I was relieved to be back in England but only because I could speak the language. Reluctantly, I went back to my temporary work agency and within a day or two, I was assigned to "look after" an elderly lady called Max. That wasn't her real name but it was what she wanted everyone to call her. She was ninety-three years old and had stubbornly refused to move into a Rest Home, at her family's request. As a compromise, I was to live with her, cook dinner, and do the odd job around the house. She didn't mind the intrusion too much especially after she learned that I was from New Zealand and had obviously done some traveling.
"I did some traveling too," she said one day smiling inwardly at the memories that flashed before her. "I was eighteen and I ran away," she chortled. "Just me and my nanny."
"Oh I suppose you would call her a governess really. She was nice but quite afraid. We caught the Trans-Siberian railway from Moscow to China. I don't remember why we were going there but I do remember being a little afraid of the bandits. They were rife throughout Mongolia."
I fell in love with Max. Every afternoon, we'd settle down in the lounge after "supper" and armed with world maps, pens, and copious amounts of paper, we planned a similar Trans-Siberian railway trip for me. Crosses on the map indicated the likely whereabouts of those pesty bandits.
Agency assignments like looking after Max were always for a maximum of three weeks. As it was deemed to be 24/7, they transferred you after you did "your time," gave you two weeks off and then looked for another placement. When my three weeks were up with Max, I begged the Agency to reconsider and lengthen my stay. I didn't mind that I had no free time or that I went to bed at 6pm. I enjoyed Max so much, I would have wanted to have stayed forever. The Agency relented but after six weeks, they pulled the plug.
The morning I was suppose to leave, Max sat in her comfy lounge chair and called me over to her. "How about I go live with my daughter in Bristol?" she asked. This is was bolt out of the blue. I knew Max wanted dearly to remain in the home that she had know all her life, where her children had played, grown up, where her husband slept and , eventually died, and where many nights of entertaining friends had been. I had sat through many family discussions where her daughter had promoted her new home in Bristol - with it's one bedroom apartment downstairs and even an interval elevator in case Max wanted to eat with the family. I watched as Max shook her head every time her daughter tried to persuade her to leave home.
"And you my dear can come live with me there."
It was as simple as that. Max and I were off to Bristol. She settled into her little flat downstairs and I had a room at the top of the house. Every morning, I would have breakfast with her and every afternoon, we got the maps out. The only real difference for me was the family were now paying my wage - like for like with the Agency only I was to finished work at 5pm every night with weekends off. It was a dream come true.
Three days into our shift and Max was transferred to hospital. She wasn't one to complain but I got scared. She'd refused to let me bathe her and at the same time, I noticed a huge lump protruding from under her ribs and told her daughter - secretly. I felt like the biggest traitor when she was transferred to hospital and could hardly look her in the eye when I went into her room and saw her stubbornly sitting in chair, refusing to lay in what she considered a "death bed." She clutched her handbag to her chest as if those bandits were just around the corner.
I don't remember the details of the Doctor's conversation but I do remember seeing her daughter sit opposite and nod her head at the inevitable news that Max was dying. The only word that uttered my mouth was "No!" and it came out sounding like someone who'd stood on a cat's tail. "No!" I said it again as if that one word could change everything.
"How long are we talking?" asked the daughter.
The doctor hesitated. "A week? Maybe a few days?"
I flew out the room and stormed off to Max's room, stealing an abandoned wheelchair along the way. Her eyes were wide open as I flung open the door. "Come on you, I'm getting you out of here."
Max's eyes lit up and she lumbered into the wheelchair. "But I only have a nightgown on dear." I rummaged through her overnight bag that still laid unpacked on the bed and grabbed a jumper. Standing over her, with tears threatening to explode, I gingerly draped the jumper around her shoulders and did the first button up, like a cap.
"Done," I said triumphantly.
Max was comfortable. Her cap was on. Her handbag strapped to her chest. She started laughing like a youthful child. "I say, this is exciting. Where we going?"
"Dunno Max. I'm just breaking you out of here."
Her daughter met us in the hallway, caught onto the idea, and played along. "I'll get the bags and meet you out front," she said, forcing a smile. Max was...well, Max was delighted. She leaned forward in the wheelchair as we neared corners to check no one was there before giving me the "tally-ho" signal to push her towards the exit. She was beside herself with laughter as the getaway car screeched to a halt and I all but threw Max into the back seat.
"I knew there were bandits," she said as we drove home.
Max never spoke again.
On the night she died, I was upstairs in the kitchen. I was preparing one of her favorite dishes. Not much of an effort really - raw, thinly sliced salmon. If I could get her to eat some of it, that is. I was just about to turn around and head for the stairs to her room when something, I don't know what, stopped me and everyone in that room - Max's daughter, all her grandchildren and some friends from decades ago all held their breath. I dropped the plate and fell to my knees. I knew she'd gone. It was less than a week since the shift from her home.
The day of the funeral, her daughter called me into her room. "Mum left this for you," she said, handing me an original diary of Max's escape on the Trans-Siberian railway. "And she wanted you to have this too."
I opened the big brown bag and pulled out a full length fur coat with a note attached. "Keep warm."
...to be continued.