Elizabeth is waiting for us in the conservatory. A tall, powerfully-built woman in her seventies, she has the worn, slightly bewildered demeanour of an athlete who threw a javelin so hard it never came back to earth.
‘David’s in the bathroom,’ she says, pushing the silvery strands of her hair back and showing us inside. ‘He didn’t fall with a terrible clatter or anything, but he’s rather unsteady on his feet and a little reluctant to bend in the middle. I tried to get him up myself, but I’m afraid I couldn’t quite manage it. He’s had problems with his back for years. The other thing is a touch of dementia, but we rub along, you know? So sorry to call you out like this.’
The house is tastefully decorated, landscape watercolours on the walls, silver photoframes on highly-polished furniture, the whole place as neat and perfect as an illustration in a country catalogue. A chair lift snakes round the balustrade up to a sunlit landing and the mosaic-tiled wet room where David is lying on his back, surrounded by cushions. He’s as olympian as his wife, except his health has taken more of a battering. His eyes are a pearlescent gray, and his hands shake when they reach out to us, flailing around without focus when we manipulate him into a better position.
We use our inflatable cushion to get David up from the floor. He can weight bear, but paddles his feet in a dangerously unstable way. We fetch a chair for him to sit on, and stand close in to keep him there whilst we consider our options.
‘Is this shaking new?’
‘No. They think it’s benign, though. Not Parkinson’s. Look – before you say anything – I just want you to know that hospital’s not an option. We’ve had a rotten time of it these last few months. David simply cannot go back there. I hope you understand. It may take some time to get him down the corridor and back to bed, but if you wouldn’t mind bearing with us I’d be terribly grateful.’
In the end we have to wheel him there on a commode. Even alongside the bed, David doesn’t seem able to make the transition. We help him to stand as positively and simply as we can, but at the last minute he loses confidence, relaxes his knees, and we have to sit him back down again. He’s easily distracted, and struggles to understand our instructions.
‘Come on darling,’ says Elizabeth, stroking his silver hair flat and kissing the top of his head. ‘There’s a good boy. We’ll get you to bed. You’ll be comfortable there. You can watch Countryfile. You know how much you enjoyed that last time.’
When she looks up at us she starts to cry.
‘He wasn’t always like this,’ she says. ‘He could do the Times crossword in ten minutes flat. Couldn’t you, darling? Ten minutes?’
She kisses his head again. He turns his head from side to side, like he’s struggling to pinpoint something he can hear in the distance.‘Not the quick crossword. The cryptic one, you know? The difficult one.’ Then ‘Come on, David. You can do it. You’ve got to do it. One last try.’