Thursday, December 27, 2012

the tracks

Ted is sitting on the bed in his nightshirt, as poised and watchful as an owl. He’s grown his hair out at the temples, presumably to comb up over his pate; now, it pokes out either side in two large tufts like comedy ears.
‘Have you still got the pain?’
He rubs his breast bone up and down with the knuckles of his right hand.
‘How would you describe the pain, Ted? I know it’s a difficult one – but what’s it like? Sharp, dull, ache? Crushing-type pain? Cramp?’
He shrugs.
‘Burning?’ he says.
‘And does it change at all when you take a breath in?’
He takes a breath in.
‘Not really,’ he says, letting his breath out again with a sigh.
We carry on with our checks as his friends watch from the hallway. It’s a strange household. Downstairs, magazine-supplement tidiness, clear, down-lit spaces polished and neatly laid out; and Ted’s room, a chaotic tumble of clothes, books, boxes, with four sections of a vast model railway track, dismantled and leant against a chest of drawers. Assembled, the track would take up the entire room, sixteen square feet of beautifully constructed embankments, bridges, stations and signal boxes. Meticulously detailed figures, suitcases and newspapers, waiting on the platform. I imagine Ted rising up in the centre of it all, a giant signalman with his hand on a bank of switches, a cap on his head.
‘We need to take you down to our ambulance and do some more checks,’ I tell him. ‘But I have to say, before we do anything, we’ll be recommending you come to hospital. Our ECG can give us a good idea of any problems, but you’ll need a blood test for a definitive result. Is that okay? So let’s get everything you need together now and take it with us.’
He nods, and shuffles forwards off the bed. His friends make way on the landing.


‘Any other medical history?’ I ask him as the ambulance splashes on through the night. ‘Operations? Accidents? Hospital admissions?’
He shakes his head. The tufts of hair quiver. Highlighted by the spotlights in the ceiling, they seem finer and more sensitive, two pointy white filaments filtering the air for clues.
I rest the clipboard on my lap and smile at him.
‘I love your model railway,’ I say. ‘It’s amazing. Do you get to lay it out much?’
‘Sometimes. It’s difficult. Ever since I sold the house and moved in with my friends. I don’t have the space I used to.’
‘Pretty impressive, though. Did you make it?’
‘It’s my Dad’s really. We did it together. When he died, I carried it on. It used to be bigger. You know. More trains.’
‘Fantastic! Just looking at the first section – the embankment and everything. All that detail. It looks so real.’
Those comedy ears, trembling.
‘I’ve was in Southview once,’ he says. ‘Sectioned, you know what I mean?’
‘Oh really? When was that?’
He stares at me.
‘Last year.’
I click my pen and make a note.
‘Last year, okay. And why was that, Ted? Why were you sectioned?’
He stares at me.
‘Walking on the tracks,’ he says at last. 

Saturday, December 22, 2012

I hope you all have a fantastic holiday!

With a huge thank you for all your support over the past year. 

Here's to 2013! 


Friday, December 21, 2012


Mr Ernest Wakeland is a hundred years old.
‘And nine months.’
Sitting in his favourite chair, something as perfectly fitted to him as his brown corduroy jacket, he has his elbows planted right and left on the armrests, his forearms leaning in, his hands neatly clasped together over the gap, the forefingers of each hand pressed together and then turned back to rest lightly on the point of his chin. He looks like an ancient professor graciously welcoming students into his study. His legs are crossed. The monogrammed slipper on his foot taps out in time to his hundred year old heart. And nine months.
‘Good morning,’ he says. ‘Do have a seat.’
Just across from Mr Wakeland is his younger sister, Mary, ninety-four, poised on the edge of a red velveteen chair, monitoring the situation. Despite her own advanced years, she still has an air of younger sister deference about her.
Jeffrey, Mary’s grandson, busies himself in the background, gathering together the necessaries for Mr Wakeland’s ‘survival bag’ – a notebook, today’s newspaper, mobile phone, wallet, pyjamas, toothbrush.
‘Hairbrush,’ says Mary. ‘Don’t forget the hairbrush, Jeffrey.’
Mr Wakeland separates his hands in a palms-up gesture of forgiveness. ‘I suppose one ought stay on top of these things,’ he says.
The District Nurse has been out to Mr Wakeland this morning. She wasn’t happy with the progress of his chest infection and wants him admitted for further assessment. I read through the notes – an impressive lack of medication, surgery, incident – then help Rae prep the chair ready to go.
Behind his armchair, on a neatly arranged dresser, amongst the family photos and certificates, there’s a signed photo of the queen.
‘Yes – got the telegram in March,’ he says. ‘No-one thought I would.’ But looking at him, I can’t imagine anyone could have doubted it. In fact, Mr Wakeland is so healthy, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that Buckingham Palace has discreetly redrawn its protocols and made arrangements for the two hundredth anniversary.
‘You’ve obviously got the old bone gene,’ I say as I help him into our carry chair.
‘Oh I don’t know,’ he says, settling himself in. ‘Mary and I have done all right, but none of the others made it much past seventy.’
‘My youngest daughter was born in March,’ I say as I tip him back in the chair and wheel him towards the lifts.
‘Oh really? How lovely.’
‘March, two thousand and five.’
‘Well! A little way to go, then.’
Jeffrey hurries after us with the survival bag.
‘It’s odd to think,’ says Mr Wakeland, as the lift doors slide shut, ‘It’s odd to think that three of my birthdays I spent as a prisoner of war in Austria. Working in a talc mine.’
‘Talc. The rock, not the powder. But the rock becomes the powder, of course.’
‘I’ve never thought about talc mines before.’
‘Neither had I, but there you are – or there I was. But these things happen in a time of war, I suppose.’
I’m tempted to say that maybe all that talcum powder is one of the reasons his skin stayed soft and young, but I hold back, because I guess three years forced labour in a mine of any description - but especially a German POW mine - would be anything but life-enhancing.
‘So – talcum powder! What did they want talcum powder for, Mr Wakeland?’
 ‘Oh I don’t know,’ he sniffs. ‘Keeping all those delicate Wehrmacht bottoms fragrant and dry.’ He nods and smiles, and gathers the blankets of the chair more tightly around him.
‘But other than that, pharmaceuticals and the treatment of rubber, I expect.’

Tuesday, December 18, 2012


I'm getting around thirty spam emails a day now. Half get stopped, but half get through - some of them with links to dodgy sites. So reluctantly I've decided to put the comments moderation facility back. I've disabled the 'word verification', though, so it just means a bit of a delay before you see your comment up there.

Sorry! I know it's a pain, but I can't think what else to do. 

