Aunty Em was, of course, not party to the decision-making. It had been several years since she had understood what was going on around her. She lived her life in a cocoon of memories and pain. The dementia had crept up slowly, so she had time to sign the Continuing Power of Attorney documents so that Gordon and Iris could take care of things for her. They were so kind, especially Iris, the lovely Iris, who had lived with her for a while, when her own mother (Em’s sister Barbara) was taken so cruelly. Em didn’t really recognise Iris any more, but she thought of her constantly as she was 50 years ago. She would nod off when the pain-killers for her cancer kicked in, still talking to the child that she saw in front of her in the sunny garden that she imagined herself to be in. She imagined herself playing with Iris’s beautiful long hair. She was annoyed when she was interrupted by that old couple who kept trying to make her drink or roll over. And how dare they try to undress her! The shame of it; until she forgot that she cared.
The ambulance came and that old woman was bossing everyone around and then suddenly was weeping, flapping her hands and telling those boys in uniform to hold her gently. She was scared by the commotion, and grew more and more distressed as they took her out of the house on that stupid bed. She craned her neck and saw the house from the outside for the first time in years. How had she got there? This wasn’t right. There was gravel instead of her beloved cottage garden flowers – there should be campanula, geraniums, roses, columbine, violets, dianthus, phlox and Sweet Williams, but instead she saw gravel and dustbins. Someone had murdered her garden last night. She distinctly remembered dead-heading the roses yesterday. She howled with rage and fear, and started kicking that stupid boy with the cap. Everyone was speaking in too many voices; she couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t let her up.
Of course they were all in it together. They forced her down on the bed and strapped her down, and closed the doors, and she could feel the ambulance driving away from everything she knew.
She woke up the next day and couldn’t find her glass on the bedside cabinet; someone had moved it to the wrong side. Someone had changed the walls of the room and the windows and the curtains. That old woman was sitting there, and all Em could think was that they had kidnapped her. That woman tried to hold her hand, so she punched her, hard. She wasn’t going to go quietly, that was for sure. They might think she could be imprisoned by force, but she was a fighter.
Another woman came in the room, another stranger with short dark hair and a white uniform. She spoke quietly and that old woman left. Em cried a little bit, and then allowed herself to be given some pills, and her pillows were plumped and the curtains were opened; she could see a little balcony and green, lots of lovely green, even though the view from the bed was restricted.
“I’m Thea” said the dark-haired one. “I know it’s a shock to be somewhere strange, but I promise you we will make everything how you like it. You probably need some time, but gradually I will find out everything you love the most, and I will make sure we get it for you. I can go back to your house and get anything you like.” Her voice was like honey, and Em closed her eyes.
She could hear the woman moving about; she could hear the rustle of her uniform even though she couldn’t hear any footsteps. She reminded her of Barbara. She was drifting again, back in school uniform with Barbara standing on the step so that they were the same height, ready for the photograph. Where was that photograph? “Barbara dear, where’s that photo that daddy took on my first day at school?” she turned to Thea, frowning. “It should be over there on the bookcase. Have you put it somewhere else?”
Thea was standing by the window, with her hair lit up and her face in shadow, but Em could see that she was smiling. “Yes I took it to clean the frame, but I’ll have it back in no time” she said, glad to have found the first clue to a way of communicating with this sad and frightened woman. She would go with Iris to the house and collect that photograph, and as many other mementoes of her past as they could find. She didn’t mind that Em thought she was someone else.
But the journey with Iris was a waste of time. Thea crept back into the room in the early evening and laid the things out while Em was sleeping, her breathing raspy but even, so that she would be ready for conversation the next day.
When she came back the next morning, Em was gone. She was there in the bed, eyes open, with her mouth slightly open, and it was hardly necessary to feel the coldness of her skin to know that she was gone. Thea felt sick with shock. She hadn’t had time to get to know Em, but she knew what this meant for all of them. The other residents would know and would get upset. Marion would be on the warpath, and so would Mr Tate. There was no way this should have happened – Em’s life expectancy was at least another year or two. This was not only somehow a personal failure, but she knew she would also have the ordeal of facing the guilt and anger of Gordon and Iris on her own. Marion was only good at getting them in.
Gordon virtually exploded with indignation when she gave the news. “We trusted you to look after her. What kind of rotten people are you that an old lady can die within a day of you taking her in? Someone is to blame for this, and I’m not going to let you get away with it. My wife was virtually kicked out of the room and you just took over, and then you ransacked her house, you’re nothing but a load of vultures!” The police were called in the end.
It was horrible. But the worst was still to come, when the autopsy (which was always required for an unexpected death) revealed that she had been murdered.