There’s a shout from up upstairs so we hurry in that direction, struggling to avoid dragging all the pictures off the walls with our bags. Up onto the landing, to a bedroom at the far end. I’m amazed they’ve managed to squeeze a hospital bed in here; there’s so little room the door can’t open fully, and all the other furniture – the TV on its stand, the armchair, the bed table and the boxes of medical supplies – means that Mr Cooper’s nephew Steve has struggled to find space to put his uncle on the floor. He glances up, almost losing the phone he’s cradling between his ear and shoulder as he presses up and down on his uncle’s chest.
Rae starts moving what she can to make a little more room whilst I take Steve’s place. He stands up awkwardly and throws the phone on the bed, then sits down next to it. He tells us he’s been with his uncle for a couple of hours, fallen asleep and then woken by a terrible gasping kind of groan. His uncle had pitched over to the left, and when he checked he found he wasn’t breathing and didn’t have a pulse.
‘What does your uncle suffer with?’
‘He’s got cancer, really bad, all over. Some other stuff.’
The cancer isn’t a surprise. Poor Mr Cooper looks pretty terminal. His body is so emaciated, as soon as I start compressions I feel that sickening crack as his ribs give way. It’s like pressing on an old wicker basket.
‘Does your uncle have a care folder?’ asks Rae. She’s thinking the same as me.
He fetches it from the pile of papers and boxes of inco pads by the TV. Rae opens it – then holds it up, there, first page, the distinctively red bordered DNAR sheet.
‘Signed, looks current,’ she says.
I stop compressions.
‘That sheet means your uncle doesn’t want anyone to resuscitate him,’ I say, kneeling back on my heels and rubbing my nose with the back of my hand. ‘Sorry, Steve. We have to go by that. You did really well, though.’
‘DNAR. Do Not Attempt Resuscitation. Your uncle’s had a conversation with the doctors and the family and decided if his heart stopped he didn’t want anyone to get it going again. But you weren’t to know, so don’t worry.’
‘That’s okay. Look – why don’t you go and get yourself a cup of tea or something whilst we make him comfortable? We’ll put your uncle back to bed and take care of everything here, then we’ll come downstairs, have a chat and do the paperwork. Okay?’
‘Do you want a cup of tea?’
‘That’d be great, Steve. Thanks. White, none.’
He stands up, hesitates for a moment, then steps over his uncle to leave the room.
‘I’ll do a ring around,’ he says, more to himself than us. He goes downstairs.
Mr Cooper’s family all seem to live locally. In the time it takes us to settle him back in bed and put the room to rights, half a dozen sons, daughters-in-law, brothers and so on are gathered in the front room, hugging each other, crying, pacing around, taking it in turns to make the walk upstairs.
Despite all this, Steve has still remembered our tea.
‘You’re a good boy,’ says a tired looking woman, sitting at a pine table at the far end of the room, an old Border Terrier on her lap.
‘Can I sit down here with you?’
She smiles and pushes a chair out with her slippered foot. The dog fixes me with a stare.
‘I’m his wife, Jean,’ she says. She ruffles the dog’s ears. ‘And this is Jinx.’
‘I’m sorry for your loss.’
She sighs and then presses the side of her face to Jinx’ snout.
‘We knew he didn’t have long, didn’t we? I suppose we were ready for it. Well – I say ready. I don’t feel all that ready, now it’s happened. It’s a relief for Stan, though. These last few weeks haven’t been all that easy for him. We did what we could, but he knew his time was up. He wanted to be off.’
The dog licks its chops and stares at me. He looks so grizzled and wise, it’s like he’s waiting for me to say something so he can add something weighty of his own.
I take a sip of tea.
Rae comes back in from the truck and sits with us.
‘I’d only gone out to take Jinxie for his walk,’ says Jean, leaning back in the chair and squeezing Jinx like a wiry pillow. ‘Typical, in’t it? D’you think he minded I weren’t there?’
‘I don’t think so. From what Steve was saying it sounds like he died in his sleep. I think that’s a pretty good way to go. And I think you know when you’re surrounded by the people you love, even if they’re not actually there with you.’
She kisses Jinx on the head and looks out on the room, which is so crowded now they’ve had to open the patio doors. All the men in this family seem to be giants; one more and the floor is bound to give way.
‘I don’t know,’ says Jean. ‘I suppose the next thing is how to feed this lot.’