Cheap bleach and sour ammonia invaded my nose as soon as the automatic doors opened and I walked inside. That feeling of dread rose in my tummy as the clock started ticking in my monthly routine visit. The ladies on reception smiled at the sight of such a young man looking and smelling so clean and fresh from the outside world, also sympathising that I had to return to this place.
Mildred hobbled by the reception desk, bare feet on show with bunions clearly visible as she practiced her plie position. Her night gown, which was stained with various suspicious colours, lifted as her arms raised to reveal two skinny, white legs plagued with varicose veins.
“Mildred!” One of the ladies on reception called out. “Be careful! You will fall again!”
“I do not fall over.” Mildred replied in an accent from a time gone by, not really known in these northern parts of the country. She was a spinster from a very wealthy background but was disowned by her family when she was twenty years old, so the receptionist told me. She was discovered in a compromising position with a male dancer by her family some seventy years ago. Her dancing days ended then but in her mind, she was still on stage at the Royal Albert Hall performing for His Majesty.
I walked past Mildred, who curtsied as though I was the King who was a long-time dead, and made my way down the corridor.
“You there!” A voice shouted at me. I knew the voice and what he was going to tell me, for he told me at every visit. “There are only six, six!”
“Six what, Albert?” I asked out of routine. I knew what he meant of course. There are six buttons on his shirt when there should be eight. I would have to listen to this once again, not that he would ever remember if I was to tell him to sod off and leave me alone. When I returned in a months’ time, he would be back to count those buttons with me.
“Six! Look,” his arthritic fingers were pointing everywhere but his buttons but I looked anyway. “one, two, three, four, five and six. Six! But look, look here, one, two holes with no buttons. Where are the buttons?”
“Maybe they’re under your bed, Albert. Go and look.”
“Yes, they’ve fallen off. But look, one, two, three, four, five, six.” His look of dismay melted my heart, but in all my visits, he had never had a full set of buttons.
“Yes Albert,” I begin to walk away, “that’s terrible.”
His voice got quieter as I was walking away from him and I could hear him telling the same story to one of the carers. I turned a corner where the sound came to a stop.
I saw the door to room 39. I slowed my pace, taking deep breaths as I prepared myself. It was always a painfully quiet hour with my Grandmother. As her only Grandchild, I had a duty to visit, shamefully praying for the day these visits would come to an end. She never spoke to me. She barely even looked at me. She never did.
She was in her armchair by the window, eyes transfixed on the television. Today’s show was a documentary filming around an American zoo. She looked as though she was deeply concentrating on the show, but I knew it was just her permanent expression since she had the stroke. I took my seat by the door and pulled out my tablet and proceeded to read my book which I always saved for this occasion. I never felt a need to read books elsewhere, life was always too busy for such things but in a way, I relished this peaceful hour in my month.
Forty minutes in to the visit, lions and gorillas were dominating the TV program and my Grandmother suddenly let out a slight sigh. I have never heard her make a noise, ever. At times I could have been forgiven for forgetting she was even in the room with me.
“Lions.” She said, in a shaky and delicate voice.
“Sorry, Grandma?” I put down my tablet. Should I get up? Should I call for someone? My mum never instructed me on what to do if she spoke because she never did.
“Lions.” She said again. “So majestic and proud. Handsome. Like you, Steven, you are a lion.”
I do not know how to respond. I am stunned that she can tell me my name. She had a stroke when I was two years old. Twenty years had passed and I thought she had forgotten it.
“I loved a lion once. Handsome, kind, protective, he would do anything for me.” My Granddad died some years ago, I do not remember him at all. I always wondered if it was the stress of losing him that caused the stroke. “You look just like him.” She turned to face me and looked deep in to my eyes. “Your mother took after me, so no one would know. But you are the lion. It’s a shame I was married to the gorilla at the time, but what can you do? He never found out.”