Stanley opens the door so quickly he must have been standing right by it. Half past five in the morning but he looks as if he has been up an hour or more. There is an air of silence about him, hanging from his shoulders as thickly as the dark green cardigan he wears. He stands in the doorway with one hand clutching the frame and one hand fiddling with a top button I’m not sure is actually there.
‘Hello. It’s the ambulance. Shall we go inside and have a seat?’
He stares at me slackly.
‘Just for a moment, so we can find out what the problem is.’
He turns and drops back inside the house. We follow him into the sitting room, a gloomy parlour crammed with paintings of racehorses, a trophy cabinet, family portraits. It feels more like a memorial to a former jockey than a place anyone might live. Stanley plumps himself down in a high-backed chair and laces his fingers together.
‘What’s the problem?’
‘I’ve been getting rather a sore throat.’
He makes a tired little stroking movement with one hand up and down his neck.
‘And how long has this been going on?’
‘A few days. I don’t know.’
‘Any other pain?’
‘My knee, but that’s old and best forgotten about.’
‘Dizziness? Shortness of breath?’
I fish about for a while, making sure that Stanley is not in fact having the chest pain described in the message.
‘No. Just this sore throat.’
Stanley has recently been cleared of prostate cancer, still has problems urinating, but other than that seems in remarkably good shape for a man in his mid-eighties. It does look as if he needs to go to hospital, but I want to do an ECG to make sure it isn’t cardiac, so I ask if Stanley will come with us out to the ambulance.
‘I’m sorry to have troubled you,’ he says. ‘If you think it’s nothing then I’ll say no more about it.’
‘Let’s go on the ambulance and do a few more checks, just to be on the safe side.’
I help him up, and guide him out to the vehicle. On the way he coughs a few times, a dry, half-hearted affair, like someone clearing their throat in church.
‘How long have you had that cough?’ I ask him.
‘A few days. I don’t know.’
We settle him onto the trolley, and begin our round of observations. Whilst I’m sticking some dots on him I have to excuse myself and hurriedly turn to the side to sneeze.
‘Oh – look at me!’ I say, pressing my nose with the back of my blue-gloved hand. ‘I think we’ve both got a touch of the sniffles.’
Stanley gives a little jolt and straightens an inch.
‘If you think I’m wasting your time then please say so and I’ll go back inside. I didn’t know what to do. I have no one to ask. My wife’s in a home with Alzheimer’s, my daughter’s in Spain. It’s not easy you know, living alone like this. But I don’t want to be a nuisance. If you think all I have is a cold, then fine, help me up and I’ll get about my business. I will not be a burden and I will not waste anyone’s time.’
‘Stanley! Stanley!’ I say, as shocked by his outburst as if a teddy bear had suddenly reared up and bitten me. ‘That’s not what I meant at all! I don’t think you’re a burden!’
‘If you think all this is just a waste of time then tell me and that’ll be the end of it.’
‘Stanley! It was just that I sneezed – and you were coughing – and I thought we both might have a cold. But I don’t think you’re wasting our time. We’re more than happy to come round this morning and make sure you’re okay. More than happy.’
But Stanley avoids my eyes. Instead, he keeps his head up, uncomfortably looking around the ceiling and overhead lockers, like a tired old donkey sniffing the sky for signs of rain.