the gambler & the ranger

‘I’m so sorry about Radar’ says Gill. ‘He barks at everything.’
‘I don’t mind. Our last dog Buzz was a bit like that. Anyone came to the door, it was rah rah rah. We tried everything. We even invited the postman in once, so they could be properly introduced. And that was fine and everything. Smiles all round. But as soon as we shut the door and the postman knocked again, Buzz started. He used to rip the letters up, too.’
‘Who? The postman?’
‘Buzz. I wouldn’t blame him if he did, though. It must have been annoying.’
‘Ahh – they’re used to it.’
‘We did get worried about his fingers, so we put the letterbox on the outside.’
‘Funnily enough, postmen are the one thing Radar doesn’t bark at.’
‘I wonder why?’
‘No idea. There’s no telling with dogs. Certainly not this one.’

You’d expect a dog called Radar to be particularly alert. Something wired and small and spiky, with luminescent, revolving eyes (although I’d no doubt scream if I saw a dog like that). This Radar must have been named after the prototype version, made of Bakelite and valves, more like a radiogram.

He sniffs my trousers to see whether more barking was needed, and then waddles back to his rug in front of the fire, falling so loudly, if you shut your eyes at the moment of contact you’d think someone was dropping off a sack of potatoes.
Radar licks his chops, and stares back at me with a look of heavy jowled disapproval.

‘Dad’s through here,’ says Gill. ‘He’s just having a nap.’

Edward has been set-up with an extemporary bedroom in the lean-to out back. It’s perfectly warm and comfortable, though, just a short hobble with the zimmer to the ensuite, plenty of room for his equipment, misty views over the valley. He’s lying on his left side with his legs crooked up and his hands up by his face – such a foetal position you can almost see the umbilical cord, ninety years long, snaking back out to him.
‘Seems a shame to wake him’ I say, gently putting my bag down.
‘He won’t mind,’ says Gill, touching his shoulder. ‘Dad? Dad! Someone to see you.’
It’s surprising how quickly he comes to.
‘Righto!’ he says, blinking hard a couple of times and then pushing himself into a sitting position.
‘I’ve just got a couple of things I have to do,’ says Gill. ‘Are you alright for a minute…?’
She hurries away into the kitchen, and I introduce myself.

‘I was in the middle of such a strange dream,’ says Edward as I unpack my things.
‘Oh? What was it?’
‘You don’t want to know!’
‘Try me! I like dreams.’
He presses the heels of his palms into his eyes, and sits quietly on the bed a moment longer, gathering himself.
‘It’s a western,’ he says at last. ‘There’s this man, you see – a gambler, in a big, black hat. And he’s trying to take over the town. Well the mayor doesn’t want him to. So he takes him outside, throws the gambler’s hat on the ground and puts a gun to his head. But what the mayor doesn’t know is – there’s this ranger, watching it all, from the hills. And he’s got this rifle, with a bloody great telescopic sight. And he starts shooting, all around them. Pe-ow! Pe-ow! Pe-ow! So the mayor, he jumps on his horse and he rides off. And then the ranger he comes over, and he shakes hands with the gambler. And the gambler says to him: Thank you very much. And the ranger says: You’re welcome. And the gambler says: I don’t think the mayor’s going to be very happy. And the ranger says: Tough. I’m a ranger. I can do what I like.
‘That’s brilliant! You could sell it to Hollywood!’
‘D’you think?’ sighs Edward, licking the palms of his hands and smoothing his hair flat. ‘I don’t know. I don’t think they shoot westerns anymore.’

families, eh?

This is the situation. Deidre is a ninety year old woman blessed with good health, for the most part, living independently in a warden controlled flat, with only a domestic to run the vacuum over and have a bit of a tidy up on a Monday, and one or other of her sons to go shopping with her every Wednesday and the occasional days out. Unfortunately, Deidre suffered a series of falls over the last few weeks, the first almost inevitably leading to the second, and then a third, and although she escaped with nothing more serious than extensive bruising, her confidence is shot. She’s taken to her chair. There’s been something of a decline.

Deidre’s been referred to us by her GP for the usual interventions, the physiotherapy to get her strength back, the equipment to help with mobility, pharmacist to review meds, social worker to look at care needs and even a mental health nurse to test her cognitive function and chat about how she’s feeling. It’s all pretty comprehensive.

