I hold the lift door for an elderly man who hurries into the lobby waving his newspaper. After thanking me profusely and asking for the tenth floor, he stands to one side giving me significant smiles and nods, making it abundantly clear he’d like to know who it is I’ve come to visit. It’s not a huge leap of intuition to think I’m a health visitor, carrying a zimmer frame, rucksack, little black diary, with a pen stuck sideways in my lapel and an ID badge hanging on a lanyard clipped to my pocket.
‘Lovely morning,’ he says.
The numbers count up.
He breaks by the fifth.
‘How’s Ben?’ he says.
‘Ah! I don’t know. I haven’t actually met him yet. Are you a – relative?’
‘I’ve known Ben for years. We’re all quite worried about him, y’know. He seems to have taken a bit of a … erm… dip.’
‘I’ll see how he is today.’
‘Great! And he’ll definitely be needing that,’ he says, tapping the zimmer with his newspaper. ‘And some lead boots.’
The lift judders to a halt.
‘He’s been falling down a lot, y’see?’ says the man.
‘If there’s anything I can do…’ he says, and then waving his newspaper in the air again, strides out of the lift.
When Ben finally answers the door his trousers are at half-mast.
‘You wouldn’t think to look at me that I got up at five this morning,’ he says as I help to set him straight. ‘It took me two hours just to get this damned shirt buttoned.’
The contrast between Ben and his flat is so marked it’s hard to resist the idea that he’s wandered in by mistake. Whilst his clothes are stained and chaotic, his physical bearing shot, cruelly broken-down, the flat is immaculate, the hallway lined with beautiful engravings, the bookshelves neatly populated with books on opera, fine art and travel. I help him back into the living room and into his riser-recliner. The delicate ceramic vases arranged on the window ledge glow in the early morning sunshine, as does the half-empty bottle of brandy and the cut-crystal tumbler beside it, noticeably within reach of his chair.
‘The doctor and I reached an understanding many years ago,’ he says, when he catches me looking. ‘I won’t mention the drinking if he won’t ask.’
Some things speak more eloquently than words, though. Like the shaking hands, the liverish complexion, and the stitches bunched in a ragged line at the back of his head, testament to the fall he suffered a couple of days ago.
‘How are you feeling?’ I ask, setting out my gear and skimming his notes.
‘Exhausted, out of sorts. The usual.’
I’ve been asked to include a set of neuro obs as well as everything else, just to make sure he hasn’t developed a bleed since he was discharged. He seems reassuringly intact, though. And if his blood pressure is a little low, it’s not surprising given his meagre weight, and certainly everything else is okay. I’m just putting the finishing touches to his chart when he asks for my opinion on something.
‘This chair,’ he says, leaning forwards and rubbing the armrests. ‘What do you think? Anything strike you as odd?’
I move closer.
‘No? Not really…. is there a mark there?’
‘Can you see all the words?’
‘The words? No. Can you?’
‘Look!’ he says, tracing the weave of the material with a trembling finger. ‘The whole thing is made out of auction catalogues.’
‘Is it your eyesight, do you think?’
‘There’s nothing wrong with my eyes, Jim. I can see perfectly well. No – this chair has been made out of catalogues. I’ve been trying to figure out exactly what’s on offer, but I can’t quite make it out.’
‘Who do you think made the chair?’
He straightens. ‘Well!’ he says. ‘It wasn’t me, that’s for certain.’
‘Who was it then?’
‘I don’t know. The ghosts?’
‘The ghosts that come and go. Mostly go.’
‘Have you been seeing them long?’
‘No. Just recently. I have to say – it’s been an odd kind of week. I saw my mother last night. The first time in thirty years. She died in the eighties, you see. She was standing at the end of the hallway, tending the roses in the garden.’
‘The garden at the end of your hall?’
‘Yes. It’s not there now, of course.’
‘Were you frightened?’
‘It was nice to see her. I called out her name, and she turned her head like this… as if she could hear me… but I don’t think she could. She just looked rather lost. And then she melted away.’
He relaxes back in the chair, hooks one thin leg over the other, and folds his hands.
‘And I’ve been having such dreams,’ he says.
‘What sort of dreams?’
‘Oh. You know. Busy dreams. Doing dreams. But the trouble is, I’m never quite sure what it is I’m supposed to be doing. Or even whether I’m the person supposed to be doing it.’
He turns his eyes on me, his moustache exaggerating the vertiginous droop of his face.
‘I suppose it’s too early for a snifter?’ he says.