partworks

Isla is sitting with her stork-thin legs up on a stool, watching telly. It’s another property programme, the kind where stressy couples are helped to find somewhere to live. I don’t know where this particular couple have gone – maybe to weep in the garden – but the experts, a man in a tailored beard and mohair coat, and a woman in primary colours and teeth so white they look like gum shields, are sauntering shoulder-to-shoulder down the hall, the man being enthusiastic about the coving, the woman scathing about the electrics.
‘Look at him!’ says Isla. ‘Who’d buy a house off him?’
‘I wouldn’t even buy a coat.’
‘My husband was handy with a screwdriver.’
‘Was he?’
‘He’d sort that place out in no time.’
‘Sounds like someone to know.’
‘That’s why I married him. One of the reasons. Now then. What have you come to do? More blood, I expect. Why’s everyone so interested in my blood? What’s so special about it?’
‘They just want to see how your kidneys are doing.’
‘My kidneys? I’m ninety-five. How d’you think my kidneys are doing?’
‘Quite. Still – you can always refuse. You don’t have to have these things done, Isla. Just so long as you understand what it is you’re refusing.’
‘Oh I understand alright. I understand all too well. Come on if you’re coming, then. You’ve got a job to do. I don’t want to get you in trouble.’
She bunches up her sleeve and stares at the telly whilst I set up.
‘What did you do before you retired?’ I ask her.
‘I was a writer, dear.’
‘Oh really? What did you write?’
‘They were called partworks. I don’t suppose you know.’
‘Isn’t it where you buy a magazine every month on a particular subject? And you get stuff with it, like bits of a model car or a boat or something, and you gradually put it all together, until by the end you’ve got a model of the Ark Royal that cost pretty much the same as the original.’
‘You’ve got it! A friend of mine did one about planes. You’d get a sweet little balsa wood version, which looked quite fun to chuck around outside but mine always crashed first time, so it was a bit of a swizz.’
‘Did you have a specialist subject?’
‘Not really. Fashion. Arts and Crafts. Hobbies, that sort of thing. Knitting. It paid the bills, and I liked digging around in the library. Ouch! That smarts!’
‘Sorry.’
‘I thought you were supposed to say sharp scratch? I should know. I’ve watched enough hospital programmes.’’
‘I thought I’d get you whilst you were distracted.’
‘Well it didn’t work, did it?’
‘No.’
‘Maybe I should write something about nursing and you should read it.’
‘Every little helps.’

Isla’s friend June coo-ee’s, knocks and breezes in. She’s as emphatically made-up as the housing expert on TV, with orange lipstick, tan coloured foundation that ends in a line just below the chin, and hair that seems to stay pointing forwards when she turns to close the door behind her.
‘Just thought I’d pop by,’ she says. ‘I didn’t know you had company…’
‘I don’t,’ says Isla. ‘He’s taking blood.’
‘Oh. Well. That’s nice. I won’t get in your way.’
‘New blouse?’ says Isla, rolling up her sleeve and buttoning the cuff.
‘Yes! Do you like it, Isla? I got it at the market. I was worried it might look a bit hippyish. And I wasn’t sure about the fit. You can’t really try these things on there, can you? Not with everyone walking by.’
She smiles at me, like she’s just caught me walking by. I blush.
‘Paisley,’ says Isla.
‘Yes! That’s right!’ says June. ‘Gosh – don’t you know a lot about a lot? Isla used to be a writer,’ she says to me.
‘Yes. She was just saying.’
‘Persian,’ says Isla. ‘The pattern, I mean.’
‘I thought it was Scottish.’
‘That’s just where they started making them in the eighteen hundreds or thereabouts. The soldiers brought back shawls from the East Indies, and the Paisley weavers copied the design.’
‘Oh! How fascinating!’ says June, smiling at me so broadly her lipstick crackles. ‘Isn’t that wonderful?’
‘Have you still got the receipt?’ says Isla.

good boy

‘Ah’m on ma owen, as yoo ken no dowet see fer yerseln. Ma gel-fren, she’s garn ta see them there Lady Boyz. So there ye hav’it. S’it. End of. A sorry tale, en’no mistakun. But ah’m very happy fer any’in yous tous can do ta help, y’kno wha ah mean? Ah’m ver’ grateful.’

