fix or nix

‘Here’s a list of my bowel movements!’ says Thomas, handing me a closely-written sheet of paper with all the dates and times, accurate to the minute, GMT. ‘I used to work in telecoms’ he says, settling back into his armchair. ‘I know how to keep track of output.’

Thomas is so old, I imagine telecoms at that time would have been horses, valves and copper wire. He must have been a useful figure, though, because they sent him all over the world – Sierra Leone, the Bahamas, Patagonia.
‘Four children, four continents!’ he says, with a practised flourish. He smiles broadly, like someone unzipped a work bag and a couple of old hacksaws fell out.

He may have travelled the world many times over, but these days Thomas’ advanced age and precarious mobility means he’s pretty much confined to his room. He seems happy enough, though. It’s all been set up very sensibly – as you’d expect – everything to hand, everything in its place according to need and frequency of use, as neatly and logically planned as a circuit diagram. From his dilapidated armchair he can look out of the window, watch television, or simply survey the multitude of family photographs spread across the walls. It gives his chair a strange kind of height, I suppose, that prominent point you might reach if you were to climb a tall telegraph pole, lean back in your straps, thumb your helmet back, catch your breath and wonder at the diminishing curve of the world.

‘What do you think?’ he says. ‘Fix or Nix?’

going home

The old, shadowy, three storey Victorian townhouse is the last one left in the line to be re-developed. Whereas the neighbours either side are smartly painted and appointed, have patios, architectural plants, chimeneas, vine-hung arbors, off-road parking, the old house staggers on with the archaeological scars of the last 150 years: a dilapidated gate you go round and not through; a rusting iron bench, a chunk of obsidian beside an unmade path, a horseshoe nailed to a yew tree. The whole thing has a blasted, portentous feel, like someone built a family home on the hill at Golgotha – and then realised what they’d done, and walked away.

‘Margaret’s coming home to die,’ says Philip. ‘She’ll be here in a minute.’

Philip is an old family friend. He’s known Margaret all his life – when she was a retired music teacher and he was a child student, come to learn the piano, reluctantly climbing the dusty slope to the front door, little knowing he’d still be doing it fifty years later.
‘She’s amazing for her age,’ he says, putting the finishing touches to the room. ‘The only pills she takes are Senna. And you have to crush those up in secret.’

Philip shows me into the room she lives in now – the only occupied room in the entire house. It’s been set up as a micro-environment: bed, zimmer frame, commode, armchair for sitting out in, health permitting, to stare out of the window at the busy road below and beyond, the vast bright spread of the city.

It’s a poignant experience, standing in this room. The piano she last played a dozen years ago when she was ninety is now an extempore stand for photos and wet wipes and sanitary products. Around it, quietly disappearing into the muted walls, a selection of photographs of ancient vintage, sepia family groups, Edwardians in suits and bowler hats lounging awkwardly on the grass; fading figures in boats or on horses; matriarchs in severe black dresses promenading along a sea wall, fishing boats with sails in the bay; men in huge moustaches and braided uniforms; a woman in a tweed suit and upswept, tortoiseshell glasses, smiling up at the camera, a pen in her hand.

We hear the ambulance crew struggling up the path, so we go out to help them.
They carry her into the house on their portable chair, a decrepit royal on a bier.
‘Where d’you want her?’ says one of them, sweating.

* * *

Later, when Margaret’s settled and we’ve brought in all her things, the same ambulance man kneels down in front of her and holds her hand.
‘We’re going to go now,’ he says, loudly and slowly, ‘but we’ll leave you in the care of these good people.’
‘Let me tell you something,’ says Margaret, pulling him towards her. ‘You have a very rare gift – the ability to give people complete confidence, and to put them at their ease.’
‘Well – that’s very kind of you,’ he says, blushing. ‘Thank you very much. No-one’s ever said anything like that to me before.’
‘That’s a shame!’ says Margaret, patting his hand and releasing it. ‘Everyone needs a little encouragement, don’t you think?’ She looks around the room, sees me, and leans back.
‘Now. What in the devil’s name is THIS?’ she says.

