mr n.

Mr Norrington has a long history of disappearing. When he goes, he goes suddenly, ‘Marie Celeste’ style, flat door open, television blaring, lights on, mug of tea cooling on the table. And where he goes? No-one has the faintest idea.

Reading his notes, it seems that things just build up. He gets agitated by the number of health professionals calling round, becomes increasingly non-compliant, combative, even aggressive. The last notes on his file are succinct.
At this point Mr Norrington decided to become angry and order us out of the flat, slamming the door behind us and banging on the glass with his fist. Double-up visits only, please.

That evening he was gone. And – following the protocol for any patient that vanishes whilst under our care, and especially with someone with so many health problems – we were obliged to do the usual ring-arounds, the hospital, next of kin, scheme manager, drunken friend, all of whom had pretty much the same thing to say, which was that basically this was what he did, and to try not to worry too much. The same protocol was clear that we should register his disappearance to the police, who (I imagine) took down the details with the same level of enthusiasm as the person giving them.

We can’t discharge the space on our case list where a patient used to be. So the consequence was that over the next few weeks Mr Norrington kept cropping up, albeit in an oblique, third-hand kind of way. You’d overhear someone mention his name on the phone, or two people talking about him in the kitchen, or see that someone had been tasked to go round and see if he’d come back, or liaise with the police again. It wouldn’t have surprised me to see a gang of nurses wearing t-shirts with his face on them climb out onto the roof of the old hospital and set off a flare. Monitor the radio. Stakeout his flat with coffee cups on the dashboard, doughnuts, cigarettes.

It’s the last hour of my shift. I’ve finished my visits, all the follow-up admin. I’ve put in a mileage claim, looked over my workload for the following day, organised my files. I’m so bored, I’ve even cleaned up the kitchen and put the dishwasher on. But there’s still an hour to go.
‘Shall I pop round and see if Mr N’s back?’ I say to Anna, the co-ordinator.
‘Yes but he is double-up, darklink,’ she says. ‘It’s too dangerous for you to go on your own.’
‘I’m fine with it,’ I say, yawning. ‘I promise I’ll be careful. And if anything happens, I accept full responsibility.’
‘It’s not that – it’s just we worry about you. I would hate for something to happen to you.’
‘Me too.’
‘You know what I mean. This Mr N he is very difficult and has very sharp teeth like wolf. Did you read his notes? He sounds to me quite an angry person.’
‘He does. But I won’t go inside. I’ll just pop round and see he’s alright. Then I’ll go. I don’t suppose he’ll want me to hang around.’
‘No. Only if he hungry and need somethink to roast for dinner. Oh my goodness! I’m scaring myself! Okay, Jim. You go and knock on the door. But keep us updated – okay? – and don’t take any unnecessary risk. We care very much about you, and anyway, tomorrow is busy day. We’ll be screwed if you not here.’
‘I promise I won’t take any risks. Back in a minute.’
‘Okay, darlink. Take care.’

I know this block well. I’ve been to any number of patients here, both in my time in the ambulance and latterly the rapid response community team. During the day the car park is crowded and impossible to get in; now, the lights in the corner cast their lights like ghostly nets across the empty lot. I strap my rucksack firmly on my back, being careful to take the torch out and put it easily to hand in my side pocket. I zip up my computer bag and carry it firmly in my left hand. If there’s any dodging or running or defending to do, it’s best to be zipped-up, well-balanced and ready to go. I remote-lock the car, and set off.

At the main entrance to the block I buzz Mr N’s flat, and wait. The only response I get is the barking of a fox somewhere off behind me in the communal gardens, a lonely, desperate sound, like someone being murdered.

I buzz the remote manager, aware of the security camera, ringed in tiny white halogen lights, monitoring me from high up in the canopy. When they answer I explain who I am and who I’ve come to see. They let me in.

