Friday, September 04, 2009


Frank answers the phone. He listens to the dispatcher, and after a second turns to look at the seven o’clock crew, star-fished in their chairs watching Top Gear.
‘Mrs Focaccia, he says. ‘Yes – I have heard of her.’
The sevens straighten up. One of them guffaws and claps his hands. ‘Yes!’ he says, and punches the air.
‘Who’s Mrs Focaccia?’ I ask him.
‘She’s a big loaf,’ he says. The other one says: ‘Oh my God!’
Frank replaces the receiver.
‘We’ve got Focaccia.’
‘Who is Focaccia?’
Laughter round the room.

Half an hour later Frank is parking up outside the house we want, a building as ruthlessly square, grey and anonymous as all the others in the street, the only difference being the lack of a wrecked car on the front patch and a concrete ramp up to the door. The architect must have a castle fetish. Even the windows look more suited for shooting arrows than letting in sunlight.
Frank has given me the SP on Mrs Focaccia on the way here. Twenty stones of pure awkwardness and a partner who both in looks and demeanour would seem more at home in an illustration by Cruickshank.
‘Registered blind, but spends his life on the computer,’ says Frank, locking the door. ‘You’ll see.’
I walk up the ramp and knock on the door. A thousand dogs bark close by and far off into the night.
After a pause, bolts are thrown back and the door opened.
Mr Focaccia stands silhouetted in the fierce hall strip light. At first glance he seems to be a tall, middle-aged man surrendering to the effect of gravity. He curls forwards at the belt buckle, and his long, curly black hair hangs down in front of him like a fraying plumb line.
‘It’s the ambulance. Hello. We’ve erm – come for Mrs Focaccia.’
‘This way.’
He swings round and we pick our way through the cluttered hallway after him. He leads us through into the living room.
‘They’re here. Again.’
Mrs Focaccia is lying on her side on a double bed, scrunched up in the far corner. There is a low bookshelf along the nearside of the bed that acts as a partial screen; the foot of the bed has a hospital-style table, and the walls all around the bed are fixed with shelves. Every available surface is piled high with clutter, and any spare inch of wall not given over to storage is blu-tacked with computer printouts. There are some grey-looking sheets rucked up at the foot of the bed; that area of mattress not occupied by Mrs Focaccia is given over to a tideline of wipes, cotton buds, tissues, pill packets, marshmallow cup cakes, cream pots, an ashtray and a pile of newspapers high as Friday.
‘Hello Mrs Focaccia.’
She gives a yelp.
‘We understand you have a back problem.’
Lying as she is on her right side, her right arm tucked up under her head, she looks like the kind of massy abstract sculpture you might find in a park. The mattress craters dangerously around her.
‘So what’s happened?’
Mrs Focaccia tells us the story. History of spondylitis. Wheelchair bound. Coming down the ramp of a taxi a few days ago, wheels rode off the edge, flung forwards, slid down on to foot plates. Pain since. Ambulance at home next day – said to see if any improvement with Ibuprofen. No good at all. Ambulance earlier today – not helpful. Recommended a GP home visit. Said it would be better if the doctor could assess and then arrange for her to go straight to an assessment ward rather than through A&E. GP came. Said just that.
I picture a line of people all pulling off their gloves.
‘I’ll get the trolley out and up to the door,’ says Frank.
‘The first thing we need to do is clear the immediate area. Because of your back injury, we’re probably going to have to put you on a vacuum mattress to keep you nice and straight.’
‘No! No! You can’t clear the bed! I know where everything is. I’ll be helpless if you do that.’
‘But we won’t be able to get you out like this.’
‘No! Gary will do it. Gary’ll get me out.’
Mr Focaccia sighs, rattles through one last email, closes down the computer, sticks a pen behind his ear, stands up and starts foraging for the supplies they’ll need. It may be that my impressions have been tainted by what I’ve already been told, but he seems to gives me a sideways look before crashing awkwardly back into the bookcase as if he misjudged the distance.
‘Oops,’ he says.
‘You can’t do this to me,’ Mrs Focaccia says from her corner.
‘Try not to worry yourself,’ I say.

