losing centre

There’s something so vague about Mrs Graham, something so detached, the view out of her living room window, across all the trees and rooftops of town, feels strangely appropriate, like she’s a balloon and someone let go of her string.
‘Wow!’ I say, putting my bags down. ‘That’s quite a view!’
‘Is it?’ she says. ‘I suppose you’re right.’
She sits neatly in her armchair and waits for me to begin.
She’s watching gymnastics on the television with the sound on mute. A female gymnast flic flacs across the mat in the floor exercise, lands, arches her spine, throws her arms high and wide in showy gestures, then takes a couple of sprung skips and hurls herself back in the other direction.
I explain to Mrs Graham who I am and what the visit is for. She listens to me carefully, but she obviously has no idea, no recollection of having been in the hospital, let alone being brought home by the Red Cross just about an hour ago.
Quite how she’s able to live alone like this I’m not sure. She has carers four times a day, and her daughters live at various points around the city, but hour to hour? It’s a mystery. Environmentally the flat is as safe and hazard free as it’s possible to be. There are no immediate trip hazards, things are neatly squared away, the medication in a locked box. My notes say that the cooker is disconnected, there’s a stairgate to discourage her from going downstairs, there are notes taped to various doors with simple instructions – but with such a poor level of recall or understanding, I can’t imagine how she gets by. She was admitted to hospital with a chest infection and not a fall, though, so that’s some reassurance I suppose.
The gymnasts have moved on to the asymmetric bars. A different competitor has just smacked chalk on her hands, acknowledged the start with a hyperflexed gesture, then thrown herself with a half twist through the air to skip across the bars and begin spinning and curling and doubling back.
I ask Mrs Graham what she used to do before she retired.
‘A biochemist. I’m Dutch, originally. I met my husband just after the war and came to England to work. It was a long time ago,’ she says, staring back at the TV. ‘I was a dancer, too,’ she says, without breaking her gaze. ‘There’s a picture of me over there…’
She gestures behind her without looking. I go over to see – and there she is, a young woman en pointe, arms arched delicately above her head, a headdress of white flowers, a tutu. She’s looking wistfully off into the distance stage left, which – given where the picture is hanging – is pretty much directly at where she’s sitting now.
‘Lovely’ I say.
‘Thank you,’ she says, then gives a little flinch as the gymnast tumbles through the air at the end of her routine, lands a little off-balance, puts a foot out to recover, draws it back when she’s found centre again, straightens, acknowledges the crowd, then strides off.

fifi the owl

Jeremy is busy marching through the house. He has such a neutral style of movement, and his face is so slack and empty, it’s hard not to think of him as some kind of ultra-realistic, domesticated robot. Except, if he was a robot, it would be one that had a serious neural problem, maintaining the impulse to go from A to B, but utterly lacking the ability to make sense of anything when he got there. He marches up to my chair and stands looking down at me. Then without any change of expression he marches back across the room again, opens the door to the kitchen, goes through, and then shuts the door quietly behind him.
‘He’s like this the whole time,’ says Sheila, smiling the kind of resilient smile I imagine her beating from a metal she mined from her soul.
‘It’s really quite exhausting,’ she says, perching on the arm of the sofa, ready to go if needed. ‘It’s alright for Jeremy. He can switch off at three and have a good sleep. I try to get some time in, too, but it’s not the same as proper bedrest. Then you see he’s on the go again through the night. And I must admit I’m starting to feel the strain.’

Jeremy had a fall the other day. The ambulance came and found it was only a minor injury, so he didn’t need to go to hospital.
‘Thank goodness,’ says Sheila. ‘Jeremy in a hospital! Imagine the chaos!’
But the fall seems to have precipitated a realisation that things can’t go on as they have been.
‘I’ve done my best,’ she says. ‘I have two sons, and they’ve both been telling me I’ve got to put him in a home. And – well, I don’t know – it just hasn’t felt right for me. The son in Australia can’t do much to help, of course, but the other one comes down regularly and does what he can to give me a break. We haven’t had carers because – as you can see – he’s perfectly mobile and there’s not much for them to do. I shower him once a week and the rest of the time I’m just chasing him round the house with a sponge. He wears pads, because he’s doubly incontinent, and that’s a terrible problem. But carers? Up until recently I couldn’t see what they could do for us. I don’t want to waste anybody’s time…’

The kitchen door opens and Jeremy walks back through, straight up to the coffee table, where he picks up a magazine, flicks through it urgently, puts it down again, turns, heads back to the kitchen and slowly shuts the door.
‘But now I know I have to put Jeremy in a home,’ she carries on. ‘He’s not safe here, and I’m completely exhausted. I can feel my health beginning to go.’
‘I’m not surprised. I think you’ve done amazingly well to cope this long.’
‘Do you?’ she says. ‘I don’t know. You see – I feel so wretchedly guilty all the time. And the funny thing is, I know that if the situation was reversed, he wouldn’t hesitate. If it was me marching around the place like this, Jeremy would be outside waiting for the ambulance.’
‘Oh. Sorry to hear that.’
She shrugs.
‘You can only ever do what feels right for you,’ she says.

