It was at least 10 years ago, and probably quite a few more because my mother died 10 years ago, that she was woken up in the middle of the night by the shrill ringing of the phone on her bedside table. She groped around in the dark searching for the cord to switch on her bedside lamp and managed to knock her ancient little illuminated travel clock to the floor in the process. She struggled but found the cord, clicked on the light and picked up the clock. It was 3am and still the phone kept ringing. Downstairs her two little dogs had woken up and they were yapping and clattering around on the tiled kitchen floor.
My mother had more reason than most to ignore that call, especially as she was well into her late sixties, had heart complaints, asthma and had recently come through breast cancer and a mastectomy. Her once feisty and energetic persona and body had been battered to the core. At that point in her life she really was the last person who needed to deal with a middle of the night phone call.
The phone continued to ring as she swung her legs resolutely out of bed and mentally prepared herself. She knew who it was likely to be.
Finally, tentatively, she picked it up.
There was a frighted voice at the other end. It was a woman who sounded vulnerable, panicked, desperate.
'Oh Mama, Mama, I'm scared...there's a man in the loft...he's trying to get in through the ceiling space, I don't know what to do. Mama, Mama, please help me Mama, please please!'
It was the terrified panic of someone in trauma, my sister, a grown woman with severe mental-heath problems, calling from her flat in a town about 10 miles away.
My mother tried to reason with her, it was unlikely that there was anyone in the roof-space. She also knew she had to be firm yet reassuring or the situation could rapidly escalate.
'Put all the lights on dear and turn up your radio, I'll come over in the morning and we'll get a ladder out and go and have a look. It's the middle of the night and I can't do anything about it now. Try not to worry, it'll be alright'
But it was too late for comforting words - my sister's thought process was already galloping wildly out of control. Who knew how many hours this may have been brewing? She was beside herself with fear. And she started to plead with my mother to come and help her.
'But its a man and I can hear him! and he can hear me! I'm scared Mama, I'm scared, I think he's going to kill me and I don't know what to do, you have to help me Mama! Mama? Mama! please help me PLEASE!!
Wearily, as my mother knew there was no-one else for my sister to turn to, she agreed to go over. She climbed out of bed and pulled on old trousers and a sweater over her pyjamas and gingerly made her way down the steep stairs of her tiny cottage. The dogs stretched their legs and wagged their tails as they saw her when the kitchen lights went on but she soon settled them down again with some biscuits and a pat. She wrapped herself inside her thick winter anorak and her tweed deerstalker and grabbing a torch she opened the back door and went out into the darkness.
The roads to the bleak housing estate where my sister lived were silent and deserted and my mother pulled up outside the 3-storey block and got out, carefully closing her car door behind her so she wouldn't disturb any of the slumbering residents, or their dogs. She flicked on her torch and walked slowly and with caution up the empty concrete stairwell to the top floor. No lift and only short flights to deal with but after months of grueling chemo - on top of an already asthmatic chest - it was a test of endurance. When she made it to the top floor landing and my sisters front door she leaned against the wall for a moment to catch her breath. It was cold and her lungs hurt as the freezing air caught in them.
She knocked on my sisters door.
'Open up dear, it's me'
Nothing. So she knocked a little louder and called through the letter box.
'I'm here dear..let me in'
She then heard some shuffling on the other side, bolts being drawn back and the handle being turned.
The door opened a couple of inches just enough for my mother to see my sister peering out at her.
'Hello dear' said my mother.
'FUCK. OFF.' spat my sister slamming the door shut and bolting it again.