Wednesday, June 25, 2014

rm. 232

The lift arrives and we all get in – me and Rae with all our bags, and Tom, the duty manager, slotting himself in as best he can between us.
‘The room was supposed to have been cleaned,’ he says, pushing the floor number, and then standing back against the mirror to take up as little room as possible. ‘The next guest was due and I couldn’t find the key. Thank god I went up and checked.’
‘Did you sign her in?’
‘No. That was Mike, first thing this morning.’
‘What do you know about her?’
‘Not a thing. Just her name – L Gunderson – and an address. Mike should’ve checked her passport, but there’s no record. She was booked in from seven till three.’
‘Seven till three? That’s an odd time, isn’t it? Not even a whole day?’
He shrugs.
‘It happens. Usually when someone’s come into town for a big night out, and wants somewhere nice to crash till they’ve sobered up. Or something like that.’

The lift comes to a halt and he holds the doors until we’ve struggled out with our bags. We follow him along an endless, airless corridor, through a series of fire doors, taking a right, a left, a right again, until we arrive outside the door to room number two-three-two.
‘It was locked from the inside, so I knew something was wrong,’ he says, swiping his card.

It’s a tiny room, more like a refurbished cupboard with en-suite. The edge of the door brushes the sole of the foot of Ms Gunderson. She’s obviously dead, lying on the floor, hunched up against the bed like she collapsed forward whilst on her knees. There is a scattering of drug stuff on the side table. A picture postcard and a pair of sunglasses either side of her. A crime novel, face down on the bed to keep the page.
‘I put the sheet over her,’ says the manager.

A single police officer is the first to arrive. We meet him down in the lobby. The lift back up to the room feels even smaller, but at least we’ve been able to dump all our bags behind the main desk.
I explain what we’d found.
‘She’s quite rigored,’ I tell him. ‘I’d guess that Ms Gunderson died soon after she checked in.’
‘How do we know she is actually Ms Gunderson?’ says the officer. ‘If Mike was the one who signed her in?’
‘We could ring him if you like’ says Tom.
‘We’ll need to talk to him later,’ says the officer. ‘But right now it won’t confirm her identity. Has anyone seen a passport? Driver’s licence? Because who’s to say she didn’t lend her key to some other woman?’
‘That’s true,’ I tell him. ‘I hadn’t thought of that.’
‘But it was locked from the inside,’ says Tom. ‘I had to let myself in.’
‘Doesn’t mean she didn’t lend out the key, does it?’ says the officer.

We arrive outside the room. The officer stretches on some white rubber gloves and carefully opens the door. He steps over the dead woman’s legs and has a cursory look about the place.
‘I won’t touch anything till the sergeant gets here,’ he says. ‘Have you turned the body?’
‘No. From what I could see there was no sign of trauma, but we didn’t have a close look.’
‘God it’s hot in here,’ says the officer. ‘That radiator’s not on, is it?’
‘There’s a little window over the bed,’ says Tom, peering round the door. ‘It’s one of our cheaper rooms. But very popular.’
The police officer sighs, carries on looking around for a while, then carefully steps back over the woman and closes the door again.
‘Two-three-two,’ he says, pulling a notebook out of his stab vest and flipping it open. ‘One to avoid in future.’

Monday, June 23, 2014

the damage

‘The rellies were first on scene and doing compressions so I had to follow on. I don’t think it’s going anywhere, though. She wasn’t messing about.’
He nods towards the park bench behind us: an empty bottle of wine, a scattering of pill packs.
Further away, kept back by two police officers, half a dozen of the woman’s relatives.
‘One of them found a note,’ says the paramedic, getting to his feet and pulling off his gloves. He glances over at the group. They’re crying and screaming, shouting out: Why aren’t they shocking her? and They should cover her chest up. It’s not dignified and Why aren’t they doing their job?
‘Here we go,’ says the paramedic. ‘Wish me luck.’
He goes over to talk to them.
 Two more relatives arrive on scene. They seem more collected than the others. The paramedic uses them to get the information he needs, and to act as a diplomatic buffer between us and the rest.


Despite everything, the moment approaches when we’ll have to stop. I go back to the vehicle to get some blankets to cover the woman up. One of the relatives, a tall and powerfully-built young guy, paces up and down, bellowing and smacking his head.
Another police car arrives. A sergeant comes over. We brief her on what’s happened.
‘We’re just about to call it,’ we tell her. ‘I think the relatives are going to need some handling.’
‘Right,’ she says, and strides back to the group.
When everyone’s agreed, we stop compressions, note the time, start tidying up. The police have done a good job of calming and preparing the relatives. The two latecomers walk over and ask if they can say goodbye. They crouch down and stroke the woman’s hair whilst we finish tidying up around them. The others keep back, especially the tall guy, who stamps around in the distance. I’m particularly wary of him as I carry some of the bags back to the truck, and liaise with the paramedic on the car.


