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?’

Rick the duck

Gavin lives in a new development near the station.
‘It’s tucked away,’ he’d said to the call taker. ‘Ours is the one with the triangular balconies.’

Except – they’re actually rectangular.

‘Maybe he got his shapes mixed up,’ says Alexi, pressing the buzzer. ‘Maybe it’s more of a geometrical crisis.’

It’s a smart, designery place, with a wide, plate-glass main door and giant chrome handle, the name etched into the glass in bold lettering – the kind of details you might expect to see on a hotel. There are lots of nice touches, in fact. A rack of multicoloured letterboxes, a series of inset lights. And then out front, a garden area that incorporates some old industrial features, with a slatted wooden walkway snaking gently up to road level alongside a wall with climbing hand grips. A kid on his way to school is demonstrating their use, doing some last-minute bouldering on his way to school, his mum creeping up the slope beside him, his superheroes backpack in one hand whilst she checks her phone in the other.

We’ve come out early because Gavin has rung the service to say he was going to kill himself. The person who took the call tried to give him the crisis number for Mental Health, but he rang off, so our only options are to call the ambulance service or go ourselves. We know the ambulance is appallingly stretched, and we’ve got space this morning, so we’ve come along to triage the call in person.

Gavin comes down to meet us at the front door, although he could just as easily have buzzed us in and let us come up. If you didn’t know he’d made such a distressing call you would never have guessed. He’s a trim, easy-looking guy in his early fifties, stubbly white hair, tanned complexion, dressed in a white cotton shirt and trousers, and comfy sports sandals. He could have stepped out of a catalogue for the stylish retiree.
‘Have you been here before?’ he says, pleasantly. ‘Follow me.’
He shows us up to his flat, a smart, bijou studio overlooking the communal gardens. There are art prints and photos around the place, a bookshelf crammed with art books – Van Gogh, Goya and the like – an expensive SLR camera on the coffee table, and then a smaller bookcase with Penguin classics and a few self-help titles, and on the wall a collection of DVDs that reads like a list of the Fifty Films You Must See Before You Kill Yourself.

‘Take a seat,’ says Gavin, smiling pleasantly, and then running his hand backwards and forwards across the silvery stubble on the top of his head.
‘How can we help?’ I say, as Alexi and I sit on the sofa.
‘You can’t,’ says Gavin. ‘No-one can.’
I nod as neutrally but encouragingly as I can. Alexi’s leg begins to jiggle up and down. He has his obs kit on his lap. I know he’s keen to get stuck in medically.
‘So – you rang the office saying you wanted to kill yourself?’
Gavin takes a long breath and closes his eyes.
‘I’m sorry things are so difficult for you at the moment,’ I say. ‘But just to be clear – have you done anything to hurt yourself this morning, Gavin? Or made specific plans to do that?’
‘I’ve been planning to kill myself since I was nine,’ he sighs, carefully pulling out a chair and sitting down. It’s an odd and not entirely comfortable configuration – me and Alexi side-by-side on a low sofa, looking up to Gavin on our right.
‘I have monsters in my head,’ he goes on, rubbing his stubble again, as if that’s all he can do these days to contain them.
‘Do you have a support worker? Or a number to call when things get difficult?’
He shakes his head.
‘No-one can do anything,’ he says. ‘I’m dangerously ill. I have severe heart problems. Lung problems. I almost died when I was rushed into hospital. They didn’t know what was wrong. I collapsed several times. It’s been going on for years. I’m on every medication you can think of.’

We’d looked over his past medical history before setting out. There’d been nothing about heart problems or any other medical issues other than some minor orthopaedic work in the past. He’s not on any medication for anything other than Mental Health.

‘I’m constantly dizzy,’ he goes on. ‘I have pins and needles. I can’t breathe. My legs aren’t working properly. This morning I went outside and collapsed….’
‘I’m sorry to hear that, Gavin. What happened?’
‘My legs buckled.’
‘Did an ambulance turn up?’
‘No,’ he says. ‘I managed to get up again and crawl back inside.’
He looks at me and sighs.
‘I’m fighting for breath,’ he says. ‘I can’t speak. I’m dangerously ill, but no-one can do anything. I know more about my condition than the most senior doctors in the country. I have to tell them what’s wrong with me, and that can’t be right, can it?’
‘It does sound difficult for you.’
‘I’ve tried every approach under the sun. You name it, I’ve done it. Deep meditation, CBT, group therapy. I’ve been exorcised. I’ve done cleansing rituals. I’ve swallowed every antidepressant and antipsychotic that was ever made. I’ve even written a book about my experiences…’
He reaches over to the table behind him and produces a red plastic document pouch bulging with paper.
‘It’s not quite ready to be published but when it is it’ll change the way they do medicine in this country.’
‘What’s it called?’
Don’t Think I Won’t Because I Will’ he says.
‘Amazing.’
He puts it back on the table.
‘The thing is, Gavin – we’re a little limited how we can help you this morning. As you know, we’re a community health team. We either support people coming out of hospital or try to stop them going in to begin with.’
‘I see,’ he says.
‘So – I think this morning we’ve got two options. One is to help you contact the Mental Health crisis line, or the other is to call an ambulance to take you to hospital. I really don’t think hospital is the right thing to do, though. It’s horribly busy there at the moment – definitely not the place to go if you’re feeling anxious or – you know – delicate. So why don’t we ring the crisis line? See what they have to say? They’re the experts. How does that sound?’
He nods, then crossing one leg over the other and hooking his hands around the knee, waits for me to make the call.

