Saturday, August 30, 2014

where he was

‘Be careful’ says Eileen.
I’m perched on a window ledge, holding onto the upper lip of the frame whilst I struggle to reach inside with a long piece of wire and flip the window catch. Even though finally it bounces up, I can’t open the window any further because it turns out the metal arm has been fitted with a security bolt.
‘It’s no good’ I say, throwing the wire behind me then lowering myself back down onto the bin I’d dragged there. ‘Let’s have another look round the back.’
‘Round the back?’ says Eileen. ‘Really?
I know what she means. If the front garden was overgrown, the back is impenetrable, brambles so vigorous they’ve shattered through the glass of the conservatory and washed up against the back of the house in a great tsunami of thorns and nettles.
The front door is a substantial frame of aluminium, secondary glazed security glass, double locked and bolted on the inside. At least the back door – if you ever managed to machete your way through to it – is a simple, single-panelled affair.
Whilst we look around for tools that can help us through the thicket of brambles, we can hear Eileen shouting through the letterbox.
‘George? They’re coming round the back,’ she says. ‘Won’t be long.’
There’s no reply, of course, nor has there been since we arrived. All we can hear is the radio playing loudly somewhere deep inside the bungalow.
‘A bit deaf’ says Eileen. ‘But you’d normally get him to say something.’
We find a couple of rusted shovels and start beating our way through to the back door. These brambles must be years old; the tendrils thicker than any I’ve seen, great coiled trunks, tough as twisted razor wire..
‘It’s Sleeping Beauty all over again,’ says Rae, chopping and hacking beside me. ‘Just remind me. How did that one end?’
We earn a little space to work. Rae finds a section of old ladder. I rest that on the top of the brambles and walk across it like a precarious bridge. Baskets and old boxes collapsing beneath me, but I make the back door. It’s locked, of course, so leaning back a little I use the shovel to jab at the glass which shatters inwards. Once I’ve used the edge of the shovel to level out the remaining shards, I take hold either side, climb up, and drop inside.
The kitchen is comprehensively junked-up, a high-chair over by the sink to my left with a tartan dressing gown thrown over it, boxes of stuff stacked around, old notices tacked to the wall, piles of newspapers, the bewildering mess of a hoarder. I pick my way out to the hallway, and unlock the front door. I hear Rae coming round that way, so I go back to look for George.
The radio is playing behind a door on my right. I knock and push it open.
A bedroom, with a messy, single bed surrounded by dark and anonymous piles of junk.
I check the other side of the bed, but really there’s only just room to climb out on the side nearest to me, so it doesn’t take long to reassure myself that George isn’t there.
‘Hello? Ambulance.’
I turn off the radio and knock on a door immediately opposite.
Into a lounge, a corridor of space from the door to an easy chair with a view of the television, but again, generously piled with junk. There are bookcases along one wall with a quantity of antique books. Family portraits, a cuckoo clock with the cuckoo rusted halfway out of its hatch. Dust on everything. Silence, deeper for the radio being off now.
Rae joins me in the room.
‘Where the hell is he?’
‘The door was locked from the inside, though. He’s got to be here somewhere.’
We  go back out into the hall. It crooks round to the bottom of a set of stairs, but we’d have trouble getting to them, let alone an eighty-nine year old with mobility problems.
Rae looks in a cupboard.
‘He’s definitely not in the bedroom. Definitely not in the lounge. So he MUST be in the kitchen. I’ll take another look.’

I go back to the kitchen, and stand in the doorway.

 A stage magician would understand why I missed him. They know all about the power of distraction, what you can hide with the right amount of confusion, how you often see only what you expect to see and nothing else. I’d been pumped-up with the difficult entry. When I smashed the window and climbed through, all I saw was a place in a mess. There was no body lying on the floor or in any of the other attitudes I’ve come across in these situations. My next mission was to get to the front door, open it, and then search the rest of the house as quickly as possible. I started with the front room, where the radio was playing.

Standing back in the doorway of the kitchen, though, the truth of the matter is like a blow to the stomach.

