The front door stands open enough to allow for the power cord leading from the electric buggy out on the front path to the power socket in the hall. I worry what’ll happen if it rains, but Mr Barry seems relaxed about that.
‘That’s just how I do it,’ he says, batting away the prospect of electrocution with a wave of his hand. ‘Take a seat.’
On the face of it you’d think Mr Barry was busy, sitting at the table like this, carefully rummaging through a Tupperware container of meds, drawing things out, pressing them to his nose to see what they are, putting them back again. But he’s surrounded by such a jumble – letters, appointment cards, notes from various people, delivery bills from the local Chinese restaurant held together with a clothes peg – I don’t think he’s made much headway in the last twenty years.
‘I was only discharged from the hospital a couple of hours ago,’ he says, as if that explains it.
It’s clear to see that Mr Barry, soon to be ninety, by slow and steady increments, unrecognised by himself but recognised only too painfully by his neighbours, has wandered off course somewhat, and ended up in a sad zone of neglect. There’s a unifying crust of greasy dust across everything, and the wallpaper, carefully aligned and pasted up years ago, has steadily lifted at the joins and begun rolling down at the corners. Even the light from outside seems hesitant, coming in only as far as absolutely necessary, keeping its beams slightly up from the carpet.
‘How about I make you a cup of tea before I start?’
‘That would be lovely,’ he says. ‘You’ll find some milk in the fridge. It should be all right.’
The kitchen is the worst place in the house so far. I feel like Howard Carter breaking into Tutankhamun’s tomb, if the priests had been a little short on money and inspiration, buried The Boy King in a detached house sometime in the Fifties, tried to fix the strip light with packing tape, given up, stuffed the royal mummy in an old fridge, and then randomly filled the room with newspapers, sprouting onions, junk mail, half a dozen boxes of Weetos and a chipped dog bowl.
I scrub out a mug as best I can, hunt down a passable tea bag, and risk turning the kettle on. I don’t even have to sniff the milk; when I tip it slightly to take it out of the fridge, the level stays put.
‘Milk’s off,’ I say, going back in to the sitting room. Mr Barry has turned his attention from his meds to the discharge summary that came home with him.
‘Impossible,’ he says, and then tears the summary into four pieces and drops it on the floor.
‘I’ll nip out and get you fresh.’
‘Would you? That’s kind. Here – take some money.’
‘No, no. I think I can stand you the price of milk.’
‘I insist,’ he says, and fishing around in the pocket of his cardigan, he pulls out a glass spice jar. ‘Take it out of that,’ he says.
I give it a shake. At a guess I’d say there’s about twenty pence in ones and twos.
‘Thanks!’ I say, and discreetly putting it on the side, squeeze out of the front door.
It’s great to be outside again, everything so wonderfully sharp and clean. Even the clouds look as if they’ve been freshly laundered and pegged out to dry. But even so, I can’t help thinking as I stride along, saying hello to people in an emphatically social way, feeling full of energy and potential, that, bracing as the weather is today, and picturesque as those clouds might be, streaming overhead, if I had to bet on it, I’d say that come evening, it’s almost certain to rain.