I have an appointment at three o’clock, a double-up with an occupational therapist at the house of a patient discharged from hospital that day. But so long as everything falls into line, and the traffic is only slightly north of reasonable, and I manage to pare each visit down to the barest and most pragmatic interaction permissible by law, three o’clock is perfectly achievable.
Of course, it doesn’t work out that way.
The ECG machine decides to play up, in that almost supernatural way electrical equipment has sometimes of sensing your impatience and transforming it into pure cussedness. And when I try to draw blood from the second patient, I have as much luck as if I’d staggered out into the garden and jabbed the old apple tree. That, plus running into a horrible thickening of the traffic heading west, so inexplicably and uncharacteristically bad it makes me think I’’ve missed an emergency radio broadcast telling everyone to drop everything and clear the hell out of town – all this means that by the time I’m pulling up outside the house, half an hour late.
‘I -am-so-sorry!’ I say, piling in through the door with all my bags.
‘That’s okay!’ says Rick, the OT. ‘We’ve just been taking our time, going through a few things. It’s alright.’
Gil, the patient, is sitting forward on the edge of a sofa. His hair is dyed crow-black, back-combed in Gothic style, which only seems to accentuate the extreme pallor of his face, and the dark hollows of his eyes. Shaking his hand is like scooping a fragile bird into my fingers.
‘Pleased to meet you.’
I sit down on a low stool as Rick brings me up to speed. He gives me the discharge summary to look over, too, and I glance at it from time to time. I’ve already been told the basics – the alcoholism, self-neglect, the concerned neighbours, the intervention of the social work team and so on – and the fact that a deep-clean company had been brought in whilst Gil was in hospital. What I hadn’t been told though was the seriousness of his situation now. The discharge summary lays it all out in dry and technical language; beyond it, like seeing a dark and formidable landscape through a formal window, is the hard truth of the thing. Gil has come home to die.
‘If you want to get your bits and pieces out of the way whilst I finish this bit of paperwork…?’ says Rick, as I hand the summary back.
‘Sure! Why not?’ I say, grabbing my kit and going over to kneel by Gil. ‘Is that okay?’
He accedes to it all with a measured kind of passivity, smiling often, but in a gentle way, like someone who’s decided the only thing he can change about the destination is his understanding of the journey.
I don’t push anything. Just the basics. And when I’m done I shake his hand again, gather my things together and leave Rick to finish off.
Back outside, I’m throwing my bags in the boot of the car when an elderly man in a flat white cap, anorak and check shirt stops right by me. He holds a map book almost to the end of his nose, looks up and down the street, lifts his tinted glasses, presses the map book closer, squints, looks up and down the street again, and then takes his cap off and scratches his head. It’s all pretty emphatic, like watching a modern clown doing a skit called Lost.
‘Are you alright there?’ I say.
‘Me? No. I’m late and I can’t be.’
‘Where’ve you got to get to?’
He brings the map over, hands it to me, then takes an envelope out of his pocket – something formal, a legal appointment.
‘Well don’t worry. You’re almost there,’ I tell him, handing the map book back. ‘Are you walking or driving?’
‘Driving? Me? No! I came by bus. The man there, he said get off here. He said here was where I had to be. So that’s what I did. And now I wish I hadn’t.’
‘He wasn’t wrong, though. You’ve just turned down too early. You want the one parallel to this, over there. You can cut through that little alley if you’re pushed for time.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘I can’t afford any more mistakes.’
‘You’re good,’ I say. ‘You’ll be fine.’
‘Righto then. Thanks for your help.’
He gives me a broad, quick smile that seems more like a mechanical expression of the tipping back of his head, then taps me once on the shoulder with the map book, and strikes out for the alley.