one hell of a grip

There’s a black and white photo of Glenda on the wall taken when she was a young woman in the Land Army. She’d obviously dressed up for the picture, because although she’s still in fatigues, her hair is nicely swept back in a wide band, and her lipstick is in a perfect bow. It’s a great shot. Glenda’s smile is so bright and enthusiastic and full of energy, I can imagine her pulling the spade out of the soil and advancing on the world, waving it overhead.

‘They shipped us off to Berkshire,’ she says. ‘I hated that farmer. We all did. Picking potatoes in the rain. He always used to drive the tractor too quick for us. We couldn’t keep up. I used to throw potatoes at him to slow him down. And he’d shout back You throw another one of them fuckin’ potatoes at me, Glenda, and you see what happens.
‘And did you?’
‘Course I did. He didn’t scare me.’
‘What happened?’
‘We all went on strike. We sat down in the middle of the field and refused to budge. He ranted and raved. You get back to work now or you’ll see what for he said. But he was like that. Full of wind.’
‘He sounds horrible.’
‘Oh – he wasn’t too bad once you got to know his ways. He just needed someone to show him who was the real boss round there. I remember this one time, I was up on a hay rick and I saw a mouse. Well – if there’s one thing I absolutely detest and cannot abide, it’s a mouse. But where you goin’ to run when you’re standing on the top of a hay rick? You silly cow – it’s only a fucking mouse he said. You come up here and deal with it, if you’re such an expert I said, and threw the pitchfork at him. But he didn’t know, you see? He didn’t know how much I hate mice. And rats. I can’t stand rats.’
‘Maybe he should’ve got a dog. To catch the rats.’
‘He did have a dog, a Jack Russell, called Gravel. Vicious, pointy little thing.’
‘So I’m guessing you didn’t have such a great time in the Land Army then?’
‘Oh no. We had a great laugh. There was a prisoner of war camp down the road, full of Eye-talians. We used to hang around the fence and pass carrots through the wire. ‘Ere. Get away from there! the guards used to say. Drop them carrots! Didn’t bother us, though. They needed fresh food and attention. And so did we.’

Whilst we’re talking, there’s a sudden, soggy thump behind me, like an albatross just flew into the window.

‘Window man’s here,’ says Glenda, easing her position in the chair. ‘They have to do it on a long pole these days, ever since the last one fell off his ladder. D’you know something? I was brought up in a tenement block in Ladbroke Grove. Six floors up we were. And every Sunday my mum used to sit out on the ledge to clean the outside. Hold me legs, Glenda she used to say. And I’d be hanging on for dear life, her stockings slipping down, and I’d be shouting For God’s sake, Mum. Haven’t you finished yet? I’m losing yah! And she’d shout back Don’t be so silly, Glenda. Just hold me legs! Her voice all muffled like, because she was the other side of the window, and I had one ear in her lap. And she’d be out there, cheerful as you like, scrubbing the window singing away as easy as if she was polishing the mirror in the bathroom. She was good, my mum. And she certainly had a head for heights.’

Glenda seems distracted for a moment, brushing some biscuit crumbs from her lap.

‘And you might not think to look at me now,’ she carries on at last. ‘But I tell you what – I had one hell of a grip.’

 

