holy bananas

I’m sorry to have to say this, but it’s all Pete’s fault.

‘There you go! Thought you might want something big and hot inside you!’ he says, slopping a huge Arsenal mug of builder’s strength tea onto the desk, then walking off, laughing in that filthy way he has, high and wild and raucous as a drag tea lady in a pantomime.

Pete is the world’s best tea maker – a county-level performer, meticulous, prolific. It doesn’t matter how much I resolve to be the first in with the drinks round, somehow he always manages to beat me to it. It’s in his blood. His DNA sequence is PGT. His mother was a teapot and he was born under the Constellation of the Great Urn. If you x-rayed his torso you’d see two tea bags where his kidneys should be. Pete is the Caffeine King, the Tannin Chief, the author of the Beverage Report. He put the tea in terrific and the milk and two in you. And so on. I have no doubt one day they’ll raise a statue by public subscription (mostly funds re-streamed from tea clubs across the world). A life-size bronze in the marketplace: Saint Peter of the Kettle, mug raised high for seagulls to perch on and provide the laugh.

Anyway. Nobody’s forcing me, I don’t HAVE to drink it. I know it’s going to be a busy morning so if I finish the whole mug I’ll be busting for the loo half way through. But Pete’s tea isn’t something you can pass over easily. Rational thinking doesn’t come into it. By the time I’ve left the department to start my visits, the mug is empty. I rinse it clean, put it upside-down on the draining board, and leave.

 *  *  *

By the time I get to Ralph, my second patient, my bladder is as taut as a helium balloon with Arsenal printed on the side. I finish dressing Ralph’s wound, doing his obs and so on, and I’m just about to ask him if it’s okay if I use his loo, when he says his daughter is due back any minute. She’s just popped out to get a repeat script of antibiotics. I don’t want to be in the loo when she comes in because I think it might look odd. But then I think – maybe it doesn’t matter, because I remember there’s a rehab unit in the next street. They have toilets there. I can use them. Everything’s fine. I pack up my things, say goodbye to Ralph, and leave.

It’s only after I’m parked up and walking to the unit that I realise it recently closed. (A political decision; don’t get me started). But there’s a car parked outside, and I think maybe there’ll be people there packing up or something – even just a security guard. In fact, standing up against the door and shielding the glass with my hand, I can see a mug of tea (how ironic) and a fluorescent jacket dumped on the counter. I ring the bell, knock, ring again. No-one comes. I’m tempted to find some nook or cranny, somewhere discreet I can go without being seen. But I worry the security guard will suddenly appear, doing their rounds, and besides, the unit is surrounded by flats that overlook the place as closely as watchtowers round a prison.

My next visit isn’t for another hour – a double-up with a physio at The Pines, an extensive, sheltered housing place the other side of town. I decide to get there early and use the visitor’s toilet.

The Pines is a busy, friendly block. There are always residents sitting in the gardens, wandering in and out, things going on. A manager in the office. Today, though, it’s eerily quiet. The fact that it’s Sunday means there’s no-one on duty. The weather is bad, sharp and autumnal, so no-one’s sitting out. I can’t buzz the patient’s flat – we’re doubling-up because they have a history of mental health issues and need careful handling. All I can do is wait to see if anyone appears in the lobby. After ten minutes of nothing, I buzz the remote site office. Eventually, after a twenty millilitre pause, they answer. I explain my predicament, trying to sound as warm and authentic as I can.

‘Well – as we have no camera on the door…’ the voice says, ‘… and there’s no way of verifying that you are who you say you are, I have no alternative but to say no. I’m sorry. Goodbye and good luck with all your endeavours.’

The intercom clicks off.

I rest both hands flat on the console, wondering whether to buzz again and try begging. Then I pick up my bags and hurry back to the car. I figure if I drive fast enough I can just about make it back to base, use the loo, then turn around and drive straight back in time for the visit.

For some reason, there is a stationary queue of traffic on the road heading in. I’ll never get there at this rate. I see myself exploding behind the wheel like a hyper-inflated space hopper, and when the emergency services force the door they’ll jump back in horror as my idiotic grin floats out on a torrent of piss.

