Once we have Lillian back on her feet, she starts the long, wooden shuffle back into the living room.
‘Can I get you anything, dear? Tea?’ she says. Which reminds her of the special birthday tea being arranged for her at the day centre next week.
‘One hundred,’ she cackles. ‘Imagine the cake.’
She walks with the comically disarticulated gait of a puppet, each limb jerked by its own invisible string, the zimmer rising and falling in her great knotted hands, a half dozen extravagantly crafted rings glimmering on her fingers, nails thick with pink varnish. But if Lillian’s figure is cruelly reduced by the passage of time, her eyes are bright, and she laughs often, a wide and gummy cackle so forgiving in its tone that even the blue porcelain washerwoman rabbit on the bookcase seems to hug herself and smile.
She plumps herself down in her favourite chair and begins rifling through a pile of letters and papers.
‘What’s your last name, Lillian?’
‘Broussard. B-R – oh, guess the rest. French, you know. From France. My second husband was from Paris. I met him in a pub somewhere. We were married ten years, then he upped and died. Like the first one. His own fault. Smoked, you see. Those French cigarettes.’
‘So what about your first husband, Lillian? Did you meet him in a pub as well?’
‘I wasn’t always down the pub you know. No. The first one was the accountant of the shop I was seamstress at. I’m not stupid.’ She taps the side of her nose, and goes back to the pile of letters, opening an exercise book that would have been new in the seventies.
‘Now then. Let’s see.’
Sitting in this room with its jumbled collection of pictures and books, plates and figurines is like sitting inside Lillian’s head. Above the fireplace is a large portrait of a middle-aged man in a black suit and tie, the whole thing vigorously patterned out in dots with the tip of a brush. Further along the wall, some oil paintings of fishing boats at low tide and other maritime scenes, then a darkly spotted plate photograph of an Edwardian couple and a baby wrapped in lace, followed by a whole sequence of silver framed photos of Lillian in different situations – Lillian in a ball gown posing on the arm of a smart young man in a bow tie; Lillian on the arm of a man in shirt sleeves posing in front of a greenhouse filled with tomatoes; Lillian at a table cluttered with people and bottles and glasses; Lillian holding a baby, next to a bed with an exhausted young woman. And then on cabinets and cupboard tops, a spread of painted plates, brass and bronze figurines, ancient porcelain boxes, presided over by the triumphant washerwoman rabbit, her little paws folded contentedly on the front of her pinny, her bonnet pulled low down over her eyes. And then down amongst the irons and brasses at the side of the fireplace, two leather hippos standing together - a mother with her calf, solid, serene, forbearing.
‘Come on, then. Find anything wrong?’ says Lillian, finishing with her notebook and tossing it back down on the table. ‘The doctors can’t. The last one, he said “Lilly, the only thing wrong with you is your age. And there’s not a damned thing we can do about that.”’