two wiggly chalk lines and a dot

Perched on the edge of her bed, her crochet cap looped over her ears, her smock rucked up, her square face a little wax-yellow in the light from the basement kitchen window, Wendy looks like a character in a painting by Brueghel, the village wise-woman, taking a breather half-way through making the latest batch of crab-apple gin.

‘I don’t drink the stuff,’ she says, wiping her hands down the front of her smock. ‘I just like giving it away as presents.’

She gestures to a row of elegant and antique bottles on a shelf behind her. ‘There’s more in the cellar,’ she says. ‘Have a look if you like.’

There’s nothing I’d like better. I could very happily spend the day exploring this extraordinary house, filled with Wendy’s charcoal sketches and stone sculptures and black and white photos and shelf upon shelf of tatty books – the beautiful strata of a long and colourful life lived in many parts of the world. I haven’t the time, though. Apart from checking Wendy over and making sure she’s okay, I’ve come to see what we can do to help. We’ve had a good long chat about the things she could do to improve things environmentally. I’ve offered to find help with some ‘rationalisation’ so we can accommodate the hospital bed she desperately needs. Nothing I’ve said impresses her over much, it has to be said, although she’s happy to think about it.

‘I like to be in the action,’ she says. ‘The kitchen is the heart of the house. I don’t want to lose that.’
‘You wouldn’t have to.’
‘Hmm,’ she says.

She shifts her position, and a batik-print cloth bag rattles out from a pocket onto the cot bed.
‘My bones,’ she says.
‘Your bones? What are you – a necromancer?’
She laughs. ‘My phones! My phones! Although – talking about divination – I did see things. In the past. Not so much these days, unfortunately.’
‘What kind of things?’
‘Oh – I knew they weren’t real. I didn’t let myself get frightened by them. And I certainly didn’t tell anyone else, or they’d have locked me up! My sister was the same. I think in retrospect it was a form of epilepsy. Only with us it was more hallucinations. When we were little we both got sent to a convent. Not that anyone had ever told us we were Catholic. What’s a Catholic? my sister said to me when we were lined up outside the classroom. I told her to watch out, keep her mouth shut and follow me. Anyway, there was this nun who took us for something or other. She’d slowly write a word on the blackboard, then underline it slowly with two wiggly lines, and finish off by screwing in the chalk to make a dot. And it was that particular sequence, you see, the two wiggly lines, the dot at the end, that would send us off. Animals would burst out of the blackboard. Foxes, eagles, herds of reindeer. We learned to control our surprise or we’d have been for it.’
‘Maybe they’d have thought you were visionaries. Is that what they call them?’
‘I think if you see the Virgin Mary you’re a visionary. Foxes and eagles they burn you at the stake. We didn’t tell anyone, needless to say.’
‘Do you still have visions?’
‘Sometimes. Odd times. The last one I was standing at the sink doing some washing up – which dates it! I haven’t done that in a while. Anyway, I was standing there with my hands in the sudsy water, and – maybe it was the pattern of light through the window, or something else, I don’t know – but suddenly I was standing on the edge of a vast, desert plain. And off in the distance I could see a dummy.’
‘A dummy?’
‘Like a tailor’s mannequin. You know? On a stand. And I moved closer, and I saw that the dummy was wearing a jacket – a nice, neat, green brocade affair, with pearl buttons down the front and at the cuff. A little closer and I could see some other details, a beetle brooch, a pair of calfskin gloves. And it was then I realised what I was looking at. It’s you, you dozy old cow! I said to myself. The vision vanished. I carried on washing up.’

