James the First

Rosie is more confused than usual, according to Rosie – the other Rosie, I mean, the one who lives at the end of the road and comes in most days to help. The fact that her husband Jim has the same name as me only adds to the confusion. He’s amiable enough, placid as an old turtle who swapped his shell for a corduroy jacket. If Rosie Two hadn’t introduced him as her husband, I’d think he’d tagged along by mistake. When she asks him to fetch in Rosie One’s address book from the kitchen, he wanders back in, flicking through a photo album.
‘Look at you in front of the Sphinx, Rosie!’ he says. ‘Well, well.’
‘Oh for heaven’s sake,’ says Rosie Two, and goes to get the address book herself.

Rosie One is sitting in her armchair, held in place by an enormous, ash-gray cat. The cat stares at me, its head bobbing up and down and its eyes pulled wide in time with the vigorous strokes. It extends its front paws onto her lap, presumably to spread the impact.
‘Poor Jonesie!’ says Rosie One. ‘I fell on him, you know. Squashed him flat! Broke my fall, though, didn’t you, Jonesie? Hey? You broke mummy’s fall, didn’t you? You clever thing!’
‘Tripped you up, more like,’ says Rosie Two, striding back in from the kitchen and handing me the address book. ‘That cat. It’s an absolute monster. Anyway. There! Karen’s number. The next of kin. Apparently.’
Jim Two has drifted over to the bookcase, tutting and exclaiming as he makes his way along the shelves with his head crooked so far to one side his ear is practically on his shoulder.
‘Well, well!’ he says, carefully sliding a book out. ‘Who’d have thought!’
‘Jim!’ says Rosie Two. ‘You’re supposed to be making breakfast!’
‘Am I? Oh, right,’ he says. ‘Absolutely. Of course. Breakfast. Yes.’
And he wanders away in the opposite direction to the kitchen with a book in his hand. Rosie Two goes after him.
‘Nothing’s the same since my darling husband died,’ says Rosie One.
She’s looking at a portrait on the sideboard, a broad-faced, smiling man in a white naval uniform.
‘I’m sorry,’ I say. ‘What was his name?’
‘Jim? Not another one!’
‘Well,’ she says, turning back to me. ‘My Jim was the first.’

bibi the bird

Melvin is as landed and unfortunate in his armchair as a hippo in the dry season. An affable hippo, though, in a taut, custard yellow, California Dreamin’ t-shirt and grey jogging bottoms, his enormous hands restlessly picking at the padding of the arm rests, as if he’s gauging the right moment to tear them off and throw them.
‘What were you saying?’ he says. ‘I lost the thread.’
He laughs, exposing a few raw and stumpy teeth. If I had a head of cabbage I’d chuck it, watch him crunch it down, waggle his ears.
‘He does that a lot,’ says Bibi, Melvin’s wife. ‘Lose the thread, I mean.’
If Melvin is the hippo in this relationship, Bibi is the little bird that rides on his head. A trim, quick figure, she’s constantly up and down, repositioning cushions, fetching beakers of juice, a towel, a diary, a snack, another beaker of juice. She smiles at me and surreptitiously touches the side of her head, turning the gesture into an innocent scratch of her eyebrow when Melvin unexpectedly glances her way.
‘So what’s the plan, chief?’ says Melvin. ‘What’re you going to do with me? Drag me off to the knackers yard, I ‘spect. I’d make a lot of glue. ’
‘Don’t say that!’ says Bibi, jumping up again to move the stool so he can reposition his feet.
‘Ahh!’ he booms. ‘Thanks Beebs.’

The situation has been a long time coming and it’s hard to know where to start. Diabetes, joint damage, skin infections, kidney and liver issues – the list neatly packaged-up in the phrase comorbidities. Things were difficult enough before his latest fall, but he’s been discharged from hospital with a bandaged foot and the results of an MRI confirming mixed dementia. There’s a lot to think about.
‘Today’s a good day,’ says Bibi. ‘Isn’t it darling?’
‘Every day’s a good day,’ says Melvin.
‘Well,’ says Bibi. ‘Mostly.’

