something about falling

I’m obsessed with Blanche’s hair. It looks like a golden octopus swam up from behind and slapped its tentacles over her scalp.
‘How much did that cost?’ I ask as we park up.
‘Sixty pounds.’
She sucks her teeth with a clicking noise.
‘I am not so sure I would ever do it again. It’s a lot of work just for one month.’
‘It looks amazing, B. I’ve never seen such hair.’
‘My God!’ she laughs. ‘Seriously? Well – when it comes to hair, you should know.’
It’s true. I decided to shave my head a few months ago. I could see I was beginning to thin on top, and I didn’t want to be ‘that guy’, so opted for a basin of cold water and a razor. (The clinical measures I’ll take to avoid being ‘that guy’).
‘Sigourney Weaver chic,’ I tell her.
‘Who?’ she says.
We’re at the door so there’s no time to explain. She rings the bell and we wait.

It’s a beautiful, semi-detached house – semi-detached in that perfectly realised, herbs in planters, careers in banking or higher education. Hydrangeas pulsing into bloom. A neighbour nodding and smiling, watering his SUV.

Emma opens the door. She has a tiny baby in her arms, scrawling its face and arms, protesting the disturbance.
‘Thank you so much for coming!’ says Emma. ‘We do appreciate it. We’re all in the lounge…’

She leads us through the house into a broad, brightly-lit room. Anthony is sitting in a wheelchair, absently holding a white linen handkerchief to his lips. His wife Maureen stands beside him ready to take it.

Emma describes what’s been happening. Her dad is palliative and suddenly much worse. They’d managed to dress him and get him down the stairs, but it took a long time, it wasn’t safe, and they have no idea how they’re going to get him back up again.

‘The OT from the palliative team offered us a hospital bed downstairs earlier in the week but Daddy said no,’ she says.

The equipment company we use has a same day delivery service, but only if the order goes in before midday. It’s already a quarter to, and I’m almost sure they won’t agree. We talk about other options – if they have a cot bed we could put up for them, or even a normal bed we could dismantle and reconstruct. But they don’t have anything we can use temporarily, and all of the beds upstairs are antique, king-sized items. And even if that was feasible, whatever bed Anthony goes into now will need to be adjustable for height so the carers can manage his last days safely and comfortably. He absolutely needs a hospital bed to avoid admission.

Emma and I go into the kitchen so I can make a few calls; Blanche stays with Anthony and Maureen.

Luckily, when I phone the equipment company, Lauren answers. I’ve spoken to her lots of times before, so I take that as some kind of omen. I throw myself on her mercy, describing the situation, apologising for the late order and so on. It’s a desperate move – the equivalent of running outside in a storm, throwing my arms wide, tipping my head back and surrendering to the elements in one great, big, cosmic PLEASE.

‘Get the order in right now,’ sighs Lauren. ‘Should be fine.’

After I’ve called the office, asked them to send the order through with immediate effect, I go back into the lounge with Emma. Everyone’s so relieved. Even the baby seems more settled, hanging onto Emma as suckered as Blanche’s hair. It seems to fall instantly asleep the moment she takes her place in the armchair to the right of her father.

The only person untouched by any of this is Anthony. He sits absolutely upright and still, his waxy, swollen feet placed just-so on the footrests, his eyes half closed under a weight of opiates. Every now and again he dabs at his mouth with his handkerchief, so neutrally it’s like someone else is reaching up to do it. And then, just as we start to talk about what happens next, Anthony stirs a little and starts to tell a story. A funny story, I think, his voice so faint and dry and far away it’s hard to make out. Everyone in the room falls quiet, giving him space to be heard.

‘… and then … the damned phone rang….’ he whispers. ‘…. woke me up… I didn’t know who it was, of course…’
Maureen gently takes the handkerchief from him, hands him a beaker of water, helps him take a sip.
‘… but that’s enough from me…’ he says, after a long pause. ‘Emma must take up the story…’
Emma smiles – blurry, exhausted.

‘Someone rang and woke Daddy up,’ she says, helplessly.

We all laugh – and the sudden noise wakes the baby. It shudders in her arms, throwing out its hands, kicking up its legs. The Moro Reflex, I think they call it. A vestigial spark, a million years in the making. Something about falling.

a toothy business

We’ve had some carers go sick so I’m helping out with the calls this morning. I like the change. So long as everything goes to plan, I won’t be called upon to make decisions, referrals, or any of the other worries that swarm in on you when you’re medically assessing a patient. In a lot of ways a care call is therapeutic – which I realise is easy for me to say, not having to do this day-in, day-out, chasing my tail across the city, stressing about keeping ahead, making time, all for a pittance.

