a tough gig

Turns out, Miriam’s down to Assist the Co-ordinator this morning. She waves me over as I pass through the office, scattering good mornings as methodically and benignly as an Amish farmer sowing corn.
‘They’ve put me down to do an early care call as well,’ she says, looking flushed. ‘I mean – I’m good, but I’m not that good. I can’t be in two places at once! Everyone else is full, so it looks like only me or you that can do it. I’m more than happy to go if you want to hold the fort here a couple of hours… just as happy if you want to take the job… totally up to you. What do you think?’

The truth? I don’t need to think, but I make a polite show of it. Assisting the Co-ordinator sounds easy enough but it’s actually a pretty tough gig. It doesn’t matter how resolved you are at the start to be organised and Zen Master about the whole thing, barely half an hour later you’ll find yourself with a mobile clamped to one ear, a landline playing loud psycho-electro on-hold music in the other, three people hovering close by, checking their watches, stress-paddling foot to foot, someone else waving a piece of paper over in the Hub…. and then you’ll sigh, and hang up the landline, take a swig of coffee instead, and find it’s grown a skin.
‘It’s okay. I’ll do it,’ I tell her.
‘Are you sure?’ Miriam says, a desperate look in her eye.
‘Don’t worry. Happy to help.’
I take the details.

It sounds straightforward. Charles is an elderly patient who’s going into respite for a few weeks to give his wife June a break. He needs a care call first thing to help him get ready for collection by ambulance. As soon as I’ve picked up my other jobs for the morning, I ring their number. It goes to voicemail. I leave a message to apologise for the early call, and to say not to worry because I’m on my way and I’ll be there by half past eight at the latest.

It’s a bright, zesty drive out to their address, a neat red-bricked block on the outskirts of town. There’s a truck parked outside. Three workmen are busy putting scaffolding up, making a stunning amount of noise – pneumatic drills, banging, shouting, laughing, a radio on full volume in the cab. The workman at the top of the scaffolding, hanging on by one hand, actually throws back his head and howls. It’s all so loud and violent, even though I press my ear to the intercom I can’t hear what June says. The door clicks regardless. I go in.

The thickly carpeted hallway is so quiet by comparison with the racket outside my ears actually whine. I walk up three flights of stairs, then knock. After a long pause, June opens it. She’s tiny, frail as an old sparrow in a housecoat and slippers, blinking at me with her head slightly to one side whilst still holding on to the door.
‘Can I help you?’ she says.
‘Oh!’ I say. ‘Good morning. I hope I’ve got the right address. I’m Jim, from the Rapid Response team. I’ve come to see Charles.’
‘Charles?’
She stiffens even more, glances down at my ID badge.
‘To get him ready,’ I say.
‘What do you mean? Get him ready? What for? Who are you again?’
‘Jim. I’m a nursing assistant. From the Rapid Response.’
‘I’m sorry but I think there’s been some mistake.’
‘They asked me to come and help Charles get dressed. Before the ambulance arrives.’
‘I don’t think the ambulance will be coming,’ she says.
‘No?’
‘No. I wouldn’t think so. I’m sorry, but I think you’ve had a wasted journey. Did the nurses not tell you?’
‘What nurses?’
‘The nurses who were with us all last night. When Charles died.’
‘I’m so sorry.’
She stares at me, blinking rapidly.
‘Yes. Well,’ she says.
‘And – how are you – bearing up?’ I say, pathetically.
‘It’s early yet,’ she says. ‘But I’ll be fine. I’m sorry you came all this way.’
‘No, no! I’m sorry to turn up like this. That’s awful. I’ll make sure everyone else knows.’
‘Could you?’ she says. ‘That would be kind. Well – goodbye, then.’
And she quietly closes the door.

Outside the workmen are as furious as before. The one who was howling at the top on my way in is now leaning right out, shouting for a particular clamp.
‘Not the three four, you wingnut! The five n’alf! Ye-es! That one, Rodney! That one! Jesus Christ!’
It gets chucked up to him, and he catches it just as it slows, ready to fall back to earth.
‘Halle-fucken-lujah!’ he says, then swinging round again, gets back to his hammering.

