The room is filled with elderly women sitting in two rows of chairs facing one another. Silver and gold foil garlands are strung haphazardly in each corner. A cover version of I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas plays loudly from small speakers hung on the wall. The ward stinks like the toilets down at the park. I try not to make it obvious that I’m wrinkling my nose as the smell attaches itself to my nostrils and stays there.
She sits by the window, in a rocking chair. She doesn’t flinch as we approach.
‘Hello Mum,’ Dad says. ‘How’re you doing?’
Mum kisses her cheek and tells me to do the same. I reluctantly lean over and place a butterfly kiss on her wrinkled cheek. She doesn’t smell like Nana. Her usual Oil of Ulay mixed with cigarette smoke smell has gone. She doesn’t respond. She continues staring straight ahead, rocking back and forth in the chair.
A woman with a tiny sprouting beard walks over to us. ‘Do you happen to know the time, dear?’ she asks.
Dad says no, sorry, he doesn’t. She smiles and nods, eyes wide. She’s wearing a fake fur coat with a leopard skin print and has red lipstick drawn round her mouth. She’s the same height as I am – the smallest woman I’ve ever seen, her feet in fluffy carpet slippers are tiny. She puts out a withered hand and strokes my hair. I try not to pull away. Mum takes my hand protectively.
‘Maybe she’s a bit young to see this?’ Mum mutters under her breath to Dad.
‘She’s nearly 12. Mum’s been asking for her’, Dad says. They talk as though Nana can’t hear them.
A male visitor walks in with a bunch of chrysanthemums. The bearded lady lets go of my hair and walks over to him. ‘Do you happen to know the time, dear?’ she says. The man looks at his wristwatch and answers her. She nods and wanders off.
A woman’s shout pierces the room. She is fastened into a chair with a thick stretchy belt. ‘Is Mother taking me home for Christmas?’ Nobody answers. She reminds me of my younger brother when he was a toddler, yelling for attention from his high chair.
Nana still makes no sound, apart from the wooden rocker rubbing against the tiled floor. Dad goes off to find the doctor in charge to discuss things. Mum pulls two brown plastic chairs from a stack and sets them down on either side of Nana. She sits on one and I sit on the other. Its legs screech, scraping the floor. A woman in the far corner makes a loud buzzing sound, her eyes staring out ahead unblinking. I perch on the end of the brown chair. It’s rock hard and uncomfortable.
‘Do you happen to know the time, dear?’ the bearded lady says again behind me. I turn round and shake my head, no. She nods and carries on pacing the room. She nods whatever the answer is.
A plump nurse comes in, rubber-soled shoes squeaking. ‘This is lovely and festive, ladies, isn’t it?’ she says, humming along to the tune of I wish it could be Christmas Every Day. I want to say, No, it’s the least festive place I’ve ever been, but I keep buttoned.
I glance at Nana, wondering what she’s thinking. I’m used to her being the loudest person in the room. I think of other Christmases, of her and Granddad’s parties, where she would entertain everybody with stories from her time working in the steel factories during the war.
Then she would roll back the big rug from the fireplace, and Granddad would put on an old vinyl, and they would dance right there in the living room, him sweeping her around while we all watched, imagining them as a young couple again.
‘Is Mother here to take me home?’ the old woman in the corner pipes up again.
‘Do you happen to know the time, dear?’ the bearded lady says. They’re like parrots setting each other off, and I’m trapped in the bird-house at the zoo. I want to put my hands over my ears, to shut out the noise, but I know that would be bad manners.
The perky nurse looks un-fluttered, approaches the elderly lady, taps her hand and says ‘not just yet, ducks’. She turns her nurses’ fob upside down and reads the time. ‘Just coming up to 3, Mavis, almost time for tea and biscuits. I think it’s custard creams today, and mince pies later’. Mavis nods and paces.
The nurse turns to me. ‘Hello, dear, you must be Vi’s granddaughter’. I nod. I think I left my voice at the door. I look at Nana who is still rocking, back and forth, back and forth. I wonder how the nurse knows who I am, but she says ‘She’s got photos of you stuck all over her room. She’s very proud of you, aren’t you, Vi?’ She taps Nana’s arm. She doesn’t even flinch.
