No reply on Henry’s landline or mobile, so I call Nancy, his daughter.
‘He should be in,’ she says. ‘Unless he’s gone out.’
‘Shall I just take pot luck and pitch up? Will he mind?’
‘No. He won’t mind. Are you alright with dogs?’
‘Yeah. I like dogs.’
‘Don’t worry, Nancy. Look – I’ll call you when I’m there and let you know your dad’s alright.’
Half an hour later, I’m standing outside the front door, sheltering as best I can from the kind of supersaturating rain that drags along the street in sudden waves like the pleats of a monstrous ball gown dragging through town. There’s no answer at the door. What’s even more worrying is that when I call Henry’s landline again I can’t hear the phone ringing inside the house. Have I got the right number? There’s a keysafe by the door that I don’t have the code to – so the easiest thing is to ring Nancy again. She confirms the address. When I ask about the keysafe she says there’s no key in it.
‘Not that I know the code anyway. He keeps changing it. I’m worried he hasn’t answered the door, though.’
‘Maybe he took the dog for a walk,’ I say, glancing behind me at the rain, imagining the two of them paddling off in a canoe.
‘Maybe, she says. ‘He’s crazy enough. I’ll come over.’
‘Do you live nearby?’
‘About twenty minutes at a trot. I’ll come through the park so I’ll catch him if he’s there. See you soon.’
She hangs up.
I peer through the letterbox and ring the doorbell at the same time. Nothing, not a hint of movement, not the sound of a dog or any other living thing.
I check the back door. That’s locked, too. I peer through the windows but can’t make anything out. The only thing to do is wait for Nancy, so I hurry back to my car. At least I’ll be warm and dry. I can’t see the front door from there, though, so I decide to wait ten minutes and try again. Maybe Henry will have come back. If not, Nancy will pretty much have made it.
This time when I ring the doorbell, there’s a furious barking from deep inside the house, followed by what sounds like a basketball bouncing down the stairs and colliding with the front door. A light goes on. Just discernible beneath all the barking, the sound of creaking stairs. After a minute or two, the door chain gets thrown back. A white haired Westie – presumably Eric – head butts my ankles as Henry stands there narrowing his eyes. He’s still in his vest and pyjama bottoms.
‘I was in bed,’ he says, with an edge.
‘Sorry to disturb you!’ I say. ‘The doctor has asked me to come and take some blood.’
‘Has he?’ says Henry.
Eric is pretty much frisking me for evidence so I crouch down to make it easier.
‘Nancy’s on her way over?’ I say.
‘Oh?’ says Henry. ‘What does she want?’
‘She wants to know you’re alright. We were worried because you weren’t answering your phones.’
‘They’re downstairs and I’m upstairs,’ he says, as if that settles it. ‘I suppose you’d best come in.’
Eric gruffs and puffs and snuffs and follows close behind me as I go through into a wood panelled room set up just-so, a high backed chair in front of a television, a fleecy basket between the two, a small breakfast table, a tiny sofa. Henry gestures for me to sit on the sofa.
‘Won’t be a tick,’ he says, then leaves the room.
I sit on the sofa. Eric jumps up and sits at right angles, staring at me.
‘Alright, Eric?’ I say, tickling his chest, which he accepts a little grumpily, like a guard who’ll take a bribe but won’t commit.
The house falls silent again.
Eric continues to stare at me.
For a second I have a dizzy, prickly kind of feeling, like I’ve dreamed all this, that actually I’m Henry, and Eric is my dog, and Eric is just concerned because I’m having another one of my turns.
There’s the sound of a key in the lock. I snap-to and realise with a guilty lurch I should probably have called Nancy to say her dad was home and okay and let me in. But it’s too late. She’s standing in the hallway now, soaked to the bone, frowning at me as she swipes off her hat. And once again I have the disquieting, telescopic feeling that I’m Henry, this is my house, Nancy is my daughter, and I’m going to have to explain to her – once again – why I didn’t answer the phone, and also why I’m sitting on the sofa dressed as a nurse.
It doesn’t help that Eric is still staring at me, unblinking.
‘Hello Nancy,’ I say.
If you work on the coordination desk long enough you’ll feel yourself change.
