Perched on the edge of her bed, her crochet cap looped over her ears, her smock rucked up, her square face a little wax-yellow in the light from the basement kitchen window, Wendy looks like a character in a painting by Brueghel, the village wise-woman, taking a breather half-way through making the latest batch of crab-apple gin.
‘I don’t drink the stuff,’ she says, wiping her hands down the front of her smock. ‘I just like giving it away as presents.’
She gestures to a row of elegant and antique bottles on a shelf behind her. ‘There’s more in the cellar,’ she says. ‘Have a look if you like.’
There’s nothing I’d like better. I could very happily spend the day exploring this extraordinary house, filled with Wendy’s charcoal sketches and stone sculptures and black and white photos and shelf upon shelf of tatty books – the beautiful strata of a long and colourful life lived in many parts of the world. I haven’t the time, though. Apart from checking Wendy over and making sure she’s okay, I’ve come to see what we can do to help. We’ve had a good long chat about the things she could do to improve things environmentally. I’ve offered to find help with some ‘rationalisation’ so we can accommodate the hospital bed she desperately needs. Nothing I’ve said impresses her over much, it has to be said, although she’s happy to think about it.
‘I like to be in the action,’ she says. ‘The kitchen is the heart of the house. I don’t want to lose that.’
‘You wouldn’t have to.’
‘Hmm,’ she says.
She shifts her position, and a batik-print cloth bag rattles out from a pocket onto the cot bed.
‘My bones,’ she says.
‘Your bones? What are you – a necromancer?’
She laughs. ‘My phones! My phones! Although – talking about divination – I did see things. In the past. Not so much these days, unfortunately.’
‘What kind of things?’
‘Oh – I knew they weren’t real. I didn’t let myself get frightened by them. And I certainly didn’t tell anyone else, or they’d have locked me up! My sister was the same. I think in retrospect it was a form of epilepsy. Only with us it was more hallucinations. When we were little we both got sent to a convent. Not that anyone had ever told us we were Catholic. What’s a Catholic? my sister said to me when we were lined up outside the classroom. I told her to watch out, keep her mouth shut and follow me. Anyway, there was this nun who took us for something or other. She’d slowly write a word on the blackboard, then underline it slowly with two wiggly lines, and finish off by screwing in the chalk to make a dot. And it was that particular sequence, you see, the two wiggly lines, the dot at the end, that would send us off. Animals would burst out of the blackboard. Foxes, eagles, herds of reindeer. We learned to control our surprise or we’d have been for it.’
‘Maybe they’d have thought you were visionaries. Is that what they call them?’
‘I think if you see the Virgin Mary you’re a visionary. Foxes and eagles they burn you at the stake. We didn’t tell anyone, needless to say.’
‘Do you still have visions?’
‘Sometimes. Odd times. The last one I was standing at the sink doing some washing up – which dates it! I haven’t done that in a while. Anyway, I was standing there with my hands in the sudsy water, and – maybe it was the pattern of light through the window, or something else, I don’t know – but suddenly I was standing on the edge of a vast, desert plain. And off in the distance I could see a dummy.’
‘Like a tailor’s mannequin. You know? On a stand. And I moved closer, and I saw that the dummy was wearing a jacket – a nice, neat, green brocade affair, with pearl buttons down the front and at the cuff. A little closer and I could see some other details, a beetle brooch, a pair of calfskin gloves. And it was then I realised what I was looking at. It’s you, you dozy old cow! I said to myself. The vision vanished. I carried on washing up.’