The trouble is, if the patient doesn’t want any of these things, and they’ve got the mental capacity to make that decision, there’s not much you can do about it.

And of course, Deidre doesn’t want any of these things. She won’t even consider changing her chair.

I’m not saying Deidre’s chair doesn’t look comfortable. It’s a low, luxurious, thickly-padded affair, more like a giant baseball glove than a piece of furniture. It’s the kind of chair you drop back into from a height, and land in a fixed position, and then face as much of a struggle to get out again as a breech-birth baby lamb.

Deidre’s two sons, Derek and Ian, are both here. We’ve all tried to persuade Deidre to sit somewhere more suitable. There are sensitive and subtle issues at stake, though. I’m sure it’s less about a chair and more about what it stands for, a loss of self-determination, increased vulnerability and dependence – even just an acceptance of her own mortality. It would be easy to make the chair into a symbol and lose the battle, like those stories you hear about regiments being sacrificed just to hold on to a tattered flag.

I retreat, and let the sons have a go.

Watching them, you’d never guess they were brothers.

Derek is thin, measured, quietly economical. He moves like an ascetic community monk in jeans and sweater, patiently hearing what everyone has to say, and then considering his response, hugging his knee, gently rocking backwards and forwards.

Ian is red-faced. I want to put my hands on his shoulders, take a breath, and then undo the top button of his red checked shirt, because otherwise I’m worried his head will explode. He’s so hot his glasses keep steaming up, and he wipes them clear with a handkerchief he whips out of his pocket. He even has angry feet. For some reason Ian’s not wearing any socks, and I have to say I’ve never seen such wild and livid toes, the kind you might expect to see on the feet of a devil, stomping about the cinders in Hell’s front room.

‘Will you listen to the guy?’ he says, shoving his glasses back on and then waving the hankie in my general direction. ‘That’s why he’s here, Mum! To help get you better.’
‘I’m not getting rid of this chair!’
‘But it’s not suitable, Mum! I wouldn’t be able to get out of that thing, and I’m not ninety.’
‘No. You’re not.’
‘Why won’t you sit in the other chair?’
‘Because it’s not mine.’
‘You can’t spend your whole life down there.’
‘We’ll see.’

He storms off into the kitchen.

Derek considers for a moment.

‘It mightn’t be for long, you know,’ he says. ‘Just until you get the strength back in your legs.’
‘I’m not getting rid of this chair.’
‘No-one’s suggesting you get rid of it, Mum. We’re just saying it’s a good idea if you use Dad’s old chair for a while. It’s easier to get in and out of.’
‘This is my chair.’

Derek smiles at me.
‘Mum’s always been very – how shall I put it? – sure of her own mind,’ he says.
‘I can see that.’

It’s always interesting to see the differences between siblings, the roles they’ve been allotted to play. Derek the calm, Ian the furious. I wonder if it’s conditioning, or simply down to genetic luck. Was there a point back in time when the young Deidre and her husband decided in some unconscious and unspoken way, that Derek was fundamentally like this, and Ian essentially like that? Or is it all down to the pull of a handle on a genetic fruit machine? The spinning of ancestral drums, the lining up of chromosomes, flashing lights, oohs, aahs, and a baby with angry feet spilling out.

‘I’m amazed you can keep your cool!’ says Ian when I go into the kitchen to ask him something.
‘It’s easier when it’s work,’ I say. ‘You should see me with my mum.’

la force de l’age

Christopher’s wing-back armchair is floodlit by the low sun – so much so, that every wispy strand of his white beard and short-cropped hair stands out around his head like the flux lines around a graven, magnetic rock. The whole effect is intensified by the way Christopher restlessly bobs up and down as he talks, as if all the things he’s ever read and written and thought about are violently buffeting the chair, and only the wings on the side of it are stopping him from being pitched out onto the carpet.

To his right is a tall bookcase crammed with old books, famous writers of philosophy, history, economics and so on, and then a selection devoted to T.S. Eliot; to his left is a plastic garden chair with his meds, a magnifying glass and a packet of extra strong mints.

