making it back

The Telegraph is too big for Martha. It’s like watching a duvet blown into a small tree.

‘I don’t know why I read it,’ she says, finally giving up, bundling it into an approximate mess and dumping it on the sofa next to her. ‘It’s not like I understand what they’re on about.’
‘You’re not alone in that, Martha.’
‘Wha’ d’ya say?’
‘I say I’m with you on that!’
‘Good!’ she says, but I know she hasn’t heard. I’d love to talk to her about politics and what she thinks of the world, but Martha’s so deaf now you have to put your lips to her ear and shout. And even then the best you’ll get is a smile and a chuckle and a knowing kind of ye-es. Any important questions or requests you have to write on a pad. Maybe there’s some telepathic component to all this, though, because after all the smiles and nods and eyebrows and complicated mimes, I always come away thinking I’ve had the liveliest conversation.

Martha’s been on our books for a while now. Initially we were called in by the doctor to keep an eye on her after a recent chest infection. But then she knocked her leg somehow – probably going downstairs to fetch The Telegraph – and it morphed into wound care. I’ll be sorry when she’s finally discharged, though. She’s such good company. A hundred years old now, she segues naturally from story to story without any prompting, like Time is a screen she can see through when the light falls in a certain way.

‘We were married seventy years,’ she says as I kneel on the floor dressing her leg. ‘Seventy years! Mind you – I didn’t see him the first three. I almost didn’t see him at all. He was in the RAF. A navigator. In a Blenheim bomber. Terrible planes. Dreadful. I think the Germans liked them, though. For target practice. How poor Tommy got through it all I don’t know. One night they were hit very bad – very bad – and they almost ditched in the Bay of Biscay. But the pilot kept ‘em going and they made it back somehow. Skipping over the waves like a stone, Tommy said. Skipping over the waves like a stone.’

morag’s bad dream

Jack’s directions to the block are a strange mixture of precise and vague.
‘We’re the one with the flapping green canopy,’ he says. ‘The last brick building on the right as you head up from the sea. No – wait a minute. What am I saying? Second to last. But hang on – there are lots of brick buildings between us and the top road. But anyway. Flapping green canopy. Look for that.’

He’s right about the canopy. I can only think that all the recent bad weather has partially torn it from its fixings. I locate Jack and Morag’s flat among the forty or so others, press the buzzer, and wait – for so long I wonder if it’s working. Just before I press it again a voice crackles on the speaker.
‘Hello, Jack,’ I say, leaning in, struggling to be heard over the wind and the canopy. ‘It’s Jim. From the hospital.’
‘Right you are, Jim. Come on up.’
He buzzes the door and I push through.

Just as I turn to close it I see a woman walking up the path. She’s zippered to the chin in a metallic blue anorak with just her face showing from the hood of it, carrying a cat patterned shopping bag in one hand and a Cornish pasty in the other. I hold the door for her and wait. She doesn’t acknowledge me at all, just walks and eats, walks and eats, dividing her attention equally between the pasty and the pavement. She’s so methodical about the whole thing she reminds me of a cartoon robot, analysing a sample of human food whilst she makes her way back to the mothership.
‘There you go!’ I say, as she plods through the door. ‘I can see you’ve got your hands full.’
She walks past me without making the slightest acknowledgement – so ruthlessly I imagine she would have simply smashed through the door if I hadn’t been standing there to open it – scattering pastry crumbs as she heads for the lift, which happens to be  ready waiting. By the time I’ve picked all my bags up, both robot pasty woman and lift have gone.

I walk up.

Jack looks exactly as he sounds: pressed trousers, green cardigan, small check shirt and tie, silvery hair flowing backwards like the ripples in a crinkle cut chip.
‘Found us alright?’ he says, silently closing the door. ‘Morag’s in the sitting room. Last door on the left. Sorry – my left. As you look at the window.’

