The Feast of Esther
By Robert Hersowitz
Esther and Jessie had their first real conversation one wet January morning when Esther slipped and fell. Jess was on her way out and came to her neighbour’s assistance.
“Are you all right, luv?” She leaned over and, despite her diminutive frame, managed to manoeuvre Esther into a position where she could sit her upright. She knew nothing about her neighbour except that she drove a battered red Toyota which was parked outside. The two women had lived opposite each other on the Manor Hill council estate for three years. They lived in one of the eight cottage style red-roofed buildings. The units were neatly arranged around a wide rectangular green. Their unit, euphemistically named Halcyon House, would have been the perfect place to live were it not for the fact that London’s main peripheral motorway, the North Circular, lay less than a hundred yards away behind a row of hedges.
“I’ve told the council that they need to do something about this step. This sort of tumble won’t do my arthritis much good.”
“Oh dear. Do you want me to call for help?”
“No, I’ll be all right, Mrs. Courtney. Just need to catch me breath.” Esther ran her hand along her left leg. “I got a bit of a shock. I don’t think I’ve broken or even sprained anything.”
Jess extended her hand. “Take my arm luv. Slowly now,” she coaxed. She managed to help Esther up by placing her arms under her shoulders.
“My goodness me. You managed that like a real pro, Mrs. Courtney.”
“Well, I used to be a practice nurse, and now I volunteer twice a week at St. Eustace’s hospice in the East End. So I’ve had a bit of experience.” It was only then that Jess noticed that Esther was still in her nightdress and slippers. “You must be freezing. Let’s get you indoors and out of the cold.”
“I was just putting out my milk bottles.” Esther kept rubbing her knee.
“I think you’ve bruised it quite badly. Let me pop you in an armchair and you can direct me to your fridge or freezer to get some ice.” She guided Esther towards the living room and helped her into one of the Ikea wing chairs next to the gas fire. She returned with a packet of frozen peas wrapped in a gingham tea cloth. “This’ll do the trick, and drink this, just a cup of sugar water for the shock.”
“What an angel you are, Mrs. Courtney. I feel so ashamed. I’ve been your neighbour these past three years and I’ve never so much as said hello to you or invited you in for a cup of tea.”
“That’s not true. You’ve always greeted me with a smile when we’ve passed each other in the corridor.”
“Well, now I must put that right. Please won’t you pop in for a cuppa and a chat?”
“That would be smashing.” Jessie cooed. “But let’s get you sorted first.”
Esther smiled her wide toothy smile revealing that she had not had time to reinsert her dental bridge.
“How about next Tuesday afternoon? Say four o’clock?”
“That’ll be lovely.”
The following Tuesday Jessie knocked on Esther’s door. She presented her with a bunch of golden freesias.
“Oh, you shouldn’t have! These are so gorgeous. Thank you so much,” Esther declared as she sniffed the flowers.
“You’re very welcome, dear. Now how’s the patient?” she asked, eyeing the bandage round Esther’s knee.
“The doctor says I’ll be fine. Just as you said, I gave it quite a knock.”
“Well, the flowers are to cheer you up.” She smiled. “I noticed from the morning milk deliveries that you are kosher. I didn’t want to bring you any cake or biscuits or anything. My late Phil and I used to live in Stepney and we got to know our wonderful Jewish neighbours who were also kosher. We became ever such good friends.”
Esther clasped her hands to her chest in a gesture of profound gratitude.
“That is so thoughtful of you, Mrs. Courtney. As a matter of fact, my late husband was a reverend at the synagogue on Rectory Square, not half a mile away from Stepney Green. Soon after he retired we moved here.” She ushered Jessie into the living room. “Let me take those from you and I’ll pop them in a vase.”
“You’ve done it up so beautifully.” Jessie exclaimed. “Such gorgeous carpeting!”
“Well, this was our life’s dream. We don’t have any kids, and my Abraham looked so forward to his retirement. We scrimped and saved and eventually got enough money to put down a mortgage when council properties were being put up for sale. It was love at first sight with this place. We were scarcely here six months when Abe had his heart attack. Sadly, he didn’t pull through.” Her bottom lip began to tremble.
