I turn down the radio as I pull up to the house. It wouldn’t make a good impression to drive into the driveway, Jon Bon Jovi blaring as I get out of the car. Instead I choose to park just outside the gate I grab the little clear bottle of hand sanitiser that has been rattling around my dashboard all morning, wincing as I rub the stinging liquid into my skin. My first call of the day – well, my first call ever, actually. My hair is tied back and I’m wearing the freshly ironed uniform given to me by the agency. The app I’ve downloaded onto my phone informs the admin team when I’ve arrived; I wait until 8 A.M. on the dot before “clocking in”. There’s no point clocking in early; I won’t get paid for it anyway.
The unkempt garden looks like a magical Christmas wonderland in this heavy frost and suffocating fog. Underfoot lies a glassy red and orange leaved carpet, which could easily be mistaken for a skating rink. I navigate the driveway with caution, cursing myself for choosing these snappy-looking heels. I still wear them, even though I left the solicitor’s firm a year ago. Well, left isn’t the right word, exactly, but I never elaborate unless asked. Come to think of it, I’ve never been asked; this is my first job since packing up my small, cramped desk of nearly eighteen years.
I ring the doorbell, hearing it echoing up the hall. On inspecting my notes this morning, I read that this client has a key, hidden in a small brown box under the unruly shrub in the corner. However, I don’t think it would be appropriate to use it for our first meeting. A shadow appears in the hall. The height of the shadow doesn’t even reach my chin. I inhale sharply as the blue door opens.
“Hello there!” I say, with as much enthusiasm as I can muster. “I’m Marie. I’m your carer today.”
My client merely grunts in reply, swinging her wheelchair back so I can squeeze past her in her narrow hall. The bulb overhead is far too bright; under its harsh, unforgiving light, this woman looks fifty, but I know from reading her file that she isn’t even thirty yet. Some of them are just like that though, aren’t they? Old before their time. Her mouth is fixed in a firm line, her fists are wrapped around the wheels of her chair. She isn’t impressed to see me.
I follow her into the kitchen, which was once a buttery yellow but has been made grubby with fingermarks and blackened with smoke. Over the small, white, standalone hob/oven in the corner, splatters of oil and bits of pasta cling forgotten to the walls behind. A St. Brigid’s cross hangs sideways over the door. On the kitchen door itself, as I close it behind me, there hangs a 2017 calendar from Emo Oil, on the March page. Time seems to have frozen since: it’s November 2019 now. Certainly the table looks as though it was abandoned during a zombie apocalypse: a stack of old Offaly Independents, a thick-based laptop with the screen closed down, an array of old socks. It saddens me to think that this is how any thirty-year old woman should live.
“So, according to your care plan,” I say as I flick through the pages, “you need a hand with getting dressed and your breakfast which is normally jam on toast. Is that correct?” I smile at her as I pull on the latex gloves, a standard issue from head office. She doesn’t smile back.
“Where’s Nuala?” she says in an accusing tone.
She’s exasperated with me already. Not a good start to the day.
“Yes, Nuala. The woman who normally works here. I wasn’t told she was being replaced.”
This must be a test, I think. “You’ll have to ask the office. I was just sent here this morning. I’m just following orders. Don’t worry, I’m fully trained. I know what I’m doing.”
“Just got my certificate last week,” I say, swelling with pride as I relive the moment I was handed the award, as well as an extra award for being top of my class. I’d always had a mind for theories, for essays. The course had been a piece of cake.
She rolls her eyes and makes a retching noise. “You’re early,” she says, rummaging in her handbag. To my horror, she pulls out a black cigarette box. “I like to have my morning fag before I do anything.” Before I can stop her, she pulls one out of the box and lights it.
Oh hell, I think to myself. I hadn’t imagined landing head-first into a scenario like this. I wonder if the office staff are going to pop out from behind the door and shout “Smile, you’re on Candid Camera!” popping streamers and blowing those annoying kazoos that are thankfully disappearing from kids’ parties these days. God bless the drive to cut the unnecessary plastic.
She’s already taken three pulls before I have the courage to say: “Sorry, this is my workplace. You can’t smoke.” I would go as far to say I hate smokers. They’re so inconsiderate and selfish, and they rarely think of anyone but themselves.
She shrugs, continuing to smoke, blowing the smoke in my direction, which I think is definitely taking the piss.
“Yeah, well, it’s my house.”
Her obstinance is grating on me. “Well, according to this handbook,” I say, grabbing it out of my handbag and flicking through the pages, “section fourteen says that because of the Tobacco Act 2004, all workplaces must now be work free.” I stuff the manual back into my bag. Thank God I didn’t leave it on the kitchen table; I knew that I’d be needing it. “And now,” I continue, looking at my watch, “I only have twenty-five minutes to get you done, so if you want a shower, you may hurry up. I have five other clients this morning.”
Her face is hurt, like a chastised child’s.
“You’re not allowed shower me,” she informs me. “That’s a two-person job. Didn’t they teach you that on that fancy FETAC Level 5 course? Anyway, it’s not Thursday.” Bloody newbie, I hear her mutter to herself.
