careful

The three of us are sitting at the kitchen table. Charles is leaning forwards, propped up on his right hand, his fingers splayed on the magnificent bald dome of his head.
‘I know what it looks like,’ he says. ‘I know I look like a man in despair. But I’m happy. And honestly? I don’t care. It’s comfortable. That’s it.’
His wife Irene sits opposite, methodically working her way through a fat file of notes.
‘Charles!’ she says, without looking at him, licking a finger, turning a page.
‘Like I said. I don’t care.’
Behind us, two patio doors open out onto a garden saturated with colour: a fierce yellow cloud of forsythia, vivid red splodges of tulip, diminishing dots of daisies, and in the middle of it all, like the richest and most exuberantly white wedding dress, an old apple tree in full bloom.
‘Don’t even look at it,’ says Charles. ‘It’s shameful.’
‘It’s beautiful.’
‘Are you a gardener?’
‘We’ve got a garden. I get out sometimes.’
‘Hmm,’ he says. ‘As soon as I’ve finished this cycle of chemo I’ll be back. You’ll see.’
‘You rest, hun,’ says Irene. ‘That’s your job. Now look – here’s that list you wanted.’ She hands me a list of medications. ‘Good luck with the spelling,’ she says.
There’s a radio up on the counter playing classical music. The second movement of Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.
‘I don’t mind telling you – this is far and away the loveliest consultation I’ve had in a long while,’ I say, listening to the music. ‘The last one, I was in this smoky, super heated flat, all the windows shut, curtains drawn. And the patient was wearing a fluffy red dressing gown, sitting on a sofa surrounded by all these creepy porcelain dolls. And she was puffing away on this fag. And they were all staring at me with the same expression, just waiting for me to faint.’
‘You poor thing!’ laughs Irene. ‘I think you had a touch of fever. But you know what? Some people just like it hot. She must be one of those. A hothouse flower.’
‘I like it hot. But not that hot. When I came back outside it actually felt cold. For a while, anyway.’
‘Do you remember when we had all that snow?’ says Charles, still propped up on his hand.
‘When was that, darling?’ says Irene.
‘Years ago. When we first came here. Or maybe not so long. It was snowing anyway. And I was walking down the street. And I lost my footing or something and I just flipped, straight up in the air, and then straight down again – flat! – on my back. So I was lying there, properly winded, and groaning and so on. And these two old woman came waddling over. They’d been chatting on the street corner, all bundled up, you know? And they came over, and they looked down at me. I can see them now, clear as I can see you. And they said: Careful. Just like that. Careful, they said.’
‘Oh darling!’ says Irene. ‘How funny!’
Careful! they said. Just like that.’
‘And what did you say?’
‘I said: Why – thank you. I’ll be sure to take your advice.’

walking home

There are two single beds side by side in the middle of the room, the nearest one occupied, the furthest one empty with the bedclothes rucked up. Ted’s wife Rita is in the nearest, lying on her back with her arms by her sides on the top of the covers, perfectly aligned with the legs beneath, as graven and still as the alabaster figure of a woman in a tomb – albeit one that was irritated her partner had got up after a thousand years and gone to sit in the Windsor chair by the window.

‘She’s on that many pills,’ whispers Joan, their daughter, standing in the bedroom doorway and looking in on the tomb with her arms folded. ‘If I took what she took you could tie a string round my leg, take me outside and fly me.’

Ted is staring out at the communal gardens below. There’s an empty perspex bird-feeder suckered to the window just the other side of him.
‘Do you want me to put some seed in the feeder?’ says Joan. ‘It’ll give you something to look at.’
‘I’m alright’ he says, batting his hand. ‘They’re alright, too, I ‘spect. They’re birds.’
‘Suit yourself.’

It’s hard to know what to do about Rita. Degenerative illness means she suffers from chronic pain. Even if there was a total body replacement available, at ninety one she’d never survive the op. Joan had given me the heads-up downstairs in the kitchen. ‘‘She’s become her illness,’ she said. ‘She doesn’t talk about anything else – except when she’s being snippy about my cooking. I thought coming to live with us would help, but it’s been a nightmare.’
‘Do you want to speak to a social worker about it?’
‘A social worker?’ she’d said, frowning and leaning back. ‘Why? What could they do?’
‘Well – if things are too stressful here, they could talk about alternatives.’
‘What d’you mean, alternatives?’ she says over her shoulder as she filled the kettle at the sink. ‘D’you mean put her in a home?’
‘Some kind of residential care, yes. Somewhere set up for someone with complex needs. You never know – she might like it.’
‘And what about Dad? What would he do?’
‘Maybe he could go, too.’
‘Put Dad in a home?’ says Joan, slamming the full kettle onto its stand and jabbing the switch. ‘You might as well shoot him.’

