What with the thick fog and the hectic, five o’clock traffic, if I didn’t already know where The Hermitage was – in the centre of a village on the outskirts of town – I wouldn’t have the faintest hope of getting there. As it is, once I’ve made it to the village and negotiated the one-way system to a reasonable walking distance from the place, it takes a heroic and faintly suicidal effort to park, holding up the traffic with my warning lights, doing everything but smearing butter on the bonnet and boot to fit the car into this last, tiny space. It’s all pretty stressful. But when I struggle out of the car with my bags, I find that just opposite, on the village green beside the pond, there’s a floodlit war memorial, and the effect in all the fog is so eerie – a ghostly cross hovering on a bank of luminous orange mist – I’m immediately soothed.
The Hermitage is a lovely place, summer or winter, an old nunnery or something, converted a few years back into a dozen self-contained flatlets. At the heart of it all is an oak-panelled dining room with an enormous, tiled fireplace, hunting trophies and old paintings, and a sequence of elegant patio windows overlooking the garden. Running the place, along with the cook and the gardener, the teams of carers coming in and out, the cleaner, and the old guy staggering around with a battered bag of tools, is Shirley, the Hermitage manager. Shirley’s nominally on site during office hours only, but it always seems to be Shirley who comes to the door whenever you ring, bustling along the corridor, attentive as a gigantic species of mole, packet of tissues in one pocket, torch in the other, radio wobbling precariously on her hip.
‘I’ve come to see Mrs Wakelin, to do her blood pressure and whatnot. Take some blood.’
‘Good luck with that!’ says Shirley, throwing the door wide. ‘Come on in. I’ll show you there.’
I follow her down the corridor. The walls are so smooth, the ceiling so rounded and low, it’s easy to imagine Shirley has fashioned them herself with all her comings and goings.
After a bewildering number of turns and double-tucks, until I’m certain we’ll simply find ourselves back out in the lobby again, she stops outside a door and straightening her uniform, gives a couple of short knocks.
‘Mrs Wakelin?’ she sings. ‘Only me. You have a visitor.’ And then leaning in, she presses her ear to the door. After a moment, even though I don’t hear anything, she straightens up again, turns the handle and pushes open the door.
‘Buzz if you need me,’ she says, standing aside to let me through. And then with one last smile, so super-friendly it fills her face completely and forces her eyes shut, she backs away, and leaves me to it.
Although it’s apparent that extreme old age and years of breathing problems have had a cruelly withering effect, still it’s also clear from the portrait of the young woman on the wall behind her that Mrs Wakelin has always been on the aquiline side of thin.
‘And what do you want?’ she says, turning to look at me with one smoothly direct movement of her head, and one, slow blink.
I introduce myself, and show her my ID.
‘Who sent you?’ she says.
‘Your GP. I think because of your recent hospital admission she’d like us to see you over the next few days. To make sure you’re recovering well and don’t – you know – slide back.’
‘Slide back? What on earth do you mean, slide back?’
‘Get any worse.’
‘No,’ she says. ‘Quite. So what will this involve? You haven’t told me exactly what it is it you intend to do.’
I tell her about the basic obs, the blood pressure and temperature and heart rate. The blood test.’
‘And what if I decide I don’t wish to donate any blood?’
‘You don’t have to, Mrs Wakelin. But it’s the best way of seeing that we’re keeping on top of the infection, checking your kidneys are working properly and so on.’
‘Hmm,’ she says. ‘Well if the doctor says it’s got to be done, I suppose it’s jolly well got to be done.’
I chat to her whilst I set out my things and get ready.
‘It’s quite a journey out here,’ I tell her. ‘Especially in all this fog.’
‘Nonsense!’ she says. ‘When we lived in Africa we’d drive four hundred miles for a picnic.’