the right one

Ray has the kind of face Disney would draw if he were animating an oak tree. A knotted, gnarly, weathered kind of face, smiling the width of his trunk, a songbird nesting in his hair.
‘Thanks for coming,’ says Ray, then turning stiffly on his roots, leads me into the sitting room.

And if Ray is a tree, Daisy is a deer – an ancient, other-worldly kind of deer, with sad pale eyes, uncertain footsteps and a wistful manner.

‘So!’ I say to her, dropping my bags and sitting at the other end of the sofa. ‘How are you feeling today, Daisy?’
She laughs – an unexpectedly girlish trill – as if I’ve asked the most ridiculous and scandalous thing possible.
‘How am I feeling? What a question! How do you think I’m feeling?’
‘Me? I don’t know. You look well, I have to say.’
‘Tell the gentleman about the fall, Daisy.’
‘The fall? Where?’
‘Not so much a fall as a slip out of bed. Onto your bum.’
Daisy looks at him blankly. But in the time it takes for her to turn and look at me, the moment has completely gone. She frowns a little, then fiddles with the cuff of her cardigan, muttering something I don’t quite catch.
‘You know about the dementia?’ says Ray, mouthing the words more than speaking them.
I nod.
‘Is it any worse?’
He shakes his head.
‘This was a little setback. I think we’re okay, though. Aren’t we Daisy? Eh? We’re okay?’
‘What are you talking about!’ she says, then turns to stare at me again.
‘Seventy-five years we’ve been married,’ says Ray. ‘Imagine that.’
‘Congratulations! That’s quite an achievement.’
‘That’s one word for it.’
‘How did you meet?’
Ray leans forwards in the armchair.
‘I was eighteen, just about to join the navy. There was a fair on the common, so I went there with my mate Harry to see what’s what. Daisy was there with her identical twin Maisy, so we hung out with them for a bit. Which one do you want? Harry said. I said does it matter? I can’t tell ‘em apart! So we took up with each other, and there you are. Harry got chucked after two days, and here I am, seventy-five years later, still wondering if I married the right one.’
‘How come she chucked Harry?’
‘He was too cocky. Me? I was just the right amount.’
He laughs and leans back in the chair. He has a twitch in his right eye, which he tries to ease by kneading it vigorously with a knuckle.
‘Nah!’ he says, dropping his hand after a while. ‘I definitely married the right one. Didn’t I Daisy? Eh? I say I married the right one!’
‘My husband should be back soon,’ she says, blanking him, folding her hands neatly in her lap. ‘Shall I fetch you some tea?’

fridge magnets

Mr Yelnats talks with an unending cadence, running one sentence into the next. It wrong-foots me, because when it sounds like he’s coming to a full stop and I’ll be able to answer some of his anxieties, he picks up steam again and carries on. The result is that I spend the next five minutes occasionally drawing a breath ready to speak, then letting it out slowly again, nodding sympathetically, trying to keep a hold on the points I’ll need to cover to calm him down. In the end, though, I’m driven to talk over him a little, and ease him to a stop, like intercepting a bolting horse by standing in its path, holding my hands out and stroking its nose.

‘Well first of all – has anyone told you who we are?’ I say.
He changes his position on the sofa again, throwing his right arm over his head to scratch the opposite ear, then changes back again.

‘No,’ he says. ‘No they haven’t. What they did say is that all this would be done. I mean – I wasn’t expecting brass bands and flags in the street. I mean – I’ve been away a long time but I’m not stupid. I know how these things go. But why did they say it’d all be done? I’d have the things that go over the toilet. I’d have the stair rails. I’d have the thing that goes over the bath. A perching stool, whatever that is. I mean – I wasn’t expecting a team of workmen drilling holes in the wall as I walked in the door. This isn’t the movies. But still – a promise is a promise. Why did they say they’d do these things if they weren’t going to happen? I mean …’

‘I’m sorry you were given the wrong impression about how it all works, Mr Yelnats,’ I say. ‘But let me just explain…’

‘I’m not as bad as some. I’m pretty bad, as you can see. But I do my best. I can get about – of sorts. I’ve been away three months and things are a bit difficult at the moment. Don’t get me wrong. I’m an independent sort of chap. Still. My wife died six years ago and I’m still getting over that. Not that you ever do.’