The line is answered almost immediately by Rick, a mental health liaison nurse I know well. Rick is the most affable guy you could wish for, addressing the most extreme behaviours with such a soft Irish accent it immediately makes you feel better.
‘Jim!’ he says. ‘How funny! What’re ya doing there today? How can I help…?’
I explain the situation as evenly as I can, then pass the phone over to Gavin. It’s strange to hear Gavin describe his situation: struggling to breathe… collapse…. monsters…. all in the most conversational tones. I can hear Rick responding, gently but firmly getting to the nub of it all. After five minutes, Gavin hands me the phone back.
‘That’s fine, Jim. Leave it with me. I’ve got his notes here. There’s a few bits and pieces we can do. I’m going to ring him back in five minutes and talk some more, but it’s fine if you want to toddle off. Thanks for coming out – and it’s so lovely to talk to you again…!’
‘You, too! See you soon.’
I put the phone back in my pocket.
‘So – is that okay, Gavin? Rick’s going to ring you back in five minutes, and we’re going to head off. But in the meantime, if anything happens, you’ve got some numbers you can call, including 999 in a desperate emergency.’
‘My whole life is a desperate emergency,’ says Gavin, rising and smiling pleasantly. ‘I’ve had fifty years of it.’
‘Good luck with the book,’ says Alexi.

Back outside, we tear off our plastic aprons, our masks and gloves, and breathe in the sharp morning air.
‘I couldn’t work in mental health,’ says Alexi.
‘Me neither,’ I say. ‘I thought about retraining as a counsellor at one time, but I’m not sure I’ve got the patience.’
‘Rick is amazing, though,’ says Alexi. ‘Did you see the way he coped with it? It was like water off a duck’s back. Is that the expression? Water off a duck’s back?’
‘It is!’ I say.
And I think of Rick as one of those lush Mandarin ducks, button eyes and punky hair, splashing about in a big old pond somewhere, bobbing under the water, up again. Under. Up. Shaking off the water. Basically loving it.

primed

Rita stands in the doorway, shifting her slippered weight from side to side in an effort to stop Randolph the dog running out. Randolph is a Jack Russell. Almost completely white, but with splodges of black here and there on his head, as if it was late in the day when they made him and they ran out of paint.

‘Excuse the stickiness in Harry’s room,’ says Rita. ‘Only I spilled his Lucozade and it’s gone all tacky.’

They’re a perfect combination, Rita and Randolph. They could both have stepped out of a painting by Beryl Cook – the cheeky strippergran and her chubby lapdog. Except, you’d need a measure of reinforcement to take Randolph on your lap these days. His delicate legs don’t seem big enough for his hefty body, like someone no-nailsed the legs from a Chippendale desk onto a boiler. The most extraordinary thing about Randolph is his eyes, though. Made of clear blue glass. He stares up at me, and when I bend down to let him sniff my hand, he gives me such a sad and searching look I feel as if I’ve mind-melded with a Vulcan.

‘Harry’s through here,’ says Rita, leading us through the house, along a laminate wood hallway, Randolph’s paws making an emphatic snickering noise as he runs ahead, doing one of those comedy, sideways skids at the turn.

‘Careful!’ says Rita.

Harry is in bed watching the news channel with a frozen expression. Randolph tries unsuccessfully to leap up onto the bed, so Rita gives him a boost. Once he’s made it, Randolph licks Harry’s face, then turns to look up at us, as if to say: There! Ready for you now!

Rita is right about the floor. You have to consciously wrest your foot up from it to stop yourself from permanently sticking. My shoes feel so generously coated I’m tempted to try walking up the walls and across the ceiling – and I would have done it, too, if I could be sure Randolph wouldn’t bark and cause a rumpus.

