If there is one thing Beattie dislikes more than Orientals it’s being ignored so I assume she’d lost interest when I lost consciousness and she went home. Either that or she was arrested for assault with a deadly weapon. But when I eventually came round she was gone and so were my grapes.
The tea trolley was just getting close to my bed when all hell broke loose. I couldn’t hear any alarms ringing but three years in prison gives you a nose for these things. Something was up. Bogdan was shouting. Somebody was shouting back and Staff nurse Carol was looking very harassed. She had got the junior staff to look in all the lockers. They were even looking under the beds. Obviously they had lost something and poor old Bogdan was getting the blame. I couldn’t imagine what it was but judging from the general air of panic I had the idea we were not talking about a bed pan.
Because of all the comings and goings I never did get that cup of tea but when the Pill Trolley came round we all got one from each bottle and something that might have been a suppository as I remember it took a lot of swallowing. I slept like a log.
Next thing it was gone ten o’clock in the morning and even though I was still a bit groggy I could see Beattie in the distance looking like one of those balls in a pinball machine as she ricocheted her way towards me. Because she had thrown caution to the wind and was moving at twice her normal speed meant I was sure she was not the bearer of glad tidings.
Mind you I thought I had a piece of news that would stop her in her tracks. Strangely enough Beattie had other ideas and was in no mood to listen to anybody.
‘Guess who died last night?’ I said dangling the bait.
‘Frieda Waverley,’ she snapped before I’d even felt a tug on the line. ‘I’ve just seen her Veronica crying in the corridor although why she’s bothering with all that I don’t know, Frieda hasn’t spoken to her since she had that black baby. And that was over twenty years ago. Still it just proves that I was right all along. You do need a spleen. By the way I’ve fed that creature of yours twice so you don’t have to worry. Are you sure he hasn’t got fleas? ’
I knew Beattie and Mr Mong had never seen eye to eye and although I was grateful that she had steeled herself to go anywhere near him I was determined to break my story.
‘And...’ I was going to tell her that according to one of the night staff who had scant regard for patient confidentiality, Frieda’s body had gone missing, Bogdan had been suspended and they were searching for an interpreter who spoke Romanian. All I hoped he hadn’t done anything mucky. After all he’d kissed my hand.
‘And her body’s missing and they’ve arrested one of the porters. Yes I know all that. My niece telephoned me this morning.
So much for reeling in the big one! Normally she licks her lips at anything that casts migrant workers in a bad light so I would have thought tales of body snatching Romanians would have been right up her street. But this morning she was so agitated all her usual bile seemed to have evaporated. I only hoped that she hadn’t come face to face with the shopping centre Flasher whilst changing buses. Heaven help us if she’d been subjected to an erect full frontal.
‘Maureen I’ll come straight to the point. We did go to Jean Shanks funeral didn’t we?’
Well that certainly wasn’t what I was expecting to hear after she had expended all that energy. But I decided to play along and said of course we did.
‘Well we couldn’t have done Maureen. I’ve just seen her in Sainsbury’s!’ Beattie was in such a state that she pulled out a chair without thinking. She dropped anchor with a loud snap from her corsets and looked stunned.
Now you will have gathered that of the two of us I’m the more comfortable with the concept of ghosts. Whilst I may not like the idea of being stalked by one I do accept that they exist. Beattie on the other hand has no concept of the Great Hereafter beyond the fact that there is one, she will be going there and joining all the other neckless Freemantles long since departed. More importantly once there she planned to stay put.
‘But I can’t have done’ she mumbled, ‘She’s dead.’
Based on my own experiences there was no doubt in my mind whatsoever. Beattie had seen a ghost. End of story. And whilst I’m not one to gloat part of me couldn’t help feeling that it served her right. Personally I’d never warmed to Jean. She was too fond of doilies for my liking but that’s what had brought her and Beattie together in the first place. Crochet and house work. As far as I could make out theirs had been an odd friendship; one based on a domestic rivalry that led to some of the whitest net curtains and slipperiest lino ever known to mankind. Where they were concerned housework had become a dangerous addiction. Like anorexia or heroin except with a hint of lavender, beeswax and chlorine bleach.
I thought it was kinder to suggest that she must have been mistaken. Foolish I know but I reckoned even Beattie would draw the line at clouting a bed-ridden friend with her handbag; having said that, that poor little nurse hadn’t shown up this morning. Then again the place was in such an uproar that she might well have still been cowering undiscovered in a lavatory cubicle in fear of her life. Beattie’s handbag was neither small nor a thing of great beauty. Crammed full of ham and egg pie it could have been lethal. If you ask me that bag should have been subject to an amnesty and handed into the local police.