‘I’m sorry to hear that.’

‘It’s as well to know your limits. I want to get better. I think I can get better. In fact I’d go as far as to say I expect to get better. But I’ll need a little help. As things stand I’m not sure what I can do and what I can’t do. Let me tell you something. When I was on that ward…’

He holds out his hand, spreads his fingers and taps them one after the other with the other hand, listing all the things he was told on the ward. And – actually – it comes down to five things. He’d have a toilet aid, a walking frame for upstairs, a bath board, a perching stool, and care support all waiting for him when he got home.

‘Okay,’ I say, as evenly as I can. ‘Okay. First things first. Let me quickly tell you who we are. We’re an NHS community health team. We’ve got lots of people on the team – physios, OTs, nurses, pharmacists – you name it. It’s a pretty big team. We’ve also got a small bank of carers who give emergency support to patients. Our job is to either support people being discharged from hospital – like you – or to stop them being admitted in the first place. So the hospital has referred you to us, and I’ve come round on a kind of fact-finding mission to see exactly what it is you need.’

‘Let me stop you there…’ he says.

‘Just one more thing,’ I say. ‘And this is pretty key. We’re a short-term service, so we work very very quickly. We like to move things on as fast as we can. If someone needs longer term help, we refer them on to the District Nurses or any of the other specialist teams. And if they need longer term care, we refer them on to full-time care agencies.’

‘Yes, yes, I get all that,’ he says, as I nod and gesture for him to continue. ‘But why did they say it’d all be in place when it wasn’t?’

‘I don’t know. There are two types of arrangement. One is an access visit, where an OT from the hospital comes to the house to put in essential equipment ahead of the discharge, and then there’s a referral to us.’

‘What – coming to my house when I’m not here? I wouldn’t want that.’

‘Okay – so that’s probably why they referred you to us. But as I say, we work pretty quickly.’

‘How quickly?’

‘I could call the office now and see if they’ve got availability for an OT to come out with the stuff. They’re horribly busy, but it’s worth a shot.’

He frowns at me.

‘What are you like with toilets?’ he says.

‘Toilets?’

‘My toilet won’t flush.’

‘Oh. Well. I’m not a plumber. But I could have a look…’

He struggles up out of the sofa, waving me away when I go to help. It’s like watching a daddy long-legs trying to free itself from a glob of treacle.

‘That’s quite low for you,’ I say.

‘It’s comfortable,’ he says, puffing and straining. ‘I’m used to it.’

Eventually he manages it, and after taking a breath, straightening his cardigan and swiping his hair to the right, he staggers out of the room with me following behind. We pass along through a narrow kitchen, Mr Yelnats using the counters and cupboards for support, me with my hands out like an anxious parent ready to catch.
‘I need some rails here,’ he says, slapping the wall.
‘I can see that.’
‘It’s in there,’ he says, chinning me in the direction of the loo.

A creamy green toilet with one of those cisterns with a push-button flush. I’ve really no idea, but I take off the heavy lid and look inside. The water is up to the top. There’s a strange looking plastic box on a push-fit over the handle spindle. I pull it off, flip the lid open and try to figure out how it works. When you push the button on the outside of the cistern, a rod pushes a sprung thing that tugs on a wire that feeds down a tube into some other thing that operates the flush. The sprung thing is sticky, so I wiggle it. Eventually – miraculously – it seems to work again. The water empties with a gratifying rush.

