a second set of clothes

‘They said there’s nothing more they can do for Jean. They said it’s terminal. Do you think that’s right? Do you think there’s anything more to be done?’
Stan’s eyes bore into me. There’s a slack and waxy look to his face, like he hasn’t slept for a week.
‘I don’t know, Stan,’ I tell him, and look down again at the discharge summary in my hands. The journey Jean has taken from ambulance admission to A and E and then back again is described in lean, jargonistic language, but no less damning for all that.
‘What did they say at the hospital?’
‘Not much. But then a doctor came round here the day after Jean came home and said that was it, basically.’
‘It’s so hard,’ I say. ‘How are you bearing up?’
He massages one fleshy hand with the other, working the thumb into the palm, like he only needed to get a little strength back there and he’d be able to do something, to make some change.
‘I’m used to sorting things out, getting things done,’ he says. ‘I’m the one they all came to. I even organised the skiing trips. But this? I just don’t know. I just don’t know.’
‘Do you have family around, Stan? Friends, neighbours?’
‘We didn’t have children,’ he says. ‘Not that it bothered us, after a while. We had Jean’s family, our friends, of course. They’re all elderly, now. Half of them are dead. I think I’m the only man left amongst the old lot. So – what do you think? What should I do?’
I lay the discharge summary gently on the table, beside the DNACPR and the scrip for the anticipatory meds.
‘You know – just reading what the medics have written here, it does look like Jean’s cancer is untreatable. So the thing is to take care of her at home now, if that’s what you both want. It’ll be about symptom control, making Jean comfortable. Have the palliative team been round yet?’
He nods.
‘There’s been a lot of people in and out.’
‘It gets confusing. Whoever comes in should write in the folder here – who they are and what they’ve done – so there’s that. And there’s a list of the main numbers to ring if anything changes or you’ve got any questions. I’ll give the palliative team a call in a minute and ask where we are with visits and things. What to expect next.’
‘They left all these medicines. What am I supposed to do with them?’
‘Those are what they call the Just in Case meds. It’s things for pain relief, to help Jean’s breathing, anti-nausea meds, that sort of thing. You don’t have to worry about them, Stan. The District Nurses will be in to take care of all that. Is that okay?’
‘I suppose it’ll have to be.’
‘They’ve referred Jean to us for some urgent equipment and care support.’
‘Right. Got you.’
I wait a minute, then stand up.
‘What d’you think? Shall we go up and say hello to Jean?’
‘Yes. Sorry,’ he says. ‘It’s funny. She’s normally up with the lark, but she’s feeling pretty worn out so she’s staying in bed.’
‘I don’t blame her.’

He leads me up a narrow, carpeted staircase, worn to the thread in the middle, the boards sagging and creaking. The landing window is open and an unseasonably warm afternoon breeze nudges through the curtain.
‘Jean?’ says Stan, as we go into the bedroom where Jean is propped up on four pillows. She’s breathing quickly, her cheeks flushed and her lips pursed, with the rapt expression you sometimes see on patients who are riding their discomfort and don’t have room for anything else.
‘Hello, Jean!’ I say, waving. ‘Shall we sit you up a bit? It’ll help with your breathing.’
Once she’s more upright her breathing does ease a little, and her oxygen levels are surprisingly good. Despite her wasted condition, she still manages to tease me. Stan sits in the wicker chair beside the bed, and starts kneading his hands again.

‘I’ll need to make a quick call to the palliative team,’ I say to them. ‘Is that okay?’
Jean squeezes my hand.
‘You do what you have to do,’ says Stan.
I step away from the bed to make room for him, then make the call standing at the bottom of the bed, using the duvet as a desk for the open folder, which Jean moves with a cheeky nudge of her foot.

Luckily, Sandy answers the phone. Sandy’s a palliative nurse I’ve never met in real life but who always exudes great competence and compassion.
‘We’ll send a nurse out in an hour,’ she says. ‘Meanwhile, have a scootch around and see what you can do in the way of equipment. And start the care as soon as you can.’

‘I think you’ll really feel the benefit of a hospital bed,’ I tell Jean, putting the phone back in my pocket. ‘They’re fantastic, these beds. You can adjust the height, sit the back up – all sorts. All at the touch of a button. The pressure mattress is nice and comfortable, and means you’ll be less likely to get a pressure sore. We can get it installed pretty quick. All we need to decide is where it goes. We’ll need to clear space for it.’
‘I’ll show you the second bedroom,’ says Stan. He gives Jean a kiss then takes me next door.

