Qualified Entry: Fiction Category
By: J.R. McRae
“Morning, Ma’am, how are you?”
The eyes glared out of wrinkled hoods with not a shred of recognition. “What do you want? MARCH! Where is that woman…?” This was my fourth visit.
“I’ve brought you something.” I held out the Meals on Wheels foil covered tray.
The eyes changed. The hand on the door let go. The aroma of the food wafted up.
“Don’t just stand there! It’s getting cold! “
I sidled past the birdlike lady in the doorway. “I’ll set the table.” I looked over my shoulder, she was coming.
I made my way to the kitchen and put on the kettle. I could hear the shuffle of her feet as she made her way to the morning room. I smiled. Ma’am was waiting to be waited on.
A few days ago, a charity fundraiser rang the Home Visitor line for our church’s aged care services. The worker voiced concern at the thinness of an elderly resident, she seemed to be alone and deranged. The worker checked with a neighbour. It revealed nothing except a lack of visitors. I was assigned.
I’ve been doing this four years since my husband died. I don’t need to work. This keeps me involved. Her ladyship has been my biggest challenge!
The first time I knocked on the imposing front door, she told me curtly, “Go to the servants entrance.” I dutifully walked round through the large, overgrown garden to the back door. I wondered, how could anyone, living in this heritage home, in a prime ‘address’, be reduced to charity visits. I tried one door, locked. No one answered my knock. Second door ajar, I let myself in, the kitchen.
I busied myself making tea and quietly exploring, calling from time to time, “Anyone there?” No one answered.
The pantry shelves held a range of gourmet items, the sort a cook would relish, not someone wanting a ‘quick eat’. I found tea, a teapot, two cups and saucers and a box of sugar cubes. The fridge was nearly empty. The milk was off. Mental note, “Charity food parcel.” I made the tea. Then I headed into the main house to find my hostess.
She stood gazing vacantly out the window in the ‘grand’ drawing room. “Hello?” I repeated myself but louder.
She turned suddenly, gripped the top of a carved cedar chair to balance herself, “Where’s March? She is late? You must be the new help. Where’s my tea! You know I haven’t had anything to eat. It’s scandalous! WELL!?”
“Beg your pardon Ma’am, if you would like to come to the kitchen, I have made some tea.”
“What do you mean, KITCHEN! Tea is served in the morning room! GO!”
I stood stock still, shocked. The woman was in another world.
“WELL?!” That commanding voice again.
I brought the tea into what I guessed was the morning room. She followed. I helped her into a seat and went to sit.
“I did NOT give you permission to sit! Get rid of the other cup. There are no visitors!”
I struggled to suppress a laugh at the ludicrousness of my situation.
I dutifully poured tea for one. I tried to engage her in conversation but she would have none of it, “The impertinence!”
After a while, I tried to excuse myself.
“Where do you think you are going? Dinner is promptly at 6.00pm, didn’t March tell you? Shocking!”
I sighed and hung my head. When I looked up she was still glaring at me.
“I am not you servant, Ma’am. I am a Home Visitor. This is my card. See here my ID.”
“I’m Catholic! What are you doing here! March did not let you in. GO!”
I checked with the neighbours both sides. Did not know her, but, yes, they had noticed no visitors.
Back at the office, I gave our manager a quick report and suggested a call to the local parish priest. I asked if I could take around a food parcel.
“Don’t know how long since she’s eaten. She has no idea of her situation.”
The manager shook her head. “Of course! See if you can find out anything, names, relatives… I’ll ring Father O’Rourke.”
I returned, late the same afternoon. I proffered the food parcel and was abruptly told off. “Deliveries to the rear! MARCH! WHERE ARE YOU, WOMAN!” I went round back and let myself in, placed the items in the pantry and fridge and went to leave. Then I remembered, her ladyship, heaved a sigh and busied myself. Eggs on toast would have to do. I had a life.
I set the eggs and toast on a tray with another pot of tea and took it into the dining room. There she was, waiting. “Where’s your manners!”
“Ummm” I hadn’t pulled her chair out. I put down the tray, did my ‘duty’ and tried to leave.
“Where do you think YOU’RE going? My bed needs making. Disgusting! “ This last at the food, which I noted she still ate with gusto.
Upstairs were big empty rooms in every direction. I guessed which was Ma’am’s by the big four-poster and the exquisite lace nightgown, slightly soiled, lying on the floor. Everything was lying on the floor.
Next morning was my third visit, Father O’Rourke in tow. An hour later, in the drawing room, Father O’Rourke and I had been told off, ordered around and ‘March’ yelled for at length. We were none the wiser as to who her Ladyship was or to her circumstances. Plan B. Father O’Rourke excused himself and headed off to ‘explore’. I did the servant thing.
Father O’Rourke hit pay-dirt in the ‘library’. Recently widowed, Lady Joan Anstruther -Smythe, had not even the home she lived in, courtesy of her late husband’s very bad habits. The sole relative responded to Father’s call with, “Not a chance, old chap! All yours!”
Her ladyship, happily sedated in a not very exclusive nursing home, is waited on…