how to build a house

The last time I saw John he was crashing backwards through that kitchen door, sweating and swearing, two full carrier bags of shopping on either arm. It was last summer. We’d been called out to help his wife Agnes, struggling to cope with a persistent chest infection, diabetes and advanced dementia. We did what we could to support them both at home, but one thing led to another – a banal but brutal cliché – and despite everyone’s best efforts, Agnes died in hospital.

If it wasn’t for the address, the tattoos and his bracingly direct way of talking, I’d hardly recognise John at all. Cancer has invaded his body as vigorously and comprehensively as the brambles I can see through the kitchen window, overwhelming the garden. And it follows on so closely from Agnes’ death, it’s hard to resist that other cliché, that it’s not exactly cancer he’s dying of, but a broken heart.

As part of the visit I need to assess the status of his pressure areas. When he’s managed to stand, I help him unclip his braces and lower his trousers.
‘Mind how you go there!’ he says. ‘I don’t want you tearing the tubing out of my knob. That’s the last thing I need.’
It looks like everything’s okay for the moment, but it won’t be long before he needs more than simply a padded cushion and a zimmer frame. We’ll have to think about arranging for a hospital bed, and all the nursing and other care needs to go with it.
‘Whatever you think, squire,’ he says, snapping the jaws of his braces shut again. ‘Mind you. This cushion’s getting a bit crusty. Maybe we should change it for something else. Tell you what. Why don’t I chisel off the worst of the crud, then we could do sommat’ else with it.’
‘Like what?’
‘I don’t know – put it in a raffle.’
He sits down again and I carry on with the assessment.
‘You wouldn’t think to look at me, Jim, but I used to be a builder.’
‘That’s a hard game.’
‘Nah! Not when you know what you’re about.’
‘What did you build?’
‘Me? Anything you like. Houses. The lot.’
‘I wouldn’t know where to start, building a house.’
‘It’s easy. You get some land. You do some drawings. You get a machine, and you dig out your trench for the foundation. Then you fill your trench with concrete, level it off, put the bricks round it and there you go. House. Job done.’

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