Nothing dramatic or immediate, but imperceptibly, stealthily. It’s a hazard of the job, the frantic business of it, tapping away at the computer keys, answering two phones at once, taking questions from colleagues who wait in a restive line like shoppers at the Deli counter. A function of the distracted firing of your brain cells, the agitated beating of your heart, the immobility of your body in the chair. All these things will take hold, come together and warp you at a genetic level, cannoning your atoms into novel patterns like a drunken God with a billiard cue until – too late – you realise you ARE the phone, you have BECOME the computer, you have ABSORBED the notepad. You’ll only notice at the end of the day, when you go to stretch and your arm snaps in half because it’s changed into a pencil. Or you roll your neck to ease the cramp and your head logs off. Or you go to stand up but you can’t because your vasculature is now the furniture and your spinal cord has extended through the floor tiles and uploaded you to the network.
That’s the down side.
The upside is that eventually you’ll find yourself in synch with the office. You’ll be tuned-in to everything happening around you without even trying. You’ll be working the desk like a dreaming, caffeine-crazed spider, a little bored maybe, a little restless, your compound eyes flickering with the light of the database, whilst you unconsciously monitor the action around you by the vibrations you feel through your feet.
Which is a complicated way of saying I was aware Karen was on the phone before I really knew it.
Sophie was talking to her. Sophie is one of the administrators. She’s on the frontline of the operation, taking calls, giving information, directions, advice, or deciding where to redirect – which more often than not means patching them through to the coordinators. Sophie is great at her job. She’s warm and friendly, however long the day or trying the circumstances. I love the way she answers each call with the same intonation – saying the company name with a flourish like she was throwing a fancy tablecloth over a workbench. But then her tone changes immediately, coming down a notch, and within seconds she’s speaking to the caller as if she was gossiping with a favourite aunt.
Only this time, she wasn’t.
Sometimes even Sophie struggles to connect with the caller – especially if the caller is Karen.
Karen has been referred to us many times before. She’s difficult, in the way that Medusa was difficult, except in Karen’s case it’s not snakes but pugs. She lives in a state of constant war with everyone and everything, storming through the world with a half dozen pugs clutched to her chest, their bug eyes an expression of the stress she’s under, or the strength of her grip, or both.
I zone into the conversation half way through.
‘…Karen? Karen? I’m afraid you’ll have to put the dogs in another room or something because I can’t hear a word you’re saying…. Karen? Karen? Honestly – it’s impossible. Put the pugs in another room, Karen. Yes. That’s right. Another room. And shut the door… I’m sure they’ll be fine… it’s just for a minute, Karen, so I can understand what the problem is. Lovely. Thank you. Could you start again, please? …. Okay… Okay…. So you need help of some kind, is that right? A nurse. Okay. Well – I see from the notes here that a nurse came round to see you about an hour ago and you didn’t let them in… Is that right, Karen? …. Okay…. Okay…. Well, as I’m sure you’ll appreciate, it’s difficult for us to specify male or female… No, Karen. They’re all nurses. They’ve taken the same qualification…. It’s very difficult to do that, Karen. We can try, but it may mean a delay in getting you the help… Yes. I understand that, Karen…. I’m sorry you feel that, Karen…. but they probably only knocked like the police because they didn’t know whether you’d heard them or not… Well, because of the dogs barking….Yes, well, I’m sorry your dogs were upset by that… I’m sure they do… Karen? If you want to put in a complaint you’re more than welcome to do so. But if I could just… if I could just… No, that’s not what I’m saying, Karen…. if I could just…Have you let the dogs back in, Karen?..Karen…?’
Sophie holds the phone away from her ear, catches my eye, shakes her head, plunges back in.
‘Let me put you through to Jim,’ she says. ‘Maybe he can help…’
She punches in my extension.
‘Karen for you,’ she says when I pick up. ‘Good luck.’
