falling to earth

There’s a great, puckered scar running up the centre of Eamon’s chest, the kind of crimped-up seam that holds in the meat on a Cornish pastie.

‘I thought I was a dead man,’ he says, scratching his belly, good eye half-closed, false eye glaring. ‘I seen that big ol’ light descending from the heaven. But I tell you what, Jimmy. Them surgeons up the hospital, they know a thing or two about pumps, that much I can tell you.’

Despite all his problems, Eamon’s still as ruggedly optimistic as the man who used to sit all day in a mechanical digger, all weathers, gouging out pipe trenches.

‘They used the veins out me leg, there – look!’ he says, hitching up his trousers, showing me the scar. ‘It’s a miracle what they can do nowadays.’ He finishes his sentences with a sharp little intake of breath, something like a yes, but only half-made, like he’s tasting the air for agreement.
‘Now – be honest wi’ me. Wha’d’ya make of this whole Brexit business?’
‘I think it’s a mess, Eamon. I think it was badly run. People didn’t really know what they were voting for. It was all based on emotions rather than facts. It certainly didn’t help they had buses driving around with lies about the millions extra we’d have to spend on the NHS.’
‘That’s true. I seen that bus. In the papers. Not the street.’
‘They should have a second referendum. You wouldn’t decide to buy a house, find out it’s got subsidence, and carry on and buy it anyway just because you said you would. And this is way more important than buying a house.’
‘You might have to if you signed a contract, though.’
‘But if you hadn’t.’
‘No. I suppose not. Not if you hadn’t. You’d be crazy to buy a house like that.’
‘At least with the General Election you get another go in four years. This is so final, I don’t think it would hurt to run it again.’
‘Yes, but – Jimmy. Imagine if you had another referendum, and the answer come out as Stay. What would all the Leave people do about it? They’d straight away be wanting another vote. And then another vote. And there’d be no end to it. We’d get nothing done, ‘cos we’d be spending all our time voting.’
‘Maybe. It’s a mess, that’s all I know. Just hold still for a minute whilst I take this ECG…’
Eamon holds his position, glaring at me with his glass eye whilst dozing off with the other.
‘Okay. That’s it. Done,’ I tell him, and start packing up.
‘It’s all that there David Cameron’s fault,’ he says, tentatively peeling off the dots. ‘He only done it to clear out all them right wingers. Didn’t work so well for him, though, did it, eh? It’s like a beater going in to beat out the pheasants, and then getting torn to pieces by a tiger. A big blue one, wi’ stars on its tail.’
He sticks the dots together in one sticky mess, and hands them to me.
‘What makes it worse – they don’t seem to care what happens to Ireland,’ he says. ‘Mind you. Did they ever? It’s al’ays been the same, now. From that bastard Cromwell to the DUP. But that’s the British for you. They talk the talk and they throw their weight around like the bullies they are. It was the same with America. The same with India. Bullies, the lot of ‘em. All you can do is stand up for what you believe – that’s it! That’s all there is!’
His glass eye shines. ‘Present company excepted,’ he says.
‘Thank you. So how are you feeling now, Eamon?’
‘Never better!’ he says. ‘Tip top! Ignore the needlework.’

I chat to him whilst I fill out some forms.
‘I bet you found a few things when you were out digging trenches,’ I say.
‘Oh plenty!’ he says. ‘Bottles. Pottery. Bones. You name it. Not much in the way of gold coins, but plenty other stuff.’
‘What was the oddest thing you found?’
‘Well now – I suppose – that’d be a meteorite.’
‘Really? How d’you know it was a meteorite?’
‘It was all glittery inside. And anyway, the man said so.’
‘What man? An alien?’
‘No, I don’t think he was an alien. I think he was the man jes’ owned that there particular stretch of land. I’ll show you it, if you’d like?’
‘I would! I’ve never seen a meteorite.’
‘Well you’re in for a treat’
He pulls on his shirt, then shuffles out to the kitchen. In the cupboards under the sink are rows and rows of neatly stacked Tupperware boxes, each one filled with an assortment of things. I stand next to him as he pokes through one: a pink yo-yo, a plastic soldier, a nodule of flint with a perfect hole through the middle, a conch shell, the side of a Victorian marmalade jar.
‘Nah. I thought the meteorite was in this one,’ he says, clipping the lid back on. ‘Most o’ this stuff is Gloria’s. She passed when she was sixty, some year ago now. You know what she used to do? She used to tuck the legs of her trousers into her socks and then drop what she found inside.’
‘That’s quite a technique.’
‘It was! You should’ve seen her fill up when she hit pay dirt. That was something to see, alright.’
‘I bet it was.’
‘It was. It was something to see.’
He puts the box back with the others, as carefully and precisely as if he were re-interring a saintly artefact.
‘Now then. What the hell’ve I done with that meteorite?’

