Jennifer Syracuse is my name of the day – the year, probably. A private detective kind of name. The name you’d give to that character in the book who crashes in on page three, lights things up and drives all the way to the big reveal.
These days, what with one thing and another, the brandy bottles clinking in an unbroken line from sometime back in the fifties out to an empty bottle on a windowsill; the falling away of friends and family connections; the piling up of clutter until even the long-case clock strains to keep its face clear – these days, Jennifer Syracuse is lighting up the world a little less, and the big reveal has long since flattened out into something longer, looser and more predictable.
‘When you see a duck have its head cut off you know you’ll never eat pate again. The way the feet waggle – d’you know? They keep on waggling.’
She looks up at me from where she’s sprawled on the ottoman.
‘Do have a seat,’ she says. ‘You make the place look untidy.’
If you can ignore the heaps of clothes and books and undifferentiated clutter, it’s a pleasant enough flat. The french windows are standing open, and sunlight filters in through a thicket of wisteria, giving the place a sleepy, soupy feel. There’s a gigantic chocolate coloured cat on the only other seat clear enough to sit on, sprawled as luxuriously and definitively as Ms Syracuse.
‘That’s okay,’ I say. ‘I’m happy standing.’
‘I mean – how could anyone eat an animal?’ she says, ignoring me. ‘Take cows for instance. Now – don’t they remind you of the women’s institute? Fat old matriarchs marching around, jabbing you with their elbows. They’d look darling in a flowery hat, though, you have to admit. And then you get the young calves in the background, jumping up and down, wondering what all the fuss is about.’
‘I like cows,’ I say.
‘How could one not? I was brought up in India, for heaven’s sake! D’you know – the other morning I sat up in bed and found myself talking Hindi! I haven’t spoken a word in seventy years, and there I was, completely fluent! It passed, of course, but I’m convinced it’s in there somewhere. I just need to learn how to get it out.’
When I steer Jennifer towards the reason for the visit – her numerous falls, weight loss and general decline – she adopts a serious expression and struggles into a more upright position.
‘Would you keep your voice down! Please!’ she hisses, then leans forward and waggles her fingers for me to meet her halfway.
‘That bitch upstairs listens to every word,’ she says, then satisfied I’ve got the message, winks slowly in a lopsided way that threatens to extend into an extemporary sleep, comes to herself again, acknowledges me with a start, and taps the side of her nose.
‘What d’you want to know?’ she says, and collapses back on the ottoman.