the three bears

There aren’t many things I remember from Geography class, but one of them is the oxbow lake. It’s that thing that happens when a river meander gets loopier and crazier until the river nips it off at the top and leaves it to one side as a curved body of water. (Note to reader: I did NOT score highly in my Geography exam).

This close reminds me of an oxbow lake. The main drag thunders across the top, leaving a U-bend of terraced houses with a thin strip of wasted grass and brambles in the middle. Driving round it, I can’t figure out the numbers at all. It’s as if they built the houses first, then took a bag of numbers, shook it up, and ran round throwing them randomly at the doors. I can’t see any sequence to it at all – and worse than that, I can’t find any sign of a number eleven. (Note to reader: I did NOT score highly in my Maths exam).

There is an unnumbered door round the corner from number nine, though. So although strictly speaking it should count as an address on the main road, I take my chances and my bags and go down the cluttered path to knock on the door.

There’s a long wait, then the sound of someone clumping downstairs.
The door gets thrown wide.
An elderly woman with thick round glasses and a startled expression.
‘Hello!’ I say. ‘I’m Jim, the nursing assistant from the hospital. I rang your carer Stevie and she said it was okay to visit. Are you Agnes? I’ve come to take some blood!’
I extend my ID badge on its elasticated string but she doesn’t look at it.
‘Come on, then!’ she says, batting the air. ‘Follow me!’
She turns and stomps back up the stairs.

I’m encouraged by how full of life she seems. The Doctor had asked us to visit today as a one-off for bloods and a set of obs. The community phlebs were full so it was a bit of a favour.
‘I didn’t like the sound of it,’ the doctor said. ‘The carer was talking about jaundice and abdo pain. If you could take a look for us that would be great.’

I put the rest of my PPE on in the hallway and follow Agnes up the stairs into her sitting room.
She’s already back in her chair – a throne of white cane, padded with red and yellow cushions and set in the middle of the room, with a card table next to it for her biscuits and orange squash, telephone and remote control. She’s watching Flog It! A punter and a dealer are sitting either side of a table looking down on a tiny vase; the dealer starts laying out lines of twenty pound notes. Uh-huh! says the punter. The dealer lays out some more. ‘Try harder’ says the punter.

‘You’ve come for my blood!’ says Agnes. ‘You’d better be gentle!’
‘How are you feeling?’ I say. ‘Stevie said you haven’t been yourself lately.’
‘Who’ve I been then?’
‘Well. She didn’t go that far.’
‘No. I bet she didn’t.’

Lined up on a small sofa behind Agnes are three bears: one giant polar bear, one medium-sized grizzly bear and one small teddy bear. The teddy bear is perched on the lap of the polar bear.
‘They’re giving me a funny look,’ I say, nodding at them.
‘They do that with everyone,’ says Agnes. ‘Just ignore ‘em.’

We chat about how she’s been feeling. I take a history, give her the once over, take her observations.
‘All good!’ I say. ‘So tell me again how this all started.’
‘It was that burger,’ she says. ‘It was all mushy. And mayonnaise? That wasn’t mayonnaise! It was lumpy and grey.’
‘Eurgh! Doesn’t sound good.’
‘No. It wasn’t good. And that was the start of all my troubles.’
‘Have you felt sick? Or been sick?’
‘Have you had any diarrhoea?’
‘No. I went this morning.’
‘And was that all normal.’
‘Depends what you call normal.’
‘Well – firm. Fully formed.’
She pulls a face.

Behind me in Flog It! things are getting serious. The dealer has spread out a whole wallet of notes now, but the punter folds her arms and leans back in the chair. I can’t believe a tiny vase could be worth so much.

‘Any pain?’ I ask Agnes.
‘A little. Round my middle.’
She makes a sawing motion with the flat of her hand.
‘Sorry to hear it. Is it there now?’
‘Have you taken anything for the pain?’
‘What like?’
I shrug.
‘Paracetamol? That’s quite effective but shouldn’t upset your tummy any more.’
‘I haven’t got any.’
‘Maybe Stevie could get you some.’
‘I’ll talk to her. So – Agnes? Have you had this pain before?’
‘Oh yes.’
‘Tell me about that. When was the last time?’
‘A couple of months ago.’
‘And what happened there?’
‘I had a chilli.’

The punter has taken the vase and put it back in her bag. The dealer is shaking his head and clearing the cash away.

‘Do you mind if I put the light on?’ I ask Agnes. ‘Only Stevie said you were jaundiced and I need to get a better look.’
‘Help yourself. The switch is over there.’
The moment I put it on the room is flooded with light. It’s made more pronounced by the lack of a lampshade, but even so it’s astonishing how powerful that bulb is – like I didn’t throw a sitting room light so much as shoot a flare overhead.
‘Wow!’ I say. ‘That thing’s bright! I need welding goggles.’
‘I like to see what’s happening in the world,’ says Agnes. She thumbs at the bears behind her. ‘And so do they.’

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