I take the lift, even though it’s only three floors. Just before the lift door opens, I wonder if Mr N has been so enraged by his flat being buzzed he’s standing waiting for me in front of the doors with a cheese grater or worse, so I take a step back. The lift doors slide open; the hallway lights click on automatically, and then flicker in a cliche but appropriate manner.

I wait a moment. Peer round. Nothing. No-one.

Mr N’s flat door is shut. There’s a single panel of safety glass in the centre of the upper half. No lights visible within. I ring his flat bell, which has a slightly fried tone, no doubt exhausted by the number of fingers that have pressed it over the months and years.
No answer.
Because I’m not sure he would have heard the doorbell, I knock on the safety glass.
Almost immediately, there’s a voice from the other side.
Who is it? Who’s there?
‘Oh! Hi! My name’s Jim. I’m a nursing assistant. From the hospital. Sorry to disturb you, Mr Norrington, but I’ve just popped round to see you’re okay.’
There’s a significant pause – just enough time to take a deep breath or grind some teeth, or both – and then a blurry face slides into view from the right and presses its cheek and eye against the glass. It’s an eerie, other-worldly effect, a splodge of approximate flesh, like a painting by Francis Bacon – the dark of the eye, the white of the teeth – sectioned into grids by the wire of the safety glass, the whole painting fitfully illuminated by the flickering hall lights.
When will you people leave me ALONE? I told them I didn’t want anyone coming round! It upsets me!
‘I’m sorry it upsets you, Mr Norrington. We don’t want to do that. We’re just worried about you and want to make sure you’re okay.’
Of course I’m okay? Why wouldn’t I be okay?
‘The last nurse who visited found your flat door open, the lights and everything on, you know. They just thought – they WORRIED – something had happened.’
So I like to go for a walk sometimes. Is that against the law?
‘No. Of course not.’
I can leave my front door open if I want to. It’s a free country.
‘It’s not very safe.’
I don’t care if it’s safe or not. It’s my flat. I can do what I want.
‘It’s more than that, though, Mr Norrington. They’re worried you’re not taking your medication and you might become very unwell.’
So what are you going to do? Force the pills down my throat? I’d like to see you try…
‘Absolutely, not. Look, Mr Norrington. I’m sorry to have disturbed you. I’ll tell them back at the hospital not to bother you anymore.
You called the police on me, didn’t you?
‘Well – not me, personally. But one of us did, yes. We’re obliged to do it when someone under our care goes missing.’
They came round and caused me all kinds of problems. YOU did that.
‘I’m sorry you found it upsetting. But y’know – the easiest way to avoid all this is to answer the phone or talk to someone calmly when they come round to see you. When you explain what it is you want – or don’t want – they’ll leave you alone. How does that sound?’
He doesn’t say anything.
Suddenly his face turns, draws back from the glass, there’s a swift flash of white, and the door resounds with a punch.
‘Okay, Mr Norrington. Okay. I’ll say goodbye then.’
He punches the door again, followed by a kick.
‘I’m glad you’re back safe and well, though.’
He presses his face back against the glass, not so much to see if I’ve gone, but to sense if I have, in a nightmarishly animal way.

I take the stairs. It’s quicker.

stand by me

It’s Fifties karaoke at the Eventide Residential Care Home – so loud the care assistant who answers the door has to lean in to hear who it is I’ve come to see.
‘In the conservatory!’ she shouts, laying a hand on my shoulder. ‘Are you alright to give the injection there? I’ll put a screen round.’
She hurries off to fetch it, and I wait with my bags in the hallway. I don’t want to add to the chaos in the lounge. They’ve set the chairs back around the edge of the room to make space, but even so it’s looking pretty busy. There are residents dancing with the staff, relatives slumped on chairs next to sleeping residents, a handyman struggling through with a box of tools (who decides that doing a restrained kind of jive is the easiest way to make any progress); a kitchen assistant keeping everyone topped up with tea and biscuits, the whole scene dominated by a gigantic, floor-to-ceiling plastic christmas tree flashing its lights in and out of time to the music, and a giant plasma TV screen on the wall, scrolling through the lyrics of the current song.

