One benefit of the gentrification process is that all the house numbers are easy to read. Large figures in clean fonts, brushed chrome, graphically precise angles. And if some of the renovations in the street have settled for the more conservative Victorian style, more and more are following the trend for matt grey paintwork, internal shutters, heavy oak doors, and drought-tolerant, ornamental shrubs in colourful planters.
Every house, that is, but number twenty-two.
‘Is he all right?’ says a young woman in a headscarf and dungarees, marshalling two kids in karate outfits on to an MPV. ‘Let me know if there’s anything I can do.’
James has lived here for seventy-eight years. He moved in when he was ten.
‘One time, I was coming home from school, and Old Mrs Gillie at number three grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and pulled me into the front garden. Before I could think much about it, a German Messerschmitt flew over and shot the road up. They did that sometimes. Lightening the load for the trip home.’
He rubs the side of his face and then resumes his position: neutral, pensive. Maybe it’s his advanced age, but certain features about him seem enlarged – nose, ears, hands, head – like one of those body diagrams that illustrate the relative importance of the senses.
‘Saved my life,’ he says. ‘You could see the holes in the pavement, years after.’
I would never have guessed James had lived here so long. The back room where we sit is only sparsely furnished – a sofa, table and chair, TV, gas fire across the fireplace. If he’d told me he’d just moved in and the van was delayed, I’d understand it.
‘I’m the only one left now,’ he says. ‘My younger brother Joe. Everyone. Gone. Funny, how things change.’ He turns his palms up and shrugs. ‘What can you do?’ he says.
I need to have a look at his yellow folder. He tells me it’s in the front room, so I go next door to fetch it. I half expect all the clutter to have migrated here, but the room is as bare as everywhere else. Never has a yellow folder been so easy to find, conspicuously placed in the middle of another plain brown sofa. I bring it back with me and balance it on my lap.
‘Are you eating okay, James?’
‘Meals on wheels.’
‘Are they any good?’
He leans forwards, lightly jabs an index finger twice on my knee, and then holds the finger up in the air.
‘No washing up!’ he says, then taps the side of his nose and resumes his position.
‘Excellent! Okay – so let’s see what they’ve been saying about you in dispatches,’ I say.
He waits with a blank look.
When I ask for a sample of urine, and show him the little bowl that’s supposed to go in the toilet to catch it, he sighs and leads me through the kitchen and out into the garden, to a plain brick affair with a black wooden door and latch. I wait for him whilst he goes.
‘How’s he doing?’ says a voice over the wall, a narrow-suited young guy with an Edwardian beard and thick framed glasses. ‘Give James our best, won’t you?’
‘You’ve got some nice neighbours,’ I tell him as we walk back.
‘Nice street,’ he says. ‘Always has been.’
Back in the house I finish writing up the notes and close the folder.
‘Well, that’s all fine,’ I tell him. ‘I don’t know what happened the other day, but whatever it was, there’s no sign of it now. We’ll keep coming in over the next day or so to make sure everything’s okay, but it may be a question of referring you back to your GP.’
‘’Appreciate all you’ve done,’ he says, shaking my hand as I get up to leave. He follows me to the door and holds it open. Outside, the young woman in the dungarees has dropped the karate kids off, been to the supermarket and is quickly off-loading the shopping before she has to go back. The lights on her car flash twice – krip! krip! – then she holds the keys in her mouth, picks up the shopping bags and hurries down the path to her front door.
‘Hello Dames!’ she says round the keys, then puts the bags down and takes the keys out of her mouth. ‘All right, then?’
‘Ye-es’ he says. ‘Fine, thank you, Agnes.’
‘Great! I’ll try to come over later.’
She unlocks the door, taps it open with her foot, picks up the bags, and adds: ‘If you’re not careful!’ then hauls her bags inside, shouts up the stairs over something operatic playing from the kitchen, and back-heels the door so it shuts with a well-crafted clunk.
James stands there a moment, blinking slowly in the wake of all this coming and going, a sweetly realistic old man robot, awaiting further instruction. I wave to him from the car, and he waves back – an odd, old man robot wave, articulated at the shoulder. Then, galvanised into action, he retreats back into the shadow of his hallway, and gently closes the door.