into the hive

Highdale Lodge sounds like a golfing hotel. Truth is, the nearest it will ever get to a fairway is the smear of grass in the middle of the road running by it, and the only shots the residents make are into-the-vein.

You’d never know it was there if you didn’t know it was there. When the weather’s better you might wonder about the people hanging around, leaning against the wall, but you’d probably think they were something to do with the Magistrate courts in session a few doors down. Because otherwise, Highdale Lodge is ruthlessly, determinedly anonymous, no nameplate or number, utterly forgettable. The building itself seems to sit up from the general run of the street, the first row of windows higher than usual, like the road was subject to flooding or riots. The main door is set back at the end of a narrow recess four or five feet deep, an odd architectural feature, somewhere between an alcove and an alleyway. The door – if you paused long enough to look into the recess – is severe, thickly-painted, double-hinged, more like the fortified entrance to a private citadel than the front door to a hostel. There’s a single, metalled button to the left of it to talk to the staff, linked to a security camera so sturdy it could take a swing from a lump hammer and still be looking down at you.

Everyone who enters the Lodge has to go up a half dozen steps and pass the office counter on the left. It would be a cliche to describe the Lodge as a hive – even though the layout is exactly like a hive, with endlessly bifurcating, shoulder-width corridors leading to a bewildering number of tiny rooms, and everyone who takes you to each particular room seems to do a little wiggle to let you know how to get back – but if I DID feel tempted, and DID describe it as a hive, I’d have to say it would be a particularly busy hive, administratively confusing and always at the point of failure, the kind of hive where every bee has to sign in and out, and many are tagged, and have their stings monitored, and the farmer is at his wits end, desperate for more hives, but you’d have to think there’s no money in honey.

My patient, Keith, seems happy enough, though. To begin with, at least. He stubs out his cigarette and turns on his nebuliser.
‘Sorry about the mess,’ he gasps.
There’s a great smear of damp in the corner, spreading upward like a malignant wave. It’s a poor situation for someone with COPD.
‘I’m hoping to get ah’t of ‘ere soon,’ he wheezes through the mask. ‘It’s a shit’ole. I ave’da go upstairs to the kitchen. Me like I am it may as well be the moon. So it’s not like I even get a decent meal.’

I check him over. Unsurprisingly, his SATS are lower than you’d expect.
‘I don’t need to tell you the smoking’s not helping,’ I say, writing in the folder.
‘Oh – here we go!’ he says. ‘It’s all my fault! Yeah – I know! But listen, mate – it weren’t so long ago they give you a fag with yer bottle a’milk at school. Everyone smoked everywhere, all the time – on the buses, the tube, the pictures. Saturday night, you couldn’t see the cowboys for the smoke! So don’t come round ‘ere blaming me for everything…’
‘I know it’s difficult, Keith. I just meant it’d be better if you could cut down, given how bad your lungs are. Even a little bit. That’s all. There are things around to help, patches and whatnot.’
‘Patches!’ he says. ‘Don’t talk to me about patches! What about them patches over there, eh?’

And he turns away to nod at the damp, and then turns back again, and glares at me over the rim of his mask.

soap

Mr Gates is dying in the living room.

Despite the name, it’s the most appropriate place. As well as being the only room big enough to accommodate the bulky hospital bed and dynamic pressure mattress, it’s also the most pleasant, with wide, sunny windows overlooking the garden, warm and well-lit by the sun for most of the day. It has a TV in the corner, too, specially raised up on a wall-mounting so Mr Gates can watch it from his bed. Unfortunately he’s deteriorated so much now that the Emmerdale repeats aren’t really anything more than comforting background noise. He lies semi-conscious, mouth gaping open, breathing in fitful gasps, hugging a pillow, his wasted legs crooked up. He doesn’t look as if he’d last till the advert break, but apparently he’s been like this for weeks. He doesn’t seem distressed, though, and his son, Frank, who’s temporarily moved back to help look after his father, is bearing up surprisingly well considering.