On the other side of the room is a large, red brick fireplace and black slate hearth. All along the mantelpiece, and standing around the hearth, are dozens of stone and ceramic owls. The largest is to the right of the fireplace – a cat-sized modern sculpture, where the owl has been reduced to the minimum details you need to identify it: plump body, pointy ears, engraved lines for the wings, and two deep-drilled and perfectly round holes for the eyes.
‘Do you like my owls?’ says Sheila.
‘I do,’ I tell her. ‘Especially that one.’
‘Fifi?’ says Sheila. ‘Yes. She’s my favourite, too. She keeps an eye on us. She doesn’t miss a trick.’
‘No,’ I say. ‘I can see that.’

the end of the line

Eamon is too tall for the recliner, his pale legs extending beyond the foot rest, so that his slippered feet hang in mid-air.
‘We need to get you some support there, Eamon. It’s putting pressure on the backs of your legs.’
Eamon turns his face to me, the waxy skin taught across his cheekbones. And whether it’s the cancer, the opiate medication, the distress of his decline, or a combination of all of these things, but he smiles in an off-centred way, like someone trying to make sense of a dream.
‘I’ve always been tall,’ he says.
I improvise an extra footrest from a packing crate and cushion, then finish the rest of the assessment, writing a long list of all the people I need to ring. I’m frustrated that Eamon was discharged without everything in place, but the wards are impossibly stretched, I don’t know all the facts, and anyway, I haven’t got time to worry about things I have no control over.
‘Can I get you anything?’
‘A cup of milk,’ he says, and looks down at a little porcelain cup on the cantilever table by the chair. I take the cup into the kitchen, rinse it out, then open the little fridge under the counter. There’s a huge, six pint carton of full fat milk in the door, a couple of microwave meals, a punnet of strawberries, and not much else. I pour him some milk, take it through and carefully hand it to him.
‘Ahh!’ he says, holding the cup with both hands. ‘Yes!’
Eamon’s chair faces a sash window that overlooks the backyard. In the yard is a clothes line with two white pillowcases gently stirring in the breeze. The sun is directly overhead now, and it blazes down on the linen, giving it a transcendent, brilliant quality.
‘I worked on the ferry,’ he says, staring at the washing line. ‘Then I left to nurse my parents. And here I am.’
‘I’ve always liked ferries,’ I tell him. ‘You really feel like you’re going somewhere. I remember we took the ferry back from France once and it was great. We had a cabin, and I was so exhausted from the long drive I just lay on the bunk and stared out at the sea…’
I almost say that it felt like dying and going to heaven, but I stop myself in time.
He nods, as if he knew that, then shakily swigs down the last of the milk and hands me back the cup.
It’s a small backyard with a limited space at the top between the buildings. The sun has moved only a fraction, but it’s enough to alter the angle of light so the line is now in shadow.
‘Can I get you anything else?’ I ask him.
‘No,’ he says. ‘Thank you.’ Then gently resting his hands back on the arms of his chair, he directs his attention to the window again, the washing on the line, and everything beyond.

locked away

It’s like the motorboat was dragged ashore some time ago to avoid a hurricane, and then forgotten.

The whole thing sits on two substantial wooden structures like trestle table legs. The deck is covered by a sagging, blue nylon tarpaulin secured by a single length of rope that crisscrosses from cleat to cleat like the threadbare lace of a giant boot, and the propeller is fixed in the up position, spotted, corroded. And if by some catastrophic tidal anomaly the boat suddenly found itself in the water again – and you found yourself in the water, too – and you tried to get on board using that aluminium ladder at the stern – well, who knows? You’ll try anything when you’re desperate. Scattered around the boat in the long grass are several heavy iron wrenches, lengths of rusting chain, and standing guard over the whole collection, a massive cylinder of pressurised gas the birds at least feel safe enough to use as a perch.

Judging by his beard, cable sweater and tan, I’m guessing it’s Henry who owns the boat. He’s so vague and repetitive, though, I have no doubt it wasn’t a hurricane that saw the boat laid up all those years ago, but a disturbance of a subtler though no less damaging kind.

