I push past a ragged budleia that’s growing out across the steps, and press an old bakelite bell. A sonorous buzz sounds deep inside. I step back. The house is dark and quiet.
‘Get ready,’ says Rae. ‘Assume the position.’
We shouldn’t be here. Man attacking woman with walking stick. The police should go in and secure the scene first. But this is an over-run, and we can’t afford to hang around. The police are busy tonight, it’s so cold even the moon seems frosted over. We need to wrap this one up quickly. I need to be home, sliding into a snug bed and cuddling up to my wife. Such an absurdly rich vision of paradise. Am I that lucky? I stamp my feet and rub my hands to hurry things along.
A light goes on above the heavy black door.
Our breath hangs on the air.
A chain comes off the door and it opens.
An elderly woman stands there. From the dim overhead hall light she seems okay. No great gashes, no clumps of matted hair. She stands holding aside the heavy curtain that hangs just behind the door, smiling like an indulgent grandma, short and rounded out with layers of clothing, finished off by an apron whose string tie cuts into her middle and makes her upper half seem independent of the lower. When she turns around I expect her to swivel, those hefty legs to follow later.
‘I can’t go on like this,’ she says. ‘I don’t know what to do.’
She tells us that her husband, John, has Alzheimer’s but doesn’t know it. She tells us he hit her with his walking stick.
‘Not badly. Just on my lower leg. And I’m ashamed to say I slapped his face.’
‘Are either of you hurt?’
‘No. But I can’t go on like this. I packed my bag. I was going to leave tonight. But I couldn’t think where to go.’
‘Shall we come in and see what we can do?’
She turns round and we step inside.
Another curtain hangs across the bottom of the stairs. We follow her up the treads which creak alarmingly. The house is utterly quiet, heavy with it. The thick brown paint on the stair panels and skirting boards, and the candy-striped, board-like wallpaper, yellowing and sliding off in places, gives the place a cloying, weighty feel. It’s like walking through an enormous old chocolate cake.
‘He’s in there,’ she says puffing slightly and pointing to another curtain that hangs across the entrance to the living room.
I pull it aside and go in.
Over the other side of the room an elderly man is standing in front of an armchair, his arms straight down by his sides. He has an intensely watchful expression, accentuated by great tufts of grey hair that sprout from his ears and a pair of wiry grey eyebrows that grow down over his eyes and make me think of the budleia outside.
‘Hello, John. I’m Spence and this is Rae.’
‘Yes,’ he says, glittering.
The woman wheezes past me and lowers herself into the armchair that faces his. She straightens her glasses, and then holds on to the armrests as if she thinks it’s going to take off any minute.
‘What do you want? Who are you people?’ he says.
‘We’re with the ambulance, John. Your wife…’
‘Your wife Vera is worried about you. She says you’ve been quite upset tonight. She says you’re not yourself and she’d like you to see a doctor at the hospital.’
‘Why would I need to see a doctor?’
‘Just for a check-up. To make sure everything’s okay. Will you come with us, John?’
My bed may as well be on the moon for how soon I’m likely to find myself in it. It feels as if we’ll be trapped in this room for hours, as motionless as those vast cream underpants drying by the fire, as fixed and foxed as that dog picture on the opposite wall. I look at John and he looks at me.
‘What doctor?’ he sneers.
Rae steps up to him.
‘Shall I get your coat, John? And you’d better wear a hat or something ‘cos it’s bitterly cold out tonight. In fact, I’d go as far as to say it's taters.’
‘Coat? Oh – yes – it’s over there on the chair.’
Vera struggles up again. ‘I’ve got his hat.’ She places it on his head. ‘There. I’ll come up and see you in the morning, darling.’ They both fuss around him. Vera gives him a kiss on the cheek; Rae helps him on with his coat. ‘You’ve got your good slippers on, they’ll be fine.’
‘There. What a picture!’
Rae offers him her arm. He takes it. She looks at me.
‘Oh. Right. Yep. Let’s go then.’
I get the door.
When John is safely stowed on the back of the ambulance, Rae gives me a wink, slams the door and we set off.
We haven’t far to go. John studies me as I race through the paperwork.
‘What do you do, then?’ he asks.
‘Good question. One I ask myself a lot.’
‘I had five brothers. Five. Count them. All went in the army. All through the war. All came out. Imagine that. Not easy places, neither. Egypt. Libya. Terrible.’
‘My uncle’s the same age as you. He was in Italy.’
He frowns at me again.
‘Where are we going?’
‘To the hospital?’
‘To the hospital? Why’s that, then?’
‘To get you checked up.’
He folds his arms. ‘We used to go to school through a hedge at the bottom of the garden. Out onto the lane, just a little way, and there it was.’
He smiles at me. ‘Handy, eh?’