the foreman

Jack moves like a marionette where the puppeteer got pissed, broke into the theatre, hung a puppet on stage and delivered a long and confusing monologue to a row of empty seats. I definitely get the feeling I may as well not be there. When I’ve gone, no doubt he’ll slide the door chain back into place, pat it once or twice, then drop down on the spot, his strings piled on top of him.

If he is a puppet, the artist carved him with a pretty blunt chisel. A prominent nose-and-chin. Two thickly lidded eyes that blink audibly, out of sync, one in 2021, one in 1958. Two ears made of improvised hubcaps nailed unevenly either side.

Jack doesn’t want any help. He’s happy as he is – rolling unsteadily down the corner shop with his three wheeled walker. Stocking up on Teachers. Rattling back. His daughter drops by occasionally with microwave meals, but I get the impression she’s at her wit’s end. She’s not here for the assessment. She’s home nursing a migraine.

Jack leans forward in his chair. His right hand swings to the front; his left swings round to meet it.
‘First job,’ he says. ‘I was fifteen. I turn up at the yard, and there are all these other guys standing round. And I say ‘Alright?’ and they say ‘Yeah’. Then the foreman turns up in his big, black coat. He looks at me and he says: ‘What do YOU want?’ And I say: ‘I wanna job, don’t I?’ ‘Oh’ he says. ‘Well – how about Foreman?’ And I says; ‘Yeah. That’ll do me.’ ‘Oh,’ he says: ‘Like that, is it? So come on, then. What’s the first thing you’d do if you was the Foreman?’ So I look around, and I see this dustcart parked in the yard. And I shout out: ‘Oi! What’s that bleedin’ great thing doin’ there?’ And the Foreman says ‘Sorry! We didn’t know what to do with it.’ So I say: ‘Right! Get that bastard thing outta here!’ So he give me the job. Five and six a week.’

He blinks, left, then right. Then takes a deep, sighing breath, and carries on.

‘This was the Foreman’s flat, y’know. He give it me. He was sat where you’re sitting now. In his big, black coat. Things got difficult for him. Money this, money that and I don’t know what. He knew it was only going to get worse. So he come in here, took his scarf. Then him and his wife got in the bath. And he tied the scarf round both their necks, and they lay down, and put the taps on, and that was them. Gone. The council come along. Drained the water. Unscrewed the bath. Took ‘em both out in it.’

He gives such an emphatic nod I feel like putting my hands out to catch his head. Then he blinks, gives a throaty sniff, and smiles at me.

‘That’s weird!’ I say. ‘Why did they take them out in the bath?’
‘They emptied it first.’
‘But still. It seems like a lot of work.’
‘That’s the council for you.’

He takes a sip of the tea I made him, then screws his face up. ‘I thought that was whisky,’ he says. ‘Blaargh!’
I take the mug off him before he spills it, then take my chair again.
Jack sits forward. The hands swing round, ready.

‘Next day,’ he says, ‘they send the Foreman over. He’s standing there in his big, black coat. He says to me ‘Jack,’ he says, ‘What do you want? Another bath? Or maybe a shower this time?’ And I say to him ‘You’ve only just taken the bloody bath out of here!’ So he says ‘Alright, alright. Don’t make a fuss.’ So I say ‘Go on – put a shower in. But I want the tiling done nice.’ So they send round this kid, who stands there looking about. And after a while I say to him: ‘So what’ve you come to do, then? Apart from stand there with your thumb up your arse.’ And he says ‘The tiling.’ So I say, ‘D’you know how to do tiling?’ And he says ‘No, I’ve only been here a week. I haven’t done the course yet’. So I say ‘Come here!’ And I did it.’

He flops back in the chair.

‘But that’s the council for you,’ he says, smiling so broadly the tip of his nose and the point of his chin almost meet. ‘That’s the council, right there.’

a twist of lemon

For someone surrounded by model racing cars, paintings of racing cars, signed photographs of racing car drivers, Mr Sullivan moves pretty slowly. The marked curvature of his spine and his general frailty means that making a pit stop to the kitchen can take all morning, lifting the zimmer frame, urging it forwards one slipper length at a time. It’s a painful procedure and fraught with danger.
‘Just a moment. Just a moment,’ he says.
‘Take your time. There’s no rush.’
He stops and – as far as he can – glances back at me over his shoulder.
‘Where are we going?’ he says.
‘To the kitchen. So we can get lunch on the go and I can do your blood pressure while we’re waiting.’
‘Yes,’ he says. ‘I see.’
We carry on.