“Well, you did a marvelous job. The place looks so cosy and I just love the gas fire.” She pointed to the faux fire place with its fake Carrara marble mantelpiece.
The two women settled into lively conversation. Esther had arranged the tea on the gate leg table at the other end of the room. She stood up and began serving.
“How many sugars, Mrs. Courtney?” She looked rather elegant in her Marks and Spencer’s mauve skirt and matching jumper.
“None, thank you. My Phil always used to say, ‘You’re sweet enough without it, Jess.’ Speaking of which dear, do call me Jess.” She balanced her petite frame on the edge of her chair as she sipped her tea.
“And you must call me Esther. You are absolutely right. Now that we’ve crossed each other’s thresholds, we’re on sugar borrowing terms.” She chuckled. “And I do love your jump suit. Powder blue really suits your colouring. Anyone ever tell you you’re a dead ringer for one of the Beverley sisters?”
“More than a few times,” Jess laughed. “Yes, Phil used to call me his ‘blonde, blue-eyed Irish gal,’ knowing full well that I was as Cockney as jellied eels.”
The two women chatted for over an hour, discovering that, although each came from an entirely different background, they had a great deal in common. Jess was a devout Roman Catholic and volunteered at the hospice in the East End, and Esther volunteered at a Friendship Club for the Jewish elderly not far from the hospice. They were more or less the same age, born in the East End during the blitz and evacuated to different parts of England when they were scarcely five or six years old for the duration of the war. Esther heard all about Jess’s grandson Dean who visited his grandma every week. She didn’t talk much about her son and daughter-in-law except to explain that her son was a lapsed Catholic. “He chose to marry a gal who believes in nothing but herself and begrudges the fact that her son Dean chooses to come to church with his Nanna on Sundays.”
Esther talked about her nieces, Sylvia and Madelaine, who had chipped in together to buy her a car when her husband died.
“They both married well and lead busy lives,” Esther mused as she sipped her tea. “They don’t always find the time to visit their aunt, and I rarely see my great nephews or nieces. But I mustn’t grumble, they were generous enough to get me the car. It’s a bit of an old banger now, but it gets me from A to B and allows me to hold on to my independence.”
“That’s very important. Sadly, Phil had to give up his little van when he retired. We couldn’t afford to buy or run a vehicle.”
By the time they’d finished their tea, Esther was offering Jess a lift to the East End on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
“I don’t want to bother you, Esther. I’m just a few bus stops away from East Finchley Tube station.”
“Nonsense. We both need to be there by more or less the same time and I could do with the company. I’ve also got a disabled badge, that’s how bad my arthritis has become these days.”
And so it was that the two women forged a solid friendship with Jess accompanying Esther each Tuesday and Thursday morning. On more than one occasion as Esther swerved round corners and narrowly missed a cyclist, she would slip her hand under her coat and grab her silver St. Christopher’s pendant in the hope that the talisman would protect her.
Esther, being the widow of a rabbi, had joined one of the local synagogues in the area. On Saturdays, she would walk to the synagogue known as Kinloss Gardens, where she would meet friends and often get invited for lunch. Friday nights she was mostly alone, especially in the winter.
“I’ll be your shabbes goy, ”Jess told her. “We always used to help Jerry and Marilyn, our neighbours in Stepney. I’d come in and turn off the gas oven and make sure all the lights were off or on, or attend to any emergencies on the Jewish Sabbath.”
Esther was a little embarrassed. “You’re joking! I can’t expect you to do that for me every week.”
“Course you can, luv. It would be more than a pleasure, as long as I’m in. After all, look how often you have given me lifts, taken me with you to Tescos, helped me take my stuff to the recycling centre. Not to mention the delicious meals you’ve prepared for me. One good turn deserves another.”
So on Friday nights when Esther had finished her Friday night dinner, said her Grace after Meals, and washed up, Jess would come over with her knitting and the two women would sit in front of the fire and have a chinwag. Jess would talk about her work at the hospice.
“I’m learning so much there in my old age. If I had the gumption, I’d come out of retirement and go back to work, but even I have to be realistic about my age. We’re no spring chickens now, are we, Est?”
“You can say that again, and its time you put your feet up too, Jess. I see how much you do for other people.”
