The foyer of the Excelsior at four a.m. has the dreary depth of an underwater cave, the dracaenas in their pots standing around like giant sea anemones, quietly filtering the thick air, waiting on the tide. There is a discrete spill of light coming from the porter’s room behind the desk, some music from a radio. He emerges, moving stiffly from the hip. He listens to the reason we are here with his eyes closed and his head tilted mournfully to one side, then points to a discrete lift set back from the rest.
‘That one,’ he says. ‘For the permanents.’ Then he turns and shuffles back into the light.
Molly is waiting for us, standing in her bra and shift in the doorway of their flat on the twenty-ninth floor. It’s surprising to see her like this, but Molly doesn’t seem at all awkward. I wonder if it’s because she’s distracted, or because she’s used to getting dressed in public. Her bra is so brilliantly laundered, so cleverly engineered it seems to be holding her whole body upright; the flesh is only slightly rolled up around the straps, with the inevitable slackness of age.
‘I’m so sorry to call you out like this but I’ve tried explaining things to him and he just won’t listen to me anymore. I’m at my wits end.’
‘Is it a relative of yours?’
‘He’s my husband. And I’m sorry I’m only half-dressed. You were much quicker than I thought you’d be.’
‘We were only round the corner.’
‘Thank you for coming.’
She leads us into a broad and modern flat, something like the bridge of a liner, with a spread of windows on two sides overlooking the city.
‘He’s in the bedroom. I can’t talk to him,’ she says, buttoning a blouse.
Gerald is sitting on the edge of the bed, gripping the mattress either side of him as if he were just about to spring up.
‘You’d be upset,’ he says as we walk in. ‘It’s not a nice thing. Not nice at all.’
‘So Gerald. I understand you’ve had a bit of a nosebleed tonight.’
Molly comes in and quietly sits in a wicker chair. ‘You’ll have to shout,’ she says, ‘He’s quite deaf.’ Then she cries quickly and cleanly into a wad of kitchen towel, a spasm of distress as surprisingly dramatic as a sneeze.
‘It must be difficult,’ I say.
Molly blows her nose and regains control. ‘I just don’t know what to do anymore,’ she says. ‘He’s got Alzheimer’s so it’s almost impossible to reason with him. He just doesn’t understand.’
Gerald looks about a hundred years older than his wife. The only features about him that seemed to have escaped the ravages of time and illness are his slate blue eyes and his moustache, a tightly clipped article that rides his upper lip with parade ground precision.
‘If you had a nosebleed it seems to have stopped now.’
‘I say if you had a nosebleed, whatever you did to stop it seems to have worked. It’s not dripping or anything.’
‘It wouldn’t stop,’ he says. ‘I woke up covered in blood. It’s not a nice thing, you know. You wouldn’t like it.’
‘I wouldn’t. Horrible. But it’s stopped now.’
‘What are you going to do about it?’
‘Shall we check you over, Gerald? Is that okay?’
‘You wouldn’t like it.’
‘I wouldn’t. Especially late at night.’
‘Especially at night.’
He looks at me with utter vacancy.
‘It’s not a nice thing,’ he says, finally.
Molly beckons me into the kitchen area. When she’s quite sure Gerald hasn’t followed us, she pushes a little Tupperware box of meds towards me across the counter, then supports herself with both hands on the counter.
‘I didn’t want to call you but I couldn’t think what else to do. I know he’s all right physically. The bleeding stopped quite quickly so I’m not worried about that. I don’t want him to go to hospital, but I just couldn’t calm him down. He won’t listen to me. I can’t reassure him.’
‘Do you get much help, Molly?’
‘Oh – family and such. But they’ve got their lives.’
‘It sounds like you need more help. There’s two of you to think about. It won’t help things if you fall ill with the worry of it.’
‘I’m all right.’
‘But still. Maybe even a little respite care. Just to get things back on the level.’
‘Whatever you think.’
‘Let’s make a plan.’
She looks away across the flat to the wide, black windows and the glittering city beyond. Molly is quiet whilst I quickly write down the meds, then says: ‘I was a professional skater.’ She leads me over to a framed black and white picture on the far wall: a young woman flying towards the camera on one leg, the other stretched out in the air behind her, her arms winging out either side to the very tips of her fingers, her tutu flaring like smoke. Despite the heavy Fifties’ make-up, her smile is as brilliant as her blades.
We both look at the picture for a while, then she reaches out, and gently touches the frame.