It strikes me you could take any Fifties hit and find a poignant match with the scene in a home for people suffering from advanced dementia.

Now playing?
There Goes My Baby – The Drifters.

I decide to sit down on a padded bench to keep out of the way until the assistant returns.
An elderly woman in an electric blue dress and pure white hair swept up in a bun comes and sits next to me.
‘How are you today?’ I ask her.
She smiles in a non-committal away and shakes her head from side to side.
‘Love the decorations!’ I say, glancing around. The truth is – they make me feel a little scratchy. We’re not even done with November, and here we are in a thorough-going grotto, surrounded by strobing lights, silver lanterns, baubles, tinsel – as thickly applied as if someone had been given a box of tack and told to empty it in five minutes or else. What makes the effect even more dizzying is the number of mirrors around the place, one behind the bench, and one behind the reception counter opposite, so that whichever way I look, the decorations, my reflection and the reflection of the woman sitting next to me are replicated over and over and over, smaller and smaller, all the way to infinity.
‘Lovely to have the music!’ I say to the woman.
She shakes her head, smiling coyly. And then – just as I think she’s happy not to speak but just to sit there, she suddenly leans in and starts an intense monologue, so random I struggle to follow the logic of it.
‘Oh!’ I say – and then, tapping my ear – ‘Sorry! It’s really hard to hear with everything going on!’
The woman laughs and slaps my knee, as if I’d said something shocking, just as the assistant comes back, pushing the kind of hospital screen you might see in a Carry On film.
‘Alright?’ she says. ‘Put him down, Samantha! This way!’

The assistant uses the screen ruthlessly, like a kind of snow plough, but even so, getting through is a tricky business. I end up jigging about in her wake with a couple of residents. One of the relatives slumped in the chairs gives me a sad kind of smile.

Now playing?
Ain’t That A Shame – Fats Domino.

The conservatory is obviously being used as a refuge for any resident who doesn’t care for rock n’roll. Margaret, the patient I’ve come to see, has a blanket over her head. Her daughter Leonie is sitting next to her, looking as washed-out as the mug of tea she cradles.
‘Margaret?’ says the assistant, gently stroking her hand and then slowly pulling the blanket clear. ‘The nurse is here to give you an injection.’
‘Lucky you!’ says Leonie, looking at me with a smile that segues into a grimace.
Margaret looks outraged.
I kneel down in front of her.
‘I’m so sorry to disturb you, Margaret! It’s a real nuisance, I know – but I’ve been asked to give you another one of those injections? Is that alright?’
‘It goes in your tummy,’ says Leonie. ‘It’s not so bad, mum. D’you remember? From yesterday?’
If Margaret does remember she makes no sign, looking down at me in horror.

Another assistant comes through with Margaret’s yellow nursing folder and a box of Enoxaparin. There’s nowhere to set the folder down and fill out the scrip, so I do my best to do it all in mid-air whilst the assistants negotiate enough space to put the screen around Margaret’s chair. I’m on the outside of it for the moment, which is fine – except I’m immediately accosted by a tiny woman as fierce and pointy as a vole in a twinset. She stands by the screen and starts picking ineffectually at the fabric whilst muttering bitterly about something.
‘Are you okay?’ I say to her. ‘We won’t be long.’
She comes right up to me and starts talking quickly and severely – about what it’s impossible to know.
‘I love this music!’ I say at an opportune moment. ‘What d’you think? Do you like rock n’roll?’
She starts back, frowning in such an angry way I think I might have touched on exactly the wrong thing.
‘Classical? Maybe they’ll have a classical session next week…?’
Luckily the assistants have finished setting up the screen. The second assistant leads the angry woman away whilst I duck behind the screen and prepare to give the injection. It all goes smoothly, thank goodness. Leonie kisses her mum and puts the blanket back over her head whilst I clear up and the assistant folds the screen away.
‘I’ll just take this back then I’ll let you out,’ she says, pushing it through the lounge.
‘Okay. Won’t be a second.’
As I’m writing a brief note in the yellow folder, the resident in the chair next to Margaret, a large, slack-faced man in a business suit two sizes too big, holds out a Ribena carton to me.
‘No thanks!’ I say. ‘I’m fine!’
But then he shakes it, I realise it’s empty and he wants me to take it away.
‘Yep! Okay!’ I say, balancing it on the folder with the rest of my rubbish.
It’s easier getting through the lounge, thank goodness. The music is slower and the floor has cleared, apart from the angry woman doing a slow foxtrot with the second assistant.

