Monday, May 29, 2006


I knock at number forty-two. After a couple of minutes an image of Mrs Dillon comes slowly together behind a frosted glass door. 'Just a minute, love' she says - and then dissolves again without explanation. I'm already late, and spend the time looking from my watch to the ambulance to my watch - and then to the flowers in her tatty front garden, trying to relax. After a long five minutes her image re-assembles and the door slowly opens.
'Ambulance,' I say, unnecessarily.
Mrs Dillon stands frowning at me. She is dressed like an amateur actor, having overdone the character details with a cliché headscarf, thick-lensed glasses, overcoat and a filter cigarette which she snaps away into the privet. 'You're late. I phoned to see what had happened. I didn't know whether it had been cancelled or what.'
'Sorry. I'm a bit behind.'
'I suppose it can't be helped.' She slams the door shut. 'Let's go, then' she adds, as if I might want to do anything else.

This is an area I don't know well, so when I've picked up the second patient - a politely flirty woman with a leg that won't bend, and helped her to her seat, I ask them both if they could direct me back to the main road without going via the busy High Street, to save time.
'Of course' says Mrs Dillon 'I've lived here twenty three years. I could do it blindfold. Straight over the bridge and then left at the mini-roundabout. We'll go through the forest, that's probably the best way.'
'Don't forget that I don't know this area at all. So I'm relying on you to tell me where to go.'
'Just carry straight on. I'll set you right.'
Twenty minutes later we're driving through the Forest, over the speed limit to make up time, but there's only so much you can do with the roads so twisty and obscured, and the threat of deer.
'Keep on through here, then you go left and right.'
Eventually we come to a main road. There are no directions from the back, so I'm forced to ask: 'Where now? Left or right?'
'I don't know' she says 'I've not come this way before. Why don't you look at your map book?'
There's a long queue of traffic behind me.
'I thought you knew the way.'
'Well, I do - but not from this direction.'
Horrified, I turn right, and then pull over as soon as I can. The map book shows me that we're heading completely the wrong way, so I work out what to do and make the correction. I can hear Mrs Dillon telling the other patient how the hospital car drivers never get it wrong - they always know where they're going.

On the return journey, she swears at me when I refuse to drop her in town to do her shopping.

'I didn't want an ambulance in the first place,' she says.

Carry On

Five feet six inches, curving over forwards to just about five feet. A tam o'shanter hat, frizzy brown scarf, white beard. He carries a plastic shopping bag, hanging from the crook of his right arm, and a newspaper rolled and tucked under his other arm. He shuffles along uncertainly, speaks with a voice cooked by cigarettes, has an excoriating cough.
'Where's Robert?'
'He's on holiday all this week. I'm afraid you're stuck with me'
'That's lovely. A change is as good as a you know. Har har haaaaar'.
I help him into the ambulance, and then, when I'm taking my seat behind the wheel, I accidentally lean on the horn. I apologise to the patients behind me, saying: 'Sorry about that' and then, in a Kenneth Williams voice: 'I leant on me 'orn'
'Oh, you don't want to do that, sonny,' he says ' Noooooooh, or it's straight down casualty with you. Har har haaaaar.'

Monday, May 22, 2006

Down the stairs

We brush past thickly growing camelias and ornamental acers to the front door of the maisonette where Ella lives, and ring the bell. Immediately from high up inside we hear her terrier, Jodie. It comes thumping angrily down the stairs like someone's just kicked a small footstool down from the landing, arrives in the hallway and punches its head through the cat flap. It doesn't make any difference that I've met this dog before and know its name. It ignores my attempts to quieten it down, snarling and licking its bared teeth, making hideous feints at our ankles, periodically withdrawing and then bashing back out again.

A huge man suddenly opens the door. Jodie rushes out and begins sniffing innocently around our boots. 'She'll be down in a minute,' he says, hauling out two bulging bin liners and putting them by the gate. 'She's not happy.'

Ella starts coming down the stairs. The big man nods to us, then disappears back inside.

'Jodie, come on - leave the men alone.' Jodie trots back inside.

