Doris’ son Malcolm raised the alarm. He was worried about a call he’d had from his mother. But when he answered there was no-one on the line, and when he tried to call back it was permanently engaged. Welfare check read the message on our screen.
Three o’clock in the morning, and the streets run cold beneath a deep blue vacancy that makes you ache for bed. Outside the block we wait at the front door for the Care agency to reply to our call and let us in. It’s one of those intercoms that makes a series of penetrating screeches between each phase of the conversation.
‘Where are they based? says Rae, yawning and leaning back against the wall ‘The moon? What if this was a real emergency?’
There’s nothing to say it isn’t, of course, except experience. The last welfare check I made, I almost gave the old woman a heart attack. When I let myself in she had her back to me, slumped forwards in a chair. I thought she was dead, but when I touched her on the shoulder she leaped about a foot. Turns out she was just deaf, peeling a pear.
Letting you through now says the voice. Beep. Howl. Scratch. Crackle.
Eventually the door clicks and we go through to the lobby. Once the door closes behind us we hear the voice come back on the intercom. Are you in? it says. But of course they couldn’t hear us if we answered. I don’t know why they needed to ask, because we have to pull another cord to be given access to the safe that holds all the keys.
Again, the same screeching delay.
Rae assumes the neutral face and posture of a Shaolin monk, composed and philosophical, but capable of violence. Me, I drop into a padded chair and start grazing through the lifestyle magazines fanned out on the coffee table. It seems to me at this thin and unpromising hour of the night, lifestyle is something I could really use. The glossy pictures don’t help, though. In fact they just exacerbate my feeling of disconnection. I’m like a sick robot in a waiting room, idly wondering how to be human whilst the engineers argue in the workshop about the strange dreams I’ve been having.
‘Let’s go,’ says Rae, rattling a gaoler-fat bunch of keys in my face.
I may actually have fallen asleep.
The landing on the fifth floor is thickly carpeted with silence.
Rae knocks on Doris’ door.
We put our ears to it.
She puts the key in the lock.
‘Ambulance’ she says, turning the key, leaning in.
She pushes a little harder, making enough of a gap for me to peer inside.
It’s completely dark, so I reach in along the wall and feel around for a switch.
A dim overhead light comes on.
There’s something lying on its side across the bottom of the door.
An aluminium step-ladder.
I feel a sudden chill.
Has she hanged herself and kicked it over? Is that why she rang her son?
There are other things piled up against the door, too. A sewing-machine, and a pair of jeans, rolled up and stuffed into the gap between the floor and the bottom of the door.
I push the door a little harder and make more of a gap. It’s only then that I see there’s an internal door immediately facing this one. A door with two rectangles of glass in the middle. In the right hand pane is the face of an elderly woman, her wiry hair shocked out in a halo of white, her eyes and face slack.
‘Hello! Doris? It’s the ambulance,’ I say, trying to sound composed. ‘Can we come in? Malcolm’s worried about you?’
She doesn’t answer, but clutches her nightie to her throat and withdraws into the shadowy room behind her.
I reach round, move the things as best I can.
We go in.
I open the second door and turn some more lights on.
Doris is standing in the middle of the room.
‘Who are you?’ she says. ‘What do you want?’
‘We’re the ambulance, Doris. Look…’ I say, pointing to the badge on the left of my shirt, then to the blue and white NHS logo on the right.
She peers closer to look.
‘Are you okay, Doris?’
Rae puts on more lights.
The room is warm, comfortable, orderly.
‘Why don’t you have a seat, Doris?’ she says, plumping some cushions in what must be Doris’ favourite chair.
Doris walks over and settles into it; Rae kneels down next to her. I sit opposite.
‘Do you mind if we check you over and make sure you’re okay?’ says Rae, flipping her open the lid of her obs bag. ‘Malcolm asked us to come over. He was worried because he got a late night call from you but when he answered there was no-one there.’
‘No-one there? Who called him if there wasn’t anyone there?’
‘Did you call him?’
‘I’m always calling Malcolm, poor boy. He must be sick and tired of it.’
‘But did you call him tonight?’
‘Probably. I can’t remember. What a fool I am.’
She shrugs and folds her arms contentedly.
‘I’m sorry to put everyone out,’ she says. ‘I know you’ve got better things to do than chase round town after crazy old women.’
‘Malcolm was worried.’
I can see from here that the phone is off the hook, so I go over to replace it. It’s one of those Land of the Giants-style phones, with buttons big enough to sit on. There are a line of blank, speed dial buttons down the right hand side. Three of them have tiny portrait photos on them.
‘Is that Malcolm?’ I ask her, pointing to the face at the top.
‘Ye-es,’ she says. ‘Oh, I lead him a merry dance.’
‘Do you mind if I give him a quick call, to let him know everything’s okay?’
‘Be my guest,’ she says. ‘Can I get you anything? A cup of tea?’
‘That’s very kind. But don’t worry. I’ll just give him a quick call to let him know everything’s okay, then I’ll make you one.’
‘Oh lovely,’ she says. ‘Two sugars. The milk should still be all right.’ And she holds out her arm for Rae to put on the blood pressure cuff.
Malcolm answers after one ring. He tells me his mother has been having some hallucinations recently, which explains the furniture. She’s having tests, so it’s all in hand. Normally when she rings he’s able to reassure her everything’s fine, but this time when she didn’t answer he was worried she’d had a fall or something. He apologises, says he’d have taken care of it himself but his situation at home tonight meant he wasn’t free to come out.
‘Thanks for all you’ve done,’ he says. ‘I’m so sorry you got called.’
‘All fine,’ says Rae, folding up her steth and stowing it in her bag. ‘A clean bill of health.’
‘Lovely,’ says Doris. ‘Sorry to drag you out for nothing. And I’m sorry if I gave you a bit of a fright. But you see, I thought it was the singers again. That’s why I put all those things against the door.’
‘Singers. The three of them. They stayed a week last time. I couldn’t get rid of them.’
Doris takes a shaky sip of tea.
‘So – who do you think these singers are?’ I ask her.
‘Just people who go around. You’ve seen them, no doubt. I just didn’t like the fact they came in and stayed all that time. They drove me bananas.’
‘What were they singing?’
‘Oh you know. Numbers. Words. That kind of thing. They wouldn’t shut up. In the end I had to trick them outside and then lock the door. I rang my policeman friend about it, but I’m worried he’s getting sick of me, too. He’s so tiny,’ she says, putting her cup back on its saucer with a worrying rattle. ‘He’s only this big (thumb over forefinger – about an inch). I thought they had to be taller than that, but apparently they relaxed the entry conditions.’
She leans forward and puts the cup and saucer on the table, then settles back in the chair again.
‘Oh my goodness, look at him!’ she laughs, tapping Rae on the shoulder and pointing at me. ‘Taking mental notes. He thinks I’m completely doolally.’ She leans in to Rae for a pantomime whisper.
I bet he’s going to write it all down and publish it!
I bet he’s going to write it all down and publish it!