the switch

A high-pitched, whistling kind of voice picks up. I’m guessing it’s George’s wife – although I don’t remember reading in the notes he was married. She repeats the number like it’s nineteen fifty or something.
‘Two four two nine one six’
‘Hello. My name’s Jim. I’m a nursing assistant with the Rapid Response service at the hospital. I’ve been asked to come and visit George this morning. Is he there?’
‘Speaking.’
‘Oh! I’m sorry, George! This phone line’s terrible. I can barely hear you. Let me move position…’
I hold the phone away from my face for a second, then bring it back again.
‘There! That’s better! How are you feeling today, George?’
‘Not bad, thank you. Excepting for this damned leg.’
‘Ah! Well it’s the leg they want me to look at.’
‘Do they?’
‘Absolutely. And to see how else we can help.’
‘That’s very kind of you.’
‘It’s a pleasure. I could be round in half an hour or so…’
‘Lovely. See you then.’

*

I park up on the estate and haul all my bags out of the boot. An elderly woman staggers past, walking a small dog at the furthest extent of the lead. The dog must have recently been showered or something because its fur sticks straight out all over. It drags the woman in my direction, produces a nose from somewhere, and begins sniffing my trousers.
‘He’s cute,’ I say. ‘Or she.’
‘She,’ says the woman. ‘Come on, Marilyn! Leave the nurse alone.’
‘She’s alright! She can probably smell my dogs.’
‘Oh!’ says the woman. ‘What sort?’
‘Lurchers,’ I say, patting Marilyn where I’m guessing the top of her head would be.
‘I love lurchers!’ says the woman. ‘I used to be a volunteer walker at the shelter. Before my hip.’
‘That’s a nice thing to do.’
‘We got up to all kinds of mischief. Mind you – life’s not boring with Marilyn, either. Is it? Hey? Is it?’
She hauls on the lead, and then rolls onwards, rocking from side to side like her legs were on retractable springs.

*

George opens his flat door and stands there watching as I put on my PPE.
‘I’ll be glad when all this is over,’ I say, hooking the mask round my ears.
‘I hope you won’t get too hot in all that,’ he says. ‘Only I put the radiators on to dry my pants.’

It certainly is hot in the flat. George is in his nineties and doesn’t seem to feel it. He is tiny and frail, perfect, in a bloodless kind of way, immaculately dressed in black slippers, sharp-creased slacks held up by braces and a shirt buttoned to the neck. George’s front room is equally squared-away, spectacle cases in a line on the table, neat piles of letters and things, pencils and biros in size order, and a stack of socks so well-ironed they look fresh out of the box. There’s not much in the way of decoration. A simple cabinet with a few photos and things, a couple of old model locomotives, two campaign medals in a display case, a television, a copy of the Radio Times, and then draped over the radiator under the window, a line of baggy white pants.

‘Excuse the mess,’ he says, then carefully lowers himself into his chair.

We chat as I work. He tells me what Hamburg was like in the months just after the war.
‘Everyone scratching around. Using whatever they could. It’s terrible, what people can do to each other.’

After the war he worked on the railways, first on the track, then as a driver, then as one of the station staff. After he retired he made model railways, the scenery and buildings and things. I imagine him hunched over a bench, working on the tiny scenes with a pot of enamel paint, staring through a bendy magnifying glass, his eyes huge and intent.
‘I used to sell them,’ he says. ‘Kept a few for myself, of course. But then when I moved here I had to get rid of them.’
‘That’s a shame.’
‘Well,’ he says. ‘One learns to adapt.’

*

Back out in the car I think about George and his model railways. It makes me think of a short story I read a long time ago. It was called ‘The Chicken Switch’ or something. It was about a journalist who interviews a guy who’s just about to go inside an underground box for a month. As a stunt. And later the journalist suffers terrible claustrophobic panics – almost loses his mind. Until the underground guy gets exhumed, steps out, looking perfectly fresh and relaxed. The journalist asks him how he did it, and the underground guy says he has this trick. Just before he goes into a situation like that, he mentally switches places with the last person he talked to. At least – I think that’s what happens. He transfers his stress and anxiety onto that person.

I can imagine George doing something similar, switching places with one of his station figurines. I wouldn’t mind betting there’s a model railway somewhere, a perfect thing, with trees and barns and cows and people waiting with their bags on the platform. And the station office, with a tiny little George staring contentedly out of the window, every detail perfect, the shiny black cap, the mug of tea, the chain of his fob watch, the medal on his jacket, standing securely on his plastic base that only rocks a little as the giants come thundering up the stairs again, and the lights come on, and the transformers crackle and hum, and the trains start rolling  again, round and round the track.

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