sea storm

The concrete marina wall does a pretty good job of protecting the boats from the worst of the weather. Still, when it’s as rough as it is today, there’s still enough of a swell pushing through the mouth of it to move them all restively up and down at their moorings, and for spouts of wild white water to jump up from time to time at different points, and fall back again in a spattering of foam.

Rita’s flat overlooks the marina. Watching the boats all move together like that, it’s easy to imagine this block is a boat, too, and we’re just waiting for a break in the weather before we open the patio doors, unfurl the tablecloth and set sail for someplace else.

I think Rita would settle for anyplace she could breathe more easily. She’s diagnosed with COPD and a history of infective exacerbations. For some reason this year’s been particularly bad, though, and she’s only just come out of hospital after a long stay with pneumonia. After I’ve finished the examination she sits in that characteristic way you often see with respiratory patients, inclined forwards with her back straight and her arms resting on her knees, to ease her breathing. She has a puffy, steroidal look, and her arms are bruised from countless needling.

‘What’s the verdict?’ she says. ‘And don’t you dare say hospital.’
‘We…ell’
‘Oh God. Here we go.’
‘It’s fifty-fifty whether you stay or go.’
‘In that case I’ll stay.’
I go over the facts and figures, the risks, the realities. She nods or shakes her head, depending, and when I’ve finished, gives her face a brisk rub with her hands.
‘It’s not as if you’re so bad I’m reaching for the phone while we speak,’ I tell her, trying to be as nonchalant as possible. ‘On the other hand…’
‘…on the other hand don’t start any long books.’
‘What I’d like to do is talk to your GP and see if they’ll come out and review the situation.’
‘Good luck with that. They never come out.’
‘I think they have to some times. It’s not as if you can go to them, is it? You get out of breath just standing up.’
‘You don’t know my GP. You’d have to be dying before they’d come out, and even then they’d probably just send a hearse.’
‘Let’s see what they say.’
I use Rita’s house phone. For some reason I haven’t got the bypass number for this surgery, so I opt to use the main number and take my turn like everyone else. I’m hanging on hold for some time, watching the boats riding up and down at their moorings.
‘I wouldn’t mind having a boat,’ I tell her, for something to say.
‘Yeah?’ she says. ‘Done much sailing, have you?’
‘Only once. I went sea fishing with a friend. I felt so seasick I wanted him to throw me overboard.’
‘The omens aren’t good then, are they?’
‘No. Not really. Although Nelson wasn’t supposed to be all that as a sailor. Y’know? Not in terms of defeating the French. I mean in terms of not throwing up.’
‘Yeah – but look what happened to him,’ says Rita.
‘You’re right. Maybe I’d be better off sticking to cars.’
‘Kiss me Hardy!’ She laughs, which immediately degrades into a thick and rumbly series of coughs, like a heavy storm massing in the distance. When it passes, she rubs her face again.
‘Mind you,’ she wheezes, ‘I think I know what he meant.’

smoko

There’s a small enclosed porch at the front of the house, and that’s where Karen goes to smoke, a bit like an air-lock in reverse. The porch only has three things in it (not including Karen): an ashtray, a pack of cigarettes and an enormous plastic pipette. Quite what that’s for I don’t know, but I don’t hang around to ask.

‘Dad’s in the kitchen having his porridge,’ says Karen, taking another deep drag and nodding behind her as she blows out.

Her father Keith is sitting at the kitchen table. A tall, lean man in his seventies, he struggles to his feet to shake my hand and thank me for coming. He’s had a long spell in hospital, discharged home with a summary of his complex health problems and a request to sort out equipment and therapy. His handshake is warm and firm, and despite his illness he still has an air of quiet competency about him.

‘Sorry about Karen’ he says. ‘She’s adopted the porch as her smoko and we can’t persuade her to stop. She’s got learning difficulties,’ he adds. ‘She’s a good girl.’

I set up shop at the table and we go over how things are and what Keith might need.

