living space

Marianne is standing waiting for me at the front door. When I wave from the car she doesn’t react, but watches me with a pinched intensity.

‘Would you like me to take my shoes off?’ I say, glancing at the cream carpeted steps rising up behind her.
‘Yes,’ she says.
I follow her up into the maisonette flat. It’s as quiet as a photo in a lifestyle magazine, smelling of floral air freshener and toast.
‘Through here,’ she says.
‘I’m sorry to ask, but I need to be clear. What’s your relationship to Jeremy?’
‘He’s my ex,’ she says, ‘but we live together. He’s dying of cancer. You know that, don’t you?’
‘Yes,’ I say.

* * *

It’s an unwritten rule that the jobs you think will be the easiest and most straightforward will turn out to be the most difficult.

Looking over my workload for the day, I saw that I was down for a support visit with Jenna, the OT. A palliative patient needed a hospital bed, which meant transferring him out of the existing one, dismantling it, letting the equipment company set up the new one, then putting him back in. The notes said he could just about weight-bear, so there wasn’t the usual problem of having to set the new bed up next to the old one and pat-sliding him across. True – the family normally take care of dismantling the old bed, but in this case the partner didn’t have anyone to help with that, so we’d take care of business. Another OT had been ahead of us to case the joint, so it should be a breeze.

I didn’t read too far into the notes. Just the basics. The patient had prostate cancer. His disease had suddenly progressed, and his care would increasingly be limited to bed. The GP had visited in the first instance and identified what needed to be done. Our job was limited to setting up the new care environment, prior to the palliative team going in.

Straightforward.

* * *

Jeremy is lying on his side in bed, one hand crooked behind his head, his legs drawn up. He’s so exhausted we withdraw to the hallway again and talk to Marianne instead.

Jeremy’s room is small and cluttered, a substantial bedside table with a phone, drinks and things to the side, and a glass display cabinet at the foot end, filled with model planes. As things are at the minute, the hospital bed won’t fit, but the first OT hasn’t left any instructions about where he wants the bed to go. I can’t think he means the front room. The maisonette is a narrow, two bedroom set-up. The lounge is the brightest, most spacious living space in the flat. If the hospital bed goes in there, it’ll mean Marianne will be limited to her bedroom and the tiny galley kitchen. If Jeremy stays in his bedroom, though, it’ll mean the busy and sometimes distressing business of End of Life care can be contained more effectively. Marianne seems so anxious and friable, I can’t imagine her spending the next few months confined in that way.

‘I think the bed will actually go pretty well in Jeremy’s room,’ Jenna tells her. ‘Especially if we move the display cabinet next door and put the bedside table over by the window. When the hospital bed’s in, you’ll have more time to have a think about things. You could ask some friends or family to help with taking some stuff away, maybe putting it in storage. What do you think?’
‘I don’t understand,’ she says. ‘What’s going to happen with the bed he’s on now?‘I don’t want to get rid of it.’
‘I suppose we could dismantle it and store it behind the sofa in the sitting room.’
‘Why can’t we put him in the lounge?’
‘I just think with all the comings and goings – carers four times a day, district nurses and so on – it won’t work so well. You need space for yourself, Marianne. This room’s more than adequate. It’s nice and sunny. It’s got a view outside. A TV. It’s perfect, really. It just takes a little bit of reorganisation.’
‘If you think so,’ she says.
‘I do.’
‘Okay.’
She doesn’t sound too convinced, though. The problem is, the delivery driver is almost here. If we send them away to give Marianne time to think, there’ll be a delay before it can be reordered. Jeremy needs to be on a hospital bed as quickly as possible. The care agency will refuse to authorise care on the bed he’s currently on. It’s a manual handling nightmare.
‘It’ll work out,’ I tell her. ‘You’ll see.’

We set to work, moving stuff. It’s a delicate job, shifting the model lancaster and spitfire planes on their display stands, then crystal glasses, trophies and cups. We bus them next door, followed by as many drawers as we can manage from the bureau to make it light enough to slide over to the window.
‘Look at all that dust,’ says Marianne. ‘I’ll get the hoover.’
She comes back with an ancient thing, certainly older than the flat, big enough to ride on, with a huge square light at the front and a cloth bag hanging off the handle. She starts rolling it around, the vibrations of it as brutal as a rotovator.
‘I think that’ll do,’ I say, tapping her on the shoulder and shouting over the noise. ‘The van’s outside with the new bed, so we’d better get on and transfer Jeremy into the wheelchair. Then we can dismantle his bed and make room for the new one.’
‘Just a bit more,’ she says.