Rufus speaks so slowly it’s like he’s thumbing each word out in plasticine. Not only is he drunk but he has a strong Glaswegian accent, so it’s almost impossible to understand what he’s saying. The only way I can manage it is to completely relax, watch his mouth, and try to take clues from his inflections and sudden, wildly uncoordinated gestures. He’s naked on the bed, which would be worrying if he wasn’t so completely unbothered by it – in fact, much less self-conscious in his nudity than I am in my uniform. I can’t help thinking about Rufus’ girlfriend, sitting in the audience watching the immaculately made-up Lady Boys, their choreographed gestures, perfect diction, and wonder what she makes of the contrast.

Rufus smiles, exposing a mouth of greying stumps.

‘[Translation] I suppose you’ve come to dress my wound? I’m sorry for the state I’m in, but I’ve had a few drinks and I lost track of where I was. I’m an alcoholic, you know. I’m cutting right down. I only had four cans. The doctor knows all about it. I’ve been on detox three times but nothing worked. That’s just the way it is. Sometimes you just have to accept how things are I suppose. Do you know what I mean? Anyway – what about you? How are you? Thanks for coming. I really do appreciate everything you do.’

I’ve come with Jasmine, one of the Filipino nurses. To be honest, she’s almost as hard to understand as Rufus. She speaks lightly and quickly, barely moving her mouth, strange intonations, swallowing some vowels, stopping unexpectedly on others, and ending every other sentence with an isn’t it or a long, drawn-out aaaaah. Her small stature and delicate features completely belie her tough approach, though. She’s small and busy and she’s used to working fast. She tears open dressings kits, snaps gloves on and off, probes, irrigates, photographs, packs, re-dresses – all with a positivity that overwhelms any resistance. It’s not that she’s cold or harsh. Far from it. She has a kind of tough, Catholic love for everyone, including Rufus. Despite the alcohol I think he can feel it, too.

‘I’m nah hurting you am I?’ she says, roughly prodding Aquacel into the wound.
‘[Translation] No. You’re alright. You carry on. I’m used to it. You’re doing a fine job.’
‘You know, you gah to take better care of yourself isn’t it? It very durty down here, too much durty… How you ever going tah geh better? You listen tah me now. You geh wash now. I hep you.’
‘[Translation] No. You’re alright. Thanks for the offer but I’ll just put on some clean underpants and have a wash later. It’s no bother. You did a grand job. Thanks.’

I hand him some clean-ish Minion boxer shorts from a heap of clothing on the floor. By the time Rufus and I have figured out which way round they should go, Jasmine has packed her stuff away, disposed of the rubbish bag and started writing up her notes. She pauses to watch us, sighing heavily through her nose.
To be honest, anyone would sigh watching Rufus get his boxers on. He rolls around on the bed, waggling his long legs in the air, trying to put both through one hole, then taking them out and trying to put them both through the other hole, the whole time displaying with alarming clarity that which normally should not be displayed.
After a minute or two of this Jasmine sighs again, throws down her notes and intervenes.
‘Give me dat,’ she says. She slaps his legs down, rolls him onto his side, guides his left leg, then his right leg, says ‘You bridge now…’, and as soon as he does, she whips the boxers up with a satisfying snap of elastic.
‘All done!’ she says, winking at him. ‘You guh boy.’

june bug

Her name is June Bergh so of course I write Bug.

She drifts around the house like a June Bug, too – a hapless bumping into things that’s as much to do with cataracts as anything else. She’s perfectly happy in spite of her ailments, though.

I wish I could say the same for her husband, Derek.