a scarcity of goats

‘Can I see some identification?’
‘Of course’
I pull my ID card as far out on its elasticated string as it’ll go; Maud grabs it and pulls it closer, and I’m forced to step forwards, caught off-balance, like a fisherman surprised by a particularly feisty trout. She presses the card to the end of her nose and scrutinises it with her eyes shut, squeezed so tightly in fact that a little tear appears in each corner. ‘Well. That all seems to be in order,’ she says, letting it go with a snap. ‘So sorry about all that,’ she says, flapping her hands and lifting her chin in the air. ‘But one cannot be too careful. Especially these days.’
‘Absolutely.’
‘Please. Go through to the living room. And do excuse the mess. I’m not normally such a slattern.’
‘I wouldn’t call it a mess. Or maybe only a creative mess.’
‘You’re kind. But no – let’s face it. Let’s call a mess a mess. And if any creativity comes of  it, I’ll be the proverbial monkey’s uncle. Or aunt, in this case.’
Maud feels her way to the armchair and plants herself squarely into it.
‘There!’ she says. ‘Good. Lovely. Now then. What can I do for you?’

Maud is as sharp as you could want in a ninety-five year old. When I ask her to demonstrate how she’ll put the eye drops in after her cataract operation, she shows me a faultless technique, tipping her head back and using the bridge of her nose to brace her hand against.
‘There!’ she says, blinking hard and rolling her eyes. ‘Happy?’
I tell her how impressed I am.
‘I’ve never seen anyone use their nose like that. Just out of interest – what line of work were you in?’
‘Originally? Well – I started off as a goatherd!’ she says, carefully placing the tube of eye drops on the table next to her, then lacing her wrinkled hands together in her lap. ‘Not London, of course. Yorkshire. There was a scarcity of goats in London after the war.’

a proper west ender

‘What’s the verdict, doc? Still alive? You can tick that box, then. But I can tell you what the problem is, without none of your fancy nonsense. I’m ninety-four! Yes! That’s what the problem is. Ninety-four and fucked, ‘scuse my French. We’re all living too long, y’see? Weren’t too long ago I’d have popped off by now. But we’re all hanging around in limbo and no fucker knows what to do with us and I don’t see no end to it – d’you? I don’t mind, though. I’ve had my life. I was in Germany, just after the war. You talk about hard times now, but you should ‘a seen it back then, mate. Terrible. All them kids, scratching around the ruins for someink’ to eat. We did that, and worse. Bodies everywhere. I’d never seen nuffin’ like it. People talk about war like it’s something grand, something to be proud of. I weren’t proud. Far from it. I still have the dreams. But then again, y’see, I was just a kid myself, twenty years old and no sign of a razor. We lived day to day, though. We went dancing and tried to forget about all the bad stuff. It’s just the way it was and that was that. There weren’t nothing you could do about it. When I made it back home for good I followed the family trade. In the theatre. I weren’t a hoofer like me ol’ man. Nah! I liked all the backstage stuff, the lighting mainly. Dad was the real thing, though, a proper West Ender. He had this nice little thing going with Gertrude Lawrence. You’ve heard of her, I suppose? They did pretty well, but then she nicked off to America and and he ended up stage doorman at the Winter Gardens. Still, she never forgot him. When she come back he was the first one she’d look up. She’d be outside knocking on the door in her pearls and furs and mum’d be shouting up the stairs Oi Billy, your fancy bird’s back! I loved it in the theatre, though. I was at home there. It was in me blood. I remember one day, I was sitting out front watching them sort out the flats, and Alec Guinness was sitting next to me with his feet up. And he says to me Jack. Look at me. I’ve got no legs to speak of. I’m starting to lose my hair. I’ve been working myself ‘alf to death and still I ‘int got ten shillings to me name. What are my chances, d’you think? But I set him straight pretty quick. That was an easy one. I mean – c’mon! Alec Guinness!

rosemary & june

Rosemary sits at her kitchen table sipping a cup of coffee.
It was quite a business making it.

‘The pots there! The pots!’ she said, jabbing a bony finger in the general direction of the cluttered work surface.
‘What pots?’
I thought she meant a coffee jar. There was one with tea bags in it, one with sugar and another with receipts and coupons, but no coffee jar.
‘There! Where I’m pointing! Oh for goodness sake! What’s the matter with you?’
And finally I understood. She meant the foil wrapper of plastic coffee containers, the kind that fits over a cup and you fill with hot water. Like mini-percolators. It had been right in front of me all the time, but because it wasn’t what I was expecting, I hadn’t paid it any attention. So anyway – I made her a cup and set it in front of her.
‘That’s absolutely marvellous. Thank you,’ she said.
‘You’re welcome.’

