prawn’s gambit

Gerry is on the floor when we arrive to do the assessment. He’d been there all night, and although he hasn’t hurt himself, he’s in pretty poor shape. We clean him up as best we can, then call an ambulance to take him to hospital. There’ll be a two hour wait, the call taker says. Exceptionally high demand. Like it’s ever any different.

In the meantime we try different ways to get Gerry off the floor, positioning chairs, encouraging him to roll over into an all-fours position that he might be able to progress into a kneel then a stand. But although he tries his best he’s just too weak; the chronic pain in his arm from a recent fracture means he’s got limited upper body strength to call on, and his legs won’t support him even if we physically boosted him up. In the end we admit defeat, and decide the best we can do is surround him with cushions and pillows, ply him with water and biscuits, and wait for the paramedics.

My colleague has to go to another call; I settle down on a kitchen chair to wait with Gerry.

Gerry has been smoking forty a day for the best part of thirty years, with the result that the whole flat – from the curtains to the carpets, the doors to the clock on the wall – is coated with a grungy patina of nicotine. It’s a hot day, so I open the windows for some fresh air. Even the flies that blunder in haul on the brakes and head straight back out again.

‘How long have you lived here, Gerry?’ I ask him, sitting back down on the chair.
‘Ooh – a long, long while. When they were built, pretty much.’
And it’s no doubt a consequence of sitting here with him for so long, but I imagine the builders laying the first course of bricks around us, Gerry on the floor, me on my chair, Gerry thoughtfully stroking his enormous Father Christmas beard, me checking my fob watch.

There’s a bookcase just behind him, filled with books on chess.
‘You like chess, then?’ I say, artlessly.
‘Oh yes!’ he says. ‘Yes, yes!’
‘When did you learn?’
‘When I was at Grammar school. I saw some kids playing and I thought hmm – what’s that? So I got a book out of the library. Then another book. Then another one. And I gradually taught myself all there was to know. I played in local leagues, bigger competitions. I was never international, but I got pretty good.’
‘I know how to play,’ I say. ‘Basic stuff. I don’t have any tactics, any strategies. You know? The prawn’s gambit and all that?’
‘Prawn’s gambit?’
‘I just made it up.’
‘Hmm – the prawn’s gambit,’ he says, stroking his beard. ‘You might have something…’
‘My problem is I just throw everything forward and hope for the best.’
‘Hmm,’ he says. ‘Yes.’
‘I don’t know who even invented chess. I know it’s pretty old. I remember seeing the Lewis chess pieces in the British Museum once. They were cute.’
‘There are lots of myths around the invention of it,’ he says. ‘My favourite is the one about the Indian king.’
‘What’s that?’
‘Well you see, a long time ago there was this great king. And he was bored with all the usual games, so he put out a proclamation. Invent a new game and the winner gets as much gold and silver as they desire.’
‘And the losers get killed.’
‘Quite possibly. Anyway, lots of people came forward, but the best was a wise old mathematician who offered the king chess. He told him he’d based it on court life, with soldiers, bishops, knights and so on. The mathematician taught the king how to play, and through playing the King learned his first important lesson, which is that everyone under his command has a role to play, from the most insignificant pawn to the grandest queen. And the king was very struck with this game, and told the mathematician that he’d won, and could help himself to as much gold and silver from the Treasury as he liked. But the mathematician said no thank you – what I’ll have is one grain of wheat on the first square of the chess board, doubled on the second, then again on the third, all the way to the last of the sixty-four squares. And although the king was put out, because he didn’t think a few grains of wheat were a satisfactory prize, he agreed. But of course he soon realised his mistake, because the number of wheat grains grew exponentially, until he owed him more wheat than his kingdom could ever produce. So that was the king’s second lesson – never underestimate the power of mathematics.’
‘Then what happened?’
‘I don’t know. He probably had him killed. Life’s not really like chess, is it?’


Each patient record has a reminder area on the home page. It’s supposed to draw your attention to essential details or dangers, such as the need for double-up visits, the contact numbers of the relatives you must liaise with first, the keysafe code, any environmental dangers you should be aware of. So the first thing I write is:

Two small dogs – friendly, but bark when you knock

It’s only when I read it out loud I see the problem with the sentence. So I delete and write instead:

Two small dogs. Loud to begin with, but soon settle down.


