cracking the code

There’s certainly no shortage of game shows. There must be a factory somewhere, a giant warehouse, with a fork-lift backing up day and night with crates of flat-pack sets, catering-size tubs of contestants, and – arriving by special courier – cartons of snap-fit hosts (a specialist team to assemble – “I think we’ll have another Mockney male. This suit, that tie, those eyes.”). The show Lily’s watching seems to be based on safe cracking. God knows what happens if they get the code right. Meanwhile, the Host ruthlessly corals his nerds with one eye on the camera and one on the studio clock, looking so stiff if you tore his shirt open you’d probably spill cogs.
Dame Judi Dench,’ says one of the contestants, choosing a category (I didn’t catch the theme – Bond characters? People with a life?)
‘Dame Judi Dench!’ says the Host. ‘Good ol’ Dame Judi.’
He raises his hand and a digital clock starts running.
Lily is avidly watching the show from the ruin of her armchair. It’s just as well the room is super-heated – she’s surrounded by three, free-standing radiators, all turned up to the max – because Lily is naked, her fingers laced across her flaccid breasts, one leg jauntily crossed over the other, head craning forward, bottom lip curled up in an expression of extreme concentration.
She looks over at me.
‘Hello Lily!’ I say.

*

The bright morning sun still hasn’t penetrated the gloom at the bottom of the basement steps. It’s so chill down here I wonder if it ever does.
The front door is blistered, battered. There are three notices roughly taped-up to make them waterproof and then thumb-tacked into the panels:
YOU HAVN’T BEN INVITD SO KEEP OUT!!!!
THE BELL DONT WORK. IF I DONT COME WHEN YOU KNOCK GO AWAY YOUR NOT WANTED!!!
THIS IS PRIVIT PROPERTY!!! IF YOU COME IN WITHOUT PERMISHON YOURLL GET WHAT FOR!!!
There’s a keysafe, though. I retrieve the key, open the door and peer inside.
A long corridor, banked up with junk on the left hand side, doors leading off on the right. All dark, except a light on in what must be the kitchen at the far end.
‘Hello? It’s Jim from the Rapid Response. From the hospital. Come to see Lily.’
No voice in reply, just the muted blare of a TV in a room further along, near the kitchen.
‘Helloooo? Rapid Response…’
I leave the door open, thinking it’ll be quicker to run out if I have to.
What makes the whole thing worse, of course, is that strictly speaking, I don’t have PERMISHON. But then, the referral from the hospital was quite unequivocal – not coping at home, hallucinating, ?capacity, needs urgent assessment. Sometimes there only seems to be a fine, legal margin between ‘Best Interest’ and ‘Breaking & Entering’; I’m tiptoeing along it now.
‘Helloooo?’
I glance into each room as I pass, just in case. I’m like a character in a bad thriller – hopefully the hero, but knowing my luck, probably the guy who gets whacked in the first scene and put in a freezer.
‘Hellooo? Lily?’
The TV gets louder as I move down the corridor. She must be in there. So many of the patients I visit have hearing problems and sit close to the TV with the volume up. But those notices on the front door have made me jumpy.
I knock on the closed door and after a pause, gently push it open.
‘Hellooo?’
A wave of heat and sound.
Now I understand you’re in MENSA?
– That’s right
That sounds fascinating. So tell me – what do you have to do to get into a thing like that? Apart from be very very brainy of course?
– Well. Erm. No. That’s about it.
I see! Great. Well see just how well those brains are working for you today as we go into the next round…
Lily looks at me from the armchair.
‘Can you help me to the toilet?’ she says, gesturing vaguely to a dustbin in the corner of the room.
‘The dustbin? You’re not going to the loo there, are you Lily?’
‘No-one’s told me where the proper loo is.’
‘I can show you, if you like.’
‘Will you?’
‘Of course. Let’s put a dressing gown on you first.
On the way there I try to get an idea of her situation. Someone obviously comes in now and again. Her tablets are up in a blue crate on top of the kitchen cabinets; there’s a pack of fortifying drinks on the side (untouched); some unused pressure area equipment. Notes in a different, more moderate hand on the fridge, reminders of what’s in there, when to eat, when Barry’s next in. A phone number (I write it down).
‘How long have you lived here, Lily?’ I ask as I help her back into the front room.
‘Ooh, not long. I’ll tell you what happened. I got pregnant and they didn’t want me to keep it. But I did, you see. I did. I kept the child, and I worked – I worked damned hard – all my life. And the next thing you know, they’ve packed me off to this place.’
She pinches my arm and leans in.
‘Don’t let them,’ she says. ‘Don’t let them leave me here.’
‘I’ll see what I can do.’
I help her back into the armchair. Bring her a mug of tea with some biscuits. There’s a knock on the front door. A community mental health nurse has arrived. I give him a quick handover, then introduce him to Lily.
It seems the MENSA guy hasn’t been able to crack the code. He looks shamefaced as the Host wraps things up.
‘Sadly this is the point we have to say goodbye,’ he says. ‘But you’ve been a smashing contestant. Please give my very best to the good people of MENSA, and tell ‘em the application’s in the post. Okay then? All right! A big hand ladies and gentleman!’
I say goodbye to Lily, but she looks at me with the same bewildered expression she’s been giving the TV.
‘Who’s that?’ I hear her say to the nurse.
‘It’s Jim. A colleague,’ he says.

Outside, walking back up the basement steps into the sunshine, everything feels so overwhelmingly fresh and sharp I stop when I reach the pavement and look around.
I see an elderly woman holding onto the railings whilst she gets her breath; a guy washing windows with a squeegee on the end of a ridiculously long pole, and two guys talking intensely, argument or agreement it’s hard to say. One of them has an Irish terrier on a lead. The terrier is staring at me, quivering intently, its tail arched over its body in my direction like some kind of transmitter. The guy holding the lead suddenly jerks it a little; the terrier’s paws skitter delicately on the pavement, and it ends up pointing the other way, at the man with the squeegee. If the men don’t move soon, they’ll get wet, I think. Squeegee man will have to say something. Why are they leaving it so late?

Meanwhile, the old woman has walked off.

I load my stuff into the car, cross Lily off the list, and drive.

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