coffee & cats

Magda bangs the horn with the heel of her hand, the force of it pushing her back into the seat.
‘Fucking hell! Would it kill you to indicate? How we supposed to know what you going to do at roundabout? What do you think I am? Fucking mind-reader?’
She drives on.
‘My father used to be traffic cop. He made it big thing to learn. He say to me “It doesn’t matter if it’s one, two, three o’clock in morning and no-one on road for miles. You make manoeuvre, you indicate. Because this way it becomes automatic habit, and you do it whenever you drive, without thinking.’
She’s forced to give way to an oncoming car.
‘Jesus fucking bastard! Sorry – I know is bad to swear. But please! Where these people learn to drive? Fucking CLOWN school?’

* * *

One of our carers has gone sick, so I’ve been asked to help Magda out with a double-up call. It’s to Rita, a very elderly and frail woman who has deteriorated significantly in the last few days. The regular care company don’t have capacity to pick up the increased calls yet, so we’ve stepped in to bridge the gap.
‘Rita is lovely woman,’ says Magda, pushing her enormous sunglasses up into her bleach blonde hair. ‘But then you see, I only do lovely womans.’
She jabs at the keysafe with one hand and retrieves the keys without even seem to look, everything so slickly done it’s like watching a stage magician.
‘Rita has lovely cat,’ she says, opening the door. ‘But she is grumpy in morning, like you. Helllloooooo? Rita? It’s the carers, darling. Good morning. We’re coming up there…’

I follow her up the stairs into a large, dimly lit sitting room with a hospital bed at one end. Rita is lying in the bed, surrounded by cushions and bolsters, the mattress raised in the middle to crook her legs up. She turns her head to the side to smile at us, the skin beneath her chin spare and slack, her whole body giving the impression of a generalised falling away, as if life was a tidal force leaving her now, declining with the last phase of the moon.

Almost immediately there’s an imperious yowling sound, and an enormous black cat stomps into the room behind us. The cat is wearing an expression so furious you could simply draw an X with a marker pen and be done. She advances into the middle of the carpet, sits on her haunches with an audible plump, licks her lips once, and waits.

‘Here is cat!’ says Magda, to avoid any confusion. ‘I’m sorry, I forgot already. What is cat called?’ she says to Rita, who manages to say without any interruption to her smile that the cat is called Juniper.
‘Juniper? Huh. I thought was Jupiter. Juniper? Like berry? Is this what you call it, berry?’
I nod.
‘They use it to make gin,’ I say. ‘I think that’s where the name comes from.’
‘I think gin is short for ginevere or something. Dutch maybe. Which means juniper.’
She turns to Rita.
‘You like gin, Rita? Is that why you name your cat Juniper? Maybe you have other cat called vodka?’
Rita closes her eyes and shakes her head imperceptibly.
‘No worry,’ says Magda. ‘Let us sort you out, darling…’

* * *

After Rita is freshened up, the sheets changed and everything taken care of, Magda plays with the cat whilst I write up the notes. Magda knows where Juniper’s toys are kept; straightaway she fetches a small plastic fishing rod with a crinkly bee on the end of a string and dandles it in the air above Juniper’s head. Juniper swats at it – a little half-heartedly, it seems to me, flashing me looks now and again as if to say: Look – I’ve just got to attend to this damned bee business and I’ll be with you directly.
‘What is matter with you today, cat?’ says Magda. ‘Is my friend here distracting you? Is that what it is? Hmm?’ She gives up, tosses the rod on the sofa, and subjects Juniper to one more colossal stroke of the head and neck – so vigorously that as a matter of survival, Juniper has to stand and brace herself with her front paws, raising her tail straight up in the air to deflect the energy into the ceiling.
Magda picks up her bag to go.
‘I love this funny cat, Rita,’ she says. ‘We have cat back home, Puszek. But he is farm cat. Like baby tiger, you know? Puszek is so big now he drive the tractor.’
Rita bats a skeletal hand in the air.
‘Okay, darling,’ says Magda, taking Rita’s hand and squeezing it. ‘You take care now. We see you later. Okay? Okay. And don’t worry. We put key back in key safe.’
Juniper jumps up onto the bed, and immediately begins paddling on the duvet with its paws.
‘Good girl,’ says Magda. ‘That’s it!’

