dying on stage

I used to be a vampire but I lost the cloak
now I’m just an ordinary bloke
doomed to wander the supermarket aisles
in motorhead t-shirt and denim disguise
flashing the cashiers pointy smiles

it’s so frustrating
my undead heart is breaking
dying was my living
and real life’s just too grave and unforgiving

but it’s like my dear old mother said
when I disinterred her from the shed
if you’ve got an advantage, son – work it
so now I make a killing on the chicken-in-a-coffin circuit

IMG_3304

living space

Marianne is standing waiting for me at the front door. When I wave from the car she doesn’t react, but watches me with a pinched intensity.

‘Would you like me to take my shoes off?’ I say, glancing at the cream carpeted steps rising up behind her.
‘Yes,’ she says.
I follow her up into the maisonette flat. It’s as quiet as a photo in a lifestyle magazine, smelling of floral air freshener and toast.
‘Through here,’ she says.
‘I’m sorry to ask, but I need to be clear. What’s your relationship to Jeremy?’
‘He’s my ex,’ she says, ‘but we live together. He’s dying of cancer. You know that, don’t you?’
‘Yes,’ I say.

* * *

It’s an unwritten rule that the jobs you think will be the easiest and most straightforward will turn out to be the most difficult.

Looking over my workload for the day, I saw that I was down for a support visit with Jenna, the OT. A palliative patient needed a hospital bed, which meant transferring him out of the existing one, dismantling it, letting the equipment company set up the new one, then putting him back in. The notes said he could just about weight-bear, so there wasn’t the usual problem of having to set the new bed up next to the old one and pat-sliding him across. True – the family normally take care of dismantling the old bed, but in this case the partner didn’t have anyone to help with that, so we’d take care of business. Another OT had been ahead of us to case the joint, so it should be a breeze.

I didn’t read too far into the notes. Just the basics. The patient had prostate cancer. His disease had suddenly progressed, and his care would increasingly be limited to bed. The GP had visited in the first instance and identified what needed to be done. Our job was limited to setting up the new care environment, prior to the palliative team going in.

Straightforward.

* * *

Jeremy is lying on his side in bed, one hand crooked behind his head, his legs drawn up. He’s so exhausted we withdraw to the hallway again and talk to Marianne instead.

Jeremy’s room is small and cluttered, a substantial bedside table with a phone, drinks and things to the side, and a glass display cabinet at the foot end, filled with model planes. As things are at the minute, the hospital bed won’t fit, but the first OT hasn’t left any instructions about where he wants the bed to go. I can’t think he means the front room. The maisonette is a narrow, two bedroom set-up. The lounge is the brightest, most spacious living space in the flat. If the hospital bed goes in there, it’ll mean Marianne will be limited to her bedroom and the tiny galley kitchen. If Jeremy stays in his bedroom, though, it’ll mean the busy and sometimes distressing business of End of Life care can be contained more effectively. Marianne seems so anxious and friable, I can’t imagine her spending the next few months confined in that way.

‘I think the bed will actually go pretty well in Jeremy’s room,’ Jenna tells her. ‘Especially if we move the display cabinet next door and put the bedside table over by the window. When the hospital bed’s in, you’ll have more time to have a think about things. You could ask some friends or family to help with taking some stuff away, maybe putting it in storage. What do you think?’
‘I don’t understand,’ she says. ‘What’s going to happen with the bed he’s on now?‘I don’t want to get rid of it.’
‘I suppose we could dismantle it and store it behind the sofa in the sitting room.’
‘Why can’t we put him in the lounge?’
‘I just think with all the comings and goings – carers four times a day, district nurses and so on – it won’t work so well. You need space for yourself, Marianne. This room’s more than adequate. It’s nice and sunny. It’s got a view outside. A TV. It’s perfect, really. It just takes a little bit of reorganisation.’
‘If you think so,’ she says.
‘I do.’
‘Okay.’
She doesn’t sound too convinced, though. The problem is, the delivery driver is almost here. If we send them away to give Marianne time to think, there’ll be a delay before it can be reordered. Jeremy needs to be on a hospital bed as quickly as possible. The care agency will refuse to authorise care on the bed he’s currently on. It’s a manual handling nightmare.
‘It’ll work out,’ I tell her. ‘You’ll see.’

