virgil the bullet

Glad lives with her husband John in the basement of a grand, Georgian terrace house on the coast road out of town. Originally I imagine the flat would have been the servants’ quarters for the entire house. The stone steps leading down to it are worn in the middle; you can almost hear the footsteps pattering up and down them, to meet a carriage, or to fetch wine from the cellar, or any of those other relentless, below stairs tasks. Still – the conversions in these buildings are all expensive, wherever they feature in the house, so as I descend I’m expecting a beautiful flat with varnished floorboards, ornate mirrors, fine works of art – the usual, high-end sensibilities of the residents around here.
It’s a shock when Glad answers the door.
‘Don’t let Virgil out,’ she says. ‘He’ll be up the steps like a bullet.’
She shushes me in quickly. There’s a fat tabby licking his paws over by some flyblown cat bowls. He reminds me of those cartoon cats, the fine diners around the dustbins, wearing napkins, sucking joke fish bones with a claw in the air.
‘I let him out the back, not the front,’ says Glad, shuffling through the gloom of the kitchen. ‘He can’t get out the back.’
Virgil stops licking his paws long enough to give me a stare, as if to say: What do you know about the front?
‘He’s a sweet cat,’ I say.
‘When he’s been fed,’ she says. ‘Don’t believe his propaganda.’
She leads me into the living room, a hellish space decked out all in red: red drapes and throws and velvet curtains, red wallpaper, deep red carpet, and worst of all, a gas fire on, four bars. It feels like I’ve been swallowed by a dragon.
‘Pete likes it warm,’ she says, lowering herself into a brown armchair (which I can only imagine was red when they bought it).
Other than the belly-of-the-beast theme, the other thing that catches my attention is a large, antique drinks cabinet in the shape of a globe. Arranged around the circular foot of it – in a pattern like a solar stream, or maybe space junk – are dozens of spirit bottles, everything represented, from gin, rum and whisky to the more exotic flavoured stuff. I don’t know why they wouldn’t throw the bottles out. Maybe they just like to see exactly how far they’ve got in their journey around the world in eighty spirits. Either way, it’s a terrible trip hazard.
‘Here any good?’ says Glad, propping her leg up on the cat’s beanbag.
‘What’s happened to the telly?’ says John, suddenly and inexplicably conscious again. I smile and wave. I can’t believe he’s actually lying on the sofa under a rug.
‘I turned it off so as not to disturb the nurse,’ says Glad.
‘I’m not actually a nurse. I’m a nursing assistant,’ I say, looking for something to sit on so I won’t have to kneel on the carpet. ‘It’s a simple leg dressing, though, so it should be fine. If not, I’ll call in the cavalry.’
‘What – more cowboys?’ says Glad. ‘Only joking. I’m sure you know what you’re doing.’

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.’

dogs in hats

Billy is as thin and white as forced celery, wisps of white hair streaming back from his chiselled forehead against all natural gravitational laws, his etiolated white hands clasping the armrests of the chair like roots he put out to suck the nutrients from the stuffing. He barely acknowledges me as I let myself in. Whether that’s because of a general remoteness, or because he’s drunk most of the various spirit bottles placed artfully around his feet, it’s hard to tell.
‘How come you didn’t answer your phone, Billy?’
He turns his sad blue eyes up to me.
‘Oh. Was that you ringing? I looked for my phone but I couldn’t find it.’
‘Shall I give it another ring and see where it is?’
He shrugs.
I go to recents in my phone, and call.
After a moment, a loud buzzing starts up on the cluttered table immediately in front of us. His phone is under a red reminder.
‘Found it!’
‘Great’ he says, in a whispery voice leached flat by long hours of nothing in particular. ‘Gis it here, then.’

It’s hard to know what to do about Billy. The best you can say is that he has a workmanlike approach to drinking himself to death. There’s no joy in it; no wild ride. For some reason he’s simply hitched himself to a slow and dreadfully monotonous kind of decline, like he’s found himself in an armchair that began sinking beneath a quicksand of liquor bottles. When the glass level reaches the bridge of his nose, I don’t imagine he’ll struggle at all. He’ll merely turn those eyes in the direction of whoever’s there to notice, and slide out of sight with a clink.