As soon as I can I make a u-turn and head back to The Pines. It occurs to me that there’s a clinic just round the corner from it: they’ll definitely have a public loo. I can use that, then relax for twenty minutes until the appointment.

I’m forgetting it’s Sunday. Of course the clinic is closed. There are plenty of attractive bushes in the landscaped quadrant just in front of it, but unfortunately they’re overlooked by a community hall, and in the hall are lots of elderly people gathered together for a meeting of some kind. I toy with the idea of banging on the window and asking if they’ll let me in to use their facilities, but it’s just too public and humiliating, so instead I go back round to the main entrance of The Pines, hoping beyond hope there’ll be someone to let me in this time.

There is. An elderly man in a black felt, flowerpot hat, wearing so many disparate and ill-matching clothes it looks like he’s put on everything in his wardrobe at once, for a bet. He is sitting on a bench in the foyer facing the doors, methodically peeling a banana. I stride up to the doors, smiling as warmly and reputably as I can. Put my ID card flat against the glass. Wave and nod for him to come over.

He takes a cautious bite from the very tip of the banana, and stares at me.

I wave at him again, going through such a pantomime of encouraging shrugs and winks and nods I must look crazy.

He takes another bite of the banana, then carefully replaces the skin flaps – one, two, three, four – like he wants to fool someone into thinking it’s an untouched banana. He places it on the bench beside him, stands up, brushes the front of his mac, licks his lips, touches the corner of his mouth with his finger – first the right, then the left – repositions his hat – then makes the four thousand mile journey across the carpet towards the door. I hope he might come via the big silver door release button on the wall, but instead (and – to be fair to the man – quite correctly) he walks in a straight line to the door and pushes his face up close to the glass to read the card, his banana breath fogging on the pane. Then he looks round the side of the card and glares at me. I smile. He looks back to the card again.

‘I’m early for an appointment,’ I say, overly pronouncing my words in an effort to be heard. ‘I’m waiting for my colleague so we can go in together. The thing is, I’m desperate for the loo, and I wondered if you could let me in so I can use the facilities?’

He raises his eyebrows, lowers them again, turns around, and starts walking slowly back. For one, terrible minute I think he’s just going to sit down and carry on eating his banana, but at the last minute he changes course and touches the silver button. The doors slide open.
‘Thank you SO much!’ I say. ‘I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that!’

He shrugs, waves his hand in the air. I hurry round the corner to the loo, and a few minutes later float back out.

The old man has gone. He’s finished his banana and left the skin of it on the bench. It’s peeled into four large petals, white flesh up, yellow skin down, like a sloppy lotus flower blooming on the green baize. It’s a rapturous image. A holy relic. I could kneel before it, kiss it, put it on display in a glass box.

But I don’t. I’m over it. I throw the peel in the bin, and head back out to wait in the car.

large caliber

‘Shall I take my shoes off?’
‘Oh no!’ says Rita. ‘This is a real home – not a show home!’
I’m conscious that my shoes are sopping wet, though, so I slip them off anyway.
‘I do it at home’ I say. ‘I’d feel bad otherwise.’
‘This is a real home, not a show home!’ she says, repeating herself – whether because it’s a catchphrase of hers, or because she likes the sound of it, I’m not sure.
‘Follow me!’ she says, and leads me through the house.
It certainly has the feel of a show home. Or even a gallery, given the number of paintings of stags on snowy crags and jugged hares lying among bunches of grapes, all in heavy gilt frames. Ernest, Rita’s husband, sits in a chair at the far end of the house, like a decrepit attendant who dozed through his lunch break and on into his nineties.
‘Darling? There’s a nurse to see you!’ says Rita. She waves me over to him, then lowers herself very correctly, debutante-style, into a Louis Quinze chair, her legs angled to the right, her hands folded in her lap.
‘What happened to your shoes?’ says Ernie, peering at me over his glasses.
‘They were soaking wet. I didn’t want to make a mess on your carpet.’
‘I said to him, darling,’ says Rita. ‘I said to him: This is a real home. Not a show home!’
‘Hear that?’ he says. ‘So now you know.’