Jeremy remains as passive as the furniture, but at least he manages to stand sufficiently well to make the transfer into the wheelchair. We take him through to Marianne’s bedroom, and gently lay him on the bed. Marianne watches the whole business with horror. I’m guessing that the original OT who’d organised the job had explained what it involved, but Marianne was too stressed to take it all in. There should have been a note in the folder, though. I make a mental note to talk to him back in the office.

The bed is mercifully quick to dismantle. We take it through and stack it behind the big cream sofa in the lounge. It’s all pretty neat. We’re sweating in our PPE, but it feels like a job well done.

‘Like I say – it’s only temporary,’ I tell her. ‘When we’ve gone you can ask someone to help you find a better place to store it.’

The delivery driver is fast and efficient, installing the hospital bed in twenty minutes or so. We spend the time talking to Marianne, trying to reassure her, finding out what support she has or might be expecting. It’s difficult, though. She uses all the phrases that suggest she knows Jeremy is dying, but there’s a palpable gap behind them. It’s like someone standing on a beach watching an enormous wave curling up into the sky and thundering towards them – and pointing, and saying ‘Look! A dangerous wave! I must get to safety!’ but standing completely still, watching it come down.

‘The palliative care team will be in touch,’ I tell her. ‘They’re incredibly supportive. They’ll give you numbers you can call to help out.’
Marianne stares at the dismantled bed behind the sofa.
‘It can’t stay there,’ she says.

Once the hospital bed is set-up and the dynamic pressure mattress inflated, Marianne walks in with an electric sheepskin underwarmer, as old as the hoover.
‘He hates the cold,’ she says.
‘I’m afraid that can’t go on this mattress,’ says Jenna. ‘Those straps will restrict the flow of air. His pressure areas will start to breakdown, so it’s important nothing gets in the way of preventing that. And I’m afraid it’s too much of a fire risk.’
‘But he’ll get cold.’
‘This is really well insulated, Marianne. He’ll be fine. And he’s got a nice, warm duvet. Honestly, this will be so much more comfortable for him than his old bed. Plus the carers need a hospital bed to care for him. They need to get either side to roll him, and it has to be at the right height otherwise they’ll hurt their backs.’
She stands holding the sheepskin blanket.
‘He feels the cold,’ she says, then walks out.

* * *

The next day, Jenna calls me over in the office.
‘I’ve got to go back to Jeremy, that patient we saw together.’
‘Why? What happened?’
‘Marianne put his old bed back together in the lounge, then somehow dragged him through.’

the mysterious S

Deanna, the most senior woman in the admin team, who would almost certainly beat me to death with a stapler if she heard her described in that way, turns sixty in a few weeks. There’s been a collection organised by Sara, the youngest in the team. And I have to say, Sara is pretty ingenious. In an effort to generate as much money as possible – no doubt keen to avoid the usual excuse of ‘I haven’t got any cash on me at the minute’, accompanied by the universal ‘patting of the empty pockets’ mime – has set up a Paypal account. All we have to do is arrange a transfer via email, and then all she has to do is go out and buy the bunch of flowers, horse and revolver or whatever else it is she’s got planned. And it’s because of this that Rachel, the second most senior admin person, has come to see me now.
‘Can you do me a favour?’ she says, leaning in and whispering. ‘But you’re going to have to be a bit creative.’
‘What’s it about?’
‘Sara’s had a big amount of money donated by someone called S Avery, and no-one knows who they are. We’ve tried everyone. All the old hands. But we’ve drawn a blank. If I ask Deanna she’ll just grill me and I’ll end up breaking and giving the game away. You know what I’m like.’
‘So what do you want me to do about it?’
‘Think of a way to find out who S Avery is.’
‘How?’
She shrugs.’
‘I don’t know, Jim. Be creative.’

I think about it, but nothing comes to mind.

‘I could tell her I had a dream. I’m standing in an aviary, wearing a T-shirt with the letter S on it. And then Deanna turns up and says Who’s S? And I say That’s what I was going to ask YOU!’
‘No,’ says Rachel. ‘That’s not going to work. She doesn’t dream.’
‘O-kay…’

I think some more.

