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Chapter 2

Bell, Book & HandbagPosted by Ian Ashley Wed, April 02, 2014 08:41PM

Placed in alphabetical order the things Beattie hates most would run to several volumes rather like the Encyclopaedia Britannica. However under ‘B’ you would find ‘Being shown up’ and under ‘M’ you would find ‘Making an exhibition of yourself’. Under ‘R’ would be ‘Ruining a perfectly good day out’. Being taken to hospital having rendered myself unconscious in a public place meant I had definitely transgressed all of those and probably a few others along the way.

I have to admit coming round with Beattie threatening to topple over on top of me in the confined space of a speeding ambulance was enough to make anybody suffer a relapse. Somewhere she must have read, heard, or ‘just happened to know ‘that the best way to keep people conscious was to keep talking to them. I’ve heard that too, but I thought the idea was to ask them questions to keep them thinking. Instead she just rattled on with no need for me to even draw breath. She was doing enough of that for both of us. Now normally when she starts I switch off but I figured that this time round it was safer to stay awake. The first hint of a dropped eyelid and she’d be breaking all my ribs in a mis-guided attempt at CPR.

‘Now pay attention Maureen, as long as you can remember your name, your address and the name of the Prime Minister they can’t touch your pension money! Now who are you?’

I think I said ‘Maureen Truscott, 53 Palmerston Terrace and David Cameron’ but even I couldn’t be sure with the oxygen mask clamped firmly across my face. I wasn’t even sure she was telling truth. All that sounded like another urban myth put about by social services to keep the elderly in a state of perpetual terror: like bogus gas men and the friend of a friend who ended up with their replacement knee joints fitted back to front. Still somewhere in a haze of incipient concussion and analgesics I could dimly recall the tale of Polly Albright.

Legend has it that she supposedly said ‘Margaret Thatcher’ whilst she was still coming round from having her veins done. After that it took her son Nigel three weeks to get her out of Willow Bank Home for the Elderly, by which time she was word perfect in ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary ‘ and could never bring herself to sit on a plastic chair again. It is frightening how quickly people become institutionalised; especially when they like embroidery.

So I have to be extra careful. I haven’t got a Nigel to look out for me. I’ve got twin daughters, Cilla and Sandie, but I haven’t heard from them since they were six so I can’t see either of them lifting a finger to help their poor old mum. As they say in those detective movies, that Beattie also claims not to watch, that leaves me in a very vulnerable situation. So there we were in casualty. Me on a trolley, a nurse trying to do her best to get me booked in and Beattie doing her damndest to get my rings off before they were stolen.

‘I know they’re not worth anything’ she said getting in everybody’s way and almost dislocating my fingers, ‘but they are all you’ve got. Some of these porters can’t tell the difference between rubbish and the real thing. Evadne Collier lost her watch and her engagement ring. Both of them heirlooms and both of them turned up in that pawn shop near the cobblers.

Eventually Beattie was asked, told, and then forcibly made to sit outside by two men in security uniforms. They must have taken her some way away because it all went terribly quiet allowing Staff Nurse Carol to get on with her forms.

It was just as well I said that I was sorry about my friend Beattie because in the confusion she had me down as Mrs Hathaway. Poor soul, it can’t have been easy trying to fill in the paperwork with Beattie pushing her out of the way all the time and demanding to know when she had last washed her hands.

Staff Nurse Carol said it was ok. Apparently since the cut backs they were used to psychiatric patients wondering about the place now that they all had their own keys. She said that they just didn’t have the time to keep locking them in and out. Apparently only last week one of them even turned up in the operating theatre dressed as a surgeon. When she laughed I got a strong whiff of cough mixture. When she called me ‘Beattie’ again I started to panic.

‘Maureen’ I said quickly. ‘My names Maureen Truscott and I live at 53 Palmerston Terrace and the Prime Ministers name is Gordon Brown. And I didn’t fall. I was pushed!’

‘Yes of course you were Beattie,’ she smiled, ‘Actually it’s David Cameron. Just make sure you get it right if Sister Mottram asks you. She’s very old school, but not in a nice way. She hates dust. Well if you ask me she doesn’t care much for patients either. But that’s between us. Better make sure we’ve got your brakes on hadn’t we? Don’t want you rolling away and getting lost! Now let’s see if we can find a porter with enough English to get you down to the ward in one piece. We don’t want you falling into Bogdan’s hands do we? Not after what happened last week when he left that patient in .....’she checked herself before adding that I was lucky the old lady in bed three had died that morning or I would have had to been sent to the Princess Diana Hospital on the other side of town.

