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Meals-on-Wheels. An extract from a novel-in-progress.

Bet is a ninety year old woman living in Elephant and Castle, South London. Her husband Jack has fallen on the street and is in hospital with a broken hip.

In the end, she agreed to the meals. Just one a day. She agreed to Tommy putting the keys in a safe outside the front door so the people who came could let themselves in. You're the one whose always thinking we'll be murdered in our beds, she said and shrugged.   

There were always two of them, sometimes the same, sometimes different. Always cheery, talking in raised voices as though she was deaf. She wondered where they came from. A church, most likely. Bet had had a dalliance with the church when she and Jack moved onto the estate – spent a couple of years trying her best, but it never stuck. Coffee mornings and cake bakes and visiting the elderly – it didn't suit her. Or maybe they were from one of those agencies
Tommy kept talking about. A care package – that was what he wanted her to have, as though it would arrive in a bundle, wrapped up in brown paper and string. He wanted people to come round every day to get her up, get her dressed, get her washed. It's your father needs washing and dressing, she told him, not me. I am perfectly capable. How do you think I managed before?

Steak and kidney pie, a bit of mash, and carrots. Make you see in the dark they will.

The man, Brian she thought his name was, had one of those high-pitched, sing-song voices.

And then a little pot of lemon syllabub for your pudding. Syllabub. Ha!

He laughed.

What kind of a word is syllabub?

Bet wondered if he said the same thing to every old lady and old man he visited, or whether he changed his patter each time, just to keep himself entertained. There was a woman with him who didn't say much. Bet could hear her jangling her car keys as she moved around the room, snooping no doubt.

Just get all this set out for you. And whisk these empties away. There you go, love.

There was a tray on the little trolley Jack used to bring in the tea. They put everything on there, with the cutlery and a glass of water. They did not wait while she ate. They left the food and then went. That was the arrangement.

But before they left, the woman bent down towards Bet, so close she could smell her perfume and catch the blonde edges of her hair.

Now, you've just got a teensy bit of mascara, just here.

Before Bet could say anything the woman was rubbing her finger across the skin underneath Bet’s eye. Bet tried to move away but there was nowhere to go. And then,

Oops! A little bit of lipstick.

The woman moved her finger to the top of Bet's lip and rubbed again.

There you go.

She stood back up in a waft of perfume

Right as rain

We're off and away, love.

Brian said

See you tomorrow!

He pulled out the word tomorrow into three bright notes.

Bet listened to them go – footsteps, shuffling coats, the door closing and then the key turned, and then more footsteps outside onto the street. The woman said something to Brian as they passed the window but Bet couldn't make out the words. She touched her lips, then wiped a finger along the bottom of each eye. She had to swallow and then swallow again because there were tears, maybe, lurking in her throat.

She ate the lemon syllabub first. It had a faintly chemical taste, but she persevered. It reminded her of the past. Nothing specific, she just knew that she had eaten it before, but not for a long time. She recognised the dense creaminess of each spoonful; the way it popped a little against her tongue.

The flat would smell of pie all day – a heavy brown smell, Worcester sauce and dark meat and sweated onions. Bet scraped out the last of the syllabub, tipped her head back against her chair and closed her eyes for a moment. She was not in the least bit hungry. But she would have to eat it all up: the pie, and the potatoes, and the carrots. There would be two more people tomorrow and if she had not eaten it they would see. They would talk to her as though she was a child who did not know what was best for it. They would ask if she was unwell. They would call Tommy.

That was how things were. She was being observed. Looked after, Tommy called it. He telephoned her every morning. Eleven o'clock, pretty much on the dot. It was to make sure she had got out of bed. And it worked. There was a phone on the bedside table, so she could have answered it there and pretended she was up and dressed and washed, but she'd always thought that a person could tell if you answered the phone in bed, as though somehow the laziness, the horizontalness of it, seeped into your voice.

There had been a time – a stretch of months, though she couldn't say now how many – when she had stayed in bed all day. She’d been almost, but not quite, seventy years old and the thought of that number approaching somehow made her shut down. She would get up to visit the bathroom, and sometimes stand in the kitchen for long enough to make a cup of tea, but then would scurry back, quick as she could, to the warmth and safety of bed. In the bathroom she always kept her eyes down, so she didn't have to look in the mirror.

Jack put up with it all quite admirably. That was Tommy's phrase – put up – Bet heard them once, talking in the corridor: I don't know how you put up with it, Dad. Maybe he had meant her to hear, or maybe he felt as though she wasn't really there anymore, the same way she did. She would lie in bed and stare up at the ceiling. She would listen to Jack moving about the flat, and then she would listen for other people – a dull thud from something dropped upstairs; a burst of conversation as people made their way along the skinny concrete walkway past the front door; a child crying; someone shouting down in the playground.

There was no good reason for it. She knew that. And eventually, one morning, she got out of bed, had a bath, dressed and sat down at the table with a bowl of cereal. Jack didn't say anything. She could sense him watching her, as though there might be some kind of clue in her appearance that would explain the change, but he never commented, never asked. One of those mornings, up and dressed again, Jack sitting opposite her with a piece of toast and a cup of tea, she very nearly picked up her cup and threw it at him. She would have aimed a little to one side, it might have hit the wall and broken, or just fallen onto the carpet and bounced. He would have – what? Raised his eyebrows? Looked a little shocked, or a little disappointed. Bet sat on her hands and waited until she didn't want to do it anymore.

Sarah Butler

Sarah Butler explores the relationship between writing and place through prose, poetry and participatory projects. She has two novels published by Picador in the UK and with fourteen international publishers: Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love and Before The Fire. Sarah studied English at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge; Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia; and Urban Studies at University College London. Currently a CHASE funded Creative Writing PhD student at the Open University, Sarah is investigating themes of home, identity, ageing and urban regeneration. Her novel-in-progress maps the history of an elderly couple living in Elephant and Castle, South London, and their relationship with a young Romanian student.