And so the Friday night visits became a welcome ritual for the two widows. They also knew not to bother one another or invade each other’s space. If Esther was expecting company, Jess would know not to barge in unless she was invited, and Esther respected the days when Jess’s family came round to see her. Their political convictions and viewpoints were not always the same, but they never argued, and always ended up dousing any spikey exchanges with a generous dollop of cockney humour.
One day Esther received a text message from Jess. “Your niece Sylvia brought a package over for you. Let me know when you’re in and I’ll bring it over.”
“It’s quite a big box but it isn’t heavy,” Jess said as she handed Esther the box.
Esther stared at the box quizzically. “Can’t think what it might be. It’s not my birthday or anything. By the way, fancy a cuppa? I’ve just put the kettle on.”
“Don’t mind if I do.” Jess said, curious to see what was in the box.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake — it’s for a fancy dress party!” Esther laughed. “She wants me to come to her charity fancy dress party dressed as Queen Esther. I told her that I didn’t have anything to wear, that I was too old for fancy dress parties…” She opened up the tissue paper and removed a gold lamé veil attached to a shiny golden crown which she proceeded to put on her head. “There, how does that look?”
“Very regal,” Jess teased. “It really suits you.”
Esther went on to explain that it was a party to celebrate the Jewish festival of Purim. “It’s a kind of Jewish Mardi Gras where we all dress up, read the Book of Esther, have a right knees up, get a bit tipsy, and have a good time. Sylvia is one of the organizers. She’s called the event The Feast of Esther and, because it’s for charity and it’s sort of got my name on it, I need to show my face. I told her that I’m not going to wear full fancy dress gear but that I’ll put something on my head, so she sent this.”
“Well, I think it looks very fetching. And well done, you for being such a good sport,” Jess commented as she sipped her tea.
“I’m just a little worried about this new virus that’s breaking out everywhere,” Esther murmured as she packed the headdress away.
“Yes, I know, but the government’s issued guidelines. They’re still saying that it’s okay to go to public places like churches and synagogues.”
“Well, this party will be in the synagogue hall.”
“So you should be all right then, luv. I’m still going to Mass on Sundays. I wouldn’t give that up unless it became absolutely necessary.”
A few days later, Jess received a text message from Esther with some photographs attached. They showed Esther in her resplendent queenly glory, complete with crown and veil, standing between her two glamorous nieces, each with a glass of champagne in hand. The text read: The Feast of Esther!
You look stunning, Jess texted back, with two fluttering heart emojis.
On the following Sunday, Jess came out of church and noticed that she had a voicemail from Esther.
“Jess dear,” the voice croaked. “I’m not well. I think I need to call an ambulance. Please keep away in case this is something serious. I’ve tried calling Sylvia and Madelaine but they’re not answering.”
Jess felt a wave of dread washing over her. Fortunately she was with her grandson who offered to drive her home.
“Would you mind taking me past St. Eustace’s? I just want to pick up a few bits and pieces.”
“But Nan,” Dean stammered.
“No buts, Dean. She’s my neighbour and a friend. Best not to say anything to your Mum and Dad.”
By the time Jess had donned the PPE equipment and let herself in to Esther’s flat, she found her friend shivering in a pool of sweat in her bed. The electric fire was on in the corner of the room. The curtains were still drawn but there was enough light for Jess to see the fear in Esther’s eyes. “It’s me, Jess. You’re going to be all right.” Esther gesticulated with her right hand trying to shoo Jess away. “We’re going to get you to hospital. I’ve managed to get hold of Sylvia, and she’s sending an ambulance that will take us to the hospital. I’m coming with you. I’ve got all this protective equipment and I’m not going to abandon you.”
The ambulance duly arrived, and two orderlies wearing full Hazmat outfits came into the flat. They lifted Esther off the bed and into the gurney. At first they did not want Jessie to accompany them, but then she flashed her Practice Nurse badge at them and they agreed to take her with them. The vehicle sped through North London with blue lights flashing and the siren blaring. The streets were practically deserted and it took them less than fifteen minutes to arrive at the casualty department. They were directed to a special COVID-19 bay. Another Hazmat clad casualty staff member came out to meet them.
“Who is the patient?”
“Mrs. Esther Gordon,” Jess answered.