Saturday, December 15, 2012

the best view in the world

I haven’t been to this custody suite before. It’s situated miles away, on an industrial estate the other side of a neighbouring town. It doesn’t seem right, having to pick our way between the paint supply vehicles, the glazier trucks and paladins, the bored smokers in plastic bonnets standing outside the sandwich-making factory, the fork-lifts loading and unloading pallets of stuff, the beeping of reversing lorries – all to reach the new police custody suite, a low-slung, red-bricked compound with high wire fences and cameras monitoring our approach.
‘I can’t believe the cop cars do this every day.’
‘Maybe they don’t. Maybe it’s like Batman. Maybe there’s a secret entrance somewhere, a cave with hinged trees that flop to the side.
‘Let’s hope so.’
We drive up onto the yellow grid outside the main gates and buzz to enter. When we’ve been approved, a massive plated door shudders and starts to grind slowly upwards. After a couple of minutes there’s room enough to drive the ambulance in. Stop lights, cables, buttons, and a big red sign on the wall saying Please turn off your engine. The door closes behind us. We climb out and buzz again. After a while, just as the main door crashes to, a police officer appears from a hidden door. A bright and friendly guy with an open face topped with a zhuzh of yellow hair, he looks strangely out of place in these austere surroundings, like a children’s presenter playing the part of a prison guard.
‘Come for our boy David?’ he says. ‘Brilliant. This way.’
There must be a company that specialises in these interiors, because the custody suite itself is exactly the same as the one back in Helmstone. The same dirty-blue marmoleum flooring, the same shadowy footprint decals showing the prisoner where to stand, the same hefty circular command desk, imposingly raised on a dais, with its screens and cameras and crew of white-shirted administrators busily inputting, registering, sorting out.
‘This way.’
‘We haven’t been told much.’
‘Okay. So what we have is a twenty-two year old male called David Swift. He was found sitting on the edge of a multi-storey car park yesterday evening threatening to jump. Police arrived on scene and talked him down. He was sectioned, brought here, seen by the Duty Psych. He’s not been violent at all and he’s been cleared to travel with you without any escort. Don’t know why he came all the way out here to kill himself. No-one’s been able to figure that one out. But as he lives in your neck of the woods, they thought it best if he went to Southview. And there we are! That’s it! I’ll go and fetch him out. Nice lad. Very smiley.’
Just before he disappears, he waves across to one of the white-shirted staff, who promptly unlocks a tall metal cupboard and draws out a holdall wrapped in a large, clear plastic sack gathered at the top and sealed with a security tag. He dumps it on the floor at my feet.
‘Sign here,’ he says.


David is sitting on his seat, studying his mobile phone. Now and again he slowly shakes his head from side to side, smiling, and sighing and blowing air gently down his nose, as if he were reading a series of texts from someone who amused and disappointed him in equal measure.
‘Okay, David?’ I say. ‘Comfortable?’
He looks up at me, extending his smile in a blandly disconnected way, then immediately drops back into his phone.
He hasn’t said a word since we showed him onto the ambulance. As soon as we’re underway I restore his belongings to him. He watches me rip open the plastic sack and pull out the holdall, smiling the whole while. I make a joke about how impossible it is to break the police seal, but then again that’s probably the whole point. He tilts his chin up to agree, but doesn’t say anything.
As soon as he has the bag he locates his phone and checks his messages, whilst I read through his notes again: two sheets, one handwritten, one typed. The handwritten sheet is barely legible, sketching out David’s presenting condition in a scrawl of dry bullet-pointed descriptions, acronyms, arcane scores. The typed sheet is a formal follow up, referencing the legal aspects of his treatment, the steps that have been taken and must be taken. Signatures and addresses. A list of the contents of his holdall.
‘It shouldn’t take long to get back to Helmstone,’ I say to him.
He smiles again – a bland and strangely coy expression – then gently puts his phone back in its sock, and into his pocket. He folds his arms, and stares through the slatted blinds of the window.
‘Not the best view in the world from that seat, I’m afraid,’ I say.
And then I’m struck by the view he must have had from that other seat, the one he took yesterday evening, high up on the edge of the multi-storey car-park, his legs dangling over the abyss, the terrible blue canyons of the city beneath him.
He looks at me intently – and then flinches a little. For a second I wonder if it’s my comment about the view. But no. He’s already reaching back into his pocket, pulling out his phone again, intently reading the text that’s just come through.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


Patient has been violent with a kitchen knife.
Kitchen knife? That sounds even worse than a knife. Bigger, at least.
I make the call.
‘Good morning, Control. Just a few questions. Firstly - just to make absolutely sure – we’re to take this patient fifty miles out of town to Eastwall because they’ve got no beds in Southview? Secondly – it’s half past six in the morning. Wouldn’t it be better to delay things at least until the sun’s risen? More humane. And then, erm , seriously.. a kitchen knife?
‘Yep. I see what you mean. Just reading the notes on this one. Sorry - I’ve only just taken over. Yep. Erm. I’m afraid we’ve been sitting on this urgent journey for twelve hours or more, and if we don’t do it now, chances are it’ll never get done. With regards the kitchen knife – yep. That does sound dodgy. I’ll get back to you. Stand by one.’
I hang up the radio and sink further into the chair.
‘If you came and woke me up at half past six in the morning I think I might be reaching for something sharp,’ says Rae, folding her arms and staring off down the road. ‘Or blunt.’
There’s a frozen blue depth to the air, frost on everything.
A car crackles past, and the street sleeps on.
The radio buzzes again.
‘Yep – confirming the destination, and yes, if you could make contact, please. I’ve had assurances that the patient has been assessed as safe, so the police won’t be attending. We’re calling the patient now, so he should be expecting you.’


Datu Reye’s wife opens the door to us. A delicately pretty Filipino woman in an old silk bathrobe, she nods at me and holds out the house phone.
‘That’s okay,’ I say. ‘You can tell them we’re here now.’
But she continues to hold the phone out, so I take it from her and tell them myself.
Datu is wandering around the dimly lit flat looking for his shoes and things. There is a flat and passive remove to his face, like a child who has been given instructions, and who follows them dutifully but without the least idea to what end.
‘I’m really sorry we can’t go to Southview,’ I say to his wife.
She lowers her chin and stares at me.
‘You do understand we’re not going to the local unit, don’t you? They don’t have any beds. So we’ve got to go to Eastwall?’
She nods and smiles, and hooks some strands of hair back behind her ears. She looks almost as lost as her husband.
‘Don’t worry. We’ll take good care of him,’ I add.
She nods again, then goes to help Datu put some things in a bag.
I don’t see them kiss goodbye.
He follows us out to the ambulance, and when I turn to look the door has already closed.


I’ve put on a couple of spot lights in the back, which seems kinder than the full rack. Datu sits in the rear seat, leaning forward at the waist over his crossed arms as if he were trying to fold himself in half. He stares down at his trainers, and accommodates the rocking motion of the ambulance with discrete little counter-movements of his own. I try to chat to him, but he only looks at me once, with dark eyes that seem to sense more than they see. After a while I resign myself to a quiet journey, and settle deeper into my seat. The miles pass away beneath us.