Geoffrey’s house is on the kind of pristine new development where everything looks fake. I wouldn’t be surprised to be met at the door by a Playmobil figure. Instead it’s June, Geoffrey’s daughter, a middle-aged woman with an aura of stress so palpable you could use it to power the neighbourhood if you only had the leads.

‘Hello,’ she says, blinking emphatically. ‘Can you put these shoe covers on?’

The interior of the house is immaculate. Which explains the shoe covers. In fact, I’m surprised June doesn’t insist on a full body suit and respirator.
‘Dad’s still in bed,’ she says. ‘I’ll come up and show you what’s what.’

I follow her up the stairs and into a room brightly lit by the sun. Geoffrey is lying on his back in bed, his hands either side of his face, gripping the covers in that cliche, ‘man lying in bed’ style.
‘This is the carer, Jim,’ says June, running up the blinds. ‘He’s come to get you ready for the day.’
‘Oh, aye?’ says Geoffrey.

June shows me into the bathroom where everything is laid out: pink flannel for the face and top half, black flannel for the bottom and legs. Creams of various kinds. A comb. Toothbrush and paste. The toothbrush is enormous, like nothing I’ve seen before, a cumbersome red plastic instrument with bristles like a carpet brush on one side and on the other, the kind of circular brush that wouldn’t be out of place snapped onto a vacuum cleaner.
‘I’ll leave you to it,’ says June, before turning on the spot and hurling herself back downstairs.

The washing and dressing goes smoothly. Geoffrey is as organised as his environment, and apart from his great age and frailty, manages everything pretty much independently. We chat about this and that. Apparently – before he retired – he used to be a dental technician.
‘Oh!’ I say. ‘That’s interesting! I know a story about dental technicians!’
‘Hmm,’ says Geoffrey. I’m putting him into his tracksuit top so he can’t do anything else but listen.
‘You know that local natural history museum? Well the professor who used to run that place also helped the police out now and again. He was such an expert on bugs and beetles and skeletons and whatnot, they used to call him in for advice.’
‘Oh, aye?’ says Geoffrey. I hand him a comb to sort his hair out.
‘Well – this one time, they asked him to look at a building site. The builders were renovating an old house and they found a load of teeth in the basement, which looked suspicious. But when the professor examined them, he said it must have been the site of an old dentures workshop, and you could tell by the tiny holes near the root of the teeth, where they used to wire them together.’
‘Wire them…’ says Geoffrey. ‘Yes.’
I pass him his strange toothbrush.
‘Over to the expert!’ I say.

He carefully smothers the big brush with toothpaste, wets it under the tap, then starts busily scouring his teeth. It goes on for such a long time I’m worried he won’t have any teeth left. There’s a lot of spitting and hawking into the sink, followed by more brushing, followed by more spitting, and when five minutes have passed and I’m wondering if I should make an intervention, he unexpectedly puts the plug in the sink and starts filling the basin so full of cold water I’m worried it’ll overflow. But just as the level nears the top, he turns the taps off, then pulls out his top set, holds it under the water, and starts attacking it with the round bit of the brush. He scrubs it underwater for ages, pulling it out to inspect it occasionally, plunging it back under again to scrub some more, hawking and spitting into the basin the whole time. It’s a furious, all-elbows kind of procedure. I’ve never seen anyone clean their teeth like this before and I’m fascinated – so much so that I almost forget to catch him when he leans back unsteadily a few times.
‘There!’ he says, breathing hard, finally pulling the plug and inserting the top set back into position. ‘Now, then – what’s for breakfast?’

