life is strange

Just to the right of Ian’s basement door, set back in an alcove lined with astro turf, is a large, plaster of paris copy of the Venus de Milo, pink and white fairy lights wrapped so tightly round her head and body it’s like the cabling cut off her circulation and caused the arms to drop off. And Venus isn’t the only one suffering. Every conceivable fabulous beast or mythical creature, cast in iron, plastic or stone, has been staked out in the porch area, some in conversational groups, some peeping out from behind fake rocks fitfully lit by solar lamps, some staring down in attitudes of petrified indifference from the few plants still alive in the raised bed behind me. Coming from the dark street down these basement steps into such a muddle of light is like sneaking into a cheap psychedelic grotto without paying. I ring the doorbell – disappointingly normal – and wonder what Ian will look like, as I stand back and wait.

Eventually – after such a long time I wonder if I should ring again – Ian shuffles into view, his pallor and exhaustion made more striking by the colour and fuss around us.

Come in, come in! he croaks. Go through to the bedroom, would you? He waves me through, then slowly closes the door, pausing for a moment to press his nose to the glass, as if he half expected the illuminated Venus to turn and smile back at him.

The flat is like a long and extensive burrow made entirely out of books, Tiffany lamps placed strategically here and there for illumination, along with a glowing square above the messy bed: a large reproduction of a Greek tableau – a naked warrior wrestling a satyr – the whole thing wrapped in white neon rope.

Ian moves to the side of the bed, then collapses back onto it, gradually finding the energy to draw his legs up into a half-tuck foetal position.
‘I won’t ever do it again,’ he says.
I think he means answer the door, but I’m not sure, so I say: ‘Do what, Ian?’
‘Run backwards’
‘Is that what happened when you had the accident?’
He nods, then pushes himself up onto one elbow so he can see me more clearly.
‘Yes. It was such a lovely evening I thought, why not? But then I tripped and fell and cracked my head. When I awoke I was lying here in bed with blood all over the pillow. So I called that number – you know – whatever it is – and the next thing I knew there were two burly men in green standing over me, taking notes. We think you should come with us they said. Oh really? I said. Why should I come with you? Because we think you might have a bleed on the brain. A bleed on the brain? I said. Whatever next? But suddenly I was in hospital, you see? Weeks, I was there. Weeks and weeks. Months, quite possibly, I couldn’t really say. And now here I am, talking to you. Isn’t life strange?’

He smiles at me, and at the same time the lights around the tableau buzz and flicker, as if somehow the neon rope was connected to Ian in some way. Then they blaze on again as brightly as before.
‘Let’s see how you are today, Ian,’ I tell him, unpacking my bag.
‘Oh – if you insist,’ he sighs, then rolls onto his back.

the biology & ecology of the asteroidea

Mr Woollens mobilises slowly and with great precision, inching his way along the great mass of textbooks on the book shelves; along the backs of chairs and cabinets covered with fossils and specimens in jars and ethnic carvings; tentatively feeling his way along the walls hung with diplomas and certificates and photographs of awards ceremonies and antique taxonomic prints; moving hand by foot by hand, securing each purchase and only then transferring his weight, as slowly and meticulously pinpoint as a giant starfish moving over a span of uneven coral – ironic, given that starfish were his speciality.
‘Yes,’ he pants, pushing his wild white hair over to one side, exposing the great tangle of his eyebrows and the partially paralysed slant of his mouth. ‘I spent years looking at the damned things.’
I ask if there’s anything I can get him, some water perhaps, a cup of tea?
‘There is one thing,’ he says. ‘You can get me a package of something to enable my own destruction.’
Those great eyebrows tremble as he studies my response.
‘No?’ he says. ‘Thought not. In which I suppose I shall just have to settle for a cup of tea.’

joan & agnes go shopping

Joan is sitting in the sunshine on an antique walnut chair, an aluminium walking stick planted squarely in front of her, both hands resting on it, giving her the appearance of a graven warrior leaning on their sword. I have to say she’d look pretty good in a helmet, with a nose-piece and slits for eyes; as it is, her only armour is a tweed skirt, silk blouse and metallic hairdo.

And if Joan is a warrior, her declared enemy would be Sciatica.