It’s a large house, with a thick and settled silence that fills each room so palpably, I imagine if you demolished the house, snatched all the bricks and windows and floorboards away in one clean movement, you’d still be left with a silent outline of the place, like some kind of memory jelly plopped from a mould.

Even though the house has rooms upstairs, Mr Sullivan stays on the ground floor, moving between the kitchen, bathroom and front room, where he has a small bed in the lounge to stretch out on after he’s finished watching TV. Although,‘stretching out’ isn’t something he can do these days, his kyphotic spine giving him the flexibility of an ancient fortune cookie.

‘What do you fancy for lunch?’ I say, after getting him settled on the perching stool.
‘Oh I don’t know!’ he snaps. ‘Look in the freezer.’
There’s nothing much in there other than a pack of vegetarian chilli burgers.
I show him.
‘That’s fine,’ he says. ‘Fetch one of those out. I can have it with some bread.’
‘Don’t you have a microwave?’ I ask him. ‘They’re very convenient.’
‘Where would it go?’
I look around. The kitchen is the same as the living room, in a state of orderly confusion, little piles of things everywhere, pill packets, letters, notes, cutlery, batteries and so on.
‘You’d need a bit of … rationalisation,’ I say.
‘I need nothing of the kind. Now – what does it say on the packet?’
I read out the burger cooking instructions.
‘Preheat the oven,’ he says. ‘Middle dial.’
Whilst I’m sorting out the oven and finding a clean plate, he leans forward on the zimmer frame, his forehead on his hands.
‘Are you okay?’ I ask.
‘Yes,’ he says, addressing the floor, then after a pause: ‘I always knew I’d end up like this.’
‘Like what?’
‘Alone. I looked after my parents when they got old and sick. And now it’s my turn, there’s no-one to look after me.’
‘I can see how difficult it is for you,’ I say. ‘But you know – there are services around to help. When I get back to the office I’ll make some calls.’
The oven light goes out. Mr Sullivan flaps his hand to urge me on, so I slide the burger in.
‘Set the timer,’ he says.
I start to fiddle with the dials on the cooker but Mr Sullivan flaps his hand again.
‘No, no! Not that timer!’ he says. ‘The one on the window sill!’
The one he wants is shaped like a lemon. I twist it to twenty five minutes, then set it on the table next to him. It’s an eerie scene, Mr Sullivan crooked forwards in an exaggerated pose of despair, the timer whirring away next to him.
‘What did you do, before you retired?’ I ask him as I write up my notes, as much to break the frantic silence as anything.
‘A loss adjuster,’ he says.
‘Hmm,’ I say. And the timer marks out exactly how long it takes me to think of a reply.

hats off

Paul’s flat is an extemporary landscape. Hundreds of empty whisky bottles on the floor, standing up or lying down, a sea of glass around the lifeboat of the sofa; volcanoes of cigarette butts rising from dinner plate islands; a tangled undergrowth of pepperoni packets; squadrons of flies cutting patterns through the air or crawling enthusiastically over everything. And overlooking the dismal scene, glaring like a vengeful god from the top of a filing cabinet, Johnny Rotten’s autobiography: Anger is an Energy.

‘How are you today, Paul?’
He tugs his beard, shrugs.
‘I’m okay,’ he says. ‘More or less.’

It’s a strange feeling, standing amongst the crap, nowhere to put my bag or set up my kit to take blood. So I just stand there a while, and we chat.

