Isla is sitting with her stork-thin legs up on a stool, watching telly. It’s another property programme, the kind where stressy couples are helped to find somewhere to live. I don’t know where this particular couple have gone – maybe to weep in the garden – but the experts, a man in a tailored beard and mohair coat, and a woman in primary colours and teeth so white they look like gum shields, are sauntering shoulder-to-shoulder down the hall, the man being enthusiastic about the coving, the woman scathing about the electrics.
‘Look at him!’ says Isla. ‘Who’d buy a house off him?’
‘I wouldn’t even buy a coat.’
‘My husband was handy with a screwdriver.’
‘He’d sort that place out in no time.’
‘Sounds like someone to know.’
‘That’s why I married him. One of the reasons. Now then. What have you come to do? More blood, I expect. Why’s everyone so interested in my blood? What’s so special about it?’
‘They just want to see how your kidneys are doing.’
‘My kidneys? I’m ninety-five. How d’you think my kidneys are doing?’
‘Quite. Still – you can always refuse. You don’t have to have these things done, Isla. Just so long as you understand what it is you’re refusing.’
‘Oh I understand alright. I understand all too well. Come on if you’re coming, then. You’ve got a job to do. I don’t want to get you in trouble.’
She bunches up her sleeve and stares at the telly whilst I set up.
‘What did you do before you retired?’ I ask her.
‘I was a writer, dear.’
‘Oh really? What did you write?’
‘They were called partworks. I don’t suppose you know.’
‘Isn’t it where you buy a magazine every month on a particular subject? And you get stuff with it, like bits of a model car or a boat or something, and you gradually put it all together, until by the end you’ve got a model of the Ark Royal that cost pretty much the same as the original.’
‘You’ve got it! A friend of mine did one about planes. You’d get a sweet little balsa wood version, which looked quite fun to chuck around outside but mine always crashed first time, so it was a bit of a swizz.’
‘Did you have a specialist subject?’
‘Not really. Fashion. Arts and Crafts. Hobbies, that sort of thing. Knitting. It paid the bills, and I liked digging around in the library. Ouch! That smarts!’
‘I thought you were supposed to say sharp scratch? I should know. I’ve watched enough hospital programmes.’’
‘I thought I’d get you whilst you were distracted.’
‘Well it didn’t work, did it?’
‘Maybe I should write something about nursing and you should read it.’
‘Every little helps.’
Isla’s friend June coo-ee’s, knocks and breezes in. She’s as emphatically made-up as the housing expert on TV, with orange lipstick, tan coloured foundation that ends in a line just below the chin, and hair that seems to stay pointing forwards when she turns to close the door behind her.
‘Just thought I’d pop by,’ she says. ‘I didn’t know you had company…’
‘I don’t,’ says Isla. ‘He’s taking blood.’
‘Oh. Well. That’s nice. I won’t get in your way.’
‘New blouse?’ says Isla, rolling up her sleeve and buttoning the cuff.
‘Yes! Do you like it, Isla? I got it at the market. I was worried it might look a bit hippyish. And I wasn’t sure about the fit. You can’t really try these things on there, can you? Not with everyone walking by.’
She smiles at me, like she’s just caught me walking by. I blush.
‘Paisley,’ says Isla.
‘Yes! That’s right!’ says June. ‘Gosh – don’t you know a lot about a lot? Isla used to be a writer,’ she says to me.
‘Yes. She was just saying.’
‘Persian,’ says Isla. ‘The pattern, I mean.’
‘I thought it was Scottish.’
‘That’s just where they started making them in the eighteen hundreds or thereabouts. The soldiers brought back shawls from the East Indies, and the Paisley weavers copied the design.’
‘Oh! How fascinating!’ says June, smiling at me so broadly her lipstick crackles. ‘Isn’t that wonderful?’
‘Have you still got the receipt?’ says Isla.