things that float & go bump

A couple of the nurses are sitting with the Co-ordinator, chatting about this and that at the end of the shift.
‘I’m sure that house is haunted’ says Lena. ‘Every time I go there something weird happens.’
‘Like what?’
‘I don’t know. Just weird. Like – atmospheres or something.’
‘My mum and dad had a poltergeist for a while,’ says Rachel, flipping through a file, so matter-of-fact it’s like she’s just turning to a section called Paranormal Manifestations and What to Do About Them.
‘What d’you mean for a while? Did they have it exorcised?’
‘Not really. We got to the bottom of it ourselves.’
‘So what happened?’
‘Well – they sold up and moved to this spooky new house on the Yorkshire Moors. It used to be the parrot house of a big old stately home…’
‘The Parrot house?’
‘Where they used to keep parrots.’
‘Makes sense’
‘It’s pretty isolated. Just the main house which is all converted into flats now. A few outbuildings. And then the parrot house, standing on its own at the edge of the land. And then beyond that, you’ve got the moors, stretching out all bleak and mysterious, with a load of sheep and goats grazing and generally wandering about.’
‘Why the hell’d they go there?’
‘They wanted to get away from it all.’
‘Sounds like they did.’
‘Absolutely. It’s nice enough when the sun’s shining. Anyway – they said to me the place was lovely and everything but might be a little bit haunted. So I said fine, I’ll have a look. The first night, everything was quiet, fine, nothing strange about it except for those creaky noises you always get in old houses.’
‘I hate them.’
‘But the following morning when we all came down to breakfast, the heavy rug in the front room was pushed all the way over to one side, rucked up against the sofa.’
‘That’s what gets me about ghosts. They never do anything constructive. Hundreds of years to plan their revenge or whatever, and all they end up doing is arsing around with the furniture.’
‘Yeah – but turns out, this wasn’t a ghost. It was just a static charge building up between the rug and the stone flags, so overnight it kind of floated across the floor. We put some anti-static strips down, and it sorted it out a treat.’
Nice.’
‘The second night was different though. We’d all sat down to watch Strictly, when suddenly the television shot across the room and smashed against the wall’
‘Oh my God! That’s terrifying! You can’t tell me that was static.’
‘No. Turns out the aerial was hanging loose outside, a goat caught his horn in it and dragged the TV across the room when he tried to run off.’

moira

Moira’s mouth has a tragic and graven quality, down-turned, thinly incised, which, along with her hooded eyelids and watery blue eyes, gives her a profoundly disapproving expression, something you could imagine at Judgement Day, looking out across the smoking ruins of the world, with a caption in Gothic script that reads: I told you so.

‘I spent a great deal on his education so it’s about time he started paying some of it back,’ she says, the point of her elbow dug into the armrest so she can hold her bandaged hand straight up in the air like a courtroom exhibit.
‘When did you last see him?’
‘Simon? Yesterday. He stayed the absolute minimum and then he was off to another meeting. I said to him: What’s more important – work, or the health of your mother? I won’t be here much longer. If it’s going to go on like this, the sooner I go, the better.’
‘Where does Simon live?’
‘Where doesn’t he live. It’s absurd. He’s got enormous houses all over the place and he spends most of his time in hotels.’
‘Couldn’t you move in with him?’
She turns her eyes on me.
‘He’s a businessman, dear. Not a saint.’

It’s been a long and difficult assessment. Moira has the issue of her hand, of course, but it strikes me that her biggest problem is depression, a bleak and palpable thing that sucks all the light and life from the air, like a black hole opened up in a riser-recliner and someone tried to disguise it with a dressing-gown.
‘I asked Jenny upstairs if she could go out and get me a paper. And d’you know what she said?’
‘What did she say?’
‘She said No.’
‘No?’
‘No. Just like that.’
‘Pretty harsh.’
‘Harsh? I’ve known her twenty years. I think it’s positively murderous.’
She pats her hair with her bad hand and then winces as she lowers it back to her lap.
‘I shan’t be bothering her again,’ she says.

The phone rings. Moira mutters and frowns.
‘Shall I get it for you?’ I say.
‘I’m not dead yet,’ she says, and then makes a huge, sighing deal of picking up, reciting the name of the town and the phone number when the handset eventually makes it up to her ear, as brave as a telephonist being martyred at the stake, making one last connection amongst the flames.

Oh. It’s you… Well how d’you think I’m getting on? … I’m not, and that’s the whole point… Yes, he’s here now… How should I know what he thinks? He just sits there making approximate noises… Not at the moment, no. I haven’t finished with him yet. When I have I’ll get him to call you… Yes, thank you. I think I have everything I need – excepting a son who gives a damn.