Ella emerges. She is wearing a tatty brown coat with a fur collar that must once have been a luxurious piece of trim but which now only serves as a pillow for her lank yellow hair. 'We're late', she says, 'and I'm not on my medication.'

On the ambulance she sits tensed up behind the seatbelt. She tells me that she's not well, doesn't know what she'll do.
'It's not fair. I've spent the whole weekend with the DT's.'
What's that like?'
'Disgusting. I see things - crawling up the walls. I went to A&E twice. I know they're fed up to the back teeth with me. I'm fed up to the back teeth with them - and I haven't even got any back teeth. My last husband knocked them out for me.'
She folds her arms into her stomach and rolls her lips over her gums.

I try to think of a subject that might take her mind off things. I tell her that I think her front garden is looking good.
'Well I want to move.'
'But it's such a nice flat!'
'You can hear everything, everything. Every last word. They like a drink, Jan and Michael. They drink every night. But I suppose they can handle their drink. Not like me. Anyway, I want somewhere without any stairs. God knows I've fallen down those stairs enough times. I'm famous for it. I bounce when I'm drunk.'
'Where are you looking to go?'
'I don't know - anywhere. Anywhere where I can be separate from people. I definitely don't want to live above a big dog. Their dog Pylon's getting old now. He barks and and then he stops and then he barks again - day and night - big, single woofs that drive you insane. When he was younger, he used to be such a playful thing. Jodie adored him. She'd run down the stairs, scoot underneath him, lie on her back and lick his teeth. Now, he's not bothered. Doesn't get off the sofa. Couldn't be arsed.'
Her cheeks twitch beneath the smears of powder she's put on for this. She uncrosses her arms, pulls the belt of her coat even tighter, and then re-folds her arms.

'I hope I get an emergency prescription,' she says, staring out at the shoppers in the high street, 'because this is ridiculous.'

Tuesday, May 16, 2006


'My husband was only fifty three when he died. He had a lovely life but it wore him out.'

Emily gives me and the other patient on the ambulance another of her emphatic nods, a curious sideways bob of the head that waggles the folds of skin beneath her chin.

'I'm eighty four now,' she says. 'I've lived most of my life on my own.' The other patient gives a small nod of her own but says nothing. I guess she's not as old, or as healthy.

'We met during the war at the De Havilland factory. He was one of their top engineers. I just worked in vibrations.'

'After the war, Arthur got a job as a ship surveyor. Sent all round the world fixing ships. It's so expensive, when they're laid up in dry dock. They just have to get someone out to get them going again. He was sent all over the place - Japan, the Philippines, India. I was looking at a photo of him the other day, standing outside a shipping office in Manila in a loose white suit. He looked so - bright. You'd never think that just a little way down the street there was such terrible poverty. Japan's the same. You'd never think a place like Japan would have slums - but it does.'
'Then we lived just north of Philadelphia for about nine years. Arthur had got talking to a man in a hotel and ended up working for General Electric, something to do with the Space Race. Re-entry. Then Nixon came in and it was all that stuff about the Brain Drain, and Arthur had to go. But he was offered a job as a Special Systems Engineer for a diesel engine factory in Michigan. Then he died. So I came home.'

Saturday, May 13, 2006

My husband

'Oh, God!'
Iris is suffering, despite riding our stretcher on the lucky feather pillow that she has provided. Her wasted frame just does not have the padding to absorb the shocks of everday movement anymore. When we helped her out of her wheelchair onto the stretcher, it was like handling a loosely articulated mannequin; her tracksuit bottoms and salmon pink cardigan felt empty.

'Comfortable?' I ask. She grimaces.

We are taking Iris home from her final dialysis session of the week. She seems sapped and vulnerable, but she smiles, her tidy yellow teeth glinting in the dull interior of the ambulance.

Iris asks me if I can guess where she comes from, and then immediately tells me she comes from Gedling near Nottingham. Could I tell from the accent? I tell her I thought Birmingham. It doesn't worry her.