* * *

On the way back to base we stop off for a coffee and something to eat. We take five minutes to drink it in the car before setting off again.
‘How old are you?’ she says, giving me a sideways look, twisting the lid off her cup and blowing across the top of it.
‘Fifty-six? Jesus Christ! You could be my father!’
I shrug.
‘You don’t look fifty-six,’ she says, biting the end off a croissant and chewing vigorously. ‘What you do before this job?’
‘Well – I was ten years in the ambulance. Before that I was teaching English in a secondary school for a couple of years. Before that I was temping. Different companies, some for a couple of years. I worked for a publishing house in London. A warehouse, office jobs, a couple of bars. I went to university, did English and Drama there.’ I shrug, helplessly. ‘That kind of thing. You know?’
I want to tell her I tried acting for a while, but I imagine it would just add to the generally dispiriting account of my career to date, so I leave it out and sip my coffee instead.
‘You travel?’ she says.
‘No. Not really. I wanted to.’
‘No travel? What about drugs? You do drugs?’
‘Some. Not much.’
‘Hmm,’ she says, finishing the croissant, smacking her hands clean and turning the engine over.
‘You’re telling me, not much. Come, now. Done. Let’s go.’

going home

The old, shadowy, three storey Victorian townhouse is the last one left in the line to be re-developed. Whereas the neighbours either side are smartly painted and appointed, have patios, architectural plants, chimeneas, vine-hung arbors, off-road parking, the old house staggers on with the archaeological scars of the last 150 years: a dilapidated gate you go round and not through; a rusting iron bench, a chunk of obsidian beside an unmade path, a horseshoe nailed to a yew tree. The whole thing has a blasted, portentous feel, like someone built a family home on the hill at Golgotha – and then realised what they’d done, and walked away.

‘Margaret’s coming home to die,’ says Philip. ‘She’ll be here in a minute.’

Philip is an old family friend. He’s known Margaret all his life – when she was a retired music teacher and he was a child student, come to learn the piano, reluctantly climbing the dusty slope to the front door, little knowing he’d still be doing it fifty years later.
‘She’s amazing for her age,’ he says, putting the finishing touches to the room. ‘The only pills she takes are Senna. And you have to crush those up in secret.’

Philip shows me into the room she lives in now – the only occupied room in the entire house. It’s been set up as a micro-environment: bed, zimmer frame, commode, armchair for sitting out in, health permitting, to stare out of the window at the busy road below and beyond, the vast bright spread of the city.

It’s a poignant experience, standing in this room. The piano she last played a dozen years ago when she was ninety is now an extempore stand for photos and wet wipes and sanitary products. Around it, quietly disappearing into the muted walls, a selection of photographs of ancient vintage, sepia family groups, Edwardians in suits and bowler hats lounging awkwardly on the grass; fading figures in boats or on horses; matriarchs in severe black dresses promenading along a sea wall, fishing boats with sails in the bay; men in huge moustaches and braided uniforms; a woman in a tweed suit and upswept, tortoiseshell glasses, smiling up at the camera, a pen in her hand.

We hear the ambulance crew struggling up the path, so we go out to help them.
They carry her into the house on their portable chair, a decrepit royal on a bier.
‘Where d’you want her?’ says one of them, sweating.

* * *

Later, when Margaret’s settled and we’ve brought in all her things, the same ambulance man kneels down in front of her and holds her hand.
‘We’re going to go now,’ he says, loudly and slowly, ‘but we’ll leave you in the care of these good people.’
‘Let me tell you something,’ says Margaret, pulling him towards her. ‘You have a very rare gift – the ability to give people complete confidence, and to put them at their ease.’
‘Well – that’s very kind of you,’ he says, blushing. ‘Thank you very much. No-one’s ever said anything like that to me before.’
‘That’s a shame!’ says Margaret, patting his hand and releasing it. ‘Everyone needs a little encouragement, don’t you think?’ She looks around the room, sees me, and leans back.
‘Now. What in the devil’s name is THIS?’ she says.

incident at the nunnery

Number one: Never open with weather.

Top of Elmore Leonard’s list of writing tips. But I’m sorry, Elmore – the weather is particularly strange this morning. It feels like I’m moving around in a photo that’s been put through a B-Movie filter, the light low and smudged, an oppressive weight to it that makes me scratchy and long for a little breeze. Even the bees look heavy, punting from flower to flower like exhausted gondoliers at the end of the season. And it’s only May.

The environment doesn’t help. An old nunnery converted into flats. On a sunny day it’s a beautiful spot, swallows screeching round the campanile, jasmine crashing like a fragrant green wave over the main porch. Today it’s more like the set of a horror movie.

Another car drives in and parks beside me, a long, beaten-up estate with a ladder on top. A grizzled guy steps out wreathed in so much vape smoke it’s like he’s a stepping out of a fire. I smile and nod at him.
‘Funny old weather,’ I say.
He stares at me with narrow, chlorinated blue eyes, and for a moment I wonder if I’ve inadvertently insulted his mother. But if I have, he decides to let it go – for now. He grimaces, flips a chamois over his shoulder, sticks a snub-nose squeegee in his belt, and slowly unscrews his ladders.