rae’s incredible phone story

‘How was the holiday, Rae?’
‘It was great, Jim, thanks. Fine. Y’know? Busy! Pretty non-stop, actually…’
Rae talks like someone who’s just stepped off a ride at the fair and has to take small steps for a while because the ground doesn’t feel right.
‘We all went camping. Well it seemed like a good idea at the time. Up the east coast. Stopped at mum’s. Then on to my aunt’s. Then crossed over to Liverpool to see the other aunt. Then back down through Wales for a cousin or two. It was like we were hunting relatives. But the weather was good. Then home. Two weeks. I need a holiday to get over it.’
‘Sounds good. It’s years since I’ve been camping.’
‘I tell you one thing that happened, though. It’s so strange. There’s no way you’ll believe it.’
‘What’s that?’
She smiles at me.
‘Nah!’ she says. ‘You definitely won’t believe it.’
‘Now you’ve got to tell me.’
‘You’ll just think I’m crazy.’
I pull a face.
‘Nah!’ she says after a teasing pause. ‘I just can’t.’
‘This better be good, Rae.’
‘Alright – I’ll tell you. But I’ll probably regret it. You’ve just gotta promise not to tell anyone else.’
‘I can’t wait to hear this.’
She sighs, pushes her glasses up into her hair, and sits down heavily on the corner of the desk.
‘I lost my phone,’ she says, folding her arms. ‘I looked everywhere. Absolutely everywhere. Turned the house upside down. Nowhere. Couldn’t find it. Great, I thought. Fantastic. I haven’t got time for this. That’s all I need. But then my husband wandered in with a handful of receipts. And I said where’n hell d’you get them from? Because I keep my receipts in my phone case. With the phone. And he said he found them – blowing round the garden.’
‘So you lost it in the garden?’
‘Not exactly, no. A fox took it.’
‘A fox?’
‘There’s one been hanging about.’
‘A fox.’
‘A fox. Yeah. Foxy Loxy. They’re terrible quick, Jim. Sexy little, furry little thieves, Jim. Anything shiny – they’re in.’
‘Yeah but… a fox? How did he take it?’
‘He must’ve dipped in my bag when we were unpacking the car. I dunno. Grabbed it in his beak and run off.’
‘A fox? Are you sure?’
‘Totally sure, Jim. Because I saw him bring it back a couple of hours later.’
‘Yep. I was sitting by the window, thinking bloody hell I’m gonna have to get a new phone, now. Where’s the money for that coming from? And that’s when I saw him, strolling out the bushes onto the lawn with the phone in his mouth. He came skipping over, his nose in the air, proud as anything…’
‘Maybe he was just trying to get a better signal…’
‘Then he jumped up on the decking, saw me staring at him, gave me a wink, dropped the phone and ran off.’
‘Why’d you think he brought it back?’
‘I dunno,’ she says. ‘It’s a Samsung, though, so…anything else for me, or can I shove off?’

a little feathery thunk

There’s no reply on the intercom, so I ring the landline. It rings and rings, and I’m about to hang up when suddenly Ted answers, shouting above loud music in the background. I have to introduce myself three times, each time successively lounder, and in the end the door gets released but I’m not convinced he really knew who I was.

These flats always confuse me. About a hundred different entrances, each one serving a narrow concrete stairway that feeds a landing with two flat doors, both so closely facing each other if the doors opened outwards the occupants couldn’t leave at the same time. Ted lives at flat two, two floors up – and doesn’t make sense – but then nothing about this place does. They remind me of those fiddly, Rotostak hamster runs we had when the girls were small (for the hamsters, not the girls). The tubes seemed like they’d be a fun thing for the hamsters when we saw them in the pet store, but the reality was the hamster was too twitchy and traumatised to come out of its box, like I would be if I found out there was a sixth dimension or something.

Ted’s door has a mass of complicated, handwritten signs stuck to it with tape. What he will or won’t accept through the letterbox, who he does or doesn’t want to talk to, where to put parcels if he’s out, whose flat to ring if something goes wrong and so on. Knocking on the door is an act of faith, but whether I do or don’t is a moot point, because he’s playing his music so loud I’m sure he won’t hear me. (Which probably also explains why he didn’t hear the buzzer). The music is Kenny Rogers, ‘You Picked a Fine Time to Leave Me Lucille’. I’m thinking about a line in it I’ve always misheard: ‘four hundred children and a crap in the field’, when Ted opens the door.

‘Oh yes?’ he says, as if we’re already in the middle of a conversation.

Ted actually looks like a hamster, one that’s been crossed over the years with a succession of bookkeepers. He’s about four feet tall in a green tank top and corduroy slacks, tufty hair, pinhead eyes, curved back, handy pink paws, and he jabs his chin up as I speak, as if he’s sniffing the words rather than hearing them.

‘Hi Ted!’ I say, introducing myself, showing my ID. He turns around and shuffles back into the music.

Ted’s flat is exactly like a hamster’s bedding box. Piles of stuff nosed into position all around, access runs through it all that perfectly fit his body.

‘I’m having a bit of a clear out,’ he shouts, rootling around for something. ‘I know it’s a bit of a mess.’
‘Could we turn the music down a touch?’ I shout back.
‘What?’ he says.

At the far end of the room there’s an ornate birdcage, half-submerged in the mess like it’s floating away from a sinking liner.

‘Can we…oh’

He’s turned the music down to a Kenny Rogers growl, by means of an invisible knob he can reach without looking.

‘I love a bit of country,’ he says.

