The snow has retreated from the close, the only sign it was ever here, a slightly muddier grass verge, and isolated patches of ice caught like blown suds beneath the immaculate stands of privet, pyracantha, cotoneaster.
We rumble to a stop outside a bright little bungalow half-way down the road. The arrival of the ambulance causes a discrete riot of attention, with elderly faces appearing at various bay fronts and bedroom windows, curtains tentatively drawn aside, front doors opening. As I climb out, a woman in a cleaner’s apron stands absently by her front door folding a cloth over and over in her hands. She smiles sadly as I say hello, and nods in the direction of the number we want.
The door is open; I knock and we step inside onto a spread of crumpled polythene sheeting.
‘The snow,’ says David, a middle aged man appearing from along the corridor. ‘She hated all the mud.’
‘Where is she?’
He nods to a room behind him. His wife Alison appears in the doorway of the kitchen at the end of the corridor. ‘It’s no good,’ she says. ‘She’s gone.’
Deidre is sitting in a neat little upright armchair, slumped over on to her right side, her legs drawn inwards, her right arm crooked up with her hand pressed against the side of her face, like someone who fell asleep trying to solve a problem. She has on a tightly bound hairnet, a fluffy blue dressing-gown over flowery yellow pyjamas and hand-knitted woolly bootees. Caught napping. You would think our inconsiderate barging-in would wake her up. But she is as rigid to the touch as a waxworks model; she has been dead these twelve hours or more.
‘When was the last time anyone spoke to Deidre?’
‘Last night, just before she went to bed. Everything was absolutely fine. Nothing untoward. I couldn’t get hold of her all morning, but she’s got this emergency button so we weren’t that concerned. But when I still couldn’t get her at lunchtime and her best friend Rene hadn’t heard anything, we came round.’
We go into the dining room to write out the paperwork and contact the police. David and Alison sit with us, but she quickly excuses herself to make some calls.
‘I must cancel the cleaner and the gardener,’ she says. ‘I don’t want them to learn from a police car outside or a note on the door.’
‘Here’s the address book,’ David says, opening a tattered black object as worn at the corners and closely covered with writing as the Rosetta stone. ‘Good luck.’
As I fill in the ROLE sheet and patient report form, Frank chats to him.
‘There’s very little sign of distress, David,’ he says. ‘I mean, you never know exactly what happened, but my feeling is she got up in the night feeling unwell, made her way to the front room, just had time to sit herself down in the chair and then – boom – had a heart attack and was gone. I really don’t think she would’ve suffered at all.’
‘Really? Do you think it was that quick?’
‘I’m absolutely convinced.’
‘Thanks. I’d hate to think of her suffering.’
‘She looks so peaceful. Just like she fell asleep.’
‘I hope so.’
Around us on the dining room table are heaps of unwrapped presents, newly constructed decorative cardboard boxes, stacks of half finished Christmas cards – and in front of all this, two long lists: presents and cards.
‘Your mum’s a very organised woman,’ says Frank. ‘I’m impressed.’
‘If you think she’s organised you should see Alison,’ says David. ‘Incredible. I just fall in behind.’
‘Got it,’ says Alison from down in the kitchen.
‘See what I mean?’
Frank looks over the list and then puts it back on the table.
‘I haven’t even started thinking about my Christmas shopping, let alone wrapping it.’
‘She’s got family all over the place,’ says David.
I pass over one of the sheets for Frank to countersign, and glance over the Christmas list: bubble bath, gloves, gardening book, scented candles, jumper, cushion covers – each item with a name alongside it, and a tick.
The doorbell rings.
‘That’ll be the police,’ says Frank, getting up to show them in.
‘What am I going to do with all this stuff?’ says David.
I don’t know whether he should send it or not, but at that moment Alison comes into the dining room again with the address book in one hand the phone in the other. We both turn to her. She’ll know.