The sun has come up full and hot and strong. We’re all sweating, grubby. With everything stowed, the bags restocked and the truck made ready, it’s time to notify Control and clear up. I’m driving now, so I get behind the wheel. Erin, the paramedic I’m working with, climbs in beside me.
‘Oh – hang on. I’ve forgotten something,’ she says. I sit there whilst she jumps out again, goes in the back and starts rummaging around.
In the distance at the park entrance I watch as a police officer holds up the Police line do not cross tape for the tall guy to duck under. He still looks upset. He flashes a glance in our direction, then walks off out of view to the left.
Just at that moment Erin slams the side door.
And screams.
My first thought is that the tall guy has run over and attacked her. I leap out of the cab and see Erin kneeling on the grass verge clutching her hand and for a moment I’m confused because I expected to see him standing over her.
‘My finger! My fucking finger! I slammed it in the door!’
She wails, supporting her bloodied hand in the air by the wrist.
I jump on board, fetch out a cool pack, and gently wrap it around her hand. I’m about to go back and fetch the Entonox when she stops me.
‘Just drive,’ she gasps. ‘Take me to hospital.’
I help her into the passenger seat.
I notify Control en route.


At the hospital, one of the consultants takes care of things straight away. He organises a ring block, injecting deep into the knuckle of the smashed finger. Erin is crying, breathing fast, straining away from the pain. The consultant speaks to her in a calm but measured way.
‘Look at me,’ he says. ‘Come on, Erin. Open your eyes. Look at me. Just breathe. It’s okay. I’m taking care of the pain now. It’s going to be okay. That’s it! Well done.’
He scoots back on the saddle chair and drops the needle into the dish.
‘A little x-ray I think and we’ll see what the damage is,’ he says.

Sunday, June 22, 2014


‘You can’t go yet. You haven’t finished my cardigan,’ says Rosie’s daughter, June, an elderly woman herself, snugly dressed in a pleated skirt and something sensible in stocking-stitch that, from my chair opposite, looks suspiciously like another cardigan. June’s husband Geoff is sitting next to her, garden-brown, inflated with bonhomie.
‘Not long now before the telegram,’ he says, nodding towards the fireplace.
‘I don’t care a stuff about that,’ says Rosie, but still she can’t help glancing over at the portrait of the Queen that’s been set up there, a vase of red, white and blue flowers at the side.
Gemma, a Cocker Spaniel so inert I half expect to see a line of wool running from her tail up to Rosie’s knitting needles, twitches an ear as the carer comes in.
‘Have you decided what you’re doing yet?’ she says, putting down a tray of tea things. ‘Staying or going?’
‘Staying,’ says Rosie.
‘I thought as much. I’ll carry on with lunch.’
‘I can quite understand why you’re reluctant,’ I tell Rosie. ‘But of course our advice is to come up the hospital for a check-up. It probably was a TIA, but even though it’s all resolved, you’re at a higher risk of stroke.’
‘I know, dear. It’s kind of you to come out and see me like this. But for heaven’s sake, I’m ninety-nine years old. I don’t want to be dragged up the hospital, left on a trolley for hours, poked and prodded by a bunch of doctors, fed through machines, and then discharged home for someone to keep an eye on me, whoever that might be. What earthly good is that? If it’s my time to go, I’m ready. I’ve had a marvelous run, and I’m grateful for it. If I’m to have a stroke, so be it. Cheerio n’all that. But I’m not going up the hospital, as you put it. Or down, neither. I’m quite comfortable where I am, thank you very much.’
‘You always were a stubborn so-and-so,’ says June.
‘And you wouldn’t expect me to change now’ says Rosie. ‘I’m almost one hundred years old. Think of that! There must be some benefit to’t.’
Geoff smiles, grunts, and starts the awkward process of manoeuvring himself to the edge of his chair so he can reach the biscuits.
‘I’ll need you to sign our paperwork,’ I say to Rosie.
‘I don’t care what I sign,’ she says, putting her needles down and giving me a gummy smile. ‘So long as I’m here for lunch.’

