The end of the street is blocked by fire trucks. The thrum of the big diesel engines, the frenetic scattering of blue lights – it’s all quite shocking in this narrow huddle of old terraced houses. I can’t see any smoke, though, and there doesn’t seem to be much happening, but I suppose you can’t always see what the problem is. Maybe it’s a false alarm, or someone trapped. Whatever the reason, the only way out that end of the street is by hot air balloon. If they’re still on scene by the time I’ve finished this call, I’ll have to reverse out the way I came in. I just hope another engine or an ambulance doesn’t follow me down, in which case I’ll be stuck.
It should only be a quick visit. Mrs Baker was discharged home today and needs someone to deliver a perching stool and generally check that everything’s okay. The hospital notes are pretty extensive. It sounds as if she’s well set-up. The perching stool is just the blue and white cherry on the cake.
I struggle over to her house with my bags and the chair, and ring a cracked bakelite bell so old I can hear it ringing in a hallway sometime around nineteen fifty.
Eventually Mrs Baker opens the door.
‘Sorry about that, darlin’!’ she says, puffing a little, patting her hair. ‘Everything’s such a performance these days.’
She lets go of the door then trudges around in a circle using the walls for support, each step as tentative as an elderly moose walking out on a frozen lake. I follow her down the hallway into the sitting room.
‘I don’t want to fall again,’ she says. ‘I’ve had enough of all that business.’
‘Haven’t you got a zimmer frame?’
‘I have, but y’see – it’s a job to use it in the hall. I keep the frame in the big room.’
‘I’ve got the same problem outside,’ I tell her. ‘There are fire engines blocking the street.’
‘Are there?’ she says, stopping and glancing back at me in a scandalised kind of way. ‘I ‘spect it’s where they built all them new flats. They knocked Terry’s corner shop down and put up half a dozen little flats instead. Not that you could call ‘em flats. You couldn’t get much more’n a cat and a packet of biscuits in them. And shoddy? C’uh! You’d be better off in a cardboard box. And the alarms! The alarms are always going off.’
She batts the air.
‘Doesn’t bother me. I’m deaf as a post, so that’s a blessing.’
She’s not wrong about the big room. At some point the dining and front rooms have been knocked into one. There’s a galley kitchen leading off at the back, a bathroom next to it, but everything else is set up for single-room living. There’s a bed with a handrail in one corner, a commode, a high chair, zimmer frame, cantilever table, grabber – just about every bit of equipment you could want. It makes me think of Robinson Crusoe in a stockade filled with improvised and useful things, everything to hand, utilitarian, just right.
‘You can put the stool down there in the kitchen,’ she says, waggling her hand in that direction. ‘I’m gonna do my little strip washes at the sink.’
Afterwards I have a quick look around but there’s nothing else to be done. She has carers coming in three times a day, family nearby – really, it’s a neat little set-up.
‘That’s me then,’ I say, picking up my bags. ‘If anything changes and you need us back, just talk to your doctor.’
‘Thanks for coming, darlin’,’ she says. ‘It’s nice of you to take the trouble.’
‘Pleasure!’ I tell her. ‘I just hope those fire engines have gone.’
‘Oh – they never stay long,’ she says. ‘But I’d get out while the going’s good if I was you.’