about a squirrel

‘Tell me about the squirrel.’
‘It would never have happened if Sheila were still alive.’
‘Was she good with squirrels?’
‘She was good with everything. I’m lost without her. Lost and lonely.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
‘It’s not your fault.’
‘So go on, then. What’s all this about a squirrel?’
‘I’d just got back from the shops. I opened the front door and came into the hallway, put the bag down, leant the stick in the corner, turned round to close the door when I heard this little skittery noise from the bedroom. Hello I said. Who’s there? Because I thought it might be a burglar. Which, in a way, it was. So I nudged forward a little bit, and there was the skittery noise again, and something falling over, like a glass. So I said Right! I’m calling the police – although the phone was in the kitchen, and anyway, to be honest with you, I had a feeling it was too small to be a burglar. More likely a cat or something. But you say stupid things when you’re on your own, don’t you? Sheila wouldn’t have had none of that. She’d have marched right in there and sorted it out, burglar or otherwise. She was always the same, right from when we met. She weren’t afraid of nothing, except maybe at the end, and that was different. That was more than anyone could’ve coped with. Anyway, there I was, standing in the hallway, wondering what to do, picking my stick up again and holding it out in front of me, when suddenly – wham! Out flies this squirrel. And I know I’ve probably remembered it all wrong, because it happened so quick, but I swear, this squirrel, he ran up the wall, across the ceiling, back down the other side, through my legs and out the front door. And I spun round on the spot to whack him one, and fell over, and I must’ve caught my head on the hall table, because next thing I know I’m sitting on the carpet covered in blood, and my daughter Carol’s standing over me, and shes’s saying Oh my God, Dad. What happened to you? And I told her about the squirrel, and she told the paramedics, and now everyone thinks I’m this crazy old fool who got mugged by a squirrel. But I tell you what, they’re not like they used to be. I remember when a squirrel would tiptoe up to you and maybe take a nut or two out your hand. Now they’re just as likely to steal your car and burn your house down. But things change, I suppose. Life goes on. I just wish I was coping better.’

whatever you do, don’t

sixty years married
and now look
she died in hospital
wha’d’ya have to go and do that for
she said
then rolled over
closed her eyes
and was gone

could you draw the blinds
only it’s getting dark
put on that side lamp
and get me some tea
could you refill my hot water bottle
and one last thing
sorry to be a pain
but, please, when you go,
whatever you do,
don’t close the door

out out

When I was little we used to play a game called Jack Straws. You had a box of plastic tools – ladders, shovels, brooms, rakes and so on – you dumped them in a pile in the middle of the table, and then you took it in turns to try to hook as many away as you could. If the rest of the pile moved, you were out, and you passed the hook on.

Talking to Paula is a lot like playing Jack Straws, but instead of tools it’s walking sticks, letters, appointment cards, blister packs, items of food and then – the biggest category by far – people, dozens of them, in all shapes and sizes, some of them old, some of them young, some of them in uniform. And it’s difficult to resist the idea that the box got emptied on the table about the time her partner Eric died.

I’d been given the background story by someone else. Twenty years ago Paula and Eric had left their respective partners and children to start a new life together in a different part of the country. Paula had always been an anxious person, something that deteriorated in later years to the point where Eric had been acting as her carer. His recent, unexpected death cut Paula adrift, and everyone around her was struggling to cope. She’d been calling the ambulance a great deal. The police, too. Carers had been arranged but quickly dismissed, accused of laziness, rudeness, or the latest, making faces and going through her things. Everyone was trying to help. No-one was getting anywhere.

I’ve been sitting on the sofa struggling to think of a new angle to come at all this. It doesn’t help my situation that Paula’s friend Nigel is so aggressive. No doubt he’s stressed, too, but I don’t get the impression he’s normally easy. He has that way some men have of walking slightly back on his heels, arms out to the side, like it’s an effort to accommodate so much masculinity in such a short frame.
Right at the beginning of the meeting I’d checked Paula was okay with him being there.
‘Nige? He’s taking me shopping,’ she said. ‘Of course I want him here.’
‘That’s fine. I just needed to make sure.’
‘What’s up?’ said Nige, wobbling back into the room.
‘He says he wants you to go.’
‘Does he?’ he said, poking his glasses back into position with a finger as hard as a nail gun. ‘Why’s that, then?’
‘Don’t worry, Nigel,’ I said to him. ‘It’s fine. It’s just standard procedure when I’m talking to a patient about private stuff.’
‘Private stuff, yeah?’ he said, then thrust a doctor’s letter out for me to read. ‘Well go on, then. What are you going to do about this private stuff?’