Beneath the surface, Kenny is singing: ‘On a warm summer’s evening, on a train bound for nowhere…

‘Where’s the bird?’ I say, nodding at the empty birdcage.
‘Ruby? She’s there. She drops off her perch when I play my music.’
I want to say ‘same’ but don’t. Instead I wade a bit closer, and there she is – a forlorn little thing, like someone covered their thumb in glue and stuck it in a tub of feathers. She’s cowering among the seeds and shit at the bottom of the cage.
‘Ruby – like the Kenny Roger’s song?’ I say.
Ted shrugs.
‘I suppose so,’ he says. ‘Never thought of it. C’mon! Come and have a look at this.’

I follow him through everything that was ever produced in the world through to a ghastly kitchen.
‘Can you take that?’ he says.
He’s gesturing to a horror show of a microwave – probably the first of its kind ever made – an enormous metal box you probably work with pedals, up on a slant on the worktop, its door hanging open like the last gasp of a dying grease monster.
‘What d’you mean, take that?’ I say.
‘Well… take it away. Put it outside. You know. Dispose of it.’
‘I’m a nursing assistant, Ted. I’ve come to take your blood pressure, not your old appliances. The council will do that.’
‘The council!’ he snorts. ‘But if you’re not willing to do it, that’s fine…’
You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em…’ says Kenny.


Back at the office I tell Michaela all about it.
‘Don’t talk to me about budgies,’ she says. ‘I have nightmares. I went to see a patient who had a budgie. It was sitting watching us on its perch the whole time, and just as I was about to go, it rolled backwards off the perch and landed feet up in the tray. I didn’t know what to do! I’ve done CPR before, but on a budgie? How would you even do the beak?’
She mimes doing compressions on the palm of her hand.
‘Oh my god! So what DID you do?’
‘I took the budgie out of the cage, wrapped it in a hankie and gave it to her. I asked her if there was anything I could do, anyone she wanted me to call. She said no, she just wanted to be alone. So that was it. I left. I felt terrible.’
‘That’s awful!’
She nods.
‘I can still hear the sound if I close my eyes. A little feathery thunk.’
We’re both silent for a second or two, imagining the sound. Then Michaela brightens again.
‘Not a great look. A nurse walks in, your budgie has a cardiac arrest. But what can you say – I’m a nurse, not a vet. Anything else to handover?’

Backwards… and then forwards

A Hammer Horror kind of night. Dismal and dank and positively soupy with adjectives. Instead of my Mini I should be visiting patients in a Victorian hansom cab, the candle lamp guttering, the horse stamping restively as I step out of the carriage and grimace in front of the house that rises up before me.
‘Wait here, driver’
‘Right you are, sir’
I tap my top hat firmly on my head, twirl my cape, stride across the pavement.

Sofia’s son Diego is waiting for me, silhouetted against the light from the hallway. A quick, stooped figure, he bounds up the stairs behind him, leading me to his mother’s bedroom.

Sofia is sitting enthroned in a high-backed chair, imperial flannel dressing gown, granite velcro shoes, graven smile.
‘Come in,’ she says. ‘Please.’
‘I’ll leave you to it,’ says Diego, backing away.
‘Ah!’ says Sofia. ‘He cannot BEAR to see me walk.’

I’ve only come for a care call. One of the carers has had to go home sick, and I’m the only one available to cover her evening visits. I was expecting to give medications, make Sofia something to eat, get her ready for bed – but apparently Diego can do everything except the personal care, and Sofia says she’ll do this herself. Instead she wants me to stay with her whilst she gets out of the chair, walks with the frame to the landing, and then walks back again.
‘Okay,’ I say. ‘Shall we do it?’
She screws up her face.
‘Are you sure you have the time? I don’t want to keep you…’’
‘Of course!’ I say, lying. Mentally I’ve priced the job – Sofia’s condition, weight, the distance from the chair to the landing and back again. ‘No rush. I’m here to help however I can.’

To say it’s a painful process for Sofia is to vastly underestimate the challenge she faces. Her joints are so arthritic I can feel them creaking through the floor. It’s like watching an ancient tree uproot itself, extend two branches down to use as walking sticks, and then lumber imperceptibly forwards, one knotty inch at a time.

It gives me plenty of time to glance around the bedroom. It seems more like a shrine with a bed in the middle. All round the walls are ancient photographs, formal, black and white family portraits of austere looking men leaning in to austere looking women holding stupefied babies, the prints so faded that mostly all you can make out is hair and eyebrows.

‘What do you think of what’s happening in Ukraine?’ says Sofia, pausing to catch her breath about a hundred miles from the landing.
‘Absolutely dreadful,’ I say. ‘Putin’s a madman. I wish someone would knock him off.’
‘They’d never get close enough,’ she says. ‘His tables are long for a purpose.’