* * *

All Ernest’s observations are within normal range – his blood pressure, temperature, heart rate and so on..
‘What were you expecting?’ he says. ‘I’m perfectly fine. It’s this damned back.’
‘Let the gentleman do his job, darling,’ says Rita, absentmindedly playing with her wedding ring, slipping it off, then on, then off again. ‘He used to be a sniper, you know. In the war, of course,’ she adds, hurriedly, to clear up any misunderstanding.
‘A sniper?’
‘What of it?’ he snaps.
‘No. Nothing. It sounds fascinating.’
‘Hmm,’ he says, and watches me closely as I fill out his obs chart. To cover the silence – and to find out more about his sniper years – I dig deep for some personal story I could use.
‘I had a go at skeet shooting once,’ I say. ‘It was a work’s outing. I really liked it.’
‘Skeet shooting?’
‘Yes. Clay pigeons.’
‘I know what skeet shooting is.’
‘It was really good! That bit where they chuck the clays along the ground, and they bounce around all over the place. That was fun. You know. Picking them off.’
‘Fun?’ says Ernest, horrified. ‘Fun? If by fun you mean waving your weapon around like a lunatic, blasting in the general direction of where you think something’s going to end up, well, then, perhaps. But I’m not talking about some random spread of pellets. I’m talking about the precise placing of a single, large caliber bullet. I’m talking about controlling one’s breathing, slowing one’s pulse. Taking a clean shot.’
And he glares at me over his glasses again, eyebrows quivering, drawing a bead.
‘It’s my second marriage’ says Rita. ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’

spit spot

I’m in awe of the equipment company. They have an uncanny ability to put a hospital bed into the most inhospitable place. I’m sure one day we’ll be called to a lighthouse with a bed seesawing on the roof just above the lamp. Looking around Eileen’s small and cluttered bedroom, it seems to me they would only have had two options: lift the roof off and drop it in with a crane, or beam it into position from the transporter deck of the Starship Enterprise.

Nobody needed a hospital bed more than Eileen, though, so it’s great they persevered.
Eileen is rapidly approaching the end of her life, her flesh falling away, the most vital thing about her the glassy shine to her preternaturally large eyes.

‘I want to sit out,’ she says, gripping the sides of the bed. ‘I’m sick of this.’

It’s no small ambition. Aside from Eileen’s general frailty, we’ll need to consider the two lines from the morphine drivers feeding in to her right and left, her catheter, the nasal specs for her oxygen. And if that wasn’t complicated enough, there’s the practical difficulty of the bedroom itself. We had trouble getting in the door, let alone negotiate a complicated transfer. Still, Eileen won’t be dissuaded, and (incredibly) her observations are strong enough.

‘Hmm,’ says Vihaan, looking around.

I’m standing on Eileen’s right, squeezed in between a stack of pads, bedclothes, boxes of stuff, a cantilever table, a floor-standing aircon unit, a wicker bath chair piled with towels and things, a life-sized porcelain dog – really, it’s more like a storage cupboard than a bedroom for the terminally ill. Vihaan is to her left by the window. A little clearer his side, but not much.

‘Actually, Eileen, you know, I think it’s not going to be all that easy,’ says Vihaan. ‘Okay? I think it would be safer for all concerned if you stayed in bed and rested there.’

Eileen stares at him, a little hypnotised. It happens a lot. Vihaan is so striking, with a Bollywood intensity and perfect, crow-black quiff, standing with his hands on his hips, glancing around the place, speaking so rapidly and so musically it’s easy to get distracted, like standing by a stream fascinated by the play of light, utterly forgetting you’re supposed to be catching fish.

‘What?’ says Eileen.
‘Are you sure you wouldn’t want to stay in bed a while longer?’ he says. ‘Okay? You’re absolutely sure about this?’
Eileen turns her head slowly to stare at me, then turns back to Vihaan.
‘Of course I’m sure,’ she says.
‘Okay, then, Eileen. Whatever you say. You’re the boss, actually. We’ll give it a go and we’ll do our best,’ he says. ‘But we’ll take things slowly, one thing at a time – okay? – and then if anything changes, actually, we’ll stop and think it over again. Okay? Okay.’