Whilst I’m with Rita, taking her blood pressure and temperature and so on, Ted divides his attention between us and two dogs that have run into the garden to play tug-of-war.
‘I met her when I was back on leave,’ he says, as if the dogs brought it all to mind. ‘I went to the picturehouse, and there she was, having her hair pulled by these kids sitting behind her.’
‘My friend hadn’t showed up so I went in alone,’ says Rita, her eyes still shut, her eyelids flickering like the film she saw has started playing the other side. ‘I didn’t know what else to do.’
If Ted hears, he makes no sign.
‘So what I did was,’ he says, shifting forwards in the chair, ‘I snuck up behind them, like this… and I reached out… and I banged all their heads together, like this! Then when she ran outside I followed her. And I said to her, I said I’ll walk you home…’
‘I didn’t want him to,’ says Rita. ‘I said I was perfectly capable of walking home by myself, thank you very much.’
‘When we got there, I didn’t try to kiss her or nothing. I just shook her hand, all gentlemanly like, and I said I hoped she had a nice time and everything, and maybe could I see her again. Two years later the war was over. I come back from Italy. We got married. And that was seventy-four years ago.’
He chuckles, settles back in the chair, and stares out of the window again.
The dogs have gone inside.
‘I didn’t want him to walk me home,’ says Rita. ‘I said to him. I said, I’m perfectly capable of walking home by myself, thank you very much.’

display purposes only

Henry doesn’t come to the door so much as slowly coalesce from the shadows beyond the glass.

Henry is frail but not physically unwell. I know his story pretty well by now. He’d been living in Portugal for many years until things started to go wrong, his marriage ended, he was hit by severe financial problems, lived a while in his car, was sectioned following a suicide attempt. After a great deal of toing and froing, his daughter Diane managed to repatriate him, temporarily setting him up in a basement flat whilst she sorted out something more suitable and long-term. I’d spoken to Diane many times on the phone. She was bright and busy and supremely well-organised, but I knew she was struggling to cope with work and family as well as the traumatic fall-out of her parents’ separation. Diane knew as well as anyone that the basement flat wasn’t great. It had a set-aside feel, silent and secluded – not at all the kind of place you’d choose for someone suffering depression and anxiety. But even though it suffered from having the generic, impersonal feel of showroom flats the world over – blown-up photos of Times Square and a colourised London bus driving over Westminster Bridge in the rain; enormous, squashy leather sofas impossible to get out of once you’d sat in them; glass vases with white pebbles and a single, artificial lily; a flat screen TV; venetian blinds – at least it was warm and safe, and near enough to where she lived to make keeping a regular eye on her father vaguely feasible.

The good news is that Diane had managed to find a better, brighter place. Henry is due to move the following morning; my visit here this evening is to be the last in this place, a welfare check, to see he’s okay.

‘Hello,’ says Henry.
We’ve met a few times before, but he makes no sign he recognises me. He’s as still as a photograph, completely neutral, like it really makes no difference to him whether he shakes my hand here in the doorway or stands inside staring up through the casement window at the feet of the people walking by.

He lets me in. We relocate to the living room. Henry drifts over to the kitchen counter, next to a tall suitcase on wheels, all zippered up and ready to go. I have the eerie feeling that If I was an alien probe sent into the room to scan for life, I’d struggle to differentiate between them.