‘Now what?’ he barks as the phone rings, glaring at me from the thickets of his eyebrows as if he’s wondering whether to answer it or strangle me with the cord. I offer to help him out of the chair, but he bats me away. ‘I’m not senile yet!’ he says – then spends the next couple of minutes waggling himself forwards in the chair, paddling his great slippered feet, rocking backwards and forwards with his arms on the armrests to get some momentum going, then pitches forwards so alarmingly I can’t help reaching out to stop him plunging head first into the fireplace. ‘I’m perfectly alright!’ he snaps again, finding his balance, then trudges away to answer the phone, which I can’t believe is still ringing (although I’m guessing they’ve rung before and know to wait).

June and Derek are both in their nineties, married for seventy, as moulded together in their ways as two ancient EPNS tablespoons back of the cutlery drawer. I’ve come to dress the wounds on June’s legs and see how she is generally, which I have to say is pretty good.

‘Oh no,’ she says. ‘I never go to the doctor’s and he doesn’t come here. I couldn’t tell you the last time I saw him. I don’t even know if it’s a him.’

The long-term care of June’s legs should really fall to the District Nurses, but they’re the most stretched of any of us and have to triage their workload ruthlessly. Anyone remotely capable of leaving the house will simply be referred to their local surgery and the practice nurse. June has already told me she goes out from time to time – for hair appointments, to see a friend a few miles down the coast, occasional shopping trips and so on – all by taxi, or one of a circulating cloud of nieces and great-great whatevers. When I suggest she sees the practice nurse once a week, she pulls a face.
‘I’m ninety-four!’ she says. ‘I don’t go to the doctor’s! Besides, you can’t get an appointment.’

Derek is shouting into the phone by this point. It’s obviously about something clinical, and I’m tempted to intervene to clarify, but he turns his back for privacy, so I take that as a no.

‘You try ringing them!’ says June, warming to her theme. ‘You can be sitting there with the phone in your hand dead-on half past eight and it’ll still be engaged. And when you finally get through there’s nothing left. No! I’m sorry! If they want me, they know where to find me.’

Just as I’m wondering how to change my line of approach, Derek hangs up and lumbers back to his chair.

‘Who was that, dear?’ says June.
‘The lobotomist.’
‘The who?’
‘The LOBOTOMIST!’
‘Well what on earth does HE want?’
‘He wants to come and take your blood. So I told him. Good luck with that.’

James the First

Rosie is more confused than usual, according to Rosie – the other Rosie, I mean, the one who lives at the end of the road and comes in most days to help. The fact that her husband Jim has the same name as me only adds to the confusion. He’s amiable enough, placid as an old turtle who swapped his shell for a corduroy jacket. If Rosie Two hadn’t introduced him as her husband, I’d think he’d tagged along by mistake. When she asks him to fetch in Rosie One’s address book from the kitchen, he wanders back in, flicking through a photo album.
‘Look at you in front of the Sphinx, Rosie!’ he says. ‘Well, well.’
‘Oh for heaven’s sake,’ says Rosie Two, and goes to get the address book herself.

Rosie One is sitting in her armchair, held in place by an enormous, ash-gray cat. The cat stares at me, its head bobbing up and down and its eyes pulled wide in time with the vigorous strokes. It extends its front paws onto her lap, presumably to spread the impact.
‘Poor Jonesie!’ says Rosie One. ‘I fell on him, you know. Squashed him flat! Broke my fall, though, didn’t you, Jonesie? Hey? You broke mummy’s fall, didn’t you? You clever thing!’
‘Tripped you up, more like,’ says Rosie Two, striding back in from the kitchen and handing me the address book. ‘That cat. It’s an absolute monster. Anyway. There! Karen’s number. The next of kin. Apparently.’
Jim Two has drifted over to the bookcase, tutting and exclaiming as he makes his way along the shelves with his head crooked so far to one side his ear is practically on his shoulder.
‘Well, well!’ he says, carefully sliding a book out. ‘Who’d have thought!’
‘Jim!’ says Rosie Two. ‘You’re supposed to be making breakfast!’
‘Am I? Oh, right,’ he says. ‘Absolutely. Of course. Breakfast. Yes.’
And he wanders away in the opposite direction to the kitchen with a book in his hand. Rosie Two goes after him.
‘Nothing’s the same since my darling husband died,’ says Rosie One.
She’s looking at a portrait on the sideboard, a broad-faced, smiling man in a white naval uniform.
‘I’m sorry,’ I say. ‘What was his name?’
‘Jim’
‘Jim? Not another one!’
‘Well,’ she says, turning back to me. ‘My Jim was the first.’

