the sheep rock scenario

On the dog walk this morning I take a route I haven’t used in a while, down an expensive private road on the edge of the village. It’s a different experience along here – grand, detached houses in an odd variety of styles: cod-Tudor, faux-medieval, everything set back behind walls and tall hedges, everything, especially the gates, on a bigger scale than normal. Even the grass verges are wide enough to grow a crop. It seems to be demonstrating a simple economic equation: more money equals more space, needing it in the same way that flowers need sunshine and water, a basic necessity to thrive. Financial potential of this magnitude couldn’t possibly exist in anything smaller.

At the end of the street is a plot of land that’s been in dispute for years. A local pre-school had been using it as a place to play in the summer, but mostly it’s been idle, having its grass mown  in synchrony with the neighbouring cemetery. For years the passage of time has been marked only by the  by the rise and fall of sunlight over the bell tower of the Norman church, and the Hang Seng Index.

I’m used to the expansive views up and down the road. The exotic house names. The teams of gardeners working on the roses. But there’s something else today, something different about the place. It takes a while to realise what it is, but the further I walk the clearer it gets. Today there’s a tall, green hoarding up around the disputed plot at the end. 

I go up to the hoarding to peer through the viewing holes, to see what’s going on. Touching the heavy chain that secures the gates works like the touching of a strand in a spider’s web, because seconds later a sleight and anxious woman is standing by my side.

‘Sorry to jump on you like this,’ she says. ‘My name’s Bunty. I live in that house there, next door to the development.

She points behind me to a long, low, be-chimneyed bungalow with casement windows, a heavy oak porch and a perfectly gravelled drive with a Mercedes parked at the apex. It’s the kind of provincially magical house Gandalf might retire to if he’d quit Hobbiton and spent the last ten years at Lloyds.

‘Lovely,’ I tell her.

‘I just wanted to ask you – have you or your dog ever walked in this field?’

I hesitate, because there’s something legalistic about the way she’s speaking and I don’t want to say anything incriminating. Eventually I decide just to be honest, and say that no, I’ve walked past it many times, but never actually gone in.

‘That’s a shame,’ she says, ‘because I’m trying to get the names of as many people as possible who’ve used the field at one time or another.  I need at least twenty to proceed, and for some stupid reason the school only counts as one.’

I tell her I think it’s a shame, what with one thing and another, but that she shouldn’t give up hope. I tell her I’ll talk to any dog walkers I meet and tell them about her petition.

Bunty launches into a long and complex description of the court proceedings so far. Who was secretly talking to who, the shocking admissions made off record, the corruption at council level, the cynical manipulation of the planning process.

‘I know some people will accuse me of nimbyism,’ she says, ‘But it won’t affect my view of the hills. It’s the principle of the thing. This is a public amenity, in a conservation area. It shouldn’t be allowed.’

I tell her I think the whole thing is disappointing, and I’m sorry it’s come to this.

‘What has everyone else in the street said about it?’ I add, helpfully.

‘That lot?’ she says, batting the air. ‘Oh – they’re happy to have another big house at the end of the street. They think it’ll keep the riff-raff out. But they’re not seeing the bigger picture. And I think that’s so important. Otherwise – who’s to stop anyone doing anything?’

She pauses to take a breath, smiling sadly, the fine lines of her face splashing out across her face like lines from the impact site of an asteroid.

She asks my name, and then the name of my dog.

‘Lovely!’ she says, shaking my hand. ‘Well – sorry to jump on you like this.’

And she’s gone.


It’s a relief to make it over the fields.

Lola races on ahead, whilst I take my time.

At the far corner of the field is a stile. The ground dips away sharply there, to a crossing of the stream and then on into the woods. Over the other side I think it might be good to take a few pictures of the ruined stone bridge a little further up. It’s on private land, but there’s no-one about, and the fence is down in one place, so it’s easy to sneak through and creep through the undergrowth.

It’s there that I come across the young deer.

It’s lying on its belly on the earth, breathing rapidly, its legs tucked up underneath. It’s obviously unwell, but I can’t figure out what’s wrong. It hasn’t been shot, as far as I can see; it’s legs all look intact, with no deformity; there’s no blood or vomit or anything else to suggest poisoning. The only thing I can think is that it has stunned itself by running into a tree trying to escape from something. I think it might be kinder and more humane to kill the deer quickly – but quite how I don’t know. It isn’t just that the deer is pretty substantial. I know that I don’t have either the skill or the emotional capacity to commit that kind of violence, so casually. A moment ago I was wandering around, taking sensitive shots of trees and fungi; now here I am contemplating doing something unspeakably violent to a creature that looks as cute as – well – Bambi. The best I can do is hope that the deer will recover its senses and run off. Either that or a predator with much less compunction than me will come across it and quickly put an end to its suffering.

