don’t say that

There is a middle-aged man and woman, standing side-by-side at the living room window of the bungalow next door, staring at me as I walk down the path. I wave – as best I can, with all the bags I’m carrying – but they don’t wave back. It wouldn’t surprise me if they were actually cut-outs, set there by an estate agent. But if that’s true, why not give them wavy arms and flashing eyes, activated by a sensor when you got close enough? As it is, their bungalow looks about as homey and real as a house made of Lego. Even the juniper in the planter wears a tag.

Mind you, the bungalow I’m visiting has more than enough reality for both. A low, brick wall separates the two of them as severely as the line between a ‘Before’ and ‘After’ feature. It’s a wretched, cliche, tumbledown affair, with an overgrown garden, rotten woodwork, missing tiles, and a car parked round the back, one of those boaty old Citroens, crusted in mould, the bonnet disappearing into the tarmac like a junk submarine in the world’s slowest dive.

I glance over my shoulder. The cut-outs have been repositioned to get a better look.
I put my stuff down, reach out, and knock.
The instantaneous and outraged barking of a dog.
Scuffling, swearing, crashing – the sounds of a desperate struggle in the hallway. I guess the dog is being put in a cage; if it is, it only makes the barking worse, like trying to stuff a panther in a box after it’s got blood on its snout.
After a composing kind of moment the door opens. George stands there, breathing hard, pushing his hair back from his face, smiling, whilst a small terrier tries to cut through the bars with acetylene fury.
‘Don’t mind Trampus’ says George. ‘He’s very protective.’
‘I’d never have guessed he was a terrier!’
‘Well. He’s crossed with something bigger.’
‘A wolf?’
‘Possibly. In his head.’
‘I don’t mind if you let him out. I’m alright with dogs.’
George’s smile tightens.
‘Oh, no,’ he says. ‘Oh, no, no, no. I couldn’t possibly.’
As if to illustrate, Trampus redoubles his efforts, the cage rocking from side to side.
‘Well. Alright then,’ I say.
‘Thank you for coming,’ says George, backing up.

George is as friendly, nub-faced, vast and shiningly white as a beluga whale, his trousers suspended by hoops, the lenses of his glasses thumbed with grease. He leads me back through the house, which is just as awful as the outside promised, comprehensively silted up with trash in the hoarder-style, unwashed plates stacked in plastic buckets, strata of food trodden into the floor. Even though it’s early in the year, a couple of plump black flies are on the move. One buzzes past me in a straight line from Crap A to Crap B, somnolent and satisfied as a bank manager on the daily commute.
‘Mother? There’s a gentleman to see you. From the hospital.’
‘Hello Gladys. My name’s Jim. How are you today?’
Gladys is as thin as George is fat. A frail and spidery old woman in a housecoat and flowery bandana, she’s not sitting in her chair so much as nesting in it, kyphotically hunched over a plate of digestives, scooping up the pieces and pressing them into her whiskery mouth.
‘Trampus has gone quiet,’ I say, looking for somewhere to put my bags, not finding anywhere.
‘Eerily quiet,’ says George.
‘What’s he doing? Tunnelling?’
‘Oh no!’ says George. ‘Don’t say that.’

sunset terrace

‘I’m just finishing off my mother’s rectal area but you could come over at a quarter past five if that would be acceptable?’
I check my watch. It’s ten to.
‘Okay. Fine. I’ll see you then, Jeremy.’
‘Lovely, James. Looking forward to seeing you at a quarter past five, then. Goodbye.’
I don’t know what’s more disconcerting – the formal description of the personal care Jeremy’s giving or the way he changed ‘Jim’ to ‘James’. Either way, I’m intrigued to meet him.

The house is in the middle of a long terrace, the only thing marking it out being an atmosphere of general neglect. Nothing too awful; more like a disaffected giant leant in with the eraser end of an enormous pencil and rubbed it out a little. The number is a rusted iron affair, the black paint long since flaked off, hanging on a skew so it’s only possible to make out by taking it in sequence with the numbers on the houses either side. I ring the bell and take a step back. After a long pause Jeremy comes to the door, wiping his hands on some kind of souvenir tea towel.

‘Oh hello, James!’ he says, draping the tea towel over his shoulder and reaching out to shake my hand. His feels icy from the water, soft and broad, too; if I closed my eyes I could imagine I was shaking flippers with a seal.
‘Don’t just stand there!’ he says, flapping me through. ‘You’ll catch your death.’
‘It’s freezing – but at least it’s bright.’
‘Yeees! It’s surprising what you can tolerate with a little light. She’s just through here, James. Excuse the mess.’

