After the blister-bubble panic-burst, he understood that Nadine had been right. He had begun to let himself go lately, it was perfectly true; he had been a silly-billy, getting all agitated at the thought of the bother of it all: the chilly-strip, the watery hot-rush, the soapy eye-sting. But now that it was all over he felt ever so much better: cleaner – obviously – and also somehow stronger. Tomorrow, he fancied, he might even go out for a bit if the rain stayed off.
“You were quite right, Nadine,” he conceded, taking from her his customary Ovaltine. “I don’t know why I made such a fuss. I feel so much better now.”
“Silly billy!” Even her irritating stock response seemed all of a sudden quite endearing. He smiled fondly after her receding form, giving a little head-shake of self-surprise.
Tomorrow, he resolved, he would go out for a bit. If the rain stayed off. He snuggled down a little further in the ruggy-wool, enjoying this time of drowse, imagining the morrow-outing.
“Yes – out out! And it was a lovely day, bit of sunshine, not too cold…No, no-one I actually recognised but plenty of young folk, y’know, with dogs and children and their bicycles and what not, all very friendly… Yes – oh yes, most definitely; I shall make a point of it!…”
Nadine stood on the threshold, humming to herself contentedly. He radiated positivity: it was infectious. This week’s report would be a most satisfying submission. Gwen would be delighted.
“A turn-up for the books?.. Oh, yes, ha…I see what you mean now… Yes, yes, as Nadine would say, a silly-billy!.. I’m sorry if I’ve been a bit, y’know…prickly, yes, quite right Gwen pet, that’s just the word for it, ha…No, you’re quite quite right, I was… What’s that? A night nurse? Oh no, no… No need for anything more… Not at all. Absolutely not. Nadine sorts me out just lovely before she goes. Yes, I’m sure, pet. Yes, of course I’d say…”
Standing unseen on the threshold, Nadine empathised fully with both parties and registered the continuing requirement to remain undetected between the hours of 2130 and 0900. She recognised Gwen’s long-distance anxiety for her father’s safety, and his pride-push against his neediness. Neither phenomenon, however, was sufficient to trigger any adjustment to her input.
“I’m just surprised, that’s all…She’s so capable in every way; nothing’s ever any trouble…Come to think of it, half the time I don’t even have to ask – she’s got there before me! Ha, yes exactly…my wish is her command, ha…no, can’t say I do, Gwen, to be honest… Can’t really see what’s so tricky about a shave…Well, all right, if you say so…”
Nadine helped him out of his chair into his outdoor clothes into his other chair, into a better frame of mind, softly sing-songing behind him along the corridor and into the elevator. By the time they emerged into the spring-fresh air, he found himself really rather looking forward to this, long-time-no barbershop.
But once arrived in the sharp-shiny premises, he could not prise his shy-stuck tongue from his mouth-roof. The barber greeted him and prompted with politeness, for a kind time waited with patience but at last looked to Nadine for guidance. There ensued several seconds of fretful confusion and he could not quite see himself in his reflection but his vision gradually returned to him his clean-shaven self. And –
“Good Lord, Nadine – have I had… a haircut?”
They both hummed on the way back. The birds harmonised.
“Gwen pet, please don’t worry…I’m really not hurt…Bruising?.. ah, only a very little, nothing at all really…Gwen, I shall be very cross if you come all that way…don’t be….ah…(tippy-tongue, tongue-tip)… melodramatic!”
Nadine was by his side, now doing something to the screen, the opposite thing that she did earlier so that now it went blank and quiet. She often stayed there now, by his side, calm and still. He liked that about her; she sensed his needs. His night-night fall had caused a head-blank: when he had around-come, he knew not how long after, Nadine was there, shushing and soothing. Then someone else came, a clippy-boarded bossy-boots. He took her to be a night nurse and he did not take to her at all.
Gwen was coming. She was her mother’s daughter: gainsaid she was not to be.
“Time I saw you anyway, dad. Fall or no fall. Do you realise it’s over a year? A whole year!”
He felt a heavy headiness; a heady heaviness. He wished he could be sure his accommodation was spick-span but he was not sure that this was part of Nadine’s remit and shied from the enquiry. At least he was himself presentable. Neat, clean, and presentable. Nadine saw that his clothes were daily-fresh; his nails were toe-clipped and finger-trimmed. His hair was washed and combed; he was a barbershop regular. She assisted now with the more intimate aspects of care with such gentle pragmatism that he felt neither embarrassment nor resentment. Indeed, there was a tiny pleasure-squirm to all this care and attention and he had long ago left behind any vestigial guilt about the lack of reciprocity because Nadine needed nothing he could offer.
The thought of Gwen’s arrival – seeing her, embracing her – quite overwhelmed him. He wanted Nadine to intuit this and proffer reassurance: he may even have voiced this desire but his windpipe was timid-tight and he feared the sound of his own reedy wheeze. For her part, Nadine remained the consummate professional: constant, consistent and conscientious.
Gwen’s middle age took his frail breath quite away, so strongly did she resemble her mother. What a fool he had been to worry so! She was his daughter, for goodness’ sake! His own blood-flesh! What a silly-billy! He was giddy-glad, he was punch-pleased when she praised his appearance; played to the gallery of her compliments, a sudden harlequin-sprite. She was delighted further when she saw for herself the orderliness of his living quarters.