Now playing?
Stand by Me – Ben E. King

funny old birds

Jean’s living room is freezing – and no wonder. The patio doors are open, set a few inches apart down the centre, a chilly wind blowing straight through.
‘I’ve got … claustrophobia,’ says Jean. ‘I can’t bear … to be shut in.’
‘They stay open all the time,’ says her son, Garry. He’s sitting opposite Jean on the sofa, his hands buried deep in his jacket pockets, his right knee bobbing up and down. I’m not surprised he’s still wearing his outdoor clothes, including a knitted bobble hat with ear flaps, so cute I half expect to see mittens on cords when he takes a hand out to rub his nose. ‘It’s permanently winter in this place. I’m not kidding. You get snow blowing in. Snowmen. Penguins. The lot.’
‘I don’t mind,’ says Jean. ‘I have to see … open sky.’
‘I’ve sorted it so you can’t pull the doors any further,’ says Garry, jumping up to go over and demonstrate. He hauls on the doors so violently the panes shake, obviously one of those guys who likes to test things to destruction. ‘It’s pretty secure,’ he says. ‘I did a bang up job.’ He gives the doors another almighty tug that almost shatters the glass, then shrugs and comes to sit back down. ‘You’d have more chance squeezing through a letterbox.’
‘He’s very good,’ says Jean. ‘With his hands, anyway. Very practical. Aren’t you, Garry?’
‘Yeah,’ he says. ‘Practically insane.’
Jean is sitting on the side of her electric bed, her nasal cannula connected to a spool of green plastic tubing that snakes across the carpet to an oxygen concentration unit. The unit whirrs and rattles; Jean’s shoulders rise up and then drop back down again in a mechanical, gasping kind of rhythm that you’d think was activated by the machine – which, in a way I suppose, it is.
‘Good ‘ere, innit,’ says Jean.
Suddenly there’s a flash of white and orange at the window, a raucous cry, and a huge seagull lands just the other side of the patio doors. It flaps its wings once or twice, then stares at us through the gap.
‘Steven!’ says Garry. ‘It’s Steven Seagal. Geddit? Steven Sea-Gull? Seagal? Yeah?’
‘That’s a good one!’ I say. ‘Like it!’
‘What is it, Steven? You want some food? Let’s see what we’ve got for you today.’
Garry goes into the little kitchen, starts opening cupboards and slamming them shut again. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Steven hop through the gap and follow him, but he seems content to stay where he is.
Jean stares at the seagull; the seagull stares at Jean.
‘Funny creatures … aren’t they?’ she gasps. ‘Look at him!’
‘They’re pretty fierce, close up. I wouldn’t like to get on the wrong side of one.’
‘Oh – they’re alright!’ she says. ‘Smarter’n … some I could … mention.’
I wonder who she means, but she stops talking and concentrates on her breathing again.
Garry comes back in with a single slice of white bread.
‘There you go, Steven!’ he says, posting it through the gap. ‘Wrap your beak round that!’
The bird backs away a little, then raises its wings, jabs forwards with its head, grabs hold of the slice, bends down, and springs away into the air.
‘How he can fly with that thing in his gob I don’t know,’ says Garry, standing at the window, watching him go. ‘Now look! All the other birds are taking off after him! Nah! He’ll be alright though. He knows Kung Fu, don’t he? He’s a black belt seagull.’ Then he turns round and does a comedy chop in mid-air with the edge of his hand. ‘Hiya!’
‘Yes,’ gasps Jean. ‘Funny old … birds.’


