Sunday, July 24, 2011

something else entirely

We force a path through the heavy lunchtime traffic heading out for the suburban reaches east of the city and the scattering of boxy white bungalows overlooking the sea. With the morning so wide and blue, the sea such a pearlescent green, it seems incredible we’re in England and not racing along a coast road high above the Aegean. Some notes come through on the job. I have to shield the screen with my clipboard to read them: son forced entry; life status questionable.
Frank turns up into a steeply sloping road. At the far end is a police car, and a gathering of neighbours nearby.
‘Is everything all right?’ one of them asks as we park and jump out.
‘Let’s hope so,’ I say, hauling out the resus and drugs bags.
A police officer stands in the garden talking into his radio. He gives us two nods as we approach – one to acknowledge, one to direct. He carries on without any kind of break in his conversation.

Inside the bungalow, another police officer is talking smoothly and quietly to a bearish man whose distraction is so profound it threatens to swallow everything – me, Frank, the policeman, the religious icons on the walls, the mirrors and trinkets, books and paintings – the walls of the house itself, every last thing – teetering on the black precipice of his grief.
‘It’s no good,’ he sobs. ‘She’s gone. She’s gone.’
‘In the bedroom, guys,’ says the police officer. ‘Just through there.’
We haul our bags past them both and go into the room.

Mrs Davis is lying on the bed, curled up on her left side, her left arm and wrist crooked up under her cheek, her right hand clutching at the bed clothes by her hip, the sheets riding up round her legs. Mrs Davis’ eyes are papery and fixed, staring out over a long, black and brackish stain that runs from the lower corner of her mouth, out across the mottled flesh of her arm, down over the pillow corner and to a dried pool on the sheets beneath.
The police officer comes in from the hallway and stands beside us.
‘When was the last time anyone spoke to Mrs Davis? Or saw her?’ I ask him.
‘The son spoke to her on the phone last night just before she went to bed. No sign of anything untoward. They were meant to be going shopping today. When he got here and found all the curtains still drawn he knew something was up and broke in.’
‘Have you checked her over yet?’
‘No, not yet. We thought we’d wait for you guys to call it, even though it’s obvious.’
‘What was her health like, do you know? Anything much wrong with her?’
‘No. The usual old age things – but actually, not too many of those, it sounds like. Active and independent.’
‘It looks like she’s had some kind of upper GI bleed, but other than that, who knows?’
‘Will you tell him?’

We walk out of the bedroom and into the lounge where the son is sitting on the sofa. He looks up.
‘It’s bad news, I’m afraid,’ I say. ‘Your mother has died.’
He gives a deep sigh and looks down at his hands, turning them over and moving the fingers as if they didn’t quite fit.
‘I know,’ he says.
‘I’m so sorry for your loss. Can I get you anything? A cup of tea? Glass of water?’
‘Some tea would be nice. Thanks. And one for yourselves, too.’
I leave Frank to finish off the paperwork and go through into the kitchen. The police officer waves a gloved hand when I offer him a cup; he has been joined by the officer in the garden, and the two of them go back into the bedroom.

The kitchen is meticulously tidy, everything falling to hand. There is a calendar stuck to the boiler above the fridge – a portrait of the Virgin Mary, her arms outstretched. Beneath her, the month’s events carefully written out in block capitals. On the counter by the sink, a Sudoku puzzle book lying open, a pen resting in the spine. I finish off the teas, put them on a tray, and go back into the sitting room.

Over by the window a parakeet is gripping onto the bars of its cage, jerking its head from side to side to get a better view. I put the tray down on the table in the middle of the room, hand out the cups, then find a place to sit down, as conscious as anyone of the empty armchair and its little wooden work stand, carefully laid out with a remote control, a magazine, a bundle of wool with two needles sticking out of it, and a dish of toffees.
‘She was supposed to be going on a pilgrimage next week.’
‘To Walsingham. Norfolk. She went on quite a few of those. Here and abroad. She was pretty active considering.’ He pauses, takes a sip of his tea, then puts the cup back in the saucer without making a sound. ‘That’s someone else I’ve got to ring,’ he says.
There is a pause. Frank writes a few more things down on the form. Suddenly the parakeet squawks in the cage, a fierce and rasping sound, then leaps across from one side of the cage to the other. It hangs onto the bars there, scrutinising us fretfully, whilst its little plastic mirror swings from side to side behind it. We all look at it. Finally the son says: ‘And that’s something else entirely.’
He takes another sip of tea.


Christine said...

I live in the US, and I'm always fascinated by your accounts - that you often take the time to have a cup of tea and sit with the patient, especially in the time of a death. I have absolute respect for our medics here in the US (I've used them myself a time or two), but that's just not something that happens here. It is much more business like - they are in, assess, treat, bundle up, and off to the hospital. Your entire system seems so - different. Again, I mean nothing disrespectful to any US medics. I've always been treated well, with care and respect. Your writing is amazing. Keep up the great job, both writing and caring for your patients.

Spence said...

Thanks v much, Christine.
Unfortunately the tea-thing doesn't happen all that often! In this case, it was just a way of sitting with the relatives, keeping things calm and supportive whilst we did the paperwork. I suppose it helps normalise what would otherwise be a horribly strange experience. In other cases, being thoroughly businesslike is the best approach - you just have to tailor it to the situation.
Thanks for the comment, Christine. Hope you're well :)