‘I’ll get some soapy water on that,’ says Rita.

We’re halfway through the assessment when there’s a knock on the door. Randolph launches himself off the bed, crashing against a chest of drawers, then skittering out of the room.
‘Coo-ee!’ sings a woman.
‘That’ll be Joyce,’ says Rita. ‘The first thing she’ll mention is the Amazon boxes. You wait.’

Eventually a leaner and older version of Rita appears in the doorway. She dumps her bags in the hallway, comes into the bedroom to kiss Harry lightly on the forehead, then straightens up again and gives us all a smile-shrug combination that seems designed to say both ‘sorry I’m late’ and ‘isn’t that just like me.’

Then she takes a breath and looks straight at Rita.

‘I see you’ve been online again,’ she says.

the fowling piece

Bill shuffles slowly through the bungalow to his front room, nudging the zimmer frame forward a stretch, working his way painfully back into it, nudging it forward again, his back curved, his neck craning forwards and the skin of his neck slack, like one of those ancient Galapagos tortoises you might see in a documentary, sensing the ocean, inching through the sand towards it.
‘No rush,’ I say to him. ‘Take your time.’
He stops.
‘I’m afraid Time is pretty much all I have these days,’ he says. ‘But at least it means you get a chance to enjoy my gallery.’

There’s a generous spread of photos around us across the walls. A lifetime’s worth, carefully framed and aligned, the early ones faded to the blurry impression of an umbrella or a hat, the new ones hypercoloured portraits of great great whatevers in gowns and mortar boards holding scrolls up with a satisfied expression that seems to say: This is what it all means.
‘Quite a family,’ I say.
‘Yes,’ he says, starting the painful business of moving those enormous velcro shoes forwards again. ‘We did pretty well.’

The front room has three, wide windows that overlook the garden. The sun is so bright it’s like we’re on the deck of a ship overlooking a sea of green. If it is the sea, though, that must be King Neptune, wielding a spade instead of a trident, waving cheerfully as he plants out a row of blood red geraniums.
Bill waves back.
‘Dylan comes every Tuesday. And I’ve got Malcolm at number fourteen who pops in now and again. And my sons are often over. So I don’t do too bad.’
After his recent fall and long stay in hospital, though, it’s clear Bill needs carers to come in every day for help washing and dressing. That’s why he’s been referred to us, and why I’ve come over to do the assessment today.

Taking pride of place on the wall above the fireplace is a large, antique fowling piece, its intricate plates and decorations and its great curved butt making it look more like a gigantic clarinet or something. Below it on the mantelpiece is an extemporary shrine to Bill’s wife June who died last year. There’s the order of service, a dried flower, and then a line of photo frames either side of the two of them at various ages, June always on the left, Bill on the right (although from their point of view it was the other way round, I suppose).
‘We were married sixty years,’ he says. ‘We had a wonderful life.’
‘How did you meet?’
‘At a dance. June was with her friend, Daphne. Daphne tapped her on the shoulder and said to her: See that man over there? He’s alright, isn’t he? And June said: Hands off! He’s mine. And here we are, all those years later. Mind you – her mother wasn’t keen. She was what you might call difficult. She said to me, she said: William? You’ll marry that girl over my dead body. But then she popped her clogs three weeks later, so I suppose you could say it was a sign.’
‘Wow! That’s quite a story!’ I say to him.
‘Yes! Yes, it is,’ says Bill, staring at the mantelpiece – although, whether at the shrine or the gun, it’s impossible to say.

Andre the Nurse

The flat we want is actually round the corner, on the front. Parking there is impossible, so I arrange to meet Andre the nurse outside the Chinese restaurant in an adjacent side street. There’s no time for much conversation; a squall of rain is sweeping in off the sea – so fierce it almost tears the boot from Andre’s car and empties the contents – all the dressings and folders and so on – out into the street. People squeal as they pitter past us, holding bags over their heads, wrestling with umbrellas turned inside out.

‘Let’s go!’ snarls Andre, and we run.

Andre the nurse reminds me of Andre the Giant from The Princess Bride. Not so much in height, although he is pretty tall. It’s more in demeanour, the same lunkishly, lowering kind of look. An ogre in a nurse’s tunic. Andre is basically harmless, though. I’m sure he could spend many happy minutes stroking a dove’s head – if a dove was ever dumb enough to land on his outstretched paw. And if it survived the stroking, and flew off in a dazed and crooked line, I’m sure the dove would feel affectionately towards him, too.

We’ve come to visit Rick, a patient referred to us by the GP, more as a welfare check than anything else, and to see if our team could help out in any way, with care or therapy or nursing and so on. ‘At risk of unconsciousness or death’ the referral had said, bleakly.