At some point George had been sitting on a high metal chair by the sink, fetching himself a glass of water in the night, perhaps. He’d fallen head first off the chair, hooking his leg in the frame of it. But the chair was so braced with junk it didn’t topple over. Instead it held him upside down – and worse, somehow his head had become jammed up to the chin in an empty plastic bucket that was on the floor at his feet. He must have fainted soon after, or presumably he’d have been able to free himself from the bucket. And then asphyxiated. In short order – you would hope, anyway.
Picking my way over to him, I can see he’s been dead for a while. I pull his tartan dressing gown back. His hands and arms are puce coloured, stained with pooling blood.
Rae stands next to me.
‘Oh my god!’ she says. ‘Poor George.’ And then: ‘Is that a bucket?’

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

on the edge

Mark has drunk so much, taken so many tablets – Tramadol, Quetiapine – it’s incredible he’s able to stay upright, let alone talk. He’s like some powerful animal that can’t be brought down no matter how many darts you fire into it. He should be flat on his back, but instead he’s sitting on the edge of the bath, wavering backwards, circling the vertical, poised on the lip of a bottomless pit; from his exhausted demeanour, I would guess that if he did start to fall, he would stretch out his arms and let himself drop forever.
‘I’ll be honest with you,’ he says, his eyes closed, his words fat and fuzzy. ‘I’ll tell you what it is. I’ve just had enough. I’ve had enough of feeling like this. I just want to be normal. I just want to live a normal life, with my wife and kids, and not keep fucking up. I don’t expect you to understand. You look around. What’s he going on about? Nice house. Beautiful wife and kids. But there’s this monster inside me and it won’t leave me alone. It comes sliming out every few weeks, and it doesn’t matter how much help I get, it doesn’t matter what anyone says or does, it gets its head right into me and I just can’t fight it off any more. I’m tired. And before you say it, no, I’m not going to hospital. I appreciate you coming out and everything. I don’t mean to be rude. I just want to be left alone to sleep.’
He sinks to his knees and rests his head against the edge of the bath.
Judith his wife is out in the hallway. It’s a new house. They’ve only just moved there and still haven’t completely unpacked. It has a warm but tentative feel, a well-lit space waiting for something to happen.
‘Mark,’ she says. ‘Please. You’ve got to go in.’
He pushes the door shut with his foot.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

facing it

‘Why won’t you come to hospital?’ says Rae, leaning forwards and stroking Rita’s hand. ‘What is it that’s worrying you?’
Rita’s daughter Valerie sobs once, loudly, in the kitchen. After half an hour of fruitless persuasion she suddenly broke down and had to take herself away. Valerie’s husband John passes her another tissue.
Rita is lying on the sofa, emaciated, the worst I’ve seen, her flesh fallen away from her bones like the sea from a wreck at low tide.
Rae has the doctor’s letter on her clipboard, and a note for the crew: Rita has a large abdominal mass that needs urgent assessment. Do your best to persuade - otherwise we need to consider our options. The family have driven half way across the country this morning. They knew she was bad, but this sudden deterioration has been a shock.
‘Rita? We won’t do anything you don’t want to do,’ says Rae. ‘But you’re very unwell and you need your tummy looking at. You’re dehydrated and you’re in pain. We can help with that here, but ultimately you need treatment at hospital otherwise you’ll just get worse. Do you understand?’
Rita licks her cracked lips, but carries on staring up at the ceiling.
‘The hospital won’t keep you in any longer than they have to, Rita. Once they’ve made you comfortable and seen what needs to be done, you can think about what you want to do next. How does that sound? You really can’t go on like this, though. You need to go to hospital.’
Slowly, Rita turns her lustrous eyes on us, and when she smiles, her teeth seem too big for her mouth.
‘It’s cancer,’ she whispers. ‘I know what it is. And if I go to hospital, I won’t be coming out again.’
She gives Rae’s hand a squeeze, as if it were Rae that needed to hear the truth of it and not her. Then she turns her face back to the ceiling.

