‘Shall I take my shoes off?’
‘Oh no!’ says Rita. ‘This is a real home – not a show home!’
I’m conscious that my shoes are sopping wet, though, so I slip them off anyway.
‘I do it at home’ I say. ‘I’d feel bad otherwise.’
‘This is a real home, not a show home!’ she says, repeating herself – whether because it’s a catchphrase of hers, or because she likes the sound of it, I’m not sure.
‘Follow me!’ she says, and leads me through the house.
It certainly has the feel of a show home. Or even a gallery, given the number of paintings of stags on snowy crags and jugged hares lying among bunches of grapes, all in heavy gilt frames. Ernest, Rita’s husband, sits in a chair at the far end of the house, like a decrepit attendant who dozed through his lunch break and on into his nineties.
‘Darling? There’s a nurse to see you!’ says Rita. She waves me over to him, then lowers herself very correctly, debutante-style, into a Louis Quinze chair, her legs angled to the right, her hands folded in her lap.
‘What happened to your shoes?’ says Ernie, peering at me over his glasses.
‘They were soaking wet. I didn’t want to make a mess on your carpet.’
‘I said to him, darling,’ says Rita. ‘I said to him: This is a real home. Not a show home!’
‘Hear that?’ he says. ‘So now you know.’
* * *
All Ernest’s observations are within normal range – his blood pressure, temperature, heart rate and so on..
‘What were you expecting?’ he says. ‘I’m perfectly fine. It’s this damned back.’
‘Let the gentleman do his job, darling,’ says Rita, absentmindedly playing with her wedding ring, slipping it off, then on, then off again. ‘He used to be a sniper, you know. In the war, of course,’ she adds, hurriedly, to clear up any misunderstanding.
‘What of it?’ he snaps.
‘No. Nothing. It sounds fascinating.’
‘Hmm,’ he says, and watches me closely as I fill out his obs chart. To cover the silence – and to find out more about his sniper years – I dig deep for some personal story I could use.
‘I had a go at skeet shooting once,’ I say. ‘It was a work’s outing. I really liked it.’
‘Yes. Clay pigeons.’
‘I know what skeet shooting is.’
‘It was really good! That bit where they chuck the clays along the ground, and they bounce around all over the place. That was fun. You know. Picking them off.’
‘Fun?’ says Ernest, horrified. ‘Fun? If by fun you mean waving your weapon around like a lunatic, blasting in the general direction of where you think something’s going to end up, well, then, perhaps. But I’m not talking about some random spread of pellets. I’m talking about the precise placing of a single, large caliber bullet. I’m talking about controlling one’s breathing, slowing one’s pulse. Taking a clean shot.’
And he glares at me over his glasses again, eyebrows quivering, drawing a bead.
‘It’s my second marriage’ says Rita. ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’