You Mustn’t Leave Nelly Alone by Anita Punton

Margot held on to the handrail and concentrated on the glowing exit sign at the end of the corridor. The carpet, despite having to put up with so much, felt lovely and spongey under her bare feet.

Just then, the central heating powered down with a disappointed groan and all was quiet. She waited a few more seconds before deciding she was sure that the noise was coming from Nelly’s room.

‘Back to bed, Margot, please.’

She saw Samson striding past, holding his lanyard with one hand to stop it flapping against his stomach. His pace slowed. He turned back.

‘You alright?’

‘Oh yes, I’m alright. Nigh-night.’

She waited for him to start walking again, then headed towards Bunny’s room. There were no locks on the doors in this place. The doolallies could wander wherever they liked, as long as they remembered how door handles worked. Last Monday, when Margot had been tucked up in bed watching Silent Witness, the woman in the next room had marched in wearing nothing but her pyjama bottoms and started helping herself to Margot’s packet of Werther’s Originals.

Margot opened Bunny’s door. It squealed loudly, something she never noticed during the day when the muzak was pumping through the PA system.

‘Only me!’

Bunny was sunk deep in her pillows, her smartphone casting blazing white rectangles onto the lenses of her specs. She obviously hadn’t heard a thing. Margot waved her arms energetically, like she was flagging down a car on a highway.

Bunny flinched. ‘Oh lor! You gave me a fright!’

‘I hear moaning.’

‘What? Hang on…’

Bunny patted down the sheets, making a big performance of looking for her hearing aid. Margot rolled her eyes and waited. Bunny drove her up the wall half the time. She was as deaf as a post, could talk the hind legs off a donkey and was always borrowing Margot’s reading glasses then leaving them in ridiculous locations. But other than Margot herself, she was the only other resident in this godforsaken place who still had all her marbles. Who was bored to the back teeth and craved a bit of drama. That’s why they stuck together.

Bunny found her hearing aid and pushed it into her ear, wincing as it emitted a high-pitched whistle.

‘What’s happening?’

‘I hear moaning. I think it’s Nelly. She wasn’t at dinner, remember?’

‘Or lunch.’

Bunny was out of bed like a shot, and Margot had to grab the back of the old girl’s nightie and tug it down so her knickers and fat overnight pad weren’t on display.


‘Your nightie’s all hoicked up!’

‘I’ll hoick you in a minute if you don’t look out.’

They padded into the corridor, arms linked, pulled in tight to each other. As they passed under the CCTV camera, Bunny executed a theatrical flourish for the benefit of whoever was at the nurses’ station, swooping her arm and throwing back her head like a prima donna flouncing offstage.

‘Pointless,’ said Margot. ‘No one’s ever there at night.’

They made it to Nelly’s room, but Samson had heard them and was blocking the doorway, all six foot four of him. ‘Ladies, bed!’ he hissed.

‘But it’s only us, love,’ said Bunny. ‘Your favourites.’

‘I can’t have any trouble tonight, ladies. No jokes. No singing. This is serious.’

‘We can be serious,’ said Bunny.

‘We want to offer solace,’ said Margot, having pre-assembled her serious face.

Samson puffed out his cheeks and stood aside. ‘Two minutes. That’s all.’

Poor old Nelly. She only took up the top half of the bed, coiled on her side with her eyes half-closed and her mouth half-open. One of her hands grasped the folded edge of the sheet.

‘They couldn’t get her up this morning,’ said Samson. ‘The doctor came, but he did nothing.’

‘Have you rung the son?’ said Margot.

‘Yes, but he’s not answering. Ladies, do you know someone called Geraldine? That’s the other name on Nelly’s form.’

‘Never heard of her.’

‘Nor me,’ Bunny said.

‘I keep ringing but there’s no answer.’

Bunny tried to take Nelly’s hand, but her fingers clung stubbornly to the sheet. ‘Oh lor, she’s holding on tight! CAN YOU HEAR ME, NELL?’

‘Okay, back to bed, ladies,’ said Samson.  ‘I have other residents to look after.’

Margot straightened up. ‘Absolutely not. You mustn’t leave her alone.’

