Mr Williams is one hundred and two. He slid off the bed onto the floor and couldn’t get up, so he pressed the red button on the cord around his neck and lay there waiting for help.
The first extraordinary thing about Mr Williams’ house are the shrubs outside, pruned in immaculate waves like a blocky, three-dimensional portrait of a wild sea. The second is how perfectly neat it is inside, the magazines and newspapers, letters and bills, sheet music, books and portraits – everything lined up and in its place. The kitchen especially, everything just so. Even the kettle has been thoughtfully placed, velcroed into a metal sling that’s engineered to tip at exactly the right angle to fill the teapot without spilling a drop.
‘Just help me up, would you?’ he says. ‘I’m not hurt or anything. I’m just a bit stuck.’
The hearing aids in his ears are turned up so high you can hear a faint echo of yourself as you speak.
‘Here we go!’
We stand either side to steady him whilst he finds his balance, then help him into the living room where he takes a seat in the sunshine.
Rae gets busy writing out the sheet; I run through the basic obs. Once I’ve finished, I offer to make him some tea.
‘I’ll have a sweetener in it if I may,’ he says. ‘One click is quite sufficient!’
I bring him in a cup, and sit opposite him, waiting for Rae to finish.
The sitting room is a homage to the steam train, with model engines, prints and photos, and a small library of old train timetables and other books.
‘I was thinking about trains the other day,’ I say to him.
‘Were you?’ he says.
‘First you had steam. Then it was electric. And now they’re working on maglev engines.’
‘Giant magnets, floating over the tracks. So they don’t have much friction, and they travel really fast.’
‘I suppose leaves on the line will be a thing of the past, then,’ says Rae.
‘Yeah. I don’t know.’
‘Magnets, you say?’ Mr Williams, frowns and leans forwards to pick up his tea. ‘Hm. How wonderful.’
‘I think they’re pretty expensive though. You’d have to lay a whole new set of tracks. It’d be like starting from the beginning.’
‘Yes. Well. There is that,’ he says.
‘What’s your secret?’ says Rae, signing her paperwork and tearing off his copy. ‘A hundred and two, no carers, no pills...’
‘Ah!’ says Mr Williams. ‘I have faith!’
Outside in the truck we try to put a referral through to the falls team. Mr Williams is pretty well set-up, but his mobility is deteriorating and there are a few improvements that could be made. There’s a delay in getting through. Rae had them on her mobile but the signal was interrupted and they’re slow to ring back. She sets the phone between us, pulls a bag of crisps out of her lunch bag and starts working her way through them.
‘It’s ironic,’ I say, sliding down the chair and bracing my knees against the dash. ‘On the one hand you’ve got Mr Williams saying his faith has kept him alive all this time, and on the other you’ve got all those thousands of people killed in the name of faith. Millions, probably.’
‘Religion’s worse than politics,’ she says. ‘I stay clear of both.’
‘But then again, I suppose it’s not religion that causes trouble but the way people interpret it. I’m not religious, but I understand why people are. You know, that desire to get close to the divine, to find spiritual meaning in all this. It’s as old as the oldest human.’
‘As old as Mr Williams.’
‘I saw this documentary. The Cave of Forgotten Dreams. About a prehistoric cave in France somewhere that got sealed off by a rock fall and left completely undisturbed for thirty thousand years. And they found loads of beautiful paintings inside. Horses, deer, bears – all signed with handprints. And there was even the skull of a giant bear on a kind of rock plinth in the middle, like an altar in a cathedral, beautiful. So even then, people were trying to make sense of things. Which isn’t news, I suppose. Humans have always been looking for ways of expressing the divine, finding stories to explain it all, from Stonehenge to the Christian Scientists.’
‘And back again.’
‘I think the difficulty comes when people take the stories too literally. They end up contradicting each other, and the fighting starts. But in the end everyone’s probably just trying to say the same thing. I don’t know. Maybe it’s all just an evolutionary anomaly. In the long run it’ll either work or it won’t. Anyway. I don’t suppose that cat over there wastes too much time worrying about the divine.’
‘I can’t say I do, either.’
The phone rings.
Rae smacks her hands clean before she touches it.
‘Anyway. Ignore me,’ I say, straightening up again. ‘ I’m feeling a bit – you know – drawn out. I’m on this 5:2 diet and today’s a fast day.’