Monday, August 25, 2014


It would be hard to understand what Michael’s trying to say because of his asthma, even if You’ve Been Framed wasn’t playing on the telly, so loudly that normal conversation is impossible. Michael’s mother sits right in front of it, held in the armchair by a series of strategically placed cushions and a moveable table. Behind her in the corner of the room is her bed, a hoist just beside it along with all the other pieces of kit you might expect.
‘She likes it loud,’ he says, walking over to turn the TV down. His mother stirs in the chair and starts looking around blindly with her chin up, as if it’s not her ears but her nose that’s sensed the difference; Michael rests a hand on her shoulder: ‘I’ll put it back up ... in a minute ... when they’re gone,’ he wheezes next to her ear. Pats her once and then comes back over to us.
We give him a neb and take some details. History of infective exacerbation, smoker, this and that. He’s in his early fifties but looks older. The walls of the flat have a yellow tinge to them. The whole place feels sick. I’m sure if I pressed on the back of this sofa it would ooze tar like a sponge.
‘Is the neb helping?’
He nods, gives us the thumbs up.
On the TV, a sequence of people falling off swings, stages, ladders.
A duck attacks the camera.
Advert break.
 ‘You could probably do with a visit from the out of hours, to see about your chest infection.’
‘Okay ... Fair enough ... I can’t be going anywhere ... ‘cos of mum.’
His mum has switched her attention to a cigarette lighter on the table in front of her. She clicks it off and on, fascinated by the flame. Michael doesn’t seem to mind.
An arthritic dog – heavy, hairy – knuckles in from the kitchen. It shows only a cursory interest in us and our equipment, then straightaway sinks to the floor at the old woman’s feet.
‘Good boy,’ says Michael, the neb misting and hissing through the mask.
We both look over at the telly again.
You’ve Been Framed is back on.
Some old feller dancing at a wedding, everyone whooping and clapping. He falls backwards into the sound system.
We both laugh.
‘That’s gotta hurt,’ says Michael, shaking his head. He puts both hands on the kitchen counter and takes a deep breath. ‘Still,’ he says, looking up at me over the edge of the mask. ‘That’s two hundred ... and fifty quid ... right there.’

mane event

With his full beard, wild hair and blue button eyes, Taz looks like a loveable toy lion, a little ragged at the ears maybe, nicked and battered by life, but a lion that’s learned to take care of himself at the tougher end of the jungle.
‘Don’t worry about me ‘ed mate. I’ve had worse.’
His dog, something massive and furious, appears to have given up trying to ram its head through the kitchen door, and has started trying to pick the lock instead.
‘We don’t mind if you let him through,’ I say, putting my bag down.
‘Nah mate. He’ll roll you on the ground and have your cards cloned before you’re up again.’
‘Fair enough. Let’s have a look at this wound, then.’
‘If you can find it in all that hair,’ says Chelsea, Taz’ girlfriend, tucking her legs up on the sofa and wrapping herself more tightly in her dressing gown. ‘If you find any brains, let me know.’
Rae holds a torch on the wound as I prod around.
‘It’s not too bad,’ I tell him. ‘A couple of stitches, that’s all. We could get one of our colleagues to come out and take care of that for you.’
‘Would ya? Thanks, mate. I’m dead allergic to hospitals.’
‘I’ve just got to ask – have you had any alcohol tonight?’
‘Don’t drink. Not anymore. Not since the illness. I’m sober as a judge, me.’
‘And just as bent,’ says Chelsea.
I shine a torch in his eyes. Take his blood pressure.
‘You’ve passed your MOT’ I tell him, as Rae writes the figures down.
‘Have I? That’s good then.’
‘Are you going to wrap his head in bandages?’ says Chelsea. ‘One under the chin. One round his mouth.’
Rae makes a bandana out of a triangular bandage and covers the top of his head. She steps back to admire her work.
‘There you go, Taz. Axl Rose.’
‘Wow! I’m never gonna take this off.’
‘Oh my God,’ says Chelsea. ‘We’ll never hear the end of it.’
‘So tell me again what happened?’
‘I was coming down the stairs and I missed my footing. I’ve been doing that quite a bit since I got sick. I fell over and whacked my head on the door, but I weren’t knocked out or nothing. I’m good really. It bled a lot but they do that, don’t they? I’ve had a fair few cut heads in my time. I know about this shit.’
‘When was the last one?’
‘A couple of months ago.’
‘Did you trip that time as well?’
‘No, mate. A friend of mine smashed my head on a urinal.’
‘Blimey! Why’d he do that?’
‘I’ve no idea. I was fucking his girlfriend at the time, but that’s probably just a coincidence.’

