sold

Rachel brings her tea over and sits with me.

‘What’ve you been up to?’ I ask her.

‘House hunting’ she says.

‘How’s that going?’

‘Terrible. I had the worst day the other day. I saw nine houses.’

‘Nine?’

‘I know. I just booked out the entire morning and went’

‘Did Ben go?’

‘Ben? No! He can’t stand it. But you play to your strengths. I’m what you might call the triage nurse in this relationship, especially as far as houses go. I sift out the crap. Which is all of them.’

‘It’s a thing, that’s for sure.’

‘I had the weirdest estate agent show me round. She was only young. About twenty, I’d guess, her hair all piled up. And she had this heavy makeup that stopped at her chin, circling her features, which made her look a bit like a giant egg. I couldn’t help asking about it. I do it like that so I don’t get raped she said’

‘What a thing to say!’

‘I know! She was wearing an extraordinary outfit. White fur jacket split at the sides, bright pantaloon trousers and leather boots. Although she was barefoot when I met her at the office. She was sitting on a chair digging her toes into the carpet. Mmm she said. Feel that!’

‘Weird!’

‘That’s not the half of it. When we got into the car she said she knew right off we’d get along because she gets a feeling about people. She said she thought I was a florist, and when I said I was a nurse, she said yeah, I’m not surprised, because you totally look like one. And anyway, she said, I’m just glad you’re not like the usual stiffs I have to show round.’

‘Wow!’

‘And then there were the houses. Honestly, Jim – it was like a roll call for the damned. The first one was a bungalow right the other side of town, down by the river. I mean literally by the river. On the flood plain. Don’t worry, she said. It only floods when it’s tidal. What – you mean like twice a day? I said. You’re up some steps so you’re good, she said. Anyway, it’s an unadopted road, which people love. It means you can do what you want with it. I reckon it’s more that the council know it floods and have washed their hands, I said, but she ignored that and showed me round. A dismal, lightless hole that should’ve been condemned, let alone put on the market. No? she said – okay – I’ll show you some more.

The next one was worse. It had this terrible atmosphere, creepy and sad, like someone had died or been murdered. I asked her if anyone was living there at the moment because I couldn’t tell. There was a mattress on the floor, and the sheets were thrown back, odd things scattered about. She said yeah, a woman and her kid. She’s getting divorced or something. Honestly, Jim – I wanted to start taking some details so I could call social services. I mean – it was getting a bit like work. Anyway, that was no good, so we drove over to the next house and out of the blue she asked me if liked macaroni cheese? I said yep, love it. I said we’re vegetarian, so we have macaroni cheese quite a lot. Have you tried it with bacon on the top? she said, because that is the absolute nuts. And I said well…no, because we’re vegetarian. So she said did I know why Muslims don’t eat bacon? I said I thought there was something in the Quran about it, and she said yeah – it’s because they eat their own shit.

The next house she showed me had an enormous crack right down the middle. I mean huge, like if you slammed the door it would fall apart in two halves. Oh that? she said. That’s just subsidence. I sold a house exactly like this the other day for four-fifty. Then she laughed and said there’s no way they’ll be able to resell. I wanted to say to her – you do know that’s not a good story to be telling me in this situation, right? But what was the point?

The last house she showed me belonged to this elderly couple. The estate agent stayed outside stomping up and down having some huge argument on her phone whilst I looked round. It was run-down, like all the others, but of course I was going through the rooms making lots of encouraging noises like you do. Oh – I love what you’ve done in the bathroom. Those brown tiles are really so, I don’t know, quirky – kind of thing. The elderly guy followed behind me the whole time, breathing down my neck, which was unnerving. Every time I turned round he was right in my face, smiling. I went into the bedroom and there was this enormous cactus in a pot. I mean gigantic – the same height as me. I turned round and there he was, smiling away. I can see you like my phallic cactus he said. And that’s when the estate agent came in. What d’you think, she said, clapping her hands. Sold?’

