Pine Close is a tributary of a dozen streets, everything leading off from everything else in repeating patterns like a fractal maze, the town planning equivalent of a fern or maybe an ice crystal. All the streets are named after trees, which is odd, because actually there are no trees here at all, excepting one or two brutalised sticks at best, and a scattering of drought-tolerant shrubs. The only characteristic the estate shares with a forest is that it’s easy to get lost. All of the houses are identical, a monotonous procession of red-bricked buildings, shoulder-to-shoulder behind iron railings, green and black and blue bins, cars parked in numbered bays, the only thing to differentiate each from each maybe a variation in the way the net curtains are hung, a plastic heron or a planter with a blob of box and a solar-powered night light, and a sign on the corner of each group to tell you how the numbers are running. I half expect to see a giant hand reach in to push a car around the turning circle, stop, open the boot and pinch out shopping bags of tiny, ultra-realistic shopping.
To add to the unreality of it all, I’ve come to collect a leg.
‘Sorry to ask you’ says Lucy, one of the senior OTs. ‘Only it got left behind when Bill went into hospital. Now he’s gone to rehab and he needs it. There’s a keysafe, so all you’ve got to do is pick it up and take it to Bevan House.’
I slow to read the numbers, attracting the suspicious gaze of three elderly people standing on the corner. They can see my uniform, so I’m hoping they’ll guess I’m legit – although by the way they stare at me it’s like they think I’ve bought the kit off eBay and I’m scouting for mischief.
‘Morning’ I say through the open window as I crawl past.
They stare at me and say nothing.
I park in a space marked with a V (for Villain, judging by the looks I get from the trio), take my diary, and walk along the path in the direction of Bill’s house.
I knock on the door, just in case there’s anybody there, and then start fiddling with the keysafe, which doesn’t seem to work. Then I notice another keysafe, a newer, nicer one, to the other side of the door. I’m just replacing the cover of the old one when a back gate opens and an elderly man appears. His face has a slack and aggrieved look.
‘What are you doing?’ he says.
‘Oh! Hello!’ I say. ‘I’m Jim, from the hospital. I’ve come to collect Bill’s leg.’
‘Who did you say you were?’
‘Jim. From the hospital.’
‘Bill’s not here.’
‘No. I know.’
‘He’s in the hospital.’
‘Yes. Well – no. Actually – he’s just been transferred to a nursing home.’
‘Who did you say sent you?’
The man frowns and pulls back, keeping his hand on the gate.
Meanwhile, the three people who’d been standing at the corner have migrated to the railings behind me.
‘What’s going on, Ted?’ says one of them, a woman in a hat that looks like a tea cosy.
‘He says he’s come to see Bill.’
‘Bill’s in hospital,’ says the woman.
‘He’s been there weeks’ says one of the others, an elderly man with a walking stick that he taps on the ground a couple of times. ‘I saw them take him away. In an ambulance.’
‘What do you want?’ says tea cosy woman. ‘Who sent you?’
I hold up my pass, feebly, an atheist waving a crucifix.
‘I’m Jim, from the community health team. Bill’s been transferred to a nursing home and they asked me to collect his leg.’
‘Yes. He’s an amputee.’
I’m suddenly stricken with the thought I’ve got the wrong Bill.
‘He’ll need that,’ says the other of the three, a bored looking man in a voluminous duffle coat. I smile at him, playing my advantage.
‘So let’s get this straight,’ says Ted. ‘The hospital asked you to come and fetch Bill’s leg because he needs it at the hospital. Is that right?’
‘The nursing home. Yes. I think they want to start rehabilitation. I’m sorry but – are you a relative?’
‘His brother,’ says the man, straightening. ‘Why?’
‘Patient confidentiality. Can’t say too much.’
Which sounds ridiculous, even to me. I don’t think it’s helped.
‘Bill doesn’t have any secrets from me,’ says Ted.
‘No, no. That’s not what I meant. Anyway – look – sorry – we’ve got off on the wrong foot,’ I tell him, holding out my hand. ‘Ironically.’
‘Why were you fiddling around with the keysafe if Ted was there?’ says tea cosy woman.
‘Well I didn’t know that, did I?’
‘You could have knocked. That’s what people generally do, you know.’
‘I did knock.’
‘Not very loudly,’ says Ted. ‘It was like you didn’t want me to hear.’
‘Did you hear that?’ says tea cosy woman, turning to stick man.
‘He didn’t want him to hear.’
‘Oh’ says stick man, but he looks confused, and he taps his stick again.
‘So – do you live here, too?’ I say to Ted, as innocently as I can.
‘No. I just came round to have a tidy up.’
‘That’s nice of you. I don’t suppose you came across a leg, did you?’’
‘Of course I did. It’s in the conservatory.’
‘Would you mind if I took it, then? Only…’ I smile and shrug and hold my diary up, in a mime that’s supposed to illustrate how busy I am, what a day, etc, etc. But it’s a tough crowd and they don’t say anything.
Ted purses his lips and shakes his head, as if this is the most unsatisfactory thing that’s ever happened to him.
‘You don’t have to give me the leg if you don’t want to,’ I tell him, hoping it’ll take the pressure off and make him more compliant. ‘I’ll just tell them at the nursing home and they can make other arrangements.’
‘Like what?’ chips in duffle coat man. ‘He needs his leg.’
‘Come on, then,’ says Ted, sighing and retreating. ‘But I’m not happy.’
A couple of minutes later I’m walking back up the path holding Bill’s leg. It’s a below-the-knee amputation, so the leg consists of a large, silicone cup and stocking, an aluminium strut, and a plimsoll on the foot. I carry it in front of me in a self-conscious way, like an olympic runner holding the flaming torch, making my way through the crowds.
‘Don’t drop it’ says duffle coat man. ‘It’ll run away.’