Christopher’s been speaking without interruption now for five minutes straight – or possibly fifteen, it’s hard to keep track. The level of detail is overwhelming, from the slave colonies of Martinique to the Nanking massacre, via Stalingrad, Putin, the Mau Mau in Kenya and the perceived indiscretions of certain members of the cabinet – everything merging into a great flood of ideas, whose focus seems to be (as far as I can tell), the deep and pernicious roots of the establishment. What makes things even more difficult is that he often slips into French, his second language, quoting from writers and social movements I’ve never heard of, in particular, Aimé Césaire. But eventually his monologue slows enough for me to ask him whether after all he’s read he considers himself to be an optimist or a pessimist.

‘Oh, optimist, most definitely optimist. How could you be anything else? It’s merely a question of perspective. As a species we’ve only just begun!’ he says, grasping the arms of the chair, rocking from side to side. ‘You see, infinity is a jolly long time! You only need ask yourself – what will life be like in a million years time? A billion! Quadzillion? Especially with all the developments in robotics and artificial intelligence. I’m absolutely convinced humans will eventually live for ten thousand, FORTY thousand years! And they’ll be fluent in every language. Geniuses, all!’

He pauses for breath, and relaxes back in the chair.

‘Although I’m not sure I’d want to live much past forty thousand,’ he says. ‘I’d probably have had quite enough by then. But you see, that being the case, I could get together with all my friends and have a Socrates party, and we could all take poison!’

It’s tricky saying goodbye to Christopher, like disentangling myself from a giant, conversational octopus. I think I must have shaken his hands a dozen times but only made it halfway to the door. I’ve tried every gambit I can think of, from subtle changes of position to explicit statements of fact, but nothing stops him from talking. Eventually I’m forced to say goodbye and open the door whilst he’s still in full flow – except, as soon as there’s a sudden rush of cool air from outside, he does stop, and nods his head affirmatively a couple of times.

‘Ah! La force de l’age!’ he says. ‘A bientôt!’


portraits of people & their pets

1. Rita, 88. Leaky heart valve. Anemia of uncertain origin, possibly Heyde’s syndrome. Too frail for the op.

Sitting in the window with a heavy marmalade cat called Moo Moo on the arm of the chair. The cat makes no movement at all when I unpack my kit, resting its blue and level eyes on me.

‘Moo Moo appeared from nowhere,’ says Rita. ‘She was completely feral. I really don’t think she’s frightened of anything.’

2. Sally, 91. History of unexplained weaknesses, falls, labile blood pressure, poorly controlled diabetes.

Sally is sitting on the sofa with one white Westie sprawled on the backrest, and one in a dog crate in the alcove. Sally bunches up her sleeve and then stretches out her arm for me to take blood, propping it up one of the dog’s teddy bears. The Westie sprawled on the backrest appears to be asleep, but the one in the crate growls.

‘It’s not you, it’s me,’ says Sally. ‘He doesn’t like me using his bear.’

3. Katherine, 76. Recovering from a chest infection, general debilitation. Poor E&D.

Katherine is sitting on a two-seater sofa, bathed in a sudden wash of sunlight from the bay window. Either side of the sofa are two tall, dark wood jardinieres, each one topped with a giant palm and supported on tripod of carved lions’ feet. A Sphynx cat appears from nowhere and lands so lightly on the folder in my lap it’s hardly like an animal of substance at all, but some ethereal creature conjured from the papers and letters on Katherine’s writing desk, with half a dozen strands of fuse wire for whiskers, and two thimble-sized drops of rainwater for eyes.

‘She likes you,’ says Katherine.


