A row of early-Victorian terraced houses over-looking the park, each house sweetly maintained with paths of black and white mosaic tiles, lines of clipped box and laurel hedges, multi-coloured fan-lights on lead-glassed front doors. A smart location, the kind of move high-achievers make two properties in on their Game of Life. Expensive houses, just a turn of the four by four from the commuter station, the Pilates studio, the good school, and that bijou row of shops on the top road selling handmade chocolates, shabby chic furniture, and more expensive properties, further out of town, with land.
Rae’s been here before, but even so we’d hardly struggle to find it. Mr Dyer’s house stands out like a rotten tooth in the middle of a smile. The garden is dark and wild. There are discoloured and sagging curtains in his window. Ragged curls of paint lift from the sashes.
The front door stands open.
Just inside the hallway is the neighbour who called us, a smart, peach-lipped, black-bobbed woman in fake fur and ankle boots.
‘He’s really not coping,’ she says, leaning in. ‘Especially now his sister’s gone. It can’t go on. We’re at our wits’ end. He’s got no relatives, at least none that we’ve seen. He keeps sacking his carers for one reason or another, but he definitely needs something because he’s got all these problems and he’s just – well – old.’
‘So what’s happened this morning?’
‘I came round to see how he was and I found him half-collapsed at the sink. I helped him back into his chair and then called you.’
‘I can lock up when you’ve gone.’
She opens the door wider, and stands aside.
Mr Dyer is sprawled on his kitchen chair, his long legs splayed right and left, the bandages on each foot seeping and discoloured. There’s a single barred electric wall-heater just above his head, broiling his scalp. He is wearing a huge pair of glasses so thumb-printed and dirty he may as well have cataracts. He squints as we go up to him.
‘It’s my groin,’ he says, plucking at his corduroys. ‘I’d rather you just cut if off. It’s not like I have any use for it these days – except for going to the you-know-what. I wouldn’t mind betting they could fashion some other arrangement. It sounds drastic but it’s how I feel. It itches so terribly it’s almost what I’d call pain, and all the creams the doctors gave me are useless. I may as well smear myself in margarine. And then there’s my hip. I get such pain from it, I just don’t know what to do...’
As he talks I take in the details of his kitchen – the wallpaper peeling down from the ceiling, the spotted photographs on the shelf, the meagre display of tinned salmon, packets of biscuits and mouldy fruit in the cabinet. A packet of sugar, a saucer of old tea bags.
‘Mr Dyer? Mr Dyer? Tell me what’s happened today? Your neighbour says you were collapsed by the sink? Had you fallen over and hurt yourself?’
‘I’m always falling over but I rarely hurt myself. I have this hip, you see. It gives me such a lot of bother. Normally I can get along by myself but today it was all getting a little too much. I used to have carers, of course, but I only have one a week now and she’s no earthly good. I let all the others go. I mean, they don’t do anything, certainly not anything I can see. And it’s not as if I need that much help. I struggle to get about, it’s true. I suffer with my hip and it’s as much as I can do not to cry out when I move, but that aside I think I’m doing pretty well. It takes me a while to get from one place to another, and although I don’t have the agility I once had, I get by, do you know? Of course, the one thing I do regret is losing my sister. She had a stroke and she’s in hospital at the moment. I don’t know if she’ll be coming out. No-one’s said anything. We used to manage pretty well together, but then again we were younger. We had a bit more vim...’
I decide to take him in, partly for the groin issue, partly for the hip, but mainly because his mobility does seem reduced and he’s not safe to leave at home.
‘Will you phone my sister? I don’t want to worry her but I suppose she should be kept informed.’
We pass a picture of her up on the wall. The two of them together, side by side, middle-aged, looking out of the frame with the same, gloomy expression.
We get Mr Dyer into our carry chair and manoeuvre him out of the house. The contrast between the dull interior and the blue of the sky outside is overwhelming. There are families taking advantage of the brighter weather , strolling through the park, children shouting, playing on bikes, running around. Immediately opposite Mr Dyer’s house is a big old pine.
‘What a lovely tree,’ I say to him.
‘It’s not a tree, it’s a hedge.’
‘No, not that. Across the road, in the park. Is that a Scot’s pine?’
‘It’s always been there,’ he sniffs.
I try to imagine Mr Dyer as a child, eighty years ago, running around the park with his sister under the boughs of the old pine, but it’s too much of a stretch. He was always this old.
As I wheel him backwards onto the ambulance ramp, a little girl stops to watch. She waves, and then bites her mitten as she’s done something incredibly naughty – but then her mother catches up, grabs her by the arm and urges her on. ‘Don’t be so nosy,’ she says. The little girl glances behind at us, waves one last time – and then disappears round the corner.