‘And she definitely didn’t tell her parents?’
‘Absolutely not.’ Katie looked thoughtful. ‘She just told me. My God, is this important? Is this something I should have remembered before and told you?’
‘You weren’t to know, Katie. The main thing is, you’ve remembered now.’
He did not wait for the lift.
It was difficult to tell if the scream was of rage or pain. Molly had been helping with a check of the controlled drugs cabinet.
‘Don’t worry, it’s only Miss Mills.’
The screaming went on, and after a moment of listening intently, Sister Fison locked the cabinet and gestured Molly to follow her. ‘The trouble is, they don’t like going to her so they always try and leave it to someone else – usually me – which means she gets worse and worse and then the other patients are upset. I wish they would just deal with it.’
She crossed into the small dining room where the early lunch was being served. Miss Mills was standing in the middle of the room holding her arms out and screaming what might have been the name Agatha, now barely to be made out, in the high-pitched uninterrupted noise. She held a fork in her right hand.
The dining-room attendant was standing near the door looking bemused, two other patients huddled together, chairs pulled tight up to tables. One of the carers was reasoning with Olive but standing yards from her and glancing every few seconds towards the door.
‘Right,’ Moira Fison said, ‘Lorraine, get on with your job. Kelly, will you please help the others? – they’ve been left alone in fright and bewilderment and this must not happen. Go on. Molly, give me a hand, please. Olive, please put the fork down, you haven’t got your lunch plate yet. Let me have it.’ She took a single step to face the screaming woman and held out her hand. ‘You needn’t shout any more, my dear, it’s all been dealt with. Just give me the fork and we can carry on with lunchtime as usual.’
Molly edged round until she was at Olive’s back, and waited. She could feel the heat of rage coming from Olive’s body.
Olive was still screaming. She ignored Moira and did not let go of the fork.
Molly reached up without warning, took Olive’s raised arm and pulled it swiftly down. Olive swung round, her mouth open but the scream dying into silence.
‘Drop the fork on the floor,’ Molly said calmly.
Olive stared at her in bewilderment. Dropped the fork. Fell on Molly, arms out to be caught. Molly caught her.
‘Good,’ Moira Fison said, taking her other arm. ‘Well handled, Molly. Thank you. Now, just help me lead her out of here into the sitting room. The others will be having their lunch in five minutes. We can’t do this here.’
‘What triggers it off?’
‘No idea. She does it a lot but sometimes this name, Agatha, comes out. No one knows who Agatha is. She can’t tell us, of course, but Miss Wilcox doesn’t know, either. That’s the other woman – partner, whatever you want to call it. Right, in here. Come on, Olive, don’t try and fight me. Take a firm grip on her arm, Molly.’
Years ago, Molly’s youngest sister, Leonie, had had tantrums, which had started up for no apparent reason and involved similar hysterical screaming and aggression. Dealing with Olive was like dealing with the three-year-old.
‘Sit down here, Olive, we want you nice and calm. Can you roll up her sleeve? She doesn’t understand what you mean if you ask her to do it. I’ve rung the bell for my husband, he’s on a call.’
Olive was quietening, her hand in Molly’s, her body trembling slightly. Molly stroked her arm and murmured to her. Leonie. Yes. It was the same. They had soothed Leonie in the same way until she had surfaced from her tantrum like someone waking from sleep.
‘It’s like reverting to childhood,’ she said.
Moira Fison shot her a look. ‘More troublesome though. Ah, here he is.’
She should not find someone without a single hair on his head so unsettling. Molly had told herself that several times since she had started her three-day work experience. He had had alopecia. A disease. So what? Not his fault.
But it made her shudder. She was ashamed. She forced herself to look at him as he came into the room and not to look away at once. People must look away too often. Somehow, a head bald because of disease was not the same as a head bald from choice. It was the smoothness of the skull, the way it shone. The complete absence of absolutely any hair at all, any down or blue-grey shadowing beneath the skin. So get over it, she thought. It could happen to you.
‘How long since the last time this happened?’ Leo Fison said, drawing up a syringe from a vial of liquid.
‘Two days. It’s getting worse.’