‘Don’t it?’ says Mr Yelnats, waiting outside the door.
‘All done! Seems to be fine now.’
But … when the flush is finished and the water starts to come back into the cistern again, the water level doesn’t go beyond a couple of inches, and all the excess runs off into the toilet bowl. No amount of wiggling makes any difference.
‘Oh,’ I say.
‘What?’ says Mr Yelnats.
‘I can’t stop it filling.’
‘Let me see…’ he says, and comes into the toilet. There’s no room for both of us at the loo, so I squeeze past him. Eventually he supports himself on both hands, staring down into the noisy cistern.
‘What have you done?’ he says.
‘Like I say – I’m not a plumber…’
‘It’s going to run like that without stopping now.’
He tries some wiggling, too, but nothing makes any difference.
‘Let me have one more look,’ I say. We go through the same elaborate manoeuvre as before, and swap places.
In the end, for want of anything else, I get a Toilet Duck and wedge it under the ballcock, stopping the water about half-way up the cistern.
‘It’s only temporary,’ I tell him. ‘I’m afraid you’re going to have to get a plumber in.’
‘Where am I going to get a plumber?’
I shrug.
‘Do you have any family nearby? Any friends, or…?’
‘No.’
‘The internet?’
‘Hmm,’ he says. ‘There’s a plastic bucket back in the kitchen. Fetch that in here, would you? I can use it to flush things through.’
‘Okay.’

I find the bucket on a stool beside the fridge. The fridge is covered with a grid of fridge magnets – a Picasso portrait, an abstract pattern, hokey one liners with cartoon illustrations: My wife might not always be right but she’s always the boss or There’s nothing wrong with me that a little chocolate won’t fix. A Fender Stratocaster. A Triumph.
‘Where’s that bucket?’ shouts Mr Yelnats.
‘Coming!’

annie’s yuccas

Outside John’s window are two enormous flowering yucca plants, bees bimbling drunkenly up and down the spikes.
‘Look at that lot,’ he says. ‘What d’you reckon?’
‘Pretty impressive.’
‘And they’re socially distanced, n’all. I was going to put a mask on ‘em, but I thought the bees would get annoyed.’
‘That’s a good one! I like that!’
‘Yeah!’ he says, ‘This bungalow, it’s the best plot in the street. It’s got the garden. It’s got somewhere to park the car. ‘Course, the garden was really Annie’s area of expertise. But she’s gone now and I’m not so good as I was on my pins. Still – can’t complain. Honestly, if I was a millionaire I couldn’t be any better set up. I’ve got everything to hand, look. The kitchen, the bathroom, the bed. I’ve got a TV. I’ve got my iPad for doing the email and putting a few quid on the horses. I’ve got friends next door who do my shopping and run the hoover over. I’ve got family who pop in when they can. So you tell me. What better life could a millionaire have than what I’ve got?’
‘I can’t think, John. It seems pretty great.’

And it’s true. It is.

John is ninety-two, but he’s been lucky with his health – that, and the fact he played a lot of sport and stayed active all his life. He never smoked, he says, and only drinks on special occasions, which is ‘any day with a D in it.’

He sits upright on the armchair, his gnarled hands restlessly moving, from a stroking kind of action on the ends of the arm rests, to a vigorous rubbing of his bulbous nose, to a dog-like scratching of his ear, then back to the arm rests. It’s like watching an old but well-maintained tractor, idling in the yard before rattling off down the lane.

But his demeanour suddenly changes when he tells me what happened with Annie.

‘Wa’aall,’ he says, batting the air. ‘They messed up the appointments and whatnot. There was a lot of toing and froing. Me ringing the surgery asking whether the blood results was back yet; the surgery saying ‘what blood results?’ and this and that. You get the picture. Till finally when they found out what she had it was too late. She got took by the cancer. It wasn’t easy. And then there was this in-quiry, see? But I tell you what – I was prepared. I had all the dates written down, all the lost appointments, all the tests they missed. And I sat up in that room in the hospital, with the consultant and all the rest of them sitting opposite me. And the consultant he said she would’ve died anyway. So I got a bit hot, I can tell you. And the woman from the wherever-she-was-from, she said I had to show a little respect. So I said where was the respect you showed my Annie? Where was the respect there? ‘Course, they went quiet at that.’

