thank god it’s not friday

Fridays are the worst.

It’s more than just the hospitals clearing the decks before the weekend. There’s something else about the day – an end-of-the-week, last-chance, store-closing, now-or-never vibe that means from shutters up to shutters down the phone never stops ringing and every call is a crisis. Coming to work at eight on a Friday, you feel like stacking sandbags round the desk and putting on a tin hat. As it is, you make a cup of tea, get a fresh notepad, a pen and a highlighter, open up as many useful programs as you have access to on the computer, crack your neck, and wait.

But you can oversell these things, of course. And there’s a certain satisfaction to be had from stumbling from one thing to the next, like a clown fireman at the circus. Once you surrender to the chaos, and focus on the audience, it’s actually quite a rush.

Luckily, I only had to work the phones till three, when I was released to go on a couple of visits. It was so busy, though, thank goodness my replacement actually showed up. If they hadn’t, and I’d had to stay for the rest of the shift – well – who knows what would’ve happened? I’d probably have been found by a cleaner, alone in the office, lit by the ghostly glare of the screen. They’d have tapped me on the shoulder.
‘Are you alright?’
And I’d have swung slowly round. And the cleaner would scream – because they’d see my ears were merged with the headset, my hands with the armrests, my eyes would be flickering like two little plasma screens, and the veins in my neck and face would be spread all over like wires.


The first visit is easy enough. The second is a disaster.

Being exhausted doesn’t help, and the fact that my patient, Mr Reece has only just arrived back home after being discharged from a rehab place, weeks and weeks after he went in. All he wants to do is smoke a fag and watch the wrestling.

His flat is in a wretched state, lit by two shadeless, ineffectual, energy saving bulbs. Mr Reece is sitting in a ruined armchair, an electric scooter to his immediate left, a zimmer frame to the right, and a TV just in front. Around the chair is a scattering of papers, leaflets, unopened mail. In the corner of the room is an unmade bed, the centre of the mattress sagged and seamy. The whole place is suffused with a settled fug of neglect.

‘Hello Mr Reece!’ I say, as brightly as I can, struggling in with all my bags. ‘Sorry to disturb you so soon after you got home, but we’re a short term service and we need to get things started.’
He frowns at me, then pointedly plants a cigarette between his lips and reaches for a lighter.
‘Would you mind not smoking whilst I’m here?’ I say, putting my bags down and then wringing my hands together, like an apprentice vicar leading prayers for the first time.
‘Because I’ll stink of smoke the rest of the day. And it’s not good for me. Sorry! I won’t keep you long.’
Mr Reece twists his lips together with a displeasure so violent the cigarette falls out into his lap.
‘You’ve got ten minutes!’ he snaps, throwing it onto the scooter. Then he jabs his hands towards me, palms flat, fingers spread wide. ‘Ten!’
‘Okay. Thanks. Well – has anyone told you who we are?’
‘No. They haven’t.’
‘Oh. I’m sorry about that. Well – we’re an NHS community health team whose job is to support people being discharged from hospital, or stop them going into hospital in the first place. Mr Reece? Are you okay?’
He’s leaning over the side of the armchair, rootling about in a pile of mail and newspapers.
‘I had £850 there and it’s gone.’
‘Oh. Shall I help you look?’
‘No. You stay there.’
I watch him scrabbling around for a minute. He struggles to get out of the armchair. When I go forward to help he tells me to keep away. He tries using the zimmer, but it gets caught up in the scooter. I offer to move the scooter.
‘Leave it!’ he says. ‘Leave that thing where it is!’
He abandons trying to use the zimmer, and shuffles around the chair instead, using the arms and the headrest as a support. He kicks his bare feet amongst the detritus, like a bad-tempered park keeper through a heavy fall of leaves, peering down.
‘Mr Reece? If you had £850, and it’s not there anymore, do you think it’s been stolen? Shouldn’t we be calling the police?’
‘I don’t know,’ he says. Then he stops, straightens, and – gripping the back of the chair with his hands – draws a bead on me down the sharp crook of his nose. ‘We’ll see if I find it. Won’t we?’

if I go I go

Malcolm doesn’t have a phone. Not one that works, anyway. So all you can do is pitch up and hope for the best.

