Jeffrey opens the door to us. A stooped and shuffling man in his early seventies, it’s immediately apparent he can’t talk. He makes grunting noises as best he can, peering up at us to see if we understand. He turns, and leads us inside to a set of steep stairs. We follow him up to where his mum lies in bed, staring at the ceiling. A wide, rose-pink bloodstain spreads like a spilled bloom of ink on the pillow either side of her head. The brightness of Agnes’ blue eyes contrasts with her ancient body, like seeing an unexpectedly bright light in the window of a dilapidated house.
‘Oh – I don’t need anybody!’ she says. ‘I’ll be fine.’
Agnes had a fall coming out of the bathroom. She went over backwards and caught her head on the radiator. She wasn’t knocked out, but she couldn’t get back on her feet. She bum-shuffled along the corridor, and then Jeffrey helped her into bed. He pressed the red button, the ambulance was alerted.
‘I’m sure I’ll be fine,’ she says. ‘I just need to rest.’
It’ll take more than that, though. Agnes has a nasty laceration on the back of her head, and it looks like she may have fractured her shoulder. Despite her pain, she’s still more concerned about Jeffrey.
‘You’ll be okay, won’t you darling?’ she says to him. ‘There’s plenty of food in the fridge. Margaret will come over at tea time. I’ll give Graham a call, just so he knows, and he can do a ring around. Okay? Give me your hand, darling. It’ll be fine. They’ll stitch me up and kick me out before you can say jiminy cricket. Won’t they? Hey?’
We help Agnes into our chair and carry her down the stairs. Jeffrey waits for us at the bottom. He follows us outside, but doesn’t come any further than the grass verge.
‘Don’t get cold’ says Agnes, blowing him a kiss. ‘Get back inside and have a nice cup of tea. I won’t be gone long.’
As soon as she’s on the ambulance trolley with the door shut, the effort of maintaining a front for Jeffrey falls away. She sinks back into the trolley and suddenly seems much older.
When I look up from my paperwork, Agnes is looking at me.
‘Enjoy your work?’ she says.
‘Yes, I do. It’s got its difficulties, like anything else. Annoying management, you know. Politics. You get that in any job. The good thing is in the ambulance you can pretty much ignore all that stuff. It’s still just you and your mate, driving around, helping people. I think that’s why I’ve stuck it so long. What about you? What did you do before you retired?’
‘Oh – I never really worked. I had a job as a secretary for a while, but then I had kids and that was that. They were my full time job.’
‘How many kids did you have?’
‘One by my first husband and seven by my second.’
‘I’m from a family of seven.’
‘What number are you?’
‘Five. I feel like I should have it spray-painted on my back, like a sheep.’
‘That’d make things easier.’
‘Come in number five, your time’s up.’
‘I think that’s boats, not sheep.’
‘Sheep in boats.’
‘I’m the one who cracked their noggin, not you.’
‘No. I blame my mother.’
‘The poor thing.’
We ride on in silence for a while.
‘I do worry about Jeffrey though,’ she says.
‘He’s the child I had with my first husband. He’s lived with me ever since. I worry what’ll happen to him when I go.’
‘It must be a worry.’
‘He couldn’t go into a home.’
‘But what else is there?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘The rest of my children wouldn’t have him. They’re sweet and everything, but it’s just not something they’d do.’
‘No. I suppose it’s quite a big ask.’
She gently prods her head and winces.
‘Do you suppose I’ll be in long?’ she says.
‘I shouldn’t think so. It’s hard to say.’
‘This is such rotten luck,’ she says.
She looks a bit teary so I hand her some tissue. ‘We were doing so well,’ she says, dabbing her eyes and then blowing her nose with a business-like twist. ‘Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!’
‘Try not to worry,’ I tell her. ‘These things happen. We’ve just got to get you better and get you home as soon as possible.’
‘I know – but honestly!’
‘It’ll be fine.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘I have the solemn word of number five?’
‘Give me your hand.’
I give it.
She shakes it.
‘Then I’m happy with that,’ she says. And closes her eyes, and rests back on the trolley.