'We came down here twenty years ago, in an Austin Cambridge,' she tells me, and then frowns. 'Do you know, the day before we moved there was a terrible murder in the woods. And an Austin Cambridge was seen nearby. Well, the police appeared the day after we'd moved in to our new house and asked my husband all sorts of questions. Apparently someone thought the murderer looked like my husband, and what with the car and the move, well, they thought they were on to something. But of course he was innocent, so the police went away. But that wasn't the end of it. They came to talk to him quite a few times over the next few weeks. After it all blew over, and the police got their murderer, we didn't even get an apology.

'The fact was, of course, they didn't know my husband. We were married fifty years, in the end. I knew him very well. And I knew that he could never hurt a fly.

'To give you an example. We used to have a canary. One day I looked at this canary and I saw that all its feathers had fallen out. It looked a right state. Poor thing. Well, it obviously couldn't go on like that. So I said to my husband: "We're going to have to do something about that bird, you know." So he thought about it, and decided that the only way he could kill it was to gas it in the oven. He had it in there for about two hours until I said: "I think it's probably dead by now, don't you?"'

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Engineering and Jewellery

Mr Stevens worked all his life as a lift and motor engineer, machining new bearings, trouble-shooting malfunctioning lifts. He lived in Essex and worked in London.
'I've always been a bit wary of electricity,' I say. 'It's one thing that I'll always leave for the professionals.'
'It's like anything else. As long as you're careful,' he says, making a shaky little adjustment to the bridge of his glasses.
'I'd be forever worried that I'd get a shock.'
'Well, yes, Spence, that is something you have to watch out for.'
'Ever had one?'
He places the glasses back on his nose and looks at me. 'It's unavoidable.'

He tells me that Hatton Garden was an engineering and jewellery district just before the war. There was a lot of precision work done on machines in small rooms and back gardens. His job as a lift engineer was a reserved occupation; he helped out the Home Office with motor orders that needed to be done as quickly as possible. It was quantity not quality. Always lots to do.

When his wife died Mr Stevens carried on where he was for twelve years until his failing health and advancing age encouraged him to move nearer to his only daughter. She wanted to be able to see him every day. Now she does that, along with his shopping. He manages a walk to the local supermarket for any extras, and can just about make it to the pharmacy on his own.

He shows me his wedding ring, a plain band.
'You should've seen the way rings were made back then. By hand. Now they're all machined, just pressed out in one motion, rounded and sized in another.'
Then he folds his hands back together in his lap, and stares out at the scenery rushing by.

A hard game

Mr Reeve's sallow face is dominated by a considerable nose, the nostrils and tip inflated into a drinker's bulb, purple, veined. The rims of his eyes seem to be pulled down by the gravitational pull of this nose.

Mr Reeves has been to the eye specialist, who has put dye into his eyes to illuminate the corneas. This has turned them yellow. The spill-over of the dye mixed with Mr Reeve's tears has left trails of yellow paint down his cheeks. He looks like a broken Mr Punch, attacked with a brush by the puppeteer after a drinking session.

On the ambulance, he wheezes out the story of his working life. He was a printer, on Fleet Street, first on the Evening Standard, and then on some other journals I haven't heard of.

'What a great life. I miss that life. Do you miss London? I lived in Old Street. Oh yes – a real Cockney. All round there I knew. Ironmonger Row. City Road. All around and about. But my sister moved out to H., and she was always on at me to get a place near her. I came out to see her plenty of times, and I must admit it did seem very countrified and clean. No foreigners. So when my wife died I sold up and moved down, and spent the next three years catching the early train to London. That was a hard game, that was. Sometimes I'd be working nights and not get home till a couple of days later. It all got a bit much, so I gave up completely and retired. But I miss my working life. And I'll never see anything like it again.'

Wednesday, May 10, 2006


The old vicarage is on a dangerous bend now.

