the strange case of the book and the banana

I’m sitting in a cute, bright kitchen on a plain wooden stool next to a washing machine on the dry cycle. For a small machine it’s making a lot of fuss: grinding revolutions, sudden hesitations, short beeps, longer beeps, slow backward rattles, more beeps, a noise like rizh-or-rizh-or-rizh-or-rizh – then back to the grinding revolutions again.

It feels like my mind. I’ve had such a day of it, racing from one thing to the next, and I’ve ended up on a job that – potentially, at least – had stress and delay stamped all over it.

We’ve had a call come through, darlink and I wonder if you’d go and take a look for us, sweetie. It’s an eighty year old woman, decrease mobility, stuck in chair. We haven’t got anyone to go with you, but there’s a live-in carer – named like flower or somethink? – Daisy? Petal? I don’t know. Somethink like that. Anyway, she’s on scene so you should be okay. We can’t make out from the lady exactly what might be going on here, but can you just go and see what you think? Okay, darlink? It might need an ambulance, it might not. Ring me and let me know. Thank you so much, sweetie. Bye, bye. Bye. Bye. Bye.

In the end, it was more straightforward than it sounded. Maureen has rheumatic joint pain, particularly in her knees. She’d been sitting in her new riser-recliner too long, and felt a bit shaky. All her obs were normal, so it didn’t look as though there was anything more sinister going on. Rose, the live-in carer, needed an extra pair of hands to help Maureen transfer safely to a commode, which we could use to wheel her over to the hospital bed that occupies one half of the room. Once that was done, Rose asked if I wouldn’t mind sitting in the kitchen whilst she changed Maureen into her nightie. So I took off my gloves, walked through, sat down on the stool next to the washing machine, and waited.

These days, in slack moments like this, I’ll take out my phone and check social media, or swipe through The Guardian, or maybe Google something I’d been thinking about. This time I thought I’d make a more conscious effort just to sit and do nothing – or, at least, a more mindful kind of nothing. Maybe by reviewing exactly what was happening at that time, what the kitchen was like, how things essentially were in that moment, I’d root myself in Time, and just breathe, and in that way release the stress of a long and busy day.

I survey my surroundings, my attention passing round the neat little kitchen as smoothly and neutrally as the second hand on the clock on the opposite wall.

At one o’clock: a tall, grey-silver fridge-freezer, magnet clips of shopping vouchers, a dog in a sailor hat, little magnet photo frames of people; between the fridge and the outside wall, a lap tray shoved in vertically; patio windows letting out onto a Mediterranean-style patio, red and white geraniums in pots, a climbing hydrangea hanging down over a flint wall, a metal bistro table with a half glass of orange squash in the middle and a metal chair at an angle next to it …. (I can’t help jumping when an Intercity express train suddenly hurtles past the end of the garden – but in a funny kind of way it actually helps, because it feels like my stress levels are definitively snatched away, and I’m even more settled as I continue to look round). At three o’clock, to my immediate right, a plastic, yellow, three-tiered vegetable rack, potatoes and sweet potatoes mixed together in the top, a nest of carrier bags in the middle, and gardening gloves and secateurs in the bottom. There’s a small, round, highly-varnished table with two matching chairs immediately in front of me in the centre of the kitchen. On the table is a stack of three paperback books: The Divided Self by R D Laing, The Interpretations of Dreams by Freud, and Lost at Sea by Jon Ronson. Next to the books is a wire fruit basket. The basket is designed a bit like a scorpion, with a long, arching tail rising up at the back with a hook on the end, presumably for bananas. In the basket are three apples. By the side of the basket is a single banana.

My focus settles on the fruit basket and the banana.

Does it mean that there was a hand of bananas hanging down, and this banana is the last one? Obviously you can’t hang a single banana. Although maybe there’s a special attachment for that. If you’re worried enough to have a basket with a separate banana hook, you might well like a single banana attachment, because having a single banana left over from a hand of bananas is something that’s going to happen quite a lot. Maybe the attachment got lost. If that’s the case, why not rest the banana with the apples? I vaguely remember something about people not mixing bananas and other fruit because it makes everything rot more quickly. Is that right? Maybe the banana was lain with the apples, and Rose took it out to eat – and read one of the books, probably Lost at Sea, because although they’ve all got bookmarks poking out, the Ronson is lying on the top of the pile. Maybe Rose took the book and the banana – which was lying in the basket – and sat down for a break. The other two books are quite obscure, probably part of some psychology coursework or something. Maybe Rose felt a bit guilty reading Lost at Sea, because she’s falling behind with her schedule, but this was her break, goddamn it, and if she hadn’t earned a quick banana and a bit of Ronson, who had? But if this was a break, where was her drink? You’d have a drink before a banana, wouldn’t you? Where was the mug of tea going cold? Then I remembered the orange squash out on the patio. So that was the sequence! Rose had poured herself a drink of orange squash, grabbed the last banana that – because of a lack or loss of a single banana attachment was lying any-old-how among the apples – picked up the Ronson (after a twinge of guilt looking at the other two books), gone outside to enjoy herself, and at that moment heard Maureen call out for help. So she hurried back inside with the banana and the book but not the squash. Because carrying three things is precarious, and although she managed it slowly when she had the time to take things easy, as soon as she was in a rush she took the two most portable things, the book and the banana. Or maybe they just happened to be in her hand when she heard Maureen shout – and she dropped them off on the kitchen table on her way through – because there’s no way you’d have a book and a banana in your hand if you were answering a cry for help. That would be ridiculous.