We set to work, moving stuff. It’s a delicate job, shifting the model lancaster and spitfire planes on their display stands, then crystal glasses, trophies and cups. We bus them next door, followed by as many drawers as we can manage from the bureau to make it light enough to slide over to the window.
‘Look at all that dust,’ says Marianne. ‘I’ll get the hoover.’
She comes back with an ancient thing, certainly older than the flat, big enough to ride on, with a huge square light at the front and a cloth bag hanging off the handle. She starts rolling it around, the vibrations of it as brutal as a rotovator.
‘I think that’ll do,’ I say, tapping her on the shoulder and shouting over the noise. ‘The van’s outside with the new bed, so we’d better get on and transfer Jeremy into the wheelchair. Then we can dismantle his bed and make room for the new one.’
‘Just a bit more,’ she says.

Jeremy remains as passive as the furniture, but at least he manages to stand sufficiently well to make the transfer into the wheelchair. We take him through to Marianne’s bedroom, and gently lay him on the bed. Marianne watches the whole business with horror. I’m guessing that the original OT who’d organised the job had explained what it involved, but Marianne was too stressed to take it all in. There should have been a note in the folder, though. I make a mental note to talk to him back in the office.

The bed is mercifully quick to dismantle. We take it through and stack it behind the big cream sofa in the lounge. It’s all pretty neat. We’re sweating in our PPE, but it feels like a job well done.

‘Like I say – it’s only temporary,’ I tell her. ‘When we’ve gone you can ask someone to help you find a better place to store it.’

The delivery driver is fast and efficient, installing the hospital bed in twenty minutes or so. We spend the time talking to Marianne, trying to reassure her, finding out what support she has or might be expecting. It’s difficult, though. She uses all the phrases that suggest she knows Jeremy is dying, but there’s a palpable gap behind them. It’s like someone standing on a beach watching an enormous wave curling up into the sky and thundering towards them – and pointing, and saying ‘Look! A dangerous wave! I must get to safety!’ but standing completely still, watching it come down.

‘The palliative care team will be in touch,’ I tell her. ‘They’re incredibly supportive. They’ll give you numbers you can call to help out.’
Marianne stares at the dismantled bed behind the sofa.
‘It can’t stay there,’ she says.

Once the hospital bed is set-up and the dynamic pressure mattress inflated, Marianne walks in with an electric sheepskin underwarmer, as old as the hoover.
‘He hates the cold,’ she says.
‘I’m afraid that can’t go on this mattress,’ says Jenna. ‘Those straps will restrict the flow of air. His pressure areas will start to breakdown, so it’s important nothing gets in the way of preventing that. And I’m afraid it’s too much of a fire risk.’
‘But he’ll get cold.’
‘This is really well insulated, Marianne. He’ll be fine. And he’s got a nice, warm duvet. Honestly, this will be so much more comfortable for him than his old bed. Plus the carers need a hospital bed to care for him. They need to get either side to roll him, and it has to be at the right height otherwise they’ll hurt their backs.’
She stands holding the sheepskin blanket.
‘He feels the cold,’ she says, then walks out.

* * *

The next day, Jenna calls me over in the office.
‘I’ve got to go back to Jeremy, that patient we saw together.’
‘Why? What happened?’
‘Marianne put his old bed back together in the lounge, then somehow dragged him through.’

Chapter 13: On the couch

How Stanley sleeps – Adina’s Advice – Anger Management for Therapists – Three Reasons – Biscuit being one of them – Sigmund Stanley

paw print
Stanley needs counselling.

Especially if it’s old school psychotherapy, in a studious, book-stuffed room, with a palm in a jardiniere and a great big leather ottoman. Stan would look amazing, sprawled out on the ottoman, his paws dangling over the sides in that dejected way he has, his goatish head pointing straight down at the parquet flooring. He sleeps like that in his basket and it can’t be comfortable. He reminds me of that painting, The Death of Chatterton, the poor poet hanging half in, half out of his bed after an overdose of laudanum. Although in Stanley’s case, it’d be tripe sticks.