It’s a fair bet he’ll be in, though. For one reason or another he’s had a series of falls – getting dizzy and going over at the bus stop, the queue at the post office, the supermarket. They’ve put him through the usual tests, given him a pacemaker, a range of medication, a walking stick. He’s been to countless follow-up appointments (falling over on at least two of them). He’s had a new hip. If you x-rayed his arm you’d see two plates and a line of screws. All in all, he’s a walking (and falling) phenomenon. All they can really do now is adjust his meds from time to time, and maybe dress him like an American football player when he wants to go out.

‘Come on in, why dont’cha!’ he says when I knock on his open door.

He’s bent over a boiled egg and crumpet, working away at it, his good elbow pointed straight up.
‘Lovely!’ he says, leaning back and wiping his chin. ‘Now,’ he says, waggling the eggy spoon in my direction, ‘you can’t do no better than an egg in the morning!’

These days Malcolm’s flat is pretty down-at-heel. Casting your eye about the place is like sending a deep water drone through the wreck of the Titanic – a settled and claggy sediment over every surface. Despite his straitened circumstance he declines all offers of help, though.
‘I keep myself to myself,’ he says. ‘I don’t do too bad.’

There are two black and white pictures on the wall behind him: Malcolm as a young man in the army. The first picture is of his unit, posing in full uniform in four rows; the second is a blow-up of the same picture, zooming in on Malcolm and the guys on either side. It’s hard to see any likeness, though. Both pictures are so faded, it’s disconcertingly like someone’s dressed a row of mannequins in uniform, the peaked caps emphasising the blankness of their faces.

‘I’ve jes’ got to nip down to the laundry room,’ he suddenly announces. ‘You don’t mind, d’you? Only the other fellas’ll be gurnin’ on about it.’
Before I can even offer to go for him – it’s down two flights of stairs after all – he’s pushed himself up from the armchair and set off.
‘I’ll come with you’ I say, hurrying after.
At least he lets me go down the stairs first.

When I take his bed clothes out of the dryer they’re so hot I have to juggle them around.
‘Done!’ he says, slamming the dryer door in a blast of superheated, fabric conditioned air. ‘C’mon, fella!’
And we’re off again.
He nods at the manager’s door.
‘Furloughed,’ he says. ‘Alright for some.’

‘You can pause on the landing,’ I say, chasing after him back up the stairs, almost tripping on the bottom sheet. ‘There’s no rush.’
He waves his hand in the air – which I’d rather he’d use to hold on to the rail.
‘Feck it. If I go, I go,’ he says. ‘You can catch me in the sheets.’

Back in the flat, he tells me to dump the stuff on a chair by the bed. It’s only then I notice his bed is heaped up with what looks like skeins of shredded cotton. It reminds me of the bedding my hamster Horace used to have, how he’d scuffle it all up and then bury himself in the middle.
‘Are you sure you wouldn’t want someone to look in on you, Malcolm?’ I say. ‘We could get you some new bedding, if you’d like?’
‘That’s kind, but I’m okay,’ he says, throwing himself down into the armchair again. ‘Phew! That little jaunt took it out of me. You’re spinning like a regular Father Christmas!’
‘Father Christmas? Why? Does he spin?’
Malcolm rests his head back and closes his eyes.
‘I don’t know, fella,’ he says. ‘I don’t know. It certainly looks that way to me now.’

at the very top of the street

You wouldn’t think people actually lived on this street. It’s one of the main thoroughfares, an artery of urban bustle, crowds spilling over the pavements day and night, drinking in the pubs and cafes, streaming in or out of the concert venue, staring in the windows of the chi-chi boutiques, taking selfies outside the old theatre, or crowding round the buskers who work the passing trade on the pedestrian cut-throughs. The street heads up at a shallow incline, diverging endlessly left and right, then gradually thins, and quietens, until it runs out of energy at the top, where a main road cuts across it at right angles, running from the station to the sea. Here the shops are more down-at-heel. There’s a second hand camera shop, an antique clothes shop, a tailoring and alteration shop, a shop for rent, all of them weathered and worn, their wooden facades peeling. The person who did the display in the window of the antique clothes shop – how long ago? – has opted for a nightmarishly whimsical look: a stuffed fox head tied into a hacking jacket; some tackle lying around, a few vacant toys, as if they’d given up trying and taken to lure customers in with appalled terror instead. I wonder if there’s anyone in the shop at all. Maybe they’re just behind the netting, holding their breath, staring at me as I cup my hand on the glass to see better.

