A broad and pleasant tree-lined avenue. Most of the Regency houses have long since been sectioned up into flats, but still, from the street at least, they maintain a facade of wholeness. The black wrought iron railings, Grecian porticos, black and white tiled thresholds and intricately leaded porch windows make me feel we should really be pitching up in a carriage and four rather than an ambulance. But the rack of chrome buttons by the front door are a reminder that time has moved on.
Mrs Mackenzie comes to the door.
‘Oh. You’re here. Come in.’
She turns and leads us past the letter boxes, bicycles, notices, hand-written reminders and alarm consoles, diagonally across the hallway to her front door. She shuffles like a careworn, domestic bear in a purple roll-neck top and brown slacks, a little absent, as if a long hibernation had been interrupted. We follow her into a bright and comfortably furnished studio flat, with silver family photos and porcelain nick-nacks on the mantelpiece, and a radio playing softly in the background. Mrs Mackenzie silently manoeuvres herself in front of a black leather sofa, then sits down in two distinct stages – the first, a slow and cautious bending of the knees; the second, a sudden release past the tipping point, dropping down with a gentle sigh. The silver haired cushion at the other end of the sofa turns out to be a cat. Bounced awake by the shock wave, it gives her a murderous look, then hurries away into the bedroom.
‘What seems to be the problem?’ says Frank, drawing up a chair. ‘Why have you called us?’
‘I don’t know. I’m not sure.’
‘So talk us through it. What happened this afternoon?’
‘I was at the hairdressers and I didn’t feel right.’
‘In what way?’
‘I’m not sure.’
‘Were you in pain? Did you feel sick or dizzy or short of breath?’
‘Any pins and needles anywhere? Numbness, loss of control? The shakes?’
‘Okay. So what did you do at the hairdressers?’
‘I came home.’
‘Right. Then what happened?’
‘I’ve got these numbers you see.’
She leans forward and picks up a neatly typed list of names and numbers from the coffee table.
‘I wanted to ring Janice to cancel her for this evening.’
‘Janice. My helper.’
‘But when I tried to dial the number, I just couldn’t do it.’
‘Do you mean your fingers didn’t work properly?’
‘Not really. And then when I got someone on the phone, I couldn’t find my words.’
‘Do you have any of these funny feelings now?’
‘No. Everything feels fine.’
‘Nothing untoward at all?’
‘No. I just feel a little foolish.’
‘Let’s do a few tests and see what’s what.’
Mrs Mackenzie is reluctant to come to hospital.
‘How will I get home?’
‘There are ways and means. The important thing is to get you checked over by a doctor. Worry about getting home later.’
‘But am I all right?’
‘Everything looks fine now, but there’s a chance you might have had a mini-stroke.’
‘But I’m all right now?’
‘Now, yes. Don’t worry about it. These attacks are quite common. But you are more at risk of a bigger stroke, so you should definitely come with us up the hospital now. Your health is more important than anything else.’
‘Yes. I suppose. Will you call Janice?’
‘Yes, I’ll call Janice. Let’s get your meds together, your coat and keys and whatnot. Okay? No rush. Let’s make sure we get everything.’
We help her up off the sofa. She wanders around the flat, dropping things into a carrier bag, muttering to herself. I leave a message on Janice’s answer machine, then open the door ready to go. For the first time I notice the strange vase in the centre of the mantelpiece – an old, craquelure white ceramic head of a smiling young woman, her eyes closed, the top of her head cut off above the ears; and from the hollow space there, a bunch of young carnations rising up in delicately spreading whorls of pink and red.