My neighbour had a fall today. I wasn’t there.
A friend called me at work to say that she had been passing by and saw police, paramedics and a gaggle of passers-by gathered around his front door. The door was locked, but my neighbour, Rennie, could clearly be seen through the window walking up and down agitatedly, covered in blood.
Maybe it just looked like a lot of blood, I said. A thimbleful of blood goes a long way. Maybe he wasn’t too badly hurt. A nose-bleed. My friend stopped me. Believe me, she said, he was covered in blood. Dried blood and fresh blood, pumping from a gash in his head. Like some horror movie. Not only that, but he was too confused to open the door. They were calling to him through the window to stop moving around, to wait for help, but he either could not hear them or he could not understand.
Yesterday I was talking to Rennie across the low fence between our gardens. He admired the runner beans and tomatoes I was picking, but refused to accept any for himself. I asked how he was keeping, and he shook his head and replied, "Don’t get old. There’s nothing good in it." He patted my dog and told me again about how he missed having a dog about the place. He mentioned the fact that his daughter had gone on holiday to the Caribbean, he wasn’t sure how long for but thought it would be quite a long time. Later in the evening, though, I saw her car and knew she was visiting him.
Two nights ago when I took the dog for her bedtime stroll, I noticed that Rennie’s front door was wide open, with every light in his house blazing. I stepped inside and called his name, and when there was no reply I searched through the house for him, fearing at every moment that I would find him injured or unwell. There was no-one home. I called on another neighbour, and together we drove around the area for half an hour until we finally saw him, walking slowly but steadily in the direction of home, leaning on his stick. We drew up alongside him to ask if he was ok but he seemed not to see us, so we just followed at a distance until we were sure he was safely inside. We asked each other how long it would be before he had some kind of accident, and wondered what to do for the best.
Two weeks ago, Rennie told me that he was going home soon. Then he caught himself and said that of course, he was at home. This was his home. He had agreed to sell the house where he had lived for 60 years, because it was too remote and had more land than he could cope with. This was his home now. He would get used to it in time. He knew he was getting very forgetful, and was waiting to see a specialist doctor about it. "Don’t get old," he said. "There’s nothing good in it."
Six months ago, I first met Rennie when he came to live in the house next door. He was a sweet-natured old gentleman of about 85 with a shock of white hair. His daughter had arranged the move for him. Another neighbour had told me that she thought we would need to keep an eye on him as he seemed rather frail. When I talked to him he was full of wistfulness about the wife he had lost, the little dog and the beloved house and garden he had left behind. He was no longer able to drive but was keen to keep his independence and felt in spite of everything that his new little cottage would be a good step forward. We had many interesting chats about gardening, and about the church – he had been a stalwart member for all his life, although he hadn’t managed to get along there in recent months. I noticed as the weeks went by that no-one from the church ever seemed to visit. Maybe they came while I was out.
Tonight, everything is dark and quiet next door. I hope Rennie is ok wherever he is. I realise now that I don’t even know his surname, so I can’t phone the hospital and ask after him. I don’t know his daughter’s telephone number. I know so little about him other than his sweetness and frailty. And that for him, there is nothing good in being old.