Mrs Kimberly lives in the basement, down a steep flight of concrete steps. I walk through a rotten, half timbered door into an ill-lit anteroom with a concrete floor. There are empty plastic plant pots, boxes, picture frames, farmyard implements and ten-year old feed catalogues. The air visibly stirs as I move through it. There is a smack of uncut dust about the place, of unlit corners and earth. There is another door that must be her front door. I knock, and after a while I hear Mrs Kimberly shout 'It's open.' I walk in. 'Hello?'
Mrs Kimberly shuffles towards me with a zimmer frame from the shadows of her back kitchen into the better light near the centre of the room. Her long black t-shirt hangs straight down from her rounded shoulders. Her face has an erased look, as if living in this basement is slowly rubbing her out. The most real thing about her is her teeth, prominent and yellowing.
'Gosh. You're early.'
'Let's get you in nicely on time, for a change.'
'Did you hear about the other two appointments I had this week? Late, both times. I don't understand why these things should be so difficult. I'll just get my coat. Do I need it? Or would a waistcoat do?'
'A waistcoat would be perfect. It's not cold.'
'Won't be a tick.'
She shuffles back into the gloom.
On her mantelpiece and on the walls there are photos of her as a young girl, beside, on top of, pointing to horses. There are statues of horses on the mantelpiece, and prints of horses on the walls. There is a black cat curled on the tartan cover of the bed.
'Your cat looks comfy.'
Well what a perfect kind of life it is, really, when you're a cat. You just lie around a lot. Pleasing yourself.'
'I wouldn't mind it.'
The cat flicks its tail as I close the door behind us.
On the way up the stairs to the ambulance, Mrs Kimberly tells me what happened to her. She was having problems with her balance, and fell down the concrete cellar steps. She had been sitting on a low wall at the top, chatting to a neighbour, when she had suffered another bout of dizziness and fallen backwards. She woke up in a hospital bed, and was told that she had been unconscious for a month. She has a shunt in her head to ease the pressure, shuffles along with a frame, and can only make her words carefully, like a drunk trying to seem sober.
On the ambulance I say: 'Did you used – do you still – have much to do with horses?'
'All my life. When I was little I used to get on my horse in the morning, ride off with my friends and be out all day. We'd stop by a little shop in some village, get some milk and something to eat, and go and canter over to some trees. Back in the evening, just before dark.'
She stops to get her breath.
'They won't let me near a horse now, in case I go under its hooves.'

Tuesday, May 09, 2006


Mrs Barnegat does not have her teeth in. It's as if her face is folding in over a crevasse. She tells me she's ninety seven, but she looks older. She has deep lines etched into her face, and the skin on her withered claws is blotchy and thin. She tells me about her life:

She was born in Margate, but the family moved to North London when she was small. She remembers playing in Clissold Park. She had several brothers and sisters. Her father worked in a factory. When the First World War started he went to enlist but was rejected as his lungs had been corrupted. He was put to work in a munitions factory, and in the evenings watched for fires around London. Mrs Barnegat married her husband when she was nineteen, and they had four children. She didn't work when the children were young, but as soon as she could she worked in the factories, too. After her husband died she was still there.

The last factory she worked in was owned by Philips.


Michael leans on his stick so hard he seems to want to push it through the floor of the ambulance. He thumbs his enormous glasses back up his nose, and asks me in a shout:

'How old do you think I am?'

I guess he must be at least eighty, so to be safe I say 'Seventy something?'

'I'm eighty nine. Eighty nine! Imagine how old that is!'

'You look very well on it.'

'Do I? I'm not. My wife died fifteen months ago. We were married seventy years. They burned her all up, and then we put her in the garden, under the trees. When she died I couldn't eat. First this leg went, then this arm, then this leg. I was mad with it all.'

I remember coming to pick him up a few months ago. A young man with a silver stud in his eyebrow had wandered out to me as I pulled up in the drive. Grandad was in the hospital, the psychiatric wing.

'We run a cattery. Or she ran it, I should say. I don't do much now. I'm no good. We bought the place years ago. Fourteen acres. I used to drive the van and whatnot. I'd carry the cats out to the van, and then I'd carry them back in again. We did all the cat shows. Manchester. We had about thirty cats, all the best sorts. Then later on it was rescue cats. My wife knew everything there was to know about cats. Me, I didn't pay them much mind. I'd help her out, and then I'd go down the pub. I've got a son - well, I say he's a son, but he's sixty himself. He's a barrister, and it's his son who looks after the cats now. The other daughter, she's a barrister, but she lives in Hong Kong. I just want to die now and give it all over to whoever, I don't care.'