I think about taking a picture of the deer, but that seems cruel and disrespectful, so I don’t. I forget about the bridge, and instead retrace my steps to the stream crossing, and continue on through the wood, debating with myself the tortuous ethical angles of the thing.

Half-way through the wood I meet Stan and his two greyhounds. I tell him about the deer, and what he thinks I should have done.

‘Rung its neck,’ he says.


He demonstrates, planting his feet either side of the thing, reaching down, pulling up and twisting, making a scccrrrrttttch noise.

‘I don’t think I could do that,’ I say.

‘Course you can he says. ‘Don’t forget how much of a problem the deer are in these woods. There’s precious little new growth going on at the moment because they eat it all. It’d be a different place if it weren’t for the deer. They need culling.’

‘I’ll leave it to you,’ I said. ‘You’ve got the technique.’

‘They’re not like sheep, though’ he says. ‘Sheep are a lot squarer and tougher.’

‘More like furniture,’ I say, helpfully.

‘I found a sheep on one of my walks up north once,’ he says. ‘Poor thing. Obviously suffering. Someone had to do something.’

‘So what did you do? Twist its neck?’

‘No. They’re too tough for that. No – I had to go find a rock.’

On holiday in Fort Victoria, Isle of Wight.

Walking along the beach here, kicking over stones. There was a group of very elderly people out looking, too, one of them having to be held by the arm whilst she prodded around with her stick. I liked that. Anyway, no doubt the ammonites were the same, swimming up and down, rolling their eyes about the gloom for as long as they possibly could before the light went out and they settled into the ooze. (This is probably why I could never work as a Tour Bus Guide).

One of my holiday books has been By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. It’s a brilliantly passionate account by Elizabeth Smart of her love affair with the poet George Barker. I found it strange to think that a writer of such creative intensity could ever actually die. Maybe she hasn’t, quite. Maybe she’s a ghost somewhere, forever waiting for George to turn up, five minutes, five years too late.

eroded timberPlenty of arty shots to be had along the beach. Derelict piers, rusted iron fixings, doors in ruined walls, ancient timbers eroded along the grain. This part of the island was heavily militarised, guarding access along the Solent to Portsmouth. Apparently there were forts here from the sixteenth century, but most of the ruins and remnants are from the mid-nineteenth. It’s a great place to kick around. The swimming’s good, too – although the waters here are out of bounds, a big red sign saying Danger – No Bathing. Standing on the shore you can see what they mean – a distinct line of white surf mid-way out, tearing round the point.

The other book I’m reading is a non-fiction account of the transportations to Australia. The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes (excellent, btw). I got quite excited to think that those transport ships would’ve sailed out from Portsmouth along the waters we can see from the cottage window – but then I looked on Google maps and saw that they must have sailed straight down from Portsmouth along the east coast of the island en route to Rio de Janeiro. I’m reading The Fatal Shore because I’m researching a book with a foot in two time zones, the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries. It feels like I’m taking on a lot. Wouldn’t it be easier to write about something closer to home, maybe a domestic drama about a community health care worker and his struggle to come to terms with death? Something as bright and upbeat as that? But I have to admit I like the research. It’s a kind of insurance. If the book doesn’t work, at least I’ve learned something (other than how to write a book that doesn’t work).


new poem:

dragon head
what do you mean, norway?




cat & man

It’s so hot, even Reg’s cat Lionel barely has the energy to look up as I come into the little back yard. Don’t mind me he seems to say, just go ahead and ring the bell and he’ll be with you presently. Then blinking once, to seal the deal, and yawning broadly with a funny little snap of his jaws, he collapses back into the shady patch beneath the cotoneaster, and immediately falls asleep again. He’s a magnificent animal – just like Orlando, the marmalade cat, rich stripes of apricot and orange flowing down his sides.

If Lionel is an object lesson in glamorous health and vitality, his owner Reg is the complete opposite. In fact, Reg is so banged up, with so many wounds and dressings, he looks like an extra in a horror movie unexpectedly called to the door of the make-up wagon. The worst is a palm-sized gash to the right of his forehead, stitched up as vigorously as a rugby boot, the hair shaved around it in a punky and free-ranging kind of tonsure. He has two black eyes, swollen cheeks, a thick wodge of plaster over the blackened steri-strips holding his nose together, a split lip, and bruises in every hue and colour between black and yellow roiling up and down his arm.

