the boot. Then, without warning, she disappears around the side of the house.
What the hell is she up to?
Why can’t we just ring the doorbell like civilised human beings?
I pip the horn and she reappears looking cross. Putting her finger to her lips to tell me to shush, she glares at me and then turns on her heel and disappears again.
Since I’ve no option but to stay put I study the front of the house. It’s a handsome Victorian detached - half brick, half pebble dash render - with an attractive front porch and original stained glass. It’s around three years since I’ve visited and I’m hoping Valerie has had a change of heart about the wallpaper she hung in the guest room. I did tell Robin that she didn’t really have an eye for interior design but I doubt he mentioned it to her. Like I said, he’s considerate if nothing else.
Then, my car door swings open, making me jump. Michelle must have gone right around the back of the house and crept up on my blind side. “Well I’ve found her,” she says and I sense from her tone that this is not going to be straightforward.
“Get my crutches,” I say, shuffling my behind around on the seat. “How bad is it?”
We walk around to the back of the house and Michelle motions for me to look through the French doors which lead into the kitchen. There, sitting at the centre island, is a completely bald woman in a velour nightdress playing scrabble by herself.
“What should we do?” asks Michelle.
“That’s not Valerie,” I reply. “That, is her mother.”
Michelle laughs and puts her hand to her mouth, “Oh, what a relief. I thought she’d gone and shaved all her hair off.”
I shake my head. “Well, we best go back around the front before we frighten the poor woman to death. Go and fetch my best wig from the back shelf of the car, Michelle. I can’t go in there and have a sensible conversation with her looking like that.”
So we stand on the front doorstep, polite smiles on our faces, ready to lie about our reasons for being there, when the door opens and to my horror I realise that it is actually Valerie who has the bald head.
I can’t believe that half-witted doctor failed to mention it to me.
“Valerie!” I say, over-loud, and she recoils at the sight of me. I sense Michelle edging the wig behind her back as I lean forward to kiss Valerie’s cold cheek. I don’t know what she does with it but by the time we reach the kitchen there’s no sign of the wig.
“So who told you he’d left me?” Valerie asks, flicking on the kettle.
“Your doctor. He was worried about leaving you alone.” I’m dying to ask about her hair but since she’s not mentioning it, neither do I. “Did Robin give you a reason for leaving?” I say.
“Simply said he didn’t want to be married anymore.”
Michelle shoots me a look from across the granite worktop as if to say, now is not the time to expound your theory to her.
“But if I’m honest,” continues Valerie, “I think it’s because of this,” and she touches her bald scalp, just briefly.
I look at Michelle, then back across to Valerie. I go to say something, then don’t. It’s then that I notice Valerie has no eyebrows either.
We sit in silence for a moment and I run through the possible reasons for her appearance. None of them are good. Just when I think she’s about to open up to us she asks me, “Where is your leg?” So I start to tell her about the fall outside the doctor’s and she nods sympathetically and I find I’m rambling because what I really want to ask about is her hair and then, I come up with a canny way of doing it: “What did Robin say about your hair?”
“That’s the thing, he’s never mentioned it. It’s as if he can’t acknowledge it, can’t face it,” she says.
I glance at Michelle but she just raises her eyebrows as if, I am not helping you out with this.
So I clear my throat, “Valerie,” I say, looking directly at her, “what has happened to your hair?”
And she whimpers and then crumples and then starts to shake - small oscillations at first - but as she tries to form a sentence, her whole body quakes and I fear she may collapse. “I don’t know!” she wails. “I don’t know what’s happened to it!”
I straighten up quickly. It was not the answer I was expecting. “Put your arms around her for goodness’ sakes, Michelle,” I order. “I can’t move without my bloody leg.”
Michelle starts to soothe her by cooing into her ear whilst stroking her back like you would a colicky infant. And it’s a strange sight to behold: two strangers locked together intimately, their only connection – me. “Valerie,” I say, “we’re here to help you dear. We’re going to stay with you for as long as you need us,” and I surprise myself by actually meaning it.
“Thank you, Vera,” she sniffles. “I don’t mean to be rude about your son but I’m so mad at him for leaving me like this.”
“You’re mad?” I say, “I am livid…You’re the best thing he ever had, Valerie, and to think he’s just walked out on you when you needed him the most. It’s an absolute disgrace.”
Michelle sneaks a smile. I had mentioned a few things about Valerie on the trip down here but I ignore her goading me and signal for her to remove the wig which I now see is tucked into the back of her belt.
Valerie dries her eyes and stands now to take the mugs out of the cupboard. “You’re so wonderful for doing this, Vera,” she says.
“Nonsense,” I reply. “What are family for? Now get me the phone as I intend to ring Robin.”
Robin doesn’t answer, unsurprisingly. “Use my phone,” suggests Michelle, “he won’t recognise the number so he might pick up.”
“Good idea.” I glance at Valerie and see her hand is shaking as she pours the water. Poor woman. You know how some people can look quite pretty without hair? Well she is not one of them. I hadn’t realised how thick her neck had become recently and without her hair to cover it she looks almost bouncer-like. As I wait for Robin to answer I start picturing her in different wigs - like those magazines where you can insert a passport photograph under various styles and choose your new look. I’m just weighing up if a copper bob will be too harsh for her skin tone when I hear Robin’s voice. “Hello?” he whispers.
