morag’s bad dream

Jack’s directions to the block are a strange mixture of precise and vague.
‘We’re the one with the flapping green canopy,’ he says. ‘The last brick building on the right as you head up from the sea. No – wait a minute. What am I saying? Second to last. But hang on – there are lots of brick buildings between us and the top road. But anyway. Flapping green canopy. Look for that.’

He’s right about the canopy. I can only think that all the recent bad weather has partially torn it from its fixings. I locate Jack and Morag’s flat among the forty or so others, press the buzzer, and wait – for so long I wonder if it’s working. Just before I press it again a voice crackles on the speaker.
‘Hello, Jack,’ I say, leaning in, struggling to be heard over the wind and the canopy. ‘It’s Jim. From the hospital.’
‘Right you are, Jim. Come on up.’
He buzzes the door and I push through.

Just as I turn to close it I see a woman walking up the path. She’s zippered to the chin in a metallic blue anorak with just her face showing from the hood of it, carrying a cat patterned shopping bag in one hand and a Cornish pasty in the other. I hold the door for her and wait. She doesn’t acknowledge me at all, just walks and eats, walks and eats, dividing her attention equally between the pasty and the pavement. She’s so methodical about the whole thing she reminds me of a cartoon robot, analysing a sample of human food whilst she makes her way back to the mothership.
‘There you go!’ I say, as she plods through the door. ‘I can see you’ve got your hands full.’
She walks past me without making the slightest acknowledgement – so ruthlessly I imagine she would have simply smashed through the door if I hadn’t been standing there to open it – scattering pastry crumbs as she heads for the lift, which happens to be  ready waiting. By the time I’ve picked all my bags up, both robot pasty woman and lift have gone.

I walk up.

Jack looks exactly as he sounds: pressed trousers, green cardigan, small check shirt and tie, silvery hair flowing backwards like the ripples in a crinkle cut chip.
‘Found us alright?’ he says, silently closing the door. ‘Morag’s in the sitting room. Last door on the left. Sorry – my left. As you look at the window.’

You would absolutely match them if they were playing cards. Morag is a watchful, bird-like woman, perfectly turned out in a silk blouse and tartan skirt, with crinkly hair that goes side to side rather than straight back.
‘Who is it, Jack…?’ she says, gripping the arms of the armchair.
‘Just a nurse from the hospital, darling,’ he says. ‘No need to be alarmed.’
She turns her clear blue eyes on me and waits to see what I’ll do.

‘So – how are you feeling, Morag?’
‘How am I feeling?’
‘Yes. In yourself.’
She frowns at me, as if that’s the most extraordinary thing anyone’s ever asked her.
‘I know you’ve had quite a day of it,’ I say.
‘Have I?’
‘Well – coming home from the hospital. After a long stay. Must be nice to be home.’
She shakes her head, sharing her bewilderment between me and Jack.
‘It’s alright, darling,’ he says. ‘Nothing to worry about. You’re home now.’
‘I am, aren’t I?’
‘Yes. And it’s lovely to have you back.’
Jack smiles at me with a level of control as perfect as his hair.
‘I’ve been sent by the hospital just to make sure you have everything you need, Morag,’ I say. ‘And to see what we can to do help. By way of equipment, physiotherapy, nursing – anything really. We want to make sure you’re safe, that’s all.’
‘I have everything, thank you,’ she says, with great caution.

