There is a handwritten sign taped to the pharmacy window: Closed for staff emergency. Will reopen as soon as possible. Sorry. Barbara unlocks the door without a word and shows me in, determinedly avoiding the frowns of the early morning customers already queuing outside. She quickly closes and locks the door again, and leads me through the empty store to the back, where Jenny is posed in the dispensing zone, standing formally with one hand on the counter and one hand down by her side.
‘Hello, Jenny. I understand you fell down the cellar stairs,’ I say.
‘I’m all right. I didn’t want the ambulance. I’m perfectly fine.
‘Would you mind if I had a quick chat, though? Just to make sure everything’s okay? Is that all right?’
She nods again, without shifting her position, as easy as a witness on the stand.
‘Before I go any further, I just have to check a few important things, Jenny. In any long fall, I have to make sure the person hasn’t hurt her neck. If I press here... or here... does that feel okay? Any sharp pains, any discomfort?’
‘And very gently – can you look to this shoulder? Good. And this one. Good. Any pins and needles? Numbness? Visual disturbance?’
‘Were you knocked out?’
She shakes her head.
‘A little – in my shoulder. My leg.’
‘Excellent. And why did you fall, do you think?’
‘I had to go down into the cellar to get some things. I caught my sleeve on the safety gate and fell down.’
‘All the way down?’
‘Quite a way, then.’
‘I’m fine. I really didn’t want anyone to call the ambulance.’
‘Why don’t you have a seat, Jenny? I’ll do what I normally do and then get out of your hair? Is that all right?’
She takes a seat and folds her hands in her lap. Barbara moves off, gliding away to tend a shelf of cold remedies. The store manager has been taking a call out back with the area manager, but now that I’m on scene he finishes the call and comes over to say hello.
‘I told you not to ring for the ambulance,’ says Jenny.
‘You fell down the stairs,’ he says, then smiles at me, a terse, precisely ruled affair. ‘You don’t take a fall like that and just carry on as if nothing had happened.’
‘It is a long way, Jenny,’ I say.
I check her over, take her details.
‘I don’t want to go to hospital,’ she says, rolling down her sleeve.
‘You don’t have to, but it might be as well – just to get checked out by a doctor.’
‘I don’t want to go to hospital.’
‘Fair enough. But if you suffer any of these symptoms – a headache unrelieved by analgesia, persistent vomiting, visual disturbance, pins and needles or other neurological symptoms, blackouts – anything unusual, in other words – then don’t hesitate to get yourself down to the hospital. Or call an ambulance. Just because you don’t want to go in now, doesn’t mean you can’t call us again. It’s not like that.’
She signs the disclaimer.
I pack up the kit and get ready to leave.
‘Nice to meet you,’ I say.
I head for the door.
‘Could I have a word – before you go?’ says the manager, striding over from the back of the store, where Barbara is watching with a box of pills in her hand.
‘Oh – okay.’
He opens a door to a consulting room and when I have stepped inside, follows me in and closes the door.
‘I’m extremely worried about Jenny,’ he says.
‘In what way?’
‘She didn’t fall. I saw the whole thing. She deliberately threw herself down the stairs and said we’d pushed her.’
‘I’ve no idea what to do,’ he says finally, rubbing his hands, a flush of anxiety across his cheeks. ‘She can’t stay in the store. I’m worried she’ll hurt herself – or us. And as far as making up the scripts for the customers...’ He shakes his head. ‘Forget it. It’s just not safe.
‘It’s complicated. If you’re saying you want her off the premises, that’s a police matter. But if you’re saying you’re worried about her mental health, that’s something else entirely. I could persuade Jenny to come to the hospital, and she could talk to someone there. Or maybe you could persuade her to go home and see her doctor. Maybe we should all have a chat about it in the open, so everyone’s clear about the situation. That’s probably the best thing.’
The manager looks unconvinced, but reluctantly opens the door again and stands aside.
‘I’m really sorry,’ he says. ‘I know you’re busy. I know you’ve got better things to do.’
‘Don’t worry. It takes as long as it takes.’
I go with him to the back of the shop again and put my bag on the floor.
She frowns at me.
‘I’m not going to hospital. I’m fine. I’ve told you.’
‘I’ve just been having a chat to Doug, and he’s explained a little about what’s been going on.’
As soon as I start on my preamble, Jenny’s composure dissolves. Her face creases up and her hands come up into a tangle.
‘It’s not fair! I’m perfectly all right! I knew I shouldn’t have said those things. I should’ve just kept quiet about the last seven years, and then maybe none of this would’ve happened. I’m being victimised. Barbara did it. She’s been poking me, laughing at me, calling me names. I’m perfectly fine. All I want to do is work. Please don’t send me home. I’m on a final written warning. If you send me home, what’ll happen next? It’s not my fault. I haven’t done anything. Please. Please just let me carry on. I didn’t mean anything. I shouldn’t have said anything.’
She starts to bow in the middle, rocking backwards and forwards.
‘Please. I won’t go. You can’t make me go. You hate my husband. When he turns up to take me home you say he makes you feel threatened. You’re frightened of my husband and what’s he ever done? All I want to do is work. Please let me work. I promise I won’t say anything more. I promise. Just let me stay.’
Barbara has collapsed onto a step; the manager has folded his arms and is leaning back against the counter. The heat of Jenny’s anguish has melted them away like so many wax figures.
‘It’s not like that, Jenny,’ says the manager, hoarsely. ‘But you’re not well. We just want you to be well.’
In the heavy pause that follows, before I try to sum up and direct proceedings, I look between the three of them, caught in that pressurised, low-ceilinged atmosphere of the little pharmacy, seven years on in a bitter work dispute, an hour behind on the morning’s scripts, a half dozen patients massing outside the shop window, and the stair gate swinging open on the precipitous descent to the cellar.
‘These work situations,’ I say, finally. ‘They’re complicated.’