Janet the dog walker

Millie’s poodle Rosie bounds off the sofa when I come in. She lies with her paws either side of a well-chewed rubber Bugs Bunny, glancing down at it, then up to me, then down to the rabbit again, daring me to take it. I can’t decide who has the maddest expression: the rabbit or the dog.
‘I think… she thought… you were Janet,’ says Millie. ‘Janet… the dog walker.’

Millie furniture-walks to a seat at the dining room table. COPD has blasted her body, robbing her of any spare flesh. It’s left her tentative and frail, spindle-thin as a giant crane fly, fumbling for purchase, somewhere to land and catch her breath and think about the day.
‘I don’t want much,’ she wheezes. ‘I’ve got… the medication I need… plus a little something… for anxiety. What I really need… is someone… to come in now and again… to help me… with a bath. That’s all. Do my back… y’know?… the awkward bits.’
The doorbell rings and a breezy woman swathed in waterproofs stamps into the kitchen. I’m guessing it’s Janet.
‘Hiya Millie!’ she says. ‘Phew! It’s bad out there. Oh! You’ve got company!’
I introduce myself, get up to shake her hand which is ice cold.
‘You need gloves’ I say.
‘I need a lot of things,’ she says, pulling out a hankie and blowing her nose so loudly I take an involuntary step backwards. ‘I need to win the lottery,’ she says.
Meanwhile, Rosie has ditched the rabbit and dashed through to greet her. Janet kneels on the kitchen floor with her arms wide. Rosie puts her paws on the woman’s knees so she can reach up and lick her face.
‘You silly girl!’ she says. ‘I’ve had a wash today. I don’t need another one. Do I? Hey?’
‘Will… she be… alright?’ says Millie. ‘It looks… pretty bad out there.’
‘Of course!’ says the woman, grasping the kitchen counter, struggling to get up again. ‘Oof!’
She looks at me.
‘Got any spare knees in your bag?’
‘I’ll have a look.’
‘Good boy.’
She reaches into her pocket for a treat, and for a moment I think she’s going to throw it to me. But Rosie sits excitedly at her feet, and Janet hands it down to her instead.
‘She’ll be fine,’ the woman says. ‘It’s so windy out, I’m thinking of tying some string round her legs and flying her like a kite.’
Millie gives her a panicked look.
‘Seriously, though, we’ll just go for a short one round the park,’ says Janet, giving me such an exaggerated, lop-sided wink I’m guessing her face is still numb from the cold.

into the hive

Highdale Lodge sounds like a golfing hotel. Truth is, the nearest it will ever get to a fairway is the smear of grass in the middle of the road running by it, and the only shots the residents make are into-the-vein.

You’d never know it was there if you didn’t know it was there. When the weather’s better you might wonder about the people hanging around, leaning against the wall, but you’d probably think they were something to do with the Magistrate courts in session a few doors down. Because otherwise, Highdale Lodge is ruthlessly, determinedly anonymous, no nameplate or number, utterly forgettable. The building itself seems to sit up from the general run of the street, the first row of windows higher than usual, like the road was subject to flooding or riots. The main door is set back at the end of a narrow recess four or five feet deep, an odd architectural feature, somewhere between an alcove and an alleyway. The door – if you paused long enough to look into the recess – is severe, thickly-painted, double-hinged, more like the fortified entrance to a private citadel than the front door to a hostel. There’s a single, metalled button to the left of it to talk to the staff, linked to a security camera so sturdy it could take a swing from a lump hammer and still be looking down at you.

Everyone who enters the Lodge has to go up a half dozen steps and pass the office counter on the left. It would be a cliche to describe the Lodge as a hive – even though the layout is exactly like a hive, with endlessly bifurcating, shoulder-width corridors leading to a bewildering number of tiny rooms, and everyone who takes you to each particular room seems to do a little wiggle to let you know how to get back – but if I DID feel tempted, and DID describe it as a hive, I’d have to say it would be a particularly busy hive, administratively confusing and always at the point of failure, the kind of hive where every bee has to sign in and out, and many are tagged, and have their stings monitored, and the farmer is at his wits end, desperate for more hives, but you’d have to think there’s no money in honey.

