‘Another interesting fact about the sperm whale,’ says Cory, yawning, leaning back against the metal of the pissiliferous lift as it rattles us up to the top floor. ‘They don’t eat plankton, like your normal whale. They eat giant squid. Which sounds more like the kind of thing a whale should be eating. But they can’t digest the beak, you see. So to ease its passage, it gets covered in this protective gunk called ambergris. So then the sperm whale does his business, swims on, the shit gets rolled around in the surf, and if you’re lucky enough to find any on the beach you can sell it for a thousand pounds because it turns out it’s an expensive ingredient in perfume making.’
‘That sounds about right. Don’t they use secretions from some anal gland somewhere? A Musk? Is that right?’
‘What’s a musk?’
‘I don’t know. Some kind of rat?’
‘I think there’s been some musk in here recently.’
The door opens.
The automatic landing lights flicker on.
The storm is getting worse. It moans beyond the black of the opposite window, hurling sudden fistfuls of rain like gravel against the glass.
Mrs Adams’ door is unlocked. Cory knocks. We walk in.
A light on in the room at the end of the hallway. Mrs Adams, shouting into her phone, no doubt to Control.
‘...Now you listen to me. My sheets are wet through and I want them changed. Do you understand? It’s simple enough. Who are you exactly? Hmm? What are you saying? .. I’m not interested in your stupid questions. What have they got to do with anything? I’ve told you what I want and fail to see where the problem lies...’
The phone is so big it makes her seem small, its buttons so big you could put it on the floor and dance the number out. But I’m guessing Mrs Adams’ dancing days are over, these past seventy years or more. She is sitting in a saggy old armchair, her shoulders and lap heaped up with an assortment of shawls, crocheted throws, jumpers – all this despite the fact that the room is so hot even an orchid grower would faint.
‘Who are these people coming?’ she says. ‘Perhaps they’ll know.’
I introduce us and ask if I can speak to the person on the phone. She grumbles, and thrusts the handset in my direction.
‘It’s the ambulance,’ I tell Control, smiling at Mrs Adams, who ignores me, and irritably plucks at her clothes.
‘Good luck,’ they say, and hang up.
I put the phone aside and crouch down in front of her.
Cory tries to find a care folder.
‘Hello Mrs Adams. What seems to be the matter?’
‘Oh don’t you start,’ she says. ‘Look – this is wet through. Can you sort this out for me, please? I don’t know how I’m supposed to sleep like this.’
‘Hang on a second. Let’s just take a minute to find out what the problem is,’ I say, bundling the blanket up and putting it aside.
‘Don’t do that!’ she says. ‘Why are you doing that? How on earth is it supposed to dry if you just screw it up like that and drop it on the floor? I thought you were here to help me, but you’re not, you’re just making things worse.’
‘We’re an ambulance crew, Mrs Adams. We need to reassure ourselves that you’re okay. Your job is to stay as calm as you can and try to tell us what the matter is.
‘I’ve told you what the matter is. My sheets are wet through, my bed is damp, I’ve got a sore throat and I need to get this sorted. Now look...’
‘So you have a sore throat? Do you have pain anywhere else?’
‘Pick that blanket up and hang it on a radiator, would you? And look – I’m all undraped. I’m going to freeze.’
The fact that it’s half past three in the morning doesn’t help, but I have the fevered impression that I’ve blundered into the burrow of some crotchety old mouse. The walls of the burrow are covered in a crude mosaic of postcards and pictures cut from magazines, pictures of actresses from the twenties and thirties, cupid bow smiles, faerie poses, Laurel and Hardy in rabbit costumes, Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth. Mrs Adams at the centre of the burrow, raging, covered in leaves. A huge cardboard sign propped up on a little bookcase covered in dusty books: Patricia in shaky black pen, and a telephone number.
‘When are you going to do something?’ she says. ‘Don’t touch that! Now what have you done?’
What little checks she allows us to make don’t point to anything serious.
