the biology & ecology of the asteroidea

Mr Woollens mobilises slowly and with great precision, inching his way along the great mass of textbooks on the book shelves; along the backs of chairs and cabinets covered with fossils and specimens in jars and ethnic carvings; tentatively feeling his way along the walls hung with diplomas and certificates and photographs of awards ceremonies and antique taxonomic prints; moving hand by foot by hand, securing each purchase and only then transferring his weight, as slowly and meticulously pinpoint as a giant starfish moving over a span of uneven coral – ironic, given that starfish were his speciality.
‘Yes,’ he pants, pushing his wild white hair over to one side, exposing the great tangle of his eyebrows and the partially paralysed slant of his mouth. ‘I spent years looking at the damned things.’
I ask if there’s anything I can get him, some water perhaps, a cup of tea?
‘There is one thing,’ he says. ‘You can get me a package of something to enable my own destruction.’
Those great eyebrows tremble as he studies my response.
‘No?’ he says. ‘Thought not. In which I suppose I shall just have to settle for a cup of tea.’

joan & agnes go shopping

Joan is sitting in the sunshine on an antique walnut chair, an aluminium walking stick planted squarely in front of her, both hands resting on it, giving her the appearance of a graven warrior leaning on their sword. I have to say she’d look pretty good in a helmet, with a nose-piece and slits for eyes; as it is, her only armour is a tweed skirt, silk blouse and metallic hairdo.

And if Joan is a warrior, her declared enemy would be Sciatica.

‘I’m a martyr to it,’ she says, thumping her stick on the carpet twice, which she does periodically, to emphasise the key points.

‘Not that I let it win. I know what you, the doctor and everybody else will say. You’ve got to keep moving Joan. Physiotherapy and pain relief, that’s the ticket. But all these pills and potions turn me into an absolute zombie, dragging myself around the place, moaning and carrying on. And when I’m in that state I’m afraid all I really need is shooting. 

Thump, thump.

‘I must tell you something, though. You’ll like this. My friend Agnes came round the other day. She visits every now and again. Like the flu. She wanted me to drive her to the mobility shop to help her choose a three-wheeled walker. I said can’t you just order it online like everyone else? But she hasn’t the faintest idea what online means. She thinks it’s something to do with the railway. Still, I don’t mind the odd excursion. I drive, of course. Everything’s a fuzz close up, but so long as the sun’s high enough I get by. So we drove over to the mobility shop, and spent an absolute lifetime looking at their range. I suggested the most solid looking thing with a basket on the front and a seat to sit on if it came to that. But Agnes being Agnes she went for the racy red affair, a three-wheeler, something that wouldn’t look out of place at Brands Hatch. Whilst she was fiddling around with a cheque book – a cheque book! I mean, honestly. She’s like something out of the Middle Ages! – Anyway, whilst she was driving the assistant absolutely insane with her chaotic bag and her endless requests, I took the opportunity to nip next door to the paper shop to get my copy of the Financial Times. Whilst I was in there chatting to the shopkeeper about call centres or somesuch, a woman came into the shop and asked me if I knew a woman with a red three-wheeled walker. So I said Yes, I’m afraid I do. So she said Well she’s just fallen over!

Thump, thump.

the stone queen

There are warning signs tied to every lamppost: Road resurfacing. No parking. Tow-away zone. The silhouette of a truck dragging off a car, and a date scrawled in the space beneath. The date is tomorrow, though, so I figure I’ll probably be good to park here today. I’m prepared to take the risk. If I had to look for a parking space anywhere else I’d end up have to walk miles, and I’m behind on my visits as it is. I put my Parking Exemption ticket on the dashboard, grab my stuff and walk up the path to number 18.

Mina’s daughter, Sarah opens the door. She smiles bravely but looks exhausted, a fresh-looking perm accentuating the dark lines under her eyes, as if the energy it took to highlight and curl has used up whatever reserves she had left.

‘Mum’s upstairs,’ she says. ‘She hasn’t left the flat in a year or more – well, except for appointments.’

