In the Bleak Mid-Winter


Everyone knew Mary. She had been known since her husband Albert had been admitted to hospital with his heart 6 years earlier. Mary had sat by his bed, refusing to leave, sleeping on the chair. The ward staff had tried to get her to go to the café to get something to eat, but she didn’t want to leave his side, so they’d rung the hospital social work team. The hospital team went through their pack ups and managed to get together some cheese sandwiches which Bob and Lyn from the team took up to Mary on the ward.

Mary was dosing when they found her in the chair next to Albert. Dressed in an old coat, stockings and well worn boots, she was not happy to be woken up. ‘No, I don’t need owt, thanks’ she grunted at the social worker. ‘Me and Albert we are just fine, once he gets better we are going home’. Lyn sorted a mug of tea and left it with her, ‘just in case’. They paused as they were about to leave the ward and waited, watching as Mary’s hand reached out and a sandwich was picked up, sniffed, and then a bite taken from it. A decision was made, they would be back in a couple of hours with more sandwiches.

The phone call came through 2 days later, Albert was not getting better, he had become really quite unwell, he needed moving to intensive care and Mary was kicking off refusing to leave his side. Lyn and Bob went up to the ward.

Mary was inconsolable. She’d not been separated from Albert in over 60 years. She was not having some doctor or nurse tell her that she couldn’t be by his side now. Bob spoke to Matron who told him that they were working on Albert now, it didn’t look good. A nurse appeared, Mary needed to come now. Lyn and Bob went with Mary as she went into a room with bright lights, tubes, machines, and on the bed – Albert. ‘We need your permission to stop’, Mary collapsed into Bob.

The next 24 hours had been a blur, but they’d got her home in Bob’s car. It was a stone cottage right on the edge of the villages in the Pennines. Gritty beauty in any other circumstances Bob thought. Isolated. The cottage was cold, really cold. No central heating. No electricity or white goods. An old cold store for food storage and a wood fired stove the only source of warmth. Lyn offered to make a fire and get a cuppa on. But Mary wouldn’t have any of it, she just wanted them gone. Mary settled into her new life without Albert.

The referral came through from District Nursing to the Locality Social Work Team. Mary’s GP had been out to see her and was extremely worried. She was living in slum like circumstances, hording, piles of stuff everywhere in her house, no central heating, no electricity – she wasn’t safe. District Nurses had been to see her but she was refusing their help. A social worker needed to go out, she needed to be in residential care for her own safety, winter was coming.

Simon and Kirsty from the area social work team went out to see Mary on a cold December morning. The frost was deep and crisp as a cold snap had set it. Everything was sparkling white. The path was pretty icy to Mary’s cottage, Kirsty nearly lost her footing as she slipped on the way, so Simon got to the door first and knocked. No response. They tried again. Still nothing. Kirsty tried to look through the windows. She could see Mary in there, moving around the piles of papers and clothing that had accumulated over the years. They waited and finally Mary made her way to the door but refused to open it. They could hear her there on the other side of the door. ‘Are you alright love?’ asked Simon through the letter box. No reply. ‘People are worried, we just wanted to check on you’. Finally, a response ‘Bugger off’. Kirsty smiled, Mary sounded fine, nothing wrong with her voice. However, having got one response, Mary wouldn’t reply to anything else they asked her. After an hour of trying they paused. Mary was sill there on the other side of the door, but she wouldn’t speak to them. Kirsty stuck her hands in her pocked to warm them up, bonus! She found a couple of quality street she’d grabbed on the way out from the office Christmas tin. She passed one to Simon. As they opened them, the wrappers crinkle sounded louder than usual in the cold, crisp morning. ‘What’s that?’. Mary had heard the wrappers. ‘Quality Street, do you want one?’. Nothing for 10 minutes. Then ‘yes’. Kirsty looked at Simon, OK then, ‘can you open the door’, nothing again, silence. Simon looked at the letter box, they came to an agreement, they reached through the letter box with a sweet. A partially gloved hand snatched the sweet away on the other side of the letter box. Progress. The start of something. In the car on the way back to the office they talked through what to do next.

Kirsty and Simon did the leg work over the next few days. It turned out that Mary had a regular routine that everyone knew as she walked from her house to the farm shop, post office, church and past the local pub every Thursday for her weekly shopping trip. Everyone knew her. They were all really sad about what had happened to her and Albert. They were all unconsciously quietly checking on her, making sure she was OK. The village were up for being there for her, letting Kirsty and Simon know if anything changed. The butcher in the farm shop knew that she liked a sausage sandwich. A plan was reached, Mary wouldn’t speak to the social workers. But she would take food through the letter box. During winter they would stay in contact with Mary and visit once a week to check on her, taking with them a parcel of sausage sandwiches and quality street to post through the letter box.

The first trip went well. Once again it took an hour for Mary to come to the door. Once again, she told them to ‘bugger off’. But she grabbed at the sandwich and ate it on the other side of the door whilst they waited. Over the next three months some days she even began to speak to them a little – ‘oh it’s you again’, ‘you off now?’.

It was March and the first of the daffodils were out on the pathway to Mary’s door. Yellow heads bobbing in the early spring sun. Kirsty and Simon had heard from the village that Mary was following her usual routine but just wanted to check she was OK. Mary was waiting at the door as they arrived, the door opened a crack, they looked at each other and stepped in.

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