captain! captain!

The cluttered sitting room is dominated by a large, brightly lit vivarium along the wall and two ornate bird cages in the window alcove. The canaries in the cages hop and chatter wildly as I come into the room, but the vivarium seems empty.
‘Don’t worry. He died, he didn’t escape,’ says Malcolm.
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
Malcolm sighs.
‘Tarantulas,’ he says. ‘Not the easiest.’

Malcolm’s wife Sara is sitting with her back to the vivarium – a weird contrast, not just because the fierce light on the stones and the stark blue background throws her into a kind of unbalanced neon shade, but because she holds herself so completely still, as motionless as the tank is empty.
‘Hello,’ I say, reaching out to her. She’s so fragile, if I shut my eyes I could imagine I’d shaken the wing of one of the canaries instead.
‘The doctor was round this morning,’ says Malcolm. ‘He did some tests so we’re waiting on them. He said you’d be coming round to see what else you could do.’
We go through the story, Sara nodding in agreement from time to time but not offering much else. She’s not in pain. She doesn’t feel unwell as such. She has a few, minor, long-running issues, but nothing’s particularly worse. She’s just lacking in energy and not feeling herself.
‘Six months ago everything was fine,’ says Malcolm. ‘Well – you know. We were taking the bus up town. Going to the garden centre for bird seed and crickets. Going on holiday. We went to Lanzarote. Here’s us on the Yellow Submarine,’ he says, handing me a photo.
‘What’s that, then?’
‘It’s a submarine, my friend. And it’s yellow.’
‘Like the Beatles?’
‘You’re kidding.’
‘No. Look. It’s a submarine! It doesn’t go down far, but you get to look out the window and see all the fish.’
‘Sounds great.’
I look more closely at the photo. They’re standing side by side, Malcolm with his arm round Sara. He’s looking red-faced, sunburned, the flash from the camera making his face greasy and over-inflated. Ironically, it seems to have the opposite effect on Sara, ghosting her out. Her eyes are dark, intense, like she’s focusing on the moment the submarine surfaces again, the hatch unwound, and she can step back out into the open air.
I hand the photo back.
‘Once or twice she’s gone off and been brought back by strangers.’
I smile sympathetically at Sara. She smiles back in an approximate kind of way, shrugs her shoulders.
‘If you say so,’ she says.

of bugs and men

‘Just press the button at the top and let yourself in the main door,’ says Giles. ‘I’ll leave my flat door open.’
‘Great. See you in about ten minutes.’
‘Right you are. Goodbye.’

I’m not entirely convinced, though. Giles sounds drunk, speaking with that slow and over-elaborate articulation, tying each word off individually, like balloons.

I know Giles’ block very well. It’s a neat, self-contained complex, a sequence of four, ten storey buildings connected by a corridor and terminating in a bigger, more recent block for residents with higher dependency needs. It’s often the case that patients we see start in the flats at one end and finish in the flats at the other, like they’re being fed through some kind of slow-moving machine.

As I park up outside the entrance to Giles block, I see a gloomy, cadaverous man with long, frayed hair, wearing a string vest and yellow shorts, his left arm in a sling, like he put his shoulder out rolling the stone away from the tomb. He’s struggling to uncoil a garden hose from a drum, and even though it reminds me of a scene from Silence of the Lambs, I go over to help him.
‘Thank you,’ he says. ‘Could you unkink it for me, please?’
I put my book and bag down, and then carefully release the hose as the guy staggers backwards with the nozzle.
‘Are you alright there?’ I ask him.
‘Fine’ he says. ‘Now – could you turn it on when I shout?’
‘Okay. Just don’t be looking in the end when I do.’
‘I’m sorry?’
‘Don’t look in the end when I turn the water on.’
I jerk backwards in a comedy mime.
‘No,’ he says, then wobbles off round the corner of the block, the hose slithering behind him.
After a while it goes slack.

Time passes.

I start to wonder what’s happened, but just as I’ve decided to put my head round the corner and see what’s happened, he shouts: ‘Okay! Turn her on!’
The hose gives a shudder, and I hear a spraying noise.
I figure he’s watering the grass – which seems pretty futile. The scrubby little patch out front is so brown now it’ll take a monsoon and a bag of seeds to make it better.
I pick up my book and bag and then go round to talk to him. He’s standing there, spraying the grass with a tragic look, shifting his arm in the sling occasionally, staring through the water vapour and the little rainbow it makes.
‘I’m afraid I’ve got to go inside’ I tell him. ‘I’ve got an appointment with someone.’
‘Couldn’t you wait just a few more minutes?’
‘No. Sorry. He’ll be waiting.’
The man gives a desultory little sniff, and then turns his sad gaze back to the grass.
‘Bye then!’ I say, and turn back to the entrance.

Up on the fifth floor Giles’ flat door stands open, just as he said. I knock loudly, shout Hello Giles! It’s Jim, from the hospital!
No reply.
When he still doesn’t answer I go inside to check he isn’t on the floor. It’s quickly apparent the flat’s empty, though. I’m guessing he just stepped out for a moment, because there’s a cone of incense smouldering on a saucer in front of his chair, filling the room with so much smoke he may as well have set a bunch of tires alight.

I go back down to the car to make some calls.

The old guy watering the grass has gone, as has the hose. It’s so hot outside, what water there was on the drive has almost entirely evaporated.

I ring the office to check I’ve got the right address (I’m guessing I have, as Giles’ directions had been accurate). The only other explanation I can think of is that he popped round a friend’s flat and will be back shortly. I make a plan. If he still doesn’t answer the phone, I’ll go back up and knock on the flats either side to see if they know anything. Other than that, I can’t think what else to do. It’s frustrating, as I’ve got several more visits to make. I had thought this would be straightforward. But then again, it’s always the straightforward jobs that end up taking the longest.

I make one last call to his flat.
Giles answers.
‘Yes? Giles speaking.’
‘Oh! Hi Giles. It’s Jim again, from the hospital. I called up to see you but you weren’t in.’
‘I don’t understand. I’ve been here all along.’
‘Have you?’
‘Well – yes!’
‘Okay. I’ll be up in a second.’

Of course, Giles is the hose guy. He’s sitting in the chair wreathed in smoke from the incense cone, the same lugubrious expression, shifting the weight of his arm in the sling. He makes absolutely no sign that he recognises me from outside, or even that he’s moved from the chair at all. And for some reason, neither do I.

Just as I’m getting ready to do the examination, there’s a vigorous knock on the door and two huge guys in tight blue t-shirts and white powder gloves thump into the sitting room.
‘Bed bugs!’ the older of the two says. ‘We’ve come to check your mattress, mate!’
‘Be my guest!’ says Giles, waggling the yellowing fingers of his right hand.

The bug guys go into the bedroom.

Giles tells me about his poor health lately. He drinks a lot of whisky, he says. He was assaulted by a blind man at a bus stop. He’s in dispute with the police, the hospital – really, it’s such a long and complicated list, I lose track.

The bug guys come back in.

‘All done!’ they say, and turn to go.


Later on, when I’ve finished the examination and left Giles to kipper quietly in front of his cone, I see the bug guys again, stomping down the stairs in front of me. And maybe it’s an effect of the incense, or the sudden blast of fresh air, or both, it’s hard to say, but suddenly I feel quite exhilarated.
‘Beeeeed Buuuuuuug Maaaaaan!’ I sing.
The older of the two looks round at me and frowns.
‘Don’t,’ he says.