Rita stands in the doorway, shifting her slippered weight from side to side in an effort to stop Randolph the dog running out. Randolph is a Jack Russell. Almost completely white, but with splodges of black here and there on his head, as if it was late in the day when they made him and they ran out of paint.

‘Excuse the stickiness in Harry’s room,’ says Rita. ‘Only I spilled his Lucozade and it’s gone all tacky.’

They’re a perfect combination, Rita and Randolph. They could both have stepped out of a painting by Beryl Cook – the cheeky strippergran and her chubby lapdog. Except, you’d need a measure of reinforcement to take Randolph on your lap these days. His delicate legs don’t seem big enough for his hefty body, like someone no-nailsed the legs from a Chippendale desk onto a boiler. The most extraordinary thing about Randolph is his eyes, though. Made of clear blue glass. He stares up at me, and when I bend down to let him sniff my hand, he gives me such a sad and searching look I feel as if I’ve mind-melded with a Vulcan.

‘Harry’s through here,’ says Rita, leading us through the house, along a laminate wood hallway, Randolph’s paws making an emphatic snickering noise as he runs ahead, doing one of those comedy, sideways skids at the turn.

‘Careful!’ says Rita.

Harry is in bed watching the news channel with a frozen expression. Randolph tries unsuccessfully to leap up onto the bed, so Rita gives him a boost. Once he’s made it, Randolph licks Harry’s face, then turns to look up at us, as if to say: There! Ready for you now!

Rita is right about the floor. You have to consciously wrest your foot up from it to stop yourself from permanently sticking. My shoes feel so generously coated I’m tempted to try walking up the walls and across the ceiling – and I would have done it, too, if I could be sure Randolph wouldn’t bark and cause a rumpus.

‘I’ll get some soapy water on that,’ says Rita.

We’re halfway through the assessment when there’s a knock on the door. Randolph launches himself off the bed, crashing against a chest of drawers, then skittering out of the room.
‘Coo-ee!’ sings a woman.
‘That’ll be Joyce,’ says Rita. ‘The first thing she’ll mention is the Amazon boxes. You wait.’

Eventually a leaner and older version of Rita appears in the doorway. She dumps her bags in the hallway, comes into the bedroom to kiss Harry lightly on the forehead, then straightens up again and gives us all a smile-shrug combination that seems designed to say both ‘sorry I’m late’ and ‘isn’t that just like me.’

Then she takes a breath and looks straight at Rita.

‘I see you’ve been online again,’ she says.

rosemary & june

Rosemary sits at her kitchen table sipping a cup of coffee.
It was quite a business making it.

‘The pots there! The pots!’ she said, jabbing a bony finger in the general direction of the cluttered work surface.
‘What pots?’
I thought she meant a coffee jar. There was one with tea bags in it, one with sugar and another with receipts and coupons, but no coffee jar.
‘There! Where I’m pointing! Oh for goodness sake! What’s the matter with you?’
And finally I understood. She meant the foil wrapper of plastic coffee containers, the kind that fits over a cup and you fill with hot water. Like mini-percolators. It had been right in front of me all the time, but because it wasn’t what I was expecting, I hadn’t paid it any attention. So anyway – I made her a cup and set it in front of her.
‘That’s absolutely marvellous. Thank you,’ she said.
‘You’re welcome.’

The kitchen isn’t cold, but even so, Rosemary is sitting in a huge puffa jacket that completely swamps her. She’s not wearing anything else, though, other than a pair of Christmas socks with grippy soles and about a hundredweight of rings and bracelets. She has the kind of sharp features and Bloomsbury haughtiness that makes you think of Edith Sitwell or Virginia Woolf. Every time she goes to raise the coffee cup, she gives her right hand a peremptory little shake in the air – like the Queen waving from a carriage – and all the bangles slide down her arm, disappearing under the sleeve of the puffa.

Apart from some meals on wheels she has no carers or domestic help, which is worrying, given her reduced situation. It would have been a beautiful town house half a century ago. Now it’s sadly reduced, with the slumped and rickety feel of a place poised on the edge of serious disrepair. I can imagine it in a few years time, stripped to the bricks, airing out, radio on and a skip in the flattened garden, the snapping of tarpaulin on the stripped roof, whistles, shouts, nail-guns, boots. For now, though, it’s perfectly, eerily quiet, just me, Rosemary and the clicking of the kettle as it cools.
‘Do you have family nearby?’ I ask her.
‘Family? Good God, no!’ she says. ‘I’m ninety-five! No – it’s just me.’
She takes a sip of coffee.
‘And my sister, June, of course,’ she adds, shakily setting the cup down again.
‘Oh! You have a sister? That’s nice!’
‘It isn’t,’ she sniffs. ‘We don’t get on. Now – if you’d kindly finish your examination. And don’t try to kid me. I know all the terminology.’