And when my phone connects, it’s like a bone being tossed in the middle of a dog fight.
this ol’ hound is proper glitchy
incredibly itchy, unfeasibly twitchy
he harrumphs and garrumphs when he rolls on his back
his big wiry paws paddling then slack
like he’s having a canine heart attack
then he sneezes
carries on as he pleases
this ol’ hound is proper chaotic
sometimes floppy, sometimes robotic
he runs up the stairs like a rugby team in boots
but he’s sneaky when it suits
creeping round the kitchen to sniff with his snoots
or you’ll trip and break a hip I swear
this ol’ hound is proper crazy
fifty percent hyperactive, fifty percent lazy
he sleeps so deep you can watch him dream
gamboling through landscapes of rabbits and streams
giant foil trays of doggy supremes
till he wakes with a start
a sad little bark
back to reality with a broken heart
this ol’ hound is proper distracting
it’s impossible to work with the way he’s acting
staring at you long and hard
then marching around the room with a placard
‘Wark!’ (which – you’ll admit – for a dog isn’t bad)
till you crack
fill your pockets with snacks
take him round the park and back
Lolly and Richard slot around each other like two old spoons. Or two pieces of an antique jigsaw (maybe ‘Seaside View’ or ‘A Day at the Races’). Everything they do is coordinated. The way they move, for example. Even though it’s a big house they seem to continually be in each other’s way. When Lolly starts up the stairs, Richard wants to come down. When Lolly heads for the sitting room, Richard comes out. When Lolly goes into the kitchen to fetch something, Richard goes with her, so that when she turns round, she has to put her hands on his shoulders and manoeuvre past him in something that – from a safe distance – looks suspiciously like a dance. Their conversation is slotted, too. Their sentences run into each other. They finish what the other was saying. They snipe, but in such a practised and good-natured way, they’re like two elderly vaudevillians whose routine is domestic war and loving irritation. They’ve been touring this show for so long now and they know their parts back to front. It’s a job to see where one performer ends and the other begins.
They’ve got a dog, too. Willard – a Golden Retriever.
To begin with, I think it’s Willard who answers the door when I ring. It’s the way he paws it to one side, with such an open and happy expression I half-expect him to say Good Morning and How may I help? Instead, the door opens even wider and I see Lolly standing there.
‘You’re the nurse are you?’ she says. ‘Good. Maybe you can take him away. He’s driving me mad. ‘
‘Who is it Lolly? Who’s there?’
‘It’s the nurse. Come to give you a brain transplant.’
‘A brain transplant? Excellent. Ask him if he’ll give you a heart at the same time.’
‘Where do you want him?’ says Lolly, sighing and looking back at me. ‘I could give you a couple of suggestions.’
In the meantime, Richard has come halfway down the stairs.
‘I’m easy,’ I say. ‘Wherever he’s most comfortable.’
‘He wants you in the bedroom,’ says Lolly, putting a hand on the balustrade, as if she’s going to stop him coming any further by main force.
‘I’m glad somebody does.’
‘Oh dear God,’ says Lolly. She sighs. ‘He’s been a bit – you know – since the op.’
It’s one of the reasons I’ve been asked to visit, to check the wound and make sure he hasn’t got an infection. The GP has already given him some antibiotics, delivered remotely, as they often are these days. I wouldn’t be surprised if next year they started using drones. Although – to be fair – looking at myself reflected in the hallway mirror – it looks like they already are.
Lolly starts up the stairs. There’s a battle royale, Richard wanting to come down, Lolly telling him to reverse. I say I don’t mind where. Richard says he wants the sitting room. Okay I say. No says Lolly. Reverse. Lie on the bed. Willard is right behind me, smiling broadly. The four of us continue up the stairs in one well-coordinated bundle.
‘He’s been hallucinating,’ says Lolly, as Richard lies back on the bed.
‘I have not,’ he says.
‘Yes you have, darling.’
‘Why? What happened?’
‘There!’ says Lolly, nodding at me. ‘Even his memory’s going.’
‘No, no!’ says Richard, quite happily, adjusting the pillows behind his head and then folding his hands on his tummy. ‘I’m simply disputing your version of events.’
‘You said there was a big orange fish behind the telly.’
‘Not was, darling. Is. There IS a big orange fish behind the telly.’
‘You see,’ says Lolly. ‘D’you think it’s serious?’
‘Have a look for yourself!’ says Richard.
‘Oh for goodness sake.’
I go over to the telly.
‘I hate to say this, Lolly – but there is actually a big orange fish down there.’
‘Not you too… oh!’
We’re both looking down at the gap behind the telly. There’s a cuddly toy lying on the cables – a Finding Nemo clown fish.
‘Well who put that there?’ says Lolly.
Willard looks up at me with a broadly innocent look on his face. I’m immediately suspicious.
