Bryony has a startled look.
‘Fancy seeing you here!’ she says, even though we’ve never met before. ‘How are you?’
‘I’m fine, thanks, Bryony. How are you?’
‘Been better,’ she says, slumping back into the chair.
She’s been living in that chair and this front room for some days now, ever since her arthritic knees became too painful to carry her upstairs.
‘I moved into this house when I was thirty,’ she says. ‘Can you believe that? Now look at me. Ninety-four this Christmas.’
‘Were you born on Christmas Day?’ I say, checking the notes.
The other clinicians have made creative attempts to make her life tenable at home. They’ve set up a micro-environment – a zimmer frame to help her stand, a commode at right-angles to her chair, and a moveable table with water and tissues and so on. Physio is starting soon, the pharmacist is reviewing her meds, carers are coming in three times a day – but even so, she’s at the limit of what can be accomplished.
‘I’ve come to do two things,’ I say, opening my bag. ‘One is to put some riser feet onto the chair and the put-you-up, and the other is to take another sample of blood.
‘Another one? I won’t have any left.’
‘There are just a few bits and pieces they need to run.’
‘I don’t mind. You do what you have to do. I’m in your hands.’
I put the riser feet on first. It’s a difficult job on my own. The put-you-up Bryony’s been using as a bed is one of those heavy sofas that lie flat. It can’t be comfortable. There’s such a curve to it, the only thing that would stop you rolling straight on the floor is the wall on one side, or the deep gulley that runs down the middle. When I go to move the sofa out, the whole thing partially collapses. Thick cobwebs stick to my trouser legs. There’s a cloying smell of damp about the place.
‘Almost done,’ I say, trying to sound bright.
‘Don’t you go hurting your back.’
‘I’ll try not to.’
I help her onto the commode so I can put the riser legs on the chair. She can hardly weight bear, and I make a mental note to change her status to double-up.
It takes a while to move all the books and newspapers and ancient bank files that have accumulated round the chair over the years. When that’s done and I’ve got some room to work, I find that the chair is as weighty and unwieldy as the sofa. No doubt it was a handsome piece of furniture in a showroom in ninety-fifty, but the velvet has rubbed through to the ticking and the sculpted wooden feet are as sticky as if they were carved out of old toffee.
‘There we go! That should make it easier to jump on and off,’ I say, taking a step back and brushing my trousers down. I replace the old cushion she was sitting on with the special, pressure-relieving kind, and help her back on.
‘How does that feel?’
‘Better,’ she says.
‘Good. Now then. I’ll just wash my hands, then I’ll see about getting that blood.’
There are two types of patient: those that look away when the needle goes in, and those that pay attention.
‘What did you do before you retired?’ I ask her, then: ‘Sharp scratch.’
‘Children’s books!’ she says, lowering her face so much that her nose is almost touching the crook of her elbow.
‘How lovely! In what respect?’
‘In respect of getting them published.’
‘Well!’ I say, pushing a Vacuette into position and waiting for the blood to fill to the line, ‘I can’t think of a nicer thing to do.’
‘I enjoyed it,’ she says. ‘Are you getting what you need?’
‘Yep. It’s coming through nicely.’
‘Good. I’ve always had good veins.’
Then she sniffs and slowly looks up again to survey the place: the lines of books quietly composting on the bookcases, the dusty china dogs on the mantelpiece, a forgotten cereal bowl, packets of medical supplies, and a seascape, still vibrantly blue despite its surroundings, hanging where it’s probably always hung, from the picture rail that runs like a strandline around the upper quarter of the room.
‘Who’d have thought I’d end up like this?’ she says, as I tape some gauze to her wound.
‘There!’ I say, dumping the needle in the sharps bin. ‘All done!’
‘Yes,’ she says. ‘I believe so.’