The bungalow looks as if it has been dropped from a height. It sits back from the road at the bottom of a steeply sloping bank of earth, clustered around with massy black shrubs and plants, the steps leading down through them illuminated by the sickly glow from half a dozen solar mushrooms. The front door stands open, spilling a brighter light.
In through the front door and we find Jenny, clutching at the edge of a card table and bending forwards to catch her breath.
‘Let’s sit you down,’ I say to her, taking her hand. She shakes her head and waves me off. ‘Come on. Have a seat and then we can see what needs to be done.’
There’s something about the way she holds herself, something posed and practised, that does not seem right. But for now I carry on trying to persuade her she should take a seat and talk to us.
Suddenly she straightens and says: ‘I’m not going to hospital. My dog, you see.’ Then she turns and leads us down a stubby wooden staircase into a sunken lounge filled with the oppressive fug of cigarette smoke and long closed windows. A dog as ungainly as the house hauls itself up from its nest by the fire to check our trouser legs.
‘Maisy,’ says Jenny, turning and flopping down into the chair. ‘Maisy, Maisy, Maisy. What would I do without you?’
The TV is playing quietly in the far corner: Paul Giamatti swimming underwater, examining strange objects, looking for something.
Maisy prods me with her nose to elicit some fuss.
‘Tell us what’s been happening, Jenny.’
‘I’m an old crone,’ she says. ‘But I used to be a lifeguard. I saved fifty three people from drowning. Fifty three. I got a certificate.’
She has a strange way of talking, starting confidently but the power quickly draining from her words until she trails off into a dry mouthing. She is like an asthmatic tragedian, worn through by repetition, the banal horror of everything.
‘I have a part-time husband. He’s away most of the time. A consultant in computing. I’m here on my own. But I’ve got you, babe. Maisy, Maisy, Maisy. Look at you now. You dear and lovely little thing.’
She may have been little once, but food and lack of exercise have done for her. She has ballooned into a piece of furniture with only a touch more animation than the sofa we currently sit on.
‘Have you been drinking, Jenny?’
She has. There are no bottles or glasses around, but it wouldn’t take long to find them.
‘I know I shouldn’t smoke. It’s killing me. Killing me.’
‘And when was the last time you had an ambulance?’
‘A long while. Ages ago.’
Paul Giamatti has broken the surface of the water now: a hotel swimming pool by the look of it. What’s he doing?
Maisy has moved on to Rae, who musses her ears and rubs noses with her.
There is a heavy oak mantelpiece that runs along the far wall. Ornaments and trinkets have been placed along it, a measured distance between them. A drunken, ceramic pig in a sailor suit, one trotter draped over the edge; a brass lizard with an S-shaped tail; an abstract leaping antelope in ivory; a wedding photo in a fussy gilt frame; a pottery hedgehog.
‘I’m an old crone,’ says Jenny, leaning forward in her chair, staring at me with her jade green eyes, absently turning her wedding band around and around. ‘I know I’m nothing to look at now. But I used to be quite a catch.’