Read on for an exclusive extract from ‘The Old Girls’ Network’ by Judy Leigh.
The Old Girls’ Network
Barbara thought she must be dead. She could remember exactly what had happened, right up to the last second. She was rushing up the path to the little terraced house, fixing her sights on the familiar green door, number eighty-six. Then she recalled feeling strange, a little bit as if she had floated above her own head for a moment, or was hovering outside her body. She wobbled, the dizziness a thick haze behind her eyes as she stared at the smooth paint of the front door, leaning forward to steady herself. Then she slipped. The earth fell away, the sky turned upside down, and the air seemed to whirl from within her, emptying her lungs.
Dying wasn’t as painful as she’d imagined it would be, and she didn’t feel the bump when the back of her head hit the stone step as she toppled down three more to the ground. Dying was surprisingly easy, in fact: it was just the regret she felt, the sense of missed opportunities, as she tumbled. Her eyes rolled back in her head and that was it. She’d had a fairly long life, but she hadn’t done nearly enough with it. She was glad that she’d served for most of her working life as a secretary in the Air Force. She was proud of the order and rigour she’d brought to the job. And she’d never broken the law or been in debt. Barbara’s life had been exemplary. Spotless even. But it had all been a bit dull, that was the problem. She’d never behaved badly enough. She’d seldom taken risks. She had never really let go, danced on tables, shouted from the depths of her lungs in quiet libraries. She’d never taken life by the throat, flirted with danger, or even flirted with men. She was a spinster, for goodness sake. But at least she wasn’t a virgin. That would have been too hard to bear at the final gasp.
Of course, Barbara knew that, had she lived, she’d never have become a wild party animal; she wouldn’t have become the centre of attention, the admired ringleader – she wouldn’t even have been very popular. So what was her biggest regret? She had no family of her own now, no one except her sister. In a flash, like her life tumbling before her eyes, Barbara knew she hadn’t been a good sibling: she’d never really defended Pauline, looked out for her or even spent quality time with her. She wasn’t sure she even liked her very much. Perhaps that was her biggest regret. But it was too late now that she was dead. Death would be a great disappointment, though. She wasn’t ready to go yet, and she’d only just realised it.
She’d had all the warning signs beforehand and ignored them, in her usual determined, obstinate way. Three weeks ago, she’d been a little light-headed and breathless when running up the stairs. She’d had to hang on to the walls, almost knocking down her favourite photo of herself, smiling in uniform, posed at her desk aged twenty-six. Her hair had been a mass of fashionable curls tied back, restrained beneath the cap; her body slim inside the smart uniform.
Then, a fortnight ago, she’d been desperate to take off on the two-week early spring break to Suffolk with Green Sage Holidays. But it had all been far too stressful. The coach trip had been dull and stuffy, most pairs of seats occupied by retired couples; she’d had nothing to interest her during the journey except a frivolous book and the pointless chatter of the driver over the microphone. The hotel had been plain and lacklustre, the food bland, as bland as the other holiday makers. All those sedentary pensioners with their afternoon cups of weak tea, listening to Frankie Vaughan singing songs about the moonlight, and their non-stop chatter about knitting patterns when she’d wanted to go outside in the brisk air, hiking along the coastal paths.
Barbara wondered what she had been expecting, but the holiday hadn’t delivered anything. She’d set out in the early morning wind and trekked along a muddy path for three miles, dragging a complete stranger behind her, a poor woman called Dorothy, who moaned about her bunions and about being a widow and how hard it was to go on holiday alone. Barbara had to turn back long before she was ready.
Barbara might be seventy-seven, but there was life in the old girl yet. And yet, suddenly, sadly, now there wasn’t. She had slipped down the steps in a faint, a suitcase in each hand, her heart beating too fast and then – nothing. White lights blazed above her. Blindingly white, like the angels at Damascus. Heaven? Surely not – Barbara didn’t believe in heaven, so of course it didn’t exist. White ceilings. A person in shining white clothes, with a halo around her head. Barbara groaned. ‘Who are you? Where am I?’
A firm voice replied. ‘Try to rest. You’re in the hospital, Mrs Harvey.’
‘Miss,’ Barbara grunted and fell back into drowsiness. At least she wasn’t dead, not yet.
When she opened her eyes, she was aware of a young man in a white coat moving around the room. He was writing something on a clipboard, peering across at her slyly. Barbara called out, ‘Hello.’ She was surprised at how croaky her voice sounded. She tried to sit up, and immediately she felt better. She tried her voice again, deliberately adding boom to it. ‘Are you a nurse?’
She frowned at the young man. He couldn’t be more than twenty: he still had teenage spots on his cheeks. He had dark hair, large ears, and huge hazel eyes. She couldn’t read his name badge. He coughed and murmured something back. Barbara had no idea what he’d just said. ‘Speak up, can’t you, young man?’ Her voice had almost regained its resonance.
‘The doctor is come soon,’ he muttered in an accent which could have been Italian or Spanish, and then he shuffled away. Barbara put a hand to her head. There was a rounded bump on the crown, a tender spot, presumably where she’d fallen. Her shoulder ached a little, but otherwise she felt fine. She gazed around her. She was in a small hospital room. Overhead there were fluorescent lights, blinding white against a blank ceiling. The paint on the walls was pale and grubby. Next to her bed there was a cabinet with shelves. She wriggled around in the bed to see if there was anything of interest in the rest of the room. There wasn’t. She breathed out. At least she wasn’t in a populated ward. She had been in hospital once before, in 1953, to have her tonsils out. She had been thirteen; they’d put her in a ward full of sallow ancient women, all trussed up like Egyptian mummies. She had hated it.
