‘Good morning, Maggie,’ as Anne knocked on the open door of the office. ‘ I came to see you about the notice to quit. How long have we got?’
’Hello Miss Bunting, I think they said six months from the date on the letter. That would make it the first of October.’
‘You see I’ve had an idea,’ Anne rushed on. ‘Do you think we could get all the other tenants to act together to save the buildings? For a start we could get up a petition to the City Council for them to refuse planning permission. The heart of Birmingham has been developed to within an inch of its life. There’s very little left of old Edgbaston, and surely what there is would be worth preserving. I’ve been thinking, along with my nephew Lawrence – from Boston, you know. He’s over here on business just now. For a start, we could get a photograph of all the tenants and employees outside, in front of the terrace, so that they can see just how many people would be affected. Then we could write to the Press and the Georgian Society and the National Trust and the – what’s it called? – you know – National Heritage people and the local MPs and…’
‘Hold hard,’ interrupted Maggie. ‘You’ve caught me on the hop. We need to write this lot down. Come in and sit down and we’ll make a plan of campaign. You’ve got me all excited – perhaps we won’t have to find new offices after all. I was dreading having to work in some soulless modern block.’
The two women sat down by the desk and Maggie took out a new notebook. Save the Buildings, she wrote on the cover. ‘The first thing we could do is to have a meeting of all the tenants’ she said. ‘I’ll do a letter and take it round. Where could we meet? None of these offices would be big enough, I think there must be about 50 odd people involved. How about the Plough and Harrow?’
‘Wouldn’t that be very expensive?’
‘Probably, but if I could persuade the other businesses to chip in it wouldn’t be too bad.’
‘Oh, I was forgetting.’ Better not say about the money. ‘Lawrence will sort something out for that.’
‘And one of the firms at the end house is in Public Relations. They would have all the contacts in the press. I’ll go and see my friend Jenny at Jameson, Jameson Communications and get her to help me.’ This Maggie is a jewel. I wouldn’t know where to start.
‘Well dear, I’ll be off now. I’m so glad you agree with me that we should do something. We can’t just let these money-grubbing developers walk all over us. I’ll see you tomorrow.’
Lawrence puffed up the two flights of stairs. He really would have to do something about his weight and fitness. Business life and too much time spent in motorcars had certainly taken its toll. How on earth Aunt Anne coped with these stairs and her bad hip, he couldn’t imagine.
‘Well, A…Anne. I’m making progress.’ I’ve seen the developer chap, and it’s true they’ve got plans to demolish this block and build a giant office block and car park. But he accepts that they can’t do anything while you have the right to stay in your flat. He was prepared to offer me quite a substantial sum of money for you to vacate the flat, but I soon put him right on that one. I asked what figure he’d put on the Freehold and he suggested ten million. I asked him if he thought I’d crossed the Pond on a banana leaf, and he suggested that they might be able to look at the figures again. But we didn’t exactly part on good terms, so we may have to think of another strategy than a head-on collision.
‘Oh that’s all right, Lawrence – my friend Maggie from downstairs is getting on with all that. You’ll see. We women can work miracles when we get our dander up.’
‘Yes Anne. But on another front, I’ve made some progress. I saw your Doctor and he sent me to the Director of the Priory Hospital with a letter about your hip. I have an appointment for you to see their consultant orthopaedic surgeon tomorrow morning. He’ll get on to your Doctor Williams, and if that’s OK they could probably fit you in next month. You see, you don’t have to wait and I should feel so much happier going home knowing you are on the road to walking without pain.’
‘Thank you dear,’ said Anne meekly. ‘And what about my friend with the varicose veins?’
‘First things first. They’re going to look into that and let me know when we go there tomorrow. Don’t worry. I haven’t forgotten. But the second bit of news is that I also went to the Eye Hospital and they agreed that there’s no earthly reason why you should have waited so long to get your cataracts done. You can go in as a day patient and be home again in the evening. They’d do them one at a time, about a fortnight apart. And they think it would be a good thing to do them before you go in for the hip op. I thought about this, as you’d still have to climb these stairs and I wouldn’t be able to help you much while I’m staying in the hotel. So I booked you into a suite at the hotel, right beside mine, and you can go there straight from the Eye Hospital. How’s about that?’
