The ray of late Autumn sunlight eased its way through a narrow crack in the vertical blind and reflected itself via a polished, metallic likeness of Marylin Monroe, onto the sleeping face of Alice Mollison.
The old woman screwed up her face, blinked a few times, then called to her carer, Gwen, who was busying herself making sandwiches for Alice’s lunch. Gwen called in twice a day; morning, to get Alice out of bed, dressed, watered and fed, and in the evening to get her tea and into her night clothes.
Alice slept in a bed in the corner of the room, the stairs being a mission too far nowadays for the soon to be Centenarian.
Gwen came through from the kitchen.
‘What is it, my lovely?’
‘Can you shut that bloody sunlight off? It’s burning out my corneas.’
Gwen stepped across the room and adjusted the blind.
‘How’s that? We shouldn’t really be complaining about the sun coming out. We’ve had weeks of rain. I’m taking my Gareth out for a walk in the park this afternoon. You don’t know when we’ll see it again. I think—’
‘It felt like a laser beam on my eyelids,’ Alice interrupted. ‘It’s still hot now, here, feel.’
Gwen went back to her sandwich making.
‘Jessica will be here soon, won’t she? It’s Wednesday.’
Alice brightened. Jessica was her great granddaughter, a kindred spirit. She was a clone of Alice when she was that age. She always looked forward to her company. She was bright, engaging, and an aspiring novelist to boot. She read pieces of her work in progress to Alice at least once a week. Sadly, the novel that Jessica knew was inside her had yet to surface. Her laptop was filled with half finished manuscripts, story ideas and plotlines. She liked to be called, Jess, but Alice wouldn’t comply with her request.
‘Jessica is the name on your birth certificate, so Jessica, you remain,’ she had said.
Alice turned to her left and took a small make-up mirror from the drawer in the narrow, walnut, side table. She studied her face intently.
‘Not bad for almost a hundred,’ she mused. She turned her head this way and that. ‘If you can see past the folds of wrinkles and liver spots.’
In her youth, Alice had been a beauty. Everyone said so. Not the filler-assisted beauty of the present day, more of a classic beauty, like the wartime film star, Rita Hayworth with whom she had been favourably compared.
‘Good legs, good bust, nice arse and a face to die for,’ as Ada Blunt, the landlord’s wife of The Old Bull, had once described her. ‘She’ll come down to earth with a bump,’ she had added, as though she was a clairvoyant.
Alice still had a good head of hair, albeit an almost translucent white. It fell to just below the nape of her neck and was swept back at the sides, held in place with hairpins. She patted it into shape and returned the mirror to the drawer.
She sighed. She hated old age and everything it brought with it, even though she had been extremely lucky with her health. There had been no major illnesses, no cancers, no eye problems, not since she had had the laser surgery at least. There had been no hypertension, no real problems with osteoarthritis, and thankfully, best of all, no Alzheimer’s or Dementia. Alice’s mind was sharp as a tack. When she was awake that was. Her ‘forty winks’ were becoming more and more frequent.
She eased herself up in her chair, reached behind and adjusted the two cushions that had become a permanent feature as Gwen returned to the room carrying a plate of sandwiches and a flask of tea.
‘There you go, my lovely. That should see you through to this evening. I’m sure Jessica will get you anything you need in between.’ She pointed to the commode that sat in the corner opposite the bed. ‘Would you like to go before she gets here?’
Alice grimaced. The commode was the thing she despised most about old age. She’d give half of what was left of her life to be able to use a proper flushing toilet. She had a stairlift to get upstairs but no longer had the strength in her legs to get her there, even with her walker.
‘Have you ever seen me on the commode, even once in all the time you’ve been coming here?’ she asked.
‘No, but I just thought I’d ask. Just in case. There’s a first time for everything.’ Gwen replied.
‘I’m neither immobile nor incapable,’ Alice retorted. ‘Even Jessica doesn’t get to see me defecate or urinate. I do have some private moments, few as they are.’ Alice continued as though Gwen hadn’t spoken.
The carer picked up her bag and walked to the lounge door.
‘See you tonight then. I’m off to see old Mr Hathersage now, bless him.’ Ben Hathersage was bedbound. Gwen always added the epithet whenever she spoke about him. ‘Bed bath today.’ She shuddered. ‘That won’t be pleasant, he’s incontinent.’
‘Well, you always seem to want to watch me poo,’ said Alice, with a little glint in her eye.
Gwen turned away. ‘See you later then.’
She stopped and turned as Alice called her name. The old woman smiled a short smile and nodded to the carer. Gwen winked, nodded back in acknowledgement and walked along the passage towards the front door.
‘Cranky old bugger,’ she said, chuckling to herself.
Alice adjusted the cushions again and looked up at the clock. She despised that almost as much as the commode. All too frequently these days, she’d sit and watch it tick her life away as she listened to Classic FM on the new DAB radio that Jessica had bought her for her ninety-ninth.
‘Damn clock. Damn time.’
The clock was saved from further abuse when Gwen suddenly appeared again.
‘Look who’s here,’ she announced, her voice full of surprise.
‘Clark Gable?’ Alice asked.
‘No, silly,’ Gwen gave a little laugh. ‘It’s Jessica.’
Gwen backed away and Jess appeared in the doorway. Her chestnut curls fell around her shoulders. She wore mid-blue skinny jeans, a black top covered with a thigh-length cardigan. She wore open toed sandals and a large canvas shoulder bag sat against her hip.