Saturday, June 21, 2014


‘It’s called Euphoria. I took it yesterday. Someone’s been following me around ever since.’
‘Have you had that feeling before?’
He sticks out his bottom lip, studies me a moment, then says: ‘He wants to cut my throat.’
A short-legged, thick-set man in his mid-twenties, Michael has the look of a taller man that’s been beaten into the ground like a tent peg. He has a gloomy, fidgety air about him, dividing his attention between us, the front door and the staircase behind him.
‘Maybe we should run you up the hospital so you can talk to someone there about how you’re feeling.’
‘I’ve got to get my fags first.’
‘Okay then. We’ll wait here.’
He turns on the spot and trudges robotically tread to tread up the stairs, his left hand sliding up the rail, until he disappears round the corner. He doesn’t look back, even at the turn.
‘Can I have a word?’
The hostel manager holds the door of her office open. When we’re both inside, she shuts it carefully behind us.
‘Michael’s been with us about six months,’ she says, the computer chair squeaking as she settles.
‘His substance abuse has been getting a bit out of hand lately, but this is a new development. Are you taking him to hospital?’
‘I think it’s probably the safest option.’
‘Fine. I’ll just let our team leader know what’s happening, then I’ll give you a sheet with his personal information.’
She swings round and calls a number.
I tell Rae that I’ll wait back outside in the lobby, just in case Michael comes back down and wonders where we are. In fact, it’s a few minutes before he arrives, puffing on a joint.
‘Where’s your friend?’ he says.
‘She’s just getting some more information from the manager.’
‘What information?’
‘The usual – you know. Date of birth, medication, how long you’ve been here. That kind of thing. Which means I won’t have to bother you by going through it all.’
He doesn’t react at all, but takes another drag on his joint, which crackles audibly.
‘One thing I have to ask you, Michael. Have you got any weapons on  you? Any knives or sharp objects?’
He looks over my shoulder, like he expects someone at the door any moment, then back to me.
‘Don’t worry,’ he says. ‘It’s my throat he wants to cut. Not yours.’

Friday, June 20, 2014

the gift

‘My grandmother was a fortune-teller. I learned the skill from her. I can give you a reading if you like.’
Even though the house is just off the main road, it’s so quiet you can hear the carpet reclaiming our footsteps. I’m glad it’s Rae attending and not me. Lilly is just too unblinking, too close, with the flushed cheeks and open mouth of someone who hasn’t drawn the curtains in a while. She’s thirty but seems younger, anxious, etiolated, watchful.
‘Okay then.’
I’m surprised Rae has said yes. I move along the sofa to make room, but she sits in an armchair and puts her hands palm up on her knees.
Lilly kneels down in front of her, shakes her long blond hair clear of her face, and leans over.
‘You like things done your own way,’ she says after a while. ‘But you can be flexible if you have to.’
‘That’s true,’ says Rae. ‘It’s just my way’s always the best.’
She looks a little tense, though, despite the joke.
Another silence.
I glance round the room.
A line of baby toys lined up under the window – a pull-along xylophone with googly eyes, a plastic telephone, a plastic cooker – but even from here I can see a layer of dust on their upper surfaces. Facing the sofa, a gigantic plasma screen, almost filling the wall. A sofa and an armchair. Nothing else.
‘You’re married,’ says Lilly.
‘Yep,’ says Rae, glancing down at her left hand. ‘Happily.’
‘You’re restless, though’ says Lilly. ‘You have strange dreams. Are there children?’
‘A boy. And a little girl.’
‘A girl, actually.’
‘I can see a boy, too. But he’s not quite here yet.’
She looks up at Rae, who smiles.
‘Should I stop off and get a pregnancy kit on the way home?’ she says.
Lilly shrugs.
‘That’s not what I mean,’ she sighs, then looks down at Rae’s hands again. Rae glances over at me, and I raise my eyebrows.
‘I see an elderly woman,’ says Lilly. ‘She’s very sweet and kind. She meant a lot to you but now she’s gone.’
Rae shakes her head.
‘No. I … er…’
‘You loved her very much and now she’s passed. But she wants you to know she still loves and cares for you. She wants you to know it doesn’t matter any more – if that makes sense? Let it go. Let it all go and just follow your heart. She’s nodding! That’s it! She wants you to let go and move on.’
Suddenly Lilly winces and sits back on her heels.
‘I’m sorry. I can’t seem to do it today. I’ve got that pain again.’
Rae puts a hand on her shoulder.
‘Oh – now – that’s what we’re really here for! Come and sit down. You really should come with us to the hospital.’
‘No. I’m fine, honestly. Sorry. I think I overdid it.’
I get up from the sofa to make room for her.
‘I can see a dog round your feet,’ she says to me as we swap places. ‘An old, sick dog.’
‘Buzz!’ I say to her. ‘He’s fifteen and struggling a bit.’
‘Buzz,’ she says. ‘Yes. That’s it.’ She hugs her arms over her tummy and joggles her knees up and down. ‘It’s his hips, isn’t it?’
‘They’ve almost given out. I hope it’s not a bad sign. That you can see him, I mean.’
 She shrugs.
‘Don’t worry. He’s still around. He’s just projecting. He’s getting himself ready.’
‘So – about this pain,’ says Rae. ‘After everything you’ve said I really think you should come with us to the hospital, to see a doctor.’
‘How will I get back, though?’
‘I don’t know. Bus? Taxi?’
‘I’ve got no money.’
‘I’m sure we can figure something out. The most important thing is we get you some help.’
‘But I’ll be sitting up there for hours.’
‘The most important thing is you’re in a place of safety. There’s no-one here to look after you if things took a turn for the worse. At least if you come with us we can start to make things better.’
‘I don’t know,’ says Lilly, biting her nails. ‘Somehow I can’t see that happening.’