Despite the bright sunshine outside – or maybe because of it – the room is muted and still. There’s a large aquarium bubbling away against one wall, stunned fish drifting in and out of focus. The aquarium is so dominating, it seems to extend and occupy more than its own space, especially as the walls and the carpet are mottled green and blue, and all the furniture, too, soft and plump, making it feel like a state room on the Titanic, everything swollen with coral blooms. Mina is sitting in a scallop-backed armchair in the window, Queen of this Undersea World, except her robe of fish-scales is actually a fluffy blue dressing gown, and her trident is a walking stick.

I pull up a lobster, and ask how she’s feeling today.

She turns her sad eyes down on me, and with her knotty fingers draped over the handle of her stick, she sings me the sad, siren song of her back. A soft, sinking kind of song, as lulling as the bubbles. A song of osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis, COPD, heart failure, and diverticulitis. Of degenerative changes to lumbar vertebrae that can never be corrected. Certainly not by surgery; she wouldn’t survive the operation. All they can do is control her pain with medication. But she’s sensitive to just about everything, and they’re running out of ideas. She has all the equipment she needs. She knows the maisonette is inappropriate, as she can’t easily manage the stairs, but she’s lived there so long she couldn’t face moving – not that there’s anywhere to move to, bungalows being in such demand.

Sarah is sitting on the opposite chair, kneading her hands as she listens, as if she’s working through it by some invisible mechanism, forcing it to a conclusion. She interrupts when she can: I’ve got my own problems she says. Work. Kids. Everything else.

The questions I manage to ask have all been asked before. Mina deals with them all in turn, scarcely pausing to think, wrapping them up in words, kelp around a propeller.

‘Well – I’m limited to what I can do today,’ I say, shaking myself into action. ‘I’ll do your obs – you know – your blood pressure and so on, just to make sure there’s nothing else going on that might be making things worse, like an infection and so on. Take some blood, too. And then liaise with the GP. How does that sound?’

Mina smiles sadly, then turns her head towards the window.
‘They’re fixing the road tomorrow,’ she says, as I open my bag and set out my things.
‘I saw that! I didn’t know whether it was safe to park or not.’
‘It’s safe,’ she says. ‘I can see your car from here. The little blue one. If anyone goes near it I’ll use my stick and turn them to stone.’

And she taps it, once, on the carpet, to illustrate.

pulling monkeys out of the garden

Jack sits in his riser recliner with his left arm in a collar and cuff sling, looking about as uncomfortable as a man could be, hyper-inflated with discomfort, the great balloon of his belly pumped to bursting with unease.

Jack’s wife, Marge fusses round the foothills of her husband with kitchen roll and baby wipes and so on. I can see that things are difficult. He fell over in the garden a few weeks ago, broke his upper arm up near the shoulder, cracked a few ribs. The codeine-based painkillers have made him constipated. He’s immobile, frustrated, and all things considered, struggling to see his way through to the end of it all. To make things worse, just a few minutes before I arrived he had an episode of incontinence.
‘Don’t worry,’ I tell him. ‘I can help get you cleaned up.’
He’s grateful and embarrassed in equal measure. Marge runs back and forth with hot water and towels. We chat whilst I work.
‘You wouldn’t think it to look at me now, but I really used to be somebody.’
‘You’re somebody now.’
‘Not like I was.’
‘What did you do for a living?’
‘I was in carpets.’
‘Oh?’
‘I used to travel the country, selling them. I’m not talking rugs and runners. I’m talking big volume sales. Whole businesses. Serious operations, the international guys. They used to know me at all the best hotels. They used to know me by name. Say for example my son Jimmy wanted to stay the night, too. Sometimes he’d do that. He’d come out with me and we’d drive around, see the sights. So then I’d say to this fancy hotel, I’d say to them: What about Jimmy, here? What can you do me for Jimmy? And they’d say: Of course, Mr Sackler. Even if they were full. I tell you what – it was a good life. The things I used to see and do, driving round.’
I help him back into the chair.
‘Now look at me. Falling over like a clown. See that garden?’
I look out of the patio doors, onto a grid-patterned lawn, feature borders, a grey-green summerhouse, water-feature, architectural plants – the whole thing as prepped and manicured as an illustration from a magazine.
‘It’s lovely,’ I say.
‘Yeah? Well – it used to be a wilderness. The old woman we bought the house off, she hadn’t done a thing for years. It was an absolute jungle. You wouldn’t believe what we pulled out of there. I mean – I was pulling monkeys out of there. Wasn’t I, Marge? Pulling monkeys out of the garden?’
‘I wouldn’t say that,’ she says, handing him some clean trousers.
‘No, not those ones,’ he snaps. ‘The other ones.’

