Frank answers the phone. He listens to the dispatcher, and after a second turns to look at the seven o’clock crew, star-fished in their chairs watching Top Gear.
‘Mrs Focaccia, he says. ‘Yes – I have heard of her.’
The sevens straighten up. One of them guffaws and claps his hands. ‘Yes!’ he says, and punches the air.
‘Who’s Mrs Focaccia?’ I ask him.
‘She’s a big loaf,’ he says. The other one says: ‘Oh my God!’
Frank replaces the receiver.
‘We’ve got Focaccia.’
‘Who is Focaccia?’
Laughter round the room.
Half an hour later Frank is parking up outside the house we want, a building as ruthlessly square, grey and anonymous as all the others in the street, the only difference being the lack of a wrecked car on the front patch and a concrete ramp up to the door. The architect must have a castle fetish. Even the windows look more suited for shooting arrows than letting in sunlight.
Frank has given me the SP on Mrs Focaccia on the way here. Twenty stones of pure awkwardness and a partner who both in looks and demeanour would seem more at home in an illustration by Cruickshank.
‘Registered blind, but spends his life on the computer,’ says Frank, locking the door. ‘You’ll see.’
I walk up the ramp and knock on the door. A thousand dogs bark close by and far off into the night.
After a pause, bolts are thrown back and the door opened.
Mr Focaccia stands silhouetted in the fierce hall strip light. At first glance he seems to be a tall, middle-aged man surrendering to the effect of gravity. He curls forwards at the belt buckle, and his long, curly black hair hangs down in front of him like a fraying plumb line.
‘It’s the ambulance. Hello. We’ve erm – come for Mrs Focaccia.’
He swings round and we pick our way through the cluttered hallway after him. He leads us through into the living room.
‘They’re here. Again.’
Mrs Focaccia is lying on her side on a double bed, scrunched up in the far corner. There is a low bookshelf along the nearside of the bed that acts as a partial screen; the foot of the bed has a hospital-style table, and the walls all around the bed are fixed with shelves. Every available surface is piled high with clutter, and any spare inch of wall not given over to storage is blu-tacked with computer printouts. There are some grey-looking sheets rucked up at the foot of the bed; that area of mattress not occupied by Mrs Focaccia is given over to a tideline of wipes, cotton buds, tissues, pill packets, marshmallow cup cakes, cream pots, an ashtray and a pile of newspapers high as Friday.
‘Hello Mrs Focaccia.’
She gives a yelp.
‘We understand you have a back problem.’
Lying as she is on her right side, her right arm tucked up under her head, she looks like the kind of massy abstract sculpture you might find in a park. The mattress craters dangerously around her.
‘So what’s happened?’
Mrs Focaccia tells us the story. History of spondylitis. Wheelchair bound. Coming down the ramp of a taxi a few days ago, wheels rode off the edge, flung forwards, slid down on to foot plates. Pain since. Ambulance at home next day – said to see if any improvement with Ibuprofen. No good at all. Ambulance earlier today – not helpful. Recommended a GP home visit. Said it would be better if the doctor could assess and then arrange for her to go straight to an assessment ward rather than through A&E. GP came. Said just that.
I picture a line of people all pulling off their gloves.
‘I’ll get the trolley out and up to the door,’ says Frank.
‘The first thing we need to do is clear the immediate area. Because of your back injury, we’re probably going to have to put you on a vacuum mattress to keep you nice and straight.’
‘No! No! You can’t clear the bed! I know where everything is. I’ll be helpless if you do that.’
‘But we won’t be able to get you out like this.’
‘No! Gary will do it. Gary’ll get me out.’
Mr Focaccia sighs, rattles through one last email, closes down the computer, sticks a pen behind his ear, stands up and starts foraging for the supplies they’ll need. It may be that my impressions have been tainted by what I’ve already been told, but he seems to gives me a sideways look before crashing awkwardly back into the bookcase as if he misjudged the distance.
‘Oops,’ he says.
‘You can’t do this to me,’ Mrs Focaccia says from her corner.
‘Try not to worry yourself,’ I say.
For the first time I see what makes up most of the clutter around the room. Victorian dolls, forty or fifty of varying size, each shelf like a crowded school photograph, layers of dusty crinoline and lace, row upon row of the same porcelain face, stupefied with paint, each with an abundant crown of curly hair. And then it strikes me that the pictures on the wall are all of the same thing: head shots of Gabrielle Drake, in UFO, her hair a severe purple wig. And then leading across from the pictures, another, deeper shelf facing the bed, also crowded with dolls. But these are bigger, and every one has its hair combed forwards, completely obscuring the face.
Frank suddenly reappears behind me.
‘How are we getting on?’ he says brightly.
I have no idea.