This patient died on the 26th January, 2011. They were alone. Female. 88.
Note the lack of fingernails on the left hand.
This patient died on the 17th April. 2011. They were alone. Male. 76 years old.
Zoom in. Note the genitalia. Oh, and the clawing of the hand.
I’m sorry. I.
A tickle. Some water. Is there some water?
We are unable to show the next slide. The family withdrew permission.
What I would have… have shown you… What I can’t show you is the webbing… Shame, it was kind of cool… Oh well.
What I can show you. Next slide.
What I can show you are the bacteria on this one. Well, look at that. Happy Halloween.
See here and here and here and here.
Can we take the lights a little lower. No? Okay. Well, it’s cold in here, so. Okay.
Before Elsie goes out, she leaves a note for the cleaner, who does not come from England. Her pen shakes a little as she considers her words. This beautiful fountain pen has stood the test of time and will stand the test of time beyond her. With this pen Elsie wrote her last will and testament. It is short. Pithy even. Elizabeth won’t understand the irony. Elizabeth does irony, but she doesn’t understand it.
Can that be her real name? It doesn’t sound… Where is she from? Has she changed her name for British consumption?
“I hope you are well.”
And Elsie does hope Sandra is well, whether that is her real name or not, but what she also hopes is that Sandra will spend the next two hours diligently and fastidiously bringing this human hutch to a standard that Elsie’s retreating fingers are no longer capable of. ‘Mother, you need help. Let me do this for you.’ You see. Ironic.
Elsie makes a polite request to leave her sewing box where it is. Sandra is forever tidying things away, and this is tiresome when one is in the late stages of macular degeneration.
Before Elsie goes out, she checks the fridge. One packet of corned beef. Two tomatoes. Half an iceberg lettuce. A box of eggs. Elsie opens the box. Three eggs. Not four? Ah, yes. Yesterday an egg slipped between her palsied fingers. She’d taken another from the box so as not to disturb the beautiful equilibrium of having two poached eggs stare up at her from the plate. But the equilibrium of the box was now disturbed. Greed, she thought, had got the better of her once more. Was the corned beef out of date? Elsie clasps what she calls her spyglass on a chain around her neck. The chain is too short but Elizabeth, the expert, said it doesn’t need lengthening. Elsie moves the box back and forth across the glass. 26th November 2011. 2011? Well, well. And who did Elizabeth say the Prime Minster was? Well, it was really of no consequence to her.
Before Elsie goes out, she leaves a small piece of biscuit behind one of the kitchen taps. Quality control.
Before Elsie leaves the house, she turns to look at Frank’s chair. Quite empty. Facing the window. Looking out at the birds.
She looks at the clock. In another two hours another two hours will have gone. She will be two hours closer. This calms her.
You see, we’re constantly in motion. Constantly. Okay, that’s too. Well, we are.
Look at the blue. The red. Isn’t it wonderful? Like constellations. No. Not really like anything.
Really, this is such exciting work. I.
Okay, let’s take a break.
Once she is out, Elsie feels overdressed for the weather. The gloves are too much. She marches slowly, flat-footed, over leaves she cannot see nor hear. She forgets her stick is hanging on the crook of her arm.
While Elsie is out, she takes tea. She has heard that thousands of shops, exactly like this one, are scattered throughout the city. Imagine! The girl brings her tea. Elsie knows she does not do this for everyone. Today she will ask her for her name. And today she will try to remember it. Elsie sits and holds her cup of tea and waits. Her head nods a little. There is no clock here. No-one but she notices the passing of time here.
Note the. No. Next slide.
Okay we’re done.
Questions? Oh, I. Well I have somewhere to be, but… I can be late.
You. No you. To the left.
The what what? Okay, very funny, yes.
Okay, now you.
Er, 376 females this year. 253 males. We expect more donations next year. It’s cyclical.
More questions? I can’t see. Okay, yes you.
Good question. Do you have time for a long answer? A story really…
When Frank starts to fade, Elsie watches him shrink. Shrink and fade. And she wants to keep him. One day, while he is asleep, she snips off a lock of his hair. Another day she clips his nails for him. Frank says it is money out of the pocket of Maria the podiatrist and Elsie is not to do it again. Elsie nods, feels his nails in the palm of her closed hand and is content. But that night, when she looks in the box at the lock of his hair and at his nails, it doesn’t feel enough.
Everything is slower. Thought. Movement. Sounds are less heard. Sights are less seen. The world is dimmer. But feelings. They are not less felt. She feels everything more.
When Elsie visits Frank at the funeral home, she tells Elizabeth, no, she doesn’t need anyone with her. Elizabeth is hurt.
Elsie peers into the coffin. Looks at Frank so small now that she wants to pick him up and put him in her cool blue coat pocket lined with comforting cotton. He looks like a doll. He could sit there, jiggling in her pocket as she moves through the rest of her life. But he is not quite small enough for her pocket. And besides, the funeral director would notice he is missing.
Elsie reaches into the coffin and feels his cold hand. She holds his hand with her warm hand, willing it to warm to hers. But rather hers starts to respond to his. She is fading too.
She pulls her hand back and watches him. Cherry wood was the right decision. For his complexion.
Elsie takes a piece of tracing paper from her bag. She slides it beneath his hand. Places her hand on his, pushes his fingers a little so that they spread as much as death will allow. She takes out her tailor’s chalk.
On her way home, Elsie passes the bus stop where he held her hand. Where they stood and waited in the snow. Where he laughed at a passing dog. Where she chided him for being rude and they apologized to the owner. Where he fell to the ground. Where he almost pulled her down with him. Where he released her hand at the last moment. Where he lay and smiled. Where his light went out.
Elsie puts her key in the lock. “Hello?”
Sandra has gone. Elsie edges into the kitchen, never quite sure that she is alone. She switches on the radio. It is loud. This is Sandra’s radio channel. Elsie tries to capture the rhythm of the voices, but it is all crackle and speed. This is what Sandra moves to around the kitchen, around and around. It is dizzying.
Elsie runs a finger behind the taps. No biscuit. Good. She does not see it on the floor, nudged beneath the washing machine.
Elsie makes a cup of tea. Sits on her chair. Beside Frank’s chair. A small wooden telephone table between them. A phone that never rings. She sits and sips and wonders. What will medical science make of Elsie Sturgess?
Elsie feels she is shrinking. Her world is shrinking and she is shrinking. From inside she feels like she is being vacuum packed. Like she is in a hermetically sealed double-glazed box, and she is rotting, moulding. In an hour, Elizabeth will be here. Or is that tomorrow? And wouldn’t it be odd if Elizabeth found she had shrunk completely away, a small pile of clothes crumpled on the chair?
Elsie reaches into her sewing box. She takes out Frank’s hand. Already worn from worrying at it. She places it on her lap. Brings her hand to his. She is ready.
Afterwards, when Elizabeth pushes through clusters of students, they scatter like potatoes spilling from a broken paper sack; like sparks sparking off a sparkler; like the living being in the way of a woman who prefers the company of the dead. For a moment, phone in hand, her breath is ripped out of her. She is alone. Motionless. Held in time.
by Jane Eden