‘I’m a martyr to it,’ she says, thumping her stick on the carpet twice, which she does periodically, to emphasise the key points.

‘Not that I let it win. I know what you, the doctor and everybody else will say. You’ve got to keep moving Joan. Physiotherapy and pain relief, that’s the ticket. But all these pills and potions turn me into an absolute zombie, dragging myself around the place, moaning and carrying on. And when I’m in that state I’m afraid all I really need is shooting. 

Thump, thump.

‘I must tell you something, though. You’ll like this. My friend Agnes came round the other day. She visits every now and again. Like the flu. She wanted me to drive her to the mobility shop to help her choose a three-wheeled walker. I said can’t you just order it online like everyone else? But she hasn’t the faintest idea what online means. She thinks it’s something to do with the railway. Still, I don’t mind the odd excursion. I drive, of course. Everything’s a fuzz close up, but so long as the sun’s high enough I get by. So we drove over to the mobility shop, and spent an absolute lifetime looking at their range. I suggested the most solid looking thing with a basket on the front and a seat to sit on if it came to that. But Agnes being Agnes she went for the racy red affair, a three-wheeler, something that wouldn’t look out of place at Brands Hatch. Whilst she was fiddling around with a cheque book – a cheque book! I mean, honestly. She’s like something out of the Middle Ages! – Anyway, whilst she was driving the assistant absolutely insane with her chaotic bag and her endless requests, I took the opportunity to nip next door to the paper shop to get my copy of the Financial Times. Whilst I was in there chatting to the shopkeeper about call centres or somesuch, a woman came into the shop and asked me if I knew a woman with a red three-wheeled walker. So I said Yes, I’m afraid I do. So she said Well she’s just fallen over!

Thump, thump.

in the house of alma

‘How much do you know about – the situation?’
Charlotte is standing with me and my colleague Olufemi where we agreed to rendezvous outside the house. She seems anxious, her long blond hair tied back in a purposeful ponytail, her eyes drawn and tired.
‘Not much, only that Alma has been going downhill a bit lately, at risk of self-neglect.’
‘If it wasn’t for me she would’ve died already – sorry to be so blunt.’
‘No. That’s okay. It’s good to be clear.’
Charlotte unconsciously moves Alma’s keys from hand to hand, as if they’re too hot to hold for long.
‘The fact is we’re moving,’ she says. ‘And I’ve no idea what’ll happen when we’re gone.’
‘Does she have family?’
‘No. A niece somewhere. I’ve never seen her.’
‘That is a pity,’ says Olufemi. ‘That is sad for the lady.’
‘What about carers?’
‘You’re looking at her. Not that I meant to do it, or even wanted to, really. But what can you do? I used to be a nurse, too. About a thousand years ago.’
‘So you’ve been providing a measure of care for Alma? Doing what, exactly?’
‘It started off just buying her food. Bit and pieces here and there. Clearing up. Domestic stuff. She never paid for any of it, but what could I do? I couldn’t just let her starve. But then lately she’s been unwell and I’ve had to start cleaning her up. She’s started falling, staying in bed. Been incontinent – that sort of thing. I’ve changed the sheets and quilt any number of times. Thrown them out, bought new. It’s been quite stressful. On top of all the hassle of moving. That’s why I had to get social services involved.’
‘Sounds like you’ve done everything you could and more.’
‘You are a good friend and neighbour,’ says Olufemi. ‘The best.’
‘The other thing I need to tell you is – she says hurtful things.’
‘To you?’
‘And I know it probably comes from a place of fear. I don’t doubt she’s scared people are going to take her independence away. It just makes it all even more difficult to handle.’
‘What hurtful things?’
‘Well. No doubt you’ll see when we go in. Don’t get me wrong. Deep down Alma’s okay. A little eccentric, in her own way. But erm…you really have to brace yourself.’
‘Okay. Thanks for the heads up.’
‘Let’s see what she’s like today, then, shall we?’
Charlotte gives us both a brave smile, then pushes open the gate and we all walk in a line down the overgrown path to Alma’s front door.