Mr Lake lives in the flat above the tailoring shop next door. There’s a young woman sitting in the shop window, dreamily needling some trousers draped on her lap. She pauses with the needle in mid-air as I fetch the key from the keysafe and turn to open the side door. I smile and nod but she doesn’t acknowledge me; in fact, I don’t even see her lower the needle as I push the side door open.

The hallway is dark and cramped, the only light coming from a yellowing square of glass at the far end, and a single, winking point of red from the console of the electric scooter on charge. I can’t see a switch for any hall light, and there’s no room for me to put my bag down and find my torch, so instead I wait a minute until my eyes have adjusted, then slowly creep forwards past the scooter and piles of junk, onto the sagging carpet of the stairs, and head up
‘Hello? Mr Lake? It’s Jim – from the hospital.’
There’s a TV playing in one of the rooms overhead, a rowdy studio debate, raucous shouting and applause – which somehow makes the place feel quieter.
A toilet with no door on the first little landing, a twist to the left, a galley kitchen on the right with a glimpse of stacked plates and bulging plastic bags, and then up onto the top landing, where a heavy curtain has been nailed across a doorway.
‘Mr Lake?’
I hook the curtain aside.

Mr Lake is sitting on a high-backed chair, surrounded by boxes and cabinets, piles of old Picture Post and Hobbycraft magazines, crates of clocks and teasmades and novelty telephones. It’s difficult enough for me to find a way through all the mess, so I can’t imagine how Mr Lake manages it. But then, no doubt, he’s used to it all and it fits him pretty well, like a hermit crab making its shell from a tin can or a discarded doll’s head.

I’m here to dress a wound on his leg. It’s not easy, setting up a sterile field, though. I have to move a few things.
‘Temporarily!’ I tell him. ‘If I’d had a pound for every time I’d said temporarily….’
‘You’d have five pounds fifty!’ he says.
‘No doubt.’
We chat whilst I set up. He tells me about his life. How he used to be an engineer.
‘I was always good with my hands,’ he says. ‘Taking things apart, putting them back together, that kind of thing.’
‘That’s a great skill to have.’
‘It kept me fed and watered.’

I glove up.
‘Any family in the area…?’ I ask as I lean in to remove the old dressing. The smell is gacky – the cloyingly sweet smell of decay.
‘No. No family,’ he says, watching me drop the filthy dressing into the waste bag. ‘I was married for a while. But she left. Ran off with the best man. And one day he dropped dead at work. So she killed herself.’
‘Oh – I’m sorry,’ I say, changing my gloves. ‘That’s terrible.’
‘Ah. Well,’ he says. ‘She was always a bit up and down.’

When I’ve finished the dressing and I’m ready to go, I notice some framed pictures on the wall behind the TV.
‘Is that you?’ I say, pointing at the picture of a smiling young man in a smart suit and waistcoat, holding a scowling baby up to the camera.
‘No! That’s my mother!’ he says.
‘Your mother? What? This one?’
‘Where are my glasses…?’ says Mr Lake. He grumbles and fumbles around his chair, the glasses magically appear in his hand, he hooks them over his ears, then screws up his face and leans forward.
‘Oh. Yes. You’re right. That’s me,’ he says.
‘Who’s the baby?’
‘That one? No idea.’
Amongst all the other portraits is one of a young woman in a floppy white hat and wide-collared raincoat. It’s a posed, three-quarter shot, the woman staring sleepily off to the right, her eyes heavy, her mouth slightly open. The odd thing is, she has her right hand raised in mid-air, palm down, off to the side at shoulder height, as if she’s pushing through invisible undergrowth, or maybe working a marionette whose strings she’d dropped but didn’t think anyone would notice.
‘That’s her,’ says Mr Lake. ‘That’s my wife. She made that coat. The day I took the photo we’d gone out for something to eat. We were sitting in the cafe, and the owner of a fancy boutique came over, and he said Where did you get that coat? And she said I made it. So he said Why don’t you come and work for me! We need people like you.
‘And did she?’
‘No,’ says Mr Lake. ‘She didn’t.’