‘Oh’, I said, wondering if I should be marvelling at my good fortune.

She paused and checked her watch. ’Just between us they’ve got MRSA but keep that under your hat or this place will be swamped. God knows we’ve got enough on our hands with the cystitis epidemic let alone having to cope with a flesh eating virus.’

‘Now don’t you go worrying yourself Beattie, ‘she added. ‘She turned up in a goods lift of all places. Mind you if we hadn’t been stock taking and noticed we were one drip short she might still be there now!’

No doubt she was doing her best to establish what I believe is called ‘rapport’. But to be honest when she confided that last week alone they had lost 15 swabs and 2 pairs of forceps I think she could tell from the look on my face that all she was doing was putting the wind up me; that and the fact that I was now wearing a wristband with the wrong name on.

She gave the pillows an extra puff and straightened the covers. Apparently there was nothing to worry about. All I had to do was concentrate on getting better.

‘After all these things always turn up,’ she said brightly. ‘Usually at the sight of a post operative infection but we always get them back and after a quick boil they’re as good as new. ‘

She parked me in a side ward and I watched her disappear; the NHS in action; squeaking her way down the corridor. You could tell from the way she walked that she’d rather be wearing sling backs and working in a nice office. Yet despite the fact that she reeked of cough mixture and her foundation hardly bothered to conceal her acne she seemed a nice enough girl. I mean it can’t be easy dealing with death on a daily basis. Once upon a time nursing was a vocation. Now people were forced to do it because they couldn’t get jobs in travel agencies. No wonder she looked so demoralised.

And she wasn’t the only one. There is nothing like being abandoned in an empty ward without your wig and your top set of teeth for making you feel old and unwanted. The fact that I was dying for a wee didn’t help either.

‘Worse things happen at sea,’ I told myself.

We used to say that a lot in prison. Usually when somebody’s parole was turned down or they got a letter saying their husband was leaving them or their boyfriend had got another girl into trouble and was having to get married. But to be honest what is the worst thing that can happen at sea? Yes. You drown. And sometimes when the doors were locked at night and the lights were turned out that was exactly what it felt like.

One of the pills they’d given me must have made me nod off because the next thing I knew there was this great big thing looming over me a great big looming thing. He smiled and apart from the gold teeth he looked quite friendly. Still there was something in his eyes that made me feel sorry for the lad. He looked so sad, displaced, which I suppose he was really, being called Bogdan.

‘I frighten you, sorry’ he said. ‘We go to ward.’

‘Toward what’ I said, and for a nasty moment I wondered if he wasn’t one of those maniacs who make a habit of working in hospitals to help old people on their way Toward The Light. Not doctors I mean; although Beattie just happens to know such stories. Sadly these only serve to bolster her rather right wing views on foreigners. For some reason she has a real phobia about doctors from Sierra Leone although I doubt she even knows where it is. But whatever the reason she once contemplated amputating her own septic finger when Dr Ndolo was the locum at the surgery.

Bogdan thought I’d made a joke and laughed. I could see that with decent dentistry he could be a bit of a heart throb. But then those Eastern Europeans are like that. They are either drop dead gorgeous or they look like hobbits. There is no middle ground. Fortunately my Bogdan was a bit of a dish despite the teeth and if I’d been twenty years younger I wouldn’t have minded being left in a goods lift with him at all. Well let’s make it thirty years then, maybe even forty.

I also had the feeling that he wasn’t really the sort to go leaving people on trolleys in goods lifts for no good reason. Call it a sixth sense but I felt sure he was not as black as he was painted. I reckoned it had more to do with him not being British than anything else. There is a lot of prejudice against foreigners but at the end of the day they are only trying to make a living like the rest of us.

Of course if you listened to Beattie they were milking the social security system left and right, taking jobs from British people and snatching the daily bread from out of our very mouths. Added to that there was the TB and the host of other communicable diseases that she claimed they brought into the country because of their lack of personal hygiene and spitting. She didn’t exactly go as far as saying that they eat babies but I knew the thought was there. Anybody wondering how one small man with a dodgy moustache could wind up killing six million Jews needed to look no further than the likes of Beattie Hathaway.