My patient, Keith, seems happy enough, though. To begin with, at least. He stubs out his cigarette and turns on his nebuliser.
‘Sorry about the mess,’ he gasps.
There’s a great smear of damp in the corner, spreading upward like a malignant wave. It’s a poor situation for someone with COPD.
‘I’m hoping to get ah’t of ‘ere soon,’ he wheezes through the mask. ‘It’s a shit’ole. I ave’da go upstairs to the kitchen. Me like I am it may as well be the moon. So it’s not like I even get a decent meal.’

I check him over. Unsurprisingly, his SATS are lower than you’d expect.
‘I don’t need to tell you the smoking’s not helping,’ I say, writing in the folder.
‘Oh – here we go!’ he says. ‘It’s all my fault! Yeah – I know! But listen, mate – it weren’t so long ago they give you a fag with yer bottle a’milk at school. Everyone smoked everywhere, all the time – on the buses, the tube, the pictures. Saturday night, you couldn’t see the cowboys for the smoke! So don’t come round ‘ere blaming me for everything…’
‘I know it’s difficult, Keith. I just meant it’d be better if you could cut down, given how bad your lungs are. Even a little bit. That’s all. There are things around to help, patches and whatnot.’
‘Patches!’ he says. ‘Don’t talk to me about patches! What about them patches over there, eh?’

And he turns away to nod at the damp, and then turns back again, and glares at me over the rim of his mask.

funny old birds

Jean’s living room is freezing – and no wonder. The patio doors are open, set a few inches apart down the centre, a chilly wind blowing straight through.
‘I’ve got … claustrophobia,’ says Jean. ‘I can’t bear … to be shut in.’
‘They stay open all the time,’ says her son, Garry. He’s sitting opposite Jean on the sofa, his hands buried deep in his jacket pockets, his right knee bobbing up and down. I’m not surprised he’s still wearing his outdoor clothes, including a knitted bobble hat with ear flaps, so cute I half expect to see mittens on cords when he takes a hand out to rub his nose. ‘It’s permanently winter in this place. I’m not kidding. You get snow blowing in. Snowmen. Penguins. The lot.’
‘I don’t mind,’ says Jean. ‘I have to see … open sky.’
‘I’ve sorted it so you can’t pull the doors any further,’ says Garry, jumping up to go over and demonstrate. He hauls on the doors so violently the panes shake, obviously one of those guys who likes to test things to destruction. ‘It’s pretty secure,’ he says. ‘I did a bang up job.’ He gives the doors another almighty tug that almost shatters the glass, then shrugs and comes to sit back down. ‘You’d have more chance squeezing through a letterbox.’
‘He’s very good,’ says Jean. ‘With his hands, anyway. Very practical. Aren’t you, Garry?’
‘Yeah,’ he says. ‘Practically insane.’
Jean is sitting on the side of her electric bed, her nasal cannula connected to a spool of green plastic tubing that snakes across the carpet to an oxygen concentration unit. The unit whirrs and rattles; Jean’s shoulders rise up and then drop back down again in a mechanical, gasping kind of rhythm that you’d think was activated by the machine – which, in a way I suppose, it is.
‘Good ‘ere, innit,’ says Jean.
Suddenly there’s a flash of white and orange at the window, a raucous cry, and a huge seagull lands just the other side of the patio doors. It flaps its wings once or twice, then stares at us through the gap.
‘Steven!’ says Garry. ‘It’s Steven Seagal. Geddit? Steven Sea-Gull? Seagal? Yeah?’
‘That’s a good one!’ I say. ‘Like it!’
‘What is it, Steven? You want some food? Let’s see what we’ve got for you today.’
Garry goes into the little kitchen, starts opening cupboards and slamming them shut again. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Steven hop through the gap and follow him, but he seems content to stay where he is.
Jean stares at the seagull; the seagull stares at Jean.
‘Funny creatures … aren’t they?’ she gasps. ‘Look at him!’
‘They’re pretty fierce, close up. I wouldn’t like to get on the wrong side of one.’
‘Oh – they’re alright!’ she says. ‘Smarter’n … some I could … mention.’
I wonder who she means, but she stops talking and concentrates on her breathing again.
Garry comes back in with a single slice of white bread.
‘There you go, Steven!’ he says, posting it through the gap. ‘Wrap your beak round that!’
The bird backs away a little, then raises its wings, jabs forwards with its head, grabs hold of the slice, bends down, and springs away into the air.
‘How he can fly with that thing in his gob I don’t know,’ says Garry, standing at the window, watching him go. ‘Now look! All the other birds are taking off after him! Nah! He’ll be alright though. He knows Kung Fu, don’t he? He’s a black belt seagull.’ Then he turns round and does a comedy chop in mid-air with the edge of his hand. ‘Hiya!’
‘Yes,’ gasps Jean. ‘Funny old … birds.’