Ella’s flat faces the sea – so close you could run out of the front door, across the road and dive straight in. When I step out of the car I can’t help but stand for a moment and take it all in. There’s a break in the morning rain, the sun is shining powerfully, and suddenly the sea is a phosphorescent slice of pure light. The wind turbines on the horizon are as clear as I’ve ever seen them, delicate cuts of white, their rotors imperceptibly turning against the inky clouds of the next weather front.

When I’d rung ahead to make the appointment, Ella had said to use the keysafe to let myself in. It’s a complicated arrangement, though. Ella’s flat is on the ground floor, but because the building is in a conservation area the keysafe has to be hidden away in the basement. ‘It’s in the second cupboard on the right,’ she’d said. But the front door is in the centre of the building with two windows either side, so in fact there are two basement flats, right and left of the main steps. It feels intuitive to take the steps down the right hand side basement, but when I get there I find only one cupboard, fixed with a rusting padlock. So I go back up, down the other steps, find the keysafe, retrieve the keys, come back up. There are three keys on the keyring; none of them fits the front door. I stand there stupidly for a minute, jangling the keys, trying to figure out how this could possibly make sense – until I look up, and realise I’ve actually gone one door along.

As it turns out, I didn’t need the keys. Ella’s son Peter and his wife Becky are with her. Ella stands in the middle of the living room, still in her hospital gown, tags on her wrists, holding on to her zimmer frame, whilst they put her shopping away.
‘I bought you plenty of pineapple,’ says Becky, holding up a plastic carton as big as the fruit itself. ‘I know you like it.’
‘Where does this go?’ says Peter, waving a pack of panty liners in the air.
‘Bedroom cabinet, second drawer down,’ says Ella. And so on.

The room is like a domestic version of a royal court, the walls dressed in rich tapestries and huge, abstract paintings, the furniture a mixture of ethnic and modern, the rug on the floor intricately patterned. With the sunshine streaming in through the windows, the whole thing has a rich, painterly feel, like Caravaggio decided to branch out from biblical scenes, this one called: ‘The Hospital Discharge’.

‘Let’s get you sat down,’ I say to her. ‘Then we’ll talk.’
She shuffles over to a chair set in the middle of the room, very much like a throne, with claw feet, woven back, and – incongruously – a pressure cushion.
‘I feel absolutely dreadful,’ she says when she’s settled.
‘In what way, dreadful?’
‘Just that. Dreadful. What more do you need?’
‘Are you in pain?’
‘Pain? Everywhere, darling.’
‘Where do you feel it most?’
She waves a hand in mid air.
‘Agony,’ she says.
‘Do you feel sick?’
‘Sick? No.’
‘Short of breath?’
‘I’m always short of breath. Haven’t you read the notes?’
‘Yes, but I just want to see how you are right now – if anything’s worse, or about the same…’
She closes her eyes and gently shakes her head.
‘If by the same you mean dreadful, then yes, I’m the same.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
‘And I’m sorry to feel it.’
‘I got you some of those yogurts you like,’ says Becky, from the kitchen.
‘I couldn’t possibly,’ says Ella. ‘Not in a million years.’
‘Well – I’ll put them in the fridge for later.’
‘If you must.’
‘Right. I’ll just do some obs and then we’ll take it from there,’ I say, unpacking my bag and then kneeling in front of her chair.
‘Obs?’ says Ella, suddenly glaring down at me. ‘What d’you mean, obs?’
‘Observations. Your blood pressure, temperature, that kind of thing.’
She sighs, then closing her eyes and resting her head back, holds out her hand – whether it’s for me to kiss or put the SATS probe on, it’s hard to say.
‘If you think it will help,’ she says.

the wonderful thing about tigger

Carl climbs back into bed and slowly pulls the covers up to his chin. He’s a frail, tentative man in his forties, skin like parchment paper, his teeth sharp and defined. I’m surprised he’s been discharged home like this, but then again, he’s a convincing witness, and they’re short of beds on the psych wards.

