anna, landed

If this happened in a dream – and with the amount of opiate medication Anna is taking, I’m guessing most things must seem fuzzy and dream-like – it would no doubt happen like this: Anna drifts down from the sky in a semi-recumbent position, her eyes closed, her hands folded on her tummy. The roof of the house shivers, becomes transparent and loose, moves apart. Anna drifts down through the Anna-shaped gap, down through through the attic, the upper bedroom, the floor, the fixtures, the criss-crossing joists, the cobwebbed bricks, the insulating wool. Down through the cloying air of the living room, to settle finally on the soft brown sofa. And the ceiling heals up, the roof and everything else. And the cushions roll over like squashy boulders and mould themselves around her. And she’s there, back from the hospital, thoroughly landed. And she opens her eyes as her daughter Christine wanders in to see her, a jug of iced water and a glass tinkling gently on the tray.
‘Did you put in a pinch of vitamins?’ says Anna, grunting as she pushes herself into a more upright position.
‘Yes.’
‘A pinch? Not a spoonful?’
‘A pinch. Yes.’
‘Last time it tasted like a spoonful.’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘Well it did to me.’
Christine shrugs and goes back out to the kitchen where she carries on talking to her friend in an urgent kind of tone.
‘She’s a good girl,’ says Anna. ‘I don’t know what I’d do without her.’

I finish writing up my notes and then put the folder to one side.
‘The thing about back pain – the advice they give these days – is to keep moving.’
She snorts.
‘That’s easy for you to say. You’re not the one in agony.’
‘I know it’s difficult, Anna, but the longer you stay on the sofa the harder it’ll get. You’ll become deconditioned. You’ll be at risk of getting pressure sores.’
‘I know my own body.’
‘Absolutely. But I think there are some practical things you could do to make things easier for yourself. To give yourself the best chance of recovery.’
‘Such as?’
‘Sleeping in bed, for a start. You’d be flatter at night, which is better for you. It’s higher off the ground for getting in and out. And with a bit of re-organisation, you’d have more chance of getting mobile again.’
‘Where do you suggest I put everything?’
I look around. The house is packed full with ornaments and hangings, boxes on top of tables on top of bigger boxes, every bookshelf crammed with books, even the windowsills piled up with stuff. The only free space is the giant plasma TV screen on the wall facing the sofa. Anna turned it off when I came in, and now it hangs there, a window onto a darker, clearer world.
‘It’s difficult, I know, but not impossible. All you need is a decent amount of space for you to get about. As things stand, you’re much too restricted. How do you even swing your legs over to go to the loo?’
She closes her eyes.
‘I manage,’ she says.
‘I’ll ask the physio to come and see you, but I know that’s the first thing they’ll say.’
‘I’ll think about it,’ she says, then reaches to the side for a glass of vitamised water. ‘In the meantime – please speak to the doctor about my pills. Because nothing’s working and I’m in absolute agony.’
‘Of course,’ I say, picking up my bag to go. ‘I’ll pass on the message.’

spit spot

I’m in awe of the equipment company. They have an uncanny ability to put a hospital bed into the most inhospitable place. I’m sure one day we’ll be called to a lighthouse with a bed seesawing on the roof just above the lamp. Looking around Eileen’s small and cluttered bedroom, it seems to me they would only have had two options: lift the roof off and drop it in with a crane, or beam it into position from the transporter deck of the Starship Enterprise.

Nobody needed a hospital bed more than Eileen, though, so it’s great they persevered.
Eileen is rapidly approaching the end of her life, her flesh falling away, the most vital thing about her the glassy shine to her preternaturally large eyes.

‘I want to sit out,’ she says, gripping the sides of the bed. ‘I’m sick of this.’

It’s no small ambition. Aside from Eileen’s general frailty, we’ll need to consider the two lines from the morphine drivers feeding in to her right and left, her catheter, the nasal specs for her oxygen. And if that wasn’t complicated enough, there’s the practical difficulty of the bedroom itself. We had trouble getting in the door, let alone negotiate a complicated transfer. Still, Eileen won’t be dissuaded, and (incredibly) her observations are strong enough.

‘Hmm,’ says Vihaan, looking around.

I’m standing on Eileen’s right, squeezed in between a stack of pads, bedclothes, boxes of stuff, a cantilever table, a floor-standing aircon unit, a wicker bath chair piled with towels and things, a life-sized porcelain dog – really, it’s more like a storage cupboard than a bedroom for the terminally ill. Vihaan is to her left by the window. A little clearer his side, but not much.

‘Actually, Eileen, you know, I think it’s not going to be all that easy,’ says Vihaan. ‘Okay? I think it would be safer for all concerned if you stayed in bed and rested there.’

Eileen stares at him, a little hypnotised. It happens a lot. Vihaan is so striking, with a Bollywood intensity and perfect, crow-black quiff, standing with his hands on his hips, glancing around the place, speaking so rapidly and so musically it’s easy to get distracted, like standing by a stream fascinated by the play of light, utterly forgetting you’re supposed to be catching fish.

‘What?’ says Eileen.
‘Are you sure you wouldn’t want to stay in bed a while longer?’ he says. ‘Okay? You’re absolutely sure about this?’
Eileen turns her head slowly to stare at me, then turns back to Vihaan.
‘Of course I’m sure,’ she says.
‘Okay, then, Eileen. Whatever you say. You’re the boss, actually. We’ll give it a go and we’ll do our best,’ he says. ‘But we’ll take things slowly, one thing at a time – okay? – and then if anything changes, actually, we’ll stop and think it over again. Okay? Okay.’

The hospital bed is in the only possible place it can be, in the centre of the room, the feet towards the door. The best we can do is to cheat it more to the right, making enough space to the left for the wicker chair and a zimmer frame to help with the transfer. It’s a spatial puzzle, where you have to move everything in strict order, this then this, or that over there first, to move these, and that there temporarily, whilst you hand over these – careful – back up a bit, then that can go there…

Eileen watches it all pass backwards and forwards over her bed. She’s on so much morphine I wouldn’t be surprised if she thought the room was reordering itself, flying through the air in a magical, Mary Poppins kind of way. Spit spot. A clap of the hands. Vihaan would make a great Mary Poppins. Not so much the outfit – although he’d be a sensation in that – more his brisk but warm practicality.

‘Okay,’ he says, when at last the thing is done. He leans on the zimmer, one foot up on the strut. ‘So now the room is better arranged for you to sit out from your bed actually,’ he says. ‘The wicker chair is a good height for you and we’ve made it comfortable with cushions and what have you. So let us begin to raise you up on the bed, okay? And we’ll take it very slowly, Eileen. Step by step. And we’ll help you to sit out in the chair for a while.’
She turns her big eyes up to him, and although she doesn’t smile or say anything, you can see her gratitude holding there, at some depth, but poised, and delicate, and perfectly true.