a difficult climb

I haven’t been to this block before and I’m confused by the entrance. There’s no intercom anywhere I can see, and the door seems to be closed. It reminds me of another block on the other side of town. The only way in is to phone the resident and ask them to release the front door, or to knock on the window of the scheme manager’s office (an arrangement that always baffles me, because really – how difficult do you want to make life?)

So figuring this is another place like that, I phone the patient again.

‘Oh really?’ huffs Angela. She lowers the phone and shouts for her daughter to go down because the nurse is ‘outside and doesn’t know how to open a door.’

She says something else, too, but it’s muffled so I can only guess.

After a few minutes, Frances waves to me from the lobby as she approaches. She’s a cheerful, red-faced, middle-aged woman in a bulging tartan skirt and yellow cardigan, her hair so frizzy the hairdresser must stand on a ladder to prune it with shears. But then – I’m so busy remarking on her extraordinary look I don’t realise she’s miming for me to push the door. Which I do – and find it’s been open all along – just a little stiff. And just inside the lobby to the right is a second set of doors with an intercom to the side.
‘How embarrassing!’ I say. ‘Sorry to drag you all the way downstairs!’
She shrugs cheerily.
‘Salad!’ she says.

I know from the notes that Frances has a form of expressive dysphasia that means she struggles to speak in complete sentences and often uses the wrong word. I’d read that she’d come back to live with her mum after her stroke, but that Angela was struggling now, had fallen recently and needed a home assessment.

‘This is such an interesting building!’ I say, making conversation as we walk up the stairs.
Frances nods and smiles back at me, her eyes wide but her lips tightly pursed, as if there were a pressure of words wanting to come out but she couldn’t be sure which to use.

She shows me into the flat – a large, coolly shadowed place with dark parquet flooring, antique furniture, serious photographs in serious frames, and at the furthest end, a floor to ceiling window overlooking the park.

‘Hello Angela!’ I say, putting my bags down. ‘I’m Jim, the nursing assistant from the hospital, come to see how you are and what help you might need.’
‘Have a seat,’ she says, nodding to the scallop backed affair opposite her.
‘Thanks!’
I settle in. Frances climbs up on a stool at the little cocktail bar to the left, stuffs her hands under her thighs and starts gently swinging from side to side whilst Angela scrutinises me. Between the great bony arc of her mouth and her hooded eyes, it feels like I’ve been granted an audience with a giant, royal frog.

‘I can’t believe I had such a struggle getting in,’ I say, laughing drily. ‘I was standing there, pulling away…’
‘You push,’ says Angela.
‘Yes!’ I say, closing my eyes and shaking my head from side to side, like Stan Laurel. ‘I know that now!’
‘Hmm,’ says Angela.

It’s a struggle to make any progress after that. If Angela was resistant to the idea of help before I arrived, nothing I can say now improves the situation. My mouth dries. I become horribly self-conscious, feeling like an imposter who found all this equipment down in the lobby and tried it on for a laugh.

Frances beams at me from her stool, chipping in with non-sequiturs. The shadows in the room close in, take on more weight.

‘What a lovely view of the park!’ I say, finishing off her blood pressure. ‘Beautiful! All the … you know… trees.’
Angela nods.
‘My husband chose this place,’ she says. ‘Then he died.’
‘Oh. I’m sorry.’
‘He was a climber. He went to the Himalayas.’
‘Wow!’ I say, looping the stethoscope back round my neck, just exactly the kind of thing a fraudulent nurse would do. ‘The Himalayas!’ I say, making too much of it. ‘Even I’ve heard of the Himalayas.’

‘Sandwiches!’ says Frances.

Angela ignores us both.

‘He was a well-respected climber,’ she says. ‘He was so good, he used to train people in climbing. All over the world. There wasn’t a mountain he hadn’t climbed. And then, of course, he went to the Himalayas…’
She trails off, gravely rolling down the sleeve of her blouse, like a surgeon about to give bad news.
‘Oh…?’ I say.

She doesn’t react.

I’m desperate to ask if that’s how her husband died, plunging off Mount Everest or being buried alive in an avalanche (all of which I’d rather be doing right now). But that would be a difficult question at the best of times, and I feel about as ready to ask it as a Yeti would feel to knock on the door of a tent and ask if I could come in for tea.
‘So… what happened?’
Angela frowns up at me.
‘What do you mean – what happened?’ she says. ‘We bought this place! What do you think happened?’
I look over at Frances.
‘Christmas!’ she says.

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