Meg lies sprawled on the floor against the chair where she fell, the trolley overturned in front of her, the contents of its plastic tray scattered around her across the carpet: pills, inhalers, a TV guide, remote control, an empty glass tumbler, coins, toffees and a couple of sparkling ear rings.
‘Help me up,’ she says, waggling her hand in the air. ‘I’ve been here half an hour.’
We give her the quick once over, then get her back on her feet. She grabs at us when we encourage her to find her balance, pinching the backs of our arms.
‘We’ve got you, Meg. You’re perfectly safe. Just take a moment to get your balance. Come on. Where do you want to sit?’
But I hardly need ask, judging by the well-worn cushions in the armchair by the fire, everything arranged to hand.
‘Just a minute..’
She moves her swollen legs stiffly, from the hip, strangely up on her toes, like an astronaut in a spacesuit.
‘Just a minute, now.’
She lets out a sigh as we lower her into the chair, and puts her hands out right and left to stroke the armrests.
‘Thank you, thank you, thank you,’ she says, tearfully. ‘I thought I was down for good. I thought I was going to die.’
‘Do you want a cup of tea or something?’
‘No thank you. But make one for yourself, if you like. Go on. I don’t mind. I’m sorry I had to call you out.’
‘Let’s do all your bits and pieces, Meg. Your blood pressure and the rest. Do you think you might want to go to hospital?’
‘Hospital? I’m allergic to hospitals.’
‘Me too. God knows why I’m in this job.’
Rae goes into the kitchen to find the care folder; I kneel down next to Meg’s chair and get the obs kit out.
Hello? Meg? Are you all right?
The door opens and a gigantic man clumps in. With his stump teeth, spade hands and big bass voice, he could play the ogre in a pantomime with very little need for make-up.
‘Hello!’ I say, weakly.
I saw the ambulance he booms. I thought to myself – now I bet that’s Meg. Are you okay, poppet?
He reaches down to pat her on the shoulder; it’s like watching the boom of some massive crane swing into action. Meg drapes a hand over his, and presses her cheek to it.
‘Donald,’ she says. ‘I just want to die.’
Nonsense. Don’t talk like that, Meg. You’ll go when the good Lord’s ready and not a moment sooner.
‘But I am ready, Donald. I’m ninety-four. I’ve had my time. I just want to go to sleep and never wake up.’
Come on, Meg. That’s not like you.
He swivels his bucket head to look at me.
Is she okay? Has she broken anything?
‘Nope. I think she got away with it this time.’
Rae comes in from the kitchen and almost drops the folder.
‘Oh. Hello,’ she says.
I think you guys – and girl, h’ur! – I think you do a wonderful job.
Donald bends down and starts clearing up the mess.
‘He’s so good to me,’ says Meg, holding out her arm so I can unwrap the blood pressure cuff. ‘If it wasn’t for Donald and Flora I wouldn’t be here now.’
Flora’s great, says Donald, scooping the entire contents of the trolley into one massive palm and transferring it carefully to the table. Flora’s her niece. Comes round once a week, even though she’s quite a way away. Not like the others. You never see them from one day to the next. But no doubt they’ll come out of the woodwork in due course. Shout if you need anything.
He sits himself down on a low chair by the sitting room cabinet, and begins flicking through an old copy of Treasure Island.
The phone rings. I pass it to Meg. She starts crying when she tells the person on the other end what happened. Donald catches my eye. Flora he mouths, then raises his eyebrows and goes back to his book.
Meg is too upset to say much more; she hands me the phone.
‘Is that the paramedic?’ says Flora.
‘Yep. Don’t worry about Meg. She’s had a bit of a tumble but everything’s okay. It’s a bit of a shock to the system, that’s all.’
‘Is that damned caretaker with her?’
I glance across at Donald. He looks up and gives me a cavernous, stump-toothed smile. Flora is speaking quite loudly on the phone and I wonder if he can hear me. I press the phone more tightly to my ear.
‘I’m not surprised,’ she says. ‘He’s always round. Does she smell of drink?’
‘Because that’s what he does. He goes round there and encourages her to drink. That’s why she’s fallen over in the past. Look – I’m coming up the day after tomorrow. I’ve got a meeting with social services because I’m not happy with the way things are going. But you think she’ll be okay tonight?’
‘I think so, yes.’
‘Okay. Thank you.’
I hand the phone back to Meg, who presses it to her face like it’s a gadget for soaking up tears.
Donald stands up, ducking his head at the last minute so it doesn’t extend through the ceiling.
What did she say? Is she coming?
‘Yep. The day after tomorrow.’
That’s grand. I knew she would. Now there’s a woman who knows her mind.
He winks at me, closes the book, caresses it absent-mindedly, then places it back on the sideboard where he found it.