He shrugs, strokes the arms of the chair.

‘It’s all in the past now,’ he says. ‘I got a letter saying sorry, so there’s that.’

He looks out of the window, at the bright sunshine pouring down into the garden, the hedges looking a little ragged now, the shed leaning to the right.

‘What about them yuccas, though?’ he says. ‘Socially distanced! Hey?’

pellets

There’s an approximate number one with a crooked arrow beneath it, crudely painted in black, nailed to a board beneath the crappy intercom at the front of the house. I guess the Cartwells have a flat round the back, so I head in that direction.

Beside the front door to Flat One is a large electric button, so new it stands out from everything else. In fact, it’s such a contrast – the bright plastic box, the imposing but ramshackle old house – I’m surprised the whole thing didn’t cave in when they screwed it in. But then again, I’m guessing they took the safe option and used glue.

There’s a thick carpet of blue slug pellets scattered in front of the door. Two or three cartons worth. They must have a terrible slug problem. Or maybe they think it’s good for health visitors, too? Pellets crunching underfoot, I reach out, press the button and wait.

Nothing.

I’m not sure it rang anywhere, but sometimes it’s difficult to tell.
I look around. Waggle my feet experimentally on the pellets.
Press the button again.

Nothing.

Is that even a button? Maybe it’s a fancy design feature and the button’s somewhere else. Maybe it’s actually a camera. I lean in to look, and then lean out again, not wanting to scare them. Feel around the box. No – it must be the button. Why would you have a feature on a doorbell that looked like a button but wasn’t? That’d be crazy.
Maybe I just didn’t press hard enough.
I prod a little harder. A couple of times.

Whaaaat? cries a voice from deep inside the house. Why’d’ya keep pressing the fackin’ button? Who ARE you?
‘Oh! Sorry! It’s Jim – from the hospital. Come to see Mr Cartwell…’
I rap on the door with my knuckle and gently push it open.
‘Alright if I come in…?’

There’s a steep flight of stairs leading straight up to a landing. An elderly woman leaning over railings at the top, looking down. She looks insanely hostile – flaring white hair, wide eyes, and a great toothless mouth. She looks down at me with such a rapt expression, I’m worried she’s suddenly going to extend her neck down the stairs and snap me up – head, bags, lanyard and all – in one convulsive gulp. Luckily she stays where she is, gripping the bannisters.
‘Who sent you?’ she says.
‘I’m so sorry to disturb you. It was the hospital. When Mr Cartwell was discharged they asked us to come and see how we could help.’
‘Urgh,’ she says (or sounds like). ‘I suppose you’d better come up then.’
She lets go of the bannister and shouts ‘Eric! It’s someone from the hospital to see you.’
A voice from a room somewhere.
‘But I’ve only just got ‘ere.’
‘C’mon. Get up. He’s come to see you he says.’
‘What for?’
‘I don’t know. He’ll tell you.’
‘I was having a kip.’
‘Have it later.’
Inaudible curses.
‘C’mon, then if you’re coming.’

I walk up the stairs, scattering blue pellets behind me like a cat leaving a litter tray.

‘Sorry to be a nuisance,’ I say.
‘Go in the sitting room,’ says Mrs Cartwell. ‘He’ll see you in there.’
‘Okay. Lovely. Thanks.’

The flat is tiny, the narrow layout made worse by all the clutter. There’s just enough room to move from one place to another, and when Mrs Cartwell comes in we have to choreograph each move in advance to make it work.
‘So they obviously didn’t tell you who we were,’ I say, looking for somewhere to dump my bags but giving up.
‘No,’ she says. ‘Who are you?’