virgil the bullet

Glad lives with her husband John in the basement of a grand, Georgian terrace house on the coast road out of town. Originally I imagine the flat would have been the servants’ quarters for the entire house. The stone steps leading down to it are worn in the middle; you can almost hear the footsteps pattering up and down them, to meet a carriage, or to fetch wine from the cellar, or any of those other relentless, below stairs tasks. Still – the conversions in these buildings are all expensive, wherever they feature in the house, so as I descend I’m expecting a beautiful flat with varnished floorboards, ornate mirrors, fine works of art – the usual, high-end sensibilities of the residents around here.
It’s a shock when Glad answers the door.
‘Don’t let Virgil out,’ she says. ‘He’ll be up the steps like a bullet.’
She shushes me in quickly. There’s a fat tabby licking his paws over by some flyblown cat bowls. He reminds me of those cartoon cats, the fine diners around the dustbins, wearing napkins, sucking joke fish bones with a claw in the air.
‘I let him out the back, not the front,’ says Glad, shuffling through the gloom of the kitchen. ‘He can’t get out the back.’
Virgil stops licking his paws long enough to give me a stare, as if to say: What do you know about the front?
‘He’s a sweet cat,’ I say.
‘When he’s been fed,’ she says. ‘Don’t believe his propaganda.’
She leads me into the living room, a hellish space decked out all in red: red drapes and throws and velvet curtains, red wallpaper, deep red carpet, and worst of all, a gas fire on, four bars. It feels like I’ve been swallowed by a dragon.
‘Pete likes it warm,’ she says, lowering herself into a brown armchair (which I can only imagine was red when they bought it).
Other than the belly-of-the-beast theme, the other thing that catches my attention is a large, antique drinks cabinet in the shape of a globe. Arranged around the circular foot of it – in a pattern like a solar stream, or maybe space junk – are dozens of spirit bottles, everything represented, from gin, rum and whisky to the more exotic flavoured stuff. I don’t know why they wouldn’t throw the bottles out. Maybe they just like to see exactly how far they’ve got in their journey around the world in eighty spirits. Either way, it’s a terrible trip hazard.
‘Here any good?’ says Glad, propping her leg up on the cat’s beanbag.
‘What’s happened to the telly?’ says John, suddenly and inexplicably conscious again. I smile and wave. I can’t believe he’s actually lying on the sofa under a rug.
‘I turned it off so as not to disturb the nurse,’ says Glad.
‘I’m not actually a nurse. I’m a nursing assistant,’ I say, looking for something to sit on so I won’t have to kneel on the carpet. ‘It’s a simple leg dressing, though, so it should be fine. If not, I’ll call in the cavalry.’
‘What – more cowboys?’ says Glad. ‘Only joking. I’m sure you know what you’re doing.’

don’t say that

There is a middle-aged man and woman, standing side-by-side at the living room window of the bungalow next door, staring at me as I walk down the path. I wave – as best I can, with all the bags I’m carrying – but they don’t wave back. It wouldn’t surprise me if they were actually cut-outs, set there by an estate agent. But if that’s true, why not give them wavy arms and flashing eyes, activated by a sensor when you got close enough? As it is, their bungalow looks about as homey and real as a house made of Lego. Even the juniper in the planter wears a tag.

Mind you, the bungalow I’m visiting has more than enough reality for both. A low, brick wall separates the two of them as severely as the line between a ‘Before’ and ‘After’ feature. It’s a wretched, cliche, tumbledown affair, with an overgrown garden, rotten woodwork, missing tiles, and a car parked round the back, one of those boaty old Citroens, crusted in mould, the bonnet disappearing into the tarmac like a junk submarine in the world’s slowest dive.