‘I’m not going to hospital,’ he says.
‘It’s entirely your decision. So long as you understand the risks.’
‘They keep on about potassium, calcium, magnesium…’
‘They’re all really important minerals, Paul. If you’re low it puts you at risk of serious heart problems. Even cardiac arrest.’
‘Yes,’ he says. ‘They’ve said that. But why?’
‘It’s complicated. I’m not even sure. But it’s something to do with the electrical conductivity of the heart. If your levels are screwed your heart can develop arrhythmias and stop working altogether. So…’
‘But why?’
‘I just don’t know enough about it. You’d need to speak to a cardiologist. Or Google it.’
‘Google it! The paramedics said that! Google it! That’s all everybody does these days.’
‘I know! It’s pretty handy, though. You gotta admit.’
‘Hmm,’ he says, stroking his beard in that classic beard-stroking way thoughtful men have, massaging the pointy end of it with a pulsing motion of his hand like an octopus swimming backwards.

I have to admit, his hair and beard are pretty amazing. He’s so unwashed, they’ve set into a wavy pattern like it’s carved from wood, the hair on his head progressing backwards in defined steps, the beard the other way as a counterbalance.

‘I drink,’ he says, releasing the beard long enough to make a grand gesture at the ruin of the room. ‘It’s an addiction.’
‘I can see that. I know it’s difficult, Paul, but there is help out there. You know – medication, therapy.’
‘Yes,’ he says, back on the beard. ‘Yes, I understand.’

There’s a blue metal chair in the dark of the galley kitchen. I wade through the bottles, tip it clear, wade back and plant my things on it.
‘Shall I take that blood, then?’
‘Be my guest!’ he says, rolling up his sleeve.

We chat whilst I work.
‘The doctor that came the other day? She said she thought I was more intelligent than she was. I said that may well be, but I don’t see what that has to do with the problem at hand.’
‘She was probably thinking about mental capacity. Whether you understood the risks you were running saying no to hospital.’
‘I’m not saying no to hospital as a general principle. I’m merely advancing the idea that it may not be the answer to my particular question.’
‘That’s fair enough, then. But your recent blood results are pretty poor.’
‘I’ve signed the forms,’ he says. ‘All done?’
‘Yep! All done.’
‘Thank you.’
I tape him up.
‘Have you got a cat?’ I say, noticing a flyblown bowl over by the window.
‘Somewhere,’ he says. ‘She’s shy. I’ve also got a collection of hats. How many hats do you think I have?’
‘Ten.’
‘Ten? That’s not a collection. That’s not even a weekend.’
I can’t imagine him wearing a hat. Maybe a stovepipe. Or a beehive beanie. Nothing else would fit.
‘One hundred!’ he says. ‘One hundred hats!’
And I can’t help looking round.
Where?’

auntie gloria

Gloria is surrounded by dozens of crochet rabbits and ducks. In fact, sitting like she is, slumped squashily on the sofa, a tote bag of wool at her feet, tangles of yarn on her lap, a pair of needles all-angles in her hands, it’s hard to resist the idea I’ve just walked in on a woman who’s busy crocheting herself.
The rabbits and ducks all have the same malevolent, lopsided expression. In fact, the only difference between them is that the rabbits have ears and the ducks have beaks; the rabbits have waistcoats and the ducks a bonnet and pinny. There are rows and rows and rows of these things, in little polythene body bags, ready to go (who knows where); piles of them waiting to be dressed; piles of crochet skins waiting to be stuffed.
The rest of the room is subordinated to the manufacture of the rabbits and ducks, everything pushed to the side, piled-up, on the table and shelves and the arms of the sofa and chairs. And whilst it was obvious the place represented a significant trip-hazard, at least you’d have to admit you’d be guaranteed a soft landing.
‘Wha’d’ya think?’ says Gloria, waggling the current rabbit in the air.
‘He’s so cute!’ I say.
‘I like to keep busy,’ she says, jabbing it through the heart with a needle. ‘Now, then. How can I help?’