‘I know! We’re going to sign a card, aren’t we?’
‘Yes.’
‘So why don’t we draw a picture of a shadowy figure at the bottom? Someone wearing a trilby and raincoat, but everything shaded in. With claws. And then we sign it With love from S Avery. And she’ll either say Who the hell is this S Avery? Or she’ll say S Avery! I thought she was dead…’
‘Or he.’
I shake my head.
‘That’s it. That’s all I’ve got.’
‘Well you’re a fat lot of good.’
‘Does it matter, though? You’ve got their money.’
‘Maybe it’s – you know – one of those things.’
‘What things?’
‘One of those fishing expeditions.’
‘Really? I don’t think so. S Avery hasn’t been asking for anyone’s bank details. Have they?’
‘They don’t need to. Sara’s pretty much handing them out on a flyer. She was in the canteen the other day going table to table. You can’t fault her. She’s very dynamic. It’d be nice to know who they are though. S Avery… I wonder what the S stands for?’
‘Stanley? Sheila? Or maybe that’s just what people knew them as. Maybe their first name was completely impossible but they shortened it to S. That’d be cool.’
‘Like you, then. Everyone knows you as F.’
‘What’s that short for?’
‘Fucking useless.’

sharp scratch

It’s been so hot and humid, all the windows of the office are thrown wide. Despite this, there’s not a breath of air. The only things moving are the fingers of the nurse on the late shift typing out her report, and the swifts outside, shrieking and swooping through the tall brick canyons of the place.

I think if our team had a flag, the swift would be the perfect animal to have on it. They travel thousands of miles each year, living entirely on the wing. They’ve even evolved so that half their brain shuts down and sleeps without them falling out of the air – a talent we can all applaud. And despite the swifts’ roving ways, they always come back to the same spot to lay their eggs each year, the gaps and cracks in the craggy bricks and eaves of the old Victorian hospital. So having a swift for the flag seems about right. A heraldic flag made of yellow line bandage, with a sharps bucket in one corner, a bunch of swifts in the other.

A late job comes through. Urgent bloods requested on a patient in a nursing home. The only people who can do it other than me and the lead coordinator is the nurse at the other desk, but she’s already up against it. When she hears about the job she looks up with such a panicked look on her face I really can’t do anything other than offer to take it myself. The phones are quiet, so we should be okay. And anyway, it’s nice to have an excuse to get out. An easy win all round.

I fly off, shrieking and swooping.

* * *

Maple Court is tucked away at the top of a drive so winding and confusing you feel like the architect must’ve had an ammonite on her table when she drew the plans. The whorls of the drive are deeply screened by trees and shrubs, too, and the building itself deceptively shallow, built into the hill so that if from the front it looks like a single storey place, it’s actually two or three. If you had to find a headquarters in a zombie apocalypse, you couldn’t do better than Maple Court. Low, defensible, anonymous. With a surprisingly good view over the city out the back.

The main doorway is shut, secured by a code. There are two people sitting in lobby armchairs just the other side of the door – an elderly man with his back to me, and an elderly woman facing him. He’s wearing a surgical mask, she isn’t. They don’t seem to be talking or doing much, but then the glass is thick and I might be wrong about that. The man seems to sense from the reaction of the woman that I’ve approached the door, because he turns round with a sudden, melodramatic start. After tugging his mask down to get a better look at me, he reaches over to punch the code into the panel, and the doors slide open.
‘Hello!’ I say. ‘I’m Jim from the Rapid Response team. I’ve come to take some blood.’
‘You don’t want me,’ he says. ‘You want Kim, the manager. I don’t work here.’
‘Oh!’
‘She’s gone off somewhere. I don’t know when she’s coming back.’
The old woman frowns and leans forward.
‘What does he want?’
‘He says he’s come to take some blood.’
‘Goodness!’ she says. ‘Whatever for?’
I’m just about to suggest that I come in and ring a bell or something when the woman I guess is Kim comes striding round the corner.
‘Is it for Ken?’ she says. ‘About time! Follow me…’
I put on my PPE as we go, through fire doors, up stairs, through more security doors, onto a scrubbed and ruthlessly bright level.
‘He’s in the garden,’ says Kim. ‘Wait in there and I’ll bring him through.’

The waiting room is boxy and bright, a square table with four square chairs in the middle, padded chairs around the walls, a tea making place with some magazines, a television and a water cooler. The water cooler looks like a happy face, with taps for eyes and a drip tray for a mouth. I take a photo with my phone, because I like things that look like faces – and then hurriedly put my phone away when I hear Kim and Ken coming down the corridor.

I can immediately see why the doctor wanted the urgent bloods. Ken looks terrible. He’s sitting in an electric wheelchair, slightly slumped forwards, his right hand draped over the controls, Kim shouting ‘left a bit, right a bit’ from behind. She stares over his head at me and winces, like a scientist who’s presenting a reanimated mummy to the Royal Society but suddenly having second thoughts.