Whilst the laptop warms up, and to keep the conversation going, I ask Morag if there’s anything troubling her.
‘There is, actually.’
‘Oh yes? What’s that?’
‘I’ve been having bad dreams.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that, Morag. What kind of bad dreams?’
‘There are these people. Young people. And they keep wandering in and out. Sometimes they look at me. Sometimes they don’t. Sometime they walk straight past, carrying things. Pushing things. And I haven’t the faintest idea who they are or what they want.’
‘That was the hospital, darling,’ says Jack, patting her on the hand. ‘That was the hospital.’

carp in a cap

Bill is standing so close to me I can feel his breath. With his thick, downturned mouth and straggling beard, he looks like a specimen of ancient carp, navigating the river by use of feelers.
‘D’you know what this badge is?’ he says, rolling his eyes upwards, directing me to his cap.
I have to pull away to focus. Right in the middle above the brim is a tiny enamel pin badge, two flags leaning out either side of a date.
‘I don’t know. A civil war thing?’
‘Nine eleven,’ he says. ‘The day the towers came down.’
‘Ah!’ I say, frowning a bit closer. ‘Of course.’
‘We used to sit up there, me and Rita. They had chairs and tables and everything. You could look out, right across the city. The Empire State. You could look down on it.’
‘Was that on the North tower or the South?’
‘I don’t know,’ he says. ‘One of them.’

I feel a little cornered by Bill, if I’m honest. I’m waiting to bring the hoist back in whilst the physio and another carer make Bill’s wife Rita ready for the return journey from the armchair to bed. Rita has advanced dementia. When we hoisted her from the bed she held the straps as lightly and happily as a child in a fairy story being carried off by a balloon.
As soon as there was room, Bill had shuffled in from the kitchen.
‘I travelled a lot, y’know.’
‘Did you?’
‘The Far East. Russia. United States. Everywhere.’
‘What were you? A spy?’
‘No. I was a courier. I took the job when I retired. They paid me to carry important letters round the world. I don’t know what was in ‘em. Could have been anything. Egypt. Japan. You name it. All the security people got to know me. They’d see me coming and they’d be like…’ He nods slowly and raises a finger in the air.
‘Sounds great,’ I say.
We both watch as the physio and carer make a few final adjustments to the sling.
‘Sixty years we’ve been here,’ says Bill, thrusting his hands deep into his pockets and leaning in to speak directly into my ear, as if this was a thing as confidential as any of the letters he carried. I’m tempted to say: what – leaning on this hoist, d’you mean? but instead say: ‘Have you really? I bet you’ve seen some changes.’
He leans back.
‘There used to be an abattoir next door.’
‘Oh yes? How was that – living next door to an abattoir?’
‘They killed pigs. Cows. Mostly pigs.’
‘Oh.’
‘You could hear them screaming. They used a fixed bolt, y’know? Through the head.’
‘And if that didn’t work I suppose they let them off,’ I say, nodding at the physio who’s waving me over.
‘Oh but it did work, though,’ says Bill, taking off his cap and slowly pushing his fingers backwards through his greying hair. ‘It worked a treat.’

alice in careland

If Gerald was anything he’d be the caterpillar.

He’s sitting very, VERY upright, hands placed just-so on the arms of his riser-recliner, which, with the addition of a pressure-relieving contour mattress, does look a bit like some enormous, super-squashy mushroom. He’s not smoking a hookah, unfortunately, although he does have a Ventolin inhaler amongst his things on the cantilever table to his right. The long years of his illness have given him a pale and haughty appearance, so that when he leans forwards a little, staring at me over the rim of his glasses, and says ‘Who are you?’ I’m tempted to put my hands behind my back and curtsy.

None of this would’ve occurred to me were it not for the fact that his wife, Judy, is obviously both an artist and an Alice in Wonderland fan. She’s made stuffed hares in trippy, paisley fabric; pottery plates and vases with motifs of cards, clocks, mallets, falling Victorian girls; a carved wooden flamingo with a hedgehog at its feet; a couple of dioramas, silvered twigs for a forest or an intricate parlour scene, with a large or a small Alice doll in various dramatic postures; a marionette Jabberwocky, and so on and on, placed all around the room or hung on the wall, so that the whole house feels like a collector’s shrine to Lewis Carroll.

