Frank’s nest

Sixty years ago, when Frank was a young man, he worked in the shipyards, on the cranes. At least, I think he did. He’s got such a strong Geordie accent, and speaks in such a slurred and rumbling kind of way, it’s impossible to be sure. There’s a half empty bottle of whiskey tucked discreetly on the floor behind his legs, too, and I’m sure that’s not helping things.
The kitchen is oppressively hot. I’m wearing full PPE. My apron feels so tight I feel like a big, blue sausage beginning to squeal under the grill.
‘Ah’ was fitter in them days,’ he sighs, staring out of the kitchen window. His little flat is on the uppermost floor of a converted house, with plane trees so close to the front it’s as if we’re sitting in the cab of a crane high over the street. ‘I didn’t gi’a shit about nuttin’!’ he says, swatting the air with his good hand. ‘Ah was scamperin’ about like one of them squirrels there. Ah used ta stand wi’ ma legs on the girders, swingin’ ma’ hammer, snakin’ out the wire…it was like ah’ was buildin’ a big nest for meseln’ in the sky.’
‘Wow,’ I say, wiping the sweat from my forehead with my arm. ‘That sounds amazing!’
He stares at me for a second, like he’s trying to get me in focus.
‘D’you mind if ah’ smoke a tab?’ he says, reaching for his tin.
‘Could you wait a bit, Frank? I’m almost done.’
‘Oh. Okay.’
He pushes the tin back, and sighs again.
‘I can open the window if you want?’
‘If yer don’ mind.’
It feels good to let the air in. Frank closes his swollen eyes and turns his face in the direction of the breeze. He had a fall in the kitchen a couple of days ago. Got taken to hospital and kept in for observation. To look at him you’d think he’d pitched head first out of the window. Livid purple bruises distort his eyes and face, there’s a steri-stripped laceration to his forehead, a bandage on his hand.
‘Ah’m sick of it,’ he says, opening his eyes and turning to look at me again. ‘Sick of it! Ah jes’ don’t want to go on, to tell ya the truth.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that, Frank. It’s understandable, though. You’ve got a lot on your plate. Do you want to speak to one of our mental health nurses about how you feel?’
‘Nah – what’s the point?’ he says. ‘Ah’ll jes’ carry on as I am, thanks very much. Tess’ll be in later wi’ ma things.’
I imagine her labouring and cursing up the six steep flights to Frank’s flat, shopping bags filled with microwave meals, fags and whiskey.
On the wall behind him is a calendar with a picture of a Matchless motorbike, one of the small, single cylinder machines, drop handlebars, bucket seat, cafe racer style.
‘Nice bike’ I say, nodding at the calendar, then wiping my forehead on my arm.
‘Ay’ he says, turning stiffly in the chair.
‘Did you ride?’
‘Whey aye! Ah tell ya, man – I was that fast – I’d be there a’fore I left.’

making up for lost time

Leslie opens the door, mid-chuckle, like he was waiting there all this time to do just that.
‘Well come in! Come in!’ he laughs. ‘We don’t stand on ceremony here you know!’
I hold the door so he can let go, grabbing him when he almost plunges backwards into an umbrella stand, then holding onto him till he finds his balance again. ‘Thanking you,’ he says. ‘Must take more water with it. Er-hem. This way!’ He walks ahead, rocking from side to side, lifting his legs stiffly from the hip and working his arms, like a robot in an old sci-fi movie.
‘Through here!’ he says, as if there was anywhere else to go in the tiny flat, leading me into a sitting room with two armchairs conspicuously together in front of the television, one of them now being used as a place to put magazines and letters. ‘Sit where you like!’ he says. ‘’scuse the mess.’
Leslie’s doing well for ninety-eight. The only time his bright mood slips is when he mentions his wife, who died a couple of years ago. ‘We were a good team,’ he says. ‘I miss her a lot. It doesn’t seem fair. Still – that’s the way of the world! I’ll see her again soon.’
The doctor referred Leslie in to us for physio and nursing care, nothing too drastic. He’s pretty independent. Goes out most days – or did, before his fall. He has a son who lives a couple of miles away. Visits all the time.
‘My confidence got dented along with my pride’ Leslie says, squeezing his eyes together as he wipes his round glasses on his untucked shirt. ‘Still – I’ll find it again, don’t you worry! You can’t keep old chaps like me down for long!’ He puts his glasses back on and blinks at me happily. There you are! I can see who I’m dealing with now!’


