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.
‘Mmm.’
‘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.’
‘What?’
‘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.
‘Oh?’
‘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.’
‘Wow!’
‘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.’
‘Nope.’
‘Not Aquarius? Well, then. My gift has deserted me. Maybe I’m just tired. So go on, then. What are you?’
‘Capricorn.’
‘Capricorn! Of course! It all makes sense now!’
He shakes his head sadly.
‘Classic Capricorn! I knew I’d get it.’

mr henry’s hat

An ancient woman is sitting on a bench by the front door of the block. She’s wearing a scarlet beret, red lipstick, red scarf, a heavy red coat and red shoes. Even her shopping bag is red. She gives me a broad, square smile as I say hello – and all in all it’s hard to resist she’s en route to a fancy dress party dressed as a letterbox.
‘Keep warm,’ I say, unnecessarily, as she’s wearing so many clothes she’s technically still indoors.
‘Oh – I don’t mind,!’ she says, batting the air. ‘It’s February you’ve got to watch.’
‘Or April,’ I say. ‘April is the cruelest month.’
‘April? Who said that?’
‘Some poet or other.’
‘April? That’s Spring! When all the blossom comes out!’
‘You’re right!’ I say. ‘I’ve never really thought about it. Maybe he was being ironic?’
She shrugs and pulls her shopping trolley closer.
‘I like April,’ she says. ‘But then I’m not a poet.’

Meanwhile, Jorge has buzzed the number of Mr Henry, the patient we’ve come to see. We’ve been told how hostile and non-compliant he is, so we give him plenty of time to answer. He hasn’t been picking up his phone, so we’re bound to simply turn up, on spec. Just before Jorge gives up and buzzes again, the intercom crackles on.
Who the fucking hell is that buzzing? Stop buzzing! Will you stop with the fucking buzzing? I get to the button as fast as I can! I’ll fucking fall over. All these people! My God! What d’you want…?
Just as Jorge leans in to say who we are, the door clicks as Mr Henry releases it.

I look back at the woman on the bench. She smiles and shrugs, and directs her gaze outwards.

Mr Henry had declined a visit from the therapists who’d come round the previous day. Our job is to follow that visit up, read him the riot act, and see what helps he needs.

There’s a holly wreath on his flat door, but I’m guessing it’s there more for the needles than the seasonal goodwill.
Jorge takes a breath, and knocks.
‘Come in!’ screams Mr Henry. ‘Will you just fucking come in? COME IN!’
Jorge tries the door. It’s locked.
‘The door’s locked,’ says Jorge.
‘What the fuck is it now?’
Jorge leans in closer and speaks up.
‘You’ll need to open the door for us because it’s locked…’
‘Stop fucking shouting!’ yells Mr Henry. ‘I’m going as fast as I can! You fucking people! Do you want me to fucking kill myself…?’

We take a step back.
‘Do you think he’ll shoot me through the door?’ says Jorge.
He laughs, but we both step a little more to the side.

After an age of swearing and cursing from inside the flat, the lock flips and Jorge slowly pushes it open. A pale, round face looms round the side of it. It’s like being confronted by a nursery rhyme illustration for Hey Diddle Diddle – except a more adult version, where the man in the moon has an alcohol problem and can’t fucking bear the cat, the fiddle, the cow and anyone else who happens past.
‘What the fuck do YOU want?’ he says. But before we can capitalise on the situation and leave, Mr Henry suddenly seems much more compliant. ‘You’d best come in,’ he says, timidly. We follow him inside.
He positions himself in front of a leather BarcaLounger, lets go of his zimmer frame, and drops into it like a paratrooper exiting a plane. Except – he screams as he drops, and swears inordinately as he bounces a couple of times in the great, black catcher’s mitt of the chair.
‘Fuck! Fuck! FUCK!’ he says.

‘Where does it hurt?’ I ask, when he comes to a stop.
He stares up at me, and for a moment I think he’s going to throw something. But the moment passes and he nods for us both to sit down on two formal dining chairs just opposite.
‘I don’t like people standing over me,’ he says, simply and conversationally. The tone is so different it’s disorienting.
‘Now…,’ he says, after a theatrical age, ‘… wear’s my hat?’
‘Your hat?’
‘Yes! My FUCKING HAT!’
‘Mr Henry! There’s really no call for you to shout at us and carry on like this. We’ve been nothing but polite since we came here, Mr Henry. Listen – we’ve come to help you, and we really will try to do that. But your part of the contract is to be polite, not swear and…’
‘Fetch me my hat, SIR,’ he says.
‘Well. Seeing as you asked nicely…’
There’s a dark fedora on a pile of old newspapers over by the window. I hand it to him.
‘No!’ he shouts. ‘NO!’
‘What do you mean, no?’
He relaxes back in the chair.
‘Feel the brim,’ ‘he says. ‘The luxury of pure felt.’

Agnes? It’s up to YOU!

Agnes is telling me how she fell down the stairs.

She’s sitting on a chair with her legs crooked up. There’s something so slow and deliberate and precise in the way that she describes how she normally negotiates the stairs, which – along with the gestures she makes with her arms, slowly out to the side and back, her long, spindly fingers reaching out to grab imaginary banisters – that makes me think of a sloth. Her words are sloth-like, too. She even blinks slowly. I need to get on and replace the dressing on her leg, but it’s impossible to interrupt her, and besides, I have to admit, I’m a little hypnotised by the monologue.

‘…and so, you see, I have my technique. And my technique is this: I place my left foot on the first stair like SO…. and then I very carefully reach up with my RIGHT hand to grasp the handrail that runs up the RIGHT side. And once I have a FIRM grasp of the handrail with my RIGHT hand, I transfer my weight forwards, and then begin to move my RIGHT foot up to join the LEFT. And then once I have my balance, I very carefully transfer my weight a little forwards again. And then I reach out with my LEFT hand until I have a firm grasp of one of the bannisters on the left. And then I gently pull forwards with THAT hand, and transfer my weight so that I can swing up my RIGHT foot. Now… all this is very well and good. And in this way I manage to make it all the way to the top, where the stairs turn in a little tuck to the LEFT. But the problem at his point, you see, is that the bannister on that corner is much fatter. Do you follow? It’s shaped … like THIS … (and she describes two curves in the air with those weirdly etiolated fingers, like a potter describing the outline of a shapely vase)… and of course, a shape like that is much more difficult to grasp… to get a good PURCHASE on. Normally I can manage it … by reaching a little further forwards… and almost crawling at the critical point… but that PARTICULAR day I’m sorry to say I DIDN’T manage it, and I toppled backwards…. d’you see?…. and I bounced all the way back down again, like a giant tennis ball or something. And I lay in the hall and shouted out for help, but none came. And after a few hours I said to myself… Agnes? It’s up to YOU! And little by little I crawled to the phone. And in THAT way I managed to summon help. And after a while the ambulance people came, with a key they’d fetched from Gerry across the road. And everything was alright in the end, thank goodness. Except this wretched leg, of course, and a little wounded PRIDE…’

She blinks slowly and sadly, and then seems to brighten as she looks up at me again.

‘So NOW!’ she says. ‘Tell me what it is you’ve come to do?’