We’re interrupted by Mr Cartwell, wheezing and puffing and cursing as he comes down the corridor towards us. His belly is so distended, it reminds me of the spacehopper I used to have, bouncing round the garden, tugging on its ears. It’s such a squeeze for him, moving through the flat, and he fits the width of the corridor so perfectly, it’s hard to resist the idea that he made these walkways himself, just by moving around, and if he’d stayed in hospital a few months longer, the whole place would’ve closed back up again, and that would be that.

Mrs Cartwell waves me to the right, then she moves to the left; I move to where Mrs Cartwell was; Mr Cartwell rolls into the room, eventually easing himself into a decrepit computer chair that creaks and sags alarmingly.
‘What’s all this about?’ he wheezes, flapping the sides of his open dressing gown like wings. And when he turns to look in my direction, he doesn’t open his eyes.

a ceramic pelican

The muddled wave of sycamore trees growing up along the embankment at the back, the viaduct rising high above the houses in a straight line to the heart of town, the shuttered pub on the other side of the road, the makeshift garage with the stack of tyres and the rusting car up on blocks – everything conspires to give this street a neglected, backwater feel.
I’m meeting up with Magda for a joint visit. There’s been a safeguarding raised against Bob’s wife Geena. We’re here to support each other, to see how he is, how things are today.
‘Jimmy boy!’ says Magda, tossing her hair back and holding it in place with her blingy sunglasses. ‘S’up?’
We talk a little about the situation before we knock.
‘I doubt she’ll even answer the door,’ I tell her. ‘Did you read the notes? She’s been turning everyone away. Going mad. And even when she lets them in, she abuses them and throws them out pretty quick.’
‘Sounds like my kinda girl.’
‘The social workers are on the case.’
‘Well!’
‘She even swore at Pete the physio and threw him out.’
‘Peter? Man! That’s like being cruel to puppy.’
‘I know! So – I’m not sure how far we’ll get.’
‘You want me to go first, Jimmy? It might be dangerous.’
‘Okay.’
‘Okay.’
She goes up the steps to the front door and knocks, heavily, like a debt collector or something. We wait a while. She knocks again.
I’m just about to lean over the railings and peer through the front window when the door unexpectedly opens.
A sixty year old woman dressed in a hornet stripe jumper, purple slacks and velcro shoes, frowning at us with a pinched expression. It’s like a spiteful child picked a doll up by the face, stood her at the front door of the doll’s house, and got ready to shoot her with a BB gun.
‘What?’ she says.
‘Gemma! Hi there! My name is Magda and this is my colleague Jimmy. I’m so sorry to disturb you. We’re from the rapid response team and we’ve been asked to come see your husband, Bob. It’s lovely to meet you.’
‘I told them. I don’t want you people coming round no more.’
‘I know, I know. It’s problem. But we won’t be long, Gemma, I promise you. Just a hi and a bye kind of deal. Trust me. You’ll hardly know we were here.’
There’s a tense pause that the rumbling of a passing train does nothing to ease. I fully expect Gemma to slam the door, but Magda generously interprets the hesitation as an invitation, and starts moving forward. And really, when Magda starts walking forwards it’s very difficult to say no. So instead Gemma flattens herself to the wall, closes her eyes and lets us pass.
‘That’s very kind of you, Gemma. I appreciate that. Thank you very much, darling. Through here…?’
I follow Magda into the house. It’s tall and dark and watchful. A narrow hallway leads off to the kitchen out back, the sitting room to our left.
‘Bob!’ says Magda. ‘There you are! Hello mate!’

