Mrs Grayling has died, sometime in the night. She lies on the bed with her eyes half-open and her jaw slack. The sliding door to a narrow conservatory adjoining the bedroom stands open, and the garden door beyond that. A gust of fresh spring air moves through.
Her son Graham is sitting at the kitchen table with his face in his hands. He looks up as we come in and finds a tired smile.
‘She’s dead, isn’t she?’
‘Yes, I’m afraid she is.’
‘I knew it. Sorry to drag you out like this. Would you like some tea?’
He stands up, steadies himself at the table, and then starts getting things together, filling the kettle, setting out the Spode tea cups, the jug of milk, a saucer of custard creams. I ask him about his mum’s health these past few months. He says she’d been fine until just a couple of weeks ago. Ninety-three and still independent. But she’d developed a chest infection. It knocked her sideways. She’d taken to bed. The doctor wasn’t optimistic.
‘I think I need some time to myself,’ says Graham. He hesitates and stares out of the window at the garden. ‘It’s such a nice day,’ he says. ‘Mummy’s favourite time of year. Maybe what I need is a nice long walk. A nice long walk by the sea, with a cup of coffee at the end of it. Hell – a pint of beer. Why not?’
He gathers himself together again, finds a tray.
‘An odd thing to ask,’ he says. ‘But could you do me a favour and cover her face? I said goodbye to her last night. I don’t need to see her again. Not – like that.’
‘Sorry to ask.’
‘It’s no bother.’
‘I’ll bring your tea through when it’s ready.’
There are two carers in the house. The first discovered the body; the second hurried over to give her support. They’ve come together in the sitting room, shoulder to shoulder, blowing their noses, fussing through folders, unsure what to do next. They’ve known Mrs Grayling for years. It’s a terrible shock.
When we join them in the lounge, they take a hesitant step towards us, and talk quietly, overlapping each other.
‘Is he okay?’
‘What’s he doing in there?’
‘Upset – you know.’
They blow their noses again.
‘Someone should tell his sister.’
‘They fell out.’
‘She wasn’t – supportive.’
‘You’re telling me.’
‘But she needs to know.’
‘I don’t mind telling her.’
‘She’s not on our list.’
‘I’ll ask him if he wants me to ring her. Someone’s got to.’
They stare at me. I shrug and nod. The second one goes into the kitchen.
After a little pause, the second carer comes back, followed by Graham, holding a tea tray.
‘It’s very kind of you. Really,’ says Graham. ‘But don’t worry. I’ll talk to the GP about – that aspect of things.’
He sets the tea tray down, and goes back into the kitchen.
I take a cup and look around the room.
There is a series of framed paintings on the walls. Two watercolour still life studies of the same thing – a vase of daffodils and a bottle of wine. And three collages – a duck, a chicken and a pheasant. The collages have been put together from odd scraps of hessian, cotton, velvet, silk, satin and lace, with an assortment of buttons, pieces of glass and other scavenged material. The bird pictures are so lively, if it wasn’t for the glass covering them, they’d be clattering around the room and out the window.
‘Did Mrs Grayling do these?’
‘She was quite an artist.’
‘All up the stairs.’
‘It’s like a gallery.’
‘Terrible to think she’s gone.’
‘I don’t know how he’ll cope.’
‘I don’t know what he’ll do.’
‘Or his sister.’
‘When she finds out.’
They stare at me.
We all take another sip of tea.