‘Made it!’ says Ken with a grimace, running up against the table and then turning the power off. ‘Which arm d’you want?’
‘Ken is getting good at this,’ says Kim, pulling up a chair with a terrible scraping noise. ‘You’re used to the old vampires, aren’t you?’
‘Hey,’ I say. ‘Less of the old.’
Ken shrugs.
‘Get on with it,’ he says. ‘I want a smoke.’

I lay my kit out on the table, put a cushion under his arm, tighten the tourniquet, tap up a vein.
‘Have you tried those vapes?’ I say. ‘They’re supposed to be good. And they’re better for you.’
‘Nah,’ he says. ‘You may as well smoke Glade. Besides – I’ve got cancer, mate. I think the time for worrying about fags is over. Don’t you?’
‘Well,’ I say. ‘Yep. You’ve got a point.’
‘Are you going to say sharp scratch?’ says Kim. ‘That’s what they all say, isn’t it? Sharp scratch? Why don’t you say just a little prick?’
‘Because I’m not Dr Evil. Anyway, I don’t usually say anything.’
‘What? You just jab them?’
She strokes Ken’s other arm.
‘I don’t think he’s going to jab you,’ she says.
He shrugs.
‘I don’t give a monkey’s.’
‘So what do you say, then?’ she goes on. ‘I hope you don’t mind me asking. I’m just interested.’
‘I don’t mind. No – I think what I do is I say: okay, here we go, then… or something like that. Sometimes I might say: take a breath in … and out…. and that’s when I put it in. I got that from the tattoo woman who pierced my ear. It seemed to work.’
‘Less talk and more work,’ says Ken.
‘Sorry, mate,’ I say. ‘Here we go. Sharp scratch…’

accounting for ghosts

It’s been a hot day, busy and chaotic, but it’s late now, almost finishing time, and the fierce light of the afternoon is settling around the old hospital into something easier and more golden. There’s only me and Jane in the office, the long, empty room settling and ticking in tiny sounds of absence, like a car finally parked up and cooling. I’m sitting opposite Jane at the coordinator’s desk. Jane’s been pretty quiet the last hour, focused on working through a printed sheet of stats, the summation of the week’s activity. It’s a painstaking task and she sighs a lot. I’ve been fielding all the calls from patients and staff to give her the space, but they’ve eased off now and there’s nothing much else to be done.

Suddenly one of the connecting doors on the far side slams shut. At the same time, an overhead light flickers and goes off.
Jane looks up.
‘Ghosts,’ I say. ‘This used to be a surgical ward. It’s probably infested.’
She leans back in her chair and stretches. When she sits forward again she fixes me with a long look.
‘You’ll probably think I’m mad if I tell you this,’ she says. ‘But the place I live is haunted.’
‘Is it?’
‘It used to be an asylum. Then it was just a big, fancy house. Then it was flats. So it’s no wonder there’s stuff going on.’
‘What sort of ghosts?’
‘It depends,’ she says. ‘Mostly it’s odd bangings and things, whispering. Stuff gets thrown around. The other night when Steve came over, I went to bed and I saw his shadow on the door. So I told him to stop mucking about. Nothing happened, the shadow just stayed there. Suit yourself, I said. Then the shadow went away, and I heard Steve coming up the stairs. Who were you talking to? he said. So I realised it wasn’t him.’
‘Were you scared?’
‘Not really. I’ve got used to them now. I think they like the company. They get a bit restless when there’s been some change in things, like the lockdown. But otherwise they keep themselves to themselves. They’re basically just lonely, I suppose.’
‘It’s weird about ghosts,’ I say. ‘I mean – logically I don’t believe in them. But that doesn’t mean I don’t spook myself out a lot.’
She nods, but in a non-committal way, acknowledging the words but not the feeling.
‘When you think of all the places people die,’ I say. ‘Not just hospital, but everywhere. All over the place. Like where we live. It’s pretty old, used to be owned by a farmer. When we moved in, the old woman next door took great delight in telling us he choked to death on a chicken bone, in the front room. She rushed in to save him, but it was too late. So I thought – Oh, great! We’ve moved into a haunted house. But nothing. Not a cough. And none of the dogs or cats we’ve had have hissed or done anything strange. And they’re supposed to be sensitive, aren’t they?’
‘Depends on the dogs.’
‘And then you’ve got to think – if everyone who dies makes a ghost, wouldn’t we be completely snowed?’
‘Maybe we are. Maybe only some of them can make themselves known. And only some of us can see them.’
She smooths out the spreadsheet in front of her and stares at it.
‘Who knows?’ she says, planting her elbows on the desk, cradling her chin in the palms of her hands and pressing her fingers into her eyes so vigorously her glasses ride up onto her forehead. ‘I’ve never been good with numbers.’

