Talking to Mr Carrington on the phone, I imagine him to be something like Mr Banks from Mary Poppins, sitting in a wing back armchair by an open fire, glass of brandy in one hand, phone in the other, hospital discharge summary on his tartan-rugged lap.
‘It’s the most extraordinary thing’ he says. ‘And to cap it all I have to wear this blasted boot.’
‘I’ll be over in about half an hour.’
‘Splendid! D’you know where I am?’
‘Roughly. How far down is number seventy?’
‘Stand in front of the old pub, turn to your right, stride up the hill three lampposts, turn and fire. Can’t miss.’
‘Great. See you shortly.’
‘Righto. Let yourself in. You’ll find me upstairs. Downstairs is rather out of bounds at the moment.’
* * *
I’m sorry to say that even Mary Poppins, with all her grit and sparkle and domestic magic, would take one look at number seventy, blush and pretend to have an appointment the other side of town.
It’s a deeply unprepossessing row, one house leaning against its neighbour up the hill like drunks on a tipping bench. Number seventy is probably the worst, with its gappy tiles, hanging gutterings, cracked windows, rotten fascias, peeling paint, and a particularly malign-looking buddleia standing like a giant spider by the broken gate, arching its branches over the steps.
I don’t open the door so much as lift it delicately to one side. In front of me is a damp and gloomy hallway, a precipitous flight of stairs.
‘Up here!’ shouts Mr Carrington.
The stairs creak and give alarmingly. When I put out a hand to grab the rail, it wobbles with such a wormy shudder I decide to take my chances and pick my way spot to spot with my hands free.
Onto the landing, and another vista of neglect. Whole sections of wallpaper rolling off the walls. A scattering of junk. Skeins of old web. A spotted smell so rich you can hear it muttering.
‘First door on your left,’ says Mr Carrington. ‘If there was a door.’
Astonishingly, someone’s managed to cram a hospital bed into the room, squeezing it in at the only possible angle that could work. Behind it is a bookshelf filled with dusty books and crowned with a leather briefcase that looks like it’s just been fished out of a pond.
‘Good to see you!’ says Mr Carrington.
We shake hands.
If this is Mr Banks, he’s been marooned on an island for a good many years – which I suppose, in a way, he has. His mane of ash gray hair flows into an equally vast beard, so wild I only see he has a mouth when he laughs.
After my examination – which he passes easily, with nothing concerning in any of his observations – I try to talk to him as tactfully as I can about his circumstances, the trip hazards, the damp and so on. Each point he bats away with the practised ease of someone who’s had the same conversation many times before.
‘Don’t worry. I’m quite used to it,’ he says. ‘Honestly. I’m quite happy as things are. Once my foot is better I’ll be able to tootle down the shops as before. So long as someone can fetch me a few essentials in the meantime, I’ll be absolutely fine.’
The room is freezing, though. When I tell him how worried I am about that he laughs.
‘Oh for goodness sake!’ he says, swatting the air between us. ‘I like it cold. Always have. It keeps me sharp! And if I get a bit chilly – well! I’ve got my cosy.’
He roots around under his pillow, produces a filthy hat and pulls it over his head, squashing his hair out to the side.
‘See?’ he says. ‘What d’you think?’
‘Well. It certainly looks – warm.’
‘Exactly!’ says Mr Carrington, snatching it off again, his hair springing back. ‘So there we are, then. Now. Let’s talk about something else. Let’s talk about you.’