She stubs the cigarette out on a saucer and wheels out past me again. I follow her, feeling the damp emanating from the walls. Her bedroom is small and dark, and the floor is covered in clothes and shoes. I can barely follow her in. Looking at the mess, I can’t help but feel sorry for her. If only I had time to tidy up for her, but I don’t. it’s only my first day but I’m determined to make a good impression; ergo, I must be punctual for all my clients. Anyway, this lady, like all the people I’m scheduled to help this morning, surely knows what the drill is by now. She knows that I’m not made of time. I wonder does she do this with all her carers: try to stretch out her time, chance her arm?
“Can I have my Adidas hoody and tracksuit bottoms?” she asks me. I can’t seem to put my hand to the bottoms; the room is in chaos. Though I can see why. Apart from this tiny dresser, this girl has no accessible place to store her clothes. I haven’t seen the hotpress, but I’d imagine the shelves are too high to be reached from where she sits in the wheelchair.
Time is really running out now. “I can’t find your bottoms. Can you wear these Reebok ones instead?”
Again, she doesn’t look happy. “Go on then,” she says, sitting still as I pull them up her legs.
It must be strange for her, I think, being dressed by a total stranger. Honestly, I don’t think I would like it. As I sit her back down in the wheelchair, for a second I catch a glimpse of my own future, and I don’t like it. If I’m being honest with myself, I think I’d rather be dead. That’s what Tom and I always said: if we became old or crippled before our time, we would be on a plane to the Netherlands and we wouldn’t be coming back. I personally could never burden anyone like that.
“Now,” I say, too brightly again. I keep forgetting that I’m not talking to a child. And yet there’s something childlike and vulnerable about her. For starters, she’s evidently unable to keep house, although I’m starting to suspect this might be because she doesn’t want to. “Any plans for today?”
She shakes her head, staring out the small, dirty window into her jungle-like back garden. I wonder if I’m the only person she’ll see today, at least until the night carer comes back to help her get ready for bed. A hacking cough shakes me out of the daze I’m in.
“I might go to the day care centre.” Her voice is indifferent. If this was the most exciting prospect in my day, I suspect that I would be equally unenthusiastic. “I don’t like going there too much. Bunch of auld grannies.” She looks up at me. “I don’t suppose you have time to straighten my hair?”
For what I think. The day care centre? I wouldn’t imagine there to be any fine young specimens in there. I worked in the Ballingar centre as part of my work experience and it was like witnessing an eightieth birthday in a care home. It was depressing to think that people the same age as I was lived like this, often only seeing the four walls of their home. I think of myself at thirty, almost fifteen years ago. John and I already had five years paid off our mortgage on our beautiful four-bed detached in Whitehall Estate. I was juggling my blossoming legal career with two kids under the age of five. I remember the odd days that I skived off work, meeting Margaret and Brenda for coffee, and sometimes the odd liquid lunch. Even at the time, I remember thinking that I would look back on those days with nostalgia. Now, I was looking down at a girl – sorry, a woman – whose excitement probably revolved around that morning fag and some inane chit-chat in a day care centre. Worst of all, she seems to be resigned to this. This is her life. I feel a little deflated.
We sit in silence as I straighten her hair and I watch in satisfaction as I tame her unruly locks into a professional-looking bob. I missed my calling, I think to myself. I should’ve been a hairdresser. To my surprise, the edges of my companion’s small mouth are inching upwards towards her cheeks. I feel a lukewarm glow in my chest, a hint of a natural high. As if by magic, this lady now looks slick, elegant. If this is having such an effect on boosting my self-esteem, I can only imagine the effect that something as simple as having her hair straightened has on her.
“Now,” I say, looking at my watch. “I’ve five minutes left. Do you want something else? Breakfast? Cup of tea?”
She nods. “Tea and toast would be great.”
We go into the kitchen and she shows me where everything is. I make her toast and cut each slice into four automatically, as I used to do for my children. This makes her smile a little.
“Sorry. I suppose I should’ve asked you what way you cut your toast.”
“It’s fine. Toast is toast,” she says.
My forty-five minutes are up, it’s time to leave and go to the next client. I pull out the care plan, and tick the boxes Personal Care and Feeding. I’ve done what I was sent here to do. I suppose there has to be some way of regulating the industry, certain standards to be met. But it must get boring for her, the same thing morning after morning. On reflection, I think she handled herself quite well, considering I’m a total stranger, rooting around her home.
“Well, I’m going to head,” I say, gesturing towards the door.
To my surprise, she nods and says, “Will I see you tomorrow?”
“It depends on my rota, I’m afraid. Sorry,” I add, and I mean it. This girl obviously doesn’t know who’s coming into her house from one end of the day to the next. I could not imagine being okay with such invasions to my personal space.
I trot back towards my car, cursing myself again for wearing these damned high heels. For the first time since leaving work, I’m missing the chaos of my desk, being able to hide behind piles of unopened letters and emails, dealing with cold, hard logic instead of having to face my feelings and the realities of others.
As I drive away, I realise that the girl – sorry, woman – never even told me her name. Maybe she assumed I knew. Maybe she thought it wouldn’t matter, her being on a long list of clients waiting for my help. I glance at the file beside me – her name is Denise.
It’ll be interesting to see if I ever see Denise again. Perhaps I will, perhaps I won’t.
Either way, I’ll always have other clients.
I pull up to the next house, ready to do it all again.