Judy herself makes an adult and very careworn kind of Alice. She’s sitting in the opposite chair, absent-mindedly tearing a tissue to pieces in her lap as we go through what’s been happening lately and what we can do to help. There are so many issues to bear in mind – the specifics of Gerald’s illness, the way the house is set-up (or not), the practical difficulties of making all the follow-up appointments at the hospital, the level of care they currently have and whether that could be increased, the stress all this is having on the family, primarily Judy, of course – but essentially it boils down to whether Gerald has reached the point where he needs to go into residential care. It’s such a dreadful and difficult decision to make, and I can quite understand the desire – conscious or otherwise – for someone else to make it for them. More often than not these things edge forward with sadistic increments of stress until something snaps and the whole thing changes at a clip. The best you can do is to support as best you can, be available to clarify and facilitate, and step in to pick up the pieces.

I wish it were easier. I wish I could just lean forwards, snap a piece off either side of the mushroom chair and hand them to Judy.

‘This will make you taller, this will make you smaller,’ I would say, and then smiling enigmatically, shuffle off with all my bags into the undergrowth.

where you sleep

‘Anchored off Syracuse. Everyone fucker below deck drowned. Boom. Gone. That was a hard business. ‘Course – I was sleeping on top, so at least I had a chance. At least I could make a swim for it.’

Frankie’s eyes are so hooded, and the way the light is in the room, it’s almost as if he doesn’t have eyes at all. That, and his habit of moving his bottom jaw from side to side when he’s not talking, makes him seem like a statue chewing over the hard facts of his life.

‘Them kind of things mattered, where you slept and everything. I’ve always been a good sleeper. I could sleep upside down on a washing line. I used to sleep under the truck, so long as the ground was hard enough. Gave you a measure of protection. Here, they said. Frankie. Take these trucks up the coast for us. We drove from Port Said to Damascus. Had a whale of a time. We used to mix it up, course. Well – we was young, mate. We had nothing to lose. We knew we was basically cattled.’

He narrows his dark eyes at me and grinds his teeth.
‘D’you know what I mean? Cattled? That’s cockney slang, mate. Cattle trucked. Fucked.’
He laughs, settles back in the chair.

‘My missus was the brains of the operation. She was in the Waaf. There weren’t nothing she couldn’t do. Ride a motorbike. Shoot down a plane. Unscramble a secret message. I tell you what, I landed on my feet all right the day I met Junie.’

He grinds his teeth again and shifts his position in the chair.

‘She’s in a home now. I don’t see her all that much. Even when I do she don’t recognise me. That’s the dementia for you, mate. Still – I keep her bed made up. That way I reckon there’s a chance she might come back.’

buy one get one free

The new database was live, and the office was crammed with people – nurses, nursing co-ordinators, therapists of one sort or another, health care assistants, admin staff, pharmacists, and running around and over them all, a team of floor-walkers, problem solving, straightening things out, or trying to, like a team of super-motivated, superintendent, super-capable ants.

It felt good to get out.

* * *

Mr and Mrs Carter live in a cold little house at the bottom of a steep flight of concrete steps. Mrs Carter opens the door. A tall, grey, anxious woman in tracksuit bottoms and baggy black jumper, she greets me neutrally, as if I’m just the last in a long line of Things That Will Go On Happening.

She turns to walk unsteadily back into the bare sitting room, taking her seat by the heater that has just one bar on.
‘Cold today, isn’t it?’ I say, self-consciously setting up my laptop. ‘By the way. Apologies in advance. We’re using these things today. It’s all pretty new.’
‘Oh?’ she says.
‘God knows if I’ll get it right.’
‘Do your best,’ she says, folding her arms. ‘You can’t do more.’
‘No. That’s good advice. You can worry about these things too much.’
‘Yes,’ she says.

Mr Carter bursts through the door. He’s as tall and grey as his wife, but much more energised, with wavy white hair bursting from under his cap. He has one blue eye and one that’s completely filmed over, which intensifies his blustery bonhomie, somehow, and makes him look like some wild, superannuated robot just back from shopping.