‘But you’re going home at the weekend. And besides it would be frightfully extravagant to stay in a hotel when I’ve got a perfectly good flat here.’
‘As for that Anne, you know very well you can afford it. And I’m not going home until you’re on your feet again. When I was talking to Elaine last night on the ‘phone, she suggested that if I needed to be here – and I do – I should stick with it. My Elaine is a very capable and independent lady, and she doesn’t need me to hold her hand, whereas you do seem to need a bit of help right now.’
‘Humph – is that what you think?’ Anne bristled and prepared herself for an argument, but Lawrence steamrollered on.
‘I’ve ‘phoned the office and cancelled everything for the next six weeks.’
Anne started to protest, but he carried on regardless ‘Yes I can do that: I’m the boss, and what I say goes. Besides, I haven’t had a proper holiday for years, and this will give me a chance to renew a few childhood memories and look up a few old friends. You don’t get rid of me that easily!’
Once more those unaccustomed tears threatened to flow. She was overwhelmed that her nephew would put his life on hold simply to help her. It wasn’t the kind of thing that usually happened to elderly spinsters.
Next day Lawrence appeared once more with a taxi, which waited while he tenderly helped Anne down the steep stairs. At the hospital Anne was amazed at the luxury of her surroundings. Her previous experience of hospitals had been of visiting her parents many years ago and those memories were naturally not of the happiest. ‘Carpets? Whatever next?’
She was taken to an elegantly-furnished suite of offices and a young nurse helped her to undress, giving her a fluffy robe to cover her utilitarian underwear, then escorting her to the inner sanctum of the consultant surgeon. With a beaming smile and twinkling eyes, the large grizzled man immediately put her at ease while he examined her troublesome hip.
After examinations and X-Rays and a short chat with an anaesthetist and cardiologist, she was once more with the friendly surgeon. ‘My goodness this must be giving you a lot of pain. It should have been operated on long ago. Now, if this suits you, we’ll bring you in as soon as you’ve had your cataracts done, say on the first of next month?’ I’m not used to all this rush and hurry. Can I cope with all this? But Lawrence will take care of things. Anne made a huge effort to calm herself. After all, if all these people are going to be putting themselves out for me, I must be ready to put myself out a bit as well. She gulped and agreed tremulously that the first of May would be just fine.
‘And now for the Eye Hospital’ said Lawrence as he helped her into yet another taxi. The new Eye Centre in the grounds of the City Hospital was only a short ride, and before Anne could start to worry again they were being shown into the consulting rooms where her cataracts were examined.
‘This will be a piece of cake’ said the breezy lady consultant. ‘We’ll have her in at nine o’clock tomorrow morning for the first one. She’ll need to take it easy for a bit afterwards, but there’s no reason why she shouldn’t be home by teatime.’
‘Oh, she’s not going home’ Lawrence protested. ‘She would have far too many stairs to climb and I couldn’t look after her there. No, she’s going to stay in my hotel, to give her a treat, a bit of pampering for a change.’
Do they think I’m gaga? Why are they talking about me as if I weren’t here?
‘That’s all right then.’ Turning towards Anne, the doctor wished her goodnight. ‘See you tomorrow then.’ And they were whisked out of the office and into another taxi before they could draw breath. The whole consultation had taken not more than fifteen minutes.
Anne was sitting up in bed, sun glasses on, and a fetching pashmina draped around her bony shoulders, when Lawrence came in with a waiter bearing a tray with legs. The tray was carefully placed over her knees. ‘This really isn’t necessary. I don’t need to be in bed. I want to see the rest of this lovely suite. Can’t I get up now?’
‘No you can’t. The surgeon said you needed to keep relatively still for the next few hours. Besides, you wouldn’t deny me the pleasure of looking after you for a change?’
Oh well. What can’t be cured must be endured. And it’s really comfortable with these lovely soft pillows. This shawl thing Lawrence gave me is the softest thing I’ve ever touched, and such lovely colours. I hate all those brash violent colours that people seem to wear nowadays. ‘Thank you dear, you are so kind.’ How much longer is this going to go on? I think I will suffocate. ‘Would it be possible to turn the heat down? I’m not used to central heating. And though it’s beautiful, it’s really not necessary to cosset me with shawls.’