I move on.

Mary’s live-in carer meets me at the main door and leads me through the maze of corridors. She’s as tough as the cleaner – tougher, actually – as substantial as a tree, crudely sculpted into slacks and sweater with a chainsaw. No doubt if there’s a fight between them later, when the cleaner sneaks in to assassinate the patient, the cleaner will start out losing, because the carer has such a relentlessly crushing grip, but then he’ll squirt vape in her eye, put his bucket over her head and guide her to the window. And then notice me standing there, and grimace before he kicks her out into the quadrangle.

Mary is sitting in her armchair, tucked in beneath a heavy tartan rug despite the weather, happily watching a film from the seventies, something with jangly violins and Mia Farrow in a trenchcoat looking worried.

‘Hello Mary,’ I said, shaking her hand. ‘I’m Jim. From the hospital.’
‘He come to take blood’ says the carer, looming over me. ‘Not all of it.’
I kneel on the carpet beside Mary and start setting up.
‘Oh,’ I say, hunting through my bag. ‘Damn it. I meant to restock before I came up and I completely forgot. I don’t suppose you have any gloves, do you?’
‘Glove?’ says the carer. ‘Sure. We have plenty glove.’
She goes off to the bathroom to fetch me a couple.
‘What am I like!’ I say to Mary, sitting back on my heels.
She looks down at me, then leans forward and reaches out to rest a hand on my shoulder.
‘Have you been tested for Alzheimer’s, too?’ she whispers.

do not destroy

Eric has had three falls in forty-eight hours, the last one early this morning. According to the notes he refused hospital, so the ambulance crew referred him to us to follow up first thing and see what we could do. This being the case, it’s worrying the key from the key safe won’t open the front door.

I stand in the porch jiggling it around, trying all the usual feints – pulling the door towards me as hard as I can, pushing it away, rattling the key frantically, easing it backwards and forwards VERY slowly to get a feel for what the mechanism is doing, or not doing, cheating the key up, cheating the key down, pausing, looking around, repeating everything again with exaggerated focus.

‘Can I help you, please?’
There’s a carer standing behind me. He’s fierce looking, wiry and intense, the kind of beard you might draw on a photo with a black marker, tattoos on his forearms, geometric patterns and numbers that look like clues from a Dan Brown novel.
‘I’m Jim, from Rapid Response, at the hospital.’
‘Aleksy,’ he says, shaking my hand.
‘Eric had a fall this morning.’
‘I know this.’
‘The ambulance referred him to us but I’m afraid I can’t get the key to work. I think he may have flipped the latch.’
‘Come. Give here.’
I step aside and let him try. I’m guessing Aleksy has been here many times before. He probably has the knack.
Aleksy jiggles the key around some, then hands it back to me.
‘He flip latch,’ he says. ‘Why he would do this, I do not know.’
We both step back from the porch and scan the front of the building. All the windows are firmly shut. There’s a high wooden gate to the left screening off the back of the house, but that’s locked, too.
‘Any good at climbing?’
‘I am excellent climber,’ he says. And without even taking a run up he springs forward, catches the top of the fence, presses himself high enough to swing his left leg over, pushes off the top and disappears over the other side. There’s a pause, the sound of a bolt being thrown, and the gate swings open.
‘You weren’t kidding’ I say to him.
He shrugs.
‘I have can-do attitude,’ he says.

The back of the house is as securely locked-up as the front. There is one window open, though. Too high and central to climb, I would think, even for Aleksy.
I stand on a garden wall and shout up at the window.
A weak voice answers.
‘It’s Jim. From the hospital. Aleksy’s here, too. Are you alright?’
‘Have you fallen over?’
Are you unwell?
‘I’m sorry to hear that, Eric. The thing is – the key won’t open the front door. We think the latch might be down.’
‘Is there any way you can make it downstairs to open the door?’
‘Otherwise we’ll have to break in.’
‘Do you think you can come down and let us in?’
‘He has stair lift,’ says Aleksy. ‘But he might have heart attack and cannot move.’
‘Is there a ladder anywhere?’
I check the outhouse at the bottom of the garden, but it’s locked, too. Meanwhile Aleksy has rung his office to report the delay and ask for advice.
‘No ladder,’ I tell him.
‘My office will ring his daughter, but she is far from here, and even if she arrive with key, this is same position. Truly.’
‘It’s difficult. At least he’s talking, so that’s something. He clearly said he was unwell, though. And he’s had all these falls. Anything could be going on. We might have to break in.’
Aleksy frowns.
‘You have license for this?’
‘Well. Only in as much as we think there’s someone unwell we can’t get to. We’ll get the police and the ambulance running, but they’ll be a while getting here, and it might be too late. Besides. I quite like breaking in.’
‘You do?’
‘There aren’t many perks.’
I take a look at the back again. There’s a sliding patio door that’s part of a dilapidated conservatory. The metal door and lock are still good and won’t budge, but the wooden frame is wormy and it wouldn’t take much to pull it down. There’s an inner door to get through as well, though. It might end up being a serious demolition job, so I don’t launch into it immediately. Whilst I’m wondering what to do, Aleksy has climbed onto a water butt to look through the kitchen window. There’s a net curtain blocking his view, so he puts his ear to window instead, his hands splayed on the glass like the suckers of some hypersensitive reptile.
‘I hear lift,’ he says. ‘Eric coming. Do not destroy back of house.’

