display purposes only

Henry doesn’t come to the door so much as slowly coalesce from the shadows beyond the glass.

Henry is frail but not physically unwell. I know his story pretty well by now. He’d been living in Portugal for many years until things started to go wrong, his marriage ended, he was hit by severe financial problems, lived a while in his car, was sectioned following a suicide attempt. After a great deal of toing and froing, his daughter Diane managed to repatriate him, temporarily setting him up in a basement flat whilst she sorted out something more suitable and long-term. I’d spoken to Diane many times on the phone. She was bright and busy and supremely well-organised, but I knew she was struggling to cope with work and family as well as the traumatic fall-out of her parents’ separation. Diane knew as well as anyone that the basement flat wasn’t great. It had a set-aside feel, silent and secluded – not at all the kind of place you’d choose for someone suffering depression and anxiety. But even though it suffered from having the generic, impersonal feel of showroom flats the world over – blown-up photos of Times Square and a colourised London bus driving over Westminster Bridge in the rain; enormous, squashy leather sofas impossible to get out of once you’d sat in them; glass vases with white pebbles and a single, artificial lily; a flat screen TV; venetian blinds – at least it was warm and safe, and near enough to where she lived to make keeping a regular eye on her father vaguely feasible.

The good news is that Diane had managed to find a better, brighter place. Henry is due to move the following morning; my visit here this evening is to be the last in this place, a welfare check, to see he’s okay.

‘Hello,’ says Henry.
We’ve met a few times before, but he makes no sign he recognises me. He’s as still as a photograph, completely neutral, like it really makes no difference to him whether he shakes my hand here in the doorway or stands inside staring up through the casement window at the feet of the people walking by.

He lets me in. We relocate to the living room. Henry drifts over to the kitchen counter, next to a tall suitcase on wheels, all zippered up and ready to go. I have the eerie feeling that If I was an alien probe sent into the room to scan for life, I’d struggle to differentiate between them.

‘Have you eaten anything this evening?’ I ask, glancing around for clues.
He shakes his head.
‘Aren’t you hungry?’
‘No.’
‘Do you mind if I have a look and see if there’s something I can get you?’
He shrugs.
I go into the galley kitchen area, so pristine you can smell the caulking gun.
The fridge has nothing in it. I open the overhead cupboards, and I can’t help thinking of the old nursery rhyme: …but when she got there, the cupboard was bare, and so the poor dog had none.
The only food I can see anywhere are five Kilner jars of pasta lined up on a shelf, each one holding different shapes and colours.
‘I could do you some pasta…’ I say, wondering what on earth I’d use for a sauce.
He shakes his head again.
‘Display purposes only,’ he says.

syracuse & the duck

Jennifer Syracuse is my name of the day – the year, probably. A private detective kind of name. The name you’d give to that character in the book who crashes in on page three, lights things up and drives all the way to the big reveal.

These days, what with one thing and another, the brandy bottles clinking in an unbroken line from sometime back in the fifties out to an empty bottle on a windowsill; the falling away of friends and family connections; the piling up of clutter until even the long-case clock strains to keep its face clear – these days, Jennifer Syracuse is lighting up the world a little less, and the big reveal has long since flattened out into something longer, looser and more predictable.

‘When you see a duck have its head cut off you know you’ll never eat pate again. The way the feet waggle – d’you know? They keep on waggling.’

She looks up at me from where she’s sprawled on the ottoman.

‘Do have a seat,’ she says. ‘You make the place look untidy.’

If you can ignore the heaps of clothes and books and undifferentiated clutter, it’s a pleasant enough flat. The french windows are standing open, and sunlight filters in through a thicket of wisteria, giving the place a sleepy, soupy feel. There’s a gigantic chocolate coloured cat on the only other seat clear enough to sit on, sprawled as luxuriously and definitively as Ms Syracuse.

‘That’s okay,’ I say. ‘I’m happy standing.’

‘I mean – how could anyone eat an animal?’ she says, ignoring me. ‘Take cows for instance. Now – don’t they remind you of the women’s institute? Fat old matriarchs marching around, jabbing you with their elbows. They’d look darling in a flowery hat, though, you have to admit. And then you get the young calves in the background, jumping up and down, wondering what all the fuss is about.’
‘I like cows,’ I say.
‘How could one not? I was brought up in India, for heaven’s sake! D’you know – the other morning I sat up in bed and found myself talking Hindi! I haven’t spoken a word in seventy years, and there I was, completely fluent! It passed, of course, but I’m convinced it’s in there somewhere. I just need to learn how to get it out.

When I steer Jennifer towards the reason for the visit – her numerous falls, weight loss and general decline – she adopts a serious expression and struggles into a more upright position.

Would you keep your voice down! Please!’ she hisses, then leans forward and waggles her fingers for me to meet her halfway.

That bitch upstairs listens to every word,’ she says, then satisfied I’ve got the message, winks slowly in a lopsided way that threatens to extend into an extemporary sleep, comes to herself again, acknowledges me with a start, and taps the side of her nose.

‘What d’you want to know?’ she says, and collapses back on the ottoman.

schatz katze

The key safe is hanging open so I ring the bell instead. I step back and look up at the house whilst I’m waiting – a substantial Regency building, a little down-at-heel and cracking up, perhaps, but still impressive, with a wildly overgrown garden whose depths of shadow hint at stone baths and iron cold frames and other features utterly consumed with ivy.

The door opens and a bright, middle-aged woman in a carer’s uniform steps out onto the cracked mozaic tiles.
‘I’m so glad you’re here!’ she says, showing me in. ‘I think this is one for social services as much as anyone. I’m Karen, by the way!’

I stand with her in the hallway so she can tell me what she’s found so far. Helga is a ninety-five year old with no package of care and generally ‘bumping along the bottom.’ A neighbour looks in now and again. Found her on the floor, called the ambulance, hospital declined, referrals made. Karen points out a sheet of paper sellotaped to the mirror: In Emergency written in shaky green caps at the top, and below it, a handful of names and numbers, the nearest being Munich, the furthest, Hobart, Tasmania.

‘I feel so bad for her, says Karen. ‘There’s hardly any food in the house. Can I leave her with you whilst I nip round the corner and get the basics?’

Helga is lying in bed, stroking a black cat that’s sprawled on top of her, purring so loudly it fills the entire house. In an odd kind of way, it makes the place seem emptier.
I introduce myself, and explain why I’ve come. When Helga reaches out to shake my hand, her hand is so weak and light in mine it’s like the memory of a handshake that happened sometime just after the war.

I start to talk to her about the situation. How she’s feeling, how she’s been coping and so on, gently trying to tease out the facts. Helga doesn’t want to engage, though.
‘Ah! Too tired!’ she says, transferring her attention back to the cat with a philosophical pursing of the lips.
Was ist los?’ she says, feebly waggling her fingers under its chin. ‘Was ist los, shatz? Was ist los?’