I wrote this story many years ago, looking back it is kind of prophetic. My husband and I are facing the issues the subject of this story faces. It is a story that is all too true. Despite Government rhetoric and wonderful brochures put out by nursing homes, people like Margaret are eking out lonely, existence's.
NOTHING TO LIVE FOR
Searching for the defector
‘Tom?’ The old voice full of impatience called, ‘Tom?’ Old Margaret Ames stood on the back door step calling for Tom. Her still young blue eyes probed the overgrown junk littering the back yard, hoping that a sleek black form would leap out and greet her.
The empty kennels and sheds were silent in decay. The light of hope died from her eyes, she seemed to shrink just a little more, crumpling like old parchment. For several days, hope kept her alive, waiting for her beloved to return. His defection left her with nothing to live for.
Turning back into the house, the scuff-scuff of her slippers echoed through dusty, cluttered rooms. The old chair wheezed a protest as Margaret’s emaciated figure sank into it. A sigh escaped the once shapely lips, a tear squeezed under heavy lids exploring, a network of furrows down her withered cheeks. With her beloved’s defection what was there to love. She was alone, unwanted, useless. She hated being old.
A sharp knock on the door and the old lids fluttered open.
‘Just a moment,’ the old voice rasped. It took Margaret sometime to ease herself out of the chair. Another knock, louder this time,
‘It’s the Meals on Wheels ladies. We’ve brought your dinner.’
The door opened, sunshine made a path into the dim hall. Jenny Brown bustle out to the kitchen with steaming plates of food. She pushed aside the flotsam of dirty plates, papers and clothes to put down the dishes. Margaret scuffed along behind her.
The brush off
‘Have you seen…?’ Marg began.
‘Mrs. Ames, are you feeling all right? You haven’t washed yesterday’s dishes. You’ve been crying.’
‘Tom! Have you seen …?’
‘I think you need help, Mrs. Ames. I’m going to make an application to Domiciliary Care to send someone to help you.
‘Tom! He hasn’t…’
‘Who’s Tom, Mrs. Ames? Sorry we can’t stay to help you. We’re busy today. Many of our helpers are off sick; we’re very short staffed, have to go now. Cheerio, see you tomorrow.’
Margaret put out a hand, fingers now clawed with arthritis to stop Jenny’s mad dash but she brushed aside the old hand scurrying down the shaft of light, slamming the door behind her. The house settled back into its somnolence as if glad the intrusion had left. Margaret stared at the door, alone with her helplessness.
‘Mrs. Ames shouldn’t be left alone. She’s not coping, besides, her mind is wandering, and she was raving about Tom. Who is Tom? A son?’ Jenny slammed the car door. Beryl Hick’s started the car, ‘She’s got a daughter in town, why doesn’t she see to the old girl?’ the car swung around leaving a curl of dust hanging in the air like a question mark.
‘Jenny, we can’t be responsible for all the oldies. We only have to deliver their meals. We have families as well.
‘Well, somebody should do something. The old girl can’t be left alone any longer, Beryl. The house is a pigsty. Where did you say her daughter lived?’ Jenny was a little robin, hopping from idea to idea, never stopping for an answer.
Beryl drew up in front of a tiny cottage. Jenny grabbed hot dishes and hurried inside to another aged man in a wheel chair.
‘I can’t get Mrs. Ames out of my mind,’ Jenny said as she climbed back into the car. ‘I feel she was trying to tell me something. I feel so guilty for not being able to stop and find out what was wrong.’
‘Stop feeling guilty, Jenny. We’re doing our best. Think of all the time we put into Meals on Wheels. I have to admit the old people are an endangered species these days. You could get in touch with the daughter I suppose. But she had a row with her mother a few years ago and they don’t talk to each other now.’
The two women continued on their way comforting themselves that they were doing all they could.
Dreaming of a better life
Margaret looked at the steaming food. She felt ill. She spooned some into Tom’s dish, the rest she pushed into the fridge along with several days’ deliveries.
Margaret wandered out through the back yard amongst tumbled down kennels and shed, once full of animals whose owners were on holiday or recovering from some illness or hurt.
