It’s Linda Kirkby. Here with Billy. Lester brightens visibly. As though she might be coming round to sell her strip of land. As though at any moment she’ll produce the property deeds. As though all we need to do is find a pen.
I search for a professional way to say ‘See? I’m here. I haven’t lost my job.’
But she’s already talking. I forgot about her disregard for niceties.
‘I’ve heard you’re building old people’s housing on the scheme.’
I say ‘It’s not Old People’s Housing. It’s Housing for All Ages.’
Linda looks confused.
‘They’re not just for older people. They’re designed to be flexible, to respond to changing lifestyles.’
She looks entirely blank. As though she’ll tune back in when I start talking sense.
‘They’re bungalows.’ I say.
Linda looks relieved. Back on familiar ground.
‘What’s the best way to get one for my Grandmother?’ says Linda.
‘There’s a sales launch in July. But if you want to start discussions beforehand you need to speak to Bruno Brown. There’s an Early Bird discount. For reservations made off plan.’
Linda wants to say ‘I don’t want to buy one. I want to get a free one.’ But she can tell it doesn’t sound quite right. She is searching for the right words in her head. She should have thought this through. Worked out the script. That’s what she usually does when she’s about to face unusual situations. At least, it’s what she used to do. Before she turned into the kind of person who makes impetuous decisions, who eats sitting on a bean bag, who runs a tally in her head of different ways to kill her Gran.
She says ‘She’s not in a position to buy a house.’
‘Is she interested in the Affordable?’
Linda nods uncertainly. She’s not sure what this means. Affordable-with-a-capital-A. As though it’s a noun and not a verb.
She wants to ask if Affordable-with-a-capital-A is another word for Free.
I say ‘Where’s she living at the moment?’
‘On Milton Row. Above the sewing shop.’
‘Is that a Housing Association property?’
‘No, she owns it.’
‘I’m not sure she’d be eligible for affordable accommodation.’
Linda thinks ‘She’ll be homeless if she gives the flat to me.’
She says ‘She doesn’t want to sell it. She wants to keep it in the family.’
I say ‘I’m not in charge of allocations. But I’m pretty sure that’s not the way that social housing works.’
Bruno says ‘What was she doing here?’
Lester says ‘What time do you call this?’
I say ‘She wants a bungalow for her Grandmother.’
‘The Ice Queen? I thought she was dead against the whole development. How come she suddenly wants to live here?’
‘Her granddaughter thinks she ought to live here.’ I say. ‘I’m not sure it’s the same thing.’
Billy says ‘Why can’t we live there too?’
Linda says ‘They’re bungalows for older people. Not families like us.’
‘There are big houses too.’ Says Billy. ‘And a playground.’ He puts on his grown-up voice. The one he uses when he pretends he’s on the telly. ‘It’s an exemplary development by award-winning architects. A contemporary project that will stand the test of time.’
‘Oh for goodness sake.’ Says Linda. Though she’s impressed by his vocabulary. And she shouldn’t be surprised. She only has herself to blame. He’s spending every waking hour at Dee Delaney’s. Eating macaroni cheese. It’s so easy, so convenient. The boys are good for Billy. Easier than his real friends. No awkward questions about his Dad. Handy, really. That their father’s buggered off as well.
Still, she should have foreseen that this would happen.
Billy’s been indoctrinated.
She says ‘It’s soulless, modern housing that’s going to ruin our view.’
Billy mulls this over.
Linda hits her stride. ‘It’s Noddy box development that will block out all our light and decimate the value of our house.’
She wishes she hadn’t said decimate. She’s a feeling it might mean divide by ten. Or cut to a tenth. Which wouldn’t be quite accurate. Linda can’t abide exaggeration. She’s always been a stickler for the truth.
Billy says ‘So, let’s move somewhere else. Let’s buy another house.’
Linda ought to say ‘We can’t afford it.’ And just leave it at that.
She says ‘We will. When Great Gran dies.’
Billy looks bewildered.
‘Is Great-Granny going to die?’
Linda has to concede it seems unlikely. The woman who has dodged bullets in the war; disposed of errant husbands; wayward daughters; difficult questions; ugly cats. The woman who glides while others flounder; who eschews the drudgery of daily life: mortgages; solicitors; taxmen; banks; insurance. The woman with perfect make-up; painted nails; professionally coiffured hair.
Irene is invincible. Irene will live forever.
It was a stupid thing to say.
‘Your Great Grandmother’ she says decisively, ‘is going to live for ever.’ She looks at Billy sternly. As though it was Billy who suggested that they wait for her to die.
Better carry on talking. Before Billy thinks to mention that she started it, not him.
‘Trust me.’ She says grandly. ‘She’ll outlive us all.’
Bruno says ‘They should both be locked away. The daughter’s killed her husband and the mother’s barking mad.’
It’s good to be back. I’ve missed the idle speculation. The casual prejudice.
I say ‘As long as we’re not repeating unsubstantiated rumours.’
Bruno shrugs his shoulders. ‘There’s no smoke without fire.’
I say ‘Didn’t we start those rumours in the first place?’
‘You must admit it’s odd.’ Says Bruno. ‘He’s been missing for several weeks and she hasn’t called the police.’
‘I think she’s called them now. In any case, he isn’t missing. He calls Billy once a week.’
‘You’ve only got her word for it.’
‘And he’s been to see Irene.’
‘You’ve only got her word for that. What if she’s in on it as well?’