Lily and Geoffrey’s garden is the same, tiny courtyard affair as all the others in this street. You get to it via the kitchen, bathroom extension and a crooked dog-leg of hallway. All this is on the ground floor, below street level. To get to it you have to come down a flight of stairs so steep you need crampons and a coil of rope.
Geoffrey and Lily are both in their late eighties. Lily was out in the garden when her slipper came off, she stumbled and crashed backwards through a rotten pergola of roses. Her hip is obviously fractured.
‘Lily? Listen to me. What we’re going to do is give you some morphine for your pain, a little something to help with feeling sick, and then when that’s started to work we’re going to think about how to get you up to the ambulance. Okay?’
Lily’s husband Geoffrey is standing over her, leaning on a walking stick at a dangerous angle. We want him there for reassurance, but in all other respects – registered blind, as physically precarious as the ruins of that pergola – he’s another problem to add to the mix.
‘I’ll fetch your dressing gown’ he says. ‘Shall I? Shall I fetch your dressing gown?’
‘Please! Oh! What can I do?’
‘I’ll go and fetch your dressing gown. Just a minute.’
He turns round – would have pitched head first into the dustbins if Rae hadn’t been there to stop him – and then begins a slow and painful shuffle into the kitchen. A few moments later he shuffles back out again.
‘Where is your dressing gown?’ he says.
Meanwhile we put a blanket roll between Lily’s legs and tie one off against the other for stability. A second crew arrives to help. We use a scoop stretcher and vacuum mattress and strap her up as securely as we can. She panics and keeps grabbing out, almost bringing a shelf of geraniums down on top of us all.
‘Lily? I know this is a horrible thing for you, but it’s very important you try to stay as calm as you can. We’re going to carry you upstairs in a minute, but it’s very steep and we’re going to be turning this way and that. You’re perfectly safe though. We’ve got you strapped up, there’s four of us, and you’re absolutely not going to fall. Okay? You’ve got to help us, Lily. You’ve got to keep your arms inside, and stay as calm as you can. I know it’s difficult, but just try your best.’
We sit Geoffrey on a chair in the kitchen out of the way. Callum, the paramedic from the other crew, has managed to take a panel from the side of the stairs away, giving us a little, crucial room to manoeuvre.
‘Okay? Ready, set, lift.’
There’s an acronym for everything in the ambulance service. The acronym associated with manual handling is T.I.L.E: Task, Individual, Load, Environment. As soon as we start to move Lily, that acronym starts to bend and shake under the stress of it all until the dots between each letter fly apart and the whole, articulated sense flies apart under the strain.
We bend and twist and stoop and stretch. Even though there are four of us, the cramped conditions prevent us from distributing the work load evenly, so at times just two of us are carrying the weight, at unhealthy angles. At one point I find myself at the head end hauling back up the steps with my legs spread apart. It’s an ungainly, improvisational muddle, and Lily calls out and cries through it all. But she’s safe, we make progress, and once we reach the hallway we have a little more room and things ease up.
Outside and the late afternoon air is wonderfully refreshing. We lift her onto the trolley, and wheel her over to the ramp. High fives and back-slaps, slamming doors, like an exultant removal company.
Geoffrey had said he wanted to come with Lily to the hospital, so I go back inside to fetch him. I find him walking up the stairs, and honestly, if you’d asked him to climb the Blackpool Tower it couldn’t have been more of a challenge.
‘Nearly there’ he wheezes.
‘How long have you lived here?’ I ask as I take his hand at the top.‘Fifty years,’ he says. ‘And I have to say, these stairs don’t get any easier.’