bad eggs

We were talking about difficult neighbours we’d had to put up with over the years.

‘First time we moved to Bristol, we rented a couple of rooms in Bedminster. It was alright, except the bathroom was out on the landing and we had to share it with the flat downstairs. Kind of a bedsit, really, come to think about it. Anyway, the couple downstairs were difficult. They were both drinkers. She was a nervous type – pale and trembly, eyeliner and lipstick all over the place like she’d done it on a trampoline. Her husband was the worst, though. He looked like he was made out of tyres, love and hate on his knuckles, bike chain round his neck. They used to sleep all day, go out, then come back and fight. One night I was in the bathroom getting ready for bed and I heard them come in. She stood at the bottom of the stairs, saw the light on, and screamed: I am NOT using the bucket again.
‘Classy.’
‘We moved out pretty quick.’
‘I shared a flat with this guy once. Henry. He was lovely. Bit of a stoner. He was a self-employed gardener. An expert on wisteria – so he said, anyway. He used to come home, throw his receipts under the bed, put the Fall on the record player and we’d smoke skunk all night, staring into the fire and laughing. It was lovely. Then he crashed his bike and fell in love with the nurse who stopped to help. She moved in the next week and took over. She had this thing about crocheting bags with string. I came down to breakfast and there were hundreds of little crochet string bags hanging everywhere, a bulb of garlic in one, half a lemon in another. And she really started to freeze me out, too, like she wanted Henry all for herself. I had this nightmare where I got wrapped in a big string bag by a giant spider in a nurse’s uniform. Anyway – in the end they sat me down and had the conversation. Shame. I liked living with Henry.’
‘Yeah? Well – we lived next door to this couple. Young professionals. I can’t remember what he did, but she was something in travel. She was really into magic eggs.’
‘Wha’d’ya mean, magic eggs?’
‘Eggs. You know. Made of crystal. You power them up with psychic energy, and then use them for healing and protection and whatnot. It’s that bullshit thing where you hold out your arm and ask someone to push it down – which they easily do – and then you hold an egg in your hand, and ask them to try again, and they can’t? You get different sizes of egg, depending on the job. I never believed it – although I thought maybe I might benefit from some overflow egg power, because we were living right next door, and the auras aren’t password protected, are they? Anyway, she was nice enough. We went out for drinks a couple of times. It was all good. But a couple of months later we came back and there was this letter waiting for us, pushed under the door. It was written in a real psycho font – y’know? – shaky green sentences, wandering all over.’
‘Saying what?’
‘Saying how she was sorry for thinking all these bad things about me, apologising for all the things she’d done.’
‘Like what?’
‘I couldn’t make it out. But the page was covered in it. And then worst of all, there was a clump of hair in with the letter.’
‘Euch! What did you do?’
‘We went round. It was all dark, so we thought maybe they were out. But we knocked anyway and after a minute he came to the door. We showed him the letter, and said as gently as we could that we were a bit worried about her, and was she okay and everything.’
‘What did he say?’
‘That was the other weird thing. He didn’t seem particularly surprised or phased about it. He just kinda waved it in the air and said: Ah – yeah! The letters! – and that was it. We saw her a couple of times after that and it was like nothing happened. We didn’t bring it up again, and moved a few months later.’
‘Sounds like it might’ve been a regular thing.’
‘Yeah. Bad eggs. Who knows? I never did experience the power myself. But then again, apparently you have to wear a special receiver on your head to really get the benefit.’