‘She’s very subdued today, isn’t she?’ Mum says.
The nurse smiles, her cheeks turning to red apples. ‘Ah, they’re often a bit quiet after the ECT, ducks, don’t worry. She’ll liven up later when we’re all wearing our Christmas party hats and having a bit of a boogie, won’t you, Vi?’ The nurse wiggles fat hips at us. I have to look away, feeling embarrassed.
The nurse walks off and Dad comes back with a man in a white coat. He motions to Mum to come and she glances at me. ‘Try and chat to your Nana, love, tell her about school or something. I won’t be a tick’. She crosses the floor, heels clicking. I know they hope Nana can come home soon, once the treatment re-sets her brain. That’s what the ECT does, apparently. I’ve tried asking what it is, exactly, but nobody wants to tell me, so I think it must be pretty awful.
‘Do you happen to know the time, dear?’ Mavis says as Mum passes her.
Mum shakes her head. An orderly comes in pushing a silver trolley noisily, piled with green cups and saucers. Everything here is either off-white or green. Even the patients.
‘Is that you, Mother, coming to take me home?’ the old woman shouts.
‘It’s just a nice cuppa, Evie, and a custard cream.’ She slops liquid into a special plastic cup for the woman called Evie, like a baby’s sippy cup that doesn’t spill when it’s tipped over. Evie can’t be trusted with proper cups.
‘Do you happen to know the time, dear?’ Mavis asks.
‘Tea-time, Mave,’ the orderly says. Mavis approaches the trolley amiably. She takes a cup of tea and shoves two custard creams into her fur coat pocket.
‘Would you like a cup of tea, Nana?’ I ask, finding my voice.
Nana doesn’t answer. Her eyes still stare ahead, chair rocking back and forth. The nurse places a cup down on the small table in front of her anyway. She plonks a custard cream into the saucer. It starts going soggy at the edges where the slopped tea soaks into it.
She hands me a biscuit. ‘Here you go, love’, she says. ‘Come to see your Nan for Christmas, have you? That’s nice’. She starts to turn the trolley round and pushes it towards the door.
‘Has Mother come to take me home for Christmas?’ The woman called Evie shouts at her retreating back.
I turn to Nana. ‘I should’ve brought you one of our famous jam tarts,’ I say, thinking back to the summer when we sat together in her warm kitchen, kneading pastry and filling it with sticky strawberry jam. The back door of the council house was propped open, letting in the sweet smell of Granddad’s roses, and I try to imagine the smell of them now, to get rid of the smell of pee. But I can’t. I wonder if Nana is thinking the same thing, or if she is thinking at all.
‘I brought you a present, Nana,’ I say. I pull a crumpled envelope from my duffle coat pocket and hold it out. She doesn’t take it, so I open it for her. A cheery card with a snowman on it. It feels wrong here. I slide out a square school photograph of me – the latest one. I’ve written a message on the back: I hope you can come home soon x I hold it in front of her, turning it over slowly so she can see both sides. Her pupils flicker slightly. She stops rocking for the first time since we arrived. Then, she takes the photograph from me in a shaky hand. She rubs her coarse thumb across it, her yellow-stained fingers.
Nana’s eyes focus on mine at last. She touches my cheek, moving a strand of hair which has escaped my long pony-tail. She puts her hand over mine, which is still holding the snowman card in my lap.
We look straight at one another. And there she is – Nana – deep in there somewhere, just stuck, for now. We sit like that, holding hands and watching one another, until I feel a tap on my shoulder, breaking the spell between us.
‘Do you happen to have the time, dear?’ Mavis says.
Kate Jones is a freelance writer based in her home city of Sheffield with her husband, two feisty daughters and their spoilt cat named George. She has recently completed an English Literature degree with the Open University as a mature student.
She divides her days between writing features for online magazine Skirt Collective, reviews for The State of the Arts website, and reading books for review. In between this, she indulges in her favourite writing habit of creating flash fiction, and has been published in various literary magazines, including SickLit, Gold Dust, and Spelk, as well as being nominated for this year’s Pushcart Prize. You can also find her writing on her personal blog.