‘He’s a very sick man. Very sick. He’s been throwing up blood. He’s got an ileostomy, angina, rheumatism. He’s in and out of conscious. He was only discharged from hospital three days ago. He’s an alcoholic. Ten years ago he had a breakdown. Five years ago he had an operation on his foot. He takes a hundred different medications. It’s a miracle he’s here at all. Isn’t it, Bob?’
Bob raises his eyebrows. He is sitting under a bare duvet on a mushroom coloured sofa, looking so comfortable you would think the chair had grown up around him, like an old tree enveloping a metal post.
‘How are you feeling, Bob?’ I ask him.
‘Fine,’ he says. He certainly looks okay. ‘Absolutely fine,’ he says. ‘I didn’t want the ambulance.’
‘Have you been throwing up blood?’
‘So who called the ambulance?’
‘I did. I called the ambulance. Bob’s a very sick man and he just won’t admit it.’
The woman sits on a facing sofa with an obese Staffie behind her like an over-stuffed novelty cushion. The dog gives me the eye, and so does the woman.
‘Excuse me just a moment. Can I ask what your name is, and what your relation is to Bob?’
‘My name is Liz. I’m Bob’s carer.’ She scrapes her greasy hair back from her face as if she’s streamlining herself for a fight. ‘In fact I look after the two of them.’
The other person she refers to is sitting on yet another sofa, her hands folded in her lap, looking on the scene with a flat set to her lips. I remember being called out to her in the past – given as a Cat A unconscious, it had turned into a psych case, with the patient complaining that a neighbour had forced her to smoke crack, and she hadn’t been able to sleep.
‘So you’re not actually a relation?’
‘No. I live next floor up.’
‘But you’re an official carer for the two of them?’
‘Technically, no. But that’s what I do.
‘So Bob – you seem pretty compos mentis to me. Are you capable of making decisions for yourself?’
‘Has Liz been granted any kind of legal jurisdiction over you?’
I turn back to Liz. ‘Well, in that case, I need to be guided by Bob, Liz.’
‘Look. He’s desperately ill. He needs to go to hospital. He was unconscious. He takes all these pills. He recently came out of hospital. He was sicking up blood.’
‘For God’s sake! Let the man alone!’ snaps the other woman. She doesn’t move, though. She is as precariously immobile as the two garden spades incongruously propped up beside her chair. The room has the air of a well-to-do study commandeered during a time of civil unrest for use as a street-drinkers’ flop. High-end antiques and leather-bound classics struggle to maintain their identity amongst the scatterings of vodka bottles, pill packets, fast food containers and dog toys.
‘Bob. Are you in pain?’
‘Are you unwell in any way?’
‘Do you want to go to hospital tonight?’
‘Fine. We’ll take a few obs, and leave you in peace.’
‘This is ridiculous!’ says Liz. She stands up, strides over to a low table covered in spilling ashtrays and scrunched up tissues, and snatches up a grubby leather satchel filled with meds. ‘Just look at all these.’
‘For God’s sake! Let him alone!’ says the woman over by the spades. ‘Please!’
I take the satchel from Liz. ‘Thank you. Now - if you wouldn’t mind having a seat again and letting me get on with things, that’d be great.’
She dumps herself back on the sofa, nearly squashing the dog, who lets out a little whumping noise, and then gives me the eye again, as if him being flattened was part of my plan all along.
The meds are all mixed up: hers, Bob’s and Myrna, the other woman.
‘What were you in hospital for, Bob?’
‘The stoma got a bit infected, but it’s fine now.’
Frank quickly runs through the usual obs; they all come out fine.
‘Bob – if you don’t want the ambulance in future and someone rings on your behalf, you must try to stop them, or cancel it. It’s a waste of our time, otherwise. And someone who really needs us might suffer as a result.’
‘I know, but…’
‘So you’re not taking him in?’
‘Bob doesn’t want to go in. He doesn’t need to go in.’
Frank packs the equipment away, giving Liz a look he seems to have copied off the dog.
‘He should be in hospital.’
‘Bob – my advice is to get some rest tonight. Maybe see your doctor in the morning. Okay?’
I look across to Myrna. She sits as restrained and doll-like on her cushion as before, but it’s easy to imagine her suddenly snatching up one of the spades, swinging it above her greying head like a battleaxe and rushing at Liz. But instead she gives out a breathy little tsch, and brushes some crumbs from her lap.
Liz and the dog see us to the door.
‘Thank you for coming,’ she says. We feel the spike of their eyes in our backs as we push open the stairway door and head back down the communal stairs to the ambulance.