one for the vault

It’d been a year since I last saw Vera. I remembered her clearly, though. A bracingly independent woman in her nineties, Vera had been non-compliant with everything – meds, treatments, appointments – and so utterly resistant to any offer of help she’d physically ripped up the paperwork in front of Marion, the physiotherapist, and handed back the empty folder. Reports were that Vera had declined a great deal since then, unfortunately. Several admissions to hospital with falls and so on. A recent stay for increased confusion, reduced mobility. Ill health had softened her up a little; she’d accepted a couple of care calls a day, and we were in the process of ordering a hospital bed, and doing whatever we could to set up a micro-environment so she could stay at home.
‘The doctors are saying palliative, not quite End of Life phase, but not far off,’ says Marlene, the lead nurse. ‘See what you can do.’

As soon as I let myself into the flat I know something’s wrong.
‘Vera? Hello? It’s Jim, from the hospital.’
A muffled voice from the bedroom.
I’m on the floor.

Vera’s lying so close to the door it’s tricky getting in. I have to take my jacket off, put my bag down, cheat a gap just wide enough to squeeze through sideways, and then reach back through for the bag.
‘Have you hurt yourself, Vera?’
‘No. But I can’t get up.’
‘Let’s just have a look at you.’
Vera has slipped off the bed, dragging the quilt down with her and landing semi-recumbent on the carpeted floor with the quilt rucked-up behind her back. As landings go, pretty neat. I check her over, just to be sure. She has no power in her legs, and she’s too big for me to help up on my own.
‘I’m going to have to call the ambulance, Vera.’
‘Look – never mind that. Just listen closely. There’s a leather suitcase over by the window. I want you to take it to the bank. To the manager. The manager will then lock it in the vault. D’you understand me? A leather suitcase! For the vault!’
‘Okay – but – first things first, Vera. I’m just going to call for an ambulance along to help with the lift, and when we’ve got you up and everything, we’ll think about the rest.’

The ambulance call taker goes through the usual triage algorithm, as tedious as ever, but I understand the reason behind it. Except – this particular call taker has an unfortunate tone, robotic and quite aggressive.
‘How long has the patient been on the floor?’ he says.
‘It’s hard to say. Vera’s not a particularly reliable witness, I’m afraid. But the flat’s nice and warm, she’s comfortable and not in any distress, so I don’t think any of that’s a problem.
‘Can you place your hand in the middle of the patient’s chest and tell me if they’re cold or not.’
‘I’ve got a thermometer in my bag. I could do a temperature if you like.’
He simply repeats the question, a little more slowly.
‘Look,’ I tell him, feeling riled, ‘I’m sorry but I’m not going to be placing my hand on her chest or anywhere else.’
‘Are you telling me that you’re refusing to carry out my instructions?’
‘I just don’t think it’s necessary.’
‘In that case I shall be making this case a higher priority.’
‘Great. Suits me. I don’t particularly want to be waiting here for hours.’
‘The patient has now been triaged as a Category Red 2 response: possible hypothermia.’
‘Fine. She’s not, but – whatever.’
I feel like telling him I used to be an EMT, but I don’t. It’ll probably make him worse.
He carries on with the algorithm, even though I offer to do a set of obs for him.
‘An ambulance will be with you shortly’ he says, giving me some worsening care advice and a reference number. ‘Thank you for your assistance,’ he says, coming to the end of the screen, and then adds, with a little shiver of personality: ‘Have a nice day,’ and rings off.

I’m halfway through my examination when the buzzer sounds. Five minutes later two paramedics come through the door – the lead one, Chloe, an old workmate of mine I haven’t seen since starting the new job. We kiss and hug and how are you and everything.
‘This is Prina’ says Chloe, introducing me to her colleague. We shake hands.
‘Me and Chloe go way back,’ I say to her, blushing slightly.
‘I didn’t think you were strangers’ says Prina.