The second bedroom is half the size of the first, with a single bed in the centre, a wardrobe in the corner and not much else. I’d guess it was the room Stan’s been sleeping in, although you’d hardly know it. There’s a shirt, a pair of trousers, a pair of pants and a pair of socks neatly laid out on the bed, side by side. They look exactly like the clothes he’s got on already.
‘This is great!’ I say, looking around, but not moving. ‘Plenty of room for the hospital bed once this one’s gone. A nice view of the garden. Lovely! What do you think you’ll do with this bed?’
‘I’ll just stand it on its end in the corner by the wardrobe. Maybe throw a sheet over it.’
‘Do you want a hand to do it?’
‘Me? No,’ he says. ‘That’s one thing I’m still good for.’
And we both stand there, side by side, staring at the clothes on the bed, like we fully expect them to magically jump up, throw themselves together and start flying round the room.
‘I’ll make the order,’ I say.
‘Stanley?’ cries Jean.
‘Yes, love…’ he says, and hurries back.

this ol’ hound

this ol’ hound is proper glitchy
incredibly itchy, unfeasibly twitchy
he harrumphs and garrumphs when he rolls on his back
his big wiry paws paddling then slack
like he’s having a canine heart attack
then he sneezes
freezes
carries on as he pleases

this ol’ hound is proper chaotic
sometimes floppy, sometimes robotic
he runs up the stairs like a rugby team in boots
but he’s sneaky when it suits
creeping round the kitchen to sniff with his snoots
so beware
in there
or you’ll trip and break a hip I swear

this ol’ hound is proper crazy
fifty percent hyperactive, fifty percent lazy
he sleeps so deep you can watch him dream
gamboling through landscapes of rabbits and streams
giant foil trays of doggy supremes
till he wakes with a start
a sad little bark
back to reality with a broken heart

this ol’ hound is proper distracting
it’s impossible to work with the way he’s acting
staring at you long and hard
then marching around the room with a placard
‘Wark!’ (which – you’ll admit – for a dog isn’t bad)
till you crack
fill your pockets with snacks
take him round the park and back

festival of whatever

Roll up! Roll up to the Festival of Brexit / a hundred shiny entrances and one shitty exit / it’s too late to reject it / so just shut the fuck up, suck it up & accept it / if you’ve got a bicep flex it / take a selfie and text it / what’s the use in worrying and feeling blue? / (and St George red, and white striped, too) / you can’t deny it / you might as well try it! / we’ve got a Farage barrage balloon and we’re not afraid to fly it

C’mon! Rock n’Roll up! / Put your placards down and stroll up! / to The Great British Jumping Off Zone / with the neon Britannia & megaphone

Try if you dare the Victorian experience / where mutton-chopped Bishops & Presbyterians / whip you with canes and sundry variants / Play Fuck the Scots and Flense the Whales! / See clowns running round with ladders and pails! / Have a go at High Class Hoopla / tossing cock-rings on the marble boners / of as many venerable Land and Slave Owners / as you can muster / play Spotted Dick with Custard! / Play Col Mustard / in the House of Lords / with the nipple clamps and the ceremonial sword / Play Best Foot Forward / Play Old School Tie Reward / Play Light the Lamp / with Boris Nightingale in a transit camp / Dress yourself up like Jacob Rees Mogg / and tap your way through a pea-souper fog / with a silver-topped cane / down Jack the Ripper lane / whistling We’ll Meet Again / Practice your lunges / Throw Poundland sponges / at Liam Fox / squirming and gurning out in the stocks / whilst a crappy fifties jukebox / plays ‘the easiest deal in history’ non-stop

And when you’re hungry – why not try The Bullingdon Club? / for some proper princely posh boy grub / where our team of servile robot staff / are guaranteed to make you laugh / as hard as your betters in the upper classes / who lob buttered rolls at their Teflon arses / (and you may be weak but your eyes are still champion / they DO all look like David Cameron)

Go Ooh! Aah and then some / at the Laser Show Stylings of Davis & Leadsom

Give yourself the shivers / in our Parliamentary Hall of Mirrors / Howl at the blatant economic distortions / legal contortions / catastrophic loss of moral proportions / but my personal fave? / when Dancing Queen plays? / you finally get to move like Theresa May