Mrs Albright is ninety-seven. She lives alone in a ramshackle bungalow, top of a narrow lane of cottages and heavily-buttressed flint walls leaning out at extraordinary angles, an ancient church under scaffolding, and a strange, round building with worn stones and arrow slits standing alone in a paddock, that looks like maybe it’s the last thing standing of a castle, currently serving as a chicken house.

Like most of everything else down the lane, Mrs Albright is old and falling down. But although physically she’s reaching the end of her ability to cope, intellectually she’s as formidable as ever.
‘Apart from the carers coming in twice a day, and your family popping in when they can, do you manage to see anyone else?’
‘Anyone else? Do you mean socially?’
‘Well – yes, I suppose I do.’
‘I run an ancient history group once a week, if that counts. Does that count?’
‘I think that counts.’
‘Excellent. Then – yes. Every Wednesday I have a dozen or so people round and we discuss a broad range of topics. Last Wednesday Sally did the Assyrians. This Wednesday it’s Margaret on Alexander the Great.’
Whilst we’re talking, Mrs Albright’s dogs – two bug-eyed pugs – have plopped themselves down to sleep around her feet.
‘Yes – I’m afraid they do that a lot,’ she says, peering down. ‘They like to be near me in case I drop anything overboard, a bit of crumpet or what have you, which I’m afraid to say does happen from time to time. The problem is I forget the damned things are there and when I get up to spend a penny, I go flying. It’s a miracle I’ve lasted this long without breaking anything. Not so much as a cup.’
Mrs Albright’s son Richard is sitting with us at the table. He’s already mentioned that the family are looking at residential care, something Mrs Albright seems happy to think about.
‘I’ll miss the old place,’ she says, planting both hands firmly on the table and looking around. ‘But – you know, one thing that became very apparent to me very early on in my career, is that nothing lasts forever.’

how I met my wife

Parkinson’s disease has robbed Alan of facial expression, but from his sparkling eyes I can tell he’s very keen to tell me how he met his wife. Her pictures are everywhere in the flat, a studio portrait of a young woman leaning forwards in a serious, three-quarter pose; shots of her in a wedding dress; cuddling babies; making a speech; holding a hat on her head on the deck of a boat – all with a kind of Doris Day glow, and vastly outnumbering the various other family photos dotted about the place.
‘She died ten years ago,’ he says. ‘I just want to be with her now. Not in a creepy way. It’s just how it is.’
‘I can understand that.’
‘Do you want to know how we met? It’s a funny story. Have you time?’
I tell him I definitely want to hear it, but can he sit down first. ‘Because honestly, Alan – if I hadn’t been standing here with my wicket keeper’s mitts on you would’ve pitched head first into the bookcase. I can fetch whatever you need. Come on! Let me help you to a chair.’
‘Just a sec,now – just a sec,’ he says, turning stiffly on the spot and almost plunging backwards into a pile of records.
‘Whoa! Look – why not have a seat here? I’ll make you a drink and then we can talk about what to do next. And you can tell me how you met your wife.’
He seems to accept this, but instead of heading for the nearest sofa, leads me across the cluttered flat to a dangerously low Ottoman.
‘This’ll do,’ he says, shuffling carefully into position, and then, whilst he’s still miles away, unexpectedly launches himself backwards stiff as a puppet whose strings have been snatched up to throw it back in the trunk. He catches me off guard. I grab the front of his shirt to stop him whacking his head on the wall. The shirt makes an impressive ripping noise.
‘Sorry Alan!’
‘Don’t worry! Don’t worry!’ he says. ‘It’s a cheap old thing. I’ve got hundreds. I’ll just go fetch another…’
He starts trying to get up again. It’s a job to stop him.

* * *

What with one thing and another, Alan needs to go to hospital. Whilst we sit together waiting for the ambulance, he finally gets round to telling me the anecdote about his wife.