I unzip my bag and loop the stethoscope round my neck. When I straighten I notice the four dog photos taped to the wall on his right. The photos have been printed A4 size with the colour running low, so everything’s a little fuzzy. You can see it’s the same dog, though, a lugubrious hound sitting in the same position in the kitchen, wearing four different hats: a fisherman’s floppy cap; a Norwegian style knitted hat with flaps; a panama, and then something from a fancy dress shop – a plastic policeman’s helmet fastened under its chin with elastic.
‘Love the pictures!’ I tell him. ‘Who’s dog is that?’
‘Karen, my carer,’ Billy whispers, sadly. ‘She knows I like dogs. And hats. So – there you go.’

smashing trucks

It’s a complex family situation – as they often are – but the long and the short of it is, Jimmy’s been sent home to die.

Although the end has come quickly, it’s not entirely unexpected. Jimmy has had an alcohol problem for a good many years, as punishing to his family life as his liver. Nothing helped, not counselling, drug and alcohol rehab, surgical corrections, medication – it all turned out to be a grave but ineffectual chorus singing downstage of the tragedy.

At least Jimmy still has people around him, though. In fact, the house is pretty full. There’s his brother, Tom, Tom’s wife Stella, Jimmy’s stepson Al and Al’s little boy, Kevin. Kevin is about three years old I’d guess, a cheeky, tow-haired kid in a dinosaur T and red shorts, loving the drama of all these people, showing off by diving onto the sofa, smashing his toy trucks together, sneaking up behind you, touching you on the shoulder and then running away screaming, bending over for no apparent reason and looking at you from upside down.
‘Kevin? Why don’t you settle down on the sofa and watch the Formula One?’ says Al, although I’d guess that’s really what he wants to do.
‘No!’ says Kevin, diving under the table.
‘Don’t worry, Al. I don’t mind,’ I say.
Al shrugs, and carries on unpacking the shopping.

It’s the first time I’ve met the family. Truth is, I’d been blindsided by the whole situation. I thought it’d be an easy call, dropping off equipment and doing some obs on a patient before returning to the hospital to take care of all the referrals that’d piled up that day. When I got there I’d found a patient who was actively dying, and insufficient preparation made for any of it. I couldn’t figure out how it could’ve happened like this. After I’d made Jimmy as comfortable as I could, cutting off his hospital gown with my shears to avoid disturbing him too much, giving him a stripwash on the bed and so on, all helped by Tom and Stella, I’d spoken to the office to confirm we were putting in double-up care that evening, then called Jimmy’s GP, who was as confused and disturbed as I was. She’d promised to get clarification from the hospital, and said she’d call straight back.
‘You’ve been so helpful,’ I say to Stella and Tom as they sit down with me at the table with some tea. ‘I’m sorry it’s been stressful and messed up.’
‘Don’t worry,’ she says. ‘These things happen. At least he’s not in pain.’
Tom puts his hand on Stella’s shoulder; she gives him a brave smile, then wraps both her hands round the mug of tea, to feel the warmth of it.
‘Our son Billy died this year,’ she says. ‘I suppose I’m getting used to it.’
‘I’m so sorry to hear that.’
‘I was with him at the end. He was struggling, so I put my arms round him to help him sit up. He was trying to say something, but he couldn’t get it out, and I couldn’t understand what it was. So I held him like that, and I said I loved him, and then he fell back, and that was that. And that was the start of the year.’
‘I’m just going to sit with Dad for a while,’ says Al, heading towards the stairs.
‘Okay then’ says Tom. ‘Good lad.’
‘Now you be good’ says Al to Kevin.
‘Look at my trucks!’ yells Kevin, bouncing up and down on the sofa, smashing the trucks together, head to head. Peeyow! Pow! Kapooooof!

syracuse & the duck

Jennifer Syracuse is my name of the day – the year, probably. A private detective kind of name. The name you’d give to that character in the book who crashes in on page three, lights things up and drives all the way to the big reveal.

These days, what with one thing and another, the brandy bottles clinking in an unbroken line from sometime back in the fifties out to an empty bottle on a windowsill; the falling away of friends and family connections; the piling up of clutter until even the long-case clock strains to keep its face clear – these days, Jennifer Syracuse is lighting up the world a little less, and the big reveal has long since flattened out into something longer, looser and more predictable.