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

sweet mr h.

‘Oh sure, his dementia normally makes him a little cantankerous. And I don’t doubt he was no angel when he was younger. But this urine infection has knocked him sideways, five miles into crazy town. You mustn’t mind his language too much, though. He doesn’t mean a word of it. Just watch his fists, ‘cos he’ll try to fetch you one if you’re not looking, and even if you are. The doctor says he needs treating in hospital ‘cos he’s not compliant here with the food and the drink, and nothing’s working. Okay? Ready for it? Feeling strong? At least you can tell yourself you don’t have to live with him day and night. Mind you, nor do I, once he’s gone in. I’m off up North to see my family for a few weeks and I can’t wait.’

The live-in carer pushes open the bedroom door and speaks ahead of us in tones as synthetically soothing as a spray of narcotic gas.
‘Ambulance, Mr H.’
It doesn’t work.
‘Who the f* is this now, eh? Who’s this c* come into the f* room? Another one of dem f* * b’s*. I’ll f* kill you. I’ll rake the eyes from your f* face you f* devil…’

Mr Heatherington struggles to sit more upright as we come in. The ancient tattoos up his arms may be blurred and dark beyond recognition, but his eyes blaze with septic fury.

‘Who the f* do you think you are? Are you one of dem hormo-sexual lads, hey? Hey? Come to put your c* in me a*? Is that what you want? You f* c*. Come over here and we’ll see. I’ll land one on yer. I’ll push your nose through your c* face, like I did with that b* standing next to ye. You won’t find that so funny, now, will ye? I’ll cut yer c* off and send it home to that prostitute you call a mother. Hmm? What d’you make of that?’

‘I’m sorry you’re not well,’ I say. ‘Now, Mr H. The doctor wants you into hospital so we can treat this urine infection. We’ve brought a chair to carry you out to the ambulance, so you don’t have to do anything.’

He keeps his eyes fixed on me as the carer brings the hoist over and fetches out a sling. We stand either side of the bed ready, somehow, to put it on him.
‘Come on, Mr H,’ says the carer. ‘You can help us a lot if you keep your hands and your cussing to yourself.’
‘You!’ he spits. ‘You f* f* b* b*. You f* c*. You’d better watch out, now. I’m going to jump out of this bed when you fall down drunk and tear you to pieces.’
‘No you’re not, Mr H. Now, just lift your a* a bit – that’s it. Good man.’

Somehow between us all we manage to transfer Mr H from the bed to the chair. His dreadful language tails off once he’s airborne, but it soon comes back to strength when we blanket him securely in our carry-chair and head out through the door into the sunshine.

‘Isn’t it a lovely afternoon?’ I say to him, holding the foot end of the chair as we negotiate some garden steps.
The shocking tirade this inspires from Mr Heatherington sets me off giggling, which only makes him worse, of course. Rae starts to laugh, too, not helped by the consciousness of being outside and how inappropriate the whole thing looks. And of course, the more we try to stop ourselves, the more we laugh. I lose all my strength, and the chair starts to wobble.
‘You f* b* c*!’ he shouts. ‘You won’t be laughing when I f* cut off your b* and feed ‘em to the dogs.’

‘Now can you see what I’ve had to put up with?’ says the carer, following after us with his suitcase and bags of medication. ‘It’s five hours on the coach tonight, but I tell you what, I’d bloody walk there to have a break from all this.’

Sunday, June 15, 2014

the unruly guest

In the foyer of the smart new hotel the manager, his assistant, the breakfast bar cook and the domestic supervisor are standing in a row at the reception counter; behind them against the wall is the projection of a large, white clock.

‘It start at four this morning,’ says the manager, coming round the counter to meet us. ‘This lady acting very strange. She lie down on floor, and when I tell her to get up she bark at me. I say “please don’t treat me like this,” so she sit on sofa and ask if I hear voices like she can hear, and when I say no she draw her finger across her throat like this. I ask her if she sick and need help. She get angry, march outside for cigarette, march back and demand for key to room. I thought maybe if I let her back in she might sleep and get better, so I give her key. But then I call you, because half an hour ago she come back down, throw key at my assistant, then has big argument with herself and marches around the reception going absolutely crazy. I think I not give her keys back again, because I have responsibility and I cannot have person like this wandering around my hotel. And now, whenever we go near her to ask if she want help, she get too mad like this. When I … watch out...’
He stops talking and looks over our shoulder.
‘Here she come,’ he says.

A middle-aged woman is standing just inside the door, her gaunt white face and frizzy blond hair vividly contrasting with the overall black of the rest of her: black leather trench coat, black shirt and leather trousers, black, knee-length, spiky heeled boots.