Everything’s in place. There are District Nurses visiting regularly, the GP has supplied the anticipatory meds, there are carers coming in four times a day to freshen him up. The only hitch is that the bed is jammed in the down position.

‘You couldn’t do it again if you tried,’ says Frank. ‘The carers threw a covered cushion on the floor when they were turning him, forgot about it, and when they lowered the bed it dragged the vinyl cover into the mechanism.’ He bends down to tug at the mess sticking out from one of the hydraulic legs. ‘See what I mean? We’ve tried everything to free it, but nothing’s worked.’

The carers can’t give bed care safely or effectively at this height, so the only option is to install a second bed alongside the first, slide Mr Gates over whilst still on the mattress, dismantle the broken bed, then push him back into position.

Four of us have agreed to rendezvous with Zac, the equipment supplies guy. Zac isn’t thrilled with any of this, not the timing, the circumstances, the interruption to his schedule, and certainly not with the number of people milling around, spoiling his routine.

Zac is covered with tattoos, even into those dangerous and anti-social areas, up the neck and the side of his face. He looks like a Maori warrior – so much so that with the stress of all this I wouldn’t be surprised if he did a war dance, flashing his eyes and poking out his tongue. As it is he gives a series of alarming sighs and grunts, and then hurries back outside to the truck to start off-loading. We follow after him in a line like so many ducklings, and immediately start getting in the way. But I suppose theoretically at least we’re some kind of help; in no time at all we’ve got the parts of the new bed carried inside and placed either foot or head end ready to assemble. Zac declines any help with this.

‘I’ve got a system, okay?’ he says, which mostly seems to be a lot of muttering and kicking.

We want to be on hand to pass things over, though, and ultimately to slide Mr Gates across. So instead of all going out into the hallway, we stand around watching Emmerdale.

I’d guess from some of the clothes and hairstyles it’s from the Eighties. The whole thing seems oddly amateurish, like a skit in a local church hall production. There’s a sad looking woman sitting on a swing, and a huge, red-faced guy in a white shirt and golden bow tie telling her how disappointed he is with her and how could she and so on. At one point she turns her eyes up to him in a pathetically pleading way, kicking herself back a little on the swing.

‘It’s no good, Janet,’ says the man. ‘Spare me the sob story. You’ve played your games for the very last time. We’re finished. Do you understand? Finished!’

He walks off.

The theme music plays, and the TV cuts to an advert – insurance for funeral costs.

We all grimace.

‘Can one of you pass me that?’ says Zac, pointing to a strange looking multi-tool on the floor.

We all go to get it at the same time, then all pull back again.

‘Jesus Christ!’ says Zac.