‘You wouldn’t think to look at me now but I used to be so fit,’ he says. ‘I played football, tennis. Swam in the sea. Built this house, worked full time. There weren’t enough hours in the day. And if you’d have said to me after all that I’d have ended up like this I’d never have believed you.’ He works the porridge around in his bowl a while then adds: ‘Never smoked. Not a one. Mind you – I think Karen’s taking care of that side of things all by herself.’
And as if summoned by her father, Karen strides into the kitchen, bringing with her a palpable cloak of smoke.

‘All right?’ she says.

the longest hour

Joan is lying in bed, a beanie wrap-around cushion supporting her neck, her long white hair wild on her shoulders.
‘I’m quite alright as I am, thank you,’ she says fussing ineffectually at the sheets. ‘I don’t want anything.’

Joan is ninety-five, tiny, translucent, tethered to the world by her watch and her will and the pictures on the wall.

‘I had a twin brother,’ she says, not to me, I don’t think, particularly, or anyone else in the room I can see. ‘Flew with the RAF. Never came back.’
‘Sorry to hear that.’
She doesn’t react.

I’ve come to see how Joan is after her fall yesterday. The ambulance picked her up, although a mouse could’ve done it. I can’t imagine Joan falling – or at least, only as a dried leaf might fall, slowly, with a soundless settling to the forest floor.

‘I was an hour older,’ she says, closing her eyes, to bring it clearer to mind. Then adds: ‘It’s a little more than that now.’

behind the glass

The almshouse cottages are laid out on three sides of an immaculately kept croquet lawn. The white enamel paint is a little chipped on the hoops, showing patches of dark iron underneath. Maybe that’s through being struck with croquet balls over the years, but I’ve never actually seen anyone play. In fact the most life I’ve ever seen on the green is that crow, hopping around in the misty rain like a sexton in a frock coat, his hands under his tails, inspecting the lawn for worms.

Helen won’t be out playing croquet anytime soon, rain or shine. It’s enough of an adventure just making it from the armchair to the bathroom and back. I can imagine she would have been good at it though, sometime before the war, bobbing down to line up the final shot, giving the ball a hearty thwack, snatching off her cap, throwing it in the air, and then jogging over to the judging desk, the croquet mallet balanced on her shoulder. But of course, she wouldn’t have been living in an almshouse then. She would have been in nursing accommodation in London, excitedly practicing the air raid drill, hurrying out to dances, learning her craft.

Seventy years or more have passed since then, and Helen’s world has contracted to the size of a single room. It was small to begin with, but in an effort to stop her from falling the bed has been brought into the living room, leaving just enough room for a commode, a zimmer frame, an armchair and a side table. She still has her shelves of books, of course – one case devoted to Miss Read, whose name is repeated with dizzying regularity up and down the spines – but if you wanted to fetch one out you’d have to move a stack of things first.

Helen has been sitting this whole time with her head resting on the open palm of her right hand. She straightens now and again to look between her daughter Karen and me with an anguished look on her face.
‘I simply don’t understand what it is I have to do,’ she says.
‘You don’t have to do anything, mum. We’re just talking about things we can do to help you get better.’
‘Is it money? I think I have enough. But if you need more I can get another job.’
‘No, mummy. Don’t fret. We’ve got enough money. You’re job is to rest and focus on getting better.’
‘But all these people,’ says Helen, frowning at me. ‘I don’t know who they are or what they want. What do they want, Karen?’
‘They want what’s best for you, mummy. Like we all do. Try not to worry.’
‘But I do worry! I can’t stop worrying!’
Karen goes over to give her mum a hug, but Helen irritably pushes her away and then slumps forward again.