She stares unblinking between us all, then says with a preternatural calm: ‘I’ll have the key to my room now, please.’
I walk up to her, and as quietly as I can introduce myself and Rae.
‘We’re from the ambulance,’ I tell her. ‘People are worried about you.’
No they’re not,’ she spits. ‘Leave me alone. Stop harassing me.
She pushes past me, her heels clacking on the wooden floor, and walks up to the desk. The assistant manager shrinks back.
The keys to my room,’ she says, holding out her hand.
The manager approaches her from the side.
‘I’m sorry, but I cannot give you key to room,’ he says.
The keys to my room
‘No. Please – talk to the ambulance. They here to help.’
‘I am perfectly fine, thank you.’
‘You don’t seem fine.’
She turns on the spot and marches off towards the lifts.
‘No, no,’ says the Manager. ‘Please. I cannot have you in hotel like this.’
‘Take your hands off me!’
‘I not touch you. Look!’
He holds his hands above his head and turns this way and that, appealing for witnesses.
‘You are assaulting me!’
‘We just want to make sure you’re okay,’ I say, hurrying over. ‘Will you have a seat and a chat, just so we can figure out the best thing to do? We need to make sure you’re not unwell.’
‘I do not want your help. Get out.’
‘I’m afraid I can’t do that. We need to reassure ourselves that everything’s okay.’
Anyone could tell things are far from okay. There’s an intensity about the way she confronts us, a glittering, imploded thing. It feels as if violence or restraint from violence are just two sides to the same thin piece of metal; maybe it’s only the heavy leather coat that’s keeping her from flying round the room and smashing us all to pieces with her tail.

After a moment, she pushes past me and clips quickly back through the lobby to the pavement outside.

A crowd of drunk kids are coming up the street, heading to the railway station for an early train, shouting and fighting between themselves to kick a coke can along the street. I wonder what they’ll do when they reach the woman, who simply stands there, right in their path, lighting a cigarette. And I know I’m tired from a long and busy night, but I swear, when they reach her, they don’t seem to change their course at all, but pass right through her, and the only thing to mark their passage is the rattle of the coke can momentarily gone, and the gentle stirring of the heavy tails of her long, black leather trench coat.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

a philosophical question

I knock.
No answer.
I check my watch.
It’s been a long, hot shift on the car. If I’m to get off with even a half an hour overrun, there can be no delays.
Patient suicidal the notes from Control had said. Making plans to hang himself. Not violent.
It sounds pretty violent. Ordinarily, with more time to spare, I’d probably stand off to hear a little more about it, but frankly I’m so keyed up there’s no situation I wouldn’t stride into and take my chance.
I knock again, then push the door and walk in.
Despite the intense brightness of the early evening, the interior is dull, curtained-off, close.
‘Hello? Ambulance?’
Bookshelves filled with books. Smart paintings on the wall, a free-standing TV and a worn leather sofa. Otherwise the place is empty, with an edgy, ransacked feel.
Jack is sitting on the sofa trying to roll a cigarette, strands of tobacco splaying out either end of the carpet-sized makings and spilling over his jeans.
‘Oh, hi, hi,’ he says, rolling to one side as he turns to look. ‘Don’t mind me. I’ll just smoke this then I’ll kill myself.’
 He puts it in his mouth and then starts patting his waistcoat for a match. In his heavy metal t-shirt, goatee beard, wild grey hair and woven leather wrist bands, he looks like a middle-aged roadie backstage, too wrecked to finish setting up.
‘It’s the voices,’ he says, taking the cigarette out of his mouth, frowning at it, then throwing it on the floor. ‘I can’t take them anymore. You’re useless. You’re a failure. Kill yourself and get it over with. And they’re right. Look at this. Come on. Here…’
He pokes around in a pile of letters at his feet on the floor.
‘It’s here somewhere. Thousands of pounds. Thousands! And I haven’t got it. I just haven’t got it. You can’t hand over what you haven’t got. I haven’t worked since my accident, I lost my job, my family, everything, and now they’re taking me to court for thousands of pounds. It might as well be millions. What do you have to say about that? Hmm?’
He reaches down to his feet and produces a glass of whiskey, sipping it shakily.
‘It sounds horribly stressful,’ I say. ‘You’ve got a lot on your plate. Anyone would get depressed.’
He puts the glass back down with an exaggerated level of care.
‘Anyone who was useless,’ he says. ‘I might as well kill myself and get it over with.’
‘It seems to me maybe your problems fall into two camps,’ I say. ‘Financial worries, and then mental health, although they both affect each other. I think you could do with some debt counselling advice, along with seeing a doctor about these voices you’re hearing, and your mental health generally.’
He shrugs, then starts to dry cry, pulling at his hair and rocking backwards and forwards.
You’re useless. A failure. That’s what they say to me, over and over. I’ve had enough of it.’
‘You’ve had a lot a deal with, Jack,’ I say. ‘But I think you need to take it one step at a time. I think you should get your mobile phone, your keys and a jacket, and I’ll drive you up the hospital so you can have a chat with a doctor about how you feel. What do you say?’
‘You’re the boss,’ he says. ‘I haven’t got a mobile though. That went with everything else. I used to have all this stuff. I used to paint, you know. I used to play guitar. But first there was the accident, and now I’ve got carpal tunnel. Nothing works. I’m a useless fuck-up and I may as well be dead. The only question is, whether to hang myself or throw myself under a train. But I don’t want to cause any bother to anyone. I don’t want to make a mess.’
‘Come on, Jack’ I say, holding out his jacket. ‘Let’s go down the hospital.’


