‘I wasn’t unconscious or knocked silly. I can remember the whole sorry episode. I simply had another of my groggy turns, fell over, clipped the back of my head on the coffee table, and lay there like a fool. Again!’
Agnes sits on the edge of the sofa, her ancient hands picking at the handkerchief in her lap, her pale grey eyes wide and shining. She tells us the story of her latest fall as if the little group around her – the community responder, me, Frank and the next door neighbour – were a bunch of five year olds at story time.
‘The other day I pitched backwards through the kitchen door. Just look what I did to my arm. My goodness, there was blood. Tell them about the blood, Rose.’
‘Oh,’ says Rose, standing with one hand pressed to the side of her face. ‘Well. Oh.’
The community responder has already cleaned the wound – a ragged hole in the back of her head the size of a ten pence piece.
‘That’ll need a stitch or two,’ I tell her.
‘Really? More stitches? Well – I’m speechless.’
Whilst Rose takes instruction from Agnes – prescription sheet in the kitchen, cardigan and slippers in the bedroom, purse, keys, glasses, emergency phone number – I finish dressing the wound. I hold the dampened gauze in place with a bandage that wraps round Agnes’ head, pushing her silver hair upwards.
‘My word – you’ve made me look like a pineapple.’
‘It’s only temporary, Agnes.’ I stand up, take a step back and admire my work. ‘I tell you who you do look like. That singer out of Sigue Sigue Sputnik.’
‘A punk-ish pop band. From the eighties.’
Frank studies me with fatherly concern, the community responder seems to buckle under the weight of his smile. Even Rose stops hunting around for things and joins in the wake. I redden, for no real reason at all, the first time in ages.
‘Come on,’ I say, bluffing it out. ‘Time to make a move.’
‘What an adventure,’ Agnes says, and then ‘Rose? Have you got those things, yet?’
‘Let’s go, Mrs Pineapple,’ says Frank, helping her up. I get the bags.
A&E is crammed. I leave Agnes sitting in a wheelchair with Frank by her side and excuse my way over to the desk to handover to the charge nurse.
Nerys is working the board like a bookie at the races. I stand there trying not to add any more to her stress whilst at the same time asserting my position. She stands at the centre of a dreadful cloud of demand – nurses, doctors, consultants, patients and relatives – bravely fighting for order with a marker pen and board wipe.
A man appears and stands next to me, puts both hands on the counter. He radiates aggressive intent as palpably as the alcohol fumes that hang off his seamy clothes.
‘Hey. I need to use the phone to tell people I’m here,’ he says, cutting across everything.
‘Payphones in the lobby,’ Nerys says, giving him a professional smile, passing out a form to one nurse and accepting another from the clerk.
The man spreads his hands further on the counter, pushing my board aside.
‘I know exactly what you mean. I know what your game is,’ he says. ‘I’ve been here fucking hours. I’ve got chest pain, a pain in my chest. Do you know what I mean? Like you care. You just want fucking rid of me. Well if I go now and drop dead in the car park it’ll be your fault.’
‘Hey. Hold on,’ says Nerys. ‘Rewind. You asked me about phones. I told you where the phones are. What’s your problem?’
‘What’s my problem? What’s your fucking problem?’
I catch the ward clerk’s eye as she dials security.
‘Walsh. Mr Walsh. You don’t even know my name. You think I’m a waste of space and you just want shot of me.’
‘Mr Walsh,’ I say to him, as evenly as I can. He swivels round to face me. ‘I know this is frustrating for you, but we’re all here to help. The nurse was just saying you can make a phone call from the lobby.’
Red rage bunches up in his eyes and his cheeks.
‘You what?’ he says. ‘You fucking what?’
‘If you carry on like this you won’t be seen. You’re just making things worse.’
‘Who the fuck are you?’
‘I’m with the ambulance.’
‘Well – Mr I’m-a-big-Fucking-Ambulance me. You keep your snout out of it. Fucking cheek.’
I shake my head impassively, and get ready to dodge the fist that seems almost certain to follow. But Mr Walsh – probably well aware that security are on their way – turns and stomps off, pushing past people. He shouts at Agnes as he goes through: ‘Count your fucking toes, lady. You won’t have the same number when you leave as you came in with.’
Security intercept him at the door; there is shouting out in the car park.
I turn back to Nerys. She tries to smile, but her chin seems to slacken slightly and I know it’s an effort for her to continue.
‘Nice man’ I say to her. ‘What a shame he’s gone.’
‘Who’ve you got, then?’ she says, finally, uncapping her pen to put Agnes on the board.
We help Agnes onto a trolley and make her as comfortable as we can, tucking her in and making sure she has her bag to hand.
‘Will I be here long?’ she asks.
‘Well – it is busy tonight, Agnes, so I can’t promise that you won’t have a wait. But the nurses and doctors are working as hard as they can. They know you’re here, and they’ll be along shortly.’
‘So this is where we part company?’
‘Yes, I’m afraid it is.’
‘Thank you so much for all you’ve done.’
We leave her, sitting up on the trolley, smoothing down the blanket and staring out at her surroundings, her hair sprouting up above the thick white bandage, an expression on her face about one part excitement, two parts fear.