Jean’s living room is freezing – and no wonder. The patio doors are open, set a few inches apart down the centre, a chilly wind blowing straight through.
‘I’ve got … claustrophobia,’ says Jean. ‘I can’t bear … to be shut in.’
‘They stay open all the time,’ says her son, Garry. He’s sitting opposite Jean on the sofa, his hands buried deep in his jacket pockets, his right knee bobbing up and down. I’m not surprised he’s still wearing his outdoor clothes, including a knitted bobble hat with ear flaps, so cute I half expect to see mittens on cords when he takes a hand out to rub his nose. ‘It’s permanently winter in this place. I’m not kidding. You get snow blowing in. Snowmen. Penguins. The lot.’
‘I don’t mind,’ says Jean. ‘I have to see … open sky.’
‘I’ve sorted it so you can’t pull the doors any further,’ says Garry, jumping up to go over and demonstrate. He hauls on the doors so violently the panes shake, obviously one of those guys who likes to test things to destruction. ‘It’s pretty secure,’ he says. ‘I did a bang up job.’ He gives the doors another almighty tug that almost shatters the glass, then shrugs and comes to sit back down. ‘You’d have more chance squeezing through a letterbox.’
‘He’s very good,’ says Jean. ‘With his hands, anyway. Very practical. Aren’t you, Garry?’
‘Yeah,’ he says. ‘Practically insane.’
Jean is sitting on the side of her electric bed, her nasal cannula connected to a spool of green plastic tubing that snakes across the carpet to an oxygen concentration unit. The unit whirrs and rattles; Jean’s shoulders rise up and then drop back down again in a mechanical, gasping kind of rhythm that you’d think was activated by the machine – which, in a way I suppose, it is.
‘Good ‘ere, innit,’ says Jean.
Suddenly there’s a flash of white and orange at the window, a raucous cry, and a huge seagull lands just the other side of the patio doors. It flaps its wings once or twice, then stares at us through the gap.
‘Steven!’ says Garry. ‘It’s Steven Seagal. Geddit? Steven Sea-Gull? Seagal? Yeah?’
‘That’s a good one!’ I say. ‘Like it!’
‘What is it, Steven? You want some food? Let’s see what we’ve got for you today.’
Garry goes into the little kitchen, starts opening cupboards and slamming them shut again. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Steven hop through the gap and follow him, but he seems content to stay where he is.
Jean stares at the seagull; the seagull stares at Jean.
‘Funny creatures … aren’t they?’ she gasps. ‘Look at him!’
‘They’re pretty fierce, close up. I wouldn’t like to get on the wrong side of one.’
‘Oh – they’re alright!’ she says. ‘Smarter’n … some I could … mention.’
I wonder who she means, but she stops talking and concentrates on her breathing again.
Garry comes back in with a single slice of white bread.
‘There you go, Steven!’ he says, posting it through the gap. ‘Wrap your beak round that!’
The bird backs away a little, then raises its wings, jabs forwards with its head, grabs hold of the slice, bends down, and springs away into the air.
‘How he can fly with that thing in his gob I don’t know,’ says Garry, standing at the window, watching him go. ‘Now look! All the other birds are taking off after him! Nah! He’ll be alright though. He knows Kung Fu, don’t he? He’s a black belt seagull.’ Then he turns round and does a comedy chop in mid-air with the edge of his hand. ‘Hiya!’
‘Yes,’ gasps Jean. ‘Funny old … birds.’