last of the line

Maurice peers round the door.
‘And who did you say you were again?’
‘Jim.’ I hold out my ID. ‘From the Rapid Response Team at the hospital. I’m a nursing assistant.’
‘I didn’t warrant an actual nurse, then?’
I laugh, a little awkwardly, immediately wishing I could do or say something more reassuring. It doesn’t seem to matter, though.
‘I suppose you’d better come in,’ he says, releasing the door.
I follow him down the hallway. The exaggerated forward curve of Maurice’s spine makes walking difficult. He can only manage it by shuffling his slippers along the parquet floor, paddling his hands backwards and forwards for extra oomph, and trailing his fingers along the route at familiar points – the telephone stand, the bookcase, and the huge fern in the jardinière, which rocks so alarmingly I feel obliged to put a hand to it myself.
‘Never mind that,’ he says, getting himself into position. ‘Take a seat,’ immediately pitching himself backwards into a decrepit armchair, his arms tucked in, like a Scuba diver dropping off the side of a boat.
When he’s settled, he laces his bony fingers across his belly and regards me with a long and lugubrious expression.
‘Now. Explain to me why you’ve come.’
‘Your GP has referred you to us, Maurice. I think she’s worried you might need more help at home.’
‘And you’ve come to provide me with that help, have you?’
‘In a way.’
‘Well either you have or you haven’t.’
‘You see, when anyone’s referred to us, for whatever reason, they get a health check, to make sure they’re okay, and there are no immediate medical issues to worry about. That’s where I come in. Then one of my colleagues will come along to finish the assessment, and they’ll be the ones looking at things like equipment, physiotherapy, and whether you need any care…’
He  sighs, and narrows his eyes.
‘When did it start with all this first name business?’ he says.
‘Oh. I’m sorry. That’s very rude of me. Would you prefer it if I called you by your last name?’
He shrugs, lifting both thumbs at the same time for emphasis.
‘It’s the modern way,’ he says, relaxing again. ‘I suppose it has a superficial mateyness. It doesn’t mean anything, though. And in a curious fashion it makes things feel even more anonymous. D’you follow?’
‘I think so.’
‘And you’re Jim did you say?’
‘Yes. And when you think how many Jims there are! Thousands! No wonder it’s confusing.’
‘I didn’t say it was confusing, Jim. I said it was the fashion. And I’m far too old to do anything about it.’
‘How about I make you a nice cup of tea? To make amends.’
‘That would be kind.’
‘How do you take it?’
‘Two, please.’
‘No! Bags. I like it strong. There’s some UHT milk in the fridge. If that’s gone off I can drink it black.’
‘Anything to eat?’
‘No thank you.’
He sniffs.
‘I have no appetite these days,’ he says.

Despite that, his kitchen is extremely well-stocked. Maurice tells me a friend of his comes round every now and again to do a top-up.
‘I don’t like to bother him,’ he says as I come back in with the tea, and he points to a place mat. ‘I mean – between you and me – if I was him, I just couldn’t be doing with someone like me. Is that an awful thing to say?’
‘Not awful. A little sad, maybe. And I’m sure that’s not the case. I’m sure he’s perfectly happy to come round and make sure you have what you need.’
He doesn’t say anything, but I can tell he doesn’t agree.

The tea was a good idea, though. It warms him up in more ways than one. He tells me how lonely he is, how he doesn’t see anyone for days on end, how he finds himself talking to inanimate things like they’re people.
‘I’m not potty,’ he says. ‘It’s just – long periods alone can send you doolally. I suppose the simple fact is,’ he says, placing the cup back in the saucer with exaggerated care, ‘I’m just too old.’
I ask him if he has any family.
‘Not anymore,’ he says. ‘I’m the last of a rather short line. I only had one sister, you see. Younger than me. She had what these days they call mental health issues. Always in and out of one place or another. I remember saying to the doctor, I said to him What on earth’s the matter with her? And he said to me We simply don’t know. Just like that. We simply don’t know. And of course, what I should have asked him was: Well if  you don’t know, why don’t you find someone who does? But one can’t say these things, can one? Eventually she died. Of cancer.’
He studies me mournfully, the lower edge of his eyes suddenly lined with silver. ‘And that’s another thing they missed,’ he says.

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