*

I’m finishing writing up my notes.
‘Do you have any children?’ says Gloria.
‘Two girls. Both grown up now. One’s away at university. The other’s just about to do her GCSEs’
‘How lovely!’
‘We’re very lucky.’
‘Here…’ she says, reaching to her side. She pulls out a bagged duck and rabbit.
‘Oh…no! That’s very kind of you, Gloria, but I couldn’t possibly…’
‘Go on! As a little thankyou. I’m sure your girls would love them…’

I wonder if she’s misunderstood how old the girls are – but I hesitate to put her straight. She looks so happy to be giving away the dolls. The thing is, the dolls aren’t that great. I lied when I said they were cute. Whilst the rabbit looks furious with the world, the duck looks positively vengeful. Even as an ironic knitwear animal they just don’t make the cut. Also, they have the same musty smell as the room. You’d have to run them through a vat of cleaning products to get them anywhere near to the point where you could safely handle them without surgical gloves, which wouldn’t improve their expression. So it’s not as if I could pass them on to anyone else. Charity shops aren’t accepting donations. And even if they were, the rabbit and the duck would sit on the shelves for months quietly hating the customers before discreetly disappearing one morning. So all in all, I’d rather not take them.
‘I’m sorry, Gloria, but we’re strictly forbidden to accept gifts,’ I say, shrugging and smiling as if this is the worst thing that ever happened to me, because ordinarily, of course, I’d leap at the chance of taking these crochet horrors home.
‘I insist!’ says Gloria, reaching forwards and dropping them in my lap. ‘You’ll offend me if you don’t.’
‘Oh,’ I say. ‘Well. That’s so kind of you.’
‘For your girls,’ she says, squeezing her eyes shut and folding her face into a broad smile. ‘From Auntie Gloria.’

stuff the moon

As soon as Frank tells me he used to be a butcher I can totally see it. It’s not just his dressing gown, the long blue and white stripes, exactly like a butcher’s apron. There’s something in the way he sits, his large hands draped over the armrests of his chair, the heavy, slightly disappointed sag of his face, the stainless steel glint of his specs, like someone who stood fifty years behind a chopping block waiting for a customer to choose between the knuckle and the brisket.
‘My sausages were famous,’ he says. ‘They went into space.’
‘How d’you mean?’
‘To Cape Canaveral, anyway.’
‘They took your sausages to Cape Canaveral and shot them into space?’
‘Nearly. One of the astronauts came by and took a coupla pound of my pork and apple specials. Said he was taking them back to Florida.’
I imagine an astronaut in a space suit, plodding in slow motion through customs, a string of sausages swinging from their respirator.
‘Risky,’ I say.
‘Yeah. Well. Astronauts get special treatment.’
Frank wrinkles his nose and vigorously rubs his forefinger back and forwards under it, a gesture accompanied by such a range of facial distortions it’s like the finger belongs to someone else and he’s only just learned to tolerate it.
‘He said he was an astronaut. I had no reason to doubt him. I had all sorts in my shop.’
He nods to a watercolour picture on the wall, a view of the old place. It’s a nostalgic, mournful kind of picture, like you’re looking at the shop through a shower of rain, or tears.
‘There was another butcher at the end of the street. Not nearly as good.’
‘A bit of competition.’
‘Only on price. You get what you pay for. One thing they absolutely could not do was make dripping. He used to make me laugh. He’d get his mum to come round and ask for a few pounds of dripping. I like it in me sandwiches she used to say. Is that right? I’d say. There’s quite a lot there. And she’d say Yes. I know. I like it a lot. And then the next thing you knew there it was, priced up in the window.’

my bad

I’d rung to say I’d be there in twenty minutes. I’m standing outside the front door exactly twenty minutes later. So I don’t understand why Graham isn’t answering the door.

I reach out to rap the knocker again, the loudest rap so far. The door knocker is one of those weighty, old Victorian affairs, a hand grasping a heart or a brain or something, the whole thing cast in bronze with a green patina. The shock of my knocking reverberates through the house. I fully expect to hear angry footsteps coming down the stairs, Graham shouting Will you just hold on a minute! Even though I’ve been here at least ten.

I step back onto the pavement and look up at the bedroom window.
The curtains are drawn. Nothing disturbs them.

I check the address again, which is pointless, as I was only here a couple of days ago.
I look up at the window again.
Still nothing.

Maybe after I phoned Graham he decided to go to the bathroom and fell over. Maybe he’d been having a nap and fell asleep again the moment he hung up. It makes me think of that line from When Harry Met Sally : you either don’t want to talk to me, or you do want to talk to me but you’re trapped under something heavy…

I look up at the window again.
No movement. Nothing. Nada.

