Mr Baxter and his son, Michael, stand shoulder to shoulder. Unblinking, they lean forward together, peering into my face like I’m a ghost that’s materialised in the dim red hallway.
‘She’s been in bed a good while,’ says Mr Baxter. ‘The doctor said on the phone he wants her in.’
‘Mum’s got a lot of problems,’ says Michael. ‘A lot. And now she’s not eating or drinking.’
‘Let’s go up and see her, shall we?’
‘Mind the carpet.’
The whole house feels slack, a rotten hush about it.
‘To the left,’ says Michael, too close behind me on the stairs.
Into a cluttered bedroom, the wardrobe right up against the door so you can only open it half way and squeeze in sideways.
Cloyingly sweet air. Mrs Baxter on a double bed.
‘She can’t talk much,’ says Mr Baxter, standing at the foot of the bed. ‘But I can tell you everything you need to know.’
‘Has the doctor been out?’
‘No. He did it on the phone.’
‘And what did he say?’
‘He wants her in.’
She certainly needs to go. Sepsis, and whatever else. She’s in poor condition, her long hair dragged in filthy strands across her scalp.
‘How does she make it to the toilet?’
‘She doesn’t. She’s got pads.’
‘Does she have carers?’
‘No. What happens if she fills her pads and they’ve just gone out the door? If I do it, I’m here all the time.’
‘That makes sense.’
Except the lack of contact has meant Mrs Baxter has fallen off the radar somewhat.
‘We’ll need to get the chair in somehow.’
‘Mind the carpet,’ says Michael.
It is a struggle to get Mrs Baxter out, but we make every movement, every little rearrangement of furniture as slow and calm as we can. Between Rae and I we keep up a bland commentary: Now the blanket. That’s it. We’ll just make a little hood here. To keep you snug, because it’s been so windy today. There. Great. Now if you could just... lovely. The whole time Mr Baxter and his son watching us carefully, too close in front, too close behind, breathing through slack mouths.
If I could just get a little room there, Michael. Fine. That’s great.
As we’re setting the chair down at the bottom of the stairs, I notice what’s on the wall opposite. An old display case with a tableau of stuffed animals – a snake with its tail round a mouse. The snake’s fangs flare; the mouse strains forward with its paws.
We’ll just need to swing out a little so we can clear that step. Brilliant. Thank you.
It’s great to be outside. The air is so fresh.
Once Mrs Baxter is safely on the ambulance trolley and we’ve concluded a round of obs, I head back to the house to get a contact number. Neither Mr Baxter nor his son are coming with us; Mr Baxter can’t leave the house, Michael has work in the morning.
‘I hope that’s all right,’ he says, the two of them standing together in the hallway as before.
‘Of course. Whatever suits. It’s late anyway. You’re better off ringing in the morning to see how things are. If I could just get that number off you...’
Whilst I’m writing it down, there’s a movement from deep inside the house. An elderly woman appears, loping up from the shadowy interior, heading for the stairs. She pauses, and turns to look at me as she puts her hand on the rail. One of her eyes is completely white.
‘Hello!’ I say.
She gives me a pained kind of smile, like the rictus on the mouse in the case, then turns and trudges up the stairs.