It’s a long climb up but it’s worth it. Peter’s flat is meticulously neat and spare, perched like the lamp at the top of a lighthouse, high above the world on this bright, blue, early spring day. Peter keeps the place immaculately, a pierced mirror over the fireplace, a vibrant figurative painting above the sofa, well-made chairs placed just-so, an oak writing desk under the window, and on the desk, a small ceramic vase with half a dozen stems of daffodil, yellow and gold in the mid-morning sunshine.
‘I brought those,’ says Stephanie. ‘I wanted to make the place look bigger.
‘Or further away.’
‘But at least we know the desks was always going to be strong enough.’
‘Well I think they look absolutely charming, Stephanie. And nobody has to feel the slightest bit guilty about air miles.’
Stephanie is an old friend of Peter’s. She’s come round to have lunch with him before his big day tomorrow. He’s been called back in for surgery. He fell ill out walking in the street, and a scan confirmed what everyone was dreading – the return of the cancer he thought he’d beaten a couple of years before.
‘At least they didn’t tell me I was riddled,’ he says. ‘I was fully expecting that conversation – you know – the one where they tell you it’s metastasized everywhere, from your liver to your socks, and there’s nothing more they can do.’
‘Rubbish. There’s always something,’ says Stephanie. ‘You can always go barefoot.’
‘You’re right,’ he says. ‘But listen. It won’t come to that. Tomorrow I’m under the knife again, so there’s hope yet.’
‘You see – that’s the other thing,’ says Stephanie.
‘I didn’t want to get you a fancy bouquet because I knew you weren’t going to be around.’
‘You could’ve taken them home with you.’
‘Some friend I’d be, buying you flowers and taking them home again.’
‘Some friend you are buying me daffs.’
‘It’s St David’s day!’
‘Yes – and St David can shove them up his arse!’
‘That’s not very patriotic, is it?’
‘Who cares? I’m not Welsh.’
‘Well you won’t be at this rate’
They both laugh.
Joan is sitting in the sunshine on an antique walnut chair, an aluminium walking stick planted squarely in front of her, both hands resting on it, giving her the appearance of a graven warrior leaning on their sword. I have to say she’d look pretty good in a helmet, with a nose-piece and slits for eyes; as it is, her only armour is a tweed skirt, silk blouse and metallic hairdo.
And if Joan is a warrior, her declared enemy would be Sciatica.
‘I’m a martyr to it,’ she says, thumping her stick on the carpet twice, which she does periodically, to emphasise the key points.
‘Not that I let it win. I know what you, the doctor and everybody else will say. You’ve got to keep moving Joan. Physiotherapy and pain relief, that’s the ticket. But all these pills and potions turn me into an absolute zombie, dragging myself around the place, moaning and carrying on. And when I’m in that state I’m afraid all I really need is shooting.
‘I must tell you something, though. You’ll like this. My friend Agnes came round the other day. She visits every now and again. Like the flu. She wanted me to drive her to the mobility shop to help her choose a three-wheeled walker. I said can’t you just order it online like everyone else? But she hasn’t the faintest idea what online means. She thinks it’s something to do with the railway. Still, I don’t mind the odd excursion. I drive, of course. Everything’s a fuzz close up, but so long as the sun’s high enough I get by. So we drove over to the mobility shop, and spent an absolute lifetime looking at their range. I suggested the most solid looking thing with a basket on the front and a seat to sit on if it came to that. But Agnes being Agnes she went for the racy red affair, a three-wheeler, something that wouldn’t look out of place at Brands Hatch. Whilst she was fiddling around with a cheque book – a cheque book! I mean, honestly. She’s like something out of the Middle Ages! – Anyway, whilst she was driving the assistant absolutely insane with her chaotic bag and her endless requests, I took the opportunity to nip next door to the paper shop to get my copy of the Financial Times. Whilst I was in there chatting to the shopkeeper about call centres or somesuch, a woman came into the shop and asked me if I knew a woman with a red three-wheeled walker. So I said Yes, I’m afraid I do. So she said Well she’s just fallen over!’