things you can see

comments 2

Eileen opens the door.
‘He’s upstairs,’ she says, towelling her hands dry as she speaks. ‘I’m just finishing the washing up. You go on ahead.’
Then she turns and hauls herself back along the narrow hallway, vigorously swinging her body left and right to cheat enough play in her hips. It’s like watching a great ape learning to walk; I half expect her to wave the tea towel over her head and jump up on the counter.

Malcolm has gone to bed. Bruised and shaken after his fall a few days ago, his confidence has taken a knock and he doesn’t know what to do with himself.
‘Everyone’s been so kind,’ he says. ‘The doctor, now you people. Really, I couldn’t fault it.’
When I pull back the duvet to have a look at his injuries, I’m surprised to see that he’s fully and nicely dressed in a check shirt, knitted green waistcoat and corduroy trousers. He’s wearing something round his neck on a piece of string – not an alert button, but a smart phone in a black leather wallet.
‘It’s good!’ he says, tapping it gently. ‘I’m still getting the hang of it, though. I mean, the other day, when I rang the surgery, this blasted voice was giving me all these options – press one for this, two for the other – but there was nothing on the screen! I couldn’t get any further with it! I felt like a prize idiot! But my granddaughter showed me what to do. Easy when you know how.’

Eileen sashays in.
‘Still alive, is he?’ she says, considerably out of puff from the climb.
‘Not bad, considering.’
‘I’ve known this woman sixty years,’ says Malcolm. ‘She used to cut my wife’s hair. We all lived in the same street. I ran the garage at the end, Eileen had a little place just round the corner.’
‘Is it sixty years?’ says Eileen. ‘I’m not that old, am I?’
‘Sixty years,’ says Malcolm. ‘Then my wife died, and then Eileen’s husband died…’
‘When you put it like that it sounds a bit off,’ she says, wiping her hands on the tea towel like she’s just come from the scene of a crime.
‘Well – you know how it is,’ says Malcolm. ‘Things change, whether you like it or not.’
‘I’ll just be downstairs if you need anything,’ says Eileen.


‘You wouldn’t think to look at me now, but I used to be quite a handy fellow,’ says Malcolm. ‘I had an interest, you see? Cars. Motorcycles. Anything with an engine. I just loved getting my hands dirty, getting right in there, in the oil and …and the grease. Because you used to get dirty in those days. Not like now. It’s all computers now. I wouldn’t know where to start. Plug it in somewhere, I expect. Then what? No idea. Back then, you see, it was much more straightforward. You just had to see how it all meshed together, how it moved. All the timings and what have you. I loved all that. Tappets! Jets! Things you could put your hands on! Things you could see!’


It looks from the examination that Malcolm might have a UTI.
‘Maybe that’s why you fell in the first place,’ I tell him, writing out the specimen docket.
‘I’ve had them before,’ he says. ‘They made my head go all funny.’
‘Hopefully we’ve caught it sooner this time. Anyway, I’ll let the GP know what’s going on.’


Eileen shows me to the door.
‘Is he going to be all right?’ she says.engine
‘I think so. He’s doing really well.’
‘Good,’ she says, opening the door. ‘’cos I don’t know what I’d do without him.’

benjamina gunn

Leave a comment

I let myself in using the key from the keysafe.
Hello? It’s Jim, from the Rapid Response Team.
Everything cold and quiet. A family home, once upon a time, but the family gone these past twenty years, and nothing left of them now but a spread of photos on the wall and a large suitcase placed sideways on the third stair up, like an improvised baby-gate.
Mary is sitting in her armchair in the front room, anxiously looking over the sides, feeling down the cushions, in her pockets.
‘My watch!’ she says. ‘I can’t find my watch!’
‘Let me help you.’
The watch is on her wrist.
‘Here! You’re wearing it!’
‘Where did you find that?’
‘You already had it on.’
She grumbles and fusses with the strap of it, then seems to lose interest and ends up staring out of the window.
‘What a lovely garden,’ I say, sitting down opposite her with the yellow folder on my lap. ‘Now then. Let’s have a quick read…’
‘Have you come to help me?’
‘Yes. I’m from the hospital. I’ve come to see how you are and what we can do for you.’