Enid vs. the CIA

Enid stares at me from the hospital bed with a wide and fixed expression, like an old Morris Minor up on the ramp. There are two other cars come to visit her in the rehabilitation unit: me, a battered old Toyota, well-maintained but worried about the next MOT, and the unit GP, an old Volvo people wagon, boxy, unkempt, a little clumsy, perhaps, but still good for a few thousand miles.
‘Tell me more about the man you saw this morning,’ says the doctor, leaning forward in his chair. ‘The man from the CIA’

Enid isn’t the most obvious recruitment target for the Central Intelligence Agency, but then you’d have to think they’re probably a little underrepresented in the eighty year old, retired bookkeeper demographic. Still, Enid’s taking it well. She waggles her mirrors and begins.
‘It was early in the morning,’ she says, folding her hands in her lap and giving her shoulders a settling shrug, ‘… about half past five, I should think. I heard someone cough, and I thought That’s odd. And when I sat up, there he was, standing at the foot of the bed, staring down at me.’
‘What did he look like?’
‘Oh – about forty, I should think. Pleasant chap. Short blond hair. Wearing a sports jacket but no tie. Smart casual, I suppose you’d say. And he stared at me a good long while, and then he said: Enid? You’re not who you think you are.’
‘How extraordinary! And he was from the CIA?’
‘Yes. He said they wanted to recruit me for a mission. I said I’m sorry, but I don’t think I’ll be much good to you like this. I’m really not up to any mission. And he said You’re on our list. And I said Well, I can’t help that. I’ve just had a pacemaker fitted.’
The doctor smiles, nods, writes something down.
‘It’s happened a few times before,’ she says.
‘The CIA?’
‘No. Last time I woke up in a Burka. There was an enormous man with a big black beard, and he pointed at me and said I had to go to the mosque. And I told him I didn’t want to go, because – well – I wouldn’t know what to do. And he said I’d soon pick it up.’
‘So it’s all about identity?’ says the doctor. ‘Fascinating!’
‘I don’t know about that,’ says Enid. ‘I’d sooner just wake up and have a cup of tea like normal people.’
‘And this has only been happening since the operation?’
She nods.
‘Do you think that’s what’s caused it?’ she says.
‘Possibly,’ says the doctor. ‘I think we need to take some blood and check for a few things. So – do you get any kind of warning before you see these people? Any strange smells, funny sensations? Sounds? Odd visual effects?’
She shakes her head.
‘Do your limbs feel heavy or frozen?’
‘No. I’m sitting up talking to them just like I’m talking to you now. I get a little frightened.’
‘But you don’t feel unwell in any way?’
‘No.’
‘Hmm’ says the doctor.
‘It’s not always people who talk, though. The time before that it was an alien.’
‘Like ET?’
‘I don’t know about that. He wasn’t very friendly. Pacing up and down. When I asked him what he wanted he picked me up and threw me in the cheeseplant.’
‘Well! That’s aliens for you! Look – Enid – I’ll leave you with my colleague here who’s very kindly agreed to take some blood, and we’ll have a look at that and see if there’s anything causing these hallucinations. They may just be lucid dreams, of course. You’ve been through a lot recently and you’ve had a disrupted routine and everything else. But we ought to rule out organic causes first. Okay? Lovely to see you.’
And he leaves.
‘Do you think I’ve lost my marbles?’ says Enid as I get my kit out.
‘No! Not at all. I think like the doctor says, you’ve got a lot on your plate.’
She stares at the toast cooling on the table beside her.
‘I don’t fancy much,’ she says, then turns her attention back to me.
‘I don’t bleed,’ she says, brightening. ‘Everyone struggles. There’s only one person who can get it – a girl who works at the surgery. Ever so nice, she is. Lovely teeth. She chats away a mile a minute, and the next thing you know she’s waving a tube in your face. I said to her, I said you’re a vampire, you are. And she said yes, and that’s why I like my job so much.’

We chat about the whole lucid dream thing whilst I tap around for anything vaguely resembling a vein. She’s right. It’s Slim Pickens and that’s a fact.