For the first time I see what makes up most of the clutter around the room. Victorian dolls, forty or fifty of varying size, each shelf like a crowded school photograph, layers of dusty crinoline and lace, row upon row of the same porcelain face, stupefied with paint, each with an abundant crown of curly hair. And then it strikes me that the pictures on the wall are all of the same thing: head shots of Gabrielle Drake, in UFO, her hair a severe purple wig. And then leading across from the pictures, another, deeper shelf facing the bed, also crowded with dolls. But these are bigger, and every one has its hair combed forwards, completely obscuring the face.
Frank suddenly reappears behind me.

‘How are we getting on?’ he says brightly.

I have no idea.


lulu's missives said...

Oh my gosh - that was hilarious in a very sad way. It always amazes me the things that people choose to collect. It's not so much what they decide to spend their money on, but what they feel that they need to live with, inside their own personal space.
x jo

Spence Kennedy said...

Thanks Jo.
I couldn't possibly live with all those dolls staring down at me. They creep me out at the best of time, but hundreds of Victorian dolls? Aaargh!

There was only one other patient I've been to with a scarier doll - a child-sized thing in a yellow souwester standing with its face hidden in the corner as if it were crying. Eech!

Michael Morse said...

There was a lady in my old neighborhood who put four lifesize dolls in her picture window every Christmas. As legend has it they were replacements for her four children who perished, and she could never have more.

I'm actually getting goosebumps as I write this, thanks, Spence!

Spence Kennedy said...

Well, Mike - now I'm even more creeped out by dolls! Eech!

BTW - ultimate creep-out doll-moments in the movies: the clown with the sharp teeth at the end of the bed in Poltergeist, or the ventriloquist's dummy in Dead of Night...

Michael Morse said...

I know it's infantile, but "Chucky" still freaks me out.

Then there was an obscure movie titled Trilogy of Terror where Karen Black, I think, was terrorized by little dolls with big knives.

Ventriloquists are a strange breed, that much is certain!

uphilldowndale said...

I'm not sure if it the dolls or the bed that is making my flesh creep, I don't like the sound of either

Spence Kennedy said...

It was an extraordinary bed, UHDD. Not so much a haven of rest as a raft adrift in a sea of porcelain faces. (I'm not selling it, I know...)

I've never actually seen Chucky (or any of the sequels). Not likely to, either. Wouldn't mind seeing Trilogy of Terror, though. Karen Black's great. One of my favourite films is Five Easy Pieces.

Dave W said...

When I was a minicab driver we had a very similar customer - a elderly lady who lived in her bed, surrounded by nick-nacks, papers, empty food wrappers and full ashtrays, in the living room of a tiny flat, alone. She'd call a cab once or twice every day to go to the 24 hour garage and back. Always for the same things, prawn cocktail sandwiches, crisps, a gossip magazine and some menthol cigarettes.

In the early days with she'd come with you, holding on to your arm or hand for support with her hands slathered in some kind of emollient lotion. As time wore on she'd start to stay at home and just send the driver shopping. Upon your return she'd ask you to top up the teapot, fill a hot water bottle or change a blown light bulb.
Towards the end the calls would cease for a couple of weeks out of every 6, rumour had it she went into hospital for the care she needed but discharged herself to home periodically to retain her benefit eligibility.

Very sad.

Spence Kennedy said...

Hey Dave W!

A lovely comment - thanks.

I think the potential for social isolation when you get old is as scary (if not scarier) than the potential for physical and mental deterioration. I suppose there's lots you can do to maximise your chances of having a more fulfilled and connected old age, but there are so many people who seem to fall into those patterns of living it must be fairly easy to find yourself in a similar position. I wonder what the back story was to that old lady, and how she came to be living like that?

Thanks again for the comment, Dave.

Kymmaree said...

Clowns and ventiloquist dummies. All equally excellent nightmare fodder. Spence, you are a fabulous writer.
As for aging geriatrics alone......raising selfish children will do that or misfortune I suppose.

Spence Kennedy said...

Thanks v much, Kymmaree - and thanks for reading so far back on the blog!
I've always had a 'creepy' spot for those old fashioned porcelein dolls & ventriloquist dummies. There's a magic shop in town that has an enormous ventriloquist head above the window - eech!