Mary’s Alzheimer’s is quite advanced. She has carers three times a day but I’m surprised she manages with that. Apparently the son has approached the council about the possibility of a live-in carer, but the prospect of that happening anytime soon isn’t great. Over on the bookshelf there’s a stack of ambulance report forms. Mary plainly isn’t safe. She has no short term memory, and keeps coming back to the same things. With her wild hair, sharp blue eyes and scratchy voice she reminds me of a character from a book – Ben Gunn, the pirate who was marooned for years on Treasure Island. It wouldn’t surprise me if she asked if I had any cheese about me, but as it turns out, she’s too focused on her watch to worry about food, something that her extreme frailty emphasises. When I help her to transfer to the commode, it’s like lifting an old woman made of straw.

Later, when I’ve finished the examination and I’m searching through Mary’s folder for more information, I ask her what she used to do for a living before she retired.
‘Shorthand typist!’ she says with unexpected clarity, leaning forwards and holding her hands out on the home keys of an invisible keyboard suspended in the air between us. She wiggles her fingers a little, then relaxes back into the chair.
‘That’s an impressive skill,’ I tell her. ‘Who was that for?’
‘Who wassat?’
‘Who did you do all that typing for?’
She stares at me along the sharp ridge of her nose for a while, her mouth slack, and gradually the distance re-establishes itself between us again.
‘Where’s my watch?’ she says at last, and leans over the side of the chair to look for

a long time ago

Leave a comment

After I’ve finished the examination and written up the report, I go over with Lajos what to expect next.
A heavily-built man in his seventies, Lajos has an attentive but sad expression, his bald head inclined to the right, his great, meaty paws stowed in his lap.
‘I don’t want to go back into the hospital,’ he says.
‘Hopefully it won’t come to that.’
‘Good. Because, you know, I’ve really had enough of the hospital. Wonderful though the staff are with their treatments and their care and everything. But really, I would not want to go back.’
‘I can understand that.’
‘I don’t mean to sound ungrateful.’
‘It’s just – well, one can have too much of a good thing.’
‘Absolutely. We’ll do what we can.’
‘Thank you.’
Lajos is Hungarian. I’ve got a little time to spare, so I ask him about his journey to this country.
‘When did you make it over?’
‘A long time ago,’ he says. ‘In nineteen fifty-six.’
I tell him I’ve just been reading a book about the revolution.
‘I had no idea. It must have been a difficult time.’
He shrugs.
‘I was a boy.’
‘So what happened?’
‘Well, my mother died when I was a baby and my father couldn’t look after me so I went to live with my grandmother. I didn’t much like it there with her and I knew I would have to escape one day. Well, one morning she sent me out to buy some bread. At that time there were always long queues at the bakery. Long, long queues. And I thought to myself By the time I reach the front of this queue I could have walked to Vienna. So then I started walking.’
‘What time of year was it?’
‘Winter. Very cold. And me in my grandmother’s slippers. But I was only small, and I had no idea what I was about. Still, I walked and walked along the main road that led out of Budapest in the direction of the Austrian border. Eventually it started to get dark. A farmer driving a horse and cart pulled up alongside me and he said Where do you think you’re going? And I told him my plan, to walk to Vienna. I think I lied. I think I told him I was going to find my family or something like that. But it’s getting dark and cold and you have no overcoat he said. Jump up and I’ll take you back to the farm. So I went with him, and his wife was there, and they gave me some stew, and somewhere warm to sleep. In the morning they found me a jumper and a coat to wear, which were too big but his wife she turned the sleeves up. I’m sorry we have no shoes to give you, having no children of our own he said. But he gave me some money to buy some if there were any to be had, and they waved me off at the door. It wasn’t long before I fell in with a band of other people making the same journey. One of them was a bank robber. He had a suitcase filled with money, and I knew it would be hard on us if we were caught with such things, but we were so cold and hungry by that time it didn’t seem to matter all that much. We were stopped at the border and put on a train back to Budapest, but it was easy to get off at the next station. We left the road and headed across the fields. Eventually we saw a fire in the distance and because we were half frozen to death we headed for that. Unfortunately it turned out to be another border patrol. The bank robber offered them the suitcase of money if they would let us cross over to Austria, but they said No, the Russians will shoot us for sure if they see we have taken money to let you go. I thought they were going to arrest us, and I’m sure they would have, or worse. But it happened that one of the women in our group was pregnant. The baby was coming and she started moaning a great deal, which made the guards very anxious. They said Go! Quickly, just go! Jump down in that ditch and follow it to the end. You’ll see the Austrian flag and that is where the border is. But as soon as you are in the ditch we will have to set off our flares, because if the Russians see that we have let you go it will be all over for us. So we jumped down in the ditch and started running, with the poor woman crying and moaning and doing her best to keep up. Well, the flare it went up, and it was a great crackling light above our heads. And then a moment later, there were shouts, and then shots from the Russians, and the bullets started landing all around us. We ran as best we could, but then the pregnant woman screamed out. She had been shot and badly wounded. We picked her up and somehow made it to the border. There was a nurse on duty at the station there. She delivered the baby, but the mother died. You know, I often think about it. If it wasn’t for that poor woman, I’m sure the border guards would not have let us through.’

