He gave me a key to the front door. It was worn thin, shiny. “Bit irregular, this, isn’t it?” I’d said, thinking what the care agency would say if they found out. But he just shrugged. “My house. My key.”
I took it, winding the frayed red ribbon round the shank of the key, before putting it in my back pocket.
Perhaps he was beginning to trust me. “Why did you give me the key?” I asked later that afternoon. I’d been rubbing cream into the folds of his skin, and was standing there with my hands up, fingers stretched, desperate to wash them in hot water, but this moment seemed important.
He looked like he was going to swear. Not something he did much of before I came to work for him, apparently. He paused, before choosing his next word carefully. “Wh – Who knows.” He winked. “Now eff off out of here.” And I winked back.
We’re supposed to wear gloves when we put his cream on, but he hates the gloves. The first time I agreed to leave them off, there was a look of triumph in his little eyes, as if he was thinking – ah, got you now. A little secret between the two of us.
As time went on, there were more and more secrets. Every little transgression, every little indiscretion was either a point to me or a point to him. I suppose we were both looking for an advantage over the other one from the start.
So, four times a day, I’m lifting these massive folds, looking for infection, rubbing ointment into the red lines, trying not to gag. It feels like fighting with a billowing hot-air balloon.
My other jobs are to empty his catheter bag, pass him his toothbrush and hold out the glass while he spits, wipe his chin, pull away the sheets while he’s dangling above the bed in the hoist, arms and legs sticking out like spears thrown into a slaughter house, a look of pure malice on his face. Menial jobs, that’s what I do. Sometimes there are other people – nurses, doctors, social workers, physiotherapists, even a counsellor. Other times, it’s just me and him. Me and Norman.
But there’s nobody I can really ask the questions I want to ask. Like, how come he got to be so – so – well, big? But ‘big’ doesn’t even cover it. ‘Huge?’ ‘Gargantuan’, maybe. A man that size deserves a few more syllables for emphasis. Gar-gan-tu-an. Gar-gan-tu-an.
He caught me having a look at his notes once when I thought he was asleep. I was curious. I only really wanted to put a figure on it, how much he did actually weigh. But he opened one eye and looked right at me and said firmly, “Put that back, Little One. Put it back at once. It’s private.”
I hung the clipboard back onto the reinforced frame of his bed. That was his name for me, ‘Little One’.
Norman was more direct in his curiosity. “So, what happened to you then, Little One?” He picked up my hand, circling my wrist between his thumb and forefinger. I easily pulled my hand free.
“What do you mean?” I pretended not to know what he was talking about. How far would he risk embarrassing me?
“Well, look at yourself.”
“I don’t usually.” And it’s true. If I pass a mirror, if it’s not set too high up the wall, I never glance at myself.
He sighed and looked as if he would pat me on the head as a hammer would drive an already bent nail into the floorboards.
“So what happened to you?”
“Nothing.” I grabbed a bundle of laundry and left the room.
“Hey, Little One. Come back,” I heard him shouting. But I didn’t. I stayed out of his way until the TV went on and it was time for his afternoon meds. He was asleep, just a corner of a bedsheet covering his nakedness, for the pressure on his internal organs made him hot, so I left the tablets on the bedside table as the credits were rolling on yet another documentary.
The next day, he looked as if he would start needling me again. But, instead, he said one word. “Food.”
“Food?” We have to be very careful. For obvious reasons, he’s on a very restricted diet, but he has been known to ring in the middle of the night for takeaways, confectionery from the 24 hour shop on the corner, harass carers. It was more than my job’s worth.
“I know what you’re thinking. I’m going to teach you about food, how to cook and then you might … grow a little.” I might have pointed out that at twenty six years old that was unlikely, even though hunger to the point of starvation makes you look simultaneously half your age and twice your age. But I was curious.
Over the next few weeks, he compiled shopping lists. I brought simple things at first. Pasta. Fresh tomatoes. Pots of basil. Chorizo. He taught me about different types of pasta. How to skin a tomato. How to use a big pan to cook pasta, to control the heat as the lacy bubbles rise and rise and rise.
He spoke about famine. Did I know about Ethiopia? Biafra? Somalia? Did I know that a hundred years ago, during and after the Great War, all across Europe, millions of people were starving to death? Literally millions. Mothers had no milk for their babies. Children stunted, listless with only cabbages and turnips to eat. Eight hundred children a month dying in Germany with only sand or wood in their bellies. All paying the price of war.
Well, of course I know about famine, well, hunger if not famine. But I didn’t know about food. And it was a pleasure to have him teach me.
“Fry the bacon in its own fat,” he’d shout through. “Mash the potato with butter and milk. Hot milk, mind. Don’t overdo the liver.”
And I’d serve the food onto a plate. Just one plate. And take it through to his room and sit by his bed and eat it while he looked on. He never, ever asked for even a taste, but watched as I ate, asked me if I was enjoying it. Sometimes a tear rolled down his cheek.
“Women and children froze to death in those streets a century ago,” he said. “Tears froze on the mothers’ cheeks. Austria. Hungary. Poland. Romania. Europe, for God’s sake! Our own people.”
“Why are you telling me this?” I asked him one night, with a bowl of minestrone soup in my hand. “Are you trying to make me feel guilty?”
“No, no,” he shook his head. “Food is good. Food is a basic human right. Without food we are nothing. Good food is my gift to you. Eat it in remembrance of those who were denied.”
“And is that why …?” I drew his outline in the air with my fork. Maybe now he would tell me how he got to be so vast. And how he could stay that way on so few calories.
“Why I am like I am?” I nodded, my face rising and falling in the steam from the soup. “I can’t answer that one. Over-active pituitary gland. Unregulated growth hormones. Capitalistic fat-cat bastard. Overweaning mother. Who knows?”
“And why are you doing this for me?”
“You intrigue me, Little One. And, I hope, one day, you will tell me your story.”
I nodded and carried on eating. “Because, I think, you have been starved.” In his turn, he draw a shrivelled, bent, gnarled figure in the air with his finger. My outline. “Have you not?” I pretended to ignore him, sucking up a kernel of sweetcorn through a piece of penne. “As a child?” Still I would not answer him. But I nodded. And he tutted, muttering, “Our own people”.
We were always careful to leave no evidence of our feasts. Long after the end of my shift, I’d see that Norman had everything he needed for the night, I’d stuff all the food containers and wrappers in a carrier bag and place it by the door ready to take with me and I’d leave quietly once he was settled and sleeping.
Except one day I forgot a pot of double cream.
“They think you are fattening me up, Little One. Or else stealing from me,” Norman said as I walked into his bedroom the next day, his bed flanked by people with lanyards and stern faces.
“Please call Joel by his proper name, Mr Hargreaves.”
“They think you are fattening me up, Joel.” There was a note of sadness in his voice, of regret and finality. “Perhaps trying to kill me.”
I watched his house, until the last carer left at about 9.30 pm. Then I let myself in. “Come here, Little One.”
The light was dim in his bedroom. His back was to the door. “I knew you’d come.” I walked round the bed so I stood between him and the window. My shadow fell on his white bedsheet.
“Love is another basic human right,” I said. And he nodded.