However being as Beattie was at this very moment being held hostage by her own foundation garments on a plastic chair I felt brave enough to argue the toss. Or at least suggest, ever so mildly, that she might have got Jean muddled with any number of old ladies.
‘I mean she was pretty nondescript Beattie.’ I said.
‘If by that you mean she didn’t wear clothes from Top Shop then any decent woman could be called nondescript. Including myself I suppose.’
As you’ve probably gathered I’m a great believer in keeping up with the times whereas on the other hand Beattie prefers to look like an extra from a Pathé Newsreel.
‘Which reminds me, we need to see about getting you out of this place so I’ve brought you some decent clothes to go home in and for your information I was not mistaken Maureen. I know that look of yours! It was Jean Shanks I tell you. As large as life and as plain as the nose on my face and as near to me as…as…..as…’ she paused racking her brain for another simile but settled in defeat for a less than descriptive, ‘ as you are now! She was by the reduced meats in Sainsbury’s looking at some cheap stewing beef.’
Well! If any psychic investigator needed proof that the dead retained an attachment to their favourite earthly locations the fact that Jean Shanks was haunting the reduced foods section was all the proof they’d need. As far as I know she never paid full price for anything. But that was another bond she shared with Beattie so I kept my thoughts to myself.
However one look at my best friend and neighbour and I could see that she was struggling to come to terms with the fact that either the dead did walk in Sainsbury’s, which ran contrary to her belief that they did no such thing , or that she had been duped into buying flowers for no good reason. I wasn’t sure which hurt the most.
But I could see that Beattie’s thoughts were clacking away like knitting needles inside her head. I sensed her tugging at the strands of the impossible and plain and purling them into some sort of common place garment. Of course the most rational explanation was that Jean Shanks was a bona fide phantom but for Beattie that would never do.
‘Ah ha!’ she slipped the last stitch and cast off, metaphorically speaking. ‘It was an insurance scam. It had to be. There is no other explanation. And to think we’d spent good money on a wreath!’
‘Don’t be so daft’ I said. ‘Nobody would go to all that trouble to get their hands on a Co-op funeral plan. I mean I know people have been murdered for less but……..
Beattie cut across quickly. ‘In your world Maureen, perhaps, but not in mine. Anyway we don’t know that they hadn’t taken out an enormous insurance policy. What if she’d been insured for millions? It does happen you know. I knew we should have insisted on going to the chapel of rest Maureen. Family mourners only! My eye! From now on if we can’t see the corpse, we don’t waste money on flowers.
That said, Beattie was back to her normal self, slightly flushed it’s true, but triumphant. I have to say I admired her ability to get to the crux of the matter and stay there; however wrong. Others of a more inquisitive nature might have asked themselves what woman living on the wrong side of the law would have been stupid enough to return to the scene of her crime, not only in broad daylight but by the reduced meat counter of her local supermarket? So out of sheer devilment I did just that.
However, true to form Beattie Hathaway had used her early morning rise to good effect and was already across that particular bridge.
‘I t was quite simple’, she said, swaying dangerously in her excitement. ‘They got their hands on the money and turfed her out!’
She let out a celebratory whistle like a pressure cooker that had finally subdued a particularly tough cut of meat and settled back down to let her insides simmer in her own dark thoughts.
It was then that the other social worker arrived. You would have thought after what happened to Monica they would have brought in the big guns but I suppose they were all out there following policy to the letter and busily re-uniting battered babies with their violent parents. This time they’d sent another mousy looking little thing with low self esteem written all over her. I noticed that she was wearing those sandals that they all wear. Funny though, you never see that style sold in shops. I suppose they get given them when they qualify instead of a diploma. She introduced herself as Pam and Beattie snorted.
Neither of us cared much for social workers if the truth be told. We’d seen too many friends and acquaintances abused by the system to feel otherwise. However I like to think I was less obvious about where my opinions lay than my friend. I merely smiled and told her that David Cameron was Prime Minister. Well you never know. Being old is a high risk business. You cannot afford to take any chances. Whether it’s walking on an icy pavement or risking incarceration at Willow Bank if you don’t look out for yourself nobody else will do it for you. It’s a dog eat dog world out there and Beattie was looking decidedly canine at the unfortunate Pam.
‘I thought we’d got all this sorted out yesterday’ said Beattie. ‘Or don’t you people talk to each other?’
I could tell from the look on Pam’s face that she suddenly realised that she had come face to face with Monica’s nemesis. She said quickly, almost inaudibly, as she shuffled her paperwork, that Monica was no longer with them.