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.’

the old bird

‘Really – I’m fine. I don’t know what you’re making such a fuss about.’
Mrs Roberts has a determined, no-nonsense demeanour, fussing with the arms of her jumper to even them out, then sitting straight-backed in the armchair, distributing a brave smile about the room, bright as a lighthouse, to anyone who needed or cared to see. It would be easy to think that here was a ninety year old woman perfectly and admirably in control of her life, if it wasn’t for the livid, green and black bruises extending from her eyes down both swollen cheeks, the stitches on the bridge of her nose, and the bandage on her left hand.
‘You’re not fine, though. Are you, Mum? You’re very far from fine,’ says Steven, her son, sitting in a chair opposite.
‘Rubbish!’ she says. Then turns to me. ‘You see what I have to put up with?’
Steve buries his face in his hands.
‘Are you okay?’ I ask him.
After a moment he emerges again, his eyes shining, his face red. He straightens in the chair, takes a deep breath, and nods.
‘It’s difficult,’ I say. ‘It’s difficult for everyone.’

The situation has many practical angles and complications, of course, but the crux of it is simply the frailties of old age. Mrs Roberts has managed the early years of her ninth decade with impressive self-determination, only needing carers these past six months, when a dip in her mobility meant she struggled to get ready in the morning. It was a carer who found her on the floor just last week – a heavy fall with superficial injuries, thank goodness, but there’s no getting away from the fact that she’s more vulnerable than before. Steve lives in Germany, has done for many years. His brother is in the UK somewhere, but a family rift means Steve is the one left to sort things out.
‘I’ve just got to go back tomorrow,’ he says. ‘Work…life…y’know?’
His mother smiles at him as she gently dabs at her nose with a handkerchief.
‘Don’t you worry about me,’ she sniffs. ‘I’m perfectly capable of looking after myself.’
There’s talk of getting her into a respite bed for a period of recuperation. She doesn’t want to go, but she’s willing to do it if it means Steve can get back to Germany and not worry himself to death.
‘I wouldn’t go for good, though,’ she says. ‘I’m not ready for the funny farm yet.’

There’s nothing in her observations to suggest a reason for the increased falls. She says she feels well in herself.
‘It’ll be interesting to see what the bloods show,’ I say, preparing my kit to take a sample.
Steve asks me how long it might take to get a respite bed.
‘There’s a bit of a wait,’ I tell him. ‘There just aren’t that many available, what with all the cuts. The few they have they triage pretty thoroughly.’
‘It’s just – what’ll happen when I go back? She’s really not safe. Even with the carers upped to four times a day.’
‘If you funded a place independently you could get one more quickly, but of course that’s only if you have the money. Like a lot of things, I suppose. Without getting too political…’
He thinks about that, both hands flat over his mouth, so that I can hear his breath moving over his fingers.
To distract Mrs Roberts I nod at the mirror just behind her. There’s an old, velvet parrot on a perch hanging down in the middle. One of its eyes has gone, and the whole thing leans precariously to one side. It has a tuft of faded yellow fur in the middle of its head, like a comedy wig. I get the feeling if I unhooked it from the mirror and gave it a gentle shake, much of the colour would come back.
‘I like your parrot,’ I say. ‘And that’s not something I thought I’d be saying today.’
‘Percy? He’s a love, isn’t he? Steven gave that to me when he was a little boy. He saved up his pocket money and he bought it at the school fair. Didn’t you darling?’
Steve nods, reaches over and strokes her knee.
‘Looking a bit tatty now, though’ he says.
‘Oh I don’t know,’ she says. ‘There’s life in the old bird yet.’