‘Yes. I’ll up the morning and evening dosage and add another at two o’clock. Thank you, Molly, if you’d just hold her arm firmly. She doesn’t usually fight it though. Too exhausted with all the shouting.’
Speak to her, Molly wanted to say to him. Speak to her, look at her. She’s alive. She can hear you. She understands your tone of voice.
He drew the needle out. ‘OK. We need to get her upstairs to bed straight away, Molly, it’s quick-acting. You support her on her right.’
Chemical cosh. It hardly seemed like the new revolutionary treatment for dementia sufferers, the talking, one-to-one therapy, the memory class, the constant support from fully trained, sympathetic staff. In the old days it had been the Brompton cocktail to keep them quiet. This was no better. Molly was due a session going over her time here at the end of tomorrow. She planned to ask some questions.
They helped Olive onto the bed, took off her shoes and her spectacles, turned her onto her side. Molly covered her with a quilt. She lay, snoring very slightly. Her features settled and she looked less disturbed, more like any other human being calmly settling down to sleep, no longer hysterical, no longer with wild, vacant eyes. Molly stroked her hand.
‘Let’s get back to the drugs check,’ Sister Fison said. ‘She won’t bother anyone for a while.’
But as they got downstairs, the sister was called to the phone. Molly went along the corridor in search of something to eat but hesitated near Dr Fison’s office, feeling roused enough to go in and challenge him now, query the injection he had given Olive, ask what he planned for her future treatment. It would be fair to hear what he had to say before telling Cat what was happening, asking for her opinion.
His door was ajar.
‘… But Mrs Forbes, you agree with Hazel that this country has a misguided attitude to assisted suicide. Easy enough to condemn ending a life which has become pain-filled and intolerable when you don’t have to deal with the reality of it day in, day out. What about a single parent with a desperately handicapped child? What about the loving partner of someone in great agony? … Yes, Hazel Smith … Yes, she gave me your number … She was very concerned about you. She told me she felt powerless to help you.’
There was a pause.
‘Hazel is a mutual friend, that’s all … Well, that’s my point. Hazel believes the same as you and I do … Yes, that’s why I am trying to … Listen … I want to make sure that the facility we offer in this clinic is absolutely the best because it’s only when we give the best that we will win the argument and get the law changed. Meanwhile, I’m going ahead on my own as I told you …’
Molly walked on towards the kitchen to collect a salad and a drink from the fridge. In the staffroom, Teresa, one of the carers, was drinking a Coke and doing Take a Break’s Wordsearch. She glanced up.
‘When do you get to be a doc?’
‘Couple of months.’
‘Then what? GP?’
‘Not sure yet. Don’t think so.’ She sat down and peeled the cling film off her salad.
‘You won’t be going into this lark though. Who would?’
‘Don’t you like it? You’re good with the patients, I’ve watched you. I watched you with Olive.’
‘Poor Olive. She’s got something buzzing round inside her head and it’s driving her mad trying to swat it. Well, you don’t get anything back, do you?’
‘They trust you. They rely on you.’
‘Nothing back. Nice enough place though. They keep it fresh which is more than you can say for some homes. I’ve worked in places you wouldn’t keep your cat.’
‘I don’t always …’
Molly stuffed her mouth with ham and tomato to avoid having to answer.
‘He’s all right, you know. He’s not bad. It’s her I can’t stand. He has these ideas only she doesn’t bother to try them out. Started these memory books, you know? Memory books, memory boxes – and showing them short films of what it was like in their own day, when they were kids, when they were in their twenties … get them to try and talk about it. It was good. Only she doesn’t bother to keep it up.’
‘Maybe they’re beyond it.’
‘No. Well, two of them aren’t, I started with them, it made a difference, you could tell. Dr Fison came round, he was quite impressed. Only we haven’t done it for a couple of weeks and I can’t organise a session if she isn’t backing me up. I didn’t come here just to sit them in a chair and leave them to stare at the walls.’
‘Or to be drugged into shutting up.’
‘What, Olive? She’s the only one they do it with. They can’t cope, you know, it is quite difficult with someone like that. She gets beside herself with rages. She bites and kicks, she spits, she screams, she lashes out. You saw her with that fork. She’d have stabbed someone with it in one of those moods. She could injure one of us, injure herself. So what do you do? Easy to say.’