I’m guessing the house was built sometime in the thirties. A little down-at-heel now, it still has that air of moneyed class-consciousness you see in some suburban homes. When Alma dies I imagine it’ll be sold off and re-developed into separate flats. There’s certainly space for it. Inside it’s hard to imagine one person living on their own here, let alone a ninety-five year old confined to one room upstairs.
‘It’s cold,’ says Olufemi.
‘I put the heating on but she turns it off again,’ says Charlotte. ‘Doesn’t want to spend the money.’
‘But a person needs heating,’ he says. ‘This is not good. Not good at all.’
We’re all of us standing in the gloomy hallway looking round. Archways leading off into dark, unoccupied rooms. It’s early morning, and a thin light sparsely illuminates the kitchen.
‘It’s a mess,’ says Charlotte. ‘I’ve done my best, but…’
She stands at the bottom of the staircase with one hand on the balustrade.
‘It’s no good calling because she won’t hear you,’ she says. ‘We may as well just go up.’
So we do.

The landing is as cold and resonantly empty as the rest of the place. All the doors stand open and dark apart from the door to Alma’s bedroom, which is closed, with a little light spilling out from under it. A radio is playing loudly – a gardening programme, something about azaleas.
Charlotte knocks, then turns the handle.

Alma is lying on the floor.
‘Oh Alma!’ says Charlotte, hurrying over.
‘Get away from me!’ says Alma. ‘And whilst you’re at it, lose some weight.’
‘Don’t be like that, Alma. Look. I’ve brought some people to see you. Some nurses from the hospital.’
‘Nurses from the hospital? Whatever for?’
Olufemi and I go over to her to introduce ourselves and see if she’s alright.
‘How did you end up on the floor?’ I ask her.
‘I slipped! D’you think this is some sort of game? Concentrate, boy! Why not try using your mind for once? You might like it.’
‘Let’s help you up…’
She’s obviously uncomfortable, though, because once we’ve ascertained she hasn’t hurt herself, she lets us gently help her up and back onto the bed.
She’s wearing a t-shirt and nothing else, her withered legs scarcely able to support her.
Alma catches her breath, and when she’s ready, divides her attention between me and Olufemi. It’s like being scrutinised by a giant, partially denuded chicken, her eyes preternaturally bright and sharp.
‘You!’ she says to me, suddenly clawing at the air between us so unexpectedly that I have to lean back. ‘Pah!’ she says. ‘You’re no use.’
‘Please, Mrs Alma. We’ve only come here to help you,’ says Olufemi, kneeling beside the bed.
‘And as for you,’ she says, turning slowly to smile down at him in a horribly leering way. ‘YOU – my little pickaninny friend. You can go and kneel somewhere else.’

the twopenny hangover

Kenneth’s house is so ancient and well-heeled it has its name stencilled on the curving corner brickwork of the street. Black railings lead round from the sign beneath tall windows to the porticoed entrance, three wide steps up to a black and white tiled threshold, a wide oak door and worn brass bell-pull. The keysafe to the side is a glaring modern expediency whose installation I imagine took some persuading, but given Kenneth’s age and poor state of health I’m glad he agreed. When I’d called earlier to arrange a time, Kenneth told me to retrieve the key and let myself in. ‘I’ll be in the drawing room’ he said, room pronounced rum. ‘Just holler out when you’re in the hall so I’ll know it’s you,’ he said. ‘There’s a fellow.’

The hall is as sumptuous as you’d expect from the exterior. A wide, softly curving staircase, smooth as the whorled interior of a whelk, rising on plush red treads past paintings, prints by Gillray, fading family pictures dating from the age of the plate, up past a gilt and crystal chandelier to the honey-moted tones of the upper storeys. Another jarring note, though – the stair lift, whose track starts by a walnut table for keys and things, where there’s a silver framed photograph of Kenneth as a young airman, leaning forward in that earnest, David Niven way, cap jauntily back, arms crossed and resting on an immaculately pressed trouser leg.

‘Up here!’ he says when I call – then subsides into a series of rattling coughs.
I squeeze past the chair where it’s come to a stop at the top of the stairs, and walk into a bright and beautiful room, where Kenneth is waiting for me in his favourite chair.
‘Thank you so much for coming,’ he says, shaking my hand. ‘Do take a pew.’