At the house I help Michael out of the ambulance and up the steeply sloping drive to the back door. An old dog limps out to say hello, and a plump ginger cat looks up from a cardboard box. Michael almost falls sideways into a hedge when he bends down to stroke the dog; I only let go of his arm when he is safely up against a kitchen table. The dog sniffs my trousers, then follows him inside.

'They must be down in the sheds,' he says. 'Don't hang around.'

'Goodbye Michael, take care of yourself.'

As I turn to go he shouts after me: 'Do you want a cat?'

Monday, May 08, 2006


Mr Tindall comes down the stairs tentatively, but greets me firmly. He touches my shoulder and smiles when I tell him that I've 'come for him'. I follow him back upstairs and help him choose a jacket to wear.
'Is it cold?' he asks.
'No - bright, chilly, but not exactly cold.'
I tell him he'll be fine if he puts a light jacket over his jungle green cardigan, the pockets of which bulge pendulously with paper tissues.
'I'm used to the warmer weather you see,' he says, as I help him on with the jacket.

On the ambulance he tells me his story:
'When I came out of the army I was apprenticed to a jeweller. I learned the trade inside out in six years, and worked at it pretty hard. Eventually I was able to set up in a little shop in H. Did very well, very quickly. Lord knows why. Loads of people wanted me to fix their watches, sell them rings and such. They threw money at me. I didn't know what to do with it. Piles of money, silly really. In the end I thought: What do I really need with all this? So I sold the business to a man who wanted to set his son up. I stayed there with him for three months to teach him the trade and to make sure that everything was fine before I left. It didn't work out, though. Poor man. I could understand what he wanted to do for his son, but the trouble was his son was lazy, you see. Had absolutely no interest in the business. Really no interest at all. He'd just sit there on his stool, smoking cheroots. Went bankrupt within the year. Anyway, I went to live in Spain, there thirty years, did nothing, drank beer with my friends, slept by the pool, until I caught the flu and my sister came over and said "Right, you - you're coming home."'

Sunday, May 07, 2006

In September

Edith is enjoying the ride.

'I'll be 90 in September. Guess what day I was born. Know your history?'

I try to think of famous days in September. Armistice? That's November. VE Day? Agincourt? I try them out on her.

'I'll give you a clue. September 11th.'

'Oh, well,' I say, 'September 11th, of course, the World Trade Centre. Terrible.'

'September 11th, 1916. A Zeppelin came down in Cuffley. Shot down, by a Mr Robinson. My father was there. He saw him do it.'


Mrs Levington is quivering on her doorstep.
'Can you help me on with my coat? Are we going to the hospital? Will you check the door shuts properly behind me? Shall I take my frame? Will you take me all the way to the department?'

I help her outside.

'I use this to go to Age Concern' she says, inexpertly pushing a three wheeled walking aid. She doesn't know how to operate the brakes, and says she prefers using it half folded, so she can get through gaps.

As we drive along I ask her about her family.

'My eldest son - don't ask me what he does - it's complicated - he tried to explain it to me - it's so complicated. He's gone to London today. He had to go to London to work, that's why he couldn't drive me. I used to drive. For a company - what was it called? I used to go to London. I've got a daughter in B. and another son further up country, don't ask me where. It's complicated. None of them are married apart from the son who's gone to London. My daughter used to work for a travel agents but she didn't like it so now she's got something else - which she found difficult to get into, but now it's not so bad. Don't ask me what she's doing. She never did settle at anything. The other one is married and lives much higher up. I don't see him that often, and no idea what he does - it's complicated, I get confused. I used to drive, you know. I only stopped a little while ago. Where was it I used to work? I used to live in W. Then I had to sell up to move here. It's a brand new house. Three bedrooms. I live on my own, you know. But I used to live in W.'