The fact is, not only do I not understand Stanley, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t understand himself.

‘Don’t worry. It will take time,’ Adina said, circling her fingers hypnotically through his crazy white fur. ‘Stanley has been through very bad situation. It will come out slowly. You must be patient with him.’ And my memory might be wrong about this, but I think he raised his eyebrows to look straight at me, making sure I was getting it all down.

I can totally imagine Adina as a psychotherapist, in a tweed jacket and monocle, one leg crooked over the other, a notepad on her lap, nodding gently and empathetically. Although – before you say anything – I do realise this is ridiculously out of date re. psychotherapy, and goes some way to explaining why I’m not working in mental health. Or in the movies as a casting director, come to that.

If Stanley DID go to see a psychotherapist, it’d be interesting to see how long they kept their temper. I suppose it would depend if they put a throw on the ottoman first, to protect the fine leather from his scuffing great paws. No sooner had they done that, Stanley would leap up and start fussing, dredging and worrying at it, so intently you’d think he was digging for water rather than rearranging soft furnishings. The psychotherapist would be waiting in their armchair, making a note maybe, sighing, cleaning their monocle or whatever. Sighing some more. Then eventually they’d slam the pad down on the floor, jump up, and after saying : ‘Oh for goodness sake!’ or worse, stride over, straighten the throw again, stroke his head and help him settle (which he’d accept with a heart-melting look from his big black eyes). ‘There, Stanley! Now perhaps we can begin the session!’ And by the time the psychotherapist had made it back to their armchair, Stanley would have produced his squeaky chipmunk from who knows where, and the therapist would curse and throw their pad down again.

Here are three reasons I think Stanley could benefit from psychotherapy:

1. Sometimes he acts as if his paws don’t belong to him, or they’re being worked by someone remotely, someone with a grudge. He’ll make himself jump doing the simplest things, like scratching his ears, or walking. The dog shelter didn’t tell us much about where he came from, other than the fact he shared the house with a psychotic little terrier called Biscuit, who – judging by the way he looked us up and down through the bars – was a cross between a Garibaldi and a ginger nut. Who knows how far Biscuit got into Stanley’s head in those early days. It’s unthinkable. The dog needed exorcising, not exercising.

2. Stanley sleeps with his paws over his ears. Now and again he’ll give a disappointed sigh, the sort of noise you might make if you’d applied for annual leave but got turned down because there were too many people off that week. Administrative annoyance, in other words. Nothing too bad. He’d probably tut if he could.

3. Stanley lies down in the worst possible places, stretching his long legs out in front of him, then resting his head on his legs and flicking his eyes about as if he’s just waiting for someone to tread on his tail or fall backwards over him with a tray of ice cream and spoons. Maybe it’s his way of proving to himself – and to anyone who cares enough to witness – that yes, here’s another terrible household, with people who don’t give a damn about causing significant injury to a poor old lurcher, and hadn’t he been expecting just exactly this sort of thing all along? (But maybe that’s not his motivation. Maybe it’s just that he wants to get as close as possible to the food – but hey, I’m not a therapist).

Of course, another reading of the whole scenario is that I’m the one who needs the counselling. And I’m fully prepared to admit that may be the case. Who wouldn’t benefit from six months, once a week? Only – it’d be just my luck to be lying on that ottoman, reaching some kind of epiphany, then glancing over to the armchair only to see Stanley sitting there, in a tweed jacket, monocle, with a pad on his hairy knee, nodding sadly and smiling with his two good teeth.

‘Well!’ he’d say. ‘I think we’re making excellent progress!’ Then he’d scratch his ear with his pen, and yelp.