‘To-om, To-om.’ No sleek black form crawled out from under a bush, stretching and yawning sleepily, to wind himself around her legs. Hope died; she had lost another love, what was there to live for? If she could only go to meet her Ralph to whom she’d been married to for fifty years until cancer claimed his life. Perhaps they would work together again as vets in the animal heaven as they did here.
Margaret returned to her chair, staring through the hazed window at a world alive with its own concerns, unaware of the needy old woman behind the window, arrogant in the knowledge of their youth. Margaret sighed, what a devil it was to get old, the living no longer wanted you.
Once she had been a part of that mad rush out there, she existed in a backwater where no one knew or cared what happened to her. She and her Ralph had lived for animals. Creatures loved you regardless of how you treated them. If she could only go to sleep and wake beside her Ralph, she had loved him beyond all else.
Margaret eased herself slowly out of her chair, and scrimmaged through a drawer in a sideboard under the window. She filled a syringe, a fleeting smile ironed out the furrowed cheeks as she thought of meeting Ralph again. She had never discarded the tranquilisers and syringes when she retired from the Practise. She eased back into her chair with a sigh and plunged the needle into her arm. Her hand dropped over the side of the chair, her head slid sideways. The day slipped away; the house settled even more deeply into its sleep.
The defector returns
The sleek black defector dropped into the yard, pushed through the cat hole in the door, walked confidently to his dish, tail high with self-esteem. He downed the contents. Mewing a greeting, Tom rubbed against the grubby leggings. There was no response. He nudged the cold hand, finally he curled up on Margaret’s lap and slept as was his practise unaware yet that Margaret would not wake to cuddle him ever.
Hunger pain woke Tom early in the morning, a graceful stretch and wide yawn, a visit to his dish. Disgusted that it was empty he returned to Margaret mewing for food. He nudged her hand, giving it a lick. It smelled queer, he gave it a nip, his stomach told him it would be good to eat, so he ate his fill. Instinct told him Margret was different; his loyalty to the hands that fed him gave way to hunger pains.
Next day at noon, Jenny and Beryl arrived in a cloud of dust with a hot meal. At their entry Tom hissed angrily at their sudden appearance, already his feral instincts were rising. He fled at Jenny’s attempts to befriend him.
Jenny screamed, ‘Beryl, that awful cat has started to eat Margaret.’
‘What’s happened?’ Beryl felt bemused.
‘It’s Margaret Ames, she dead and the cat’s been eating her. I’m going to be sick.’ Jenny raced for the toilet.
Beryl had disappeared outside, white and shaking. Never had they experienced anything like this in all the years they’d work delivering Meals on Wheels.
‘What’s happened here?’ The Paramedics looked around on arrival to Beryl’s call.
Jenny sobbed out her guilt, ‘If o only I had listened to her yesterday, she tried to tell me something and I didn’t listen. I can’t forgive myself. I’ve always hated that cat, it seemed evil.’
‘Listen, lady, the old girl loved her cat. She wouldn’t have known anything about it.’ The Officer held up the syringe that had slid down into the chair as Margaret slept eternally. ‘She took her own life.’
Jenny’s face was awash with tears at the Paramedic’s words. Beryl having returned led Jenny way, ‘We still have other deliveries to make.’
‘I can’t go on, Beryl. I feel it was all my fault. I knew something was wrong but I didn’t do anything about it. I didn’t even ring her daughter because it was too busy.’
‘I don’t know what you could have done. It’s the way we work these days when caring for the old. We can only do what we can and hope that something might change for the better.’ Beryl choked back her tears.
‘Beryl, I’m determined to do something, I don’t know what yet, but I’m not going to let the old suffer more than I can help.’
It was late afternoon when Tom reappeared and entered he cat hole. He tested the air, his tail twitching. He prowled through the rooms, enquiring sniffs to furniture and clothing, his claws echoing hollowly on the dusty faded linoleum. She was gone. Her smell was weak. There was nothing for him here. He eased out into the back yard, moving through the undergrowth, to the back fence. He sat on a post, ears pricked, studying first the lane then the house, would she yet call? Satisfied the old voice was silent, his meal ticket gone, freedom beckoned, he jumped from the post into the lane and trotted off into the coming night.