‘What name is it?’
‘Datu. His name’s Datu Reyes and he’s a transfer up from Helmstone, a voluntary admission, because they haven’t got any beds in Southview.’
‘And what name did you say it was?’
‘Datu Reyes. I’ve got his other details here...’
‘Just a moment please.’
‘Shall we wait here?’
‘Yes. Just a moment.’
She goes back into the locked ward.
Datu stands with his chin down, his paisley bag resting on the floor.
After a while the nurse comes back.
‘There are three wards here,’ she says. ‘And none of them are expecting Mr Reyes. Are you sure you’ve got the right place?’
‘I don’t know. Are there any other psych wards round here?’
She thinks about it.
‘No,’ she says.
‘I’ll call Control.’


‘Sorry Datu. They sent us to the wrong hospital. But don’t worry, the one we want’s only another couple of miles. It won’t take long. Do you need the loo or anything before we go?’
He stares at the floor.
‘Okay. Sorry about this. It won’t take long.’
We lead him back out to the truck. He folds himself back into position on the seat.


The other hospital appears to have been built round the back of an enormous housing estate. The SatNav gives up and sticks the flag any old where. We end up down a street that terminates in a row of grim-looking lock-up garages. But with some directions and a little luck, eventually we find ourselves turning onto the forecourt of a low slung series of buildings so anonymous they could equally well be manufacturing PVC windows as offering therapy.
Rae parks up.
‘You can’t stop there,’ says a bearish guy, clapping his hands in the freezing air. ‘The day bus is due along any minute.’
We get back on board and follow his directions to the main entrance. Rae stays with the vehicle as it’s blocking access; I walk with Datu into the main foyer.
The receptionist leans her face nearer to the glass bubble to hear me.
‘Patient Datu Reyes, a voluntary admission all the way from Helmstone,’ I say.
She frowns, then leans away to call across the office.
‘Do you know anything about this, Gill?’
Gill looks up from behind a small hedge of potted plants, stares at us through the glass a moment, shakes her head then ducks back down again.
‘Where did you say you’re from?’
‘Helmstone. South of here. About fifty miles.’
‘Never heard of it.’
‘Erm – did you want a date of birth or anything? Would that help?’
‘Just a minute,’ she says, and makes a call.
Datu is standing over by the wall, beneath a vast watercolour of sunflowers.
‘John’s coming down,’ she says. ‘If you’d just like to wait.’

Over the next few minutes a succession of men appear through the security doors beyond reception. Each time I smile and say Good Morning, but each time it turns out not to be John.
The receptionist must think we’re exceptionally friendly, down in Helmstone I think.
But just at the point when I’m about to go back up to speak to her, the door opens again and another man appears.
‘Good morning!’ I say – and this time he walks towards us. A compact man in a ribbed green cardigan, his expression is as pressed as his clothes. When I hold out my hand he leans forward to take it, but cautiously, like a vet unexpectedly called upon to shake hands with a cat.
‘Ye-es,’ he says.
‘This is Datu. Datu is a voluntary admission all the way from Helmstone. No beds, I’m afraid!’ I laugh, mano a mano, but John’s still too preoccupied with the strangeness of the whole business to respond.
‘Happy to accept?’ I add.
‘And what did you say the name was?’
‘Datu. Datu Reyes. From Helmstone.’
He hesitates, then sighs and, pulling his swipe card out on its extendable line, holds it against a grey plate and gets the green light to go through.
‘This way,’ he says.
Datu follows.
For a moment I wonder if I’m delivering someone to completely the wrong place, but if I am, I’m the only one who seems to mind.
I wave goodbye, but Datu is already disappearing through the door with John.

The receptionist looks up and smiles when I say goodbye.
That friendly Helmstone thing again.
As I walk back out, the sunflowers on the wall seem even bigger and brighter than before.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

ancient history

We drive out along the coast road, high above the sea.

I read about these chalk cliffs. How they were laid down over millions of years in the warm, deep waters of the Cretaceous, the skeletons of countless billions of plankton, raining down from the sunlit upper reaches to the dark sea bed. As plesiosaurs and ammonites swam through the water, and pterosaurs flew through the air, and iguanodons and megalosaurs walked on the land, the ooze deepened, the pressure intensified, and the chalk deposits grew. Millions of years of change were gathered into it, a limitless array of fishes and urchins, molluscs and corals, one thing into another, a bustling scrawl of life written into stone. And then the global changes, the great geological events, the boundaries between one aeon and another, the crash of an asteroid, a mass eruption, hot to cold, the rise and fall of oceans, the driving up of mountains, the drag and retreat of ice fields, all living things struggling to adapt, living, thriving, dying, pushing on.

Out there, where those boats are fishing now? It wasn’t so long ago that was fertile land. You could walk from here to France. Our ancestors lived out on the tundra, hunting bison and elk.
From time to time their bones get fetched up the nets.

Things happen, whether we want them to or not.


David is waiting for us in his living room, surrounded by the things he has collected over the last sixty years. Japanese netsuke, chessmen and porcelain figures, photographs and carved wooden elephants. His wife Erica shows us in; David is too poorly to move.
‘I just need my pain relief sorting out,’ he says. ‘I’ve got cancer, you see. It started in the lungs, I had an op and a whole load of chemotherapy and whatnot. A horrible business, but it seemed to have done the trick – except, it hadn’t, really. It’s come back, in my liver, maybe a few other places, they’re not sure. They said I could go back on the old chemo but I said no. I’d rather live the last few months feeling more like myself – do you know what I mean? – rather than go down that road again. I just don’t want it. But I woke up with these pains here and here, and some difficulty breathing. I hope you don’t mind me calling you out like this. Only I got a bit panicked by it, d’you know what I mean?’
We do what we can to make him comfortable, sort things out. Erica goes into the kitchen to make some tea. We chat about this and that.
‘I tell you something that happened the other day,’ he says. ‘I was out taking a stroll through town, you know, getting some air, when I felt a bit puffed and had to have a little sit down on a wall outside a petrol station. It was a lovely day, though – d’you remember? – cold, but bright. Anyway, I was sitting on this wall watching the world go by when a group of young girls came out of the petrol station, on their dinner break from the local school. One of them was very striking, lovely blond hair, really shining in the sun, you know? She looked like an angel. Anyway, she had this pack of sandwiches. She unwrapped the wrapper, took the sandwiches out, then tossed the wrapper backwards over her shoulder. So when she passed me I said “There’s a bin just there, love”. And d’you know what that sweet-looking girl said to me? She leant in close, with her hand to the side of her face like she wanted to whisper, and she said: “Shut your mouth you old cunt”. Then carried on walking. Just like that. I was so shocked I didn’t know what to say. But then I thought “What the hell”. So I called out: “And you have a lovely day, too.” So she turned round and gave me the finger.’
He shrugs, and adjusts his position in the chair.
‘I don’t know why I’m telling you all this,’ he says, pinching the bridge of his nose and giving his head a little shake. ‘It’s all ancient history. It just played on my mind a bit, that’s all. It doesn’t really mean anything.’


