Janice the carer is standing at the crest of a steep driveway with a phone in one hand and a cardboard list of numbers in the other. First she waves the phone at us, but then, remembering she’s in the middle of a conversation, puts the phone back to her ear and waves the card instead. Then she turns and hurries back inside.
The Close is thawing, its forensically clipped hedges and bushes, pushed out of whack by the week’s heavy fall of snow, are rising up again, the routines and regularities of the place slowly reasserting themselves through the ice. The road widens into a circle, with each bungalow spaced and placed around it like huts around a clearing. I park up and we pick our way up the drive to number thirteen.
Janice is still on the phone, waiting for us in the hallway.
‘The paramedics are here, Deidre,’ she says, giving us a beaky smile. ‘Yes. The paramedics. I’ll give you a call back when I know more. Bye, Deidre. Bye’
She holds the phone right up to her face to find the right button to push, then says: ‘He’s through here.’
She leads us into a canary yellow kitchen with a blue Formica table, two chairs and an elderly man lying on his back on the lino with a voluminous flower-patterned duvet covering him. Only his head shows over the top of it. He looks tousled, grey, embarrassed. A hand appears and he waves it.
Suddenly from a neighbouring room there is a shriek - ‘Daddy! Daddy! Come here, Daddy! Where is he?’ – followed by the voice of Judith, the other carer.
‘Don’t worry, Winnie,’ we hear her say in an earnest voice. ‘Douglas can’t come because he collapsed at the breakfast table, banged his head on the wall, went unconscious and we had to lie him on the floor. I think it’s serious. The paramedics are with him now.’
‘Daddy! Oh Daddy!’
Before I can say anything, Janice turns to me and puts the cardboard list of numbers into my hand, then frowns and takes it straight back to cross something out. Frank’s smile is as open as a hockey mask.
‘Janice, love. Tell us what’s happened here, will you?’
‘Oh. Yes. Well – we were in as usual for our morning set-to with Winnie. She’s got quite bad dementia, and poor Douglas here is the main carer. She’s pretty bad, as you can hear. I don’t know how he copes.’ Then to Douglas: ‘I don’t know how you cope, Douglas.’
‘But Janice. To the job in hand.’
‘Yes, yes. Well – Winnie has been a lot angrier today for some reason. Don’t know why. Sometimes she’s worse than others. The nature of the beast, I suppose. So we were wanting to put her teeth in ready for breakfast, and she was having none of it. Honestly, there’s two of us and it’s often more than we can cope with. Poor old Douglas, I don’t know how he manages.’
‘Let’s focus on Douglas, shall we?’
‘So we were having this fight over Winnie’s teeth…’
‘Janice – how did Douglas end up on the floor.’
‘Your people told us to put him there.’
‘What happened just before?’
‘I was coming to that. We got Winnie’s teeth in – finally – although once they’re in you’ve got to watch she doesn’t take a chunk out of your arm. So then I came in to make a cup of tea and help Douglas get the breakfast things ready. Didn’t I Douglas?’
Douglas adjusts the quilt around his neck. He seems to have got used to the idea of life on the floor. He gives us a tired smile; I half expect him to ask us to put the light out.
‘Winnie started carrying on like she is now. I think the whole thing just got too noisy and too upsetting for him. He went very gray, his eyes rolled up and he pitched head first across the table. He didn’t half bang his head on the wall. Didn’t you, Douglas?’
Janice bends down and strokes the hair away from the side of his head, a tender movement that Douglas submits to with the passivity of experience. ‘How are you feeling, poppet?’ she says.
‘Not so bad,’ says Douglas, looking up into her face with a troubled smile. Janice gleams down at him, then shoves her enormous glasses back up her nose and stares at us.
‘I’ve had these faints before,’ he says. ‘There’s nothing really wrong. There’s nothing anyone can do.’
‘Oh you!’ says Janice, giving him a proprietorial squeeze like a farmer with a champion pig. ‘You’re so uncomplaining, Douglas. Honestly. Let the paramedics do their job. Don’t worry about Winnie. You didn’t half bang your head.’
‘I’m not going to hospital, Janice’ he says. ‘I’m fine.’
Frank bends down to look him over.
From next door we hear Judith say to Winnie: ‘They’ll be rushing Douglas off to hospital in a minute, but don’t worry. We’ll make sure you’re okay.’
‘Daddy! Oh Daddy, don’t leave me!’
‘Winnie. Douglas collapsed and hurt his head. He’s got to get hospital if he’s to have a chance. Try not to worry yourself.’
As Frank takes Douglas’ blood pressure, I pull one of the pine chairs out so I can sit down and start filling in the paper work.
‘Don’t sit on that,’ says Janice, taking it from me and standing it over by the back door. ‘It’s deadly. That’s what did for Douglas. Look!’
She waggles one of the legs, which pops out of its hole.
‘It’s had it, that has,’ she says. ‘I’d put it on the fire. It’s only good for kindling.’
Douglas turns his head.
‘I’ve had it years,’ he says. ‘It only needs a bit of glue.’
The phone rings in Janice’s hand and she almost drops it.
‘Hello? Deidre? Yes – the paramedics are still working on him.’
She raises a finger into the air as if to say: hold that thought, then sticks the finger into her free ear and hurries out into the hallway.
I put the leg back into the hole and give it a tap on the floor.
‘Glue might do it,’ I say.
‘I’ve had it years,’ says Douglas.
Frank unplugs the stethoscope from his ears and flips it round his shoulders.
‘Looking good, mate. Let’s get you off this floor and see what’s what.’
We help him up. The kitchen fills with light as the sun breaks through the clouds and splashes in through the wide metal windows. Everything is brought into focus, the Sudoku book on the kitchen table, the calendar with its closely written notes, a pin board of family photos, postcards, shopping lists, and on the window ledge, a little ruined abbey in plaster of Paris with the words: souvenir of Whitby.
Janice strides back into the kitchen.
‘The paramedics are doing everything they can, Deidre. I can’t tell you more at the moment – Oh my good God! He’s up!’
Douglas smiles at her, then slowly flattens his hair back down.
‘So. A little tea, I think,’ he says.