Harry’s daughter Rachel opens the door with her father’s Yorkshire terrier Sammy tucked under her arm.
‘Are you all right with dogs?’ she says, Sammy squirming so violently she’s forced to set him down.
It’s immaterial whether I am or I’m not. Sammy has already launched himself nose-first into my trousers, huffing and sneezing. He’s so emphatic about the whole thing I wouldn’t be surprised if he threw me against the wall and started patting me down.
‘Have you got a dog?’ says Rachel.
‘Not on me.’
‘What sort of dog?’
‘Lovely!’ she says. ‘Come in!’
Sammy trots shotgun down the hallway as Rachel shows me into the living room and quietly shuts the door.
‘I need to let you know the situation,’ she says. ‘Have a seat.’
I put my bags down, take off my coat, and by the time I’ve turned round to sit down on the sofa. Sammy’s already there, bolt upright, watching me closely. Rachel settles down in an armchair to tell me about her father.
‘He’s terrified of hospitals. Well – doctors, nurses, anyone clinical, actually. When he got stuck in the bath the other day he absolutely would not let us call the paramedics. We had a hell of a job to get him out. Luckily the gas man came to read the meter and we roped him in. It was like one of those Carry On movies. Carry On Being a Stubborn Old Bastard.’
‘So when was the last time Harry was seen by a doctor?’
‘Oh! Okay. That’s good, then.’
‘Hmm. It was all a bit of a deal. He wouldn’t let him do anything. Certainly wouldn’t let him look at his leg, which is the main issue. I know the doctor wanted him admitted there and then, but he got so upset the doctor had to go. We’re all so worried about him. He won’t agree to anything. None of us live local. We just can’t cope.’
‘Why’s he so scared of hospitals?’
‘He had a bad experience. He had this infection in his leg and the doctor was late picking it up. Not this doctor. Another one. From that surgery that closed. By the time he went in it was gangrenous and he lost a few toes. Ever since then he’s not wanted anything to do with anyone.’
‘Do you think he’s got an infection now?’
‘I’m sure of it. I just don’t know if he’ll let you in the bedroom, let alone lift the covers.’
‘I can have a go. The doctor’s asked me to come and take some urgent bloods.’
‘Good luck with that. But hey – I’ll go on up and smooth the way, and see if he’ll agree to see you.’
‘Wait here a minute.’
She goes upstairs, leaving the sitting room door open. Meanwhile, Sammy adjusts his position on the sofa next to me, squaring up a little, pre-empting any move on my part to reach out for my bag or do anything suspicious.
I can hear Rachel talking to her dad.
There’s a nice man from the hospital come to take some blood, pops.
– I don’t want to see him.
He’s got a dog. A lurcher.
– A lurcher?
– I didn’t hear Sammy barking.
No! So that’s a good, isn’t it? Shall I bring him up?
– All right. But I’m not going to hospital.
Sammy flicks a look over his shoulder as Rachel comes back into the room, then continues to scrutinise my intentions.
‘He’ll see you now,’ she says.
Sammy leaps off the sofa as I stand up, then spins round and round on the rug.
‘This way!’ says Rachel.
Sammy bounds on ahead of us.
By the time I make it up into the little attic room, Sammy’s already up on the bed, his paws spread, his shoulders set, just the other side of the Harry-shaped lump in the duvet.
The room is insulated by shelf upon shelf of books, except for a space on the wall above the bed for an oil painting of a sailing ship battling through heavy seas. The light from the window opposite, set at an angle, illuminates both the bed and the painting so softly and so directly it’s like I’m walking into a painting myself: The sick man and his dog.
‘Hello Harry,’ I say, quietly setting my bag down. ‘How are you feeling today?’
‘How am I feeling? Not good.’
‘Sorry to hear that.’
‘Jim’s come to take some blood,’ says Rachel, taking hold of the rails at the foot of the bed. ‘And maybe take a look at your leg.’
‘No thank you,’ says Harry, pulling the duvet over his head.
Sammy stares at me to see what I’ll do next.
‘Well. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to,’ I say. ‘It’s always good to hold onto that, even when you’ve got people like me marching in and out with official looking folders and stuff. But at the same time I think it’s really important you understand what it is you’re refusing to do – you know, what the consequences might be. Rachel told me about your bad experience at the hospital a few years back, and I’m sorry to hear about that. That’s why I think it’s even more important we make sure nothing like that happens again, and you get the treatment you need nice and quickly. Because of course, if you do have an infection, the sooner you act the better it’ll be. You know what Rachel wants you to do. And Sammy.’
Harry groans, but pulls the duvet away from his face a little and peeks out. He doesn’t look well, a sallow puffiness to his face, chapped and peeling lips, and when he puts an arm outside the covers, I can see a generalised, pruritic rash.
‘How about I do something easy first, like your temperature?’ I say, slowly unzipping my bag.
Rachel holds onto the rails even tighter.
‘Oh for God’s sake, go on, then,’ says Harry, and closes his eyes.