And she hangs up.
‘That was Simon’
‘I guessed.’
She observes me closely.
‘He sends his regards,’ she says, after a very long while.

sixty years on

‘How long have you lived here?’
‘Ooh – I don’t know. I should think about sixty years or more’ says Thomas. ‘We moved when we had Lily, and I’d got that new job. D’you remember, Lucy?’
‘Of course I remember!’ says Lucy, rearranging a napkin on her lap. ‘I was here, wasn’t I?’
‘Sixty years,’ says Thomas, absorbing Lucy’s tetchiness with a wistful shake of his head and then a sudden, gaping smile, the kind you might see on a ventriloquist’s dummy. ‘Long enough!’ he says.

It’s a beautiful old cottage – or used to be. Could be again, with a little work. Emptying out all the clutter, ripping out what remains of the fixtures and fittings, stripping back the plaster to the bricks, taking up the floor, rewiring, new doors and windows. New roof, come to that. Redecorating throughout. Cutting back the garden, and so on. An album of Before and After photographs. These things take a little imagination, but totally worth it if you can see beyond the mess. Clink, clink. Cheers!

Thomas and Lucy wouldn’t feature in any of the quotes, of course, even if the builders were game, and had a few geriatricians, cosmetic surgeons and orthopaedic consultants on the team. Because it goes without saying that the same passage of years that wreaked such damage on the house hasn’t spared the occupants, and whilst ancient buildings can be straightened out with hard work and a certain amount of cash, the same can’t be said of the people who live in them.

‘Push that button – no! That one!’ says Thomas, leaning out to interfere with Lucy’s attempts to operate the riser-function of her chair.
‘Let me do it! Let me do it…!’ says Lucy, wresting it away from him and getting in a muddle. The back of the seat goes down and the footrests shoot out. ‘Blast!’ she says, and promptly turns the whole thing off.

They have carers three times a day – once to get them up and dressed, once to give them lunch and prepare some cling-filmed sandwiches for tea, and once to put them to bed. Although I have to say it’s looking pretty much as if the ‘bed’ aspect has gone by the board. They’re sleeping in their chairs full-time now, and only getting up to stagger precariously through the jumble of everything to a commode.

At first it seems like a pretty sad kind of existence, and I can’t help feeling sorry for them. Wouldn’t it be better if they sold up and moved into a nursing home? Somewhere with staff on hand to keep an eye on them? To wash, dress and feed them, and keep them warm (not that this place is cold – they have a free-standing oil-filled radiator in the middle of the room, on full). I’m sure they could sit next to each other somewhere, either in their own room or in the lounge? Because no-one could say they were remotely safe in this place. A small stack of ambulance sheets is a testament to the increasing number of falls they’re having.

But they don’t strike me as unhappy. The bickering isn’t unpleasant or aggressive; more the sniping of two caged creatures, fussing over the minutiae of their shrunken existence. I wonder how well they’d fare if they were removed from this place, even taking into account the trip hazards and the damp and the dodgy electrics. I wouldn’t be surprised if they faded away the moment they were helped to a couple of comfortable chairs, in a wide and well-lit room, with a television, and a trolley doing the rounds at half-past ten, and three.

‘Give it here… look! You’ve turned the damned thing off!’
Thomas tries to snatch the remote, but it’s like watching a tortoise make a swipe for another tortoise’s lettuce leaf.
‘Ha!’ says Lucy. Then after glaring at him triumphantly, she slowly presses it up to her nose to figure it out.

a bit of a drama

The living room is as brilliantly lit and formally arranged as the opening scene in a play. A man and a woman sitting side by side on the two-seater sofa in the bay window, stage left; me with my folder on my lap on a matching armchair just downstage from them, and then an elderly woman stage right, the focus of attention, sitting on a dining chair turned sideways to the table, her hands neatly folded in her lap. A bright and pleasant room, crowded bookshelves, pictures on the walls, a giant fern in a green pot, and a plain-framed mirror over the mantelpiece casting back that light pours in through the windows.

And if it was a scene from a play, the director might well decide to hold it there, curtain up, and not have anyone speak their lines for a beat or two, giving the audience time to settle, take it all in, and wonder about the four characters. What assumptions might they make?

