a twist of lemon

For someone surrounded by model racing cars, paintings of racing cars, signed photographs of racing car drivers, Mr Sullivan moves pretty slowly. The marked curvature of his spine and his general frailty means that making a pit stop to the kitchen can take all morning, lifting the zimmer frame, urging it forwards one slipper length at a time. It’s a painful procedure and fraught with danger.
‘Just a moment. Just a moment,’ he says.
‘Take your time. There’s no rush.’
He stops and – as far as he can – glances back at me over his shoulder.
‘Where are we going?’ he says.
‘To the kitchen. So we can get lunch on the go and I can do your blood pressure while we’re waiting.’
‘Yes,’ he says. ‘I see.’
We carry on.

It’s a large house, with a thick and settled silence that fills each room so palpably, I imagine if you demolished the house, snatched all the bricks and windows and floorboards away in one clean movement, you’d still be left with a silent outline of the place, like some kind of memory jelly plopped from a mould.

Even though the house has rooms upstairs, Mr Sullivan stays on the ground floor, moving between the kitchen, bathroom and front room, where he has a small bed in the lounge to stretch out on after he’s finished watching TV. Although,‘stretching out’ isn’t something he can do these days, his kyphotic spine giving him the flexibility of an ancient fortune cookie.

‘What do you fancy for lunch?’ I say, after getting him settled on the perching stool.
‘Oh I don’t know!’ he snaps. ‘Look in the freezer.’
There’s nothing much in there other than a pack of vegetarian chilli burgers.
I show him.
‘That’s fine,’ he says. ‘Fetch one of those out. I can have it with some bread.’
‘Don’t you have a microwave?’ I ask him. ‘They’re very convenient.’
‘Where would it go?’
I look around. The kitchen is the same as the living room, in a state of orderly confusion, little piles of things everywhere, pill packets, letters, notes, cutlery, batteries and so on.
‘You’d need a bit of … rationalisation,’ I say.
‘I need nothing of the kind. Now – what does it say on the packet?’
I read out the burger cooking instructions.
‘Preheat the oven,’ he says. ‘Middle dial.’
Whilst I’m sorting out the oven and finding a clean plate, he leans forward on the zimmer frame, his forehead on his hands.
‘Are you okay?’ I ask.
‘Yes,’ he says, addressing the floor, then after a pause: ‘I always knew I’d end up like this.’
‘Like what?’
‘Alone. I looked after my parents when they got old and sick. And now it’s my turn, there’s no-one to look after me.’
‘I can see how difficult it is for you,’ I say. ‘But you know – there are services around to help. When I get back to the office I’ll make some calls.’
The oven light goes out. Mr Sullivan flaps his hand to urge me on, so I slide the burger in.
‘Set the timer,’ he says.
I start to fiddle with the dials on the cooker but Mr Sullivan flaps his hand again.
‘No, no! Not that timer!’ he says. ‘The one on the window sill!’
The one he wants is shaped like a lemon. I twist it to twenty five minutes, then set it on the table next to him. It’s an eerie scene, Mr Sullivan crooked forwards in an exaggerated pose of despair, the timer whirring away next to him.
‘What did you do, before you retired?’ I ask him as I write up my notes, as much to break the frantic silence as anything.
‘A loss adjuster,’ he says.
‘Hmm,’ I say. And the timer marks out exactly how long it takes me to think of a reply.

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