Tuesday, January 4, 2011

77. Getting to know her

Elaine’s flat would have been a perfect subject for an episode of the “How clean is your house?” reality show, and was an obvious fire hazard. Cigarette burns formed black patterns on the carpet around the desk where she used to sit in the days when there was space to do so. The carpet at the side of her bed was burnt, there were burns on her bedding and night attire and on most surfaces. Sometimes there would be a cigarette smouldering in the bathroom, another in the kitchen plus the one in the ash tray at the side of her bed. If one paper had caught alight the fire would have spread in minutes. It was not acceptable and the responsibility of “doing something about Elaine” seemed to have fallen on my shoulders.
We sat on the bed and looked at photographs of Elaine as a gunner on Robin Island during the war and pictures of her taking part in the London Victory Parade after the war. She had been chosen, with a few other women, to represent the South African Women’s Services at the Victory Parade, it was a huge honour and the highlight of her life. There were a great many photographs of her Army days. We looked at pictures of her representing her school in a hockey team; dozens more of holidays spent in Greece, where she studied archaeology; photographs of herself smartly dressed, attending business dinners with her associates. I realised that, sitting beside me was a highly intelligent woman who had held a position equal to that of a Bank Manager in her professional life, who was a dedicated student of ancient Greece and Rome and, I suspected, an unfulfilled lesbian. Elaine was an only child, unmarried with absolutely no kith or kin in the world. Her two great friends since school days had both recently died leaving her quite bereft. She was one of the kindest, sweetest, most generous women I had ever met and I liked her.

Friends said that I was suffering from the “empty wheel chair syndrome”. Tom had died almost a year before, I had sorted out all the official business that comes with death, moved house and travelled around for three months and now needed something to fill my life again. At least that is what they told me. Possibly so, and certainly within a year Elaine was barely able to walk more than a few yards and had to be pushed around in a wheel chair. Quite soon, my entire life revolved around her, to the point where I was bathing her, taking meals to her on a tray, attending to her accounts, in fact doing more for her than I ever did for Tom. It was very exhausting, and everyone said I was crazy, but she had no one else who cared about her, so I was IT. The only thing she would not allow me to do for her was clear up all the mess. In fact the sound of a piece of paper being torn up seemed to cause her actual pain and distress.

I replaced the shredded curtains with some non-shredded of my own, but she pined for the old ones so, after removing the linings, I washed them, replaced the running tape along the top and put them back. The strange thing was that she was not a mean or miserly person. She would have given me anything and frequently offered me money, which I refused. Some people thought she was wealthy but that was not so.

There is a children’s home in Somerset West called ‘Cotlands’, which cares for abandoned children, orphans, babies with aids and other problems, and I talked to Elaine about their need for money. She wanted to make a donation but I suggested that, instead of her giving money, she donate the contents of two boxes of souvenirs and gifts she had brought back from Greece and was not likely to use or give away. I would ask other residents for items and we could hold a sale and give the proceeds to Cotlands. She happily agreed and the sale raised almost R2 000,00 with which I bought nappies, teething powders, feeding bottles and other baby stuff, which were displayed in the club so that everyone could see what they had helped buy. Elaine had attended the sale and actually bought back several of her own things!

I would draw money for Elaine whenever she asked, far more than I felt she needed. She was so generous that in one month she gave to the woman who later came to bathe her, more than her own month’s pension! That was when I suggested that, in future, I handle her money. In fact she wanted me to hold her Power of Attorney which necessitated trips to the bank and visits to lawyers.

I organised a filing system and discovered two years’ unsubmitted tax returns and reminders, plus several “Dear Madam unless” letters. Among her papers was a luggage label, with a piece of string looped through it, on which was written, and I tell you no lie. “To flush the toilet pull the chain towards you and pull down sharply” This must have referred to an overhead flusher in a bathroom left behind at least twenty years ago. Most of her clothing was too big for her, and was held together with safety pins and needed to be repaired. She refused to be parted from an all-in-one corselet, but I did persuade her to hand in her small firearm, which required three visits to the police station. In fact I had dug myself into a big hole out of which there was no escape. I allowed her to become completely dependant on me, and had only myself to blame.

At first Elaine would come to my place for meals, in fact spent most of her days here, but gradually she left her flat less and less, I could not wheel her in a chair down the ramp because she was too heavy for me. The time came she no longer left her bed, other than to go to the bathroom, and one day I realised that four years had passed, and I was feeling very tired.

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