losing centre

There’s something so vague about Mrs Graham, something so detached, the view out of her living room window, across all the trees and rooftops of town, feels strangely appropriate, like she’s a balloon and someone let go of her string.
‘Wow!’ I say, putting my bags down. ‘That’s quite a view!’
‘Is it?’ she says. ‘I suppose you’re right.’
She sits neatly in her armchair and waits for me to begin.
She’s watching gymnastics on the television with the sound on mute. A female gymnast flic flacs across the mat in the floor exercise, lands, arches her spine, throws her arms high and wide in showy gestures, then takes a couple of sprung skips and hurls herself back in the other direction.
I explain to Mrs Graham who I am and what the visit is for. She listens to me carefully, but she obviously has no idea, no recollection of having been in the hospital, let alone being brought home by the Red Cross just about an hour ago.
Quite how she’s able to live alone like this I’m not sure. She has carers four times a day, and her daughters live at various points around the city, but hour to hour? It’s a mystery. Environmentally the flat is as safe and hazard free as it’s possible to be. There are no immediate trip hazards, things are neatly squared away, the medication in a locked box. My notes say that the cooker is disconnected, there’s a stairgate to discourage her from going downstairs, there are notes taped to various doors with simple instructions – but with such a poor level of recall or understanding, I can’t imagine how she gets by. She was admitted to hospital with a chest infection and not a fall, though, so that’s some reassurance I suppose.
The gymnasts have moved on to the asymmetric bars. A different competitor has just smacked chalk on her hands, acknowledged the start with a hyperflexed gesture, then thrown herself with a half twist through the air to skip across the bars and begin spinning and curling and doubling back.
I ask Mrs Graham what she used to do before she retired.
‘A biochemist. I’m Dutch, originally. I met my husband just after the war and came to England to work. It was a long time ago,’ she says, staring back at the TV. ‘I was a dancer, too,’ she says, without breaking her gaze. ‘There’s a picture of me over there…’
She gestures behind her without looking. I go over to see – and there she is, a young woman en pointe, arms arched delicately above her head, a headdress of white flowers, a tutu. She’s looking wistfully off into the distance stage left, which – given where the picture is hanging – is pretty much directly at where she’s sitting now.
‘Lovely’ I say.
‘Thank you,’ she says, then gives a little flinch as the gymnast tumbles through the air at the end of her routine, lands a little off-balance, puts a foot out to recover, draws it back when she’s found centre again, straightens, acknowledges the crowd, then strides off.

phlebotomagic

Craig is a heavy-set young guy with even heavier-set eyes. He’s sitting in an armchair almost completely walled-in with books, some open, some being used as improvised tables for his bottles of Dr Pepper and No Sugar Sprite. Books on the occult, alien conspiracy theories, tarot. Books on the history of the horror film, on special effects, Warcraft, sorcery, sex magic. Books on PHP, C#, Javascript. And weirdly, a book on rabbits.
‘I’ve come to take your blood,’ I say.
‘Whatever,’ he says.
He’s extraordinary. A long, black pencil moustache trailing down either side of an equally long goatee, giving him the look of a sleepy catfish – except a catfish that had spent as much time in the piercing and tattoo parlours as the mud at the bottom of the lake. His tattoos are amazing. Full sleeve canvases of skulls and roses and ivy leaves, swords, flames, goblins, and here and there a portentous Latin phrase in gothic print.
‘Good luck finding a vein,’ he says, extending his right arm and resting it on the top of a book.
He’s right. It’s going to be tricky. Normally if a patient is large and you can’t see the veins, you can work by feel. In Craig’s case, the intricate lines of ink have raised the skin, so what feels like a vein is actually the stem of a rose or the ribbed hilt of a dagger. I’m prodding around for quite a while. To pass the time we talk about tattoos. I show him mine, the Tree of Life I had done on the top of my left arm. He’s polite about it but doesn’t seem that impressed.
‘There’s a lot of people doing it,’ he says. ‘Most studios can sort you out with that kind of thing.’
‘I went for hand-poked,’ I tell him. ‘I don’t know why particularly. I suppose I liked the idea that’s how people tattooed themselves before electricity.’
‘Yeah,’ he says. ‘The whole primitive thing.’
‘I want to get another one, a bit lower down. It’s quite addictive.’
‘Tell me about it,’ he says.
‘There! What about there? That feels like something.’
He shrugs. ‘If you think. I’m okay with it.’
Amazingly, the blood flows immediately.
‘I can’t believe it!’ I tell him when I’m done, withdrawing the needle and taping on some gauze. ‘I wasn’t at all confident with that one.’
‘It’s the book I was leaning on,’ he says, holding it up so I can read the cover.
Divination for Beginners.
Then slowly strokes his feelers, like that was his plan all along.

naked maria

The cautionary note on Maria’s record was plain enough.
Naturist.
No exclamation point or any other modifier.
Naturist.
Just that. A succinct alert, short but informative.
I think about those signs you see on beaches sometimes: Clothes may not be worn beyond this point. It doesn’t worry me, though. And I suppose it’s good to get the heads up.

What it doesn’t say – and which, in the end, is vastly more relevant – is that Maria likes to live in the dark.