She was exactly the same when Mr Patel was mugged for his takings. Beattie claimed it served him right for scratching the sell-by dates off his yoghurts. She soon changed her tune when he shut his shop for two weeks whilst his brother – in –law installed attack alarms and metal grills on the windows. Walking those four extra streets to get her newspapers not only gave her corns but a totally different outlook on the Asian community I can tell you.

What is sad is that you only had to listen to her to know that she had led such a very small life. It could not have been easy living with all those neck-less relatives. Buying Christmas presents must have been a nightmare. You couldn’t have got a scarf or a tie on any of them. Not that she ever talked much about her family except to harp on about how wonderful they all were, hinting now and then that when she ceased to be a Freemantle she had married beneath herself, but if the photographs were anything to go by you got the impression that they were not what you could call a barrel of laughs.

For a start there’s not one of them with a smile in any of her wedding photos. I mean my lot may have been a bit rough but there was always something going on somewhere causing the branches of the family tree to tremble. Sometimes being a Truscott could be very exciting. If you added in the Openshaw and the Tappley cousins the effect was mind blowing. When I was growing up the local newspapers court report was a veritable who’s who of my genetic inheritance. Small wonder I ended up where I did then?

Anyway not for Beattie the thrill of a life on the waltzers that’s for sure. And I don’t suppose she’d ever made love under Blackpool pier either. What I am saying is that a narrow mind in the wrong hands is a very dangerous thing. Like a hand grenade with no pin.

Despite my forebodings the St Vitus ward looked a nice enough place. At least it wasn’t mixed and Bogdan soon had me safely installed in nice clean bed which considering it had only just been vacated by the recently deceased was reassuringly cold.

The sound of the safety bars being locked firmly into place had a familiar ring of doom about it and my heart sank.

‘See you alligator later!’ he said as he bowed and kissed my hand.

So there I was, wigless, toothless and about to be sucked into care in the community against my will. To be honest wearing a paper night dress doesn’t do much for your self esteem either. To say I was at my lowest ebb would have been an understatement and I had a terrible feeling that things could only get worse.

And as soon as I heard those footsteps I knew there was trouble brewing. Nobody else could make that amount of noise on a wooden floor, not even a Bogdan.

‘There you are!’

The curtains parted to reveal Beattie as red as a beetroot and panting for all she was worth. Even in rubber soles she is not capable of launching a surprise attack.

‘That stupid woman on the desk, I think she’s a Sullivan by her second marriage which explains a lot, only sent me all the way over to male urology. I don’t think so, I said, but she was would have it that she was right. Although why she thought you’d be in a ward full of old men with catheters I really don’t know. I tell you Maureen if there is a part of the body that can be drained, stitched back or cauterized I’ve been there.’

She made an ill-tempered flourish with the headscarf she was mopping her face with. I noticed it was one of her best ones too; the one with the map of the Isle of Wight on it. She’d bought me one but I honestly thought it was a tea towel.

‘I thought for one awful moment they’d sent you to the Princess Diana. Dropping like flies they are over there, not to mention loosing limbs left right and centre.’, she puffed before adding the comforting afterthought that at least here I could die of my own ill-health and not from some second hand infection.

‘And’ she said looking round with uncharacteristic caution, ‘did you know this place is crawling with Phillipinos ? I had to ask three of them the way before I found one that could do more than smile. You want to be very careful Maureen.’

‘Now you can’t say that Beattie’ I said. Love her dearly as I might she could be a bit too BNP for my liking. In her black and white world everything should have been white. Come to think of it I wouldn’t have been surprised if it wasn’t her who spread the rumour that Mr Patel scratched the sell by dates off things in the first place.

Beattie snapped back that she could and she would. She’d watched ‘Tenko’. She knew!

‘When I think of poor Alec Guinness,’ she huffed, ‘and what he went through building that bridge....’ she snatched the curtains closed behind her.

‘Anyway I nipped back to your house and brought you these!’ She whispered pointing to a carrier bag as if she was supplying me with Class A drugs.

I was expecting the bunch of grapes but I was not prepared when she produced what, given the location and the circumstance, could well have been a human scalp and part of a jaw. As it was it was only a wig and my spare top set.

