‘She’s upstairs in bed,’ he says, one hand holding the door, the other the towel round his middle. ‘Excuse me whilst I finish off.’
The commotion in the hall has woken Mary.
‘I’m normally a bit more with it,’ she says, struggling to push herself upright. ‘But you see I had a restless night last night and I feel all...’ She smacks her lips drily and waggles her fingers in the air to illustrate.
I explain who I am and what I’ve come to do.
‘Be my guest,’ she says. ‘Only first let me get my plate in. I’ll make more sense.’
I work through the obs. Ethan brings in a tray of tea and then sits down in a low, fabric armchair to drink a cup. He’s the polar-opposite of naked now, wearing a heavy-knit, patterned sweater now, khaki trousers and sandals, all perfectly in keeping with the general, Nordic style of the place: wooden carvings of dragons, masks and heroic figures, prints and sketches, framed academic scrolls. Mary has a bearskin over the bed.
‘I was younger then, very little observable conscience,’ she says, gently stroking the fur. ‘Poor thing. I feel guilty as hell now, of course, but there you are, the deed was done.’
‘Did you kill the bear yourself?’
‘May as well have.’
When it comes to having blood taken she’s not quite so sanguine.
‘I have a bit of a phobia,’ she says. ‘It doesn’t help that I’m difficult. My veins dive for cover whenever they see a needle. See what you think – but please, not the hands!’
‘I can’t believe you’re ninety-five,’ I tell her, tapping around for anything remotely usable.
‘Nor can I. Do you know – I distinctly remember when I was seven years old. I’d come down to visit my grandmother, and she’d taken me for a stroll by the sea. Well, we came across all these ancient folk, on a day out from the local hospital. Being wheeled along the promenade in what amounted to giant baskets on wheels. You see at that time I was mad about climbing trees. If I saw a tree, I was up it! No better than a squirrel. No bigger than one, I should think. I remember my grandmother solemnly pointing to the old folk’s parade, and saying If you carry on climbing trees, that’s how you’ll end up. It didn’t do any good, of course. I didn’t agree with her then and I don’t now. I think climbing trees and the rest of it is what kept me fit. Up until now, of course. Any luck with the ... you know what?’
‘No. I’m afraid not. You’re going to need a specialist.’
‘Bad luck, mother,’ says Ethan, draining his cup and springing to his feet. ‘More tea?’
* * *
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