Stephen is telling me about the dream he had last night. He’s sitting in his chair looking left towards the windows with his eyes tightly shut, his bony fingers laced in his lap, one long leg crossed over the other, the foot gently bouncing up and down, as if he’s judging the weight of the slipper hanging from the toes.
‘I’ve been having these vivid dreams,’ he says. ‘They’re so real it takes me a while to wake up from them. I wondered if it might be the medication.’
‘Possibly. What kind of dreams?’
‘Last night I was floating in a warm, deep sea. And there were all these people splashing about around me, laughing and shouting. Some I knew, some I didn’t. And then I started to sink, down and down and down, not drowning exactly, but not happy about it either. And no-one tried to help me or seemed all that bothered, and everything was getting far away. It was such an odd, lonely feeling. I can’t say it was a nightmare, exactly, but I didn’t like it all that much. And when I woke up, I found I’d … had an accident.’
He opens his eyes at that point and twists his mouth into a one-sided smile, cartoon-like, superficial. I can’t help thinking he’s spent his whole life practising it.
‘The last time I wet the bed must have been seventy years ago, so you can imagine how surprised I was. Still,’ he says, his slipper falling to the floor,’ I’ve put something on the mattress tonight, in case I have the sea dream again.’
I pick his slipper up and hang it back on his foot.
‘Thank you,’ he says. ‘Now – what else do you need to know?’
We go over his medical history, medications, recent admission to hospital.
‘And of course, no sooner have I come out than Jean goes in. We’re like those funny little people on a weather clock.’
‘So why has Jean gone to hospital?’
‘Didn’t they tell you?’ he says, closing his eyes and turning his face to the window again. ‘I fell on her. She was helping me down the stairs and I lost my balance. Broke her arm in three places. And then they found other things wrong with her, too, in that way they have. So all in all it’s been a bit of a disaster.’
* * *
Later on, when I’ve finished all the tests and I’m writing them up, Stephen asks me where I live.
‘Oh really?’ he says. ‘Well it’s a shame Jean isn’t here, because I think I’m right in saying that’s where her grandfather came from. He was a policeman – oh! I’m talking years ago, before the war. I remember her telling me about him. He used to ride around on a motorcycle, like he owned the place. And everyone hated him and his dreadful moustache, which is why they had him killed.’
‘Apparently. And they all showed up at the funeral, lining the streets with their heads bowed and their hands in front of them, and all of them thinking the same thing. Glad to be shot of him.’
‘I’ll have to look into that.’
‘It was a long time ago. The old police station’s flats now, apparently. Called Peelers, I think. Funnily enough, that’s where I met Jean. At a funeral. She’s not my first wife. My first wife died unexpectedly.’
Stephen suddenly opens his eyes and stares straight at me.
‘It wasn’t her funeral we met at,’ he says. ‘I don’t want you getting the wrong idea.’
‘No, no,’ I tell him. ‘I didn’t think it could’ve been.’
‘Good,’ he says. ‘Because I know how it sounds.’
He finds another cartoon smile, then resumes his blind inspection of the window.
‘Yes. Jean looked wonderful in black. She was a shorthand typist, down from Scotland. We got chatting over the cold meat selection, and then shared a cab back to mine. And do you know what I tell people?’
‘No? What do you tell them?’
‘I tell them it was the only one-night stand I ever had, and so far it’s lasted ten years.’