Bob is sitting behind the door in a high-backed chair, a zimmer frame to the right. He’s dressed in stripes, too, although his are blue like his eyes and easier to look at. Everything about him is the opposite to Gemma. They could be the figures in an emotional weather clock: Bob summer, Gemma winter.
‘Hello!’ he says, holding his arms left and right like he’s known her all his life. ‘What’s all this about, then?’
Magda explains who we are whilst I get my obs kit out. Bob is wearing shorts, so it’s immediately apparent to both of us that he has a wound on his leg.
‘What have you been up to, Bobby? How you hurt your leg like this?’
She bends down to look. Gemma, who up to this point has been sitting on the arm of a sofa like a storm on the horizon, suddenly springs up, hurries over, and clutches the zimmer frame with white knuckles.
‘You are not to look at that!’ she says. ‘I’m his wife! I take care of him!’
‘Well – yes – I understand this, Gemma, but you know we are here to see Bob. And to be honest with you, unless you have Power of Attorney…’
‘I DO have Power of Attorney!’
‘Great! That’s great! So now, of course, we need to see paperwork. You have paperwork, Gemma?’
Gemma gives a huff, releases the zimmer frame and stomps back to the sofa.
‘I’m his wife!’ she thunders. ‘I say what happens.’
Magda shrugs this off and chats to Bob whilst I clean and dress the wound. I want to take a photograph, but I’m conscious of Gemma staring at me and I think if I do the flash of it will tip her over the edge. She’ll probably snatch up that large, ceramic pelican and smash it over my head, Magda or no Magda. So I finish off with a set of obs – all of which are fine. I can feel the rumbling of her teeth grinding through the floorboards, although it might just be another train.
‘So tell me, Bobby? Tell me what happen with leg,’ says Magda.
‘I fell out of bed,’ he says, and then slowly, and irresistibly, he turns to look at his wife.

a ghost called alf

I’m looking through Judy’s notes, the last time someone listened to her chest. I can’t help laughing.
‘What’s so funny?’ she says.
‘Well – I think the nurse who wrote this must’ve been hungry. She’s written bilateral crepes.’
I show her the little drawing in the notes. The rough sketch of her lungs, a line of little crosses at the bottom of both, an arrow pointing to them.
Judy’s expression doesn’t change.
‘What does that mean?’ she says.
‘It should say creps.’
‘Craps?’
‘Creps. Short for crepitations. I think that’s what it stands for. Anyway, it’s that crackly sound you get sometimes when there’s gunk in the lungs.’
Judy shrugs.
‘I know all about that,’ she says. ‘I’ve had enough of that.’
‘You’re sounding better today, though.’
‘I’m not dead yet, then?’
‘No! Alive and kicking.’
‘I’ll kick you in a minute.’
‘I wouldn’t mind.’
She stares at me.
‘Where are you from?’ she says. ‘Or-stralia?’
‘Australia? No! I was born in London but brought up in the Fens.’
‘Oh,’ she says. ‘That explains it.’
I shut the folder and carry on with the examination.

Judy is ninety-eight but looks older. In fact, with her quilted housecoat, netted, silvery hair, enormous slippers, stiffly jointed movements – the way she wobbles along clinging to a kitchen trolley loaded with toast, Tommy Tippee beaker and emergency button – it feels like I’m in a marionette update of the Red Riding Hood story, where the Big Bad Wolf works for a Community Health Team, and lets himself in with the keysafe.

‘Are you going to be much longer?’ she says.
‘No. Almost done.’
She takes a toot of tea from the beaker.
‘Would you like me to freshen that up for you?’
‘No – thank you,’ she says. ‘I shall need the lavatory.’
There’s a pause whilst I add my notes to the folder.
‘What did you do – before you retired?’ I say.
‘Shorthand typist,’ she says.
‘How lovely!’ I say. ‘I like typing. It’s one of the most useful skills I ever learned. That and driving.’
‘I worked in a brewery,’ she says, moving on. ‘That’s where I met Alf.’
‘Did he work in the office, too?’
‘Nah. He was in and out. But we’d throw things at each other and we sort of went on from there.’
‘Sounds brilliant.’
‘It was hard during the war, though. Terrible hard. There were these Ack Ack guns on the roof. You should’ve heard ‘em when they went off. Boom! Boom! Boom! The whole place shook like it was gonna fall in. They were having a pop at all them German bombers comin’ over. It was a terrible business. Terrible.’
‘How long were you married, Judy?’
‘A long time. So long I couldn’t tell ya. But Alf’s been gone for years now and – well – that’s that.’
‘I’m sorry.’
‘What for? It’s not your fault. Is it?’
‘No. I suppose not.’
‘Well then.’

