Rae pokes me with the aerial of her radio.
‘He’s ninety-four. I bet it’s one-nine-one-eight.’
I try it. The safe falls open.
I unlock the door.
The cottage must be two hundred years old, one of a line of half a dozen, set back from the alley behind a crumbling red-bricked wall. The city has grown up around them; I expect when the cottages were built you could cartwheel over a grassy hill straight onto the beach. But the city has closed in on them with its tall, dark lines, its office blocks and flats, and now instead of the sea the constant murmur of traffic.
The place is as still as a photograph, quiet and dim, with a settled quality about everything, the single armchair, the writing desk, the pictures and paintings distributed across every wall space, the palm in its ceramic planter.
A feeble halloo from upstairs. We head up a steep staircase, up to a plaited silk rope hooked across the top like a barrier in a plush Twenties cinema.
Mr Robertson is lying half out of the bed. He is wearing a string vest and a pair of gauze incontinence pants. His back is towards us, nubbed and liver-spotted.
‘Hello Mr Robertson. I’m Spence, this is Rae. What’s been going on then?’
‘Well as you can see I’ve become rather stuck. I was just coming back from the bathroom and got myself into a bit of a jam.’
‘Have you hurt yourself?’
‘No, no. I just can’t seem to manage this last little bit. Dreadful, really. I’m so sorry to be a nuisance.’
‘Let’s set you right, then. Here we go.’
Between us we settle him back into bed, draw the covers over and make him comfortable.
‘Thank you. Oh – that’s better.’
‘We’ll just check you over to see everything’s all right, then we’ll leave you to it.’
Rae canters through his observations whilst I write out the form, checking his yellow folder for care arrangements and so on.
‘Who’d have thought I’d have gone on so long,’ he says, taking a sip of water from his beaker. ‘I really should’ve popped off when my wife did, at ninety. I don’t see there’s much point to all of this now.’
Just to the side of the bed is a three-quarter black and white studio portrait of a woman in a wide-brimmed hat.
‘Is that your wife?’
‘Yes. We were married sixty years. All of them happy – start to finish.’
‘She looks like a film star. Like Margaret Leighton or someone.’
‘She was beautiful. I particularly loved that photo. She always did look good in a hat.’
All his observations are fine, and a carer is due in an hour. Just before we go Mr Robertson asks us to fetch out a pair of pyjama bottoms so he can feel more presentable.The fitted wardrobe extends across the whole of the far end of the bedroom, as meticulously organised as a display cabinet in an Edwardian department store. The brass fittings slide quietly aside, revealing rows of drawers perfectly arranged one above the other, each with a brass plate: Undergarments, Stockings, Handkerchiefs, Hair. And sitting above them all, placed just-so in the middle of its own shelf, a large, dusty, black lacquered hat box.