The hospital bed is in the only possible place it can be, in the centre of the room, the feet towards the door. The best we can do is to cheat it more to the right, making enough space to the left for the wicker chair and a zimmer frame to help with the transfer. It’s a spatial puzzle, where you have to move everything in strict order, this then this, or that over there first, to move these, and that there temporarily, whilst you hand over these – careful – back up a bit, then that can go there…

Eileen watches it all pass backwards and forwards over her bed. She’s on so much morphine I wouldn’t be surprised if she thought the room was reordering itself, flying through the air in a magical, Mary Poppins kind of way. Spit spot. A clap of the hands. Vihaan would make a great Mary Poppins. Not so much the outfit – although he’d be a sensation in that – more his brisk but warm practicality.

‘Okay,’ he says, when at last the thing is done. He leans on the zimmer, one foot up on the strut. ‘So now the room is better arranged for you to sit out from your bed actually,’ he says. ‘The wicker chair is a good height for you and we’ve made it comfortable with cushions and what have you. So let us begin to raise you up on the bed, okay? And we’ll take it very slowly, Eileen. Step by step. And we’ll help you to sit out in the chair for a while.’
She turns her big eyes up to him, and although she doesn’t smile or say anything, you can see her gratitude holding there, at some depth, but poised, and delicate, and perfectly true.

what more can I say

I’m sitting with my daughter in a large and crowded waiting room at the health centre. No-one’s talking much, just the occasional appointment confirmation and instruction at the reception desk, the rustle of magazine pages, some self-conscious throat clearing, whispered conversations. What dominates the room is an elderly woman in a wheelchair. I’m guessing she has some form of dementia, because she keeps saying the same two sentences, over and over again.
There’s a carer with her, one hand on hers. She’s doing her best, but the elderly woman is relentless.
‘I’m not well’ she says. ‘I’m not well. What more can I say?’
Now and again she clears her throat with a vigorous, dredging cough, making as much of it as she can, like a cartoon voice-over artist vocalising the scene where a rabbit vomits up a grizzly bear, gives itself a shake, then blithely hops off as the bear stares after them.
‘I’m not well. I’m not well. What more can I say?’
In the context of the waiting room it’s strangely hypnotic, especially with the carer making periodic shushing and soothing noises, the whole thing coming together like the libretto of a spare modern piece: The Waiting Room, maybe. The Poor Patient.
‘I’m not well. I’m not well. What more can I say?’
Actually, I like the way she says what more can I say. She falls into it, high to low, in a helpless, rush, landing flat on the say.
‘It’s okay, Fenella’ says the carer. ‘Don’t worry. Everything’s fine. We’ll see the doctor soon.’
‘I’m not well. I’m not well. What more can I say?’
When I chat to my daughter, Fenella takes it as a cue to speak more loudly. The receptionist peers round the stack of folders on her counter, and frowns.
The carer is doing her best, but it’s difficult for her and I wonder about their situation. I’m guessing Fenella is an inpatient in a nursing home. Normally they have a GP who visits regularly through the week, to spare the patients – and the staff – the stress and risk of an outpatient appointment. I can only think that they’ve come to see a specialist holding a clinic, someone who won’t make individual trips. I’d like to ask the carer about it, but I’m not at work, it’s nothing to do with me, and anyway, she’s got her hands full.
‘I’m not well. I’m not well. What more can I say?’
I look over my shoulder and smile at the carer, who gives me a polite but slightly wary acknowledgement. I can see she’s stressed.
‘Don’t worry, Fenella,’ she says. ‘Here – let me rub your shoulders.’
She turns in the chair, reaches round and starts gently massaging the back of Fenella’s neck.
‘Oh – that’s lovely!’ says Fenella.
The whole waiting room relaxes.

