I’m obsessed with Blanche’s hair. It looks like a golden octopus swam up from behind and slapped its tentacles over her scalp.
‘How much did that cost?’ I ask as we park up.
She sucks her teeth with a clicking noise.
‘I am not so sure I would ever do it again. It’s a lot of work just for one month.’
‘It looks amazing, B. I’ve never seen such hair.’
‘My God!’ she laughs. ‘Seriously? Well – when it comes to hair, you should know.’
It’s true. I decided to shave my head a few months ago. I could see I was beginning to thin on top, and I didn’t want to be ‘that guy’, so opted for a basin of cold water and a razor. (The clinical measures I’ll take to avoid being ‘that guy’).
‘Sigourney Weaver chic,’ I tell her.
‘Who?’ she says.
We’re at the door so there’s no time to explain. She rings the bell and we wait.
It’s a beautiful, semi-detached house – semi-detached in that perfectly realised, herbs in planters, careers in banking or higher education. Hydrangeas pulsing into bloom. A neighbour nodding and smiling, watering his SUV.
Emma opens the door. She has a tiny baby in her arms, scrawling its face and arms, protesting the disturbance.
‘Thank you so much for coming!’ says Emma. ‘We do appreciate it. We’re all in the lounge…’
She leads us through the house into a broad, brightly-lit room. Anthony is sitting in a wheelchair, absently holding a white linen handkerchief to his lips. His wife Maureen stands beside him ready to take it.
Emma describes what’s been happening. Her dad is palliative and suddenly much worse. They’d managed to dress him and get him down the stairs, but it took a long time, it wasn’t safe, and they have no idea how they’re going to get him back up again.
‘The OT from the palliative team offered us a hospital bed downstairs earlier in the week but Daddy said no,’ she says.
The equipment company we use has a same day delivery service, but only if the order goes in before midday. It’s already a quarter to, and I’m almost sure they won’t agree. We talk about other options – if they have a cot bed we could put up for them, or even a normal bed we could dismantle and reconstruct. But they don’t have anything we can use temporarily, and all of the beds upstairs are antique, king-sized items. And even if that was feasible, whatever bed Anthony goes into now will need to be adjustable for height so the carers can manage his last days safely and comfortably. He absolutely needs a hospital bed to avoid admission.
Emma and I go into the kitchen so I can make a few calls; Blanche stays with Anthony and Maureen.
Luckily, when I phone the equipment company, Lauren answers. I’ve spoken to her lots of times before, so I take that as some kind of omen. I throw myself on her mercy, describing the situation, apologising for the late order and so on. It’s a desperate move – the equivalent of running outside in a storm, throwing my arms wide, tipping my head back and surrendering to the elements in one great, big, cosmic PLEASE.
‘Get the order in right now,’ sighs Lauren. ‘Should be fine.’
After I’ve called the office, asked them to send the order through with immediate effect, I go back into the lounge with Emma. Everyone’s so relieved. Even the baby seems more settled, hanging onto Emma as suckered as Blanche’s hair. It seems to fall instantly asleep the moment she takes her place in the armchair to the right of her father.
The only person untouched by any of this is Anthony. He sits absolutely upright and still, his waxy, swollen feet placed just-so on the footrests, his eyes half closed under a weight of opiates. Every now and again he dabs at his mouth with his handkerchief, so neutrally it’s like someone else is reaching up to do it. And then, just as we start to talk about what happens next, Anthony stirs a little and starts to tell a story. A funny story, I think, his voice so faint and dry and far away it’s hard to make out. Everyone in the room falls quiet, giving him space to be heard.
‘… and then … the damned phone rang….’ he whispers. ‘…. woke me up… I didn’t know who it was, of course…’
Maureen gently takes the handkerchief from him, hands him a beaker of water, helps him take a sip.
‘… but that’s enough from me…’ he says, after a long pause. ‘Emma must take up the story…’
Emma smiles – blurry, exhausted.
‘Someone rang and woke Daddy up,’ she says, helplessly.
We all laugh – and the sudden noise wakes the baby. It shudders in her arms, throwing out its hands, kicking up its legs. The Moro Reflex, I think they call it. A vestigial spark, a million years in the making. Something about falling.