‘Right ‘said Beattie, ‘well I’ll tell you what I told your colleague yesterday. Mrs Truscott is not homeless, insane or incontinent. God knows she may be a stranger to spray polish but her home is perfectly habitable even if it is in dire need of redecoration.’
I closed my eyes. Sometimes I wasn’t sure if having Beattie on your side was such a good idea. It was a bit like siding with Italians in a war. You never knew when they would stop shooting forwards and start shooting back. And this was definitely one of those times. If Beattie didn’t stop ranting soon I’d end up being placed in Willow Bank for my own protection. Social services may not be too fussy about children at risk but I was damned sure they had emergency powers that could rescue old ladies from the clutches of insane neighbours.
Pam didn’t react to being called a mindless cretin. But I could tell she was unsettled. She was fiddling with her split ends. I’d love to know why these people have such terrible hair? I mean I know mine isn’t strictly speaking my own but I do have all my girls professionally styled. Just because you’re a social worker and have to eat Quorn doesn’t mean you have to forgo a decent conditioner surely?
To give Pam her due she did try to get a word in edgewise. At least she tried ‘but’.
‘But nothing ‘, said Beattie
‘I haven’t finished’ said Beattie.
And she hadn’t. Without me even having to open my mouth I turned down meals on wheels, grief counselling, a home help and free chiropody. I did have to feel sorry for Pam. By the time Beattie had finished with her that poor girl was clutching a good handful of her own hair and had still found time to work a hole in her cardigan with a finger.
‘They’re all the same,’ said Beattie as Pam made her hasty apologies and fled. ‘Once you let them in your house,’ she added, ‘your life’s not your own. And let’s be honest Maureen if they got into yours they’d have a field day. They’d probably call in the Environmental Health people. Have you seen the state of your hob? And I didn’t even dare venture into your cupboards.’
Then she had another of her ‘happen to know ‘moments and added that they never did half the things they said they would.
‘Remember Catherine Rookby?’
I did indeed. Social Services had promised her the earth if she took her mother in to live with her. Instead all she got was a prescription for Prozac and her mother got bedsores.
‘Lucky for you Maureen that I was here!’
Lucky me, I thought. Lucky me indeed! For overnight St Vitus’s ward had become a very unpleasant place to be. For a start they had brought in more uniformed security guards and seeing Bogdan marched away in handcuffs was the final straw. Rumours of necrophiliac orgies in the mortuary had such a debilitating effect on some of the heart patients that the erratic bleeping of their monitors made the place sound like a discotheque. Then there were the claims about inappropriate touching from the most unlikely quarters, including Male Urology. I mean how else do you fit a catheter?
Anyway as I was still pondering the significance of Jean’s reappearance Staff Nurse Carole asked Beattie if she could have a word with her in the office. I thought that either Monica or Pam had made a complaint about her behaviour or she was about to be asked to help the police with their enquiries following the discovery of the battered remains of that poor little Philippino nurse.
I think Beattie also felt a momentary ripple of panic emanate from the depths of her girdle. Her mouth fell open and only silence came out. Still as we all know attack is supposed to be the best form of defence. She inflated herself with one enormous breath and rose like a zeppelin from her moorings saying,
‘About time too if you ask me!’ and stomped off, uncharacteristically letting Staff Nurse Carole lead the way. But within a couple of strides she was back to her old self. I could see her pointing out balls of fluff under one of the beds.
I suppose it’s her corsets that give her that feeling of invincibility. The passengers on the Titanic must have felt the same. After all they were on the world’s first unsinkable luxury liner. What could possibly go wrong? Well we all know the answer to that one don’t we? However I could see she was soon safely berthed out of harm’s way in the nurse’s office refusing point blank to drink tea out of a mug.
I was just settling back with something that approximated to a cup of tea myself when the next thing I knew Beattie barged out through the office door waving a piece of paper. She had that look on her face that went beyond the glow of triumph at my misfortune. There was a gleam in Beattie’s eyes that made me feel like Sudetenland.
Being discharged into Beattie’s care was not what I would have classed as being good for my health. However it seemed that Beattie, not the NHS knew better. I suppose they were just glad of the bed and fed up with their staff being assaulted. So far Beattie had got through one Philippino nurse and two social workers. I know they are always looking to save money but…… .
Beattie tutted and gave Liza Minnelli a tug.
‘Honestly Maureen,’ she said standing back to admire her handiwork, ‘if you’re going to wear a wig at least wear it properly.’