I put him in the front passenger seat where I think he’ll be less of a danger. Now and again he leans too far over and gets in my way, so I have to keep pushing him back upright. Still, I’m covering ground, making time.
‘Look at all this shit,’ he says, flapping his hand as we drive along the high street. ‘Buy this, buy that. Crap you don’t need. It’s all shit. I tried to get into alternative lifestyles. I read a lot, made a study of it. Do you know the difference between Buddhism and Taoism?’
His eyes half-close with the effort of saying those two phrases, which tumble out of him in a rush of whiskey vapour.
‘No. What?’
‘Well – someone explained it to me like this. Say you lived on plain rice. For a month. Then went to Macdonalds. The food would taste out of this world. You’d be aware of every little herb and grain of salt. It would be so fantastic, so utterly amazing, you’d be blown away.’
‘What about Buddhism?’
‘They don’t eat meat. But I suppose they could have a vegeburger.’
He laughs, and leans back far enough to free a hand and slap me on the shoulder. Then his mood draws down again and he looks anguished.
‘I just can’t – live – like this. I don’t fit in. I don’t belong. So when the voices tell me I’m useless and a failure, I have to think they’re right, you know? They’re right. And I should do something about it.’
‘Have a chat to the experts at the hospital, Jack. They’ll be able to help.’
‘You think?’
‘Absolutely. One thing to bear in mind, though. You’ve had quite a bit to drink, so they’ll have to wait till you’ve sobered up before they can do a full assessment. Only because they have to be sure it’s not the drink affecting your mood.’
‘Fair enough,’ he says. ‘Hey – I’ve read a bit about psychiatry. Have you ever heard of R D Laing?’
‘Vaguely. Wasn’t he big in the sixties?’
‘He said there's no such thing as mental illness. He said people express themselves in different ways, and society can't cope with that. It's easier to label them a psycho than deal with what they have to say. It's political.
‘What do you think?’
‘Me? I just don’t know what I’m going to tell them in court. I mean – you can ask for thousands of pounds till you’re blue in the face, but if you haven’t got it, you haven’t got it.’


In the triage cubicle at the hospital, Jack lies back on a trolley with both hands behind his head, smiling at the nurse.
‘So what’s brought you in to hospital today?’ she says, wrapping a BP cuff round his arm.
‘A philosophical question,’ he says.
Twelve-hours flat, like me.
‘Well – it’s a bit more than that,’ I say, stepping forward with the clipboard. ‘Jack has been under a lot of stress lately. He’s been hearing voices and planning to kill himself.’
‘Is that right, Jack?’ says the nurse, looking at the monitor and writing down the obs. ‘Have you been planning to kill yourself?’
‘That’s what I mean – a philosophical question. I don’t know whether to hang myself in the loft or throw myself under a train.’

Friday, June 13, 2014

the details

Richard was dead. It’s something Maddy knew as soon as she let herself in the flat, sloshed through the pool of water seeping out from under the bathroom door; knew when she saw him lying in the bath, one arm and one leg crooked over the side, his head lolling back, like he’d been trying to climb out when he died; knew as she turned off the taps, scalding her arms on the hot water as she reached down to pull the plug. It was a struggle to haul Richard out of the bath, but desperation gave her strength. On the flooded bathroom floor Maddy started pressing up and down on his chest like they said on the phone, but she had to crook it between her shoulder and her ear and it kept slipping off. And through it all, through her tears and the steam and the sweat and the shock of it all, really, she knew it was hopeless, she knew he was dead.
We were planning a life together.
I’m so sorry.
That’s why he hadn’t answered the door when she rang, on time (as usual) for their dinner date. That’s why he hadn’t answered when she called him on her mobile, standing out on the pavement looking up at his window. Something was wrong but who could she ask? His neighbours were out. Normally she had a spare set of keys but today she’d brought her new bag with her and she’d forgotten to transfer everything, so she had to go back to her flat. Ten minutes, but still. Would it have mattered? Would ten minutes have made any difference?
No. I don’t think so.
She should have had the keys on her. Why didn’t she have the keys on her? It was stupid, stupid. Ten minutes was a long time. Did I think it was her fault?
No. Absolutely not. She’s been incredibly brave. She did all she could and more. How on earth she managed to get him out of the bath like that. It was amazing – really, she did an amazing job. Is there anyone who could come and be with her?
She stares at the mobile phone in her hand. Takes a breath. Presses a number.
Answer phone.
Rachel? It’s Maddy, she says. Can you call me back? Richard’s died. I found him in the bath.
She presses the phone off again, lays it down carefully on the sofa next to her, then puts a hand on the cat that’s stretched out on her other side. An ancient long-haired tabby, twenty years at least, its rheumy eyes blissfully closing as Maddy starts to stroke it, long, firm, methodical strokes, like she wasn’t feeling the cat at all but smoothing something else, something she could see through the opposite wall, over and over and over, start to finish, again and again, trying to make it right.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

