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.

the band

Normally you can judge how expensive the nursing home fees are by how quiet it is. Today, though, Shaftesbury Manor is positively rowdy. There’s a birthday party in the dining room, and a sea cadet’s brass band putting on a show for the other residents in the lounge.

I’m waiting to take blood from birthday girl (awkward, but the GP was insistent). The party’s just breaking up, so to pass the time I loiter in the doorway watching the band. The conductor is sweating so much her cap is sliding off, her tunic so tight she can barely lift her arms. It’s quite a racket they’re making. Handheld xylophones, trumpets, a drum. I’m guessing the residents slumped in the armchairs are either dead or have their hearing aids turned off, because they look remarkably unmoved, given the volume. Right at the front is a tiny kid on a tuba, blowing so enthusiastically every third bar he’s at risk of putting himself through the window. The band looks confined, antsy, on the verge of something desperate. Any minute now, despite the conductor, they’ll simply have to start marching – over chairs, residents, whatever – down the corridor, out the front door, and off into the free world.

All the party guests have started making their goodbyes, putting on coats, clapping each other on the shoulders, shaking hands, kissing, laughing. I stand back but even so I’m almost drawn in to it. Maybe they think I’m the long-lost great great nephew or something, wearing a backpack because I’ve come from the airport.
‘No, no!’ I say to one of them coming out. ‘I’m a nursing assistant. I’m here to take blood.’
He does a comedy double-take, holds his hands out to the side, turns round and shouts to the others: ‘Who ordered the vampire?’
One of the carers taps me on the shoulder.
‘I’ll get Luciana and wheel her through’ she says. ‘I’m guessing you want a little privacy.’
I nod at the band.
‘I don’t know. At least you won’t hear her scream,’ I say.
The carer frowns, and hurries on.