‘Thanks for coming. This is quite a strange one – although I don’t know, maybe you see this all the time. But I must admit it’s thrown me. It’s all a bit of a shock. So – let me tell you what happened. I wasn’t supposed to come over today. I was meant to be going over to see Jean, but Jean’s had trouble with her eldest and was called into school unexpectedly, which left me the morning free. So I came round to see Dad, and let myself in with my spare key when he didn’t answer the door. He wasn’t downstairs and I thought maybe he’d gone out shopping or something. Like I say, I wasn’t expected. But then I heard a noise upstairs and I thought – Dad? And that’s where I found him. In the bath. I mean literally in the bath. He’d fallen backwards into it sometime early this morning and hadn’t been able to get himself out again. He’s been there about five hours or so. Initially I thought I’d be able to get him out on my own, but he’s a large chap as you’ll see, and I realised I wouldn’t be able to do it on my own. He doesn’t appear to have injured himself all that much – just on his back, some bruising and minor lacerations from the taps, I think.’
Listening to Stephen talk is like witnessing the relentless spread of a fractal pattern, an endlessly expanding thing, each word suggesting five more. The only way we can break the spell is by talking across him.
‘Can you show us where your Dad is, then?’
‘Yes. Of course. I have no idea how you’re going to get him out, but I’m guessing you have specialist equipment. Just up here. I don’t know why he ended up like this. His mobility hasn’t been great lately, but not all that bad, either, considering his advanced age. He doesn’t take many pills. And he’s pretty active. Jean and I are round as often as we can. Only last week we took a trip out to a lovely country pub for a family lunch. The weather wasn’t great but that’s not the most important thing. You know - I hope I’m as hale and hearty as Dad when I’m eighty-five. Or eighty-six. No. Yes. Eighty-five. Mum died a few years ago now, so he lives here on his own. But like I say he has plenty of people round. I only live across town. Five minutes if the time’s right. Twenty at rush hour, but I’m lucky in that I work from home so I I’m pretty flexible. Jean is closer but then she’s busier, so she doesn’t get over quite so much. Here we are. My father.’
He pushes open the bathroom door.
‘Dad? Some people to help.’
James is lying on his back in the empty bath, his head at the tap end. There’s a bunched-up towel to cushion his shoulders, and an old blue dressing-gown draped over his knees. His face has such a jowly hang to it, his eyes weighed down so mournfully, he could be a gigantic, hairless basset hound scrutinising the latest disappointment.
Unlike his son, he barely says a word.
Rae starts checking him over and asks if I’ll fetch the inflatable cushion and a slide sheet.
‘That sounds promising,’ says Stephen – and carries on from there as I head back down the stairs to the truck.
‘Right. Now. I’ve put your watch and your wallet in the big brown holdall. I’ll put today’s paper in there, too, so you’ve got something to read. I have to go home for childcare duties but once Lisa’s home we’ll sort something out and I’ll meet you down the hospital. Okay? I can’t think of any other way of doing it, but you’ll be fine. I expect the first couple of hours you’ll sleep anyway, after all the long trauma of the bath. Once you get on one of those comfortable hospital beds you’ll be away. And then when you wake up, I’ll be there to keep you company. The important thing is we get you checked out, and get to the bottom of why you fell. You’ll be home before you know it, Dad. I’ll make sure all the lights are turned off, the windows closed and the back door locked. It’s landfill bin today, so I’ll put that out, too. Jean says she can probably make it over sometime after six if you’re still there, but hopefully they’ll have you discharged home before then. We can all reconvene here in the evening. The girls have got tap and karate. Mae’s got that show coming up and Ellie’s got a grading, but don’t worry, we’ll sort it out.’
And on and on, like some benign species of domestic spider, playing out an endless spool of detail. James sits impassively in the carry chair, swaddled in our blankets. He doesn’t say a thing. I give Stephen some tasks – bringing out the equipment for us, the bags and so on. It means we won’t have to come back in to get them, and I’m also hoping it might act as a distraction. But his facility for talking is such a separate thing, I’m sure he could do three things concurrently and still be able to chat.
Once we have James on the ambulance trolley, we store the gear and make ready to go.
Stephen stands looking in, continuing his monologue, still without any sign of stopping.
In the end, despite trying to steer things to a gentler conclusion, I have to close the door on him. I do it as slowly and respectfully as I can, nodding and smiling the whole while, but even so, Stephen manages to squeeze a hundred more words through the closing gap before the door clicks shut.
I take my seat next to James as we move off.‘Takes after his mother,’ he says, then shuts his eyes.