Dropping the key through the letterbox, just as the boy from the estate agent’s had instructed her, Dot (née Dorothy, aka Dotty to some, most of them dead) wondered, for a moment, if anyone had ever drawn a line under life in quite such a don’t-mind-me manner as this.
‘We’ll take care of the rest, Mum,’ the boy-agent had assured her, shifting about beneath his suit, his back broad enough to support just one of the jacket’s shoulder pads at a time. ‘Leave the worrying to us.’
That Dot couldn’t do. She forced a smile.
The storm had started during the night and hadn’t let up. The rain whipped earthwards from the charcoal heavens, churning in the potholes of the driveway and coursing along the gutters of Trapp Street in miniature white-water drifts.
No chance, it seemed, that the driver would brave the storm to help Dot with her cases. Since the battered Cortina had rolled to a stop outside the bungalow and the man behind the wheel had honked – three hopeful pips to begin and then, a minute later, a single insistent blat – the only movement from the car had been the determined flapping of the wipers. When, trout-wet, Dot opened the door, tumbled her cases, her handbag and then herself onto the back seat, the driver’s greeting caught her off guard:
‘You filthy motherfucker!’
She wasn’t shocked. The utter incongruity of the outburst forbade that. She simply felt as if she’d been goosed, emotionally.
The driver turned, his shirt covered with sweat; the material creased like a walrus’s paunch. He gestured with his index finger, killing two birds by using it first to suggest she pause, and then to indicate the black plastic tongue curling from his ear, the tip of which was pulsing with a pin-prick blue light.
‘Uh huh… No, no. Go on.’
Dot waited as the driver continued his call, for the most part a symphony of grunts, snorts and harrumphs dropped to reassure his interlocutor that he was still listening. After a couple of minutes he paused. In the rear-view mirror Dot saw a flare of panic in his eyes:
‘The Aristocrats? Ha! Wait… What?’ Another pause. ‘No, no. I get it… It’s just… What?’ He flicked the ignition and the car choked to life. Then, with a lurch of acceleration they were away, out of Trapp Street and onto the main road, refusing the slow and poetic farewell between herself and the receding bungalow that she’d played out so many times in her mind since deciding to sell it.
‘No, no, Mike. That was a good one,’ the driver said. ‘Who’ve I got up next? Jenks? The old cun…’ His eyes collided with Dot’s in the mirror. ‘The old guy with the colostomy bag? Jesus, Mike! Last time I drove him he leaked all over the seat. Took me a fortnight to… What’s that? Bin liners? Well I could, Mike, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to convince him to climb into one!’
His meaty hands crashed onto the dashboard as he wheezed his satisfaction with the joke. The driver was a big man. Not fat exactly, but solid – an ancient standing stone spirited to life. He dragged his sleeve across his nose. Dot ached to intervene, to reach forward and clip the rogue behind the ear. They’re never too old to fear the sting. But she couldn’t. What had happened to her? Had forty-five years of classroom hardening drained away overnight?
Dot thought of the formidable specimen she had become by the time she’d retired at the age of seventy: a smoky, combative old dame, with a line in dry wit that was two parts Wilde, three parts London Gin. She’d been the kind of teacher only appreciated several years down the line, when a safe distance had been achieved and maintained. Her pupils might remember how she would shy her Collected Shakespeare across the room, clocking the crown of a classroom gossiper, but they would also jolly well remember every word of Macbeth’s dagger soliloquy until their dying days. Unless of course…
No. The woman Dot had been when she retired would never have put up with such insolence from a taxi driver. But a lot can happen in four years.
She’d been dry most of that time, and had even given up the smokes. ‘Yeah,’ the driver said. ‘Shouldn’t be too long now, anyway. Take it easy, Mike.’
Then, spying his chance to join the beetling rows of cars, he flung the Cortina into the outside lane.
After about a quarter of an hour, the traffic slowed, then stopped. The driver started beating a dislocated drum solo on the steering wheel and sighed, the air whistling through his dry lips to the accompaniment of the thumping wipers.
Dot pulled the brochure from her handbag and flipped through it. It had the same vaguely chemical odour as the expensive fashion magazines in her doctor’s waiting room, the same way of flopping open in the hands, the same luxurious heft. She traced the gold-embossed logo on the cover: the silhouette of an acorn that seemed, perversely, to be smirking. There wasn’t much text, just the name of the place – Green Oaks – in a childish font and below, in squint-or-you’ll-miss-it grey, the words ‘A West Church Holding’. Behind the acorn was a photo of an old manor – Tudor? Georgian? Leonard would have known – roosting atop a verdant hillock, flanked by two wizened oak trees, their foliage a tapestry of the ochres and rust reds of cliché’s autumn. The cloudless sky shone with the gilded blue of late afternoon, although the sun and its long contemplative shadows were absent, lending the scene an uncanny lack of depth.
Dot got the message. Even the most addled of her pupils could have. It was hardly subtle: You may have reached the autumn of your life, the twilight of your years, it crooned, in that flashy, mercantile tone everything seemed to have these days – but you needn’t be afraid. Because look, not only is this the natural way of all things, of the day, of the seasons, it is also, in some way, quite beautiful, something to be cherished. Codswallop! Bilge, bosh, bunk and blarney! No, anyone who had reached the age of admittance to a place like this and could still be manipulated so easily was a dupe who had learnt almost nothing from life.
