The old, shadowy, three storey Victorian townhouse is the last one left in the line to be re-developed. Whereas the neighbours either side are smartly painted and appointed, have patios, architectural plants, chimeneas, vine-hung arbors, off-road parking, the old house staggers on with the archaeological scars of the last 150 years: a dilapidated gate you go round and not through; a rusting iron bench, a chunk of obsidian beside an unmade path, a horseshoe nailed to a yew tree. The whole thing has a blasted, portentous feel, like someone built a family home on the hill at Golgotha – and then realised what they’d done, and walked away.
‘Margaret’s coming home to die,’ says Philip. ‘She’ll be here in a minute.’
Philip is an old family friend. He’s known Margaret all his life – when she was a retired music teacher and he was a child student, come to learn the piano, reluctantly climbing the dusty slope to the front door, little knowing he’d still be doing it fifty years later.
‘She’s amazing for her age,’ he says, putting the finishing touches to the room. ‘The only pills she takes are Senna. And you have to crush those up in secret.’
Philip shows me into the room she lives in now – the only occupied room in the entire house. It’s been set up as a micro-environment: bed, zimmer frame, commode, armchair for sitting out in, health permitting, to stare out of the window at the busy road below and beyond, the vast bright spread of the city.
It’s a poignant experience, standing in this room. The piano she last played a dozen years ago when she was ninety is now an extempore stand for photos and wet wipes and sanitary products. Around it, quietly disappearing into the muted walls, a selection of photographs of ancient vintage, sepia family groups, Edwardians in suits and bowler hats lounging awkwardly on the grass; fading figures in boats or on horses; matriarchs in severe black dresses promenading along a sea wall, fishing boats with sails in the bay; men in huge moustaches and braided uniforms; a woman in a tweed suit and upswept, tortoiseshell glasses, smiling up at the camera, a pen in her hand.
We hear the ambulance crew struggling up the path, so we go out to help them.
They carry her into the house on their portable chair, a decrepit royal on a bier.
‘Where d’you want her?’ says one of them, sweating.
* * *
Later, when Margaret’s settled and we’ve brought in all her things, the same ambulance man kneels down in front of her and holds her hand.
‘We’re going to go now,’ he says, loudly and slowly, ‘but we’ll leave you in the care of these good people.’
‘Let me tell you something,’ says Margaret, pulling him towards her. ‘You have a very rare gift – the ability to give people complete confidence, and to put them at their ease.’
‘Well – that’s very kind of you,’ he says, blushing. ‘Thank you very much. No-one’s ever said anything like that to me before.’
‘That’s a shame!’ says Margaret, patting his hand and releasing it. ‘Everyone needs a little encouragement, don’t you think?’ She looks around the room, sees me, and leans back.
‘Now. What in the devil’s name is THIS?’ she says.