I open the keysafe and let myself in.
Even if Myra hadn’t hollered out, I’d know where she was. A long green tube runs from the compressor in the hallway, snaking through the kitchen and on into the back room, terminating in the nasal specs looped around her ears.
‘Where’s Stella tonight?’ she says.
‘Stella’s sick, so they asked me to drop by instead.’
‘Well that’s good of you, pet. Thank you.’
‘How are you doing?’
I put my bag down.
‘Your line’s a bit kinked.’
‘It’s a kinky line,’ she says. ‘Always has been.’
‘What d’you fancy for supper, Myra?’
‘There’s one of them microwave meals on the side. Could you heat that up for me? And I’ll have a trifle out of the fridge n’all, if you don’t mind.’
‘How about a cup of tea while you’re waiting?’
‘Good idea. And one for yourself while you’re at it.’
The ready meal takes a little longer than normal. Five minutes on full power; one minute to stand, then another five minutes. Whilst it’s cooking I take the teas through and start writing out the yellow sheet. It’s only then I notice Myra has the same December birthday as me, give or take forty years.
‘Fancy that!’ she says.
‘I was due on Dad’s birthday the day before, but I made a point of coming out a few minutes after midnight.’
‘You dug your heels in.’
‘Fingers, heels. I wonder they didn’t get a vet in and use a rope.’
‘Your poor mother.’
I take a sip of tea.
‘People always used to ask me if I minded having a birthday that late in the year. Did you?’
‘I didn’t, either. I’d open the last present on Christmas Day, but then I’d know I’d have a load more in a few days’ time. Well – some.’
‘You poor thing!’
The compressor makes a clanking noise; Myra adjusts her specs.
‘We never had presents at Christmas,’ she says. ‘My parents were Jehovah’s Witnesses.’
‘I didn’t know that.’
‘Well – they had a lot of rules. Blood transfusions was one. I was an only child. One day my mum was ill with internal bleeding. In a coma – close to death. The doctors asked me for permission to transfuse her but I really didn’t know what to do. In the end I said yes.’
‘So what happened?’
‘She got better. Didn’t speak to me for a good long while, but we made our peace. Silly really. All over a book.’
‘Ay. It’s just words, after all. Human words. I never did understand. It’s just one person’s interpretation. Don’t get me wrong. I still believe in God and everything. Just not the kind who’d get himself stuck in an old book.’
The microwave pings. I go into the kitchen to put the meal on for another five minutes.
Back with Myra, she’s finished her tea and getting ready to eat.
I set her up with a tray and some cutlery. She hands me the knife back.
‘Just a spoon, pet,’ she says. ‘It’s gloopy. And I spill stuff off a fork.’
‘I’ve always been a little jealous of people who have religion,’ I tell her, putting a napkin by her side. ‘I think it must make life a bit easier. You’ve got a ready-made set of rules. You don’t have to think much for yourself. And you’d have that feeling someone’s looking out for you, whatever the situation.’
Myra flips the tubing on her lap and sits up straight.
‘I don’t know about easier, Jim, but it definitely helps,’ she says.
‘I think that desire to worship some greater being must be pretty deep in our DNA,’ I tell her, fetching her a spoon. ‘I remember seeing this documentary about some Palaeolithic caves they found in France. Sealed for thousands of years by a rock fall. Paintings of animals all round the walls, then in the centre of it all, a standing stone like a plinth with the skull of a bear on the top.’
‘I think it was a bear. Like an altar, in the middle of a cathedral. A hundred thousand years before Christ.’
‘Do you think they worshipped bears, then?’
‘I don’t know. Something, at least.’
‘Who’d have thought?’
The microwave dings again. I serve it onto a plate, put it on a tray, bring it through.
‘Haute cuisine,’ I say. ‘Or hot, at least.’
I finish the paperwork. Myra pushes the ready meal around to help it cool.
‘D’you think it’s still there?’ she says.
‘That bear. On the altar.’
‘I think so. Maybe. They said they were going to seal the caves up again, because if they had too many visitors, all the condensation would damage the paintings.’
She nods, and turns the spoon round and round in her hand, like the
dish of a radar receiving signals.
‘Still,’ she says at last, scooping up a mouthful. ‘It sounds like something, don’t you think?’