When we’ve sorted David out, we say goodbye and get back into the ambulance.
Control sends us back to base.
We retrace our route along the high cliff road, driving quietly and quickly, the sea shining beneath us, the sky clear and blue above.

Monday, December 10, 2012


The workshop is round the back of the farmhouse, amongst a ramshackle collection of outhouses and lean-tos. There’s someone to wave us in at the gate, though, a gigantic figure in dirty orange overalls, a  jumper and combat jacket, fluorescent vest, and to top the whole ensemble off, a face boiled red by exposure to the elements. On top of his head is a heavy knitted beanie, squashed down on a mass of wild hair and beard. He looks like a lion press-ganged into working for the council.
‘Round you come,’ he growls. ‘Watch your left there. To me. To me.’
I jump out, straight into a puddle.
‘Mind that,’ he says.
‘So who’ve we come to see?’
‘This way, fella. It’s the damndest thing. I wasn’t even supposed to be working today. Lucky I was or who knows what might have happened. Through here. Mind your head – although you should be all right.’
He leads us into a low-ceilinged building crammed full of machinery – machinery with chains and levers, machinery with blocks and beds and wheels to move them; machinery with great screws and plates to press and raise and separate; machinery that’s been stripped down to sad arrays of wires and switching gear and PCBs; and then stacked precariously in every available space, plastic crates of bits, plugs and sockets, valves, and screws, and brackets, and fixings of every shape and size. There’s scarcely room amongst it all to make your way through to the office at the back – office, in that it has a desk, a computer and shelves of files and directories. They’ve nominally marked out the space by building two breeze-block walls right and left with a curtain of plastic sheeting taped to hang across the opening from the ceiling. There are no heaters that I can see, certainly none working. The air is brutally chill, our breath misting in front of us. It feels more like a cold store than a workshop, despite the insulation of so much stuff, tumbling up incoherently to the pressed asbestos sheets of the roof, where the husks of countless dead spiders hang with their legs frozen in the tucked-up position.  
Malcolm is sitting on a swivel chair at the desk. He’s dressed like his friend, layers of old clothes, great winter boots and socks, a beanie hat. His face looks even redder than his friend, though, clean shaven, lacking that vital layer of animal hair as proof against the cold. The end of Malcolm’s nose is particularly raw, and even in this poor light you can see that it’s been abraded by some violent action.
Lion Man tells us he came in and found Malcolm face down on the floor having a seizure. It lasted a couple of minutes, but he seemed to come round fairly quickly. He told him to lie where he was, but Malcolm ignored him and got himself up again.
‘I’m fine. Honestly. I’m fine.’
He rolls himself a cigarette, scattering tobacco across the papers on the desk as his hands shake.
We ask him a few questions and start to figure out what may have happened – but suddenly his phone goes.
‘Do you mind if I... hello? Yep. Yeah. Okay....’
He turns on the chair, puts the cigarette in his mouth, finds a pen, and starts taking notes.
‘Yep. Three point one? You sure, mate? I think you’ll find that’s usually a point two. Yep. Uh-huh. With the trip? On a nine-fifty? Okay. Let me just check that for you...’
He draws diagrams, makes notes, the ash from his fag drifting down onto his hands.
Lion Man sighs and folds his arms.
‘I keep telling him he’s got to slow down but he won’t listen. He’s driven. Absolutely driven. He was here till three yesterday.’
‘In the afternoon?’
Lion Man snorts.
‘Of the AM variety,’ he says. ‘And that’s not unusual. We’ve got orders to fill, deadlines coming out of our ears. It’s tough, you know. Times is a-hard. You can’t afford to sit around and cry about it. Make hay while the sun shines.’ He glances back through the workshop to the yard outside. It’s just started to rain again.
‘Well – you know what I mean.’
We both look back at Malcolm. I catch his eye as he swivels round on the chair to pull down a directory from one of the shelves. He nods and smiles weakly, then puts the directory on the desk and – crooking the phone between his cheek and his shoulder - starts to thumb through it.
‘The nine-eighty, you say? O-kay. Let me just get a price on that for you...’

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

magnolia angels

This is our first call to St Germain’s in quite a few months. It’s been closed for refurbishment, and I’m interested to see what’s been done. Ellen, one of the hostel staff, waits for us outside, smoking by the recycling bins. She nods, drops the fag, grinds it out, leads us in the front door – a great stone arch rising impressively over us, its stone steps dipping in the middle from centuries of feet.
‘I don’t know if you know Pete,’ Ellen says, with a sigh as worn as the steps. ‘He can get a bit abusive sometimes but it’s all just blather. Apart from a bit of trench foot and COPD he’s not too bad, though. He’s got pissed up tonight, and now he’s lying half-naked in the corridor. He’s got a head injury, not too bad as far as I can tell but you’re the experts. See what you think. I must admit I’ve about had it with him.’
We follow Ellen through the security doors of the vestibule, then off to the wide, modern stairway. There’s a sign on the lift saying MAY BREAK DOWN. DON’T USE UNLESS YOU HAVE TO.
‘That’s the next thing on our To Do list,’ she says.
The stairs rise up through a series of  mezzanine floors, each floor partitioned off into small, rectangular rooms with just enough space for a wardrobe, side-table and bed. Pete is on the third floor, lying on his side on the narrow stretch of office-grade carpet. There’s another inmate standing over him, a dissolute figure with a scattering of blurry blue tattoos up his arms. He stares at us as we approach, his face slack and reddened with booze.
‘He can’t stay here. I need to get to bed,’ he says. Then he looks down at Pete and toes him speculatively. ‘Get up ya’ drunken bastard.’
‘Hello Pete,’ I say. ‘It’s the ambulance.’
Pete growls and bats at the space between us, making a series of incomprehensible sounds as thick with hostility as his beard is thick with matter.
‘That’s not very nice, Pete. We’ve come to make sure you’re all right. People are worried about you.’
He hugs his arms to his chest and draws his legs up. He looks comfortable enough, were it not for the fact he was naked from the waist down and lying in a hallway.
‘Get up! Get up, will ya?’ says the man. ‘Nobody’s interested in yer wee stubby cock, fella. Trust me on this one.’
I prod and irritate Pete until he opens his eyes and responds sufficiently to assess him. We check him over. He doesn’t appear to have hurt himself. It’s just alcohol.
‘If he sleeps it off in his room, would you be around to look in on him from time to time?’
Ellen nods. ‘There’ll be someone around all night,’ she says.
We help him up and in to his room.
It’s only when we’ve put him to bed I’m aware of the apex of the stained glass window, rising up behind the bed, safe behind a Perspex screen. This is the uppermost floor, right at the very top of the old church.
When we go back out into the corridor, I notice a couple of stone angels poking out through cutaways in the stud walls like they were impatient at being covered over and sawed a hole for themselves with their praying hands. As a reward, they’ve been painted magnolia, the same as everything else.
‘Looks great,’ I say.
They watch over us with their eyes closed as Ellen leads us back to the stairs. 

