Elisabeth is cross.
There’s just the hint of ill-temper, the smallest upward curl at the corner of the lip on the face of the sabre-toothed tiger frozen in the glacier.
‘Not another one!’ she says. ‘I was about to have lunch.’
‘Sorry! I won’t keep you long. I’m Jim. from the Rapid Response Team. At the hospital. I’ve been asked to make sure you’re okay after your discharge from hospital. But I can come back later…’
‘No, no,’ she sighs, descending in one full and measured tone from disapproval to resignation. ‘I suppose you’d better come in…’
‘Shall I take my shoes off?’
I slip off my shoes, carefully shut the door, and follow her in.
The flat is as meticulously neat as Elisabeth, all the furniture, the side-table and display cabinet, the oak dining table and chairs, the riser-recliner and footstool, everything perfectly laid out in relation to each other, like pieces on a chess set that’s for display purposes only. Beyond the window there’s a panoramic view of the sea, featureless, silvery-grey, running out flat to the horizon.
Elisabeth composes herself in her armchair and watches as I put my bag down, sit on one of the dining chairs and begin flicking through her yellow folder.
‘So tell me what happened?’ I say.
‘What do you mean, what happened?’
‘Well – I didn’t get the whole story on the phone. Why is it you’ve been referred to us? Something about your hip?’
‘Didn’t you have an operation?’
‘Yes, but that’s not why I fell.’
She studies me.
‘Who sent you?’ she says after a while.
‘She should know better.’
‘So tell me about this fall.’
‘The whole thing?’
‘Tell me why you went to hospital.’
‘Five years ago I bent down to pick up a pencil…’
‘Just the highlights,’ I say.
‘The highlights. You know. The recent stuff.’
She narrows her eyes.
‘I’m getting to that, if you would only let me to finish.’
‘My apologies. Carry on.’
It’s lucky I chose a padded chair, because Elisabeth embarks on the longest, most convoluted story imaginable, a story that begins with a bunion on her big toe, culminates in a hip replacement, and develops in a picaresque way to cover just about everything, every trial and indignity, from the perils of dairy products, the cruelties of the hearing clinic, the struggles with technology, and the difficulties of finding reliable help these days. Everyone has a walk-on part: the podiatrist, the optometrist, the vascular surgeon, the physiotherapist, the cleaner – even Winston, a show-level border terrier owned by one of her friends, Mrs Catchpole, who is enthusiastic but unruly (The dog. Not Mrs Catchpole. I think.)
‘So now,’ she says, concluding abruptly. ‘What is it that you propose to do for me?’
And for the moment, I really don’t know.