Five o'clock in the morning and for the first time all night, we finally arrive back on station. Within seconds, before the engine has had the chance to cool, or the water in the kettle given the chance to boil, the phone rings again, sending us out on our next call. It had been one of those shifts. Job to job, patient to patient, hospital to hospital. With barely the chance for a bite to eat, we had inhaled cups of coffee throughout the night to keep our energies, as well as our hopes, alive and kicking.
Five minutes later we arrive at the address, still with no real details of what awaited us on the second floor of the dilapidated building. The only information we knew was that an elderly lady had pressed an emergency button and there had been no contact with her since then. The three of us grabbed the four bags of equipment and a carry chair between us and started the march up the stairs. Any hopes of there being a lift in the building were dashed the second we pulled up outside and saw its age.
A tired, but determined voice answered our first knock. "I'm almost there, just give me a minute!" We waited, each silently praying for the clock to tick a little faster, for the end of the shift to arrive, for the calls to end so we could go home. As we did so, a shuffling sound from indoors became louder, like a dog scratching on a door trying to get out. Eventually we heard a key turn and the door opened just enough for us to peer in.
"You'll have to push the door to get in, I've got no more energy left." Gently we did as were asked, guessing that she was leaning against the door, when after a moment we were able to squeeze in through the gap that had opened. The smile that greeted us was like that of a child seeing its very first snow. Pure delight shone from Eva's face, as if she had stored up ninety years of smiles for just this one freeze-frame.
"I'm fine, really I am. I just need help to get up off the floor. I've been here for a little while, thought I could manage to get up on my own. Looks like I was wrong."
"How long have you been there?"
"Since nine o'clock last night." All three of us do the mental maths. Eight hours on the floor. Eight hours trying to solve the problem by herself that we would now solve in thirty seconds. We checked Eva for any injuries and found that, other than a small graze on her elbow, she seemed to escape unscathed. "I need two things from you please," she asked, almost pleaded. "First, I need you to make sure I'm steady enough to get to and from the bathroom. Eight hours stuck leaves a lady just a little in need of refreshment."
She smiled her child-like smile again.
"Second, and more importantly, I'd like five more minutes of your time. Just to have a look at something for me." Presumably a medical issue had been bothering her and now that she had readily available access, she would use the opportunity.
"We're not going anywhere. Get yourself settled and I'll make you a drink first whilst you do." Once Eva was up on her feet, it took only seconds before she regained her balance, walking around the flat in a manner almost as spritely as a teenager rather than a nonagenarian.
"Just a few minutes. I promise. No more."
When Eva returned, she asked us to follow her into the lounge, where we were greeted to a picture gallery of immense proportions. Every wall was covered, every bookcase had pictures on the shelves, every picture frame hid several pictures within it. Hundreds upon hundreds of pictures, each with smiling faces that crossed ages, generations, and eras.
"These are my children. And my grandchildren. And my great grandchildren. I should have lost count by now, but I know. I know all their names, I know all their birthdays. Sometimes I might need a small reminder, just that the date is coming up, not that it's their birthday." She stopped just long enough to look once all the way around the room. "It's a birthday today, too, so I'm glad I'm up in time to go and celebrate."
"Whose birthday? Which generation?"
"Mine," she said with a wicked grin. "And," as she pulled out a hidden envelope with an old photograph of a young couple at their wedding, "my husband's too."
I'd had a quick look around when I looked for the kitchen to make her a drink. There was no-one else there. Just Eva and now an ambulance crew. Definitely no husband.
"Where is he? Your husband?"
"He's in a home, just a few minutes walk, not far away. When his mind started to wander, his body sometimes followed and he would end up lost, so about five years ago we decided it would be safer to have him move into a home. I see him every day except Tuesdays. That's when I meet with friends for a coffee. Every other day, I always leave the house at six in the morning to get to the home in time to make his coffee and have breakfast with him."
All three of us looked at our watches. Almost six o'clock.
"I'm presuming you don't want to go to hospital and get yourself checked after your eventful night on the floor?"
"Don't be ridiculous. Spend my birthday, my Izzy's birthday in hospital? No way. The only place I'm going is to visit him. And if you people are as kind as you look, you'll help me get down these stairs."
"We'll carry you down if you like!"
"Most definitely not. I've still got legs that work, haven't I?" None of us dared argue.
With one of us either side, we slowly walked Eva down the flights of stairs to the entrance of the building. She refused any further offers of help, from us accompanying her on foot, to the offer of a lift in the ambulance.
"It's only five minutes away, I'll get there the same way I do every day."
"Happy birthday," the three of us called after her as she started to walk away.
She stopped, turned around and smiled that smile once more. "Thank you for making it so."