at the very top of the street

You wouldn’t think people actually lived on this street. It’s one of the main thoroughfares, an artery of urban bustle, crowds spilling over the pavements day and night, drinking in the pubs and cafes, streaming in or out of the concert venue, staring in the windows of the chi-chi boutiques, taking selfies outside the old theatre, or crowding round the buskers who work the passing trade on the pedestrian cut-throughs. The street heads up at a shallow incline, diverging endlessly left and right, then gradually thins, and quietens, until it runs out of energy at the top, where a main road cuts across it at right angles, running from the station to the sea. Here the shops are more down-at-heel. There’s a second hand camera shop, an antique clothes shop, a tailoring and alteration shop, a shop for rent, all of them weathered and worn, their wooden facades peeling. The person who did the display in the window of the antique clothes shop – how long ago? – has opted for a nightmarishly whimsical look: a stuffed fox head tied into a hacking jacket; some tackle lying around, a few vacant toys, as if they’d given up trying and taken to lure customers in with appalled terror instead. I wonder if there’s anyone in the shop at all. Maybe they’re just behind the netting, holding their breath, staring at me as I cup my hand on the glass to see better.

Mr Lake lives in the flat above the tailoring shop next door. There’s a young woman sitting in the shop window, dreamily needling some trousers draped on her lap. She pauses with the needle in mid-air as I fetch the key from the keysafe and turn to open the side door. I smile and nod but she doesn’t acknowledge me; in fact, I don’t even see her lower the needle as I push the side door open.

The hallway is dark and cramped, the only light coming from a yellowing square of glass at the far end, and a single, winking point of red from the console of the electric scooter on charge. I can’t see a switch for any hall light, and there’s no room for me to put my bag down and find my torch, so instead I wait a minute until my eyes have adjusted, then slowly creep forwards past the scooter and piles of junk, onto the sagging carpet of the stairs, and head up
‘Hello? Mr Lake? It’s Jim – from the hospital.’
There’s a TV playing in one of the rooms overhead, a rowdy studio debate, raucous shouting and applause – which somehow makes the place feel quieter.
A toilet with no door on the first little landing, a twist to the left, a galley kitchen on the right with a glimpse of stacked plates and bulging plastic bags, and then up onto the top landing, where a heavy curtain has been nailed across a doorway.
‘Mr Lake?’
I hook the curtain aside.

Mr Lake is sitting on a high-backed chair, surrounded by boxes and cabinets, piles of old Picture Post and Hobbycraft magazines, crates of clocks and teasmades and novelty telephones. It’s difficult enough for me to find a way through all the mess, so I can’t imagine how Mr Lake manages it. But then, no doubt, he’s used to it all and it fits him pretty well, like a hermit crab making its shell from a tin can or a discarded doll’s head.

I’m here to dress a wound on his leg. It’s not easy, setting up a sterile field, though. I have to move a few things.
‘Temporarily!’ I tell him. ‘If I’d had a pound for every time I’d said temporarily….’
‘You’d have five pounds fifty!’ he says.
‘No doubt.’
We chat whilst I set up. He tells me about his life. How he used to be an engineer.
‘I was always good with my hands,’ he says. ‘Taking things apart, putting them back together, that kind of thing.’
‘That’s a great skill to have.’
‘It kept me fed and watered.’

I glove up.
‘Any family in the area…?’ I ask as I lean in to remove the old dressing. The smell is gacky – the cloyingly sweet smell of decay.
‘No. No family,’ he says, watching me drop the filthy dressing into the waste bag. ‘I was married for a while. But she left. Ran off with the best man. And one day he dropped dead at work. So she killed herself.’
‘Oh – I’m sorry,’ I say, changing my gloves. ‘That’s terrible.’
‘Ah. Well,’ he says. ‘She was always a bit up and down.’