how they met

Stepping through the front door into Mary’s house is like stepping into a crazy echo chamber. There’s a radio playing full blast in the kitchen, a TV in the front room with loud music and studio applause, and a TV in the back room with explosions and machine gun fire. The whole effect is made worse by the fact that the house has laminate flooring, and there’s not much in the way of soft furnishings. When I call Mary’s name to announce myself I have to shout. Her four wheel walker is at a strange angle in the middle of the hall, like she dumped it there in a hurry. I’m worried something’s happened, but as soon as I go forward to put it straight, she emerges from a tiny bathroom under the stairs.
‘I said go through,’ she says. ‘Didn’t you hear me?’
‘Well it’s quite noisy, Mary. D’you mind if I turn things down a bit?’
‘Suit yourself,’ she says, then takes the walker from me and walks with it through into the back room, her shoulders hunched, rolling heavily in the hip, like an old farmer ploughing a muddy field.
I do a quick tour of the house, switching off the TV and the radio. It only leaves the TV in the back room, a giant plasma affair. It’s playing a forties war film. There’s a close-up of John Mills looking tense, which feels about right as I ask Mary if she’d mind turning it off for a bit.
‘You do it,’ she says.
I can’t see the remote, so I just touch what looks like the off button on the bottom of the screen. The whole thing immediately dumps to a white fuzz accompanied by a hideous noise.
‘Oh what’ve you done now?’ she says, producing the remote from her cardigan pocket and zapping it off. ‘Good God almighty!’
‘There! That’s better!’ I say. ‘I couldn’t hear myself think.’
She raises her eyebrows, like she could say a few things about that if she wanted to.
‘How are you feeling?’ I ask her.
‘Much the same,’ she says. ‘Terrible.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that. In what way terrible?’
‘What?’
‘I say in what way terrible?’
‘What d’you mean?’
‘Are you in pain?’
‘No. Thank God.’
‘Do you feel sick? Dizzy? Short of breath?’
‘No.’
‘Lacking in energy?’
‘I do my best.’
‘I’m sure you do. So when you say you feel terrible, what… erm….’
She’s ignoring me now, fussing with a heap of stuff next to her on the sofa, so I decide not to push the “feeling terrible” thing any further and see if her obs offer any clues instead.
‘Would you mind if I did your blood pressure and temperature and so on?’ I ask her, unzipping my bag.
‘Be my guest,’ she says, and immediately rolls up the sleeve of her cardigan.

Just behind her on the wall is a large, three part picture frame, a photo of the Queen on the left looking a little dazed, a royal letter on the right, and the two panels separated by a golden tassel like a light pull or a curtain closer. I wonder what would happen if the glass wasn’t there and you could reach in and pull it. Maybe the national anthem would play and then the whole thing burst into flames.
‘What’s that for?’ I ask her.
‘We were married sixty years,’ she says.
‘Wow! That’s lovely.’
‘He’s gone now.’
‘I’m sorry.’
‘What can you expect?’
‘I suppose.’
‘He built this place.’
‘Did he? That’s amazing.’
‘He was a builder.’
‘Yes. I bet he must’ve worked hard.’
‘He never stopped.’
‘Sixty years! That’s very impressive, Mary. You’ll have to tell me your secret.’
‘What secret?’
‘How you managed to stay married for sixty years.’
‘I couldn’t think what else to do. Besides, you get used to someone.’
‘I suppose that’s true. So how did you two meet?’
‘He tripped me up in Woolworth’s.’
‘Where? By the pick n’mix?’
‘All I know is, his friend was going with my friend.’
She sighs and looks pained, as if the effort of remembering these things is exhausting her.
‘’That didn’t last,’ she says. ‘Are you done now or what?’

peanut

I press the bell and wait. The porch door is shut but the inner one is open and I can see through into the house. A dark hallway with a baby gate halfway. It’s all pretty quiet.
I press the bell again. The button is held together with weathered tape and doesn’t look too healthy. It’s only then I see there’s a piece of paper tacked to the window. The writing has faded almost to nothing but I can just make it out: Bell not working. Please knock.