Jump on the Johnson helter skelter / it’s a patriotic, Blighty belter! / a city suit melter! / from the flag at the top to the homeless shelter

Finally – treat yourself to a Punch & Judy show / because often it’s the simple pleasures, you know / like booing as Mr Punch goes to Barnard Castle / the sneaky, beeny, beaky little rascal! / then groan as Judy stands by / because she’s too much of a puppet to say bye-bye / but cheer as Punch takes back control / treating dissenters like whack-a-mole / That’s the way to do it! That’s the way to do it! / You had the vote folks but you blew it! / roar as he leaves with a box of sausages

…as your smartphone beeps with some urgent messages

read my lips

Mr Blatchford is a double-up for two reasons. The first is manual-handling: he’s a bed-bound, double-amputee, so he needs two people to log-roll in situ for personal care and wound dressing, and for repositioning in the bed. The other reason is he’s aggressive.
‘It sounds like a suit of armour job,’ says Rosa, the coordinator today. ‘Long sleeved gown, mask and visor, gloves of course. Shoe covers, probably.’
‘Because he’s aggressive?’
‘No. Because he spits.’
‘Spits?’
‘Yes. Spits. Intentionally. Not just when he’s talking.’
‘Has he got dementia or something?’
‘No. He’s just spitty. And sweary. Sorry.’
‘You’re not selling him.’
‘I’m not, am I? Still – he shouldn’t be with us long.’
‘Let’s hope not.’
‘You’ll have to double-up with his usual carer, Mandy this morning. When she’s not there we’ll have to find another pair of hands.’

I know the block well – a warden-controlled place on the outskirts of town. The kind of prefabricated, glass and red-brick building you could throw up in an afternoon if you knew your way round a box of Lego. Mandy meets me at the front door. She seems thoroughly pleasant, which is encouraging.
‘Dickie’s so happy to be home,’ she says, showing me up the main stairs. ‘He’s got all the equipment he needs, so we’re pretty well set-up.’
She gives me a hesitant, backwards glance over her shoulder.
‘What have they … said about him?’
‘They said he was a bit of a handful,’ I tell her. ‘They said he spits.’
She stops on the landing with one hand on the fire door.
‘They’ve said a lot of things about Dickie,’ she says. ‘To be honest with you, I don’t know where it’s come from. I mean – it’s true – he can be plain-spoken. He’s always been a bit fruity with his language. And I think it’s true his mental state has taken a bit of a dip. But this spitting business? I’ve not seen it. Treat him as you find him, of course, but don’t worry about the spitting too much. I think it might’ve got a bit blown out of proportion.’
‘I’ll still gown-up in the corridor, though, if that’s okay.’
‘You do what you have to,’ she says. ‘I’ll go on in and tell him you’re here.’

Dickie is an elderly guy in the last weeks of his life. He’s lying on his back in a hospital bed, the covers tucked neatly up to his chin. The flesh has fallen away from his nose and cheeks and his grey hair is combed back in gelled lines. A pair of enormous steel-rimmed glasses are balanced on the ridge of his nose which magnify his eyes and – with his mouth half-open – give him the appearance of an ancient fish, unexpectedly landed, salted away in a box.
‘It’s the nurse, Dickie,’ says Mandy, gently laying a hand on the covers. ‘Come to see how you are.’
He moves his lips up and down in an approximate way. Mandy smiles up at me.
‘Dickie has trouble speaking,’ she says. ‘But he does make sense if you concentrate.’
I move closer to the bed and lean over, my apron rustling, my visor fogging up.
‘Hello, Dickie,’ I say, speaking loudly to be heard through everything. ‘My name’s Jim. I’m a nursing assistant. Welcome home!’
He turns his head to look at me, and his mouth waggles.
‘What’s that?’ I say. ‘I can’t quite get it.’
‘He says Can you lip read?’ says Mandy. ‘It’s okay. I’ve known him a long time. I’m quite good at it.’
‘I’ll have a go!’ I say, leaning in a bit closer.
He waggles his mouth again.
‘Nope. Sorry. Can you say it again?’
‘Oh, Dickie…’ says Mandy.
‘Once more…?’ I say, leaning in even more closely, frowning, staring at his mouth. The bottom teeth biting the upper lip and then releasing in a tired flick; the lips dropping into something of an O; the bottom teeth touching the upper lip again, releasing more softly.
‘Oh. Okay. Yep. Got it that time.’
Fuck off.
‘He doesn’t mean it,’ says Mandy. ‘Do you, Dickie?’
Dickie slowly turns his head to look at her, and his gnarly old eyebrows quiver – as best they can – into the up position.

