jack

I decide I need the exercise so I take the stairs. It’s a shame, though. I like those old style lifts with the iron trellis gates you have to pull apart. Number sixteen can’t be far up though; God knows I need the exercise.

Too late I realise how much I’ve underestimated the design of this ancient block. There are only three flats per landing, and each flat has high ceilings, so you have to walk up two flights per landing. All in all, I seem to be climbing forever, endlessly curving round on creaking, carpeted treads that get wonkier and narrower the higher I go, the angles of everything more eccentrically out of true, as if the block wasn’t built so much as planted, a gigantic concrete pod, dropped in a crater and then left to twist up overnight into a beanstalk of Portland stone and glass.

When I get there, finally, puffing and blowing, the door is half open. I knock and call out: ‘Halloo! It’s Jim, from the hospital…’
The door gets flung aside. A bright, blond woman in yellow marigold gloves and Nordic jumper stands with a sponge out to the side, smiling, as if she’s just giving me the once over before she leans in and sets to work.
‘You’ve come to see David, I take it?’ she says. ‘Lovely!’
She calls over her shoulder.
‘David! The nurse is here…’
I put on my PPE and walk into the flat.

David is lying on top of the bed on his left side, his legs curled up, his back facing me. The woman carries on working, stuffing trash in a black bin liner and pushing her hair back from her eyes with the back of her hand.
‘I’ll take this down and leave you to it,’ she says. ‘Just go through into the lounge. David? David! The nurse would like to see you now…’
He swings his legs over the side of the bed, pushes himself into a sitting position in one smooth movement, then stands and walks with a strange directness and neutrality around the foot of the bed, out of the bedroom, past me and then on into the exact centre of the sitting room carpet, where he waits with his arms slack by his sides.
‘Hello,’ he says, and smiles. The kind of smile you work with levers.

It’s disconcerting to say the least – made even stranger by the intense play of light round his head. It’s so dazzling I have to shield my eyes to look at him, like I’m awed before the visitation of some kind of spooky puppet angel. In sweat pants, and a t-shirt with a duck on it.

‘Hi – David! Lovely to meet you! I won’t keep you long!’
‘That’s okay,’ he says, and smiles again, maintaining his neutrality.

I explain why I’ve been asked to come, filling in the gaps with as much conversational putty as I can manage, the lovely weather, the beautiful view, how unfit I am, yaddah yaddah. I start to hear myself, like I’m talking in an acoustically flat room, my words losing their meaning, becoming the kind of noises you might make if you pretended to speak another language.

David starts to pace around the room, marching to the window, to the white counter of the little kitchenette, to the centre of the carpet again.
‘Would you like to sit down whilst we run through these few things?’ I say, gesturing to the sofa.
Even my gestures feel fake.

There’s a book on the sofa, resting face down on the cushions to keep the place: The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. I wonder if he’s reading it or the blond woman.

David looks at me, at the sofa, at me again, then sits on the sofa, folding neatly and precisely in the middle, his hands flat on his knees.
‘This won’t take long,’ I say.

The moment I’m done and unwrapping the blood pressure cuff, he gets up again and strides noiselessly away. I’m crouching on the floor, resting the folder on my knee as I write the figures down. Suddenly I realise he’s standing immediately behind me looking down, so I gently pivot my body to the side – ostensibly so I can look up at him and continue chatting, but actually because I don’t want to have my back to David for any length of time.

‘There! That all looks absolutely fine!’ I say, closing the folder and slowly standing up. ‘The doctor just wanted reassurance we’re on the right track.’
‘The right track,’ says David, smiling. ‘Yes.’
I put the folder back on the shelf and start gathering my things again.
‘So!’ I say. ‘It’s a lovely day out there! Do you have any plans?’
‘Plans?’
‘Yeah. For the rest of the day?’
‘It’s such a lovely day,’ he says.
‘It certainly is!’
He smiles at me.
‘I think I’ll go for a walk.’
‘Excellent!’ I say.
But I have to admit – my abiding thought as I leave the flat and head back down the stairs again – is: where?

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