They’d know I was official, and not just from the obvious stuff, the uniform and lanyard, bag and folders. They’d probably think there was something a little self-conscious about the way I was sitting, a conciliatory duck of the head, maybe, a professional sharing of attention between the other three. They’d think the other man was a relative, the son, no doubt. He’s the right age, of course, but he looks like someone who’s spent a lot of time in this room, one way or another. And the way he massages his hands and jogs his knee up and down. He looks like someone who’s been brought here over some distance, at some inconvenience, still wearing the suit he was in when he took the call. A nice, professional son, then, worn down by circumstances he finds more difficult because they’re out of the normal run of things, and hard to quantify in the usual way. The woman sharing the sofa is sitting so close to him they must be in a relationship. There’s something resolutely straight-backed about her posture, and the encouraging smiles she shares around the room. There’s something about the way they are together that suggests long conversations and negotiations. They’ve arrived at a decision – he, more reluctantly – resolved to face it together, shoulder to shoulder. The elderly woman has a bewildered look. There’s a vagueness about her in strange contrast to the sharp delineation of everything else, as if the bright sunlight flooding the stage is causing her to lose definition rather than gain it.

‘Tell me about the whole bath thing’ I say. ‘I didn’t get the whole story.’
‘Well it does sound a bit crazy, even to me,’ says Helen, the elderly woman. ‘You see – I took a bath as I usually do in the evening, but then I blacked out, and it was some time before I was found.’
‘How long?’
‘Three days.’
‘That’s a long time.’
‘Yes. It is.’
‘Was the bath filled with water? You were lucky not to drown.’
‘No. The water had gone.’
‘Who drained it?’
‘It must have been me, although I don’t remember.’
‘Three days in a bath! I’m surprised you didn’t freeze.’
‘It’s a warm flat.’
‘When did you regain consciousness?’
‘The whole thing’s quite blurry. I’m not really sure.’
‘It’s perhaps a strange question to ask, and I’m sorry for asking it – but had you been incontinent?’
‘No, I hadn’t.’
‘So you passed out in the bath. Came round at some point. And then couldn’t get out of the bath. Is that right?’
‘I suppose so. Although it sounds pathetic when you put it like that.’
‘Who found you?’
‘Maria, the cleaner. She comes every Wednesday morning.’
‘And did she call the ambulance?’
‘Yes.’
‘And they took you to hospital?’
‘They did. And I had a whole series of tests. The works. And all they found wrong with me was a silly little cut on my toe. Would you like to see it?’
‘Maybe in a minute or two.’
‘I don’t know how I did it. Probably on the tap, I should think.’

She looks at her son, Matthew, who sits on the sofa with his knee jogging up and down. Matthew’s German wife, Helga smiles brightly back at Helen.
‘We will get things sorted,’ Helga says. ‘Don’t worry.’
‘Absolutely!’ I say, flicking through the discharge summary, at the normal blood results and scans and so on, the recommended follow-ups. ‘We’ll figure something out.’
‘I do hope so,’ says Helen. ‘It’s all a bit of a drama, I’m afraid.’

learning how to land

Vera is as formidable as the tartan wrap she has over her shoulders.
‘But who sent you?’ she says.
‘The GP. I think she was a bit worried after that fall you had.’
Vera stands holding the door, hesitating on the threshold of a determination to be alone and an anxiety not to appear rude.
‘Well I suppose you’d better come in,’ she says, releasing the door and turning on the spot as ably as her ninety year old hips will allow. ‘But I’m not happy about this. Not happy at all.’

