The place looks more like a film set than a family home.
There are two men struggling to unload an enormous new fridge from their van; a man in a woolly hat re-glazing a shattered front door; a woman with a giant poodle arguing with the builder about glass on the floor whilst the dog barks and hops excitedly from paw to paw; a woman with a kettle in her hand trying to get everyone’s drink order right; a woman with an armful of clean sheets excusing her way from the linen cupboard to the bedroom; a woman arguing with someone on her phone, turning on the spot from left to right, her other hand over her ear to block all the noise; a young girl idly swiping her phone with her legs up on the sofa – and then Jean, the woman dying of cancer, sitting upright on her hospital bed in the centre of it all, as watchfully imperious as an Egyptian mummy roused by tomb raiders.
‘Busy, isn’t it?’ she says as I pick and excuse my way past all the chaos further into the room. ‘If it gets too much, just do what I do and bathe your eyes in the garden.’
It’s certainly a wild and lovely view. A small front garden with an elaborate bird-feeder, an ancient apple tree, an overgrown hedge, and beyond it, uninterrupted miles of misty downland.
‘Tea?’ says the woman with the kettle, looking in after me.
I say thanks but no.
‘Right then. So…’ She heads for the kitchen, staring at the splayed fingers on her right hand, rehearsing the tally. The dog barks. The sound of more shattering glass. Somewhere nearby a beeping van reverses.
I’d been told the story before my visit, of course. How Jean’s twin sister had died unexpectedly. How the ambulance crew had had to smash through the front door to get in – to no avail, unfortunately. Friends and family had converged on the house to help – including re-fitting the front door – at the same time as the kitchen appliance people arrived with the new fridge, and I arrived to supervise moving Jean from the bed so a more suitable mattress could be installed.
‘I’m no weight, but it’s not just you, is it?’ says Jean.
‘No. I’m expecting two more.’
‘Ah!’ says Jean. ‘Well. That should prove interesting.’
It’s one of those houses that opens out in a surprising way, like ducking through the tiny arched doorway of a church and finding yourself in a great vaulted space. The sitting room is positively sepulchral, filled with a honeyed and dusty light from the casement windows at the far end. In the corner of the room there’s a hospital bed, a zimmer frame and commode, and then spreading out from there, a selection of easy chairs set along the walls, giving the place a sombre, waiting room feel. Around the walls there’s a patchwork of family portraits, all of them with such eager and fixed expressions, it wouldn’t surprise me if their eyes lit up when the actual person approached to take up their spot in the chair immediately beneath.
‘In some ways we were fortunate,’ whispers Raymond. ‘in that we had a lot of this equipment for grandma’s last months.’
‘That was lucky,’ I say, feeling uncomfortable about using the word luck in this context, the mother’s decline segueing neatly into the son’s.
‘By the way,’ says Raymond, leaning towards me. ‘Please don’t mention the C word.’
He taps the discharge summary on my lap, and the phrase Bladder TCC / declining further investigation, and then raises his eyebrows, to emphasise the point.
His father, Geoffrey, is surprisingly chipper, given the circumstances. He’s lying in the hospital bed, propped up with pillows, reading the paper. He’s so blasted by illness his flesh has fallen away – so much so that his glasses have slid to the end of his nose, because there’s only the vomer to keep them in place. It feels like I’ve been invited into a mausoleum and found a man prematurely set to rest there, filling the time as best he can, current affairs, quick crosswords, sudoku and so on.
‘Don’t mind me,’ he says, raising his chin to keep the glasses in place as he flips the page.
The family are doing a fine job looking after him, though. Raymond is the focal point of the whole operation, living in the house, putting in most of the work and efficiently co-ordinating the rest. In fact, Raymond is such a palpable force, it’s hard to resist the idea that he’s keeping his father alive by a conservative power of will.
‘We definitely do not want daddy going back to hospickle’ he whispers.
‘‘What are you saying now?’ says Geoffrey, laying the paper and his glasses aside.
‘Nothing, daddy. Nothing,’ says Raymond, standing up. ‘Would you like some more tea?’