She scored neatly through a line of words.
Molly finished her salad. She wanted to tell Teresa about the phone conversation, to ask her opinion, to find out if she was on Fison’s side. Because was she herself on it? She knew the arguments perfectly well. She knew Cat’s passionate opposition to any change in the law which would allow assisted suicide, any suggestion that doctors should be allowed to administer lethal drugs in doses which would end life. They had argued about the difference between ending a life and not making strenuous efforts to prolong it no matter what. Cat had explained the difference patiently. Molly had listened and still been unsure.
‘You’ll discover,’ Cat had said. ‘When you’ve been doing the job for a few years, you will gradually learn and you will know.’
‘But will it be enough? Is it enough?’
‘Yes,’ Cat had said. ‘Yes, Molly. I can’t tell you how much I believe that. It has to be or we are no longer human.’
It was warm. Sunny. The old part of the garden, and the meadow beyond it, was beautiful, with some handsome mature trees, avenues of shrubs, paths leading towards the field. Only the newer areas nearer the house were still raw in the aftermath of the building works. A couple of sturdy old sheds had names and messages scratched on the wood panels. The place had been a school, she remembered, a Catholic convent. Girls had sat in the sun here lifting up uniform skirts to try and get their legs brown, had walked arm in arm between the trees and chatted on wooden benches. Girls had carved their names on the sheds.
She wandered towards a small copse of silver birches and Scots pines, along a stretch of newly surfaced road which ran up to the trees, then turned away to the right, out of sight. A squirrel raced up one of the pine trunks and leapt across to the next level of spreading branches, high up.
She was not expecting to come upon any other building. This was single-storey, with a window at each side. A white door. New paint.
Molly glanced round. The squirrel had leapt to the tree next to her and was peering down. Black bead eyes.
There was something, just something, some sense, some instinct. She walked round to the back of the building. A barred window, high up. A pair of wooden doors. A path leading to a gravel turning space. The trees had been felled here so there was a clearing. A small brick-built shed stood to the right. She expected it to be locked but it was not. A small generator was installed, full of diesel. It looked new. Unused.
She hesitated. There was a slight soft crunching sound. Footsteps snapping a twig, walking on dry leaves.
Molly edged behind the shed. Waited. The footsteps came nearer. Long strides. Stopped. A key in a lock. The faintest creak of new wood moving as the door was opened.
But not closed.
She moved away from the shed.
There was complete silence.
She did not know what the building was for or what was inside it. Possibly it was a mortuary, but surely a small nursing home would simply send for the undertaker and had no need for body-storage facilities.
It was a teaspoon of suspicion and a large measure of simple curiosity that urged her on towards the white door, which had been left slightly ajar, and to push it.
She was in a small lobby with a second door ahead which was half open. She put out her hand and touched the door until it opened an inch or two further, then edged round it. Ahead of her was what she took to be a single room. She heard a metal drawer being opened. A cough. These sounds came from a screened-off area.
The room was light, with pine panelling halfway up the walls, white paint above. A pine table held a pair of candlesticks in which stood new wax candles, on a white linen runner. There was a straight-backed but upholstered new bedside chair. On the walls several large pictures of tranquil country scenes, lake-side and meadowland in spring, photographs which had been expertly enlarged so that when looking at them you began to feel that you might actually step into them through the frames.
There was a bed, single but not too narrow, and made up with fresh white linen and several pillows. A cream rug on the floor beside it. Nothing else. It did not seem as if anyone had used the room. But it was a long way from the house for a patient to be assigned to it, and the whole building was too small for any other rooms. Something scraped against the floor behind the screen, then someone came smartly out from behind it, almost knocking her over.
‘Ah,’ Leo Fison said. ‘I had a sense that someone had come in. Do you ever have that, Molly? The sensation of being watched or that someone is just behind you, even though you’ve seen nothing and heard nothing?’
She stammered that she had mistaken the path, had thought this was the storeroom from which she had been asked to collect something, had no idea why she had strayed as far as this.