the great conjunction

Saturn and Jupiter are lining up.

Apparently it’s a thing that happens every twenty years, but a great conjunction, where the two planets get so close they look like a single bright star – well, that only happens every four hundred years or so. Kepler, the seventeenth century astronomer, pointed out that a great conjunction happened in 7 BCE, and may account for the Star of Bethlehem in The Nativity.

Today we’ve had nothing but thick fog and a cruel variety of fine, saturating rain that makes walking forwards feel like swimming up. It was just as well the weather was kinder all those years ago in Bethlehem, otherwise the Birth of Christ would have featured a comedy moment where three bedraggled kings holding fancy boxes over their heads high-step three hours late into an empty stable where an innkeeper is sweeping up.

Two thousand years back in the CE, though, Saturn and Jupiter aren’t the only things lining up.

Karen, the physio, is waiting for us under the porch outside Mr and Mrs Billingham’s house. She’s brought a walking stick. Jack the carer is here for a lunchtime call. I’ve turned up to deliver and fit a shower stool and a toilet frame, and to do some obs. There’s not much room under the porch, so I’m at the bottom of the steps leaning in.
‘I’ve rung the bell but nothing’s happening,’ says Karen, her eyes smiling above her mask. ‘I’m not even sure it’s working.’
‘Shall I knock?’ says Jack. He goes up to the door – an iron-bounded oak affair, with a door knocker so huge it wouldn’t look out of place on a quayside with a ship tied up to it – and flips it three times.
‘It’s like Jack and the Beanstalk,’ I say. ‘When he goes up to the castle and knocks.’
‘Have you met Mr Billingham?’ says Jack. ‘I don’t think ogre is far off, as it goes.’
We wait.
The house is silent.
‘Are they in?’
‘They don’t go out.’
‘Do you think they’re in?’
‘Hang on…’ says Karen, leaning into the door. We all listen.
‘No. Sorry,’ she says, straightening up again. ‘I thought I heard something.’
Jack sighs.
‘This is ridiculous,’ he says. ‘We keep coming back, and the same thing keeps happening.’
‘He’d better hurry up,’ I say. ‘I’m worried about this shower stool getting wet.’
They both laugh.
‘Actually – aren’t they designed to get wet?’ says Karen.
Jack gets his phone out.
‘I’ll ring him.’
Amazingly, Mrs Billingham picks up almost immediately. Karen and I only hear half of the conversation, but this is roughly how it goes.
‘… we’ve come to see how you are, Joan…. because the doctor asked us to…. you had that fall, didn’t you? And people were worried… well… Joan… actually it isn’t that early. It’s lunchtime, Joan… that’s why I’m here, to help you get something to eat and whatnot… and I’ve got some other people here to see you, too… colleagues of mine… well, there’s Karen, the physio, she’s here to help you get back on your feet… and there’s Jim, the nursing assistant to make sure you’re okay, and to put in some equipment to help with this and that… we talked about it the other day, d’you remember?…. yep… yep… but Joan… yep… yep… Joan?… the thing is, we really need to see you today… no, the phone doesn’t really count… we need to clap eyes on you, to make sure everything’s okay… yep… sure, put him on….’
Jack widens his eyes at us and breathes out heavily, which immediately steams up his glasses. Then Mr Billingham comes to the phone and Jack starts up again:
‘…hello ….Mr Billingham? …. it’s Jack, the carer. Hi! We met the other day? How are you?… yep… and I’m sorry to disturb you… well – I did phone ahead, but the phone cut out… no, a few times…. yep… I appreciate that… yep… I know you’re in bed… but the thing is, Mr Billingham, we really need to see Joan… because the GP asked us to… he’s worried, Mr Billingham… yep… yep… I understand that… but the thing is, Mr Billingham – with the greatest respect – Joan is our patient. She’s our responsibility. And that’s why we need to see her for ourselves….’

The conversation carries on like this for some time. He persists long after I would’ve given up, and I’m impressed with Jack’s patience. He doesn’t raise his voice or start to sound hectoring or patronising at all. Instead, like some accomplished hostage negotiator, he makes subtle changes of argument, trying to coax Mr Billingham downstairs to unlock the front door and let us in.

Meanwhile, more people have started to arrive. Two representatives of the care agency who’ve come to do their initial assessment. They’re bulky, approximate figures, swathed in enormous parka coats, the furry hoods up, tightly clutching blue folders to them like aliens holding manuals to life on Earth. Next is another figure in a smaller but still pretty substantial shiny black puffa jacket, with some kind of Norwegian hat pulled hard down over her head, the ear flaps resting on her shoulders. When I nod and smile at her she just sways a little from side to side and bobs at the knee. I get the impression she’s a social worker. Last to join the line is a postman. He’s like the Royal Mail version of Lear on the heath, his long grey hair completely soaked and bedraggled, his beard, too. All he has on are a lightweight jacket and cargo shorts, none of which would be any good on a summer’s evening, let alone the current horror show. He’s weighed down by an enormous mail sack, of course – but he seems remarkably chipper.
‘What’s up?’ he says from the back of the queue. ‘Are they having a sale or something?’
Before anyone can answer he taps the social worker on the back.
‘Here ya go, Pingu,’ he says. ‘Pass these along and stuff ‘em in the box, would ya?’
Then he waves and marches off.
The letters make their way forward. I hand them to Karen, she hands them to Jack, who – still talking on the phone and cradling it to his ear – pushes them through the letterbox.
‘Mr Billingham! Your mail’s arrived!’ he says as he does it. ‘Some exciting looking envelopes… cards and all sorts … why don’t you nip down and have a look…?’

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