I'll call her son Dave. He was in his early 60s, balding, and he moved quite slowly: Mrs Howard said he'd been in the local mental hospital for a short time, many years earlier. It wasn't clear how long he'd been living with her when I knew her, but it seemed that he had been coming and going for several decades: every now and again he would move out and, she said, find work with tied accommodation, or travel, or go and live with other people elsewhere in the country.
I once met her other sons: they and their wives were at the house one day when I was visiting. She'd lit a fire in the front room - against Fire Brigade advice - and had been upset when the resultant chimney fire led to her being told again she mustn't do it. She was perfectly able to understand what she had been told, so it wasn't that; and she wasn't particularly stubborn, so it wasn't that: I think she may have felt that, as she'd not had a fire for some time, maybe it would be okay by now. It was a sort of 'fingers crossed' approach to life, to which many of us can probably relate.
Dave was in the house on that occasion - but he didn't come to say hello to me or his brothers. I think I saw him twice, all the times I visited, and only in passing. He was often there, though. If I saw him I would say hello, and he would look at the floor and say hello, and go quickly into his room. He lived in one of the two large downstairs reception rooms.
Also in the household was Dave's girlfriend - I'll call her Kathleen. She was an overweight woman in her 40s, whose long dark hair was always tied back in a very severe bun. She wore the same sort of blue nylon overall sported by Mrs Howard, which made her look a bit like a school dinner lady. Indeed, she told me she had worked in schools - it wasn't entirely clear as what, but something to do with being a school matron or a nurse, and she'd said this was how she'd met Dave as he'd once worked in the grounds of the same school: but of course I was visiting Mrs Howard about her house, so finding out more about Kathleen wasn't the top priority.
Kathleen didn't, however, live in the house with Dave. Instead, she lived in a small caravan parked in the large back garden. She'd been there for some time, she said. She was a very cheerful woman, and she and Mrs Howard appeared to get on well. She didn't come into the house very often and seemed to live quite separately from Dave, although she said he was her boyfriend. I never went inside the caravan: again, I was there to visit Mrs Howard so I didn't ask to see, and I wasn't invited. Kathleen wasn't working when I met her: neither was Dave. He was claiming the then state benefit for people with long term illness. She was waiting to hear about another job.
One of the things about Mrs Howard was that she was what I'd describe (as a sort of shorthand) as 'selectively deaf'. I'd noticed this before: if I visited when she said Dave was in, she talked very loudly; but when he was out, her voice dropped to a whisper. I would follow suit, mirroring her volume.
She did something similar that day when her other sons were there - appearing not to hear what they were saying so they spoke very loudly, then perfectly able to hold a conversation with me after they'd gone at a much lower volume. So I said I'd noticed just then that she found it easier to talk to me on my own rather than when everyone was there, and wondered if she'd asked her GP about checking her hearing?
We were sitting in the back kitchen, rheumy old dog on the floor in front of the coal fire, Mrs Howard sitting at the large wooden table, and me in one of the easy chairs opposite her. She leaned forward, and beckoned to me to do the same. Her voice as low and as quiet as she could manage, she whispered:
"Dave listens to everything I say, so I pretend I can't hear."
Then she sat back up and smiled at me and, patted her nose with one finger, as if it was our secret. I wasn't sure what to say, but as she didn't seem to be worried about it I smiled back and carried on with the matter in hand. I mentioned it to my colleagues, but her claim was seen as very unlikely and one of Mrs Howard's many eccentricities, along with showing her mastectomy, the loose dentures, playing the piano at the care home over the road, and other aspects of her life: not anything of any note.
Then I changed jobs and moved away. Mrs Howard's need for house renovations got nearer the top of the list and, eventually, a couple of years later, the work was done. She was helped to move out temporarily; by then, Kathleen had gone, and Dave had taken the offer of moving into his own social housing flat.
When Dave's room was being emptied prior to the work starting, the contractors found and removed a number of cassette recorders, and a large reel to reel tape machine, which he'd left behind. It was so damp in the house that all the plaster in the downstairs rooms had to be hacked off, and the bare bricks and stones exposed. And, in Dave's room, this also exposed a extraordinary array of tiny holes through the wall that divided his room from the back kitchen, each containing wires connected to the sort of cheap microphones that were used at home by many people in the days of cassette recorders. There were, apparently, masses of them.
Mrs Howard had been right. Dave had been listening to everything she said - or certainly trying to. Perhaps, when he was in his room, she spoke loudly so he didn't feel anxious about what was being said because he could clearly hear her and - to make sense of her speaking so loudly - she made out she couldn't hear very well. Perhaps, when he was out, she would whisper in order to talk more freely but also because if she was so quiet that it couldn't be recorded, Dave wouldn't be suspicious about what happened in his absence, and would feel able to go out more. Perhaps there were other explanations. But with that came two very important lessons. Even when things seem very unlikely, it doesn't mean they're not true. And just because they're being described by older people - and in this case an older woman whose life was a little unusual - doesn't mean you shouldn't pay attention.