the sisters of mercy

Sister Agatha meets us at the door.
‘Good morning,’ she says. ‘Thank you so much for coming. Peter is up on the fourth floor, so we’ll take the lift.’
Sister Agatha presses the button, and then stands with her hands lightly clasped in front of her as the doors close and the lift rises up.
‘So what happened?’
‘Peter was absolutely fine yesterday. Oh he has his health problems, of course, but nothing that’d leap out and bite you. Fine when he went to bed, no problems. Janice, one of our carers, she went in about half past three just to check on his catheter bag, you know. She didn’t want to disturb him so she just crept in and out like a little mouse. Janice is very, very good. But then when she went back in to give him his medications at six-thirty and tried to rouse him she found she couldn’t, poor thing. So then she rang the emergency bell, and we all came running. But I’m afraid it’s all too late.’
The lift slows to a stop and opens unexpectedly behind us. We follow Sister Agatha along a thickly carpeted hallway. In her blue robes and headdress, she seems to float rather than walk, a serene progress past beautiful old paintings of biblical scenes, intricately carved crosses, and, in a sweetly-kept alcove, lightened with a glass of blue wildflowers, the statue of a praying saint. The furthest door along the corridor stands open. Sister Ramirez is waiting for us there with Janice the carer, still wearing her plastic bib, shifting anxiously from foot to foot.
We go over to the narrow bed in the corner of the room, where Peter is lying on his back with his head turned to the side. I lay my hand over his chest and it feels cold, his pupils are wide and fixed, and there is already signs of pooling along the underside of his torso
‘I’m afraid Peter has died,’ I say to them. ‘I’m sorry.’
All three women give a collective sigh. Sister Agatha puts her hand on Janice’s shoulder, who leans her cheek against it. Sister Ramirez comes over to stand with me.
‘’Would you mind if I covered Peter with a sheet?’ she says.
‘That’s fine.’
‘Bless you’
The three women quietly convene round Peter’s bed, fetching out a clean white sheet from the bottom of the wardrobe and spreading it over Peter. I go back to my paperwork.
‘Because it’s classed as an unexpected death,’ I tell Sister Agatha, ‘we notify the police and they come to take over.’
‘Ah yes.’
‘But don’t be alarmed. It’s all just procedure. The police will guide you through the next stage, which is either for the coroner’s office to collect the body, or for you to organize something through your undertakers.’
‘I see, yes,’ says Sister Ramirez.
‘Sometimes it takes a while for the police to get here,’ says Rae.
Sister Ramirez smiles and opens her hands philosophically.
Sister Agatha steps forward.
‘What am I thinking?’ she says. ‘Wouldn’t you like something to eat? Some porridge, perhaps? A nice cup of coffee? You must be hungry.’
‘Coffee would be great, thank you. We can finish our paperwork downstairs.’
We collect all our equipment and follow her back to the lift.


The dining room is as neatly ordered as the rest of the home. Each table has been laid out for breakfast, bone-handled cutlery, china cups, saucers and plates, stainless steel jugs, toast racks, condiment pots.
‘Please,’ says Sister Agatha, walking over to one of the tables and silently pulling out two chairs. ‘What would you like?’
But no sooner have we settled in than the police arrive.

We go back upstairs with them to describe what we found, what we did. The officers are quietly spoken. One of them, an enormous guy with great tattooed arms and a monolithic, Easter Island head, has a permanent crook in his back as he tries to makes himself smaller. The sisters are as benign as ever. They answer all the questions with the same kind of calm composure that seems to run through this home as effectively as spiritual air-conditioning.
‘He was a good man, Peter,’ says Sister Ramirez, once the officers have replaced the sheet. ‘Can we get you something to drink? Some coffee perhaps?’
They decline.
I hand our paperwork over to them, and then Rae and I go back down to the dining room to finish our tea and toast.