She’s doing her best to cope, but it’s a struggle. She’s already told me about his mood swings, how he’ll be fine one minute and raging the next. There’s a shine to her eyes that’s so brittle I don’t know if she’s ready to sob, scream or laugh out loud.
‘But where are my manners?’ she says. ‘Can I get you anything?’
‘No, no! That’s kind of you but I’m fine, thanks.’
‘Just let me know. It’s no trouble.’

Melvin is sitting in front of a large white blind. The blind has been pulled down to shield him from the midday sun. Now and again the shadow of a seagull glides across the blind, so clearly you can even see the toes of its webbed feet and the way it flicks its head from side to side. Down in the street some workmen have finished lunch. They’re shouting and swearing, starting up the mixer, tapping off bricks for a new wall.
‘Hear that?’ says Melvin. ‘I expect that’s the seagull, building his nest.’
We all laugh.
He clasps his hands across his belly, waggles his ears.

incident at the nunnery

Number one: Never open with weather.

Top of Elmore Leonard’s list of writing tips. But I’m sorry, Elmore – the weather is particularly strange this morning. It feels like I’m moving around in a photo that’s been put through a B-Movie filter, the light low and smudged, an oppressive weight to it that makes me scratchy and long for a little breeze. Even the bees look heavy, punting from flower to flower like exhausted gondoliers at the end of the season. And it’s only May.

The environment doesn’t help. An old nunnery converted into flats. On a sunny day it’s a beautiful spot, swallows screeching round the campanile, jasmine crashing like a fragrant green wave over the main porch. Today it’s more like the set of a horror movie.

Another car drives in and parks beside me, a long, beaten-up estate with a ladder on top. A grizzled guy steps out wreathed in so much vape smoke it’s like he’s a stepping out of a fire. I smile and nod at him.
‘Funny old weather,’ I say.
He stares at me with narrow, chlorinated blue eyes, and for a moment I wonder if I’ve inadvertently insulted his mother. But if I have, he decides to let it go – for now. He grimaces, flips a chamois over his shoulder, sticks a snub-nose squeegee in his belt, and slowly unscrews his ladders.

I move on.

Mary’s live-in carer meets me at the main door and leads me through the maze of corridors. She’s as tough as the cleaner – tougher, actually – as substantial as a tree, crudely sculpted into slacks and sweater with a chainsaw. No doubt if there’s a fight between them later, when the cleaner sneaks in to assassinate the patient, the cleaner will start out losing, because the carer has such a relentlessly crushing grip, but then he’ll squirt vape in her eye, put his bucket over her head and guide her to the window. And then notice me standing there, and grimace before he kicks her out into the quadrangle.

Mary is sitting in her armchair, tucked in beneath a heavy tartan rug despite the weather, happily watching a film from the seventies, something with jangly violins and Mia Farrow in a trenchcoat looking worried.

‘Hello Mary,’ I said, shaking her hand. ‘I’m Jim. From the hospital.’
‘He come to take blood’ says the carer, looming over me. ‘Not all of it.’
I kneel on the carpet beside Mary and start setting up.
‘Oh,’ I say, hunting through my bag. ‘Damn it. I meant to restock before I came up and I completely forgot. I don’t suppose you have any gloves, do you?’
‘Glove?’ says the carer. ‘Sure. We have plenty glove.’
She goes off to the bathroom to fetch me a couple.
‘What am I like!’ I say to Mary, sitting back on my heels.
She looks down at me, then leans forward and reaches out to rest a hand on my shoulder.
‘Have you been tested for Alzheimer’s, too?’ she whispers.

the drugs people

The houses of the Belle View housing estate certainly have a view. The main road was cut sometime in the fifties along the side of one of the chalk escarpments that overlook the town. I can imagine the construction photographs: heavy lorries passing backwards and forwards along a ribbon of dusty white hardcore, scaffolding like stilts along the plunging edge. Visiting these houses is a strangely disorienting experience. You park on the road, walk down two flights of steep concrete steps to the front door, into a house where the downstairs is the upstairs and the upstairs is underneath. It’s always bracing to look out of the window, like a suburban council house had been ripped up and slung under a giant balloon.