When I’m done and writing up my notes, Leslie hands me a paperback he’s been reading – a history of the spitfire.
‘Any good?’ I say, flipping it over to read the blurb.
‘It’s alright,’ he says. ‘My son got it for me. I was a bit disappointed, to be honest with you. It doesn’t mention my lot at all.’
‘Oh yeah? Who was that?’
‘The One Five Two. Black Panthers. So called ‘cos we had a panther on the side, jumping over the roundel. I was one of the technicians, loading ‘em up, fixing ‘em when they went wrong – well, trying to, at least. Out in Burma.’
‘That must’ve been tough.’
‘We got through it. I remember one of the new pilots, South African he was. Tall, handsome chap. Big dimple in his chin, like Superman. He says to me one day, he says Sorry to trouble you old chap, but would you be able to do anything with this blasted watch? And he handed it over, and it was this big ol’ German thing, big as my head. Beautiful it was, a real precision piece. Lord only knows how he got it. Or how he lifted his arm when it was on. Anyway, he says to me he says The blasted thing’s losing time but it’s my lucky watch and I don’t want to fly without it. So I looked it over, but honestly I didn’t have the foggiest. I mean – half the time with dodgy instruments you just chucked ‘em out and replaced ‘em. Why they ever made me a technician in the first place is a mystery. So anyway, I give it back to him and I said Sorry squire! I think you’ll have to get it fixed in Berlin next time you’re over. So he took it back, and they flew out on a mission that night, and he never came back. And I think about that watch sometimes. I think if I’d have took it from him to fix, I’d probably still have it now. Not so lucky after all, was it?’
‘That’s quite a story.’
‘Don’t get me started,’ he laughs. ‘Change the record, that’s what Vera used to say.’
He seems to dip a little.
I tell him about Mr Burton, the guy who ran the corner sweet shop we used to go to on our way back from school.
‘He was this huge guy, big shining face, hardly any teeth, in a shopcoat with all the buttons straining and scuff marks down the front where he wiped the sugar off his hands. And used to stand at the counter with all these sweet jars behind him, rows and rows of them, breathing hard whilst we made our choice. Sherbet lemons, gobstoppers, aniseed balls, flying saucers – you name it. And whenever he weighed the sweets out from the jars, he’d pop one in his mouth. It was like: A quarter for you and one for me. A quarter for you and one for me. It was only years later I found out he was on the Burma railway. Just skin and bone when he got liberated.’
‘He was lucky to get out of that one,’ says Leslie. ‘Poor chap. It was a hard business, that’s for sure. He was probably just making up for lost time. Anyway – how’m I looking? A-one? Or a ticket home?’
And he gives his knees a vigorous rub, like he’s priming an engine or something, winding himself up, ready for action.