It’s an impossible position for Karen. Not only does she have the grindingly practical business of caring for an elderly mother whilst running a family of her own, she has to do it without the one person she’d naturally have turned to for advice and support, as she did all through her childhood, adolescence and beyond, the single parent who’d trained and worked as a nurse, the woman who’d seen things and suffered things and come out the other side with her hands and her uniform clean, who’d always somehow managed to be just as strong and as resourceful as she needed to be, the woman that was somehow in the room and yet out of it at the same time, as remote as that black and white photograph of a newly qualified nurse in a pristine uniform, sitting with a straight back behind the glass.

‘Anything you could do to help would be great,’ says Karen, smiling weakly at me. Then reaches over to squeeze her mum’s shoulder.

polaroids of pets and their owners

1.
Geoffrey has two cats. Suki is a heavyweight, silver grey affair, sprawled on the seat of Geoffrey’s four wheeled walker like a luxuriously furred but rather bedraggled cushion, one paw draped over the side, an expression on her face of the purest hatred for the world and everything in it, especially Harry, the kitten. Harry is as hyperactive as Suki is inert, seemingly on a mission to destroy the bungalow, in such random bursts of activity it’s like watching a film that slows one minute and speeds up the next. Harry attacks the curtains, my bag, a pile of rubbish, the TV cables, winding himself up for each assault with a tensioning wiggle of his hips, whipping his tail from side to side, then skittering across the carpet – this time to take out a little stuffed dinosaur, rolling over and over with it, coming to a stop on his back with the dinosaur in its teeth and front paws, brutally pedalling it to death.

‘He’s having a funny five minutes,’ chuckles Geoffrey from his riser-recliner throne, King of Catland, packets of fishy favours to hand on the cantilever table.

But I’ve already been here ten.

2.
‘Are you okay with dogs?’
It’s an article of faith to say yes, because Leila’s brindle staffie Frankie is hurling himself against the baby gate so violently you’d think he hadn’t eaten in a week and a leg of mutton just walked in the door. Before I can answer either way, Leila unlatches the gate and Frankie bursts out. I stand my ground and ignore him – and, thank god, it works. In fact, it’s extraordinary how quickly he changes mode: from Hound of Hell to Snuffly Chump.
I scraggle him behind the ears, and he seems to like that. Then suddenly he’s reminded of something, and hurries off into the sitting room.
‘Oh no,’ says Leila. ‘Wait for it.’
There’s a plaintive squeak or two, then Frankie comes trotting back into the hallway to sit at my feet with a blue ball clamped in his jaws.
‘Oh for God’s sake,’ says Leila. ‘Him and that ball. I wish I’d never got it.’
Frankie bites down on it twice in quick succession, to emphasise.
‘It was funny the other night, though,’ says Leila. ‘He fell asleep with it in his mouth. Then he started dreaming, doing that spooky eye-rolling thing they do, twitching and jerking, and then the ball squeaked, and woke him up, and scared the bejeesus out of him. He fell off the sofa and the ball squeaked some more and he dropped it and ran behind the curtains. I thought that might’ve cured him. But no, he was straight back on it. Poor ol’ Frankie. He’s like me – an addictive personality.’

