The garages are gone at the end of the terrace. In their place is a chrome and glass building, appearing almost overnight, one flat on top of another at a playful angle, brushed steel numbers on heavy front doors. It looks out of place, a lifestyle machine, or an explorer from another part of the galaxy sent to gather information and start the re-colonisation process.
The Drumlins’ house is five doors up from it. They moved here after they were married seventy years ago, and like them, the house is starting to feel the weight of all that time, the paint lifting in rumpled strips from the windowsills, weeds growing up through blown plaster and concrete, a settling air of neglect about the place.
It’s almost twelve. My last call of the morning.
I’ve rung the bell a few times but heard nothing. There’s a key safe on the inside of the garden wall, but I haven’t been given a number. Just as I get out my phone to call the office and see if they have it, I hear shuffling from behind the door, a rattle of chains, mumbling.
Celia opens the door.
‘Hello. My name’s Jim, from the hospital avoidance service. Come to see Derek.’
Celia has an engagingly lop-sided smile, her hair so fixed and fine and white it could be made from spun coconut.
‘He’s downstairs in the living room,’ she says. ‘We haven’t even had our cornflakes!’
‘Sorry to disturb you.’
She turns and leads me through the house. It’s dark inside, the only light filtering in through the jungle of the back garden, the whole place so narrow and gloomy and closed-in it’s like I’m being led by an ancient mouse through her nest in the trunk of a tree.
Derek is planted in his favourite chair. He gives me a furious stare as I announce myself and go over to shake his hand.
‘I won’t be long,’ I tell him.
‘We haven’t h-h-h-h-ad our c-c-c-c-c-cornflakes yet,’ he says, at high volume.
‘He has trouble with his words,’ says Celia, dropping into the opposite chair. ‘Ever since the war.’
Derek tuts and flaps a hand across the front of his face.
I chat to them whilst I read the notes and unpack my bag.
‘Oh – we’re the only ones left here now,’ she says. ‘I don’t recognise anyone. D’you know who I used to work for?’
‘The Borough Surveyor!’
She plants her hands flat in her lap and laughs, as if she’d said something outrageous, like Winston Churchill or Bing Crosby.
‘Was that at the Town Hall?’
‘The Town Hall? No. It was…. where was it?’
She leans forward and looks right and left, like she’d put it down by her feet.
‘That building. Down there on the front. Come on, Derek. You know…’
He tuts again.
‘Anyway – it’s gone now!’
‘Do you mean demolished? Or you can’t remember?’
She leans back and smiles at me happily.
‘The Borough Surveyor!’ she says again.
‘Sounds like a nice job.’
‘It was a nice job.’
‘What kinds of things did he survey? Or she. The Borough Surveyor?’
‘Oh. You know. Things.’
She stares at me.
‘Did you used to work there?’ she says.
‘Me? No. I wish.’
She chuckles, picks a thread from her skirt.
‘We haven’t even had our cornflakes!’ she says, waggling her fingers and dropping it off to the side.
‘Who d-d-d-d-did you s-s-s-say you w-w-w-ere?’ says Derek.