‘I know it’s Liza Minnelli but I’m sorry to say some little brat called Tyrone snatched up Shirley Bassey before I had a chance to clip him round the ear. And would he give her back? No he would not. I almost had to break his fingers. And his mother was no help. You know the sort I mean Maureen; about twelve in a pink tracksuit and with ‘co-habitee’ written all over her. Still that’s modern life for you although why wearing one of those scrunchy things means you have to lose your moral standards I know. They must be the hula hoop of the new millennium I suppose. Still we are where we are and if people will insist on voting the wrong way what can the rest of us expect?’

Before I had a chance to say anything she rammed the wig on my head ignoring the dressing Nurse Carole had stuck over a very nasty head wound. Thankfully the painkillers were so strong that I merely winced.

‘Umm. She didn’t look like that in Cabaret.’

I reached up through a haze of pain in my shoulder and tugged the wig round the right way.

‘I think you were done you know. She definitely didn’t look like that. A slut yes, demented no. Mind you I never saw all of it; mucky and far too much gratuitous thigh for my liking.’

I reached up and gave the wig another tug. Then I remembered the cut over my right eye and settled for comfort and something more Rolling Stone than Weimar Republic. Beattie merely listed heavily to one side as if she had suddenly suffered a shift of cargo below the waterline. Her lips pursed and I could tell she still wasn’t convinced that anybody could have won an Oscar with that hairstyle.

‘I expect she was on drugs anyway’. According to Beattie most people under the age of forty were. For those that weren’t it was only a matter of time. Her whole life appeared to be spent shoring up her defences against a rising tide of drugs and delinquency. That probably explained her corsets. They were a sort of Maginot Line with eyelets.

‘I have to say Maureen I don’t know what you thought you were playing at!’ She wiped a finger along the window sill and grimaced at the dust. ‘Fancy making an exhibition of yourself like that, and in a public place?’

‘I was pushed’, I said.

‘You fell flat on your own face’ Beattie snorted.

‘But I was!’ I protested. I thought mentioning that the police would be calling to take a statement might wipe the smug expression off her face. Instead she looked like somebody had plugged her whalebones into the mains.

‘Are you mad Maureen Truscott? They’ll take one look at you in that wig and have you put in a home! Which reminds me, did anybody ask you who the Prime Minister is?’

I nodded. I didn’t say that I’d got it wrong. Well there was no point provoking her further when she was in one of her moods.

She said that she hoped for my sake I hadn’t said Gordon Brown and reminded me of what happened to Polly when she’s said Margaret Thatcher.

‘Six weeks she was in that place!’

‘Three weeks’, I said.

‘I happen to know different Maureen, remember my Arthur’s niece works at the Council Offices and as a government employee she would hardly lie about such things would she? All of which brings me back to the police and your misguided attempt to make a drama out of this little incident. If you ask me (which I hadn’t) you’ve only yourself to blame. I mean fancy wearing those stupid shoes at your age. Well it’s to be hoped you’ve learned your lesson Maureen. Honestly falling about like that is it any wonder people think you’ve got a drink problem?’

I sighed. That was the first I’d heard about that one. Normally it was just wigs and prostitution. The trouble with Beattie was that because you could never tell when she was being deliberately cruel or unintentionally hurtful, you never knew when to bite back or when to let it all go over your head. And right now my head hurt so I ducked that one without even a second thought.

She said that if I took her advice I’d forget the whole thing. After all what would people think if they read that sort of thing in the local paper?

‘I’ll tell you what they’d think’ she continued before I had a chance to interrupt her. ‘They would think that our dear little town was a haven for thugs and vandals and before you know where you are our houses would be worth next to nothing.

‘But I was pushed I tell you,’ I said. ‘I felt somebody shove me in the back just before I fell over.’

I could feel myself beginning to come over slightly peculiar and prayed for death before I had to listen to Beattie again. But no such luck. When she was in this mood she was like one of those giant super tankers, you could turn the engines off but it took a bloody long way before it stopped.

‘Tripped over your own silly shoes you mean’ she snapped. ‘I was there remember. I saw everything.