He sighs, raises his hands, presses the heel of them firmly into his eyes, and then in one smooth movement sweeps his hands over the top of his head, to separate at the neck, and come to rest back in his lap again.
‘But it was a long time ago,’ he says, as sad and watchful as before. ‘A long time ago.’

wolves & gorillas

Leave a comment

The last time I saw Beryl she was having an asthma attack and I had to call for an ambulance.

It had all been going so well up till then – so well, in fact, the next step was to discharge her from our service back to the GP. She’d come home from hospital earlier that week with an exacerbation of COPD, a chest infection that had made her asthma worse. She’d improved on antibiotics and steroids, and the hospital were happy to let her go home, provided we kept an eye on things over the next few days. I’d just been signing off the paperwork when Beryl had started coughing, and couldn’t stop, and her inhalers didn’t help, so the next step was to get a crew in with some oxygen and a neb. They were with us in good time, and after making sure they had everything they needed, and saying my goodbyes, I left them to it. The lead paramedic called me a couple of hours later to give me an update: Beryl had recovered nicely, all was well, they were handing back to us. The plan to discharge was shelved for a while. Her meds were reviewed. I was put down for a follow-up visit the next day.

Beryl’s in good spirits. She’s sitting in her favourite armchair, reading the paper and having tea, a teddy bear dressed as a gondolier or something, staring at her lovingly from the sofa opposite. I shift it to one side to make room for the folder.
‘So! Beryl. That was all very dramatic last time. I’m supposed to make you better, not worse!’
She laughs, coughs a little, takes a sip of tea.
‘I mustn’t make you laugh. Remember what happened last time?’
She laughs again.
‘No! Stop that!’
Another sip of tea.
‘How did you get on with the paramedics?’
‘Fine,’ she says, putting the cup down. ‘They were very good. That nebuliser did the trick.’
Her voice is croaky from her illness, and oscillates in a curious way, a symptom of the stroke she suffered a few years back.
‘I wasn’t too keen on the young paramedic, though.’
‘D’you know what he said to me? He said did I suffer from anxiety? I said Yes, when I can’t breathe.
‘I think he means those anxiety attacks that affect your breathing, you know, the hyperventilation thing. It’s a silly thing to say, though. I mean, if there was a wolf walking down the hall towards me, I think I’d be anxious. But that doesn’t make me an anxious person. That’s a sensible reaction to a wolf in the hall.’
‘Yes,’ she says. ‘Speaking of which…’
She hands me the newspaper, folded over to an article on a gorilla that escaped from London Zoo the other day.
‘What do you think of that?’
‘Amazing,’ I say. ‘Reminds me of Dad.’
She laughs, coughs, reaches for her tea.
‘Poor thing,’ she says, eventually taking the paper back again and staring down at the beast. ‘Seems a shame to keep him locked up like that, but then again, so many are killed in the wild.’
‘How did he get out? Did he steal a uniform or something?’
‘I think he broke through some glass or other.’
‘Did you hear about that child that fell in the gorilla enclosure? Not here. Canada or somewhere?’
‘I think I do remember that.’
‘And they had to shoot the gorilla. Which was a terrible shame, but I can understand it. You couldn’t trust a gorilla with a crying child. I know what it’s like, when the grandchildren are round. Isn’t that right, Giuseppe?’
She looks at the bear.
I plump his pillow and straighten his hat.

