As he approaches Deborah’s apartment, the third this morning, Oliver detects a faint whiff of something unpleasant. Unpleasant but familiar. He hopes he’s mistaken but after another couple of steps he knows he’s not. Vomit, with the unmistakable alcoholic chaser. It brings back memories of forty years ago, waking up entangled in rose bushes behind a church hall in the early hours of the morning following his boss’s wedding. A few more steps, his left forefinger finds the bell push of its own accord, almost, but not quite finding the resolve to disturb the peace beyond. He knows he has to do it, just as he knows he’s too late. The Chimes of Westminster shatter the silence and jolt Oliver back to his senses; he hates that tune. No shuffling of feet, no hurried flushing. Nothing. A respectable pause, then he forces himself to go through it again. This time he doesn’t wait and his master key is turning in the lock before the final note fades. He cracks the door a couple of inches, his head turns sharply, a vain attempt to evade the stinging smell oozing through the gap. Darkness within. He pushes the door, gently, hesitantly, calls out her name, desperately needing a response. Silence. A few more inches. Resistance. Now he’s certain; and he knows where she is. He finds the light switch and manages to get his head most of the way through the gap. He forces himself to look down. Every bone is visible through the ashen skin of her unmoving, naked body, the tangled, colourless hair awry, her head face-down in a sad soup of blood, vomit and congealing bodily fluids.
A whispered expletive escapes Oliver’s lips.
“What’s up Olly?” Jason has now caught up, juggling bucket, blade and a bunch of micro-fibre.
“Whad’yow mean, dead?”
Oliver slowly eases his head back through the gap and turns to face Jason, who makes the mistake of leaning forward so he too sees some of the sickening sight.
“I mean, she’s dead. Have you seen a dead person before, Jason?”
“Only me nan when she was at the undertakers. Just before the funeral it was and very peaceful she looked too.”
“Well, I suggest you keep that thought in your head and go and get Paul for me. We’re going to have to call it a day. The rest of the insides will have to wait ’til next time, I’ve got to sort this out now. If you see any residents, please don’t mention what’s happened and tell Paul that too. Tell him I’ll be here, it’s number 57, and the door will be locked so he’ll need to ring the bell. Off you go now and I’ll see you in six weeks. By the way, Jason, you’re a natural at this, you’ve only cleaned a couple of windows and they’re sparkling!” That brings a smile and some colour back to the lad’s cheeks.He turns and trudges down the corridor, a stolen glance over his shoulder before disappearing round the corner.
Oliver turns back to the door and realises that getting through it won’t be easy. Her shoulder’s the problem; it’s tight up against the door.
“I’m sorry, Deborah, there’s no other way,” he whispers. He tries to be gentle but has to push hard to get the door open just wide enough to squeeze inside. Once inside he closes and locks the door. Deborah almost seems to lend a hand, languidly listing back into the same grotesque position.
He suddenly remembers the last one. It had been a few years ago but that poor lady, Sylvie her name was, had a much more peaceful passing. She fell asleep in her favourite armchair watching the TV. She did like the soaps did Sylvie; never missed Emmerdale.
Oliver’s mind returns to the present, trying to prioritise everything he has to do. First though, he has to move Deborah so that the front door can be fully opened; there will be a procession coming through that door today.
Her ankles are like a sparrow’s and Oliver hesitates for fear of causing more damage to the delicate parchment-like skin. Skin already grazed and bruised from previous encounters with the floor or bath; it’s amazing the horrors the clothes of the elderly can hide. He gently pulls Deborah away from the door, trying to keep her in the same face-down position he found her in. Then, taking the duck-egg blue duvet from her bed, he returns to Deborah her rightful modesty. The windows next and he opens them all as far as they will go.
The chimes make him jump. Straddling Deborah he looks through the spy hole and sees Paul’s portly frame. Oliver opens the door and checks the corridor; relieved to see that the neighbours are having a lie-in.
“What’s happened Olly? Jason said someone’s dead.” Not smiling now.
“Yes, the resident here. Don’t worry, I’ve covered her up, you won’t have to see the body. Come into the lounge but watch where you put your feet, there’s stuff on the floor you really don’t want to step in to. And don’t trip over the body – the last thing I need is for you to break your neck.”
The air’s slightly sweeter in the small, simply furnished lounge; Ikea’s ubiquitous Billy bookcases mostly, in light oak, incongruously sharing the space with an expensive electric recliner chair.
“Hang on a second Paul, I must phone our Careline people and tell them what’s happened.”
This is the call centre’s busiest time and it takes a while before they answer. Oliver notices Paul stealing the odd glance at Deborah and smiles to himself: maybe he thinks that at any moment she will get up and offer us a cup of tea!