Personally I thought that was pretty rich coming from somebody whose idea of hair dressing was a Kirby Grip in a perm but I could tell from the way she was hurling my things into an overnight bag that she was in no mood to be tampered with. Not that there was much to hurl but she was doing her level best to make it look like she was tackling one of the twelve labours of Hercules.
‘We’re nowhere near out of the woods as far as social services are concerned. I should think that once that Pam gets her breath back she’ll be filling in quite a nasty little report about you Maureen. Plus I’ve had a hard enough time persuading that doctor to sign your release papers as it is without you sitting there looking like… like….some geriatric….’, she paused then added that she still couldn’t believe that anybody would pay good money to look like that.
‘Are you sure it’s on the right way round?’
‘Well if you say so’, she said. ‘Anyway the good news is that you’re coming home with me.’
I don’t think I groaned. At least I like to think that if I did it was internally. Not that Beattie would have noticed. She’d just gone ten rounds with Dr Mukaji and won each one on points. At least I suppose that saved her having to batter him to death.
‘Now come on let’s get you dressed and out of this place. That taxi won’t wait forever and you’re paying.’
Beattie’s idea of ‘dressed’ involved me wearing one of her repeat purchase A line frocks and a beige cardigan. Every year we go through the same ritual of visiting the sales for her new season’s wardrobe. Every year she buys the same thing. Now I happen to think that the only thing that looks good in beige is a car seat and only then if you’re not prone to travel sickness. However Beattie said she had no intention of being seen leaving this hospital with me dressed inappropriately. I assumed that by this she meant wearing my own clothes. Well it’s not my fault I’ve got a bust and a waist, and even if I say so myself my legs aren’t bad for my age, a bit wrinkly round the knees but then you try working the Waltzers in a mini skirt and see what happens to yours. Plus that’s why God invented support tights isn’t it?
Once we were safely in the taxi Beattie revealed that she had been a bit economical with the truth as far as Dr Mukarji was concerned. I didn’t care how sparing she’d been. I was just relieved to hear that I wasn’t actually going to be staying at her house. I know that sounds ungrateful when you consider the alternative but I do like a bit of colour in my surroundings. Beattie on the other hand blends in with her surroundings, like one of those lizards that changes colour to wait for flies. Mind you she said she would be popping in and out to keep an eye on me and just to emphasise the frequency with which she intended to ‘pop’ she had helped herself to the spare key I kept under the flower pot near the back door.
‘That way you won’t have to keep getting up and down to let me in and I won’t have to worry about your stilettos playing havoc with my parquet flooring.’ She said helping herself to a five pound note from my purse and paying the taxi driver. ‘So we’ll both be happy.’
Somehow I doubted it. Still it was nice to be home.
It would have been nice to have had a furry welcome from Mr Mong but I’d heard him bolt through the cat flap at the back the minute he heard Beattie breaking and entering from the front. Luckily for him she can never do anything quietly so he always has ample warning of her approach. As I say there was no love lost there and God only knows what abuse and intimidation he’d been subjected to in my absence. So as disappointed as I was I couldn’t really blame him. At least she hadn’t made him into a pair of welcome slippers.
Beattie paused, wincing as she took in my orange curtains, floral carpet and cherry-red three piece suite then pronounced that perhaps being taken away from all this would be a blessing.
‘You know Maureen living like this can’t be good for you. All these colours, it must be like being on drugs. And it’s a wonder you’re not asthmatic. All this dust. I can see I’m going to have my work cut out getting this place shipshape. It looks like an advert for Shelter. By the way I’ve got us a couple of pork chops for our tea.’ She paused, looked at my kitchen door and said, ‘I suppose I’ll just have to risk cooking them in that death trap.’
Seconds later I could hear her going through the contents of my fridge coupled with sounds of disapproval as the lid of the bin rattled back and forth. Then the kettle clicked, china rattled and cupboard doors slammed. There was a creak of whalebone and Beattie was back bearing a full tea tray complete with doily. She must have had one in her handbag. As I have said already, I am not a doily kind of woman. I put this down to the fact that having spent most of my early life darning holes in just about everything I will never see the attraction in anything that looks wilfully ripped.
No darning for Beattie I’ll be bound. She may have endured her late husband but in exchange for his occasional unwelcomed attentions he’d had a steady job and died leaving her a decent pension. Not that we ever discussed the more physical side of marriage in detail. I enjoyed it. She didn’t. End of story. But one Christmas Eve, after two snowballs and a box of rum truffles, she did let slip that she had never seen the point in that side of things.
After all, she said, ‘Arthur had his marrows’ and there we left it.