Chapter 22: Farewell my Lurcher

Ready for a Walk – Drag on a Lead – A Dog’s Character Explained, incl. teeth – Something My Dear Ol’ Mum Might Say – Over the Estate – Horsey Judges – French for Wow – Another kinda Judge – Finis

It was a good day for a walk if you liked a coronary with your hypothermia. I was dressed for action, in a blue raincoat, beanie hat and paint-splattered jeans, like a knight that got beat up by the dragon, tossed in a dumpster and crawled out with whatever he could find in there. Still, it suited me well enough. I’m a dumpster kind of guy.

I was fixing to take the hound Stanley on a walk. And when I say walk I mean drag. Not the wig and lipstick kind. The ruched and rouged, plucked and tucked, Liza Minelli Liked My Instagram Story kinda drag. This was a whole other entertainment. Spelled T.R.O.U.B.L.E.

Stanley was the kind of dog who would give you one paw whilst he lifted your wallet with the other. A lean, loungy, lumpetty kinda hound, dirty as a swamp alligator, with legs like pipe cleaners and a smile that would make a dentist faint.

‘Let’s go, Stanley. And please – try not to bark.’

He looked up at me sweetly enough, like I was putting the Pope on a lead or something. But I wasn’t fooled. I knew what this particular Pope could do.

We took our usual route. Not that I thought we were being followed. But it’s like my dear old mom said to me one time: A little regularity never hurt no-one. Sure, the FBI used it against her in the end, but hey! A mother’s love for her son beats everything except the rap. Some lessons are best learned young.

The estate was as warm and welcoming as open day at the mortuary. Nothing fancy, just the usual characters blowing about the place. A big guy kneeling by his chopped bike, the guts of it spread all around, like a whacked-out surgeon surprised in an alley. I said good morning. He gave me a long, hard stare, like he was pricing his next job. Stanley ignored him, which was a relief. I didn’t relish the thought of a spanner cracking my skull. Not this early in the day. I like to save my treats for later. There was a kid coming in the distance. He had a bull terrier with him. They could have swapped places and no-one would’ve known. The kid was wearing a pair of earphones the size of dustbin lids, and he was walking along one foot after the other like the headphones were telling him. I fed tripe sticks into Stanley like logs through a sawmill, the hell with my fingers. Still – I might need them later. That .45 won’t squeeze itself.

We passed on into the field. There were horses. Why wouldn’t there be? The horses were always there, like the flu in winter. I could feel Stanley tense up. I fed him another tripe stick. I guess the hound was now eighty per cent tripe stick and ten per cent dog. The other ten per cent? You’d need a tall blackboard and a professor on a ladder to figure that one out, bud.

‘There, there,’ I said.

I couldn’t be any more specific.

He destroyed the tripe stick as we quick-stepped by the horses further on into the field. One of the horses nodded his head as we went by, like he was about to hold up score cards – four out of ten for interpretation, three for comedy value, zero for style. Deep down we both knew he wouldn’t. He couldn’t handle it. He’s got hooves.

Safely into the furthest field. The sun rolled out from behind some clouds like it had been kidding earlier about the rain. It got nicely warm, optimistic. I started walking lean and loose, enjoying myself. I let Stanley off the lead. I watched him go, that funny lopsided run of his, like a giraffe coming out of anesthetic. He covered the ground pretty quick, though. Straight towards a dog I hadn’t seen the other side of the field.

‘Stan!’ I cried. Too late. Before you could say tripe stick he was on them. I braced for impact. Waved my hand in the general direction of the owner.

The French have a word for it. Like they do for most things, being a pretty all-round kinda language. They call it coup de foudre. Lightning Flash, if you want to be picky, Love at first sight, if you’re a little easier. And even though I was halfway across a world made of grass, even from here I could tell Stanley had launched himself on the other animal full-on in the French way. I could see now the make of it. It was a Labrador, or L’abrador in French. Rough translation? Smokin’. Whatever. To my relief they had a great time, leaping around in slow motion, sniffier than two police dogs in a vape shop.