I follow her through to the sitting room, a ruthlessly bare place with just a television, an armchair, a pouffe and a side table. There are half a dozen framed photographs on the walls, arranged in a regular pattern. The photos are mostly black and white, one of a wedding but I can’t be sure from here. She sits in her armchair and gestures for me to take the pouffe. I sink into it, my knees pressed into my chin, and I squat there looking up at her like an acolyte at the feet of a master.
‘The important thing to remember is that you’re the boss of you,’ I say.
‘What on earth do you mean? Of course I’m the boss of me.’
‘That’s great! It’s just – sometimes I think it’s easy to lose sight of that with all these different people and agencies piling in all the time. You tell them what you want and don’t want, and so long as you understand the consequences, no-one will mind.’
‘Of course I understand the consequences. I do the Times crossword every morning. Do you?’
‘I don’t understand cryptic clues. I can only manage the quick crossword.’
‘It’s not the same thing at all,’ she says. ‘But you’re right. You have to tune your ear to the language.’
She adjusts her shawl, loosening it a little. I hug my knees and try to rock into a more comfortable position.
‘I just don’t want all this fuss,’ says Vera, warming to her theme. ‘People barging in all hours of the day and night, left right and centre. I haven’t asked for any of it. They want to give me frames and trolleys and contraptions for the toilet and goodness knows what. But I simply don’t want them. They clutter the place up. I want to be able to move, freely, in my own time. Can you understand that?’
‘Yes. Completely. But you know – they’re only making these suggestions because you had that fall. They want you to be safe.’
‘You see – I fundamentally don’t understand why these people can’t leave me to live my life as I want to live it. I have my cleaner who comes in once a week. My granddaughter does the shopping. I’m perfectly happy with the way things are. I pay them to help me, and there we are.’
‘Do you pay your granddaughter?’
‘Well of course I pay her? She wouldn’t do it for free, would she?’
‘Family… I don’t know.’
‘That’s not the arrangement I want. It has to be clear. Everyone has to know where they stand. I’ve had people say to me why don’t you live with your son or your daughter? In a granny flat? A granny flat! I can’t think of anything more ghastly – for them or for me. Being walled-up somewhere, like a nun, perhaps… Why in heaven’s name would I want that? They have their lives and I have mine.’
‘That’s perfectly fine. It’s a free country.’
‘So far as I was aware, yes, it is. So if you don’t mind, I’d like not to be bothered in future.’
‘I’ll say goodbye then. And of course, if anything changes, your GP can always make another referral. What I would say though, is it’s probably a good idea to wear your alarm pendant.’
‘I won’t do it. I’m not having that plastic monstrosity anywhere near me.’
‘The thing is, if you fell again and – worse case scenario – broke your hip, you might be lying on the floor for a long time…’
‘No I wouldn’t.’
‘I’ve seen it happen.’
‘Not to me, it hasn’t.’
‘I’m just saying – it’s worth thinking about.’
‘When I fell last week I crawled to the phone.’
‘Next time you might not be able to crawl’
She fixes me with her sternest look, making little circular grinding motions with her mouth.
‘Listen,’ she says at last. ‘I used to race horses. Have you any idea what it’s like to fall off one of those things?’
‘Pretty hard, I expect. I fell off a motorbike once and that was bad enough.’
‘Well I don’t know about motorbikes, but falling from a galloping horse is a significant prospect. I should know – I’ve done it more times than I care to remember.’
‘Did you break anything?’
‘Only my pride. The crucial things is, one must learn how to land, and then get back in the saddle. There’s nothing else for it.’
I’m tempted to carry on the discussion by pointing out the number of years that have passed between that young woman cartwheeling through the air, and the older, osteoporotic version going over in the bathroom, but I can see that nothing’s going to persuade her. I struggle to my feet from the pouffe, collect my things together and shake her hand.
‘Goodbye then, Vera. It’s been lovely to meet you, and I’m sorry for disturbing your morning.’
‘That’s quite alright,’ she says, hobbling after me to the door. ‘It’s been a pleasure to meet you, too. But please – and I mean this in the nicest possible way – don’t come back.’

maud’s mother

It’s been three weeks since I last saw Maud. She’s the one hundred year old woman who spooked me a little by saying she was worried she couldn’t look after her parents who were asleep upstairs. I’m here this time with Stacy, a physiotherapist, to conduct a mobility assessment. The carers have reported a sudden and significant drop in Maud’s ability to stand. We need to figure out if this is a confidence issue or something more permanent.

