Douglas doesn’t seem able to work the door opening mechanism. I ring three times to ask him to buzz me in; each time he says Hello? like it’s the first time we’ve spoken; and each time he mumbles some stuff then hangs up without letting me through. In the end I have to ring the woman who lives in the flat next door.
‘Sorry to bother you,’ I tell her. ‘I’m from the hospital avoidance team. I’ve been ringing Douglas’ number but he doesn’t seem able to…’
The door buzzes before I can finish.
She’s peering out of her door as I make the landing.
‘Thanks for letting me in,’ I say to her. ‘I think he’s been having a little trouble working the intercom.’
‘Douglas? I think he’s been having a little trouble with something else.’
She lifts her right hand to her mouth, gives a disdainful little drinking mime, then slowly closes her door.
Douglas is waiting just inside his flat.
‘Uh – oh! Hello!’ he says, almost falling over. ‘I … er… wha’ d’you want?’
‘My name’s Jim, I’m from the hospital avoidance team. I’ve come to see how you are and to do your blood pressure and whatnot.’
‘Can I come in?’
He shows me into a small dining room, barely furnished, with a neglected and yellowing air about it. There are some reproductions of famous paintings on the walls: some women and a child in a poppy field by Monet, and one of some cypress trees by Van Gogh.
‘Nice paintings,’ I say to him, putting my bag down and getting the paperwork ready.
‘Not the originals,’ he sniffs, clearing some papers from a hard-backed chair and sitting down.
Illness and alcohol have ravaged his body. He’s quite emaciated, leaning back and slowly straightening, the prominences of his spine working on the wooden backrest to sit him upright like the teeth of a worn old cog.
‘How are you feeling today?’ I ask him.
‘How am I feeling? Bloody awful.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
‘I’m sorry to say it.’
His observations come back surprisingly normal for someone in such poor condition.
I write them down, making conversation as I go, finding out who comes in, does what, when and how often.
‘Did she let you in?’ he says, nodding towards the door and the neighbour across the way.
‘She did. You didn’t seem able to work the release.’
‘She’ll be proper made up about it,’ he says. Then leans forward and whispers confidentially: She’s a nosy old bag. He straightens again. ‘Until the screaming starts. As it will. She has dementia, you know.’
I listen to his chest. An interesting collection of clicks and rasps and wheezes.
‘I could hardly hear with all these clocks in the room,’ I say, taking the steth out of my ears.
The room has at least a dozen clocks of different sizes – a pendulum clock on the wall, and then various novelty clocks, tin alarm clocks and smaller, travel sized efforts, all of them busily clicking away the seconds.
‘I couldn’t figure out which was your heart,’ I say.
He shakes his head.
‘See them there?’ he says, pointing to an identical couple of clocks, heavy, moulded, bright yellow plastic things, a vision of the future that seems so dated now. ‘Five pounds a pair. So I thought – okay then. Right! You’re coming home with me!’
I say some complimentary things about the clocks, then finish the paperwork and pack my things away.
‘There’ll be someone else to see you later on,’ I say. ‘Will you be all right till then?’
‘Yes, yes,’ he says, looking a bit lost.
‘It was nice to meet you.’ I shake his hand. ‘Don’t get up. I’ll see myself out.’
As I hurry across the landing and down the stairs I check my watch – which strikes me as ridiculous, because haven’t I just been in a room filled with clocks, and still I don’t know what the time is.