‘You wouldn’t think to look at me now, but back then I wasn’t entirely hopeless. I was studying architecture at university. A good friend of mine was doing medicine. C’mon Alan! he said. There’s a party at the local hospital. All the hot nurses will be there. Well I couldn’t say no to that, could I? Turns out it was a big old psychiatric hospital in the suburbs, which put me off a bit, but – well – hot nurses and all that. So we sneaked inside, and there was a long, long corridor, the kind of corridor you see in your dreams, that goes on forever. And coming down this corridor, floating towards us out of the light, were two of the most gorgeous nurses you’d ever seen in your life. One a redhead, the other blond. And we were both so dumbstruck we couldn’t do or say anything, we just sort of stepped helplessly to the side. Except there was fresh wax on the floor under the radiator, and I was wearing my shoes with the shiny soles. So I went flying arse over apex and ended up kicking the blond one in the rear. Two years later we were married. So whenever anyone asks me, How did you meet your wife? I tell them I was in a psychiatric hospital and I kicked one of the nurses.’

do not destroy

Eric has had three falls in forty-eight hours, the last one early this morning. According to the notes he refused hospital, so the ambulance crew referred him to us to follow up first thing and see what we could do. This being the case, it’s worrying the key from the key safe won’t open the front door.

I stand in the porch jiggling it around, trying all the usual feints – pulling the door towards me as hard as I can, pushing it away, rattling the key frantically, easing it backwards and forwards VERY slowly to get a feel for what the mechanism is doing, or not doing, cheating the key up, cheating the key down, pausing, looking around, repeating everything again with exaggerated focus.

‘Can I help you, please?’
There’s a carer standing behind me. He’s fierce looking, wiry and intense, the kind of beard you might draw on a photo with a black marker, tattoos on his forearms, geometric patterns and numbers that look like clues from a Dan Brown novel.
‘I’m Jim, from Rapid Response, at the hospital.’
‘Aleksy,’ he says, shaking my hand.
‘Eric had a fall this morning.’
‘I know this.’
‘The ambulance referred him to us but I’m afraid I can’t get the key to work. I think he may have flipped the latch.’
‘Come. Give here.’
I step aside and let him try. I’m guessing Aleksy has been here many times before. He probably has the knack.
Aleksy jiggles the key around some, then hands it back to me.
‘He flip latch,’ he says. ‘Why he would do this, I do not know.’
We both step back from the porch and scan the front of the building. All the windows are firmly shut. There’s a high wooden gate to the left screening off the back of the house, but that’s locked, too.
‘Any good at climbing?’
‘I am excellent climber,’ he says. And without even taking a run up he springs forward, catches the top of the fence, presses himself high enough to swing his left leg over, pushes off the top and disappears over the other side. There’s a pause, the sound of a bolt being thrown, and the gate swings open.
‘You weren’t kidding’ I say to him.
He shrugs.
‘I have can-do attitude,’ he says.

The back of the house is as securely locked-up as the front. There is one window open, though. Too high and central to climb, I would think, even for Aleksy.
I stand on a garden wall and shout up at the window.
A weak voice answers.
‘It’s Jim. From the hospital. Aleksy’s here, too. Are you alright?’
‘Have you fallen over?’
Are you unwell?
‘I’m sorry to hear that, Eric. The thing is – the key won’t open the front door. We think the latch might be down.’
‘Is there any way you can make it downstairs to open the door?’
‘Otherwise we’ll have to break in.’
‘Do you think you can come down and let us in?’
‘He has stair lift,’ says Aleksy. ‘But he might have heart attack and cannot move.’
‘Is there a ladder anywhere?’
I check the outhouse at the bottom of the garden, but it’s locked, too. Meanwhile Aleksy has rung his office to report the delay and ask for advice.
‘No ladder,’ I tell him.
‘My office will ring his daughter, but she is far from here, and even if she arrive with key, this is same position. Truly.’
‘It’s difficult. At least he’s talking, so that’s something. He clearly said he was unwell, though. And he’s had all these falls. Anything could be going on. We might have to break in.’
Aleksy frowns.
‘You have license for this?’
‘Well. Only in as much as we think there’s someone unwell we can’t get to. We’ll get the police and the ambulance running, but they’ll be a while getting here, and it might be too late. Besides. I quite like breaking in.’
‘You do?’
‘There aren’t many perks.’
I take a look at the back again. There’s a sliding patio door that’s part of a dilapidated conservatory. The metal door and lock are still good and won’t budge, but the wooden frame is wormy and it wouldn’t take much to pull it down. There’s an inner door to get through as well, though. It might end up being a serious demolition job, so I don’t launch into it immediately. Whilst I’m wondering what to do, Aleksy has climbed onto a water butt to look through the kitchen window. There’s a net curtain blocking his view, so he puts his ear to window instead, his hands splayed on the glass like the suckers of some hypersensitive reptile.
‘I hear lift,’ he says. ‘Eric coming. Do not destroy back of house.’