‘Search me’ says Richard. ‘Look – are we going to do this thing or not? Because quite frankly, I’m hungry and I want my kippers.’
‘That’s a good sign,’ I say, turning back to the bed.
‘Is it?’ sighs Lolly. ‘Is it?’
‘All our dogs have started with a W,’ says Lolly, as I tidy up my things. ‘First there was Winston. Then it was Willow.’
‘No, darling. No. It was Wilma after Winston. Then it was Willow.’
‘You’re quite right. Winston. Wilma. Willow. Willard.’
‘I like that!’ I say. ‘How did it all start?’
‘It was Lolly’s idea,’ says Richard.
‘They’ve all been rescues,’ says Lolly. ‘We didn’t like their names so we had to change them. Winston was easy, because his original was Branston.’
‘Like the pickle,’ says Richard.
‘Like the pickle,’ says Lolly. ‘We didn’t like the idea of calling out Branston and immediately thinking of pickle. Neither of us likes pickle. So we wanted a name that sounded like Branston, so the dog wouldn’t get confused. And Winston seemed to fit.’
‘So that was the first W?’
‘Yes. And after that it just became a bit of a thing.’
‘Wilma was originally Alma,’ says Richard. ‘But I didn’t fancy that. Shouting Alma! Alma! was like barking yourself.’
‘So we called her Wilma,’ says Lolly. ‘It was a bit tricky to begin with, because we had to bend the name into shape gradually, so the dog wouldn’t get confused.’
‘You should’ve seen her,’ says Richard. ‘Standing there going AAHHAUUUUWAUUHMMMAAA! Everyone must’ve thought she was mad.’
‘No darling. They thought I was a singer doing vocal exercises.’
I look down at Willard. He returns the gaze.
‘So – what about Willard?’
‘Ah!’ says Lolly. ‘Willard was the exception. Willard has always been Willard. Haven’t you, darling?’
And I have to admit, I’ve never seen a dog agree more.
When I walk into the front garden, a young collie rushes up from the back garden to the rusting, curlicue iron gate that pens it in, pushes its muzzle through the gaps, and barks crazily. I say hello, which only makes it worse, of course. It’s a funny-looking dog. The eyes are different colours – one brown, one blue – which, along with the patchwork black and white fur, mismatched paws, one ear up, one ear down, reminds me of an oil painting my auntie Ollie did of a collie dog, staring up from a hectic, pea-green background.
‘Whose dog is that?’ I said.
‘No-one’s,’ she said. ‘I did it off the calendar.’
All that remains of the keysafe at the front door is the base, though, and I realise that I’m expected to go to the side door, beyond the gate guarded by the mad dog. It gets so excited when it sees me coming back to the gate, it does an insane war dance on its back legs, spinning round on the spot, stopping itself by slamming its paws against the gate, then spinning round in the other direction. It looks pretty crazy, but I think what the hell, and reach in to flip the latch. The dog runs off into the garden, then sprints back with an empty plastic Coke bottle.
‘Thanks!’ I say.
It drops it at my feet. I toss it away into the garden again, then seize my chance to go through the kitchen door standing open on my right. ‘Hell-oooo…’
Maisie is lying on her bed in the gloom. There’s a substantial electric mobility scooter in the bedroom doorway – more like one of those big, sit-on mowers – with a seamy jacket slung over the seat and a basket filled with crap strapped to the bumper.
‘Over here,’ says Maisie.
The dog rushes in behind me and prostrates itself on the floor with the Coke bottle in its mouth, biting it with loud crackles.
‘Flash! Leave him alone!’ says Maisie. Flash drops the bottle and smile-pants up at me. I stroke Flash’s head, then straighten up, breathe in, and squeeze past the scooter into the bedroom.
‘The diet starts tomorrow,’ I say.
I’m guessing there’s been a partial deep clean at some point. There are lots of yellow bags zip-locked, piled up around the place. Maisie’s bed seems enormous, Maisie spread-eagled on it, like a depressed housewife cast adrift in a yellow ocean on a giant orange sponge.
‘’Scuse the mess,’ she says.