‘Mind yourself,’ says her husband, John, a large, wild-haired man who holds the flat door open and makes an arch with his arm for me to duck under. Leaving the well-lit shared hallway to enter their grotto of inky black is something of an act of faith, only made possible by the thought that John surely HAS to be standing on the floor and not hovering like a malevolent angel over a chasm.

I feel my eyes widen as I struggle to adjust. The absence of light wouldn’t be so bad if the place was clear. As it is, I bark my shins a few times and stumble over – what I take to be – a mobility scooter, a box of junk and either a grandfather clock or a coffin.

‘Careful,’ says John. ‘D’you need a little light there?’
‘Would be good.’
‘Okay then.’ He snaps a switch, and a few, long seconds later a tentative orange glow emanates from a silk covered lamp.
‘Energy saving,’ he says.
‘Thanks.’

Still, it’s better than nothing, just enough to illuminate the room in front of me where Maria is waiting on the sofa. At least naked she’s easier to make out, the mass of her large pale body accentuated by the square of white muslin she’s draped over her middle. She’s like the Venus of Willendorf, on the sofa, with a remote.
‘Sorry, pet,’ she says, putting it to one side. ‘Have a seat.’
‘Don’t worry. I’ll keep moving if that’s okay.’
I think about the torch I’ve got in my bag, and wonder about getting it out.
She shrugs, adjusts her square, then stares past me into the vast plasma TV screen opposite. I’m guessing the TV was on until recently, the images now fallen back into the magical place from whence they came. I look into it, too. It holds the faint image of her naked body, a phantom, caught in the depths of a scrying mirror.

a christmas ghost story

Strictly speaking, Mr Jeffries is a double-up.
Not for the usual reasons – manual handling issues, a history of aggressive behaviour, substance abuse, hazardous environment or a tendency to make accusations – but for something else, something unspecified. So far I’ve been unable to get to the bottom of it, just a series of knowing smiles and nods. I’m supposed to visit Mr Jeffries to take blood, but unfortunately the nurse I was scheduled to go with has had to run out to a blocked catheter, and for one reason or another, there’s no-one else.
‘It’s okay. I don’t mind,’ I tell Anna, the Co-ordinator. ‘I’m fine going on my own,’ .
‘Are you sure, darlink? I’m so sorry there isn’t anyone to go with you. But I’m sure you’ll be fine. You used to work on ambulance before. I’m sure you’ve come across things a lot more – how should I say – strange.’
‘In what way strange, exactly?’
‘Just – you know – strange. Odd. Something different. But there’s no danger involved and you are strong person so I’m sure you’ll be fine. Just go in, get the blood and come out again.’
She smiles at me. ‘Maybe like this…’
She frowns, crossing her arms across her chest.
‘Why? Is it filthy in there?’
‘No! Is not filthy. Is very nice.’
‘What then? Is he a bit lecherous?’
‘Lecherous? What is this lecherous?’
‘You know. Hands everywhere.’
‘No, darlink. No. He is not lecherous. You’re perfectly safe as far as lecherous is concerned.’
‘So what then?’
‘You’ll see. I’m perfectly happy for you to wait until someone becomes available…’
‘It’s fine. I’ll go get the blood.’
‘You are good boy. Very erm… how you say…?’
‘I don’t know. Brave?’
‘No-ooo….’
‘Foolhardy?’
She doesn’t say what she means.

Mr Jeffries doesn’t answer his phone, which is something the notes say is typical for him. He has a keysafe, though. The only thing is to go there and take a chance he’s in.

* * *

Mr Jeffries lives on the top floor of a run-down block of flats. The architect must have designed the place in a rush over breakfast, because it’s exactly like an upturned cereal box, with a lift at either serving long, unbroken corridors of doors and security grilles. If by the day the block is austere, at night it’s perfectly bleak. The lamp out front flickers, animating the entrance in such a menacing way I can’t help zipping my jacket to the neck and shouldering my bag more squarely. Inside is worse, utterly lightless, with that heavy kind of dark you’d think was pumped in from deep underground. The corridor lights only come on when you move, and even then there’s a delay, so the effect is of a steady falling forwards, disconcerting, not at all pleasant.