Her face was clear of make-up. Not even a hint of mascara. Alice noted that her eyes were puffy. She had been crying. Again.
When she smiled her blue eyes lit up. She turned her head back as the front door closed. ‘Bye, Gwen,’ she said, and waved.
Jess almost bounced into the lounge, dropped her bag at the side of an old-fashioned, lion’s-foot, coffee table and stepped quickly to Alice’s side. She put her arm around her shoulders and gave her a kiss on the cheek.
‘Mmmm, you smell of lavender. How’s my favourite Nana,’ she asked.
‘I’m the only Nana you have, dear. The other one couldn’t last the distance.’
Jess laughed. ‘You’re a wicked old hag. Would you like some tea, I’m parched.’
Alice pushed herself up from her chair and grabbed at her walker. ‘Close the kitchen door behind you and give me ten minutes will you, Jess. I’m desperate for a pee.’
Ten minutes later, Jess tapped on the door and eased it open an inch.
‘Have you finished?’
‘For now, but I’ll be going again soon if you keep forcing all this tea down me.’
Jess pushed open the door with her knee and carried in a tray holding a flowered china tea pot and a matching china cup, milk jug, sugar bowl and a brightly coloured mug. She set it down on the table and sat in the arm chair opposite Alice.
‘I’ve never once heard you refuse a cup of tea,’ she said. ‘I think you have PG Tips in your veins, not blood. That’s why you’ve lived so long.’
She leaned forward, poured the tea, added two heaped spoons of sugar, a dash of milk and handed it to Alice with a courtesy.
‘Tea is served, Ma’am,’ she said.
Alice took a sip and nodded approvingly. She looked over her cup at Jess.
‘Have you been crying, young lady?’
Jess bit her lip. Nothing got past Nana.
‘It’s just a silly thing,’ Jess replied. ‘An old song on the radio, I always get emotional when I hear it.’
Alice decided to let it go.
‘No story today? Weren’t we riding aboard an old tea clipper last week? I want to know what happens to Abel and his intended. They’ve been apart too long. It’s time they were wed.’
Jess studied her mug intently. ‘I’ve sort of shelved that. It wasn’t going to plan.’
Alice laughed and choked on her tea. Jess was at her side in an instant, hanky in hand, wiping the tea from her chin, the other hand reaching behind to pat her back.
Alice waved her away. ‘Don’t fuss, I’m fine.’
As Jess returned to her seat, Alice returned to the subject of the book.
‘That’s a shame, I quite liked Abel. You will have to finish one of these tales, Jessica. The publishers won’t print half a book.’
Jess sighed. ‘I know, Nana. I just keep thinking there’s a better story somewhere, one with utterly believable characters. A story that everyone can relate to.’
‘Most of us have one of those in our past,’ said Alice. She hesitated for a moment and then continued.
‘Who are you going to spend all of your Wednesdays making tea for when I’m gone?’ she asked.
Jess frowned. ‘What a topic of conversation, Nana. Gran says you’ll outlive us all.’
Gran was Martha, Alice’s oldest daughter. Alice was Nana, because Great Gran never seemed right and Nana was a lot more familiar. Apart from Gran there was Mum, Great Aunt Marjorie and Great Uncle William (Alice’s other children), they were just known as Uncle and Aunt, the same as Jess’s own mother’s siblings, John and Anita, who were both childless. Alice had little if anything to do with any of them. Jess was Alice reborn and they both knew it.
‘What a notion,’ said Alice. ‘I’d still be sitting on that blooming commode when I was a hundred and seventy, perish the thought.’
‘You must be looking forward to next month, Nana. Not too many people get a telegram from the Queen.’
Alice shook her head, her crystalline hair coming to rest a full second later.
‘I won’t get to read it, Jessica, I’m coming towards the end, a little bit more of me fades away every day.’
‘Oh, Nana, don’t say such things,’ replied Jess, a tear sliding down her cheek. ‘You’ll still be here next Christmas, you’re as tough as old boots.’
‘I mean it,’ replied Alice. ‘When I sleep, I see the blackness now, there are no colours anymore. Every time it’s the same. It’s like I’m looking into a pitch-black tunnel. It was like that for weeks, but then, a few days ago, I saw a pinprick of light, only just bright enough to make out. Over the last few days, it’s grown larger. The light isn’t daylight or anything like that, it’s a brilliant white light, but it’s soft, if you see what I mean? The pinprick has grown bigger every day and now it’s about a quarter of the size of the tunnel. I’m being called, and I’m ready to go.’
Jess wiped her eyes with her tea stained hanky. ‘Don’t, Nana, please. I don’t like you talking like this.’
Alice leaned forward and patted Jess’s proffered hand.
‘It comes to us all sooner or later, my dear, and now it’s my turn.’
She waved away Jess’s fretful protestations.
‘Listen, my sweetheart. I have something to tell you, a secret I’ve not shared with a living soul for eighty years.’
Jess wiped her eyes again and blew her running nose.
‘Not even Gran or Mum?’
‘Especially not your Gran or Mum,’ said Alice. ‘It would hardly be a secret if they got hold of it, and, they wouldn’t be able to cope with the knowledge anyway. No one knows, Jessica. I’m the sole bearer of the secret, but I’d like to unburden myself of it before I go, a sort of confession if you like. Will you be my priest?’