Rob had first seen Elsie almost as soon as he’d started working up at The Lawns, a slight figure gazing out of a ground floor window. It was a big contract, landscaping and replanting the grounds of a sheltered housing complex and it would take at least six weeks his boss said, getting the place looking nice before spring. Rob enjoyed jobs like this, staying in one place for a while and seeing the transformation at the end of it.
His first task had been clearing the ground in front of one of the accommodation blocks, and when he’d straightened up from digging to stretch out his back she’d been there, watching. Her bright scarf had caught his eye even through the glass, and when he looked more closely he could see that all her clothes were unusual, an exotic array of rich colours and fabrics. He was no expert, but it wasn’t the drab skirt and cardigan that most of the other old ladies seemed to wear. And nor did the other ladies wear jewellery like that, or have a cloud of long white hair.
Rob only ever saw her at that same window though, she was never walking in the grounds, or sitting in the lounge when he went inside to the canteen for a coffee. After a week or so he asked one of the staff about the lady in the window.
“Oh that’ll be Elsie” the nurse smiled, “amazing clothes and dripping with jewels?”
“Yes that’s right,” Rob sipped his drink, “what’s her story? She’s always at that window but I never see her anywhere else..”
“She hardly ever leaves her room, and do you know she never speaks?”
The nurse put down her own coffee cup, glad of the chance to tell the tale.
“Well I’ve been here five years and never heard her say a word. She was a theatrical type, singing on the stage, and even made a couple of films I heard. Apparently,” she leaned in towards Rob and lowered her voice for full effect, “she got married, her husband made her give it all up and then not long after he dropped down dead. She came here about eight years ago.”
Rob began to make a point of walking past Elsie’s window, even though he was now working on the other side of the grounds. Feeling rather foolish he would smile at her and even give a little wave. Somehow he felt sure she was watching for him, even though she never gave any sign of recognition.
The days started to lengthen and winter’s chill was fading. They had taken delivery of a mountain of new plants from the local nursery and there were only the last finishing touches of landscaping work to go.
Rob couldn’t really say why, but the silent lady was still in his thoughts. There were parallels with his beloved Deanna of course. She had disappeared from public view after her marriage and moved to France, but somehow that always seemed a happy outcome while Elsie looked so sad.
He had a kind heart, and he couldn’t stand to think of Elsie alone, the only resident who never had a visitor according to his informant. Nurse Campbell now sought him out at coffee time, happy to have someone new to talk to, until finally Rob asked her if he could visit Elsie. Later that same afternoon Rob took two mugs of tea into the day room and approached the small table where the old lady was sitting, taken there by Nurse Campbell after lunch. She watched him silently with still bright eyes as he put down a plate of chocolate biscuits.
“Help yourself,” he said, but she didn’t move.
“My name is Robert,” he began awkwardly. He began to feel as if he was intruding, but he decided to put aside his misgivings and sitting down opposite Elsie he began to chat.
He told her about the gardening work, the new footpaths and flowerbeds he was creating, but she didn’t seem to hear him, staring unseeing into the middle distance. Then he tried something different.
“I hear you were a singer Mrs Crawford, back in the days when there were proper singers, not like nowadays.” Still nothing but he persevered.
“Deanna Durbin’s my favourite. I’ve loved her since I was twelve,” Rob frowned at the table, picking at a sticky mark with his thumbnail, “I used to imagine I was Franchot Tone…”
He tailed off into embarrassed silence and then looked up. Two bright blue eyes were now fixed on his. She was listening, he was sure of it.
Rob carried on talking, about his favourite films and songs, his Gran, and his record collection. Eventually he’d drunk his tea and eaten most of the biscuits. Elsie had touched neither, but her gaze had not wavered until a member of staff suddenly bustled past rattling a tray of crockery. Then she immediately seemed to retreat back into herself and the blue eyes looked vacant again, but Rob knew he’d got through to her.
Final instalment next week…