the gatekeeper

The sign outside the main door of the residential home is admirably clear. Big white letters on a green plastic plaque: Ring and Enter. Just beneath it is a large Bakelite nipple. I press it, there’s a resonant buzzing deep inside the house, I push the door open and go through into the hallway. Another door, this one with ancient stained-glass panelling. Another notice. Big white letters on a red plastic plaque: Please use the hand gel provided and, just below it, Please sign the visitors’ book.
This one opens of its own accord. An elderly carer stands there, her smile as wide and fixed as a woman who allowed a psychopathic nephew to do her make-up, then dried it all off in a wind tunnel.
‘Can I help you?’ she says.
‘Hi! Yes! I’m Jim, from the Rapid Response Team. Come to see Derek.’
‘Derek Weasenham?’
‘Yes. Derek Weasenham. Does he live here?’
I look at my diary for comfort. (It’s not even open).
‘Ah, yes! Derek!’
‘That’s him!’
But just as she’s about to show me the way, another, younger, fiercer carer approaches, dressed in the same fluourescent pink pinafore, both hands thrust deep into the front pocket, like she’s concealing a weapon.
‘How did you get in?’ she says.
The first carer makes a discreet sideways step. I feel like doing the same – in fact, there’s a big, floor-standing vase filled with fake sunflowers. I’m tempted to dive behind that.
‘Well – I just rang and came through.’
‘The door was open, was it?’
‘It wasn’t open, but it wasn’t locked. If you see what I mean.’
‘So the door wasn’t locked, you rang the bell and you came through.’
I make a backwards thumbing motion. With my thumb.
‘There was a sign,’ I say, pathetically.
‘I know there’s a sign. I work here.’
‘It says ring and enter.
‘Which means ring the bell and wait for someone to come and let you in.’
‘That’s not what it says.’
‘That’s what it means.’
‘I’m sorry to make a point of this….’ (not as sorry as the first carer; although her make-up is still supporting her smile, there are worrying signs of fatigue).
‘…but, the way I’d read, ring and enter is ring the bell and let us know you’re around, then come in and make yourself known.
‘Make yourself known?’
‘Present yourself. For inspection.’
‘No. You should ring and wait like everyone else.’
‘Well I think in that case you ought to change the sign.’
‘What to?’
‘Ring and wait.
The first carer has opened a cupboard. She takes a vacuum cleaner out, and then stands there with the flex in her hand, still smiling. sunflowersShe’s so stressed, I wouldn’t be surprised if she plugged it in her ear.
‘Not now, Davina,’ says the second carer.
And then to me: ‘Who is it you’ve come to see?’
‘Derek. Derek Weasenham.’
‘This way,’ she says.
Which I have to admit is pretty damned clear.

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