“No. I insist. They hide under flowerpots,” she says, draining most of her cup, turning it upside down and placing it dripping over a solitary sugar lump.
“What are you talking about, my dear?” She can have such wild ideas at times that I find it hard to keep up. And if I can’t keep up, whoever else could? Somebody has to accompany her in her wanderings. She might get lost forever. Then what would I do?
“Scientists of course,” she insists, pointing at the upturned cup. A small puddle of tea has escaped from under its rim making the cup look like a bloated pirogue cut lose in the middle of a tiny pond.
“What scientists?” I ask. Sometimes, if I humour her, I manage to catch the thread of her ideas and can haul myself back along the twisting path of her thoughts to where she is.
“The ones who are studying the hedgehogs,” she says, her tone triumphant, as if it were self-evident and I should have known.
The eruption of the prickly creatures in her story throws me for a moment. I feel cut adrift, unable to decide where to turn next. The muscles of my face slacken, my eyes blur and I sense my jaw slip open.
“Close your mouth,” she says. “A fly might get in. Filthy things.”
I snap my mouth closed, making a noise like a miniature guillotine that resonates in my head.
“There are no flies here,” I reply, my words almost as cutting as the guillotine. Sometimes she can be downright silly. Hospital wards are the last place you’d expect to find a fly.
“They are attracted by the hedgehogs.”
I want to protest that there are no hedgehogs either, but that would be going too far. I would surely lose her then. “And why would hedgehogs attract flies?” I ask, shifting back in my chair in dread of what she might answer.
“Reproduction.” A broad grin lights up her face, as if she has proved a long and complex proof or won a drawn-out argument.
“Sorry?” I have to admit defeat. I can’t keep up. Her grin broadens even more.
“Do make an effort. You are so slow sometimes,” she retorts, pursuing her advantage. “Hedgehogs need flies to reproduce. Everyone knows that.”
All of a sudden I feel weary, dreadfully weary. My brain is in a muddle and my stomach feels like somebody shifted it slightly sideways. I would willingly close my eyes and escape in a nap, but she barrels on.
“That’s why the scientists are there.” She lifts the cup, revealing a sticky puddle where the sugar lump had once been. “You see. They study how hedgehogs overcome their genderlessness with the help of flies.”
When I sit there staring at the sticky mess, unresponsive, she continues.
“The way things are going, that is how we’ll all end up.”