The little girl is six. She stands as close to her mother as she can and stares at the bed, its sheet folded in a strict hospital line across the old woman’s chest. There are metal bars sticking up from the other side. The nurse who’d pointed the bed out to the two visitors, had said casually that Mrs Kippenberger had fallen out of it a few nights ago. The girl looks into the nurse’s face to see whether she is telling the truth and wonders how an adult, especially an old adult could possibly fall out of bed.
Her curious gaze is just above that of the woman’s looking up from the pillow. She sees the pale blue nighty with a string twisted out from under the wrinkled neck. The skin on the woman’s arms and hands is stretched over bones white with blurry brown patches. Her hair is spindly. She is gripping the girl’s mother’s hand.
‘Is that you Diana?’ The old woman struggles to focus, then she searches the mother’s face and fixes on her eyes. Her mouth is mostly open, tongue muscle moving breaking and creating strings of wet. She needs moisture to lubricate her words, they are air which barely reaches the mother although she is bent in close.
‘Hello, Nana Kip. Yes, I’m Diana, Rufa’s daughter.’
‘Ah … yes.’ She’s forgotten who Diana is but remembers the name. ‘Ah … yes, Diana.’ The eyes close for a moment and pop open again. ‘Ah Diana … and who is this?’ The eyes are now on the child who has turned slightly away and is looking down wondering where the woman’s slippers are and looks around for a dressing gown – she can’t see either.
There is a shriek, ‘Where’s he going?’ The girl jumps and searches the room with startled eyes. There is no one there; the passage separating the lines of beds is empty. Her mother hasn’t turned, she is focussed hard on her grandmother’s face, eyes pleading for further signs of recognition.
Suddenly laughter is coming from the same bed where the yell had come from. It sounds wild. The child, eyes closed, moves into her mother and is nearly standing on one of the cream shoes. Her nostrils sting with the smell of urine and disinfectant and there is a faint whiff of stale talcum powder.
The woman has closed her eyes. Has she gone to sleep? She doesn’t open them again.
Diana is saying goodbye, her voice heavy. The girl looks into the familiar face, searching for tears because she sounds quivery, but there are none. Diana now stands up straight. She shakes the girl from her coat, catches her hand and leaves.
As they approach the doors at the end of the passage, the little girl looks up again. ‘Who is Nana Kip?’