Thank you so much to anyone who's already bought the ebook Frank's Last Call. I really appreciate your support. But I'm going to be even cheekier and ask for something more - reviews!
If you've read the book - or even just part of it - it'd be so helpful if you could post a review on Amazon or Smashwords. I'm not after flattery. Be as honest as possible, a couple of lines would do - but the more reviews I get the better it is in terms of publicity & profile.
By the way - I've got an author's page at Amazon now, which has a discussion / forum board. But of course you can always contact me directly by email / comment here.
Monday, July 30, 2012
Wednesday, July 18, 2012
the hat box
The keysafe number Control sent with the job doesn’t work. I’m getting soaked, reaching in under this sopping canopy of climbing roses, fiddling around with the combination lock.
Rae pokes me with the aerial of her radio.
‘He’s ninety-four. I bet it’s one-nine-one-eight.’
I try it. The safe falls open.
I unlock the door.
The cottage must be two hundred years old, one of a line of half a dozen, set back from the alley behind a crumbling red-bricked wall. The city has grown up around them; I expect when the cottages were built you could cartwheel over a grassy hill straight onto the beach. But the city has closed in on them with its tall, dark lines, its office blocks and flats, and now instead of the sea the constant murmur of traffic.
The place is as still as a photograph, quiet and dim, with a settled quality about everything, the single armchair, the writing desk, the pictures and paintings distributed across every wall space, the palm in its ceramic planter.
A feeble halloo from upstairs. We head up a steep staircase, up to a plaited silk rope hooked across the top like a barrier in a plush Twenties cinema.
Mr Robertson is lying half out of the bed. He is wearing a string vest and a pair of gauze incontinence pants. His back is towards us, nubbed and liver-spotted.
‘Hello Mr Robertson. I’m Spence, this is Rae. What’s been going on then?’
‘Well as you can see I’ve become rather stuck. I was just coming back from the bathroom and got myself into a bit of a jam.’
‘Have you hurt yourself?’
‘No, no. I just can’t seem to manage this last little bit. Dreadful, really. I’m so sorry to be a nuisance.’
‘Let’s set you right, then. Here we go.’
Between us we settle him back into bed, draw the covers over and make him comfortable.
‘Thank you. Oh – that’s better.’
‘We’ll just check you over to see everything’s all right, then we’ll leave you to it.’
Rae canters through his observations whilst I write out the form, checking his yellow folder for care arrangements and so on.
‘Who’d have thought I’d have gone on so long,’ he says, taking a sip of water from his beaker. ‘I really should’ve popped off when my wife did, at ninety. I don’t see there’s much point to all of this now.’
Just to the side of the bed is a three-quarter black and white studio portrait of a woman in a wide-brimmed hat.
‘Is that your wife?’
‘Yes. We were married sixty years. All of them happy – start to finish.’
‘She looks like a film star. Like Margaret Leighton or someone.’
‘She was beautiful. I particularly loved that photo. She always did look good in a hat.’
All his observations are fine, and a carer is due in an hour. Just before we go Mr Robertson asks us to fetch out a pair of pyjama bottoms so he can feel more presentable.The fitted wardrobe extends across the whole of the far end of the bedroom, as meticulously organised as a display cabinet in an Edwardian department store. The brass fittings slide quietly aside, revealing rows of drawers perfectly arranged one above the other, each with a brass plate: Undergarments, Stockings, Handkerchiefs, Hair. And sitting above them all, placed just-so in the middle of its own shelf, a large, dusty, black lacquered hat box.
Tuesday, July 17, 2012
Finally it's out there...
I've finally published the ebook of the blog. The title is: Frank's Last Call and it's available now!
You can buy it from Amazon and from Smashwords. Within the next week or so, it should also be available from Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Sony Reader Store, Aldiko and Diesel ebook store. But the Smashwords site has .mobi, Epub, PDF, HTML and PDB formats all available for download now. And you can download a sample 20% of the book for free!