The house still follows the original two-up, two-down floor plan – a small front sitting room and back parlour, a tiny kitchen and downstairs toilet, and two rooms upstairs. Jeremy has set his mum’s bed up in the parlour, just about managing to squeeze it in along with a commode and a comfy chair. The front room is for watching TV, and this is where his mother is sitting, wearing a short fur jacket and a beige turban – a little at a slant – fixed at the front with a brooch. Jeremy’s paintings cover the walls: swirling life studies in reds and browns and yellows, so thickly done I imagine he uses both ends of the brush, and then maybe his feet.

I introduce myself to Jeremy’s mother, but although she smiles contentedly she makes no sign that she’s really understood who I am or what I’ve come to do. Jeremy leans in and bellows in his mother’s ear – much more of a shock to me than it is to her – then leans out again.
‘She’s a little hard of hearing,’ he says, gently. ‘Would you like me to make you some tea whilst you take her readings?’

I run through the obs, and I’m pretty much done by the time he brings through two mugs and a beaker for his mum.
‘Everything looks fine,’ I say, looping the stethoscope over my neck and taking the mug.
‘Well that’s a relief.’
‘Yep. I think all we need to do is book some physio to get your mum back up to strength, have someone come in a couple more times to make sure she stays on the level, and maybe have an OT come round to see if there’s any more equipment you might find useful.’
‘I don’t know where it would go,’ says Jeremy. ‘I mean – look at the place. But we’re in your capable hands. We’re really very grateful.’
I write up my notes on the laptop whilst he sits on a stool and watches.
‘I love your paintings,’ I tell him.
‘Thank you!’ he says. ‘I use their old front bedroom as a studio. The light’s much better there, you know. Painting’s my thing. It’s what keeps me sane.’
‘Everybody should definitely have a thing. But how would you say you’re bearing up generally? It must be quite a strain.’
‘Oh. That’s kind of you to ask. It has been hard, that’s for darn sure – but I’m fine. As I say, I have my art.’
‘Do you need any care support?’
‘What would they do? I do it all.’
‘Well – I don’t know. Give you a bit of a break? Maybe you could consider some respite care at some point. You’ve got to look after your health, too.’
He laughs.
‘Me? I’m alright. You have to be, don’t you? I must admit it was hard at first, though. I had no idea what I was letting myself in for. But the rest of the family live abroad and they’ve got their own families so there wasn’t really anyone else. I’ve just had to learn as I went along. And now look at me – nurse, domestic, pharmacist, accountant. Electrician! But like I say. I still have time to paint. And we watch a lot of black and white films together, don’t we mum? We’re going to watch one when you go. A good one. Sunset Boulevard. Mum’s favourite. We’ve seen it I don’t know how many times. Norma Desmond…’
He puts his mug on the floor, jumps up, straightens, widens his eyes, snarls, throws the tea towel over the opposite shoulder and says Ready for my close-up, Mr DeMille.
He holds the pose a few seconds, then sits back down on the bed again and picks up his mug.
‘And – scene!’ he says, taking a sip.

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.’

no pickle

Jeanette slumps back in her leather tub chair as woefully inert as a deflated balloon.
‘They let me out too early,’ she says. ‘I feel terrible.’
‘In what way terrible?’
‘Hmm?’
‘In what way do you feel terrible?’
‘Just that. Terrible.’
‘Are you in pain?’
She squeezes her eyes shut as if she is, but finally admits that no, not as such, she isn’t.
‘Do you feel sick, or dizzy?’
‘No.’
‘Short of breath?’
‘No.’
‘Any pins and needles, numbness, or funny feelings anywhere?’
She shakes her head.
‘Have you opened your bowels today?’
She says she had. It was all normal. Everything was – is – normal.
‘Good. That’s good.’
‘I’m just – I don’t know. I can’t explain it.’
She puts one hand up to her brow, extending the other arm along the back of the chair in a tragic, broken-winged kind of pose.
‘Are you feeling lacking in energy, or exhausted, perhaps?’
‘Yes,’ she says. ‘They shouldn’t have let me out. I wasn’t ready to come out.’

She was in a fair while, admitted after a non-injury fall at home. All her observations were – and remain – perfectly normal, though. Recent bloods – fine. Swabs, scans, colonoscopy – NAD. Her little flat is bright, clean and well-laid out, with an en-suite wet room and views over the garden. She has all the equipment she could possibly want, carers three times a day, and a son, Peter, who lives nearby and visits often. But perhaps more encouraging than any of this, is the place Jeanette was discharged home to.