Sunday, August 24, 2014


‘Just rest, Agnes. You don’t have to talk.’
‘I know.... it just... keeps my mind occupied.’
‘Your SATS are holding up okay without the mask.’
‘Good! I don’t want that thing on. I makes me feel all ... hemmed in. I’ll be all right, love.’
‘And you say Joan might see you up the hospital?’
‘Joan? She’ll be over, you can bank on that. I don’t know where I’d be without Joan.’
‘Is she older or younger?’
‘Older. Only by a couple of years. We’ve always looked out for each other. Always. Had to. Dad was a drunk and Mum was no better. Joan used to make sure I was all right for school, fed and watered, you know. We had to grow up quick.’
‘Did you have children?’
‘I had five. Three that lived. Two died soon after they were born, both on their birthdays. Cot death you’d call it now. There was a lot of ignorance and suspicion in them days. It were bad enough losing the babies, but then there were all the funny looks. People stopping talking when you came in the room. After the first one was taken from me I knew there were problems with the second. I knew as soon as he started to go off his food. I told the doctor about it. He came round and he said “Don’t worry. It’s perfectly natural, after losing your first like that. You’re bound to be a bit anxious.” I knew it weren’t that, though. He was such a sweet little thing, golden hair, red cheeks – a cheerful little sprite, he was. But like I say, he went off his food, and then one morning I put him down to do my chores, and when I turned back to check on him I found he weren’t breathing. I blew in his mouth but it were no good. I ended up howling, running through the streets with him in my arms. I don’t know what everyone must’ve thought. I’d gone mad, probably. You don’t think you’ll ever get over these things, but you do. It takes a good long while, but you do.’
‘What about your husband? How did he bear up?’
‘Tommy? He were no good from the start. Tommy were a layabout, pure and simple. Drinking all his money away. Certainly never gave me any. I had to have a part-time job to run the house. Joan lived in the next street. I looked after her kids at night when she went to work, and she looked after mine during the day. Tommy said he were an electrician at the docks. I had to go round there to talk to him about something or other, and they said he hadn’t worked there these last five years. What he’d been doing I don’t know. Tommy was a terrible jealous man, n’all. I got friendly with Stan at work, and Tommy got wind of it. He came home drunk one night, threw the telly through the window and knocked me down. I never saw him after that, except at a distance. Which were fine by me. I found out a little later he were gay. He ended up living with the landlord from our local. I suppose it must have been hard for him, having to pretend all that time. I’m not making excuses. He could’ve been a bit nicer to me and the kids, but that was Tommy, for better or worse. Worse, in my case.’
‘Then what happened?’
‘Call me foolish but I got married a second time, to this miner called Fred. Fred started out lovely, but he had this bad accident at work. He were down the pit, and this young kid pressed something he shouldn’t have, and Fred was buried under tons of coal. Only survived because a prop fell in a funny way and kept a little space clear, just enough for him to breathe while they dug him out. It took days. He were never the same after. Became a hypochondriac. Always at the doctors worrying about this or that, convinced he was dying. And he stopped washing, too, which was the worst. He didn’t look after himself at all, and in the end I just couldn’t bear to be near him he smelled that bad. It was a terrible thing Fred went through, and I suppose sometimes it’s more than just the body that gets damaged, in’t it? But things have worked out pretty good. My kids have grown up healthy and happy, and I’ve got more grandchildren than I can count. And then of course, there’s Joan. What I’d have done without Joan I don’t know.’
‘I get the feeling you’d have coped all right.’
‘You’re probably right. But not nearly so well, though. Not nearly so well.’