 

psycho

lord’s prayer (annotated)

Our Father / forever in a lather / good god, bad god – in & out of favour / however you’d rather / but either way you’d have to say a brilliant balcony waver / eternity off for good behaviour / special deal on the super saviour / holy love’s like holy weather /  keep your heads down and stick together

who art in heaven / everything in his glorious possession / no question / sitting in line with his male succession / Mathew, Mark, Luke & Kevin / all with a faintly saintly sour expression / yawning through your dumb confession

hallowed be thy name / hollowed be thy game / borrowed be thy blessing & bellowed be thy blame

thy kingdom come / clap the lightning & bang the drum / raise the oceans & quench the sun / then you’ll see he’s number one / the feared & bearded, transcendent one / keeper of keys to the holy fun

thy will be done / or he’ll tear a new hole for everyone

on earth as it is in heaven / overseen by Peter, IT backup from Kevin / office hours seven through eleven / database running from Albuquerque NM / to Woolacombe, Devon

give us this day our daily bread / a car for the drive and a gun for the bed / you wish on a star and get this shit instead

and forgive us our trespasses / our bedbugs, butt plugs & alton towers passes / a bin bag for our disposable asses / particularly the working classes / who’ll definitely need those Poundland sunglasses / when they buckle up for Beezelbub’s barbeque gasses

as we forgive those who trespass against us / but not if it leaves us in any way defenceless / war, famine or plagueless / angel-less / hopeless / wave the bible more & turn the page less

and lead us not into temptation / moral equivocation / ethical consideration / alternative explanation / trust us – the train don’t stop at that particular station / we put a stained glass sign outside the dungeon / sorry for any interruption / major hypocrisy under construction

but deliver us from evil / civil unrest & social upheaval / the wrong kinda sin & the right kinda people / or anything heretical / socio-political / better play safe and go full medieval / kneel in the cathedral / run to the trumpet like a well-trained beagle

for thine is the kingdom / the unutterable thingdom

IMG_3293the power and the glory / the usual story

for ever and ever

and ever

and ever

whatever

Amen

the mysterious S

Deanna, the most senior woman in the admin team, who would almost certainly beat me to death with a stapler if she heard her described in that way, turns sixty in a few weeks. There’s been a collection organised by Sara, the youngest in the team. And I have to say, Sara is pretty ingenious. In an effort to generate as much money as possible – no doubt keen to avoid the usual excuse of ‘I haven’t got any cash on me at the minute’, accompanied by the universal ‘patting of the empty pockets’ mime – has set up a Paypal account. All we have to do is arrange a transfer via email, and then all she has to do is go out and buy the bunch of flowers, horse and revolver or whatever else it is she’s got planned. And it’s because of this that Rachel, the second most senior admin person, has come to see me now.
‘Can you do me a favour?’ she says, leaning in and whispering. ‘But you’re going to have to be a bit creative.’
‘What’s it about?’
‘Sara’s had a big amount of money donated by someone called S Avery, and no-one knows who they are. We’ve tried everyone. All the old hands. But we’ve drawn a blank. If I ask Deanna she’ll just grill me and I’ll end up breaking and giving the game away. You know what I’m like.’
‘So what do you want me to do about it?’
‘Think of a way to find out who S Avery is.’
‘How?’
She shrugs.’
‘I don’t know, Jim. Be creative.’

I think about it, but nothing comes to mind.

‘I could tell her I had a dream. I’m standing in an aviary, wearing a T-shirt with the letter S on it. And then Deanna turns up and says Who’s S? And I say That’s what I was going to ask YOU!’
‘No,’ says Rachel. ‘That’s not going to work. She doesn’t dream.’
‘O-kay…’

I think some more.

‘I know! We’re going to sign a card, aren’t we?’
‘Yes.’
‘So why don’t we draw a picture of a shadowy figure at the bottom? Someone wearing a trilby and raincoat, but everything shaded in. With claws. And then we sign it With love from S Avery. And she’ll either say Who the hell is this S Avery? Or she’ll say S Avery! I thought she was dead…’
‘Or he.’
I shake my head.
‘That’s it. That’s all I’ve got.’
‘Well you’re a fat lot of good.’
‘Does it matter, though? You’ve got their money.’
‘Maybe it’s – you know – one of those things.’
‘What things?’
‘One of those fishing expeditions.’
‘Really? I don’t think so. S Avery hasn’t been asking for anyone’s bank details. Have they?’
‘They don’t need to. Sara’s pretty much handing them out on a flyer. She was in the canteen the other day going table to table. You can’t fault her. She’s very dynamic. It’d be nice to know who they are though. S Avery… I wonder what the S stands for?’
‘Stanley? Sheila? Or maybe that’s just what people knew them as. Maybe their first name was completely impossible but they shortened it to S. That’d be cool.’
‘Like you, then. Everyone knows you as F.’
‘What’s that short for?’
‘Fucking useless.’