night wader

We can see the police cars on the promenade, their reflective decals glowing in the light from one of the lamps, but in case we hadn’t, it puts on its blue sparklers for a moment. There’s just enough room between the bollards at the end of the walkway to squeeze the ambulance through. Ahead of us, the vista through the windscreen is a graded banding of colour, black to light – to our right, the great mass of the sea, just a scattering of white points from distant ships; line upon line of creamy white waves moving in as the tide rises; the lighter grey of the empty promenade running on ahead of us, and then the city, piling up to our left, a hectic bank of brilliant whites and yellows. It’s so cold you can hear the stars. A golden moon, rounded at one corner, floats above the whole thing, so low you could reach up and poke it with your finger.
I park next to the police cars. There is one officer waiting there for us. We can see his colleagues down on the beach by the water’s edge, playing their torches out across the surf.
‘He’s walked out to sea,’ the officer says, blowing on his hands and then rubbing them together. ‘Rather him than me. Jesus it’s cold. Anyway, he’s just standing there, up to his shoulders. Been there twenty minutes, maybe? Don’t think he’s been under .Not since we got here. We were going to go in and try to fish him out but the inshore lifeboat’ll be here any minute and that’s probably the safest bet all round. The warmest, that’s for sure.’
I fetch some blankets from the back, switch the heater on, unwrap a foil blanket, then we all jump down onto the beach to meet the others.
The sea is calm and regular, but the noise of the surf as it moves in is a thundering pulse of sound, and with the freezing wind leaning in to us as well, we have to shout to make ourselves heard. The police officers have all got powerful torches. The beams intersect at a point five hundred yards off-shore – the head and shoulders of a young man, standing with his back to us. He doesn’t even particularly react to each wave as it slops up around him. He just stands there, a diminishing point of humanity on a brutally inhospitable canvas.
 ‘Who called us?’ I shout.
‘He did. Made the call from the beach, dropped the phone and walked in.’
One of the officers says: ‘Over there, look’.
One blue and one white light, sliding in from the left towards the figure.
‘Here they come.’
And now the spluttering thug-chug-thug of a marine diesel. A light snaps on from the boat; it turns, and approaches the figure. Even now he doesn’t move. Caught in the brighter light from the boat, I wonder if he’ll suddenly duck under the water. He has that look about him – a curious sea-creature who stays on the surface for just as long as it can, then dives back down to the safety of its own world. But instead he raises up his arms as the boat comes alongside. A bulky orange figure jumps down into the water. The man is gathered onto the boat; after a minute or two, it turns, and slowly rides the waves as it makes its way in to meet us.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

New book! Free!

I’ve just published my next book on Amazon. It’s a thriller called Into the Eclipse, and it’ll be free to download for the next 5 days (from morning of Mon 03 Dec – to the end of Fri 07 Dec). I’d love to know what you think of it. It’s quite different from Frank’s Last Call in that it’s entirely fictional, and written as a novel rather than the novelisation of a blog.

Here’s the blurb I put up on Amazon:


The solar eclipse.
For many it was a natural spectacle, a beautiful quirk of astronomy.
For Ella, it was one last chance to save her daughter.

When Kate leaves home to go to university, she is recruited by a secretive organisation and severs all links to her family. Ella, her mother, tries desperately to win her back. Eventually she turns to Noah, an anti-cult campaigner. Together they face up to an organisation prepared to do anything to protect itself, as it moves inexorably towards one final, cataclysmic event.

An exploration of faith and redemption, Into the Eclipse follows the paths of several very different lives as they intersect during a solar eclipse.


As always, a review on Amazon would be very much appreciated!

With thanks again for all your support and encouragement.


Friday, November 30, 2012

never say never

If twelve hours is a long time, by the end of the fourth shift, it feels eternal.
We’ve managed ten and a half, and the end’s in sight, but the prospect of a prompt finish diminishes as we take a call to a non-injury fall at home. As we make our way over to the address, we hear several other calls going out for jobs with no vehicles to assign.
‘We’ll have to pace this one,’ says Rae.
But everything’s fine. I’ve been to this address before. Errol, ninety-eight, a charming old man in a little cottage overlooking the sea, set back from the cliff road amongst a huddle of laurel and hawthorn, dark steps from the gate to the patio door, the key safe on the wall by the flagpole, a strew of interesting drift wood, holed stones strung on lines, weathered wooden sculptures. It’s been an unsettled day; the night has settled in with a scrub of cloud across the moon and a salt chill to the air.
We fiddle with the key safe and let ourselves in.
‘Hello? Ambulance?’

Errol’s mobility has decreased since I saw him last. He’s no longer able to manage the stairs, so the OTs have set him up with a sweet little electric bed in the living room. He’s lying on the floor at the foot end, and gives a little wave as we put our bags down and go over.
‘I’m fine! I’m fine! I haven’t hurt myself – and I can confidently say that everything works as it should. I just can’t blasted well get up. Sorry for the language.’
We help him up, and make sure he’s okay walking to his tilt-armchair in the middle of the room.
‘Would you like a cup of tea, Errol?’
‘I would love a cup of tea. That’s so kind of you. And please – make one for yourselves. Are you all right with Assam? And I rather think there may be a biscuit or two in the tin by the folders. Please, whatever you’d like.’
I settle myself onto one of his carved mahogany chairs and prepare to write out the report form in immaculate – and slow – detail.
He watches me, and smiles when I look up.
‘These wretched legs,’ he says, crossing them. ‘Can’t do a thing  with ‘em. You wouldn’t believe I used to swim for the county, would you? Before the war, of course. Before the war.’ He scratches his forehead, as if the thought was a perplexing itch.
He looks up again.
‘That’s how I met my wife.’
‘In the water?’
‘Sort of. She was... erm... she was on the beach.’
‘She liked the cut of your jib?’
‘Something like that. She was rather cool about the whole thing, actually, but that’s what they’re like, you know... erm... from the Black Forest. They don’t like to give too much away, you know.’
‘Probably just as well.’
‘Of course that’s one of the reasons we got married. They were rounding up all the Germans over here and patching them off to the Isle of Man. I wanted to make sure she was protected before I went off to fight. So we got married. That wasn’t the only reason of course, but it was one of them. And to think I didn’t see her again for another five years.’
Rae comes in with the tea, and a plate of chocolate biscuits.
‘I don’t know if it’s exactly true or not,’ I tell him, dunking my biscuit, ‘but the family story goes that my uncle John went off to fight, got captured and put in a POW camp in Italy, escaped, and ended the war fighting with the partisans. But in the meantime, auntie Ollie was told he’d been killed. So she made the best of it, took up with a GI, and got engaged. But then a day or so before the wedding, John turned up.’
‘Oh my goodness! She must’ve thought it was a ghost!’
‘I can’t imagine! So there was this big reunion and everything, except the GI wasn’t too pleased. Apparently he climbed up on the parapet of Westminster Bridge and threatened to throw himself in. Don’t know if he did or not. Probably not.’
‘Well. It just goes to show. Never give up hope. Never.’
‘Never say never.’
Errol takes a shaky sip of his tea, then rattles the cup back on the saucer.
‘It’s like I’ve always said,’ he says, ‘when you find yourself a good woman, you hold onto her no matter what.’
Then he glances over at the faded black and white picture on the wall just across from him: a young woman in a panama hat, tipping the brim of it, frowning playfully into the lens.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