You would absolutely match them if they were playing cards. Morag is a watchful, bird-like woman, perfectly turned out in a silk blouse and tartan skirt, with crinkly hair that goes side to side rather than straight back.
‘Who is it, Jack…?’ she says, gripping the arms of the armchair.
‘Just a nurse from the hospital, darling,’ he says. ‘No need to be alarmed.’
She turns her clear blue eyes on me and waits to see what I’ll do.

‘So – how are you feeling, Morag?’
‘How am I feeling?’
‘Yes. In yourself.’
She frowns at me, as if that’s the most extraordinary thing anyone’s ever asked her.
‘I know you’ve had quite a day of it,’ I say.
‘Have I?’
‘Well – coming home from the hospital. After a long stay. Must be nice to be home.’
She shakes her head, sharing her bewilderment between me and Jack.
‘It’s alright, darling,’ he says. ‘Nothing to worry about. You’re home now.’
‘I am, aren’t I?’
‘Yes. And it’s lovely to have you back.’
Jack smiles at me with a level of control as perfect as his hair.
‘I’ve been sent by the hospital just to make sure you have everything you need, Morag,’ I say. ‘And to see what we can to do help. By way of equipment, physiotherapy, nursing – anything really. We want to make sure you’re safe, that’s all.’
‘I have everything, thank you,’ she says, with great caution.

Whilst the laptop warms up, and to keep the conversation going, I ask Morag if there’s anything troubling her.
‘There is, actually.’
‘Oh yes? What’s that?’
‘I’ve been having bad dreams.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that, Morag. What kind of bad dreams?’
‘There are these people. Young people. And they keep wandering in and out. Sometimes they look at me. Sometimes they don’t. Sometime they walk straight past, carrying things. Pushing things. And I haven’t the faintest idea who they are or what they want.’
‘That was the hospital, darling,’ says Jack, patting her on the hand. ‘That was the hospital.’

one hundred and two minutes

Harry’s wife Jean has everything written down. She shows me her notebook – covered in tiny block capitals: one page for the dates and times of appointments, one for the names and dosages of drugs, another for all the names and times of the various clinicians who’ve visited over the last few months, and on the inside back cover, a list of all the important phone numbers, family included, some underlined, some with asterisks.
‘You’re pretty organised,’ I tell her, handing it back.
‘You’ve got to be,’ she says, carefully putting it away on the trolley she’s set aside for meds, dressings and everything else – a hostess trolley for the home nurse.
She’s even taken care of me. I came in with a cough, excusing myself, blowing my nose – an inauspicious start.
‘Oh dear!’ she said. ‘Are you alright?’
‘I’m fine. It’s this cold. Still hanging on even though it’s been three weeks now.’
‘Have some of this’ she says, plucking a bottle of cough mixture out of the air, like a magician. ‘It’ll blow your socks off but it’ll stop the cough.’
She pours ten mil of the gloopy brown mixture into a plastic measuring cup and hands it to me. I hold it up to the light like a fine brandy, and then throw it back in one.
‘Wow!’ I gasp, handing back the cup. ‘That’s potent!’
She raises her eyebrows and smiles.
The cough has gone.
‘I should definitely get some of that,’ I say.
‘Maybe you should. I’ll write the name of it down for you. Do you want to see Harry now?’

Harry seems much better. He’s sitting on the sofa sawing away at a fried egg on toast.
‘Sorry to disturb your breakfast,’ I say. ‘Good to see you eating, though.’
‘Pull up a plate!’ he says, gesturing with his eggy knife.
‘You’re alright, thanks, Harry. I’ve eaten already. Besides…’ I say, smiling at Jean, ‘I don’t think I’ll be tasting much for a few hours.’
‘The mixture? Aye – it’s strong stuff is that,’ he says, directing his attention back to the egg. ‘Kill or cure.’