Saturday, August 23, 2014

biro sketch

Carys is propped up against some railings, four nightclub bouncers buzzing around her. In fact, if her sheer black outfit had just a few touches of yellow she’d make an excellent queen bee, surrounded by a swarm of close-eyed drones. They certainly seem to venerate her. Two of them stand either side keeping her upright, passing her cigarettes, lighting them; keeping her warm, whilst the other two make phone calls, control the traffic and finally wave us in.
‘Someone spiked Carys’ drink,’ says the bouncer who meets us, whether on the verge of tears or extreme violence it’s hard to tell. ‘She’s lost the use of her legs.’
If her drink has been spiked, it’s had a focused effect. She doesn’t slur her words, has a good recall of events, isn’t dizzy or nauseated. It’s just that she has no feeling at all from mid-thigh downwards, and although she can weight bear, she has to be guided onto the trolley we bring alongside her.
‘It was that last Sambuca’ she says, quite clearly and calmly. ‘You’d never know if there was something weird in that shit or not, would you?’
‘Who gave it to you?’
‘I don’t know. Some guy.’
She shrugs, phlegmatic about the whole affair. When we’ve made her comfortable on the stretcher she takes a kiss and a hug from each of the bouncers, then waves to them with one of her shoes as she slowly rises into the air on the tail lift.
‘I used to work there’ she says as we push her inside.

* * *

At the hospital the triage area is as busy as ever. Carys surveys the scene coolly, her arms folded.
‘This is stupid,’ she says. ‘I feel such an idiot.’
‘We’ve got to get this problem with your legs sorted out, though. I wonder if your drink was spiked? Where’s my biro...?’
‘What you want a biro for? Shove it up me arse?’
‘No! I’m going to test your reflexes.’
I run it up and down the soles of her feet, but the plantar reflex is lacking.
‘I’m normally pretty ticklish,’ she says, looking gloomily at her inert feet.
A man in a blue coat wanders over. Out of the corner of my eye he looks like a nurse, but when I turn round to give him a handover, I see that he’s actually a member of the public. An elderly black man, with tightly curled, greying hair and a pair of bi-focals perched on the tip of his nose. He smiles, lowers his chin, and regards Carys over the top of them.
‘Well, well!’ he says. ‘And where are you from my dear?’
‘Where am I from? Where are you from, lover?’
‘Oh – hush!’ he chuckles. ‘Listen. I couldn’t help overhearing you say the word biro. A very unusual pronunciation.’
‘Is it? Biro. How else do you say it?’
‘There you are again, you see? Now, forgive me for saying so – but am I right in thinking you’re from Africa?’
Africa? What? No, mate. Cardiff.’
‘Ah! Cardiff!’ he says, smiling broadly, as if he’d just been proved right. ‘Ye-es. Bi-ro. A most unusual word. Laszlo Biro. Hungarian, I believe.
‘Was he?’
‘Yes. Yes he was. Unmistakable.’
‘Oh-kay then.’
He wanders away, cleaning his glasses on his coat and shaking his head.
‘Fucking hell,’ says Carys. ‘That’s given me the fear, that has. I need a hug, quick.’
She turns to me, but I shake my head.
‘If you don’t mind Carys I’ll leave that to the nurse,’ I say. ‘When we can find a real one.’
And I put the biro back in my pocket.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

yo grandma

Luisa has lived in the UK ever since she married just after the war, but her Italian accent is as strong as ever. A frail, beautifully turned-out woman in her nineties, she is as perfectly maintained as her hair, the long, fragile strands of which lie expertly coiled and kept in place by a series of elegant metal grips.
Once the ECG is done and we establish that Luisa needs to go to hospital, she quietly gathers a bag of things together, turning down all offers of help. Finally she reappears in the doorway, wearing a smart black coat and sensible shoes. I offer to carry her bag but she graciously declines, electing instead to hold onto my arm as we head for the front door.
‘My bitches,’ she says.
‘Sorry, Luisa?’
‘My sweet little bitches.’
What can she mean? I'm as stunned as if she'd given me a kick in the shins. Is there something in her past medical history I've missed?
Luisa lets go of my arm, stretches a hand out to the fruit bowl and squeezes one of the peaches there.
‘We must eat them today.’