Inside were more sugar-blasted photos of the grounds, along with floating testimonials from several residents. What a handsome bunch of eeries! There was an extra-terrestrial glassiness to their eyes, as if they had been imported from the propaganda of some futuristic dystopia, or an advert for some Japanese video game for retraining flaccid, geriatric brains. A world from which dirt and other imperfections had been meticulously, but brutally, erased. A TV world, in which even the uglies were beautiful.
They were all smiling, of course. Not at the camera, but at something just beyond it. And they could smile, looking like that! Whereas Dot had rotted and shrivelled over the years, an old plum with her own patina of bluish mould, these models had been matured in oak caskets. Whereas her skin was desert-cracked, theirs had softened and creased like fine Italian shoe-leather. Whereas her hair had thinned out into a substanceless scaffold of a do, theirs was as vigorous and bushy as squirrel tails.
Strangest, though, was not what their faces showed, but what they didn’t. Where was the sadness, where the pain of loss that she saw etched into her own face? Where the resignation? Where the runnels carved by the unquenchable tears shed over the ‘For Sale’ stakes planted in the gardens of their bungalows?
A question nipped at her mind. That voice again: Why do you think any of these fine specimens of humanity – so much finer than you, by the way, so spared, coddled and closeted by life – would have chosen to enter the purgatorial world of residential care? Although she also knew that she’d been lied to by the brochure. These were not the faces she would meet at Green Oaks.
But Dot didn’t care. She was done with illusions. She was going to Green Oaks to expire. Rattling off to die, however long it took. Her life was over, and she no longer regretted the fact. Not since everything that had happened to Leonard. She had no more ambitions, no more hopes, and all of her dreams were backwards looking now.
She might have just died at home of course, saving even more money for Thomas’s inheritance, but it wasn’t as easy as it sounded. In the six weeks since Leonard’s internment at Green Oaks, there had always been something to do, someone to see, some appearance to keep up or obligation to fulfil. Something always drawing her back to life.
Not least Thomas’s phone calls from Cologne. They were dutiful, regular (he had never called her so often) – and short. He would press her for reassurance that she was ‘alright’ without Dad. Well she wasn’t alright. Never would be again. Although she didn’t say that to Thomas. Hilde was behind the calls, Dot knew. It wasn’t about Thomas or Dot, but about Kristofer, their son, and the lessons he would learn concerning how a man should treat his ageing mother. This was long-term planning at its most Teutonic. It grieved Dot that Thomas felt obliged to call her – he was off living his life, just as he should be, he owed her nothing – but it was always nice to hear his voice.
She had thought, and in some way hoped, that Thomas would be cross with her when she told him she’d sold up and checked them both into the home. And he had tried his best to play the part. But what she’d heard beneath the pleas for her to reconsider was an unmistakable note of gratitude. And Dot couldn’t blame him. Institutions like Green Oaks existed as much for the young as they did for the old. Nobody should have to see that.
So, she might have been determined to let go of life, but that was just the half of it. Life, it seemed, was a kind of celestial compact and the universe clearly wasn’t ready to let go of Dot. She was going to have to wrestle herself from its clutches, its petty exigencies, hop off its hamster wheel and just lie down beside Leonard and let the whole sorry joke run to its punchline without her.
Part of the problem, she suspected, was that life, in all its prickly realness, just doesn’t fit the narrative arc we demand of it. It is an arc she’d taught every year, to every year, during their composition lessons.
‘Exposition,’ she would intone as the chalk inscribed the beginning of the arc on the blackboard, a line, almost horizontal, rising slowly from left to right. ‘Complication,’ she would go on, as the line began its steep ascent. ‘Climax,’ she would stress as the line peaked, and then, as if it came as a blessed relief, ‘Resolution’ she would almost sigh, the squeaking chalk giving her emotions voice. Exposition, Complication, Climax, Resolution, and perhaps, if you were lucky, a Denouement. It seemed funny to her now that she had never thought, and none of her pupils had ever asked, what came after the Resolution, after the Denouement. Were we just supposed to imagine that the characters froze in time or ceased to exist? Was the Happily-Ever-After assumed without debate? At least now she had an answer to the question.
What came after the Resolution? Simple: Green Oaks.
‘Finally!’ the cabbie exclaimed as his turn to accelerate came. Then, because it was apparently beyond his control, his whole being having attained at-one-ment with the spirit of Platitudinous Guff: ‘Life goes on, eh?’
Oh no you don’t! Not that old sentimental chestnut! Life goes on. Or how about: You only live once. Or why not: Carpe Diem. Dream as if you’ll live forever, live as if you’ll die today. Life is what happens when you’re making other plans… Ach! The whole tide of hackneyed phrases, long debunked by the keen scalpel of experience, surged across Dot’s mind like a diarrhoeal wave. And she sensed the driver was itching to loose a sequel. Well, too bad for him! She could feel the old Dot – the brassy matron who had divided the staffroom as much as the classroom – rising up.
‘Shut your trap and drive!’ she hissed.
Not dead yet then. Not quite.