Harry is an old tank soldier. He tells me about his life in the army whilst I finish writing up the notes.
‘I loved it,’ he says. ‘Signed up for five years. Made it ten. Came out for two weeks, turned round went straight back in for another ten. It’s been my life, man.’
‘You know – I remember, when I worked on patient transport there was this patient we saw a few times. He was a hundred and two or something, and he was a tank soldier in the First World War.’
‘Was he? Well – hats off. That was a tough business alright. I mean – it was never a picnic in the old Centurions. It was no Ford Fiesta, if y’know wha’ I mean? But those early tanks, they was regular death traps, man. I had a look in one once, in the museum. And I tell you what, I wouldn’t have driven it to Sainsbury’s, let alone the Somme.’

I have a sudden clear image of that old tank soldier, shutting his front door, carefully pocketing his keys, and then walking entirely freely and unaided down his front path to the waiting ambulance. I was struck then not just by how tough and wiry and cheerful he seemed, cap pulled down, a glance up at the sky, a cheery thumbs up before he grabbed the handles and pulled himself up the steps – but also by how bent forward he was, by age of course, a marked curvature of his spine, and something else, the posture and demeanour of a man who was used to squeezing himself into small spaces, resolutely getting into position for whatever lay ahead.

‘A hundred and two?’ says Harry. ‘Hats off. A hundred and two minutes and you’d a’ been doin’ well.’

peter & st david

It’s a long climb up but it’s worth it. Peter’s flat is meticulously neat and spare, perched like the lamp at the top of a lighthouse, high above the world on this bright, blue, early spring day. Peter keeps the place immaculately, a pierced mirror over the fireplace, a vibrant figurative painting above the sofa, well-made chairs placed just-so, an oak writing desk under the window, and on the desk, a small ceramic vase with half a dozen stems of daffodil, yellow and gold in the mid-morning sunshine.
‘I brought those,’ says Stephanie. ‘I wanted to make the place look bigger.
‘Or further away.’
‘But at least we know the desks was always going to be strong enough.’
‘Well I think they look absolutely charming, Stephanie. And nobody has to feel the slightest bit guilty about air miles.’

Stephanie is an old friend of Peter’s. She’s come round to have lunch with him before his big day tomorrow. He’s been called back in for surgery. He fell ill out walking in the street, and a scan confirmed what everyone was dreading – the return of the cancer he thought he’d beaten a couple of years before.
‘At least they didn’t tell me I was riddled,’ he says. ‘I was fully expecting that conversation – you know – the one where they tell you it’s metastasized everywhere, from your liver to your socks, and there’s nothing more they can do.’
‘Rubbish. There’s always something,’ says Stephanie. ‘You can always go barefoot.’
‘You’re right,’ he says. ‘But listen. It won’t come to that. Tomorrow I’m under the knife again, so there’s hope yet.’
‘You see – that’s the other thing,’ says Stephanie.
‘I didn’t want to get you a fancy bouquet because I knew you weren’t going to be around.’
‘You could’ve taken them home with you.’
‘Some friend I’d be, buying you flowers and taking them home again.’
‘Some friend you are buying me daffs.’
‘It’s St David’s day!’
‘Yes – and St David can shove them up his arse!’
‘That’s not very patriotic, is it?’
‘Who cares? I’m not Welsh.’
‘Well you won’t be at this rate’
They both laugh.

breaking down under questioning

If you hadn’t guessed from the wall-mounted displays of cap badges, ribbons and medals, the fading photographs of men on parade, smoking in hospital beds or raising tin cups sitting on the sides of a tank, from the shelves filled with books on the Second World War to the cabinets ornamented with polished anti-tank shells, riding crops and the like – well, then, you’d probably still guess Mr Bradford was an old soldier by the way he sat in the chair, hands draped over his walking stick, feet planted shoulder width, back straight, his two bruised eyes glittering.

‘Tell me again who you are, please, and what you have come to do,’ he says.

Mr Bradford has been referred to us by the hospital. The story was that he’d gone to catch another elderly resident as she fell backwards in the garden, putting himself between her and some plant pots, the geriatric equivalent of taking a bullet. He was lucky not to break anything (‘…but then I always was quite lucky in that regard,’ he says). What the episode has highlighted, though, is Mr Bradford’s growing frailty. He’s been struggling to cope at home, too proud to ask for help, gradually drifting in terms of personal hygiene, nutrition and so on. The good news is there are lots of practical things we can do to help, and Mr Bradford is happy to accept.

