Rose tries to ring Alice again later. Her niece is kind but can be awkward and takes great and noisy offence at any possible slight. But Alice still isn’t there and there’s nothing Rose can do. So she potters with a duster, reads her book and takes a little nap.
Later, when Aunt Rose doesn’t turn up, Alice telephones, waking her up. But has Rose’s chair sunk lower or is she just getting older? By the time Rose heaves herself to her feet and answers, she’s puffing a little because she always feels compelled to hurry at the telephone’s loud and peremptory ring. Leaning on the telephone stand, she lowers herself onto the pouffe and allows Alice to lead off. Experience has taught her it is pointless interrupting.
‘You’d think she would have rung if she wasn’t coming,’ grumbled Alice.
‘Maybe she did. Maybe she rang while you were out. You know she’s confused by answerphones. And she’s got a lot on her mind, what with Russell being poorly and unable to be left,’ said Alice’s husband, Matt. Russell is a cat with a tendency to swallow bits of furball.
So Alice tells Rose about all the things she could have done if she’d known her aunt wasn’t coming. Like going to town or to scrabble club or coffee with friends. Instead, she has set aside this time for Rose – and Rose has inconsiderately found something better to do. Incensed, Alice tells Rose how disgracefully she takes advantage of her good nature.
‘I shouldn’t give in to you, Rose,’ she says. ‘I shouldn’t be so accommodating. You’re just not being fair on me. It’s awfully ungrateful.’
‘Sorry,’ says Rose, forgetting she remembered to phone Alice twice and that her niece wasn’t there. All this has gone out of her head and instead, she is suffused with shame. ‘Sorry I forgot to phone you, dear.’ Russell, feeling better now, tabbily twines himself around Rose’s legs and she lets her hand slide lovingly over his head, along his sinewy back.
‘It can’t be that important to you then, Rose,’ snaps Alice.
‘What we do is always important to me,’ says Rose with dignity. ‘It was just – I must have forgotten.’ But Alice is inconsolable and refuses to speak another word to her Aunt Rose. When her niece cuts her off, Rose stares, bewildered, at the ear piece, and, to distract herself, sets to polishing the grandmother clock in the corner.
It gets Rose down. She’s a smart old lady, witty and intelligent despite her occasional forgetfulness, and Alice’s coldness brings a heaviness to her legs and to her heart and her joints become stiffer and creakier. Her eyes get smaller and duller and her mouth is thin and straight.
She worries, forgets what day it is and misses church on Sunday. ‘I didn’t actually forget church,’ she tells the vicar on the phone. ‘I just forgot it was Sunday.’
‘Never mind, Rose,’ says the vicar. ‘We’ll see you next week as usual.’
‘Will you pray for me, vicar?’
‘Of course I will, if you want me to. Although you can take a more direct route and pray to Him yourself, you know.’
‘I don’t think so,’ says Rose sadly.
‘Any particular reason you want me to pray for you?’
‘Please tell God I’m not wicked. It wasn’t that he’s not important to me. I forgot that’s all.’
The vicar stifles a chuckle. ‘I’ll tell him Rose, don’t worry. God won’t hold it against you.’
‘I hope not,’ says Rose. ‘Although he’s the only one if he doesn’t.’
She feels shaky as she replaces the receiver and forgets to check it’s firmly in its cradle. Instead, she shuffles into the garden to refill the bird feeder with the special seed balls she makes herself. It’s an effort because Rose has to stretch out her arms full-length to reach the feeder fixed high in the branch of the apple tree, well away from the cat. (Strangely, Russell doesn’t seem to know he’s a cat and is scared of heights.) It’s a colourful garden, the pansies welcome her full-on with their pretty faces, but even that fails to console her.
When Alice decides to phone Aunt Rose, there’s no answer, not even a ringing tone.
‘Silly old coot,’ says Alice. ‘She’s left it off the hook.’
