It’s already late when I get there, the sun low on the hills, shreds of pink cloud against a deepening sky.
Roy answers the door with a tea cloth in his hands.
‘Come on in!’ he says, flipping the cloth over his shoulder, shaking my hand warmly and ushering me in. ‘Jean’s just through here. She will be pleased to see you.’
He follows me into the living room, dragging his left foot a little, like his hips are starting to go.
‘What a pair we are!’ he says. ‘A job lot. Aren’t we Jean? A job lot?’
Jean is sitting by the patio window in a high-backed armchair, smiling at us both with as much of a delighted expression as her stroke will allow. She tries to speak, too, and though it’s incomprehensible, Roy seems to know what she means, and fills in the gaps.
I’ve come to change the dressing on her arm. For some reason she can’t help picking and scratching at it, and the wounds have become infected.
‘I did clip the nails on her hand,’ says Roy, ‘but she was still finding a way through it all. Weren’t you, Jean?’
He strokes her hair. ‘Thanks again for coming out. We do appreciate it.’
‘It’s no trouble.’
He stands over me whilst I prepare the dressings.
‘I have to apologise if I smell a little – you know.’
‘I can’t smell anything,’ I tell him. ‘Why – what have you had? Garlic sausage?’
‘Me? No! A little glass of whisky.’
‘I think you’re more than entitled to a glass of whisky. What sort is it?’
‘That’s a good one,’ I say, sounding as if I know about these things. To back it up, I tell him about a job I used to have a few years ago, working for an company that maintained intranets. ‘One of the clients ran a gin distillery,’ I tell him. ‘They showed us round once. It was amazing! These gigantic stills, filling the place, right up to the roof, like giant copper onions.’
‘I wouldn’t mind seeing that,’ he says. ‘Mind you – I’m not really a gin man.’
I start cutting off the old bandage. Jean watches me with her eyes wide and her mouth hanging open.
‘Alright?’ I say. ‘I’m just going to use a little bit of sterile water…’
Roy helps out where he can, passing me things, comforting Jean, keeping her distracted. It’s all pretty straightforward and I’m done in a few minutes.
‘Good as new!’ I say, peeling off my gloves and starting to clear up.
‘Here! You might be interested to see this..’ says Roy. He unhooks a framed, black and white picture from the wall. A man in overalls, neckerchief and peaked cap standing on the tracks beside an enormous steam engine.
‘I used to work the locomotives. A fireman to begin with, until I made driver. It’s funny to think of it now, y’know, but on an early turn I used to stop off on the way into the yard for a pint of Guinness. Not for the alcohol, y’understand. For the oomph. I tell you what – it was hard work, shovelling coal, keeping it going. But it was the best job in the world. You got into a sort of flow after a while, and there was nothing you couldn’t do. I’d be all the way to Newcastle and back, and I’d suddenly think hang on a minute! I haven’t had a wee since breakfast! But that’s how it was.’
We both look at the picture for a moment. Roy has one hand on the rail of the cab, one foot on the plate, and he’s standing looking at the camera with such a strong and confident gaze you’d think for tuppence he could pick the whole thing up and wave it over his head.
‘These days the only exercise I get is wheeling Jean along the front,’ he says, wiping the glass with his elbow and then carefully hanging it back on the wall. ‘But we do alright, don’t we Jean? Hey?’
He bends down to give her a kiss on the cheek, and she gives him a big, adoring smile in return, before turning her attention to the new bandage, looking for any weak spots with her other hand.