Stacy is exactly the kind of person you’d want to have with you in a haunted house. She may be small, but she has big feet, a disproportionately loud voice, and a vigorous, open-faced, square-shouldered approach to things. I can imagine her standing in the middle of a dark room, the hectic shreds of wailing ghosts swirling round her, planting her bag on the floor and saying: Right! Firstly, no-one’s impressed. Secondly, what do you hope to achieve by this? Thirdly – just because you’ve been dead two hundred years, doesn’t mean you can fly around with the posture of a cashew nut. So straighten yourselves out, settle down, stop messing about and we’ll see what we can do to help. The ghosts would immediately clam up and hover in line. And Stacy would sort them out.

She could be a whole new kind of health visitor. A physioexortherapist.

Who ya gonna call?

Stacy listens carefully when I tell her about what happened last time, the whole ‘ghostly parents asleep upstairs waiting for their daughter’ deal, and also about what her next of kin, Alan, said about it, which was that in many religions it’d would be seen as quite normal to be ‘met’ as you neared the end of life.
‘Okay,’ she says. ‘Fine. But you do know that Maud spent many years looking after her parents? So I don’t think it’s all that surprising she’s a bit muddled with the timings. I hardly know what day of the week it is myself, and I’m supposed to be young and fit.’
‘No. I suppose when you put it like that.’
She re-shoulders her rucksack, reaches up, and knocks so firmly with the rapper on the door it makes me think of Jack from Jack and the Beanstalk, knocking on the door of the giant’s castle. But instead of a giant housekeeper coming to the door, it’s Alan, still wearing the same Nordic sweater,shirt and tie, his goatee beard as perfectly groomed as a chin dipped in silver paint.

‘Good to see you!’ he whispers, shaking our hands. ‘Thanks so much for coming.’ And he shows us in.

Maud is in the hospital bed in the living room, as before. If anything she seems in better form, alert and smiling, with that copy of Anna Karenina on her lap.
‘Ah!’ she says. ‘Here comes the cavalry!’ putting the book aside.

The last week or so, Maud has stopped being able to stand with assistance and transfer to the commode. There doesn’t seem to be any infection or other organic reasons why she shouldn’t be able to do this. And she certainly has the strength. When we’ve lowered the bed and raised the backrest, she swings her legs over the edge ready for the off. It’s just – that’s as far as she gets. Stacy is great at clearly and firmly describing what Maud needs to do to stand up, even sitting next to her at one point and demonstrating – but Maud just can’t translate it into action. She keeps putting her feet too far out in front, and then waggling them up and down on the carpet, like a child splashing her feet in a puddle.
‘It’s no good!’ she says. ‘I’m falling!’

We persevere for as long as we can, but it’s a game of diminishing returns. The more we try, the more anxious Maud becomes, until her efforts to stand are such an approximate and off-kilter thing, leaning back against our hands, the zimmer frame lifting off the carpet, that we have to accept defeat, and help her back to bed. It’s strange to see how well she lifts her legs back onto the mattress and snuggle down again. Strength is certainly not the issue.
‘It’s definitely a confidence thing,’ says Stacy, snapping off her gloves. ‘Which isn’t any less incapacitating, of course.’
‘No, of course,’ says Alan. ‘So what’s to be done?’
Stacy shrugs.
‘Seems a shame to be thinking about hoisting. But other than that I suppose it’s bed care and some gentle encouragement to overcome the block.’

‘You see that woman over there,’ says Maud, pulling the bedclothes up to her neck, and then pointing straight in front of her. For a second I wonder if it’s another ghost – until I realise she means the sideboard facing her, and an ornate, silver frame in the centre of it. ‘This one?’ I say, going over to take a closer look. It’s a sepia photograph of a young girl standing on a dark, southern English beach. She’s dressed in a billowing white dress and enormous circular brimmed hat, which she holds on her head with one hand as she squints off into the distance. ‘That’s my mother,’ says Maud. ‘Now she’d have known what to do.’