I take out my phone and wonder whether to call again. It’s a landline number, a cordless phone, one handset by the bed and one on the hall table. I know that Graham is slow getting about, but also that he’s determined to be as independent as possible. He absolutely refused to consider having a keysafe fitted outside the front door, even though it would mean he wouldn’t have to go through the pain and rigmarole of coming downstairs to answer the door. When I called him to say I was on my way, I hoped that meant he’d have started his slow and laborious descent to the front door, so that he was there to let me in. But even if he hadn’t – even if he’d waited till he heard that gloomy rapping of the knocker before hauling himself up off the bed – he’d have made it by now.

I put the phone back in my pocket and in lieu of knowing what else to do, wait some more.

I notice some ants wandering about on the flagstones. They don’t seem to be in much of a hurry either. One of them disappears into a gully. Comes out again almost immediately. Pauses to look around. Zig-zags across the stones to a clump of grass. Another ant comes to join it. They’re doing okay. Maybe when they find something they’ll be more energised. As it is, they’re behaving like I do when I’ve finished all my urgent stuff and drag things out a bit to look busy.

This is ridiculous.
I take out my phone again.
Hit redial.
After a few rings Graham picks up.
The moment I say my name he fumbles the phone. I hear a yelp, some swearing, and the line goes dead.

Yikes.

Just as I’m wondering what to do next, the bedroom curtains get hooked aside and a fist bangs repeatedly on the window. I’m not sure what to make of it. Graham’s obviously trying to tell me something but I don’t know what it is. The angry part is pretty clear, though – and at least that means he’s conscious and breathing and able to make it to the window.
I decide to do nothing and see what happens next.

Eventually I hear movement. Cursing, thumping. Something big and angry humping down the stairs. A pause, then the unmistakable sound of Graham in motion, foot and stick: shuffle tap shuffle tap shuffle tap. The chains on the door rattle off. The door flies open.
Graham points at me with his stick.
‘You made me drop the phone on my foot.’

life in the bowl

There’s never a good time to have a difficult conversation, but I have to say, despite the Covid measures, the office is as busy as I’ve seen it. I have to scrunch up my shoulders and stick a finger in my ear to have a chance of following what the man is saying to me on the phone.
‘Sorry. Could you repeat that?’
‘I said I’m putting you on speaker.’
‘Oh. Okay.’
‘There!’ he says.
‘Hello!’ says a woman’s voice. ‘Hello?’
‘Hi!’
I flash an irritated look around me.
Social distancing has only made the noise level worse, because although there are half the number of people you’d usually get at the end of a busy afternoon, everyone’s talking twice as loud to make up for it. And to compensate for the loss of half the desk space, people are improvising by putting their laptops on the tops of the low shelves that mark out the various sections. So in the end, it feels and sounds as if I’m completely surrounded, and the place is as hectic as ever, even though the numbers are reduced and the two metre rule is – more or less – being observed. A gang of people is standing close to my desk, laughing and screaming at something Artie just said. I can see that Artie has cut his hair over the weekend. He’s shaved the sides close but left a wild tuft on top, pulled up into a bunch like the leaves on a knitted pineapple. I guess it’s his hair they’re laughing about because when he whips off the grips and shakes the curls out, they all jump back and scream.
‘Sorry?’ I say, leaning harder into the phone. ‘It’s a bad line…’
‘I said it can’t go on like this.’
‘I know it’s difficult,’ I say, scrolling through the notes on screen. ‘I’m just having a quick look at some of the things our carers and clinicians have said so far…’
‘Difficult?’ says the woman in the background. ‘That’s the understatement of the century. We get calls, all the time, day and night. Mum’s done this. Mum’s done that. Mum’s so worried she’s taken to her bed. I can’t keep going over there. There is a limit. I’ve got my own health to worry about. And Stan is at breaking point. He can’t be at work and sort his parents out. I mean – it’s not as if this was a surprise to anyone. Not to anyone who knows the situation. I told them at the hospital, I said to them…’
It’s been a long and tiring day. It also doesn’t help that both the man and the woman talk very quickly and musically, their voices high up in their noses, blending into each other, overlapping, echoing around whatever room they’re in (the bathroom? a swimming pool?), until it starts to feel as if two bumblebees have popped into my head through my right ear, and are turning figures of eight behind my eyes. I have to give myself a little shake to stay on track.
‘So – let me see if I’ve got this right,’ I say, straightening in the chair. ‘Your mum has been discharged from hospital. Your dad isn’t coping. You think they need more help.’
‘You make it sound easy,’ says the man.
‘Thank you.’
‘I can assure you it isn’t.’
‘Oh.’
Artie looks over at me, points at his hair, then scrunches up his face and makes the perfect sign with his fingers.
‘Are you still there?’ says the man.
‘Has he hung up?’ says the woman.
‘No, no. I’m still here. I’m just getting the number of the social workers for you…’

