Jack is sitting slumped on the edge of his bed, a huge brown dressing gown draped over his shoulders.
‘I’ll make more sense when I put my teeth in,’ he says. ‘Get ‘em for me, would you? Go through to the kitchen. Hard left. Over to the sink. On the window ledge, by the soap dish. You’ll find ‘em there. Give ‘em a rinse and I’ll bung ‘em in.’
It’s the fourth or fifth trip I’ve made to the kitchen. First it was a cup of tea. Then it was his slippers. He wanted a knife to open the letters I’d pulled out of the letterbox – but not the knife I brought through. He wanted his frame….
I find the teeth, soaking in an old yogurt pot. They look a little scummy, so I run them under the tap.
‘That’s the ones!’ he says, reaching out for them. ‘Jes’ a minute.’
He puts them in – an extraordinary process, his wrinkled mouth gabbling round the plates. It’s like watching an octopus trying to crack an oyster. Finally he gets the teeth into position, then hands me the yogurt pot again.
‘Done,’ he says. ‘Put that back.’
I don’t mind his bossiness. There’s something about the way he gives all these orders, directly and without an edge, that makes it entertaining. Anyway, he’s had a hard time lately. Not only has he fallen over twice – once in the surgery, once at home – but now his boiler’s broken and there’s no heating or hot water.
‘Never mind that,’ he says. ‘Set that sofa back over there, would you? Not there. There!’
He used to be a motor mechanic and I can quite imagine him up to his knotty elbows in grease, a fag in the corner of his mouth, shouting something across a garage in the nineteen fifties. Something about a wrench.
He’s got so many wounds on his arms and hands it takes me a while to check them all and renew the dressings.
‘There!’ I say at last, tossing the last of the wrappers in the rubbish bag and peeling off my gloves. ‘That’ll get you through the MOT.’
‘You think?’ he says. ‘We’ll see!’
I take the trash out and bring him another cup of tea.
‘Put it there,’ he says. ‘Now – move the table closer. That’s it! Y’know – them girls’ll miss me down the surgery. I was supposed to go there today with my feet. Not that they’d have been open. Not with this virus flying about. You wait till till they hear what happened, though,’ he says, wrapping his horrible brown dressing gown more tightly around himself. ‘They’ll piss ‘emselves laughing.’
His old friend Sally has been keeping an eye on things, but she’s in her eighties, self-isolating, hasn’t been round in a while.
‘I don’t suppose I’ll see her for a few weeks,’ he says. ‘If ever. Did I tell you how we met?’
I’m writing the notes up, so I’m only half-listening when he tells me the story, a long and complicated affair that mostly seems to focus on a guy called Barry. I lose the thread and ask him who Barry is.
‘Oh never mind,’ he says. ‘It was a long time ago.’
The last thing I do before I go is make Jack’s bed up. These days he’s sleeping downstairs on a rickety put-you-up, something he’s adamant he doesn’t want changing.
‘I’m used to it,’ he says. ‘I know its ways.’
I make the bed as well as I can, shaking out the duvet, plumping the pillows, smoothing the bottom sheet, lining up the duvet and tucking it in the wall-side, putting his favourite tartan blanket neatly over the bottom half of the bed, then turning back the near corner so it’s ready. When I’m done, I stand at the head end and salute.
‘Military man?’ he says.
‘No,’ I tell him. ‘I thought about it once, but I’m no good at taking orders.’