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 story of Old No.7

Before I go up to the first floor I stop by the warden’s office.
‘Pete? He’s what you might call a colourful individual,’ says the warden. ‘He’s certainly done a lot in his life, what with his boxing and his business interests and his running around. I’m not so sure about the Krays, though. You have to take a lot of what he says with a shovel of salt. But y’know – we’re all worried about him. Pete’s always had a short fuse, but he’s gotten a whole lot crankier. The carers are having to double-up.  For safety – y’understand? God knows he’s got a lot on his plate, poor bastard, what with his eyes and his back. We take his meals up and try to rouse a bit more of a spark in him, but.he’s retreated to his room these last few weeks, and short of dragging him out by the feet, there’s not a lot else to be done. It’s like he’s given up.’
‘They’ve sent me round to take some blood this morning.’
‘Yeah? Well good luck with that!’ says the warden, shaking his head and leaning back in his office chair. ‘My advice? Keep it simple. Don’t fuss. And wear a tin hat.’

Pete is standing waiting for me in the doorway to his flat. A tall, pale, withered figure, dressed in boxer shorts and a string vest, he peers out at me as I approach along the corridor.
‘What took you so long?’ he says.
‘Sorry, Pete. I stopped by to have a word with Gerry.’
‘What for?’
‘Just a quick hello. He’s a nice guy, isn’t he?’
‘If you say so. Anyway. What’ve you come for? I’m sick of all these people barging in all hours of the day and night.’
‘It must be annoying,’ I say. ‘But I suppose it’s just because people are worried about you. They want to make sure you’re okay.’
‘What people?’
‘Carers, nurses. The usual.’
‘Well, I’m fed up with it.’
‘So how are you today, Peter?’
He shrugs, but lets go of the door handle and turns to walk back to his armchair.
‘Just be quick,’ he says.
‘I promise I won’t keep you long.’
He settles back into his chair as I get my things ready.
‘What are you? Some kinda nurse?’ he says.
‘Nursing assistant.’
‘Ah!’ he says. Then after a pause: ‘In Spain you’d be called a practicado.’
‘I like that. Practicado. That feels about right. So – how come you know Spanish?’
‘Well I should do. I lived there ten years. I had a bar on the Costa del Sol.’
‘Wow! That sounds great. Hard work though, I expect.’
‘See that bottle up there,’ he says, pointing to an ornate glass bottle on the top of a shelf of sculptures and photographs. ‘That’s a traditional Spanish whisky, about a million per cent. So spicy it’ll blow your tits off.’
‘I bet.’
‘I haven’t touched it in over twenty years. Don’t suppose I ever will now.’
‘You know – the worst drunk I ever got was on an American whiskey. Something called Wild Turkey. I was knocking it back because it was so smooth and easy. And I was thinking This is all right! This is great! And the next thing I knew, I was lying flat on the floor with my eyes going round and round, like the red spot on one of those old electricity meters.’
‘American whiskeys are the best,’ he says. ‘Have you ever had Jack Daniels?’
‘Yep. Love it.’
‘D’you know the story behind it?’
‘Was it something to do with the Civil War? Or was that Colonel Sanders?’
‘No! He was the chicken man, you numpty. What I mean is – why’d they call it Number Seven?’
‘Don’t know’
‘It’s because his first batch was just seven barrels, and they all come loose in a storm and rolled down the mountain, and the only one they never found was this number seven. And it’s still out there now. So if you went and found it, you’d be a millionaire.’
‘I’ll just take this blood and then I’ll be off.’
‘Ye-es, mate. I’ve lived all over the world. Spain, Italy. America. I’m no good now, though. I mean – look at me! And then have a look at me on the beach.’
He nods over at a bookcase as I tape a wad of gauze to his arm. Shaking the vials of blood, I go over to the picture. A young man in his twenties, doing that greased-up, muscle-man thing of leaning forwards whilst flexing his arms and shoulders, smile-grimacing into the lens.
‘You look quite a prospect.’
‘Wha’d’ya mean, prospect?’
‘I mean you look handy.’
‘I could take care of myself, don’t you worry.’
I sit down to write the vials up when he says, in a surprisingly shaky and vulnerable change of tone: ‘What d’you suggest I do about all this, then?’
‘About what, Pete?’
‘About all this what I feel. I’m no good any more. I’ve got pain the whole time. I can’t hardly see nothing. The doctors have run out of ideas.’
He licks his lips and then adds: ‘Do you know what irony is, Jim?’
‘What – d’you mean it’s ironic you were so fit and now you’ve got all these health problems?’
‘No. The irony is – a few years back everyone wanted to kill me, and now that I’m properly fucked and want to die, they all want to keep me alive.’
‘I’m sorry you’re feeling so low. It’s not surprising, though, given all the things you’ve got to put up with.’
‘Yeah, well,’ he says.
‘I can refer you on to our Mental Health nurse. She’s really good – and she can start figuring out ways to help you feeling better again.’
‘If you think,’ he says.
‘Good. I’ll speak to her when I get back to the office.’
I’m just putting my stuff away when he leans forwards and says:
‘Have you heard the one about the two psychiatrists in Chicago?’
‘No. Go on.’
‘So there are these two psychiatrists in Chicago, both working in the same building, nodding to each other when they pass in the lobby. The first one’s always bright and cheerful, dressed nice, expensive hat, big cigar, whilst the second one, he drags himself around looking shabby and down at heel, with a face like a smacked arse. So anyway, eventually, this second, sad psychiatrist, he can’t take it no more, and he stops the first one in the lobby, and he says: I don’t get it, mate. We spend all our time listening to the same old dreary problems, none of which we can’t do nothing about, and yet there you are with this big smile on your face. And the first one, he turns round, and he says: ‘Who listens?’