When I’m all done I say goodbye and go over to shake Beryl’s hand.wolf_gorilla
‘Take care. And try not to worry about the gorillas.’
‘Promise,’ she says, ‘if you promise not to worry about the wolves.’


Leave a comment

To say that Geoffrey’s live-in carer, Nadja, might have had some work is like saying the Forth Bridge might have used a few girders. She’s incredible to look at, her hair Fox News Fabulous, her face stretched to a shine, her eyebrows plucked and pencilled, her lips plumped, her teeth flat white. And it doesn’t end there. Her whole body, riotously on display in a peach velour pant suit, looks like a Barbie doll in a hall of mirrors. Her entire wage must go on surgery; I wonder how she affords anything else – although, as far as imagining a home for her, I can’t get further than a giant box with a clear plastic cover and the words: Carer embossed in bright pink letters.
‘Hi!’ she says. ‘Is lovely to meet you! Thank you so much for coming!’
Geoffrey is asleep in his chair.
‘This recent illness has done him out,’ says Nadja, gently touching him on the arm to wake him up. ‘Geoffrey! Geoffrey! Wake up now, sweetie. We have visitor.’
It’s like reanimating a corpse. Geoffrey is ninety years old but looks older, his flesh sallow and slack, his eyes – when he eventually opens them – two opalescent, milky-grey stones.
‘There you are!’ says Nadja, squeezing his hand. ‘I hope you had nice dream.’
Nadja knows everything there is to know about her patient. She talks me through his condition, from the current state of his bowels to the latest contretemps between the hospital Consultant and his GP. The folder she hands me is perfectly neat and ordered; all his tablets are nicely kept, in fact, the whole scene – all the showering and toileting equipment, all the stand-aids and rails and pressure mattresses – everything is immaculately just-so. Geoffrey may be in a parlous physical state, but he couldn’t ask for better care.
Fully awake now, he blindly sniffs the air as I take his temperature.
‘Oh – don’t worry honey,’ says Nadja. ‘Is necessary to see for infection.’
She leans in to put an arm round his shoulder, and a hyper-inflated breast brushes his cheek.barbie
‘Normal!’ I say, reading the thermometer.
‘There! You see, baby? Is normal!’
But if Geoffrey registers any of this, it’s impossible for anyone but Nadja to tell. He simply gives one, long, deflationary sigh, closes his eyes, and goes straight back to sleep.