‘Have you eaten anything this evening?’ I ask, glancing around for clues.
He shakes his head.
‘Aren’t you hungry?’
‘No.’
‘Do you mind if I have a look and see if there’s something I can get you?’
He shrugs.
I go into the galley kitchen area, so pristine you can smell the caulking gun.
The fridge has nothing in it. I open the overhead cupboards, and I can’t help thinking of the old nursery rhyme: …but when she got there, the cupboard was bare, and so the poor dog had none.
The only food I can see anywhere are five Kilner jars of pasta lined up on a shelf, each one holding different shapes and colours.
‘I could do you some pasta…’ I say, wondering what on earth I’d use for a sauce.
He shakes his head again.
‘Display purposes only,’ he says.

dogs in hats

Billy is as thin and white as forced celery, wisps of white hair streaming back from his chiselled forehead against all natural gravitational laws, his etiolated white hands clasping the armrests of the chair like roots he put out to suck the nutrients from the stuffing. He barely acknowledges me as I let myself in. Whether that’s because of a general remoteness, or because he’s drunk most of the various spirit bottles placed artfully around his feet, it’s hard to tell.
‘How come you didn’t answer your phone, Billy?’
He turns his sad blue eyes up to me.
‘Oh. Was that you ringing? I looked for my phone but I couldn’t find it.’
‘Shall I give it another ring and see where it is?’
He shrugs.
I go to recents in my phone, and call.
After a moment, a loud buzzing starts up on the cluttered table immediately in front of us. His phone is under a red reminder.
‘Found it!’
‘Great’ he says, in a whispery voice leached flat by long hours of nothing in particular. ‘Gis it here, then.’

It’s hard to know what to do about Billy. The best you can say is that he has a workmanlike approach to drinking himself to death. There’s no joy in it; no wild ride. For some reason he’s simply hitched himself to a slow and dreadfully monotonous kind of decline, like he’s found himself in an armchair that began sinking beneath a quicksand of liquor bottles. When the glass level reaches the bridge of his nose, I don’t imagine he’ll struggle at all. He’ll merely turn those eyes in the direction of whoever’s there to notice, and slide out of sight with a clink.

I unzip my bag and loop the stethoscope round my neck. When I straighten I notice the four dog photos taped to the wall on his right. The photos have been printed A4 size with the colour running low, so everything’s a little fuzzy. You can see it’s the same dog, though, a lugubrious hound sitting in the same position in the kitchen, wearing four different hats: a fisherman’s floppy cap; a Norwegian style knitted hat with flaps; a panama, and then something from a fancy dress shop – a plastic policeman’s helmet fastened under its chin with elastic.
‘Love the pictures!’ I tell him. ‘Who’s dog is that?’
‘Karen, my carer,’ Billy whispers, sadly. ‘She knows I like dogs. And hats. So – there you go.’

captain! captain!

The cluttered sitting room is dominated by a large, brightly lit vivarium along the wall and two ornate bird cages in the window alcove. The canaries in the cages hop and chatter wildly as I come into the room, but the vivarium seems empty.
‘Don’t worry. He died, he didn’t escape,’ says Malcolm.
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
Malcolm sighs.
‘Tarantulas,’ he says. ‘Not the easiest.’

Malcolm’s wife Sara is sitting with her back to the vivarium – a weird contrast, not just because the fierce light on the stones and the stark blue background throws her into a kind of unbalanced neon shade, but because she holds herself so completely still, as motionless as the tank is empty.
‘Hello,’ I say, reaching out to her. She’s so fragile, if I shut my eyes I could imagine I’d shaken the wing of one of the canaries instead.
‘The doctor was round this morning,’ says Malcolm. ‘He did some tests so we’re waiting on them. He said you’d be coming round to see what else you could do.’
We go through the story, Sara nodding in agreement from time to time but not offering much else. She’s not in pain. She doesn’t feel unwell as such. She has a few, minor, long-running issues, but nothing’s particularly worse. She’s just lacking in energy and not feeling herself.
‘Six months ago everything was fine,’ says Malcolm. ‘Well – you know. We were taking the bus up town. Going to the garden centre for bird seed and crickets. Going on holiday. We went to Lanzarote. Here’s us on the Yellow Submarine,’ he says, handing me a photo.
‘What’s that, then?’
‘It’s a submarine, my friend. And it’s yellow.’
‘Like the Beatles?’
‘Who?’
‘You’re kidding.’
‘No. Look. It’s a submarine! It doesn’t go down far, but you get to look out the window and see all the fish.’
‘Sounds great.’
I look more closely at the photo. They’re standing side by side, Malcolm with his arm round Sara. He’s looking red-faced, sunburned, the flash from the camera making his face greasy and over-inflated. Ironically, it seems to have the opposite effect on Sara, ghosting her out. Her eyes are dark, intense, like she’s focusing on the moment the submarine surfaces again, the hatch unwound, and she can step back out into the open air.
I hand the photo back.
‘Once or twice she’s gone off and been brought back by strangers.’
‘Oh?’
I smile sympathetically at Sara. She smiles back in an approximate kind of way, shrugs her shoulders.
‘If you say so,’ she says.

