Anna’s bed is in the bay window, the sunniest spot in the house, a light breeze filtering in through an open window, gently filling and turning the curtains. Anna’s asleep, curled up on her right side with one hand crooked under her head; sunlight illuminating the linen sheets and multi-coloured crochet square throw with such intensity it’s as if I’ve been staring at a beautiful painting for so long I’ve found myself suddenly transported into it.
Aside from the bed, the rest of the living room is just that – a room for living. There’s a baby lying on its back in a baby gym, reaching up for the fabric toys hanging overhead, waving his legs and gurgling happily; a toddler, standing on the sofa with her arms draped over the back, staring at me with wide, brown eyes; their mother, kneeling on the carpet, talking into the phone crooked at her neck whilst she folds laundry from the trug, and then her mother, Anna’s daughter Jean, standing in her dressing gown in the doorway, smiling, overseeing everything, cradling a mug of tea.
To add to it, a plump tabby cat strides into the room with her tail in the air. The toddler on the sofa jumps up a little, points to the cat, says Dat! and looks at me even more intensely.
The cat raises its chin like a butler in an over-starched collar, looks right and left, gives one, long, imperious yeowl, then collapses at my feet and stretches out, using her claws on the carpet to increase the bend, until she’s one languorous curve from the tip of her tail to her nose.
Dat! Dat! says the toddler, bouncing up and down on the sofa cushions.
‘Molly!’ says Jean, shaking her head and laughing.
And for a second, I’m not sure which is which.
Getting in to see James this morning was like trying to solve a giant, unwieldy puzzle. His carer Leila was delayed, some kind of bus trouble, apparently (We didn’t crash she said Thank God! But he is learner driver I think and he clipped mirrors and we all stopped for a long time and eventually I said no, no, no this is not good I have place to go so I asked them to let me be free please, and he did, and so then I ran and jumped on number 5, and change at river…). Meanwhile, Wendy the scheme manager wasn’t answering the intercom button or her phone. Two other residents had come outside already, one to smoke, one to chat. Both had asked if I wanted to go in and I’d said no, thanks, but James’ door is locked so it won’t do much good. They tell me where they saw Wendy last, and that segues into what a great job she does, and how the fish and chip supper went last night. It’s a nice block. Everyone looks out for everyone else, like a vertical village, people coming and going, or hanging around, mostly. Even the contractors working on the underground garage are cheerful and friendly, raising their coffee cups and smiling, more like actors than electricians, sauntering over from the on-location, TV catering wagon in their laundry fresh check shirts and utility belts.
The main door opens again and this time I see Wendy, waving her phone from the mezzanine floor that overlooks the lobby.
‘Can you come up here?’ she calls out to me. ‘Barry’ll let you in to see Jimmy. Sorry about the intercom. They’re working on it… or so they tell me!’
She says this on cue, just as the contractors are passing through the lobby. They smile and raise their coffee cups again, and exit stage right.
I go up – but I don’t have to wait long before Barry appears, an elderly man so immaculately turned-out I can imagine his Spotlight photo in the casting directory alongside the contractors.
‘This way,’ he says, jangling a bunch of keys and pressing the button for the lift. Then he turns and calls out ‘Fred! Come on, mate! We’ll go without you!’
‘Come on Fred!’ I say, then I turn to Barry and ask him who Fred is.
‘You haven’t met Fred?’
‘You’re in for a treat.’
We both turn to look at the archway that leads from the TV room out onto the mezzanine. I hear him before I see him, a deep, wet, resonantly lumpy sound, like an old British motorbike firing on one cylinder. Then I feel him – or I think I do – the thump of him through the springy floor. The lift arrives behind us, the door pings open but we both ignore it, waiting for Fred to emerge through the arch. And then he does – a gigantic black labrador, his tongue lolling out, hauling himself along on arthritic hips, one vast pad after the other, his head bobbing up and down with the effort of it all.
‘Come on, Fred!’ says Barry. ‘Good boy! Let’s go see Jimmy! Hey?’