If twelve hours is a long time, by the end of the fourth shift, it feels eternal.
We’ve managed ten and a half, and the end’s in sight, but the prospect of a prompt finish diminishes as we take a call to a non-injury fall at home. As we make our way over to the address, we hear several other calls going out for jobs with no vehicles to assign.
‘We’ll have to pace this one,’ says Rae.
But everything’s fine. I’ve been to this address before. Errol, ninety-eight, a charming old man in a little cottage overlooking the sea, set back from the cliff road amongst a huddle of laurel and hawthorn, dark steps from the gate to the patio door, the key safe on the wall by the flagpole, a strew of interesting drift wood, holed stones strung on lines, weathered wooden sculptures. It’s been an unsettled day; the night has settled in with a scrub of cloud across the moon and a salt chill to the air.
We fiddle with the key safe and let ourselves in.
Errol’s mobility has decreased since I saw him last. He’s no longer able to manage the stairs, so the OTs have set him up with a sweet little electric bed in the living room. He’s lying on the floor at the foot end, and gives a little wave as we put our bags down and go over.
‘I’m fine! I’m fine! I haven’t hurt myself – and I can confidently say that everything works as it should. I just can’t blasted well get up. Sorry for the language.’
We help him up, and make sure he’s okay walking to his tilt-armchair in the middle of the room.
‘Would you like a cup of tea, Errol?’
‘I would love a cup of tea. That’s so kind of you. And please – make one for yourselves. Are you all right with Assam? And I rather think there may be a biscuit or two in the tin by the folders. Please, whatever you’d like.’
I settle myself onto one of his carved mahogany chairs and prepare to write out the report form in immaculate – and slow – detail.
He watches me, and smiles when I look up.
‘These wretched legs,’ he says, crossing them. ‘Can’t do a thing with ‘em. You wouldn’t believe I used to swim for the county, would you? Before the war, of course. Before the war.’ He scratches his forehead, as if the thought was a perplexing itch.
He looks up again.
‘That’s how I met my wife.’
‘In the water?’
‘Sort of. She was... erm... she was on the beach.’
‘She liked the cut of your jib?’
‘Something like that. She was rather cool about the whole thing, actually, but that’s what they’re like, you know... erm... from the Black Forest. They don’t like to give too much away, you know.’
‘Probably just as well.’
‘Of course that’s one of the reasons we got married. They were rounding up all the Germans over here and patching them off to the Isle of Man. I wanted to make sure she was protected before I went off to fight. So we got married. That wasn’t the only reason of course, but it was one of them. And to think I didn’t see her again for another five years.’
Rae comes in with the tea, and a plate of chocolate biscuits.
‘I don’t know if it’s exactly true or not,’ I tell him, dunking my biscuit, ‘but the family story goes that my uncle John went off to fight, got captured and put in a POW camp in Italy, escaped, and ended the war fighting with the partisans. But in the meantime, auntie Ollie was told he’d been killed. So she made the best of it, took up with a GI, and got engaged. But then a day or so before the wedding, John turned up.’
‘Oh my goodness! She must’ve thought it was a ghost!’
‘I can’t imagine! So there was this big reunion and everything, except the GI wasn’t too pleased. Apparently he climbed up on the parapet of Westminster Bridge and threatened to throw himself in. Don’t know if he did or not. Probably not.’
‘Well. It just goes to show. Never give up hope. Never.’
‘Never say never.’
Errol takes a shaky sip of his tea, then rattles the cup back on the saucer.
‘It’s like I’ve always said,’ he says, ‘when you find yourself a good woman, you hold onto her no matter what.’Then he glances over at the faded black and white picture on the wall just across from him: a young woman in a panama hat, tipping the brim of it, frowning playfully into the lens.