She starts forward again.
‘I know about these things,’ she says.
‘I was just a little girl when my father was killed in the civil war,’ she says. ‘Franco! Pah!’
‘That’s terrible!’
‘He went away, we never saw him again. My poor mother! Four children to look after. If it wasn’t for my grandmother we would never have survived. Backwards and forwards, like this. Backwards… and then forwards. So you see – I have some feelings for the subject.’

She carries on towards the landing.

Diego comes halfway up the stairs and stands there uncertainly, one hand on the bannister. ‘Oh!’ he says. ‘You’re up!’
‘Por la gracia de Dios’
He nods, turns, and hurries back down again.

Sofia shakes her head and slaps the crossbar of the zimmer frame.
‘Okay, my friend!’ she says – whether to me or the frame I’m not too sure – ‘I’m afraid the time has come for us to return to the chair.’

ange the firehouse dog

Donald hadn’t sounded enthusiastic on the phone.
‘I’m not well’ he said ‘Come tomorrow’
‘It’s because you’re not well I should see you right away. That’s what the GP has said. I promise I won’t keep you long, Donald.’
A pause, long and weighty as a freight train at a stop light.
‘Come if you’re coming,’ he said at last. ‘There’s a keysafe. Use it.’


As soon as I put a hand to the little black box on the side of the house, a big dog starts barking. The notes had mentioned that Donald had a small, active dog, so either it’s a small dog with a big personality or the person who wrote the warning was a giant. Either way I decide to just go for it. I’m good with dogs. Which’ll make an ironic quote for the gravestone.

The dog goes eerily quiet, but I can tell it’s just on the other side of the door as I put the key in the lock. I imagine it holding its ear to one of the panels, frowning.
‘Good boy,’ I say. ‘Who’s a good boy. Or girl…’
I open the door a crack. Immediately a snuffling nose jams itself out as far as possible.
‘There you are!’ I say, uncertainly.

I remembered reading something about how you must never loom over an aggressive dog. Bring yourself down to their level – a little at a slant, mindful of your throat – and say soothing, non-threatening things. Don’t glare at them and make them worse. And if you must hold your hand out, keep your fingers curled.

I push the door open and assume the position.

A dalmatian. An elderly one. Portly and a bit rickety, like a bad taxidermist knocked it off about twenty years ago, and forgot the wheels.
‘Who’s a good boy? Hey? Who’s a good boy?’

The dog gives me a comprehensive sniffing, followed by a contemptuous kind of sneeze, then turns and hobbles back inside.
‘Up here,’ shouts Donald. ‘And shut the door when you come.’

Donald must be a career smoker because the house is as black and drawn as an old kipper shack. If it were only a little lighter I would probably see clouds of smoke and ash rising up around my feet as I climb the stairs, following the corrupted sound of Donald’s coughing to the little back bedroom where he mostly lives.
‘Hello!’ I say. ‘Nice to see you!’
He glares at me from the depths of his flap-eared hat.
‘It wasn’t my bloody idea,’ he gasps.

The Dalmatian wanders in, collapses in its basket, then looks up at me with the saddest eyes, like it wasn’t so long ago it would’ve torn me to shreds, and isn’t ageing a terrible thing?
‘Good girl, Ange,’ says Donald.
They stare at me with the same expression.

At first Donald won’t allow me to do anything. I can see he’s struggling, but either through fear or cussedness, he bats away any attempt to win him round. I decide to get to him via the dog.
‘I love Dalmatians, ‘ I say.
‘Have you got one?’
‘No, but…’
‘So there you are.’

I try again.

‘What’s that thing about Dalmatians?’
‘What thing?’
‘Don’t they suffer with their eyes? Colour blind…?’
‘Deaf,’ he shouts. ‘They tend to go deaf. It’s genetical.’
‘That’s it! Deafness!’
I bend down and stroke Ange’s head, which she allows with a very gracious bow.
‘They’re beautiful dogs. Didn’t they used to run alongside mail coaches as well? Something like that?’
Donald leans toward me out of his chair.
‘It carried over to America,’ he says. ‘Back in the eighteen hundreds every yankee firehouse had a Dalmatian or two. Yeah. They used to run alongside the horse and distract any street dogs what might come out and bother ‘em.’
‘Yeah. And they used to keep the place clean of rats, too.’
‘That’s a handy dog to have around.’
He settles back in the chair.
‘That’s why you’ll often see Dalmatians in American firehouses. It’s a tradition.’
‘I never knew that,’
‘Yeah? Well you do now.’
I stand up again. Ange gives a grumpy sigh and curls up.
‘So – Donald. How about I run a few tests, then?’
He pushes his cap up a little, and sucks his teeth.
‘Go on, then,’ he says, bunching up his sleeve and stretching out his arm. ‘But for God’s sake be quick!’
‘Why? Where are you off to?’
‘Sleep, with any luck,’ he says. ‘Jesus H…’

in plain sight

The operations centre – a thriller movie cliche. That tickety white writing at the bottom of the frame: Langley, Fairfax: 15:00. Or something. An office so ridiculously busy you can almost hear the echo of the clapper board and the director shouting ACTION!. Zoom in to a stressy operative hunched in front of a bank of computer screens, frowning, pressing the headset closer to their ear. ‘I’m sorry – can you repeat that?’ While a tense boss strides over and leans in. ‘Get me Moscow!’ or something. ‘I need eyes on the ground, the air. Goddamn it I want eyes on the eyes!’ And so on.

