“I think they’re trying to kill me,” June whispered to her friend Irene. “They keep giving me tablets. But I’m canny. I hide them under my tongue, then spit them out.” She winked and tapped a wrinkled, bony finger against the side of her nose.
Irene shook her head and smiled. After almost two years, she was well-used to June’s outrageous tales.
“Time for your medication, June,” a cheery voice rang out from behind them.
“No thank you,” June said firmly, “I don’t think it agrees with me.”
Sue, the trainee carer, smiled uncertainly. She had only been working at the care home for the past two weeks, and was still trying to acquaint herself with the idiosyncrasies of its residents.
Irene gave the young girl a sympathetic smile. “Perhaps she could have it later,” she suggested.
“Come on now June, it’s for your own good,” Sue said, trying to sound more assertive. “You don’t want to get me into trouble, do you?” she added, as she released the brake on June’s chair.
“Hey, what are you doing? I said no,” June protested. Then as Sue began to wheel her from the lounge, called out, “Remember what I said, Irene.”
Irene watched her go then looked around the room and sighed. June was her closest friend at Sunny Daze Care Home. They had bonded almost immediately, sharing a lively sense of humour and a love of television murder mysteries. So many of the other residents seemed to spend much of the day sleeping, with some even falling asleep in mid-conversation.
The communal lounge reminded Irene of an old-fashioned hotel, with its floral wallpaper and occasional chairs and tables, thoughtfully placed to allow intimate conversations between groups of two or three. Stan and Cyril were animatedly watching the horse racing on the large flat-screen television, although not having access to real cash, they had placed their bets using Monopoly money. Irene knew from experience that they would resent anyone disturbing them before their programme had finished. Mary and Pam had both fallen asleep in their chairs, while Betty and Nancy were complaining about the food as usual.
“Always mashed potato,” Irene heard Betty say.
“Couldn’t tell if it was meat or fish under that bit of sauce,” Nancy said.
When Irene first arrived at Sunny Daze, things were very different. Daily activities were provided, such as singing groups, arts and crafts, and flower arranging. Unfortunately, a lack of funds meant that cuts had to be made. The only entertainment now was the weekly bingo, or watching television.
There was a book club which one of the carers had started which Irene had eagerly joined; she had always loved reading. Sadly though, over the last few months her eyesight had gradually deteriorated, so that now she found it difficult even to read large print books.
Irene was bored, and without June’s company her boredom was even more acute. There were often days she felt as if her life was slowly slipping away. With some difficulty, she pulled herself up from her armchair – she wasn’t supposed to stand up unaided but would sometimes forget this – and moved cautiously, with the aid of her walker, closer to the large window where she took a seat looking out into the garden. She loved to go outside in the summer. Something which was encouraged by the staff.
“Probably because fresh air doesn’t cost anything,” she had once said wickedly to June.
Sitting alone, Irene recalled her childhood and how she had been sent away to boarding school. She had been homesick at first, often crying herself to sleep at night, until eventually she began to make friends with some of the other girls. It had been the same when she first came to Sunny Daze; she had hated it, until she met June.
Her family had sent her here as well, although this time it was her children rather than her parents. It was strange to feel that once again she had no control over her life. “I suppose that’s why they call it a second childhood,” she thought.
It seemed to Irene that her children had little time for her now that she was here. Elizabeth, her youngest, lived in Germany, and came back to visit only once or twice a year. Her son Andrew worked in London and had a very busy life, although he did find time to phone her occasionally. At least her eldest daughter Alice would visit her each week, although she no longer brought the grandchildren with her, much to Irene’s disappointment.
“They find it too depressing,” Alice had eventually admitted.
“So do I,” Irene had replied.
June did not reappear until breakfast the next day, and was not as talkative as usual.
“Is everything alright?” Irene asked her. “Did you have a bad night?” She was alarmed to see June’s eyes fill with tears, and not wanting to upset her further, she silently patted her hand then continued with her breakfast.
Later, in the empty lounge June revealed the reason for her distress.
