how long the bee

There are a dozen, rough concrete steps dropping precipitously from road level to Jack and Janice’s front door. The patio at the bottom there is so sheltered –  the cottage behind, the terraces of the garden in front – that all the containers and hanging baskets there are still going strong despite the lateness of the season.  Great, fleshy ropes of tradescantia hang in tangles overhead, ornamental roses line the wall beneath the window, lavenders and daisies ranged in a variety of pots along the path, and to my right, a tall fuchsia, its delicate lanterns vividly pink and red in the grey morning light. There’s a solitary honey bee moving between the flowers. I watch it whilst I wait for someone to come to the door. I bet it can hardly believe its luck. Such riches, so late on. But how much longer can the flowers last? And how long the bee?
Jack opens the door.
‘Yes?’
I start to tell him who I am, but he’s so deaf I have to start again with my mouth up to his ear.
‘I suppose you’d better come in,’ he says. ‘There’s someone else here already. I don’t know if you know ‘em.’
The hallway’s so narrow, and Jack’s so frail, we have to improvise a slow tango for me to come in sufficiently for Jack to close the door.
‘You don’t see anyone for months on end and suddenly it never stops,’ he says.
‘Feast or famine,’ I tell him.
‘Sorry?’
Feast or famine.
‘I’ve had some toast,’ he says. ‘But never you mind about me. She’s upstairs in bed, if you’re interested.’
‘Shall I go up and say hello?’
‘Eh?’
I point.
He nods.
‘I try to encourage her but it don’t do no good,’ he says, then ‘Oh! Right! I was s’posed to be making tea!’ Then he turns painfully and struggles off into the kitchen, wobbling from side to side like a bear with sore paws, swiping the radio as he passes, which comes on at such volume I can hear it clearly all the way up the stairs.

Ellen, a nurse from another team, is in with Janice. Sometimes these overlaps between services are frustrating – it’s a muddle, things get missed – but today it’s a straight-up piece of luck. Ellen’s so experienced, and so warm, it lifts and illuminates the whole assessment.
‘I just love that bathroom,’ she says, dropping the dirty flannels into the basin of water and handing it to me. Janice smiles vacantly from her freshly-plumped pillows.
Ellen’s right. There’s a cute roll-top bath, with an equally ancient pedestal sink next to it, chrome and glass shelving, a brass shaving mirror, a porcelain soap dish shaped like a fish, and on a ladder of rails, a stack of brightly coloured, neatly folded towels.
‘He runs a pretty nice place,’ I say, coming back into the bedroom and peeling off my gloves.
‘Ye-es’ says Ellen, flicking through the folder. I know what’s she’s thinking. Even though Jack’s still managing to keep things together, Janice is deteriorating quickly. It’s going to be difficult to cope in such a tiny cottage.
‘Here we are!’ says Jack. Somehow he’s managed to struggle up the stairs with a tray of tea. Two china cups for me and Ellen, a beaker for Janice.
‘Don’t she look a picture! Eh?’ he says, holding on to the handle of the door whilst he gets his breath.
And anyone would have to agree. She does, she really does.

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