a loss of balance

‘My psychiatrist is worried what effect all this is having on me,’ says Angela. For a moment I think she’s going to illustrate by pointing to her brain, but uses her finger to push her glasses back up her nose instead. She makes as if to fold her arms, then changes her mind at the last minute, puts them in her lap – and then changes her mind again, and folds them after all, leaning forwards with her shoulders hunched, rocking imperceptibly.

I’ve only been in the same room with Angela five minutes and I have to say, I’m as worried as the psychiatrist. Angela’s face is so intensely anxious, it’s as if someone had taken a cup, drawn round it with a crayon to get the circle, roughed in two permanently arched eyebrows, a pair of thick glasses, a flared nose, a downward pointing mouth, and then below it, as an afterthought, adding an incised groove like a second mouth, to amplify the sadness of the first.

‘You’ve got a lot on your plate,’ I say. ‘Anyone would be anxious.’
‘I am anxious,’ she says. ‘I’m very anxious.’
‘It’s understandable.’

Staring at us from the armchair opposite is the source of Angela’s anxiety: her father, William – an imposing figure, despite his extreme age. William is fastidiously dressed in a buttoned-up shirt and tie, bottle green cardigan, corduroy trousers with a sharp crease down the centre of each leg, his velcro-shoes box-fresh, correctly fastened. He’s so tall and gaunt, with so many edges and angles to him, you’d hardly think he was real at all. I imagine when he gets up at the end of the evening, he simply unfolds, flap by flap, like a complicated origami figure, cushion fold, chair fold, reverse-squash fold – and shuffles away to sleep in an envelope.

He must have some mass, though. He fell on the patio a week ago, taking his wife Rose with him, landing on her and fracturing her hip. Rose ended up in hospital, of course, with the prospect of a long convalescence. The only other sibling, Angela’s brother Tommy, works away from home a great deal and can’t spare the time. And as Angela is off on long-term sickness due to her anxiety, they decided – or at least, I would think, Tommy decided – that Angela should be the one who stays with William until Rose makes it home again.

‘I just can’t keep an eye on him every single hour of every single day,’ says Angela, hopelessly.
‘Hmm,’ I say. ‘What do you think, William?’
William slowly unlaces his fingers and then holds his hands apart in a sad, what-will-be-will-be kind of way.
‘It’s difficult,’ he says. ‘I don’t want to worry anyone. But it is unfortunately the case that – for whatever reason – I have something of an issue with balance.’

I turn to Angela again, who’s staring at me with such terror it’s like we’ve been dragged to the edge of a precipice.

‘You see?’ she says.

sixty years on

‘How long have you lived here?’
‘Ooh – I don’t know. I should think about sixty years or more’ says Thomas. ‘We moved when we had Lily, and I’d got that new job. D’you remember, Lucy?’
‘Of course I remember!’ says Lucy, rearranging a napkin on her lap. ‘I was here, wasn’t I?’
‘Sixty years,’ says Thomas, absorbing Lucy’s tetchiness with a wistful shake of his head and then a sudden, gaping smile, the kind you might see on a ventriloquist’s dummy. ‘Long enough!’ he says.

It’s a beautiful old cottage – or used to be. Could be again, with a little work. Emptying out all the clutter, ripping out what remains of the fixtures and fittings, stripping back the plaster to the bricks, taking up the floor, rewiring, new doors and windows. New roof, come to that. Redecorating throughout. Cutting back the garden, and so on. An album of Before and After photographs. These things take a little imagination, but totally worth it if you can see beyond the mess. Clink, clink. Cheers!

Thomas and Lucy wouldn’t feature in any of the quotes, of course, even if the builders were game, and had a few geriatricians, cosmetic surgeons and orthopaedic consultants on the team. Because it goes without saying that the same passage of years that wreaked such damage on the house hasn’t spared the occupants, and whilst ancient buildings can be straightened out with hard work and a certain amount of cash, the same can’t be said of the people who live in them.