‘Thank you so much for coming,’ he says. ‘It’s so kind of you to bother.’ He shows me inside to a wooden rocking chair, and then immediately asks again who I am and why I’ve come. Luckily, Henry’s wife, Jean hurries in, wiping her hands on her apron, her smile as taut as the tarpaulin on the boat.
‘Don’t you remember, darling? I told you. This is Jim, from the hospital. Come to see if we need any help.’
‘Well that’s so kind! Help, d’you say? I don’t think we do, though, do we Jean? I think we run a pretty tidy ship.’

Jean talks me through the key points of the referral. The long stay in hospital, the memory loss and other problems, the struggles of the last few years. And at every point in the story, she carefully includes her husband, who receives the information with a wistful expression, as if he’s hearing it all for the first time, the sad decline of a well-meaning but doomed mutual friend of theirs, someone he’d love to help if he could, but doesn’t know where to start.

One of my jobs today is to run a dementia blood screen. I chat to Henry as I locate the vein, taking his mind off the needle. He tells me he used to be a locksmith.
‘You’ll like this story then,’ I say. ‘Sharp scratch.’
‘Oh yes?’ he says.
‘I was brought up in a little market town called Wisbech. Out in the Fens.’
‘Yes?’ he says, as if it’s the most extraordinary thing he’s ever heard. ‘My goodness!’
‘I remember – years ago – there’s was a big fuss. They were renovating an old shop or something, and they found an old safe in the basement. Hadn’t been opened in years. So they got the local locksmith in, and HE couldn’t open it, because it was so old and fancy…’
‘Open what?’
‘This safe they found. In the basement.’
‘Goodness!’ says Henry. ‘Go on.’
‘But the locksmith knew this other locksmith who was an expert in old safes. And he came to have a look. And by this time it was quite an event. The local paper was there. Police. You name it. Because everyone wanted to know what they’d find when they finally managed to get it open.’
‘Well – fancy that!’ says Henry, flashing a look at Jean, standing in the kitchen doorway overseeing the whole thing.
‘So finally, after a lot of drilling and cutting and banging, they finally managed to crack the door and open it up. And you’ll never guess what they found inside.’
‘What?’ says Henry – commenting more on the fact I’ve stopped talking rather than anything to do with the safe.
‘Green shield stamps! Books and books of them!’
Jean laughs.
‘I remember them,’ she says. ‘You’d save forever and end up with a clothes brush.’
‘I suppose they were an early form of reward card,’ I say, withdrawing the needle from Henry’s arm and pressing down on the gauze for a minute or two. ‘There! All done!’
‘They used to have pink stamps, too,’ says Jean, taking her apron off and hanging it behind the door.
‘Did they? I don’t remember that!’
‘I do,’ says Henry.

a ten month stretch

Ten months shy of a hundred.

From the way Miles is sitting, though, I’d say this was less of an ambition and more of a curse. Miles has a graven look to his face, his eyes heavy, his mouth a perfect downward arc, as if he was resigned to sit out those ten months with his arms folded, not moving at all, and then at midnight on the last day, when the last chime has sounded, he’ll stand up, and quietly leave the room.

At this rate, though, I can’t see him making the end of the week. He suffered a fall a few months ago, and although he wasn’t hurt, it’s made him fearful of any kind of movement. Now we’re at the point where the carers are virtually lifting him from the chair to the commode and back again. His eating and drinking have tailed off, too, and it’s a good day if he can finish a beaker of cold tea or half a boiled egg delivered into his mouth one slow spoonful at a time. He’s developing pressure sores. The doctor has called us in to see what we can do.

Miles’ daughter, Janice has reached the end of her ability to cope. She lives some distance away, and has been spending the majority of her time sleeping upstairs in the room she left fifty years ago. Her own life is on hold now whilst she helps the carers and struggles to make things better. She’s utterly worn down from all the day-to-day indignities, the pleading and the hectoring, the constant bargaining.
‘The worst thing is how guilty I feel,’ she says, dabbing at her eyes in the next room.
‘You’re doing an amazing job,’ I tell her. ‘You’re dad’s lucky to have you.’
‘No,’ she says. ‘He isn’t. Now and again I’ll catch myself looking at him and thinking Go! Just go! I mean – he’s not happy. He doesn’t want all this. But what can you do? And all the while everyone’s traipsing through the house, checking his blood, changing his meds stringing him out even longer, and I can’t see any end to it. Am I bad for saying this? I am, aren’t I? I’m bad. I shouldn’t be thinking these things about my own father.’
She cries some more.
I tell her that it’s perfectly understandable and okay to think or say these things. It’s natural. Anyone would. I tell her I think she should seriously think about organising some respite care for Miles, to give herself a break as much as anything.
‘Where would that be? A nursing home?’
‘I think so, yes. Miles needs a level of care now he wouldn’t get anywhere else.’
‘I promised him he wouldn’t end up in a home.’
‘It’s only temporary. It’ll give yourself space to think and get your strength back. You’ve got to look after your health, too, you know.’
‘But a home?’
She screws the handkerchief into a ragged ball and tosses it into the bin with practised ease.
‘Well,’ she sighs. ‘I’ll think about it. For now, though, how can we make things better for Dad here?’
We talk about hospital beds, stand-aids, double-up carers four times a day, physio exercises he can do in his chair, that sort of thing.
‘Gosh!’ she says, then shakes her head. ‘Don’t get me wrong. We’re so grateful and everything. But you wouldn’t want it for yourself, would you?’
‘No,’ I say. ‘I probably wouldn’t.’
‘But what else is there?’
‘I don’t know. It’s difficult.’
We go back into the front room. Miles is still sitting there, as graven as before.
‘Alright?’ I say, going over and resting my hand on his arm.
‘Yes thank you,’ he says, and then turns his head to stare out of the window, at the wide, sunlit street, and the day that’s just starting into life.