I glance over my shoulder. The cut-outs have been repositioned to get a better look.
I put my stuff down, reach out, and knock.
The instantaneous and outraged barking of a dog.
Scuffling, swearing, crashing – the sounds of a desperate struggle in the hallway. I guess the dog is being put in a cage; if it is, it only makes the barking worse, like trying to stuff a panther in a box after it’s got blood on its snout.
After a composing kind of moment the door opens. George stands there, breathing hard, pushing his hair back from his face, smiling, whilst a small terrier tries to cut through the bars with acetylene fury.
‘Don’t mind Trampus’ says George. ‘He’s very protective.’
‘I’d never have guessed he was a terrier!’
‘Well. He’s crossed with something bigger.’
‘A wolf?’
‘Possibly. In his head.’
‘I don’t mind if you let him out. I’m alright with dogs.’
George’s smile tightens.
‘Oh, no,’ he says. ‘Oh, no, no, no. I couldn’t possibly.’
As if to illustrate, Trampus redoubles his efforts, the cage rocking from side to side.
‘Well. Alright then,’ I say.
‘Thank you for coming,’ says George, backing up.

George is as friendly, nub-faced, vast and shiningly white as a beluga whale, his trousers suspended by hoops, the lenses of his glasses thumbed with grease. He leads me back through the house, which is just as awful as the outside promised, comprehensively silted up with trash in the hoarder-style, unwashed plates stacked in plastic buckets, strata of food trodden into the floor. Even though it’s early in the year, a couple of plump black flies are on the move. One buzzes past me in a straight line from Crap A to Crap B, somnolent and satisfied as a bank manager on the daily commute.
‘Mother? There’s a gentleman to see you. From the hospital.’
‘Hello Gladys. My name’s Jim. How are you today?’
Gladys is as thin as George is fat. A frail and spidery old woman in a housecoat and flowery bandana, she’s not sitting in her chair so much as nesting in it, kyphotically hunched over a plate of digestives, scooping up the pieces and pressing them into her whiskery mouth.
‘Trampus has gone quiet,’ I say, looking for somewhere to put my bags, not finding anywhere.
‘Eerily quiet,’ says George.
‘What’s he doing? Tunnelling?’
‘Oh no!’ says George. ‘Don’t say that.’

mr carrington’s cosy

Talking to Mr Carrington on the phone, I imagine him to be something like Mr Banks from Mary Poppins, sitting in a wing back armchair by an open fire, glass of brandy in one hand, phone in the other, hospital discharge summary on his tartan-rugged lap.
‘It’s the most extraordinary thing’ he says. ‘And to cap it all I have to wear this blasted boot.’
‘I’ll be over in about half an hour.’
‘Splendid! D’you know where I am?’
‘Roughly. How far down is number seventy?’
‘Stand in front of the old pub, turn to your right, stride up the hill three lampposts, turn and fire. Can’t miss.’
‘Great. See you shortly.’
‘Righto. Let yourself in. You’ll find me upstairs. Downstairs is rather out of bounds at the moment.’

* * *

I’m sorry to say that even Mary Poppins, with all her grit and sparkle and domestic magic, would take one look at number seventy, blush and pretend to have an appointment the other side of town.

It’s a deeply unprepossessing row, one house leaning against its neighbour up the hill like drunks on a tipping bench. Number seventy is probably the worst, with its gappy tiles, hanging gutterings, cracked windows, rotten fascias, peeling paint, and a particularly malign-looking buddleia standing like a giant spider by the broken gate, arching its branches over the steps.

I don’t open the door so much as lift it delicately to one side. In front of me is a damp and gloomy hallway, a precipitous flight of stairs.
‘Up here!’ shouts Mr Carrington.
The stairs creak and give alarmingly. When I put out a hand to grab the rail, it wobbles with such a wormy shudder I decide to take my chances and pick my way spot to spot with my hands free.

Onto the landing, and another vista of neglect. Whole sections of wallpaper rolling off the walls. A scattering of junk. Skeins of old web. A spotted smell so rich you can hear it muttering.
‘First door on your left,’ says Mr Carrington. ‘If there was a door.’
Astonishingly, someone’s managed to cram a hospital bed into the room, squeezing it in at the only possible angle that could work. Behind it is a bookshelf filled with dusty books and crowned with a leather briefcase that looks like it’s just been fished out of a pond.
‘Good to see you!’ says Mr Carrington.
We shake hands.

