“My dear, it’s positively minute!” Aunt Irene exclaimed as we turned the Yale key in the lock for the first time.
Someone had nailed a sheet of hardboard over the frosted-glass window in the front door, and chicken-wire over that, presumably to keep the neighbours out. The door gave onto a graffiti-daubed concrete balcony where people stored pushchairs and half-dismantled motorbikes, or left bits and pieces of washing out to dry on plastic airing-frames.
Inside, thankfully, the apartment was clean enough. The walls had recently been decorated in a mushroom sort of colour, but it was almost impossible to tune out the swirly magenta and gold patterns of the carpet, which must have been in situ since the seventies. Aunt Irene took a deep breath, pulled back her shoulders and did her courageous best to convert negatives into positives.
“I’m fortunate to have a roof over my head at all, my dear,” she said. “Think of all those poor homeless people we passed on the way here. I could be underneath the Embankment in a cardboard box – or worse, relagated to a dead old man’s room in Rose Mere, plonked down in a high-backed armchair in front of endless repeats of Antiques Road Show and not allowed to go to the loo without two walking sticks and a care assistant.”
But as I feared, the upbeat mood didn’t last. The apartment had a distinctly depressing effect on me, and for Aunt Irene, who had had her own, four-bedroomed house in an upmarket city street, with a small, secluded garden, it was disastrous. The estate seemed to be the sort of place where, especially if you were getting on in years, it was best to keep your head down and avoid drawing attention to yourself. Nothing could have been worse for a joyously loud, extravert personality like Aunt Irene.
Every time I visited her she seemed to have shrunk a little more. Eventually she would still be in her bedroom slippers when I came to visit. The vivid titian-red hair dye was growing out, showing inches of white roots. And she hardly said a word. That was what worried me most of all. Aunt Irene had never stopped talking – she could have talked for England – and now here she was slumped on a grubby chintz sofa, glaring at yet another repeat of Cash In The Attic, and scarcely looking up when I came in. She definitely needed someone or something to talk to.
I had a sudden inspiration.
“What about a budgie, Aunt Irene?” A little dog would have been better but the Local Authority didn’t permit cats or dogs.
“A bird? What would I do with a bird?” she queried, with a touch of her old majesty.
“Talk to it, of course. Shall I look out for one for you?”
“No. But I will think about it, my dear. I promise I’ll think about it.”
I should have known better. When had Aunt Irene ever done anything by halves? The budgie turned out to be a parrot, a great yellow-orange beastie with a wickedly curved been and a green and yellow tail. His name, it seemed, was Wordsworth.
“Daffodils, my dear – I wandered lonely as a cloud? – Wordsworth’s most famous poem? I mounted an expedition to the local shopping precinct and spotted Wordsworth in the window of Nazir’s Pet Emporium, between the Chinese take-away and the building society. He just caught my imagination – reminded me of that long-ago sea of daffodils fluttering and dancing in the breeze.”
Aunt Irene gazed rapturously at her new companion.
“Salaam alaikum, and what can I do for you today?” Wordsworth enquired, inclining his crested head and fearsome-looking beak to one side, as if considering whether he might interest her in an angora rabbit – or possibly a gerbil.