“Oh Irene, it was awful,” her voice quavered. “That nurse, Brenda, she stood over me to make sure I swallowed my pills. She said she knew I’d been spitting them out. And that if I didn’t take them this time, she would have to force me.”
“What!” Irene was instantly indignant, but then asked uncertainly, “Surely she was just joking?”
“That’s what she tried to make out, when I said I’d report her. But you weren’t there, Irene. You didn’t hear her voice or see the look on her face. I tell you, I was really frightened.”
Irene gripped her friend’s hand, telling her sternly, “Now June, I don’t think it’s good for you to get yourself so worked up. It’s just that they know how important your medication is for you.”
June snorted with derision. “That’s just what they say.” Then, looking directly at her friend, she asked, “Who d’you think snitched?”
“The things you come out with!” Irene sat back in her chair, and gave a forced laugh. “I’m sure they’re not really trying to poison you. Why would they?”
“Why don’t you believe me? What d’you think happened to Jim? They never explained that. And then there was Doris…she died suddenly,” June added triumphantly.
“I don’t think you’re taking this seriously,” June said, exasperated by her friend’s response. “It would suit my family perfectly if I was out of the way. I’m just a nuisance. An expensive nuisance.”
“Of course you’re not. Don’t be silly now.”
“I thought you were my friend,” June complained.
“I am your friend June. Of course I am,” Irene said, her voice shaky.
She reached out to lay her hand on June’s lap, but withdrew it quickly when June said crossly, “Just leave me be.”
On hearing the commotion, one of the staff had entered the room and asked if everything was alright. “Can you take me back to my room please,” June asked her. “I don’t feel very well.”
Watching as June was taken from the room, Irene became aware that she was trembling. She hated any kind of confrontation.
But surely, she thought, June was just letting her imagination run away with her, even more than usual.
After all, she had only been acting in her friend’s best interests when she had spoken with Brenda.
Irene gazed outside, watching the birds on the feeder which hung from a small ornamental cherry tree.
Could it possibly be true that Brenda had spoken to June in that way? Irene pondered for a while over whether she should report what June had told her, but then decided it was probably best to not get involved.
That night Irene dreamt of her boarding school. She was asleep in her bed in the First-Year dormitory when a sudden commotion awoke her. It was still dark but she could hear urgent whispering and muffled squeals. With her heart pounding and her mouth dry Irene, pretending to be asleep, watched through her lashes as the older girls trussed up her best friend Annabel and dragged her from the room.
She never found out what they did to her friend. Annabel must have been too terrified to talk of it, and Irene never dared to admit that she knew.
When she awoke the next morning, she thought about Annabel and the way in which her own guilt had soured their friendship. She was determined not to let that happen again. She would be more supportive of her friend this time; she would report Brenda’s behaviour to the manager.
June’s normal place at breakfast was empty, but this wasn’t unusual as some mornings she would take it in her room. Irene also wondered if perhaps she was still sulking. However, when June still hadn’t appeared in the lounge by nearly ten thirty, Irene was sure something must be wrong.
“I’m afraid June passed away last night,” Sue said softly, in response to Irene’s question.
Irene gasped, her eyes filling with sudden tears.
“It was very peaceful,” Sue told her, giving her a hug. “Are you okay, Irene?” she asked, on hearing her sob.
Irene turned away, telling her, “I just want to be left on my own please.”
Sue hesitated, then left to return to her duties.
Sitting in her favourite seat by the window, Irene barely noticed the birds as she looked out at the garden. She fiddled with the beads of her necklace as she thought about June, wondering how she would cope without her friend’s company. The long days here would now drag on even longer.
As she replayed their last conversation together, anyone watching her would have thought that she seemed to be crumpling inwards. Was it all her fault, she wondered. Had she again let down a friend? She had always dismissed June’s stories, but now… it just seemed too much of a coincidence. Should she say something to the manager? She didn’t want to interfere or be accused of making trouble like June always was… had been, she corrected herself, sadly.
Perhaps it would be best to tell her daughter Alice, next time she visited.
“Hello Irene.” Startled, Irene turned to find Brenda smiling at her.
“Time for your medication now.”