‘I’m just finishing off my mother’s rectal area but you could come over at a quarter past five if that would be acceptable?’
I check my watch. It’s ten to.
‘Okay. Fine. I’ll see you then, Jeremy.’
‘Lovely, James. Looking forward to seeing you at a quarter past five, then. Goodbye.’
I don’t know what’s more disconcerting – the formal description of the personal care Jeremy’s giving or the way he changed ‘Jim’ to ‘James’. Either way, I’m intrigued to meet him.
The house is in the middle of a long terrace, the only thing marking it out being an atmosphere of general neglect. Nothing too awful; more like a disaffected giant leant in with the eraser end of an enormous pencil and rubbed it out a little. The number is a rusted iron affair, the black paint long since flaked off, hanging on a skew so it’s only possible to make out by taking it in sequence with the numbers on the houses either side. I ring the bell and take a step back. After a long pause Jeremy comes to the door, wiping his hands on some kind of souvenir tea towel.
‘Oh hello, James!’ he says, draping the tea towel over his shoulder and reaching out to shake my hand. His feels icy from the water, soft and broad, too; if I closed my eyes I could imagine I was shaking flippers with a seal.
‘Don’t just stand there!’ he says, flapping me through. ‘You’ll catch your death.’
‘It’s freezing – but at least it’s bright.’
‘Yeees! It’s surprising what you can tolerate with a little light. She’s just through here, James. Excuse the mess.’
The house still follows the original two-up, two-down floor plan – a small front sitting room and back parlour, a tiny kitchen and downstairs toilet, and two rooms upstairs. Jeremy has set his mum’s bed up in the parlour, just about managing to squeeze it in along with a commode and a comfy chair. The front room is for watching TV, and this is where his mother is sitting, wearing a short fur jacket and a beige turban – a little at a slant – fixed at the front with a brooch. Jeremy’s paintings cover the walls: swirling life studies in reds and browns and yellows, so thickly done I imagine he uses both ends of the brush, and then maybe his feet.
I introduce myself to Jeremy’s mother, but although she smiles contentedly she makes no sign that she’s really understood who I am or what I’ve come to do. Jeremy leans in and bellows in his mother’s ear – much more of a shock to me than it is to her – then leans out again.
‘She’s a little hard of hearing,’ he says, gently. ‘Would you like me to make you some tea whilst you take her readings?’
I run through the obs, and I’m pretty much done by the time he brings through two mugs and a beaker for his mum.
‘Everything looks fine,’ I say, looping the stethoscope over my neck and taking the mug.
‘Well that’s a relief.’
‘Yep. I think all we need to do is book some physio to get your mum back up to strength, have someone come in a couple more times to make sure she stays on the level, and maybe have an OT come round to see if there’s any more equipment you might find useful.’
‘I don’t know where it would go,’ says Jeremy. ‘I mean – look at the place. But we’re in your capable hands. We’re really very grateful.’
I write up my notes on the laptop whilst he sits on a stool and watches.
‘I love your paintings,’ I tell him.
‘Thank you!’ he says. ‘I use their old front bedroom as a studio. The light’s much better there, you know. Painting’s my thing. It’s what keeps me sane.’
‘Everybody should definitely have a thing. But how would you say you’re bearing up generally? It must be quite a strain.’
‘Oh. That’s kind of you to ask. It has been hard, that’s for darn sure – but I’m fine. As I say, I have my art.’
‘Do you need any care support?’
‘What would they do? I do it all.’
‘Well – I don’t know. Give you a bit of a break? Maybe you could consider some respite care at some point. You’ve got to look after your health, too.’
‘Me? I’m alright. You have to be, don’t you? I must admit it was hard at first, though. I had no idea what I was letting myself in for. But the rest of the family live abroad and they’ve got their own families so there wasn’t really anyone else. I’ve just had to learn as I went along. And now look at me – nurse, domestic, pharmacist, accountant. Electrician! But like I say. I still have time to paint. And we watch a lot of black and white films together, don’t we mum? We’re going to watch one when you go. A good one. Sunset Boulevard. Mum’s favourite. We’ve seen it I don’t know how many times. Norma Desmond…’
He puts his mug on the floor, jumps up, straightens, widens his eyes, snarls, throws the tea towel over the opposite shoulder and says Ready for my close-up, Mr DeMille.’
He holds the pose a few seconds, then sits back down on the bed again and picks up his mug.
‘And – scene!’ he says, taking a sip.