Over and over again I’ve tried to reconstruct that last day of Una’s life. In many respects it was probably a day like any other, punctuated by the small pleasures that the elderly come to rely on: the Times crossword, a glass of sherry before lunch, afterwards an espresso made in her special machine.
Except it wasn’t quite a day like any other because she was worried enough to leave the house to catch the last post at five o’clock. It was bitterly cold and her arthritis was troubling her. A neighbour saw her struggling along to the post-box. She was leaning heavily on her stick. For me, that’s when she really comes into focus.
When she returned from the post-box, she cooked herself a meal. She hadn’t let her standards slip. She had spaghetti with a bolognese sauce and a green salad washed down with a glass of red wine. I respect her for that salad. I know I’d never make something like that just for myself, the pasta, yes, but not the salad. She left the dishes for the cleaner who would be coming in the morning. She made a hot water-bottle, poured herself another glass of red wine, and went into the hall to the stair lift. I see her floating up to the first floor like a saint ascending to heaven.
She got ready for bed. It was early, but why not? It was already dark outside and the spacious bed-room that looked out over the botanical gardens was the warmest room in that vast house. She had everything she needed: a radio, a portable TV, a telephone. She never went to sleep before midnight, but usually she enjoyed her long evening reading, thinking, and remembering. That night though would have been different. She was troubled, distracted.
When did she first realise that she wasn’t alone in the house? Did it begin with the sound of breaking glass? I can’t be sure, but that’s how I picture it. I see her raising herself up in bed, slowly, painfully. Did she know right away that someone had broken in? Perhaps at first she wasn’t sure. It was so windy: the night was full of noises. It could have been the dustbin lid blowing off. If she’d been certain, wouldn’t she have rung the police or even one of her neighbours? The phone was right there by the bed.
She always shot the bolt on her bed-room door, so that may have given her a sense of security. And anyway she wasn’t the kind of old lady to scare easily. I see her cocking her head, listening for further unusual sounds. I don’t think she would have heard the feet coming quietly up the stairs. If I’m right, the first moment at which she was certain that there was someone in the house was when the door-knob turned. It was one of those old-fashioned bakelite ones. I see her gazing at it, frozen in shock, unable to move or make a sound. Did she know immediately that this wasn’t just a straightforward burglary? I’m sure she did. I think in those few seconds she knew it all.
I see them both, the intruder on one side of the door, she on the other, for both of them the whole world narrowed down to this single spot: narrowed down to the first floor of a big, Victorian house in Cambridge, and finally to a door-knob turning. The intruder wasn’t expecting anyone to be at home. There’s a thud, another thud. The old woman sees the door begin to quiver and then to shake from the impact of a shoulder on the other side.
And that breaks the spell. She reaches for the phone. She punches in a number, her hand surprisingly steady, praying that it will be answered. Even an answering machine would do. It doesn’t matter much if she dies, it has to come sooner or later, but there is something she must do first. The wood is splintering, the bolt is coming away from the door. She hasn’t got long. She wishes she had said more in the letter. The phone is ringing at the other end. It’s alright, she tells herself, the person she has chosen is intelligent – even without this last contact, she will work it out, and she will know what to do.
Now the door flies open. She looks straight into the face of the attacker.
And at that moment the phone is picked up at the other end.