Alf has a great view of the sea from his armchair – and me, soaked and shivering on the front step, frantically trying to persuade him to come to the door. I’ve held up my ID badge, shouted and smiled and tapped my watch. I’ve even performed a mime to illustrate the word: phlebotomy (which in retrospect could be taken as IV drug user, but whatever). Despite everything, though, the best I get is a tetchy shake of the remote control, as if I’m just another damned thing on the TV he’d like to end now.
I simply can’t hang around a moment longer. I couldn’t be more exposed if I was standing on the sacrificial altar at the top of an Aztec temple in a typhoon.
I hurry back down the steps to the car, throw my bag inside, and then myself.
‘Try again later,’ says Michaela. ‘I think his daughter must be out.’
At least the rain’s stopped.
I’m back on Alf’s front step, waving at him through the window. He holds my gaze whilst patting the sides of the chair for the remote. But suddenly there’s a movement in the hallway, and his daughter Cynthia comes to the door.
‘Good job you weren’t here earlier,’ she says. ‘The weather was dreadful.’
Alf calls out ‘Who’s there?’
‘Someone from the hospital,’ she says over her shoulder, then looks at me and smiles, as lightly as anyone could who hadn’t slept in days.
‘He won’t like this,’ she says, and leads me through.
She’s right, of course. Alf submits to the observations and the blood test with the wariness of a bad-tempered old donkey. It’s hard to understand why he’s so crotchety. His room is about the nicest I’ve seen: warm, well decorated, a good bed, books, pictures, a fine view. Cynthia and her husband to look after him, and so on.
‘Dad hasn’t moved from the chair in two days now.’
‘Why’s that, then, Alf? Do you have any pain anywhere? Do you get dizzy? Sick?’
Nothing like that, he says.
‘So how do you manage with the toilet?’
‘He wears a pad. You know – like a nappy.’
‘Do you have carers?’
‘Your office sent some people – didn’t they, Dad? – but I’m afraid he just turned them away.’
Alf folds his arms.
‘So I have to do it,’ says Cynthia, finding that smile again.
‘How on earth do you manage?’
‘It’s difficult,’ she says.
‘Well hopefully the bloods will show if there’s a problem anywhere – an infection or something – something that might explain why your mobility has gone a little south lately.’
‘I’m not going to hospital,’ says Alf.
‘Let’s hope it won’t come to that. But if there is something wrong that can’t be dealt with at home, hospital might be the best option.’
‘I’m not going.’
‘People die in hospital.’
‘Yep. Well, that’s true. But then – people die at home, too.’
I study him to see if the significance of that hits home, but he’s as resolute and unyielding as before.
‘One step at a time, though,’ I say, brightening.
He stares out of the window again.
I pack my things away.
‘Nice to meet you, Alf.’
I hold out my hand but he doesn’t acknowledge me.
Cynthia shows me to the door.
‘We haven’t had a wink of sleep in months,’ she says. ‘He calls out through the night, but it’s not like he’s in pain or there’s anything particularly wrong. You wouldn’t think it to look at him now because he puts on this act. He says what he thinks you want to hear. We’ve had the doctors out any number of times but they can’t find anything wrong. We were offered respite but he turned that down, just like the carers. My husband’s due to go in for an operation next month and then it’ll just be me. I don’t know what to do. Something’s got to give and I’m scared it’s going to be me. Dad’s lived with us ten years, and it’s been fine, but the last couple of months… It’s been absolute hell.’
I try to be reassuring. We’ll see what the bloods show, if there’s anything acute going on. But I tell her I’ll speak to our social worker, and the mental health nurse, too. It’s complicated. There’s a capacity issue. It’s Alf’s registered address. I imagine Cynthia and her husband moving out, Alf raging at them through the window – but of course, I don’t tell her that.
‘One step at a time,’ I say, shaking her hand.
Out on the front step again and the sky is vast and clear and blue, the silvered arc of the horizon completely opened up. It’s like standing at the top of the world. I re-shoulder my bag and take a deep breath, then turn to wave at Alf through the window. He doesn’t respond. I can feel his eyes on me all the way back down to the car.