I show them into Vera, who’s so comfortable on the floor she’s virtually asleep. I tell them the story of the fall and as much background information as I have. Between the three of us getting her up is easy. She has to go in to hospital, though. She’s not safe to be left at home – and really, shouldn’t have been discharged in these circumstances. Still, it’s always a difficult judgement call, complicated by issues of mental capacity and the incessant demand for beds.

Vera seems happy to go in – or if not happy so much as passively accepting. She’s cocooned in a couple of cell blankets on the paramedics’ carry chair, her frosty white hair spiking up out of the top, making her look like an enormous alien chrysalis retrieved from a glacier.
‘Don’t forget that suitcase!’ she says to me, suddenly perking up and wriggling dangerously from side to side on the chair like she’s about to break out and spread her wings. ‘It has to go to the vault!’
‘What suitcase?’ says Chloe, resting a hand on her shoulder. ‘What vault? Sounds intriguing.’
‘There’s nothing intriguing about it,’ says Vera, desperately chinning enough of a gap in the blankets so she can glare at Chloe. ‘It’s where I keep my manuscript!’
Chloe laughs.
‘I miss working with you,’ she says, smiling at me. ‘There’s always something – I don’t know…’ But then she straightens up and nods to Prina. ‘You’re great, too,’ she says.
‘Oh – get a room’ says Prina.

class delivery

You could write it out as a theorem:
The actual speed and simplicity of any given last job is inversely proportional to the stated degree of speed and simplicity.
‘Mr Harrison was discharged home late this afternoon, but he desperately needs a commode, zimmer frame, urinal and grabber. It’s on your way home. It’ll be a hi-how-are-you-here-you-are and away. Okay?’
‘Okay! Sounds great.’

I load up from stores and hurry out.

* * *

Another theorem:
The quality of any unadopted road surface and street lighting is inversely proportional to the monetary value of the houses either side.

Counter-intuitive, maybe, but I’ve seen it before. An unadopted road requires that every household contributes to its upkeep. Maybe it’s something to do with the fact that rich people have access to whole stables of lawyers genetically bred to resist any payment by their clients into anything resembling a social enterprise – a position underwritten by the understanding that everyone who lives here will be driving around in gigantic four-by-fours, as insulated from the craters that pockmark the surface of the road as astronauts in moon buggies. If it tears lesser cars apart, so be it. It won’t be anyone they know, or have any financial exposure to. And it’ll discourage common access as surely as a stone lions and a spiked gate.

The road’s so horribly broken up it’s like I’ve been asked to deliver to a quarry. I find the Harrisons address only after a great deal of grinding and swerving, swearing and cursing. It feels like I should be driving a clown’s car, parping the horn when I finally pull up and all the doors and wheels falling off.

The Harrison’s address, La Repose, is a forbidding, floodlit, hacienda-style building, set back from the road at the top of a steep flight of steps. It’s like ascending to Heaven, if anyone ever made that journey burdened down with mobility and sanitary equipment, which I doubt, given that Heaven is a place where all those problems are taken care of, and the most you might need is a stand for your harp.

I’m out of breath by the time I reach the top. I remember seeing a Laurel & Hardy short once, where the two of them try to deliver a piano to a place very similar to La Repose. I remember one of them – Laurel, no doubt – letting go and the piano rattling all the way to the bottom. I’m tempted out of pure cussedness to do the same, although maybe a comic variation of my own, where I leave the equipment at the top and throw myself down.

I pull on a plaited iron cord. Somewhere deep inside something tinkles. Eventually, after a long pause, either because of the distance to be covered, or because she’s only just realised it’s the butler’s night off, or both, Mrs Harrison comes to the door.

She’s dressed in a bunch of chintzy, flowery wraps, or – if not dressed so much as covered in material that’s magically cinched itself around her as she floated through the boutique. I’m guessing she’s pretty exhausted after the day’s shenanigans, but allowing for that and for the effect of any medications she may or may not have been prescribed, still there’s an unfortunate haughtiness to her that her Romanesque features do nothing to underplay. Mrs Harrison out-Woolfs the Woolfs.