Bletchley House is one of the sweetest, friendliest places I know. Two Edwardian terraced houses knocked into one, sensitively converted into a dozen self-contained flats for independent living. Environmentally it’s as spacious and sunlit as a boutique hotel, with lush gardens, an expansive patio and an arbor shaded with vines. There’s a communal TV room, a free library, sofa spaces. Everyone seems bright and awake, inquisitive without being pushy. There’s a co-operative feel to it all that invites you to sit down, have a cup of tea and a chat. And of course, the best thing about Bletchley House is its housekeeper, Abigay.

Abigay is a Jamaican goddess, a manifest spirit of love and good sense. Although she’s in her seventies, she has such a shine to her you could easily mistake her for a woman half that age, merrily crashing around in the kitchen, baking, singing. Her head is shaved, her lips rouged, she has yellow plastic earrings in her ears and on her hands, ornate clusters of silver rings.
‘Why don’ ya sit down and take a cup a’tea, fella? Tell me everytink.’

Jeanette had asked me to come down and speak to Abigay, to see if she’ll send her some food up later.
‘O’ course!’ says Abigay, throwing a red check tea towel over her shoulder. ‘Wha’ ja think me got all this fancy kitchen for?’
She’s sorry to hear Jeanette isn’t feeling well enough to come down – but then her face takes on a pantomime expression of severity.
‘Poor Jeanette. Ya know she never come out dat room so much. We all try to tempt her out wi’ stuff. Me lovely dinners. Me special salad.’
The way she says salad, dipping her knees slightly, like she’s swinging on a big handle. Behind her lined up on the stainless steel counter are bowls of fresh leaves, fruits and colourful things, pots rattling on the stove.
‘O’ course me take it up to her. I wish though – I wish, wish wish she’d come down here and eat wi’ da rest of us. She know she always welcome. Her son, Peter, he such a good boy. He take a lot o’ trouble wid his mama, ya know. It a shame she gat dat problem in her head wi’ this kinda ting. I’m not sure she comin’ out dat room anytime soon.’

I relay the good news to Jeanette about the food.
‘What exactly is she making?’ she says, with the haunted expression of someone asking what manner of poison she’ll be asked to swallow.
‘One of her lovely big salads, I think.’
‘Urgh,’ she shudders. ‘Go back down and ask her to do me a cheese sandwich instead, would you? No pickle.’
She rests her head back and shuts her eyes again.
‘Although quite how I’ll force it down I don’t know.’

party line

When Agnes finally reaches the front door, she looks so beautifully turned-out in her vintage, poppy-print housecoat it’s like she set off from the back kitchen sometime in the nineteen fifties.
‘Hello!’ she says, through a crackle of thick, coral pink lipstick. ‘Thank you so much for coming.’
She leads me slowly through into the lounge, and after gesturing to the sofa, perches herself on the edge of an armchair and fixes me with a bright smile.
‘Now. What’s this all about?’ she says.
I explain that her doctor has made the referral, but as I carry on talking I can’t help wondering if I’ve got the right address. Struggling with ADLs the referral said. Recent UTI. Needs TDS care & help with meds. Really? The room’s as perfect as Agnes. No sign of dust or disorder; nothing out of place; a clock and two porcelain clowns equally spaced on the mantelpiece; a TV remote symmetrically aligned with paper, pen and reading lens on a discreetly placed, Moroccan side table.
‘How are you feeling today?’ I ask her, opening the yellow folder.
‘Oh. You know,’ she says, smiling even brighter. ‘Annoyed with myself. I took the Christmas decorations down yesterday and now I can’t find them.’
‘I’m sure they’ll turn up.’
‘I hope so. Some of them were very old. Falling to pieces, but – well – you get used to these things.’
I know what you mean. My favourite decoration is a snowman playing the violin. He’s looking pretty shabby these days, but it’s nice to see him every year.’
‘I bet!’
‘I’m sure your decorations will turn up.’
‘I hope so,’ says Agnes. ‘I feel so cross with myself.’