When I’ve finished the dressing and I’m ready to go, I notice some framed pictures on the wall behind the TV.
‘Is that you?’ I say, pointing at the picture of a smiling young man in a smart suit and waistcoat, holding a scowling baby up to the camera.
‘No! That’s my mother!’ he says.
‘Your mother? What? This one?’
‘Where are my glasses…?’ says Mr Lake. He grumbles and fumbles around his chair, the glasses magically appear in his hand, he hooks them over his ears, then screws up his face and leans forward.
‘Oh. Yes. You’re right. That’s me,’ he says.
‘Who’s the baby?’
‘That one? No idea.’
Amongst all the other portraits is one of a young woman in a floppy white hat and wide-collared raincoat. It’s a posed, three-quarter shot, the woman staring sleepily off to the right, her eyes heavy, her mouth slightly open. The odd thing is, she has her right hand raised in mid-air, palm down, off to the side at shoulder height, as if she’s pushing through invisible undergrowth, or maybe working a marionette whose strings she’d dropped but didn’t think anyone would notice.
‘That’s her,’ says Mr Lake. ‘That’s my wife. She made that coat. The day I took the photo we’d gone out for something to eat. We were sitting in the cafe, and the owner of a fancy boutique came over, and he said Where did you get that coat? And she said I made it. So he said Why don’t you come and work for me! We need people like you.
‘And did she?’
‘No,’ says Mr Lake. ‘She didn’t.’

on all fours

The cottage that Jenny has shared with her mother for thirty years is a narrow, two-storey affair, squashed between its neighbours, a knocked-through living area at ground level, Jenny’s bedroom and a spare room on the first, her mother’s bedroom and the bathroom on the second, the whole thing connected by a staircase as bare and steep as a spinal column. Over the years the two of them have held onto everything that came their way – books, pictures, papers, nick-nacks, cables, lamps, linen, plates, cameras, typewriters, spools of thread, film, whatever – the whole lot either stuffed in carrier bags, strapped in old suitcases or packed in plastic crates, everything piled-up, stuffed-in, balanced-on, walled-up, to the extent that you turn round on the spot looking for somewhere to put your bags, complete a full circle, and end up standing there smiling bravely instead.

‘I’m so sorry about the mess – I’ve been trying to have a bit of a tidy up since mummy became ill – well, I say ill – I should say iller – if that was a word – is that a word? – maybe I just invented a word! – because you know I’m not the full ticket myself – I’m half worn out – you should see me going up those stairs – on all fours half the time – like a goat! – well, not a goat, more like a monkey – a monkey with a bad back – you see, I had a cancer scare – I’m sixty after all – I suppose you’ve got to expect these things – it’s a shock when they happen, though – don’t get me wrong – you know about mummy’s cancer, don’t you? – riddled with it I shouldn’t wonder – but she won’t let them look – she won’t listen to anyone – never has – look at this place! – but if I threw out one little scrap she’d know and have a fit – come in a bit, I need to lock the door behind you – I never know whether lifting the handle on its own is good enough – best not take chances…’

It’s a test of spatial reasoning to figure out how Jenny is to get past me and my three bags of kit without one of us either burying ourselves, or both going outside and coming back in again in reverse order. Meanwhile, Jenny talks constantly through the whole, complex procedure. It strikes me that her conversation is a verbal representation of the house, lacking any kind of editing function, any random thought or memory as good as the next, no clear space, nothing to point. The stress of the situation doesn’t help, of course. It sounds as if their relationship has been pretty difficult over the years. As Jenny’s monologue continues, an image slowly develops behind it, like a Polaroid picture moving from ghostly impression to something more solid, something with colour and depth, a long face, thin lips, guarded expression.
‘Straight up – right to the top – well, I SAY the top….we’re coming mummy!…’
Jenny follows behind, on all fours.

don’t say that

There is a middle-aged man and woman, standing side-by-side at the living room window of the bungalow next door, staring at me as I walk down the path. I wave – as best I can, with all the bags I’m carrying – but they don’t wave back. It wouldn’t surprise me if they were actually cut-outs, set there by an estate agent. But if that’s true, why not give them wavy arms and flashing eyes, activated by a sensor when you got close enough? As it is, their bungalow looks about as homey and real as a house made of Lego. Even the juniper in the planter wears a tag.

Mind you, the bungalow I’m visiting has more than enough reality for both. A low, brick wall separates the two of them as severely as the line between a ‘Before’ and ‘After’ feature. It’s a wretched, cliche, tumbledown affair, with an overgrown garden, rotten woodwork, missing tiles, and a car parked round the back, one of those boaty old Citroens, crusted in mould, the bonnet disappearing into the tarmac like a junk submarine in the world’s slowest dive.