The phone rings. She grunts and rolls towards the side table. Before I have a chance to pass the phone to her, she knocks it off its base and the two things fall down the back of the bed. To be fair, it would be difficult NOT to knock anything off Maisie’s side table. It’s a cheap, warped affair, made worse by the fact it’s littered with stuff – bottles of spray, a glass of water, a mobile phone, an alarm clock. When I retrieve the phone and the base, hand Maisie the phone, and put the base back on the stand, I knock the alarm clock off. When I retrieve the alarm clock and set it down again, I knock the phone base back onto the floor.
‘Jesus Christ!’ I say.
‘Whoopsie!’ says Maisie. She holds the phone to her nose and prods the buttons myopically. ‘Dunno who that was,’ she says after a while. She hands me the phone. ‘Don’t drop it,’ she says.
I rearrange the side table as best I can, then start in on the examination.
Turns out, the phone call was from the pharmacist. She rings again and this time Maisie manages to answer it without anything else happening. There’s a long conversation, Maisie saying yes or no or yes or no or sometimes, all in a bored, non-committal way – then hands the phone to me.
‘She wants to talk to you,’ she says.
The pharmacist is someone I know well. She has the kind of incisive questioning that’s light and pleasant but still makes you sit up a little straighter.
‘Maisie says she hasn’t got her medication. It should be in a green bag somewhere. Could you check for me?’
I don’t have to check very hard; the bag is right there in front of me, beside the table. Not only that, the drug chart in the folder at the foot of the bed shows that the carers gave the morning dose as prescribed.
‘Good!’ says the pharmacist. ‘That’s a relief! Although why she told me she didn’t have it….is she confused this morning?’
‘No, she seems pretty orientated and okay. All her obs are fine…’
Flash has climbed on the bed by this point. He’s lying on his back with his legs in the air as Maisie tickles his tummy.
Who’s a silly boy? Who’s a silly boy?
Flash stares at me with his tongue hanging out, his mismatched eyes spinning with ecstasy.
‘No. She seems fine,’ I say.
The pharmacist has arranged to visit later to check up on things. I say goodbye to Maisie, and with the dog leaping around me like a species of giant flea, I see myself out, closing the gate as quietly as I can behind me.
I open my laptop and write my notes in the car. There are a few things to sort out, so I’m there fifteen minutes or so. I’m just about to finish up and move on when I hear a clatter from the gate. Maisie is coming out on the electric scooter, Flash trotting by her side. Maisie pauses at the front of the garden. She pulls out a packet of fags, nips one out with her lips, lights the fag with a flip of her Zippo, puts the packet back in her pocket, all in one smooth, practised motion. Then she sits there smoking a minute or two, looking right and left along the street, blowing smoke from her nose in a business-like way. Then she twists the key on the scooter again and heads right, at speed, to the park, I’d guess, with Flash high-stepping alongside her, trying to avoid the wheels. On the top of the basket, I can see an empty plastic Coke bottle rattling from side to side.
I wonder who put it there.
Sounds beautiful. Magical. I bet the architect was a fan of Lord of the Rings. You expect to see an ancient castle draped in moss and mist, with strange, long-legged birds circling and crying overhead, a plangent waterfall and so on, elfcetera, elfcetera. Instead what you get is an anonymous, pre-fab block just off the high street, tucked away behind a phony Italian restaurant. It’s only been up a year or so but already it has a tired, beaten-down kind of look, strips of tape over the intercom where the buttons have fallen off. If the same architect had worked on Helm’s Deep, I don’t think Saruman would’ve needed much more than a couple of orcs and a wheelbarrow to tear the place down.
The one magical thing about Avondale, though, is its uncanny ability to screw up the SatNav. The app doesn’t recognise the postcode at all, and ends up recommending you ‘make a u-turn’ and then ‘make another u-turn’ so that if you were truly dependent on it, you’d end up simply driving in a circle at the bottom of the high street until you ran out of fuel or the police threw stingers down.
I know all about Avondale, though.
I’ve been here before.
Cherry lives on the first floor with her little Jack Russell, Dave. Cherry has a long list of health problems, from mental health and self-harming to morbid obesity, diabetes, breathing problems and recurrent infections, and she’s been referred to us many times in the past. She’s got a reputation for being difficult, but I think because I make a fuss of Dave whenever I go there she takes it easy on me.
‘Cherry was pretty sick this time,’ says Michela, the co-ordinator. ‘She went in with an exacerbation of COPD, but then self-discharged against advice. She was so bad they gave her home oxygen. So can you pop-in, see how she’s doing? Get her to sign a non-concordance form if necessary.’
