Nayan first became aware of Helen when the head of a homecare provider he’d been badgering for months finally turned up on his doorstep – here to, she said, assess their domestic context.

“I’m sorry it’s taken so long. Everyone’s getting older these days!”

“I feel like I’m on a hundred waiting lists but not moving up any one of them,” Nayan said.

“It’s awful, isn’t it?”

He showed her – Carole, she reminded him, in her claret suit – through to the living room, where his father sat, grey-stubbled and bald save for the slicked-back wings of hair at the sides. His breathing was rough and his cheeks hung heavy, clutching for dear life the dark red rind of his eyes.

“Hello, Pyara,” Carole said in a voice on its tippy- toes.

“How are you? My, I can see where your son gets his good looks from.”

“That her from the home? Tell her I’m not going into any fucking home.”

“We get this a lot,” Carole said to Nayan in a quick, explaining whisper.

“I just want a day a week to myself,” Nayan said.

“I’m not asking for anything more. Someone to come in and do his meals and check he’s not licking the plug sockets.”

“No fucking home!”

Nayan made a face at Carole – ignore him. “Does that sound doable?”

The way she inhaled, as if she were about to dive into the sea, wasn’t promising. She asked for a minute; took out her phone. Nayan waited, and in the quiet he detected the caffeinated undertones in her minty breath, noticed the bars of grey tucked inside her flattened beehive. Mid-fifties? She was swiping through timetables, wincing, shaking her head. Going through the motions, settling into her role.

“It’s just us, you see,” Nayan said.

“I do. I really do.”

“My mum died. When we had the shop and flat on the crescent. In the fire.”

Carole looked up, glossed lips parting in surprise. Coffee- stained canines. He imagined the empty flask still in her car, in its cup- holder, beside the breath spray. ‘Oh God. I remember that.’ She turned to Pyara, then back to Nayan, and he offered a pale smile to dispel any final doubt in her mind: yes, this really was that poor young man who’d lost his son in the blaze.

It wasn’t the first time he’d used the fire to tilt things in his favour – only recently he’d invoked Veer’s death in a council debate on bereavement leave that until then had been going the wrong way. In the abstract, it seemed a reprehensible thing to do, but in practice, in the act of doing it, it always felt as if he was calling upon his son’s help and together they were fighting the system.

Scrolling back up her phone, as if she’d missed something, Carole said, “We’ve this new joiner who I’m certain will . . . Here she is . . . Yes!” She flashed her screen at Nayan. “It looks like she could manage one or two days a week here. She’s not very experienced, but we can see how it goes, can’t we?”

“That’d be so great. Thank you.”

“She’s local, too.”

When three weeks went by without word, he left messages, unreturned. Only once Nayan threatened to protest outside her office – “You can’t treat people like this” – did Carole promptly call him back, apologising for the delay but, and you won’t believe this, Niall, but there’s still more people getting older every day! Trilling laughter.

“When can your person start?”

“She wasn’t free, I’m afraid. But you’re slap-bang at the top of my list. Believe me, I want to make this happen for you.”

“But you said she was new. That she had loads of space.”

“She just didn’t feel she was the right person for this particular job.”

“She refused?”

“I’m confident I’ll have someone with you inside the month.”

“Why’d she say no?”

He could hear the clicks of Carole’s jaw, imagine the gun-to-head brain-exploding gesture she’d be making for her husband’s benefit. These clients, love, they want the moon on a stick!

“People are funny things, aren’t they?” More trilling laughter.

That was when he started spotting her – Helen Fletcher – everywhere around the estate: on her porch, waiting at traffic lights, buying gas from Margot’s, though it was a full two months after Sonia supplied her name that he and Helen spoke for the first time. Late June, and he was out on an early- morning run, lacking sleep and thinking through that afternoon’s speech, when he had to detour around the delivery truck blocking the pavement outside her house. He carried on to the road’s end, the opening to the fields, but turned round at the sound of her voice, a clear bell of a sound, calm and insistent, devoid of accent.

Excerpted with permission from The Spoiled Heart, Sunjeev Sahota, Penguin.