glove up

The good news? I’ve got the number to the key safe. The bad news? There are about a thousand of them, row upon row of squat black boxes trailing up the wall like mussels  on a quayside at low tide. Sometimes you get some detail, initials smeared on in nail varnish, a sun-bleached sticker or a smiley face painted on in Tippex, but in this case, they all look the same. The only thing to do is work through them methodically. I put my bags down and start at the bottom. Flip the rubber cover, punch the buttons, press the release catch. Nope. Replace the rubber cover. Move on to the next. Flip the cover, punch the buttons, press the catch. Nope. And the next. And the next. All the way up to the top. That doesn’t open, either.
Maybe I put the wrong number in. Maybe the number was written down in the first place.
I’ve just pulled my phone out to call the office and check when I become aware of an elderly man standing watching me in the lobby. I smile and wave the phone in the air – a mime that’s supposed to tell him that although I’m more than happy to stand there and phone someone to gain entrance, I’d also be happy to speak to him directly. He stares at me for so long that I guess I’d better go ahead and make the call, but just as the office answers he comes to the door and opens it. I ring off, put the phone back in my pocket and hold my ID badge out to him on its extendable line. He grimaces and draws back. It makes me feel a bit like Max von Sydow in The Exorcist. ‘The power of Christ compels you…’
‘Hello. My name’s Jim. I’m a nursing assistant, and I’ve come to visit one of the residents here,’ I tell him.
He pulls the door aside.
‘What am I supposed to do with all this?’ he says, gesturing to a great pile of plastic containers and cardboard trays, donated food of one sort or another, heaped up in the lobby.
‘Where’d it come from?’
He shrugs.
‘Well – is the manager here?’
He shakes his head.
‘I don’t know,’ he says. ‘She’s probably buried under this lot.’
‘It looks like nice stuff.’
‘Would you eat it?’
‘I’m okay, thanks. But maybe you should dig in. You might find something you like.’
He’s not convinced. I leave him standing there, staring at the pile of food as I walk up the stairs.

The corridor that eventually leads to Janet’s flat is guarded by two old women, standing chatting outside their doors. They retreat a little when they see me approaching.
‘You come to see Janet?’ says the first one.
‘I have, actually.’
‘Well she’s not in.’
‘She’s in hospital,’ says the second. ‘The amb’lance took ‘er.’
‘Did it? Oh! I heard she’d been discharged this morning.’
‘What – Janet?’
‘Yes.’
‘No.’
‘Oh. Well – seeing as I’m here, I may as well check.’
‘Suit yourself,’ says the first one.
‘You be careful,’ says the other.
I’m aware of them watching me as I reach the far end of the corridor and turn the corner.

* *

When I knock the door opens automatically. Janet is sitting on the far side of the room in her riser-recliner. She gives me a tired, queenly wave. I wave back, then put on my PPE in the corridor.

* *

Afterwards, I undress in the kitchen, bag and dispose of the waste, say goodbye, and leave the flat.
The two old women are still standing guard in the corridor.
‘Was she in, then?’ says the nearest.
‘Janet,’ says the other, helpfully.
‘Yes, she was.’
‘Oh. How is she, then?’
‘Bearing up…’ I tell her, and I tap my chest to illustrate.
‘Ye-es,’ the furthest one says, ominously. ‘It’s that corner virus, in’it?’
‘Actually – she was tested and was negative. So that’s a relief.’
‘Can I ask you a question?’ says the nearest.
‘Of course.’
‘I don’t mean to keep you ‘cos I know you’re busy.’
‘It’s okay.’
‘Why aren’t you wearing gloves?’
‘Well – I did when I went in. I put all the protective gear on, because she’s very vulnerable. But I took it off before I came out.’
‘I don’t mean with Janet. I mean when you’re just walking about the place.’
‘I don’t need to. So long as I’m careful to wash my hands and not touch my face I should be alright.’
‘Oh. That’s a shame,’ she says. ‘Only I like a man in latex.’

feeling the heat

Anna, the coordinator for the early shift, waves me over.

‘Jim? I’ve got a P2 for you, darlink. Nothing massively urgent but I think if you could go there this morning that would be wonderful. I’ve sent it through to you. See what you make of it. Let me know if you need anything else. Okay, darlink? Perfect. Okay? See you later.’