Enid vs. the CIA

Enid stares at me from the hospital bed with a wide and fixed expression, like an old Morris Minor up on the ramp. There are two other cars come to visit her in the rehabilitation unit: me, a battered old Toyota, well-maintained but worried about the next MOT, and the unit GP, an old Volvo people wagon, boxy, unkempt, a little clumsy, perhaps, but still good for a few thousand miles.
‘Tell me more about the man you saw this morning,’ says the doctor, leaning forward in his chair. ‘The man from the CIA’

Enid isn’t the most obvious recruitment target for the Central Intelligence Agency, but then you’d have to think they’re probably a little underrepresented in the eighty year old, retired bookkeeper demographic. Still, Enid’s taking it well. She waggles her mirrors and begins.
‘It was early in the morning,’ she says, folding her hands in her lap and giving her shoulders a settling shrug, ‘… about half past five, I should think. I heard someone cough, and I thought That’s odd. And when I sat up, there he was, standing at the foot of the bed, staring down at me.’
‘What did he look like?’
‘Oh – about forty, I should think. Pleasant chap. Short blond hair. Wearing a sports jacket but no tie. Smart casual, I suppose you’d say. And he stared at me a good long while, and then he said: Enid? You’re not who you think you are.’
‘How extraordinary! And he was from the CIA?’
‘Yes. He said they wanted to recruit me for a mission. I said I’m sorry, but I don’t think I’ll be much good to you like this. I’m really not up to any mission. And he said You’re on our list. And I said Well, I can’t help that. I’ve just had a pacemaker fitted.’
The doctor smiles, nods, writes something down.
‘It’s happened a few times before,’ she says.
‘The CIA?’
‘No. Last time I woke up in a Burka. There was an enormous man with a big black beard, and he pointed at me and said I had to go to the mosque. And I told him I didn’t want to go, because – well – I wouldn’t know what to do. And he said I’d soon pick it up.’
‘So it’s all about identity?’ says the doctor. ‘Fascinating!’
‘I don’t know about that,’ says Enid. ‘I’d sooner just wake up and have a cup of tea like normal people.’
‘And this has only been happening since the operation?’
She nods.
‘Do you think that’s what’s caused it?’ she says.
‘Possibly,’ says the doctor. ‘I think we need to take some blood and check for a few things. So – do you get any kind of warning before you see these people? Any strange smells, funny sensations? Sounds? Odd visual effects?’
She shakes her head.
‘Do your limbs feel heavy or frozen?’
‘No. I’m sitting up talking to them just like I’m talking to you now. I get a little frightened.’
‘But you don’t feel unwell in any way?’
‘Hmm’ says the doctor.
‘It’s not always people who talk, though. The time before that it was an alien.’
‘Like ET?’
‘I don’t know about that. He wasn’t very friendly. Pacing up and down. When I asked him what he wanted he picked me up and threw me in the cheeseplant.’
‘Well! That’s aliens for you! Look – Enid – I’ll leave you with my colleague here who’s very kindly agreed to take some blood, and we’ll have a look at that and see if there’s anything causing these hallucinations. They may just be lucid dreams, of course. You’ve been through a lot recently and you’ve had a disrupted routine and everything else. But we ought to rule out organic causes first. Okay? Lovely to see you.’
And he leaves.
‘Do you think I’ve lost my marbles?’ says Enid as I get my kit out.
‘No! Not at all. I think like the doctor says, you’ve got a lot on your plate.’
She stares at the toast cooling on the table beside her.
‘I don’t fancy much,’ she says, then turns her attention back to me.
‘I don’t bleed,’ she says, brightening. ‘Everyone struggles. There’s only one person who can get it – a girl who works at the surgery. Ever so nice, she is. Lovely teeth. She chats away a mile a minute, and the next thing you know she’s waving a tube in your face. I said to her, I said you’re a vampire, you are. And she said yes, and that’s why I like my job so much.’

We chat about the whole lucid dream thing whilst I tap around for anything vaguely resembling a vein. She’s right. It’s Slim Pickens and that’s a fact.