‘But there’s only me until the morning. The agency nurse never showed up.’

‘Well, Bunny and I aren’t leaving her. Right, Bunny?’

‘My word. She’s our friend.’

They both knew this was a lie, and that Samson would be thinking about all those times they’d bitched about Nelly in the communal lounge.

‘You made her cry!’ Samson whispered. ‘You call her The Old French Trollop.’

‘Well, she is! What with her lipstick and that floppy ol’ beret she wears! It’s an affectionate term, isn’t it, Bunny?’

‘That’s right.’

‘She isn’t what you’d call a friend in the strictest sense of the word,’ sniffed Margot. ‘But I’m damned if I’m leaving her alone tonight.’

‘It’s a falls risk,’ said Samson. ‘You might fall asleep and end up on the floor. Then I have even bigger problems.’

But they gave him promises and rubbed his arm and asked how his mum in Addis Ababa was coping without him and he gave in. ‘I’ll check on her every fifteen minutes. But please, sit down.’

He dimmed the lights and left. The two old ladies looked at Nelly in the bed. The room was very quiet.

‘Poor Nelly,’ said Margot.



Bunny made a face. ‘You can’t stand her!’

‘I don’t mind her like this. She’s not annoying like this.’

‘She looks a sweetheart like this.’

‘But you try sitting across from her at lunch. All that food oozing out of the side of her mouth and dripping down her front..’

‘I tell you what, Margot…Hey!’ Bunny had turned around to see that Margot had already bagsed Nelly’s recliner, which meant Bunny was left with the plastic chair. ‘I’m not going to last the night in that, am I?’

‘Fetch a cushion from your room, then,’ Margot said.  ‘And while you’re there, grab those fruit jubes your son brought you.’


Bunny held down the handle as she brought the door flush with the frame, then guided it up carefully until the snib slid into its hole. She smiled to herself and turned to go.

‘Have you seen me chooks?’ Ernie from Room 17. He was breathing hard and staring at the top of Bunny’s head, as if that’s where her eyes should be.

‘Shhh! You gotta be quiet, Ern! Everyone’s asleep!’

‘But I’ve lost me chooks! I’ve gotta round ’em up and get ’em back in the chook house!’

‘No chickens here, love.’

‘If I don’t get ’em back, Dad’s gunna get the strap out! You know what he’s like when he’s angry!’

He looked like he was going to cry. Bunny grabbed his sleeve and pulled him towards his room. ‘Here, look, this is you.’

Ernie frowned and sized up his door. He placed his palms on its flat surface and swooshed them around noisily. ‘Is this me, is it?’

She pushed down the handle for him. ‘Goodnight, Ern.’

‘Hang on….do I need that cushion you’ve got there?’

‘No, you don’t need that. That’s for me.’

‘Is that my cushion?’

No, Ernie! Just get in!’

As Ernie hobbled into his room, Bunny caught sight of the stain on the back of his pyjama bottoms. She pulled the door shut after him, rolled her eyes at the nearest CCTV camera, then made for Nelly’s room. There was a light on in the supply cupboard. As Bunny shuffled past she saw Samson inside, sitting on the cleaner’s plastic wheely-stool, his huge hands cupping his head.


‘Where’d you get to?’ Margot was on her feet, rifling through Nell’s closet.

Bunny shut Nelly’s door behind her and snibbed it locked. ‘I got stuck with Ernie. Listen, if I ever get to the point where I’m soiling myself, just take me out the back and shoot me.’

‘With pleasure.’

‘Pinky promise?’

Margot stopped what she was doing and sighed. ‘Alright.’

They brought their stiff, crooked pinky fingers together in an approximation of a clinch, waited a few seconds, then broke away.

‘He’s crying out there, you know,’ said Bunny, resting her backside on Nelly’s bed.

‘Who? Ernie?’

‘No, Samson. He’s having a good ol’ cry.’

‘Probably thinking of his mum. She’s all alone over there.’

‘Just like Nelly here… I forgot the jubes, by the way.’

‘Oh, you are the limit! And what on earth’s that?’ Said Margot, pointing to the cushion.

