Mary’s window overlooks the block car park, the street beyond that, the recreation centre, and then a housing estate. There’s plenty going on, what with the cars and buses, kids messing about outside the centre and so on. The leaves of the young trees in their planters flash silver when they ruffle in the wind, and small clouds hang in the sky, so perfectly formed they hardly seem real.
Mary spends quite a bit of her time in a chair in front of the window, dividing her attention between what’s going on outside, a small television screen, and a large gerbil cage. The cage, like the block, is on two levels. The bottom half is generously filled with straw and shavings, and there’s a syringe of water hooked on the bars, poking in. There’s a ladder leading up to the top half, which is essentially a separate, suspended cage, filled with brightly coloured plastic toys. There’s also a narrow yellow tube that feeds out of the upper cage, runs round the outside of the whole thing, and exits back into the straw and shavings at the bottom. Currently, there’s no sign of the gerbil.
‘He’s normally out and about in the morning,’ says Mary, settling back into her chair after letting me in. ‘I don’t know. Maybe he wore himself out last night.’
‘We used to have hamsters,’ I tell her, putting my bag down. ‘They only seemed to come out at night. You could hear the wheel squeaking sometimes.’
‘Gerbils are different,’ she says. ‘More social.’
We chat about this and that through the assessment. Mostly about her late husband, Alan.
‘We weren’t together long,’ she says, passively surrending a finger for me to jab. ‘I hardly saw him. He was off out a lot, running around. I used to hear a lot of stories. He was more interested in his cars. You know – doing deals. In the end I thought enough was enough and I gave him his marching orders. Funny thing was, we got on a lot better when we separated. I could see what I saw in him first time round. I remember the last holiday we took together. We went to this holiday park on Hayling Island. I spent the morning tidying up the caravan. ‘Course – Alan was nowhere to be seen. Anyway, eventually there was a knock on the door, and I thought What’s he playing at, knocking on the door? Only it wasn’t Alan, it was the park manager, a woman called Irene. Beautiful hair, all piled up. I said to her ‘I thought you were Alan’. She said ‘No. He’s stuck under my bonnet, trying to get me started. No – he sent me round with this.’ And d’you know what it was?’
‘No. What was it?’
‘A lettuce. I said to Irene, I said ‘What on earth did he mean by that?’ And she turned round and said ‘I don’t know. Maybe he thinks you’d like it.’
As I pack my things away there’s a tentative rustling in the straw at the bottom of the cage.
‘Oh – watch out!’ says Mary.