The kitchen isn’t cold, but even so, Rosemary is sitting in a huge puffa jacket that completely swamps her. She’s not wearing anything else, though, other than a pair of Christmas socks with grippy soles and about a hundredweight of rings and bracelets. She has the kind of sharp features and Bloomsbury haughtiness that makes you think of Edith Sitwell or Virginia Woolf. Every time she goes to raise the coffee cup, she gives her right hand a peremptory little shake in the air – like the Queen waving from a carriage – and all the bangles slide down her arm, disappearing under the sleeve of the puffa.

Apart from some meals on wheels she has no carers or domestic help, which is worrying, given her reduced situation. It would have been a beautiful town house half a century ago. Now it’s sadly reduced, with the slumped and rickety feel of a place poised on the edge of serious disrepair. I can imagine it in a few years time, stripped to the bricks, airing out, radio on and a skip in the flattened garden, the snapping of tarpaulin on the stripped roof, whistles, shouts, nail-guns, boots. For now, though, it’s perfectly, eerily quiet, just me, Rosemary and the clicking of the kettle as it cools.
‘Do you have family nearby?’ I ask her.
‘Family? Good God, no!’ she says. ‘I’m ninety-five! No – it’s just me.’
She takes a sip of coffee.
‘And my sister, June, of course,’ she adds, shakily setting the cup down again.
‘Oh! You have a sister? That’s nice!’
‘It isn’t,’ she sniffs. ‘We don’t get on. Now – if you’d kindly finish your examination. And don’t try to kid me. I know all the terminology.’

a two o’clock monster kinda deal

Minnie opens the door.
‘Good morning,’ she says. ‘Please. Come in.’
As soon as I’m in the hall I slip my shoes off.
‘My word! You are domesticated!’ she says, then formally gestures to one of her kitchen chairs.
‘Do take a seat,’ she says.

Despite the painful crook of her back, the palsied tremor of her head and the general wear and tear of her ninety-eight years, Minnie is remarkably chipper.
‘I was a dancer,’ she says as I go through the examination. ‘Ballet first, then contemporary. Although you wouldn’t think it to look at me now.’
I don’t agree, though. There’s a poise to her that suggests years of training and performance. It certainly goes some way to explaining her sparkling demeanour. I imagine she’d jump up if I asked her and attempt a pirhouette on the spot, sweeping all her medications off the table with a velcro slipper.
‘And when my performance days were done I went into dance therapy. D’you know, when I used to say that to people they’d often say Ah yes! That’s when you put your arms out and tell them to be a tree. Be a tree, they’d say! But of course, they’d got it completely wrong. The only thing that can be a tree is a tree! No – what you say is: Think about a tree. Now – hold that feeling, and let it start to move you. D’you see the difference?’
I tell her I do, that it’s a subtle distinction but a good one.
‘Or they’d say Be a boat on a wavy sea! What utter nonsense! They don’t know what they’re talking about.’

We go through the examination. Apart from some recent dizziness, everything seems pretty good.
‘Yes, well, the family was blessed with old bones. Or cursed, I’m not sure,’ she says, buttoning up her sleeve. ‘My two elder sisters are both gone now, poor souls, but they lived to their hundreds. I don’t doubt Agatha could’ve gone on a lot longer, but she fell out with her doctor, threw out her pills and that was that.’

At the end of it all I shake her warmly by the hand.
‘Lovely to meet you, Minnie,’ I say.
‘You too, dear,’ she says. ‘Now don’t forget your shoes.’

*

Back at the hospital, I’m in the middle of handing over my patients for the day.
‘Ah, now – Minnie!’ I say, pulling out her report. ‘She was an absolute delight!’
Jess, one of the nurses, is sitting right behind me. She turns round in her chair and leans forward to look over my shoulder.
‘Thought so,’ she says. ‘There aren’t too many Minnies around. Thank God.’
‘Why? What d’you mean? Didn’t you like her?’
‘No. She was absolutely vile. Her and her daughter.’
‘What happened?’
‘I phoned her up to arrange an appointment. Two o’clock alright? I said. Fine, lovely. Great. See you then, sort of thing. So I get there dot on two and knock and knock and ring the bell. Nothing, no reply. I phone the landline. No answer. And I’m looking around, wondering what to do, just about to call the office to get some advice when I hear a rumble from inside, and when I look through the letterbox I can see someone coming down on the chair lift. Well – eventually after about ten years the door flies open. What the hell d’you think you’re playing at! she says. I was upstairs having my nap. So I say how sorry I am to have disturbed her and everything, but I did phone and ask what time. She completely ignores that, of course. You people just think you can barge in any time of the day or night. Rah rah rah. To be honest I’m so shocked by all of this I just stand there and take it – and that’s when her daughter comes running over from the Co-op. Have you met Minnie’s daughter?’
‘No. I saw a picture of her on the wall though. She looks nice.’
‘Nice? Satan in a bad wig and red lippy nice. She comes racing over, stopping the traffic, apples everywhere. What d’you think you’re doing? she’s shouting. Who are you? Why wasn’t I informed? and so on. And everyone in the street’s stopping to look, like I’m some kind of evil bailiff or something, come to turf them out of their house.’
‘Oh. Well. I’m shocked.’
‘So go on, then. How come she was nice to you and so horrible to me?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘Maybe she’s worse when the daughter’s there?’
‘Hmm,’ says Jess, turning back to her desk. ‘Maybe. Or maybe it’s just a two o’clock monster kinda deal.’