I put the finishing touches to the notes.

‘Why don’t you go upstairs and have a lie-down if you’re tired?’ she says.
I look up from the folder.
‘Sorry, Judy – what?’
‘Not you,’ she says. ‘Him.’
She narrows her eyes and nods at the empty chair behind me. I turn to look.
‘My old man,’ she says, sighing and leaning back again. ‘If I don’t keep talking to him he might go orf’ with someone else.’

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.

fifi the owl

Jeremy is busy marching through the house. He has such a neutral style of movement, and his face is so slack and empty, it’s hard not to think of him as some kind of ultra-realistic, domesticated robot. Except, if he was a robot, it would be one that had a serious neural problem, maintaining the impulse to go from A to B, but utterly lacking the ability to make sense of anything when he got there. He marches up to my chair and stands looking down at me. Then without any change of expression he marches back across the room again, opens the door to the kitchen, goes through, and then shuts the door quietly behind him.
‘He’s like this the whole time,’ says Sheila, smiling the kind of resilient smile I imagine her beating from a metal she mined from her soul.
‘It’s really quite exhausting,’ she says, perching on the arm of the sofa, ready to go if needed. ‘It’s alright for Jeremy. He can switch off at three and have a good sleep. I try to get some time in, too, but it’s not the same as proper bedrest. Then you see he’s on the go again through the night. And I must admit I’m starting to feel the strain.’

Jeremy had a fall the other day. The ambulance came and found it was only a minor injury, so he didn’t need to go to hospital.
‘Thank goodness,’ says Sheila. ‘Jeremy in a hospital! Imagine the chaos!’
But the fall seems to have precipitated a realisation that things can’t go on as they have been.
‘I’ve done my best,’ she says. ‘I have two sons, and they’ve both been telling me I’ve got to put him in a home. And – well, I don’t know – it just hasn’t felt right for me. The son in Australia can’t do much to help, of course, but the other one comes down regularly and does what he can to give me a break. We haven’t had carers because – as you can see – he’s perfectly mobile and there’s not much for them to do. I shower him once a week and the rest of the time I’m just chasing him round the house with a sponge. He wears pads, because he’s doubly incontinent, and that’s a terrible problem. But carers? Up until recently I couldn’t see what they could do for us. I don’t want to waste anybody’s time…’

The kitchen door opens and Jeremy walks back through, straight up to the coffee table, where he picks up a magazine, flicks through it urgently, puts it down again, turns, heads back to the kitchen and slowly shuts the door.
‘But now I know I have to put Jeremy in a home,’ she carries on. ‘He’s not safe here, and I’m completely exhausted. I can feel my health beginning to go.’
‘I’m not surprised. I think you’ve done amazingly well to cope this long.’
‘Do you?’ she says. ‘I don’t know. You see – I feel so wretchedly guilty all the time. And the funny thing is, I know that if the situation was reversed, he wouldn’t hesitate. If it was me marching around the place like this, Jeremy would be outside waiting for the ambulance.’
‘Oh. Sorry to hear that.’
She shrugs.
‘You can only ever do what feels right for you,’ she says.