economics for dummies

It’s a long-standing problem / the Tory party Gollum / squatting bottom of an Excel column / my precious austerity / because apparently / prosperity / isn’t something that’s universally obtainable / the social order unassailable / the economics inescapable / basically your bony arse is grass and everything else saleable / representation is no longer available / so take your lame brain labour / be a good neighbour / and learn to love that particular flavour / I don’t want excuses / I just want a worker that produces and reproduces / so shut up / suck it up don’t fuck it up / you’ll get used to it / there’s really nothing to it / you do the work, you take the hit / and the suits siphon off the best of it / rolling around in coins and notes / on private jets and fancy boats / bending the rules and buying the votes / but even though I can see you’re opposed to it / you’ll never get close to it / hey! I don’t make the rules – I just follow ‘em / I don’t cook the books I just swallow ‘em / allow it / bow to it / I’m not proud of it / I’m sure one day your prince will come / and the two of you make a fairytale income

Anyway! here’s our brave leader / the super spreader & pedigree breeder / smiling & waving from a zip wire over the valley of death / all manicured nails and minty breath / head protected / securely connected / fair and squarely elected / by the people who always suspected / he was hopeless / but nevertheless / sick of the rest / gave him a chance and wished him the best / and then pretty soon realised their terrible mistake / when he got busted for passing fake custard and counterfeit cakes

but ssh now:

the cattle are lowing the baby awakes
(a rental by the abattoir was always a mistake)

IMG_3268

sharp scratch

It’s been so hot and humid, all the windows of the office are thrown wide. Despite this, there’s not a breath of air. The only things moving are the fingers of the nurse on the late shift typing out her report, and the swifts outside, shrieking and swooping through the tall brick canyons of the place.

I think if our team had a flag, the swift would be the perfect animal to have on it. They travel thousands of miles each year, living entirely on the wing. They’ve even evolved so that half their brain shuts down and sleeps without them falling out of the air – a talent we can all applaud. And despite the swifts’ roving ways, they always come back to the same spot to lay their eggs each year, the gaps and cracks in the craggy bricks and eaves of the old Victorian hospital. So having a swift for the flag seems about right. A heraldic flag made of yellow line bandage, with a sharps bucket in one corner, a bunch of swifts in the other.

A late job comes through. Urgent bloods requested on a patient in a nursing home. The only people who can do it other than me and the lead coordinator is the nurse at the other desk, but she’s already up against it. When she hears about the job she looks up with such a panicked look on her face I really can’t do anything other than offer to take it myself. The phones are quiet, so we should be okay. And anyway, it’s nice to have an excuse to get out. An easy win all round.

I fly off, shrieking and swooping.

* * *

Maple Court is tucked away at the top of a drive so winding and confusing you feel like the architect must’ve had an ammonite on her table when she drew the plans. The whorls of the drive are deeply screened by trees and shrubs, too, and the building itself deceptively shallow, built into the hill so that if from the front it looks like a single storey place, it’s actually two or three. If you had to find a headquarters in a zombie apocalypse, you couldn’t do better than Maple Court. Low, defensible, anonymous. With a surprisingly good view over the city out the back.