not knowing

Leave a comment

Mr Franklin opens the door so briskly you’d think he’d been standing there waiting for the knock. It’s difficult to resist taking a step back – not just for the suddenness of the greeting, but also for his eager expression. If I was forced to give an artist’s impression, I’d probably reach for a geometry set: compass points for those perfectly round eyes, a ruler for that mouth. Even his shirt is checked.
He hardly waits to hear who we are, but throws the door wide and gestures to the stairs that lead up to his maisonette flat.
‘After you!’ he says, everything punctuated with an exclamation mark, his eyebrows quivering in his hairline.
The place is as crisp and oddly perfect as Mr Franklin. A cold collection of rooms, each with the minimum amount of furniture to identify the function: a sofa and two armchairs for the sitting room; a single bed for the bedroom – and nothing whatsoever in the kitchen, to speak of, certainly not to eat.
‘What are you doing for food, Mr Franklin?’
‘Oh! Well! When you’ve gone, I’ll probably nip out to the shop and buy a sandwich!’
At least there are signs that may be true. A bin liner with empty sandwich wrappers, one for each day of the week.
‘Can I go out and get you something now?’ I ask him.
‘No! I can manage!’ he says. ‘But thank you!’
The GP has referred Mr Franklin to us.
‘I don’t know him myself,’ she says. ‘In fact, no-one seems to know Mr Franklin, and I’m a bit concerned he may have fallen off the grid. The paramedics went out to him and diagnosed a UTI, so that’s all in hand, at least. When I saw him he wasn’t too bad, all his obs were stable and so on, but there’s something… I don’t know. I’ll be doing a safeguarding report, of course, but in the meantime if you wouldn’t mind following up with bloods and so on. I mean, for goodness sake – he doesn’t even have an NHS number.’


Mr Franklin is ready for me to take his blood now. It’s disconcerting to see how detached he is from the business, like a puppet proffering his arm, his eyes lit from behind by a low watt bulb. When  I’m done, and he’s shown us back downstairs to the front door, I can imagine him simply turning off the light and hanging himself up on a hook.
‘How long have you lived here, Mr Franklin?’ I ask, as much to distract myself as much as the patient.
‘Now let’s see…’ he says, not blinking or diverting his gaze from the needle at all. ‘I don’t know, is the answer!’ he says.
‘Does that surprise you, not knowing?’
He doesn’t reply, but continues to smile down at his arm as the blood fills the vial.
‘No!’ he says. ‘Should it?’


Leave a comment

Margot’s husband Jack died three months ago, and everything is still as he left it. His check cap is still hanging on its peg, his walking stick is still in the umbrella stand by the money tree in the hallway, and his armchair is still to the right of Margot’s, the only difference being that the remote controls have migrated the short distance from his table to hers.
‘I keep expecting him to walk in the door,’ says Margot, looking past me.
I can’t help but look, too.
Margot and Jack were married for seventy years.
‘We got that for our sixtieth’ she says, nodding to a wide, two panelled picture with a black frame over the mantelpiece. The panel on the left has a photo of the Queen (from here, without my glasses, she looks strangely appraising, like she knows that you know the formal letter of congratulation to her right doesn’t even begin to cover it). Between the two panels, almost like an afterthought, there’s a gold tassel, trapped behind the glass like the hair of some fabulous beast. Beneath the frame and all around it are endless photographs of children, young adults, people, in churches, gardens,  in university gowns and Christmas jumpers, on ski slopes and football pitches, lifting glasses, shaking hands, collecting cups.
‘So many grand-children, great-grand children, great-great-grand children – just don’t ask me to name them all!’ she says.
But despite a few of them living nearby and popping in now and again, Margot says she thinks the fight’s gone out of her. Since Jack died she just doesn’t feel like carrying on anymore.
‘You get so tired, you see?’ she says. ‘And anyway, no-one lives forever.’ She re-arranges the shawl on her lap, then slumps back into an attitude that’s as pale and insubstantial as her hair.
I ask about her carers.
‘Mary? She’s a good girl. She’ll be in soon. She’ll want me to go out with her today, but to be honest, between you and me, I think my going out days are over. Don’t you?’
‘It must be very hard, losing Jack like that,’ I tell her. ‘It’ll take time.’queen
‘Well that’s the problem,’ she says. ‘I think I’ve just about run out of that particular commodity.’