‘Yes?’ he says, pulling his dressing gown together and swaying in the doorway. ‘Can I help you?’


We’ve all had a turn at going in to see Jasper. He’s one of the regulars, an intractable alcoholic, a serial self-neglecter whose M.O. is to get drunk, take too many pills (by mistake or design it’s impossible to say), fall over, be admitted to hospital and then discharged with a referral to the community health team. He’s had numerous multi-disciplinary team meetings, everyone from the psychiatrist to the CPN, physio and occupational therapists, pharmacists and social workers, everyone doing their best to come up with a workable plan. But inevitably Jasper ends up back in hospital, and the whole thing starts again.

This time was different, though. I heard about it from Carla, one of the carers, the next day.
‘It was the same old thing,’ she said, settling in to the story. ‘Door locked, curtains closed, no answer when I buzzed or called his phone. I mean – that’s always the way it is with him. He’s hardly ever there.’
‘It’s so frustrating.’
‘Anyway, I thought – right – I’ll just try one more thing and then call it quits. The curtain was a little caught up in the corner, so I shielded my hand over the glass like this, and had a good, long look. That’s when I saw the boot. You know those dreadful things he wears? There was just the suggestion of it, poking round the end of his bed. And it was difficult to tell, but I got the impression that there was a foot in there, too, the angle it was keeping. So I banged on the window a bit, and when nothing happened, called the police. They came pretty quick. Put the door in, and there he was, wedged down the side of the bed. We had to see if he was alive or not – and I know it doesn’t sound very caring – but what we did, we dragged him out by the leg. And you didn’t need a doctor to tell you he was dead, because he kept the same position he was in when we got him clear, all crumpled up on his side, poor thing, and a look on his face – I don’t know – like he was falling down a great big hole, which in a way, I suppose, he was.’
‘Sounds horrible.’
‘It wasn’t nice. Still…’ she says, taking another generous bite of her sandwich, and dabbing at the corner of her mouth with a napkin. ‘you’d have to say, it was a long time coming.’

game over

Graham pulls his top up to show me his scar – a flap fully half the size of his abdomen, the edges as puckered as the crimped edges of a pasty.
‘Wow! That’s impressive!’ I say.
‘Yeah. The surgeon wanted plenty of elbow room’ he says. ‘I think he pretty much climbed inside’
He lowers his top again and sits on his bed, suddenly forlorn. Jake, his friend, is standing next to him, fidgeting from side to side. He takes a step forward.
‘Look at this, then,’ he says, joining in the display of medical horrors. An angry-looking rash extends up both his arms, bubbling up through his tattoos.
‘Horrible, innit?’
‘It looks pretty sore. Is it itchy?’
‘Yeah, it’s itchy. Itchy as fuck. So what d’you think?’
‘I don’t know. They look like bites.’
‘I think you’re right,’ he says. ‘This place is crawling with bed bugs.’
I can’t help glancing down at the bed Graham’s sitting on, but if he heard or already knows about the bugs, he makes no sign.
Over Graham’s bed is a poster of Bruce Lee, in the famous fighting pose from Enter the Dragon.
‘He was amazing,’ I say. ‘It’s such a shame he died so young.’
‘Thirty-two,’ says Graham, looking up. ‘Same age as me.’
‘What about all those rumours? You know – Triads and death touches?’
‘Nah. That’s just conspiracy theory bullshit. He’d gone round Betty Tingpei’s house to talk about his next film, Game of Death, and she give him a pain killer for a headache. Only it turned out Bruce was sensitive to the Meprobromate in it, his brain swelled up, and that was that. Game Over.
‘Ask Graham anything you like about Bruce Lee,’ says Jake, still swaying from side to side. ‘Anything at all.’
‘Yeah. Or drugs,’ says Graham.

making it down there

There’s a note on Mrs Layland’s file to say that her daughter, Ellie, has to be contacted before any visit. Mrs Layland gets extremely anxious the notes says. Make sure you ring first before going in. It gives Ellie’s mobile number, underlined, twice.

‘How about one?’ I say.
‘See you then.’

I have three patients to see that end of town. As it turns out, one of them has been admitted to hospital, and the other is surprisingly quick. My remaining visits are some distance away, so I won’t be able to go to them and make it back for one o’clock – so I call Ellie to see if she can make it any sooner, perhaps eleven?
‘That… should be okay,’ she says, after a pause which sounds like she’s flipping through a diary. ‘That should just give me time to make it down there. Okay – fine. Let’s make it eleven.’
‘Thanks. I’ll give you a call when I arrive.’

