virgil the bullet

Glad lives with her husband John in the basement of a grand, Georgian terrace house on the coast road out of town. Originally I imagine the flat would have been the servants’ quarters for the entire house. The stone steps leading down to it are worn in the middle; you can almost hear the footsteps pattering up and down them, to meet a carriage, or to fetch wine from the cellar, or any of those other relentless, below stairs tasks. Still – the conversions in these buildings are all expensive, wherever they feature in the house, so as I descend I’m expecting a beautiful flat with varnished floorboards, ornate mirrors, fine works of art – the usual, high-end sensibilities of the residents around here.
It’s a shock when Glad answers the door.
‘Don’t let Virgil out,’ she says. ‘He’ll be up the steps like a bullet.’
She shushes me in quickly. There’s a fat tabby licking his paws over by some flyblown cat bowls. He reminds me of those cartoon cats, the fine diners around the dustbins, wearing napkins, sucking joke fish bones with a claw in the air.
‘I let him out the back, not the front,’ says Glad, shuffling through the gloom of the kitchen. ‘He can’t get out the back.’
Virgil stops licking his paws long enough to give me a stare, as if to say: What do you know about the front?
‘He’s a sweet cat,’ I say.
‘When he’s been fed,’ she says. ‘Don’t believe his propaganda.’
She leads me into the living room, a hellish space decked out all in red: red drapes and throws and velvet curtains, red wallpaper, deep red carpet, and worst of all, a gas fire on, four bars. It feels like I’ve been swallowed by a dragon.
‘Pete likes it warm,’ she says, lowering herself into a brown armchair (which I can only imagine was red when they bought it).
Other than the belly-of-the-beast theme, the other thing that catches my attention is a large, antique drinks cabinet in the shape of a globe. Arranged around the circular foot of it – in a pattern like a solar stream, or maybe space junk – are dozens of spirit bottles, everything represented, from gin, rum and whisky to the more exotic flavoured stuff. I don’t know why they wouldn’t throw the bottles out. Maybe they just like to see exactly how far they’ve got in their journey around the world in eighty spirits. Either way, it’s a terrible trip hazard.
‘Here any good?’ says Glad, propping her leg up on the cat’s beanbag.
‘What’s happened to the telly?’ says John, suddenly and inexplicably conscious again. I smile and wave. I can’t believe he’s actually lying on the sofa under a rug.
‘I turned it off so as not to disturb the nurse,’ says Glad.
‘I’m not actually a nurse. I’m a nursing assistant,’ I say, looking for something to sit on so I won’t have to kneel on the carpet. ‘It’s a simple leg dressing, though, so it should be fine. If not, I’ll call in the cavalry.’
‘What – more cowboys?’ says Glad. ‘Only joking. I’m sure you know what you’re doing.’

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