Mrs Givens points to an empty parking space, then stands respectfully on the pavement as we climb out of the ambulance.
‘Thanks for being so quick,’ she says.
Her neighbour and friend, Mrs Hutchens, stands across the way, by the side entrance to number four, a stone tub of lavender between her and a little black metal gate; she smiles and nods as we walk across, swinging the gate open then making a sweeping invitation through it with her other hand, like an usher at an outdoor event.
‘He’s in the garden. We couldn’t get him up.’
The two women tuck in behind us along the narrow path that leads round the back. We pass a large green plastic storage bin, the lid propped open, a stock of gardening equipment neatly cleaned and stored away inside.
‘So what happened?’
‘It’s such a problem. We’ve tried to get things sorted.’
‘He’s so independent.’
‘He won’t accept any help.’
‘Turned away umpteen carers.’
‘They’ve never been good enough.’
‘His family are spread all over.’
‘Never puts his hearing aid in.’
‘The telly’s on all hours, top volume.’
‘You can’t hear yourself think.’
‘We’ve tried everything but he just wants to be left alone to get on with it.’
Mr Richardson is lying on his side in the middle of the lawn. He is propped up on his right arm; with his left, he reaches feebly into the air, straining his head up, too, like a giant tortoise collapsed on its side, defeated, but sensing change.
‘He’s ninety four.’
‘We couldn’t get him up.’
Frank squats down beside him and assesses the damage.
‘How long do you think he’s been on the ground?’ I ask Mrs Givens.
‘I came back from work and I was upstairs getting out of my things when I though I heard someone calling. I looked out of the window and that’s when I saw him. He’s been out doing the gardening again. We’ve told him to be careful, but he just can’t help himself.’
‘So how long, do you reckon?’
‘Two hours? Maybe more.’
Mr Richardson is cold and wet, but otherwise uninjured. We need to get him warmed up as soon as possible, so we help him to his feet and walk him slowly out to the truck. Once he’s on board, the heater on full and his jacket and cardigan off, we wrap him in blankets, looping one over his head.
Whilst we check him over, Mrs Givens comes back with a tray of tea and shortbread biscuits; Mrs Hutchens has all Mr Richardson’s medications in a cracker box. She hands it up to Frank, then goes off to try to find some contact numbers. Mrs Givens takes a seat in the back, and we all sit around him, sipping our tea and discussing the situation. Frank helps Mr Richardson drink from his cup. He has to speak loudly and support his words with little mimes to make himself understood.
‘Where are your dentures? Your teeth?’ He tugs at his own. ‘I’d give you mine but I need them later. You’ll just have to dunk your biscuit,’ he says. ‘Dunk it.’
Mr Richardson shakily dabbles the biscuit in the tea, then slowly raises it up to his leathery mouth, gumming it unproductively, like a baby with a rusk. But when he lowers it again he makes appreciative smacking noises, and his faded gray eyes crinkle up. He tries to speak, but the words are thin and drawn together, an abstracted, strangely musical sound, like an ancient wizard chanting fragments of a spell.
‘Sorry Mr Richardson. I can’t understand what you’re saying.’
He reaches out from under the blankets, his hand a mottled, brick-red colour, the heavy nails rounded and pale; his touch is so cold it’s as if a garden statue had come to life and touched me on the hand.
‘You’re a little what, Mr Richardson?’
He repeats the phrase; it’s only by relaxing and letting the sound wash over me that I get it.
‘Little Lord Fauntleroy?’
He nods and smiles – then something else occurs to him, and he leans forward again. I have to grab the cup before he tips the tea in his lap.
‘You lost your glasses when you fell? He lost his glasses when he fell. I’ll go and see if I can find them.’
I step back outside the ambulance. The evening has moved on; the sky is indigo blue and the air is cut with frost.
Mrs Hutchens comes out of the house.
‘I’ve got those numbers,’ she says.
‘Thanks. I’ve just got to go round the back and look for his glasses.’
She heads over to the ambulance. I walk through the gate again, click on my torch and retrace our steps.
I close the lid to the equipment store as I pass.
The path leads me through to the back garden. The beam of my torch picks out the scene: a darkening muddle of shrubs and trees around the perimeter, cold frames at the foot of the wall, a bird bath, an upturned wheel barrow, the little pile of leaves he raked together before he fell, a tipped, white metal bench, a garden rake and a pair of open shears – and there, glinting dully in the torchlight, a pair of silver framed specs. I walk over to pick them up. Suddenly, from somewhere in the woods beyond the wall, the urgent craik-craik-craik of a pheasant. It cuts through the silence as I swing the light in that direction, moving quickly away, out into the growing deeps of the night.