“All thanks to Nadine,” he beamed. “She really is a treasure. What a silly-billy I was to begin with, thinking I could manage just fine by myself. I hadn’t realised, is all, Gwen…little by little, y’know, after your mother…well, you live alone long enough, no-one to tell you what you need to hear…I had rather stopped caring about myself, y’know, about cleaning up after myself…or even cleaning myself, come to that. Ha!”
He paused, momentarily abashed by the uncharacteristic revelation. Gwen clasped his soft white hands in hers.
“Exactly, dad. That’s why I so wanted you to give it a try. Nadine, I mean. And look what a success you’ve made of it!”
He felt a little puff-swell of gratification; Gwen sensed it too, and rode its wave:
“And since it’s been such a success….well, we would all like you – we would really urge you – to reconsider the, ah, night nurse option.”
He was surprised now by the realisation that it was Gwen’s turn to be anxious. She was stroking his hands in the same distracted mechanical manner as Nadine and her eyebrows were raised in slightly asymmetrical arches of appeal.
He did not reply because he was drinking her in, this fully formed, wonderful daughter of his, so uncannily like her mother. His silence must have disconcerted her, because she leaned in knee-grazingly close and moved her strong brown hands to cup his rapt face.
“Dad, you know I wouldn’t upset you for the world. You know, don’t you, that I would never – will never – force you to do anything you didn’t want. You do know that?”
He nodded, his head a slow rock in the sling of her palms.
“But – well – time’s marching on and none of us is getting any younger – ” Deftly she caught her own throat-catch, netted it in a hiccup – ” I’m beginning to think I could use a Nadine myself, haha.”
For a moment they regarded one another in silence. He moved his own hands over hers: reminded him of a hat he once had: sheepy-flaps over the ear-skin.
“Gwen. Are you saying you’re…not well?”
“No! Oh no!” Her gaiety gave her away and she came clean, deflating with a sigh: “It’s Rob, dad. He’s…well, it’s not good. I can’t bring him back here: you can’t move over there. So we’re stuck, you see?”
Her smile was brave-bright. The heart-bang in his chest was like corn-pop in a pan.
“Anyway, dad…what I’m trying to say is, what with these falls you’ve been having and all…well, would you… re-consider a night nurse?”
She winced her way to her winning wheedle: “For my sake?”
He stared at her for a moment. Stitch-drop. Thread-loss. Then, mercifully, penny-drop:
“Ah! You want me to agree to that whatchacallit – round the hours care, is that it, pet?”
She nodded. He nodded. He removed his hands from his cheeks. She followed suit. Simon says.
“A night nurse,” she supplied: his beloved, beseeching.
“I want Nadine,” he said.
Clippy-bossy board-boots returned. She took Gwen and Nadine with her, away from him.
When Gwen returned to the sitting room, it was his turn to wheedle:
“Not her, please. I can’t take to her. I don’t want her! Can’t I have Nadine?”
Gwen shushed him, Nadine-style.
“It won’t be her, dad. She’s an administrator, not a nurse. Well, I mean, she used to be a nurse but not a carer, not like Nadine is I mean, and – um – now, now she…organises – things, from an office, if you see what I mean…”
“So it won’t be her? And – I can have Nadine?”
Fake-ahem behind him heralded the entry of clippy-boots bossy-board.
“Mr Hawker, if I may – ?”
The wire across his forehead unexpectedly tensioned in anticipation. He knew himself captive.
“Ahem. I should start by saying how delighted we all are by Nadine’s success here. Truly. The – eh – the issue is that…well, Nadine does not meet ISO 13482 which governs safe interactions between – well, ah, interactions duly protected against litigation in the event of…um…an accident. Now, I know that won’t mean much to you. But in simple terms what it means is that – well – Nadine is a bit, ah, old-fashioned and we’d like to offer you a more, ah, up-to-date care package.”
“I don’t understand,” he said, turning to his daughter for clarification.
“Dad, it’s really nothing to worry about. You know, they’re updating models all the time. Mrs Daniels simply means that we can get you a newer Nadine. Exactly the same but – better! Doesn’t that sound great? Can you imagine?!”
“No,” he reedy-wheezed. “I can’t.”
When they were at last alone again, in the gentle humming silence, and he had from a couple of stiff brandies (long past their sell-by date, he assumed, much like himself and if the powers that be were to be believed Nadine also) – from these brandies he had courage-plucked, he addressed her:
“They say we can’t go on, Nadine. You don’t conform to some – I don’t know what. Some standard.”
She hummed, motionless.
“You don’t conform, dammit! To a standard!…what a – what a fucking miserable goal! Conform to a standard! Did you ever in your life hear such a fucking lacklustre criterion for success?”
Exhausted by his sudden traverse across the strange terrain of polysyllabic invective, he sank back in his chair. Eye-ache. Popcorn-chest.
Dusk gathered. Nadine moved to draw the curtains against the blackly thickening sky but he stopped her. She glided smoothly back to his side and when he began to weep she drew him into her three arms and tenderly stroked his fragile spine with all twenty-four of her digits.