how I met my wife

Parkinson’s disease has robbed Alan of facial expression, but from his sparkling eyes I can tell he’s very keen to tell me how he met his wife. Her pictures are everywhere in the flat, a studio portrait of a young woman leaning forwards in a serious, three-quarter pose; shots of her in a wedding dress; cuddling babies; making a speech; holding a hat on her head on the deck of a boat – all with a kind of Doris Day glow, and vastly outnumbering the various other family photos dotted about the place.
‘She died ten years ago,’ he says. ‘I just want to be with her now. Not in a creepy way. It’s just how it is.’
‘I can understand that.’
‘Do you want to know how we met? It’s a funny story. Have you time?’
I tell him I definitely want to hear it, but can he sit down first. ‘Because honestly, Alan – if I hadn’t been standing here with my wicket keeper’s mitts on you would’ve pitched head first into the bookcase. I can fetch whatever you need. Come on! Let me help you to a chair.’
‘Just a sec,now – just a sec,’ he says, turning stiffly on the spot and almost plunging backwards into a pile of records.
‘Whoa! Look – why not have a seat here? I’ll make you a drink and then we can talk about what to do next. And you can tell me how you met your wife.’
He seems to accept this, but instead of heading for the nearest sofa, leads me across the cluttered flat to a dangerously low Ottoman.
‘This’ll do,’ he says, shuffling carefully into position, and then, whilst he’s still miles away, unexpectedly launches himself backwards stiff as a puppet whose strings have been snatched up to throw it back in the trunk. He catches me off guard. I grab the front of his shirt to stop him whacking his head on the wall. The shirt makes an impressive ripping noise.
‘Sorry Alan!’
‘Don’t worry! Don’t worry!’ he says. ‘It’s a cheap old thing. I’ve got hundreds. I’ll just go fetch another…’
He starts trying to get up again. It’s a job to stop him.

* * *

What with one thing and another, Alan needs to go to hospital. Whilst we sit together waiting for the ambulance, he finally gets round to telling me the anecdote about his wife.

‘You wouldn’t think to look at me now, but back then I wasn’t entirely hopeless. I was studying architecture at university. A good friend of mine was doing medicine. C’mon Alan! he said. There’s a party at the local hospital. All the hot nurses will be there. Well I couldn’t say no to that, could I? Turns out it was a big old psychiatric hospital in the suburbs, which put me off a bit, but – well – hot nurses and all that. So we sneaked inside, and there was a long, long corridor, the kind of corridor you see in your dreams, that goes on forever. And coming down this corridor, floating towards us out of the light, were two of the most gorgeous nurses you’d ever seen in your life. One a redhead, the other blond. And we were both so dumbstruck we couldn’t do or say anything, we just sort of stepped helplessly to the side. Except there was fresh wax on the floor under the radiator, and I was wearing my shoes with the shiny soles. So I went flying arse over apex and ended up kicking the blond one in the rear. Two years later we were married. So whenever anyone asks me, How did you meet your wife? I tell them I was in a psychiatric hospital and I kicked one of the nurses.’

the feral dream girl

‘Peter died six years ago, but it may as well be six minutes.’
‘I’m so sorry for your loss.’
She shrugs and shakes her head.
‘Oh, well. I had a long time to get used to the idea. Poor Peter. He was a long time sick, you see. But that’s all in the past. D’you know what I miss the most? The conversations we had. About the silliest things, any time of the day or night. He was a fascinating man, Peter. That’s why I married him, I think. Or one of the reasons. He would always go to great lengths to understand the other person’s point of view. His hospital bed was just there, where you are now, and I was off to the side, reading or dozing or running backwards and forwards to let the carers in, the nurses and so on. The number of people who came and went through this room. I could’ve written a book. Should’ve. And now it’s just me, sitting on my own, staring out at the birds, thinking about not very much.’
‘Do you have family?’
‘No. Not really. All my brothers and sisters are gone now and we didn’t want children. There are some nieces and nephews dotted about. I see them from time to time, which is lovely, but they’ve got busy lives and what have you and I don’t want to burden them. I don’t mind. I’m perfectly content. No – we didn’t really want children, and I never gave it any thought. I did have a strange dream about it, though. I’d fallen asleep in this chair, and I woke up inside the dream, so to speak. I could tell, because even though everything was much the same, the light was different, more – I don’t know – electric. And there was a wild infant child standing to the side of me. A girl. She was standing right there, just about where you are now, rocking from side to side and staring at me. I wasn’t frightened or anything. I just held out my hand, and eventually she came forward, and let me stroke her hair a while. Then something startled her, and she ran out through the open window into the garden, which was so thick with trees it was like a tropical jungle. And she ran off into all that, and I watched her go. But I wasn’t worried for her, because I knew she would be safe out there, among all the animals, the bears and the wolves and so on. You read about those children, don’t you? The feral ones, the ones who run off into the forest and get brought up by animals.’
‘I remember something about that. It’s difficult to know whether it’s a story or just neglect. Probably a bit of both.’
‘Yes. There is that. People often make up stories when the truth is too painful.’

