We’ve been on scene an hour and Stephen has only made it from his chair to the sitting room door, a distance of no more than three feet. Lack of sleep and a low-grade virus has exacerbated his Parkinson’s leaving him weak and unsteady. To make matters worse, his house is so cluttered with piles of books, boxes of stuff, war gaming manuals and so on, his zimmer frame keeps getting caught up. The only way we manage to get him to walk at all is to put a hand behind alternate knees and encourage him to swing that leg forward. It’s like manipulating an adult-sized puppet, one dressed in a towel robe, a khaki green t-shirt with top gun on the front in white letters, and a pair of sagging pants.
He pauses to say something.
He’s hunched over and speaks in such a slack and gabbling kind of whisper the carpet gets most of it. Continually asking Stephen to repeat himself is only slowing everything up even more; I try to simply relax and let the meaning take care of itself.
‘You’d rather go to hell than hospital? Well I know it’s not a great holiday destination, Stephen, but it’s the best place to go to get well again. We can’t force you, though. I just feel very uncomfortable helping you up those stairs like this. What happens if we get halfway and you decide you can’t make it? That’ll make getting you out to the ambulance even more difficult. Dangerous, even. And I know you wouldn’t want to put us in any danger, would you?’
The prospect of hospital seems to galvanise him into making one final, all-or-nothing attempt. He asks us to fetch over a narrower frame on wheels. Using that and the puppet-method, we make the bottom of the stairs in just under half an hour.
I’m ready to apply more pressure to get Stephen to give up and come to hospital, but incredibly, once we’ve helped him onto the lowest step he seems to find a new source of energy. He makes it up to the top in one headlong motion, only stopping at the turn for a moment to get his breath.
‘Fifteen seconds up, ten seconds down, that’s the record,’ he says. Or at least, I think he does.
We start shuffling towards the bedroom.
There are two enormously fat cats curled up on his bed – so fat, I grunt when I pick them up to make room for Stephen. The moment Stephen’s tucked up in bed, though, they retake their positions, one on the pillow next to him, one on his legs.
‘I just need to sleep,’ he says. ‘That’s all. I was weak. These things catch up with you. I’ll be all right.’
He moves his legs a little and the cat that’s taken up position there, a panther-sized black beast with translucent yellow eyes, raises its head and stares at him.
‘Look at her,’ he says. ‘Infested with aliens.’
And even though I relax my mind till it’s positively upside-down, I still can’t get the gist.