Just before eleven I pull up outside the apartment block, and after writing down my arrival time, take out the mobile and call Ellie. It rings six times and goes to voicemail. I leave a message to say I’ve arrived and asking her to call me back so we can go in together. Then I spend the next ten minutes going over what visits I’ve got left, and figuring out the routes.

When there’s still no call-back from Ellie, I ring her again. Straight to voicemail.
‘I wasn’t sure whether I left my number or not,’ I say, ‘…so just in case…’
I read out the number, then end with something like  ‘looking forward to meeting you soon’ and hang up.

Time starts to drag. I keep checking the phone, to see if it’s registered any calls that for some reason I may not have heard. I hold the phone in different places in the car, just in case. I start watching the road ahead, and the road behind in the rear view mirror, wondering if each car that passes is going to be Ellie. Maybe she’s cycling? Is that Ellie, walking along the pavement, checking her phone? Is this a signal blackspot? Anyway, it’s almost half past now, so I’m guessing if it was Ellie she’d be walking a little more quickly – unless she’s very relaxed about appointments. But then again, maybe she’s forgotten about the second call? Maybe she thinks we’re still meeting at one? The woman talks animatedly on the phone as she walks past. I check mine again, then drop it on the passenger seat and wonder what to do.

I think about going to the intercom and buzzing Mrs Layland’s flat. The instructions were pretty clear, though. In fact I’d go as far as saying they were emphatic, written in block caps, in haste, as if something bad had happened last time and there was no room for error. If I rang the buzzer, and Mrs Layland let me in, what would I do? Wait in the flat for Ellie to arrive, whilst Mrs Layland got more and more anxious, and I struggled to reassure her? And then what would I say to Ellie? That I left two messages, and thought I’d go in anyway? But then she might say: ‘What messages? I didn’t get any messages!’ and ‘You should have waited. I thought I made it clear…’

So I wait some more.

Eventually, at twenty to twelve, I ring again, and Ellie picks up.
‘Where the hell are you?’ she says.
‘I’m outside, in the car.’
‘I thought you said you wanted me here at eleven?’
‘I did. I was waiting for you to get here.’
‘What do you mean, waiting for me to get here? I live on the next floor.’

rose’s ferret

‘Granddaughter? No! I’m actually his daughter, believe it or not,’ says Rose, dropping her bag on the floor and herself into a chair. ‘He had me late. When he’d finished all his tomcatting around. Isn’t that right, Dad?’
Charlie laughs, and tips me the kind of wink you might expect from a pantomime dame leaning out across the footlights: folded arms, a discreet bob of the head inclined to the closed eye, and a wry, downward tilt of the mouth.
‘You’re a cheeky monkey,’ says Rose. ‘But don’t push it.’
Charlie is ninety-five, Rose around forty, but I’d have put them both at least twenty years younger. Charlie is immaculately dressed in a suit and tie, Rose in a crop top that shows off her tattoos.
‘I almost didn’t make it,’ she says. ‘The ferret’s sick.’
‘Sorry to hear that,’ I say. ‘What’s the matter with him?’
‘I don’t know,’ she says. ‘He’s just kind of all … blurrrhhhh.’
‘Could be the heat. I wouldn’t fancy wearing all that fur in this weather.’
‘No,’ she says. ‘It’s a design flaw.’
She watches patiently as I examine Charlie, checking his blood pressure, temperature and so on. Everything seems fine, though. There’s still the issue of his unexplained collapse a few days ago, but none of the tests done point to anything.
‘Could just be one of those things’, I say as I complete the observations chart.
‘What? Like Rose’s ferret?’ he says, and tips me another wink.

