Maureen, Jeff’s neighbour, leads us up the stairs, deeper into the gloom.
‘Connie died a few years ago and ever since he’s been on a bit of a slide,’ she says. ‘Excuse the strange dress and boots combo. They were the first things that came to hand. I’m supposed to be at work in half an hour.’
It’s a bright, blue day outside, but all the curtains are drawn, the air is chill, and the house feels retiring, the final point of retreat for the night just gone. There’s a pile of suitcases on the landing in size order, books neatly arranged in stacks, anonymous boxes draped in layers of clothes. If it wasn’t for a few portraits on the walls and a display of souvenirs and knick-knacks on the shelves you’d think someone was either moving in or moving out.
Jeff is sitting on his bed, fully-clothed, a white throw over his shoulders.
‘Oh! Hello! Well! I didn’t expect any of this!’
‘Do you mind if I get back?’ says Maureen. ‘Only I really can’t be late today.’
‘No, no. You carry on, Mo. Thanks for your help.’
‘All the best,’ she says, reaching over and touching him on the shoulder.
He laughs and nods his head.
‘I’ll be fine,’ he says.
She grimaces and shakes her head as she hurries out.
‘It’s cold in here, Jeff,’ I tell him.
‘I can’t risk having the boiler on. It’s on its last legs, you see, and I can’t afford to have it replaced. That’s why I’m wearing all my clothes. Sorry if I smell, but I expect you’ve seen worse.’
‘Yes. We have. We’ve seen better though. You poor thing. We’ll have to get something done about your heating.’
‘Good luck,’ he says. ‘Anyway, I can’t get undressed because of this blasted hip. I can’t get the angle of it. I manage to hobble back’ards and for’ards to the toilet, but that’s about it.’
‘Have you had a fall recently?’
‘We-ell, not what you might call a fall. I jarred me’self when I stepped off the pavement and my hip hasn’t been the same since. The doctor knows about it. I’m supposed to be having an x-ray sometime soon, but I haven’t heard. This morning it just felt too bad, so I rang Mo – she’s so good – I don’t know what I’d do without her – starve, probably – so there we are.’
He’s an extraordinary figure. Cruelly reduced in his clothes, a life-sized scarecrow, topped with a blast of fine white hair.
‘I can’t believe any of this,’ he says, hugging the throw around him. ‘If you’d told me thirty year ago I’d be sitting here like this I’d have said – well – I don’t what I’d have said. I was a grafter in them days. A shop-fitter. We was a hard-working gang. We’d get the call – day or night – and we’d have forty-eight hours to get it done. And we’d work it, straight through. And then we’d get in the van and hit the town. All night bars – it’s all a bit hazy. And then loft conversions in the city. That was the best. We’d be up in the loft, knocking through the roof to build the dormer. No scaffolding, mind. Five, six floors up sometimes. Just a roof ladder between you and certain death. You didn’t used to worry about how bad you’d be hurt because you knew if you went you’d be dead and that’d be that. But it was great. Standing on the roof looking out over the city. King of the world. ‘Course, I settled down a bit when I met Connie, but I still worked hard. And then when I retired I got into making wooden toys. All sorts. Locomotives, doll’s furniture, jewellery boxes, you name it. I won awards. I used to make these little green wheelbarrows, painted red on the inside. We used to sell them at craft fairs, me and Connie.’
He bends over and starts to cry, pressing the corner of the throw into his face. His wrists are wide, square-cut, and his hands look unusually large, the two together an indication of how strong he used to be.
‘Have some tissue, Jeff,’ says Rae, handing him a scrunch and resting her hand on his shoulder.
‘Thanks,’ he says, blowing his nose. ‘Sorry. I haven’t been myself since Connie went.’
‘How long’s it been now?’
‘Eight years. But if you said eight minutes I wouldn’t believe you.’
He brightens and takes a deep breath.‘Anyways,’ he says. ‘That’s that. Once I get the garden sorted I can build myself a little workshop. The front of the house has always been in the shade but the back gets a nice lot of sun. That’s what I’ve got to do. Build myself a workshop. I’ve got the tools somewhere. And I’ll put windows all round it to let in the sun, and then I’ll get going on the toys again. I’ll be all right. Hey? What d’you think?’