‘You’ll appreciate this story, being a military man,’ I say to him, taking a pause and resting on my laptop.
‘Go on,’ he says. There’s a sudden chill in the room, as if he’d turned the angle-poise light into my face and slowly lit a cigarette.
‘Where I grew up, in Wisbech. Cambridgeshire. The Fens…’
‘I know where it is,’ he says.
‘Well…the guy who ran the local electrical repair shop – this very unassuming man, little round spectacles, bald head – used to fix the Hoovers and radios and whatnot…’
‘Ye-es,’ says Mr Bradford.
‘Well…his name was Mr Cox.’
‘Mr Cox?’
‘Yes. Anyway, all these years we just knew him as Mr Cox, the guy who fixed your radio and where you could buy those little pifco torches, you know? The red square ones with the big slidey white switches…’
‘Tell me about Mr Cox,’ says Mr Bradford.
‘Well…turns out he was a war hero.’
‘A war hero?’
‘Yes. Have you heard of the Bruneval Raid? When a team of commandos went over to France to dismantle a radar station?’
‘I know what the Bruneval Raid is.’
‘Well…Mr Cox was the technician who went with them. To dismantle it. Even though it was packed full of Germans. I mean – it was quite a daring thing.’
‘Yes. The Bruneval Raid,’ says Mr Bradford, picking an invisible piece of lint from his threadbare trousers, dropping it off to the side, and then slowly directing his attention back to me. ‘The only operation successfully led by a parachute battalion, I believe.’

carp in a cap

Bill is standing so close to me I can feel his breath. With his thick, downturned mouth and straggling beard, he looks like a specimen of ancient carp, navigating the river by use of feelers.
‘D’you know what this badge is?’ he says, rolling his eyes upwards, directing me to his cap.
I have to pull away to focus. Right in the middle above the brim is a tiny enamel pin badge, two flags leaning out either side of a date.
‘I don’t know. A civil war thing?’
‘Nine eleven,’ he says. ‘The day the towers came down.’
‘Ah!’ I say, frowning a bit closer. ‘Of course.’
‘We used to sit up there, me and Rita. They had chairs and tables and everything. You could look out, right across the city. The Empire State. You could look down on it.’
‘Was that on the North tower or the South?’
‘I don’t know,’ he says. ‘One of them.’

I feel a little cornered by Bill, if I’m honest. I’m waiting to bring the hoist back in whilst the physio and another carer make Bill’s wife Rita ready for the return journey from the armchair to bed. Rita has advanced dementia. When we hoisted her from the bed she held the straps as lightly and happily as a child in a fairy story being carried off by a balloon.
As soon as there was room, Bill had shuffled in from the kitchen.
‘I travelled a lot, y’know.’
‘Did you?’
‘The Far East. Russia. United States. Everywhere.’
‘What were you? A spy?’
‘No. I was a courier. I took the job when I retired. They paid me to carry important letters round the world. I don’t know what was in ‘em. Could have been anything. Egypt. Japan. You name it. All the security people got to know me. They’d see me coming and they’d be like…’ He nods slowly and raises a finger in the air.
‘Sounds great,’ I say.
We both watch as the physio and carer make a few final adjustments to the sling.
‘Sixty years we’ve been here,’ says Bill, thrusting his hands deep into his pockets and leaning in to speak directly into my ear, as if this was a thing as confidential as any of the letters he carried. I’m tempted to say: what – leaning on this hoist, d’you mean? but instead say: ‘Have you really? I bet you’ve seen some changes.’
He leans back.
‘There used to be an abattoir next door.’
‘Oh yes? How was that – living next door to an abattoir?’
‘They killed pigs. Cows. Mostly pigs.’
‘You could hear them screaming. They used a fixed bolt, y’know? Through the head.’
‘And if that didn’t work I suppose they let them off,’ I say, nodding at the physio who’s waving me over.
‘Oh but it did work, though,’ says Bill, taking off his cap and slowly pushing his fingers backwards through his greying hair. ‘It worked a treat.’

