There’s an electricity sub-station opposite Alice’s bungalow. A low, bare industrial spread, cones of ceramic insulators, fans revolving behind grids, pylons running cables. A low thrum, accentuated by the cold, clear blue of the sky. It feels like the whole morning is being powered by this place.
We find Alice lying in her hallway, the top of her body covered by a brown fleece she’s pulled over herself. It’s difficult to figure out exactly what’s happened. She doesn’t appear to have hurt herself. She doesn’t have any major health problems. She’s sixty, and in reasonable shape. Gradually it seems as if this is more a mental health issue than anything else. As gently as we can we help her up and into the sitting room, where she curls up on her side in a voluminous electric recliner, covers her face in her hands, and sobs.
Alice’s bungalow is scrupulously tidy, with the rubbed, almost scorched smell of cheap carpet vacuumed every day to the corner. I go into the kitchen for her care folder and find it on top of a free-standing cupboard, a retro, glass-fronted affair. Inside is a tin of salmon, three packets of Angel Delight and a month’s supply of instant porridge.
I take the folder back into the lounge, where Rae is finishing off the obs.
‘I can’t tell you,’ says Alice. ‘I just can’t. It’s too shameful. It’s a secret.’
‘It’d really help if you could tell us,’ says Rae. ‘Is it something you’ve done to yourself?’
‘No. I’m not saying. You’ll call the police and I’ll be carted off. My daughter has enough troubles of her own without that.’
I flick through the folder. Alice was assessed by the community mental health team a year ago, but refused all help and was signed off as low-risk.
‘What medications do you take?’ Rae asks.
‘Not much,’ says Alice, suddenly sitting upright, conversational. ‘Something for blood pressure. Pain pills for my back. They’re in the bedroom. Excuse the mess.’
I go to fetch them.
Alice’s medication is in a plastic toilet bag on the dresser. I half expect to see a scattering of empty packets, and glance at the rubbish bin to see if she’s tossed any there. But like the rest of the bungalow, everything is tidy and unremarkable. The only jarring detail is the number of handwritten notes Alice has placed about the room – all in shaky block caps, all describing various ailments, how she was feeling and when, what the doctor did or didn’t say, who did or didn’t come. It’s like a paper chase, except all the clues are on display, and don’t lead anywhere.
I go back to join Rae and Alice in the sitting room.
‘My gentleman friend has got a mobile phone but he never has it switched on,’ says Alice. ‘ He won’t be home because he likes to get out early, and I don’t know when he’ll be back. His sister might be home, though. I could give her a call.’
‘Would you like me to speak to her first?’
Rae makes the call. I can hear the woman answer on the other end – a warm, confident voice, immediately concerned. Rae explains what’s happened, then hands the phone to Alice.
‘Hello? Vera?’ says Alice, but then chokes up, and simply presses the phone to her ear whilst she cries, as if really that was the essence of the whole affair, the simple truth she needed to transmit down the wire.