‘Would you like fresh?’ says another Sister, bustling across the room out of the kitchen to answer the front door.
‘No, thank you. This is fine.’
‘You do a grand job’ she says. ‘We’re all very thankful for it.’
She hurries out to the door.
‘I’ve forgotten how fantastic marmalade is,’ says Rae.
‘Hmm?’ I say, folding another slice into my mouth.
Just at that moment, a woman comes into the foyer. The Sister speaks to her in a low and urgent whisper. After a moment or two I glance in their direction. The Sister is still whispering to her, but now the woman is staring straight at me, her eyes wide and her hand over her mouth. She gasps, sobs once, loudly. The sister puts her arm around her shoulder and leads her off into another room.
 ‘It’s the way you eat,’ says Rae, breaking the silence and reaching over to the rack of toast. ‘Did you want that last slice, or…?’

the old guard dog

 I try the windows and the door at the front of the bungalow, but everything is locked shut, the curtains drawn, no sign of life.
‘I haven’t seen her all week,’ says the neighbour, standing at the front gate. ‘I hope she’s all right.’
‘I’ll try round the back.’
‘I’ve been here before,’ says Rae. ‘Eccentric, a bit isolated. I’m pretty sure we put in a vulnerable adult report for her. Oh – and I think she’s got a dog.’
A kitchen window is open, just enough to fit my hand through and flip the latch. It doesn’t open all that far though, and it’s quite high, so I have a struggle to climb up and slot myself in sideways, going in head first and bracing myself on the draining board enough to squeeze the rest of my body through.

A strip curtain separating the kitchen from the lounge, everything quiet and dark.
Hello? Ambulance?
I move the strips aside and go through.

Mrs Westerling is slumped at the end of the sofa, her right arm underneath her body, her left down by her side. An old dog is lying next to her, its head partially obscured by a homemade lampshade collar. The dog doesn’t have enough energy to lift his head to look at me; instead he raises his eyes, and feebly bares his teeth.
‘Good boy. There’s a good boy.’
I edge round the room out of reach of the dog, and get closer to Mrs Westerling. She’s obviously been dead for some time, so I change my attention to opening the front door. Unfortunately it’s locked, and there’s no sign of a key. I draw the curtain aside and knock on the window to attract Rae’s attention.
‘She’s dead,’ I tell her. ‘I’m just looking for a key to let you in.’
I have to be careful where I’m walking. The poor dog has been trapped inside all this time and there are faeces on the hall floor.
‘Good boy. There’s a good boy.’
I go back into the kitchen, find a bowl and run some water into it. I go back into the lounge and carefully approach the dog, who seems a little more settled.
‘Good boy. Hey? Who’s a good boy?’
His eyebrows flicker up and down as he stares at me.
I gently offer him the water, setting it down on the cushion just in front of him. Immediately he starts lapping it up, tilting it a little with his paw to get past the edge of the lampshade. I leave him to drink whilst I go to the back door and look for a key there, without success. I go back into the lounge and look at Mrs Westerling.
I try to picture her locking up the house, the sequence she might have followed.
Front door, back door, sofa.
Somewhere between the kitchen and the sofa, then.
But the place is surprisingly bare. There’s a bread bin, but the top is clear. No row of hooks on the back of the larder door. No bowl of buttons and bits and pieces on the work surface, the pockets of the coat draped over the back of a chair are empty. There is a table in the lounge with an improbably old radio unit on a faded square of tartan, a photo of the dog posing by a Christmas tree, and an uneaten Mars bar on a china plate, but no key.
What could she have done with it?
I go back to the sofa. The dog has accepted me now, busily drinking from the bowl.
I look at Mrs Westerling.
No sign of anything round her neck.
There’s a handbag on the floor by her feet, but nothing much in it, a library card, bus pass, a quarter bottle of brandy and some tissues.
I straighten up again, then on an impulse, reach over to look in her left hand.
I move Mrs Westerling just enough to free her right arm – and there are the keys, her livid fingers still wrapped around them.
The dog looks up at me as I free them. He pauses a while, water dripping from his muzzle, then lowers his head again and carries on drinking.
I go to unlock the door.


‘He hasn’t seen a vet in a while,’ says Rae, bending down next to the dog. Het hasn’t moved from the sofa, even though the room is completely changed now, flooded with light and air when the door was opened and the curtains drawn back, two police officers moving around, opening drawers, looking for information, speaking on the radio.
The dog has a gross and bloody mass on its jaw, and a lampshade that Mrs Westerling had adapted to put round his neck to stop him scratching. He’s been lying next to her on the sofa for three or four days, and he’s so weak now he probably couldn’t move from this position if he wanted to.
‘Heya, Buddy,’ says Rae, crouching down next to him, letting the dog sniff her hand, then gently stroking his head.
‘The police say there’s someone coming to care of him soon,’ she says. She gives me a wry, sideways look. We both know what that’ll mean.
‘Here,’ she says, a little more brightly. ‘Look what I found! What’s this, hey? What’s this?’ And she holds a little bone-shaped dog-biscuit just in front of his nose.
He gives it a sniff, pauses, like it reminds him of something he’s obliged to let go of now, then relaxes back again, and closes his eyes to sleep.