the waiting room

It’s one of those houses that opens out in a surprising way, like ducking through the tiny arched doorway of a church and finding yourself in a great vaulted space. The sitting room is positively sepulchral, filled with a honeyed and dusty light from the casement windows at the far end. In the corner of the room there’s a hospital bed, a zimmer frame and commode, and then spreading out from there, a selection of easy chairs set along the walls, giving the place a sombre, waiting room feel. Around the walls there’s a patchwork of family portraits, all of them with such eager and fixed expressions, it wouldn’t surprise me if their eyes lit up when the actual person approached to take up their spot in the chair immediately beneath.
‘In some ways we were fortunate,’ whispers Raymond. ‘in that we had a lot of this equipment for grandma’s last months.’
‘That was lucky,’ I say, feeling uncomfortable about using the word luck in this context, the mother’s decline segueing neatly into the son’s.
‘By the way,’ says Raymond, leaning towards me. ‘Please don’t mention the C word.’
He taps the discharge summary on my lap, and the phrase Bladder TCC / declining further investigation, and then raises his eyebrows, to emphasise the point.
His father, Geoffrey, is surprisingly chipper, given the circumstances. He’s lying in the hospital bed, propped up with pillows, reading the paper. He’s so blasted by illness his flesh has fallen away – so much so that his glasses have slid to the end of his nose, because there’s only the vomer to keep them in place. It feels like I’ve been invited into a mausoleum and found a man prematurely set to rest there, filling the time as best he can, current affairs, quick crosswords, sudoku and so on.
‘Don’t mind me,’ he says, raising his chin to keep the glasses in place as he flips the page.
The family are doing a fine job looking after him, though. Raymond is the focal point of the whole operation, living in the house, putting in most of the work and efficiently co-ordinating the rest. In fact, Raymond is such a palpable force, it’s hard to resist the idea that he’s keeping his father alive by a conservative power of will.
‘We definitely do not want daddy going back to hospickle’ he whispers.
‘‘What are you saying now?’ says Geoffrey, laying the paper and his glasses aside.
‘Nothing, daddy. Nothing,’ says Raymond, standing up. ‘Would you like some more tea?’


playing it safe

Aaron doesn’t believe me when I tell him he spent the night in hospital.
‘I’m not crazy,’ he says, folding his arms. A massive figure in khaki shirt and trousers, he occupies the entire sofa. Despite his size, his monkey boots seem disproportionately enormous – although they’re nearer to me, so it’s probably just a matter of perspective.
‘Where do you think you were, then?’ I ask him.
‘A holiday camp,’ he says. ‘I remember it distinctly. Everyone had their own chalet – except, we had to share the toilet, for some reason.’
His friend Marcus shifts uneasily on his chair.
‘Don’t worry,’ I say, trying to reassure them both. ‘This sort of thing’s quite common with urinary tract infections.’
‘What – thinking a hospital’s a holiday camp?’
‘Getting confused about things, yes. Hallucinating, sometimes.’
‘But I can see it all so clearly. Everyone was deliriously happy. They were walking around in couples. And there were these beautiful people in shining white uniforms giving everyone delicious things to eat, beautiful things, off trays.’
‘Doesn’t sound like any hospital I know,’ says Marcus.
‘I’m not crazy,’ says Aaron.
‘No-one thinks you’re crazy,’ I tell him. ‘We just think you’ve got a bit of an infection and you’re not quite yourself.’
Aaron rubs his face a couple of times, making it seem even redder than it was.
‘It was just the toilet arrangements that struck me as odd,’ he said. ‘I certainly didn’t think I was in any kind of hospital.’
He takes a deep, sighing breath, then restlessly scratches his head – something he’s been doing off and on the whole time. His hair is matted and wild, like he worked in a fistful of gel and then hung upside down from a tree. I’m worried he might have a fever, but the temperature comes back normal.
‘So – what happened to me exactly?’ he says.
‘You went round to see some friends…’
‘…I wasn’t there,’ says Marcus, carefully, like if he had been, none of this would’ve happened.
‘How did I get there?’
‘You drove. Apparently.’
‘I drove?’
‘Someone standing outside A and E saw you pull up, open the door, and fall out.’
‘Did I?’
‘The car’s still there.’
‘I’m picking it up this afternoon,’ says Marcus. ‘Don’t worry.’
‘I’m not worried about the bloody car,’ says Aaron. ‘I’m worried about my sanity’
‘Like I say – you’ve got a UTI. They can seriously throw you off your stride.’
‘So then what happened?’
‘So then this person got a wheelchair and took you inside. The doctors treated you. And you were sent home. They asked us to come in and keep an eye on things, to make sure the antibiotics kick in, but other than that, you should be okay.’
‘I’m staying tonight,’ says Marcus. ‘So that’s good.’
‘I don’t know,’ says Aaron, taking one more colossal breath, and then blowing it out again almost immediately, like a whale before it dives, nose down into those uncertain depths of ocean the sun struggles to reach.