If you have any questions, please do drop me a line. I look forward to hearing what you think.
the strange crew of the Trixiebelle
Great fonts of water smash up over the harbour wall. The wind is ripping across the marina, rattling through the halyards of the yachts and fishing smacks, drawing a plangent howl from the chaotic mass of vessels moored there. We walk down the ramp into the marina, clutching our fluorescent jackets around us, chins tucked in against the deluge. Down on the main pontoon is a block of flats and utility rooms up on legs, but open either side. We hurry down through the security gate expecting to get some respite from the rainstorm, but the wind is crueller than that and finds us easily, bowling in through the sides in pulses of fine spray. We pass a couple of people, wrapped up in waterproof gear. I make cracks about the weather, along the lines of This damned summer, hey? and July! Who’d think it? But the only acknowledgement is the smallest of turns to the side, and they’re gone.
Security were supposed to meet us but there’s no sign. We just have the name of a boat – Trixiebelle – and two numbers – 8:12 – which Rae figures out means jetty 8, berth 12. Gloops and slops of water jump up through the slats of the walkway; the boards are becoming more slippery, and we walk flat-footed to avoid slipping off sideways into the drink.
A small yacht, as superficially impressive as any of the others along this branch, except the closer you get the more you notice the black and green spots of mildew on the cockpit canvas, the cleats and winches covered with plastic bags and sealed with masking tape; a dander of neglect about the whole vessel.
Through the yellowing plastic windows of the cockpit canvas we can see two middle-aged figures – a woman, waving to us with her free arm, her other hanging on to the shoulders of a man. We leave the bags on the jetty, step up onto the narrow walkway of the yacht, and pick our way across a tangle of steel cables towards them.
‘John was unconscious,’ the woman says as we lift the canopy flap aside. ‘He was dying. But thank God I managed to pull him round. He’s been drugged, by those damned lesbians. I’m afraid when John came to he reached for a glass of water and downed it before we realised it was neat vodka, so that hasn’t helped.’
‘Okay.’ Rae settles herself into the cockpit and I squeeze in beside her, the only free space being the narrow bench seat of the wheel.
‘And you are...?’
‘Dorothy. His wife.’
She lowers her chin and frowns, a strangely petulant response to a simple question, but Rae continues to focus on the patient. ‘John? Hello – it’s the ambulance. How are you feeling?’ His eyes are open but unfocused. He gives little drunken nods of his head, and swivels his attention suddenly in the way that intoxicated people sometimes do. A line of chocolaty drool quivers from his lower lip.
‘I gave him some chocolate in case it was diabetes,’ says Dorothy, by way of explanation.
‘Is John diabetic?’
‘No. He’s perfectly fit and healthy.’
‘What’s the matter with him?’
‘I don’t know. Do you have any tissue? So we can wipe his mouth.’ Dorothy doesn’t respond, so I head down into the cabin to find some kitchen roll. The little kitchen area is crapped up with dirty plates and saucepans, carrier bags stuffed with lager cans, a liberal scattering of paperback books, correspondence and other detritus. When the two of them come down to sleep, I imagine them turning round and round amongst it all, two large, middle-aged hamsters forcing a space in the garbage. But I find a roll of kitchen towel and pick my way back up to the cockpit. Rae tears off a piece and wipes John’s mouth.
At first it looked like John might be having a stroke, but he passes all our assessments. He needs to go in to hospital to be checked over more thoroughly, but getting him off the boat is going to be difficult. I leave Rae on the boat and take the long walk back to the ambulance to fetch the trolley and to call Control and ask to chase up the security team that was supposed to be here. But half-way back I’m joined by one of them – a compact, weather-beaten figure zipped-up to the eyes in a mariner’s waterproof.
‘Need some help then?’ he says. The storm rages around us as he takes the foot end of the trolley and helps me back down to the yacht.
‘Ever had any problems with these people before?’ I ask.
‘The Trixiebelle? No. But I wouldn’t be surprised.’
But it’s impossible to talk and negotiate the trolley across the jetty, so I wait for an opportunity to ask him what he meant later. Back at the yacht we somehow manage to work John’s arms and legs sufficiently to guide him off the boat and onto the trolley.
‘No!’ he says. ‘Don’t!’
When he’s safely on the trolley, Dorothy cradles his face in her hands and kisses him. ‘John – you nearly died!’ she sobs. ‘You nearly died!’
The storm hurls buckets of water across our backs.