call me the cat

Frances. Francis.

I always default to thinking es like the er in her / is like the im in him. You’d think it would be quicker than that by now, but either because I don’t come across the name often enough for it to stick, or because I’m a robot and no-one thought to tell me, the fact is, that’s the rubric I’m doomed to run through every time I come across the name. (In a similar way sometimes when I think right or left, I get a strong mental picture of a prefab classroom – a door on one side, a piano by the window – because when I was an infant the teacher told us that was the way to remember it: the piano on the left, the door on the right. Although, thinking about it, did she mean her left or our left? In which case, I’ve been getting it wrong all these years.)
The point is, Frances (es like the er in her) is sitting by the open window, staring out at me as I walk down the steps to the front door.

‘Hi Frances!’ I say, waving cheerfully. 
She doesn’t respond.

I’ve been warned what to expect. Before coming out that morning I’d phoned Cara, the next of kin listed on the notes. Cara was worried.

‘Frannie’s dementia’s usually fine. I mean – unless you knew her you’d barely notice. She gets a bit muddled sometimes and she can get a bit riled up. This week, though….’
‘Why? What’s been happening?’
‘Apart from me she has carers going in twice a day. She got cross with them and threw them out. Wasn’t taking her pills. Was getting in a state. Wouldn’t see me. Then she had a fall out of bed. The ambulance picked her up but she refused to go to hospital. And then the next day when I went round I found she’d barricaded herself in. I called the doctor, who said she might have a UTI, so that’s why you’ve been called. She seems to have calmed down a bit, but she still won’t let me in.’
‘Okay. Shall I see you there?’
‘That’d be great.’

Frances’ house is opposite a broad, rising sweep of woodland. A faint blush of green is just visible, spreading through the bare trees. Early morning walkers are striding purposefully up the paths, their dogs running on. The morning smells fresh, sunshine on frost and moss and damp tarmac. Everyone seems invigorated. Even though it’s early, a couple of neighbours have brought camping chairs out onto their porches. 
‘Is she alright?’ one says, shielding his eyes from the sun.
‘Here’s hoping.’
‘Give her our best.’

Cara hasn’t arrived yet, but I decide not to wait – especially as Frannie has seen me and would wonder what I was doing, hanging around in her front garden. 
I walk up to the window.
‘Hey Frances!’ I say. ‘My name’s Jim. I’m with a community health team. Your GP has asked me to drop by and see how you are.’
I pull my ID badge forwards on its elasticated cord. She looks at it, but doesn’t focus.
‘Oh yes,’ she says.
‘Are you able to get to the door, or shall I use the keysafe?’
‘Just a minute.’
‘Okay. But it might be easier if I use the keysafe….’
Too late. I wonder if she’s decided to let me in or strengthen the defences at the front door. Either way, she begins the slow and painful process of getting from the edge of the bed to the hallway. It would be easier to ask one of the trees behind me to lift up its roots and make its way to the door. 
‘Are you okay, Frances?’ I shout through the window.
‘Just a minute!’ she snaps, then carries on.

I move to the porch, and wait. 

After five minutes, during which the grunting and swearing from inside the house gets progressively louder and more emphatic, there’s a sudden fumbling of latches, things clattering, bolts being thrown. The door judders in its frame a little. Then again. Then nothing.
‘Can you do it, Frances?’
‘No. It’s stuck.’
‘Oh. Well – shall I climb through the window and help you?’
‘Alright then.’