Cherry is propped up in bed watching CSI. The first thing I notice – after Dave has finished leaping madly around my legs – is that Cherry’s wearing a nasal cannula connected by a long, plastic tube that snakes across the bed to an oxygen cylinder by the window. The second thing I notice is the fag in her mouth.
‘Erm … Cherry? You really can’t be smoking when you’re using oxygen.’
‘What? Wha’dy’a mean?’
‘You’ll blow yourself up. And everyone else. You’ll send Dave into orbit. Honestly, mate – you’ve got to put the fag out.’
She shrugs, pinches the end out, and rests it carefully on the ashtray by the bed.
‘Thank you,’ I say. ‘I’m sorry to be so blunt about it, but you absolutely cannot smoke with oxygen around. This whole place’ll go up.’
‘I only have one now and again. It’s not a problem.’
The heaped ashtray and the smoky fug in the room tell a different story. I know I’ll have to report this to her GP and the Community Respiratory Team as soon as I’m back in the car, but for now I move on.
Dave is on the bed now. He rolls onto his back so I can rub his tummy, his tongue lolling out with the ecstasy of it all.
‘So how’ve you been?’ I say to Cherry. ‘Sorry to hear about your recent hospital trip.’
‘Yeah – well. What can you do? They said I had to go. I didn’t want to. I mean – what are they going to do about anything?’
‘I don’t know, Cherry. But to be fair, they do seem to have done quite a bit. Put you on IV antibiotics, sent you for chest x-rays, got you back on your feet.’
‘Yeah, but they didn’t, did they? Look at me!’
‘It says in your notes you self discharged against advice. Is that right?’
‘They made it impossible. It was noisy. I couldn’t sleep. They wake you up every five minutes to fiddle about. The nurses were rude. The food was unbelievable. I mean – you’ve got to be really sick to want to go to that place.’
‘That’s true. And from the sounds of it – I think you were pretty sick. And still are.’
I unclip the SATS probe from her finger.
‘Your oxygen levels are terrible, Cherry – even for you. And that’s five minutes after you came off the oxygen.’
‘Yeah – and I’d still be on it if you hadn’t said.’
‘It’s a choice, though, isn’t it. No oxygen and low SATS, or oxygen and burst into flames. Isn’t it, Dave? Isn’t it…?’
Something suddenly occurs to him, because he flips himself upright again, hurls himself off the bed, and skitters off across the laminate flooring into the kitchen.
‘Oh my God! Wait for it,’ says Cherry.
There’s a single, loud squeak from the kitchenette, and then Dave hurries back with a red, rubber bone in his mouth. It’s so big he can’t make it up on the bed again without a boost from me. As soon as he’s there, though, he chows up and down on it, making it squeak as regularly as a monitor in a hospital for clowns.
‘God – it’s noisier than the ward,’ says Cherry. ‘And before you say anything, I don’t care, I’m not going back.’
I look down at Dave.
‘What do you think?’ I ask him. ‘What do you think mummy should do?’
He stares up at me, panting excitedly, flicking his eyes without moving his head…. down to the bone…. up to me…… down to the bone…up to me.
‘Dave says it’s tricky.’
I press the bell and wait. The porch door is shut but the inner one is open and I can see through into the house. A dark hallway with a baby gate halfway. It’s all pretty quiet.
I press the bell again. The button is held together with weathered tape and doesn’t look too healthy. It’s only then I see there’s a piece of paper tacked to the window. The writing has faded almost to nothing but I can just make it out: Bell not working. Please knock.
As soon as I do, there’s a wild yapping and snarling from the front room, and a caramel coloured Jack Russell hurtles out into the hallway and throws itself at the gate. Although ‘hurtles’ isn’t quite right – more a cross between hurtling and a skitterish kind of wobble. At any rate, the expression on its tiny face is one of the purest and most pitiless hatred.
‘Peanut! Be quiet! Go in the garden, darling! Go on! In the garden!’
Peanut pays no attention, but spreads its paws, daring me to come any further.
‘I’m in here!’ says the man.
I put my hand on the handle.
Peanut narrows her eyes and gives a hectic sneeze.
I open the door.
