On the side of the kitchen cupboard that faces the door there are a series of lines, marking the changing heights of all the kids that lived there. It’s a steady progression, up and up and up, levelling off I’d guess in the teenage years, except for one line way above the others – a good few feet, almost at the ceiling.
‘Jesse did that’ says Ange, laughing. ‘He stood on a chair. Although – to be fair – he probably didn’t need to.’
Bill, the father to all these kids, is sitting impressively at the kitchen table, quite possibly the very chair Jesse used. He’s still and watchful, with a head of hair and beard so full and pure and white it’s like watching snow clouds gather on a craggy peak.
‘I don’t like all this,’ he says.
‘I know, pops,’ says Ange, giving him a squeeze that he tolerates stiffly. ‘I know. But it’s like we said. Remember? Things have got to change. You’re not as young as you used to be.’
She looks at me and smiles. ‘Let’s face it. None of us are.’
It’s an eerie feeling, sitting in that kitchen. At one time it must have been the centre of the house, the first and main room commanding the hallway, which itself leads off into a honeycomb of other rooms. Spilling down into the hallway is a bare, broad staircase whose handrail and boards are smoothed from decades of hands and footsteps. Everything is shadowy, now. Haunted – and quiet, too, with that deep and settled kind of quiet that makes your ears ring.
There’s a knock on the front door. Ange gets up to show in a couple of guys from the equipment department who’ve been tasked to fit a handrail up the stairs on the other side. They get straight to it, and soon the old house rattles with an intensity of drilling and shouted instruction.
Bill winces, directs his attention out into the garden, so wild it’s like the whole world is green and spilling over everything, advancing in a wave. He buries his focus somewhere out there.
Ange gives him another squeeze.
‘Mum would’ve said the same,’ she says.
He doesn’t reply.
It’s hard to ignore the ticking of the clocks. Annie’s back room is crowded with them – a longcase over in the corner, something like a rickety old school clock on the wall, an ornate mantel clock on the sideboard, and an alarm clock on top of the fridge. I’m even conscious of the ticking of my fob watch, the smallest component in this dizzying syncopation of tocks and clicks and ticks. It feels as if I’m not just marking Annie’s pulse, but the passage of Time itself.
‘Alright?’ she says.
‘Fine’ I reply, releasing her wrist. ‘So far, so good.’
There’s a line of toys on the chair facing us: teddy bears of varying heights and condition, a rag doll, and squatting at the front, the monkey from the PG Tips adverts.
‘Quite an audience,’ I say, writing down the results.
‘Keeping an eye on you,’ she says, rolling down her sleeve. ‘So watch out!’
‘How long have you lived here?’
‘Seventy year or more. We came just after Lily died.’
‘Oh. Sorry to hear that. Who was Lily?’
‘Lily was our little girl. She died just before her seventh birthday.’
‘That’s awful. What happened?’
‘We couldn’t wake her up one morning. I knew something was terribly wrong, so I scooped her up and ran with her to the hospital. There was nothing they could do, though. We were too late.’
‘What did she die of?’
‘They didn’t say.’
‘Didn’t they do a post mortem?’
‘No. We never did find out. But now I know what it was. I’ve watched enough of them real-life hospital programmes. She died of a bleed on the brain.’
‘Had she had a fall or banged her head?’
‘No. Not that we ever knew. It was probably just something she was born with.’
‘I’m so sorry.’
Annie reaches forward and sets the monkey a little more upright, arranging his arms neatly in his lap, and patting his head.
‘We had to move,’ she says. ‘I couldn’t have any more children. But we did alright. Eventually. And now Harold’s gone I don’t know what to do with myself.’
‘The thing is – I’m tired and I just want to go n’all. I’m ninety-four and not a sausage out of place. My nephews and nieces, I know what they’re thinking. They see me shuffling around this empty old house and they think what a waste! Not that I blame them. Truth is – I completely agree! It’s all gone on too long. If you ask my honest opinion, it’s high time I went!’