If this is Mr Banks, he’s been marooned on an island for a good many years – which I suppose, in a way, he has. His mane of ash gray hair flows into an equally vast beard, so wild I only see he has a mouth when he laughs.

After my examination – which he passes easily, with nothing concerning in any of his observations – I try to talk to him as tactfully as I can about his circumstances, the trip hazards, the damp and so on. Each point he bats away with the practised ease of someone who’s had the same conversation many times before.
‘Don’t worry. I’m quite used to it,’ he says. ‘Honestly. I’m quite happy as things are. Once my foot is better I’ll be able to tootle down the shops as before. So long as someone can fetch me a few essentials in the meantime, I’ll be absolutely fine.’
The room is freezing, though. When I tell him how worried I am about that he laughs.
‘Oh for goodness sake!’ he says, swatting the air between us. ‘I like it cold. Always have. It keeps me sharp! And if I get a bit chilly – well! I’ve got my cosy.’
He roots around under his pillow, produces a filthy hat and pulls it over his head, squashing his hair out to the side.
‘See?’ he says. ‘What d’you think?’
‘Well. It certainly looks – warm.’
‘Exactly!’ says Mr Carrington, snatching it off again, his hair springing back. ‘So there we are, then. Now. Let’s talk about something else. Let’s talk about you.’

means of access

I look through the letterbox. A dark, trash-filled hallway. Bottles, newspapers, discarded wrappers, scattered clothing. A bare staircase rising steeply to the left, the treads I can see completely cluttered-up with junk. I shuffle up closer to the letterbox to shout through and then listen for a reply, mindful of the rotten sinkhole that undermines the threshold.

Hello? Edmund? It’s Jim – from the hospital.


I straighten up and wonder what to do.

I’ve already tried calling Edmund’s mobile, but it cuts out, number unavailable. I’ve tried his next of kin, too, but no-one answers. The next step is to call the ward he was discharged from – but before I do, it occurs to me that Edmund’s flat is over a shop. Perhaps they know something. I gather my bags and folders and go inside.

The shop is a shadowy, corner-of-the-parade affair, grilles on the windows, just enough light to make you think it’s open, but not enough to make you feel easy about being there. Beyond the empty counter at the back there’s a corridor leading to a workshop of some kind. The whole thing goes back a long way – so far, in fact, I can only imagine it undermines the row, slowly dipping underground, like a burrow excavated by some giant creature who then turned round and hurried back to disguise the opening as an antique shop.

There’s a dull light in the workshop, but even though I say Hello? no-one answers and no-one comes. There’s no bell on the counter, no gong to strike. I say Hello again, then put my stuff down, and wait.

High up on two of the walls are rows of Victorian dolls, perished bisque faces and ropy wigs, pegged out like ghastly exhibits in a public mausoleum. Underneath their slippered feet are shelves of tobacco tins, garish porcelain animals, Pierrot clowns. There’s a glass cabinet freighted with tin robots, jewellery boxes, cards and tops. And then placed in whatever space is left, there are boards of old badges and pins, rusty tin adverts for Guinness and Chesterfield smokes, and ranging in untidy heaps across the floor, racks of comics and Picture Posts, and prints of Twenties’ film stars in fading, polythene wraps.


It’s so quiet I can hear the dolls blink.

Eventually I’m aware of a movement out back – or, if not exactly a movement, then a subtle stirring of the air, the kind of proof of life you might expect in a cave when the hibernating occupant’s disturbed.


A man steps out into my line of sight and waits there a while. I wave. He puts his glasses up onto his bald head and slowly comes through to see what I want.

