A narrow country lane, trees banked up either side. You’d hardly know there were houses here at all, but there are, a select few, an occasional flash of something glassy and architectural a safe driveway’s distance back from the road. There’s so much space between each plot if you lived here you’d scarcely guess you had neighbours at all.
Some additional notes now: Use the tradesmen’s entrance.
The satnav has switched to approximate, its little chequered flag stuck out in the middle of nothing. But it seems we’re almost there, wherever there is.
A young, smartly dressed guy, standing in the middle of the lane. He waves once, then moves back to the side, by a pair of high, dark gates.
I wind the window.
‘Just follow the drive round, past the house to the estate manager’s office,’ he says.
I smile and say something about how lovely it is out here. He doesn’t react. I’d be better off passing time with the gate.
‘What’s this place, then? A cult?’ says Rae, driving through the gates, down along a perfect, yew-lined path.
A Tudor manor house slides into view, arches, cupolas, stained glass casements, wisteria, a perfect stretch of lawn in front and a landscaped vista beyond. Everything clipped and curiously flat, like we’re driving through a hyper-real painting.
Round and down, to a cluster of ancient stables and outbuildings. If they kept horses in the past, they’ve made way for Land Rovers, sports cars, gleaming collectibles. The Estate Manager’s office is an elegant building that presides over the quadrangle with a simple clock tower rising up from the middle of its roof. A wide array of swept stone flags leads up to the front door, guarded left and right by two olive trees in lead planters. There’s a little dog waiting for us there, a strange hybrid, like a Corgi crossed with a Chihuahua. It’s so fat it doesn’t walk so much as rock from side to side, allowing just enough clearance to swing each leg forward. Its black eyes bulge, probably a mark of the breed, but maybe just the pressure of fat making them pop.
Our patient is sitting on one of the office chairs inside. He’s embarrassed to see us. He rang the new, non-emergency number for some advice and they’ve forwarded it to 999. We stay long enough to makes sure everything’s okay, then leave. The dog follows us out, its claws clacking on the flags.
I Google the place as we drive away.
‘It’s a billionaire’s UK home,’ I tell Rae. ‘Apparently there used to be an eighteen hole golf course here as well, but he hurt his back so it’s been left to grow wild.’
I was only at this block last week, a Jenga version of the seventh circle of Hell.
As we wait at the buzzer console for an answer, the automatic front door swings opens and a woman shuffles out, so ravaged by life she could be any age from thirty to sixty. She stops and does a double-take, hooking her long, lank hair back from her face. Then she grunts, and carries on.
‘In fact - she was the one I came to,’ I say to Rae.
We take the lift up.
Our patient is doubled up in pain on a put-you-up in the living room. His brother is there too, along with their mother, a cadaverous figure shivering on the edge of the sofa.
‘Mum is staying with me whilst they sort her cancer out,’ the brother says. ‘And Rich is only staying since he got sick, too. As you can see, it’s a bit cramped.’
There’s a glass globe of goldfish on a stand next to the telly. The goldfish have outgrown the bowl; there seem to be too many of them, really. They float about in a kind of waxy stupefaction, knocking into each other, drifting against the side of the glass where they momentarily press their eyes, as if they’re struggling to understand what it is they’re seeing, the space beyond the glass, and why it’s denied to them.