a ten month stretch

Ten months shy of a hundred.

From the way Miles is sitting, though, I’d say this was less of an ambition and more of a curse. Miles has a graven look to his face, his eyes heavy, his mouth a perfect downward arc, as if he was resigned to sit out those ten months with his arms folded, not moving at all, and then at midnight on the last day, when the last chime has sounded, he’ll stand up, and quietly leave the room.

At this rate, though, I can’t see him making the end of the week. He suffered a fall a few months ago, and although he wasn’t hurt, it’s made him fearful of any kind of movement. Now we’re at the point where the carers are virtually lifting him from the chair to the commode and back again. His eating and drinking have tailed off, too, and it’s a good day if he can finish a beaker of cold tea or half a boiled egg delivered into his mouth one slow spoonful at a time. He’s developing pressure sores. The doctor has called us in to see what we can do.

Miles’ daughter, Janice has reached the end of her ability to cope. She lives some distance away, and has been spending the majority of her time sleeping upstairs in the room she left fifty years ago. Her own life is on hold now whilst she helps the carers and struggles to make things better. She’s utterly worn down from all the day-to-day indignities, the pleading and the hectoring, the constant bargaining.
‘The worst thing is how guilty I feel,’ she says, dabbing at her eyes in the next room.
‘You’re doing an amazing job,’ I tell her. ‘You’re dad’s lucky to have you.’
‘No,’ she says. ‘He isn’t. Now and again I’ll catch myself looking at him and thinking Go! Just go! I mean – he’s not happy. He doesn’t want all this. But what can you do? And all the while everyone’s traipsing through the house, checking his blood, changing his meds stringing him out even longer, and I can’t see any end to it. Am I bad for saying this? I am, aren’t I? I’m bad. I shouldn’t be thinking these things about my own father.’
She cries some more.
I tell her that it’s perfectly understandable and okay to think or say these things. It’s natural. Anyone would. I tell her I think she should seriously think about organising some respite care for Miles, to give herself a break as much as anything.
‘Where would that be? A nursing home?’
‘I think so, yes. Miles needs a level of care now he wouldn’t get anywhere else.’
‘I promised him he wouldn’t end up in a home.’
‘It’s only temporary. It’ll give yourself space to think and get your strength back. You’ve got to look after your health, too, you know.’
‘But a home?’
She screws the handkerchief into a ragged ball and tosses it into the bin with practised ease.
‘Well,’ she sighs. ‘I’ll think about it. For now, though, how can we make things better for Dad here?’
We talk about hospital beds, stand-aids, double-up carers four times a day, physio exercises he can do in his chair, that sort of thing.
‘Gosh!’ she says, then shakes her head. ‘Don’t get me wrong. We’re so grateful and everything. But you wouldn’t want it for yourself, would you?’
‘No,’ I say. ‘I probably wouldn’t.’
‘But what else is there?’
‘I don’t know. It’s difficult.’
We go back into the front room. Miles is still sitting there, as graven as before.
‘Alright?’ I say, going over and resting my hand on his arm.
‘Yes thank you,’ he says, and then turns his head to stare out of the window, at the wide, sunlit street, and the day that’s just starting into life.