making it back

The Telegraph is too big for Martha. It’s like watching a duvet blown into a small tree.

‘I don’t know why I read it,’ she says, finally giving up, bundling it into an approximate mess and dumping it on the sofa next to her. ‘It’s not like I understand what they’re on about.’
‘You’re not alone in that, Martha.’
‘Wha’ d’ya say?’
‘I say I’m with you on that!’
‘Good!’ she says, but I know she hasn’t heard. I’d love to talk to her about politics and what she thinks of the world, but Martha’s so deaf now you have to put your lips to her ear and shout. And even then the best you’ll get is a smile and a chuckle and a knowing kind of ye-es. Any important questions or requests you have to write on a pad. Maybe there’s some telepathic component to all this, though, because after all the smiles and nods and eyebrows and complicated mimes, I always come away thinking I’ve had the liveliest conversation.

Martha’s been on our books for a while now. Initially we were called in by the doctor to keep an eye on her after a recent chest infection. But then she knocked her leg somehow – probably going downstairs to fetch The Telegraph – and it morphed into wound care. I’ll be sorry when she’s finally discharged, though. She’s such good company. A hundred years old now, she segues naturally from story to story without any prompting, like Time is a screen she can see through when the light falls in a certain way.

‘We were married seventy years,’ she says as I kneel on the floor dressing her leg. ‘Seventy years! Mind you – I didn’t see him the first three. I almost didn’t see him at all. He was in the RAF. A navigator. In a Blenheim bomber. Terrible planes. Dreadful. I think the Germans liked them, though. For target practice. How poor Tommy got through it all I don’t know. One night they were hit very bad – very bad – and they almost ditched in the Bay of Biscay. But the pilot kept ‘em going and they made it back somehow. Skipping over the waves like a stone, Tommy said. Skipping over the waves like a stone.’

liza of lambeth

nah! I’m a proper Londoner, me
Lambeth Walk – heard of it?
‘Course you ‘av!
Doin’ the Lambeth Walk – Oi!
Charlie Chaplin, he was round the corner
Genius, he was. Genius.
They didn’t none of ‘em understand him
They thought he was a Commonist
So he married that Pickford gel
and they run orf to Sweden or someink
I don’t mind telling you
I get a bit blue now and again
– don’t you go writing that down!
stands to reason, though, dunnit?
I’ve got a lot on me plate
what with me feet and me chest
Specially now me husband’s gone n’left me
we used to do everythink together
me n’Stanley. Everythink.
proper team we was
only now it’s just me
on me Jack Jones
‘cept for the girls who come round
helpin’ me aht
they’re good girls
one of ‘em’s a dancer
legs up to ‘ere
she only does this to keep her
‘ed above water
although you’d fink
wiv legs like that
she’d be alright, eh?
Family? Yes and No.
I got four sisters
and I hate the lot of ‘em
Jes’ because you share the same farver
don’ mean to say you’ll get along
anyway, there’s only two left now
so all’s well that ends well
during the war?
I worked in a factory
making bullets
I didn’t want to, mind
they ‘ad to drag me orf
kicking and screaming
still. I made some good friends
course – they’re all dead now
either that or too tight
to send a card at Christmas
my family? Or-straylia
I know. It is a long way
probably why they chose it
I’ve been there a coupla times
didn’t like it
I couldn’t never open me eyes
d’you know what I mean?
it was all too bright
Swimming? You must be joking!
Only if you want to get et by a shark
taking aht the laundry weren’t no joke, neither
what with all them widowy
spiders waiting for you
under the rim of the basket
they got fangs like this, mate
and poison what’ll turn yer air green
Nah. I’m alright here, fankyouverymuch
So long as I’ve got the girls
me CSI Friday and me
Saturday night strictly
How many children you got?
Two? Tha’s nice!
‘Cos you know what they say
two’s company three’s a whasisname
I bet they give you the runaround.
Nah then. What’ve you gone and done
wiv me slippers?