So why wasn’t the banana on top of the book on the table…?

‘Ready for you now!’ says Rose. ‘Sorry to keep you.’
‘No worries,’ I say, stretching. ‘It’s nice just to sit and do nothing.’

maud’s mother

It’s been three weeks since I last saw Maud. She’s the one hundred year old woman who spooked me a little by saying she was worried she couldn’t look after her parents who were asleep upstairs. I’m here this time with Stacy, a physiotherapist, to conduct a mobility assessment. The carers have reported a sudden and significant drop in Maud’s ability to stand. We need to figure out if this is a confidence issue or something more permanent.

Stacy is exactly the kind of person you’d want to have with you in a haunted house. She may be small, but she has big feet, a disproportionately loud voice, and a vigorous, open-faced, square-shouldered approach to things. I can imagine her standing in the middle of a dark room, the hectic shreds of wailing ghosts swirling round her, planting her bag on the floor and saying: Right! Firstly, no-one’s impressed. Secondly, what do you hope to achieve by this? Thirdly – just because you’ve been dead two hundred years, doesn’t mean you can fly around with the posture of a cashew nut. So straighten yourselves out, settle down, stop messing about and we’ll see what we can do to help. The ghosts would immediately clam up and hover in line. And Stacy would sort them out.

She could be a whole new kind of health visitor. A physioexortherapist.

Who ya gonna call?

Stacy listens carefully when I tell her about what happened last time, the whole ‘ghostly parents asleep upstairs waiting for their daughter’ deal, and also about what her next of kin, Alan, said about it, which was that in many religions it’d would be seen as quite normal to be ‘met’ as you neared the end of life.
‘Okay,’ she says. ‘Fine. But you do know that Maud spent many years looking after her parents? So I don’t think it’s all that surprising she’s a bit muddled with the timings. I hardly know what day of the week it is myself, and I’m supposed to be young and fit.’
‘No. I suppose when you put it like that.’
She re-shoulders her rucksack, reaches up, and knocks so firmly with the rapper on the door it makes me think of Jack from Jack and the Beanstalk, knocking on the door of the giant’s castle. But instead of a giant housekeeper coming to the door, it’s Alan, still wearing the same Nordic sweater,shirt and tie, his goatee beard as perfectly groomed as a chin dipped in silver paint.

‘Good to see you!’ he whispers, shaking our hands. ‘Thanks so much for coming.’ And he shows us in.

Maud is in the hospital bed in the living room, as before. If anything she seems in better form, alert and smiling, with that copy of Anna Karenina on her lap.
‘Ah!’ she says. ‘Here comes the cavalry!’ putting the book aside.

The last week or so, Maud has stopped being able to stand with assistance and transfer to the commode. There doesn’t seem to be any infection or other organic reasons why she shouldn’t be able to do this. And she certainly has the strength. When we’ve lowered the bed and raised the backrest, she swings her legs over the edge ready for the off. It’s just – that’s as far as she gets. Stacy is great at clearly and firmly describing what Maud needs to do to stand up, even sitting next to her at one point and demonstrating – but Maud just can’t translate it into action. She keeps putting her feet too far out in front, and then waggling them up and down on the carpet, like a child splashing her feet in a puddle.
‘It’s no good!’ she says. ‘I’m falling!’

We persevere for as long as we can, but it’s a game of diminishing returns. The more we try, the more anxious Maud becomes, until her efforts to stand are such an approximate and off-kilter thing, leaning back against our hands, the zimmer frame lifting off the carpet, that we have to accept defeat, and help her back to bed. It’s strange to see how well she lifts her legs back onto the mattress and snuggle down again. Strength is certainly not the issue.
‘It’s definitely a confidence thing,’ says Stacy, snapping off her gloves. ‘Which isn’t any less incapacitating, of course.’
‘No, of course,’ says Alan. ‘So what’s to be done?’
Stacy shrugs.
‘Seems a shame to be thinking about hoisting. But other than that I suppose it’s bed care and some gentle encouragement to overcome the block.’

‘You see that woman over there,’ says Maud, pulling the bedclothes up to her neck, and then pointing straight in front of her. For a second I wonder if it’s another ghost – until I realise she means the sideboard facing her, and an ornate, silver frame in the centre of it. ‘This one?’ I say, going over to take a closer look. It’s a sepia photograph of a young girl standing on a dark, southern English beach. She’s dressed in a billowing white dress and enormous circular brimmed hat, which she holds on her head with one hand as she squints off into the distance. ‘That’s my mother,’ says Maud. ‘Now she’d have known what to do.’