* * *

Kenneth’s observations are below normal range but unsurprising given his COPD and recent chest infection.
‘It doesn’t help that I smoked for fifty years or more,’ he wheezes. ‘Well everybody did. It was almost compulsory. And during the war one tended to live day to day. I loved to smoke, though. It was one of the few things I was good at. If I didn’t have a cigarette I’d smoke a pipe. And if I didn’t have any pipe tobacco I’d jolly well cut up some old carpet and smoke that. I managed to quit in the end, though.’
‘How did you manage it?’
‘Funny story. My wife had arranged a family trip. A pauper’s experience of Paris she called it. Didn’t sound at all like my cup of tea but I went along with it as I often did. I’d read George Orwell of course. Down and Out in Paris and London. Marvelous book. I remember him talking about the twopenny hangover, which was a rope you could lean on whilst you were sitting on a bench. And then at the end of the night they’d untie the rope, and there you were! Orwell smoked like the proverbial, of course. Didn’t do him any good either, although I think he had a touch of the old TB. Anyway, there we were, checking into this blackened ruin in the Place de la Contrescarpe – or the Can’t Escape, as I called it. Awful. Indescribable. And I remember lying there that night, staring up at the ceiling, smoking cigarette after cigarette – A because I couldn’t think what else to do and B because I thought it might discourage the fleas. And I thought to myself Kenneth! What on earth are you doing, lying here like this, killing yourself! So we checked out and went somewhere a little more civilised, I gave my last pack of Chesterfields to the person sleeping in the doorway, and I never smoked again. And now here you are telling me my breathing’s no good!’
‘Well – it’s not great.’
‘I’m ninety-five, Jim. I don’t think you could truthfully describe any aspect of me as being great. But there we are. You’re a smashing fellow and I thank you for your time.’

a proper west ender

‘What’s the verdict, doc? Still alive? You can tick that box, then. But I can tell you what the problem is, without none of your fancy nonsense. I’m ninety-four! Yes! That’s what the problem is. Ninety-four and fucked, ‘scuse my French. We’re all living too long, y’see? Weren’t too long ago I’d have popped off by now. But we’re all hanging around in limbo and no fucker knows what to do with us and I don’t see no end to it – d’you? I don’t mind, though. I’ve had my life. I was in Germany, just after the war. You talk about hard times now, but you should ‘a seen it back then, mate. Terrible. All them kids, scratching around the ruins for someink’ to eat. We did that, and worse. Bodies everywhere. I’d never seen nuffin’ like it. People talk about war like it’s something grand, something to be proud of. I weren’t proud. Far from it. I still have the dreams. But then again, y’see, I was just a kid myself, twenty years old and no sign of a razor. We lived day to day, though. We went dancing and tried to forget about all the bad stuff. It’s just the way it was and that was that. There weren’t nothing you could do about it. When I made it back home for good I followed the family trade. In the theatre. I weren’t a hoofer like me ol’ man. Nah! I liked all the backstage stuff, the lighting mainly. Dad was the real thing, though, a proper West Ender. He had this nice little thing going with Gertrude Lawrence. You’ve heard of her, I suppose? They did pretty well, but then she nicked off to America and and he ended up stage doorman at the Winter Gardens. Still, she never forgot him. When she come back he was the first one she’d look up. She’d be outside knocking on the door in her pearls and furs and mum’d be shouting up the stairs Oi Billy, your fancy bird’s back! I loved it in the theatre, though. I was at home there. It was in me blood. I remember one day, I was sitting out front watching them sort out the flats, and Alec Guinness was sitting next to me with his feet up. And he says to me Jack. Look at me. I’ve got no legs to speak of. I’m starting to lose my hair. I’ve been working myself ‘alf to death and still I ‘int got ten shillings to me name. What are my chances, d’you think? But I set him straight pretty quick. That was an easy one. I mean – c’mon! Alec Guinness!

sunset terrace

‘I’m just finishing off my mother’s rectal area but you could come over at a quarter past five if that would be acceptable?’
I check my watch. It’s ten to.
‘Okay. Fine. I’ll see you then, Jeremy.’
‘Lovely, James. Looking forward to seeing you at a quarter past five, then. Goodbye.’
I don’t know what’s more disconcerting – the formal description of the personal care Jeremy’s giving or the way he changed ‘Jim’ to ‘James’. Either way, I’m intrigued to meet him.

