I always default to thinking es like the er in her / is like the im in him. You’d think it would be quicker than that by now, but either because I don’t come across the name often enough for it to stick, or because I’m a robot and no-one thought to tell me, the fact is, that’s the rubric I’m doomed to run through every time I come across the name. (In a similar way sometimes when I think right or left, I get a strong mental picture of a prefab classroom – a door on one side, a piano by the window – because when I was an infant the teacher told us that was the way to remember it: the piano on the left, the door on the right. Although, thinking about it, did she mean her left or our left? In which case, I’ve been getting it wrong all these years.)
The point is, Frances (es like the er in her) is sitting by the open window, staring out at me as I walk down the steps to the front door.
‘Hi Frances!’ I say, waving cheerfully.
She doesn’t respond.
I’ve been warned what to expect. Before coming out that morning I’d phoned Cara, the next of kin listed on the notes. Cara was worried.
‘Frannie’s dementia’s usually fine. I mean – unless you knew her you’d barely notice. She gets a bit muddled sometimes and she can get a bit riled up. This week, though….’
‘Why? What’s been happening?’
‘Apart from me she has carers going in twice a day. She got cross with them and threw them out. Wasn’t taking her pills. Was getting in a state. Wouldn’t see me. Then she had a fall out of bed. The ambulance picked her up but she refused to go to hospital. And then the next day when I went round I found she’d barricaded herself in. I called the doctor, who said she might have a UTI, so that’s why you’ve been called. She seems to have calmed down a bit, but she still won’t let me in.’
‘Okay. Shall I see you there?’
‘That’d be great.’
Frances’ house is opposite a broad, rising sweep of woodland. A faint blush of green is just visible, spreading through the bare trees. Early morning walkers are striding purposefully up the paths, their dogs running on. The morning smells fresh, sunshine on frost and moss and damp tarmac. Everyone seems invigorated. Even though it’s early, a couple of neighbours have brought camping chairs out onto their porches.
‘Is she alright?’ one says, shielding his eyes from the sun.
‘Give her our best.’
Cara hasn’t arrived yet, but I decide not to wait – especially as Frannie has seen me and would wonder what I was doing, hanging around in her front garden.
I walk up to the window.
‘Hey Frances!’ I say. ‘My name’s Jim. I’m with a community health team. Your GP has asked me to drop by and see how you are.’
I pull my ID badge forwards on its elasticated cord. She looks at it, but doesn’t focus.
‘Oh yes,’ she says.
‘Are you able to get to the door, or shall I use the keysafe?’
‘Just a minute.’
‘Okay. But it might be easier if I use the keysafe….’
Too late. I wonder if she’s decided to let me in or strengthen the defences at the front door. Either way, she begins the slow and painful process of getting from the edge of the bed to the hallway. It would be easier to ask one of the trees behind me to lift up its roots and make its way to the door.
‘Are you okay, Frances?’ I shout through the window.
‘Just a minute!’ she snaps, then carries on.
I move to the porch, and wait.
After five minutes, during which the grunting and swearing from inside the house gets progressively louder and more emphatic, there’s a sudden fumbling of latches, things clattering, bolts being thrown. The door judders in its frame a little. Then again. Then nothing.
‘Can you do it, Frances?’
‘No. It’s stuck.’
‘Oh. Well – shall I climb through the window and help you?’
I put my bag and folder down, and walk back round to the window. It only opens so far, and there’s a great clutter of things just the other side. Luckily I find enough of a handgrip to haul myself up onto the ledge, breathing in, squeezing sideways through the gap, then twisting into a desperate, tip-toeing contortion, release my grip, give a last second jump, and land with a thump in the middle of the room.
There’s an enormous cat just ahead of me. It sinks down on its paws in alarm. The cat is ludicrously furry, like a sheep or a huge duster, or maybe one of those rollers you see in a car wash.
‘S’okay! S’okay!’ I say, putting out my hand. Which the cat takes as an attempt to grab it, so it runs away in double-quick time. I can’t see its paws, so it looks more like something being snapped away on an invisible piece of elastic.
Frances is supporting herself against the wall. I help her back to the bed, then return to open the door and get my bag. At the same time, the doorbell rings.
‘Is that Cara?’ I say, struggling with the latch.
‘Jim?’ she says. ‘Is that you…?’
The latch finally gives. I throw the door open.
‘Hello!’ I say.
Cara frowns, tilts her head to one side and points at the unopened keysafe.
‘But… How did you…?’
‘I came through the cat flap.’
‘Yeah. Well. Sometimes it’s handy being small.’