Everybody needs good neighbours

This is a short story of my neighbour, her dog, her dementia, and a few other things.

My neighbour has dementia, or it might be Alzheimer’s. 

I am not sure how old she is, but when we moved in to the house next door to her ten years ago, I thought she was already old. 

This is the story of my neighbour’s dementia, her dog, and me, their neighbour. 

First things first. Before I go any further, I should give my neighbour a fake name, to protect everybody who needs protecting, even though in this scenario I feel it might be mainly me. I have spent a disproportionate amount of time googling old-fashioned names, and got bogged down in fascinating etymologies. Did you know that Stacey is a shortened version of the Russian name Anastasia, but also of Eustace, which is Greek. 

After a lengthy deliberation, I have settled on Ethel. You cannot get much older than Ethel. 

I first realised that everything was not quite right with Ethel a few months ago. I was about to get into my car one spring morning when I noticed Ethel on her doorstep, in her nightie, dressing gown and slippers, visibly upset. When she spotted me, she walked unsteadily towards me. 

-Excuse me, do you live here? Are you my neighbour? 
– Yes, Ethel, how are you? 
– Oh, good, you know my name. I want to ask you if you have seen my partner, Eduardo, this morning, perhaps he is in your house? 
– No, I didn’t, why, what happened? 
– Eduardo is my partner, whom I love very much, and I think he has left me. Naturally, I am very upset about it. If you see him, do you know him, have you met Eduardo? 
– Yes, Ethel, I know Eduardo.  
– Oh, good. Well, if you see him, please tell him that I miss him and I would like him to come back home. 
– Ok, Ethel, I will. 

With that she went back to her house. I bumped into Eduardo a couple of days later and asked him if he had been away recently. He said he had not, and then I told him about my encounter with Ethel. Eduardo looked mortified and exasperated. He apologised for Ethel, and added that she had been acting strangely of late.  He said he had gone out shopping that day, and was not going away anywhere. 

Eduardo had been Ethel’s unlikely life partner for many years. He looked younger than her, but that might have just been due to the cruelty of fate, which made women age quicker after a certain cut-off point. His English never progressed beyond basic survival skills. Ethel did not speak Spanish. Still, their relationship persevered. Either the sex or the cooking must have been phenomenal. Despite being well past retirement age, Eduardo continued to work at a Colombian restaurant in North London, a true home from home.

As it happened, Eduardo did not remain true to his word, and went back to Colombia in the summer. I saw him briefly before he left. He looked emotional and said something about needing a knee surgery, or rather he pointed to his knee and contorted his face in an impressive imitation of agonising pain. 

A few months before Eduardo went away, I asked him if he needed help caring for Ethel. Proud man as he was, he admitted he was struggling, having to juggle looking after her with holding a job in the restaurant, and doing all the house chores all by himself. I suggested referring Ethel to adult social services and he agreed. Nothing happened for considerably longer than the statutory 28 days, but eventually Ethel was assessed and declared suitable for at home assistance. 

A carer would visit Ethel three times a day for a wellbeing check. The visits were confusing for Ethel. She invariably greeted them with her bewilderment, as she could not understand, for the life of her, why they were there and what exactly they were meant to help her with. Whenever I visited Ethel, she referred to the carers as ‘these women who come to do something, but what exactly they are meant to do is beyond me. I don’t think they do any cleaning’. I could vouch to that; they did not do any cleaning. Ethel was not too bothered either way. The only problem which seemed to preoccupy her was how to deal with a gaping hole in her life made by Eduardo’s sudden departure. With no family or friends to visit her, Ethel’s loneliness was complete. 

Her basic needs were being met by the carers and the cheerful Meals on Wheels man bringing her unappetising, beige looking lunch and dinner, and by the dog walkers taking Jasper for a daily run in the park. The council’s money did not stretch to emotional needs and wishes. There were no funds available to secure happiness, contentment, and companionship.  

Ethel had a dog, Jasper, a terrier looking type of Jack Russell, I was not very good with dog breeds, there was no point in asking Ethel what breed he was, as she would only get needlessly frustrated by not knowing the answer to the question. I was not sure how old he was, and, again, there was no point asking Ethel, and there was nobody else to ask, so I would never know but he looked and acted young and energetic. Despite not being properly looked after since Eduardo had left, Jasper remained a trusting and loving pup. I began taking him for walks in the park on Sundays, the dog walkers’ day off. Every time I returned with Jasper, we went through the same routine. 

I rang the doorbell, and after a minute, Ethel’s high-pitched, slightly irritated voice enquired, who is it please? 

– It’s Ania and Jasper.
– Ah, Ania, and Jasper. Wait a minute, please, I will unlock the door for you. 

A familiar key-searching ritual followed. 

– I cannot seem to find my key. 
– Ethel, it’s probably in your bra. 