‘I’ve had a couple in the past,’ I tell her. ‘Dreams where I’ve woken up in the middle of it all and thought: This is a dream. And I knew if I concentrated hard enough I could make things happen. There was this one time, I’d gone to America and I was due to fly home that morning. Well I woke up in the dream, and I was standing on a wide prairie plain. So I thought I’d see what I could make come over the horizon. I concentrated as hard as I could, and I tried to summon one of those old western coach and horses – you know – like you see in the films. And then I could get in and see where it took me.’
‘Oh yes. That would be nice.’
‘But it never came. Instead there was this tiny figure running towards me with its arms outstretched. A woman, in ceremonial robes, Japanese robes, all flapping out behind her. And when she got a bit closer I could see it was my mum, and she had this expression on her face, like she was shouting out and trying to warn me. And I got so scared I turned around and woke myself up. And I was so freaked I rang the airline to change my ticket, because I thought maybe she was trying to tell me the plane was going to crash. Sorry – that vein disappeared when I went in.’
‘They do that. They can hear you coming.’
‘So later on I thought I’d better ring the airline again to check the new arrangements, and they told me they had no record of my previous call.’
‘Did you catch your plane?’
‘Yeah.. It was fine.’
‘I see.’
She reaches out and takes a desultory bite of her toast and chews it without much relish. I have to admit, I’m a little disappointed with my story, too. It sounded like a straightforward dream. The mystery of it had rubbed off over time; now it just seemed like the kind of thing you might get with jet lag.
‘I wonder what your mum was trying to tell you?’ she says, looking for the positive.
‘Who knows? I asked her about it later and she said she hadn’t had any premonitions. There we go! You have got blood after all…’
She sighs.
‘Yes. Well. Everyone struggles,’ she says.

the things he’s seen

‘Is that a bird in the corner?’
‘A bird?’
‘A blackbird. Or a rat. Could be a rat. Something.’
I go over to check, cautiously moving junk around.
‘No. Nothing here.’
‘Oh. I thought I saw something.’
I put the junk back.
‘Do you think you might be hallucinating?’
‘No, no! I definitely saw it. This place – I don’t know. Sometimes things just come in the door.’

I don’t know what to think. Steve’s had a recent history of infection, and he certainly doesn’t take care of himself, with his heavy drinking, his poor diabetes control, and the general state of his flat. But despite all this his obs are normal, and – so far at least – he’s been pretty rational. And he’s certainly right about the place. A tenement block you could use as a film set for the roughest quarter of New Orleans, with a dark, central courtyard, an old tree in a ruined brick planter, and all around rising up six storeys a crumbling iron fire escape.

‘Anyway. I wouldn’t go to hospital, Jim. Not even if I was dying.’
‘Oh? Why’s that?’
‘My son! I haven’t seen him for ten years and he turns up yesterday.’
‘Wow! That’s great!’
‘Yeah. He’s off with his mates the other side of town. I ‘spect I’ll see him later.’

There’s a map of the world pinned to the wall above Steve’s bed. He tells me about his life as the skipper of a yacht, sailing the world, navigating the oceans through a haze of booze, smoke and other substances until unexpectedly running aground on a reef of detritus in this godforsaken flat.

‘I’ve been through storms like you wouldn’t believe. End of the World type storms. Did you know hurricanes give birth to tornadoes?’
‘Do they?’
‘I’ve seen it. The Devil’s spawn. Evil snakes, twisting you into knots. I was always lucky, though. I’ve got a strong stomach. And a strong grip!’

Later that day, back at the hospital, his blood results come in – as bleak a set of figures as the worst severe weather warning. I book him an ambulance to go to hospital, and then call him to give him the news.
‘I won’t go without seeing my son,’ he says.
‘Can’t you call him on his mobile?’
‘I haven’t got any credit on my phone, and he’s left his at home.’
‘I could call his landline and leave a message.’
‘He lives in El Salvador.’
‘Still, I could try…’
He gives me the number, but the number’s unobtainable.
I ring Steve back and tell him what I think.
‘The ambulance are on a two-hour response,’ I tell him. ‘So there’s time. I’m not going to stand the ambulance down, Steve, because your blood results are so out of whack I couldn’t be responsible for that. Fingers crossed your son turns up between now and then. But your health’s the most important thing.’
‘I don’t care about that,’ he says. ‘I’m not going anywhere till I’ve seen my son again.’

A little later I ring the hospital to check Steve went in. There’s no record, so I ring him to find out what happened. When he answers the phone he sounds loud and emphatic, like he’s speaking in the middle of a storm. I wonder if he’s been drinking.
‘No, Jim! He didn’t show up!’ he bellows. ‘But even if he had I couldn’t possibly go now.’
‘Why’s that?’
‘It’s all these kids.’
‘What d’you mean? What kids?’
‘All these seven year olds! Their mums’ve just dumped them on me. And it’s kinda weird, Jim – you know? Because they’ve done that thing kids do these days. They’ve painted their faces yellow and black. Fierce stripes, y’know! Like wasps…!’