‘Yes dear! Sorry Anne, that’s what I always say to Elaine when she fusses about things unnecessarily. It really means “no dear”. We can’t turn the heat down, and I can’t open the window because of the air conditioning. And you need to keep warm – there’s not a hap’orth of flesh on you and we can’t have you catching cold with your hip op to come so soon.’
‘Well then you’d better get me some ice sent up so that I can cool off a bit.’ The waiter made a hasty exit, smiling to himself, while Lawrence reflected that it wasn’t going to be as easy as he’d thought taking care of his unexpectedly feisty aunt.
Next morning Lawrence tapped on the door of his aunt’s bedroom and poked his head round it. ‘Ah, you’re up. How’re you feeling?’
‘Wonderful dear. I had a lovely night’s sleep, the best for years in this comfortable bed. Do you think I could buy one like it for the flat?’
Lawrence sighed in exasperation. When was his Aunt going to realise that she didn’t have to count the pennies any more? She didn’t need to deny herself. If truth be known, she could have bought herself her square of carpet, her electric fire, long ago, but being frugal was deeply engrained in her character.
‘And now I feel ready for anything.’ Anne studiously ignored the sigh. ‘Can you show me how to use this control thing for the television. My TV is so old I have to bang it to make the picture come on, and then it’s only black and white.’
‘Good Grief. Colour television and remote controls were around even before I went to the States thirty years ago. Why on earth didn’t you get a new one?’
‘Don’t be silly. It’s still working, why change it? I don’t believe in wasting money, even though I now seem to have rather a lot.’
‘You’ll have to have a new one soon, because it won’t be long before they’ll be switching off the old analogue service, and then you’ll have nothing. Besides, there are all these new channels you can have at the touch of a button.’
‘And are the programmes any better on the new ones? I bet it’s just the same old rubbish.’
‘Here you are.’ Lawrence switched on the TV and keyed in the code for BBC2.
‘Oh my dear, what have I been missing? Look how clear it is and I’ve still only the use of one cloudy eye. I’d no idea they’d made so much progress. I can’t wait to get my other eye sorted out, and I promise you I’ll buy myself a brand new modern set.’
‘They’re all a bit big nowadays for your little room. And that’s something I wanted to talk to you about. Even after your hip is replaced, it’s going to be some months before you can easily go up and down those stairs.
Just then the waiter re-appeared with a beautifully laid breakfast tray, which he placed on the table beside the comfortable armchair from which Anne was watching the television in amazement.
‘Thank you so much. You’re very kind. I’m not used to all this waiting on and pampering.’
The waiter hesitated and then said ‘and I’m not used to such lovely ladies thanking me like that.’ He caught Anne’s eye, and then the two of them burst out laughing.
‘I feel so like a fish out of water in this luxurious hotel’ said Anne, when she could at last speak. ‘It’s so good to have someone who knows how to laugh looking after me.’
When her new friend had left, Anne turned to Lawrence. ‘Carry on my dear. What was that you were saying about the stairs? I don’t see what we can do about them. There are too many to have one of those new-fangled chair-lift things they keep advertising.
‘ Oh, but there is something we can do’ said Lawrence. ‘As you know, Seager Enterprises from the other end of the terrace has already found new offices, before the notice to quit arrived, and they’re looking for someone they can sublet to for the remainder of the lease. Their large ground floor suite would suit you perfectly, with a few changes of layout and a thorough paint job throughout. How’s about if we get that started while you’re in hospital and move you in there when you come back?’
‘Oh I don’t know about that. What about if the building comes down – it would be such a waste of money.’
‘Well, you could think that you would be making work for the builders – would that ease your conscience? And when we know more about your long-term condition and my ideas for what to do with the buildings – if our ideas about acquiring the lease come to fruition – you could pick and choose where you go.’
‘There’s no question of picking and choosing you naughty boy. I want to stay just there, where I’ve lived for all of my adult life. I’ll think about your other idea. Maggie and I are planning to start a campaign to save the terrace. Maggie’s already working on getting a meeting together with the other tenants and getting signatures for a petition to the City Council. Perhaps we won’t have to wait for so long after all.’