Lila is sitting in a riser recliner at the wide window, a rent controlled Captain Nemo on the bridge of her dirigible. Since her accident – a fall, naturally – she’s swapped her uniform for a sweltering, cable-knit dressing gown and felt, leopard-skin booties.
‘Did you have any trouble with the keysafe?’ she says, waggling the booties. ‘Some people find it a bit fiddly.’
‘No. It was fine. It’s one of the better ones.’
‘I worry about it,’ she says. ‘Being overlooked.’
‘What by? Seagulls?’
‘No,’ she says. ‘The house that side’s been empty for ages. Next door’s the drugs people.’
‘Oh?’ I say, pulling a concerned face. ‘Sorry.’
‘Oh no!’ she says. ‘They’re lovely. They’ve helped me loads of times. They don’t take the drugs. They only deal.’
‘Is that the house with the big hedge?’
‘That’s it. The postman says it’s cannabis, but I think it’s juniper. They didn’t grow it, mind. It was there before they came. Fifteen years ago, now. It wasn’t that tall then, but I don’t think they’re gardeners. Anyway, it probably suits them to have a little bit of cover, if you get my drift. They’ve had the police round twice, you know.’
‘Have they? When was that?’
‘Once when they first moved in, and once a couple of years ago. Rita did a bit of time in the prison, but she’s so good they let her out pretty quick. I think they wanted to keep her longer ‘cos she was good for morale, but she’s got kids, so…’
Lila waggles her booties again.
‘Anyway! What’s on the menu today?’

tilt test

Jack isn’t the manager of the building – not officially, at least. He lives in the ground floor flat, the one immediately by the front door, so it seems to have naturally fallen to him to be the gatekeeper – that, and his affable, loose-pawed, friendly old bear kind of disposition. He trudges up the endless stairs ahead of us, the pockets of his gilet stuffed with receipts and pens and things, a John Deere hunting cap tilted back on his head.
‘June’s son lives miles away,’ he says. ‘Which doesn’t help matters. We all look in on June when we can. It’s a friendly building like that. I’m glad something more official’s being done, though. You worry about these things.’
June lives in what must once have been the nursery, the small slanting rooms at the very top of the old building.
‘We’ve got a seagull nesting on the roof so I suppose technically there is someone higher,’ says Jack, wheezing a little as we make the penultimate landing. ‘I must give up the fags.’
‘How long has June been like she is.’
‘Good question,’ he says. ‘Just a minute…’
We stop so he can catch his breath. A young woman comes out of her flat dressed in fluorescent running gear.
‘Morning lovelies!’ she says, her long blonde hair flicking side to side behind her like a tail.
‘Hey Janice,’ says Jack, leaning on the railings. ‘Y’know – one day you too could have a body like mine.’
‘I can dream!’
‘Take it easy’
‘I’ll certainly try!’
We follow her progress, vaulting down the stairs two at a time, then a pause, then the front door slamming far below.
‘Come on,’ says Jack. ‘I’m back with the living again.’
‘Next time let’s take the lift’
‘Next time?’
The stairs narrow for the final stretch, screwing upwards onto the final landing. The hall light doesn’t work so it’s pretty gloomy, a close, pressed-in feeling that makes you want to start scrabbling through the ceiling to see sky again. Jack leans in and knocks three times on June’s door, a halting sequence I guess is his trademark. June calls from inside: It’s open.
Jack looks at me.
‘We all leave our doors open,’ he says. ‘It’s that kind of place.’