I put my bag and folder down, and walk back round to the window. It only opens so far, and there’s a great clutter of things just the other side. Luckily I find enough of a handgrip to haul myself up onto the ledge, breathing in, squeezing sideways through the gap, then twisting into a desperate, tip-toeing contortion, release my grip, give a last second jump, and land with a thump in the middle of the room. 
There’s an enormous cat just ahead of me. It sinks down on its paws in alarm. The cat is ludicrously furry, like a sheep or a huge duster, or maybe one of those rollers you see in a car wash. 
‘S’okay! S’okay!’ I say, putting out my hand. Which the cat takes as an attempt to grab it, so it runs away in double-quick time. I can’t see its paws, so it looks more like something being snapped away on an invisible piece of elastic.

Frances is supporting herself against the wall. I help her back to the bed, then return to open the door and get my bag. At the same time, the doorbell rings.
‘Is that Cara?’ I say, struggling with the latch.
‘Jim?’ she says. ‘Is that you…?’
The latch finally gives. I throw the door open.
‘Hello!’ I say.
Cara frowns, tilts her head to one side and points at the unopened keysafe.
‘But… How did you…?’
‘I came through the cat flap.’
‘You what…?’
‘Yeah. Well. Sometimes it’s handy being small.’


jack

I decide I need the exercise so I take the stairs. It’s a shame, though. I like those old style lifts with the iron trellis gates you have to pull apart. Number sixteen can’t be far up though; God knows I need the exercise.

Too late I realise how much I’ve underestimated the design of this ancient block. There are only three flats per landing, and each flat has high ceilings, so you have to walk up two flights per landing. All in all, I seem to be climbing forever, endlessly curving round on creaking, carpeted treads that get wonkier and narrower the higher I go, the angles of everything more eccentrically out of true, as if the block wasn’t built so much as planted, a gigantic concrete pod, dropped in a crater and then left to twist up overnight into a beanstalk of Portland stone and glass.

When I get there, finally, puffing and blowing, the door is half open. I knock and call out: ‘Halloo! It’s Jim, from the hospital…’
The door gets flung aside. A bright, blond woman in yellow marigold gloves and Nordic jumper stands with a sponge out to the side, smiling, as if she’s just giving me the once over before she leans in and sets to work.
‘You’ve come to see David, I take it?’ she says. ‘Lovely!’
She calls over her shoulder.
‘David! The nurse is here…’
I put on my PPE and walk into the flat.

David is lying on top of the bed on his left side, his legs curled up, his back facing me. The woman carries on working, stuffing trash in a black bin liner and pushing her hair back from her eyes with the back of her hand.
‘I’ll take this down and leave you to it,’ she says. ‘Just go through into the lounge. David? David! The nurse would like to see you now…’
He swings his legs over the side of the bed, pushes himself into a sitting position in one smooth movement, then stands and walks with a strange directness and neutrality around the foot of the bed, out of the bedroom, past me and then on into the exact centre of the sitting room carpet, where he waits with his arms slack by his sides.
‘Hello,’ he says, and smiles. The kind of smile you work with levers.

It’s disconcerting to say the least – made even stranger by the intense play of light round his head. It’s so dazzling I have to shield my eyes to look at him, like I’m awed before the visitation of some kind of spooky puppet angel. In sweat pants, and a t-shirt with a duck on it.

‘Hi – David! Lovely to meet you! I won’t keep you long!’
‘That’s okay,’ he says, and smiles again, maintaining his neutrality.

I explain why I’ve been asked to come, filling in the gaps with as much conversational putty as I can manage, the lovely weather, the beautiful view, how unfit I am, yaddah yaddah. I start to hear myself, like I’m talking in an acoustically flat room, my words losing their meaning, becoming the kind of noises you might make if you pretended to speak another language.

David starts to pace around the room, marching to the window, to the white counter of the little kitchenette, to the centre of the carpet again.
‘Would you like to sit down whilst we run through these few things?’ I say, gesturing to the sofa.
Even my gestures feel fake.

There’s a book on the sofa, resting face down on the cushions to keep the place: The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. I wonder if he’s reading it or the blond woman.

David looks at me, at the sofa, at me again, then sits on the sofa, folding neatly and precisely in the middle, his hands flat on his knees.
‘This won’t take long,’ I say.