The main doorway is shut, secured by a code. There are two people sitting in lobby armchairs just the other side of the door – an elderly man with his back to me, and an elderly woman facing him. He’s wearing a surgical mask, she isn’t. They don’t seem to be talking or doing much, but then the glass is thick and I might be wrong about that. The man seems to sense from the reaction of the woman that I’ve approached the door, because he turns round with a sudden, melodramatic start. After tugging his mask down to get a better look at me, he reaches over to punch the code into the panel, and the doors slide open.
‘Hello!’ I say. ‘I’m Jim from the Rapid Response team. I’ve come to take some blood.’
‘You don’t want me,’ he says. ‘You want Kim, the manager. I don’t work here.’
‘Oh!’
‘She’s gone off somewhere. I don’t know when she’s coming back.’
The old woman frowns and leans forward.
‘What does he want?’
‘He says he’s come to take some blood.’
‘Goodness!’ she says. ‘Whatever for?’
I’m just about to suggest that I come in and ring a bell or something when the woman I guess is Kim comes striding round the corner.
‘Is it for Ken?’ she says. ‘About time! Follow me…’
I put on my PPE as we go, through fire doors, up stairs, through more security doors, onto a scrubbed and ruthlessly bright level.
‘He’s in the garden,’ says Kim. ‘Wait in there and I’ll bring him through.’

The waiting room is boxy and bright, a square table with four square chairs in the middle, padded chairs around the walls, a tea making place with some magazines, a television and a water cooler. The water cooler looks like a happy face, with taps for eyes and a drip tray for a mouth. I take a photo with my phone, because I like things that look like faces – and then hurriedly put my phone away when I hear Kim and Ken coming down the corridor.

I can immediately see why the doctor wanted the urgent bloods. Ken looks terrible. He’s sitting in an electric wheelchair, slightly slumped forwards, his right hand draped over the controls, Kim shouting ‘left a bit, right a bit’ from behind. She stares over his head at me and winces, like a scientist who’s presenting a reanimated mummy to the Royal Society but suddenly having second thoughts.

‘Made it!’ says Ken with a grimace, running up against the table and then turning the power off. ‘Which arm d’you want?’
‘Ken is getting good at this,’ says Kim, pulling up a chair with a terrible scraping noise. ‘You’re used to the old vampires, aren’t you?’
‘Hey,’ I say. ‘Less of the old.’
Ken shrugs.
‘Get on with it,’ he says. ‘I want a smoke.’

I lay my kit out on the table, put a cushion under his arm, tighten the tourniquet, tap up a vein.
‘Have you tried those vapes?’ I say. ‘They’re supposed to be good. And they’re better for you.’
‘Nah,’ he says. ‘You may as well smoke Glade. Besides – I’ve got cancer, mate. I think the time for worrying about fags is over. Don’t you?’
‘Well,’ I say. ‘Yep. You’ve got a point.’
‘Are you going to say sharp scratch?’ says Kim. ‘That’s what they all say, isn’t it? Sharp scratch? Why don’t you say just a little prick?’
‘Because I’m not Dr Evil. Anyway, I don’t usually say anything.’
‘What? You just jab them?’
She strokes Ken’s other arm.
‘I don’t think he’s going to jab you,’ she says.
He shrugs.
‘I don’t give a monkey’s.’
‘So what do you say, then?’ she goes on. ‘I hope you don’t mind me asking. I’m just interested.’
‘I don’t mind. No – I think what I do is I say: okay, here we go, then… or something like that. Sometimes I might say: take a breath in … and out…. and that’s when I put it in. I got that from the tattoo woman who pierced my ear. It seemed to work.’
‘Less talk and more work,’ says Ken.
‘Sorry, mate,’ I say. ‘Here we go. Sharp scratch…’

learning to write underwater

yes – yes – I’m swamped with stress
a bad blogger in a waterlogged mess
you’d have to say I’m drifting at best
Ophelia in the drink in her wedding dress

I just can’t make the right words stick
I’m falling down on the job, calling in sick
I’m Peter Piper without his pick
a deadbeat poet sharpening his dick

it’s like I can see something weird nearing
and I can’t believe what I’m hearing
the concert crowd is actually cheering
as the blind conductor’s disappearing

you’d think I’d be bored of all the hurting
the witless schtick, the tragic rehearsing
the carry on shithead, carry on nursing
caution – dreadful old diva reversing

I don’t know how to work the game
dig the foundations again & again
cut my losses, bury my name
my brown eyes wide and my beard aflame

but d’you hear that? is it thunder?
or a thousand poems sliding under?
quick – weigh my eyes with coins of silver
kiss me once, set me on the river

