almost done

Eric used to work at Battersea Power Station.
‘I was so tall they used me as a crane, off-loading the trucks,’ he says. ‘Only kidding. I was an electrician.’
‘That’s a cool place to work’ I say, immediately thinking how hot it must’ve been. ‘Iconic. I think it’s luxury flats now.’
‘Well…’ he says, unlacing his huge fingers and holding his hands apart, illustrating with that one, broad gesture the way things go in the world.
Eric’s wife, Georgie, carefully pushes a wheelchair into the room. Even though she’s a few years younger than Eric she’s still in her nineties.
‘Old bones run in the family,’ she says, getting the wheelchair ready. ‘If you can call it running. C’mon, Eric. Chop chop. He wants you on the bed.’
I’ve come to redress Eric’s pressure sore and generally give him the once over. He’s so stiff and frail now it’s like manoeuvring an old longcase clock. It doesn’t help that we’re surrounded by tables of photo frames and ornaments, souvenirs and trophies, the random accumulation of a long and busy life.
‘There!’ says Georgie. ‘Nothing to it!’
Georgie’s tells me as brightly as she can about the nursing homes they’ve been looking at. Eric rolls onto his side and puts the flat of his right hand over his forehead. I can see how painful this is for him, the indignity of strangers coming into the house to perform such intimate functions, the prospect of moving to a nursing home where he’ll be even more dependent.
Suddenly, the light seems to dim in the room, as if there’s been a momentary interruption to the power supply.
‘Oops,’ says Georgie, and then, when it comes back up again: ‘There we are!’
I try to distract him from the task at hand.
‘Were you born here, Eric?’
‘America,’ he says.
‘America? Wow! What happened?’
‘My father was a soldier in the Great War. He fought with the Americans and ended up going over there. To see what it was like. My mother went too of course and that’s where I was born. They did alright I think, but she missed home too much and we all came back. I was only little. And now here we are.’
I’m conscious of the jump he’s just made, and how maybe I should say something about it, about the sudden and dizzying vistas that can open up between the past and the present sometimes. But I can’t think how to put it into words, and anyway, I’ve got to concentrate on the dressing. So all I end up saying is: ‘Almost done.’
Georgie squeezes me on the shoulder.
‘I’ll be out back if you need me,’ she says. ‘I like it when the nurses come. It means I get five minutes to myself.’
And she hurries out of the room.

one hundred and two minutes

Harry’s wife Jean has everything written down. She shows me her notebook – covered in tiny block capitals: one page for the dates and times of appointments, one for the names and dosages of drugs, another for all the names and times of the various clinicians who’ve visited over the last few months, and on the inside back cover, a list of all the important phone numbers, family included, some underlined, some with asterisks.
‘You’re pretty organised,’ I tell her, handing it back.
‘You’ve got to be,’ she says, carefully putting it away on the trolley she’s set aside for meds, dressings and everything else – a hostess trolley for the home nurse.
She’s even taken care of me. I came in with a cough, excusing myself, blowing my nose – an inauspicious start.
‘Oh dear!’ she said. ‘Are you alright?’
‘I’m fine. It’s this cold. Still hanging on even though it’s been three weeks now.’
‘Have some of this’ she says, plucking a bottle of cough mixture out of the air, like a magician. ‘It’ll blow your socks off but it’ll stop the cough.’
She pours ten mil of the gloopy brown mixture into a plastic measuring cup and hands it to me. I hold it up to the light like a fine brandy, and then throw it back in one.
‘Wow!’ I gasp, handing back the cup. ‘That’s potent!’
She raises her eyebrows and smiles.
The cough has gone.
‘I should definitely get some of that,’ I say.
‘Maybe you should. I’ll write the name of it down for you. Do you want to see Harry now?’

Harry seems much better. He’s sitting on the sofa sawing away at a fried egg on toast.
‘Sorry to disturb your breakfast,’ I say. ‘Good to see you eating, though.’
‘Pull up a plate!’ he says, gesturing with his eggy knife.
‘You’re alright, thanks, Harry. I’ve eaten already. Besides…’ I say, smiling at Jean, ‘I don’t think I’ll be tasting much for a few hours.’
‘The mixture? Aye – it’s strong stuff is that,’ he says, directing his attention back to the egg. ‘Kill or cure.’

Harry is an old tank soldier. He tells me about his life in the army whilst I finish writing up the notes.
‘I loved it,’ he says. ‘Signed up for five years. Made it ten. Came out for two weeks, turned round went straight back in for another ten. It’s been my life, man.’
‘You know – I remember, when I worked on patient transport there was this patient we saw a few times. He was a hundred and two or something, and he was a tank soldier in the First World War.’
‘Was he? Well – hats off. That was a tough business alright. I mean – it was never a picnic in the old Centurions. It was no Ford Fiesta, if y’know wha’ I mean? But those early tanks, they was regular death traps, man. I had a look in one once, in the museum. And I tell you what, I wouldn’t have driven it to Sainsbury’s, let alone the Somme.’

I have a sudden clear image of that old tank soldier, shutting his front door, carefully pocketing his keys, and then walking entirely freely and unaided down his front path to the waiting ambulance. I was struck then not just by how tough and wiry and cheerful he seemed, cap pulled down, a glance up at the sky, a cheery thumbs up before he grabbed the handles and pulled himself up the steps – but also by how bent forward he was, by age of course, a marked curvature of his spine, and something else, the posture and demeanour of a man who was used to squeezing himself into small spaces, resolutely getting into position for whatever lay ahead.

‘A hundred and two?’ says Harry. ‘Hats off. A hundred and two minutes and you’d a’ been doin’ well.’

over the top

I volunteer to sing in a choir / a commissioned piece / about the first world war / we meet for practice in the church / I sit at the end of the row / next to a plaque on the wall / a memorial to someone or other / supported by two marble skulls / the conductor talks about the score / it makes me think of dad’s dad / Edward / shot in the stomach / addicted to chlorodyne / Achille, mum’s dad / who fought in the ruins of the house / his mother eloped from in France / I didn’t know either of them / they died before I was born / Edward from the booze / Achille from angina / the director raises her arms / I don’t read music / and struggle to make sense of the score / so when she points in my direction / I pretty much just follow the guy next to me / and do what I can to keep up