I’m talking it up. But the fact is, a large part of helping out on the clinical coordination desk is troubleshooting problems, however they present. A patient wanting to know what happened to a visit, a doctor with feedback on a treatment outcome, a clinician needing support, or numbers, or access codes, or availability for this, that and whatever else. A hundred requests, often at the same time, whilst a queue forms behind you of people wanting to discuss an earlier decision, or request clarification, or get the latest statistics, or hand you the latest flow diagram…

It’s a hectic environment – sometimes unbearably so – but once you’re set up at the desk, with everything open on the screen to give you what you need, your pad and pens and highlighters and snacks and three different mobile phones all laid out on charge, you start to feel like you can cope with anything, and find anything out, and coordinate the absolute shit out of the place. And now that I’ve found a headset to use with the phone, I feel even more prepared, because although the others laugh at me and think I’m overdoing it, still, I’m the one without the terrible crick in my neck from cradling the phone whilst I type, and I’m the one with my hands free to gesticulate if I think it’ll help. Plus I think it looks cool, so – whatever.

‘She’s gone, Jimmy.’
‘Gone? What d’ya mean, gone?’
‘She just disappeared. I rang the intercom. Jackie answered. She said come on up. She buzzed the buzzer. I went up the stairs. Five flights. No lift. Have you been there?’
‘No. But I’ve heard all about it.’
‘Five flights. Narrow – and so steep. It was like climbing a tree. So I got to the top, puffing and blowing. The door was open. I said Hello? Jackie? I went in. And she wasn’t there.’
‘Have you had a good look around?’
‘A good look around? Yes – of course I had a good look around. What do you think? Anyway – it is not a big flat, Jimmy. It is very small, like a bedsit really. Just one big room, a small bathroom, a tiny kitchen, and that is it. A little nest at the top of the tree. I even looked in the cupboards. Nothing. No sign. No Jackie.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘So what should I do? I rang her next of kin and they could not say. She doesn’t really go out. And she doesn’t have a mobile phone, so it’s not like I can ring her.’
‘Let’s get this straight, Ada. You called Jackie on the intercom. She answered and let you in the main door. You walked up the stairs, five flights. Her flat door was open. She wasn’t in the room.’
‘Correct. And she’s very frail and elderly. It’s not like she could run down before me, or climb out a back window or anything like that.’
‘Maybe she went into another flat?’
‘She has the top flat. So she’d have to come down at least one flight to go to the next one. But why would she do that if she knew I was coming up? It is all very peculiar.’
‘The only other thing I can think of is that you didn’t actually ring Jackie’s flat number.’
‘Excuse me?’
‘Maybe you thought you rang her number but rang someone else’s by mistake. They answered – sounded a bit like her – they buzzed you in regardless. Maybe Jackie went out ages ago and left her door open.’
‘Hmm. Maybe. But I’ve been here before and it definitely sounded like her.’
‘Those intercoms can be deceptive.’
‘I’m not sure.’
‘Can you do me a favour, Ada?’
‘Of course. Anything. I’m here now.’
‘Can you have one last look around the flat. Even if it means looking under the bed.’
‘Under the bed? Why would she be under the bed, Jimmy? She is not a cat.’
‘No – but – stranger things have happened.’
‘If they have I’ve never heard of them. Under the bed?’
She says something I don’t catch, and makes a clucking noise.
‘Just have one last, really good look around the place, Ada. To reassure ourselves she’s absolutely and completely definitely not in the flat.’
‘Well… okay. But I tell you now for one thing – that woman is not here.’

Ada puts her phone down somewhere but leaves the line open. I listen to her as she harrumphs about the place, calling out Jackie’s name once or twice in a sing-song way, just exactly as if she’s trying to find a cat. After a minute or two I hear a startled ‘Oh!’ then a ‘Hello, Jackie! Just a minute, please…’ Then the sound of her approaching the phone, picking it up, and ‘I have found the patient, Jimmy.’
‘Where was she?’
‘Lying on the bed.’
‘Great!’ I say. ‘That’s a relief!’
‘Thank you for your help,’ says Ada. ‘Talk to you later!’ And she rings off.