*

It’s the end of the meeting. Physically Paula seems fine. The only positive contribution I can think of to make is a referral to social services, although I’m pretty sure they’ll already be well aware of the situation.
‘I just want to go back up north,’ she says. ‘Can’t you find me nowhere?’
‘How d’you mean?’
‘A house or a flat. Back up near my daughter.’
‘Well – that’s a little beyond what we normally do. But there’s nothing to stop you or your daughter looking for properties yourself.’
‘How?’
‘I don’t know. Online. There are loads of good websites.’
‘I haven’t got a computer.’
‘Your daughter, then.’
‘She doesn’t want me near her.’
‘She doesn’t?’
‘No!’
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
‘So what are you saying, then? You’re not going to help me?’
‘I’ll see what I can do.’
‘But I can’t go on living here, can I? I can’t cook. I can’t look after myself. I can’t go out.’
‘I thought you said you were going shopping with Nigel?’
‘No,’ she says, taking out a cigarette, her hands trembling. ‘I mean out out.’

tea for two

‘When I was too old for football I took up cricket. And when I was too old for cricket I took up golf. And I played that for thirty years. And now look.’
By way of illustration, Mr Clark fusses with his dressing-gown cord, as thick as a tail, with a frayed and fluffy end. In fact, Mr Clark has such a long and lugubrious face, his expression so melancholy, I could easily be persuaded it is a tail, and that this is in fact Eeyore, magically – tragically – transformed into a frail old man.

When Mr Clark has achieved something approximating a knot, he sniffs sadly, and then gently replaces his hands right and left on the armrests.
‘So as you can imagine,’ he says, ‘…my current situation is not what you might call an unending round of frivolity.’
‘No. You’ve got a lot on your plate.’
‘I have got a lot on my plate. In fact, I’d go as far as to say, I need a bigger plate.’

It’s true. Things are particularly difficult for Mr Clark these days. Ten years ago he had an operation to correct some crumbling vertebrae in his lower back. But the operation failed, leaving him with reduced mobility and constant pain radiating down his right leg. Surgically there’s nothing more that can be done. The only thing left is to load him up with painkillers and put in carers four times a day. He spends hours in the chair, watching sport on TV, or staring out of the window into the garden.
‘I used to enjoy all that,’ he says. ‘Gardening, I mean. But of course even that’s denied me now. Graham comes round to mow the lawn. He does what he can. But Graham’s not the man he used to be, neither.’
‘I think I met Graham last time I was here’ I say. ‘Hasn’t he got a little Yorkshire Terrier?’
‘Lucy,’ says Mr Clark, sadly. ‘Yes. He adopted her. He used to do some work for Gladys next door. But then she died, and no-one wanted the dog.’
‘That was nice of him.’
‘She’d let Lucy get terrible fat, poor thing. She never used to walk her, y’see? She could hardly walk herself. She’d let her out the back every now and again, and you’d see her gasping, waddling around with her tongue sticking out. Eyes bulging. That’s not a good look, not for anyone.’
‘Still. It sounds like she’s landed on her paws with Graham.’
‘I suppose,’ sighs Mr Clark. ‘She’s slowly getting back to normal. But he ought to watch her round that mower of his. She hasn’t got the sense to avoid it herself. Or the legs.’

The walls of Mr Clark’s front room are covered with pictures: Mr Clark in three-quarter profile with his hair slicked back; Mr Clark throwing himself into a tackle; Mr Clark swiping a bat; Mrs Clark in a Doris Day dress and pearls; Mr and Mrs Clark caught in the flash of a camera at a party; laughing and ducking through a shower of confetti outside a church; assorted babies in prams, in Mrs Clark’s arms, on picnic blankets, faces smeared with jam, waving wooden spoons, crying; kids in school uniforms, in sports day kit, at Christmas parties, red-eyed in the flash amongst piles of tinsel and balloons and wrapping paper; young men and women in mortar boards and gowns, self-consciously holding diploma rolls, or shaking someone’s hand as they accept a certificate; then more babies in more recent pictures, with Mr Clark and his wife bookending the group, and then in the centre with everyone standing round them; then smaller photos of someone sky-diving, posing on a yacht in sunglasses, raising a glass of wine. And last of all, propped up on the mantelpiece, a picture of Mrs Clark on an order of service, some dates in gold leaf, a border of lillies.
‘How did you two meet?’ I ask him.
‘I saw her and her friend Janice in the street, standing outside a jewellery shop. I liked the look of her so I went over and said did she know the way to the Hippodrome? And when she told me I repeated it back all wrong, which made her laugh, and she told me again, and I got it wrong again, and so in the end she said it would save everyone a lot of bother if she just took me there herself. So that’s what she did. And we stopped off in a Lyon’s tea shop, and we only parted company sixty years later.’
‘That’s lovely!’
‘Yes. Well.’
He looks down, fiddles with the cord of his dressing-gown again, and shakes his head.
‘I don’t know,’ he sighs.
‘What don’t you know?’
‘All this. I mean – what’s it all for?’
‘I’m sorry you’re feeling so low.’
He lets go of the cord and grips the arms of the chair again, as tightly and purposefully as someone who fully expected to be thrown out at any moment.
‘It’s just so much sitting around,’ he says. ‘It’s probably high-time I went.’