leila’s recipe for old age

It’s a broad, bright morning, a little colder than of late but still unseasonably warm, so I don’t understand why Leila’s house should be so dark and cold. It’s in a good position, set back from the road up a steep incline; there aren’t many trees around; it has generous windows front and back. But stepping over the threshold is like stepping into a mausoleum: musty, shadowed and quiet.
‘Have a seat’ says Leila, soundlessly pulling one away from the dining room table. There’s a bowl in the centre of the table piled with glossy ceramic fruit, and it strikes me that all the living things in the room – the large vase of orchids in the fireplace, the cat sleeping in its basket, are all fake. Leila seems a little fake, too, as perfectly made-up and buttoned-up as a lifesize doll. There’s a large painting over the mantelpiece – a fishing scene in a sunny Mediterranean harbour – and somehow it makes the place seem colder.
‘I don’t feel it,’ she says. ‘I’m a December baby.’
I tell her why she’s been referred to the community health team, and she takes the news with a polite but detached interest, like someone being told of a development somewhere that doesn’t particularly involve or interest them overmuch.
‘It’s so kind of you to visit,’ she says. ‘Can I get you anything…?’
‘I was just going to ask if I could get you something! Some tea or toast?’
‘Oh, no!’ she says. ‘I’ve had my breakfast.’
‘What did you have?’
‘Some porridge and a cup of black tea.’
‘Sounds healthy.’
‘Oh – I’ve always eaten well.’
And it’s true, she doesn’t seem malnourished. In fact – environment aside – she seems in pretty good health. The only medication she’s prescribed is for memory loss, but of course, she often forgets to take it, which is one of the reasons Leila’s been referred to us.
Her short term memory is severely compromised. Her conversation is on a loop, on this occasion revolving around two things: how active her mother was into old age, and what happened when she got together with her sister, Dolly.
‘I just think I’ve been rather lucky as far as health goes,’ she says, for the sixth or seventh time already. ‘But you see my mother lived till a fine old age, and I get my old bones from her.’
‘That’s lovely.’
Leila giggles and brushes her skirt a couple of times.
‘Yes! You should have seen it when she got together with Auntie Dolly. They used to play whist, you see, and honestly! They were like a couple of naughty schoolgirls!’
I steer the conversation back to the plan for the next few days, the carers who’ll be coming in, the appointment at the memory clinic and so on. She listens to all of this very seriously, nods to show she understands, then brushes her skirt again.
‘Yes! Well! I just think I’ve been rather lucky as far as health goes,’ she says.
‘I think you must have looked after yourself, too, though, Leila.’
‘Yes. I think I have. And do you know what my secret is?’
‘No. What?’
‘I believe in onions.’
It’s such a shock to hear her say something different that it makes me laugh.
‘You can laugh, but it’s true!’ she says.
‘In what way, onions?’
‘Well,’ says Leila, brushing her skirt again. ‘They bring out the flavour of meat.’

freddy

Elsa has a history of falls and unexplained blackouts, so when she doesn’t answer the phone I drive straight over to investigate.

The house is a low white building set back from the road, a dark garden to one side with contorted sculptures dotted about and random things strung from branches, giving the place a watchful, witchy feel. I fetch the key from the keysafe and let myself in.
Hello? It’s Jim, from the hospital…
There’s uncollected post right by the door. I pick it up and put it on a stool.
Hell…oooo
Nothing.

Last time I was here the house was full. There was Elsa’s husband, Freddy, his carer, a carer for Elsa, and then two therapists whose visits had unexpectedly clashed. Freddy had been shuffling excitedly up and down the hallway, stirred by all the commotion, presenting random things after looking for them with great enthusiasm, tugging on his braces, marching on the spot in his slippers like a seagull paddling for worms. Elsa had been the quiet centre of it all, sitting on an armchair in her nightie, overwhelmed.

Now the hallway is silent, what little light there is reflecting dully off the parquet flooring.

Hell…ooo. It’s Jim … from the hospital…
Every door leading off from the hallway is shut, which I take as a sign the place is empty. Still, I have to open each one and check that Elsa isn’t on the floor.
Kitchen.
Bathroom.
Closet – ( a shock, to be confronted by coats on hooks, close-up).
Which leaves the door to the sitting room at the furthest end of the hallway.
Hell…ooo
I knock and open the door.
Utterly silent except for the honeyed tocking of a longcase clock. A saturating green light spills in from the garden through the patio windows illuminating an empty leather sofa, dark paintings on the walls, a carved mirror and dining table, a leather bucket armchair with its back to me. And as if my entrance has stirred everything up, the clock suddenly gives a shuddery kind of cough and a kick, and starts grinding out the quarter. And that’s when Freddy decides to swing round in the bucket armchair, his hands spread, his eyes wide.
‘Oh my Jesus Christ!’ I say, falling back.
‘Har hah!’ says Freddy.