IMG_3259

urban codex

Quetzalcoatl / digging in the fine soil beneath his feathery coils for a tequila bottle / snatches it up and drinks / sinks to the steps of the pyramid and thinks / in a daze / as the burning sun settles and fades / beyond the ruined shopping arcades

and the more he drinks the more he sees / ghosts of shredded white plastic snagged in trees / long and ragged queues / for water and food / blazing cars in abandoned lots / flashing lights and pistol shots / ringing on the blade of the equinox

Tezcatlipoca / creeping low as a jaguar over the baking steps to get closer /
whispers Hey Big Mister Clever Snake Feather / let’s drop all the moody shit about the weather / whatever / come take a look in my smoking mirror / let’s royally fuck this place together

Quetzalcoatl / tormented by restless dreams of battle / the hollows of his eyes reflected in the mirror / draws his ancient tormentor nearer / you n’me babe he says / I guess you know best / but first we have to find Cortes

IMG_3253

accounting for ghosts

It’s been a hot day, busy and chaotic, but it’s late now, almost finishing time, and the fierce light of the afternoon is settling around the old hospital into something easier and more golden. There’s only me and Jane in the office, the long, empty room settling and ticking in tiny sounds of absence, like a car finally parked up and cooling. I’m sitting opposite Jane at the coordinator’s desk. Jane’s been pretty quiet the last hour, focused on working through a printed sheet of stats, the summation of the week’s activity. It’s a painstaking task and she sighs a lot. I’ve been fielding all the calls from patients and staff to give her the space, but they’ve eased off now and there’s nothing much else to be done.

Suddenly one of the connecting doors on the far side slams shut. At the same time, an overhead light flickers and goes off.
Jane looks up.
‘Ghosts,’ I say. ‘This used to be a surgical ward. It’s probably infested.’
She leans back in her chair and stretches. When she sits forward again she fixes me with a long look.
‘You’ll probably think I’m mad if I tell you this,’ she says. ‘But the place I live is haunted.’
‘Is it?’
‘It used to be an asylum. Then it was just a big, fancy house. Then it was flats. So it’s no wonder there’s stuff going on.’
‘What sort of ghosts?’
‘It depends,’ she says. ‘Mostly it’s odd bangings and things, whispering. Stuff gets thrown around. The other night when Steve came over, I went to bed and I saw his shadow on the door. So I told him to stop mucking about. Nothing happened, the shadow just stayed there. Suit yourself, I said. Then the shadow went away, and I heard Steve coming up the stairs. Who were you talking to? he said. So I realised it wasn’t him.’
‘Were you scared?’
‘Not really. I’ve got used to them now. I think they like the company. They get a bit restless when there’s been some change in things, like the lockdown. But otherwise they keep themselves to themselves. They’re basically just lonely, I suppose.’
‘It’s weird about ghosts,’ I say. ‘I mean – logically I don’t believe in them. But that doesn’t mean I don’t spook myself out a lot.’
She nods, but in a non-committal way, acknowledging the words but not the feeling.
‘When you think of all the places people die,’ I say. ‘Not just hospital, but everywhere. All over the place. Like where we live. It’s pretty old, used to be owned by a farmer. When we moved in, the old woman next door took great delight in telling us he choked to death on a chicken bone, in the front room. She rushed in to save him, but it was too late. So I thought – Oh, great! We’ve moved into a haunted house. But nothing. Not a cough. And none of the dogs or cats we’ve had have hissed or done anything strange. And they’re supposed to be sensitive, aren’t they?’
‘Depends on the dogs.’
‘And then you’ve got to think – if everyone who dies makes a ghost, wouldn’t we be completely snowed?’
‘Maybe we are. Maybe only some of them can make themselves known. And only some of us can see them.’
She smooths out the spreadsheet in front of her and stares at it.
‘Who knows?’ she says, planting her elbows on the desk, cradling her chin in the palms of her hands and pressing her fingers into her eyes so vigorously her glasses ride up onto her forehead. ‘I’ve never been good with numbers.’