-oOo-

After the examination I review the facts. All Agnes’ observations are normal. Her medication is nicely ordered in a dosette box that her son, Barry, organises at the beginning of each week. She is perfectly able to wash and dress herself; before her recent illness she was driving once a week to bridge club.
‘Shall I ring Barry and see what he has to say?’
‘That’s a good idea!’
‘Do you mind if I use the landline? Only – if I ring using the work mobile, the number won’t show and he might think it’s a sales call.’
‘Of course! Please – help yourself…’
Barry is on the address function. I press call – and it’s immediately apparent that the phone is on loudspeaker.
‘How do I take it off?’
‘Oh – it’s always like that’ says Agnes. ‘Don’t worry. Barry won’t mind.’
The phone keeps ringing – extremely loudly – and I’m still trying to figure out how to mute the thing when he picks up.
BARRY MOSS says Barry, in a voice so thunderous and sharp I want to hold the phone away from my ear.
‘Hello Barry. My name’s Jim. I’m a nursing assistant from the hospital…’
YES. UR-HUM.
‘Barry? The doctor’s asked that we come round to see your mum’s alright – to do her blood pressure and so on….’
YES
‘…but before I go on, can I just say… you’re on speakerphone at the minute and I don’t know how to take it off’
I smile and nod at Agnes; she smiles back.
YOU CAN’T. IT’S LIKE IT ALL THE TIME.
‘Would you like me to call you back on my work mobile?’
NO. IT’S ALRIGHT.
‘Okay. Agnes is sitting right here with me…’
I can’t make it any clearer that he’s being overheard, but if Barry’s understood, he makes no sign.
HOW IS SHE?
‘She’s fine. Aren’t you, Agnes?’
‘Absolutely!’ says Agnes, shaking her head and smiling. ‘Never felt better!’
YOU CAN’T TRUST A WORD SHE SAYS, YOU KNOW.
‘Oh, now – I don’t know about that…’
Agnes straightens in the chair. Although her smile doesn’t falter, I can see her fingers whiten round her knee.
Because I can’t immediately think of a way of stopping him saying anything else, I look to buy myself some time.
‘Let me hand you over so you can have a quick word with your mum,’ I tell him. ‘Then we can all have a chat about what to do next.’
HAND HER OVER, THEN
‘Hello darling!’ says Agnes.
HELLO MUM shouts Barry. WHAT’S ALL THIS? A PARTY LINE?

the big man

Mira is using her zimmer frame for the first time, hobbling slowly and painfully to the hallway from the front room where she’s been sleeping these past few weeks.
‘Excellent! Good work!’ says Bethan, the physio. ‘We’ll soon have you back to normal.’
Mira stops in front of a picture on the wall, a lurid pastel portrait of a crying child in a knitted bonnet.
‘Do you know who this is?’ she says, letting go of the zimmer to straighten the frame.
‘Careful!’ says Bethan.
‘This is my husband,’ says Mira, ‘as a small child’
‘They gathered that,’ says John, her son, holding on to the door, his arm making an arch for her to pass under. ‘Come on, mum. Keep it moving. Keep it moving.’
‘Would you like to know why he was crying like this?’
‘Oh god. You’re going to get the guided tour now,’ says John.
‘It was Vidovdan, feast day. My husband’s Baka had made a wonderful torte, beautifully spread with segments of apple and pear, glistening with the most marvelous jelly and topped with fresh whipped cream. And he just couldn’t resist it. So he dragged his finger across the top, and then he stuck his finger in his mouth. Of course, when his Baka came in she was furious, and she smacked him – like this – on his hand. What you do this for? she said to him. Who will want to eat my lovely torte now you’ve wiped your dirty paws all over it? And he cried and he cried and he cried – just like the picture. And his Baka said to him, she said Why are you crying so much? I did not think I hit you as hard as all that. No he said I’m crying because I made you sad. And that was why they had this picture made of him.’
‘Yeah. And I bet they had to pinch him a few times to keep him going.’
‘John!’ says Mira. ‘Don’t listen to him. He misses Papa as much as I do.’
We continue walking towards the hallway.
They’re an odd couple, Mira and John. She is so small and frail, and her son so huge, it’s difficult to imagine her ever giving birth to him.
‘It might be quicker if I just put you over my shoulder,’ he says, checking his watch. ‘Mind you, I’m not sure I could these days. I carried a heavy machine gun and a radio when I was in the army. Well – it was a few years ago. I was twenty-six, the big man. Seemed like a good idea at the time.’

a tale of two women

I.