As soon as I do, there’s a wild yapping and snarling from the front room, and a caramel coloured Jack Russell hurtles out into the hallway and throws itself at the gate. Although ‘hurtles’ isn’t quite right – more a cross between hurtling and a skitterish kind of wobble. At any rate, the expression on its tiny face is one of the purest and most pitiless hatred.
‘Peanut! Be quiet! Go in the garden, darling! Go on! In the garden!’
Peanut pays no attention, but spreads its paws, daring me to come any further.
‘I’m in here!’ says the man.
I put my hand on the handle.
Peanut narrows her eyes and gives a hectic sneeze.
I open the door.

Peanut goes completely nuts. She swells to twice her size, her eyes bulging out, like I’ve inadvertently cracked the outer door on a space station, and the catastrophic change in pressure is making her pop.

I’m good with dogs but I’m not stupid. I wait for the man to appear, to give me some credibility. Instead I hear him cry out in pain from the front room. There’s nothing for it but to go forward and brave the beast.
‘No, Peanut!’ I say in an Alpha wolf voice. ‘No.’
Peanut obviously doesn’t care for wolves. As soon as I open the baby gate it goes for me. The only thing that saves me is the fact that Peanut is old and fat and her range of movement is seriously compromised. It also helps that she doesn’t have any teeth. All she can manage is a furious gumming of my shoes, which sounds horrendous but is actually quite pleasant, how I imagine it would feel like if I stuck my foot up through the sunroof when I put the car through the car wash. The only real danger is that when I carry on walking she’ll trip me up. Maybe that’s the plan. Maybe the moment I’m down she’ll roll up onto my face and suffocate me. Luckily I manage to stay upright, though, lifting my legs like some kind of fastidious wading bird, high-stepping through a lake of hostile fish into the front room.
‘Good girl!’ says the man, approvingly.
Whatever made the man cry out has passed. He’s perfectly calm.
‘On the sofa, Peanut. On the sofa. Hup!’
The dog is too exhausted from the shoe wars. Anyway, if there was ever a dog in the history of dogs less likely to jump onto a sofa at the word Hup it’s Peanut. She completely ignores the man, choosing instead to wobble exhaustedly over to the far side of the man’s chair, collapsing on the carpet with an audible whump like someone delivering coal.
‘Oh Peanuuuuut!’ says the man, drawing out the last syllable into a tortured wail. Of all the things to despair about, this is the least worst thing. Peanut’s obviously used to it. She gives another of her disdainful sneezes, then settles her face onto her paws. With her huge eyes and curled lip, she’s a spit for Peter Lorre.
‘What are we going to do with you, Peanut?’ says the man.
‘Does she have a harness?’ I ask him.
‘There. Behind you,’ he says, gesturing to the sofa with his scrubby chin.
I pick it up. It’s a complicated affair, heavily-padded corduroy, confusing straps and velcro and snappy fixings. It looks more like a Victorian straitjacket.
I hold it up.
‘Peanut! Who’s a good girl…?’

heavy duty medication

The two most startling things about Morris are his height and his baseball cap. The cap is for the Toronto Blue Jays. I only know that because when he turns round the name is printed in big letters on the fastener. That bold splash of red, blue and white seems to draw the colour out of the rest of him – a great, stooping stalk of a guy, dressed in brown slippers, grey slacks and a leached, off-white shirt.
‘In here,’ he says. ‘Follow the bear.’
We go through into the lounge. It’s orderly but lonely, the kind of place that doesn’t have much but what there is falls easily to hand.
Morris takes his cap off and points to a scabbed wound a cinch above his left eyebrow.
‘Ouch!’ I say. ‘How’d that happen?’
‘I fell,’ he says. ‘It’s a long story.’
‘But you didn’t go to hospital.’
‘Nah. What would I want to go there for? It’s full of sick people.’
I have to nod at that.
I go through the usual questions, with a slant towards someone with a head injury. Everything seems fine. He’s getting over it. The doctor adjusted his meds. Things are happening.
‘Everyone’s been very kind,’ he says, slapping the cap back on.
I start the examination.
‘Tell me a bit more about this fall,’ I say. ‘Was it a trip kinda deal? Or did you have a funny turn?’
‘Neither. I fell outta bed and cracked my head on the side table. It bled like a bastard so I called the paramedics. But these things bleed a lot. So. Apparently you need a lot of blood up in your head to keep your brains afloat. There was just one paramedic. He was very, very good. Surprisingly cheerful, even though it was the middle of the night. I said to him, I said: How d’you manage it? Being so cheerful n’all? And he turned round to me and he said: Morris? I love my work – but I’m also on some heavy duty medication. Which I thought was a good answer.’
‘I like that!’
‘Heavy duty medication. That’s what I need, I think.’
‘You’re not doing so bad.’
‘I suppose you’ve got to have a sense of humour in that line of work.’
‘Have you fallen out of bed before?’
‘Never. This was my first time. But I won’t be rushing back to repeat the experience.’
‘What happened exactly?’
‘Promise you won’t laugh?’
‘I’ll try.’
‘Okay. So. I was having this dream. I was playing at Old Trafford, I was running up the pitch with the ball at my feet, taking them all on. I could see George Best making a play for it way over on the right. And I was just about to cross when some bastard came studs up from nowhere and took me down. And when I woke up I was lying on the carpet  covered in blood.’
‘That’s a red card, right there.’
‘When I told the paramedic what happened he laughed and said he’d seen some bad tackles in his time, but never one that knocked someone sixty years into the future.’
‘I wonder who he was.’
‘What? The paramedic? I don’t know.’
Morris sighs and straightens his cap.
‘The way things are these days, I probably dreamed him, too.’