She reeled off a sequence of events, glossing over the fact that she had been hit by an invisible stone herself, that saw her leaping into a taxi and, being the good friend and neighbour that she was, going back to my place, braving my mucky kitchen, grabbing Liza Minnelli and helping herself to the travel tokens I kept in a teapot on the mantelpiece to pay for the round trip.

‘And this is how you repay me; threatening to slice half off the value of my home overnight!’

I had no way of knowing how much of this was fact and how much was Beattie. Mind you the bit about her raiding my secret store of rainy day bus tokens sounded very much like her. I was about to take my life in my hands and ask if she’d seen anybody following us on the promenade, well not just anybody, more specifically Jean Shanks when the curtains twitched and Beattie spun round like a fornicator caught in the act.

‘And who are you?’ she barked at the thin young woman who had slipped quietly into the cubicle behind her.

Apparently her name was Monica and she had been assigned as my social worker.

I felt a surge of panic and said ‘David Cameron’, but nobody was listening to me. And why would they? After all I was only the person who was being forced into the welfare system against my will. I was old, toothless and in a paper nightdress. What rights did I have?

Beattie heard the words ‘social worker’ and compressed her lips into an expression that looked anything but welcoming.

‘And what do you normally do when you’re not assigned Monica? Are you some kind of YTS?

At this point I started to protest but was firmly rebuffed by Beattie who told me to keep my mouth shut and leave the talking to her or I’d end up in a home singing ‘Tipperary’ three times a week and twice at weekends.

Monica braced herself against her clipboard and prepared to stand her ground. Unfortunately my best friend was not the kind of woman she had come across in any of her modules. She wasn’t sure if she needed to practise intervention or anger management. Whilst Monica dithered Beattie went for it. She was in no mood to be wrong footed by a woman with plaits.

‘Mrs Truscott is not homeless, and despite the wig she is not mental or a sex worker and as far as I know my friend is still in full control of her own water works and bowel movements. And neither is she a single parent family……………

My social worker let out something akin to a whimper of pain and fled, presumably to apply for the soft option of teaching French to inner city teenagers with crack cocaine dependency. I let out a similar sound only mine was real pain. Not so much pain from my injury but more from the sound of Beattie’s voice banging against my own troubled thoughts.

‘I’ll get a nurse,’ she said and charged off down the ward demanding injections, bed pans and a crash team. Still at least she was gone.

Now whatever anybody said, including Beattie, I knew I was pushed, and more to the point I was knocked off my feet by a woman we had both seen committed to the ground less than ten days earlier. But then why hadn’t Beattie seen her? Or had she? Knowing her views on matters psychic if the angel Gabrielle had appeared to a Virgin Beattie there would have been no baby Jesus. Still it had to be said that if Jean Shanks was going to materialise to anybody it wouldn’t be me. For one thing we couldn’t stand each other. And for another I wasn’t the one who had said all those unkind things about her funeral tea. So why was she picking on me: and why now? We had a coach tour of the Fen Country booked at the end of the month. I didn’t have time for all this. Then again Beattie had seen the trip advertised in the same magazine that sold Velcro fastening shoes so enough said.

Beattie could say what she liked on this one but I knew a ghost when I saw one. I may well have been found guilty of fraudulent clairvoyance but once I did actually possess the gift. Sadly in my case it turned out to be more of a curse but that’s another story. Still at one time I had been very good even if I say so myself. It was only when I got a bit carried away that I came unstuck. And who knew but if it hadn’t been for that undercover policewoman it might well have been me on that poster and not Doris Morris; only thinner of course.

I was still pondering my unwilling return to the world of spirit when Beattie arrived with a nurse and enough pain relief to stun an elephant.

‘I suppose you do have qualifications wherever it is you come from?’ she asked the tiny oriental woman who was busy trying to find a vein in my arm.

‘Well I hope you know what you’re doing’ she went on before mouthing her apology to me that this was the only nurse she could find. ‘All the real ones seem to have gone home; or they’re drunk’.

So whichever way you told it I was pushed flat on my face by a ghost that Beattie may or may not have seen; Jean Shanks was back in the material world and I was being repeatedly jabbed in the arm by a Phillipino nurse who was trying her best to fend off blows from Beattie’s handbag at the same time. was good to lose consciousness especially when bells are ringing and people are calling for security. With most people you could feign deafness or ignorance. With Beattie you had to go the whole hog and black out...............

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