in need of refurbishment

Ambrosia Court is a formidable, white stone slab of twenties’ architecture, looking out of place between a glass and concrete block on the right, and a line of brightly coloured wooden sea shacks on the left. It’s like a genie had uprooted Shell Mex House in London, reshaped it a little by slicing the clock off the top, thinning out the windows, adding a few sconces and flourishes here and there, then carrying the whole thing sixty miles or so to slam it down foundations first by a scattering of footballers, dog walkers and picnickers on the lawns. The building’s under scaffolding at the moment, though, ragged plastic sheeting flapping noisily overhead in the offshore breeze.

It’s quiet inside, though. Plush red carpets, wooden panelling, cool marble. A vista of moneyed lines, leading to a central staircase that starts at a white piano at the bottom and winds up through eight identical floors to an ornate iron and glass canopy at the top.

Mr Cunningham is in one of the penthouse suites, lying in a tangle of sheets on a vast bed, nude and gaunt as an ailing bird stuck in the nest, waiting for a miracle to restore his feathers and his life to him. He has so many health issues – comorbidities, in the lingo – it’s hard to know where to start. In lieu of a tranche of new organs and the technology to install them, it comes down to a few pieces of equipment to help with his mobility, and some nursing follow up.

We chat as I finish the paperwork. He tells me he used to be a property developer, buying old places, turning them round, selling them on.
‘Ambrosia Court, for example’ he says, struggling to sit up.
‘You can’t mean the whole thing?’
‘Yes,’ he says. ‘Seventy flats. Count them! Quite a project, but I think you’ll agree it’s a fine looking building.’
A sudden rush of sunshine spills in through a stained glass window, casting a pattern of reds and golds and greens across everything.
‘It’s quite a place,’ I tell him.
‘Have you seen the piano down in the lobby?’
‘Yes! That’s a nice touch.’
‘Do you play?’
‘I’m afraid not. I took a few lessons once but didn’t carry it on. How about you?’
‘No,’ he says, painfully turning over. ‘I was always too busy. And now look! I’d need scaffolding just to keep me on the stool!’

no pickle

Jeanette slumps back in her leather tub chair as woefully inert as a deflated balloon.
‘They let me out too early,’ she says. ‘I feel terrible.’
‘In what way terrible?’
‘Hmm?’
‘In what way do you feel terrible?’
‘Just that. Terrible.’
‘Are you in pain?’
She squeezes her eyes shut as if she is, but finally admits that no, not as such, she isn’t.
‘Do you feel sick, or dizzy?’
‘No.’
‘Short of breath?’
‘No.’
‘Any pins and needles, numbness, or funny feelings anywhere?’
She shakes her head.
‘Have you opened your bowels today?’
She says she had. It was all normal. Everything was – is – normal.
‘Good. That’s good.’
‘I’m just – I don’t know. I can’t explain it.’
She puts one hand up to her brow, extending the other arm along the back of the chair in a tragic, broken-winged kind of pose.
‘Are you feeling lacking in energy, or exhausted, perhaps?’
‘Yes,’ she says. ‘They shouldn’t have let me out. I wasn’t ready to come out.’

She was in a fair while, admitted after a non-injury fall at home. All her observations were – and remain – perfectly normal, though. Recent bloods – fine. Swabs, scans, colonoscopy – NAD. Her little flat is bright, clean and well-laid out, with an en-suite wet room and views over the garden. She has all the equipment she could possibly want, carers three times a day, and a son, Peter, who lives nearby and visits often. But perhaps more encouraging than any of this, is the place Jeanette was discharged home to.

Bletchley House is one of the sweetest, friendliest places I know. Two Edwardian terraced houses knocked into one, sensitively converted into a dozen self-contained flats for independent living. Environmentally it’s as spacious and sunlit as a boutique hotel, with lush gardens, an expansive patio and an arbor shaded with vines. There’s a communal TV room, a free library, sofa spaces. Everyone seems bright and awake, inquisitive without being pushy. There’s a co-operative feel to it all that invites you to sit down, have a cup of tea and a chat. And of course, the best thing about Bletchley House is its housekeeper, Abigay.