The ambulance is a blessed sanctuary. It rocks gently from side to side as the storm rages around us; never has a space felt so dry, so warm, so deliciously protected. I take off my fluorescent jacket and hang it where it can drip down over the steps.
‘Now, John. What’s all this about a party you went to this morning?’ says Rae, wrapping a blood pressure cuff around his arm.
‘Should I tell them who I am?’ slurs John. ‘Shall I tell them about the MOD?’
Dorothy shakes her head, then looks straight at us.
‘John got up this morning in the early hours and went to the toilet block. Apparently there was a group of lesbians having a party there. They forced him to drink alcohol, then injected him in the penis with a clear liquid. When he came back he could barely stand, and then his whole left side went numb and he almost died. That’s when I called you.’
‘But shouldn’t I tell them who I am?’ he says. ‘Shouldn’t I tell them about the MOD?’
‘What do you mean, the MOD?’ asks Rae, as casually as she can, but giving herself away in a sideways look to me.
‘Be quiet, John,’ snaps Dorothy. ‘That’s got nothing to do with anything. It’s those damned lesbians and their constant partying,’ she says.
There’s a knock on the door. I open it a little and the security guard is there, his grey eyes smiling above the high chin-line of his hood.
‘Everything all right now?’ he says.
‘Yep. Thanks for your help. We’re away to the hospital in a moment.’
‘Righto.’And he turns and hurries off before I can get my jacket on, jump down and ask him what else he knows about the strange crew of the Trixiebelle.
Thursday, July 12, 2012
‘We’ve got seven cats,’ says the little girl, standing in the alley. ‘Seven cats and five kittens. No – four kittens.’
‘Wow. That’s quite a collection.’
‘I’ve got a Barbie, but I cut all her hair off with some scissors so I keep her in a sock. I can do flips on the trampoline. Have you come to see Jack?’
‘I think so.’
She hops round on the spot and dances back down the alley, her blond curls leaping and shining in the sun. She’s like some perfect elfin child, a Victorian fairy Photoshopped into an urban scene, skipping along past the carcase of a discarded TV, a sofa in a crapped-up nest of weeds, a garden gnome with jags of plaster where the head used to be, a mattress, a wheel, a box of bottles.
I follow her down a drop of concrete steps to the front door of a plain terraced house. She ducks inside past a woman who stands guard in the doorway. The woman has a mass of yellow hair piled up on her head like a hay rick; beneath it is a black hair band that has slipped forwards onto the bridge of her nose. The Kohl she has lined her eyes with is as thick as the band, so the effect is of a wide black cloth tied round the top half of her head, like the Lone Ranger, or a raccoon. She can only be forty, but without her teeth her cheeks have drawn in to make her look sixty. She is wearing a red and yellow orchid print Caftan, and smokes a cigarette intently, to the filter, in three drags.
‘Thanks for coming,’ she rasps, flicking the fag off into next door’s garden. ‘It’s my nine-year-old, Jack.’
I follow her inside, through a cluttered hallway to a door at the back. She goes to push the door open, but a man shouts from the other side.
‘Hold on a minute. Old man in the way.’
The woman sighs and stares at me, one hand holding on to the handle.
‘Father-in-law,’ she says.
Grunts and scuffles from behind the door, until eventually the voice says it’s okay to come in. She sighs again, and pushes through.
The room is as grey and thick as the dirty brocade curtains drawn across the windows. An energy-saver light bulb casts a rimy light over everything, over the DVDs, the scattered clothes, the computer consoles and the empty Cola bottles. The woman’s husband – a cadaverous twitch of a man in a Liverpool shirt and combat trousers – stands with his arm around his Dad, precariously set up on a bar stool like a ventriloquist’s dummy.
‘Hello,’ I say, with as much positivity as I can manage.
‘All right, mate?’ The old man smiles and stares.
Jack is lying with his legs drawn up to his chest on a boxy two-seater sofa, hugging a Harry Potter quilt around him. He groans and squeezes his eyes shut.
‘Jack’s bad with the stomach,’ says the woman, going to stand behind her son and ruffling his hair.
‘So what’s been happening?’ I ask them.
‘He’s been off school the last couple of days. We rang the doctor when it wasn’t getting any better, and he said get an ambulance.’
‘Has he been sick?’
‘No. He had a big poo this morning. He’s never had trouble in that department.’