‘I’m over it,’ he says. ‘I won’t be trying to kill myself again.’ He grimaces, and pulls the covers even more tightly around him.

This last time was the second attempt. Carl had taken an overdose of medication he’d stored up over time. He’d panicked at the last minute and called a friend, who’d dialled 999. When the paramedics broke the door down Carl was in cardiac arrest. They managed to get him back, though, and after a prolonged stay in hospital – a couple of weeks in intensive care, a month on the wards – he’d been discharged home with community support.

It’s a nice flat, but so bare you’d think Carl had just moved in. Even though he’s an artist, there are no pictures on the walls apart from two, childish, brightly-coloured crayon drawings of a dragon and a butterfly. The bare boards seem to go on for miles, from Carl’s bedroom at the back of the house to the huge bay windows at the front. By the bed he has an alarm clock and a glass of water. At the foot of the bed is a stuffed toy: Tigger, from Winnie the Pooh.

‘Tigger saved my life’, says Carl. ‘When I came out of ITU I only had the strength to stroke his head. It gave me power, though. Sounds silly but it’s true. He was my best friend in there. He kept me going, stood up for me. I mean – ITU was the worst. It was a nightmare. You’d think I was unconscious to look at me, but I wasn’t. Everything was out to get me – the equipment, the nurses. Everything was holding me down trying to climb inside me. I struggled like mad. One time I even threw myself out of bed. I just climbed over the cot sides and ended up on the floor – drips, lines, cables, the lot. Everyone came running. I thought they were coming to finish me off so I fought like crazy. Then they sent me back under. Next thing I knew Dad was standing by the bed on the ward. He looked so old and sad and worn out. It was Dad who gave me the spare kidney when I needed it, a few years ago. He’s amazing, my Dad. He came all the way down from Cumbria to see me. On the train. That’s a long way! I just kept thinking about him, sitting there, staring out the window. But when he got here I didn’t know what to say to him. Other than sorry, obviously. The worst thing was, when he left me at the hospital he came back here to sleep – in this bed, where I did the deed. That made me feel very strange. But he couldn’t afford a hotel, so I suppose it made sense. I wondered how I’d cope, coming back to this flat. It’s been alright, though. I don’t think about it all that much. Funny, isn’t it?’

the man with all the goals

Melvin answers the door in his pants. He’s quite a sight. Wild white hair sweeping back from his head, a long, ginger-white goatee to match; perfectly round gray-blue eyes, and the kind of ravaged and rangy body you might see trotting alongside your jeep on the Serengeti.
He doesn’t speak. He just stands there, staring at me, one hand on the door, one hand adjusting himself.
‘Hello!’ I say. ‘My name’s Jim. From the Rapid Response Team. I’ve come to see Helen.’
He smiles suddenly, a wide, gummy affair, but makes no other sign that he’s understood what I’ve just said.
‘Here’s my badge’ I say, holding it up.
He glances at it, then carries on staring at me.
‘Is it okay if I come in and see her, d’you think? Helen?’ I pause. ‘Is she in?’
He opens the door wider, still holding on to it, which I take as an invitation to come in. It’s a squeeze to get past him, though, especially with all my bags. The hallway is so tiny there’s barely room for the two of us. I’m expecting Melvin to make some room, but he doesn’t.
‘I’ll take my shoes off,’ I say, struggling in the cramped space. ‘It’s a bit wet outside.’
‘If you don’t mind,’ he says, suddenly animated, as if the last minute or so was just a technical glitch. ‘We’ve had so many people in and out.’
‘No worries,’ I say. ‘I bought these shoes ‘cos they’re easy to slip on and off. There! Good! Okay! So – shall we go through…?’