I ring ambulance control again. Get the response time upgraded to immediate.

strange dreams in a blue house

To paraphrase a movie tagline from the seventies: Rich means never having to say your address.

‘The Blue House, Ocean Rise’ isn’t much to go on. It sounds distinctive, though, and as I have some time before the appointment, I take a chance and drive straight there, figuring I’ll spot a blue house easily enough, especially on Ocean Rise, where all the houses are a transcendent white, following a brutalist style of architecture that’ll one day be known as ‘bunker chic’.

Ocean Rise is a grand, slow ascent of the cliffs to the east of town, an eclectic throw of old and new money, each house with a panoramic view of the sea, secure gates, and landscaped gravel drives leading to doors wide enough to walk through with a saddlebag of gold over each shoulder.

I’ve driven up and down the road twice when I admit defeat and pull over to call for directions. Even doing this gives me a prickly feeling, security cameras zooming in on the small, suspiciously old car as the driver flips through a diary and glances anxiously through the window. With any luck they’ll see the NHS lanyard and reassuring blue of my uniform and put the phone back on the hook. I mean – this isn’t the US. The worst you see here are signs that say: No Hawkers or Canvassers. In the US it’s Armed Response.

– Who is this?
Hello Mrs Shand. It’s Jim, from the hospital. I’ve come to see Mr Shand, to check his blood pressure and so on.
– Well where are you, then?
I’m on Ocean Rise.
– That’s it. That’s where we live.
I’m afraid I don’t have the number.
– We don’t have a number. We’re The Blue House.
I haven’t seen any blue houses.
– You won’t see it from the road.
No?
– No. We’re set back. On a hill. Behind a hedge.
Where on the road?
– (Oh for goodness sake) You know the new block? Moana Heights?
Yes.
– Turn in there, and then sharp left. It’s not signposted, but that’s where we are. Got it?
Yes. Thanks. See you in five minutes.

She hangs up, saying either Good, or possibly Good God, the ‘god’ part truncated.
I spin the car round and head in that direction, half a dozen outraged CCTV cameras capturing my registration plate.

-oOo-

Luckily, Mrs Shand is sweeter than her phone voice suggests. I can see that the stress of the situation is beginning to tell on her, giving her the alarmed and dangerously taut look of frayed rope.
‘He’s upstairs,’ she says, turning round in the hallway, bending down to pick up the post and in the process dropping half of the clothes and folders she already has in her arms.
‘Here. Allow me,’ I say, helping her sort things out.
‘He’s not well at all and I don’t know what to do,’ she says. ‘He’s leading me a merry dance, I can tell you.’
I follow her upstairs to a bedroom that’s like the deck of a ship, one great window stretching entirely across one end of it, the ceiling low, the only furniture in that vast space a simple double bed, an elderly man with wild, white hair lying placidly on top, both hands behind his head.
‘Hello?’ he says, stiffly pushing himself up on an elbow. ‘Who’d we have here, then?’
‘For goodness sake, Alfred! It’s the nurse!’ says Mrs Shand, trotting round the far side of the bed and fussing with some pillows. ‘You see what I mean?’ she adds, as if I’d just witnessed some outrageous display. ‘You see what I have to put up with?’
‘How are you, Alfred?’ I say, putting my bags down and then reaching out to shake his hand. His fingers are long and cool and frail, with so little pressure to them that if I closed my eyes it would be like shaking hands with a shadow.
‘I was having such a dream!’ he says, laying back down again and lacing his hands across his chest. ‘All those people! Coming out of the walls!’
He closes his eyes, then opens them again with a start, and looks straight at me, as if I was part of the same, ghostly parade.
‘Who did you say you were?’
‘Jim. From the hospital. Come to see how you are.’
‘Ah!’ he says, and then turns his pinched face up to the ceiling again, and closes his eyes.
‘Not good, Jim. Not good at all.