One of the other nurses hadn’t been able to take Mary’s blood that morning so I’ve been assigned to try again this afternoon.
The day is high and blue, the kind of easy, late October day that makes you forget you’re standing on the edge of winter, with the clocks back, the nights shuffling up, and a prospect of colder days to come.
Mary answers the door in a red silk wrap patterned with Chinese dragons and lilies. She’s frail and watchful behind a pair of heavy black-framed spectacles.
‘Come in out of the cold,’ she says, standing aside. ‘Lord – what would my son say if he knew I was answering the door like this.’
She shuts the door, and then takes a seat at the little table in the window.
‘I suppose you’ve come to have a shot, too,’ she says, laying her right arm amongst the papers and letters and unopened catalogues, bunching her sleeve up. ‘I don’t think there’s much there, but be my guest.’
I set out my kit and then inspect her arm, tapping up the likely candidates.
‘Here!’ she says, ‘you’re not supposed to just waltz in and beat me up!’
‘No. It doesn’t look good, does it?’
I put the tourniquet round her upper arm and prepare to go for a vein.
‘So what did you do before you retired?’ I ask, as much to distract her attention as anything else.
‘I was a nurse,’ she says. ‘Well, come on – you did ask.’
‘Uh-oh! A nurse? Now I’m for it.’
‘Don’t be daft. It was a long time ago and I’ve forgotten more than I knew.’ But she leans in as I insert the needle.
‘Anything?’ she says.
‘Not a thing.’
‘I suppose you’ll just have to keep going until you strike oil,’ she says, relaxing back again. ‘Don’t mind me.’
We chat about her symptoms whilst I look for a different site.
‘I was in Marks and Spencer’s,’ she says. ‘Don’t laugh. And I was standing with the assistant, looking over all the bags, and I was thinking how they didn’t have much – certainly nothing I’d want to carry out in public – and then suddenly I couldn’t get my thoughts in order.’
‘You were confused?’
‘I was muddled! More than that – I just didn’t know what I was doing there or what I was supposed to say.’
‘I’m like that, in Marks and Spencer’s.’
‘But I couldn’t understand what any of it meant, Jim. And my heart was going a mile a minute. And the assistant was looking at me like I was some kind of alien or something. And I just had to get out.’
‘So you went outside?’
‘I did. I left the store. And I stood outside, in the fresh air. And everyone was walking past me, all busy with their own lives, all going somewhere, and I just had to sit down and let it wash over me.’
‘Did you feel short of breath? Sick, dizzy?’
‘No. Nothing like that. I just kind of felt not myself if you understand me. You hear people say it a lot, don’t you? I’m not feeling myself today. Well that’s exactly what it was. I felt like someone else, in my own body.’
She pushes her specs back up her nose and stares at me.
‘I expect you think I’m ready for the fella with the big white butterfly net.’
‘No. I mean – it might be an anxiety thing. But it could be something else.’
‘Like what? My heart, d’you suppose?’
‘You’re on quite a few meds. Some of them have changed recently. It might be some kind of interaction. I don’t know enough about it.’
‘Me neither,’ she says, sadly. ‘There! That’s flowing now! Thank Christ for that.’
I manage to fill the two phials I need. She presses the square of gauze to the crook of her elbow as I loosen the tourniquet and withdraw the needle.
‘There! All done! It’ll be interesting to see the results.’
‘Interesting’s not the word.’
Mary’s quiet as I pack my things away. Eventually she says: ‘My daughter-in-law’s on the case, you know – phoning up the doctor to find out what’s going on. Marlee’s a holy terror, bless her. She won’t let them get away with anything.’
‘Quite right. But don’t give her my number, whatever you do.’
‘Ah – you’re all right. I’ll put in a word.’
I write out the blood form.
‘So where did you do your training?’ I ask her. ‘Down here or over the water?’
‘London,’ she says. ‘I loved it, y’know? It was fantastic. Me and the girls, we used to go dancing in the Tottenham Court Road. And – you’ll laugh – but we used to give out these silly fake names on the door: Clare Voiyant. Sonya Bike. Theresa Green. They must’ve known, but they just used to shake their heads and wave us through. We had a grand ol’ time of it.’
‘I bet you did.’
‘I’d go back there in a snap.’
I remove the gauze square, inspect the wound, put a plaster on it. Mary watches.
‘Y’know, I used to work in the community,’ she says, pulling her sleeve back down. ‘I remember, one of my patients, he was this beautiful musician – such a beautiful man. He’d make you gasp just to look at him he was so beautiful. And he used to take heroin. I’d go round to see him, and he’d be there, warming the spoon over the candle. And he was so careful to get every last drop … it was terrible to see. I asked him once. I said to him – why do you put that shit in your veins, pardon my French. And he looked at me, with his beautiful blue eyes. And he said, They’re all doing it, Mary. All the musicians. They’re all on the needle.’