June’s flat is so flooded with light it hurts my eyes. Eventually when I’ve adjusted I see that June is lying on a mattress on the floor, surrounded by a confusing jumble of things, all at different levels. There’s a logic to it, though, and eventually when I see the pattern I’m struck by the adaptations she’s made, how she’s arranged things in sequence to give her something to hang on to as she moves about, working from floor to shoulder height. There’s an ironing board on the lowest rung she’s using as a long shelf, boxes and linen crates to walk up propped on her elbows, a rope she’s tied from the kitchen island to the door of the bathroom, chairs turned back to back, kettles, plates and a shoebox of cutlery and other essentials on the floor. The whole thing has an extemporary, survivalist feel, like the flat was really a capsized boat, and June the castaway who’d been forced to adapt to an upside down world.
I knew from June’s notes she was suffering from POTS, or Postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome. I hadn’t heard of it before. There were a long list of symptoms – dizziness, palpitations, chest pain, fainting – all brought on by standing up, relieved by lying down again. As with many of these things, some people were more badly affected than others. Unfortunately, June was on the furthest end of the spectrum.

‘Excuse me if I don’t get up!’ she says.

don’t say that

There is a middle-aged man and woman, standing side-by-side at the living room window of the bungalow next door, staring at me as I walk down the path. I wave – as best I can, with all the bags I’m carrying – but they don’t wave back. It wouldn’t surprise me if they were actually cut-outs, set there by an estate agent. But if that’s true, why not give them wavy arms and flashing eyes, activated by a sensor when you got close enough? As it is, their bungalow looks about as homey and real as a house made of Lego. Even the juniper in the planter wears a tag.

Mind you, the bungalow I’m visiting has more than enough reality for both. A low, brick wall separates the two of them as severely as the line between a ‘Before’ and ‘After’ feature. It’s a wretched, cliche, tumbledown affair, with an overgrown garden, rotten woodwork, missing tiles, and a car parked round the back, one of those boaty old Citroens, crusted in mould, the bonnet disappearing into the tarmac like a junk submarine in the world’s slowest dive.

I glance over my shoulder. The cut-outs have been repositioned to get a better look.
I put my stuff down, reach out, and knock.
The instantaneous and outraged barking of a dog.
Scuffling, swearing, crashing – the sounds of a desperate struggle in the hallway. I guess the dog is being put in a cage; if it is, it only makes the barking worse, like trying to stuff a panther in a box after it’s got blood on its snout.
After a composing kind of moment the door opens. George stands there, breathing hard, pushing his hair back from his face, smiling, whilst a small terrier tries to cut through the bars with acetylene fury.
‘Don’t mind Trampus’ says George. ‘He’s very protective.’
‘I’d never have guessed he was a terrier!’
‘Well. He’s crossed with something bigger.’
‘A wolf?’
‘Possibly. In his head.’
‘I don’t mind if you let him out. I’m alright with dogs.’
George’s smile tightens.
‘Oh, no,’ he says. ‘Oh, no, no, no. I couldn’t possibly.’
As if to illustrate, Trampus redoubles his efforts, the cage rocking from side to side.
‘Well. Alright then,’ I say.
‘Thank you for coming,’ says George, backing up.

George is as friendly, nub-faced, vast and shiningly white as a beluga whale, his trousers suspended by hoops, the lenses of his glasses thumbed with grease. He leads me back through the house, which is just as awful as the outside promised, comprehensively silted up with trash in the hoarder-style, unwashed plates stacked in plastic buckets, strata of food trodden into the floor. Even though it’s early in the year, a couple of plump black flies are on the move. One buzzes past me in a straight line from Crap A to Crap B, somnolent and satisfied as a bank manager on the daily commute.
‘Mother? There’s a gentleman to see you. From the hospital.’
‘Hello Gladys. My name’s Jim. How are you today?’
Gladys is as thin as George is fat. A frail and spidery old woman in a housecoat and flowery bandana, she’s not sitting in her chair so much as nesting in it, kyphotically hunched over a plate of digestives, scooping up the pieces and pressing them into her whiskery mouth.
‘Trampus has gone quiet,’ I say, looking for somewhere to put my bags, not finding anywhere.
‘Eerily quiet,’ says George.
‘What’s he doing? Tunnelling?’
‘Oh no!’ says George. ‘Don’t say that.’

do not destroy

Eric has had three falls in forty-eight hours, the last one early this morning. According to the notes he refused hospital, so the ambulance crew referred him to us to follow up first thing and see what we could do. This being the case, it’s worrying the key from the key safe won’t open the front door.