‘I’ve had a couple in the past,’ I tell her. ‘Dreams where I’ve woken up in the middle of it all and thought: This is a dream. And I knew if I concentrated hard enough I could make things happen. There was this one time, I’d gone to America and I was due to fly home that morning. Well I woke up in the dream, and I was standing on a wide prairie plain. So I thought I’d see what I could make come over the horizon. I concentrated as hard as I could, and I tried to summon one of those old western coach and horses – you know – like you see in the films. And then I could get in and see where it took me.’
‘Oh yes. That would be nice.’
‘But it never came. Instead there was this tiny figure running towards me with its arms outstretched. A woman, in ceremonial robes, Japanese robes, all flapping out behind her. And when she got a bit closer I could see it was my mum, and she had this expression on her face, like she was shouting out and trying to warn me. And I got so scared I turned around and woke myself up. And I was so freaked I rang the airline to change my ticket, because I thought maybe she was trying to tell me the plane was going to crash. Sorry – that vein disappeared when I went in.’
‘They do that. They can hear you coming.’
‘So later on I thought I’d better ring the airline again to check the new arrangements, and they told me they had no record of my previous call.’
‘Did you catch your plane?’
‘Yeah.. It was fine.’
‘I see.’
She reaches out and takes a desultory bite of her toast and chews it without much relish. I have to admit, I’m a little disappointed with my story, too. It sounded like a straightforward dream. The mystery of it had rubbed off over time; now it just seemed like the kind of thing you might get with jet lag.
‘I wonder what your mum was trying to tell you?’ she says, looking for the positive.
‘Who knows? I asked her about it later and she said she hadn’t had any premonitions. There we go! You have got blood after all…’
She sighs.
‘Yes. Well. Everyone struggles,’ she says.

the battle of don’s deep

Donald sits low in the armchair, his left leg bouncing up and down like a jackhammer, his left arm in a sling, his right hand restlessly picking at the chair fabric. However neutrally or sympathetically I try to phrase my questions to gauge what he needs since his discharge home, it’s impossible to get a straight or reasonable answer. I’m not making  progress.

I have to say I’ve never met anyone quite so burned-up with fury – or anyone whose eyebrows angled up in the middle so perfectly. It’s like his nose is the prow of a bony ship, and the eyebrows are the arms of a cantilever bridge raising to let it through. His eyes are in sync, too; closing as the eyebrows go up, as if he’s reading his diatribes back of the eyelids, like an autocue.

At least Don’s environment is fine. Potted plants. Laminate flooring. An enormous flat screen TV. Donald muted it when we came in, but the show he was watching continues to play. I think it’s one of those how things are made programmes, this episode all about buttons. Pastel buttons, tartan buttons, spotty buttons, two-holes, four-holes…. The manufacturing process is complex and fascinating. About a million buttons pouring into some kind of steaming bath, then rolling out on a conveyor belt. What for? Do we need this many buttons in the world…?

‘…all you bureaucrats, trying to reduce everything to a simple yes or no, clicking your little keys, ticking your little boxes. Life doesn’t work like that. Pain certainly doesn’t. Pain doesn’t conform to your pissy rules. If I say yes I can do that, you’ll put down yes, and you’ll say he can totally do that – he’s fine, we can leave him alone. But the fact is sometimes I can and sometimes I can’t. It costs me enormous levels of pain and suffering just to get out of the chair. You don’t know what it’s like. I used to be a bodybuilder. I used to be fifteen stone, built like a brick shithouse. I’ve got a toleration for pain your brain could never conceive of, never conceive. I’ve got an IQ that’s in the top one percent. I know what you’re talking about, so don’t try to fool me. I know what’s behind your words. I can’t be bought off like the rest of them. And just because I refuse to be bullied into accepting things that aren’t right, I get stigmatised and put down as difficult…’

I’m so glad I’m doing this assessment with Agnes. She’s so experienced and battle-hardened, I couldn’t feel better about it if I was an elf on the ramparts of Helm’s Deep watching the orcs approach with ladders, and Gandalf was holding my hand.

