ball, wearing a blonde beehive wig from the sixties, brought before me a memory of Mum at her cousin Glendaâs wedding, trying to teach me the foxtrot. She would have been in her thirties then â tenyears younger than I was now â and yet to a childâs eyes antiquated beyond all imagining, one of the last generation so repressed as children that they couldnât wait to grow up and get old, and were gleefully middle-aged at twenty-five.
I was glad to find something of importance among this sorry collection: a box file of papers relating to Dadâs death, the house and so forth. Among them I found what I needed: the name and number of the insurance company and various old utility bills. I put these in my pocket, intending to deal with them when I got back to Hartslip. In what was left of the daylight I swept as much of the water as I could over the lip of the doorstep, and used whatever towels, sheets and blankets I could lay my hands on, apart from those in Geraldâs eyrie, to swab out the rest. These huge, sodden cloths I dumped in the back garden. I opened two small upstairs windows to allow some air to circulate and disperse the pond smell. I found a claw hammer in a bucket of tools under the kitchen sink and used it to take up the stair carpet, which I dragged outside to join the blankets.
While I was engaged in this task the left-hand neighbour, Mrs Prickett, who had been out when I tried the doorbell earlier, came out to investigate these curious happenings on the pretext of summoning her cat for its tea. She was a stringy, rather intense woman, in her early fifties I guessed. I remembered her from Dadâs funeral, where I had made a point of introducing myself to everyone there that I didnât recognise and thanking them forcoming. I wasnât sure if she was divorced, widowed or abandoned. There seemed to be no Mr Prickett. On the strength of that momentary contact, she hailed me as an old friend, nodded sympathetically over my predicament, and made no objection to the unneighbourly desecration of the back garden with piles of smelly carpets â an all too rare example of courtesy rewarded. âIs there anything I can do?â she asked.
âYou havenât seen my brother Gerald lately, have you?â I asked. âHe seems to have gone missing.â
âNo, I havenât,â she replied. âWhole weeks can go by when I donât see him. He keeps himself very much to himself.â
You can say that again, I thought.
âThe last time we spoke was about a fortnight ago. He was going to Redhill to take his umbrella to the menders.â
I let this remark pass. Later it occurred to me that only Gerald could make a journey of fifteen miles to get an umbrella mended and yet ignore a pile of broken glass on his own doorstep.
My last tasks were to clear this away and fix the broken pane in the dining room. I was tempted to leave it as a gaping hole, since there was nothing in the house to appeal to either burglars or squatters, and a through draught was just what the room needed, but I realised that this breach of security would send Gerald into a frenzy. Mrs Prickett â Avril â lent me a dressmakerâs tape so I was able to measure up the frame, and then I took a walk along the high road until I found what I waslooking for and hardly believed still existed: an old-fashioned ironmongers that sold screws by the ounce and could cut me a piece of glass to size.
It was early evening and dark by the time I had finished, and I had to do the puttying by candlelight. Before I left I stuck a note to the kitchen table which just said:
Gerald, where are you? Iâm worried. Call me. Chris
but I didnât really believe he intended to return. The fridge, dark and silent without its power source, had been cleared out, apart from an ancient grapefruit which imploded when I picked it up, releasing a puff of blue powder. On my way out I took the liberty of