rita’s chairs

In the time it takes to walk from the front door to the sitting room, Rita has recalled my name, the names of my children and their musical aspirations, the village I live in and even the breed and name of our dog.
‘I’m amazed!’ I tell her. ‘And there was me struggling to think if I’d been here before.’
‘Dear oh dear!’ she says, a little wheezily. ‘I’m obviously not that memorable, then. Or perhaps it’s because you see so many people. Yes – I think for the sake of my vanity I’ll go with that explanation.’
She’s quiet for the rest of the time it takes her to return to her chair and catch her breath. I wait until she’s settled, fetching the yellow folder and having a quick read through.
‘I’m afraid my breathing’s not what it was,’ she says, ‘but there’s nothing wrong with my brain, thank goodness.’
‘It must have been six months ago, at least.’
‘What do you remember then?’
‘I don’t know. These chairs.’
‘The chairs did you say?’
‘Straight out of the seventies. All that chrome and leather. You just don’t see them that often.’
‘Well there you are, then. I remember people, you remember furniture.’
‘When you put it like that it sounds bad.’
She laughs.
‘I’m just having a little fun at your expense,’ she says. ‘Would you like some tea?’
‘I’ll make it.’
‘Would you? I’m worn out with all that exercise. I think you’ll find it all pretty self-explanatory.’

*

When I’ve made the tea and she’s quite recovered, we chat as I take her observations and so on.
‘I don’t suppose anyone can believe the old bird is still around,’ she says as I unwrap the blood pressure cuff. ‘Least of all the old bird herself. I’ll be ninety-four next month.’
I shake my head.
‘What’s your secret?’ I say.
‘Stay away from medication! You don’t know what’s in it. You’re much safer with the odd glass of whiskey. Malted barley, spring water, a few years in an oak barrel and there you have it.’
‘Did you work for a distillery or something?’
‘Me? No! Although that sounds like fun. No – I was a teacher for many years. Loved every second.’
‘I bet you were amazing.’
She shakes her head.
‘I don’t suppose my students would have agreed with you particularly. But one did one’s best.’
She watches as I fill out the chart.
‘All okay, is it?’ she says.
‘Better than mine!’
‘Damn!’
‘What d’you mean?’
‘We-ell. That’s the thing about advanced decrepitude, y’see? It’s the practical things. All of my friends are dead. I’ve got family of course, but they’re liberally spread about in the North and Australia and what have you, and I don’t see them all that much. I’m afraid to say I’m beginning to feel as if I’ve rather outstayed my welcome.’
She smiles, and gently strokes the armrests.
‘But you like my chairs?’ she says.