jarring

Muriel had a fall recently. She hurt her neck, so they put her in a support, a fat, white fabric affair that pushes her chin up and makes a presentation of her face, a modern riff on the Elizabethan ruff. Muriel doesn’t look too happy about it. In fact, her expression is intensely mournful. You could draw her face pretty quickly as a series of downward curves: two for the eyes, two smaller ones for the nostrils, one big one for the mouth.

‘I’ve popped in to see how you are, Muriel. And the physio asked me to give you this zimmer frame.’
‘Oh yes?’ she says, leaning forwards but not actually opening her eyes. ‘Why would I want that, then? I’ve got my stick.’
‘Your stick’s great, but this is safer,’ I say, slapping it twice, like some kind of dodgy market trader. ‘They say you’ve had a few falls lately, Muriel, so hopefully this’ll help.’
‘Everyone’s been so kind,’ she says, turning away and heading back to the sofa. ‘I don’t know. I just don’t know.’

The referral had come from the ambulance, but we’ve had plenty of follow-up calls, especially from the neighbours. They’ve seen her wandering outside the house at all hours, distressed, confused. At least now there are several people on the case – the GP, social services, mental health and other nurses. A night sitter has been booked to keep an eye on things tonight, but a decision will have to be made soon as Muriel isn’t safe to be home alone.

I help her settle back on the sofa. I offer to make her a cup of coffee and find some biscuits.
‘You don’t mind if I watch my quiz?’ she says.
‘Of course not.’
‘I like my quizzes.’
‘I bet.’

The TV is playing one of those afternoon shows where the set is so emphatically neon it makes you feel hysterical. I wouldn’t be able to answer with my own name, let alone who played James Bond in Dr No. The quizzes always have to have a gimmick. This one seems to be about lists. The contestants answer questions on a subject, and either go through and win some money, or not. Warwick Davis presides over the whole thing with a smile as bright as his shirt.
‘Let’s play Lists!’ says Warwick.
I escape into the kitchen.

It’s so orderly in there I wonder whether this confusion is more an acute thing, or whether Muriel already has help of some kind. Everything’s exactly where you’d expect it to be. Utensils hanging in height order from a rack. Chopping boards neatly aligned. There’s even coffee in a jar marked ‘Coffee’. When I fetch the milk out of the fridge, the souvenir magnets are all lined up in alphabetical order. There’s a big ceramic bear on the counter. When I twist its head off I find it’s filled with mini cookies. I grab out a handful, arrange them in a circle on a saucer, and take it all through on a tray decorated with kittens.

On the telly lights are flashing and klaxons sounding, so I’m guessing someone is going home empty-handed.
‘There you go, Muriel!’ I say, putting the coffee and biscuits on the table beside her. ‘I’ll just write up my notes in the folder then I’ll leave you in peace.’
‘Righto,’ she says, tossing down the cookies one after the other, crumbs already sticking to the powdered hairs on her chin.

The yellow nursing folder is in the middle of a circular dining table on the far side of the room. There are no chairs round the table, except for a green plastic garden chair with a wooden box on it. The box has a brass plate – commemorating the ashes of her husband Frank who died just a couple of years ago. It’s strange to see the box there. It’s such a formal, substantial thing, like a miniature coffin. I wonder whether Muriel’s taken it down from somewhere to clean it, or whether she moves it about and talks to it. I try to imagine how I’d feel, having it around the place, like I’d been interrupted on the way to the cemetery. Something like the cookie jar would be friendlier and less – well – jarring.