‘Hi. Sorry to bother you. My name’s Jim and I’ve been sent by the hospital to see how Edmund’s getting on. Edmund upstairs. I wondered if you knew anything.’
I point to the ceiling, the maisonette above our heads.
‘Edmund? He’s in hospital.’
‘I think he’s been discharged. That’s why I’ve come. To see what he needs. You know – carers, equipment, nursing and the rest of it.’
‘But he hasn’t come home from hospital. I was there this morning. They’re keeping him in.’
‘Oh! They told me he’d been discharged.’
The man takes the glasses from his head and begins cleaning them on a corner of his shirt.
‘No, no – Jim, did you say? No, Jim. He’s definitely still there. And thank God, too. Have you seen how he lives?’
‘No. I’ve never met him.’
‘Well then, James,’ says the man, putting his glasses on again, carefully securing the wire arms left and right over the backs of his ears. ‘Follow me…
He reaches into his pocket, pulls out a bunch of keys and shakes them in the space between us.
‘I have the means!’

a tale of two women


Maud is asleep on the ottoman.
‘She’s exhausted’ whispers her granddaughter, Eve. ‘We thought it best if we let her rest a while’
Maud couldn’t be more comfortable, a pile of crisp white pillows behind her head and a richly patterned duvet tucked around her.
‘Come and have a seat,’ says Eve. ‘We’ll wake her up in a minute.’
Eve leads me to a heavy oak dining table in the middle of the room, where Eve’s mother Lucy and Lucy’s sister, Beth are waiting.
‘Thanks for coming,’ says Beth, standing up to shake my hand.
‘It’s good of you,’ says Lucy. ‘Everyone’s been so kind.’
We take our seats.
It would make a good painting. The Visit. A broad and comfortable room, naturally lit by the low winter sun through the patio windows, a collection of old prints and portraits hung around the walls, ferns in planters, a baby grand covered with an antique shawl and a spread of family photos in simple, silver frames – and then the focus of the picture, the loving family leaning in on three sides of the table, me with my open folder, pen in hand, and Maud, snoozing in the background.
‘Can you just go over for me why Maud was taken to hospital in the first place?’ I say.
‘It was just before Christmas,’ says Lucy. ‘Mummy’s always been fiercely independent. She doesn’t like fuss and she’s absolutely resisted any attempt to get some help in with the garden.’
‘Imagine!’ smiles Eve.
‘Quel horreur!’ says Lucy, shaking her head.
‘Anyway. That’s the context. What we think happened is that Mummy was out there planting bulbs and having a bit of a tidy up – overdoing things as usual – came in and then suffered some sort of collapse. Not a stroke or her heart or anything. More a kind of giving out or a weakness in her legs. Whatever the reason, down she went and couldn’t get up again. Wasn’t wearing her red button, of course.’
‘I think it’s upstairs on the bathroom door,’ says Lucy.
‘Exactly. So there she was, down on the floor, and she just couldn’t get herself up again. The best she could manage was to shuffle about a bit – although not as far as the phone, sadly. Malcolm, a good friend and neighbour who lives just across the way, well Malcolm saw the light on quite late and rang Mummy to ask if everything was all right. When she didn’t answer he came over and let himself in with the key we’d given him…’
‘Thank God!’ says Beth.
‘…thank God!’ says Lucy. ‘Thank Malcolm! As soon as he found Mummy on the floor he called the ambulance. They were a while getting here, so once Malcolm had established that Mummy hadn’t broken any bones and so on, he helped her up and waited with her for the paramedics. She had every test you could think of at the hospital. Really – everyone’s been so kind….’
‘Absolutely!’ says Beth. ‘Thank you so much.’
‘…just amazing, actually. But aside from the usual wear-and-tear of Mummy’s osteoarthritis and her habit of doing too damned much, they couldn’t find anything wrong.’
‘A bit of a chest infection…’ says Beth.
‘Oh yes. The chest infection,’ says Ruth. ‘Beyond that, who can say? We’ve got some carers starting this evening. I think Mummy’s been given a bit of a frightener by all of this and she’s finally agreed to some help. One of us will stay tonight and however long it takes to get her back to strength. But she is ninety, you know. You can’t go on pretending you’re a young woman forever.’
And we all turn to look at Maud, fast asleep on the ottoman.


