If Mariella was a Tarot card, she’d be Queen of Radiators. You could happily take a photograph of her now and use it for the illustration – a pale, slack-faced woman sitting in an armchair, staring straight ahead, wearing flannel pyjammas, two fleece jackets, a thick, towelling dressing gown, thermal socks and a pair of sheepskin booties. Her throne is flanked – not by cheetahs – but by two large, oil-filled radiators, both on full. Of course, the flat thermostat is set higher than a smelting works. All the windows are shut. All the curtains are drawn.
The heat is intense, a physical thing. It brings you up short, like you just walked in to a room filled with super-heated plasma. Blinking brings you out in a sweat. I cannot believe Mariella hasn’t expired from heat stroke long ago, but as things stand, she says she’s just about coping with the cold.
‘Shut the door,’ she says. ‘Where were you born? A barn?’
I work through the examination as quickly as possible, leaving just the bloods to take before I can go. Reluctantly she frees her left arm from the dressing gown and I start preparing, forcing myself to be even more meticulous than usual because I can feel myself puddling-out at the shoes. If I miss the vein they’ll have to send firefighters in with respirators. Maybe a drone first, just to scope the situation. They’re not stupid.
‘Hurry up,’ says Mariella. ‘I’m catching my death.’
The tube starts to fill with blood. Slowly. I wouldn’t be surprised to see steam.
‘I like the new flat,’ I say.
‘It’s okay,’ says Mariella. ‘I’ve got most of what I need.’
‘Must be a nice view’ I say, nodding at the curtains.
‘If you like staring at people staring back,’ she says. ‘Which I don’t.’
The blood is not coming out as fast as I’d like. I reposition the needle. Makes no difference.
‘Bigger than the last place’ I say, feeling the sweat standing out on my forehead. ‘Plenty of room to move.’
‘What are you? A dancer?’
‘I wouldn’t mind learning.’
‘What sort of dancing?’
‘I don’t know. Ballroom?’
I only say that because I imagine an immense ballroom with tall windows. All of them open.
‘I used to go dancing,’ she says.
‘Oh yeah? What sort?’
‘Just the normal.’
I have to say – this new flat is quite a bit cleaner than the last. That had been an old building, years past its best, and the crazy temperatures Mariella pursued didn’t help. The place had smelled ripe, cooking in the heat. It was like visiting a patient who’d set up home in a giant cheese. And even though this flat is just as hot – actually more so, as the heating and insulation are higher spec – at least Mariella’s things are more spread out, and it feels less suffocating.
‘Almost done’ I say.
‘How much are you taking?’
An old phrase comes to me. Something about French eggs. Un oeuf is enough. I’m actually going to faint. To keep myself together, I glance towards the door, imagining the delicious breezes in the hallway, the blue sky beyond the balcony, the crystalline freshness of the world.
‘Almost done,’ singing it now.
‘Yes,’ says Mariella. ‘You said that already.’