Abigay is a Jamaican goddess, a manifest spirit of love and good sense. Although she’s in her seventies, she has such a shine to her you could easily mistake her for a woman half that age, merrily crashing around in the kitchen, baking, singing. Her head is shaved, her lips rouged, she has yellow plastic earrings in her ears and on her hands, ornate clusters of silver rings.
‘Why don’ ya sit down and take a cup a’tea, fella? Tell me everytink.’

Jeanette had asked me to come down and speak to Abigay, to see if she’ll send her some food up later.
‘O’ course!’ says Abigay, throwing a red check tea towel over her shoulder. ‘Wha’ ja think me got all this fancy kitchen for?’
She’s sorry to hear Jeanette isn’t feeling well enough to come down – but then her face takes on a pantomime expression of severity.
‘Poor Jeanette. Ya know she never come out dat room so much. We all try to tempt her out wi’ stuff. Me lovely dinners. Me special salad.’
The way she says salad, dipping her knees slightly, like she’s swinging on a big handle. Behind her lined up on the stainless steel counter are bowls of fresh leaves, fruits and colourful things, pots rattling on the stove.
‘O’ course me take it up to her. I wish though – I wish, wish wish she’d come down here and eat wi’ da rest of us. She know she always welcome. Her son, Peter, he such a good boy. He take a lot o’ trouble wid his mama, ya know. It a shame she gat dat problem in her head wi’ this kinda ting. I’m not sure she comin’ out dat room anytime soon.’

I relay the good news to Jeanette about the food.
‘What exactly is she making?’ she says, with the haunted expression of someone asking what manner of poison she’ll be asked to swallow.
‘One of her lovely big salads, I think.’
‘Urgh,’ she shudders. ‘Go back down and ask her to do me a cheese sandwich instead, would you? No pickle.’
She rests her head back and shuts her eyes again.
‘Although quite how I’ll force it down I don’t know.’

nevers of steel

There’s an extemporary, Mad Max feel to the front of the house, holes in the concrete forecourt filled in with rubble and crap, a derelict caravan green with mould dumped arse-first, blocking the sitting room windows, missing tiles in the path bridged with scraps of plasterboard, chipboard, whatever. It’s like the occupants started scavenging a skip, then gave up, and went back inside.

I knock on the door.
Immediate, furious barking, shouting.

Eventually, from behind the glass: You alright with dogs, yeah?
‘Yep. Fine. It’s okay.’
The door opens and someone throws an old, brindle-coloured footstool at me – that’s what it feels like, at least – a footstool magically and riotously animated, with a tail and teeth.
‘That’s enough, Nipper! Let him alone, now!’
Nipper springs up and down so enthusiastically you’d think he was on a trampoline.
‘Jes’ ignore ‘im’ says Thomas, waving me inside. ‘He’ll wear himself down eventually.’
Thomas takes his seat on a ruined sofa, in front of a TV showing the Formula One. I put my bag down, and Nipper is all over it. If I’m not careful he’ll be running off down the road with my stethoscope trailing behind him, like a cartoon dog with a string of sausages.
‘I can put him outside if you like.’
‘Nah. He’s alright. It’s nice to have an assistant.’
‘Right’ya then’

Thomas turns out to be an easy patient, if by easy you mean someone who doesn’t want any help, and just wants to sit in all day, drinking and smoking himself into oblivion.
‘What’s the use, fella? I appreciate you coming round n’all, but honestly – there are worse people out there. I don’ wanna waste yer time.’
I ask him if he’d like me to make referrals to various people, for equipment and physiotherapy and so on, especially given his recent hospital admission and diagnosis. It all seems a bit pointless, though.
‘Fair enough,’ he says. ‘It might be worth a punt.’

