Even though we can hear earnest and anxious words from just behind the door, no-one opens it.
I knock again.
Eventually, a distorted eye appears, pressed up against the pasty white rectangle of glass in the middle of the door. It’s like being scrutinised by an octopus in an aquarium, but eventually it withdraws, followed by the sound of bolts and chains being loosened.
‘Just a minute,’ says a voice, half way through the security procedure. After another minute of rattles and scrapes, the door finally cracks open. Mrs Whittington looks out round the gap.
‘Ambulance,’ I say.
‘Just a minute,’ she says again, and retreats back into the hallway.
‘Can we come in?’
I push the door open.
Mrs Whittington is patting her pockets, turning round and round on the spot, examining the floor and tutting. Her friend Mrs Cheshire is struggling into the hallway hugging in front of her a large chocolate and brown cat, its legs all-angles, an expression of the purest hatred on its face.
‘Where shall I put Suki?’
‘Don’t let her out!’
I push the door to with the back of my heel.
‘Conrad’s on the stairs, love.’
‘No he isn’t.’
There is another extravagant bag of fur sitting on top of a dark mahogany dresser across the way. It had been licking its front paw, but it guiltily freezes in position when it catches our eye.
‘It’s up there,’ says Frank. ‘Unless that’s a pillow.’
‘Mrs Whittington? Are you the patient?’
‘Don’t bother me now. I’ve got a million things to think about. What am I going to do about the cake?’
‘Ooh. I’ll go and turn the oven off,’ says Mrs Cheshire, handing me Suki, then hurrying back into the kitchen. That cat starts to wave its legs about, so I put it down on a stool. It immediately jumps down, takes a few steps away from us, then struts slowly across to the dresser, its tail twitching in disgust at the whole shoddy episode.
‘Mrs Whittington? Can we just go into the sitting room, have a seat and find out what the problem is here tonight? We haven’t been told much, and we need to get an idea what’s going on so we can figure out what’s to do. Is that all right?’
She pulls her woolly hat down more firmly on her head and fixes me with an expression Suki couldn’t better. But eventually she sighs and says: ‘I suppose so,’ then leads us into a room dominated by a tocking grandfather clock and an atmosphere of baking cake as rich as the wallpaper.
‘That smells good,’ I say.
‘It’s the Christmas cake. But if I go to hospital what’s going to happen to it?’
‘Bake it another time? What’s more important, the cake or your health?’
But apparently the question has unexpected depth. She stops to think, and is still stuck for an answer as I help her sit down into one of her chairs.
‘So. Now. What’s been going on tonight?’
Mrs Whittington thinks she’s having another mini-stroke. She can’t quite seem to get her words out, she says, but then that might just be stress.
‘I’ve had a very stressful day.’
‘The cake’s off,’ announces Mrs Cheshire, waddling through with a floral shopping bag and a bunch of keys. ‘I’ve never seen her so stressed. She was locked out, for one.’
‘Luckily, tall John was in. He reached through an open window and unlocked the garden door for me, otherwise I’d still be there.’
Suddenly the two cats stride onto the carpet in front of us. They jump up onto the sofa, break right and left, make a couple of heavy, settling turns, then collapse in two opposing heaps.
‘Oh, Jenny!’ says Mrs Whittington.
‘Those cats,’ says Mrs Cheshire, handing her the bunch of keys and me the shopping bag. ‘My God it’s been a stressful day!’