‘I’m sorry to have to ask you these things,’ I say to Don. ‘I know it’s a bit one size fits all. But we need to get a rough idea what we can do to help. Like physiotherapy, for example. Do you think you might benefit from some?’
The eyebrows flick up; the eyes close.
‘Oh? Yeah? Physiotherapy? You try living with the pain I’ve got. You try doing their little exercises. Me just scratching my head is like you running a marathon. Physiotherapy! And what will they do? They’ll come and they’ll sit where you are and they’ll say Oh, Donald, if you don’t do anything you’ll get this and that. You’ll get muscle wastage, deconditioning, ligament contracture…. Bullshit! They don’t know what it’s like to suffer like this. They wouldn’t last five seconds.’
‘And where was your fracture again? It’s on the system somewhere, but if you could just tell me…’
Eyebrows up.
‘What’s the point? You wouldn’t understand. I’ve got a better understanding of anatomy and physiology than the surgeons. That’s why they didn’t like me. They couldn’t get rid of me quick enough. I knew their language. I knew what they were up to.’
‘Try me. Just – you know – the basics.’
He sighs, then winces, fiercely and dramatically, as if that simple exhalation of breath was the most exquisite form of torture. And then when he’s recovered from that, and re-found the energy and the deep spiritual reserves required to continue talking, the eyebrows go up again, and the eyelids come down.
‘I have a type two coracoid process fracture distal to the coracoclavicular ligament. Yeah? Know what that is? Thought not. Just put busted shoulder. What’s the point of talking about physiotherapy if you don’t even know what it is I’ve got?’
‘The thing is, Don – I know this is difficult for you…’
‘Oh! You know, do you? How do you know? Been through it yourself, have you?’
‘What I mean is – I can see how distressed you are and from that I can guess how difficult you’re finding it…’
‘This is the problem,’ he says, eyebrows up, lids down. ‘This is the problem, right there. Everyone thinks they know but everyone in fact doesn’t know. Everyone knows precisely jack shit….’

I’m struggling to make any headway at all with this assessment. And because Don’s speech is so overwhelming and so full of invective, and because his eyes are closed and I can get away with it, I can’t help glancing at the screen again. Another batch of buttons are going through some kind of electroplating bath, in plain, out golden. They look great. A bit showy, maybe. Still. Nice to have gold buttons….

Agnes takes over. The fact that she’s Scottish seems to help. There’s a broad warmth to her voice that deflects Don’s sniping more successfully, for a while at least. But after ten minutes or so of her best attempts, even she begins to waver. In fact, I’d go as far as to say she starts to sound a little snappy – but then her phone rings.
‘Sorry!’ she says. ‘Do you mind if I take this…?’
And she ups and leaves the room.
I couldn’t feel more abandoned than if Gandalf suddenly waved a bony finger in the air, produced a phone from his cloak, and stepped back from the ramparts just as the orcs came over the top.

I turn to face Don again.

His eyebrows go up.

the wrong end of the brush

When I walk into his room, Ted is leaning forwards in his wheelchair, dabbing energetically at a canvas on an A-frame easel. He’s wearing gold lame running shorts, a lime green sports vest and a leopard print bandanna to keep his wild white hair out of his eyes and – presumably – out of the paint.
‘Whaddya think?’ he says, leaning back.
He hasn’t got much done so it’s hard to tell what it is. In fact, to be honest, it’d be clearer if he’d just splodged the paint on directly from the tube. It also doesn’t help that he’s working from the top down, like someone drawing a primary coloured cover over a blank space. If I had to guess, I’d say it was a picture of ivy growing down a wall – maybe at a cafe, because I can just about see the pencil outlines of a round, cafe-style table and two chairs immediately beneath all the green. I’m not sure though.
‘Van Gogh’ he says, chewing the end of the brush and tipping his head to the right.
‘Oh! I see it now!’ I tell him, throwing my bags down on his bed. ‘Yeah – that’s great! All you need to do now is practice the signature and you could totally pass it off.’
‘What d’you mean?’
‘I mean – it looks like the real thing.’
‘Well I should know, shouldn’t I? I’ve been there. I took photographs.’
I think he means the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
‘I’d love to go!’ I say, trying to steer things back into safer waters.
‘Why doncha then?’ he says, dabbing on some more green. ‘It’s just a shame the flight takes so long.’
‘Does it?’
‘Yeah. Expensive, too. But cheap when you’ve landed. And so hot! And lush!’
‘Is it?’
‘What – Amsterdam?’
‘No. Bangkok.’