It is a black cold night in the docklands. The stars are icy twinkling pinpoints around a clear moon as we pull into the residential estate. It is far too cold for people to hang about and the street is deserted as Col and I get out of Col's ratty Escort to go and put Betty to bed. I am covering a night run, one of the youngsters has got her mother to ring in and say she is ill. I suspect this is not true and that a Saturday night on the booze has proved more attractive than a night of hoists and octogenarians but that is Monday's problem. Tonight there are people who need help and there is nobody else available so here I am. I don't know Betty so I ask Col what we are to do here, he grins at me and cocks his head towards the house and I hear a raised voice coming from inside. "Oh, I think I will let you meet Betty for yourself" he says.
I follow him up the driveway and into the large bungalow. John, Betty's husband, lets us in and I follow Col into a through lounge where a tall lady sits watching the banal blare of Saturday night television. She squints up at me and barks "Who are you?" I tell her my name is Caroline and she continues to glare at me as she repeats the name several times like an accusation "Caroline! Caroline!" I try again - "My mother's name was Betty" I say with a smile "My name is NOT Betty" she barks "My name is Betty Eileen Clark, Mrs. Clark to you!" I look to Col for guidance and he steps in front of me, speaking soothingly "Hello Betty, we've come to get you into your night things. Shall we go to the bedroom?" "Go to the bedroom!" she repeats these words with only marginally less aggression but she allows him to place a handling belt around her and bring her zimmer frame from the corner. Betty walks well and I feel a little foolish holding the belt and almost scurrying to keep up. I make the mistake of saying sotto voce to Col "can't keep up" and Betty whirls round fixing me with a look of such venom I step back "Did I hear you say why don't we push her?" she growls. I hastily deny this and Betty sniffs and turns to continue into the bedroom.
The tirade continues as we wash Betty and get her in to her pajamas. She isn't too bad with Col, snappy but fairly civil but the slightest move from me elicits a vituperous attack of such force that I end up standing three feet away, ready to leap forward if needed but staying well clear of the field of conflict. I realise that Betty follows a pattern, she repeats the last phrase said to her in a hectoring tone and offers the odd statement herself but it cannot be termed conversation, it is an aggressive attempt to maintain contact with her surroundings. She is also obsessed with where the elusive John is. He has melted away after letting us in and Betty constantly shouts "John! John! I'm coming through in a minute" The mild voice floats back from the living room with the merest hint of irony "That's good dear" She subsides only to repeat the statement a few moments later, with the same result. She turns on Col "I want to watch Ann Robinson" Col doesn't look surprised, this is obviously a well worn subject. "She isn't on tonight Betty" he says and she glares at him "No Aunty Ann?" she shrieks in outrage "Bitch!" "Very accurate" says Col with gentle sarcasm and Betty lunges forward in her chair, hands outstretched in claws towards his face. Col steps back until she subsides and then carries on with the task in hand.
By the time we take Betty back in to the living room she is shrieking for John again, demanding a cigarette and he is waiting with one lit for her as she reappears and is settled back into her chair. I momentarily wonder if this is a good moment to mention the smoking ban but decide that discretion is the better part of valour and the three of us retreat to the far end of the through lounge while Col fills in the communication book. Betty is on a loop now "John! John! I want a cigarette!" she keeps shouting. John's voice is gentle and resigned as time after time he says "You've got one Betty" or "Yes, Betty, you're smoking it now". He looks at me, sad blue eyes in a kindly face criss crossed with weary lines "Do you smoke?" he asks. I tell him I used to but have given up. "I used to many years ago" he says and gives me a wry smile "I think I may take it up again"
Col finishes writing in the book and we take our leave, John stands at the door until we reach the car and then turns back to the distant shouting from inside the house. I look at Col, raising my eyebrows. It feels like we have just walked out of a war zone, the silence of the freezing air seems like a blessed relief. Col raises his eyebrows back and smiles at me over the roof of the car as he unlocks the door. "Poor sod eh?" he says as he gets in. I look up at the indifferent moon shining on the roof of John and Betty's house - beneath that roof John is living out an endless life sentence of hostility with a woman who can remember nothing much except that she is furious. Poor sod indeed.
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