bibi the bird

Melvin is as landed and unfortunate in his armchair as a hippo in the dry season. An affable hippo, though, in a taut, custard yellow, California Dreamin’ t-shirt and grey jogging bottoms, his enormous hands restlessly picking at the padding of the arm rests, as if he’s gauging the right moment to tear them off and throw them.
‘What were you saying?’ he says. ‘I lost the thread.’
He laughs, exposing a few raw and stumpy teeth. If I had a head of cabbage I’d chuck it, watch him crunch it down, waggle his ears.
‘He does that a lot,’ says Bibi, Melvin’s wife. ‘Lose the thread, I mean.’
If Melvin is the hippo in this relationship, Bibi is the little bird that rides on his head. A trim, quick figure, she’s constantly up and down, repositioning cushions, fetching beakers of juice, a towel, a diary, a snack, another beaker of juice. She smiles at me and surreptitiously touches the side of her head, turning the gesture into an innocent scratch of her eyebrow when Melvin unexpectedly glances her way.
‘So what’s the plan, chief?’ says Melvin. ‘What’re you going to do with me? Drag me off to the knackers yard, I ‘spect. I’d make a lot of glue. ’
‘Don’t say that!’ says Bibi, jumping up again to move the stool so he can reposition his feet.
‘Ahh!’ he booms. ‘Thanks Beebs.’

The situation has been a long time coming and it’s hard to know where to start. Diabetes, joint damage, skin infections, kidney and liver issues – the list neatly packaged-up in the phrase comorbidities. Things were difficult enough before his latest fall, but he’s been discharged from hospital with a bandaged foot and the results of an MRI confirming mixed dementia. There’s a lot to think about.
‘Today’s a good day,’ says Bibi. ‘Isn’t it darling?’
‘Every day’s a good day,’ says Melvin.
‘Well,’ says Bibi. ‘Mostly.’

She’s doing her best to cope, but it’s a struggle. She’s already told me about his mood swings, how he’ll be fine one minute and raging the next. There’s a shine to her eyes that’s so brittle I don’t know if she’s ready to sob, scream or laugh out loud.
‘But where are my manners?’ she says. ‘Can I get you anything?’
‘No, no! That’s kind of you but I’m fine, thanks.’
‘Just let me know. It’s no trouble.’

Melvin is sitting in front of a large white blind. The blind has been pulled down to shield him from the midday sun. Now and again the shadow of a seagull glides across the blind, so clearly you can even see the toes of its webbed feet and the way it flicks its head from side to side. Down in the street some workmen have finished lunch. They’re shouting and swearing, starting up the mixer, tapping off bricks for a new wall.
‘Hear that?’ says Melvin. ‘I expect that’s the seagull, building his nest.’
We all laugh.
He clasps his hands across his belly, waggles his ears.

incident at the nunnery

Number one: Never open with weather.

Top of Elmore Leonard’s list of writing tips. But I’m sorry, Elmore – the weather is particularly strange this morning. It feels like I’m moving around in a photo that’s been put through a B-Movie filter, the light low and smudged, an oppressive weight to it that makes me scratchy and long for a little breeze. Even the bees look heavy, punting from flower to flower like exhausted gondoliers at the end of the season. And it’s only May.

The environment doesn’t help. An old nunnery converted into flats. On a sunny day it’s a beautiful spot, swallows screeching round the campanile, jasmine crashing like a fragrant green wave over the main porch. Today it’s more like the set of a horror movie.