a view of the sea

There’s a three-quarter length, black and white portrait of Madeleine on the shelf behind her: a young woman in her early twenties, I’d guess, in a French beret and raincoat, sitting in the driving seat of an open-topped sports car. She’s resting her left elbow on the door, right hand on the steering wheel, staring at the camera in a wry and open-faced way, as if she knows – and the photographer knows – that any moment now she’ll be tearing off that beret, throwing it aside and racing off down the road in a scattering of gravel.
Seventy years have past, and much has changed, but Madeleine is looking at me with exactly the same expression.
‘I suppose you’ve come to jab me again,’ she says.
‘I’m afraid so.’
‘Let’s get on with it, then.’
She watches me whilst I fill in the Tinzaparin chart and check the syringe.
‘Married?’ she says.
‘I am, yes. Eighteen years.’
‘Marvelous,’ she says. ‘I was married twice, you know.’
‘Both times for exactly thirty years. To the day.’
‘That’s – consistent.’
‘My first husband was alright, I suppose, but I think essentially we just didn’t mesh.’
‘Thirty years. That’s a long time not to mesh.’
‘One put up with these things. Unlike today, of course. Today it’s like cancelling the papers. George was terribly romantic to begin with, but that petered out and in the end we were more like brother and sister. Until he went bankrupt, and started to drink an awful lot more, and then life became rather sticky.’
‘In what way?’
‘He became bitter about everything. The fact we never had children. The constant moving about. He didn’t like what I had, you see, which is a very strong sense of self. I think he was really rather threatened by that, and I’m afraid he became something of a bully. He hit me, you know.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
‘’The first time I said to him George. You do that once more and I’ll be off. And although he did make an effort to change his ways for a week or two, the writing was on the wall in jolly big letters. He hit me again. Hard, across the face. So hard in fact that I fell backwards into a rose bush. Scratched my stockings and my legs. I was in a frightful state. Anyway, I picked myself up with as much dignity as I could muster, walked myself back into the house, packed a suitcase, and I left him, and I never went back. And there! That was the first thirty years.’
‘So then what happened?’
‘I thought that was that, of course. I was off men for good. But actually what I was off was marriage. And I started to have quite a nice time of it. No responsibilities. I like to think of that time as my golden period. Then I met Pierre. Lovely, sad Pierre. French, y’know. From Paris. I told him I didn’t want anything serious, but he kept on and on in that terribly sad and attractive way he had, and eventually I said Look. We can live together if you like. But that’s as far as I’m prepared to go. So that’s what we did. We lived together for a year or so, and then I thought, well – what the hell? Why not? And we were married, and everything changed again. You see I’d been worried I’d end up with someone like my first husband. What I wanted was someone who was so unlike me there wouldn’t be any clashes. And Pierre and I were certainly different. He was from a terribly poor background, you see. During the war he’d lived out in the mountains, with the resistance. They didn’t even have any shoes, and had to tie newspaper round their feet, creeping into the valley at night to scavenge whatever they could, and lay traps for the Germans. He was captured, I’m afraid, and ended up in a concentration camp. And that was a frightful business. I’m certain it was the source of all his sadness’
‘It’s hard to imagine how awful it must have been for him.’
‘Pierre didn’t ever talk to me about it, though, and I think in the end that was the problem. One day he came home, and instead of walking through to give me a kiss, he went into the bathroom and locked the door. Well I knew straightaway something was wrong, because we didn’t ever lock the door if it was just the two of us. So after a while I went to the bathroom and knocked. He wouldn’t answer, but I kept on and in the end he told me to go away. I did – for as long as I could bear. Then I went back to the bathroom and I knocked again. Pierre? I said. What on earth’s the matter? And he didn’t answer, and he didn’t answer… so I just kept knocking, and I said if he didn’t let me in I’d break the door down. Which sounds pretty hot stuff but it was only a token kind of lock. So that’s what I did. I pushed the door in, and there he was, sitting on the toilet, his head resting against the wall, looking into space. You’re scaring me I said. What’s wrong? But he couldn’t or wouldn’t say, so I called the ambulance. They took him away, and he died three days later.’
‘That’s awful! Do you know what the problem was?’
Madeleine slowly gathers her blouse an inch so I can inject her in the abdomen.
‘They were never terribly specific and I was too upset to inquire. Men’s trouble, something of that nature,’ she says, flinching as the needle goes in. ‘So there we are. That was the end of it. Thirty years to the day. And now here I am, an old woman being jabbed in the tummy, wondering what on earth all the fuss was about.’
She lowers her blouse and settles herself in the chair again.
‘But there are always compensations,’ she says.
‘I suppose,’ I say, posting the used syringe into the sharps bin and peeling off my blue gloves. ‘That’s a very balanced way of looking at it. What sort of compensations?’
‘Well – in my case, a simply marvellous view of the sea!’

