I’m ushered in to see Leoneta by Jeremy, her neighbour from the second floor. Even though he’s elderly himself, he sprints up the elegant staircase two steps at a time. It’s a job to keep up.
‘A visitor for you, Leoneta,’ he sings when we reach the landing. ‘From the hospital.’
‘Send him in, Jeremy!’
‘If there’s anything you need, just give me knock,’ he says, smartly stepping aside, nose in the air, toreador sans cape.
Leoneta is waiting for me on a velvet ottoman, her hands neatly folded in her lap, a flounce of white hair emphasising the sparkle of her eyes. She’s surrounded by antiques – richly carved furniture, oil paintings of serious gentlemen with their serious dogs posing in rococo frames, fertility statues, masks, primitive instruments, tall ferns lolling from majolica jardinières, the whole place feeling like The Victorian Explorers room in an ethnographic museum.
I introduce myself and shake her hand.
‘Sit down and tell me all the news,’ she says. ‘When you’ve got your puff back.’ Yip yip yip.
Her laugh is extraordinary, a series of rapid in-breaths sounding high in her throat. If there was a casting call for an actor to voice an animated squirrel who loved adventure and always saw the best in people, she’d be a shoe-in.
‘Well I must admit you win the prize for the most extraordinary surname,’ I tell her, getting out my folder and clicking my pen. ‘It’s lovely, but one heck of a job to spell.’
‘I know! All those Us and Qs!’ she says. ‘Just throw in a good handful. No-one’ll notice.’ Yip yip yip.