another jim

Leave a comment

I hardly need look at the numbers; no doubt that ambulance marks the spot.
The front door’s open. Voices in the sitting room.
Hello? It’s Jim. From Rapid Response.
‘In here, mate!’
John and Rae, two of my old paramedic friends, sitting with the patient.
After an enthusiastic round of hand-shaking and hugs, I focus on the patient.
Adnan is lying on the sofa, his right arm crooked under, the right side of his face into his palm; his left hand free to bat the air when I ask him how he is.
‘Not good. Not good at all.’
‘So what happened?’
John tells me the story.
‘Adnan was discharged home yesterday after a twenty-four hour stay with hip pain. No history of trauma or fracture, but I think they’re working up to a replacement at some point. Is that right, Adnan?’
He swipes the air again and groans.
‘It looks like Adnan rolled off the sofa onto the floor and couldn’t get up, so that’s why we were called. I don’t think there’s any damage done. It was a controlled decent, and the rug’s erm… pretty generous.’
It’s a good description. The rug has such deep pink strands I wouldn’t be surprised to see clown fish swimming in and out.
‘Take me back,’ says Adnan. ‘Just take me back, please.’
‘All his obs are fine,’ says Rae. ‘There’s nothing new going on as far as we can tell. But Adnan wants us to take him back to hospital. We’ve been trying to persuade him it’s maybe not the best option, but he’s quite insistent.’
‘Take me back!’
‘As you can see.’
‘So – over to you!’ says John.
It’s funny to be in this position. So many times in the past, when I worked as an EMT on the ambulance, I’ve found myself trying to persuade a patient to stay at home, but then giving in and taking them in on the grounds that they didn’t have the right level of community support. Now, it turns out, I am the community support.

I look at John; he gestures for me to continue, then folds his arms to watch.

‘I’m sorry you’ve had such a rough time of it, Adnan. But look – help’s here now. There are lots of things we can do to make it safe for you to stay at home. I can get some equipment in to help you get about the place; I can organise some care, to help with washing and dressing and mealtimes; I can get a physiotherapist in to see where you are and what you might need to do to improve, and I can ask our pharmacist to review your pain meds. Okay? So really there’s lots of practical things we can do to help. How does that sound?’
He groans, covers his face with his hand.
‘Because, you know – the thing is, being at home has got to be so much nicer than being in hospital, don’t you think? I mean, you’ve got all your things here, your TV, your bed…’
I can’t help looking round. It’s a sad and untidy place, clothes strewn about, scattered letters and appointment cards, a carrier bag of assorted meds. The coral rug is about the nicest thing about it. I wonder about Adnan’s past medical history, and whether there’s a mental health component.
I turn back to him again.
‘So what d’you say? Shall we stay at home? Hmm?’
His hand is still in front of his face and he breathes heavily. In fact, it looks as if he’s gone to sleep.
He opens his eyes with a start, and blinks at me uncomprehendingly.
‘Shall we stay at home?’
He doesn’t answer.
‘Call us back if you need us!’ says John, getting up and stretching. ‘Nice to meet you, Adnan. And don’t worry. Jim’ll fix it.’
It’s a dreadful impression of Jimmy Savile, the waggle of an imaginary cigar.
‘You can’t say that anymore,’ says Rae.
‘Oh? Shame. He was my one good impression.’
‘Yeah – because of course, that’s the real shame of it, isn’t it? Hundreds of terrible abuse cases, but John can’t do his impression…’
I hear them bantering all the way down the path.
I’m alone with Adnan, who seems to have gone back to sleep.

Sometimes, I really miss working on the ambulance.