diving in

‘Just do what you can,’ Michaela the co-ordinator said. ‘It’s a tricky situation. Jeremy’s wife Serena has got dementia, Jeremy’s the main carer. The doctor says Jeremy has to go to hospital in the next few hours, something about his breathing. Apparently none of the rest of the family can step in, and Serena’s too volatile to go to a respite bed, so what they’re saying is she’ll just have to go to hospital with him in the ambulance. Which is a terrible idea, obviously. If you could just go there and try and sort something out that’d be great. You’ve got a couple of hours before the ambulance arrives. Good luck.’

* * *

When I lived in London I used to go swimming in the ponds on Hampstead heath. I’d try to keep it up as late as I could through the year, not just in the easy summer days, but on into October, November, December, when the weather drew down, and the crowds thinned, and the whole thing started to feel like a wanton act of madness to take my clothes off and walk outside the changing rooms into the frosty air, let alone walk to the end of the jetty and throw myself in the water. It didn’t matter how many times I stood there with my toes curling and flexing over the edge of the concrete, staring down into the dark green water; it didn’t matter that I’d done it only a few days before, and everything had turned out okay, I hadn’t drowned or frozen to death, and I’d even started to enjoy it, that electric buzz around my body when I climbed out and hurried back inside. Despite all that, the seconds before I dived in, I would still be gripped by the same sickening feeling that this was crazy, tantamount to suicide, and what I really needed was for someone to rush out, grab hold of me, and save me from myself.

* * *

I’m reminded of that end-of-jetty feeling as I reach out to ring Jeremy’s bell.

Anna, Serena’s tearful, middle-aged daughter, comes to the door, barely stopping long enough to hear me introduce myself before turning around and hurrying back into the living room. I stand in the oak panelled hallway and tried to get my bearings. A substantial house, with a large number of doors leading off into various rooms, and a forbidding staircase rising in the middle of it all. Elderly people are busy coming and going through the doors or walking up or down the staircase, each one of them preoccupied, mumbling or cursing to themselves, holding bits of paper or bags, a shirt, an overcoat, bumping into each other, shouting out – so many of them I’m suspicious, and wonder if it this isn’t some kind of set-up, and they’re swapping jackets or hats backstage, finding a different door or staircase to walk through or down again, like a manically paced but well choreographed West End farce.

Bracing myself, I go through to the kitchen where some of the relatives have gathered round the table with Serena at the head end. Serena has the quick movements and filmy white eyes of a large, albino crow, hopping from the table to the cabinets and back, randomly picking up bits of paper, blinking down at them uncomprehendingly, then carrying them back again.
‘Try to settle yourself, Serena’ says one relative.
‘Come on. Drink your tea,’ says another.
But Serena sees me approach and hops up to speak, as fluently as if we’d only broken off a moment before.
‘…you see, I can’t be bothered with all of this!’ she says, looking up into my face, tipping her head from side to side and blinking rapidly, as if she can’t decide whether to talk to me or peck me up like a worm. ‘It’s such a nuisance! I’ve got so much to do today. D’you see?’
‘Yes. I can imagine it must be pretty stressful.’
The relatives fix me with a collective frown.
‘Sorry! Hello! I’m Jim, from the hospital response team. They’ve asked me to come and see if there’s anything I can do.’
‘Well unless you’ve got a magic wand in that bag I’d say no,’ says one elderly man.
‘Or a tranquiliser dart,’ says another. ‘Welcome to the madhouse.’
Just then Jeremy wanders in. He’s a morose, red-faced man in pyjamas and dressing gown, trailing the cord of it behind him like a tail.
‘They’ll be here in a minute,’ he says. ‘What have you done with my medications?’
One of the relatives sighs and pushes himself up from the table. Another one appears briefly behind me in the doorway, then disappears just as quickly.
‘Come in to my study and we’ll chat there,’ says Jeremy.
I follow him, avoiding the tail.