“Robin, it’s your mother here.”
“…I’m with Valerie and I want to know what is going on.”
I hear him closing a door and the sound of a television in the background become muted.
“I’ve left her, Mum,” he says quietly, apologetically. I wait for him to continue, I deserve an explanation I think. “I don’t want to be married anymore, this isn’t a snap decision or anything, it’s been coming on for a while and I didn’t tell you because obviously, I didn’t want to worry you. Valerie…well Valerie and I have drifted. We’re different people now with different needs, different expectations…different lives, in fact.”
“Have you ran away with your secretary, Robin?”
“I thought as much. Goodbye,” and I hand the phone back to Michelle. Valerie is staring at me, desperately not wanting it to be true. “I’m sorry Valerie, but it’s best we know where you stand right away and then we won’t waste time hoping he’s going to change his mind.” She’s nodding and crying simultaneously and my heart goes out to her, it really does, but she needs this sharp shock. I’ve spoken to Robin’s secretary on numerous occasions; she’s a breathless, smouldering type of woman who, I imagine, is game for all sorts of nonsense poor Valerie has never even dreamed of.
Robin will not be coming back now, I know that for sure.
So, in an effort to make the best of the situation, I instruct Michelle to mix hot toddies using one of Robin’s thirty year old single malts and we end up going to bed quite giddy.
Michelle and I share the twin bedded guest room with the bad wallpaper and Valerie sits at the foot of my bed swinging between fits of girlie giggling and uncontrollable crying until she can no longer remain vertical. Michelle puts her to bed and when she returns and turns off the lamp on the bedside table between us, she smiles at me from across her pillow and I can see she’s thinking there’s been a subtle shift in power. In Robin’s house she’s no longer my nurse, my aid. I can’t order her around because frankly, she doesn’t have to stay if she doesn’t want to. In fact, she’s doing me a real favour by being here. I smile back at her, “Goodnight, love,” I say to her.
“’Night, Vera,” she replies.
I wake to the smell of bacon.
I open one eye and panic. In the night it seems Michelle’s nesty hair has taken on a life of its own and is about to attack me. I slip on my glasses and then exhale as I realise it’s just my best wig which she’s left on the bedside table beside me.
I had a friend, Connie, who’d leave her wig on the top of her armchair in the front window when she went out shopping. This was to fool burglars into thinking there was somebody home and, at a quick glance, it really was quite effective.
Rising steadily to control the vertigo which has plagued me in recent years, I smooth down my nightdress and make my way downstairs on my bottom, grasping my crutches in my right hand. Valerie is up, dressed and looks all the better for having drawn herself some eyebrows on, “Morning Vera,” she sings happily, “sleep well?”
“Very well. And what about you?” I say to her, “You’re positively glowing.”
She looks down for a moment, slightly embarrassed, “I’ve made a decision…I’m going to go to Florida to my sister’s.”
“Excellent idea! A holiday is just what you need right now.”
“No, not a holiday,” and she pauses, “I’m going to go and live there.”
For a second I’m not sure what to say. “Live there? Isn’t that a bit rash?”
Michelle puts a bacon sandwich down in front of me, “I don’t think it’s rash at all. I’d give anything to live in America. Year round sunshine, pleasant people, pool in your back garden. What’s there to think about?”
“GUNS!” I exclaim. “That’s what there’s to think about,” but they’re not listening, both of them lost in their own Florida Fantasy. “And alligators!” I try, “In…your…pool!”
“Vera,” Michelle says matter-of-factly, “do you not want her to go or something?”
“’Course I want her to go,” I snap, “I just don’t think you can make a life decision like this overnight, that’s all.”
Michelle puts her hands on her hips, “Well I could…If I had the chance, I’d already be gone.”
Valerie smiles at her, “Come with me if you like.”
“Seriously?” asks Michelle.
“Why not?..My sister has citizenship now,” continues Valerie, “so I can get a visa. You could come as my…partner, or my carer,” and they both giggle.
“You're married!” I say, but they’re not listening. They’re discussing sun and sand and rollerblading of all things. “And what will happen to the house?” I demand. “You can’t just up and leave, Valerie – who will take care of the house?”
“Robin will. He owns it.”
I sit back in my chair and exhale. She really is serious. This is ridiculous. I know she’s not thinking straight but this is bordering on lunacy. She can’t just walk out of her life and into a foreign country; people will think she’s lost her mind; people will think she’s gone mad; people will think…
“Why don’t you come with us, Vera?” Valerie asks.
I stare at the pair of them. “Let me tell you,” I say crossly, “I like bread and butter, not bread and bread.”
Valerie laughs. “We’re not planning on becoming lesbians, Vera.”
Oh. Oh my.
I’ve never been to Florida before. Never even been further than Madeira.
“Could I?” I say quietly, and Valerie smiles warmly at me, nodding her head in a slow, exaggerated way.
“Yes, yes you could.”
Well, I’ll have to send Robin the odd postcard from time to time. Just to let him know how I'm getting on.