The Snells are an interesting family. They almost never go out socially, they move house regularly and are prone to extraordinary fads. The last time I visited their house it was full of enormous dogs, the time before that, a collection of giant birdcages. Husband and father, Brian, was once a driver in the army, but fell off a motorbike, damaging his knee and the family has lived comfortably off his disability allowances ever since. This income is supplemented by small trades and exchanges within the neighbourhood. He recently helped me fell a tree in our garden in exchange for half the logs. His wife Tracy is flighty and energetic, shrill and giggly, where Brian is taciturn and slow. Tracy reacts to the world around her with nervous enthusiasm. If a friend buys new boots, she gets two new pairs of the same boots. We believe the dog fad began when we, as a family thoughtfully availed ourselves of a ShitZou puppy. Their living room's consequent infestation with giant wolfhounds was probably a reaction to this tiny change in the exterior world, an overreaction really, like a scream of shock from a tiny pin-prick. Tracy's first marriage was itself a shocking experience. The husband changed at the point of returning to the hotel after the marriage ceremony, into a violent wife-beater. The door to the honeymoon suite closed and the fist hit her face in the very next moment. Through inactivity Brian has an almost spherical top half and comes across as a stolid boulder of a man balanced on two short, spindly legs. Their children, Chloe and Cameron have extracted unequally from this gene-pool. All the characteristics of both parents have gone to the older daughter, leaving Cameron to sit on the sofa gawping at the telly like a dry rusk gradually absorbing moisture from the atmosphere. No views, no conversation, no personality, he moons out from beneath a floppy fringe with bovine mistrust and stumps around obediently without any apparent sentience. Chloe is achingly slim and pale, but with a will of iron and fierce, competitive intelligence albeit expressed in mousy whispers. She has a mysterious condition that affects her legs. They become too painful to walk on, almost as if she has seen the great weight her father's legs have to bear and imagined the crushing pressure into her own. The family has a small garden, 75% of which seems to be taken up with an expanse of trampoline. Come to think of it, we have a small trampoline in our garden, but then so do many families, any one of which could have prompted theirs. The whole famly is like a sounding board, or a resonator picking up and amplifying events in the world around them. With absolutely no professional or commercial activity and very little exterior socialising they are like a family kept as a control experiment or a human family unit as it might be in a zoo.
Into this world there has recently been introduced a lodger. Perhaps it was the need for a little more income, or the need for a little excitement. A year or two ago the whole family abruptly moved away, on a whim, to a remote coastal village some 40 miles away. After Chloe had complained once too often that she wanted to see a school friend, her iron will managed to drag them all back to a house a few yards from where they started. So perhaps it was the fact that having tried this method of relieving boredom, the only thing left was to bring something new from the outside world into the house. The lodger, who apparently almost never pays any actual rent, is a rangy, stubbly young man, over 6ft tall. His arrival has occasioned a precipitous fall in Tracy's body weight, a sudden confidence and flirtatiousness in her manner, indeed he seems to have moved in, rent free, treated to his meals and space on the sofa. Brian has accepted all this with the taciturnity with which he must have greeted the news that he was expected to up sticks again and move to another random spot on the map. The only indication that all is not placid and forgiving in his head was a brief encounter outside Sainsbury's when due to the staggered formation of my own family as we plied the mall, I bumped into Brian alone. He looked faintly and unexpectedly pleased to encounter me man to man and began to speak almost immediately about things being a bit rough for him at the moment. His eyebrows flickered up in re-enacted exasperation as he sought for a way to begin his concerns over the lodger. Evidently his wife and the lodger had managed to spend a long weekend together. Without any attempt at explanation or even subterfuge she had simply got on a plane and flown up North to see him in his hometown. He had already left for what must have been a few days off from his work or studies, and she had evidently decided to follow him. The remarkable thing about this, apart from the obvious brutality of her disregard, is the fact that the family have never been on a family holiday together as Tracy is terrified of flying. How could she explain conquering her fear without the being able to use the obvious but still impressive theory that love conquers all, intrigues me. But somehow she did, and I will never know how. The rest of his family drew near from the direction of the car park and Brian's brief intimacy retreated, to be replaced by the everyday platitudes of meeting and parting.