brains

Malcolm has Alzheimer’s. To add to his problems, he suffered a bout of gastro-enteritis last week, had a fall, fractured a rib, and is laid-up on the sofa. Still, his wife Carol is taking good care of him. She’s helped him dress this morning – check shirt buttoned at the cuff, cable knit jumper, combed white hair – and he lies on the sofa, dozing, hugging himself like a child caught in a dream.
A tall, generously proportioned woman in her seventies, the seams of Carol’s coral-pink sweater strain to keep her in. She was about to vacuum the apartment when I arrived. She stands there with it resting against her side – an intimidating machine, straight out of the 80s, as big as a floor sander, with a headlight on the foot for running down the dirt.
‘I won’t start just yet,’ she says, dragging it over to set against the wall. ‘It’s a bit noisy.’
She comes to sit down in an armchair opposite Malcolm whilst I carry out my examination. She still has the plug in her hand, though. She turns it round and round, unconsciously exploring the prongs, the edges, the plug-ness of it.
‘He used to be so mobile a couple of weeks back,’ she says. ‘We’d go for a walk round the park every day, trips to the cafe.’
After a while she says:
‘Carol ordered the bed sides, but they still haven’t come.’
‘Sorry – who ordered the bed sides?’
‘I did.’
You did?’
‘Me? Yes.’
‘And you’re Carol?’
‘Yes. I’m Carol.’
‘Sorry. I’m terrible with names.’
But I’m confused. Was she referring to herself in the third person? Did she mean to say someone else but used her own name instead? Are there two Carols? I’m on the verge of asking, but duck out as I can’t think of a tactful way to do it. She saves my confusion with another question.
‘Can Alzheimer’s progress that rapidly?’ she says.
‘I don’t know. I thought Alzheimer’s was pretty gradual. It’s probably a good sign Malcolm was out and about walking just the other week. I think the tummy bug and the fall have set him back, but that’s just a guess. His obs are good, though. I’ll take some blood, see what they show, and then liaise with the GP.’
Taking blood from Malcolm is about as easy as it could possibly be. I roll up his sleeve, his veins are defined, and when I introduce the needle he’s as indifferent as if I’d punctured one of the cushions instead. I draw off a couple of tubes, and tape a square of gauze to the wound.
‘Look!’ says Carol, suddenly waving at the patio window behind me. ‘There’s Brains!’
I turn round. Through the patio window behind me, slightly off to the left, is a tall wooden bird table with a little house on top, elaborately covered with chicken wire. On the roof of the house is a squirrel, standing on his haunches, looking around, his tail twitching.
‘He’s so clever. That’s why we call him Brains. He knows Mrs Flaxman’s away today, otherwise she’d be out there with her broom. It doesn’t matter what she does to protect her nuts, he always manages to find a way in. You watch!’
Sure enough, after a second or two, Brains begins running around the wired house, stopping every now and again to probe for weakness. At one point he’s underneath the table, reaching up through a gap – and then just as suddenly he’s back on top of the house, on his haunches, a peanut in his paws, munching it furiously.
‘He wouldn’t have done so well in our last house,’ says Carol. ‘We downsized, you see. It was all getting too much. Back then we had dogs. The last one was a border terrier, Teefa. That’s him, there…’
She gestures with the plug to a painting above the fireplace. And then I notice for the first time all the border terrier-related stuff around the place, ceramics, photos – even the fob of the keys on the table between us.
‘Oh he was smart, was Teefa! Such a wise old expression. You always had the feeling he could’ve talked if he’d felt the need. He’d just stare at you, like this…’
She leans forward with her head on one side and her eyes wide.
‘…you know – using the power of his mind. He was such a character.’
‘He sounds cute. Teefa. What’s that – German?’
Teefa?
‘Yeah. What is that? Where does that come from?’
Carol stares at me in much the same way that she had a moment before, her eyes wide again, her head on one side.
‘Teefa,’ she says. ‘T for Terrier.’

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