‘Ye-es?’
‘Hello. I’m Jim, from the hospital. I’ve brought some equipment for Mr Harrison.’
She sighs and steps aside – which I take as an invitation to enter, or – if not an invitation exactly, more a regretful accession to the barbarous necessities of the situation.
‘Thank you.’
At least the door’s wide, with plenty of room for me to struggle in with my load.
I set it down in the hallway and smile at Mrs Harrison.
‘Okay! Where’’d you want it?’ I say, suddenly sounding like a delivery guy in an Ealing comedy. If I had a flat cap I’d be taking it orf and scratchin’ me ‘ed.
‘You’ll find him upstairs,’ she says, pointing upwards, then turns and ghosts off through an arch.

Even though I want to be quick, I’m worried about knocking stuff over. The staircase is generously proportioned, but there are alcoves on each small landing, each one with a plinth and sculpture or vase. That, and the number of paintings on the walls make me hesitate before going up fully-loaded.

What the hell, though!

Just as I’ve balanced myself as best I can with the zimmer over my shoulders, the commode in front with the urinal, grabber and some other things balanced precariously on the seat, Mrs Harrison appears again.

‘I say! This needs to go, too’ And reaching over, with a fastidiously high-fingered gesture, she places on the very top of everything one small box of Lansoprazole.
‘Thank you very much,’ I say.
‘You’re welcome.’
And she stands aside to watch as I begin my ascent.

 

means of access

I look through the letterbox. A dark, trash-filled hallway. Bottles, newspapers, discarded wrappers, scattered clothing. A bare staircase rising steeply to the left, the treads I can see completely cluttered-up with junk. I shuffle up closer to the letterbox to shout through and then listen for a reply, mindful of the rotten sinkhole that undermines the threshold.

Hello? Edmund? It’s Jim – from the hospital.

Silence.

I straighten up and wonder what to do.

I’ve already tried calling Edmund’s mobile, but it cuts out, number unavailable. I’ve tried his next of kin, too, but no-one answers. The next step is to call the ward he was discharged from – but before I do, it occurs to me that Edmund’s flat is over a shop. Perhaps they know something. I gather my bags and folders and go inside.

The shop is a shadowy, corner-of-the-parade affair, grilles on the windows, just enough light to make you think it’s open, but not enough to make you feel easy about being there. Beyond the empty counter at the back there’s a corridor leading to a workshop of some kind. The whole thing goes back a long way – so far, in fact, I can only imagine it undermines the row, slowly dipping underground, like a burrow excavated by some giant creature who then turned round and hurried back to disguise the opening as an antique shop.

There’s a dull light in the workshop, but even though I say Hello? no-one answers and no-one comes. There’s no bell on the counter, no gong to strike. I say Hello again, then put my stuff down, and wait.

High up on two of the walls are rows of Victorian dolls, perished bisque faces and ropy wigs, pegged out like ghastly exhibits in a public mausoleum. Underneath their slippered feet are shelves of tobacco tins, garish porcelain animals, Pierrot clowns. There’s a glass cabinet freighted with tin robots, jewellery boxes, cards and tops. And then placed in whatever space is left, there are boards of old badges and pins, rusty tin adverts for Guinness and Chesterfield smokes, and ranging in untidy heaps across the floor, racks of comics and Picture Posts, and prints of Twenties’ film stars in fading, polythene wraps.

Hi…?

It’s so quiet I can hear the dolls blink.

Eventually I’m aware of a movement out back – or, if not exactly a movement, then a subtle stirring of the air, the kind of proof of life you might expect in a cave when the hibernating occupant’s disturbed.

Hello?

A man steps out into my line of sight and waits there a while. I wave. He puts his glasses up onto his bald head and slowly comes through to see what I want.