Maud is asleep on the ottoman.
‘She’s exhausted’ whispers her granddaughter, Eve. ‘We thought it best if we let her rest a while’
Maud couldn’t be more comfortable, a pile of crisp white pillows behind her head and a richly patterned duvet tucked around her.
‘Come and have a seat,’ says Eve. ‘We’ll wake her up in a minute.’
Eve leads me to a heavy oak dining table in the middle of the room, where Eve’s mother Lucy and Lucy’s sister, Beth are waiting.
‘Thanks for coming,’ says Beth, standing up to shake my hand.
‘It’s good of you,’ says Lucy. ‘Everyone’s been so kind.’
We take our seats.
It would make a good painting. The Visit. A broad and comfortable room, naturally lit by the low winter sun through the patio windows, a collection of old prints and portraits hung around the walls, ferns in planters, a baby grand covered with an antique shawl and a spread of family photos in simple, silver frames – and then the focus of the picture, the loving family leaning in on three sides of the table, me with my open folder, pen in hand, and Maud, snoozing in the background.
‘Can you just go over for me why Maud was taken to hospital in the first place?’ I say.
‘It was just before Christmas,’ says Lucy. ‘Mummy’s always been fiercely independent. She doesn’t like fuss and she’s absolutely resisted any attempt to get some help in with the garden.’
‘Imagine!’ smiles Eve.
‘Quel horreur!’ says Lucy, shaking her head.
‘Anyway. That’s the context. What we think happened is that Mummy was out there planting bulbs and having a bit of a tidy up – overdoing things as usual – came in and then suffered some sort of collapse. Not a stroke or her heart or anything. More a kind of giving out or a weakness in her legs. Whatever the reason, down she went and couldn’t get up again. Wasn’t wearing her red button, of course.’
‘I think it’s upstairs on the bathroom door,’ says Lucy.
‘Exactly. So there she was, down on the floor, and she just couldn’t get herself up again. The best she could manage was to shuffle about a bit – although not as far as the phone, sadly. Malcolm, a good friend and neighbour who lives just across the way, well Malcolm saw the light on quite late and rang Mummy to ask if everything was all right. When she didn’t answer he came over and let himself in with the key we’d given him…’
‘Thank God!’ says Beth.
‘…thank God!’ says Lucy. ‘Thank Malcolm! As soon as he found Mummy on the floor he called the ambulance. They were a while getting here, so once Malcolm had established that Mummy hadn’t broken any bones and so on, he helped her up and waited with her for the paramedics. She had every test you could think of at the hospital. Really – everyone’s been so kind….’
‘Absolutely!’ says Beth. ‘Thank you so much.’
‘…just amazing, actually. But aside from the usual wear-and-tear of Mummy’s osteoarthritis and her habit of doing too damned much, they couldn’t find anything wrong.’
‘A bit of a chest infection…’ says Beth.
‘Oh yes. The chest infection,’ says Ruth. ‘Beyond that, who can say? We’ve got some carers starting this evening. I think Mummy’s been given a bit of a frightener by all of this and she’s finally agreed to some help. One of us will stay tonight and however long it takes to get her back to strength. But she is ninety, you know. You can’t go on pretending you’re a young woman forever.’
And we all turn to look at Maud, fast asleep on the ottoman.

II.

‘I’m ninety, you know!’
‘I can’t believe that!’ I say, touching Renee lightly on the arm. I have to admit it’s a lie, though. One of her eyes is permanently closed, giving her a lopsided, leering look, and when she speaks – with difficulty – she rolls up her mouth at the end of each sentence, taking most of the lower half of her face with it.
Rene is stuck on the commode. She wasn’t able to pull up her nightie, and opening her bowels has resulted in a mess that’s going to take some deft manoeuvring to sort out. At least I’m here with my colleague, Helen, though. Together we manage to stand Renee up, and whilst Helen keeps her steady, I set to work with quantities of tissue and wet wipes.
‘Sorry about that,’ she says.
‘Don’t worry, Renee.’
After a while she says: ‘We’ll have to take the decorations down soon.’
I glance up at the walls. There are three lines of red tinsel stuck with masking tape to the crumbling plaster above the fireplace – not delicate strips of tape; the kind you tear off in a hurry and slap on.
‘Shame. It goes so quickly,’ says Helen, adjusting her position as I struggle to free some more wipes.
‘Yes,’ says Renee. ‘Still. It can’t be Christmas all the time or it wouldn’t be special.’
Her son Graham watches us from the other side of the room. He seems to do a lot of that. He was watching at the front door as I parked the car, not waving back when I did, or even saying hello, merely turning with a flat, mildly irritated look and disappearing inside, like a bear plodding back into its cave when it finds winter still has a way to go.
‘How is she?’ he says, as we struggle to get her nightie over her head.
‘Not sure.’
A microwave dings in the kitchen.
‘D’you mind if I get my dinner?’
‘Go ahead!’ says Helen, dropping the soiled clothing into a bag.
After a minute or two Graham reappears with a plastic dish of curry. Instead of taking it upstairs or out back, he sits on the side of Renee’s hospital bed, and starts tucking in with a spoon.
‘Sure you don’t mind?’ he says.
It’s disquieting to see just how exactly the food looks like the mess we’ve just dealt with.
‘Absolutely,’ I say. ‘Smells good.’