‘You’ll have to go round there, just in case,’ says Alice’s husband.
‘I know. I’ve had it right up to here with her,’ Alice slams the side of her hand against her temple. ‘She should be in a home.’
Alice puts on her Burberry mac and the green knee-length boots with the buckles and sets off to call on Rose. In time to her footsteps, she mutters under her breath, ‘Silly old coot. Silly old coot.’ A light drizzle stings her cheeks and eyes. She glances enviously at gaps in curtains in lighted windows. Lucky people enjoying their evenings in front of Eastenders! Lucky people who don’t have loopy old aunties to plague their lives!
But Aunt Rose doesn’t answer the doorbell. Nor does she answer her telephone when Alice stamps out her number on her mobile. Alice bangs on the door, shouts through the letterbox, rouses the neighbours on both sides.
‘There’s no sign of Rose. I looked everywhere. Where is she?’ yells Alice.
‘A careworker came round and next minute, there was an ambulance outside,’ said Mr. Herbert. ‘They took her out on a stretcher.’
‘Oh, heavens!’ says Alice.
‘Sorry not to be of more help,’ says Mr. Herbert. ‘Our tea’s ready so we must go now.’
Alice is deeply shocked at how casually the Herberts are behaving. They leave her punching out the number of the local hospital on her mobile.
‘Poor Aunt Rose. People can be terribly callous,’ she sobs as she waits for the call to be answered.
Yes, Rose has been admitted. Yes, as Alice is her niece, she may visit, but not for too long as the patient needs rest and a number of medical tests. A tear courses down Alice’s cheek, making a river on her mascara-smudged cheeks as she writes down the name of the ward.
Immediately, Alice takes a taxi to the hospital and rushes along interminable corridors until she finds Aunt Rose, her pale, frightened eyes flickering above an oxygen mask, her normally curly white hair lying moist and flat on her forehead. On seeing her niece, Rose fumbles and pushes the mask away, crying, ‘I want to come home.’
Murmuring reassurance, Alice arranges the mask back into position. She explains and explains to Rose, but the old lady remains agitated. ‘You have to have some tests,’ insists Alice, trying hard to be patient. ‘You have to have an Xray and a blood test and a biopsy.’
‘I feel perfectly all right,’ says Rose, by now, pumped so full of steroids that this is perfectly true. ‘And I don’t need that. I can’t talk properly through it.’ She rips off the oxygen mask and stares balefully at Alice. ‘The food in here is terrible,’ she says with a grimace.
‘What did you have to eat?’
‘I don’t know but it was horrible.’
‘What did it look like?’
‘It was flat and squashed and it looked like measles,’ says Rose.
Suddenly, Alice starts to laugh. She laughs and laughs and laughs. Rose is delighted to have so amused Alice and puts out her ancient hand, its loose flesh freckled with age spots and Alice takes it and presses it to her mouth with exquisite tenderness.
‘I made you laugh, Alice.’ Although Rose can hardly get her breath, it’s a triumphant whisper.
‘Oh, Rose…’ murmurs Alice. ‘You know you haven’t eaten, don’t you? You haven’t had all your tests yet and your bed’s got a Nil by Mouth. You must be thinking of some other time.’
Blinking back the tears, Alice spots a framed verse in calligraphy on the window sill by Rose’s bed, perhaps left by a previous patient, which resonates, painfully, in her head.
‘The sunlight on the garden
Hardens and grows cold,
We cannot cage the minute
Within its net of gold.’
‘It reminds me of you, Rose’ says Alice, ‘that lovely verse on the wall. It’s by Louis MacNiece. Shall I read it to you?’
Rose doesn’t seem to hear her.
‘You know, Aunt Rose,’ she whispers, ‘I haven’t always been as kind to you as I should be.’ She strokes Rose’s hand which lies in her palm. Tenderly, she fingers the bent knuckles, traces tiny circles around the brown age-spots.