‘When you see a duck have its head cut off you know you’ll never eat pate again. The way the feet waggle – d’you know? They keep on waggling.’

She looks up at me from where she’s sprawled on the ottoman.

‘Do have a seat,’ she says. ‘You make the place look untidy.’

If you can ignore the heaps of clothes and books and undifferentiated clutter, it’s a pleasant enough flat. The french windows are standing open, and sunlight filters in through a thicket of wisteria, giving the place a sleepy, soupy feel. There’s a gigantic chocolate coloured cat on the only other seat clear enough to sit on, sprawled as luxuriously and definitively as Ms Syracuse.

‘That’s okay,’ I say. ‘I’m happy standing.’

‘I mean – how could anyone eat an animal?’ she says, ignoring me. ‘Take cows for instance. Now – don’t they remind you of the women’s institute? Fat old matriarchs marching around, jabbing you with their elbows. They’d look darling in a flowery hat, though, you have to admit. And then you get the young calves in the background, jumping up and down, wondering what all the fuss is about.’
‘I like cows,’ I say.
‘How could one not? I was brought up in India, for heaven’s sake! D’you know – the other morning I sat up in bed and found myself talking Hindi! I haven’t spoken a word in seventy years, and there I was, completely fluent! It passed, of course, but I’m convinced it’s in there somewhere. I just need to learn how to get it out.

When I steer Jennifer towards the reason for the visit – her numerous falls, weight loss and general decline – she adopts a serious expression and struggles into a more upright position.

Would you keep your voice down! Please!’ she hisses, then leans forward and waggles her fingers for me to meet her halfway.

That bitch upstairs listens to every word,’ she says, then satisfied I’ve got the message, winks slowly in a lopsided way that threatens to extend into an extemporary sleep, comes to herself again, acknowledges me with a start, and taps the side of her nose.

‘What d’you want to know?’ she says, and collapses back on the ottoman.

pushed for time

I have an appointment at three o’clock, a double-up with an occupational therapist at the house of a patient discharged from hospital that day. But so long as everything falls into line, and the traffic is only slightly north of reasonable, and I manage to pare each visit down to the barest and most pragmatic interaction permissible by law, three o’clock is perfectly achievable.

Of course, it doesn’t work out that way.

The ECG machine decides to play up, in that almost supernatural way electrical equipment has sometimes of sensing your impatience and transforming it into pure cussedness. And when I try to draw blood from the second patient, I have as much luck as if I’d staggered out into the garden and jabbed the old apple tree. That, plus running into a horrible thickening of the traffic heading west, so inexplicably and uncharacteristically bad it makes me think I’’ve missed an emergency radio broadcast telling everyone to drop everything and clear the hell out of town – all this means that by the time I’m pulling up outside the house, half an hour late.

‘I -am-so-sorry!’ I say, piling in through the door with all my bags.
‘That’s okay!’ says Rick, the OT. ‘We’ve just been taking our time, going through a few things. It’s alright.’
Gil, the patient, is sitting forward on the edge of a sofa. His hair is dyed crow-black, back-combed in Gothic style, which only seems to accentuate the extreme pallor of his face, and the dark hollows of his eyes. Shaking his hand is like scooping a fragile bird into my fingers.
‘Pleased to meet you.’
‘Likewise’
I sit down on a low stool as Rick brings me up to speed. He gives me the discharge summary to look over, too, and I glance at it from time to time. I’ve already been told the basics – the alcoholism, self-neglect, the concerned neighbours, the intervention of the social work team and so on – and the fact that a deep-clean company had been brought in whilst Gil was in hospital. What I hadn’t been told though was the seriousness of his situation now. The discharge summary lays it all out in dry and technical language; beyond it, like seeing a dark and formidable landscape through a formal window, is the hard truth of the thing. Gil has come home to die.
‘If you want to get your bits and pieces out of the way whilst I finish this bit of paperwork…?’ says Rick, as I hand the summary back.
‘Sure! Why not?’ I say, grabbing my kit and going over to kneel by Gil. ‘Is that okay?’
He accedes to it all with a measured kind of passivity, smiling often, but in a gentle way, like someone who’s decided the only thing he can change about the destination is his understanding of the journey.
I don’t push anything. Just the basics. And when I’m done I shake his hand again, gather my things together and leave Rick to finish off.