‘Let’s play Lists!’ says Warwick.

the fourth date

Jan is chatting to the care coordinator about her patchy dating history.
‘I’ve kissed my fair share of frogs,’ she says. ‘Frogs. Trolls. You name it. A whole long line. One guy I saw had one and a half ears.’
‘On the same side of his head.’
‘He looked alright but he wasn’t the kind of guy I normally date. I just didn’t fancy him. Not ‘cos of the ear thing. I didn’t notice the ear thing till the fourth date.’
‘You made it to four dates?’
‘Yeah – well – it was a slow month.’
So – what? On the fourth date you asked him back to your place, ran your fingers through his ears, and that was that.’
‘We didn’t get that far. I only noticed the ear thing when he turned to get his coat. And anyway – even if he had told me I wouldn’t have believed him. When we met on the first date I asked him what he did and he said he was a dust man.’
‘A dust man?’
‘Yeah. Why? What?’
‘I dunno. Dust man sounds odd’
‘Refuse collector, then.’
‘Thank you.’
‘Anyway. I didn’t care what he did, so long as we got on. Only in his case, we didn’t.’
‘Shame.’
‘But you know what he said on the fourth date?’
‘What?’
‘He said he wasn’t really a dust man.’
‘What was he, then?’
‘He said he was a financial adviser. He said he only told me he was a dust man to check I wasn’t going out with him for his money.’
‘Tosser.’
‘That’s what I said.’
‘Still. I don’t think that’s any reason to bite his ear off.’

the december deadbeat club

Walking up the steep stone steps to the Gaynors’ front door is like ascending to heaven – a drowsy, sweet-scented, brightly-coloured heaven, with bees thrumming drunkenly flower to flower, and the afternoon sun laying so thickly over everything I just want to lie down in the shade of that azalea and sleep.

The oldest thing about the house seems to be the door – a worn, iron-riveted oak construction that would look more at home on the front of a medieval abbey. As it is, I can only think the door was here before the house, standing on its own on top of a small hill, before the garden and the other houses and the road and the lines of parked cars. And it was such a perfect door, they thought they’d build a house around it.

Mrs Gaynor is as old as the house. She hobbles to the door and then steps back whilst I put on my mask and gown. She tells me about her accident – or non-accident, actually, as she can’t remember anything about it. Only she caught her leg on something and now it’s swollen up. Mr Gaynor is there, too, a gaunt figure in the background. He hasn’t got much to add, other than that the thing happened, and Mrs Gaynor is on Warfarin, and it’s a bad business all round. The ambulance came and dressed it, she says. They just need something a little more permanent, and some advice.

They show me through to the front room. Oak panelled, a carved settle in the bay window, a Windsor chair, and a spread of framed family photos around the room, daguerreotype to digital, a hundred and fifty years of the same beaky nose and quizzical look, give or take a bonnet or a ludicrous moustache.

‘Let’s have a look,’ I say, after setting up my wound care station on the settle. ‘Does it hurt?’
‘No, no,’ says Mrs Gaynor. ‘I’d hardly know it was there.’
‘Until you fell over,’ chips in Mr Gaynor.
‘That had nothing to do with the leg’ she says.
‘Ah!’ he says. ‘There we are.’

The whole thing is pretty straightforward. We chat about things whilst I work, how long they’ve lived here (they can’t remember exactly), how they’re coping with the lockdown (business as usual, really). I’m overwhelmed with sleepiness again, probably because it’s so hot in the front room, especially in the apron, mask and gloves. I have to wear glasses to see properly, but then they steam up.

‘I’ll be glad when all this is over,’ I say, straightening up and trying to clear my glasses by wiggling my eyebrows and then pushing the glasses back up with the back of my wrist.
‘It’s certainly dragging on,’ says Mr Gaynor.
‘And then my leg happens,’ says Mrs Gaynor.
To force myself to stay awake I jump on another subject – the fact that I share a birthday with Mrs Gaynor.
‘The fag end of the year,’ I tell her. ‘My dad was the same.’
‘He wasn’t!’
‘Well – not exactly. His birthday was the day before. The joke was that I delayed coming out till I could have a birthday of my own.’
I hold my arms out left and right to illustrate how I did it.
She laughs.
‘Your poor mother.’
‘I’m a December baby, too, you know,’ says Mr Gaynor, in case Mrs Gaynor decides not to tell me.
‘So we’re all Capricorns!’ says Mrs Gaynor. ‘How extraordinary!’
‘The December Deadbeat Club,’ says Mr Gaynor. ‘Present company excepted, of course.’