The nurse Kuba was allocated to is off sick, so he’s slumming it with me. Kuba is a second year nursing student, on a placement with our team for a few weeks, this being his second day. He’s a tall, heavy guy in his twenties, placing his words as slowly and carefully as his feet.
We’ve had radically different mornings. I’ve been stuck in the office, coordinating pretty much single-handedly all morning till two, and it’s been horribly busy. I’ve done my best to look cool and in control, but mostly I’ve felt like Wile E Coyote running off the canyon edge, pedaling desperately, looking at the camera with a crooked smile as gravity takes me down.
Meanwhile, Kuba has been working through a bunch of dull, online training. So whilst I feel positively light-headed as I step outside the hospital door into the car park, the world wide and wonderful around me, and only two patients to see before I go home, Kuba is as depressed as a bear who’s been dragged out of his cave for no particular reason.
‘What a world!’
‘Yes,’ he says. ‘Is very nice.’
My car is small. I move things around to make room, but still, a bear’s a bear. He sits in the passenger seat, smooshed up against the ceiling, his paws hugging the bag on his lap, staring ahead.
I ring the first patient, an elderly woman called June who lives pretty close by. She sounds remarkably bright on the phone.
‘I look forward to seeing you both!’ she says.
I put the phone back in my pocket, both of us having to lean left and right to make room.
‘She doesn’t sound ninety-five!’ I say.
‘If I didn’t know I’d say she was seventy,’ I say.
‘Seventy is old,’ he says. ‘What is wrong with this lady?’
I go through what I remember reading from the discharge summary.
‘So – exactly the kind of thing would be wrong with old lady,’ he says.
‘And what is purpose of visit?’
‘Anyone who gets referred to us has to have a basic set of obs, including pressure area check and an up to date weight.’
It’s my turn to shrug.
‘So we reassured everything’s okay.’
‘Let us go then,’ he says. And yawns, just like a bear.
June lives in the middle of a row of terraced houses off the main drag. There’s a water company van outside, and I wonder if something’s happened.
‘No, that’s for Margaret next door. She’s having trouble with her pipes. Come in, ducks.’
The house seems to tip towards the road as Kuba follows me inside.
‘Ooh!’ says June. ‘You’re big.’
‘I’m about average,’ I say.
‘Not you. Him.’
Kuba shrugs. Yawns behind his mask.
‘Where do you want me?’ says June.
‘Kuba? Why don’t you do the observations?’
I hand him the equipment from my bag, along with a disinfectant wipe.
‘Please give me arm,’ he says, waggling his claws towards June.
‘Be gentle,’ she says.
‘Relax, please,’ he says.
Next to the sofa is a large cage filled with tiny mirrors, dangling bells and a crazy looking budgie with a big red stripe running from its beak over the top of its head and down its back.
‘That’s Bowie,’ says June. ‘And he’s not a budgie he’s a parakeet. And he doesn’t talk.’
‘Do they normally?’
‘Quiet please,’ says Kuba.
Bowie assaults a mirror.
Behind Kuba on the wall are a selection of family photos in frames. Some are really old – the middle one around which all the others radiate is an ancient, black and white profile shot of a severe looking woman in a button-up crinoline dress. Kuba takes the cuff off June’s arm so it’s safe to ask her who the woman is.
‘That’s my great-great grandmother, Clothilde,’ she says. ‘She was French, you know.’
‘Yes, she was. Can you see a likeness?’
I look from one to the other.
‘I think I can,’ I say.
‘What is it?’
‘Le conk! I know! Shame, in’t it?’
‘Who is next patient?’ says Kuba as we head back to the car.
‘It’s a guy who needs the dressing on his arm changing. I think he fell over a couple of days ago, the ambulance came out, and they referred on to us. Once we’ve changed the bandage we can discharge to the district nurses. If he needs it.’
I glance at him and smile.
‘And then I can drop you home!’
‘Thank you very much.’
‘Got any plans for the rest of your day?’
‘I have to go to supermarket,’ he says. ‘Then some studying.’
‘What will you do when you finish your degree? Are you looking to specialise?’
‘Yes. I want to work in trauma,’ he says. ‘Something interesting.’
