As I sign in, nodding to the familiar red-headed nurse, I can already hear Mum’s voice. Not a good day, then.
‘How is she?’
‘Oh, you know. The usual. Still looking.’ Her face is winter-pale, eyes held in a net of tired lines. Her nostrils are chapped and reddened.
‘The same. Thanks for asking.’
I leave the little reception room and penetrate further, down scuffed corridors, past the kitchens with their smell of mince and instant potato. I hesitate at the door of the lounge. The residents sit mummified in their armchairs, ranged along the wall. A big television flickers in the corner, sound off. Most of them have their eyes closed.
‘Looking for your mum?’ asks an assistant, wheeling in a trolley with a tea urn. She’s new, her chunky calves bulging from her trainers, arse straining against the confines of the pink checked overall.
I nod. ‘She’ll be in her room,’ I say, listening.
There it is again, shrill with distress: ‘I can’t find it! Someone’s taken it.’
The assistant parked the trolley and straightened up, hands on the small of her back. ‘That’s Mrs Noble,’ she said. ‘Poor thing. Do you know what she’s looking for?’
Mum’s room is a mess. She’s pulled out everything from her drawers, again. Underwear, socks, photographs in frames, bits and pieces of jewellery, all jumbled on the bed. I stand in the doorway, waiting.
‘Brenda… good. I can’t find it. Help me to look.’
I’m not Brenda. Brenda was her secretary, at the magazine she edited. I begin folding vests and pants, placing them back in the empty drawer. Mum picks up the drawer and empties it out again. Her fingernails are filthy, I notice, gunged up with food or dirt or worse. Her rings are missing. The big opal glints from a fold in the bedding. I pick it up and slip it on my index finger. It’s loose, heavy, and badly needs cleaning.
Her fingernails bother me. I go to the bathroom and fill a bowl with warm water.
‘Come on, Mum. Sit down and let me do your nails. We’ll find it afterwards.’
She looks at her hands, uncertainly. ‘Oh, these aren’t mine, dear. I’m just borrowing them. Nasty things, aren’t they?’
‘We’ll clean them up, anyway. Make them nice.’
She sits on the bed, hands in the warm water. I soap and scrub the nails with a little plastic brush. They’re ridged and cracked, like ancient tortoise shells. The gunge is deeply embedded. I wonder if I have an emery board in my handbag to smooth the ragged ends. Mum was never without one. Her nails were manicured to a point, lacquered red or pink, to match her lipstick. The rasping used to drive me mad, as she filed her nails in the evening.
I rub the opal ring in the soapy water. Little rainbows dance below its surface. Mum had given me first choice of her rings, when I was seven, and I’d chosen this, entranced by the fairy colours. The big diamond solitaire was duly promised to my sister. When I was old enough to realise, before I could buy my own diamonds, I rather resented this. Anita had claimed her diamond when we brought Mum here. No sense in it getting lost, she’d said, practically. I wonder how many times she’s visited since.
Mum is getting restless. I dry one hand and smooth on handcream. Penhaligon’s Bluebell, my Christmas present to her this year. I’d hoped the familiar, delicate scent might soothe her.
‘I can’t find it, you know. Help me to look for it.’ She pushes away the bowl, slopping the water and overturning it on the floor.
‘Oh – oh Mum. Look what you’ve done.’ The water soaks through my jeans, sticking them to my legs.
She seizes my hand. ‘Have you got it? Did you take it? Tell me, now.’
I twist the opal round so it faces my palm. It feels bulky, uncomfortable, like a stone in my shoe.
‘Don’t be silly, Mum. Come on, let’s sort through these things and put them away.’