Jonathan leads us through the dark house to the back room where his elderly mother, Mrs Napoli, sits in a wing-backed armchair. There’s a ‘failure to thrive’ feel about the place, as if some dead hand somewhere had turned a dimmer switch way down, not just on the lighting, but on the very life-force of the place. It has all the usual features: the airless, dusty covering over the books and ornaments and piles of magazines; the foxed pictures; the high corners of curling wallpaper; the overgrown windows and the overgrown carpets, with Mrs Napoli sitting in the back room ahead of us, firmly and irrevocably planted in the centre of it all, the corkscrew-nailed, grey-toothed, full-bearded, incontinent matriarch of neglect.
Jonathan re-takes his seat next to her, and smiles accommodatingly.
‘It’s the ambulance, mama.’
She’s been stuck in this chair for a week. There’s a bucket on the floor next to her ballooning legs, but she’s in no position to use it.
She waves a yellowing claw in the air.
‘I’m a bit stuck,’ she says. ‘What can you do for me?’
Luckily, we can move a few things and get our trolley in. We proof it with inco-pads and blankets, so it’s ready to receive. It takes some inelegant manoeuvring and stern words of encouragement to get Mrs Napoli out of the chair, but at least she can weight bear to some extent. With a couple of (elephantine) dolly steps backwards, she makes it on to the trolley. I lift her legs up using a blanket so she can pivot into a semi-recumbent position.
‘What will they do for me at the hospital?’ she says. ‘Will they get me on my feet again?’
On the ambulance, her son Jonathan watches as we run through our basic observations. Jonathan is a curious figure – well turned out in chinos, jersey and jacket. He lives with his mother, so there must be at least one clean, clear space in the house.
He leans forward in his seat. A pair of large, steel-framed glasses dominate his face, slightly enlarging his eyes, giving him a strangely dilute aspect. It’s like being studied by some giant but largely harmless aquatic creature, pressed up against the glass in the aquarium.
‘You’ll be fine, mum,’ he smiles. ‘You’re in the best hands.’
‘I need to get to your upper arm to do your blood pressure, Mrs Napoli, but this cardigan is so tight I think you’re going to struggle. Is it all right if I cut it?’
Actually, I’m guessing it’s a cardigan. This fetid scrap of pink might once have had a label, but you’d need someone in forensics to verify.
‘No! I’ll take it off.’
I do what I can to help but really, it’s impossible. Mrs Napoli’s too weak to sit up and too plump to bend sufficiently in the middle.
‘It’s not going to work, Mrs Napoli. They’ll cut it off at the hospital. I really don’t think it’s worth keeping.’
‘Well if you must,’ she says.
I cut up from the cuff to the shoulder.
The shears meet no resistance, make no sound.