I knock on Mr Jeffries door. There’s a muffled answer. I use the key and let myself in.

The flat is warm, close, unaired, filled wall to ceiling with shelves and shelves of books – art, astrology, folklore, history, that kind of thing. Mr Jeffries is sitting in his lounge on an electric wheelchair, as perfectly contained in the glow from his desk lamp as a hunched insect preserved in amber.
He spins round to face me, and the first thing that strikes me are his eyes, wide-set and unblinking, tub-water grey, with a diverging bulge that gives him an acute and predatory appearance. That, coupled with his dry smile and knowing demeanour are as unsettling as you could get, and I suddenly understand why Anna thinks this is a double-up.
‘I suppose you’ve come for my blood,’ he says, arching his long fingers together and scrutinising me over the top of them. ‘The doctor doesn’t think I need it, but I think I know more about my condition than a simple GP. If only I had more energy – and a better prognosis – I’d sue them for millions. But really – what good what that do me?’
‘I don’t know,’ I say.
‘No. I don’t suppose you do.’
He parts his hands in a simple gesture of letting go, but then his attitude hardens just as suddenly.
‘Here’s what I need you to do…’ he says, and then tells me where to set up my things, what bottles to use, what the tests need to show and so on.
‘Some people find me intimidating,’ he says. ‘My last consultant actually started to shake.’
‘I don’t think I’ll shake,’ I tell him, although it’ll be a miracle if I don’t. ‘I’ll save the shaking for afterwards.’
It helps when I find out that Mr Jeffries used to dialyse in the renal department around the time I was a ward clerk there. I don’t remember him – and I feel sure I would – but it means we have a shared history of names and places I can use to distract him from focusing too much on me.
‘No,’ he says, interrupting a story about one of the PD nurses with red hair out of a bottle, ‘not that vein. Use that one, there…’
It’s annoying, but he’s right. The blood starts to flow, and I’m immediately more relaxed.
‘So you had a transplant?’ I say.
‘I’ll tell you a little story about that,’ he says. ‘The department had been having a run of deaths. A whole year of them. So much so that everyone was beginning to lose faith in their abilities. It was nothing to do with that, of course. But people divine all manner of things from simple coincidence. When it came to me, the consultant brought the kidney back himself, in a box on the backseat of his car. Can you imagine? It was a few years ago, of course. Things are different now. Anyway, I was prepped and readied. Everyone wished me luck. And that was that. The next thing I knew, I was waking up in the recovery room. I was conscious of someone standing by the bed, and I thought it was a nurse. But when I turned to look, I saw a young woman, right beside me, staring down at me, with the oddest expression. Not sad – no. Not angry. Just – I don’t know – confused. She stood there for the longest while. So long I couldn’t bear it. I said Thank you for the kidney, closed my eyes, and prayed she would leave me alone. When I opened my eyes again the surgical team were standing around me, everyone smiling, waving blood results in the air, relieved the operation had been a success and their run of bad luck ended. Who was the girl who gave me the kidney? I asked them. She came to me. They dismissed my experience as post-operative hallucinations, and, of course, it was policy for them never to disclose any information about the donor. I knew it wasn’t a hallucination, though. I’ve always been able to see things. Some people can. A little while later, just before I left the unit for good, I saw the consultant again. ‘Who was she?’ I asked him. ‘Let’s just say she was a woman who was formerly wealthy.’ What does that mean – formerly wealthy? What do you think it means?’
‘I don’t know. It’s an odd expression. Maybe he was speaking metaphorically. Maybe he meant wealth as in life, and formerly because she lost it.’
I tape some gauze to the crook of his arm. He gently holds his fingers to it, as if he’s healing the wound by the power of touch.
‘I never saw her again,’ he says. ‘Which is a shame, because she seemed so lost.’
And he turns his enormous eyes up to me, and I have to look away, because I don’t want to see my own reflection contained in them.
‘All done!’ I say, shaking the vials of blood.
‘Thank you,’ he says. ‘You’ve been most kind.’
‘You’re welcome.’
And he watches me closely as I pick up my things and go.