‘Sorry!’ I waved to the owner, the kind of bottle-blond woman in pearls and Drizabone jacket you see a lot of round here. The kind of woman whose other dog was a Hedge Fund Manager.

‘Don’t mention it!’ she said, smiling as broadly as a High Court Judge at the bird-end of the table at Christmas. ‘I must say he’s pretty frisky!’

Frisky?

I wondered what the French would call it.

the grump

who’s house is that?
said the rat
to the crow
I’d love to know!
who lives in a house as white as snow?
it’s whiter than white
so white and so bright
the whole place shines like a star at night
I’d like to see who lives there all right
shall we go tonight?
shall make our visit?
shall we go?
shall we go?
and see who’s in it?

oh no said the crow
oh no no no
I will NOT go
I do NOT want to know
It’s a bad idea to make this visit
to see the white house and the person in it

tell me oh tell me my old friend crow
tell me exactly what it is that you know
about the house on the hill
with the security grille
why do you stop, sir?
why do you hop, sir?
why do you flap and slap and drop, sir?
why do you cry and your black feathers scatter?
why does your cute little crow beak chatter?
tell me oh tell me whatever’s the matter!

it’s the grump!
THE GRUMP!
THAT is why I slump!
That is the reason I stomp and stump!
I will NOT go with you up to the gate
it is much too far and much too late
my wings are tired and my feet aren’t great
I will NOT take you to it!
I will NOT go through it!
I do NOT choose it!
I absolutely REFUSE it!
you can nag
you can beg
but I simply WILL NOT DO IT!

okay
okay
I’m sorry you feel that way
maybe we’ll save it for another day

another day I will not
another day I shall not
another day I have not got

C’mon – the grump? said the rat
fixing his tie and straightening his hat
I’m sorry to hear you feel like that
but just tell me flat
this terrible grump – who on earth is THAT?

the crow came close
closer than most
till they were eye to eye and nose to nose
(or nose to beak
to speak
more accurately
the crow being the one with the beak, quite naturally)

the grump!
the GRUMP!
said the crow with a thump
of one fine feathery fist on the other
(which hardly made any noise whatsoever)
the GRUMP is the creature
who lives in that feature
that the history teachers teach ya
the GRUMP is the guy
who lives inside
and whose visit I have so emphatically denied

yes – but – who EXACTLY is this character?
you’re not the world’s most reliable narrator
if you don’t tell me soon I’ll see ya later

then I’ll tell you said the crow
as the rat turned to go
Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!
I’ll tell you what you want to know
about the Grump who lives in the house made of snow
and I’ll tell it in song with my old banjo…

oh no
on no
not the old banjo
said the rat
nixing him flat
I do NOT want to know
if it means another shitey old crow show
just tell me simply, nice n’slow
tell me the one thing I want to know
who IS this grump and why does he matter?
and please be quick because I’ve got a full bladder

the crow sighed
threw his banjo aside
sadly shook his head
and this is what he said

the grump is the president or was till they voted
when they called the count and he was supposed to be demoted
but he lost his mind and clings on to power
snapping towels at his aides from the shower
oh don’t make me do it!
I won’t take you to it!

okay fine – FINE – said the rat
I can understand that
he sounds a bit of a sulky brat

he is said the crow
but it’s worse than you know
he will not leave the house of snow
he stamps and he shouts
and they cannot get him out
they can not make him, he will not go
no no
he will not
and his face is red and his wig is shot
and when they say he is done he says he is NOT
and something else I’ve momentarily forgot

but c’mon! said the rat – there are legal channels
for the extrication of recalcitrant mammals
yeah? said the crow
he’s got nuclear codes
so tell me – what ELSE would you like to know?

(with a nod, apology & much love to Dr Seuss)

avatar vs aliens

John is sitting cross-legged on the floor playing an Xbox game. On the giant plasma screen in front of him are two weird aliens, standing on a barren planet that’s being bombarded with rocks and space junk. Both aliens are about the same except one’s fluorescent blue and the other green. They look like huge, organic, see-through machines, waving delicate antennae, flexing toothy mouths. Spooky electronic music plays on a loop.

‘Alright?’ says John, glancing up as I come in, then moving his spaceman avatar a little closer to the aliens.