She looks at her husband, who seems more intent on operating his Dad to make him seem alive.
‘What about eating and drinking? When did Jack last have anything?’
‘I dunno. An hour ago? Pizza, with the rest of us. But not as much as he normally does.’
‘So – Jack? Tell me about this pain in your tummy. Can I have a look?’
He groans but nods. I lift the quilt up, and then his t-shirt.
‘Can you point to where the pain is?’
He makes a fluttering kind of gesture across his lower half.
‘Can I have a feel?’
He nods. But apart from some anxious wincing before I’ve even laid a finger, it doesn’t provoke much.
‘Okay. Thank you. You can pull your t-shirt down now. And if you had to describe the pain, what would you say? I know it’s difficult. But what would you say – a burning pain? Stabbing? Does it come and go? Or is it on the whole time? Hmm?’
He winces again.
‘Like someone’s hammering down there. With a hammer.’
I take his temperature. Normal.
I write some things down on the board.
‘Has Jack had any pain relief? Paracetamol, that kind of thing?’
‘No. He doesn’t like tablets.’
‘You can get it in liquid form. You know – for kids.’
‘Well we haven’t got any.’
I put the clipboard down.
‘I don’t think it’s too bad. He’s a good colour, he doesn’t have a temperature or anything.’
‘But the doctor said get an ambulance.’
‘I know. Did you say anything about Jack’s breathing? Chest pain, stuff like that?’
‘Well his breathing was bad. He was getting in a right old state.’
‘That’s probably why the doctor said call an ambulance, then. Any hint of breathing problems and they’re bound to call us out. Understandably. But I think the breathing thing was probably anxiety. He seems quite comfortable now. But having said all that, it’s difficult with abdo pain. My guess is it’s probably just a virus, but to be safe we’d better take a little trip down the hospital.’
‘Yeah, I think so. Don’t you, hun?’
‘Whatever you think, love.’
‘I don’t want to take no chances.’
‘Okay. Let’s get your stuff together then.’
‘Are we all going?’ says the husband through his Dad.
‘No – there’s really only room for Jack and Mum. But I’m sure everything’s okay. No doubt they’ll send him back home pretty quick.’
‘You go,’ says the husband. ‘I’ll stay here with the old feller.’ The old feller swivels his head and grins.
I pick up my bag, but just as I’m turning to go out of the door, another figure steps out from under the stairs, a young girl, thickly built, bloodless and white, like a farmer’s daughter kept all her life in a barn. Folds of flesh bulge out of the sides of her loose silk shift, her hair teased out in clumps, one single black eyebrow in a ragged crayon line across her forehead, and a mouth drawn back in a stumpy smile. She puts her arm across the door and leans in to examine me closely.‘Leave him alone, Babs,’ says the mother, banging some trainers onto Jack’s feet. ‘You’re staying here to look after the kittens.’
Wednesday, July 11, 2012
Pete the community responder was first on scene.
He meets us at the doorway.
We follow him upstairs.
‘The daughter Kate was at the hospital sitting with her Dad who’s in for some kind of cancer op. Mum Emma came home last night to get some rest before going back around lunchtime, but when she didn’t show and didn’t answer her phone, Kate asked the neighbour Jean to pop round and see if everything was all right. Jean’s got a spare key ‘cos she looks after the cat sometimes. She’s gone back next door if you need to speak to her. She’s pretty shaken up.’
He pauses outside the bedroom door.
‘So it was Jean found the body,’ he says.
Emma is in bed, lying on her back with her chin up and her eyes closed. Her left arm is raised above her head, her right hand clutches the quilt to her chest, whilst her right leg, bent at the knee, hangs out over the edge. Her face has that cold definition you only see on hyper-real dummies and the recently dead, but if there were any doubt, the lower aspect of her exposed arm and leg are bruised with pooling blood.
‘I haven’t touched anything,’ says Pete. ‘Jean says as far as she knows Emma only took HRT pills and that was it. Went to the gym. Didn’t drink. Pretty fit and healthy middle-aged woman. I didn’t see any tablets or anything that might explain it. Terrible, really.’