I pull the headphones off my ears and stretch back in the chair.
Michaela sits down opposite me.
‘You’ve seen Jackie before, haven’t you?’ I ask her.
‘The old woman who lives in the attic? Yes, a couple of times. Why?’
‘Does she wear clothes that exactly match her bed linen?’
‘Does she… what?’
‘Nothing … it’s just …’
The phone rings again.
‘I’ll tell you in a minute,’ I say, and press pick-up.

the invisible man

Michael’s sister Stephanie shows me into the bedroom. Michael is lying on top of the bed, propped up on pillows, sipping from a thick-cut glass of mauve-coloured water.
‘Please excuse the mess,’ he says, resting the glass back on his chest. ‘And thank you for coming.’
‘Would you like a cup of tea or anything?’ says Stephanie to me, hugging the corner of the door. ‘Shall I fetch you a chair?’
‘No, no! I’m happy standing,’ I tell her. ‘But thanks anyway.’
‘Or kneeling,’ says Michael. ‘Isn’t that what angels are supposed to do? At the corner of the bed?’
He finishes the last of the liquid, then winces with pain as he puts it back on the side table, alongside a Jenga of medication and a digital clock, the kind where the figures flip over. To his left on the bed is a stand for a Kindle, and one of those grabbers that you work with a lever to help pick things up.
Michael is dying of cancer. The next move is into a hospice, but he’s delaying that as long as possible. Life’s getting more difficult, though. He’s in such pain he finds it difficult to get out of bed, and when he’s up he can’t stand for long or bend over.
‘If I fall I’m done for,’ he says. ‘Socks are a particular thing. Are you sure you wouldn’t like a coffee? Or one of these…?’
He nods to the pain meds. ‘Barman’s special.’
‘That’s kind but… I’m good.’

There’s a TV up on a chest of drawers at the foot of the bed. He’s been watching an old black and white drama, frozen since I came to the door. I’m guessing it’s from the 1950s. Michael sees I’m curious and unfreezes it. The scene continues. A square-shouldered guy is talking seriously to an empty chair; a disembodied voice replies. He taps out a cigarette and hands it to the empty chair. The cigarette floats in mid-air. The square-shouldered guy lights it, then carries on with his monologue.
‘The Invisible Man?’ I say.
‘Correct!’ says Michael. ‘The first TV version. The special effects are dreadful but it was early and anyway there’s something strangely comforting about all that. Don’t you think?’
‘I know what you mean. They must’ve had fun figuring out all the moves.’
We both watch as the Invisible Man gets up from the chair – knocking it over, for clarity, or maybe because being invisible makes you more clumsy – and then sitting over on the sofa, the cushion sagging nicely in the middle to show when he’s landed. A woman comes in looking concerned. She goes over to the sofa and sits next to the Invisible Man, putting a hand out onto his lap, or where his lap might possibly be.
‘It’d be easy to get that wrong,’ says Michael.
She emotes beautifully, staring with great compassion into the space beside her.
‘All those years at acting school were not in vain,’ says Michael.

After the examination and a chat about how our service can help, Michael’s mobile phone rings. It’s out of reach on the bed. I reach out to get it, but Michael frowns and shakes his head. He takes up the grabber, pinces the phone in a precarious but firm enough grip, and then slowly and very expertly drags it towards him.
‘There!’ he says, taking it into his hands. ‘And I’m sure if you’d squinted and ignored the grabber, you’d have thought I was invisible, too!’