‘Push that button – no! That one!’ says Thomas, leaning out to interfere with Lucy’s attempts to operate the riser-function of her chair.
‘Let me do it! Let me do it…!’ says Lucy, wresting it away from him and getting in a muddle. The back of the seat goes down and the footrests shoot out. ‘Blast!’ she says, and promptly turns the whole thing off.

They have carers three times a day – once to get them up and dressed, once to give them lunch and prepare some cling-filmed sandwiches for tea, and once to put them to bed. Although I have to say it’s looking pretty much as if the ‘bed’ aspect has gone by the board. They’re sleeping in their chairs full-time now, and only getting up to stagger precariously through the jumble of everything to a commode.

At first it seems like a pretty sad kind of existence, and I can’t help feeling sorry for them. Wouldn’t it be better if they sold up and moved into a nursing home? Somewhere with staff on hand to keep an eye on them? To wash, dress and feed them, and keep them warm (not that this place is cold – they have a free-standing oil-filled radiator in the middle of the room, on full). I’m sure they could sit next to each other somewhere, either in their own room or in the lounge? Because no-one could say they were remotely safe in this place. A small stack of ambulance sheets is a testament to the increasing number of falls they’re having.

But they don’t strike me as unhappy. The bickering isn’t unpleasant or aggressive; more the sniping of two caged creatures, fussing over the minutiae of their shrunken existence. I wonder how well they’d fare if they were removed from this place, even taking into account the trip hazards and the damp and the dodgy electrics. I wouldn’t be surprised if they faded away the moment they were helped to a couple of comfortable chairs, in a wide and well-lit room, with a television, and a trolley doing the rounds at half-past ten, and three.

‘Give it here… look! You’ve turned the damned thing off!’
Thomas tries to snatch the remote, but it’s like watching a tortoise make a swipe for another tortoise’s lettuce leaf.
‘Ha!’ says Lucy. Then after glaring at him triumphantly, she slowly presses it up to her nose to figure it out.

learning how to land

Vera is as formidable as the tartan wrap she has over her shoulders.
‘But who sent you?’ she says.
‘The GP. I think she was a bit worried after that fall you had.’
Vera stands holding the door, hesitating on the threshold of a determination to be alone and an anxiety not to appear rude.
‘Well I suppose you’d better come in,’ she says, releasing the door and turning on the spot as ably as her ninety year old hips will allow. ‘But I’m not happy about this. Not happy at all.’