After I report the death on the police purple line – a cheerfully administrative voice the other end: Hello ambulance! What have you got for us today? – I help Rae look for essential information, date of birth, GP surgery, any scripts or letters that might throw some light. Rae finds a plastic presentation folder of old school reports going back to the sixties. Emma’s date of birth is written in faded biro on one from her infants school. The house is perfectly tidy, with bright screen prints of flowers on the walls, a busy family calendar covered with writing, letters and invitations clipped to the side. A pottery rooster crows on the windowsill. Three ceramic pots by the kettle.
There is a knock on the door; the police have arrived. The same sergeant I met at the last unexpected death at home smiles when he recognises me.
‘Anything suspicious this time?’ he says, and laughs. A huge but diffident officer follows him over the threshold, immediately blocking out all the light from outside despite ducking his shoulders to make himself inconspicuous. The sergeant listens to my handover, then follows us back up the stairs, chatting evenly to the other officer about the things he should bear in mind in these situations, what he should be looking for, what he should be thinking about.
‘The daughter Kate is with the father over at the hospital at the moment,’ I tell him whilst they roll the body to check underneath. ‘Here’s her number and the rest of the paperwork. Is there anything else?’
‘No. That’s great. Thanks guys. You can stand-down, if you like.’
We’re half-way down the stairs when there’s a timid rap on the glass of the front door. When I open it, there’s a twenty-something-year-old woman standing on the porch, one hand to her mouth. Her partner stands beside her, looking at me, turning to look again at the police car and ambulance dominating the road, back at me.
‘What’s happened?’ she whispers. ‘Where’s Mum?’
‘Are you Kate?’
‘Kate – you have to prepare yourself for some really bad news. I’m so sorry but your mother has died.’
She grunts, folding her arms over her stomach and doubling over as if I’ve punched her there. Her partner comes to put his arm round her shoulder, holding her up as a terrible, animalistic scream rises out of her. The man frowns at me, shaking his head from side to side.
‘What do you mean, died?’ he says. ‘Are you sure?’
‘I’m so sorry.’
‘I’m afraid so.’
Kate breaks away from him, staggers over to a flower bed and vomits.
‘Is there nothing you can do?’ he says.
‘No. I’m afraid she’s been dead for some time.’
‘What – Emma?’
‘It’s hard to say. Probably sometime last night.’
‘But … died?’
‘Do you want to come inside and sit down? Can I get you anything?’
‘She can’t have died. Alan’s having his op today. This’ll finish him off. Died? No way.’
‘I’m so sorry. Was she complaining of feeling unwell yesterday?’
‘No. Not really. I mean she’s been pretty stressed lately, what with the cancer and this and that. But … died?’
Rae hands Kate some kitchen towel, puts a hand on her shoulder and talks to her in a quiet voice. Kate straightens up and pulls out a mobile phone.
‘How am I going to tell Steph?’ she says, holding it out to me like I might know. ‘Her baby’s due any day. And the girls? What can I say to them? This can’t be happening. This can’t be. Not now. I can’t bear it. I can’t bear it.’
‘I’d maybe leave phoning anyone just yet,’ I say. ‘Give yourself five minutes just to let the news settle and think what to do.’
‘No,’ she says. ‘They’ve got to be told right now.’
She tries to work the phone, but drops it because her hands are shaking so much.
The two police officers are standing in the doorway. I catch the sergeant’s eye and he nods discretely.
‘Come on,’ I say to Kate’s partner. ‘Let’s go inside and we’ll make you something to drink. What can I get you?’
‘I’ll have a tea – as it comes. Kate’ll have a coffee, white with two. Jesus Christ! Dead?’
I go into the house and the new police officer follows me into the kitchen.
‘I’ll help you,’ he says.
He puts the kettle on and I find some cups.
‘What do they want?’ he says.
‘Tea as it comes, coffee white with two.’
He clatters around finding stuff.
‘Tea with two, was it? Coffee and what?’
‘The guy’s having tea, just as it comes. She’s having coffee, white with two sugars.’
‘Coffee and how many?’
‘Two. Two sugars.’
‘Tea and sugar?’
‘No. Just as it comes.’
The house cat is watching us from under the kitchen table. I kneel down and hold out my hand. It meows a couple of times, then struts over with its tail up. It sniffs my fingers, then rubs up against me, round and round.
‘How many sugars?’ says the police officer.