the feral dream girl

‘Peter died six years ago, but it may as well be six minutes.’
‘I’m so sorry for your loss.’
She shrugs and shakes her head.
‘Oh, well. I had a long time to get used to the idea. Poor Peter. He was a long time sick, you see. But that’s all in the past. D’you know what I miss the most? The conversations we had. About the silliest things, any time of the day or night. He was a fascinating man, Peter. That’s why I married him, I think. Or one of the reasons. He would always go to great lengths to understand the other person’s point of view. His hospital bed was just there, where you are now, and I was off to the side, reading or dozing or running backwards and forwards to let the carers in, the nurses and so on. The number of people who came and went through this room. I could’ve written a book. Should’ve. And now it’s just me, sitting on my own, staring out at the birds, thinking about not very much.’
‘Do you have family?’
‘No. Not really. All my brothers and sisters are gone now and we didn’t want children. There are some nieces and nephews dotted about. I see them from time to time, which is lovely, but they’ve got busy lives and what have you and I don’t want to burden them. I don’t mind. I’m perfectly content. No – we didn’t really want children, and I never gave it any thought. I did have a strange dream about it, though. I’d fallen asleep in this chair, and I woke up inside the dream, so to speak. I could tell, because even though everything was much the same, the light was different, more – I don’t know – electric. And there was a wild infant child standing to the side of me. A girl. She was standing right there, just about where you are now, rocking from side to side and staring at me. I wasn’t frightened or anything. I just held out my hand, and eventually she came forward, and let me stroke her hair a while. Then something startled her, and she ran out through the open window into the garden, which was so thick with trees it was like a tropical jungle. And she ran off into all that, and I watched her go. But I wasn’t worried for her, because I knew she would be safe out there, among all the animals, the bears and the wolves and so on. You read about those children, don’t you? The feral ones, the ones who run off into the forest and get brought up by animals.’
‘I remember something about that. It’s difficult to know whether it’s a story or just neglect. Probably a bit of both.’
‘Yes. There is that. People often make up stories when the truth is too painful.’

a scarcity of goats

‘Can I see some identification?’
‘Of course’
I pull my ID card as far out on its elasticated string as it’ll go; Maud grabs it and pulls it closer, and I’m forced to step forwards, caught off-balance, like a fisherman surprised by a particularly feisty trout. She presses the card to the end of her nose and scrutinises it with her eyes shut, squeezed so tightly in fact that a little tear appears in each corner. ‘Well. That all seems to be in order,’ she says, letting it go with a snap. ‘So sorry about all that,’ she says, flapping her hands and lifting her chin in the air. ‘But one cannot be too careful. Especially these days.’
‘Absolutely.’
‘Please. Go through to the living room. And do excuse the mess. I’m not normally such a slattern.’
‘I wouldn’t call it a mess. Or maybe only a creative mess.’
‘You’re kind. But no – let’s face it. Let’s call a mess a mess. And if any creativity comes of  it, I’ll be the proverbial monkey’s uncle. Or aunt, in this case.’
Maud feels her way to the armchair and plants herself squarely into it.
‘There!’ she says. ‘Good. Lovely. Now then. What can I do for you?’

Maud is as sharp as you could want in a ninety-five year old. When I ask her to demonstrate how she’ll put the eye drops in after her cataract operation, she shows me a faultless technique, tipping her head back and using the bridge of her nose to brace her hand against.
‘There!’ she says, blinking hard and rolling her eyes. ‘Happy?’
I tell her how impressed I am.
‘I’ve never seen anyone use their nose like that. Just out of interest – what line of work were you in?’
‘Originally? Well – I started off as a goatherd!’ she says, carefully placing the tube of eye drops on the table next to her, then lacing her wrinkled hands together in her lap. ‘Not London, of course. Yorkshire. There was a scarcity of goats in London after the war.’