locked away

It’s like the motorboat was dragged ashore some time ago to avoid a hurricane, and then forgotten.

The whole thing sits on two substantial wooden structures like trestle table legs. The deck is covered by a sagging, blue nylon tarpaulin secured by a single length of rope that crisscrosses from cleat to cleat like the threadbare lace of a giant boot, and the propeller is fixed in the up position, spotted, corroded. And if by some catastrophic tidal anomaly the boat suddenly found itself in the water again – and you found yourself in the water, too – and you tried to get on board using that aluminium ladder at the stern – well, who knows? You’ll try anything when you’re desperate. Scattered around the boat in the long grass are several heavy iron wrenches, lengths of rusting chain, and standing guard over the whole collection, a massive cylinder of pressurised gas the birds at least feel safe enough to use as a perch.

Judging by his beard, cable sweater and tan, I’m guessing it’s Henry who owns the boat. He’s so vague and repetitive, though, I have no doubt it wasn’t a hurricane that saw the boat laid up all those years ago, but a disturbance of a subtler though no less damaging kind.

‘Thank you so much for coming,’ he says. ‘It’s so kind of you to bother.’ He shows me inside to a wooden rocking chair, and then immediately asks again who I am and why I’ve come. Luckily, Henry’s wife, Jean hurries in, wiping her hands on her apron, her smile as taut as the tarpaulin on the boat.
‘Don’t you remember, darling? I told you. This is Jim, from the hospital. Come to see if we need any help.’
‘Well that’s so kind! Help, d’you say? I don’t think we do, though, do we Jean? I think we run a pretty tidy ship.’

Jean talks me through the key points of the referral. The long stay in hospital, the memory loss and other problems, the struggles of the last few years. And at every point in the story, she carefully includes her husband, who receives the information with a wistful expression, as if he’s hearing it all for the first time, the sad decline of a well-meaning but doomed mutual friend of theirs, someone he’d love to help if he could, but doesn’t know where to start.

One of my jobs today is to run a dementia blood screen. I chat to Henry as I locate the vein, taking his mind off the needle. He tells me he used to be a locksmith.
‘You’ll like this story then,’ I say. ‘Sharp scratch.’
‘Oh yes?’ he says.
‘I was brought up in a little market town called Wisbech. Out in the Fens.’
‘Yes?’ he says, as if it’s the most extraordinary thing he’s ever heard. ‘My goodness!’
‘I remember – years ago – there’s was a big fuss. They were renovating an old shop or something, and they found an old safe in the basement. Hadn’t been opened in years. So they got the local locksmith in, and HE couldn’t open it, because it was so old and fancy…’
‘Open what?’
‘This safe they found. In the basement.’
‘Goodness!’ says Henry. ‘Go on.’
‘But the locksmith knew this other locksmith who was an expert in old safes. And he came to have a look. And by this time it was quite an event. The local paper was there. Police. You name it. Because everyone wanted to know what they’d find when they finally managed to get it open.’
‘Well – fancy that!’ says Henry, flashing a look at Jean, standing in the kitchen doorway overseeing the whole thing.
‘So finally, after a lot of drilling and cutting and banging, they finally managed to crack the door and open it up. And you’ll never guess what they found inside.’
‘What?’ says Henry – commenting more on the fact I’ve stopped talking rather than anything to do with the safe.
‘Green shield stamps! Books and books of them!’
Jean laughs.
‘I remember them,’ she says. ‘You’d save forever and end up with a clothes brush.’
‘I suppose they were an early form of reward card,’ I say, withdrawing the needle from Henry’s arm and pressing down on the gauze for a minute or two. ‘There! All done!’
‘They used to have pink stamps, too,’ says Jean, taking her apron off and hanging it behind the door.
‘Did they? I don’t remember that!’
‘I do,’ says Henry.

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