the twopenny hangover

Kenneth’s house is so ancient and well-heeled it has its name stencilled on the curving corner brickwork of the street. Black railings lead round from the sign beneath tall windows to the porticoed entrance, three wide steps up to a black and white tiled threshold, a wide oak door and worn brass bell-pull. The keysafe to the side is a glaring modern expediency whose installation I imagine took some persuading, but given Kenneth’s age and poor state of health I’m glad he agreed. When I’d called earlier to arrange a time, Kenneth told me to retrieve the key and let myself in. ‘I’ll be in the drawing room’ he said, room pronounced rum. ‘Just holler out when you’re in the hall so I’ll know it’s you,’ he said. ‘There’s a fellow.’

The hall is as sumptuous as you’d expect from the exterior. A wide, softly curving staircase, smooth as the whorled interior of a whelk, rising on plush red treads past paintings, prints by Gillray, fading family pictures dating from the age of the plate, up past a gilt and crystal chandelier to the honey-moted tones of the upper storeys. Another jarring note, though – the stair lift, whose track starts by a walnut table for keys and things, where there’s a silver framed photograph of Kenneth as a young airman, leaning forward in that earnest, David Niven way, cap jauntily back, arms crossed and resting on an immaculately pressed trouser leg.

‘Up here!’ he says when I call – then subsides into a series of rattling coughs.
I squeeze past the chair where it’s come to a stop at the top of the stairs, and walk into a bright and beautiful room, where Kenneth is waiting for me in his favourite chair.
‘Thank you so much for coming,’ he says, shaking my hand. ‘Do take a pew.’

* * *

Kenneth’s observations are below normal range but unsurprising given his COPD and recent chest infection.
‘It doesn’t help that I smoked for fifty years or more,’ he wheezes. ‘Well everybody did. It was almost compulsory. And during the war one tended to live day to day. I loved to smoke, though. It was one of the few things I was good at. If I didn’t have a cigarette I’d smoke a pipe. And if I didn’t have any pipe tobacco I’d jolly well cut up some old carpet and smoke that. I managed to quit in the end, though.’
‘How did you manage it?’
‘Funny story. My wife had arranged a family trip. A pauper’s experience of Paris she called it. Didn’t sound at all like my cup of tea but I went along with it as I often did. I’d read George Orwell of course. Down and Out in Paris and London. Marvelous book. I remember him talking about the twopenny hangover, which was a rope you could lean on whilst you were sitting on a bench. And then at the end of the night they’d untie the rope, and there you were! Orwell smoked like the proverbial, of course. Didn’t do him any good either, although I think he had a touch of the old TB. Anyway, there we were, checking into this blackened ruin in the Place de la Contrescarpe – or the Can’t Escape, as I called it. Awful. Indescribable. And I remember lying there that night, staring up at the ceiling, smoking cigarette after cigarette – A because I couldn’t think what else to do and B because I thought it might discourage the fleas. And I thought to myself Kenneth! What on earth are you doing, lying here like this, killing yourself! So we checked out and went somewhere a little more civilised, I gave my last pack of Chesterfields to the person sleeping in the doorway, and I never smoked again. And now here you are telling me my breathing’s no good!’
‘Well – it’s not great.’
‘I’m ninety-five, Jim. I don’t think you could truthfully describe any aspect of me as being great. But there we are. You’re a smashing fellow and I thank you for your time.’

sea storm

The concrete marina wall does a pretty good job of protecting the boats from the worst of the weather. But when it’s as rough as it is today, there’s still enough of a swell pushing through the mouth of it to move them all restively up and down at their moorings, and for spouts of wild white water to jump up from time to time at different points, and fall back again in a spattering of foam.

Rita’s flat overlooks the marina. Watching the boats all move together like that, it’s easy to imagine this block is a boat, too, and we’re just waiting for a break in the weather before we open the patio doors, unfurl the tablecloth and set sail for someplace else.