We take the drinks into the living room. Kate is sitting on the furthest edge of the sofa, jogging her knees up and down, periodically looking down at her phone. We put the drinks down on the coffee table in front of them.
‘Is there anything else you want to ask us before we go?’ I say.
Kate looks up.
‘Thanks for all you’ve done,’ she says. ‘Well – you know.’
‘I’m so sorry,’ I say.
Control send us back to base.
We drive along the top road that runs like the rim of a great, shallow bowl, halved by the ocean, the town spreading out towards us from the cut-line. Far off to the west, storm clouds are moving in from the sea, the rain falling so thick it smudges out every detail like a spillage of ink across a canvas.
‘They’re getting it over west,’ says Rae.
‘And it looks like it’s coming this way.’
We drive on; a moment later, splats of rain hit the windscreen.
Thursday, July 05, 2012
‘It’s nothing. I’m fine. What? Oh – who cares? I don’t. Do what you have to do. You’re the boss. What are you doing? Who are you…? I’m perfectly fine…’
His friend Peter’s no better.
‘We’d been to a party, you see. Not far. A fiftieth.’
The way he says fiftieth – releasing all the syllables at once in an optimistic rush, the effort of which pulls his eyelids down like shutters and almost topples him over onto his friend. But by some drunken miracle of gravity Peter manages to stay upright, putting a hand out to the wall and drawing from the wallpaper the wherewithal to carry on.
‘We walked it. S’was a nice evening so we thought – why not? A bottle of champagne. Maybe two. Three. All very nice and this and that. Then when we got home – this!’
He gestures grandly: this, his friend Richard, lying at the bottom of the stairs, curled up on his side by the skirting board, blood from the gash in the back of his head like a rich raspberry jus smeared up the wall and over the floorboards. Richard sighs and pulls an invisible duvet up to his chin, wanting to sleep where he landed.
‘There’s nothing at all the matter with me. Why don’t you just bugger off and leave me alone? Who did you say you were…?’
‘Richard! Let them do their job! I’m sure they’re working as hard as they can. Aren’t you? Working as hard as you can on this one?’
‘Yep. We just need to get this collar on you, Richard, then we’ll have you up and onto our stretcher. But you’re not going to like it all that much.’
‘I don’t like it very much, you’re right. Why can’t you just leave me alone? I haven’t hurt myself and I don’t need to go to hospital.’
‘Richard!’ snaps his friend. ‘I’m sorry about his appalling behaviour. I know you must dread old farts like us.’
Rae has a makeshift bandage round Richard’s head now. It pushes his hair up, punk pineapple-style.
‘I’ve got to get a picture of this,’ says his friend. ‘Where’s your camera, Richard?’
‘In my bag.’
‘Yes but where’s your bag, dear?’
Richard sighs like a water buffalo.
‘Oops,’ says Peter.
Wednesday, July 04, 2012
you can't nick what isn't there
‘Ten years in the army, fighting for my country. Ten years. For what? To be beaten up by some copper for no reason? How’s that fair? Such big men. Hard men, yeah? Picking on a drunk, hiding behind your uniforms. That’s right, mate. I’d turn away and be ashamed if I was you...’
The policeman accompanying us sighs and peers out through the slatted window of the ambulance.
John rests his head back momentarily, drawing down heat from the examination lights.
I catch the eye of the policeman; he smiles and raises his eyebrows. We both know what he’s facing. John is a ticker tape machine of complaint; the policeman will be sitting next to him for the next three or four hours watching it reel out in spools onto the cubicle floor.
John has been arrested for D&D, but to make things much worse, he swung a fist and caught an officer in the mouth. The others promptly put him on the floor where he banged his head and passed out. We’ve bandaged the cut on his forehead and he doesn’t seem too bad, but as an alcoholic with a head injury he’ll need monitoring at the hospital.
John looks over at the policeman again.
‘Ten years I fought for this country...’ he starts in.
The policeman shifts in his chair.
‘Oh yeah? What regiment?’
John pauses a moment, wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, looks at it, and as if he were reading something written there, then looks across at the policeman and says a name.
The policeman straightens.
‘No shit! Me too! When?’
‘Before you were born, mate. Nineteen-eighties.’
