All the houses in the crescent are set back behind high flint walls and wooden gates that go all the way up to arches of brick. Through the gate, into a courtyard garden, with an antique, two-seater iron bench and table over a neat circle of slabs in the middle; around it, branching off with studied irregularity, containers of shrubs and palms, a Laburnum and a raised bed of flowers. The sunlight filters through its branches as we pass along a narrow pathway, brushing past rosemary and lavender, to a large ammonite by a boot-scraper at the front door.
The door is as perfect as the garden, each pane delicately inscribed with flowers, stars, fleur-de-lys, with a weathered lion’s head knocker in the centre of it all, and a bell-pull to the side.
When Rae raps with the knocker, the sound is indecently loud.
Mr Ravenscroft must have been waiting in the hall because the door opens almost immediately. I imagine thirty years ago he would have filled the doorway, pushing his thick hair back in exactly the same way, but age has taken inches off his considerable height, and his hair is grey.
‘Thank you for coming,’ he says. ‘Look – we didn’t really want to call but frankly we’ve run out of ideas. My wife June had an operation on her back a week ago, and she’s been very fragile. Getting about is a problem for her, using the loo and so on. This morning she fell over and banged her hip. I was out shopping at the time, so she had to get herself up somehow and put herself back to bed. And she hasn’t moved since. Her hip’s giving her an awful lot of pain, the analgesia she was discharged with doesn’t seem to be helping all that much, and what with one thing and another we seem to have come to the end of our rope. Would you mind taking a look? Sorry to bother you and all that.’
He leads us inside, to the bottom of an elegant flight of stairs.
The interior of the house is even more striking than the garden. Every inch of wall space is taken up with beautiful pictures. There are delicate, vividly-coloured woodcuts of birds and trees and landscapes, abstract tapestries, designs for theatre posters, collages, wooden panels painted with cherubs and devils, simple life studies in charcoal and china pencil. It’s a riotous gallery. You could spend a day in the hallway alone
‘My wife,’ says Mr Ravenscroft. ‘That’s another thing she finds frustrating, of course. Not being able to work.’
June is lying on her back in the bedroom upstairs, itself an exuberantly decorated place, with marionettes dangling from the chiffonier, carved wooden hands, dancing skeletons, butterfly mobiles, masks, painted mirrors– in fact, so much, it’s hard to concentrate on what’s being said. Luckily, Rae is the attendant. I can just stand there, ready to act, discreetly looking round.
It’s clear that June needs to go in to hospital for an X-ray. Even though she doesn’t show any obvious signs of a fractured hip, the fact that she can’t weight-bear, can’t lift her leg up off the mattress, can’t even push herself up the bed without an extraordinary amount of pain, inevitably means an X-ray is the next step.
‘Can’t I go private?’ she says. ‘I have insurance.’
‘Well – this counts as trauma, and the private hospital doesn’t have an A and E so probably wouldn’t accept you. I’m afraid it means a trip down the road with us. Maybe after they’ve run some tests and know what the problem is, you’ll have the option of transferring privately.’
‘I really don’t want to go to the A and E,’ she says, looking appalled. ‘I’ll be there for hours. Won’t I? Hours and hours? And what about all the bugs you read about?’
‘Don’t worry about that,’ says Rae. ‘They’re getting on top of the bug situation.’
June holds her hand out to her husband.
‘Oh Simon,’ she says. ‘Please don’t let them take me.’
‘We don’t have to take you,’ says Rae. ‘It’s your choice. All we can do is give our opinion – which in this case is for you to come with us to hospital for an X-ray. The alternative is to stay at home and have your doctor out. But I’m almost certain he’ll say the same as us. It’ll just be delaying the inevitable.’
‘I don’t see what else we can do, darling,’ says Simon. ‘We’ve tried everything else.’
‘But the hospital darling. You’ve read those stories, too.’
‘Yes, I know, but look here - you may have broken your hip.’
‘Can’t I just stay in bed and rest? I’ll be fine.’
‘Darling – you haven’t been all that fine so far, have you? Be realistic.’
‘But the hospital?’ She turns her head and looks at Rae again. ‘How on earth am I to get there?’
‘We’ll take you.’
‘How will I get down stairs?’
‘We’ll carry you.’
‘Yep. On a special chair.’
‘If you think it’s absolutely necessary, I’ll go. But I’ll need my foam mattress for the ambulance. And my lucky shawl. And a little pillow for the carry chair. I’ve just had an operation, you know.’
‘Yes, Simon told us.’
June looks at me.
‘What does that say on your uniform? There – in blue and white.’
‘NHS’ I tell her.
‘And you work for the NHS?’
‘I do, yes.’
‘I see. Well, look. I am prepared to come with you, on the understanding that I travel on my foam mattress, because otherwise I really won’t be able to stand it. And I’ll need my big sunglasses, because it’s bright outside and my eyes aren’t used to it. And please do let me take my lucky shawl. It’s been most places with me and I really can’t be without it.’
I go over to an antique chair and pick up what I think is the lucky shawl.
‘No, not that one. That one.’
I try another.
‘That one! Show him, won’t you, Simon?’
Without really looking he pulls one out and hands it to her, then whilst Rae helps her put it on, shows me back downstairs to where the foam mattress lives.
It’s in a room that’s been turned into a studio, with a kettle and a sink, a printing press and a washing line across the ceiling for hanging prints up to dry. He struggles to keep the mattress folded in half without it springing open and sweeping all the pots of brushes and jars of pencils and things off the work surface.
‘There you are. Got it?’ he says. ‘Sure? Good.’
He breathes heavily, pushes his hair back again. ‘I hope we’re not putting you out too much.’
‘No, no. June needs to go in. Whatever it takes.’
Squeezing the mattress to my chest, struggling to see over the top of it, I waddle back outside, knocking paintings askew, back through the garden, ineffectually paddling around with the latch on the garden gate, blundering on across the street to the ambulance. When I let go of the mattress in the cabin, it springs open, filling the space. I stand there for a moment, seeing June lie on it, flying up in the air whenever we go over a bump. We may as well put her on a trampoline. And I can well imagine the looks from the nurses and the other crews at hospital when we come through the doors.
The NHS. Whatever it takes.