The son meets us at the garden gate with a wave and then a rub of his hands.
‘Before you go in, let me warn you – it’s cold. Very cold. But that’s just how we like it. It’s not ‘cos we haven’t paid the electric. It’s our choice.’
He nods and grins, looking in all his layers of clothing like the mystery package in Pass the Parcel. Without that belt straining around his middle, he would probably explode with the pressure of extra shirts and trousers he has on. His face has that shiningly radiant scarlet you see on long-term alcoholics and rough sleepers; his metal specs glimmer icily beneath the porch light.
‘What it is, Jack’s had a bit of a turn. We’d just got back from our daily jaunt, he sat in his chair, next thing I knew his eyes had turned up in his head and he’d gone all limp. I had a job to rouse him, but then when he did come round, he acted like nothing had happened.’
‘Let’s go inside and see how he’s doing.’
He leads us inside a dark hallway, clear of any of the usual hallway ephemera. No coats hanging up, pictures on the wall, boots lined up or kicked off, no bag dumps, brolly bins or boxes of junk to go; only a line of bare boards stretching off into the gloom. We follow the son deeper into the shadows, passing a couple of closed doors. He pushes open the furthest one, and takes us into a wide, square room sparsely lit by a standard lamp in one corner, and the gas flames of a portable gas fire waggling anaemically in the middle of the room.
‘Hello chaps,’ says the elderly man sitting in a threadbare armchair by the fire. ‘I’m sorry to be a nuisance.’
‘It’s no bother, Jack. Listen – Graham here says you had a bit of a turn earlier. Can you tell us what happened to you tonight?’
He looks up at us, a vision of his son accelerated forty years into the future: the same roly-poly agglomeration of clothes, the same red face, the same crooked turn of the mouth and set of the eyes that links them as securely as the photos of them on the mantelpiece, holding up a fish, waving spanners beside a motorbike, hanging off a carousel.
‘I’m all right,’ he says. ‘I’m eighty four, you know.’
Graham sits on the arm of the chair and straightens his Dad’s cap. When they talk, they fit their words around each other as precisely as the pieces of an intricate jigsaw puzzle.
‘Eighty four, walks fifteen miles a day.’
‘Up hill, down, back again.’
‘We collect aluminium cans from all around, you see. We take them down to Reynaud’s the scrap merchants.’
‘Everything we make we donate to the cancer charity that looked after mum.’
‘Well, we did most of the looking after. But they gave us a lot of help.’
‘At the beginning of it all they said she’d probably end up having to go into one of them special places, but we said “no, she’ll stay here, we’ll do it ourselves” – the washing and cleaning, the lot. It was difficult, but we managed it.’
‘Yep, we managed it.’
‘Lifting, washing. The whole bit.’
‘She died here, at home, and then after that, we started on the cans.’
‘And if we’re not picking up cans, we’re bird watching.’
‘You’d be amazed what you see.’
‘What a song.’
‘An Arctic Tern.’
‘Late heading off.’
‘On next door neighbour’s pond.’
‘We help him with his washing.’
‘The neighbour, not the bird.’
They both laugh.
And then there’s a silence, riding on the spluttering sounds of the fire. They look at us.
‘We need to find out what’s caused this little episode,’ I tell them. ‘How about we get you out on to the vehicle, do a few tests…’
‘I’m not going to hospital. I don’t need to.’
‘Well, we’re not going to kidnap you. But let’s take it one step at a time, see if everything’s okay, and take it from there.’
He insists on walking out to the vehicle, Graham one side and me the other. The sky is a glassy blue-black vault above our heads. An excoriating frost is working its way to the centre of everything tonight.
‘I don’t envy you that cold room,’ I say to Jack as we reach the vehicle and open the doors. ‘I bet it’s colder inside than out.’
He laughs. ‘All the better for it,’ he says. ‘All that central heating – it makes you ill.’
The inside of the ambulance is a sweat lodge in comparison. But the only concession the two of them make to the raised temperature is to take off their caps, which they both clutch in front of them. I wonder what experiences they’ve had in ambulances in the past.
‘Let’s have a look at you then, Jack.’
He settles himself down on the trolley.
It takes us five minutes to find our way to his chest.