‘We’re ALL at risk of that, my friend!’ snorts Andre, buzzing the intercom half a dozen times, and then banging on the main door with the edge of his fist, with such brutal energy you’d think it was a SWAT team calling rather than a nurse from the hospital.

There’s no reply, just as there was no reply from the patient’s phone. Andre seems ready to pick up the block and shake Rick out, but luckily a delivery guy turns up with a code to get in, so we tailgate the rather anxious looking guy and then trudge up the plush steps to the third floor, grumbling about the weather all the way up.

Once we find Rick’s flat, Andre bangs on the door with such force the whole thing jumps in its frame.
‘Nurse!’ he shouts, which would have any sane person leaping from the bathroom window.
I look through the letterbox. The flat is silent, everything under sheets, buckets and paint trays and rollers on the floor.
‘I think it’s being refurbished,’ I say, straightening up. ‘He must be somewhere else.’
Andre sighs, goes to the flat next door and bangs on that, too.

Amazingly, an elderly woman opens it.

‘Oh – so sorry to disturb you,’ says Andre, using a whispery tone of voice so sinister the woman visibly recoils. ‘Me and my esteemed colleague are nurses from the hospital,’ he says. ‘I wonder if you would be so kind as to tell us where Rick is, please?’
The woman shudders, shuffles back in alarm, slams the door. There’s the sound of several bolts being thrown, a chain rattling on. Maybe a small wardrobe dragged into position.
‘Thank you so much!’ says Andre, giving a little salute to the door, then glares at me like I’m somehow responsible.
‘I’ll ring the office,’ I say.
‘You do that, Jimmy,’ says Andre. ‘Meanwhile I will stand here and think about why God is punishing me like this.’

The coordinator sounds sleepy.
‘Yes,’ she yawns. ‘The address is wrong. He’s in a flat on the other side of town.’
‘Great.’
She texts us both the new address. Andre stares down at his phone as if he can’t decide whether to put it in his pocket or on the floor so he can stamp on it.
‘Come on, Jimmy!’ he says, choosing the former. ‘We can’t stay here the rest of our lives.’

The squall has settled into something more terrible, a hybrid inundation somewhere between a hurricane and the Great Flood. Even with the wipers on full it’s difficult to see where I’m going. It gets so bad I could be persuaded I’d left the road completely and was driving along the sea bed, following a whale that fails to indicate when it turns left. More by luck than skill I end up outside the alternative address; Andre parks in front of me and we both run with our coats over our heads to the entrance to the flats, a battered black door with a font of water rushing out of a broken downpipe across the pavement and over our shoes.
Andre beats on the door.
‘Come on! Come on!’ he says.
Just before we have to stop knocking and start treading water, the door opens and Rick stands there, his long hair matted, his beard worse.
‘Yes?’ he says, holding on to the door, then resting his face against the edge of it. ‘Can I help you?’
‘We are nurses from the hospital. Can we come in please?’
It sounds like Andre’s asking for sanctuary, which in a way, of course, he is. Luckily it seems to work. Rick releases his grip on the door and drifts back into the flat.
‘Your doctor asked us to visit,’ says Andre, shaking his coat and slapping the rain from his bald head. ‘Your doctor is worried about you.’
‘Oh?’ says Rick. He trails further back into the flat, sits on something that must have been a sofa once, and starts rolling a cigarette. He’s surrounded by empty cans of lager, and I’m impressed he managed to sit down without disturbing any of them.

Andre drags a stool over and tries to explain the reason for the visit, growling through the basics with the patience of a WWF wrestler called ‘The Nurse’. Rick is oblivious, though, fastidiously licking the strip of gum on the cigarette paper, rolling it, admiring it, then lighting it with the snick of a match.
‘Yes?’ he says, blowing smoke. ‘Er-hmmm.’
‘So this being the case, would you be accepting of such help from us, please?’ says Andre.
‘No,’ says Rick, picking strands of tobacco from his lips. ‘No, I would not.’
‘Do you understand what I am telling you?’ says Andre, almost tearing the folder in half.
Rick sighs, hooks the hair from his eyes, and – strangely – closes them when he looks at Andre
‘Like I said, officer,’ he says, ‘I’m perfectly fine.’
‘Okay. Good. You are perfectly within your rights to refuse, my friend,’ says Andre, trembling from the effort of control. Would you be so kind as to sign here, then?’
‘What’s this?’
‘This? This is a form to say that you do not want any help from us, and that you understand the risks involved in not accepting help,’ says Andre, handing him the paper and tapping with his pen where he wants Rick to sign.
‘What risks?’
‘Unconsciousness and death’ says Andre.
And the way he smiles at Rick, it’s like he doesn’t mind which.

a difficult climb

I haven’t been to this block before and I’m confused by the entrance. There’s no intercom anywhere I can see, and the door seems to be closed. It reminds me of another block on the other side of town. The only way in is to phone the resident and ask them to release the front door, or to knock on the window of the scheme manager’s office (an arrangement that always baffles me, because really – how difficult do you want to make life?)

