The cluttered sitting room is dominated by a large, brightly lit vivarium along the wall and two ornate bird cages in the window alcove. The canaries in the cages hop and chatter wildly as I come into the room, but the vivarium seems empty.
‘Don’t worry. He died, he didn’t escape,’ says Malcolm.
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
‘Tarantulas,’ he says. ‘Not the easiest.’
Malcolm’s wife Sara is sitting with her back to the vivarium – a weird contrast, not just because the fierce light on the stones and the stark blue background throws her into a kind of unbalanced neon shade, but because she holds herself so completely still, as motionless as the tank is empty.
‘Hello,’ I say, reaching out to her. She’s so fragile, if I shut my eyes I could imagine I’d shaken the wing of one of the canaries instead.
‘The doctor was round this morning,’ says Malcolm. ‘He did some tests so we’re waiting on them. He said you’d be coming round to see what else you could do.’
We go through the story, Sara nodding in agreement from time to time but not offering much else. She’s not in pain. She doesn’t feel unwell as such. She has a few, minor, long-running issues, but nothing’s particularly worse. She’s just lacking in energy and not feeling herself.
‘Six months ago everything was fine,’ says Malcolm. ‘Well – you know. We were taking the bus up town. Going to the garden centre for bird seed and crickets. Going on holiday. We went to Lanzarote. Here’s us on the Yellow Submarine,’ he says, handing me a photo.
‘What’s that, then?’
‘It’s a submarine, my friend. And it’s yellow.’
‘Like the Beatles?’
‘No. Look. It’s a submarine! It doesn’t go down far, but you get to look out the window and see all the fish.’
I look more closely at the photo. They’re standing side by side, Malcolm with his arm round Sara. He’s looking red-faced, sunburned, the flash from the camera making his face greasy and over-inflated. Ironically, it seems to have the opposite effect on Sara, ghosting her out. Her eyes are dark, intense, like she’s focusing on the moment the submarine surfaces again, the hatch unwound, and she can step back out into the open air.
I hand the photo back.
‘Once or twice she’s gone off and been brought back by strangers.’
I smile sympathetically at Sara. She smiles back in an approximate kind of way, shrugs her shoulders.
‘If you say so,’ she says.