Leave a comment

‘Have you any idea how off-putting it is, staring at me through the hatch when I’m trying to have a conversation?’
I’m completely thrown by this. I thought I was just letting Stella know I was there. In fact, I thought I’d been pretty circumspect. I’d been on the verge of walking into her office, but I thought – no, she’s on the phone, I’ll do the decent thing and I’ll wait outside. And look through the hatch occasionally.
‘Sorry. I thought – you know…’
‘You thought you’d bully me off the phone so I’d see to whatever it is you want first.’
I can’t make out if she’s genuinely cross or not. She’s a formidable presence, chilly blue mascara and a hairstyle that looks like it’s held in place with a pop rivet in either ear. Still, I really need to speak to her about Gerry, so I figure the best way to proceed will be to smooth things over and apologise.
‘Sorry. You’re right. I’ve got into bad habits. It’s so busy back in the office, if someone’s on the phone too long we have to force them off using the power of our minds.’
I widen my eyes and raise my eyebrows. And then blush when she doesn’t react.
‘Anyway,’ I say, floundering. ‘I expect you know why I’m here.’
‘I can’t wait to find out.’
‘Ah! Gerry!’ she says, lacing her fingers and lowering her chin. ‘What are you going to do about him?


I’d must admit I’d been expecting worse. The referral said he’d not been coping. A long history of alcohol abuse, drastically underweight, faeces on the carpet, non-compliant with meds – with everything, come to that. I’d seen cases like Gerry many times before, of course, and I’d made sure I had some plastic overshoes to slip on before I went through the door. In the event, it wasn’t too bad. It was true about him being underweight – he was a great, rotten-bearded, etiolated stick of a man, his old leather belt on ‘tourniquet’ setting, his teeth too big for his mouth.
‘Nah! Ah’ve always bin’ like it,’ he said, swiping the air, shaking my hand, sitting back down. ‘Always! The medics in the army, they all came round to have a look, a prod an’ a poke. We’ll soon have you fattened up, young man they said. Nothing ever worked. I could eat cake and chocolate all day every day and never look no wider than a sparrow’s chuff.’
He gets meals on wheels but hardly touches them. He still drinks, but not as much. ‘I gave up my wild ways twenty years ago. I only take what they call a maintenance dose, if you know what I mean?’
And as for the faeces on the floor – well, I noticed a scattering of tissues in the bedroom, and the bed sheets caught the light in a worrying way, but otherwise, I hardly needed the overshoes at all.
I ran some obs. Everything was fine. I asked him a few more questions and then headed  back out to the fresh air and a chat with the Scheme Manager.


‘It’s a complete nightmare,’ says Stella. ‘He’s a nightmare. The only reason it’s as decent in there as it is, is because our cleaners blitzed the place trying to make it habitable. I mean – they fought their way in with shovels! I’ve lost count of the number of times we’ve changed his bedding. You should’ve seen it – like something out of a farm. It’s not a mental health problem or any physical thing. He’s just idle, bone bloody idle. He’s got a toilet, with a frame around it. He’s got the equipment. He just doesn’t use any of it. And then there’s his friend, Babs. I say friend, but I don’t think he particularly wants her coming round, because he hides when she turns up. And when he doesn’t answer, she rings all the bells, and then calls the ambulance and says he’s on the floor. We’ve tried getting the police involved but nothing works. We had the fire brigade the other day because he put a lamp with a bare bulb on the sofa and forgot about it. I mean – we all like him. He’s actually quite a sweet guy. We couldn’t have put up with him as long as we have if we didn’t like him. It’s just we’re reaching the end of our ability to cope.’lincoln
‘It’s a difficult one, that’s for sure. I’m pretty sure he’s got capacity.’
‘Oh he knows what he’s doing all right. It’s just not anything anyone else would do. And that’s fine, as far as it goes. Except he’s not living in a cave in the middle of the woods. He’s in sheltered housing. There are limits.’
She touches her fringe, in three places, like someone checking for weak spots.
‘I mean – he dragged his duvet into the wash room the other day. Full marks for trying. But it was covered in faeces! And what do you think the other residents had to say about that?’
‘They didn’t like it?’
‘Damn right they didn’t like it! They didn’t like it at all!’

The O.M.R

Leave a comment

One benefit of the gentrification process is that all the house numbers are easy to read. Large figures in clean fonts, brushed chrome, graphically precise angles. And if some of the renovations in the street have settled for the more conservative Victorian style, more and more are following the trend for matt grey paintwork, internal shutters, heavy oak doors, and drought-tolerant, ornamental shrubs in colourful planters.