I’m just back at the car getting ready for the next appointment when I get a phone call from Marcus. He has a few meandering questions about the treatment and so on, but I can tell he’s stringing it out, and there’s something else bothering him. Eventually he gets round to it.
‘You’re a man of the world,’ he says.
‘Oh? Okay! Maybe. How can I help?’
‘This thing is – this thing – Aaron has. This infection. If I lie with him tonight – can I catch it?’
‘Well – a UTI isn’t a sexually transmitted disease, so it doesn’t work in the same way. A condom’s not a bad idea, though, just to play it safe. You don’t want to get a UTI of your own. Bacteria that live in the bowel are one of the main culprits.’
‘Okay. Thanks. I’m just off to get his car back.’
‘That’s good of you.’
‘I know. So. D’you think it’ll be clamped?’
‘The car? I hope not. You know what those parking people are like.’
‘Yeah. Anyway. Who knows? Maybe I’ll be lucky. Maybe they’ll just put a massive condom on it. To play it safe.’

daryl’s granddad

A dozen concrete steps lead down through a front garden littered with bottles and cans and a scattering of fag butts, everything so methodically piled into discrete pyramids, it’s as if the house beyond had been excavated by badgers, blindly paddling the trash out behind them in three particular directions.

Wendy opens the front door.
‘Can you just go through to the sitting room?’ she says. ‘I’m helping Dad in the bathroom. I won’t be long.’

I carry on deeper into the house, down another dark set of stairs. The whole place has such a chambered, subterranean feel I wouldn’t be surprised to see a twisted network of tree roots instead of a ceiling, and a family of badger cubs curled up in some straw. Instead, I find a large young guy in a tiger onesie, lying on his tummy on the floor, nose to nose with an obese, brindle coloured staffie. The staffie struggles to its feet to investigate, but the guy doesn’t react, too engrossed in his phone to look up or even say hello.
As I’m looking around for somewhere to put my bags, Wendy appears in the doorway holding on to her father.
‘Daryl!’ she says. ‘Get off the floor! You should be getting ready for work.’
‘Keep your hair on. I’ve got plenty of time,’ he says, pushing himself up into a standing position just high enough and long enough to topple straight back onto the sofa, one leg onto the coffee table.
‘Daryl!’ says Wendy again.
‘Whaaaat?’ he says, getting back to his phone, which suddenly and unexpectedly rings.
Yeah mate! Yeah….so what happened? You never! So then what….
‘I’m sorry about Daryl,’ says Wendy, guiding her father to the far end of the sofa. ‘Teenagers, eh?’
‘Don’t worry about it.’
Meanwhile the staffie has managed to haul itself into something resembling a walking position. The poor thing is so fat it can only move by waddling from side to side, like a comedy boat made out of a beer barrel and four paw-ended oars.
‘I was out in Egypt,’ says her father, as if I was part of a conversation that had been going on for some time.
‘I’m sure the gentleman’s too busy to hear your war stories, dad,’ says Wendy, smiling and straightening his shirt.
‘I don’t mind’ I say. ‘What was that, then? Suez?’
‘I didn’t like it,’ he says, not looking at me, but rather addressing his words to a spot in the middle of the room. ‘I was bloody glad when it ended. And on the last day, d’you know what I did? I marched up to the desk where they was all sitting, and I saluted, all smartly like. I give ‘em my name, rank and serial number. And they handed me my wages, and I saluted again, turned about, and marched back the way I come in. I got as far as the door, and these other two fellers, sitting over there like, they said something or other, under their breath, laughing and making some clever comment like look at him, saluting and carrying on. So I turned around, marched straight up to them, saluted, and then I leant right in, and I said ‘Listen! Today’s the last day of me being in the army. I’ve done my duty alright, and that’s that. So now you can take your smart remarks, and you can blow them aht’ your fuckin’ arses. And then I saluted them again, turned smartly on the spot, and carried on out the door.’
‘That’s great!’ I say. ‘That showed them!’
Daryl glances up at us both, then groans and sinks lower into the sofa.
Nah…don’t worry mate! he says, putting one hand over the top of his head to grab the ear the phone is pressed to, like he’s trying manually to keep it open. It’s just granddad and his war stories. Yeah! A million times, mate. A million times. So what were ya sayin’…? Yeah, sweet, man, sweet.