‘It’s awful, isn’t it? But you can’t say anything when your granddaughter makes it for you, can you? She used fabric paint to do the face.’


‘Oh, come off it! No, it’s… hang on … some pop star…Billy Eyelids.’

‘I can’t stand it when men wear make-up.’

‘Speaking of make-up…’. Bunny pointed at Nelly’s lips, which were now painted their usual bright red. Her beret lay limply on the top of her head.

‘I thought she’d want to look like herself,’ said Margot. ‘I would if it were me. Don’t forget when the time comes, will you, Bunny?’

‘Oh lor, am I going to have to put all your war paint on you? I’ll still be at it when they’re pushing you into the furnace!’

Margot didn’t laugh. She was screwing a tissue in her fingers so that it came to a hard little point.

‘She’s in pain,’ said Margot.

‘Is she?’

‘All that time you were gone she was grimacing and pumping her legs up and down. It reminded me dreadfully of Douglas.’

‘Yes, love,’ said Bunny. ‘I forgot you had to go through that.’

‘He was just like this, but it went on for days. Finally one of the nurses pulled me into the corridor and whispered, “Why don’t you ask me to increase his morphine?” Then she took me back inside the room and I said, “Can we please increase his morphine?” And she did. And he went straight off after that.’

‘Let’s ask Samson to do that for Nelly.’

‘I think only this Geraldine woman would be able to ask. You know… power of attorney.’

Nelly moaned. They moved to either side of the bed. Margot tried to get the beret on better. Bunny stroked Nelly’s cold, bruised hand, and for a few minutes they were silent.

‘Hey Margot,’ — Bunny gave a little snort — ‘Imagine this was an episode of Vera. We could finish Nelly off before Samson got back, then go on the run!’

Margot managed a smile.  ‘I don’t have it in me to do something like that.’

‘Well, you better bloody have it in you! I wasn’t joking when we made that pinky promise.’

‘You’re the one who’s probably going to have to do the deed. I’m a good ten years older than you, ‘ Margot said. ‘Could you manage it?’

Nelly’s sheets hissed as her legs bicycled up and down.

‘Oh, I can’t stand it!’ said Margot.

Bunny rubbed Nelly’s bony hip. ‘S’alright, Nell, s’alright,’ she whispered over and over. ‘It’ll all be over soon. May frightful angels fling thee to thy rest.’

Flights of angels.’

‘Flights of angels fling thee—’

Sing thee…’

‘Anyway, Nell, it’s nearly over.. Isn’t that right, Margot?’

Bunny looked up to see Margot staring at her. ‘Bunny, I’m serious. I need to know you can do it.’


‘Ladies, what did I say?  Why are you standing over the bed like that? And why was the door locked?’ Samson waited while they sat down.

‘No luck with that Geraldine woman?’ asked Bunny.

He shook his head. ‘No. It’s very sad.’

‘At least she’s not alone,’ said Margot.

‘Yes. Thank you, ladies. You are lovely ladies, really.’

They watched as Samson ran his hand under the blanket to feel Nelly’s feet. They watched him cradle her jaw as he felt for her pulse. He smoothed her hair and gently grazed her sunken cheek with his knuckles. A faint peep escaped from Nelly’s throat: a dreamy, underwater sound.

Samson took out his phone. ‘I’ll set an alarm for another fifteen minutes.’

‘You take your time, love.’

‘Yes, don’t worry about us. Ta-ra.’

Fifteen minutes. Margot, perched on the edge of the recliner, looked across at Bunny, who was sitting awkwardly on her plastic chair, hugging Billy Eyelids to her chest. She was an infuriating old coot, thought Margot. She sang too much, too loudly and too off-key. She was often furious for no good reason. In any other circumstance they wouldn’t have had two words to say to each other, but in here Margot couldn’t do without her. She was the best friend Margot had ever had. It had only taken eighty-nine years.

Margot caught Bunny’s eye and Bunny nodded.

The central heating made its familiar clunking sound as it kicked in, filling the room with a soft, soothing rumble. Bunny stood up, still holding the cushion to her chest.

Anita Punton is a TV comedy writer and producer in Melbourne, Australia. Her short fiction has been published in Australia and the UK.