The last of the day’s light is flying in exile ahead of the great lidded storm rumbling in from over the sea. It crashes up against the white facades of the Georgian terrace, bringing into focus the knotted wisteria stems, the thick black railings, the cracked mosaic steps. Stepping up onto the raised pavement that runs along in front is like stepping onto a great stone stage; two hundred years of comings and goings. And so onto the next scene – An ambulance calls for Mrs Winifred Carter-Hains in the ninth year of the Twenty First Century.
Her carer opens the door.
‘I’m not normally here,’ she says, then lets the enormous door swing open fully and stomps ahead of us up a delicately turning staircase two flights and on to a creaking landing. A long, lopsided vista, a wallpaper of shadows set with endless photographs - a pilot, a punt beneath some willows, two boys on a swing, a dog in a hat. In an alcove, there is an old sea chest, open and spilling with lace and books and old boxes.
‘She’s in the bedroom and she needs the loo.’
The carer goes ahead of us into a high-ceilinged, dusty-dry room smelling of perished leather and Cuticura talc.
‘Hello Mrs Carter-Hains. It’s the ambulance.’
‘Call me Winnie,’ she says, swiping the air in front of her with a claw. ‘What did you say your names were?’
‘My name’s Spence and this is Rae.’
‘Ray? How peculiar. The man who painted that was called Ray. I won’t forget that in a hurry.’
She gestures to a small picture, a confusing scene, something like a wooden jetty in a hail storm. The little gilt frame seems to vibrate against the wall with the power of the strokes.
‘It’s lovely,’ I say.
‘Thank you. Now, would you be a dear and help me to the toilet?’
The carer tells us Winnie is ninety four, had a fall in the early hours, crawled back to bed, called for her doctor to visit her at home, and the doctor had arranged for us to take Winnie to hospital to investigate her hip.
‘Are you in much pain? We have something here if it’s too much.’
‘No, darling. Only when I move. Then it’s a bother. But look – could you help get me to the loo? I’m desperate to spend a penny or three. Except I haven’t any drawers on. Celia, could you oblige?’
I tell Winnie I’ll give her some privacy, and walk over to the windows opposite. Through the distorting panes of old spun glass the approaching storm is even more darkly furious.
‘We saw lightning on our way here,’ I say. ‘Great rods of it, way out over the sea.’
‘Did you really, darling? How wonderful. I absolutely love storms. And of course you have a marvellous view from up here.’
Her drawers securely in place, I join them round the bed again.
‘Are you really ninety four?’ Rae says. ‘You look amazing.’
‘Thank you darling, that’s so sweet of you.’ She grasps Rae’s hand and gives it a squeeze. ‘But do you know? I’ve never seen a ninety four year old, so I’m not sure what they’re supposed to look like.’
I click the carry chair into position.
‘There we are, Winnie’ I say. ‘Your carriage awaits.’
‘Well goodness me, what a thing,’ she says, leaning out and patting the canvas seat speculatively. ‘Do you know, that’s the second amazing object I’ve had in this room in just two days. You’ll never guess what was set up yesterday. Exactly where you are standing now, Ray. A theodolite.’
‘Are you having building work done, then?’
Winnie taps her nose.
‘Yes I am. And it’s all part of my plan. See all that there?’ she says, with a grand gesture to the windows I had just been looking out of. ‘That’s where the new magic windows are going in.’