“Who are you? Are you next of kin?”
“No, I’m her neighbour and close friend. I’m also a qualified Practice Nurse,” Jess answered calmly, knowing that her PPE disguise would not give her age away.
“How old is the patient?” the paramedic asked.
“She’s seventy-nine years old. I have her driver’s licence here to prove it.”
“Any reason to suspect that she may have the virus?”
Jess nodded. “A few days ago she attended a party at a synagogue hall in Hampstead Garden Suburb and I’ve heard on the news subsequently...”
The paramedic did not wait for her to finish. “We have admitted four infected patients who attended that party. They are all on ventilators. I might as well tell you, seeing as you are a nurse and therefore familiar with these procedures, we are overwhelmed with cases. We are operating a strict triage system and your friend, who clearly seems to have become infected, will not be able to be put on a ventilator until one becomes available. We can admit her and make her comfortable, but the odds are not good for a woman of her age. She is already showing signs of distressed breathing.”
Jess tried not to panic. “So what you are saying is that I must leave her here to die?”
“I’m just giving you a factual assessment of what’s going on here. You can try and take her to Northwick Park, but I think you’ll find the same thing is happening there.”
“Well then, I’m certainly not leaving her here,” she announced emphatically. “If she’s going to die, she will die at home in her own bed with dignity, and not here alone in a hospital corridor.”
“You must also consider your own safety,” the paramedic replied. “You need to keep yourself well protected.”
“I am well protected. I’m not wearing all this paraphernalia for fun, I assure you, young man.”
It took several minutes and a few phone calls to Sylvia before the ambulance returned and brought them back to Finchley.
By this time Esther was almost delirious and was running a high temperature. Jess tried not to panic. She gave her another two paracetamol tablets. There was not much else she could do. There was little improvement. Jess decided to call St. Eustace. One of her colleagues answered the phone.
“I don’t know what to tell you, Jess. We’re under lockdown here, and some of the staff aren’t being allowed back. In fact one of the nurses, Shakira, whom I know you work with on Tuesdays, called me in tears. She went off to attend a COVID-19 emergency training session. She desperately wants to come back to work but the new regulations won’t allow it.”
Jess suddenly had a brainwave. “She is a brilliant nurse. I may be able to offer her some private work. Do you have her number?”
After a couple of phone calls to Sylvia, Jess managed to get hold of Shakira. One hour later, a cab pulled up and a figure dressed in what looked like a Hazmat uniform stepped out carrying several bags. “Is that you, Shakira?” The figure nodded. “Thank God you’re here. I really need your help.”
The two women remade Esther’s bed and added some pillows to support her neck. Together they undressed her and gave her a bed bath with some moist hot towels. Then they propped her up and gave her oxygen. Several hours later, Esther was still struggling to breathe. She kept lifting her head as if to stop herself from choking. She began to make deep snorting noises and Jess could see that she was sinking into a state of semi-consciousness.
“We’re losing her, Shakira. She desperately needs oxygen and her airways are closing.” The strange snoring noise grew louder. It suddenly reminded her of Phil. She recalled that Phil had suffered from severe sleep apnea problems. At some point they had bought him a sleep apnea machine to try and keep his airways open. Where was it? Had she given it away, or gotten rid of it? She wracked her brains and then remembered that the machine was stashed away in its box on top of Phil’s old wardrobe.
“Stay with Esther. I’m going across to my flat to find something.”
She returned a few minutes later with a small grey plastic case. “Quick, help me unravel it. I’ve given it a bit of a clean. It’s our only hope.”
Shakira helped her untangle the straps and tubes. Eventually they connected the device and placed the mask-like visor over Esther’s nose, securing it with a band across her forehead. They waited for the sound of the gurgling to begin. At first there was little response, but then very gradually the wheezing noises stopped and Esther’s breathing became less strained. For the next twelve hours Jess and Shakira sat vigil beside Esther’s bed. Each took turns to measure her pulse, turn her, and monitor her blood pressure. They got her to swallow another dose of paracetamol. A while later Shakira gave the thumbs up.
“Her temperature came down from 103 to 99.9.” She whispered.