‘Hi. Sorry to bother you. My name’s Jim and I’ve been sent by the hospital to see how Edmund’s getting on. Edmund upstairs. I wondered if you knew anything.’
I point to the ceiling, the maisonette above our heads.
‘Edmund? He’s in hospital.’
‘I think he’s been discharged. That’s why I’ve come. To see what he needs. You know – carers, equipment, nursing and the rest of it.’
‘Edmund?’
‘Yes.’
‘But he hasn’t come home from hospital. I was there this morning. They’re keeping him in.’
‘Oh! They told me he’d been discharged.’
The man takes the glasses from his head and begins cleaning them on a corner of his shirt.
‘No, no – Jim, did you say? No, Jim. He’s definitely still there. And thank God, too. Have you seen how he lives?’
‘No. I’ve never met him.’
‘Well then, James,’ says the man, putting his glasses on again, carefully securing the wire arms left and right over the backs of his ears. ‘Follow me…
He reaches into his pocket, pulls out a bunch of keys and shakes them in the space between us.
‘I have the means!’

too many tarzans

It helps they have a picture of Tarzan on the wall.
‘Is that Ron Ely?’
‘Where?’
Brenda glances towards the door, but I point to the dresser, the side of it, and a rather tatty colour photo stuck there with tape. Brenda gets up stiffly and shuffles over to look.
‘Oh – him? No. That’s erm… that’s Lex Barker.’
‘Oh! I thought it was Ron Ely. The TV Tarzan.’
‘No. It looks a bit like Ron Ely. But it’s not. It’s Lex Barker.’
‘I’ve never heard of Lex Barker.’
‘You’ve never heard of Lex Barker?’
‘No.’
Brenda leans forwards and shouts in the direction of her sister.
‘Jean? Did you hear that? Jean?’

Jean has fallen asleep in the chair – although she’s so slumped forward powered-off might be a better description. Her chin is resting on her cardigan, and she’s breathing in slow, regular breaths that puff out her toothless cheeks and escape with a soft, soughing kind of noise through her lips.
‘What?’ she says, straightening alarmingly, paddling her arms and legs. ‘I must’ve dropped off.’
‘Never mind,’ says Jean, and painfully turns, and sits back down again.

Even though I’ve never heard of Lex Barker, he strikes me as a way in. Brenda and Jean have been struggling to get by the last few years, completely off the radar of health and social services. A paramedic has alerted us to their plight, and I’ve been sent in to see how things are and what could be done to help. So far Brenda has been pretty tight-lipped, offering nothing, answering my questions with a guarded yes or no, the smallest shake of her head. I wonder what’s happened in the past to make her so suspicious.

‘God! However many Tarzans were there? I mean – you’ve got Johnny Weissmuller…’
‘He wasn’t the first,’ says Brenda. ‘There was one just after the war. Elmo Lincoln.’
‘Who?’
Brenda shrugged.
‘I never saw it. And another one after that. It’s always been popular, Tarzan. For some reason.’
‘Johnny Weissmuller’ I say, struggling to think of something to say that’ll keep the momentum going. ‘Wasn’t he an Olympic swimmer or something?’
‘He was. He came over in thirty-eight, to open the lido in Saltdean.’ She turns a loose wedding band round and round on her finger. ‘Although how they persuaded him away from California I’ll never know.’
‘I remember Ron Ely’ I say, looking at Lex Barker’s picture again. ‘I remember they had stock footage of crocodiles thrashing around in the water and elephants rampaging, and they tried to crowbar them in every episode.’
‘Telly’s come a long way,’ says Brenda. ‘They were poorer times back then. No-one had the money for real crocodiles.’
‘Gordon Scott!’ says Jean, unexpectedly ‘He was my favourite!’
‘Gordon Scott? You’ve changed your tune!’ shouts Brenda. ‘I thought it was Lex Barker! We’ll have to get another picture!’
Jean doesn’t reply. Eventually Brenda relaxes back in the chair and picks some lint off her skirt.
‘I don’t know,’ she says after a while. ‘Too many Tarzans, that’s the problem.’