He stares down at his hands, listlessly prods the heel of his right hand with the thumb of his left.
Nipper – who had retreated exhausted to his basket, suddenly leaps up and starts barking again, trampling straight over me in his eagerness to get to the front door. A second later the door opens, and a guy so huge steps into the room the whole house seems to tilt in his direction.
‘I’m Shaun, Thomas’ son,’ rumbles the guy, leaning down to shake my my hand, making a real effort not to pick me up and shake the whole person by mistake. ‘Everything alright with the ol’ fella?’
‘Yep. All good, considering. There are some things we could do to help – if he’ll let us.’
‘Hear that, da? Don’t keep saying no to everything, would ya now?’
Thomas sneers and bats a hand in the air.
‘Yah!’ he says.

Shaun hesitates in the doorway, like he feels he should do more but can’t think what. It’s astonishing to think that Thomas is his father – not just the difference in size, but in vitality and sheer physical presence. I picture one of Thomas’ sperm, scrub-chinned, spitty roll-up in the corner of its mouth, Stan Laurel twist of hair, idly corkscrewing its tail through the vulval gloom, by sheer blind accident driving its head before the thousands of others through the softly yielding wall of a certain egg.

‘If you want me I’ll be in the van,’ says Shaun.

I can’t believe he means the ruin out front, but it’s true. I see the shadow of it rock alarmingly as he goes inside. How it bears his weight I have no idea. Maybe when they go on holiday, he forces his legs through the floor, his arms through the window, and runs them all there.

‘Do you like the ol’ Formula One then?’ says Thomas, nodding at the screen whilst he fishes his tobacco tin out from behind a cushion.
‘I don’t really follow it,’ I tell him. ‘I’d love to have a go, though.’
‘What – driving one of dem things?’ He grimaces, then attends to the business of rolling himself a fag, holding a paper between a thumb and two fingers, and then shakily losing half the tin of tobacco trying to fill it. ‘Nah!’ he says, giving up, rolling the fag ineffectually, running his tongue along the gummy strip. ‘You gotta have nevers of steel for dem things.’

weetafix

For some reason Jean’s taken her hearing aid out. It squeals alarmingly on the sideboard beside her, an ethereal soundtrack to the scene, like I’ve wandered onto the set of a 1950s Sci-Fi movie. Instead of an egghead alien with pincers for hands, though, it’s her husband, Ted who slowly shuffles in from the living room.
‘Put your hearing aid in!’ he bellows, jabbing a finger at the carpet, for some reason. ‘Your hearing aid! Put it in!’
Jean ignores him, waggling her hand towards the medicines on the table.
‘ I need the new one!’ she shouts. ‘I haven’t had the new one yet!’

I feel sorry for Ted. Jean isn’t the easiest patient in the world. She’s recently back from hospital after a hip replacement, and though I’m sympathetic, and can quite understand how uncomfortable she must feel, how frustrated by her reduced mobility, still – there’s a waspish quality to the way she talks that makes you want to take a step back, or better still, leave the room and quietly close the door.

‘Not that one!’ she yells. ‘The new one!’
Ted grumbles over to the table, clears his throat, slowly lifts his glasses, and starts methodically pressing each bottle to his nose.
‘He’s a fool!’ says Jean – not exactly to me, but to the bench of invisible judges behind her who must surely be recording all these injustices. ‘He doesn’t understand…this is hopeless… NO! THE NEW ONE!’

Quite why she doesn’t have her meds next to her and do them herself, I’m not sure. This way she’s definitely at risk of under or overdosing. The new scrips are for heart problems and pain relief. It’s all in solution because of her difficulty swallowing, and needs careful measuring out into a dispensing cup. But Ted’s sight is poor, his hands are shaky, and when he should be sitting down, calmly figuring out that four times five mls four times a day means a dose of 20 mls now, (and which of these little lines means 20mls…?), he’s flicking his attention between the bottle and the cup, the cup and the bottle, as panicked as if he’d suddenly found himself holding a ferret and a rabbit.
‘Would you like me to do it?’ I say.
‘Yes please!’ he says, almost throwing them at me. Then he shuffles over to the counter to make Jean’s breakfast instead.
‘Do you want Weetabix or Cornflakes?’ he shouts.
‘What?’
‘Weetabix or Cornflakes?’
‘Oh dear God!’ says Jean.
‘Right! You’re getting Weetabix,’ he says, turning away.

