The manager welcomed us in with a beaming smile that never left her face. We plastered smiles on ours. She introduced us to residents. We said hello and immediately forgot their names. It smelled in that place, not unpleasant, but the smell of many people living closely together; old food and new cooking, dust and detergent, aftershave and floor cleaner, bathrooms and bodies and bed pans and bandages.
The place bustled with activity like a chaotic household: TV noise blared out from every room. Care attendants rattled trolleys up and down the narrow passage way. A young man in a tracksuit walked by clapping. A large woman with a wheeled walker moaned rhythmically, contentedly as she passed us by.
We trooped down the corridor behind the manager, my brother carrying Dad’s old leather bag. The room was stale and anonymous. Walls a dull yellow. A small window with net curtains looked out onto nothing much. Furniture was sparse and utilitarian, a bed, a built-in wardrobe, a small TV cabinet, two chairs. We sat, stunned, making small talk, putting on a brave face, wanting to throw up.
The smiling manager brought us tea and cake on mismatched crockery. Hunks of crumbly yellow cake, burnt around the edges. She talked and talked, smiling and jolly. She was kind; Dad was in good hands. She was a true believer. The joyful environment was due to the Presence of God in This Place. The cake stuck in my throat. I slurped the tea, weak and milky.
We put Dad’s clothes in the cupboard. Cool cotton shirts, now labelled with his name, lovingly ironed by his wife of nearly fifty years, hung on a motley collection of coat hangers where other people’s clothes had once hung. I ran my hand over his tweedy grey and green jacket, stiff as a carpet. We’d brought jumpers too; the soft warm grey pullover and that navy one too. I pressed my face to them and breathed in the scent of him before releasing them to rest on the cheap chipboard shelf.
It was time to go. We stood, uncertain, unable to look at Dad. Then we plaster back on our fake smiles and mimic the manager, cheerfully waving goodbye as a carer directs Dad to the dining room.