the ghost of bert

Godfrey’s son, Ian lets me in.
‘He’s in the front room watching athletics,’ he says. ‘Go on through. I’m just making some tea. D’you want some?’
‘No – I’m good, thanks.’
‘Okay, then.’

An easy start to things – which is why it catches me off guard to find Godfrey in an armchair, his head thrown back, his eyes closed, his mouth slack, his arms by his side and his legs straight out, twitching and jerking.

If there was one thing I learned from all my years as an EMT in the ambulance service, it’s not to panic. There’s always time – even if it’s just a few seconds – to take a moment and see as clearly as possible what’s happening in front of you.

I’ve seen a great many seizures, and of course they vary enormously in presentation, from absences and automatisms to full-body convulsions. Godfrey’s was different to any of those, though. It struck me as the kind of performance you’d give if you’d only seen these things on the telly. He seemed to think it was mostly about waggling his hands at the wrist.
‘Godfrey? Hello! It’s Jim, from the hospital,’ I say, putting my hand on his shoulder.
He immediately stops, straightens up in the chair, wipes his mouth with the back of his hand and shakes his head.
‘Dear oh dear,’ he says. ‘Some kind of nurse you are.’
‘Nursing assistant.’
‘I thought I’d give you a bit of a scare when you come in. But you’re obviously a hard-hearted bastard.’
‘Well at least that’s some kind of heart, anyway.’
‘I can see we’re going to get along.’
‘I hope so. I can always get the big needle out…’
‘Now, now.’
Ian comes in with the tea.
‘You’re not making a nuisance of yourself, are you, Dad?’ he says, handing him a cup. ‘I can only apologise on behalf of my father. I’d say he means well, but I’d be lying.’
‘I’m not getting involved,’ I say, setting out my stuff.
‘Too late. You’re involved,’ says Godfrey, taking a sip of his tea. ‘Ahh! Now then. I suppose you’ve come about this leg?’

Godfrey strikes me as depressed, which isn’t surprising, given the trouble he’s had with his leg. Although he’s elderly now, he’s been pretty independent, living alone, taking care of himself and so on. Now his mobility is seriously compromised, he’s found himself thrown onto the care of his family, which mostly means Ian, being the closest geographically, and carers coming in to help with this and that. It’s obviously as much a torture to him as the pain itself, and it looks like he’s supplementing his Gabapentin and Co-codamol with a little clowning.

‘You wouldn’t think to look at this wreck of a body, but I used to be a diver,’ he says. ‘That’s a hard job. You’ve got to be mentally tough. Not many can hack it, you know, down there in the dark and the cold.’
‘I bet.’
‘I’ve done some things in my time. I remember once we were sent in to find a body. It’d been there so long, the arm came off in my hand.’
He demonstrates, widening his eyes and pulling away from a phantom corpse.
‘I enjoyed the work, though,’ he says, relaxing back again. ‘Kept me busy.’
Ian nods at me from across the room. I can tell he’s heard these stories a million times before.

Godfrey’s quite a handful but I’m warming to him. He reminds me of my Uncle Bert, who had the same mischievous sparkle in his eyes, deliberately saying something provocative and then waiting to see what you’d do. I invoke the ghost of Bert to help me whilst I’m talking to Godfrey, joining in the banter, until it really feels we’re building a good rapport.
‘You’re all right, son,’ he says. ‘I’ve forgiven you for leaving me to die earlier.’
‘I could tell you were all right because you still had your hand on your wallet…’

The phone rings. Ian goes to answer it in the next room. I start filling in the obs sheet. Godfrey turns his attention to the race on the TV.
‘Look at him, running with his arm in a sling,’ he says. ‘That’s good, innit?’
‘It must make it so much harder.’
‘And look at that one,’ he says. ‘Horribly burned.’
It’s a moment before I realise he means the black athlete.
Godfrey grins when he sees the comment has landed. He folds his arms, and watches me.

It throws me far more than the fake seizure at the beginning of the session, and for a moment I can’t think what to say. It’s disturbing and disappointing enough, but what makes it worse is the intention behind it. This is obviously a test, to see if I’m really on his side, part of the crew, one of the gang.
I return his gaze a moment whilst I think.
He’s a depressed, embittered old man in a great deal of pain. I’m not going to pretend that I think it’s okay, but I don’t think it’s going to achieve much if I confront him. In the end I settle for a miserable compromise.
‘You can’t say that,’ I tell him.
‘Oh! Here we go! The thought police. In my own home, too. What’s the world coming to?’
‘It’s just – not a nice thing to say, Godfrey. People are people. You should know that by now.’
‘You and me are gonna fall out, mate.’
‘I don’t care, if you say things like that.’
Ian comes back in the room.
‘What’s happened?’ he says.
‘I said a bad thing,’ says Godfrey. ‘Apparently.’
Ian winces and shakes his head.
‘Once again – I can only apologise for my father.’
‘That’s okay,’ I say, automatically. ‘Don’t worry about it.’
But the way Ian takes his seat again, quietly, with an exhausted hang of the shoulders, I can tell he does.

2 thoughts on “the ghost of bert

  1. Oh dear, reminds me of my time spent with the Red Cross home from hospital service. I met some amazing, brilliant, funny people yet some of the same – often incredibly likeable – people would then drop a casual racism (or sexism) bomb into the conversation and I’d be totally stunned. I had the same inner debate about whether I should go for a full on confrontation or let it slide because they were poorly, in their own home and entitled to their opinions, no matter how offensive I found them. In the end I settled for refusing to acknowledge bad behaviour and only responding to the good stuff. (Also works for dogs and children.)


    1. I think you’re right, Susan. That’s the best way to handle it.

      I have to admit with Godfrey, though (as with others like him) I start off feeling very warmly towards him, wanting to do my absolute best – and ending up feeling quite demotivated, and doing things more ‘by the book’ !

      BTW – Have I told you before what a great service the Red Cross Home from Hospital service is? (It is!) x


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