the waiting room

The cancer centre is all locked up, the reception area beyond the glass dimly, economically lit. There’s no buzzer; when we knock nothing happens, no-one comes. The rain is just starting in now after threatening all evening. We shelter as best we can in the overhang. I call Control to check whether we’re in the right place. They eventually get back to say that someone is coming to let us in.

‘Sorry about that,’ says a nurse as the door opens. ‘We don’t normally run this late. Mr Rogers has just got another ten minutes to go. Is that okay?’
She shows us to the threshold of a deep and empty waiting room, and hits a switch. The overhead lights blink on, nearest first, then off in two lines into the distance.
‘Make yourselves at home,’ she says.

The chairs around the perimeter of the room are high-backed, generously padded, pastel mauve, pink and yellow. On the low, white tables in the centre of the room are tidy stacks of magazines: House & Home; Elle; Cosmopolitan; Red; Gardener’s World.
Amazing before & afters.
Your Spring must-haves.
How normal is your sex life?
Boost your energy in a week.
Public enemy no.1.

And today’s paper, folded to the crossword, half-done. A small bookshelf on wheels with a stack of thrillers, a slotted pot for contributions. Nicely organised notice boards, bright adverts for contact groups, names and numbers, a fundraising spread with people running through ribbons with their arms in the air, smiling in a huddle round a giant cheque.
Rae gets herself a cup of water from the cooler and stands there, sipping it, looking around.
Outside, the rain rattles coldly against the black glass.

‘Here we are!’ says the nurse, pushing Mr Rogers in a wheelchair.
He waves an emaciated hand in the air and smiles broadly as they come to a stop.
‘Thank you so much for waiting,’ he says. ‘Sorry to keep you.’

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

last of the helmstone hyenas

After a brief pause we’re buzzed in to the lobby. An elderly man is standing by the nearest flat door; I assume it’s flat number one.
‘Hello,’ I say. ‘Who’ve we come to see, then?’
He frowns. ‘I don’t know,’ he says. ‘That’s what I was wondering.’
For a second I think this must be an aspect of the job, but Rae sees how the numbers are running.
‘This is flat eight,’ she says.
The man takes a trembling step out further towards us.
‘Yes. Flat eight. But I saw your ambulance and I wondered what all the fuss was about. Who did you want?’
He thumbs us further down the hall.
‘Out the back. Let me know if you need anything,’ he shouts after us.
The corridor seems to extend forever without any logic to the numbers or leading anywhere in particular. We’re just about to radio for more information when a door to a hidden stairway at the far end cracks open and a friendly-looking woman in her seventies puffs out onto the landing.
‘This way,’ she wheezes. ‘I told your people we were round the back.’
‘Oh. I thought where we parked was the back.’
‘No, that’s the front. But it’s confusing,’ she adds, generously. ‘Follow me.’
She tells us what’s happened as she walks, marking out the dreadful progress of the whole thing in her padded slippers: Stan eventually got diagnosed with terminal cancer a couple of months ago. He doesn’t like doctors, he put it off too long. They haven’t been able to sort the care package out mostly because of Stan’s cussedness. But he’s much, much weaker now. The speed of it’s taken everyone by surprise. The last few weeks have been difficult; the last few days have been disastrous.
‘He won’t even talk to the doctor anymore,’ she says. ’I’m at my wit’s end. I just can’t manage.’
She shows us into the flat, a tiny but comfortable place with a wooden baby gate in the hallway.
‘For the dog. When we had it. Excuse the mess.’

Stan is lying in bed. The cancer has robbed everything from him but the shine in his eyes. Every ridge and scoop of his skeleton is readable through the skin; it’s a shock to see him breathe, like seeing signs of life in a mummy.
‘He won’t eat or drink. He hasn’t had anything the last few days. I spoke to the doctor again but he just pointed me back to the cancer trust. They’ve done their best but it’s reached the point now when I just don’t know who to call or what to do.’
She reaches out and rubs the back of his hand.
‘There’s a Do Not Resuscitate thingy for him. I know he’s dying, but the doctor said maybe three months. He won’t go into a hospice and I don’t know what to do. We haven’t got the room. It’s not like I can even be in the same bed with him anymore.’ She looks down at him with a numb statement of fact. ‘I just can’t.’
‘Do you have a care folder we could look at, Deidre?’
‘Care folder! I’ve got a phone number somewhere, but it’s not twenty-four hours. I thought maybe you’d have some ideas.’
But just as I start to review the options – including taking Stan to hospital, although in his condition that obviously wouldn’t be the best place – when Stan suddenly turns over in bed, grabbing the sheet with an emaciated hand and dragging it over his head as he goes. It’s an unexpected, peevish kind of movement, like someone bothered by all the fuss.
Rae goes round the other side to look at him.
‘Agonal,’ she says after a moment.
Deidre lays both her hands on her heart.
‘What does that mean?’ she says.
‘I’m afraid Stan’s dying,’ I tell her. ‘These are his last breaths.’

Deidre has to leave the room, but one of Stan’s niece’s had been visiting the family. She sits with her uncle and holds his hand as he dies.
‘Would you like some tea?’ says Deidre, bustling about in the kitchen. ‘Milk and sugar?’


There are quite a few family members in the area. We’re still finishing off the paperwork and organising the next step as they arrive. It’s a friendly bunch – there are gasps and tears, but it all soon settles down into a kind of scratch wake, tea and biscuits, old photos coming out. His brother hands me a framed black and white picture of a hockey team, lined up with their sticks.
‘Here’s Stan in the Fifties. That’s him, there. The Helmstone Hyenas. County champions. You should’ve seen them.’ He taps the glass, and then wipes it with the edge of his hand. ‘That’s why I’m not too sad about what’s happened tonight. That wasn’t Stan in there. He’d already gone. I saw him a couple of days ago and we had a good chat about things.’
I hand him back the photo.
‘The last of the Helmstone Hyenas,’ he says. ‘And if you look at that picture over there...’
He points to a wedding photo, Deidre and Stan arm in arm striding out of the church. I’d noticed it before a few minutes ago, but there’s something I missed, a foreground detail – an arch of raised hockey sticks for the young couple to walk through.

