Stepping through the front door into Mary’s house is like stepping into a crazy echo chamber. There’s a radio playing full blast in the kitchen, a TV in the front room with loud music and studio applause, and a TV in the back room with explosions and machine gun fire. The whole effect is made worse by the fact that the house has laminate flooring, and there’s not much in the way of soft furnishings. When I call Mary’s name to announce myself I have to shout. Her four wheel walker is at a strange angle in the middle of the hall, like she dumped it there in a hurry. I’m worried something’s happened, but as soon as I go forward to put it straight, she emerges from a tiny bathroom under the stairs.
‘I said go through,’ she says. ‘Didn’t you hear me?’
‘Well it’s quite noisy, Mary. D’you mind if I turn things down a bit?’
‘Suit yourself,’ she says, then takes the walker from me and walks with it through into the back room, her shoulders hunched, rolling heavily in the hip, like an old farmer ploughing a muddy field.
I do a quick tour of the house, switching off the TV and the radio. It only leaves the TV in the back room, a giant plasma affair. It’s playing a forties war film. There’s a close-up of John Mills looking tense, which feels about right as I ask Mary if she’d mind turning it off for a bit.
‘You do it,’ she says.
I can’t see the remote, so I just touch what looks like the off button on the bottom of the screen. The whole thing immediately dumps to a white fuzz accompanied by a hideous noise.
‘Oh what’ve you done now?’ she says, producing the remote from her cardigan pocket and zapping it off. ‘Good God almighty!’
‘There! That’s better!’ I say. ‘I couldn’t hear myself think.’
She raises her eyebrows, like she could say a few things about that if she wanted to.
‘How are you feeling?’ I ask her.
‘Much the same,’ she says. ‘Terrible.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that. In what way terrible?’
‘I say in what way terrible?’
‘What d’you mean?’
‘Are you in pain?’
‘No. Thank God.’
‘Do you feel sick? Dizzy? Short of breath?’
‘Lacking in energy?’
‘I do my best.’
‘I’m sure you do. So when you say you feel terrible, what… erm….’
She’s ignoring me now, fussing with a heap of stuff next to her on the sofa, so I decide not to push the “feeling terrible” thing any further and see if her obs offer any clues instead.
‘Would you mind if I did your blood pressure and temperature and so on?’ I ask her, unzipping my bag.
‘Be my guest,’ she says, and immediately rolls up the sleeve of her cardigan.
Just behind her on the wall is a large, three part picture frame, a photo of the Queen on the left looking a little dazed, a royal letter on the right, and the two panels separated by a golden tassel like a light pull or a curtain closer. I wonder what would happen if the glass wasn’t there and you could reach in and pull it. Maybe the national anthem would play and then the whole thing burst into flames.
‘What’s that for?’ I ask her.
‘We were married sixty years,’ she says.
‘Wow! That’s lovely.’
‘He’s gone now.’
‘What can you expect?’
‘He built this place.’
‘Did he? That’s amazing.’
‘He was a builder.’
‘Yes. I bet he must’ve worked hard.’
‘He never stopped.’
‘Sixty years! That’s very impressive, Mary. You’ll have to tell me your secret.’
‘How you managed to stay married for sixty years.’
‘I couldn’t think what else to do. Besides, you get used to someone.’
‘I suppose that’s true. So how did you two meet?’
‘He tripped me up in Woolworth’s.’
‘Where? By the pick n’mix?’
‘All I know is, his friend was going with my friend.’
She sighs and looks pained, as if the effort of remembering these things is exhausting her.
‘’That didn’t last,’ she says. ‘Are you done now or what?’