I follow her through to the sitting room, a ruthlessly bare place with just a television, an armchair, a pouffe and a side table. There are half a dozen framed photographs on the walls, arranged in a regular pattern. The photos are mostly black and white, one of a wedding but I can’t be sure from here. She sits in her armchair and gestures for me to take the pouffe. I sink into it, my knees pressed into my chin, and I squat there looking up at her like an acolyte at the feet of a master.
‘The important thing to remember is that you’re the boss of you,’ I say.
‘What on earth do you mean? Of course I’m the boss of me.’
‘That’s great! It’s just – sometimes I think it’s easy to lose sight of that with all these different people and agencies piling in all the time. You tell them what you want and don’t want, and so long as you understand the consequences, no-one will mind.’
‘Of course I understand the consequences. I do the Times crossword every morning. Do you?’
‘I don’t understand cryptic clues. I can only manage the quick crossword.’
‘It’s not the same thing at all,’ she says. ‘But you’re right. You have to tune your ear to the language.’
She adjusts her shawl, loosening it a little. I hug my knees and try to rock into a more comfortable position.
‘I just don’t want all this fuss,’ says Vera, warming to her theme. ‘People barging in all hours of the day and night, left right and centre. I haven’t asked for any of it. They want to give me frames and trolleys and contraptions for the toilet and goodness knows what. But I simply don’t want them. They clutter the place up. I want to be able to move, freely, in my own time. Can you understand that?’
‘Yes. Completely. But you know – they’re only making these suggestions because you had that fall. They want you to be safe.’
‘You see – I fundamentally don’t understand why these people can’t leave me to live my life as I want to live it. I have my cleaner who comes in once a week. My granddaughter does the shopping. I’m perfectly happy with the way things are. I pay them to help me, and there we are.’
‘Do you pay your granddaughter?’
‘Well of course I pay her? She wouldn’t do it for free, would she?’
‘Family… I don’t know.’
‘That’s not the arrangement I want. It has to be clear. Everyone has to know where they stand. I’ve had people say to me why don’t you live with your son or your daughter? In a granny flat? A granny flat! I can’t think of anything more ghastly – for them or for me. Being walled-up somewhere, like a nun, perhaps… Why in heaven’s name would I want that? They have their lives and I have mine.’
‘That’s perfectly fine. It’s a free country.’
‘So far as I was aware, yes, it is. So if you don’t mind, I’d like not to be bothered in future.’
‘I’ll say goodbye then. And of course, if anything changes, your GP can always make another referral. What I would say though, is it’s probably a good idea to wear your alarm pendant.’
‘I won’t do it. I’m not having that plastic monstrosity anywhere near me.’
‘The thing is, if you fell again and – worse case scenario – broke your hip, you might be lying on the floor for a long time…’
‘No I wouldn’t.’
‘I’ve seen it happen.’
‘Not to me, it hasn’t.’
‘I’m just saying – it’s worth thinking about.’
‘When I fell last week I crawled to the phone.’
‘Next time you might not be able to crawl’
She fixes me with her sternest look, making little circular grinding motions with her mouth.
‘Listen,’ she says at last. ‘I used to race horses. Have you any idea what it’s like to fall off one of those things?’
‘Pretty hard, I expect. I fell off a motorbike once and that was bad enough.’
‘Well I don’t know about motorbikes, but falling from a galloping horse is a significant prospect. I should know – I’ve done it more times than I care to remember.’
‘Did you break anything?’
‘Only my pride. The crucial things is, one must learn how to land, and then get back in the saddle. There’s nothing else for it.’
I’m tempted to carry on the discussion by pointing out the number of years that have passed between that young woman cartwheeling through the air, and the older, osteoporotic version going over in the bathroom, but I can see that nothing’s going to persuade her. I struggle to my feet from the pouffe, collect my things together and shake her hand.
‘Goodbye then, Vera. It’s been lovely to meet you, and I’m sorry for disturbing your morning.’
‘That’s quite alright,’ she says, hobbling after me to the door. ‘It’s been a pleasure to meet you, too. But please – and I mean this in the nicest possible way – don’t come back.’

the old bird

‘Really – I’m fine. I don’t know what you’re making such a fuss about.’
Mrs Roberts has a determined, no-nonsense demeanour, fussing with the arms of her jumper to even them out, then sitting straight-backed in the armchair, distributing a brave smile about the room, bright as a lighthouse, to anyone who needed or cared to see. It would be easy to think that here was a ninety year old woman perfectly and admirably in control of her life, if it wasn’t for the livid, green and black bruises extending from her eyes down both swollen cheeks, the stitches on the bridge of her nose, and the bandage on her left hand.
‘You’re not fine, though. Are you, Mum? You’re very far from fine,’ says Steven, her son, sitting in a chair opposite.
‘Rubbish!’ she says. Then turns to me. ‘You see what I have to put up with?’
Steve buries his face in his hands.
‘Are you okay?’ I ask him.
After a moment he emerges again, his eyes shining, his face red. He straightens in the chair, takes a deep breath, and nods.
‘It’s difficult,’ I say. ‘It’s difficult for everyone.’

The situation has many practical angles and complications, of course, but the crux of it is simply the frailties of old age. Mrs Roberts has managed the early years of her ninth decade with impressive self-determination, only needing carers these past six months, when a dip in her mobility meant she struggled to get ready in the morning. It was a carer who found her on the floor just last week – a heavy fall with superficial injuries, thank goodness, but there’s no getting away from the fact that she’s more vulnerable than before. Steve lives in Germany, has done for many years. His brother is in the UK somewhere, but a family rift means Steve is the one left to sort things out.
‘I’ve just got to go back tomorrow,’ he says. ‘Work…life…y’know?’
His mother smiles at him as she gently dabs at her nose with a handkerchief.
‘Don’t you worry about me,’ she sniffs. ‘I’m perfectly capable of looking after myself.’
There’s talk of getting her into a respite bed for a period of recuperation. She doesn’t want to go, but she’s willing to do it if it means Steve can get back to Germany and not worry himself to death.
‘I wouldn’t go for good, though,’ she says. ‘I’m not ready for the funny farm yet.’