Peanut goes completely nuts. She swells to twice her size, her eyes bulging out, like I’ve inadvertently cracked the outer door on a space station, and the catastrophic change in pressure is making her pop.
I’m good with dogs but I’m not stupid. I wait for the man to appear, to give me some credibility. Instead I hear him cry out in pain from the front room. There’s nothing for it but to go forward and brave the beast.
‘No, Peanut!’ I say in an Alpha wolf voice. ‘No.’
Peanut obviously doesn’t care for wolves. As soon as I open the baby gate it goes for me. The only thing that saves me is the fact that Peanut is old and fat and her range of movement is seriously compromised. It also helps that she doesn’t have any teeth. All she can manage is a furious gumming of my shoes, which sounds horrendous but is actually quite pleasant, how I imagine it would feel like if I stuck my foot up through the sunroof when I put the car through the car wash. The only real danger is that when I carry on walking she’ll trip me up. Maybe that’s the plan. Maybe the moment I’m down she’ll roll up onto my face and suffocate me. Luckily I manage to stay upright, though, lifting my legs like some kind of fastidious wading bird, high-stepping through a lake of hostile fish into the front room.
‘Good girl!’ says the man, approvingly.
Whatever made the man cry out has passed. He’s perfectly calm.
‘On the sofa, Peanut. On the sofa. Hup!’
The dog is too exhausted from the shoe wars. Anyway, if there was ever a dog in the history of dogs less likely to jump onto a sofa at the word Hup it’s Peanut. She completely ignores the man, choosing instead to wobble exhaustedly over to the far side of the man’s chair, collapsing on the carpet with an audible whump like someone delivering coal.
‘Oh Peanuuuuut!’ says the man, drawing out the last syllable into a tortured wail. Of all the things to despair about, this is the least worst thing. Peanut’s obviously used to it. She gives another of her disdainful sneezes, then settles her face onto her paws. With her huge eyes and curled lip, she’s a spit for Peter Lorre.
‘What are we going to do with you, Peanut?’ says the man.
‘Does she have a harness?’ I ask him.
‘There. Behind you,’ he says, gesturing to the sofa with his scrubby chin.
I pick it up. It’s a complicated affair, heavily-padded corduroy, confusing straps and velcro and snappy fixings. It looks more like a Victorian straitjacket.
I hold it up.
‘Peanut! Who’s a good girl…?’
I saw Marian over the woods
her young golden-eyed GSP
rapt, en pointe
– Where’s the other one?
Oh – didn’t I tell you?
I had to say goodbye to Helga on Monday
– I’m so sorry
Long story short
She’d gone a little lame
I put her on Metacam and bed rest
It seemed to clear up okay
then I felt a lump on her neck
took her to the vet
lipoma they said
we’ll keep an eye on it
a few days later she stopped eating
I took her back
they did a scan
liver, kidneys, lungs
– where DIDN’T they find cancer? –
they talked about chemo
but I didn’t want to put her through that
I’ve always thought
you have to know when to act
better a few days early
than a week too late
– I’m so sorry
she was such a game dog
– I know
80 pheasants last year
did you know
there are badgers over there
their setts last 200 years
I remember once
coming back from a shoot
me and Helga saw
some badger cubs
playing with some fox cubs
right about where you’re standing
Helga looked up at me
as if to say
what do you want me to do about this?
so I said to her
I said Helga – RELAX
let’s just stand a while and watch
I’d met George a few times in the past, so I had my doubts.
‘You have to take him,’ said Lyra, the manager of the rehab unit. ‘He’s been here six weeks and it was only supposed to be a couple of days.’
‘But you say he’s hoist only now?’
‘In that house?’
‘And it’s been cleared? It was so tiny and cluttered. You’ve actually managed to fit a hoist and a commode in there?’
There’s an ominous pause.
‘Yes,’ she says. ‘I wouldn’t be sending him home, otherwise. Would I?’
The conversation hadn’t started well.
George had been referred to us for an initial assessment. I’d phoned the unit to clear a couple of things up. When the first person answered I went through the usual spiel: Hello. My name’s Jim. I’m a nursing assistant from the Rapid Response team. I’m just calling to find out about George’s discharge today.
‘Oh. Hold on. You need to talk to another nurse.’
She put the phone down on the desk without muting it, so I could hear her calling out (although the other person was too far away to hear): I don’t know. Some guy asking about George…. I don’t know what he wants…. Why don’t you speak to him?…. Well where IS she?…..