the hitcher

‘Goodness!’ says Ian, opening the door. ‘There must be a line of you waiting out in the street!’
‘It’s like that, sometimes. Especially at the beginning. We all tend to just pile in.’
‘And a jolly good thing it is, too!’ he says, showing me inside. ‘I must say, it’s been rather overwhelming. But in a good way – you know. In a good way.’

He shows me through to his mother, Peggy, who is propped up on several pillows, doing The Times crossword. She sets the newspaper aside to shake my hand, takes off her reading glasses and puts them on the bedside table next to a porcelain saucer with one partially nibbled, white chocolate biscuit.

‘So kind of you to come,’ she says. ‘Do please have a seat. Is there anything we can get you?’
I tell her I’m fine. She smiles and then nods at Ian, who almost seems to give a little bow before turning and quietly leaving the room.
‘I’ll just be out here,’ he says.
‘Thank you, darling,’ says Peggy. Then once he’s gone, she adds: ‘I’d be lost without him.’

Peggy is almost a hundred years old. Although she’s been pretty independent up until a month ago, it’s all suddenly caught up with her, and now her body is starting to fail in earnest, the flesh retreating from her bones in the most cruelly anatomical way, revealing all the hollows and protruberances, the cords of her neck, the scoop of her temples. Her eyes are still bright, though, as I’ve no doubt they always were – she seems such a poised and intelligent woman – but perhaps with a cooler, more intense grade of light, the fire of a star at night.

‘I was just admiring your frogs,’ I tell her after introducing myself and unpacking my things.
‘Yes. Aren’t they a wonder?’ she says. ‘I used to spend hours out there, crouched down by the edge, watching them come and go. I’m sure the neighbours thought I was quite potty. But there’s no shortage of things to admire in nature, don’t you find?’
‘I certainly do. We’ve got a wildlife pond at home.’
‘Have you?’
‘Lots of frogs. Newts, too.’
‘And all those marvellous insects, skimming about on the surface…’
‘You’re right! Plenty of things to look at.’
‘Yes!’
‘Do they make much noise, your frogs?’
‘No, not really. Except in mating season, when they all get terribly exercised. Or when one of the cats fetches one out, which is horrible, of course, and I’ve tried my damndest to stop them. We haven’t got any newts, though, so I’m jealous on that score. I do so love my frogs!’

I conduct the examination and everything is pretty much as expected, given the circumstances.
‘Well, one thing’s for sure,’ says Peggy, suddenly serious. ‘I will not be going to hospital. You can do whatever else you like with me, but I will not be agreeing to that.’
‘No. I understand.’
‘I mean – for goodness sake! Look at me! What ever is the point?’
‘You are the boss of you, Peggy. We’ll do whatever’s best for you.’
‘That’s kind,’ she says. ‘It’s so easy to get swept up in these things sometimes – don’t you find?’
‘Absolutely.’

As I’m filling out the paperwork I ask her what she did when she was working.
‘I messed about in the government during the war. Started off in the typing pool but after one thing and another found myself in the Foreign Office, helping out in the Middle East. All frightfully interesting. I travelled about quite a bit afterwards, of course. There was nothing I liked better when I had a bit of free time than to stick out my thumb and hitchhike. I travelled right the way through Syria like that. Fascinating country. Breaks my heart to see what’s happening there now, of course. Those poor people.’
‘Did you hitchhike on your own?’
‘Of course!’ she says, ‘although, these days…’ and she spreads her arms wide and smiles just as broadly, ‘I don’t suppose I’d get all that far!’