portrait

Ella’s flat faces the sea – so close you could run out of the front door, across the road and dive straight in. When I step out of the car I can’t help but stand for a moment and take it all in. There’s a break in the morning rain, the sun is shining powerfully, and suddenly the sea is a phosphorescent slice of pure light. The wind turbines on the horizon are as clear as I’ve ever seen them, delicate cuts of white, their rotors imperceptibly turning against the inky clouds of the next weather front.

When I’d rung ahead to make the appointment, Ella had said to use the keysafe to let myself in. It’s a complicated arrangement, though. Ella’s flat is on the ground floor, but because the building is in a conservation area the keysafe has to be hidden away in the basement. ‘It’s in the second cupboard on the right,’ she’d said. But the front door is in the centre of the building with two windows either side, so in fact there are two basement flats, right and left of the main steps. It feels intuitive to take the steps down the right hand side basement, but when I get there I find only one cupboard, fixed with a rusting padlock. So I go back up, down the other steps, find the keysafe, retrieve the keys, come back up. There are three keys on the keyring; none of them fits the front door. I stand there stupidly for a minute, jangling the keys, trying to figure out how this could possibly make sense – until I look up, and realise I’ve actually gone one door along.

As it turns out, I didn’t need the keys. Ella’s son Peter and his wife Becky are with her. Ella stands in the middle of the living room, still in her hospital gown, tags on her wrists, holding on to her zimmer frame, whilst they put her shopping away.
‘I bought you plenty of pineapple,’ says Becky, holding up a plastic carton as big as the fruit itself. ‘I know you like it.’
‘Where does this go?’ says Peter, waving a pack of panty liners in the air.
‘Bedroom cabinet, second drawer down,’ says Ella. And so on.

The room is like a domestic version of a royal court, the walls dressed in rich tapestries and huge, abstract paintings, the furniture a mixture of ethnic and modern, the rug on the floor intricately patterned. With the sunshine streaming in through the windows, the whole thing has a rich, painterly feel, like Caravaggio decided to branch out from biblical scenes, this one called: ‘The Hospital Discharge’.

‘Let’s get you sat down,’ I say to her. ‘Then we’ll talk.’
She shuffles over to a chair set in the middle of the room, very much like a throne, with claw feet, woven back, and – incongruously – a pressure cushion.
‘I feel absolutely dreadful,’ she says when she’s settled.
‘In what way, dreadful?’
‘Just that. Dreadful. What more do you need?’
‘Are you in pain?’
‘Pain? Everywhere, darling.’
‘Where do you feel it most?’
She waves a hand in mid air.
‘Agony,’ she says.
‘Do you feel sick?’
‘Sick? No.’
‘Short of breath?’
‘I’m always short of breath. Haven’t you read the notes?’
‘Yes, but I just want to see how you are right now – if anything’s worse, or about the same…’
She closes her eyes and gently shakes her head.
‘If by the same you mean dreadful, then yes, I’m the same.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
‘And I’m sorry to feel it.’
‘I got you some of those yogurts you like,’ says Becky, from the kitchen.
‘I couldn’t possibly,’ says Ella. ‘Not in a million years.’
‘Well – I’ll put them in the fridge for later.’
‘If you must.’
‘Right. I’ll just do some obs and then we’ll take it from there,’ I say, unpacking my bag and then kneeling in front of her chair.
‘Obs?’ says Ella, suddenly glaring down at me. ‘What d’you mean, obs?’
‘Observations. Your blood pressure, temperature, that kind of thing.’
She sighs, then closing her eyes and resting her head back, holds out her hand – whether it’s for me to kiss or put the SATS probe on, it’s hard to say.
‘If you think it will help,’ she says.

eek emoji

Mrs Geraldo is tidily stretched out on the bed, fully and immaculately dressed in a tartan bolero jacket, frilly white blouse with a rope of pearls around the ruff, corduroy skirt, thick black stockings and black court shoes, her hands neatly folded over her tummy, her legs crossed, her head supported by two crisply laundered pillows. It’s a double bed, the right side taken up with a collection of unusual cuddly toys – a horned goat, an octopus, a snail and so on. The room itself is as immaculate as Mrs Geraldo, bright paintings, silk drapes, silver framed photographs, richly coloured rugs on a polished wooden floor. It was one of these rugs that tripped her up a few days ago, which is why her hair is a little wild; the abrasion on the back of her head needs some undisturbed time to fully heal.
Standing at the foot of the bed is Gillian, her carer.
‘He wants to talk to you,’ she says, handing me the phone.
Mrs Geraldo’s son, Peter is calling from Darmstadt. I tell him how his mother is, what her observations are today, what the plan is. He takes all this on board then asks me how I got access.
‘Oh – erm – Gillian happened to be here. I phoned earlier to agree a time but no-one answered so I came round on spec. I’ve got a record of the keysafe but no-one seems to know the number.’
‘That’s right. You’re not supposed to know. That number is for the emergency services only.’
‘Okay.’
‘I don’t want any old person traipsing through the house stealing things.’
‘Right.’
‘If you need to visit my mother you make an appointment with Gillian. She must be there at all times.’
I glance at Gillian. She can’t hear the conversation, but from the face she pulls – essentially the eek emoji – I can see she understands.
‘That’s fine,’ I tell him. ‘Obviously it makes it more difficult for the nurses and therapists to come in and help your mother. Generally speaking we’d be using the keysafe in the same way as the emergency services – because that’s kind of what we are, too…’
‘Let me stop you there. If mother falls over and needs picking up – fine, the ambulance need to know the number. Everything else is to go through Gillian. Is that understood?’
‘Absolutely. Let me hand you back to her, Peter. Good to speak to you.’
Gillian takes it from me and talking very quickly and earnestly carries it off into the kitchen.
‘Was that Peter?’ says Mrs Geraldo.
‘Yes. All the way from Germany.’
‘He does worry.’
‘I can see that.’
‘Oh dear!’ she says, reaching up with her right hand to pat her hair. ‘You must forgive me. I look an absolute fright.’

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.