Mrs Ellery slowly descends on the stair lift, an enamelled Chinoiserie walking stick propped between her legs, her hands resting on the handle, her face as set as her hair, her gray eyes counting down the pastoral scenes on the opposite wall. Her husband William, a loose affiliation of braces and whiskers, stands to attention at the bottom of the run with a coat and hat, carrier bag of prescription medicines, toiletries and a crook to his back from the weight of it all.
‘Have you got everything?’
‘It’s all here. I think.’
‘What about the doctor’s letter?’
He shuffles off into the kitchen as the chair judders to a halt. We help her dismount.
‘Is it cold?’
‘The snow’s gone.’
Mr Ellery hurries back in.
‘Just a minute.’
She swaps the stick from one hand to another, then raises her chin as magnificently as a prisoner being led to the firing squad.
I wave goodbye to Mr Ellery and slam the ambulance door shut.
Mrs Ellery winces.
‘Sorry. I have to slam it otherwise the alarm sounds.’
She says nothing, but smoothes the blanket down in front of her as we lurch off the pavement and set off.
With the paperwork all done I settle in to the chair and smile at Mrs Ellery.
‘So. How long have you and William been married?’
‘Oh.’ I had expected her to say fifty. But the response is primed and goes off anyway: ‘That’s wonderful.’
The pause is a tragic acknowledgement of conversations the world over. Eventually – graciously – she picks it up again.
‘Of course, he’s not my first husband.’
‘I lived on my own for thirty years.’
‘Thirty years? So your first husband died young, then?’
‘He was eighty five. He died last week.’
‘We divorced after ten years.’
‘I see. Children?’
My attempt at working out the maths is almost audible. I give up.
‘So – did you learn about your ex-husband’s death through your sons?’
‘Through the youngest. I hadn’t seen the eldest in thirty years. He’s in his fifties.’
‘So when we divorced my eldest son went off with my ex and the other two stayed with me. I heard nothing more from them – until last week, when he turned up at the funeral.’
She looks at me. ‘The eldest – not the ex. You have got the doctor’s letter, haven’t you?’
‘Yep.’ I wave it in the air, Lame Chamberlain-style.
The ambulance yaws and staggers.
‘Oops,’ I say. ‘I think the bad weather’s broken up the roads.’
‘Really?’ She sniffs, and grips her stick more tightly. I seek shelter in the paperwork. Eventually I peek out again: ‘That must have been awkward, seeing your eldest son again like that.’
‘Like what again?’
‘At your ex’s funeral.’
‘Not at all.’
She takes the stick in her hand and pokes at her feet through the blanket like an arctic explorer sensing a crevasse.
‘What did you talk about?’
‘Guttering, mostly. That’s what he does apparently – fascias, soffits, guttering.’
‘Ah ha. And were the other two there?’
‘The youngest. Not the middle one. Who knows where he is.’
‘Why? What happened?’
‘I gave him some cheques to pay in. Which he did, of course. His own account. Then cleared off.’
‘But you’ve kept things up with the youngest?’
‘Charles? Oh Charles is fine. He lives round the corner. Didn’t approve when I married William, though.’
‘How did you two meet?’
‘An old friend of mine. She was coming round for dinner. She’d got problems with her hip, so a friend of a friend offered to drive. She told him to wait in the car. But I said: ‘Audrey. The man can’t just sit there whilst we eat. You’ll have to fetch him in. So she did – and he’s been there ever since.’