Leonard walked past the Hospice three times before finding it. It was behind a simple door in what appeared to be a row of terraced houses on a residential street. There were numbers of some of the doors, but not all of them, though he realised that in hindsight he should have paid more attention to the house with the nameplate that read Shipwreck House. The houses’s doors opened directly onto the street; there was no garden or front path, just the cracked and gum-marked pavement, and a bus-stop across the road with a shelter missing a panel of plastic. The windows in the houses were grey and reflected the cloudy sky without betraying any of the secrets of what might lie inside. A strand of greying ivy struggled up the wall about a third of the way along, looking ready to give up and die if the weather turned nasty. Leonard finally counted numbers until he worked out which was was 113, and stopped at an Institutional Green front door, still struggling to believe that this could be the front door to an exclusive hospice. It took him a minute to convince himself that he’d counted right and that this must be the address he’d been given, and then he knocked, slightly hesitantly, on the door.
Nothing happened for a moment except for a bus going by behind him, all black exhaust, grumbling engine and the whine of a slipping fan-belt. Then the bus was gone leaving behind the acridity of burning oil, and he heard brisk footsteps. A bolt snapped back, and a chain rattled. The door opened, and a youngish woman with a scarf over her hair and sunglasses on regarded him from the doorway.
“No junk mail, no pamphlets from any God, and no peddlers,” she said. “And if you’re a tradesman I don’t recognise you but the entrance is round the side and if you don’t know that you better get yourself back to your depot and talk to them.”
“I’m Leonard,” said Leonard, offering his hand. The woman seemed to ignore it, but the sunglasses concealed her eyes completely. She could have been looking at in with horror.
“I don’t want any,” she said. She stepped backwards, the door swinging closed towards him.
“I’ve got a letter of authority,” he said, fumbling in his coat pocket. “From Matson.”
The door stopped with less than an inch to go before being closed completely, and opened again. The woman stepped forward and held out her hand without saying a word. Leonard fumbled some more, trying to pull an envelope out that had gone in smoothly when he left the office; finally he pulled it free and realised that it had turned sideways in his pocket. He thrust it at the woman who opened it and read it as carefully as though he’d announced that he was an angel from God returning the galley-copies of the Bible with some edits that needed making. He tried to ignore the rankling in the back of his mind that his name had elicited no worthwhile reaction but that Matson’s clearly had.
“Come in,” said the woman, holding the letter and envelope out to him to take back. He did, and went in. He closed the door behind him and found himself in a long, narrow hallway with grey-painted walls and chipped skirting boards. The woman was already half-way along it, so he hurried a little to catch up. He noticed that he was passing doors on both sides, which suggested that the terraced houses might have been knocked into each other beyond the front-doors. The corridor ended in a doorway that led out into a spacious kitchen that was cool and empty, and he was walked briskly through there and out into a glass-roofed conservatory. The woman gestured at a woven armchair and sat down on a three-legged stool in the centre of the room. She slipped the sunglasses off, and Leonard noticed that her eyes were bright and a lustrous blue.
“I’m Hannah,” she said after he’d sat down. “I’m the nurse here at the hospice, though at the moment I’m the cook and the cleaner as well because there aren’t so many patients in. If we get more patients we’ll hire more staff; it’s not a big deal. It’s just that there’s not a lot to do when numbers are as low as they are.”
“Right,” said Leonard. “Right. I think I’m here to talk about a possible patient, though I’m not sure how possible.”
“Oh everyone’s possible,” said Hannah, allowing a faint smile to touch her un-made-up lips. “It’s just whether it’s the right time or not.”