I’m about to ask her something but the phone starts ringing again. She pulls a face, holds up a finger, answers the phone – and immediately gets drawn into something complex. It’s early in the shift and she’s already quite red in the face. Some of that’s the office. The boilers here seem to have two settings: OFF for the summer, ON for the winter – ON being approximately The Surface Temperature of the Sun. It’s ironic that there are disposable cardboard thermometers pinned up around the place, the kind that we give out to our elderly and at risk patients. All of them are so far in the RED zone the caption advises calling 999. Nothing ever changes. We stew when we come back to the office to catch up on admin and stay out as long as we can.

I touch Anna on the shoulder, nod and smile as if to say don’t worry, I’ve got everything I need, and loosening my collar, head for the door.

*

A P2 faller is a patient who needs to be seen reasonably urgently but a little delay is probably fine. The ambulance  made the referral. They had attended Mrs Davenport that morning for a non-injury fall, and identified a few things they thought we could help with.

She doesn’t answer the phone when I call, which is a little concerning, given the history. There’s a keysafe number on the referral. I decide to go over there on spec, just in case she’s on the floor again.

*

‘Hello? Mrs Davenport? It’s Jim, from the Rapid Response Team.’
Nothing.
I’m standing in a long, bare-boarded hallway that stretches ahead to a steep staircase, and past that, into a kitchen with the faintest spill of light.
‘Helloooo? Mrs Davenport? It’s Jim. From the hospital.’
Nothing.
I decide to go into the kitchen first.

The light is coming from a table lamp, set by a rubbed but comfy-looking armchair. There’s a bottle on the floor by one of the claw-foot legs, and a dirty tumbler on a table to the side. I’d guess from the look of the kitchen it’s the place Mrs Davenport spends most time. There’s a Roberts radio next to the tumbler, its aerial so bent she either fell on it or took a bite when the news was bad. Either way, it’s resolutely off.
‘Mrs Davenport? Hellooooo?’
The place has a hunkered-down feel. Stuff piled in the sink. Curtains drawn.
There’s a door at the back. I knock and open it. A toilet and washbasin, both the worse for wear.
‘Hellooo?’
I retrace my steps and begin opening the doors along the hallway. The first is the old sitting room, completely dark, nothing to suggest that anyone’s been in more recently than 1962. Opening the next door makes me jump, because there are coats hanging from a hook and they swing out a little. The next door is Mrs Davenport’s bedroom.
‘Hello?’
She’s lying in bed, completely covered by a quilt. All I can see – apart from the lump in the quilt – is a spread of lank grey hair on the pillow.
‘Mrs Davenport? Hello. Sorry to bother you. It’s Jim, from the Rapid Response Team.’
‘What?’
A clawed hand pushes the quilt from her face and she glares at me.
‘What do you want?’ she says. It’s like I’ve disturbed a wild creature, an owl or something.
‘I’m so sorry to wake you like this,’ I say. ‘I was asked to come and see you by the ambulance.’
‘The who?’
‘The paramedics. They said they picked you up when you fell this morning.’
She blinks a few times.
‘I did not fall,’ she says. ‘I slipped.’
‘But you didn’t hurt yourself, so that’s a blessing.’
She blinks again. It’s like being photographed.
‘Why would I have hurt myself? I went to sit on the bed. I slipped gently to the floor. That’s it.’
‘But then you couldn’t get up.’
‘So I pushed my button. As I’ve been told to do. The paramedics came. They helped me up.’
She stares at me, a little more awake now.
Who did you say you were?’
I tell her, explaining as simply as I can what the Rapid Response Team is, and how we can help.
‘But I don’t want any help.’
‘That’s fine. We’ve only come round because the paramedics said so.’
‘We?’
‘Well – me. But there are other people on the team, as I say.’
‘I was asleep!’
‘And I’m so sorry to have disturbed you.’
‘I don’t understand why you’re here.’
I take a different tack.
‘Are you feeling unwell?’
‘No! Why would I?’
‘Are you in pain? Is there anything troubling you at the moment?’
She stares at me for a very long time, then hooks the quilt back even further so she can get a better look.
‘Yes,’ she says, eventually.

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.