“Hi Olly, What’s up petal?”
He recognises the friendly west-country voice — he’s been speaking to Clare for nearly ten years and still doesn’t know what she looks like — and she’s his favourite. He always sends the Careline team a Christmas card but more recently he’d sent Clare a personal one too.
“Good morning Clare.” At his age, less than two years away from his final national insurance ‘contribution’, ‘hi’ isn’t in Oliver’s vocabulary. “I’ve got a bit of a problem here. I found a resident on the floor this morning and unfortunately this one won’t be paying her service charge again. It’s Mrs Barron in 57.”
“Oh! Poor you, what can I do?”
“Just a couple of things for now Clare. Can you please phone Deidre and tell her.” He knows that his over-worked boss could be almost anywhere in southern England, probably on the road with her phone switched to voice-mail. “I’ll put a note on my office door explaining my absence to the residents but if you get any calls from them I’d rather you didn’t mention what’s happened — I’ve got lots to do here and won’t have time to tell the story over and over again. I’ll hand control of the door-entry system back to you until I’ve dealt with the police and paramedics. When they arrive will you ask them to phone my mobile and I’ll come down to the front door.”
“OK Olly, will do. I’ll keep the system switched to us so unless there’s another emergency you won’t be disturbed. I’ll make sure everyone here knows the score. Take care and if you need help, don’t hesitate. Love to Cynthia, speak soon.” Cool, professional.
“Thanks, Clare, I’ll let you know what happens.” The ‘click’ reminds Oliver that he’s on his own again. Apart from Paul and Deborah, that is.
“Right Paul, sorry about this but I’m not going to be available for the rest of the day so I can’t go round with Jason. We’ve only done a couple but he did really well, a bit slow but he’ll soon speed up.”
“No problem, he can help me do the outsides. The more practice he gets with the pole the better. I’ll get off then and leave you to it.”
“Does this happen often?”
“No, it’s only the second in ten years here and I had a couple up in Bradford. Most pop their clogs in hospital or after they’ve moved into a care home. One of those in Bradford tried to by-pass the crem. He sat in the bath, doused himself with a can of four star and struck a match.” A pause. “That’s the only time I’ve seen a fireman cry.”
Paul nods silently and, with a final glance at the lifeless body, goes to find Jason, leaving Oliver alone again with Deborah.
He quickly finds her meds and repeat script and they tally. Good girl, she’d listened to Oliver’s advice during her ‘new resident’ induction. Boots won’t be troubled with them again but the police and paramedics will need the details. He turns off the lights, secures the apartment and heads for his first-floor office.
Surprisingly, Oliver meets nobody en route and he closes the door so that he can make the all-important phone call. The residents know not to enter the office if the door’s closed unless world war three has been declared.
“Emergency, which service?”
“Ambulance, then the police please.”
“Hold the line please caller, putting you through.”
Oliver confirms the usual name, rank and serial number and then struggles to break through the scripted responses of the ambulance service dispatcher who refuses to believe that the ‘patient’ could possibly be dead. Oliver knows they have to do this but finally convinces them when he describes the classic post mortem signs and his estimate of the time of death. A paramedic is promised and he’s soon speaking to the police control room. No such problems here and Oliver is assured that one of Cambridgeshire’s finest will soon be disturbing his peace.
He starts on the paperwork next, hand-writing an (almost) contemporaneous account of the last hour or so in his desk diary. Then he photocopies it together with Krystal Klean’s contact details, Deborah’s meds script and her detailed personal records. One set of photocopies for the paramedics, the other for the police. Then he scans the lot and emails the PDF to his boss. If he falls under a bus she’ll be able to pick up the pieces.
With impeccable timing his mobile tells Oliver that Deirdre has heard the news.
“Olly, sorry I couldn’t call sooner but I’ve just arrived at Denbigh Court for their budget presentation so I’ve only just listened to Careline’s message. Are you alright? Do you want me to arrange counselling?”
“I’m fine and I certainly don’t want counselling. Thanks for the offer but you know my views on the ‘c’-word. There’s an email on its way with the gory details; I’ve attached a photo.”
A pregnant pause. “Oliver, please tell me you’re joking, you didn’t take a photo, did you?”
“No, of course not, I’m joking. Not even the Daily Express would print that one.”
“Good, now I know you’ll do what’s necessary so unless there’s anything you need I’ve got to go and explain to these dear people why I’m about to increase their service charge by 8%.”
“Don’t worry Dee, by the finish they’ll be thanking you for keeping it to single figures. They’ll be eating out of your hand, as usual. I’ll call you tomorrow. Bye for now.”
“Goodbye Olly, please take care.”
© William 2023