I ring Albert to ask if it’s okay to come round and see him. When he picks up I wait for him to say hello or something; when he doesn’t, I say hello instead – but then he talks over me, pretending to be an answer machine:
I’m sorry we’re not here to take your call, but quite frankly, we couldn’t be arsed. So if you’d like to leave your name and number and what you had for breakfast, then – please – do that, but don’t hold your breath for a reply, because quite honestly you’re not going to get one. Thank you very much, and goodbye…
I hear his wife June in the background saying Who is it, Albert? – a scuffling sound as the phone gets handed over – then: Hello? Who IS this?
‘Hi June. It’s Jim, from the hospital. I came round to see Albert the other day.’
‘Yes. Hello. Sorry about that. Albert does like to muck about.’
‘He probably thought it was a nuisance call. The number comes up as private.’
‘We get a lot of that.’
‘So what do you want?’
‘Is it alright if I come over and do Albert’s blood pressure again? The GP wanted a few days’ worth…’
‘That’s fine. Come over. It’s not as if we’re going anywhere.’
‘Sorry about earlier,’ says Albert, answering the door and shaking my hand. ‘I get a bit carried away sometimes.’
June is standing behind him, leaning against the doorway to the kitchen, wiping her hands on a tea towel.
‘I wish you would get carried away,’ she says.
‘Hark at that’ says Albert.
‘Well I thought it was great!’ I tell them both. ‘I always swear I’ll say something clever or weird next time we get a nuisance call, but of course I never do. I always end up saying Please don’t ring here again. Which is so pathetic it practically guarantees they will.’
‘I’ve had a lot of practice,’ says Albert. ‘I’ve always been a bit of a clown.’
‘Is that what you call it?’ says June.
Albert shakes his head, then turns and walks unsteadily to his favourite chair, lowering himself into it with exaggerated care. June follows behind, perching herself on the arm of the settee opposite, whipping the tea towel over her shoulder, then folding her arms. It’s difficult to figure June out. She doesn’t smile easily, and when she speaks it’s clipped and to the point. It’s understandable, though. The strain must be awful.
Albert and June are a retired couple in their late seventies. June is as fit as you could hope to be – as rootin’ tootin’ as Doris Day in Calamity Jane – but Albert looks twenty years older. He has a palliative cancer diagnosis, and he’s becoming frailer day by day. Symptomatically Albert’s steady, functioning at a reasonable level, the pain controlled pretty well, but the prognosis is bleak. It’s impossible to say when he’ll enter the End of Life phase. One month, six months, a year, two…. I’m not surprised June has her pistols drawn.
I run through the observations. At every point, Albert makes a joke. When I put the tympanic thermometer in his ear (The light’ll come straight out the other side); when I count his pulse (So I’m not dead yet?); when I pump up the cuff to do his blood pressure (Jesus Christ! You’ll have my arm off at this rate); when I scratch his finger for his blood sugar (That’s very nearly an armful).
June sighs heavily each time.
‘Just let him do his job,’ she says.
‘There! All done!’ I say, packing my stuff away.
‘A-one back to the front!’ says Albert.
June fold the tea towel into a square and smooths it flat on her knee.
When I’m ready to go, Albert insists on seeing me to the door. When he gets there, he turns and leans against it.
‘Can you give me some advice?’ he says.
‘Of course. What about?’
‘I don’t want my family coming round any more.’
His chin starts to tremble. He takes a breath to steady himself, then raps his stick on the carpet a couple of times, summoning the will to speak.
‘I don’t want them seeing me go like this,’ he says. ‘I want them to remember me as I was. So what would you suggest I do about that, hmm?’
‘It’s hard,’ I say. ‘I know what you mean. But I think anyone who loves you would want to see as much of you as they could. I know I would. I think they’d find it hard staying away.’
‘Well. There we are,’ he says. ‘Thank you.’
I give his shoulder a squeeze.
‘Come and sit back down, Albert. I worry about you.’
‘I’ll be alright. I’ll keep on my feet if you don’t mind.’
‘Okay then. You take care. I’ll let the GP know what your facts and figures are.’
‘Thirty-eight, twenty-four, thirty-six,’ he says, then takes out a hankie and blows his nose.
June comes over and leads him back to his chair.
‘Close the door on your way out,’ she says.