Once Esther began to settle down and breathe, Shakira and Jess took turns to have a rest in Jess’s flat. In the morning, Jess contacted Sylvia. She and her sister Madelaine had both been infected. Sylvia was only mildly infected, but her sister Madelaine had caught the disease quite badly and one of her sons had been taken to Northwick Park Hospital where he was on a ventilator. Sylvia kept apologizing for not being able to take care of her aunt.
“No need to apologize, Sylvia dear. I’m just very grateful for you agreeing to let Shakira come and help me. I could not have managed without her.” Sylvia had made sure that Jess had enough supplies and arranged for a private laundry service to collect the infected clothing, linen and towels. Word of Esther’s illness had spread, and every day a number of her friends arranged for the delivery of meals for all three women, to be left outside Esther’s front door.
On Thursday morning, five days after she had fallen ill, Esther opened her eyes for the first time. She saw the two robed white figures standing by her bed.
“Where am I? Am I in hospital?” she rasped. Her voice was thin and weak.
“No, darling. It’s me, Jess. You are recovering at home in your own bed. This is Shakira. She works with me at the hospice. She and I are looking after you. We are going to get you better.”
Esther’s eyes teared up and she tried to talk.
“Just lie still, Esther luv. Don’t try to talk. You just need lots of rest now.”
Over the next few days Esther gradually began to improve. Although she was still very weak, Jess and Shakira managed to get her up and into one of the wing chairs. She only needed to use the sleep apnea machine at night. When she was awake, she seemed confused and was not always aware of exactly where she was, or what had happened to her.
“It could be from dehydration. She needs to keep drinking. I’ve seen this many times at the hospice,” Shakira observed.
“You’re right, and maybe the less she’s aware, the better for the time being,” Jess added.
One morning they got a call from the COVID team. “We’re sending over an official testing team to give you some idea about how long you need to be in quarantine.” Jess thanked them. The testing team duly arrived in their “spacesuits”. A few days later Jess received a call from the head of the team. He congratulated her on her “quick thinking” and wanted to know more about the sleep apnea machine. He then gave her the good news that although Esther tested positive for the virus, she was out of danger. Miraculously Jess and Shakira tested negative and were advised that they would have to be in quarantined isolation for only six more days. Soon afterwards, Jess began to get calls from the press and from the TV news outlets. She declined all requests for interviews and asked that she, Shakira, and Esther be left in peace. Esther was still very weak and pale.
A day later, there was a clamour outside Esther’s window. Jess pulled up the blinds only to be confronted by a pack of journalists shouting: “How’s the patient?” “Which one of you is Jess Courtney?” “What advice do you have for the NHS?” “Who came up with the idea of the sleep apnea machine?”
Jess tried to shield her face from the flash photography. Shakira jumped up and lowered the blinds despite the incessant tapping on the window.
A few days later, on a bright sunny morning, Jess woke up and found a package at her front door. It contained a note from her grandson and a pile of tabloid newspapers. The note read:
Guess what Nanna? You’re famous!
She picked up the first of the five tabloid newspapers. There was a picture of her at the window with the screaming headline: St. Jess, the Saviour. She shook her head in disbelief. Another one read: Jess the Genius, with the sub headline: Retired health worker defeats COVID-19 and saves neighbour with sleep apnea device. A third one read Retired Practice Nurse Saves Neighbour. Yet another headline bellowed: Esther’s Angels. All had images of Jess, with Shakira and Esther in the background. Jess walked into the living room and placed the newspapers on the coffee table near Esther’s chair.
Shakira came in with a breakfast tray for Esther. “Morning Jess. Morning Mrs. G. I’ve got some nice breakfast for you, dear.”
Esther smiled. “Thank you, my love. I’ll try and sit up. You can put some of it on the coffee table.” As she sat up she noticed the pile of newspapers. “Where did all those papers come from? I’m sure I didn’t order them.”
“My Dean brought them for us.”
“Why so many?”
“Just a bit of local gossip for you to catch up on,” Jess answered. “We’re stuck here for a few more days so we’ll all have plenty of time to read ’em to each other over the weekend. Isn’t that so, Shakira?” She winked at Shakira. Shakira winked back, as she sat herself down next to Esther and proceeded to help her with her bowl of steaming oatmeal.