Friday, November 23, 2012

what to do

Georgina is sitting on the floor where she fell, her oedematous legs splayed out in front of her, rolling in folds at the ankle and knee, punished by cellulitis, venous insufficiency, heart failure, age. One of the residential nurses, a woman in her twenties, as dark and slim as Georgina is pale and plump, squats down next to her with an arm round her shoulders. She adjusts the blanket round Georgina’s shoulders and points to us as we come in through the door.
‘Here they are,’ she says. ‘The cavalry.’
Georgina hasn’t hurt herself, but the likelihood is she’s septic, which was probably a factor in the fall.
‘I’m afraid it’s a trip up the hospital,’ I tell her.
‘Oh for God’s sake! What’s the point? Just let me die,’ she says. ‘I’m ninety-seven. I’ve had my time. Let me go.’
‘Hey! Come on, Georgie!’ says the nurse, giving her a hug. ‘You’ll be back in no time. Don’t worry about it. These guys’ll take care of you.’
‘I wish they would take care of me.’
But by the time we’ve got the trolley into the room and sorted things out, she’s cheered up a bit. She jokes with us about this and that, trades affectionate squeezes with the nurse, and generally seems to be building herself up for the trip. We make her snug with blankets and are just getting ready to go when she sighs.
‘I really miss my mother,’ she says. ‘And she’s been gone seventy years.’
She folds her arms on top of the blankets, thinks a moment, and then looks at me.
‘She’d have known what to do,’ she says.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

the chances

‘Sorry it’s taking so long to handover. The hospital’s busy today.’
‘I can see.’
‘Still pain free?’
‘A little discomfort, but nothing I can’t handle.’
‘Good. Anyway. Shouldn’t be much longer. I expect your husband will be here soon.’
‘I hate to worry him.’
‘He seems to be coping pretty well.’
‘He’s used to me now.’
Molly rearranges the carrier bag of medication and things on her lap, then settles back again.
‘This is so unexpected,’ she says. ‘And so unfair. I go swimming with my daughter twice a week. Forty lengths! An Olympic-sized pool! You’d think after all that I’d be a bit healthier.’
‘Twice a week’s impressive.’
‘I think Katie gets a bit frustrated with me, though. She could probably do twice as many lengths in half the time, but she humours me.’
‘How old’s Katie, then?’
Molly is only sixty-five. I quickly do the maths – but she pre-empts me with a generous smile.
‘I had Katie when I was seventeen,’ she says. ‘I told your colleague all about it on the way in. I know, I know. Young and stupid. But these things happen - in our case, about six months after we got married. Seventeen’s too young, really, but it worked out for the best. I’ve even got a great-grandchild now, which doesn’t sound right at all, but there you are.’
We get the signal from Rae, and move towards a cubicle.
‘Thanks for all you’ve done,’ she says.


Afterwards, whilst we’re tidying up the back of the ambulance, I tell Rae about my chat with Molly.
‘It’s amazing to think she had a child when she was seventeen, and here they are now, forty-eight years later. I mean, what are the chances of staying married for so long after a start like that?’
‘They didn’t.’
‘What do you mean, they didn’t?’
Rae starts folding a blanket.
‘You missed the best part. They got divorced just after the daughter was born, lost touch, she brought Katie up on her own for a while and then eventually re-married. They only got back together again last year.’
‘Last year?’
She drops the folded blanket onto the trolley. ‘Like you say – what are the chances?’

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

nile street

There’s a Nile Street in every British town. Running up to the railway station. A newsagent, pizza delivery, pawnbrokers, second-hand clothing shop and tattoo parlour, a semi-derelict, permanently open pub with green tiles on the front to make hosing down a little easier. A small square of public garden with high-railings all around like an exercise yard, with benches, bins, and plane trees. But if the street was named after a brilliant Nelson victory, the echoes of that particular cannonade have long since segued into the low-grade rumble of traffic endlessly passing across the bottom of the street on the main drag.
The area is something of a street-drinkers’ ghetto. There’s already a groundswell of public protest about the level of deprivation, the drug users and NFAs that have colonised the area, and no doubt a time will come when enough fuss is made to initiate some kind of clearance, a zero-tolerance approach that will finally bring in the developers. And of course the net result will be to shift the drinkers and the users to another part of town, to start the whole process over.
But for now, it’s the usual faces in the usual places.
Garry, a bandage round his head, sitting with his back against the pizza place, a puddle of blood off to his left marking the spot where he fell.
Because of the one-way system here, we’ve had to park the ambulance a little way up Nile Street and walk back. Greg ,the paramedic first on scene, is crouching next to Garry as we approach. He’s writing something on his form, so we don’t say anything, but stand slightly off to the side with our blue gloved hands folded respectfully in front of us.
Eventually Greg stands up, sighs and looks off to the right, in the direction he’s expecting us to arrive from. The fact that he doesn’t appear to have noticed us standing there is so extraordinary we don’t say anything, wondering how long it’ll be before he notices. At one point he actually turns and looks past us, but still doesn’t register we’re there. Eventually I cough and say: All right, Greg. He flinches and jerks back a little.
‘Fucking hell where did you come from?’
‘How long have you been there?’
‘A minute or two.’
He looks utterly lost for words – and, for a moment, we are, too.
Garry shifts his position on the ground.
‘Shall I get up now, guys?’ he says.
‘Yep. Hang on a minute, I’ll just tell these guys the story.’
He says Garry doesn’t know how he ended up on the ground. He may have been assaulted or may have had an alcoholic blackout – either way, he has a cut to the back of his head that needs attention at the hospital. He hands us the form.
‘I can’t believe I didn’t see you,’ he says, seeming more white-faced and shaken up than Garry with the head injury. ‘I need a break.’

