Tea And Sympathy

Entry by: H Tinsley

28th March 2018
I carefully try to slide my hand into my pocket.

Turning my phone over and pressing the button to check the time as I hear for the fifteenth time since I arrived that Elvis is coming soon.

She's sure he must be on his way by now.

Outside in the corridors I hear a woman screaming, searching for her lost cardigan that has been stolen again.

I close my eyes and imagine the minutes ticking by as she tells me again that Elvis is coming, he'll be here any minute and I mustn't take my eyes off the door for a second.

She'll never forgive me if I miss him.

I ask her if she would like a cup of tea, a game of cards, an afternoon nap but no, she only wants to wait for him.

One of the nurses pops her head around the door.

"Is she being alright today?" She asks.

I nod slowly, still tired from yesterday's shift and dreading the long hours ahead as I drift from person to person introducing myself again and again to people who won't know me the next time I see them.

The nurse gives me a thumbs up.

Looking back across the room from my chair I can see she has fallen asleep on the bed, lying in her best clothes on top of the covers. She is snoring already.

I try not to move.

Within minutes she is awake again and staring at me blankly.

"Who are you?" She asks.

I tell her my name and explain that we have met many times before and that we enjoy chatting, sitting in her room and waiting for the nurses to arrive with her tea.

"Do we?" She asks cautiously. "What do we chat about?"

I feel the exhaustion creeping over me as I swallow and try to look as excited as I know that she will be.

"We like to talk about Elvis." I say wearily.

Her eyes light up as I mention the only subject that she knows - the only one that we ever discuss, talking about the same four or five facts over and over again.

"Do you like Elvis?" She asks me happily. "He's a lovely man, he's popping round in a minute."

I tell her that sounds wonderful.

She points to a picture of him on her wall, her most prized possession and proceeds to tell me how tall he is, what his favourite colour shirt is and she sings a few lines of Jailhouse Rock to me.

"Did you know he lives in a place called Graceland?" I ask, not wanting to shatter the illusion by explaining to her that Elvis died long ago and will in fact, not be coming to tea.

"No." She says looking at me with eyes imploring, wanting every little detail I can serve up.

I nod as emphatically as I can manage.

She isn't lying when she says that she doesn't know - it doesn't matter that I told her the same thing only ten minutes ago, or that we've had the same conversation at least eight times on each visit.

She doesn't know.

The old woman who lost her cardigan shuffles in, her zimmer frame scraping at the carpet as she approaches me with tears in her eyes.

"Can you help me?" She asks mournfully. "I've just killed a man and the police are coming to get me."

I ask her who she killed but she doesn't know.

There are no nurses around and the orderlies are hiding in the kitchen. There is no reassuring the crying woman, she can already see the flashing lights outside.

I look out at the empty car park.

A bluebird is sitting on the windowsill, his head cocked to one side as if considering what it might be like to be inside this big, brickwork prison.

"Have you seen Elvis anywhere?"

I am stuck between a rock and roll fanatic waiting for The King and a octaganarian murderer about to be taken to prison.

I touch my hand to the sides of my head and rub the temples.

"Are you alright?" The slipper wearing killer enquires, forgetting momentarily about her impending incarceration. "Do you want a gin and tonic?"

She doesn't wait for me to answer before she shuffles out of the open door and stands in the empty corridor, taking an invisible purse out of her nightie and ordering two gin and tonics from a non-existant bar man.

She shuffles back in and nods at me approvingly.

"Did you enjoy it?" She asks.

I smile gratefully and tell her that I did, thanks, but we probably shouldn't be drinking gin and tonics at ten in the morning.

She shakes her head at me as if I am an idiot.

"Don't be silly." She smiles. "It's Wednesday."

Suddenly she remembers her cardigan is still missing and leaves us alone, the two of us once more sitting in the tiny room - me on the chair and my companion on the bed.

"Who are you?"

We begin the cycle again as I introduce myself and she explains to me that Elvis really should be along at any minute.

I don't mean to tune her out but I do - it's unavoidable as we monotonously go over the same conversation again and again.

I pick up a photoframe sitting at her bedside.

It's a wedding photo, a beautiful sepia image of two smiling people in the sunshine - a woman holding a bouqet of blooming roses, gypsophilia and foliage.

There are petals scattered all around them as they wave to people hidden behind the camera lens, the picture of happiness and hope for the future.

I don't know what happened to the man in the picture.

I don't know his name, what he did or how long he lived.

Neither does she.

She remembers making her wedding dress though and tells me all about it - the long hours she put into stitching the hem and adding the lace. She laughs as she remembers pricking her finger on the needle and worrying about the tiniest dot of blood.

For a moment I sit and think.

I think about how strange it is that a whole life can be forgotten but the smallest detail of the most insignificant event can linger somewhere, lost in the back of your mind until somebody pulls it from you.

She looks happy for a moment and I wonder if somehow she is remembering him - if there is something left of her somewhere that can be found.

But then she looks at me.

"Who are you?" She asks.

I check my phone and realise that our time is up.

I stand and put on my coat, picking up my rucksack and slinging it over my shoulders. Placing my hand on her shoulder I tell her to try and relax, to eat something if she can and I promise her that next time I visit I will bring her a new photo of Elvis.

"Will you?" She grins with her eyes gleaming.

I nod and give her shoulder a squeeze.

Before I leave I slip the photo of Mr Presley that we keep for each visit under my coat hoping that she won't see.

It isn't cheating - I don't get a budget for this kind of thing and it makes her so happy each time she is presented with it.

She doesn't need to know that I've given her the same photo six times now or that next time I see her I will give it to her again.

I walk out of the building and stand in the sunshine.

I move on.

I have other visits to complete, forms to fill in and people who need my attention, my time. I don't have time to sit and dwell as my day is filled with hours of madness, sadness, grief and pain.

Families give orders for baths, medicines and endless cups of tea and I march relentlessly on, desensitised to the sights and smells.

The mess doesn't bother me.

I've seen it all before.

But no matter how I try, I can't escape the smell.

It's not the smell of urine or anything similar.

I try to describe it to my husband when I arrive home from my shift, try to explain how it lingers long after I am sitting in my pyjamas and dressing gown, freshly showered and clean.

How it seeps into my skin and I feel it in my pores.

It's the smell of dementia.

It's the smell of death.

It's cleaning fluids, mashed potatoes, porridge and bleach.

It's a grim glimpse into a potential future for you, me, anybody who ever had a life - anybody who was ever loved or loved another.

The possible end for a teacher, doctor, builder or circus performer.

My husband, my mother, my friends, my neighbours.


Once again the tears begin to roll down my cheeks as I curl up on my sofa - my dog jumps up next to me and licks my face, his fur warm and soft.

My husband sits next to me and hands me a cup of tea.

He wraps his arms around me and kisses me on the forehead.

He tells me he loves me.

I drink my cup of tea and when I am finished I go to check the washing machine to make sure that my uniform is ready for tomorrow's visit.

I need to make sure I leave early in the morning, I can't be late.

Elvis is coming.