Strictly speaking, Mr Jeffries is a double-up.
Not for the usual reasons – manual handling issues, a history of aggressive behaviour, substance abuse, hazardous environment or a tendency to make accusations – but for something else, something unspecified. So far I’ve been unable to get to the bottom of it, just a series of knowing smiles and nods. I’m supposed to visit Mr Jeffries to take blood, but unfortunately the nurse I was scheduled to go with has had to run out to a blocked catheter, and for one reason or another, there’s no-one else.
‘It’s okay. I don’t mind,’ I tell Anna, the Co-ordinator. ‘I’m fine going on my own,’ .
‘Are you sure, darlink? I’m so sorry there isn’t anyone to go with you. But I’m sure you’ll be fine. You used to work on ambulance before. I’m sure you’ve come across things a lot more – how should I say – strange.’
‘In what way strange, exactly?’
‘Just – you know – strange. Odd. Something different. But there’s no danger involved and you are strong person so I’m sure you’ll be fine. Just go in, get the blood and come out again.’
She smiles at me. ‘Maybe like this…’
She frowns, crossing her arms across her chest.
‘Why? Is it filthy in there?’
‘No! Is not filthy. Is very nice.’
‘What then? Is he a bit lecherous?’
‘Lecherous? What is this lecherous?’
‘You know. Hands everywhere.’
‘No, darlink. No. He is not lecherous. You’re perfectly safe as far as lecherous is concerned.’
‘So what then?’
‘You’ll see. I’m perfectly happy for you to wait until someone becomes available…’
‘It’s fine. I’ll go get the blood.’
‘You are good boy. Very erm… how you say…?’
‘I don’t know. Brave?’
She doesn’t say what she means.
Mr Jeffries doesn’t answer his phone, which is something the notes say is typical for him. He has a keysafe, though. The only thing is to go there and take a chance he’s in.
* * *
Mr Jeffries lives on the top floor of a run-down block of flats. The architect must have designed the place in a rush over breakfast, because it’s exactly like an upturned cereal box, with a lift at either serving long, unbroken corridors of doors and security grilles. If by the day the block is austere, at night it’s perfectly bleak. The lamp out front flickers, animating the entrance in such a menacing way I can’t help zipping my jacket to the neck and shouldering my bag more squarely. Inside is worse, utterly lightless, with that heavy kind of dark you’d think was pumped in from deep underground. The corridor lights only come on when you move, and even then there’s a delay, so the effect is of a steady falling forwards, disconcerting, not at all pleasant.
I knock on Mr Jeffries door. There’s a muffled answer. I use the key and let myself in.
The flat is warm, close, unaired, filled wall to ceiling with shelves and shelves of books – art, astrology, folklore, history, that kind of thing. Mr Jeffries is sitting in his lounge on an electric wheelchair, as perfectly contained in the glow from his desk lamp as a hunched insect preserved in amber.
He spins round to face me, and the first thing that strikes me are his eyes, wide-set and unblinking, tub-water grey, with a diverging bulge that gives him an acute and predatory appearance. That, coupled with his dry smile and knowing demeanour are as unsettling as you could get, and I suddenly understand why Anna thinks this is a double-up.
‘I suppose you’ve come for my blood,’ he says, arching his long fingers together and scrutinising me over the top of them. ‘The doctor doesn’t think I need it, but I think I know more about my condition than a simple GP. If only I had more energy – and a better prognosis – I’d sue them for millions. But really – what good what that do me?’
‘I don’t know,’ I say.
‘No. I don’t suppose you do.’
He parts his hands in a simple gesture of letting go, but then his attitude hardens just as suddenly.
‘Here’s what I need you to do…’ he says, and then tells me where to set up my things, what bottles to use, what the tests need to show and so on.
‘Some people find me intimidating,’ he says. ‘My last consultant actually started to shake.’
‘I don’t think I’ll shake,’ I tell him, although it’ll be a miracle if I don’t. ‘I’ll save the shaking for afterwards.’
It helps when I find out that Mr Jeffries used to dialyse in the renal department around the time I was a ward clerk there. I don’t remember him – and I feel sure I would – but it means we have a shared history of names and places I can use to distract him from focusing too much on me.
‘No,’ he says, interrupting a story about one of the PD nurses with red hair out of a bottle, ‘not that vein. Use that one, there…’
It’s annoying, but he’s right. The blood starts to flow, and I’m immediately more relaxed.
‘So you had a transplant?’ I say.
‘I’ll tell you a little story about that,’ he says. ‘The department had been having a run of deaths. A whole year of them. So much so that everyone was beginning to lose faith in their abilities. It was nothing to do with that, of course. But people divine all manner of things from simple coincidence. When it came to me, the consultant brought the kidney back himself, in a box on the backseat of his car. Can you imagine? It was a few years ago, of course. Things are different now. Anyway, I was prepped and readied. Everyone wished me luck. And that was that. The next thing I knew, I was waking up in the recovery room. I was conscious of someone standing by the bed, and I thought it was a nurse. But when I turned to look, I saw a young woman, right beside me, staring down at me, with the oddest expression. Not sad – no. Not angry. Just – I don’t know – confused. She stood there for the longest while. So long I couldn’t bear it. I said Thank you for the kidney, closed my eyes, and prayed she would leave me alone. When I opened my eyes again the surgical team were standing around me, everyone smiling, waving blood results in the air, relieved the operation had been a success and their run of bad luck ended. Who was the girl who gave me the kidney? I asked them. She came to me. They dismissed my experience as post-operative hallucinations, and, of course, it was policy for them never to disclose any information about the donor. I knew it wasn’t a hallucination, though. I’ve always been able to see things. Some people can. A little while later, just before I left the unit for good, I saw the consultant again. ‘Who was she?’ I asked him. ‘Let’s just say she was a woman who was formerly wealthy.’ What does that mean – formerly wealthy? What do you think it means?’
‘I don’t know. It’s an odd expression. Maybe he was speaking metaphorically. Maybe he meant wealth as in life, and formerly because she lost it.’
I tape some gauze to the crook of his arm. He gently holds his fingers to it, as if he’s healing the wound by the power of touch.
‘I never saw her again,’ he says. ‘Which is a shame, because she seemed so lost.’
And he turns his enormous eyes up to me, and I have to look away, because I don’t want to see my own reflection contained in them.
‘All done!’ I say, shaking the vials of blood.
‘Thank you,’ he says. ‘You’ve been most kind.’
And he watches me closely as I pick up my things and go.