Another car drives in and parks beside me, a long, beaten-up estate with a ladder on top. A grizzled guy steps out wreathed in so much vape smoke it’s like he’s a stepping out of a fire. I smile and nod at him.
‘Funny old weather,’ I say.
He stares at me with narrow, chlorinated blue eyes, and for a moment I wonder if I’ve inadvertently insulted his mother. But if I have, he decides to let it go – for now. He grimaces, flips a chamois over his shoulder, sticks a snub-nose squeegee in his belt, and slowly unscrews his ladders.

I move on.

Mary’s live-in carer meets me at the main door and leads me through the maze of corridors. She’s as tough as the cleaner – tougher, actually – as substantial as a tree, crudely sculpted into slacks and sweater with a chainsaw. No doubt if there’s a fight between them later, when the cleaner sneaks in to assassinate the patient, the cleaner will start out losing, because the carer has such a relentlessly crushing grip, but then he’ll squirt vape in her eye, put his bucket over her head and guide her to the window. And then notice me standing there, and grimace before he kicks her out into the quadrangle.

Mary is sitting in her armchair, tucked in beneath a heavy tartan rug despite the weather, happily watching a film from the seventies, something with jangly violins and Mia Farrow in a trenchcoat looking worried.

‘Hello Mary,’ I said, shaking her hand. ‘I’m Jim. From the hospital.’
‘He come to take blood’ says the carer, looming over me. ‘Not all of it.’
I kneel on the carpet beside Mary and start setting up.
‘Oh,’ I say, hunting through my bag. ‘Damn it. I meant to restock before I came up and I completely forgot. I don’t suppose you have any gloves, do you?’
‘Glove?’ says the carer. ‘Sure. We have plenty glove.’
She goes off to the bathroom to fetch me a couple.
‘What am I like!’ I say to Mary, sitting back on my heels.
She looks down at me, then leans forward and reaches out to rest a hand on my shoulder.
‘Have you been tested for Alzheimer’s, too?’ she whispers.

the drugs people

The houses of the Belle View housing estate certainly have a view. The main road was cut sometime in the fifties along the side of one of the chalk escarpments that overlook the town. I can imagine the construction photographs: heavy lorries passing backwards and forwards along a ribbon of dusty white hardcore, scaffolding like stilts along the plunging edge. Visiting these houses is a strangely disorienting experience. You park on the road, walk down two flights of steep concrete steps to the front door, into a house where the downstairs is the upstairs and the upstairs is underneath. It’s always bracing to look out of the window, like a suburban council house had been ripped up and slung under a giant balloon.

Lila is sitting in a riser recliner at the wide window, a rent controlled Captain Nemo on the bridge of her dirigible. Since her accident – a fall, naturally – she’s swapped her uniform for a sweltering, cable-knit dressing gown and felt, leopard-skin booties.
‘Did you have any trouble with the keysafe?’ she says, waggling the booties. ‘Some people find it a bit fiddly.’
‘No. It was fine. It’s one of the better ones.’
‘I worry about it,’ she says. ‘Being overlooked.’
‘What by? Seagulls?’
‘No,’ she says. ‘The house that side’s been empty for ages. Next door’s the drugs people.’
‘Oh?’ I say, pulling a concerned face. ‘Sorry.’
‘Oh no!’ she says. ‘They’re lovely. They’ve helped me loads of times. They don’t take the drugs. They only deal.’
‘Is that the house with the big hedge?’
‘That’s it. The postman says it’s cannabis, but I think it’s juniper. They didn’t grow it, mind. It was there before they came. Fifteen years ago, now. It wasn’t that tall then, but I don’t think they’re gardeners. Anyway, it probably suits them to have a little bit of cover, if you get my drift. They’ve had the police round twice, you know.’
‘Have they? When was that?’
‘Once when they first moved in, and once a couple of years ago. Rita did a bit of time in the prison, but she’s so good they let her out pretty quick. I think they wanted to keep her longer ‘cos she was good for morale, but she’s got kids, so…’
Lila waggles her booties again.
‘Anyway! What’s on the menu today?’