‘I’m ninety, you know!’
‘I can’t believe that!’ I say, touching Renee lightly on the arm. I have to admit it’s a lie, though. One of her eyes is permanently closed, giving her a lopsided, leering look, and when she speaks – with difficulty – she rolls up her mouth at the end of each sentence, taking most of the lower half of her face with it.
Rene is stuck on the commode. She wasn’t able to pull up her nightie, and opening her bowels has resulted in a mess that’s going to take some deft manoeuvring to sort out. At least I’m here with my colleague, Helen, though. Together we manage to stand Renee up, and whilst Helen keeps her steady, I set to work with quantities of tissue and wet wipes.
‘Sorry about that,’ she says.
‘Don’t worry, Renee.’
After a while she says: ‘We’ll have to take the decorations down soon.’
I glance up at the walls. There are three lines of red tinsel stuck with masking tape to the crumbling plaster above the fireplace – not delicate strips of tape; the kind you tear off in a hurry and slap on.
‘Shame. It goes so quickly,’ says Helen, adjusting her position as I struggle to free some more wipes.
‘Yes,’ says Renee. ‘Still. It can’t be Christmas all the time or it wouldn’t be special.’
Her son Graham watches us from the other side of the room. He seems to do a lot of that. He was watching at the front door as I parked the car, not waving back when I did, or even saying hello, merely turning with a flat, mildly irritated look and disappearing inside, like a bear plodding back into its cave when it finds winter still has a way to go.
‘How is she?’ he says, as we struggle to get her nightie over her head.
‘Not sure.’
A microwave dings in the kitchen.
‘D’you mind if I get my dinner?’
‘Go ahead!’ says Helen, dropping the soiled clothing into a bag.
After a minute or two Graham reappears with a plastic dish of curry. Instead of taking it upstairs or out back, he sits on the side of Renee’s hospital bed, and starts tucking in with a spoon.
‘Sure you don’t mind?’ he says.
It’s disquieting to see just how exactly the food looks like the mess we’ve just dealt with.
‘Absolutely,’ I say. ‘Smells good.’

character phones

Tony has a range of character phones. Tweety Pie, Hello Kitty, Bugs Bunny and so on. All of them bravely maintaining their expressions beneath the same grimy brown patina that covers everything in Tony’s room. It’s an astonishing thing, a dismal, bristling crust that wouldn’t look out of place on the wreck of a ship at the bottom of the Atlantic. And if this was a ship, I’d guess, through the visor of my mask, that I’d swum into the nursery, because encircling the whole room are three shelves, each of which is packed full of toys and childish souvenirs of every description: elephants, camels, teddy bears and finger drums, Chad Valley projectors and unidentifiable things in snow globes, figurines in decaying boxes from shows I’ve never heard of – the whole, mouldering cargo merging one thing into another, in one great soup of neglect.
‘Quite a collection you’ve got,’ I say as I take his blood pressure.
‘Inherited,’ he sniffs. ‘I had six relatives all die in the space of two years. I got rid of what I could. The rest just stayed.’
‘I’m sorry.’
‘It was a bad time that’s for sure,’ he says, rolling his sleeve down again. He coughs – such a sludgy sound it’s hard to resist the idea that his lungs are coated in the same noxious matter as the rest of the room. ‘I fell ill. And then my support worker died.’
‘How awful!’
‘He dropped dead in this room, right about where you’re standing now.’

you tell me

Charles, sleeping in a wing-backed chair
kippering by a two-bar heater
trousers sliding south,
hernia through an open shirt
like a burr on an ancient beech
or the head of an imp
in a breast-feeding nightmare
What d’you want? he says
his one good eye suddenly wide
like I tripped a wire somewhere
‘Sorry to wake you, Charles’
Hmmm he says, backing into his beard.
‘I won’t keep you long’
The room – oh! The room!
The room is a cliche of neglect
peeling paper – check
seamy bedclothes – uh-huh
everywhere that slow, sad laying-in of time.
Charles won’t agree to a thing, of course
not a temperature check,
pulse count or blood pressure
so I retreat to a plate
of tea and toast
and inconsequential chat
hoping that one word
will follow another
into something like acceptance
‘What did you do before you retired?’
handing him the mug
What do you mean?
‘You know. What work did you do?’
What work?
‘Before you retired?’
He lowers his face to the mug
and gabbles at the lip
like a goat invoking a curse
then, lowering it unsteadily again
to rest on the pate of his hernia,
he fixes me with that eye,
that furious, shining, ineluctable eye
I’m ninety-five! he shouts
You tell me!