‘Yeah? Where did you serve?’
‘All over. You name it. Last place was that Spandau prison, guarding Hess.’
You would think the lights in the ambulance had brightened. The narrow gap between the trolley and the side seats no longer seems like a crocodile-filled moat. John sits up on the trolley, and I raise up the back to support him better. He folds his arms and starts chatting with the policeman, the two of them suddenly two old muckers, swapping army stories.
‘Yeah! Rudolph Hess,’ says John. That was a strange gig, that was. You’d see him marching around the yard on his own. Then sometimes he’d stop and stare right up at you, up in the tower. It was like guarding a ghost. An old Nazi ghost. I felt a bit sorry for him, all on his own like that, but what can you do? We had to stay clear. It did seem strange though. I mean, the guy had given himself up, hadn’t he? He landed in Scotland. At least that’s what they said. That’s what they wanted you to believe. You never really know, do you? I tell you something else that happened. A mate of mine nicked his jacket – the Luftwaffe uniform he wore when he flew over. He tried to sell it in the market, but they caught up with him and he got sent to prison himself. But of course, as it turned out, Hess was never supposed to have kept any of that Nazi stuff in the first place. It was all supposed to have been taken off him. So my mate got let out again, on the basis that you can’t nick what isn’t there. And he got a nice little pay out, too. Yeah. Goes to show.’
In the pause that follows I say: ‘Just coming up to the hospital now.’
The lights dim again.
John rests back on the trolley.
‘Yeah. I felt a bit sorry for Hess – but at least he didn’t get beaten up by his own police,’ he says.
Monday, July 02, 2012
I was here only the other day. In fact, kneeling down on Deidre’s porch by the key safe, scrolling through the numbers, the only difference would seem to be that the sun is overhead and not the moon. More than déjà vu, I have a sudden, clammy feeling that actually I haven’t moved at all, that I’m coming round from a long sleep.
I look to the side. Deidre’s cat Cecil is sitting on the porch watching me. It’s like that scene in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where Aslan breathes on Mr Tumnus to unfreeze him.
I ruffle Cecil’s head, then stand up with the key.
Cecil clacks back through the flap; I open the door.
Night or day the scene is always the same. A house utterly quiet, a chandelier hanging above the hallway like some lush stalactite in a cavern of antiques.
It’s a little unnerving, this carpet-thick silence, but after a few visits the apprehension that something is wrong diminishes.
Down a long, shadowy corridor towards the only open door on that side – Deidre’s bedroom. And Deidre, her arm in a padded sling, sitting up in bed.
‘Oh hello Duck. Did you let yourself in, then? I’m so sorry to have called you out but I didn’t know what to do. I fell on the floor, I’ve made such a fool of myself. I haven’t broken anything I don’t think. I pressed my buzzer and everything but then I thought I’d better try to get up at least. I’m sorry to have bothered you.’
‘So you’re all right, then?’
‘You’re all right? You haven’t hurt yourself?’
She plucks at the duvet with her good hand. Cecil mee-ows once, cleanly, decisively, and leaps up to join her on the bed.
‘I’m no good anymore,’ says Deidre. ‘Am I? I’m no good. What use am I to anyone? Why don’t you carry a gun in that bag of yours so you can shoot me? Just shoot me and get it over with. I mean what’s the point? I’m no use to anybody like this. Every night I go to bed and pray for the Lord to take me but he doesn’t, does he? Why hasn’t the Lord taken me? He’s taken everyone else. I’ve had a good life and it’s high time I went. But here I am, aren’t I? Hey? I say here I am.’
She stares up at me, petting the cat. Cedric springs up against the weight of her hand a couple of times, his tail straight up like an aerial, then breaks away to the side table where he reaches a paw into her water glass and starts flipping some into his mouth. I make a mental note to check his food and water before I go.
‘You daft apeth,’ she says, hauling him back. He looks scandalised for a second or two, shrugs, then settles down to clean himself.
I pull up a chair and begin writing out the form, stopping now and then to tickle the cat.
On the dresser is a picture of Deidre in a Hollywood-style dress, fur trim and diamante flash, arm in arm with a brilliantined moustache in a tux.
‘Where did you meet your husband?’ I ask her.
‘Which one? I was married four times,’ she says.
