William shows me into a large, glossy, wooden-floored hallway. There’s a rack for shoes against the far window, covered with so many trainers and school shoes and slippers and fancy boots and things it looks more like someone backed a truck filled with odds and ends from a shoe store and had them tipped in one enormous heap onto the rack. Amongst all the shoes are micro-scooters, rugby balls, school bags, laundry bags, bags for life.
‘Sorry about the mess,’ says William.
I follow him through into the house. It’s a large, detached building where most of the ground floor has been knocked-through into one, vast living area. There’s a suggestion of corridors leading off into smaller, more private rooms, the bathroom and so on, but mostly it’s this wide, white space, a wall of glass at the far end past the kitchen area, skylights sunk deep in the ceiling here and there, and then enormous sofas and chairs dotted about the place. It’s a surprise to come into such an orderly area after the chaos of the hall, but maybe that’s the protocol in this house – you shrug off all your clutter there, like an airlock. This space is much more formal, like a departure lounge at an airport. But instead of a few people sitting on the sofas next to wheeled suitcases with the handles up, there’s just William’s mum, perched on the edge of an armchair, as upright and watchful as a buzzard in a raptor sanctuary.
‘Hello Mrs Claymore,’ I say, putting down my bags.
‘Hello,’ she says, turning her head to blink once at me, firmly. ‘And who do we have here?’
‘Mum’s staying with us whilst her arm gets better. Aren’t you mum?’
‘Yes,’ she says. ‘Apparently.’
‘And how is the arm today?’
She gives a tentative shrug, the broken right arm shifting uncomfortably in its collar and cuff.
‘Still broken,’ she says.
‘Oh – not too bad. I’ve had worse.’
‘Oh yes. Much worse. I’m ninety-six, you know.’
‘So the pain medication’s helping?’
‘It is and it isn’t,’ she says. ‘It makes one feel rather woozy. Do you know what I mean by woozy?’
‘I think so. A bit off centre.’
‘Yes. A bit doolally. And of course, it acts as a kind of brake on the whole bowel issue.’
‘That’s the codeine.’
‘So they say. But I’m eating well and all that jazz, so there we are.’
She looks around, a little forlornly, as if she’d much rather be hopping around in her own forest – and gives another, small shrug.
‘Everyone’s been marvelous,’ says William, sitting on the arm of one of the big sofas. ‘Haven’t they, Mum?’
‘I say everyone’s been marvelous.’
‘Yes. Absolutely. First class.’
She doesn’t sound all that convinced, though.
After I’ve performed the usual tests and asked about the practicalities of the thing, whether they need any extra equipment, how much physio we can offer and so on, I sit with the yellow folder on my knees, writing up the visit. William is attentive and polite. He’s done the right thing by taking his mother in and looking after her, but I can see it’s a strain. He’s perched on the arm of the sofa with his arms folded. Every so often he vigorously rubs his face, or pulls his phone out of his pocket and scans it for something – anything – that might demand his attention and give him leave to step out.
‘What did you do before you retired, Mrs Claymore?’ I ask her – as much to cover a sudden fall of silence as anything else.
‘The Foreign Office!’ she says.
‘Yes,’ says William. ‘She got up to a few things, didn’t you Mum?’
‘I did what?’
‘I say you had a few adventures.’
‘You could say that,’ she says.
‘Where did you serve?’ I ask her.
‘The Middle East, mostly. A stint in Hong Kong.’
‘Really? You know – my brother in law’s in Hong Kong.’
‘Is he?’ she says, blinking at me through a fog of codeine. ‘In what capacity?’
‘I couldn’t tell you,’ I say. ‘Something businessy. I must admit I don’t really understand it – what with the pandemic and China being a lot more heavy-handed. You’d think you’d do anything not to go back there. But of course – you know what our theory is, don’t you?’
‘We all think he’s a spy.’
‘Oh? And what makes you think that?’
‘One – he’s going back there in the first place. Two – he’s got more passports than Jason Bourne.’
William leans in.
‘A character in a popular film franchise, Mum. About spies.’
‘Oh?’ she says. ‘Never heard of him.’
Then – gently cradling her broken arm and leaning a little towards me, she whispers: ‘S.O.E?’