The night has been long and cloudless, so cold that everything is locked in a thick hoar frost. A crystalline web sags heavily on Mr Rawlinson’s front gate. I imagine the spider that spun it must be something of a jewel itself now, glittering like a leggy diamond somewhere, deep-frozen in its lair.
Mr Rawlinson is luckier than the spider, though. His bungalow is filled with a fulsome warmth that seems to ripple as I move into it.
‘Come in! Come in!’ he says. ‘And be quick about it.’
We’re short on carers this morning, so I’ve been asked to drop by. Looking at Mr Rawlinson, I wouldn’t think there’s much to be done, though. Not only has he managed to wash and dress himself, but he’s done it so well he looks almost too perfect, standing straight-backed, holding on to his kitchen trolley, a pensioner on parade. It’s like a team of make-up artists has been challenged to put together the most perfect pensioner they can, and really, they’ve excelled themselves. Mr Rawlinson’s silvery hair is brushed to the left and the right of a geometrically precise parting, his moustache perfectly trimmed, his shirt buttoned to the neck with a blue tie in a Windsor knot symmetrically in place; cuffs sharply in line; cardigan just-so; canvas trousers with pleats like origami folds, and slippers so buff I imagine a valet must have been fussing over them with a monogrammed brush moments before.
‘Are you here to fetch me breakfast?’ he says.
‘Absolutely. Whatever you need.’
‘Smashing. I’ve left it all ready to go. The bowl, the muesli, the sugar and so on. I’d like a portion of muesli, some milk in a jug, a slice of toast with thick-cut Oxford marmalade and a cup of Earl Grey tea, medium strength. Are you okay with all that?’
I’ve been given the job on the fly, so I haven’t had a chance to read his notes. It strikes me that Mr Rawlinson is functioning extremely well, and I wonder why the care has been requested. After all, it’s not too much of a stretch to put muesli in a bowl, especially once you’ve gone to the trouble of setting the packet and the bowl out in the first place. But maybe I’m missing something. It could be that without a carer coming in to supervise these things, he’d hit the skids and wouldn’t bother. I’m happy to oblige, of course, but I make a mental note to follow-up the job when I get back to base.
‘Why don’t you sit down at the table and I’ll bring everything over?’ I say to him.
‘I thought this muesli already had sugar in it?’
‘Yes, you’re right, it does, but I like it sweet. Three sugars in my tea, as well, if you wouldn’t mind. When you get to my advanced old age, a few extra spoons can’t hurt.’
I fold a square of kitchen towel into a triangle and put it with the point towards him on the table, followed by a knife, dessert spoon and teaspoon. He adjusts the angle of them, to line up more precisely with the napkin.
‘When I was in the RAF,’ he says, folding his arms, ‘there was a chap there, forget his name, Canadian, I think. The most athletic man I have ever met. Played any sport you could think of, and probably a few others. Mostly one of those track types. You know? A runner. Faster than a blessed hare. Well! He used to do it all, sugar, tobacco, alcohol – you name it.’
He finesses the cutlery a little more.
‘Maybe it would have had some effect eventually,’ he says, after a moment. ‘But we were never afforded the privilege of finding out, of course. The poor chap was shot down somewhere over the Atlantic.’