‘I don’t know. That one.’
She sits up and peers forward. Even Cecil stops preening his hind quarters, glancing over his shoulder with one leg in the air.
‘I’ve no idea,’ says Deidre, relaxing back again and closing her eyes. ‘Somewhere nice.’
Sunday, July 01, 2012
We press the number on the intercom but no-one answers. We press every other number, too - given that it’s still only nine o’clock at night and someone must be in – but again, no reply. The apartment block rises up beyond the gates, a cool green glass appliance for living. A gym illuminated on the ground floor, empty. A selection of expensive cars parked in numbered spaces.
We call Control, who get back on the phone to the live-in carer. After a few more minutes a glass door swings open and a large black woman hurries over to us, a margin of fat around her hips so accommodating you could jump up and ride it like the running board on a Bentley. She is wearing a Let’s Go Yankees! t-shirt, jogging bottoms, and slippers large enough to walk on water. She lumps across to the pedestrian gate at the side, comes out, then before we can say anything, slams it shut behind her.
‘Hello,’ she says, then stands and smiles at us, breathing heavily.
‘Erm – do you have a key to get back in?’
‘A key? No.’
‘Erm – okay!’
‘Mary has fallen on the floor. She has not done herself any harm I think, but I cannot lift her by myself.’
‘That’s fine. We’re happy to help. It’s just erm…’
‘Let me see about this stupid business,’ she says, turning to the intercom pad. ‘It really is a nuisance.’ She prods in the key code, then looks at the gate. No movement. She mutters something, presses clear and repeats the sequence – looks at the gate. No movement.
‘It does not appear to be working,’ she says. ‘Let me see.’
She clears the pad and repeats. Looks. Nothing.
‘Hum. We have been having big problem with this thing,’ she says. ‘They come to fix it and they said it is fixed but it is not working as it should as you can see.’
‘Let me do it again.’
She tips back her head and leans right in to the intercom pad, as if by mere force of will she can make the gate open. She presses clear, and then the sequence of numbers one – at – a – time.
The gate jerks and begins to swing open.
‘I will talk to the man about this in the morning,’ she says. ‘Follow me.’
I pick up the bags and tag along behind her, whilst Rae drives the ambulance forward.
There are four sisters living together here, the oldest in her mid-nineties, the youngest eighty. It’s an extraordinary set-up; a crane must have swung the whole scene intact from some decrepit old semi through the air and slotted it into the space where a luxury bachelor pad should be.
Three of the sisters are waiting for us in the hall, one of them clutching a yellow folder. They cluster round us as we walk in, and Patience, the carer, has to shoo them aside.
‘In here,’ she says. ‘She slipped off the commode. Again. But I do not believe she has hurt herself.’
‘Get her away from me!’ says Mary, glittering under a duvet on the floor.
‘Come now, Mary,’ says Patience, smiling warmly. ‘You know it is only me, and some lovely people who will get you up of the floor.’
Mary has dementia, but there’s a focus to her, a graven chill that gives weight to her words. Patience seems relaxed, though. She turns the abuse aside as easily as the duvet.
‘Mary is the one I am paid to look after. Her sisters are in charge of the medicine.’
We check Mary over, lift her up and put her back to bed.
‘Keep that woman away from me,’ Mary says, then: ‘Can I have a glass of water?’
Whilst I finish the paperwork, corralled by Mary’s sisters in the bedroom, I can hear Rae quietly talking to Patience in the next room.
‘How on earth do you stay sane?’ she asks her. ‘I think you must be a saint.’
‘It’s okay. It’s not too bad. I have known many trouble in my life and this is not like that. I was living in Tanzania and life was good, but then my lovely house it caught fire. My husband was badly burned and I nursed him for a year. When he died I decided to make something new for myself and so I move away. One day I came to this country, and I became a person who cared, because I think this is what I do best. Don’t worry about Mary. She does not really know what she is saying. It is just the sadness in her condition.’
One of Mary’s sisters suddenly rests her hand on my arm. When I look up, she leans in and examines me, her eyes watery and grey.
‘Will you be taking her?’ she says.
‘No. I think she’s all right.’
‘Good,’ she says, squeezing my arm, then turning away again to share the news with her sisters. ‘Good.’
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