Just as we’re starting on a new approach to find out what the matter could be, the phone rings.
‘Hello? Steven? Thank goodness. I’m sorry to ring you like this but I was at my wits’ end. My blankets are soaked through and I’m absolutely wretched with it. There are some people here who want to speak to you. Just a moment.’
She hands me the phone.
I introduce myself. It turns out Steven is Mrs Adams’ son, in Miami.
Hi there, Spence. Thank you so much for coming out tonight to see my mother. Now Spence. The thing is, my mother is terribly independent and has a hard time accepting help from anybody, apart from Patricia, an old family friend, and even Patricia gets the run around. The thing is, Spence, my mother has always had a flair for the dramatic, shall we say, and it’s not anything that’s been improved with age. She also tends to get a little freaked out whenever she has a cold, which is what she has at the moment. It appears tonight as if she’s become worried about a certain level of dampness in her bedclothes. Is that correct?
- So she says, but to be honest, Steven, they don’t feel at all damp to me.
Okay. Yes. Well. Could you do me a huge favour, Spence?
- Of course.
Who did you say you worked for again?
- The ambulance service.
Okay, fine. Good. Now then Spence. Could you go down to your ambulance and bring up a change of clothes, Spence? Blankets, sheets, that kind of thing? Even if you don’t think hers are all that damp? Because I think the gesture might be enough to calm her down. Could you do that for me, Spence?
- We’ll certainly do what we can to see she’s okay.
I do appreciate that, Spence. Thank you so much. Now, I wonder if I could have a quick word with mother again before I go?
I hand him back.
Whilst she’s talking to him I go over to the little camp bed she has set up in the room, just to see if that’s damp at all, or the sheets need changing. Without taking the phone away from her mouth she shouts across at me: ‘Oh now look what he’s doing! Don’t fiddle with that! You’re making a mess.’
She forgets about Steven on the phone, angrily pulling her coverings about her, cursing and tutting. I say goodbye to Steven properly, reassuring him that we’ll do what we can, and hang up.
‘Pass me the phone’ says Mrs Adams. ‘I need to talk to the Actors’ Benevolent Society.’
‘The Actors’ Benevolent Society. If it’s any of your business. I have an important message for them.’
‘Couldn’t it wait? It’s half past three in the morning.’
‘They have answer machines. Now look, stop making a dreadful mess of things and hand me the phone.’
She jabs out a directory enquiries number, and almost immediately launches into an argument with the operator.
‘It’s in London!’ she shouts. ‘London! Unless it’s moved.’
But then, incredibly, it seems as if they may have put her through. The tone of her voice changes, quite markedly. She stops grabbing at the shawls and throws, and starts stroking them instead, in an abstracted, genteel way, like she’s stroking some particularly fine needlework she’s proud of.
‘Oh hello, ‘ she simpers. ‘Mrs Adams here. I just wanted to phone to offer my sincerest congratulations to Penelope. Penelope Keith, that is. Dame Penelope. I just wanted to say many congratulations, Penelope. And not before time.’
She leans forward and leers into the mouthpiece.
‘Very well done. She’s achieved such a lot. Long may she reign. It’s not an accolade I would seek for myself, particularly, I have to say. But some people set such a lot of store by these things, and it would be churlish of me to say more. Anyway, I just wanted to add my congratulations, and to say if you would like a donation to your benevolent fund, then do let me know, and I’ll send you a little cheque. Goodbye.’
She hands me the phone.
‘Were you an actress?’ I ask her.
‘An actress? My dear, anyone who can stand up straight and string two words together can work in rep. Now will you stop all this messing about and do what I have asked you do to do?’
I carry on writing out the paperwork whilst Cory has a go at reassuring Mrs Adams that actually everything is fine. He’s much better at it than I am, absorbing her fury, smoothing it over, settling her down. By the time I’ve finished she’s even talking about making a donation to the ambulance benevolent fund.‘If you have such a thing,’ she sniffs. ‘Now then, where’s the phone? I’m going to call Patricia.’