There’s nothing in her observations to suggest a reason for the increased falls. She says she feels well in herself.
‘It’ll be interesting to see what the bloods show,’ I say, preparing my kit to take a sample.
Steve asks me how long it might take to get a respite bed.
‘There’s a bit of a wait,’ I tell him. ‘There just aren’t that many available, what with all the cuts. The few they have they triage pretty thoroughly.’
‘It’s just – what’ll happen when I go back? She’s really not safe. Even with the carers upped to four times a day.’
‘If you funded a place independently you could get one more quickly, but of course that’s only if you have the money. Like a lot of things, I suppose. Without getting too political…’
He thinks about that, both hands flat over his mouth, so that I can hear his breath moving over his fingers.
To distract Mrs Roberts I nod at the mirror just behind her. There’s an old, velvet parrot on a perch hanging down in the middle. One of its eyes has gone, and the whole thing leans precariously to one side. It has a tuft of faded yellow fur in the middle of its head, like a comedy wig. I get the feeling if I unhooked it from the mirror and gave it a gentle shake, much of the colour would come back.
‘I like your parrot,’ I say. ‘And that’s not something I thought I’d be saying today.’
‘Percy? He’s a love, isn’t he? Steven gave that to me when he was a little boy. He saved up his pocket money and he bought it at the school fair. Didn’t you darling?’
Steve nods, reaches over and strokes her knee.
‘Looking a bit tatty now, though’ he says.
‘Oh I don’t know,’ she says. ‘There’s life in the old bird yet.’


‘Mexican liqueur. Seven letters. Beginning with T.’
‘Is that a liqueur?’
‘It’s made from a cactus. Does that count? Anyway, I can’t think of any other specifically Mexican drinks. Apart from Dos Equis.’
‘What on earth is Dos Equis?’
‘A beer. I think.’
‘Well. Let’s go with tequila then, shall we? And see how we get on…’
Marilyn had a fall in the early hours and tore her arm. She’s busy filling in the crossword whilst I’m delicately cleaning the wound, soaking it in saline, gently replacing the skin flap as best I can, then patting the area dry ready for the steri-strips. Her version of events was that she stumbled over some shoeboxes – no mention of the copious amounts of whisky she’d put away in the hours leading up. If she sees the irony in our conversation about booze, she doesn’t show it.
‘Oh I’m terribly sorry. I misread the clue,’ she says. ‘It actually says Mexican liquor. These glasses are absolutely no damned good at all.’
‘Definitely tequila then.’
‘…which makes one down agora. Which fits! Well done!’
Marilyn is a high-functioning alcoholic. She has a beautiful house in the centre of town, filled with paintings and books, sculptures and peculiar antiques, everything brilliantly lit by the sunshine that positively bounds in through the open patio doors.
‘You have a lovely house,’ I tell her, applying the first layer of dressing.
‘That’s sweet of you,’ she says.
‘How long have you lived here?’
‘Too long. But you know, when Teddy and I moved here in the seventies, it was a different street altogether. Everyone knew each other. It was all terribly friendly and interesting. But now it’s simply overrun with cars, no-one has any time for anything, and the only contact you have is with the postman. Speaking of which…’
Keeping her bad arm as still as she can, she rummages around the clutter on the table and produces a Royal Mail missed delivery card.
‘Look at that!’ she says. ‘Sorry we missed you! What on earth do they mean? Sorry we missed you! I’ve been in all blessed day! I simply fail to understand how they could have crept up the front steps and dropped that through the letterbox without me hearing a thing. Honestly, they must be employing cat burglars or something. Or maybe he ties rags round his boots. It’s enough to drive you absolutely insane!’
‘You’d think he’d want to drop it off, though, just to lighten his bag.’
‘Lighten his bag! I’ll lighten his bag when I get hold of him.’
‘Almost done’ I tell her.
‘Smashing,’ she says, lowering her glasses from the top of her head back down on to the tip of her nose, as she goes back to the crossword.
‘Fifteen across. Famous Bohemian. Beginning with M.’
She snorts.
‘Well – I’d be very tempted to write Marilyn – but unfortunately it ends in an A’