A dozen concrete steps lead down through a front garden littered with bottles and cans and a scattering of fag butts, everything so methodically piled into discrete pyramids, it’s as if the house beyond had been excavated by badgers, blindly paddling the trash out behind them in three particular directions.
Wendy opens the front door.
‘Can you just go through to the sitting room?’ she says. ‘I’m helping Dad in the bathroom. I won’t be long.’
I carry on deeper into the house, down another dark set of stairs. The whole place has such a chambered, subterranean feel I wouldn’t be surprised to see a twisted network of tree roots instead of a ceiling, and a family of badger cubs curled up in some straw. Instead, I find a large young guy in a tiger onesie, lying on his tummy on the floor, nose to nose with an obese, brindle coloured staffie. The staffie struggles to its feet to investigate, but the guy doesn’t react, too engrossed in his phone to look up or even say hello.
As I’m looking around for somewhere to put my bags, Wendy appears in the doorway holding on to her father.
‘Daryl!’ she says. ‘Get off the floor! You should be getting ready for work.’
‘Keep your hair on. I’ve got plenty of time,’ he says, pushing himself up into a standing position just high enough and long enough to topple straight back onto the sofa, one leg onto the coffee table.
‘Daryl!’ says Wendy again.
‘Whaaaat?’ he says, getting back to his phone, which suddenly and unexpectedly rings.
Yeah mate! Yeah….so what happened? You never! So then what….
‘I’m sorry about Daryl,’ says Wendy, guiding her father to the far end of the sofa. ‘Teenagers, eh?’
‘Don’t worry about it.’
Meanwhile the staffie has managed to haul itself into something resembling a walking position. The poor thing is so fat it can only move by waddling from side to side, like a comedy boat made out of a beer barrel and four paw-ended oars.
‘I was out in Egypt,’ says her father, as if I was part of a conversation that had been going on for some time.
‘I’m sure the gentleman’s too busy to hear your war stories, dad,’ says Wendy, smiling and straightening his shirt.
‘I don’t mind’ I say. ‘What was that, then? Suez?’
‘I didn’t like it,’ he says, not looking at me, but rather addressing his words to a spot in the middle of the room. ‘I was bloody glad when it ended. And on the last day, d’you know what I did? I marched up to the desk where they was all sitting, and I saluted, all smartly like. I give ‘em my name, rank and serial number. And they handed me my wages, and I saluted again, turned about, and marched back the way I come in. I got as far as the door, and these other two fellers, sitting over there like, they said something or other, under their breath, laughing and making some clever comment like look at him, saluting and carrying on. So I turned around, marched straight up to them, saluted, and then I leant right in, and I said ‘Listen! Today’s the last day of me being in the army. I’ve done my duty alright, and that’s that. So now you can take your smart remarks, and you can blow them aht’ your fuckin’ arses. And then I saluted them again, turned smartly on the spot, and carried on out the door.’
‘That’s great!’ I say. ‘That showed them!’
Daryl glances up at us both, then groans and sinks lower into the sofa.
Nah…don’t worry mate! he says, putting one hand over the top of his head to grab the ear the phone is pressed to, like he’s trying manually to keep it open. It’s just granddad and his war stories. Yeah! A million times, mate. A million times. So what were ya sayin’…? Yeah, sweet, man, sweet.