We help Garry up and all walk together up Nile Street to the ambulance.
Incredibly, a beautiful young woman in a white coat comes running over from the pharmacy on the opposite corner.
‘Garry!’ she says. ‘Are you all right?’
‘Yeah,’ he grins, revealing a mouthful of dreadful teeth. ‘I bashed my noggin, love. It’s okay, though.’
‘He was fine when he came in for his scrip about an hour ago,’ the woman says, touching him lightly on the arm. ‘Weren’t you, babe?’
‘Yeah! I’m always fine, me.’
‘Well you take care,’ she says, then turns to us. ‘Is there anything I can help you with?’
‘No, no. We’re good, thanks.’
She hurries back in the direction of the pharmacy.
‘She’s nice,’ I say to Garry.
‘Yeah! She’s all right, she is. Everyone’s all right.’
A shambling figure intercepts us as we pass the entrance to the park, a filthy figure in ragged combats and trainers so rotten you’d double wrap them before you threw them in the bin.
‘Garry mate,’ he drawls. ‘Wha’sappened?’
‘Wriggles,’ I think he says. ‘Mate – I’ve smashed me ‘ead and I need to go up the hospital.’
‘N’ah mate. Really? Who done that t’you?’
Garry shrugs. ‘Someone. Maybe no-one.’
Wriggles hands him a roll-up.
‘There you go, mate.’
Garry puts it in his mouth and stands there whilst Wriggles lights it.
‘I don’t think we’ve really got time to stand here and smoke,’ I say. ‘We’ve got to get your head seen to.’
Garry nods, but makes no effort to move.
It’s as if this whole incident and our presence here has released something into the air. Wriggles was the first to respond, but now others are coming over, irresistibly drawn by a trace pheromone of scandal. One guy, a decrepit figure of indeterminate age lopes across the road and joins us.
He pulls his hand out of his pocket and shows us a couple of silver bracelets.
‘Where can I sell these?’ he says.
Wriggles nods in the direction of a tiny jewellers shop further up the hill.
‘What about there?’ he says. ‘The old guy there’s taken stuff before.’
‘Nah,’ says the man. ‘That’s where I nicked ‘em from.’

Monday, November 19, 2012

twinset and hearing aids

The scaffolding is finally down at Blenheim Court. It rises up on the corner of the street as fresh as an architect’s model, every Art Deco detail – the curving, metal windows, the kinked brass fittings, the epic marble friezes of Achievement, Reward, Industry – everything sandblasted free of a hundred years of grime.
It’s a windy night, cloudless, half a moon. The wind has been picking up the last hour or so; the block is so exposed here, maybe the scaffolding was simply swept away, the last traces of dirt lifted from the bricks, the corners of the building rounded off.
No-one answers the intercom.
I’m just about to call Control to ask them to get back to the caller when the intercom crackles.
‘It’s the ambulance.’
After a long pause the door clicks, letting me in to a small atrium with another, identical door and intercom just ahead.
I walk up the marble steps and buzz again.
‘It’s the ambulance.’
Who else do they think it might be?
Another pause.
The original door buzzes.
I push the second door - still locked.
I buzz again.
‘Could you let me through the second door, please?’
In my haste to get in I pull instead of push, and then in a panic to get it open before the buzzing stops I crash against it, almost demolishing a panel in the process, stumbling through.

The interior lobby is eerily vacant. The renovation has swept through the place so thoroughly, everything hangs in a strangely indeterminate state, as if the building had been newly built and then dropped through a wormhole into the next century.
I follow the golden arrows on the lacquered wooden signs to number ten, put my bags down and knock.
Another pause, the door opens.
‘Hello. It’s the ambulance. Are you the patient?’
‘You want my sister, Vivien. She’s just through here.’
She turns and leads me through.
Even though Barbara is as old as the building – was born in this flat – sadly, the renovation process has passed her by. She is sweetly decrepit, lavender talc and peppermints, the ropes of her neck rising out of her dressing gown in frank, anatomical cables. Her skin is as fragile as a parchment map marked out with liver spots, scars, moles, bruise-patches. She’s wearing a hairnet and curlers, the whole thing like some mad professor’s prototype –  a machine for dreaming yourself young.
Barbara shuffles ahead of me down a hallway into the sitting room where her twin sister Vivien is sitting on the couch.
‘It’s the ambulance.’
‘The ambulance.’
‘She’s deaf, you know,’ says Barbara, straightening up and patting her hairnet.
‘So what happened tonight?’
‘She got up and came in here. When I followed to find out what was wrong she said she couldn’t breathe, so I called 999.’
I crouch down next to Vivien.
‘How are you feeling?’
‘How are you feeling?’
‘How am I what?’
‘Your breathing. Do you feel short of breath?’
Vivien turns to her sister.
‘What’s he saying?’
She leans in and touches her on the shoulder.
‘Your breathing, Viv.’
‘My what?’
‘Your breathing. You said you couldn’t breathe.’
‘I can’t hear a word you’re saying. My what?’
‘Does Viv have a hearing aid?’ I ask Barbara.
‘No, but she ought to.’
The SATS probe on Viv’s finger supports what’s apparent anyway – Vivien is not having trouble breathing. In fact, she looks better than her sister.
Barbara leans in again and shouts in her ear.
‘You said you were having trouble breathing, Viv.’
‘When you got up.’
‘I had trouble sleeping.
‘Sleeping. I had trouble sleeping.’
‘Oh,’ she says, sighing, and then burying her hands in the deep pockets of her dressing-gown, she turns to me and says: ‘I see.’

Saturday, November 17, 2012


Frieda Allenstein is ninety-six years old next Thursday, but she’s the only one here who doesn’t know it. Frieda has dementia. She’s being cared for in her own flat by a combination of live-in carers and her family who live nearby. It’s a loving remedy for a cruel disease that in the last few years has robbed Frieda of her independence, her orientation in the world, her identity.  She is curled up on her side on the bed, her head cradled in the crook of her arm, staring at the sunlight pouring in through the window.
‘Listen to them talking,’ she mutters. ‘Lies. All lies.’
When I lean over to look at her, her eyes are glittering and hard.
The EMI outreach team have changed Frieda’s meds and that’s perhaps one reason why she’s shown a decline this last week. She’s fallen a couple of times – non-injury, but her confidence is shaken and she’s withdrawn to bed. She’s refusing to take any of her pills, and becoming increasingly aggressive to Marta, the live-in carer.
‘I can do nothing,’ she says, standing in the doorway as we gently coax some observations from Frieda. ‘First she is with the biting and now with the slaps.’
Frieda’s son-in-law, Jacob, a rounded and friendly man in his late sixties, sits on an Ottoman with his hands placed either side, as if he were ready at a moment’s notice to spring up and be helpful.
‘My wife’s away on business till Monday,’ he says. ‘What do I tell her? Should we get her back early?’
‘Let’s have a talk first about the options. I don’t think we need to be rushing off to hospital. I think there’s a good chance we can manage this at home with a little extra help.’
I make a couple of phone calls, wait for a ring back.
Jacob makes us tea, and we drink it next door in Frieda’s living room, a bright and lovely room crowded with paintings and photos and the collected ephemera of her life.
‘She’s accomplished so much,’ he says, cradling his cup. ‘So much. It’s tragic she should suffer this thing, but then I suppose she’s had ninety odd years of good health. It’s only in the last couple she’s gone downhill, so that’s a blessing.’
‘It is.’
‘You know – my son jokes with me. He says “Dad, when you start to go like that, let’s take you to Switzerland.” So I say “What do you mean, Switzerland? You want I should go to that dreadful clinic and be finished off?”  And you know what he says? He says: “You know it’s for the best, Pops. Everybody wins. You get to avoid all this mess, and we get to eat Toblerone on the flight back.”’