I glance over my shoulder. The cut-outs have been repositioned to get a better look.
I put my stuff down, reach out, and knock.
The instantaneous and outraged barking of a dog.
Scuffling, swearing, crashing – the sounds of a desperate struggle in the hallway. I guess the dog is being put in a cage; if it is, it only makes the barking worse, like trying to stuff a panther in a box after it’s got blood on its snout.
After a composing kind of moment the door opens. George stands there, breathing hard, pushing his hair back from his face, smiling, whilst a small terrier tries to cut through the bars with acetylene fury.
‘Don’t mind Trampus’ says George. ‘He’s very protective.’
‘I’d never have guessed he was a terrier!’
‘Well. He’s crossed with something bigger.’
‘A wolf?’
‘Possibly. In his head.’
‘I don’t mind if you let him out. I’m alright with dogs.’
George’s smile tightens.
‘Oh, no,’ he says. ‘Oh, no, no, no. I couldn’t possibly.’
As if to illustrate, Trampus redoubles his efforts, the cage rocking from side to side.
‘Well. Alright then,’ I say.
‘Thank you for coming,’ says George, backing up.

George is as friendly, nub-faced, vast and shiningly white as a beluga whale, his trousers suspended by hoops, the lenses of his glasses thumbed with grease. He leads me back through the house, which is just as awful as the outside promised, comprehensively silted up with trash in the hoarder-style, unwashed plates stacked in plastic buckets, strata of food trodden into the floor. Even though it’s early in the year, a couple of plump black flies are on the move. One buzzes past me in a straight line from Crap A to Crap B, somnolent and satisfied as a bank manager on the daily commute.
‘Mother? There’s a gentleman to see you. From the hospital.’
‘Hello Gladys. My name’s Jim. How are you today?’
Gladys is as thin as George is fat. A frail and spidery old woman in a housecoat and flowery bandana, she’s not sitting in her chair so much as nesting in it, kyphotically hunched over a plate of digestives, scooping up the pieces and pressing them into her whiskery mouth.
‘Trampus has gone quiet,’ I say, looking for somewhere to put my bags, not finding anywhere.
‘Eerily quiet,’ says George.
‘What’s he doing? Tunnelling?’
‘Oh no!’ says George. ‘Don’t say that.’

happy days

Ralph reminds me of that woman in Happy Days – not the Fonzie sitcom, the Beckett two-hander. She’s buried up to her waist in a mound of crap, but seems oblivious, wittering on to a taciturn husband who sits at the bottom of the heap passing her stuff every now and again. Ralph isn’t quite buried, but it wouldn’t take much. A sneeze would do it. He’s lying precariously on his side on the very edge of a large double bed that’s piled high with rubbish. And it’s not just the bed. The whole flat is submerged, with only a trackway through the rubbish to get you from the front door to the bedroom and – at a push – to the bathroom. At least the budgie in the front room has a cage to protect its space from the rising tide of crap, although quite how Ralph ever manages to make it over there to feed and clean it is a mystery. The bird sits on its perch flicking its head in spasms of attention as I pick my way through to Ralph, who calls to me from the bedroom.
‘The bag needs changing,’ he says.
He’s right. His catheter bag is as tight as an overfilled water bottle, straining at the seams, filled with a sloughy, orange-tinged mess.
It’s hard to know where to begin. There’s nothing in the flat to clean him up, scarcely room to put my bag down let alone install equipment. We often talk about setting up a micro-environment for anyone with significantly reduced mobility. That means having all the essentials to hand – a commode, urinal, frame to help with transfers, maybe an over-bed table for food and water, a phone nearby and so on. I can’t help noticing that Ralph has already set up his own version of the micro-environment: a pile of porno mags, a remote control and a combat knife.
I’m half-way through sorting out his catheter when I hear a knock on the front door.
‘Who’s that?’ I say. He shrugs.
When no-one comes through, I go to check.
The front door is slightly ajar. Just in front of it on the floor, about an arm’s length from the threshold, a big bag of bird seed.