Gary’s shown hostility to health care professionals in the past, and the record says we’re only to visit in pairs. I’m a little early meeting up with Lisa, so I park up outside and take the opportunity to finish off some notes on the laptop. I’ve just settled in to start writing when Gary’s door opens and a woman steps out. She’s tall and pale and pinched looking, wearing a green and black nylon tracksuit, her long hair dragged back in a ponytail. She takes out a fag packet and is just about to have a smoke when she sees me, sitting there. I wind down the window to tell her I’ve come to see Gary and I’m just waiting on my colleague, but before I can say anything she shoves the fags back in her pocket, walks backwards into the doorway, and maintaining eye contact for as long as she can, slowly shuts the door.
It doesn’t augur well.
Lisa turns up ten minutes later. I’d trust any of the team to go on a difficult visit, but if I had to choose, Lisa would be it. The Italians have a word for how she is: sprezzatura – a kind of nonchalance or ease, wearing her skill lightly, with great warmth and humanity, as if it’s really nothing and no trouble at all, and what was it that needed doing, now, and suddenly it’s done, and everyone feels better.
‘How’s it going there, Jim?’ she says, padding along the street. ‘Have you been waitin’ long?’
We go together through the terrible little garden, knock and wait. There are sounds from inside. An exchange of light and shadow in the frosted panes above the door. A clattering of the lock, and suddenly the door opens.
A bare chested man, his eyes squeezed shut, his smile as wide and flat as the Man in the Moon.
‘I expect you’re wondering why I’m half naked?’ he says. ‘Only I was just having a carton of cherry and raspberry squash, and I didn’t want to get any on my t-shirt.’
‘No. That would stain, right enough,’ says Lisa.
‘Yes,’ he says. ‘You’d never get it out.’
There’s a steep, bare board staircase just behind the man. The woman I saw earlier is crouched at the top, peering down at us on all fours.
‘Don’t listen to him!’ she shouts. ‘He sees ghosts!’
‘Okay, now! That’s interesting!’ says Lisa. ‘So… is yer man through in this room, or … ‘
‘Ye-es,’ says the man, stepping to one side and knocking on the door. ‘I say Gary? There are two lovely nurses to see you.’
Show them in but keep Jackie out.
The man pushes the door open and nods for us to go through. Meanwhile, Jackie has started coming down the stairs, slowly feeling with her feet for each tread whilst her face stays as fixed on us as a steadicam.
‘Now, now, Jacqueline!’ says the man. ‘Gary doesn’t want you there.’
Jackie gives a petulant scream, sits down on the step and folds her arms.
‘After you,’ says the man.
We step into the room.
It’s hot as a sauna – the foetid, barrelling kind, where you fling urine on the coals instead of water. I wonder how long Gary’s been lying on his bed like this, his teeth grey and claggy as if he’s been snacking on ash. It’s like we’ve stumbled into a mausoleum, where the occupant took up early residency for want of anything better to do, and his stuff got chucked in after him. There are two posters on the wall: Jimi Hendricks leaning back from a guitar solo; The Beatles all in a line.
‘Wha’d’ya want?’ says Gary.
‘Hello there!’ says Lisa, offering him her hand. ‘Nice to meet you, Gary. This is my colleague Jim. We’ve been asked to come see how you’re doing.’
‘How’m I doing?’ he says. ‘I’m NOT doing.’
‘What’s troubling you today, then, Gary?’
‘I can’t keep nothin’ down. I feel sick all the time. I’ve got no energy. I’m wracked with pain. Is that enough for you?’
‘That’s enough for anyone,’ she says. ‘You poor thing. Let’s see what’s what, then. I’ll just do your blood pressure and whatnot and see how that is, and Jim here’ll take a wee bit o’blood, if that’s okay?’
‘I don’t care,’ he says. ‘You may as well. I’ve got to go to the toilet first, though.’
He nods in the direction of a commode whose pot has been removed so it can fit over a bucket.
‘Do you need a hand getting out of bed, there, Gary?’ says Lisa.
‘I’ll be alright, thanks,’ he says. ‘If you wouldn’t mind stepping outside for a bit.’
We leave him to it.
Out in the hall the bare chested man has gone and Jackie is nowhere to be seen. Instead, an ancient black and white cat yowls as it approaches us from the living room. I’m guessing it’s blind because both its eyes are white. It feels its way along the wall, one paw at a time. I crouch down and hold my hand out. The cat stops, sniffs the air, then moves in my direction. When it gets closer I see that its tongue pokes out to the side, too.
‘Poor wee fella!’ says Lisa.
I stroke the cat. It starts purring – a deep, rumbly sound – his tail pointing straight up, as if he’s absorbing the affection and transmitting it somewhere.
‘The cat! The cat knows everything!’ says a voice at the top of the stairs.
Jackie is there, staring down at us again.
‘Oh – they do, though, don’t they?’ says Lisa, smiling up at her. ‘Cats. You’re right there, Jackie. They certainly do.’