too many tarzans

It helps they have a picture of Tarzan on the wall.
‘Is that Ron Ely?’
Brenda glances towards the door, but I point to the dresser, the side of it, and a rather tatty colour photo stuck there with tape. Brenda gets up stiffly and shuffles over to look.
‘Oh – him? No. That’s erm… that’s Lex Barker.’
‘Oh! I thought it was Ron Ely. The TV Tarzan.’
‘No. It looks a bit like Ron Ely. But it’s not. It’s Lex Barker.’
‘I’ve never heard of Lex Barker.’
‘You’ve never heard of Lex Barker?’
Brenda leans forwards and shouts in the direction of her sister.
‘Jean? Did you hear that? Jean?’

Jean has fallen asleep in the chair – although she’s so slumped forward powered-off might be a better description. Her chin is resting on her cardigan, and she’s breathing in slow, regular breaths that puff out her toothless cheeks and escape with a soft, soughing kind of noise through her lips.
‘What?’ she says, straightening alarmingly, paddling her arms and legs. ‘I must’ve dropped off.’
‘Never mind,’ says Jean, and painfully turns, and sits back down again.

Even though I’ve never heard of Lex Barker, he strikes me as a way in. Brenda and Jean have been struggling to get by the last few years, completely off the radar of health and social services. A paramedic has alerted us to their plight, and I’ve been sent in to see how things are and what could be done to help. So far Brenda has been pretty tight-lipped, offering nothing, answering my questions with a guarded yes or no, the smallest shake of her head. I wonder what’s happened in the past to make her so suspicious.

‘God! However many Tarzans were there? I mean – you’ve got Johnny Weissmuller…’
‘He wasn’t the first,’ says Brenda. ‘There was one just after the war. Elmo Lincoln.’
Brenda shrugged.
‘I never saw it. And another one after that. It’s always been popular, Tarzan. For some reason.’
‘Johnny Weissmuller’ I say, struggling to think of something to say that’ll keep the momentum going. ‘Wasn’t he an Olympic swimmer or something?’
‘He was. He came over in thirty-eight, to open the lido in Saltdean.’ She turns a loose wedding band round and round on her finger. ‘Although how they persuaded him away from California I’ll never know.’
‘I remember Ron Ely’ I say, looking at Lex Barker’s picture again. ‘I remember they had stock footage of crocodiles thrashing around in the water and elephants rampaging, and they tried to crowbar them in every episode.’
‘Telly’s come a long way,’ says Brenda. ‘They were poorer times back then. No-one had the money for real crocodiles.’
‘Gordon Scott!’ says Jean, unexpectedly ‘He was my favourite!’
‘Gordon Scott? You’ve changed your tune!’ shouts Brenda. ‘I thought it was Lex Barker! We’ll have to get another picture!’
Jean doesn’t reply. Eventually Brenda relaxes back in the chair and picks some lint off her skirt.
‘I don’t know,’ she says after a while. ‘Too many Tarzans, that’s the problem.’

daisy d.

‘Are you alright with dogs?’ says Clara, throwing open the door anyway. It’s not a great risk, though. Daisy is the cutest dachshund I’ve ever seen. With her long, lugubrious expression and sad brown eyes, she could be a circuit judge passing sentence even though it breaks her heart to see, once again, what humanity has been reduced to.

‘Hello little one!’ I say, bending down to reach out my hand for her to sniff. She does so – with such a tragic air – then reverses so awkwardly you’d think she was being remotely controlled by someone in the next room with a poor view of the action. Somehow she manages it, though, and leads me through to the living room, her tiny legs making heavy weather of the three carpeted steps up to it.

Even if Clara hadn’t immediately explained her relation to Peggy, I would have known they were sisters. Whilst it’s apparent that Peggy is the one with all the health problems, still, they share the same square face, the same way of holding themselves, lightly upright, their hands just-so on the armrests of their chairs, the same level, mildly amused sparkle to their eyes.

I have to say, Daisy fits right in.

‘I don’t live here,’ says Clara, heading off any questions I might have on that front. ‘I make it over as often as I can, though. Which reminds me, Pegs – you’re almost out of washing tabs. I shall have to pop out and get you some more.’

‘Righto,’ says Peggy – and the matter settled to the satisfaction of both, they both turn to stare at me.

Daisy has temporarily absented herself from the room, but she soon comes bouncing back with something squeaky in her mouth – a well-chewed plastic hamburger – which she places neatly and carefully at my feet, and then backs up.

‘Who wants it?’ I say, picking it up and waving it in the air.

‘Well – Daisy, I should think,’ says Clara.