I stand in the porch jiggling it around, trying all the usual feints – pulling the door towards me as hard as I can, pushing it away, rattling the key frantically, easing it backwards and forwards VERY slowly to get a feel for what the mechanism is doing, or not doing, cheating the key up, cheating the key down, pausing, looking around, repeating everything again with exaggerated focus.

‘Can I help you, please?’
There’s a carer standing behind me. He’s fierce looking, wiry and intense, the kind of beard you might draw on a photo with a black marker, tattoos on his forearms, geometric patterns and numbers that look like clues from a Dan Brown novel.
‘I’m Jim, from Rapid Response, at the hospital.’
‘Aleksy,’ he says, shaking my hand.
‘Eric had a fall this morning.’
‘I know this.’
‘The ambulance referred him to us but I’m afraid I can’t get the key to work. I think he may have flipped the latch.’
‘Come. Give here.’
I step aside and let him try. I’m guessing Aleksy has been here many times before. He probably has the knack.
Aleksy jiggles the key around some, then hands it back to me.
‘He flip latch,’ he says. ‘Why he would do this, I do not know.’
We both step back from the porch and scan the front of the building. All the windows are firmly shut. There’s a high wooden gate to the left screening off the back of the house, but that’s locked, too.
‘Any good at climbing?’
‘I am excellent climber,’ he says. And without even taking a run up he springs forward, catches the top of the fence, presses himself high enough to swing his left leg over, pushes off the top and disappears over the other side. There’s a pause, the sound of a bolt being thrown, and the gate swings open.
‘You weren’t kidding’ I say to him.
He shrugs.
‘I have can-do attitude,’ he says.

The back of the house is as securely locked-up as the front. There is one window open, though. Too high and central to climb, I would think, even for Aleksy.
I stand on a garden wall and shout up at the window.
A weak voice answers.
‘It’s Jim. From the hospital. Aleksy’s here, too. Are you alright?’
‘Have you fallen over?’
Are you unwell?
‘I’m sorry to hear that, Eric. The thing is – the key won’t open the front door. We think the latch might be down.’
‘Is there any way you can make it downstairs to open the door?’
‘Otherwise we’ll have to break in.’
‘Do you think you can come down and let us in?’
‘He has stair lift,’ says Aleksy. ‘But he might have heart attack and cannot move.’
‘Is there a ladder anywhere?’
I check the outhouse at the bottom of the garden, but it’s locked, too. Meanwhile Aleksy has rung his office to report the delay and ask for advice.
‘No ladder,’ I tell him.
‘My office will ring his daughter, but she is far from here, and even if she arrive with key, this is same position. Truly.’
‘It’s difficult. At least he’s talking, so that’s something. He clearly said he was unwell, though. And he’s had all these falls. Anything could be going on. We might have to break in.’
Aleksy frowns.
‘You have license for this?’
‘Well. Only in as much as we think there’s someone unwell we can’t get to. We’ll get the police and the ambulance running, but they’ll be a while getting here, and it might be too late. Besides. I quite like breaking in.’
‘You do?’
‘There aren’t many perks.’
I take a look at the back again. There’s a sliding patio door that’s part of a dilapidated conservatory. The metal door and lock are still good and won’t budge, but the wooden frame is wormy and it wouldn’t take much to pull it down. There’s an inner door to get through as well, though. It might end up being a serious demolition job, so I don’t launch into it immediately. Whilst I’m wondering what to do, Aleksy has climbed onto a water butt to look through the kitchen window. There’s a net curtain blocking his view, so he puts his ear to window instead, his hands splayed on the glass like the suckers of some hypersensitive reptile.
‘I hear lift,’ he says. ‘Eric coming. Do not destroy back of house.’