The giant palm at the far end of the room is the only thing in the house you could say was doing well. In fact, I’d have to say that everything here – the ancient brother and sister, the piles of mouldering junk, the curling wallpaper, the pendant cobwebs, the meagre coals in the fireplace, the collapsed sofa – everything in this rotten old house was gradually being broken down and consumed by those great, dark fronds. I try to stay positive in the soupy green atmosphere, but it’s like whistling in a swamp. All I really want to do is run out into the light.
‘How are you Daphne?’ I say, putting my bag down where I can.
She turns a waxy face in my direction.
‘I feel so ill,’ she says.
Daphne’s brother David follows me into the room. A tall, cadaverous man with crackling teeth and a demeanour as grey as his shirt, he has a disconcerting habit of smiling broadly after every sentence and rubbing his hands, as if he’d dreamed the whole thing and was excited to know what was coming next.
‘I made a space for the commode,’ he says. ‘At least she doesn’t have to go outside n’more.’
‘Well – that’s good.’
I’d been briefed about the whole, grim scenario, of course. About the number of safeguarding alerts that had been raised, by ambulance crews, community health workers and so on. But as Daphne and David had mental capacity to make decisions for themselves, they were perfectly at liberty to live however they wanted to live. If at any point in the future the house began to collapse – the roots of the palm finally undermining the foundations; the last coherent thread of supporting timber finally digested – well, then, the houses either side would be compromised and something would have to be done. For now, though, all we can do is visit, make recommendations, prescribe, admit, follow-up – a dance of health protocols round the base of that malign old plant.
Daphne gives me her hand. I feel her pulse.
When I look over at David he smiles.
‘Can I get you anything?’ he says. ‘A tea, perhaps?’
‘That’s kind, David, but I’m okay, thanks.’
From somewhere deep in the house, a soft crash, like a quantity of soil collapsing.
‘What was that?’
David shrugs, keeps smiling.
My visit over I say goodbye and pick my way back through the horror to the front door.
Up on the ledge on a level with the latch, a tiny teddy bear scrutinises me, one eye out.
‘Thanks for dropping by,’ says David, a coil of fly-spotted paper hanging over his head like a thought.
The step outside the house is as brilliant as any ledge ever found that overlooked the world, and I’m momentarily stunned by the freshness and vivacity of it all.
A van pulls up a couple of doors down, a bright decal of suds and brushes on the side. Two men in caps and overalls jump out, and start unpacking a long, yellow hose, ready to jet-wash the path, the windows – each other, for all I know. They look purposeful, unstoppable, the kind of outfit Hercules could have subbed-out the stables job to with confidence.
‘All right?’ I say, stepping over the hose.
The nearest one adjusts his cap.
I wonder what other equipment they carry. Machete? Flame-thrower? I’m tempted to ask for a brochure.
‘Mind how you go,’ he says.
‘Yep,’ I say, re-shouldering my bag, and carry on back to the car.