The house is in the middle of a long terrace, the only thing marking it out being an atmosphere of general neglect. Nothing too awful; more like a disaffected giant leant in with the eraser end of an enormous pencil and rubbed it out a little. The number is a rusted iron affair, the black paint long since flaked off, hanging on a skew so it’s only possible to make out by taking it in sequence with the numbers on the houses either side. I ring the bell and take a step back. After a long pause Jeremy comes to the door, wiping his hands on some kind of souvenir tea towel.

‘Oh hello, James!’ he says, draping the tea towel over his shoulder and reaching out to shake my hand. His feels icy from the water, soft and broad, too; if I closed my eyes I could imagine I was shaking flippers with a seal.
‘Don’t just stand there!’ he says, flapping me through. ‘You’ll catch your death.’
‘It’s freezing – but at least it’s bright.’
‘Yeees! It’s surprising what you can tolerate with a little light. She’s just through here, James. Excuse the mess.’

The house still follows the original two-up, two-down floor plan – a small front sitting room and back parlour, a tiny kitchen and downstairs toilet, and two rooms upstairs. Jeremy has set his mum’s bed up in the parlour, just about managing to squeeze it in along with a commode and a comfy chair. The front room is for watching TV, and this is where his mother is sitting, wearing a short fur jacket and a beige turban – a little at a slant – fixed at the front with a brooch. Jeremy’s paintings cover the walls: swirling life studies in reds and browns and yellows, so thickly done I imagine he uses both ends of the brush, and then maybe his feet.

I introduce myself to Jeremy’s mother, but although she smiles contentedly she makes no sign that she’s really understood who I am or what I’ve come to do. Jeremy leans in and bellows in his mother’s ear – much more of a shock to me than it is to her – then leans out again.
‘She’s a little hard of hearing,’ he says, gently. ‘Would you like me to make you some tea whilst you take her readings?’

I run through the obs, and I’m pretty much done by the time he brings through two mugs and a beaker for his mum.
‘Everything looks fine,’ I say, looping the stethoscope over my neck and taking the mug.
‘Well that’s a relief.’
‘Yep. I think all we need to do is book some physio to get your mum back up to strength, have someone come in a couple more times to make sure she stays on the level, and maybe have an OT come round to see if there’s any more equipment you might find useful.’
‘I don’t know where it would go,’ says Jeremy. ‘I mean – look at the place. But we’re in your capable hands. We’re really very grateful.’
I write up my notes on the laptop whilst he sits on a stool and watches.
‘I love your paintings,’ I tell him.
‘Thank you!’ he says. ‘I use their old front bedroom as a studio. The light’s much better there, you know. Painting’s my thing. It’s what keeps me sane.’
‘Everybody should definitely have a thing. But how would you say you’re bearing up generally? It must be quite a strain.’
‘Oh. That’s kind of you to ask. It has been hard, that’s for darn sure – but I’m fine. As I say, I have my art.’
‘Do you need any care support?’
‘What would they do? I do it all.’
‘Well – I don’t know. Give you a bit of a break? Maybe you could consider some respite care at some point. You’ve got to look after your health, too.’
He laughs.
‘Me? I’m alright. You have to be, don’t you? I must admit it was hard at first, though. I had no idea what I was letting myself in for. But the rest of the family live abroad and they’ve got their own families so there wasn’t really anyone else. I’ve just had to learn as I went along. And now look at me – nurse, domestic, pharmacist, accountant. Electrician! But like I say. I still have time to paint. And we watch a lot of black and white films together, don’t we mum? We’re going to watch one when you go. A good one. Sunset Boulevard. Mum’s favourite. We’ve seen it I don’t know how many times. Norma Desmond…’
He puts his mug on the floor, jumps up, straightens, widens his eyes, snarls, throws the tea towel over the opposite shoulder and says Ready for my close-up, Mr DeMille.
He holds the pose a few seconds, then sits back down on the bed again and picks up his mug.
‘And – scene!’ he says, taking a sip.