The sitting room is swelteringly hot. The gas fire’s on all-bars, and the air ripples above a free-standing radiator (all of which explains the pants). Melvin hops over to his chair and goes through an athletic, sitting down routine, involving him taking his weight on his arms, raising his legs, lowering himself slowly, then folding his bony arms and legs and smiling with a self-satisfied leer.
Helen waves me over.
‘Ignore him,’ she says.

The examination is straightforward. Everything’s fine. Helen’s recovering well and she’s happy to be home. I tell her we’ll be discharging her from our service, but that it’s easy for us to come back if anything changes.
Melvin watches the whole procedure with intense interest. Whilst I’m writing up the notes, he starts talking again.
‘I played a lot of football,’ he says, as if I’d asked. ‘A lot of football. But it did my head in. Have you heard that before?’
‘D’you mean sport and head injuries? I think I heard something.’
‘It’s the big leather balls. Laces down the middle. I played centre forward. I was heading it all the time.’
‘I suppose it wouldn’t do your brain much good. All that shaking. Like boxers.’
‘I did boxing, too. And rugby. You bang your head a lot in rugby.’
‘You certainly do.’
‘But football was the main thing. I did all the trials. I played semi-professionally for years. One game I scored eleven goals. This guy comes up to me after, and he says How’d you do it, Melvin? How’d you score all them goals? And I says to him What goals? I don’t know what you mean, mate. The ball comes to me, something happens, it’s in the net. That’s it. It’s a natural thing, like breathing. They sent me to Germany.’
‘Did they?’
‘This German coach, he runs over to me. He leans in … like this … and he wags his finger in my face… like this … and he says You! You’re the man with all the goals. You’re a professional. You shouldn’t be here. So I says to him Mate! What goals? I don’t know what you’re talking about. The ball comes over – it’s on my head – it’s in the net. That’s it. It’s got nothing to do with me.
‘How’d he take it?’
‘How’d who take what?’
‘The German manager. How’d he take hearing about all the goals?’
Melvin shrugs.
‘He could see,’ he says. ‘He knew what he had there.’
‘So then what happened?’
‘I came back, didn’t I? Got a job in a laundry. And here we all are!’
‘Just ignore him,’ says Helen.

batteries not included

Stella has known Glad for quite a few years. More than she cares to think about. Lately their friendship’s been under something of a strain, though. Glad has become increasingly obsessed with her dolls – expensive, hyper-realistic babies with internal motors that give them a heartbeat and make them breathe. The dolls are so authentically painted and well-made you’d never know they were fake until you got up close.

‘Her son gets them for her – why, I couldn’t possibly say,’ says Stella. ‘They cost an absolute packet. You have to send away for them. To America or somewhere. She spends hours going over the details, telling them what she wants. Then he buys them with his credit card. I don’t know what he thinks about it all. He’s an only child. It must mean something.’

It’s interesting, talking to Stella about this. We’re sitting in her front room, a warm, slightly down-at-heel place with overstuffed sofas, bookshelves, a coffee table with TV magazines and remote controls, a dog curled up in a fleecy bed. Unlike Glad, Stella’s had lots of children. Their photographs line the walls, glimpses of the usual family situations: holidays, weddings, graduations, babies. It’s all so real. I can imagine sending away for it, and then waiting for the delivery, everything flat-packed, ready to assemble, even the dog (batteries not included).

‘It makes me so uncomfortable,’ Stella goes on. ‘She puts them in a pram and takes them for a walk round the park, even the play area. People come over to have a look because of course they think she’s just a grandma helping out with the kids. And then when they see that they’re dolls, well, they pull away. I think they think she’s got dementia. Maybe she has. The other day one of the parents called the police. They turned up at her house to talk to her about it. They didn’t do anything, though – well, Glad says they took it in turns to hold the baby and take photos, but that was it. I don’t know. It’s all a bit weird.’