how to make an impression

‘To begin with, I’m not Cedric. I know it says Cedric on my birth certificate and all those official places, but it’s really a terrible mistake. I wouldn’t have the faintest idea how to be a Cedric. I think my parents must have lost at cards or had some kind of fit or something. So although it says Cedric, please feel free to ignore it and call me Bill. Everyone else does.’
He settles back in his armchair.
‘The bathroom’s through there if you’d like to wash your hands,’ he says.
‘It’s okay. I’ve got a bottle of hand cleanser here.’
‘As you wish.’
I take a small bottle out of my bag and pull the cap off. I’m a little heavy-handed, though. When I squirt some foam onto my left palm, a gob flies over and lands on the leather pad of an antique writing desk.
‘Oops,’ I say. ‘Sorry.’
‘Will it stain?’
‘I shouldn’t think so.’
‘Here. Give it a dab, would you?’
He passes me a pressed cotton handkerchief and I gently pat the area. It doesn’t look great, but I’m hoping the difference in colour is due to the wetness rather than any damage caused by the antiseptic soap.
‘Oh,’ I say. ‘Have you got any polish? I’m sure that’ll sort it out.’
‘Hm’ he says. He takes the handkerchief back from me, folds it up and puts it on the little table next to him.
Bill is so immaculately dressed – hair oiled and combed to one side, silver moustache trimmed to an even millimetre around his mouth, a precisely knotted tie just visible at the V-neck of a treacle-coloured jumper, an ironed crease running mid-leg down to a pair of monogrammed slippers – he hardly looks real. In fact, he’s so perfect I wouldn’t be surprised if, when he stood up and turned sideways, he revealed that he was in fact a tall, beautifully illustrated, two-dimensional bookmark.
Funnily enough, Bill used to be an antiquarian bookseller, a job he strode into when his frigate docked for the last time after the war. It’s easy to imagine him, sitting at the back of the shop, reverentially turning the pages of a rare book, then swiping off his glasses and getting down to business.
‘One thing I do want you to do is look at my back,’ he says.
‘Because of the fall?’
‘Yes.’
‘So what happened, Bill? I read the ambulance report but I wouldn’t mind hearing it from you.’
‘Would you? Very well. It happened about a week ago now. I was getting out of bed to visit the bathroom in the early hours, as one does. Especially at this age. Several times. So anyway, I sat there a moment on the edge of the bed, collecting my thoughts, berating my fate and so on, and I thought – I wonder what the time actually is? So I reached forward to look at the watch I keep on the dressing table. Well – for some reason that I cannot account for, that simple gesture extended, and extended, and the critical point came and I just couldn’t help myself. I think as I rolled forwards I must have turned and caught my back on the dressing table, because apparently I have a mark there that rather supports the supposition.’
‘Okay. Let’s have a look, then.’
He stands up, and then holds on to his zimmer frame whilst I untuck him and expose his back. As well as a livid, generalised bruise across the upper left side, there’s the impression of one half of a dressing table drawer – the corner of it, mostly, with some of the ornamental handle – everything picked out in a livid red line.
‘Ouch!’ I say. ‘That’s pretty harsh! It’s so clear I could almost read you the name of the cabinet maker.’
‘Yes. Well – it is a fine piece. I bought it at auction fifty years ago. Probably paid a little over the odds but what can I say? It rather made an impression on me.’
And he gives me a perfect, stage wink as he begins the painstakingly slow process of gathering together his many layers and tucking himself back in.