Betty stared sightlessly out of the window of her room in Glebe Court. Decades of having neglected her failing eyesight had left her in a world peopled only by moving shadows tinted in faded brown hues. Whenever her son Leon had pleaded with her to allow one of the best eye surgeons in the country, possibly in the whole world, to at least have a look at her, her jaws tightened, her thin lips became even thinner and her predictable refusal came in the form of a Yiddish expression to the effect that she would rather die like a dog than let one of those money-grubbing pigs lay a finger on her.
Now she had passed the point of no return and the lights had been permanently dimmed. Leon knew that behind her ferocity lay a lifelong phobia of surgery. She had once regaled him with an account of how a distant cousin, a dear little girl, had undergone an operation for a minor condition, a tonsillectomy or something of the kind, and had succumbed under the anaesthetic. Betty had generalised from this tragic event to construct a scenario in which doctors were never to be trusted with the human body. Reasonable argument had been denied entry. Subject closed.
Meanwhile, Old Mother Time had crept up on Betty. She was now deep into her eighties and the moment had come for her to move into a residential care home. Glebe Court was perfect in every respect except one – it was not her son’s home. As always, she fought this battle with superhuman strength but even the Emperor Napoleon had met his Waterloo and Glebe Court was Betty’s Waterloo.
Helpless against the forces of destiny, Betty railed against her son, deploying her extensive vocabulary of Yiddish invective, but in vain. Having been made to settle in her new accommodation she lapsed into a grim, taciturn state. But this was selective. To the care staff, whom she vilified behind their backs, she was all sweetness and light. Her son, however, was nothing but a ‘schlechter‘ (a bad person). ‘You’ve put me in this concentration camp’, she said to him. ‘Now you must get me out of here. Immediately!’
Having failed to convince her son to liberate her from the hell on earth to which he had consigned her, Betty had recourse to other wiles. Foolishly, Leon had once mentioned to her that he had a friend, a certain Dr Morris Greenblatt, who worked at the same hospital as himself. One day Dr Greenblatt approached him. ‘I’ve had a phone-call from your mother’, he said with a smile. ‘She tells me she’s being held against her will in a residential home and she wants me to take action.’ Fortunately Dr Greenblatt and Leon had specialised in the same field and it took only a few minutes of discussion for Dr Greenblatt to nod sympathetically and reassure Leon that he fully understood his anguish and the mind-set of the would-be escapee. It turned out that Betty had importuned a passing member of staff to connect her up with her son’s hospital on the grounds that she had some important business to attend to with him. Where many others had failed, she had managed to reach the eminent consultant on his direct line.
‘She’s quite a character, your mum’, said the matron. ‘She brightens our day’. But Leon never saw that side of her and dreaded every visit. Hellos and goodbyes had never been part of her daily repertoire. Now, whenever he came to see her, she would squint up at him, trying in vain to get him into focus. ‘Is that you, Jack? Simon? Joey?’, she would ask, running through the names of far distant and long departed relatives. As soon as Leon had declared himself, the tirade would begin: he had killed her; he had put her in her grave; he must get her out of that pigsty at once; no son would treat a mother like that, and so on and so forth.
On a better day she would plead with him to bring her one of her favourite snacks, a ‘blob’ of cheddar cheese. I can’t eat the ‘chazerai’ (pig-feed) they dish out’, she would say. But observing her out of the corner of his eye he noticed that she ate her meals with relish.
If Betty had had her way she would have spent her days and nights sequestered in her room, but the care staff insisted that she had to join the other residents in the communal lounge even though she had no inclination to socialise. Soon she had her own favourite armchair in which she could alternately doze and observe the comings and goings of others.
One day, Betty’s curiosity about her surroundings prompted her to inspect the lounge more closely. She began walking around the room, peering at the people in their armchairs, pausing now and then to examine them more closely, like the queen visiting an exhibition. In the far corner stood an ancient upright piano, its lid open, its keys chipped and yellow with age. Betty sat down on the piano stool, flexed her fingers a few times and began to play. After warming up with a few scales and arpeggios she paused. Then the rich harmonies of a Beethoven sonata began to resonate through the care home.
The effect was magical. Staff stopped what they were doing as if under a spell. Residents rose from their chairs and slowly converged on the piano. Betty played on, oblivious of her audience. After the closing chords had sounded there was a stunned silence, followed by hearty clapping and the clattering of walking sticks against Zimmer frames. Betty looked up. ‘This piano is badly in need of tuning’, she remarked. And on that note, she bade farewell to her pianistic career. No amount of cajoling or pleading on the part of staff, residents or her son could persuade her to repeat the recital.
When, some years later, Betty finally made her escape from her earthly prison, the matron spoke a few words of condolence to her son. ‘Your mother was an amazing woman,’ she said. ‘She was a strong character and she had many talents, but she was an extremely secretive person.’
Leon sighed. ‘I know,’ he said.