Then some general clattering, muttering, background noise. Laughter. Eventually someone else picked the phone up from the desk.
‘Hell-oo?’ she said, in that drawn-out, slightly hesitant voice you might use for a sales call or worse.
‘Oh – yes – hello! My name’s Jim. I’m a nursing assistant from the Rapid Response team. Sorry to bother you. I’m just calling to find out about George’s discharge today.’
‘No. Who are you?’
‘Me? I’m Jim. Nursing assistant. Rapid Response Team.’
‘Just a minute…’
She puts the phone back down on the desk, again – without pushing the mute button.
I don’t know. He says he’s a nursing assistant called Jim. Asking about George.
There’s some toing and froing between the two, then she picks the phone up again.
‘What is it you want exactly?’
‘Well – two things. One is that on the discharge summary they give an address that’s different to the one we’ve got. So we need to clear that up. And the other thing is to find out what time he’ll be home.’
‘Just a minute…’
She does the same thing. This time, I’m waiting for five minutes, hanging on the phone, listening to all the traffic and fuss of the unit. Just as I’m about to hang up and call again later, the phone gets picked up by someone else.
‘Hello. Erm. Yep. My name’s Jim. I’m a nursing assistant from the Rapid Response Team. Erm.. can I ask who I’m talking to?’
‘My name’s Sheila. How can I help?’
‘Are you a nurse, or …’
‘Yes – I’m a nurse.’
‘Great! Do you know about George Masters?’
‘What about him?’
I take a breath, then go into the two things I need to know about George so we can be there to do the initial assessment.
‘You need to speak to Lyra,’ she says.
‘The unit manager… LYRA…!’ she shouts, so loudly I have to lean away from the receiver. She slams the unmuted phone back down on the desk.
Another five minutes.
Eventually the phone gets picked up again.
‘Hello? Lyra speaking?’
‘Hi Lyra. Can I just say, before I go on – I’m not all that happy with the way this phone call has gone. I’ve spoken to three different people. They’ve all put the phone down without even muting it, so I can hear them shouting across the unit…’
‘Don’t get clippy with me,’ says Lyra.
‘I’m not clippy, I’m just saying…’
‘I don’t appreciate your tone…’
‘All I’m saying is that it’s been really frustrating ringing your unit today….’
‘We’re busy. What d’you expect?’
‘I think you need to look at the way you speak to people. Who did you say you were?’
We struggled on with the conversation, but by the time I hung up I was sweating more than a pilot who’d spent half an hour fighting to stop a plane crash.
‘So – when’s he home?’ said Anna, who was due to handle the initial assessment with me.
‘She’ll call me,’ I said. ‘Maybe.’
To be fair, from that point on Lyra was more amenable. I think it was because she was desperate to discharge George, who’d been a disruptive presence on the unit, constantly ringing his button, throwing tissues everywhere, generally playing up. I’d met George before, of course, and I knew he could be difficult. But when I’d known him he was still at home – a tiny, cluttered house with a kitchen whose ceiling was halfway down and whose downstairs toilet was so unspeakable you wanted to clean it up with a flamethrower. He had a cute dog, though – a perky little brown and white Jack Russell called Lily, so it would be nice to see her again.
‘I’m sorry about the way the phone call went,’ said Lyra. ‘We’re completely rammed here, as you can imagine. And I’m having to get by with agency nurses, and they don’t know the routine.’
‘That’s okay. I’m sorry if you thought I was clippy.’
We laugh about it.
End the call.
Later that day I’m sitting in George’s front room. We’ve just hoisted George from the wheelchair onto the hospital bed, but already he’s talking about putting himself on the floor because ‘it’s too early for bed,’ even though he couldn’t sit in a chair without three feet of rope and a crash mat. The neighbour who we were told would be coming round with shopping and generally keeping an eye on things is actually self-isolating and not leaving his house. To add to the woeful picture, we’ve just found out the boiler doesn’t work. Our team have been asked to provide bridging care four times a day, but even so you couldn’t say with any confidence that George would be safe between calls. He really needs some kind of residential facility. Still – at least Lily the dog has been rehomed.
There’s nothing else for it.
I ring Lyra.
I tell her the situation.
There’s an ominous pause…