If there’s one cat in the world least likely to sprint past you when you open the front door it’s Binksy. I’ve seen more risk of flight from a grand piano. Still, it’s Alice’s main worry. She even taped a notice to the front door. Don’t let the cat out!
Binksy is pretty chilled, though. I’ve only ever seen him in one place, draped over the arm of the sofa, paws pendant, more throw than pet. You’d think he was stuffed were it not for the stupefied way he blinks when Alice crinkles another sachet of food.
‘Salmon’s his favourite,’ she says. ‘Salmon and Tuna.’
Alice is ninety-four. Binksy, about ten. Of the two of them, Alice is by far the more active.
‘I have to go to the bank,’ she announces, pulling on a crocheted hat and fiddling with her handbag. ‘And then to Sainsbury’s to get some Warburton’s. Is that how you spell it, Warburton’s?’
She shows me her shopping list: Warburton’s.
‘Yep. That’s fine.’
‘Good,’ she says, putting the list in her bag along with her purse. ‘Come on, then.’
‘Do you really need to go to the bank?’ I ask. I know how slow she walks, and I’ve got half a dozen other calls to make this morning. I can’t really afford the outing, but I feel guilty for trying to put her off. ‘You’ve got plenty in already. There’s half a loaf in the fridge. And Binky’s got enough food to last him all winter.’
‘It’s stale,’ she says, even though I take out a slice and hold it out in a pathetic attempt to convince her otherwise. ‘The seagulls can have it. Come on.’
I follow her down the hall.
She collects her walking stick, shakes it at Binksy, who hasn’t moved.
‘Now you stay put,’ she says. ‘I shan’t be long.’
Outside on the pavement she takes my arm.
Even though I’m pushed for time it’s a pleasure to walk with Alice. She’s been in that house since way back, when she was skating in the big ice shows, living at home with her parents. There’s a colourised photo of her on the mantelpiece, roses in her hair. Time has wasted her figure and looks, but despite her great age now she still has the same curl to her lip, a mordant expression, equal parts cynicism and charm.
‘Sandra used to live there,’ she says, jabbing the door of the next house with her stick, so hard I wonder if someone will come out. ‘Frank was a roofer. I got him to lay my carpet. He says to me: “I lay roofs, not carpets”. But I got him to do it just the same. He did a good job.’
She tells me a little something about each house and business we pass on the street.
‘This one here,’ she says, pointing to a ruined shop front, boarded up, buddleia growing out of the gutters and broken windows, ‘ this one used to have a little dog called Jonesie. Do you know why they called it Jonesie?’
‘Because that was the name of the shop. Jones.’
She talks in a loud voice because her hearing aid isn’t quite working and anyway, she doesn’t much care who hears her or not. She’s so charming, everyone we pass smiles and makes way. I feel like I’m escorting the neighbourhood’s grand old ghost. Even the techie guy working in the window of a premises Alice grumpily says used to be a haberdashery looks up and waves. She shakes her head sadly and we pass on.
Thankfully the bank is empty. There are two women at the cashier desk. The younger one is so bored she’s sniffing her own hair; the other smiles at us as we shuffle slowly towards the window.
‘Hello, Alice,’ she says. ‘What can I do for you today?’
I show the woman my ID.
‘It looks a bit dodgy, showing an old woman to the bank to draw money,’ I say, but the woman doesn’t respond and I feel a bit awkward for bringing it up.
‘Here,’ says Alice, pushing a cheque made out to Cash through the grille. ‘I need some Warburton’s.’
‘And how would you like it?’ says the woman, stamping it efficiently and putting it aside. ‘The money, not the Warburton’s.’
Her colleague is smiling at us both, grateful for the distraction.
‘Pounds,’ says Alice.
‘In pounds? You want fifty pounds in pound coins?’
‘Really?’ I say to Alice. ‘That’s a lot of coins. You won’t be able to stand up. How about a mixture?’
Alice grumbles but doesn’t say no. The cashier counts out the money.
‘There you are,’ she says, sliding the cover across so Alice can reach in. ‘Anything else I can help you with today?’
‘Where’s the woman with dark hair?’ says Alice.
‘Leanne? She doesn’t work Wednesdays.’
‘Oh,’ says Alice, putting the money in her purse and then grabbing my arm again. ‘Shame. Come on, then. You can help me get this Warburton’s.’