portrait

Ella’s flat faces the sea – so close you could run out of the front door, across the road and dive straight in. When I step out of the car I can’t help but stand for a moment and take it all in. There’s a break in the morning rain, the sun is shining powerfully, and suddenly the sea is a phosphorescent slice of pure light. The wind turbines on the horizon are as clear as I’ve ever seen them, delicate cuts of white, their rotors imperceptibly turning against the inky clouds of the next weather front.

When I’d rung ahead to make the appointment, Ella had said to use the keysafe to let myself in. It’s a complicated arrangement, though. Ella’s flat is on the ground floor, but because the building is in a conservation area the keysafe has to be hidden away in the basement. ‘It’s in the second cupboard on the right,’ she’d said. But the front door is in the centre of the building with two windows either side, so in fact there are two basement flats, right and left of the main steps. It feels intuitive to take the steps down the right hand side basement, but when I get there I find only one cupboard, fixed with a rusting padlock. So I go back up, down the other steps, find the keysafe, retrieve the keys, come back up. There are three keys on the keyring; none of them fits the front door. I stand there stupidly for a minute, jangling the keys, trying to figure out how this could possibly make sense – until I look up, and realise I’ve actually gone one door along.

As it turns out, I didn’t need the keys. Ella’s son Peter and his wife Becky are with her. Ella stands in the middle of the living room, still in her hospital gown, tags on her wrists, holding on to her zimmer frame, whilst they put her shopping away.
‘I bought you plenty of pineapple,’ says Becky, holding up a plastic carton as big as the fruit itself. ‘I know you like it.’
‘Where does this go?’ says Peter, waving a pack of panty liners in the air.
‘Bedroom cabinet, second drawer down,’ says Ella. And so on.

The room is like a domestic version of a royal court, the walls dressed in rich tapestries and huge, abstract paintings, the furniture a mixture of ethnic and modern, the rug on the floor intricately patterned. With the sunshine streaming in through the windows, the whole thing has a rich, painterly feel, like Caravaggio decided to branch out from biblical scenes, this one called: ‘The Hospital Discharge’.

‘Let’s get you sat down,’ I say to her. ‘Then we’ll talk.’
She shuffles over to a chair set in the middle of the room, very much like a throne, with claw feet, woven back, and – incongruously – a pressure cushion.
‘I feel absolutely dreadful,’ she says when she’s settled.
‘In what way, dreadful?’
‘Just that. Dreadful. What more do you need?’
‘Are you in pain?’
‘Pain? Everywhere, darling.’
‘Where do you feel it most?’
She waves a hand in mid air.
‘Agony,’ she says.
‘Do you feel sick?’
‘Sick? No.’
‘Short of breath?’
‘I’m always short of breath. Haven’t you read the notes?’
‘Yes, but I just want to see how you are right now – if anything’s worse, or about the same…’
She closes her eyes and gently shakes her head.
‘If by the same you mean dreadful, then yes, I’m the same.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
‘And I’m sorry to feel it.’
‘I got you some of those yogurts you like,’ says Becky, from the kitchen.
‘I couldn’t possibly,’ says Ella. ‘Not in a million years.’
‘Well – I’ll put them in the fridge for later.’
‘If you must.’
‘Right. I’ll just do some obs and then we’ll take it from there,’ I say, unpacking my bag and then kneeling in front of her chair.
‘Obs?’ says Ella, suddenly glaring down at me. ‘What d’you mean, obs?’
‘Observations. Your blood pressure, temperature, that kind of thing.’
She sighs, then closing her eyes and resting her head back, holds out her hand – whether it’s for me to kiss or put the SATS probe on, it’s hard to say.
‘If you think it will help,’ she says.

little red mathematician

‘I must say everyone’s been so nice’ says Anthony, staring down at me with his arms folded as I clean the blood off his toes. ‘For the most part. And even then you can see why they might be a bit off. Pressure of work and all that. The hospital was absolute bedlam, of course. People coming and going at all hours of the day and night.’
‘I don’t think they’re very restful places, hospitals.’
‘No. I spent three weeks trying to escape. And it was always the same thing. We’ll tell you when we think you’re ready to be discharged they’d say. We’re just waiting on this result or that review. And on and on it went, absolutely without end. Until one morning a nurse appeared and started shoving things in a bag and said I had half an hour before the transport arrived.’
‘That must’ve been a shock!’
‘I couldn’t believe it. I thought it was a dream. I had such odd dreams in hospital, you see. I couldn’t tell what was real and what wasn’t. I had one particularly vivid dream about bicycles.’
‘Bicycles?’
‘Red ones. Growing out of the ground, like trees. What d’you suppose that means?’
‘I don’t know. It sounds kind of stuck.’
‘Well I suppose so. I was ready to start tunneling my way out with a spoon.’
There’s a knock on the door.
‘Ah! That’ll be June!’ he says, pushing himself more upright on the chair, dragging his cast leg back on the stool. ‘You couldn’t let her in, could you?’

When I open the front door I’m met by a small elderly woman dressed entirely in red. A red tartan shawl with darker red patches and golden thread; a red blouse fastened at the neck with a beetle brooch; a red corduroy skirt; red stockings, and shiny red patent leather shoes. She’s carrying a wicker basket with the handle looped over her arm, and the basket is draped with a white cheesecloth square.
‘Cake!’ says June, smiling at me as innocently as if I was a wolf dressed in a nurse’s tunic. ‘For the invalid!’
I can tell by the way she marches round the corner and into the flat that she’s been here many times before.
‘Helloooo!’ she calls ahead. ‘Only me!’

Anthony makes the introductions when I follow after her into the living room.
‘June is my oldest friend. The best mathematician I know. And I know a few.’
‘Oh now!’ says June, but she doesn’t deny it, giving me a broad, red-lipped smile instead.
‘We’re going to celebrate Anthony’s release with a lovely morning eating cake and talking algebra,’ she says, resting the basket on the table.
‘Well don’t mind me’ I say. ‘I’m all done with the foot. All that’s left is to write up the notes and I’ll leave you to it.’
I pick up the folder and click my pen. ‘And I promise I’ll only chip in if I hear you say anything completely outrageous about the theorems.’
‘Theorems?’ says June, suddenly serious. ‘What d’you mean? What theorems?’
‘Only kidding,’ I tell her. ‘I struggle putting the right number of shoes on in the morning.’
She looks at Anthony, they both laugh, and she sweeps off into the kitchen to divide up the cake.