On the other side of the room is a large, red brick fireplace and black slate hearth. All along the mantelpiece, and standing around the hearth, are dozens of stone and ceramic owls. The largest is to the right of the fireplace – a cat-sized modern sculpture, where the owl has been reduced to the minimum details you need to identify it: plump body, pointy ears, engraved lines for the wings, and two deep-drilled and perfectly round holes for the eyes.
‘Do you like my owls?’ says Sheila.
‘I do,’ I tell her. ‘Especially that one.’
‘Fifi?’ says Sheila. ‘Yes. She’s my favourite, too. She keeps an eye on us. She doesn’t miss a trick.’
‘No,’ I say. ‘I can see that.’

the man with all the goals

Melvin answers the door in his pants. He’s quite a sight. Wild white hair sweeping back from his head, a long, ginger-white goatee to match; perfectly round gray-blue eyes, and the kind of ravaged and rangy body you might see trotting alongside your jeep on the Serengeti.
He doesn’t speak. He just stands there, staring at me, one hand on the door, one hand adjusting himself.
‘Hello!’ I say. ‘My name’s Jim. From the Rapid Response Team. I’ve come to see Helen.’
He smiles suddenly, a wide, gummy affair, but makes no other sign that he’s understood what I’ve just said.
‘Here’s my badge’ I say, holding it up.
He glances at it, then carries on staring at me.
‘Is it okay if I come in and see her, d’you think? Helen?’ I pause. ‘Is she in?’
He opens the door wider, still holding on to it, which I take as an invitation to come in. It’s a squeeze to get past him, though, especially with all my bags. The hallway is so tiny there’s barely room for the two of us. I’m expecting Melvin to make some room, but he doesn’t.
‘I’ll take my shoes off,’ I say, struggling in the cramped space. ‘It’s a bit wet outside.’
‘If you don’t mind,’ he says, suddenly animated, as if the last minute or so was just a technical glitch. ‘We’ve had so many people in and out.’
‘No worries,’ I say. ‘I bought these shoes ‘cos they’re easy to slip on and off. There! Good! Okay! So – shall we go through…?’

The sitting room is swelteringly hot. The gas fire’s on all-bars, and the air ripples above a free-standing radiator (all of which explains the pants). Melvin hops over to his chair and goes through an athletic, sitting down routine, involving him taking his weight on his arms, raising his legs, lowering himself slowly, then folding his bony arms and legs and smiling with a self-satisfied leer.
Helen waves me over.
‘Ignore him,’ she says.

The examination is straightforward. Everything’s fine. Helen’s recovering well and she’s happy to be home. I tell her we’ll be discharging her from our service, but that it’s easy for us to come back if anything changes.
Melvin watches the whole procedure with intense interest. Whilst I’m writing up the notes, he starts talking again.
‘I played a lot of football,’ he says, as if I’d asked. ‘A lot of football. But it did my head in. Have you heard that before?’
‘D’you mean sport and head injuries? I think I heard something.’
‘It’s the big leather balls. Laces down the middle. I played centre forward. I was heading it all the time.’
‘I suppose it wouldn’t do your brain much good. All that shaking. Like boxers.’
‘I did boxing, too. And rugby. You bang your head a lot in rugby.’
‘You certainly do.’
‘But football was the main thing. I did all the trials. I played semi-professionally for years. One game I scored eleven goals. This guy comes up to me after, and he says How’d you do it, Melvin? How’d you score all them goals? And I says to him What goals? I don’t know what you mean, mate. The ball comes to me, something happens, it’s in the net. That’s it. It’s a natural thing, like breathing. They sent me to Germany.’
‘Did they?’
‘This German coach, he runs over to me. He leans in … like this … and he wags his finger in my face… like this … and he says You! You’re the man with all the goals. You’re a professional. You shouldn’t be here. So I says to him Mate! What goals? I don’t know what you’re talking about. The ball comes over – it’s on my head – it’s in the net. That’s it. It’s got nothing to do with me.
‘How’d he take it?’
‘How’d who take what?’
‘The German manager. How’d he take hearing about all the goals?’
Melvin shrugs.
‘He could see,’ he says. ‘He knew what he had there.’
‘So then what happened?’
‘I came back, didn’t I? Got a job in a laundry. And here we all are!’
‘Just ignore him,’ says Helen.

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.
‘Hello?’
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.’