She took a sip of tea and I could tell we were having Earl Grey. Beattie never crooked her little finger over a cup of Tetley. I could also see that the thought of all that dust to play with had brought on one of her infuriatingly superior moods. Beattie took a deep breath. I gave my figurines one last loving look just in case she exploded with joy. Fortunately a bone must have caught under her ribs, she winced and exhaled.
‘Oh I nearly forgot,’ she said and delved into her handbag. ‘You remember that radio phone in competition you went in for? Well it seems you must have won a prize! ‘. She ripped open my envelope adding what fun we’d have on a Mediterranean cruise as long as I promised to let her choose my holiday clothes and kept away from the crew.
‘Ah here we are….Dear Mrs Truscott, we have great pleasure in informing you that….’ Her face fell as her lips moved silently and ever slower over the words.
Now I have never professed to be the world’s greatest lip reader but even I could see the letter had nothing to do with Mediterranean cruises, especially as I had never gone in for the competition in the first place. But it did confirm one thing. Since Beattie had been banned from taking part in phone-in programmes I had had the suspicion that she was passing herself off as me to get her point across. No doubt I will wake up one morning to find swastikas sprayed on my front door.
‘Oh well’, she said folding the letter back into its envelope and swallowing her disappointment, ‘It seems you’ve won two tickets to that ‘Evening of Clairvoyance with the Great Doris Morris. Anyway as I was about to say…….’
I said that I thought we were having pork chops for our tea.
‘Well…’ Beattie paused. I saw her shoot a glance at my kitchen door, imagining the hell behind it.
‘Indeed’ she said, puffing herself up and stomping across the room.
She looked like she was bracing herself before stepping into the jaws of Hades. I’m not saying she wore a martyred expression but if Joan of Arc had stepped towards the flames with that same look on her face she would have been canonised on the spot. The outcome would have been the same because I knew from past experience that Beattie had an incendiary way of cooking pork. She didn’t so much sauté as incinerate because she ‘just happened to know’ that under cooked pork was riddled with the worms.
There was a lot of wailing from the smoke alarm in the hall followed by the sound of pans being rattled and a great deal of coughing.
‘Five minutes’ yelled Beattie and the smell of charred flesh coiled from under the kitchen door. Shame. I was looking forward to that chop.
Eventually Beattie cried ‘Voila’ and burst into the room from behind a cloud of blue smoke. She looked so much like one of those pantomime baddies that I was tempted to call out ‘She’s behind you!’ but I thought better of it. I don’t suppose Hathaway or Freemantle she was ever drawn to the Alhambra Christmas show. I took the girls to one once. Cilla hated it. She screamed every time the witch appeared. God only knows how she coped with that children’s home. Maybe she didn’t. Maybe she’s still in therapy for having me as a mother. On the other hand Sandie was more like her father and me. She enjoyed every bit of it. I tell you that girl would have loved life on the fun fair. Even as a child she was fascinated by bright lights. Her sister just covered her eyes. That’s the terrible thing about having twins. It’s all too easy to have one you just can’t take to. Mind you I think with Cilla the feeling was mutual.
Anyway all done now. A bit like this chop I suppose. Beyond help. In its lake of gravy it looked more like one of those archaeological remains they find at the bottom of peat bogs only less edible. Not that that stopped Beattie. Whilst I toyed with mine she crunched her way through hers with relish. Literally. There was nearly half a jar of Branston Pickle on her plate and she went for seconds. I’m sure all that vinegar can’t be good for you when you’ve already got a sour disposition. It must only make things worse. No wonder her handbag’s always full of indigestion remedies.
I think I was just on the verge of being force –fed when I was saved by the bell. There was somebody at the front door. Beattie got up, tutted, tugged at my wig and said ‘I bet that’s social services come to check up on us. Now you say nothing Maureen you understand? One false move and you’ll be back in that place before you can say Winter Fuel Allowance.’
Now bearing in mind our recent history with social services I couldn’t see them turning up with anything less than a police escort and a couple of tanks. In less than two days Beattie had managed to get one social worker to resign and one to pull out most of her own hair. So I wasn’t surprised when I saw that the unexpected caller was in fact Jean Shanks niece.
Well that’s a lie. I was but then any unplanned sighting of Wanda in her spandex suit always makes you catch your breath no matter how many times you’ve seen her in the past. You could see that she’d been running because apart from being all hot and bothered her breasts had ridden up under her chin. You have to wonder sometimes how they actually get her into that barrel. I know it’s a big gun but with that chest she must be wedged in there like a bung on a beer keg. No wonder she goes off with such a big bang.
‘Oh Mrs Truscott’ she panted, ‘I’ve just seen Aunty Jean!’