the gambler & the ranger

‘I’m so sorry about Radar’ says Gill. ‘He barks at everything.’
‘I don’t mind. Our last dog Buzz was a bit like that. Anyone came to the door, it was rah rah rah. We tried everything. We even invited the postman in once, so they could be properly introduced. And that was fine and everything. Smiles all round. But as soon as we shut the door and the postman knocked again, Buzz started. He used to rip the letters up, too.’
‘Who? The postman?’
‘Buzz. I wouldn’t blame him if he did, though. It must have been annoying.’
‘Ahh – they’re used to it.’
‘We did get worried about his fingers, so we put the letterbox on the outside.’
‘Funnily enough, postmen are the one thing Radar doesn’t bark at.’
‘I wonder why?’
‘No idea. There’s no telling with dogs. Certainly not this one.’

You’d expect a dog called Radar to be particularly alert. Something wired and small and spiky, with luminescent, revolving eyes (although I’d no doubt scream if I saw a dog like that). This Radar must have been named after the prototype version, made of Bakelite and valves, more like a radiogram.

He sniffs my trousers to see whether more barking was needed, and then waddles back to his rug in front of the fire, falling so loudly, if you shut your eyes at the moment of contact you’d think someone was dropping off a sack of potatoes.
Radar licks his chops, and stares back at me with a look of heavy jowled disapproval.

‘Dad’s through here,’ says Gill. ‘He’s just having a nap.’

Edward has been set-up with an extemporary bedroom in the lean-to out back. It’s perfectly warm and comfortable, though, just a short hobble with the zimmer to the ensuite, plenty of room for his equipment, misty views over the valley. He’s lying on his left side with his legs crooked up and his hands up by his face – such a foetal position you can almost see the umbilical cord, ninety years long, snaking back out to him.
‘Seems a shame to wake him’ I say, gently putting my bag down.
‘He won’t mind,’ says Gill, touching his shoulder. ‘Dad? Dad! Someone to see you.’
It’s surprising how quickly he comes to.
‘Righto!’ he says, blinking hard a couple of times and then pushing himself into a sitting position.
‘I’ve just got a couple of things I have to do,’ says Gill. ‘Are you alright for a minute…?’
She hurries away into the kitchen, and I introduce myself.

‘I was in the middle of such a strange dream,’ says Edward as I unpack my things.
‘Oh? What was it?’
‘You don’t want to know!’
‘Try me! I like dreams.’
He presses the heels of his palms into his eyes, and sits quietly on the bed a moment longer, gathering himself.
‘It’s a western,’ he says at last. ‘There’s this man, you see – a gambler, in a big, black hat. And he’s trying to take over the town. Well the mayor doesn’t want him to. So he takes him outside, throws the gambler’s hat on the ground and puts a gun to his head. But what the mayor doesn’t know is – there’s this ranger, watching it all, from the hills. And he’s got this rifle, with a bloody great telescopic sight. And he starts shooting, all around them. Pe-ow! Pe-ow! Pe-ow! So the mayor, he jumps on his horse and he rides off. And then the ranger he comes over, and he shakes hands with the gambler. And the gambler says to him: Thank you very much. And the ranger says: You’re welcome. And the gambler says: I don’t think the mayor’s going to be very happy. And the ranger says: Tough. I’m a ranger. I can do what I like.
‘That’s brilliant! You could sell it to Hollywood!’
‘D’you think?’ sighs Edward, licking the palms of his hands and smoothing his hair flat. ‘I don’t know. I don’t think they shoot westerns anymore.’