Half an hour later we’re standing outside the main door to a block of flats. A neighbourhood tabby cat comes trotting over when it sees us park; it sits next to me on the ground by the door whilst Kuba tries to figure out which keysafe belongs to our patient.
‘Hey mister!’ I say, bending down to fuss the cat between the ears. Normally a cat will pretty much levitate when you do that, but this cat means business. It stares at Kuba and narrows its eyes.
‘Which box is it?’ I say to the cat. ‘Which one’s Harold’s box?’
‘Is cat,’ says Kuba. ‘He cannot tell you.’ He sighs, and flips the cover off another box and starts pummelling the numbers.
‘Worth a try, though. Eh?’
I lean into the cat a bit more and whisper: Go on! Point! Which one’s Harold’s…?
Kuba flips the second to last box open and pulls out the key.
‘Got it!’ he says.
The moment he opens the door the cat rushes in, only pausing for a second to give us a particularly harsh look from the first landing, then turns and hurries on.
‘He will never get out,’ says Kuba. ‘That is end of cat.’
‘I dunno. I get the impression he pretty much owns the place,’ I say.
We go up the stairs, a great deal more heavily and slowly than the cat.
Turns out Harold’s door is on a chain.
‘Who is it?’ he says from inside.
‘It’s Jim, the nursing assistant from the hospital. We phoned earlier…’
There’s the sound of someone cursing, breathing hard. A woman’s voice, thin, worried. A creaking noise, presumably the walking frame – then after a while Harold appears, pressing his face to the gap like Jack Nicholson in The Shining.
‘What do you want?’ he says.
‘We’ve come to change the dressing on your arm, Harold. Do you remember?’
‘Can I see some identification?’
I extend my badge on its sprung line and press it to the gap.
‘Hmm,’ he says. ‘Hah. And that’s supposed to be you, is it?’
‘Yep. I was younger then. Optimistic.’
He rattles back the chain, opens the door, and stands there holding onto it.
‘After you!’ I say. (If he falls I want to be able to catch him).
‘No. You go on,’ he says, waving me past. ‘Just go. Dorothy’s there.’
We let ourselves into the living room, where Dorothy is sitting in a high-backed chair, her legs barely touching the floor. She’s a broad, approximate figure, like someone made a sculpture by stuffing an old kimono with scatter cushions. The most extraordinary thing about her is her hair, which sticks straight up, like she fell into the chair down a chute three floors up.
‘Hello Dorothy!’ I say. ‘I’m Jim. This is Kuba. I’m a nursing assistant, Kuba is a nursing student. We’ve just popped in to take a look at Harold’s arm. Sorry to disturb you.’
She tuts, and fiddles with a handkerchief.
‘If you’re nurses,’ says Harold, wheezing into the room. ‘How come you haven’t got a box?’
‘I carry my dressings in a bag,’ I tell him. ‘I don’t like those boxes. They’re too cumbersome.’
‘Cumbersome?’ says Kuba.
‘Yeah. You know. Boxy.’
‘I don’t know about this…’ says Harold, frowning so hard his eyes disappear. ‘Who sent you?’
‘The paramedics who came when you hurt your arm. The day before yesterday. D’you remember? They wanted us to come in and check everything was alright, and then maybe get the District Nurses to see you in a couple of days.’
‘I don’t know,’ says Harold. ‘I think I’ll leave it, if it’s all the same to you.’
‘It’s your choice,’ I tell him. ‘But would you mind if I asked you a couple of questions about your arm before we go?’
‘What like? What questions?’ says Harold.
‘Is painful?’ says Kuba. ‘Is scratchy?’
‘What’d he say?’
‘Is your arm troubling you at all?’
‘No. Not a bit!’
‘Do you feel unwell?’
‘I feel fine, thank you.’
‘I can’t see any strikethrough on the dressing…’
‘Sometimes the wound gets infected and a bit oozy. It starts to seep through the bandage. But that all looks pretty clean.’
‘I’ll wait for the District Nurses, if you don’t mind,’ he says.
‘Okay. That’s fine. I’ll make a note on your record. Sorry to have disturbed you.’
‘Right you are.’
I pick up all my bags again and we both leave.
Outside the main door again, Kuba sighs and looks around.
‘I was right about cat,’ he says. ‘Now. Please take me home.’