Sandra, one of the District Nurses phones to see if we have capacity.
‘Don’t worry! It’s not a full-on referral,’ she says. ‘More of a favour, really. I’ve just been round to see Harry, one of our palliative patients. A lovely gentleman, stubbornly independent, you know the sort. Coping remarkably well up to now. No carers, just friends helping out now and again. Anyway, he’d had an episode of incontinence, probably food related more than anything. I cleaned him up, changed his bed things and put them in the wash. Medically he’s stable. It’s just he cried when I was there and it was a bit of a shock to be honest. We’re all a bit worried about him. It’s too late to sort out a proper care package tonight, if that’s what he needs. I just wondered if you could send someone round last thing to see he’s okay for tonight.’
Harry is eighty something, fifty years at sea, twenty of those a captain, the beard and the bearing to prove it.
‘Can I see some identification, please?’ he says at the door. I show him my badge.
‘Thank you,’ he says, hands it back and shows me in.
He walks uncertainly, like a man in a dream, running his hands over the walls and the furniture not for balance but to reassure himself they’re real. I follow him into the sitting room. He eases himself down into a sculpted leather armchair, a TV showing Twenty20 cricket, the sound off.
‘Sandra asked if I’d drop by to see how you are,’ I tell him.
‘How are you feeling?’
He stares at me. There’s a delay before he replies each time, no doubt a symptom of his cancer.
‘I’m fine,’ he says. ‘I had a little setback, but everyone’s been so kind.’
I take my coat off and drape it over my bag.
‘What can I do to help?’ I ask him. ‘What about a cup of tea?’
He considers that.
Eventually he says: ‘Thank you. Tea. Yes.’
‘How do you have it?’
Another long pause. He wets his lips a couple of times.
It’s a physical thing. You can almost see the images passing in front of him: the kettle, the cup, the milk.
‘No sugar,’ he says. ‘Thank you.’
Often, when you go into people’s houses, there’s a slight confusion. Where do they keep their tea things? Which is the cutlery drawer? Where’s the bin? You spend a minute or two opening and closing cupboards, expecting one thing, finding another. Harry’s kitchen is different. Everything is just where you might expect it, neatly stowed. I get the impression if the house unexpectedly put to sea, you could still make breakfast quickly, and nothing would fall on the floor. The draining board is a work of art, all the cutlery standing handles down, forks and knives on one side, spoons and teaspoons opposite, plates in size order. There’s a tray over by the kettle with caddies for tea and coffee. Tea-towels hanging from hooks. I’m the untidiest thing there.
‘Here we are!’ I say, bringing him a cup of tea. ‘How about something to eat?’
‘I couldn’t,’ he says after a while. ‘I’m afraid I’ve lost my appetite. But thank you.’
‘You’re welcome. Sandra asked me if I’d empty the washing machine and hang it all out to dry. Is that okay?’
‘Please,’ he says. ‘I don’t feel quite up to it.’
There’s a clothes rack in the utility room, full of pyjamas, shirts, pants, socks, handkerchiefs and jumpers. I fold them all up as neatly as I can, put them in a pile on the sideboard, then take out the washing. I shake out the sheets, duvet cover, pillow slips and towels, space them out as much as possible, then go back into the lounge.
‘Shall I put the dry things away for you?’
He looks over at me, then nods.
I take the pile of laundry and go into his bedroom. Again, it couldn’t be easier. There are specific drawers for each item, and I square everything away, everything except the towels. I check the bathroom and the hallway, but I can’t find an airing or linen cupboard, or any place else that might double for that. So I go back into the lounge.
‘What about these?’ I say, holding up the little pile of towels.
He stares at me, at them. After a while he says:
‘Lay them on the chest, could you? In the bedroom.’
I want to say Aye Aye, but I just smile and turn about.
The chest is a vast sailor’s trunk, made of dark African woods, intricate marquetry ships with masts and sails, riveted, braced with copper bands. I place the towels on top of it, then go back into the lounge.
‘Is there anything else I can help you with tonight?’
‘No. I’ll be fine,’ he says. ‘I’ve got friends popping round later.’
‘Sandra’s back in the morning. Maybe you can have a think about what kind of help you might want from now on.’
‘I’m a cussed old thing,’ he says. ‘I like to be as independent as I can.’
I stand to go.
‘If there’s nothing else…’
‘There is one thing,’ he says, and points to the table in front of him. To a tea spoon resting on a woven Jute coaster, the handle aligned with the edge of it, both of them parallel with the remote control.
‘That’s the culprit,’ he says. ‘The bad spoon. I’m sure of it. You couldn’t wash it up for me, could you?’
I take it into the kitchen, give it a good scrubbing, then place it, handle first, with the others.