Bill is standing so close to me I can feel his breath. With his thick, downturned mouth and straggling beard, he looks like a specimen of ancient carp, navigating the river by use of feelers.
‘D’you know what this badge is?’ he says, rolling his eyes upwards, directing me to his cap.
I have to pull away to focus. Right in the middle above the brim is a tiny enamel pin badge, two flags leaning out either side of a date.
‘I don’t know. A civil war thing?’
‘Nine eleven,’ he says. ‘The day the towers came down.’
‘Ah!’ I say, frowning a bit closer. ‘Of course.’
‘We used to sit up there, me and Rita. They had chairs and tables and everything. You could look out, right across the city. The Empire State. You could look down on it.’
‘Was that on the North tower or the South?’
‘I don’t know,’ he says. ‘One of them.’
I feel a little cornered by Bill, if I’m honest. I’m waiting to bring the hoist back in whilst the physio and another carer make Bill’s wife Rita ready for the return journey from the armchair to bed. Rita has advanced dementia. When we hoisted her from the bed she held the straps as lightly and happily as a child in a fairy story being carried off by a balloon.
As soon as there was room, Bill had shuffled in from the kitchen.
‘I travelled a lot, y’know.’
‘The Far East. Russia. United States. Everywhere.’
‘What were you? A spy?’
‘No. I was a courier. I took the job when I retired. They paid me to carry important letters round the world. I don’t know what was in ‘em. Could have been anything. Egypt. Japan. You name it. All the security people got to know me. They’d see me coming and they’d be like…’ He nods slowly and raises a finger in the air.
‘Sounds great,’ I say.
We both watch as the physio and carer make a few final adjustments to the sling.
‘Sixty years we’ve been here,’ says Bill, thrusting his hands deep into his pockets and leaning in to speak directly into my ear, as if this was a thing as confidential as any of the letters he carried. I’m tempted to say: what – leaning on this hoist, d’you mean? but instead say: ‘Have you really? I bet you’ve seen some changes.’
He leans back.
‘There used to be an abattoir next door.’
‘Oh yes? How was that – living next door to an abattoir?’
‘They killed pigs. Cows. Mostly pigs.’
‘You could hear them screaming. They used a fixed bolt, y’know? Through the head.’
‘And if that didn’t work I suppose they let them off,’ I say, nodding at the physio who’s waving me over.
‘Oh but it did work, though,’ says Bill, taking off his cap and slowly pushing his fingers backwards through his greying hair. ‘It worked a treat.’