So figuring this is another place like that, I phone the patient again.

‘Oh really?’ huffs Angela. She lowers the phone and shouts for her daughter to go down because the nurse is ‘outside and doesn’t know how to open a door.’

She says something else, too, but it’s muffled so I can only guess.

After a few minutes, Frances waves to me from the lobby as she approaches. She’s a cheerful, red-faced, middle-aged woman in a bulging tartan skirt and yellow cardigan, her hair so frizzy the hairdresser must stand on a ladder to prune it with shears. But then – I’m so busy remarking on her extraordinary look I don’t realise she’s miming for me to push the door. Which I do – and find it’s been open all along – just a little stiff. And just inside the lobby to the right is a second set of doors with an intercom to the side.
‘How embarrassing!’ I say. ‘Sorry to drag you all the way downstairs!’
She shrugs cheerily.
‘Salad!’ she says.

I know from the notes that Frances has a form of expressive dysphasia that means she struggles to speak in complete sentences and often uses the wrong word. I’d read that she’d come back to live with her mum after her stroke, but that Angela was struggling now, had fallen recently and needed a home assessment.

‘This is such an interesting building!’ I say, making conversation as we walk up the stairs.
Frances nods and smiles back at me, her eyes wide but her lips tightly pursed, as if there were a pressure of words wanting to come out but she couldn’t be sure which to use.

She shows me into the flat – a large, coolly shadowed place with dark parquet flooring, antique furniture, serious photographs in serious frames, and at the furthest end, a floor to ceiling window overlooking the park.

‘Hello Angela!’ I say, putting my bags down. ‘I’m Jim, the nursing assistant from the hospital, come to see how you are and what help you might need.’
‘Have a seat,’ she says, nodding to the scallop backed affair opposite her.
‘Thanks!’
I settle in. Frances climbs up on a stool at the little cocktail bar to the left, stuffs her hands under her thighs and starts gently swinging from side to side whilst Angela scrutinises me. Between the great bony arc of her mouth and her hooded eyes, it feels like I’ve been granted an audience with a giant, royal frog.

‘I can’t believe I had such a struggle getting in,’ I say, laughing drily. ‘I was standing there, pulling away…’
‘You push,’ says Angela.
‘Yes!’ I say, closing my eyes and shaking my head from side to side, like Stan Laurel. ‘I know that now!’
‘Hmm,’ says Angela.

It’s a struggle to make any progress after that. If Angela was resistant to the idea of help before I arrived, nothing I can say now improves the situation. My mouth dries. I become horribly self-conscious, feeling like an imposter who found all this equipment down in the lobby and tried it on for a laugh.

Frances beams at me from her stool, chipping in with non-sequiturs. The shadows in the room close in, take on more weight.

‘What a lovely view of the park!’ I say, finishing off her blood pressure. ‘Beautiful! All the … you know… trees.’
Angela nods.
‘My husband chose this place,’ she says. ‘Then he died.’
‘Oh. I’m sorry.’
‘He was a climber. He went to the Himalayas.’
‘Wow!’ I say, looping the stethoscope back round my neck, just exactly the kind of thing a fraudulent nurse would do. ‘The Himalayas!’ I say, making too much of it. ‘Even I’ve heard of the Himalayas.’

‘Sandwiches!’ says Frances.

Angela ignores us both.

‘He was a well-respected climber,’ she says. ‘He was so good, he used to train people in climbing. All over the world. There wasn’t a mountain he hadn’t climbed. And then, of course, he went to the Himalayas…’
She trails off, gravely rolling down the sleeve of her blouse, like a surgeon about to give bad news.
‘Oh…?’ I say.

She doesn’t react.

I’m desperate to ask if that’s how her husband died, plunging off Mount Everest or being buried alive in an avalanche (all of which I’d rather be doing right now). But that would be a difficult question at the best of times, and I feel about as ready to ask it as a Yeti would feel to knock on the door of a tent and ask if I could come in for tea.
‘So… what happened?’
Angela frowns up at me.
‘What do you mean – what happened?’ she says. ‘We bought this place! What do you think happened?’
I look over at Frances.
‘Christmas!’ she says.