which way grace

Bunty’s flat is arranged like the cabin of a yacht that ran aground ten years ago. The best you can say about it is that everything’s to hand. Her four blouses are hanging on the door handle; her four slacks are draped over the back of the rocking chair; her books and magazines are piled up on a kitchen trolley, along with her remotes, her magnifying glass, her dosette box, her emergency call button, her toffees, and then all around the place, scattered in a pattern that’s accessible to no-one else but Bunty, heaps of important, irrelevant, sentimental and otherwise wholly miscellaneous stuff. Bunty has kept a space clear on the floor in front of the fireplace for the memorial programme from her husband’s funeral, though. A gnarly, buttoned-up, shiny shoes kind of man, he stares out at the room with a dyspeptic look, like he bloody well knew this would happen.
‘Thank you so much for coming out to see me,’ she says. ‘Do have a seat.’
There’s a kitchen chair by the wall that Bunty obviously keeps clear for guests, so I sit there.
Once I’m down, she manoeuvres herself into position in front of her armchair, rocking from side to side on her rickety hips, jabbing at the carpet with the ferrule end of a solid looking walking stick.
‘This has been a godsend,’ she says, brandishing it in the air. ‘An absolute miracle. Carved from the wood of an oak tree. And look! You can use it when you go blackberrying…’ She mimes hooking brambles towards her, almost knocking the light out. ‘If there were any to be had,’ she adds, then plomps herself back in the chair. ‘D’you know where I got it? Go on! Guess where I got it.’
‘An antique shop?’
‘It was given to me!’ she says. ‘Feel it! Go on!’
I take the stick and waggle it, like a half-hearted swordsman, then hand it back.
‘Nice heft,’ I say. ‘Who gave it to you?’
‘Grace,’ she says. ‘We were friends for years. On and off. Lately we used to go to the same church. St Katherine’s. Round the corner. D’you know it?’
I nod.
‘I know where it is, anyway,’ I add.
‘Well,’ says Bunty. ‘Grace was sick. Anyone could tell. She was starting to look like George, and not in a good way.’
I pause to glance at the memorial card. George grimaces back.
‘One day she didn’t show up for mass, so I went round there. She was on one of those hospital beds they’d landed in the middle of her house, and things looked pretty grim. So we chatted about this and that, and then just as I was about to go, she grabbed this stick and held it out to me. Here, she said. You have it. It won’t be any good to me where I’m going. So I said Why? Will it burst into flames? But I don’t think she got the joke, which is par for the course, but probably just as well. So I took the stick and left. And I’ve used it ever since…’
Bunty hooks the stick over the back of the chair.
‘There!’ she says. ‘ Now then. Tell me what the devil this is all about!’

before you say anything let me tell you something

I’ve been in the office all day and I’m feeling scratchy. The same kind of scratchy a hamster probably gets, rattling round and round on the wheel, cheeks bulging, stopping for a quick suck from the coffee teat, its black eyes taking in the room like pin-head security cameras, whiskers quivering.
Something like that. A relentless administrative hamster. With call centre headphones and access to the database.

I stop chewing.

Miles is walking towards me down the aisle.

If I’m a hamster Miles is a dog. One of those limber, spiky-haired lurchers with big paws and pained eyes. The kind that roams vast distances but always somehow manages to be there when you turn around.
He wanders over and collapses in a galumphing heap.
After a while he looks up.
‘Pisces’ he says.
‘Who is?’
‘You are. And before you say anything let me tell you something, and this might properly freak you out, and if it does, I apologise beforehand. I found out I’ve got this gift for knowing what someone’s star sign is without them saying a word. It’s so weird. I went to the pub last night and there were about fifteen people on a big table. And I went from one person to another and I got every single star sign right. Every single one! It was like there was this voice whispering in my ear. Or not even my ear, Jim. It was more like it was right in my brain. Like someone was standing in the middle of my brain and calling out the answer. Just like that. Libra. Sagittarius. Cancer. Yep. Yep. Yep. And the whole place went crazy! They went properly mad, Jim! They’d never seen anything like it. And to be honest, neither had I. And I’ve no idea where it came from. I just opened my mouth and I could do it. So … go on, then. I bet you’re going to say you’re not Pisces.’
‘No. I’m afraid I’m not.’
‘What? Oh gosh! You’ve got me doubting myself now. You’re not Pisces? Are you sure?’
‘Pretty sure. Sorry.’
‘No! Don’t apologise! There’s probably a very simple explanation. But I don’t get it. I heard the voice so clearly. Okay. Hang on a minute. So you’re not Pisces. Hmm. Let me think …’

He tilts his head to the right and rubs his chin in a thoroughgoing mime for thinking. I sit there neutrally and let him study my aura. I feel myself sinking. I have a growing and irresistible urge to put my head on the desk and sleep for a thousand years. I’d be comfortable enough. Especially if I swept all this shit off the desk first. Although – to be honest – even if I didn’t, it wouldn’t stop me. And when they woke me, eons in the future…. exhumed by a squad of robot marines…cutting through the layer of crystalline rock frost with a thermal lance…. dragging me backwards on the computer chair…. ancient pencils and pads and coffee cups sticking to my face…. they’d laugh and pose for selfies with Sleeping Beauty, because in the future I believe all robots will be programmed to have character and act a little snarky.

Miles narrows his eyes.
‘Hmm,’ he says again. ‘Methodical…. a bit mental… Taurus!’
I shake my head.
Another referral appears on the screen. I skim through it.
‘Nope,’ I say, tapping the keys.
‘Aquarius. Of course! can’t believe I missed that one.’
‘Not Aquarius? Well, then. My gift has deserted me. Maybe I’m just tired. So go on, then. What are you?’
‘Capricorn! Of course! It all makes sense now!’
He shakes his head sadly.
‘Classic Capricorn! I knew I’d get it.’