I think Rita would settle for anyplace she could breathe more easily. She’s diagnosed with COPD and a history of infective exacerbations. For some reason this year’s been particularly bad, though, and she’s only just come out of hospital after a long stay with pneumonia. After I’ve finished the examination she sits in that characteristic way you often see with respiratory patients, inclined forwards with her back straight and her arms resting on her knees, to ease her breathing. She has a puffy, steroidal look, and her arms are bruised from countless needling.

‘What’s the verdict?’ she says. ‘And don’t you dare say hospital.’
‘Oh God. Here we go.’
‘It’s fifty-fifty whether you stay or go.’
‘In that case I’ll stay.’
I go over the facts and figures, the risks, the realities. She nods or shakes her head, depending, and when I’ve finished, gives her face a brisk rub with her hands.
‘It’s not as if you’re so bad I’m reaching for the phone while we speak,’ I tell her, trying to be as nonchalant as possible. ‘On the other hand…’
‘…on the other hand don’t start any long books.’
‘What I’d like to do is talk to your GP and see if they’ll come out and review the situation.’
‘Good luck with that. They never come out.’
‘I think they have to some times. It’s not as if you can go to them, is it? You get out of breath just standing up.’
‘You don’t know my GP. You’d have to be dying before they’d come out, and even then they’d probably just send a hearse.’
‘Let’s see what they say.’
I use Rita’s house phone. For some reason I haven’t got the bypass number for this surgery, so I opt to use the main number and take my turn like everyone else. I’m hanging on hold for some time, watching the boats riding up and down at their moorings.
‘I wouldn’t mind having a boat,’ I tell her, for something to say.
‘Yeah?’ she says. ‘Done much sailing, have you?’
‘Only once. I went sea fishing with a friend. I felt so seasick I wanted him to throw me overboard.’
‘The omens aren’t good then, are they?’
‘No. Not really. Although Nelson wasn’t supposed to be all that as a sailor. Y’know? Not in terms of defeating the French. I mean in terms of not throwing up.’
‘Yeah – but look what happened to him,’ says Rita.
‘You’re right. Maybe I’d be better off sticking to cars.’
‘Kiss me Hardy!’ She laughs, which immediately degrades into a thick and rumbly series of coughs, like a heavy storm massing in the distance. When it passes, she rubs her face again.
‘Mind you,’ she wheezes, ‘I think I know what he meant.’

addio catania

‘The doctor, he was here yesterday, he said Squeeze my hands. Hard as you can. I said to him, I said You sure you want me to do that, squire? He said Do your worst. So I grabbed a hold and give him a squeeze, and the next thing you know he was pulling ‘em away shouting All right, mate! All right! You’ve made your point!
Mr Wilson laughs, a desiccated kind of rattle, and shakes his head.
‘I was a stone mason all my life. I could squeeze the juice’ve a pebble.’
I think the doctor was being kind, though. Whilst it’s true Mr Wilson’s wrists are still impressively thick, the rest of his body has been sadly depleted by age and illness, and he pays for his enthusiastic outbursts with a degree of gasping that the oxygen through his nasal cannulae struggles to correct.
I’ve arrived at the same time as Mr Wilson’s morning carers. It’s lovely to see how they chivy him along, making a game of it all, distracting him from the frustrations and indignities of his situation. I’ve no doubt Mr Wilson has been a positive kind of person all his life, though, used to making the best of things. He cusses and carries on in the wheelchair, tetchily snapping the oxygen cable when it gets in his way, kicking his slippers off when they snag in the footrests. The carers obviously love him.

When he’s settled in the wheelchair and recovered his strength, and the carers have given him a peck on the cheek, signed the book and left, he folds his great hands on his middle and shakes his head.
‘I can’t go to Catania,’ he says. ‘I don’t suppose I’ll ever see it again.’
I get the story in short bursts. He fought in Italy during the war. Met his wife there. Settled back in the UK, but every year they went back to Catania to see her family. But his wife died last year, and his illness had progressed, and he was faced with the fact that he’d never see Catania again.
‘I wanted to say goodbye proper, like,’ he said. ‘I wanted to say Addio. Now look at me.’
He picks up the green plastic tube and holds it in front of him, like he was showing me something else, the thing that was tethering him to this world, the line that he’d play out if he could, all the way to the eastern shores of Sicily, and Catania, and his wife, and the adventures and the life they’d had together, so he could relax his grip, and let go the end, and disappear himself, off into the sun.