When I eventually find the place – a shambling Victorian pile on a tributary tuck of the main street, denuded limbs of Virginia creeper sweeping up over the porch and across the roof, flowerbeds overrun with weeds and yellowing grass, ancient roses fighting up through the tangle – it feels like the place is under a spell, and it’s an act of wild optimism to reach out and ring the bell. But it does ring, incredibly, sounding somewhere off in the distance, years away, and when Catherine eventually opens the door, it wouldn’t surprise me to see her dressed in crinoline.
‘Yes?’ she says.
I introduce myself.
‘And you’ve come to see William?’ she says, after a pause that her grey eyes hold for a worrying length of time. ‘What for?’
‘To see how he’s doing. His blood pressure, temperature and so on.’
She stares at me.
‘But you came round this morning.’
‘Ah – no. That was the physiotherapist.’
‘And now you want to see him?’
‘Yes, please. I won’t keep you long.’
She sighs, lets go of the door and walks away. Taking that as an invitation, I wipe my shoes on the mat and follow her inside.
William is standing in the middle of a cavernous room, irritably shuffling through the piles of newspapers and letters strewn across the dining-room table.
‘Where is it?’ he says. ‘What have you done with it?’
‘Done with what, darling?’ says Catherine.
‘You know perfectly well. The thingy. The remote control. For the television.’
‘Isn’t it by your chair?’
‘If it was by my chair why would I be asking you about it?’
‘I don’t know. Because if I did do anything with the remote control I’d have put it by your chair.’
‘But it’s not there.’
‘Well where is it, then?’
‘That’s what I’m trying to find out.’
‘What are you asking me?’
‘Because you were the last one to use it.’
‘Yes! You turned the television off when you went to bed.’
Catherine mumbles something then goes over to the sofa to start looking. She picks up magazines, moves books, gives the cushions a thump, gets distracted by that, and starts tidying up in a desultory kind of way.
I put my bag down to help.
There are a stack of remote controls under the television, but it turns out the stack is a remote control graveyard; none of them have batteries.
I carry on looking.
‘Maybe you still had it in your hand when you went through to the bedroom?’ I say, then go out of the room to check. And there it is, on the table between the two beds, along with a glass of stale water and an alarm clock.
I take it back in to the sitting room, and hand it to William.
‘Thank you!’ he says, reverently holding out both hands to take it, then hobbling straight back to his riser-recliner. As soon as he’s settled in, he powers up the TV, and then placing the remote carefully in the pocket of his chair, smiles at me and says: ‘For that I will agree to any of your requests.’
‘Well done all!’ says Catherine, smoothing down her skirt and then quickly resuming the position on the sofa I would guess she was in when I rang the bell. ‘I told you it would be in the bedroom.’
There’s a sudden roar from the TV. It’s the Rugby League championships, Wigan Warriors versus the Cronulla Sharks. I expected William or Catherine to change channels, but it looks like they’re both as keen as each other to watch the match, instantly absorbed, responding with scandalised tuts and ohs! when anything happens. It’s a bizarre contrast between the images on the screen – sharp, super-fit, super-aggressive – and the derelict, grandiose but somewhat down-at-heel atmosphere in the house.
I wonder how much hard contact sport they watch together, and whether it helps.
Luckily, it’s half-time. William and Catherine’s interest in the game doesn’t extend to the commentary, so I seize the moment.
‘Is this a good time to get that sample of urine?’ I say to William, waving a grey, papier mache bowl in the air. ‘Look! I’ll put this in the pan, and all you’ll need to do is sit and go as normal. Just don’t flush! And then if you leave it where it is, I can dip it and see if you have a urine infection. Okay?’
He seems happy with that.
I offer to help him walk through, but he flaps his hands for me to go on ahead.
The toilet looks to be an original fixture: an iron and porcelain affair, with a long chain hanging from the cistern, terminating in a black, coffin-shaped mahogany handle. Down in the water are two perfectly formed stools, as round and buoyant as net floats. I pull the chain, there’s a tumultuous rush of water, flashes of brown through the foam.
The water settles, and there they are.
‘Oh,’ says Catherine, peering over my shoulder. ‘What have you found?’
‘I just need to flush these characters away.’
‘What on earth are they?’
‘Faeces. Poo. You know. They’re just a little bit – floaty.’
‘Floaty? Well where have they come from?’
I pull the chain again. With another, cataclysmic clonking and crashing, the pan floods once more, a white-water rapid of a flush – but still, through it all, riding the plumes like two plucky kayakers…
‘I need a bucket,’ I say, as the water subsides.
‘A bucket? What on earth for?’
‘To supplement the flush.’
Catherine directs me to one in the kitchen. I fill it with water, and then carry it back through to the toilet.
‘Watch this!’ I say, pulling the chain, whilst at the same time emptying the bucket of water into the pan. Nothing could possibly survive such an onslaught – we’re hardly safe standing here like this – except… there! … as the water settles… impossible! The two floating stools.
‘Ah,’ says Catherine, peering over my shoulder. ‘Now what?’