Jeremy’s study is a plush room, like something out of a gentleman’s club, with brass fittings, spot-lit paintings, and antique rifles and muskets on display along the walls. Jeremy goes to sit behind an enormous desk, complete with green velvet pad and a crystal glass ink and pen stand.
‘You know the situation I take it?’ he says, putting some half-glasses onto the end of his nose and then tipping his back to look at me. ‘Hmm?’
‘Essentially – you have to go to hospital, but you’re Serena’s main carer and there’s no-one else to step in and look after her.’
‘And I mean no-one,’ he says. ‘She gets very distressed by any change, so it’s out of the question for her to go to a nursing home. I’ve told them this. Out of the question! And neither can she be left on her own. She’d burn the house down in a matter of minutes.’
‘How about arranging for a twenty-four hour carer?’
‘No,’ he says. ‘Any strangers in the house and she reacts. She’s very difficult. I’ve had years of it.’
‘The trouble is, Jeremy, going to hospital with you is the worst thing that can happen. You’ve been to A and E before. You know what it’s like.’
‘I know exactly what it’s like. It’s hell on earth.’
‘They do get very busy there, that’s for sure. And that’s why Serena can’t really go with you. She’ll be sitting in a chair for hours and hours whilst you’re on a trolley, surrounded by potentially distressing scenes. And there’ll always be the chance she might wander off…’
‘Well that’s it! I’m not going, then!’
‘The doctor thinks you should go, though. It won’t help Serena if you get worse, will it? So what I suggest is you look at getting a twenty-four hour carer to stay whilst you’re in hospital. They’re trained to look after difficult patients. She’ll be happiest and safest that way. It’s the best solution, Jeremy. I’m just being perfectly frank with you here.’
I can see him weakening.
‘But where would they sleep?’ he says.
‘I’m sure you could squeeze them in somewhere.’
‘And how much would it cost?’
‘I think it’s about twelve hundred for the week.’
‘One thousand two hundred pounds?’
‘I think so. It’s just a little more than a residential home would be – but you’ve got the benefit of Serena being at home in familiar surroundings, so she’ll find it much less stressful…’
He huffs and grumbles, pushing papers around on the desk a moment, then shoots me a look as directly as if he’d rammed the words into the muzzle of one of those muskets and fired them at me.
‘And who pays for all this? Me, I presume!’
‘I think it’s worth it. For peace of mind. And hopefully you won’t be in hospital long.’
‘Hmm. Well. Get me some actual figures, would you?’

I phone the office to talk to a social worker about it. She rings me back five minutes later with the name and number of an agency who’d be able to step in at short notice.
‘I can’t pay up front,’ says Jeremy. ‘I’m good for the money as you can probably see but I’m waiting on a deal coming through. It’s complicated. A cash flow thing.’
‘Fine. I’ll talk to the manager of the agency and see what he suggests.’

The manager sounds cautious.
‘We want to help,’ he says. ‘Of course we do. But we need at least half up front as a gesture of goodwill. And then a guarantor of some description for the rest. It doesn’t look good for a care agency to be chasing down clients for money, y’know?’
‘No. I can see that.’
I tell him I’ll call him back after I’ve talked to the family. Back in the kitchen, one of them says he’ll stand for the other half. ‘ Anything to get this bloody mess sorted.’
In the study again. Jeremy says he can only manage a cheque for four hundred, and asks if I’ll haggle with the manager over that.
Meanwhile the ambulance arrives; two paramedics crash into the study carrying resus and obs bags and an ECG.
‘Where’s the patient?’ says the first.
Jeremy starts shuffling papers on his desk, avoiding eye contact.
The paramedics turn to look at me, holding the phone in the middle of the room.
Serena hops in, pursued by three relatives, one of them The Guarantor, who frowns at me and holds his hands out, palm up.
The phone starts ringing in my hand. I hold up a finger for silence.
‘Just give me a moment!’ I say. ‘One moment…’