To paraphrase a movie tagline from the seventies: Rich means never having to say your address.
‘The Blue House, Ocean Rise’ isn’t much to go on. It sounds distinctive, though, and as I have some time before the appointment, I take a chance and drive straight there, figuring I’ll spot a blue house easily enough, especially on Ocean Rise, where all the houses are a transcendent white, following a brutalist style of architecture that’ll one day be known as ‘bunker chic’.
Ocean Rise is a grand, slow ascent of the cliffs to the east of town, an eclectic throw of old and new money, each house with a panoramic view of the sea, secure gates, and landscaped gravel drives leading to doors wide enough to walk through with a saddlebag of gold over each shoulder.
I’ve driven up and down the road twice when I admit defeat and pull over to call for directions. Even doing this gives me a prickly feeling, security cameras zooming in on the small, suspiciously old car as the driver flips through a diary and glances anxiously through the window. With any luck they’ll see the NHS lanyard and reassuring blue of my uniform and put the phone back on the hook. I mean – this isn’t the US. The worst you see here are signs that say: No Hawkers or Canvassers. In the US it’s Armed Response.
– Who is this?
Hello Mrs Shand. It’s Jim, from the hospital. I’ve come to see Mr Shand, to check his blood pressure and so on.
– Well where are you, then?
I’m on Ocean Rise.
– That’s it. That’s where we live.
I’m afraid I don’t have the number.
– We don’t have a number. We’re The Blue House.
I haven’t seen any blue houses.
– You won’t see it from the road.
– No. We’re set back. On a hill. Behind a hedge.
Where on the road?
– (Oh for goodness sake) You know the new block? Moana Heights?
– Turn in there, and then sharp left. It’s not signposted, but that’s where we are. Got it?
Yes. Thanks. See you in five minutes.
She hangs up, saying either Good, or possibly Good God, the ‘god’ part truncated.
I spin the car round and head in that direction, half a dozen outraged CCTV cameras capturing my registration plate.
Luckily, Mrs Shand is sweeter than her phone voice suggests. I can see that the stress of the situation is beginning to tell on her, giving her the alarmed and dangerously taut look of frayed rope.
‘He’s upstairs,’ she says, turning round in the hallway, bending down to pick up the post and in the process dropping half of the clothes and folders she already has in her arms.
‘Here. Allow me,’ I say, helping her sort things out.
‘He’s not well at all and I don’t know what to do,’ she says. ‘He’s leading me a merry dance, I can tell you.’
I follow her upstairs to a bedroom that’s like the deck of a ship, one great window stretching entirely across one end of it, the ceiling low, the only furniture in that vast space a simple double bed, an elderly man with wild, white hair lying placidly on top, both hands behind his head.
‘Hello?’ he says, stiffly pushing himself up on an elbow. ‘Who’d we have here, then?’
‘For goodness sake, Alfred! It’s the nurse!’ says Mrs Shand, trotting round the far side of the bed and fussing with some pillows. ‘You see what I mean?’ she adds, as if I’d just witnessed some outrageous display. ‘You see what I have to put up with?’
‘How are you, Alfred?’ I say, putting my bags down and then reaching out to shake his hand. His fingers are long and cool and frail, with so little pressure to them that if I closed my eyes it would be like shaking hands with a shadow.
‘I was having such a dream!’ he says, laying back down again and lacing his hands across his chest. ‘All those people! Coming out of the walls!’
He closes his eyes, then opens them again with a start, and looks straight at me, as if I was part of the same, ghostly parade.
‘Who did you say you were?’
‘Jim. From the hospital. Come to see how you are.’
‘Ah!’ he says, and then turns his pinched face up to the ceiling again, and closes his eyes.
‘Not good, Jim. Not good at all.