‘Let me help you with that,’ he says, coughing in the chill night air and shuffling up the path towards me. ‘We keep it bolted. Neighbourhood kids, you know.’
Then he turns and leads us back down the path, eventually ducking through the back door into a house so filthy our boots make an audible crickle-crackle sound as we walk through. The smell is dreadful; I don’t know whether it’s better to breathe through my nose or my mouth, but in the end the sensation is the same – like eating.
‘You keep it hot in here,’ I say, struggling to find somewhere to put my bag and board.
‘Delicate orchids,’ says Eric, lowering himself into a fossilised armchair with soiled towels draped front and back. He reaches for his cigarettes.
‘Would you mind not smoking until we’ve finished?’ I ask him. ‘Sorry if it sounds bossy, but we’ll stink of fags all night, otherwise.’
Like it’ll make any difference. But the act of asking makes the rest of it seem a little more palatable, somehow.
‘Right you are, Chief,’ says Eric, putting the fags back.
His partner Simon is sitting on the carpet where he fell. Simon is pretty much as hairless as Eric is wild, excepting a splurge of whiskers around his muzzle. Although Eric is dressed in the mortal remains of a three-piece suit, all Simon is wearing is a pair of grey boxers, the fly gaping horribly. His legs are stretched out in a flat V; he has both hands planted on the floor at either hip, and he rests with his back against the sofa. Between the sofa and the armchair is a scattering of empty vodka bottles.
‘How did you end up on the floor, Simon?’
‘A simple error of judgement,’ he says. ‘I’ve done it before. I used the back of that stupid chair to help me stand up, but it wasn’t sufficiently steady and I tipped over. I landed on my bottom where you see me, and I just haven’t been able to get up.’
‘Have you hurt yourself?’
‘Nope. No. My back is agony, but then it always is. I don’t suppose you have your magic cushion to hand?’
Rae goes to fetch it.
‘When was the last time this happened, Simon?’
‘Last year, was it, Eric? Yes, I think last year.’
There’s a Christmas tree in the corner of the room, decorated with a vomit of baubles and tinsel.
‘I see you’ve got your tree up early,’ I say.
Eric struggles out of the armchair again.
‘Do you like it?’
‘I’ll turn it on if you like.’
He follows the green wire, scattering the vodka bottles, excavating down through layers of rubbish to a plug behind the sofa. There’s a click, the tree gives a lurch, glows red and purple, starts grinding round in a precariously off-centred way.
‘We like it so much we keep it up all year,’ he says, stepping back.
‘Saves taking it down and putting it up again,’ says Simon, reaching in to scratch himself through his boxer fly.
Over on the windowsill, in the one clear space amongst the unutterable clutter and junk, is a black and white photograph in a frame. An old, three-quarter length portrait of a barrister in wig and gown.
‘Who’s that?’ I ask them.
‘Have you heard of Marshall Hall?’
‘Yes! I think I have!’ But then I doubt myself. Maybe I’m thinking of martial law. ‘Relative of yours?’
‘Can you see a resemblance?’
He smiles up at me – a dreadful gurn, like a walrus breaking surface smelling mackerel.
He leaves me a while then closes his eyes and says: ‘Silly boy. We just like the photo.’
Rae comes in with the inflatable cushion.
‘Have you used this before, Simon?’
‘Yes, I’ve ridden the cushion many times.’
Simon holds out his hand.‘To stabilise me,’ he says, batting the air between us. ‘Don’t worry. I’m not getting fresh.’