After dinner I put the dishwasher on and think nothing of it, but the moment I do Joyce stands, and without saying a word leaves the kitchen. I figure she’s just going to the toilet or something, so I put the kettle on to make some coffee, but when she’s not back by the time it’s boiled I start to wonder where she’s got to. I call her name, but get nothing, so I go to the living room then the dining room then upstairs – I remember the muffled thump of her feet on the stairs, behind the hum and shush of the dishwasher.
Eventually, after going to our room, the bathroom and the upstairs toilet, I find her in the spare bedroom hiding behind an armchair. I say, hey, what are you up to, though it’s obvious. I go on: it’s not the washing machine, you know. There’s no spin cycle. Or I don’t think there’s one. Nothing like the one on the washing machine anyway.
She nods. It’s okay. I know. I think I’ll stay here anyway.
I shrug. Do you want some coffee then? I can bring some up.
She says, yes, that would be nice, so I go and make some and bring it up to her with a chocolate digestive. Thought you might like to dunk.
She produces a weak smile. Thank you.
I think about joining her on the floor, then say: Anyway, I’ll be downstairs if you need me.
The next day I put the washing machine on – the laundry basket’s full – and the moment it begins to hum I hear Joyce leave the living room and the chair she spends her days in, and go upstairs. I make her a tea and cut her a slice of fruit cake. She thanks me.
– Would you like your book or something?
– Yes, that would be nice. It’s by my chair.
– I know.
That evening after dinner I clear the table and fill the dishwasher. When I finish I say: you might want to go upstairs now.
– Do you want your book? I can bring you a coffee and a biscuit too, if you like.
– It’s okay. The book’s on the armchair. I’m tired, though. I don’t think I’ll read.
I put the dishwasher tablet in the little compartment thing on the door and slam the door shut.
– I can bring the TV through from the bedroom, if you like. There’s a plug by the armchair. There’ll be no problem with reception or anything.
Joyce looks surprised. Are you sure?
– Well only if it’s not too much bother. I’m fine just sitting behind the armchair.
– It’s no bother at all, and I get the TV and set it up while she hides behind the chair.
When I’m finished, I get her a coffee and a chocolate mint.
– Now don’t say I never do anything for you.
She looks shocked. I’d never say that. You know that, don’t you?
The next day I wake early and decide to wash the bedclothes. I get up, go through to the spare bedroom, put some cushions and a blanket behind the armchair, and get an extra electric heater out of the loft. In the kitchen, I toast a couple slices of bread, spread marmalade on them, make a pot of tea and take it all through to the spare room on a tray. When Joyce wakes, I tell her the bed needs stripping and that I’m going to put a wash on, if you want to go to the spare room. She goes through and immediately smiles.
– Don, you shouldn’t have.
I shrug – it’s nothing really – and she goes to hide behind the armchair.
When she’s settled I strip the bed, go downstairs with the sheets, duvet cover and pillow cases, put them in the washing machine and turn it on. I make some coffee for myself, sit at the kitchen table and watch the drum of the machine go round and round. I take a sip of the coffee, pull the mug away from my face, stare at the muddy brown liquid in the cup, put it back on the table, and wait for it to cool. Then I pick it up, and as gently as I can spill it onto my shirt and trousers.