‘He had a bit of a fall earlier in the week. He didn’t seem too bad at first. A cut finger, a scrape over his eye, but other than that, fine. He’s normally so fit and well – better than any of us, actually. It’s just that yesterday and today he’s started to seem a bit, well, confused. Keeps talking about seeing things. I’ve never seen him like this before. I have to say I’m worried.’
The neighbour, Ken, a brisk and self-possessed old man in his eighties, has met us at the wrought iron gateway to the block of flats. It’s an imposing thirties construction that forms one corner of an old street leading directly off the front. The wind is strong here, barrelling in off the sea, squeezing between this canyon of buildings and up into town. Our little group leans slightly to compensate.
‘Let’s go up and have a look then.’
Ken hauls the gate open a fraction more. He leads us up a flight of stairs, along a narrow and shadowy corridor to William’s flat. The door stands open; Ken walks inside and says: ‘The ambulance are here, William,’ and we all walk in.
William is in his bedroom, pulling on a starchy white shirt and patting his trouser pockets for keys. If you looked at him quickly out of the corner of your eye you would think he were a slight young man in a rush to get ready for work. It would be a shock, then, to look straight at him, as we do now, and see that he is, in fact, a desiccated old man of about ninety, his face worked out in deep lines and liver spots, his neck as pendulous and ropey as a Galapagos tortoise.
‘Just a minute,’ he says, and almost topples over in his rush to pull his braces up.
I go across to him, introduce myself, then help him with his socks.
‘My shoes are in the other room,’ he says.
‘Okay. Let’s get those on, then we’ll have a sit down and a chat.’
We follow him next door into a crowded sitting room, a scattering of knickknacks on every surface, framed photos on the wall, a painting in vigorous lines of fishermen hauling in nets on a wild beach, and to the side of the fireplace a ceramic humpty dumpty with a placard round its neck saying ‘Don’t blame me – I didn’t vote Tory’. Laid out in front of this fire are a dozen pairs of shoes, laces spread apart, in three shades of brown.
‘It’s like a shoe shop,’ I say. ‘Which pair do you want, William?’
‘The brown pair.’
I help him on with the nearest. He relaxes back into the chair when the laces are tied.
‘So what’s this all about?’ William says, looking around.
‘You know what it’s about,’ says Ken from over by the door.
Ken has his arms folded across his chest. His chin is looking alarmingly soft, as if he might cry at any moment.
‘Ken has called us in because he’s worried. He says you had a fall a few days ago and haven’t been yourself since. Is that right?’
He looks at me with astonishment. His hair seems to stick straight up with the force of his bewilderment.
‘I suppose I have been a bit off,’ he says.
‘Ken says you’ve been suffering from hallucinations.’
‘I’ve been seeing things, yes.’
‘What kinds of things?’
‘Oh – people, tables, animals. Things that aren’t there. Paper objects on the ceiling. Flimsy things.’
‘And how does it make you feel when you see these things?’
‘It confuses me. It makes me feel a bit – unsteady. If I see a table in front of me I’ll make to go round it, but then when I see it’s not really there, I’ll go all wobbly.’
He wipes a finger under his nose and then hunts around in his pockets for a handkerchief. He has wrapped white sticking tape around one of his fingers, and there is a graze above the coarse white curls of his right eyebrow.
‘William – how about coming down to the ambulance with us? We can give you the once over, and then have a think about what to do next. Would that be okay?’
He stares at me above the handkerchief as he blows his nose, and blinks heavily a couple of times.
‘Will you be bringing me back? I don’t want to spend all day there. I’ve got things to do.’
The wind rages against the metal-framed windows. It feels as if we’re on the bridge of a doomed old liner, heading out to sea.
‘Make sure you hold on to my belt, though, won’t you, mate?’ he says, leaning over to one side and stuffing the handkerchief back into his pocket. ‘I’ll blow away, else.’