Jack moves like a marionette where the puppeteer got pissed, broke into the theatre, hung a puppet on stage and delivered a long and confusing monologue to a row of empty seats. I definitely get the feeling I may as well not be there. When I’ve gone, no doubt he’ll slide the door chain back into place, pat it once or twice, then drop down on the spot, his strings piled on top of him.
If he is a puppet, the artist carved him with a pretty blunt chisel. A prominent nose-and-chin. Two thickly lidded eyes that blink audibly, out of sync, one in 2021, one in 1958. Two ears made of improvised hubcaps nailed unevenly either side.
Jack doesn’t want any help. He’s happy as he is – rolling unsteadily down the corner shop with his three wheeled walker. Stocking up on Teachers. Rattling back. His daughter drops by occasionally with microwave meals, but I get the impression she’s at her wit’s end. She’s not here for the assessment. She’s home nursing a migraine.
Jack leans forward in his chair. His right hand swings to the front; his left swings round to meet it.
‘First job,’ he says. ‘I was fifteen. I turn up at the yard, and there are all these other guys standing round. And I say ‘Alright?’ and they say ‘Yeah’. Then the foreman turns up in his big, black coat. He looks at me and he says: ‘What do YOU want?’ And I say: ‘I wanna job, don’t I?’ ‘Oh’ he says. ‘Well – how about Foreman?’ And I says; ‘Yeah. That’ll do me.’ ‘Oh,’ he says: ‘Like that, is it? So come on, then. What’s the first thing you’d do if you was the Foreman?’ So I look around, and I see this dustcart parked in the yard. And I shout out: ‘Oi! What’s that bleedin’ great thing doin’ there?’ And the Foreman says ‘Sorry! We didn’t know what to do with it.’ So I say: ‘Right! Get that bastard thing outta here!’ So he give me the job. Five and six a week.’
He blinks, left, then right. Then takes a deep, sighing breath, and carries on.
‘This was the Foreman’s flat, y’know. He give it me. He was sat where you’re sitting now. In his big, black coat. Things got difficult for him. Money this, money that and I don’t know what. He knew it was only going to get worse. So he come in here, took his scarf. Then him and his wife got in the bath. And he tied the scarf round both their necks, and they lay down, and put the taps on, and that was them. Gone. The council come along. Drained the water. Unscrewed the bath. Took ‘em both out in it.’
He gives such an emphatic nod I feel like putting my hands out to catch his head. Then he blinks, gives a throaty sniff, and smiles at me.
‘That’s weird!’ I say. ‘Why did they take them out in the bath?’
‘They emptied it first.’
‘But still. It seems like a lot of work.’
‘That’s the council for you.’
He takes a sip of the tea I made him, then screws his face up. ‘I thought that was whisky,’ he says. ‘Blaargh!’
I take the mug off him before he spills it, then take my chair again.
Jack sits forward. The hands swing round, ready.
‘Next day,’ he says, ‘they send the Foreman over. He’s standing there in his big, black coat. He says to me ‘Jack,’ he says, ‘What do you want? Another bath? Or maybe a shower this time?’ And I say to him ‘You’ve only just taken the bloody bath out of here!’ So he says ‘Alright, alright. Don’t make a fuss.’ So I say ‘Go on – put a shower in. But I want the tiling done nice.’ So they send round this kid, who stands there looking about. And after a while I say to him: ‘So what’ve you come to do, then? Apart from stand there with your thumb up your arse.’ And he says ‘The tiling.’ So I say, ‘D’you know how to do tiling?’ And he says ‘No, I’ve only been here a week. I haven’t done the course yet’. So I say ‘Come here!’ And I did it.’
He flops back in the chair.
‘But that’s the council for you,’ he says, smiling so broadly the tip of his nose and the point of his chin almost meet. ‘That’s the council, right there.’