Every house, that is, but number twenty-two.

‘Is he all right?’ says a young woman in a headscarf and dungarees, marshalling two kids in karate outfits on to an MPV. ‘Let me know if there’s anything I can do.’

James has lived here for seventy-eight years. He moved in when he was ten.
‘One time, I was coming home from school, and Old Mrs Gillie at number three grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and pulled me into the front garden. Before I could think much about it, a German Messerschmitt flew over and shot the road up. They did that sometimes. Lightening the load for the trip home.’
He rubs the side of his face and then resumes his position: neutral, pensive. Maybe it’s his advanced age, but certain features about him seem enlarged – nose, ears, hands, head – like one of those body diagrams that illustrate the relative importance of the senses.
‘Saved my life,’ he says. ‘You could see the holes in the pavement, years after.’
I would never have guessed James had lived here so long. The back room where we sit is only sparsely furnished – a sofa, table and chair, TV, gas fire across the fireplace. If he’d told me he’d just moved in and the van was delayed, I’d understand it.
‘I’m the only one left now,’ he says. ‘My younger brother Joe. Everyone. Gone. Funny, how things change.’ He turns his palms up and shrugs. ‘What can you do?’ he says.
I need to have a look at his yellow folder. He tells me it’s in the front room, so I go next door to fetch it. I half expect all the clutter to have migrated here, but the room is as bare as everywhere else. Never has a yellow folder been so easy to find, conspicuously placed in the middle of another plain brown sofa. I bring it back with me and balance it on my lap.
‘Are you eating okay, James?’
‘Meals on wheels.’
‘Are they any good?’
He leans forwards, lightly jabs an index finger twice on my knee, and then holds the finger up in the air.
‘No washing up!’ he says, then taps the side of his nose and resumes his position.
‘Excellent! Okay – so let’s see what they’ve been saying about you in dispatches,’ I say.
He waits with a blank look.

When I ask for a sample of urine, and show him the little bowl that’s supposed to go in the toilet to catch it, he sighs and leads me through the kitchen and out into the garden, to a plain brick affair with a black wooden door and latch. I wait for him whilst he goes.
‘How’s he doing?’ says a voice over the wall, a narrow-suited young guy with an Edwardian beard and thick framed glasses. ‘Give James our best, won’t you?’

‘You’ve got some nice neighbours,’ I tell him as we walk back.
‘Nice street,’ he says. ‘Always has been.’

Back in the house I finish writing up the notes and close the folder.
‘Well, that’s all fine,’ I tell him. ‘I don’t know what happened the other day, but whatever it was, there’s no sign of it now. We’ll keep coming in over the next day or so to make sure everything’s okay, but it may be a question of referring you back to your GP.’
‘’Appreciate all you’ve done,’ he says, shaking my hand as I get up to leave. He follows me to the door and  holds it open. Outside, the young woman in the dungarees has dropped the karate kids off, been to the supermarket and is quickly off-loading the shopping before she has to go back. The lights on her car flash twice – krip! krip! – then she holds the keys in her mouth, picks up the shopping bags and hurries down the path to her front door.
‘Hello Dames!’ she says round the keys, then puts the bags down and takes the keys out of her mouth. ‘All right, then?’
‘Ye-es’ he says. ‘Fine, thank you, Agnes.’
‘Great! I’ll try to come over later.’
She unlocks the door, taps it open with her foot,  picks up the bags, and adds: ‘If you’re not careful!’ then hauls her bags inside, shouts up the stairs over something operatic playing from the kitchen, and back-heels the door so it shuts with a well-crafted clunk.

James stands there a moment, blinking slowly in the wake of all this coming and going, a sweetly realistic old man robot, awaiting further instruction. I wave to him from the car, and he waves back – an odd, old man robot wave, articulated at the shoulder. Then, galvanised into action, he retreats back into the shadow of his hallway, and gently closes the door.