John’s an amiable drunk. His alcohol consumption has moved into that cirrhotic purgatory where he needs a certain quantity just to maintain basic function. Quite how he got to that point – and, crucially, how he’ll get out of it – are questions John will have to work through himself along with the support workers from the substance abuse team. For now, we’ve been referred in to help him with any equipment and therapy that might help.

‘This is my spaceship,’ he says, putting the controller to one side and leaning back against the vast futon behind him. ‘Whaddya think? Double king size. And the good news is – I can just crawl in.’

Crawling is how John gets about, mostly, or a strange, insectivorous variation. His legs are terribly deconditioned, fixed in a lotus position from long years on the floor. He reminds me of a magazine article I read once about an Indian sadhu in Delhi who lived forty years or more with his right arm held straight up in the air to distract him from the luxuries of normal life or something. An act of devotion, anyway.

‘They didn’t know what to do with me in the hospital,’ says John, smiling. ‘They wanted me to stay in bed, but I weren’t having none of it. So I tried to escape. ‘Course – they was all waiting for me in the corridor, the nurses, the security people, all standing there with their arms folded. I said to them Oi Oi! What’ve we got here, then? The Gestapo? But they didn’t wanna know. They just dragged me back to bed. And here we are. I suppose you want to do my blood pressure and all that. I think you’ll find it’s in order.’

I run through the obs, one eye on the sphyg gauge, the other on the weird, winnowy aliens on the screen. It feels like they’re hanging back, waiting for me to finish before they attack again.

I unwrap the cuff and take the steth buds out of my ears.
‘How’m I doin’ then, doc?’ he says.
‘Fine. Your blood pressure’s better than mine.’
He laughs.
‘I like that! Better’n yours!’
Then he nods and narrows his eyes.
‘How old are you?’ he says.
‘Guess,’ I tell him. ‘And be kind.’
‘Hmm,’ he says. ‘It’s difficult behind that mask….’
He looks me up and down, scrunches up his face in a series of exaggerated thinking expressions, then snaps his fingers and points at me.
‘Fifty seven!’ he says.
‘Wow! Dead right. Although … I’m a bit disappointed. People usually say I look younger than my age.’
‘Yeah, well,’ he says. ‘You can’t trust people.’
Then he picks up the Xbox controller, and edges his avatar towards the aliens.

willard the exception

Lolly and Richard slot around each other like two old spoons. Or two pieces of an antique jigsaw (maybe ‘Seaside View’ or ‘A Day at the Races’). Everything they do is coordinated. The way they move, for example. Even though it’s a big house they seem to continually be in each other’s way. When Lolly starts up the stairs, Richard wants to come down. When Lolly heads for the sitting room, Richard comes out. When Lolly goes into the kitchen to fetch something, Richard goes with her, so that when she turns round, she has to put her hands on his shoulders and manoeuvre past him in something that – from a safe distance – looks suspiciously like a dance. Their conversation is slotted, too. Their sentences run into each other. They finish what the other was saying. They snipe, but in such a practised and good-natured way, they’re like two elderly vaudevillians whose routine is domestic war and loving irritation. They’ve been touring this show for so long now and they know their parts back to front. It’s a job to see where one performer ends and the other begins.

They’ve got a dog, too. Willard – a Golden Retriever.

To begin with, I think it’s Willard who answers the door when I ring. It’s the way he paws it to one side, with such an open and happy expression I half-expect him to say Good Morning and How may I help? Instead, the door opens even wider and I see Lolly standing there.
‘You’re the nurse are you?’ she says. ‘Good. Maybe you can take him away. He’s driving me mad. ‘
‘Who is it Lolly? Who’s there?’
‘It’s the nurse. Come to give you a brain transplant.’
‘A brain transplant? Excellent. Ask him if he’ll give you a heart at the same time.’
‘Where do you want him?’ says Lolly, sighing and looking back at me. ‘I could give you a couple of suggestions.’
In the meantime, Richard has come halfway down the stairs.
‘I’m easy,’ I say. ‘Wherever he’s most comfortable.’
‘He wants you in the bedroom,’ says Lolly, putting a hand on the balustrade, as if she’s going to stop him coming any further by main force.
‘I’m glad somebody does.’
‘Oh dear God,’ says Lolly. She sighs. ‘He’s been a bit – you know – since the op.’

It’s one of the reasons I’ve been asked to visit, to check the wound and make sure he hasn’t got an infection. The GP has already given him some antibiotics, delivered remotely, as they often are these days. I wouldn’t be surprised if next year they started using drones. Although – to be fair – looking at myself reflected in the hallway mirror – it looks like they already are.

