‘One thing I learned yesterday.’
‘You only ever see the same side of the moon.’
‘Never the dark side.’
‘Even though that does get light sometimes.’
‘But not so you’d notice.’
‘And do you know why?’
‘Because the moon spins so slowly on its axis, by the time it’s made one trip round the earth it’s only spun round once. So it’s always the same side facing us.’
‘But hang on a minute. The earth is spinning as well.’
‘Yeah. And the moon spins round that.’
‘So if everybody’s spinning, why don’t you see the back and the front.’
I hold up my fists and ineffectually turn them this way and that for a moment.
‘Well. If you saw the animation on You Tube you’d understand.’
‘Like you, you mean?’
Frank turns the truck into the road. Up ahead we can see the hazard lights on a car winking on and off. He heads towards it.
‘But you know, if you were in the southern hemisphere, it’d be upside down,’ I carry on, trying to claw back the ground I’d lost.
‘What? The moon?’
‘We see the man in the moon. They see something else.’
‘What do they see?’
‘I don’t know. I didn’t get that far.’
‘No. I think that’s when you go off into the bush with a rucksack.’
He looks at me sideways as we pull up behind the car.
‘I think you need to check out some other websites, Spence.’
‘I think you’re right.’
A plain-clothes police officer comes up and stands by the window. Frank lowers it.
‘Sorry to drag you out,’ says the officer. ‘I don’t think he’s been badly hurt, but I just wanted a professional view.’
His disguise is not so much in his clothes as in his face. He has a wide and friendly mouth crammed with the kind of teeth you might expect to see in a fox; with his spiky ginger hair glistening in the yellow light of the streetlamp, he shifts his weight happily from foot to foot like an excitable, vagrant clown.
‘No worries,’ says Frank.
Mr Norris’ flat is really just one big lounge, and really the one big lounge is just one big tree – a gigantic palm, rising out of a clay pot the size of a roll-top bath, its leaves arching over everything like monstrous, glossy green chevrons. At the foot of the palm is a decorative Chinese birdcage, the door standing open.
‘She’s up there,’ says Mr Norris. ‘If you’re wondering.’
‘Do you like parrots?’
I find a place to stand on the carpet; my boots crunching on a scattering of sunflower husks.
‘So tell us what happened to you tonight?’ says Frank, pushing a frond aside and standing next to Mr Norris. ‘We’ll come to the parrot later.’
‘It’s all absolutely hideous. I’ve lived here twenty years and never had anything like it.’
The police officer reaches a hand into the air between us like a referee.
‘I’ll just be outside if you want me,’ he says.
‘Thank you so much officer,’ says Mr Norris. ‘I do appreciate everything you’ve done.’
‘Have a word with these people then I’ll jump in again.’
He reaches into his jacket pocket for his radio as he leaves; I half expect to see him haul out a line of flags.
‘So. Mr Norris,’ says Frank. ‘I understand you’ve been assaulted.’
‘Yes. Mr Jephcoat has only been in the basement a month and he’s already making a nuisance of himself. I thought he was all right at first but it’s all gone horribly wrong. You see we’ve got this neighbour, Mrs Jennings. I’m afraid she’s got mental health problems...’ he semi-whispers the words, ‘and consequently every now and again she crashes about a bit. It’s just something one gets used to. We’ve all got our quirks, heaven knows. But for some reason Mr Jephcoat has decided that every time she makes a noise he’ll play his music extremely loudly, and of course that rebounds on everyone.’
‘So what happened with the assault?’
‘I’m coming to that. So he was playing his awful music, and the following morning I saw him down in the gardens, so I went up to him and we had a chat about it. And that’s the funny thing. It was all absolutely fine, he seemed fine, so I thought “There, got that sorted”. But late tonight – oh, I don’t know what time it is now – late tonight I got a knock on the door. I should’ve known something was wrong because Clothilde flew straight up into the centre of the tree, where she is now, if you can see. That’s her safe place. She’s as good as a burglar alarm.’
‘So I opened the door and there was Mr Jephcoat with a little yellow saw in his hand and very red in the face.’ “I’ve done it” he says. “Done what?” “I’ve cut down that blasted tree.” “Whatever are you talking about? What blasted tree?” And then I just knew. “Oh, not the bay.” “It’s gone” he said. “But that’s taken twenty years to grow. I planted it the day I moved in. Tell me you haven’t,” I said. “Come and look” he said. So I followed him out and it was true. There were branches and leaves absolutely everywhere, and to make matters worse, he’d walked all over the flower beds so he could throw most of the debris over the wall into Mrs Jennings’ garden. Well I was furious. Saw or not I went up to him and told him what I thought. “This is unacceptable” I said, or something, I can’t remember exactly. So then he grabs me round the neck and presses me up against the wall. It was dreadful. He was breathing very heavily, like a mad bull, and his head looked like it was going to pop. I thought he wanted to strangle me, but after a minute or two he let me go, and stormed off back into his flat.”
‘Sounds nasty,’ says Frank, leaning in and feeling Mr Norris’ pulse. ‘Do you have any pain anywhere?’
Mr Norris looks up sadly.
‘No. The police wanted me checked over, otherwise I wouldn’t have called you out. I’m sorry to have bothered you.’
There is a tiny rustling from high up in the tree. I change my position and just manage to catch a glimpse of a lumpish, yellow and green shape, wriggling deeper back into the heart of the palm.