Three Things About Elsie

Three Things About Elsie

Joanna Cannon




4.48 p.m.


‘How did you fall, Flo?’ they’ll ask when they find me. ‘Did you feel dizzy? Were you wearing your glasses? Did you trip?’

They’ll work as they talk. Putting a cuff around my arm and fastening a plastic clip on my finger, and unwrapping all the leads from one of their machines. Someone will shine a light in my eyes, and someone else will rummage through all my tablets and put them in one of their carrier bags.

‘Did you feel faint? Can you smile for me? Can you squeeze my hand?’

They’ll carry me out of my front room, and they will struggle, because it’s barely big enough for me, let alone these two men and their uniforms. They will put me in the back of their ambulance, in the bright-white, blanketed world they inhabit, and I will blink and crease my eyes and try to make sense of their faces.

‘It’s all right, Flo,’ they will say. ‘Everything is going to be fine, Flo.’

Even though they don’t know me. Even though I have never said they can call me Flo. Even though the only person who has ever called me that is Elsie.

One of them will sit with me, as we move along the streets, under the spin of a blue light. The light will turn across his face as we travel, and he will smile at me from time to time, and his hand will somehow find mine in the darkness.

When we get to the hospital, I will be rattled across A&E and taken through red double doors, to people with the same questions and the same bright lights, and they will wheel me down blank corridors and put me through their machinery. A girl at a desk will look up as I pass by, and then she will turn away, because I am just another old person on a trolley, wrapped up in blankets and trying to hold on to the world.

They will find me a ward, and a nurse with quiet hands. She will move very slowly, but everything will be done in a moment, and the nurse with quiet hands will be the first person to listen with her eyes. The bed will be warm and smooth, and I won’t worry even when the lights are switched off.

Everything I’ve just told you is yet to happen. None of it is real. Because right at this very moment, I’m lying on the sitting-room floor, waiting to be found. Waiting for someone to notice I’m not here any more.

I have all this time before they arrive, to work out what I’m going to say. All this time to remember everything that happened, right from the beginning, and turn it into something they’ll understand. Something they’ll accept. You’d think the silence would help, but it doesn’t. The only thing I can hear is my own breath, arguing its way backwards and forwards, and just when I’m sure I have an idea all ironed out, it slides away from me and I have to start from the beginning again.

‘Do try to focus, Florence,’ Elsie always says. ‘Concentrate on one word at a time.’

But Elsie isn’t here to help me, and so I’ll have to search through the words all by myself, because buried amongst them, I need to find a place for the silence. Everyone’s life has a secret, something they never talk about. Everyone has words they keep to themselves. It’s what you do with your secret that really matters. Do you drag it behind you forever, like a difficult suitcase, or do you find someone to tell? I said to myself I would never tell anyone. It would be a secret I’d keep forever. Except now that I’m lying here, waiting to be found, I can’t help worrying that this is my lot. Perhaps the closing words of my chapter will be spoken in a room filled with beige and forgetfulness, and no one was ever meant to hear them. You never really know it’s the final page, do you, until you get there?

I wonder if I’ve already reached the end of the story.

I wonder if my forever is now.





FLORENCE


It was a month ago when it all started. A Friday morning. I was glancing around the room, wondering what I’d done with my television magazine, when I noticed.

It was facing the wrong way. The elephant on the mantelpiece. It always points towards the window, because I read somewhere it brings you luck. Of course, I know it doesn’t. It’s like putting new shoes on a table, though, or crossing on the stairs. There’s a corner of your head that feels uncomfortable if you don’t follow the rules. Normally, I would have blamed one of the uniforms, but I always go over everything with a duster after they’ve gone. There’s usually a need for it and it helps to pass the time. So I would have spotted it straight away. I notice everything.

‘Do you notice anything?’

Miss Ambrose had arrived for our weekly chat. Fidgety. Smells of hairspray. A cousin in Truro. I decided to test her. She scanned the room, but any fool could tell she wasn’t concentrating.

‘Look properly,’ I said. ‘Give it your full attention.’

She unwound her scarf. ‘I am,’ she said. ‘I am.’

I waited.

‘The elephant. The elephant on the mantelpiece.’ I prodded my finger. ‘It’s facing towards the television. It always faces towards the window. It’s moved.’

She said, did I fancy a change? A change! I prodded my finger again and said, ‘I didn’t do it.’

She didn’t take me seriously. She never does. ‘It must have been one of the cleaners,’ she said.

‘It wasn’t the cleaners. When I went to bed last night, it was facing the right way. When I got up this morning, it was back to front.’

‘You haven’t been dusting again, have you, Florence? Dusting is our department.’

I wouldn’t let her find my eyes. I chose to look at the radiator instead. ‘I wouldn’t dream of it,’ I said.

She sat on the armchair next to the fireplace and let out a little sigh. ‘Perhaps it fell?’

‘And climbed back up all by itself?’

‘We don’t always remember, do we? Some things we do automatically, without thinking. You must have put it back the wrong way round.’

I went over to the mantelpiece and turned the elephant to face the window again. I stared at her the whole time I was doing it.

‘It’s only an ornament, Florence. No harm done. Shall I put the kettle on?’

I watched the elephant while she rummaged around in the kitchen, trying to locate a ginger nut.

‘They’re in the pantry on the top shelf,’ I shouted. ‘You can’t miss them.’

Miss Ambrose reappeared with a tray. ‘They were on the first shelf, actually. We don’t always know what we’re doing, do we?’

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