Stephanie waves to us from the top of the concrete ramp that runs up through the garden to the front door. The lilac print dressing gown she wears barely seems to make contact with her slight frame.
‘Richard’s on the floor again and I’m terribly sorry but we just can’t get him up. He’s in an awkward position, you see, sort of wedged up on his side under the radiator. I don’t think he’s caused himself an injury, but we’ve tried everything to get him up and in the end we had to admit defeat and call you out. I’m so sorry.’
Charlotte, Stephanie’s old friend from up country, is waiting in the bedroom. She could almost pass as a successful clone of her friend, the only difference being a foot less in height, an avian perkiness , and roses instead of lilacs on her dressing gown.
‘Here they are, Richard. We’ll soon have you up for tea and biscuits.’
Whilst we check him over, Stephanie tells us about Richard’s condition, a rare Parkinsonism diagnosed four years ago, just as they started on their retired life together.
Stephanie’s right – Richard hasn’t hurt himself. We go through our routine, and after five minutes or so, have him up and sitting on a chair.
‘Let’s give you a thorough examination,’ Rae says. ‘And decide if anything else needs doing after that.’
We help walk him through to the sitting room, to his electric chair. Stephanie arranges the orthopaedic cushions, the foot support, the napkin, everything exactly so.
‘I’ll make tea,’ says Charlotte. ‘Early Grey all right? Milk and sugar?’
‘I feel so wretched about this, Charlotte,’ says Stephanie.
‘Oh don’t be silly.’
‘We had such a nice day planned.’
Stephanie turns to us. ‘I’ve known Charlotte for years. Well – since nineteen sixty-four, to be precise.’
‘Nineteen sixty-four!’ says Charlotte.
‘She lives quite a way away...’
‘It’s not that far.’
‘So we don’t see each other as much as we’d like.’
‘I’d come down more often but I’m a big cowardy custard when it comes to the motorway. All those lorries thundering down on you from all directions. I’m like this...’ She mimes someone gripping onto a steering wheel, head down, peering up right and left. Then she relaxes again. ‘So I take the train.’
‘You should see her bags,’ says Stephanie, handing me a neat file containing all Richard’s medical notes.
‘I’m a regular pack mule,’ she says. ‘Is that the expression? Pack mule? You see, the day before I have a monstrous baking session. And next morning I’m on the platform with a little tow-along suitcase with my clothes, and a special trolley for all my cakes. There’s a chocolate sponge, a Victoria sponge, a date and walnut special, a box of nutty nobs and a case of shortbread. It’s a wonder they can fit me on at all. Now then – just remind me. Who’s sugar and who isn’t?’
She hurries into the kitchen.
‘We were going out to the local National Trust gardens,’ says Stephanie, taking off her glasses and cleaning them with a little yellow lens cloth she takes from the glass case on the arm of the chair. ‘But I don’t think I’m happy leaving Richard when he’s had this fall. His nerves have been all jangled up.’
Charlotte appears back in the doorway.
‘Honestly, Stephanie. I’ll be more than happy with a stroll round the block. More than happy.’
She goes back into the kitchen.
‘Anna the carer is due round at ten, so he wouldn’t be on his own,’ says Stephanie, putting her glasses back on, refolding the yellow cloth, putting it back in the case. And it’s only twenty minutes away, so if anything cropped up we could be back in no time.’
‘It’s important for you to take time for yourself,’ says Rae. ‘We don’t want you falling ill with the stress.’
‘Do you think that might be all right, then? Twenty minutes away, if that? I have my phone on the whole time.’
‘I think that’ll be fine.’
Charlotte comes in with a tray of tea and cake.
‘There!’ she says.
‘I love the park,’ says Stephanie, taking a mug from the tray. ‘I go there with Richard just about every week.’ She sips her tea. ‘It’s lovely to see the gardens at different times of the year. The daffodils and bluebells in the spring. The rhododendrons and azaleas around the lake. You get to know all the little quirks. The individual specimens, how they change as the seasons progress. That’s my rest, really. My prayer. It keeps me sane.’Charlotte puts her mug down and hands round a plate of shortbread. ‘The thing is, once I’ve off-loaded all these cakes, I’ve got plenty of room in my trolley for some of the wonderful plants they sell in the shop,’ she says. ‘But honestly, Stephanie, I’d be more than happy if we just took a stroll around the block.’