Gut doctors

'Gut doctors are the best. A lot of stomach problems are related to the mind, of course. They're affected by stress and things like that. Maybe even psychosomatic. Hypochondriac. God knows I am.
Gut doctors know about people - they know what makes them tick. They spend all their time looking through peoples' guts and finding out what's wrong with them. I think they can develop a real sense of the person through their guts. They can tell where the problem is just by getting a good feel of the guts. It's almost magical.'

What can you say?

'I keep up with the news. I watch the news pages every morning on TV and read every one. Isn't it terrible about those earthquakes? I blame the French. All those atom bombs they tested under the sea. Well it's got to do some damage, hasn't it?

'It's my diamond wedding next week. Sixty years. We're having a big do at the Service Club. I'm supposed to make a speech and I'm dreading it. What can you say after sixty years? But I've got eighteen grandchildren, ten great-grandchildren - I think. But you see I've got no mates. Or I haven't got what you might call a mate. Just people you see. I used to have Bill M. Although he was never really what you might call a mate-as-such. I'd go round there, we'd spend some time. He doesn't want to see anyone now. His wife, kids, anyone. He's got this thing up his nose. A whatsit, tube. Runs down to a container by the chair, full of terrible stuff. He's gone a bit strange in his head.

'I was eighteen when I was finally called up in 1944. I got sent up to Scotland to train. Freezing cold, practising the D-Day landings up in the Orkneys. Then six a.m. one Sunday I found myself up to my chest in sea water, wading ashore to France, and everyone shooting at me. I was in those wet things all day, and didn't get anything to eat till nine that night. You see the Germans were pulling back. They'd had enough as well. But then a few of them decided to make a stand, so they started hitting us with mortars. The very first one they sent over landed next to me, knocked me off my feet, ripped my leg open and blew my ears out. I was in a right old state. I got dragged on to the Bren gun carrier. This Red Cross guy, he says "You ought to get a toornikee on that, mate" but he didn't do anything. Later on I woke up on a transport ship headed for Southampton. I didn't like that too much, either. Lying there waiting to get bombed any minute and no way of getting out. Still, I made it to Southampton, and got loaded onto a mail train. They'd converted the letter shelves to take patients, and we rode like that all the way to Carlisle. Horrible journey. I was six weeks convalescence there, and that was it, back to BH.

'But my leg was never right. I grew this terrible ganglion on the back of my left knee, and I had this limp. I kept going back to my doctor until he gave in and had me take an x-ray. Well they saw it immediately, this dirty great lump of shrapnel still wedged in there. They said I'd more than likely lose the leg, but they managed to get it out. The surgeon came up to me after and said "Cyril, I'd like to keep that piece of shrapnel if you don't mind". I said to him "But you were the last one to have it." He said "Well in that case the cleaner must've thrown it out." And that was that.

'Before the war I turned my hand to most things. Farm work, building, factories. One time when I was very young I had this job working on the carnations. They grew up to your chest, it was quite something. One morning I ducked down to have a fag. Next thing I knew I was waking up, it was six o'clock in the evening and everyone had gone home. No one seemed to notice or say anything the next day, so I thought I'd got away with it. But come the Friday when the boss was handing out the pay packets he shook my hand and said "Cyril, you could've tried a little bit harder", and that was that. I was out.

But I learned how to milk a cow, build a wall, fix an engine. I bought an old van, filled it with odds and ends and whatsits and drove it all round selling them.

'I come from a big family of fourteen but we didn't get on. Mum and Dad, they didn't celebrate Christmas or birthdays. It just wasn't their nature. The only present I ever got was from my Mum when I was nine - a pocket watch. Other than that, nothing. But my wife comes from a big family and they were fine. And she's always sending cards. Her Dad was mean though. He hated her going out with me. I was just about to give her a kiss outside their house one night and he leant out of an upstairs window and shouted "Leave that". But even my wife didn't want to see me at first. There was a big fire and party on VJ Day, and she said to her sister "Walk me home, Violet. I want to keep him off of me." But she ran away from home to live with her aunt and nine months later we were married with one pound to last us two weeks. But we managed, and now we've got our own house, double glazed, centrally heated, the lot.'