The moment I’m done and unwrapping the blood pressure cuff, he gets up again and strides noiselessly away. I’m crouching on the floor, resting the folder on my knee as I write the figures down. Suddenly I realise he’s standing immediately behind me looking down, so I gently pivot my body to the side – ostensibly so I can look up at him and continue chatting, but actually because I don’t want to have my back to David for any length of time.

‘There! That all looks absolutely fine!’ I say, closing the folder and slowly standing up. ‘The doctor just wanted reassurance we’re on the right track.’
‘The right track,’ says David, smiling. ‘Yes.’
I put the folder back on the shelf and start gathering my things again.
‘So!’ I say. ‘It’s a lovely day out there! Do you have any plans?’
‘Plans?’
‘Yeah. For the rest of the day?’
‘It’s such a lovely day,’ he says.
‘It certainly is!’
He smiles at me.
‘I think I’ll go for a walk.’
‘Excellent!’ I say.
But I have to admit – my abiding thought as I leave the flat and head back down the stairs again – is: where?

acing it

Brenda has had a busy day – ironic, given she’s supposed to be in semi-retirement. It’s as if keeping busy is just something she naturally does, hard-wired into her DNA. No doubt if you took a sample you’d see it. If you picked a strand of hair from the floor, a strand that had floated clear from her as she rushed past, her arms clutching bags and a note clamped between her teeth. And you respectfully sealed the strand in a ziploc bag, and took it to a laboratory, and slid it under a microscope, or whatever it is you have to do to visualise DNA (I really have no idea). No doubt it would all come into focus, the delicate, molecular twist of it, the multi-coloured ladder curving in on itself, rungs of the base elements: blue for capability, yellow for experience, green for humanity, red for love.

Brenda’s long service was rewarded recently. She got a certificate, a 40 year service pin for her uniform, a voucher for fifty pounds.
‘So that’s 80p for every year,’ I said.
‘It’s not about the money, Jim,’ she said. ‘Which is just as well…’

To be fair, everyone’s had a busy time of it today. The hospital has been discharging patients like wrecked sailors bailing out a lifeboat. Not only that, our existing caseload has plenty of complication to keep us distracted. There are blocked catheters to deal with, deteriorating patients, reports of increased confusion here, cause for concern there, anxious relatives, access issues, cars breaking down. I’ve spent the morning seeing patients and then struggling to make contact with their doctors, who I know are buckling under the strain themselves. Now I’m back at the office, helping coordinate for the rest of the day, which feels like a Battle of Britain pilot being dragged off their plane the moment it lands, put in an operations room, and asked to move figures around on a table with a mop.

By the time Brenda comes back into the office late into the evening, I am fully and fatally in that ‘Answer Any Question’ mode, that marginally insane, input / output, ruthlessly reactive, beep, beep beep state of mind that doesn’t stop at the end of the shift so much as power down and slump.

‘Oh my God! What a day!’ says Brenda, hurrying down the aisle and throwing herself into a chair, tipping her head back, her legs straight out, her arms straight down, like she didn’t just walk into the office so much as drop through the ceiling. Then looking up at the clock, making a cartoon Aargh! noise, plugging in her laptop, snapping up the screen, and furiously typing up her notes.

You could write a book on the different IT approaches you see around the office. The equivalent of a bird spotter’s guide, The Wild Office maybe, a detailed drawing of each individual, their markings and bandings, a note on the variety of calls they tend to make, and then a description of their typing style. Brenda reminds me of Rowlf , the dog who played piano on The Muppets, the way he leant over the keys, enthusiastically pounding away, staring closely at his paws, but periodically looking up to check he was following the notes.
‘Oh…!’ says Brenda, leaning back in the chair and smacking her head.
‘What’s up, Brenda?’
‘I can’t think what it is…’
‘Can’t think what what is…?’
‘That thing! You know! When golfers play golf. They put the ball on a little bit of plastic. What’s it called…?’
I’m blindsided. Has Brenda seen some kind of golfing injury?
‘Tee?’
‘I thought you’d never ask!’ she says, with a huge smile. ‘No sugar…’