The door opened. Ethel was holding her landline handset next to her ear. She pressed it to her chest and beamed me a big smile. 

– I am on the phone to my partner, Eduardo, the man whom I love dearly, and who loves me, and who is currently in Colombia visiting relatives. He just called me and I am very happy that he called me, we’ve been chatting for a very long time. 

I smiled back at her. 

– Goodnight Ethel, I will see you tomorrow. 

I walked back home thinking that on the balance of probabilities or simply because life is a bitch, Eduardo did not call her, they had not been chatting for a very long time, and he no longer loved her dearly, if he ever had done. 

With time, Ethel’s confusion deepened. Every day was a struggle, a lonely battle against time, and against all the events which kept crowding around her, and of which she was less and less able to make sense. Eduardo was never absent from her thoughts. She mentioned him every time I saw her, telling me the same story of where he was and why he went there. According to her, Eduardo needed to go back to his country to deal with an urgent family matter. She did not divulge any details about the nature of that matter.

Despite her circumstances, whenever I visited her, Ethel sounded cheerful and upbeat, unnaturally so, laughing loudly at random moments in our conversations and finding unexpected things hilarious. 

I remember one exception, early on, on a mellow September Sunday. I had not seen the dog walkers pick up Jasper for a while, and so I went in that day with a mission to find out what was happening with that. Ethel and I sat down on the sofa in her living room and after the usual preliminaries when Ethel told me  that her partner Eduardo had gone back to Columbia to deal with an urgent family matter, I decided to discuss Jasper’s dog walkers. It did not go well.

-Ethel, I haven’t seen the dog walkers for a while, do you know why that is? Why they stopped coming? 

– The dog walkers stopped coming. Do I know why they stopped coming?  Is that what you are asking me?

– Yes, I am. Jasper needs to go out for walks and I don’t think…

– Who do you think you are? Who are you to come to my house to tell me what my dog needs?! 

– Ethel, I am only trying to help…

– Well, I don’t need your help! I never asked for your help. You keep coming into my house and you try to tell me what to do. I do not need your fucking help! 

The outburst came out of the blue, unprovoked and passionate.

– Ethel, I can see you are upset today, I think it will be better if I leave now, perhaps I’ll come back another…

I made a move to get up. 

— You are bloody right I am upset! You will fucking stay right where you are! Sit down! I will tell you when you can go! 

I sat down again. If Ethel aim was to sound menacing, she failed. I was bemused, but neither threatened, nor offended. I never felt more sorry for Ethel than at that moment. She was lashing out at the only person within earshot. I let her rant a bit longer, not entirely sure what to do or say next. 

The doorbell rang. ‘Saved by the bell’ flashed through my cliches-prone mind, and I tried to get up again,  but it was not to be. 

– Stay right where you are! It’s my house and I will decide when you go.  

The Meals on Wheels man brought Ethel a tray of semi-congealed brown goo, said a cheerful hello and goodbye and off he went. It did not occur to him to enquire whether this was a hostage situation. 

I learnt a valuable lesson that day, and never again had I attempted to discuss any problem with Ethel logically, or suggest a rational plan of action to solve it. 

I kept my distance for a few days, and when I went to see Ethel again, she was very happy to see me. 

Regular visits to Ethel’s house to take Jasper for his evening wee in the garden had started to take their toll. I remember one day, shortly before Halloween, I caught myself thinking that if I heard one more time about Eduardo, the man Ethel loved, and who loved her back, going to Columbia, where he was from, to deal with an urgent family matter, I might be pushed to commit a crime of violence punishable by a lengthy term of imprisonment. Perhaps it was time for me to step back, but it was not easy.

It had become apparent to everybody, that with Eduardo gone, Jasper was in urgent need of a rehoming. The social worker suggested, matter-of-factly, moving him to the Battersea Dogs’ Home.

The callousness of this proposition sent shivers down my spine, and shocked me into immediate action. I asked Ethel’s daughter – yes, Ethel had children – and the social worker to grant Jasper a short reprieve, so that I could secure him a happy ending.   

Luckily for Jasper, our street had a robust WhatsApp group chat , a legacy of lockdown community spirit, and it was through there that Jasper got his, fingers crossed, happy forever home.

I knew I was doing the right thing. Ethel was no longer in a fit state to look after a dog. Still, the day I picked him up from her house for the last time, I felt like a criminal mastermind dognaper. What bothered me about my underhand rescue mission was that nobody had consulted Ethel about it. Her daughter and the social worker decided to remove Jasper from Ethel’s care without preparing her for it. I rescued him from Battersea misery, and made his new owner tearfully joyful. Ethel was to remain in the dark, until the day her daughter was ready to explain all of this to her. 

The only question was, what the hell was I going to tell Ethel, in case she asked me if I knew where Jasper was, but that was a worry for another day. 

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