The operations centre – a thriller movie cliche. That tickety white writing at the bottom of the frame: Langley, Fairfax: 15:00. Or something. An office so ridiculously busy you can almost hear the echo of the clapper board and the director shouting ACTION!. Zoom in to a stressy operative hunched in front of a bank of computer screens, frowning, pressing the headset closer to their ear. ‘I’m sorry – can you repeat that?’ While a tense boss strides over and leans in. ‘Get me Moscow!’ or something. ‘I need eyes on the ground, the air. Goddamn it I want eyes on the eyes!’ And so on.
I’m talking it up. But the fact is, a large part of helping out on the clinical coordination desk is troubleshooting problems, however they present. A patient wanting to know what happened to a visit, a doctor with feedback on a treatment outcome, a clinician needing support, or numbers, or access codes, or availability for this, that and whatever else. A hundred requests, often at the same time, whilst a queue forms behind you of people wanting to discuss an earlier decision, or request clarification, or get the latest statistics, or hand you the latest flow diagram…
It’s a hectic environment – sometimes unbearably so – but once you’re set up at the desk, with everything open on the screen to give you what you need, your pad and pens and highlighters and snacks and three different mobile phones all laid out on charge, you start to feel like you can cope with anything, and find anything out, and coordinate the absolute shit out of the place. And now that I’ve found a headset to use with the phone, I feel even more prepared, because although the others laugh at me and think I’m overdoing it, still, I’m the one without the terrible crick in my neck from cradling the phone whilst I type, and I’m the one with my hands free to gesticulate if I think it’ll help. Plus I think it looks cool, so – whatever.
‘She’s gone, Jimmy.’
‘Gone? What d’ya mean, gone?’
‘She just disappeared. I rang the intercom. Jackie answered. She said come on up. She buzzed the buzzer. I went up the stairs. Five flights. No lift. Have you been there?’
‘No. But I’ve heard all about it.’
‘Five flights. Narrow – and so steep. It was like climbing a tree. So I got to the top, puffing and blowing. The door was open. I said Hello? Jackie? I went in. And she wasn’t there.’
‘Have you had a good look around?’
‘A good look around? Yes – of course I had a good look around. What do you think? Anyway – it is not a big flat, Jimmy. It is very small, like a bedsit really. Just one big room, a small bathroom, a tiny kitchen, and that is it. A little nest at the top of the tree. I even looked in the cupboards. Nothing. No sign. No Jackie.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘So what should I do? I rang her next of kin and they could not say. She doesn’t really go out. And she doesn’t have a mobile phone, so it’s not like I can ring her.’
‘Let’s get this straight, Ada. You called Jackie on the intercom. She answered and let you in the main door. You walked up the stairs, five flights. Her flat door was open. She wasn’t in the room.’
‘Correct. And she’s very frail and elderly. It’s not like she could run down before me, or climb out a back window or anything like that.’
‘Maybe she went into another flat?’
‘She has the top flat. So she’d have to come down at least one flight to go to the next one. But why would she do that if she knew I was coming up? It is all very peculiar.’
‘The only other thing I can think of is that you didn’t actually ring Jackie’s flat number.’
‘Maybe you thought you rang her number but rang someone else’s by mistake. They answered – sounded a bit like her – they buzzed you in regardless. Maybe Jackie went out ages ago and left her door open.’
‘Hmm. Maybe. But I’ve been here before and it definitely sounded like her.’
‘Those intercoms can be deceptive.’
‘I’m not sure.’
‘Can you do me a favour, Ada?’
‘Of course. Anything. I’m here now.’
‘Can you have one last look around the flat. Even if it means looking under the bed.’
‘Under the bed? Why would she be under the bed, Jimmy? She is not a cat.’
‘No – but – stranger things have happened.’
‘If they have I’ve never heard of them. Under the bed?’
She says something I don’t catch, and makes a clucking noise.
‘Just have one last, really good look around the place, Ada. To reassure ourselves she’s absolutely and completely definitely not in the flat.’
‘Well… okay. But I tell you now for one thing – that woman is not here.’
Ada puts her phone down somewhere but leaves the line open. I listen to her as she harrumphs about the place, calling out Jackie’s name once or twice in a sing-song way, just exactly as if she’s trying to find a cat. After a minute or two I hear a startled ‘Oh!’ then a ‘Hello, Jackie! Just a minute, please…’ Then the sound of her approaching the phone, picking it up, and ‘I have found the patient, Jimmy.’
‘Where was she?’
‘Lying on the bed.’
‘Great!’ I say. ‘That’s a relief!’
‘Thank you for your help,’ says Ada. ‘Talk to you later!’ And she rings off.
I pull the headphones off my ears and stretch back in the chair.
Michaela sits down opposite me.
‘You’ve seen Jackie before, haven’t you?’ I ask her.
‘The old woman who lives in the attic? Yes, a couple of times. Why?’
‘Does she wear clothes that exactly match her bed linen?’
‘Does she… what?’
‘Nothing … it’s just …’
The phone rings again.
‘I’ll tell you in a minute,’ I say, and press pick-up.