jack not ian

I’m met at the door by Gus, Ian’s partner.
‘Yes?’ he says. ‘And who have you come to see?’
I must admit I’m a little wrong-footed, because I rang just a quarter of an hour ago to say I was on my way. But then again, maybe there are a few visitors booked-in for the day. Ian has only recently been discharged from hospital, and it can get busy as all the referrals converge. Or maybe Gus has some visitors of his own.
‘Ian’ I say.
‘Ian?’
‘Yes.’
‘Ah.’
There’s a long pause – so long, in fact, I worry I’ve come to the wrong place. I check my notes. It all seems fine, though, and anyway, I’m sure it was Gus I spoke to earlier. His voice is unmistakable, a resonant, booming tone. In another life I can imagine him standing in the middle of a reed bed, honking mournfully.
‘Do you mean Jack?’ he says.
‘Jack?’
Gus has exactly the right face for the voice, a long, lugubrious expression. Strike the image of the bittern. I think I’d cast him as a Basset hound instead, up on his hind paws, in a knitted green waistcoat,  a copy of the Sunday Times tucked under his arm.
‘He was christened Ian but everyone calls him Jack.’
‘I see. Jack it is, then.’
I wait for Gus to show me inside, but he keeps his hand on the door, as if he absolutely needs to set the record straight once and for all.
‘It was rather confusing at the hospital,’ he says. ‘Ian this, Ian that. We kept telling them. It may say Ian on the birth certificate, but everyone knows him as Jack. Could you make a note of it for the record, please? And they bowed and scraped and said they would. But nothing happened, of course, and now look! Here we are, several days later, and you turn up asking for Ian. What does one have to do to get these things changed?’
‘Well…’
‘You see, the irony is, I don’t actually mind. One name’s as good as another. Ian. Jack. It’s much of a muchness. But then again, I think if you’re commonly known as one thing, it will only confuse the issue to continually refer to the other thing. Do you see my point?’
‘Yes. I think so. It’s Ian, not Jack. Sorry! The other way round!’
‘Hmm. I’m not reassured.’
He repositions the newspaper under his arm, and for a second I think he’s going to whap me over the head with it.
‘I hope you don’t think I’m complaining about you,’ he says. ‘I’m simply making a general point.’
‘No. It’s okay. I understand.’
I smile and nod and look past him into the hall – a discreet little mime to say: Shall we go in and see Jack now? But it’s too discreet, and he carries on.
‘I know you’re only going by whatever nonsense they’ve put in your notes,’ he says. What else can you be expected to do? What I’m complaining about is the system, you see. The system’s at fault. There doesn’t seem to be any provision for making these vital changes, and as I say, it introduces avoidable error, and it doesn’t have to be like that. I mean – what’s your name?’
‘Jim’
He reaches out with his free hand, takes up my lanyard, checks my ID.
‘So you see, Jim,’ he says, dropping it again and carrying on. ‘Let’s just say, for argument’s sake, everyone knew you as Frank.’
‘Yep’
‘And they carried on like that for years, and you started to think like Frank, and walk around like Frank. And then someone official, a nurse, for example, someone medical. Suppose this nurse – let’s say – shouted across the room Watch out, Jim! What would you do?’
‘I’d be on my guard.’
‘But that’s my point! You wouldn’t! Somebody else called Jim might look around and wonder what was happening, someone a million miles away from the source of danger, a falling cabinet, let’s say, or a hammer.’
‘A hammer?’
‘Yes. Because they’re having work done on the roof. All that’s incidental. The main point is, the person they want to inform about the danger won’t be the person responding to it, and a death will occur that would otherwise have been quite preventable.’
‘Worst case scenario.’
‘Ah, yes. But these things happen. All the time. I should know.’
‘Why? Were you a builder?’
‘A builder? Good lord, no!’ he says. ‘I was forty years a Civil Servant.’