garden veteran

Mr Rostov is in his nineties and has trouble with his legs. As I walk up the drive he’s ineffectually prodding around with his trowel in a raised flowerbed, somehow managing to stay upright with his legs as splayed as a giraffe at a water hole.
‘I’ve got so many pins and plates in me,’ he says, using my arm as support and struggling upright, ‘…last time I went down the scrap yard I ended up swinging from the magnet.’
He takes the cap from his head and breaks into a smile so deep and gappy I wouldn’t be surprised if he waggled his ears. ‘Still,’ he says, wiping his forehead with a hankie, ‘so long as I don’t go for a swim, I’ll be all right.’
Despite his legs, Mr Rostov still has the wherewithal to take care of his garden. It’s obviously difficult for him, though. The garden is looking pretty wild, with only traces of the original planting struggling through, marigold, fuschia and lupin flowers lost amongst the general tangle of weeds and seeding grass.
‘Just look the other way,’ he says, as if I’d said something out loud. He waves his trowel in the general direction of everything. ‘I may be slow, but I’m stubborn, and I’ll get there in the end.’
‘I’m sure you will,’ I tell him. ‘Anyway, I’ve always preferred a more relaxed garden.’
‘You’re very kind and you can most definitely come again.’
He puts his cap back on, more like a beret, come to think of it, with a winged badge off to the side.
We stand there looking over the garden for a moment.
‘Here’s a question’ I say.
‘Go on.’
‘How do you keep the slugs off if you don’t want to use pellets?’
‘I don’t know,’ he says. ‘Get some animals in that eat the damned things.’
‘Like what?’
‘Frogs, hedgehogs, that sort of chap.’
‘I can’t remember the last time I saw a hedgehog. I think everyone using pellets has killed them off.’
‘Oh, I don’t think it does them any harm.’
‘No. They changed the recipe. I don’t think it’s that.’
‘It can’t help, though, can it? I haven’t seen a hedgehog for years, and you used to see them all the time.’
‘There just aren’t the gardens for them like there used to be,’ he says. ‘Still, you can always get some at the pet shop.’
‘What – hedgehogs?’
‘Absolutely! Depends on the shop, of course. You can buy yourself half a dozen and send them in to fight the slugs. Operation Market Garden! How about that!’ But then he suddenly seems to think better of it, and sucks his teeth thoughtfully for a moment. ‘Although maybe that’s not quite the analogy,’ he says, repositioning his beret. ‘Poor bloody hedgehogs.’

the folks who live on the hill

I’m a captive audience. Mr Munroe has positioned his wheelchair, unconsciously or by design, right in the middle of the doorway, and the only way I’ll be able to leave the house now is if he scoots back a foot or two, or I do the scooting for him.
Mrs Munroe is just as stuck in her armchair, beneath a black and white, poster-sized print of their wedding photo, taken sixty years ago. Throughout the examination Mrs Munroe has been as happily smiling as the young woman in the picture behind her, in a vague kind of way, but there’s a sharp edge of irritation to her voice now as her husband puts the brakes on and starts telling me about Dinah Shore.
‘Now there was a singer,’ he says. ‘Classically trained, of course. You can hear it in her voice. There’s a purity there and a… and a clarity that you just don’t get with other singers. Simple arrangements help enormously. Violin. Piano. A little clarinet, with a mute…’
He does a mime for each instrument.
‘Oh do be quiet John!’ says his wife. ‘He hasn’t got time.’
But Mr Munroe carries on as if his hearing aid doesn’t extend to that corner of the room.
‘They’re selling a CD pack of her most famous songs down at that record shop on Market Street. D’you know the one I mean? In the little parade. Eight ninety-nine for a hundred songs. Twenty-five on each disc, which I think works out at about nine pence for each song, which is pretty good value, considering.’
‘Sounds amazing! I’ll check her out on YouTube.’
‘John!’ says his wife. ‘Please!’
The only acknowledgement Mr Munroe makes is to take his weight on his elbows and shift his position in the chair.
‘Now – take that girl from Manchester,’ he says. ‘The one in the news. Where the bomb was.’
‘Ariana Grande?’
‘Her. Now she’s got a voice. I wouldn’t mind betting she knows a thing or two about Dinah Shore.’
‘It was great, that benefit gig she did,’ I say, picking up my bag and taking one hesitant step in his direction. ‘Anyway…’
‘You know something?’ he says.
‘What’s that?’
‘I had a cousin who worked on the radio. A big job he had, something high up, in charge of all the music. And I was talking to him on this particular occasion…’
‘John!’ says Mrs Munroe.
‘…and he said to me, he said Tell me honestly. What do you think is the best vocal performance of any female recording artist of the last fifty years? And d’you know what I said?’
‘Dinah Shore?’
‘Peggy Lee. Her version of “The Folks who Live on the Hill”. Arrangement by Nelson Riddle, with the orchestra actually conducted by Frank Sinatra. Sinatra was a good conductor and arranger, you know. Not just a singer. He learnt his craft from Axel Stordhal. And if you see his name on a record, you’ll know you’re in safe hands.’
‘He has got to go, John…!’
‘So why Peggy Lee?’ I say, helplessly.
‘Well, it’s interesting. The song itself is pretty cheerful. Quite sweet, in a sugary, romantic kind of way. But when Peggy Lee sings it – with that arrangement – the whole thing becomes a little – I don’t know – creepy. And I said to my cousin – you know, the one in charge of all the music – I said to him: it makes you think of all those poor chaps who went off to war and never came back. And he completely agreed with me.’
‘John! Honestly…’
But you see, Peggy Lee could do that. She’d suffered in her life. She had a way of bringing it to the music.’
‘Hmm. Well I’ll certainly look out for it. Now – I’m really sorry, but I’m going to have to say goodbye to you now. I’ve got a few more patients to see.’
‘Of course! My apologies. I’m holding you up.’
He makes a show of looking for the brakes, paddling his arms either side of the wheelchair, but gives up just as quickly, and folds them bacl in his lap again.
‘What d’you think of that Theresa May?’ he says.
‘Do you mean as a singer?’
‘As a politician. A prime minister. Isn’t she extraordinary?’
‘That’s one way of putting it.’
‘I think she out-Thatchers Thatcher.’
‘Well – I have to admit I’m not a fan.’
‘I think women – when they get power – are better than men. They just seem to crack on with things.’
He illustrates the thought with a plucking motion of his hand, then takes advantage of the fact that his hand is near his face to reposition his glasses.
‘You certainly have to be thick-skinned to be a politician,’ I say, checking my watch. ‘Look – I’m really sorry, Mr Munroe. I’d love to stay and chat, but I’m going to have to squeeze by and leave you to it.’
‘Of course. Of course.’
‘Oh, for God’s sake let him go!’ says his wife.
‘Just a minute…’ he says, and fusses with the brakes again, putting them off, then on, then off – and then on again.
‘Here. Allow me,’ I say, reaching over to take them off, and gently guiding him back.
‘I can manage!’ he says. When I straighten up and let him go, he makes a series of ineffectual manoeuvres that only succeed in jamming him sideways across the doorway.
‘Blast!’ he says.
‘John! He’s got people to see!’ says his wife. ‘He can’t stop here all day listening to you.’
‘Now look…’ says Mr Munroe, suddenly out of breath. He makes as if to push himself completely out of the chair, but then subsides just as suddenly, putting his hands in his lap and looking up at me with a slack kind of expression. ‘She has Alzheimer’s,’ he says. ‘But I expect you knew that.’