‘Nearly fell over running for the bus,’ he says, dumping the bags, tearing off his cap and throwing it like a frisbee off into the corner. ‘That’ll be the next thing. There’ll be the two of us on your list. Buy one get one free.’

He glares and gapes at me, then strides over to the heater.
‘Let’s have this up,’ he says. ‘We’ll freeze otherwise.’
‘Thanks,’ I say, then tap enter to start the examination.
‘Fancy…’ says Mr Carter, nodding at the laptop, then throwing himself down onto the sofa next to me and pushing his fingers back through his hair. ‘The things you have these days.’
But I’m not sure if I’m on the right screen or not, and for a second I’m tempted to pick it up and throw it into the corner like Mr Carter’s cap.
‘Anyway,’ I say, turning to his wife. ‘Ignore all that. The most important thing is – how are you?’

making faces at the fishes

Hans seems too full of life to be dying of cancer. With his bald head, handlebar moustache, fierce expression and thick wrists, all he needs is a leopard skin tunic and he’d be a cinch for a circus strongman. As things stand though Hans is confined to bed, his lungs corrupted with secondaries, metastasizing like acquisitive weeds from the seed pod of his liver. When Hans talks he has a curious habit of repeating certain phrases at double the volume, and sitting up a little at the same time. It’s a funny thing, like a verbal sneeze. I guess he’s done it all his life, because his wife June doesn’t seem to notice.
‘I cannot believe zis thing,’ he says, his German accent somehow adding to the strongman effect. ‘I cannot! Y’know? Listen. Just the other month I was swimming in the sea in Spain. In Spain! Making faces at all the little fishes there. Now look at me. Hopeless. Hopeless.’
June is putting a brave face on it, though – her and the family dog, Boney, a bichon frise made entirely of clouds, who sits by my bag and frowns anytime I take something out.
‘What do you make of it, Boney?’ she says, brightly.
‘Well – vat can the poor dog make of it?’ says Hans. ‘Apple pie? I say apple pie?

freddy

Elsa has a history of falls and unexplained blackouts, so when she doesn’t answer the phone I drive straight over to investigate.

The house is a low white building set back from the road, a dark garden to one side with contorted sculptures dotted about and random things strung from branches, giving the place a watchful, witchy feel. I fetch the key from the keysafe and let myself in.
Hello? It’s Jim, from the hospital…
There’s uncollected post right by the door. I pick it up and put it on a stool.
Hell…oooo
Nothing.

Last time I was here the house was full. There was Elsa’s husband, Freddy, his carer, a carer for Elsa, and then two therapists whose visits had unexpectedly clashed. Freddy had been shuffling excitedly up and down the hallway, stirred by all the commotion, presenting random things after looking for them with great enthusiasm, tugging on his braces, marching on the spot in his slippers like a seagull paddling for worms. Elsa had been the quiet centre of it all, sitting on an armchair in her nightie, overwhelmed.

Now the hallway is silent, what little light there is reflecting dully off the parquet flooring.

Hell…ooo. It’s Jim … from the hospital…
Every door leading off from the hallway is shut, which I take as a sign the place is empty. Still, I have to open each one and check that Elsa isn’t on the floor.
Kitchen.
Bathroom.
Closet – ( a shock, to be confronted by coats on hooks, close-up).
Which leaves the door to the sitting room at the furthest end of the hallway.
Hell…ooo
I knock and open the door.
Utterly silent except for the honeyed tocking of a longcase clock. A saturating green light spills in from the garden through the patio windows illuminating an empty leather sofa, dark paintings on the walls, a carved mirror and dining table, a leather bucket armchair with its back to me. And as if my entrance has stirred everything up, the clock suddenly gives a shuddery kind of cough and a kick, and starts grinding out the quarter. And that’s when Freddy decides to swing round in the bucket armchair, his hands spread, his eyes wide.
‘Oh my Jesus Christ!’ I say, falling back.
‘Har hah!’ says Freddy.