Lolly starts up the stairs. There’s a battle royale, Richard wanting to come down, Lolly telling him to reverse. I say I don’t mind where. Richard says he wants the sitting room. Okay I say. No says Lolly. Reverse. Lie on the bed. Willard is right behind me, smiling broadly. The four of us continue up the stairs in one well-coordinated bundle.
‘He’s been hallucinating,’ says Lolly, as Richard lies back on the bed.
‘I have not,’ he says.
‘Yes you have, darling.’
‘When?’
‘This morning.’
‘Why? What happened?’
‘There!’ says Lolly, nodding at me. ‘Even his memory’s going.’
‘No, no!’ says Richard, quite happily, adjusting the pillows behind his head and then folding his hands on his tummy. ‘I’m simply disputing your version of events.’
‘You said there was a big orange fish behind the telly.’
‘Not was, darling. Is. There IS a big orange fish behind the telly.’
‘You see,’ says Lolly. ‘D’you think it’s serious?’
‘Have a look for yourself!’ says Richard.
‘Oh for goodness sake.’
I go over to the telly.
‘I hate to say this, Lolly – but there is actually a big orange fish down there.’
‘Not you too… oh!’
We’re both looking down at the gap behind the telly. There’s a cuddly toy lying on the cables – a Finding Nemo clown fish.
‘Well who put that there?’ says Lolly.
Willard looks up at me with a broadly innocent look on his face. I’m immediately suspicious.
‘Search me’ says Richard. ‘Look – are we going to do this thing or not? Because quite frankly, I’m hungry and I want my kippers.’
‘That’s a good sign,’ I say, turning back to the bed.
‘Is it?’ sighs Lolly. ‘Is it?’

*

‘All our dogs have started with a W,’ says Lolly, as I tidy up my things. ‘First there was Winston. Then it was Willow.’
‘No, darling. No. It was Wilma after Winston. Then it was Willow.’
‘You’re quite right. Winston. Wilma. Willow. Willard.’
‘I like that!’ I say. ‘How did it all start?’
‘It was Lolly’s idea,’ says Richard.
‘They’ve all been rescues,’ says Lolly. ‘We didn’t like their names so we had to change them. Winston was easy, because his original was Branston.’
‘Like the pickle,’ says Richard.
‘Like the pickle,’ says Lolly. ‘We didn’t like the idea of calling out Branston and immediately thinking of pickle. Neither of us likes pickle. So we wanted a name that sounded like Branston, so the dog wouldn’t get confused. And Winston seemed to fit.’
‘So that was the first W?’
‘Yes. And after that it just became a bit of a thing.’
‘Wilma was originally Alma,’ says Richard. ‘But I didn’t fancy that. Shouting Alma! Alma! was like barking yourself.’
‘So we called her Wilma,’ says Lolly. ‘It was a bit tricky to begin with, because we had to bend the name into shape gradually, so the dog wouldn’t get confused.’
‘You should’ve seen her,’ says Richard. ‘Standing there going AAHHAUUUUWAUUHMMMAAA! Everyone must’ve thought she was mad.’
‘No darling. They thought I was a singer doing vocal exercises.’
I look down at Willard. He returns the gaze.
‘So – what about Willard?’
‘Ah!’ says Lolly. ‘Willard was the exception. Willard has always been Willard. Haven’t you, darling?’
And I have to admit, I’ve never seen a dog agree more.

almost sure this is you

I needed a baby photo of me

for the Christmas advent calendar tree

the departmental bosses

were putting in the office

five pounds to enter

to play through December

guessing who’s what

winner gets the pot

I could do with the extra income

so I phoned mum

to see if she could send me some

she posted back a single snap

written in biro on the back:

ALMOST SURE THIS IS YOU

it was my daughter aged two

when I rang to point this out

she said there was plenty of room for doubt

and anyway – maybe I’d go a bit mad

if I’d squeezed out as many as she had

exit

in the end his desk was easy to clear

I hear

as he was never officially there

cumming & going

like a malign version

of the downing st cat

in a beanie hat

JD trainers & slacks

and instead of a collar

a lanyard offering top dollar

if the wearer should be found

wandering hopelessly around

ONCE RECOVERY POSITIVELY CONFIRMED

£500 IF NOT RETURNED