quite the place

we ran a bar in Portugal
my husband won it in a card game
took some work, I can assure you
but we stuck at it, until it was quite the place

it had a lounge in the basement,
enamelled tiles of peacocks and stags
panelled snugs pierced like confessionals
chandeliers, candles of sandalwood

the restaurant was on the ground floor
mountains of fruit, flowers, and breads
a monastery altar, with gorgeous aquaria
so you could point the waiter to your fish

the guest rooms were all upstairs
sweetly scented, linens laundered
clawfoot tubs, filigree shutters
every window with a view of the sea

something happened, though
a war? coup? I don’t remember
we were persona non grata
sold it all for a centavo

Still, one doesn’t do it for the money
and in the end, isn’t it something like this trifle?
gaudy, perhaps, and rather too sweet
but it gets you through the soup

the ghost comes home

‘To be honest with you, I can’t believe I’ve reached the age I have. I had four brothers and sisters, and now I’m the only one left. My sister Judith was the first to go. She was only eleven. I was fourteen. And now here I am, ninety-one! Me and Judith, we used to love going to the pictures on a Saturday. The matinee performance. This one Saturday, my mum stopped me as we were headed out the door. You’re not going out till you’ve sewed that button on your cardie like I asked you to she said. And I was furious about it but I did what I was told. I sewed the biggest button on there I could find, quick as I could, then I took Judith’s hand and we ran off down the street to the cinema on the corner. We were about half way through the main feature when there was an almighty crash and a flash and the whole place came down around us. Because we were late getting there we’d had to sit at the back, not like all the other kids sitting at the front. They were all killed outright. But we made it outside, and Judith, she was badly hurt, worse than me. We both got taken by someone to the hospital, and Judith died a little while later – not that I knew about that straight away, because I was having bits and pieces taken out of me. When I came round in bed a day or so later, the doctor showed me a chunk of metal and d’you know what he said? He said This would’ve finished you off if that button hadn’t taken some of the force out of it. So it just goes to show. I learned later on what happened. A German bomber had ditched its load early trying to get away from some Spitfires that were chasing it. He wasn’t targetting the cinema or anything. It was just one of them things. Didn’t do him no good, though. They caught up with him over the Channel, and that was that. The film? I’ll never forget what that was. A comedy, a silly little thing, only just out. The Ghost Comes Home.