Back outside, I’m throwing my bags in the boot of the car when an elderly man in a flat white cap, anorak and check shirt stops right by me. He holds a map book almost to the end of his nose, looks up and down the street, lifts his tinted glasses, presses the map book closer, squints, looks up and down the street again, and then takes his cap off and scratches his head. It’s all pretty emphatic,  like watching a modern clown doing a skit called Lost.
‘Are you alright there?’ I say.
‘Me? No. I’m late and I can’t be.’
‘Where’ve you got to get to?’
He brings the map over, hands it to me, then takes an envelope out of his pocket – something formal, a legal appointment.
‘Well don’t worry. You’re almost there,’ I tell him, handing the map book back. ‘Are you walking or driving?’
‘Driving? Me? No! I came by bus. The man there, he said get off here. He said here was where I had to be. So that’s what I did. And now I wish I hadn’t.’
‘He wasn’t wrong, though. You’ve just turned down too early. You want the one parallel to this, over there. You can cut through that little alley if you’re pushed for time.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Yep. Absolutely.’
‘I can’t afford any more mistakes.’
‘You’re good,’ I say. ‘You’ll be fine.’
‘Righto then. Thanks for your help.’
He gives me a broad, quick smile that seems more like a mechanical expression of the tipping back of his head, then taps me once on the shoulder with the map book, and strikes out for the alley.

musetta

‘Mexican liqueur. Seven letters. Beginning with T.’
‘Tequila?’
‘Is that a liqueur?’
‘It’s made from a cactus. Does that count? Anyway, I can’t think of any other specifically Mexican drinks. Apart from Dos Equis.’
‘What on earth is Dos Equis?’
‘A beer. I think.’
‘Well. Let’s go with tequila then, shall we? And see how we get on…’
Marilyn had a fall in the early hours and tore her arm. She’s busy filling in the crossword whilst I’m delicately cleaning the wound, soaking it in saline, gently replacing the skin flap as best I can, then patting the area dry ready for the steri-strips. Her version of events was that she stumbled over some shoeboxes – no mention of the copious amounts of whisky she’d put away in the hours leading up. If she sees the irony in our conversation about booze, she doesn’t show it.
‘Oh I’m terribly sorry. I misread the clue,’ she says. ‘It actually says Mexican liquor. These glasses are absolutely no damned good at all.’
‘Definitely tequila then.’
‘…which makes one down agora. Which fits! Well done!’
Marilyn is a high-functioning alcoholic. She has a beautiful house in the centre of town, filled with paintings and books, sculptures and peculiar antiques, everything brilliantly lit by the sunshine that positively bounds in through the open patio doors.
‘You have a lovely house,’ I tell her, applying the first layer of dressing.
‘That’s sweet of you,’ she says.
‘How long have you lived here?’
‘Too long. But you know, when Teddy and I moved here in the seventies, it was a different street altogether. Everyone knew each other. It was all terribly friendly and interesting. But now it’s simply overrun with cars, no-one has any time for anything, and the only contact you have is with the postman. Speaking of which…’
Keeping her bad arm as still as she can, she rummages around the clutter on the table and produces a Royal Mail missed delivery card.
‘Look at that!’ she says. ‘Sorry we missed you! What on earth do they mean? Sorry we missed you! I’ve been in all blessed day! I simply fail to understand how they could have crept up the front steps and dropped that through the letterbox without me hearing a thing. Honestly, they must be employing cat burglars or something. Or maybe he ties rags round his boots. It’s enough to drive you absolutely insane!’
‘You’d think he’d want to drop it off, though, just to lighten his bag.’
‘Lighten his bag! I’ll lighten his bag when I get hold of him.’
‘Almost done’ I tell her.
‘Smashing,’ she says, lowering her glasses from the top of her head back down on to the tip of her nose, as she goes back to the crossword.
‘Fifteen across. Famous Bohemian. Beginning with M.’
She snorts.
‘Well – I’d be very tempted to write Marilyn – but unfortunately it ends in an A’