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.