‘She had a bad night,’ says Mr Ellery, shuffling back along the corridor, like an ancient oak that’s somehow managed to pull up its roots and drag itself across the common. ‘We both have. Mind your feet. I’ve cleared the worst of it. Eric said he’ll be over to get the rest. I don’t know.’
He’s bare-chested, and every year of his great age is displayed in the sags and valleys of his skin, the moles and scars, the faded tattoos and tufts of wiry grey hair.
He hitches up his trousers that are sagging below the line of his inco pants, then rubs his chin.
‘I haven’t even had a shave yet,’ he says ‘Anyway - she’s through here.’
Mrs Ellery is in bed, holding the duvet up to her chin with both hands.
‘It poured out of me,’ she says.
Despite the unpleasantness of the episode, nothing else seems to be amiss. She’s had an acute bout of diarrhoea, but then she’d been constipated for a few days and Mr Ellery had given her a big dose of laxatives to help things along.
He watches over us as we examine Mrs Ellery, scratching his head and offering encouraging remarks.
‘Sixty-five years we’ve been married,’ he says. ‘Who’d have thought it.’
‘I’ll have to live to a hundred and three before I can say that,’ I tell him.
‘Don’t wish it on yourself,’ he says. ‘I mean – look at us. You’d never think we used to go dancing three times a week. And go on cycling holidays. On a whatsit. On a tandem.’
‘A tandem? What did you do when one of you wanted to go left and the other one right?’
‘Never happened. We never used to argue. We saved up all our arguments till now.’
The phone rings.
‘That’ll be Eric,’ he says, giving a little start and then hobbling over to the sideboard. ‘Hello? Eric?’
The two of them have a shouty conversation about the state of the carpet and when Eric can make it over to sort it all out.
‘Righto,’ says Mr Ellery. ‘Thanking you.’
He puts the phone down, staggers back to the bed and sits on the end of it after first prodding to see where Mrs Ellery’s feet are. She clutches the duvet more closely to her chin.
‘That was Eric,’ he says. ‘Lovely chap. How are we getting on here?’
‘We’re going to get the doctor over to make sure everything’s okay, and see you’re getting all the help you need. I don’t think hospital’s the right place this morning.’
‘No. I don’t think so. Right. Now then – I must put my teeth in.’
‘I thought you had them in.’
‘The upper set,’ he says, drawing his lips back and exposing one solitary yellow tooth in the corner of his mouth.
‘What’s that one for?’ I ask him. ‘Spaghetti?’
‘No,’ he says. ‘That’s for spearing pickles.’