I’ve just watched a Louis Theroux chat with Dame Judi Dench. It can’t be called an interview, because while it was clever and structured there was nothing formal about it, or confronting. They were two people who really like each other, spending a Summer’s day together, with a camera rolling nearby. The first person we met in the programme was Sweetheart, a grey parrot, much loved by Judi. Of course the parrot, being a pet (and pets being ornery) refused to speak on camera, so we were treated instead to several impressions of its voice. And it reminded me of something that still makes me laugh, and still makes my heart beat a little too fast, 40 (or so) years after it happened:
Our daughter was a toddler so I wasn’t working full time but occasionally I’d get a call from a nursing agency to cover for night staff who were off with illness, or holidays. The jobs could be anywhere, for anyone, a whole ward or a single patient, a child or an oldie. The jobs didn’t come up very often, but when they did the wages were very welcome and I enjoyed the variety, and if it was a hospital or nursing home I enjoyed the company of other nurses. One night I was called out to a bungalow, about ten miles from Derby, and I arrived at ten, in the pitch dark, and had only the vaguest idea of the surroundings. It felt isolated. The night was stormy, cold, and it was mid winter. There wasn’t even a glimmer of light at the windows of the gloomy bungalow. Sound like a horror film? Yep.
I was met at the door by the nurse who had been on duty all evening and she couldn’t wait to get out of there. She barely did a hand-over, was already in her coat and hat, with her car keys in her hand. I already knew that this was an end-of-life vigil, so the silent, dark house was no surprise, but it did feel unusually cold and it smelled a bit damp and… well, like I say, gloom was all around.
The patient was a very elderly woman, unconscious, frail and deathly still. The only sounds in the house were the ticking of a clock in the hall, the faint sigh of her breath, a gentle rasp of fluid in her throat. I pulled an armchair up to the side of the bed and, in the halo of light from a bedside lamp, I read up her notes. There was nothing to be done. She was warm and dry and settled. There was no medication due and only a iv drip to maintain. The hours passed very slowly, the usual routine of glycerine for her lips, a gentle rearranging of her body so that her skin didn’t break down, and an occasional word of comfort, just in case she could hear. The house was so quiet that my voice was intrusive, dischordant, and croaky. I looked around the room. There’s something about the houses of the very old, of that generation, that’s unmistakeably post-war. Behind me there were curtains from the ceiling to the floor, in a murky brown fabric, not unlike Army buff but with apologetic small faded daisies here and there. The dressing table was obviously utility issue, from the 1940’s, the lampshades were that weird sort of plastic-but-not- quite- plastic material, there were doilies and nick-nacks everywhere, and a scent of something that tried to be floral but was mostly chemical. Talcum powder perhaps. Poor old lady, dying all alone, tended by strangers.
In the wee small hours, there in that lonely, isolated, silent house, as I turned a page in my book and glanced up at my patient, an old man said, so close that that I could almost feel him “What time is it?”
I can’t describe my terror, the rush of blood to my heart, the electric shock, the startle reflex. I damn near fell out of the chair. And then the old man said again, “What time is it?’ The voice was croaky, harsh, demanding. He was behind the curtain. Right behind me! I could feel him. Somehow I reached out a shaking hand, and parted the heavy fabric… in the gloom a shape loomed towards me…. a small sharp rustling sound… my breath was frozen…. it was a mynah bird. A mynah bird in its cage in the bay window. I hadn’t even realised that it was a bay window. Beyond Mr Mynah, dawn was breaking, and I suppose that’s what woke him.
The old lady didn’t stir. The bird dipped his head and blinked slowly, as if waiting. My heart was still pounding, my legs shaking, I was in that strange limbo between laughter and terror, as I found myself looking at my watch and obediently answering ‘Nearly four o clock’