a gap in the curtains

‘Terrible. I feel awful. It’s my breathing. I can’t get my breath. And there’s nothing worse, is there? Not breathing? I’ve been like it months. Ever since I come home. Ever since I had the fall. I was going out to the garage. I can’t think why. A slipper come off and I missed the step. Went backwards. Right over the mobility scooter. Pulled a ladder down on top. I was stuck there ages. Calling for help. Brian come out, eventually. When he was hungry. He’s no help. He’s got dementia. He just stood looking at me from the step. What are you doing down there? he said. Then he went back inside. Six hours I was out there. In the freezing cold. The paramedics had a hell of a job. They had to use special equipment. Special blankets. Took me up the hospital. Found I’d broke three ribs. Caught pneumonia. Shocking state. Couldn’t sleep. People dying all around. There was one on the right. I heard them work on her. I watched her legs kicking up and down. Course – it was no good. They called it a day and went. Only they didn’t draw the curtains properly. I could still see her head on the pillow. All that long grey hair. I couldn’t stop staring. I couldn’t help myself. Eventually they showed up. The men in green. I heard them zipping up the bag. Wheeled her off. Later on I told the nurse. Why didn’t you say anything? she said. We would’ve shut the curtains. But I didn’t say anything, did I? I just sat there, staring. The long grey hair, hanging off the pillow like that. I went home the day after. But I can’t stop thinking about it. The gap in the curtains. The hair on the pillow. I mean – what are you supposed to do with something like that?’

a question of time

‘I was a clockmaker’
‘Horologist?’
‘Well – I was going to use the official name, but you see – I didn’t want you to think I was showing off.’
‘Fair enough. It’s just I don’t get to say the word horologist very often. And now here I am saying it twice.’
Ray turns his filmy gray eyes onto me.
‘Of course, a person can use a thing too much,’ he says.
I help him back into his favourite chair, and then re-arrange his blankets, hot water bottle and padded stool for his feet.
‘Restored!’ he says.
Whilst I finish writing out the paperwork I ask him about his work.
‘You must’ve had such a steady hand.’
‘Everyone says that, but it wasn’t something I thought about. You get used to these things. You adapt.’
‘I suppose you do.’
I write some more.
A clock on the wall sounds the hour. It has a dark and sombre look to it, reliable, relentless – the kind of thing I can imagine hanging on the wall in a Victorian station master’s office. And as if the chimes have prompted the thought, Ray says: ‘If you could go back in time – anywhere at all – where would you go?’
‘Me? Ooh – loads of places. The Aztecs? Dinosaurs? I’d love to see a dinosaur, although depends very much on the dinosaur. If I had a protective suit I’d feel happier. Or I was invisible. Erm – I’d love to see a Shakespeare play, with Shakespeare in it. Dunno. What about you?’
‘I would like to see Stonehenge. As it was.’
‘Now that would be cool!’
‘What were they doing there?’
‘Stonehenge. Definitely!’
‘I mightn’t like what I saw, though. One thing that’s always struck me – how cruel people can be.’
‘Absolutely. And it’s not something that’s restricted to one period of time. There’s no end to it. So I suppose what you have to take from that is that there’s always a potential for cruelty in humans, and the best you can do is take it seriously, and not get complacent.’
Ray adjusts his hot water bottle, drawing it up his body a ways, nearer to his heart.
‘Yes,’ he says after a while. ‘Stonehenge. Like an enormous stone clock. I think I should like to see that.’
‘Well if you go this afternoon, leave a note so we know where you are.’
He laughs.
‘Don’t worry,’ he says, and then reaching out a hand, extra-warm from the hot water bottle, ‘…and who knows? Maybe I’ll send a cart back for you.’