After a brief pause we’re buzzed in to the lobby. An elderly man is standing by the nearest flat door; I assume it’s flat number one.
‘Hello,’ I say. ‘Who’ve we come to see, then?’
He frowns. ‘I don’t know,’ he says. ‘That’s what I was wondering.’
For a second I think this must be an aspect of the job, but Rae sees how the numbers are running.
‘This is flat eight,’ she says.
The man takes a trembling step out further towards us.
‘Yes. Flat eight. But I saw your ambulance and I wondered what all the fuss was about. Who did you want?’
He thumbs us further down the hall.
‘Out the back. Let me know if you need anything,’ he shouts after us.
The corridor seems to extend forever without any logic to the numbers or leading anywhere in particular. We’re just about to radio for more information when a door to a hidden stairway at the far end cracks open and a friendly-looking woman in her seventies puffs out onto the landing.
‘This way,’ she wheezes. ‘I told your people we were round the back.’
‘Oh. I thought where we parked was the back.’
‘No, that’s the front. But it’s confusing,’ she adds, generously. ‘Follow me.’
She tells us what’s happened as she walks, marking out the dreadful progress of the whole thing in her padded slippers: Stan eventually got diagnosed with terminal cancer a couple of months ago. He doesn’t like doctors, he put it off too long. They haven’t been able to sort the care package out mostly because of Stan’s cussedness. But he’s much, much weaker now. The speed of it’s taken everyone by surprise. The last few weeks have been difficult; the last few days have been disastrous.
‘He won’t even talk to the doctor anymore,’ she says. ’I’m at my wit’s end. I just can’t manage.’
She shows us into the flat, a tiny but comfortable place with a wooden baby gate in the hallway.
‘For the dog. When we had it. Excuse the mess.’
Stan is lying in bed. The cancer has robbed everything from him but the shine in his eyes. Every ridge and scoop of his skeleton is readable through the skin; it’s a shock to see him breathe, like seeing signs of life in a mummy.
‘He won’t eat or drink. He hasn’t had anything the last few days. I spoke to the doctor again but he just pointed me back to the cancer trust. They’ve done their best but it’s reached the point now when I just don’t know who to call or what to do.’
She reaches out and rubs the back of his hand.
‘There’s a Do Not Resuscitate thingy for him. I know he’s dying, but the doctor said maybe three months. He won’t go into a hospice and I don’t know what to do. We haven’t got the room. It’s not like I can even be in the same bed with him anymore.’ She looks down at him with a numb statement of fact. ‘I just can’t.’
‘Do you have a care folder we could look at, Deidre?’
‘Care folder! I’ve got a phone number somewhere, but it’s not twenty-four hours. I thought maybe you’d have some ideas.’
But just as I start to review the options – including taking Stan to hospital, although in his condition that obviously wouldn’t be the best place – when Stan suddenly turns over in bed, grabbing the sheet with an emaciated hand and dragging it over his head as he goes. It’s an unexpected, peevish kind of movement, like someone bothered by all the fuss.
Rae goes round the other side to look at him.
‘Agonal,’ she says after a moment.
Deidre lays both her hands on her heart.
‘What does that mean?’ she says.
‘I’m afraid Stan’s dying,’ I tell her. ‘These are his last breaths.’
Deidre has to leave the room, but one of Stan’s niece’s had been visiting the family. She sits with her uncle and holds his hand as he dies.
‘Would you like some tea?’ says Deidre, bustling about in the kitchen. ‘Milk and sugar?’
There are quite a few family members in the area. We’re still finishing off the paperwork and organising the next step as they arrive. It’s a friendly bunch – there are gasps and tears, but it all soon settles down into a kind of scratch wake, tea and biscuits, old photos coming out. His brother hands me a framed black and white picture of a hockey team, lined up with their sticks.
‘Here’s Stan in the Fifties. That’s him, there. The Helmstone Hyenas. County champions. You should’ve seen them.’ He taps the glass, and then wipes it with the edge of his hand. ‘That’s why I’m not too sad about what’s happened tonight. That wasn’t Stan in there. He’d already gone. I saw him a couple of days ago and we had a good chat about things.’
I hand him back the photo.
‘The last of the Helmstone Hyenas,’ he says. ‘And if you look at that picture over there...’
He points to a wedding photo, Deidre and Stan arm in arm striding out of the church. I’d noticed it before a few minutes ago, but there’s something I missed, a foreground detail – an arch of raised hockey sticks for the young couple to walk through.