Hard B's

She takes a long time coming to the door. I try to look through the letterbox. I'm not sure whether I heard someone cry out or not. But the letterbox has those thick black brushes on the inside, and whilst I'm trying to push a hole through them I hear her say 'The door is open you know.' I straighten up and open the door.

Mrs Baxter stands wheezing in the hallway. It's difficult to guess how old she might be; her face is swollen, and the lines she probably would have are all smoothed away. She is wearing a custard-coloured mackintosh, plate-size dark glasses, and her hair is swept up in an orderly bun.
'I have been in The Big House. I spent two weeks there after my last operation. But you wouldn't believe how noisy it is in there. Ninety-two, one hundred and two - they're the worst. You wouldn't think they'd be so noisy, but it's terrible. What they do, you see, they sleep all day, and then all night it's ping ping ping on the buttons. I'm not ready for that. I value my independence.'

'I used to be a store detective for C&A. I loved my job. I did it for ten years. As soon as the children were old enough to look after themselves I said to my husband "That's it. I've had enough. The kids are gone and you're certainly no reason to stay" - and I walked. Best thing I ever did. Got the detective job and I loved it.

'You wouldn't believe the people who stole. Mostly women, and always rich. Always had notes in their purses. It was never the poor. You'd get prostitutes coming in after a night's work, buying a whole new set of clothes and paying cash. But these other women, they'd swan through the doors in big fur coats, and the next thing you know they're rolling trousers round their arms and pulling their sleeves down over them. I've seen it all. Coat hangers in the toilets and all sorts.

'My eldest son and his wife never come to see me. It's always "Well we need more notice than that". He said to me one day "Don't think we'll be giving up our weekends just to come and see you." The eldest daughter's the same. They both take after their father, sorry to say. He was stubborn and mean and they were always going to be one thing or the other. But my youngest daughter, she's a different prospect. She comes and does my shopping once in a while. I see her quite a bit. And I've got a good nephew.

'I wasn't too happy with the nurse in the Big House. She kept impersonating my accent. She said I had "Hard B's". I said I was from Cumberland. I didn't appreciate that.

'I just wish the doctor could sort my legs out. I've got polymyelitis on top of the usual rheumatism and it's honestly terrible. I can't bear it. Nobody seems to know what to do. I've been for every test you could think of, x-rays, blood, the works. I'm on steroids, and they play havoc. Sometimes I get this feeling in my head, like a thousand bees stinging my brain. Urgh. But if they could only take me in and make my legs work as well as my arms, I'd be happy with that.'


Nora has a strangely immobile face, a slack expanse of cheek falling to a cupid-bow mouth. She wears a headscarf and a heavy blue overcoat, and walks very slowly, hunched over two sticks. She speaks quietly, in an East European accent.

The ride in the ambulance upsets her. It is too bumpy, and she complains about feeling sick.
'How much would one of these vehicles cost? Is this the best they can do? I find it criminal that they cannot design something better.'

When we pick Nora up from the day centre she demands that we take her back 'for the bottle of water they promised me.' The nurses smile at us when we tell them what Nora has said. 'Buy her some from the shop', they say, and exchange a confederate look.

In the shop Nora demands that we buy her 'sweeties' as well as water. When I say that we don't have time as there are patients on the ambulance waiting to go, she makes a brush-aside movement and says 'That doesn't matter. I had to wait, didn't I? It won't kill them.'

On the vehicle she starts complaining about the bumpy ride, so to take her mind off things, I start to ask her some questions.

'Where are you from, Nora? Your accent.'
She looks up at me suspiciously.
'In 1986 I was in St Paul's, Minneapolis. Is that far enough back for you?'
'Were you working there?'
'I was in education.'
'Higher or...'
'All education is "higher"'
'Were you in research or something?'
'Why do you want to know these things about me?'
'I'm just curious.'
'Well maybe I won't satisfy your curiosity.'