She pushed back the starched sheet which held her body tight as a shroud, and swung her legs across the bed, testing her feet against the floor. She felt better. The dizziness had gone. She glanced down at herself; her bony arms stuck out from a pale night dress, a flimsy one that had seen better days and wasn’t even fit for a jumble sale. It had small white flowers on it, the print a relief in the pale blue material. Barbara thought it was ghastly and raked the room with her eyes for her own clothes. She sighed, a sharp, irritated exhaling of breath: her clothing was presumably folded away in the shelved cabinet, probably not tidy and certainly unwashed. She fixed her eyes on a sash window, heaved herself up and away from the bed and moved across the room to look outside.
The window frame was dingy, the paint chipped. She gazed out, across at buildings, roofs: a supermarket sprawled on the other side of the road and cars were crawling along, stopping at red traffic lights and inching forwards. She assumed she must be on the third floor. The sky was pale grey, sombre and cloudless, a cold March day. She folded her arms and sighed again. She longed for some fresh air. The room was too warm and unbearably stuffy.
The door opened behind her and a woman walked in, wearing a white coat, her light brown hair clipped back into a roll behind her head. She was fair skinned, freckled, probably in her thirties. She gestured to the end of the bed. Barbara sat down facing her and said ‘Hello.’
The woman in the white coat didn’t smile. She had a serious frowning face. ‘Mrs Harvey?’
Barbara didn’t smile either. ‘I’m Miss Harvey. I can’t abide this “Ms” business. It’s neither one thing nor the other, is it? Are you a doctor? When can I go home?’
The doctor clipped the stethoscope into her ears and approached Barbara, making a soft humming noise and muttering, ‘I’m Dr North, and I’m here to check you over,’ then pulling the low neck of her blue robe to one side, listening to her heart beat. Barbara was unimpressed. The doctor hadn’t asked permission or even spoken to her properly. She forced her lips together in a grimace.
‘I’m perfectly well, Doctor. I don’t know what I’m doing here. This is just a waste of both our time.’
Dr North frowned, put slim fingers to Barbara’s wrist and seemed thoughtful. She picked up the clipboard and turned to one side.
Barbara said, ‘Well? I’m waiting, Doctor. When can I go home?’
The doctor met her eyes. ‘You are in your late seventies. You’ve had a fall. You were suffering from hypotension.’
‘I agree with you on the first two counts, Doctor. I know how old I am, and I know I had a tumble. Why don’t you just tell me that I’m all right now and I’ll go straight home?’
‘I’m afraid that’s not possible yet. There are many reasons for low blood pressure. We need to run a few tests.’
Barbara leaned forward, chin thrust out, as if she was about to argue with someone who had sold her shoddy goods. ‘What reasons? What tests?’
The doctor’s face remained impassive. She clearly lacked the ability to feel any emotions. Barbara thought she should be able to show empathy, at least, in her job. She wished she wasn’t wearing the silly pale robe. She’d be more dignified in clothes and certainly the doctor would be able to tell that she wasn’t to be argued with if she had on a tailored suit and some court shoes, her hair properly brushed and not flattened at both sides by the pressure of the pillow.
‘Hmmm.’ Dr North was thoughtful. Barbara folded her arms. For the first time, the doctor met her eyes. ‘You had a fall, Barbara. It has to be checked out thoroughly. At any age, but particularly with the elderly.’ She ignored Barbara’s glare. ‘We have to make sure there are no underlying factors: heart problems, endocrine problems.’
‘My heart is fine. And my endocrine system functions perfectly. I’d been on holiday, overdoing things a bit. Now I’m back I can put my feet up.’ The doctor was paying no attention, so Barbara tried again. ‘I can sit at home drinking tea and reading pointless romance novels.’
‘Is there any one at home who can be on hand? A partner? Children?’
‘I have no children, Doctor,’ Barbara said between clenched teeth. ‘And as for a partner, I loathe dancing. If you mean, do I have a husband or do I live in sin with a man or a woman, the answer is no, I’m by myself.’ Doctor North’s face remained immobile so Barbara added, ‘I prefer it that way,’ just for clarity.
The doctor nodded, like she was dismissing an irritating child. ‘We’ll run a few tests. You’ll be here for a couple of days. Is there anyone we can contact?’
Barbara thought of Pauline, how she might panic, take the first train from Somerset and then fly into the waiting room, all fumbling fingers and flushed cheeks, her voice high and shrieking, flapping her elbows like a chicken and causing an unnecessary fuss.
‘No. No one at all.’
The doctor nodded again and moved to the door, pressing the handle, then she was gone and Barbara was alone. She stared down at her bare feet, the long legs dangling below the hemline of the thin robe. She put her hand to her face and felt her skin, normal, a little dry, slightly warm. She fingered the slate grey curls, once raven black, cut sensibly to cover her ears, the soft fringe, the tiny pearl earrings. She was stuck in hospital, with nothing to look forward to except routine tests which she was sure would tell her what she knew already. She’d been too busy and yes, perhaps she needed a rest. But there was nothing at all wrong with her. She was fine. And, thank goodness, she was definitely not dead, although she’d feared she had been when she’d stumbled.
Barbara remained on the bed for a moment, stretching out her calves, considering her options. She felt hungry. And a cup of tea would be nice. She’d stay in the hospital, tolerate the pointless tests and then she’d make some plans. She had already thought about what she needed to do; she’d decided the moment she had fallen down outside the green door of her home, number eighty-six. This was her life and it needed taking by the throat. She had things to do, to resolve, to put right. She wasn’t sure exactly how she would do it yet, but she would make plans. She’d have time to think about it over the next two days.
She found the bell at the end of the wire by the side of the bed and she pressed it hard. Soon a nurse would come running in, perhaps the young man with the teenage acne. She pressed again, allowing the bell to buzz for a long time. She hoped he’d know where she could find a decent cup of tea.
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