Mr Neuberg stands in the doorway of his house, clutching a heavy blue cardigan around him like the figure for anxiety in the psychiatric version of a weather clock.
‘Come in, guys. Come in. I’m so sorry to call you but I was cold and shivering and I just couldn’t warm up. So I started to panic – I know I was panicking – I shouldn’t do it but it just got ahead of me. I’ve taken my medication but look at me! And I feel so cold. And clammy. Feel me! Look. Could the medication do that? Or maybe I have an infection? I took my temperature and it’s low. Thirty-five it said. That’s hypothermia, isn’t it? Can you have an infection and not a temperature? I don’t know these things. I just don’t know. My god. I’m sorry but I couldn’t cope. My girlfriend’ll kill me. Close the door. The rabbits.’
He nods towards the front room where two tiny rabbits are busily inspecting the back wheel of a bicycle.
Two weeks ago I would have had no idea, but now I’m able to say with some authority: ‘Holland Lops?’
Mr Neuberg grimaces.
‘Holland lops? Dwarf Lops!’
He hurries on ahead, squats down at the bottom of the staircase and hugs his knees. A quivering gantry of a man, he tucks himself up into as small a space as possible, rocking a little backwards and forwards. On the wall to the side of the staircase is a giant canvas – a still life of sweet jars on a chequered tablecloth. On the opposite wall, a toy moose head. The eyes on the moose are small and dark and glassy with a hint of a spiral twist – much like Mr Neuberg’s.
‘You won’t tell my girlfriend, will you? Please. She’ll kill me.’
‘No. But let’s worry about that in a minute. Just tell us what’s happened today.’
‘Just lately I haven’t been getting much sleep. Or eating. I haven’t been eating. I lost my appetite and I shed seventeen pounds. Look at my arms. Look at that. They used to be out here, but now this. Some of that’s thyroid, I know. And I’m due some investigations for – you know. And that’s a worry. But I’m active. I move around a lot. Which is probably just as well because the house is so damned cold. Does it feel cold to you? I think it’s really cold. My girlfriend doesn’t think so. She won’t have the heating on during the day. She says it’s not the time of year. But I don’t know. What do you think? So anyway. I was sitting at my computer and I started to freeze up. My hands. My face. I got the shivers and shakes. So I put on loads of jumpers and t-shirts – layers, you know? I went for a walk in the sunshine. But nothing made any difference. I just could not get warm. So I started to think something was the matter. And I know I shouldn’t but I couldn’t help it and I just got more and more anxious. I couldn’t break out of it, which is when I called you guys. And I’m so sorry ‘cos I know you’ve got better things to do with your time and I do appreciate you coming out. But please don’t tell my girlfriend about this. Please. She’ll kill me.’
‘Let’s do a few checks, get a few details, then think about what to do next. Okay?’
‘Sure. I’m in your hands. You’re the experts.’
I get out my thermometer. When I put it into his ear Mr Neuberg frowns and swivels his eyes in that direction.
‘It goes in your ear? The one I got goes in your mouth. Look. I only bought it the other day. It cost eight pounds, so it should be accurate. It said thirty-five degrees. What’s yours say?’
I show him the little screen.
‘Thirty-seven? But that’s normal, isn’t it?’
‘Yep. Bang on normal.’
‘Mine said thirty-five. Look. I’ll show you.’
He pops it into his mouth and opens his eyes wide, as if he were trying to inflate a very thin balloon. I take advantage of him being still to take his blood pressure.
‘Normal,’ I say, folding the cuff back up.
Mr Neuberg takes out the thermometer.
‘What did I tell you. Thirty-six. Well – it’s gone up a bit but it’s still low. And you’re saying thirty-seven?’
He looks at his thermometer, gives it a shake, like an old mercury model, then looks at it again.
‘That’s going back,’ he says.
Suddenly the phone rings on the step next to him. Mr Neuberg leaps up and looks at it in horror. He leans in, checks the number on the receiver, blanches, carefully picks it up, then just before he presses the answer button, sights us both along the bony blade of his nose and raises his index finger in the manner of a Judge commanding silence. Only then - when he’s absolutely certain we have understood what’s expected of us - only then does Mr Neuberg answer.
His voice is completely changed. The hyper-anxious patter of the last five minutes has been replaced by the sweetly insipid tone of a man calling home in his lunch break.
‘What? No – I was in the bathroom. Yeah, I’m fine. How’re you? .... No – I ate already. Yeah - I finished off that salad. With some crisps and the rest of that seedy bloomer. I wasn’t all that hungry. Who? Oh - yeah – y’know. Fine. Fine.... No, I won’t.... I won’t....’
He holds his finger up and frowns at us again, as if he thinks we’re becoming restless.
‘Okay, Poppy? I’ve got to go. What? No – you know. The usual. Okay, Hun? Yeah. Okay? Love you. Love you too. Take care. Oh – and Poppy? Could you get some pellets on the way home? Okay? Thanks sweetheart. Love you. Bye. Bye. Bye.’
Very gently he squeezes the phone off, then deflates about an inch.
‘Okay,’ he says. ‘That was Poppy.’