‘They’re all self-build,’ says Malcolm, showing me into the sitting room. He’s a trim and capable figure, even now. I can easily imagine him laying down the bricks, tapping them into place with the heel of his trowel, one after another.
‘It was hard, though. We all had jobs to go to. And when we came home – there you go, more of the same. Weekends, too. Five years of it. I hardly knew what to do with myself. But it was worth it in the end.’
‘It certainly was. They’re beautiful houses.’
‘Thank you. We’ve been happy here.’

We stand together, looking out of the bay window. It’s like standing on the deck of a ship – except, instead of an ocean, there’s a lush vista of trees running out in front of us, sycamore, aspen, whitebeam.

‘Where were you staying when you worked on it?’
‘A council place. The whole thing was arranged with them.’
‘So did they have a stake in the finished houses?’
‘It’s complicated – but yes. It was a way for them to increase their stock, y’see? Free up existing houses,  get a few more. It worked out pretty well. And we got a say in how they were built.’
‘How did you decide who went where?’
‘We put the numbers in a hat. There was a bit of swapping after that. I was supposed to get one further down that way, but the guy there wanted to swap because that place was the first to get finished and he needed to move quickly. We were happy to wait. This was the better plot.’

A couple of labradors run out of a gap in the undergrowth, followed by their owners, who glance up towards the window and wave to Malcolm. He nods, and waves back.

‘None of that was there when we started,’ says Malcolm, putting his hands in his pockets. ‘You wouldn’t think to look at it now. It was all just barren ground, a few allotments, that kind of thing. It’s all come up since. In fifty years.’
‘That’s amazing.’
‘I know. I can’t believe the change. Still – life goes on. I don’t know how much longer I’ll stay here. Jean died last year, and the kids are all grown up and moved away.’
‘Where d’you think you’ll go?’
He takes a deep breath.
‘Don’t know,’ he says at last, rubbing the back of his neck and screwing up his eyes, like a craftsman figuring out a tricky cut of timber. ‘Probably up near one of them. So they can keep an eye on the old crock.’