the number 17s

‘There! How’s that? Better? Or worse?’
Lionel is standing behind me, massaging my shoulders. I tell him to dig his fingers in, but still he only goes at it feebly, like a baker plaiting a loaf in his sleep.
‘Where’s my back rub?’ says his wife, Jean, from across the room. ‘How come you never rub my back?’
‘Take a ticket and form a queue!’ says Lionel, then whispers in my ear ‘I’ll be for it later. And not in the way you’re thinking. ’
At least he’s forgotten his outrage that I mistook him for his dad when he answered the door earlier. His dad Cecil will be a hundred this year, if he gets over the fall and the infection. Cecil sits in his chair, turning a handkerchief over and over in his hands like there’s a pattern in the fall of it only he can see.
To be fair, seeing Lionel and Cecil opposite each other like this, anyone would be hard pressed to say which one was the patient. In fact, if I’d had to put money on it, I’d have said Lionel. Despite his saucy banter, Lionel looks used-up, like the effort of maintaining this front is drawing on reserves he can’t replenish.
Cecil’s second wife Gloria is comatose on the sofa. What with the police breaking in earlier, the ambulance and now me, the whole family is looking exhausted.
‘There!’ says Lionel, giving me a finishing slap on the back. ‘All done. No extra charge.’
‘That’s great!’ I tell him, rolling my shoulders as if he’s freed them up. ‘I’m definitely coming back.’
‘Don’t get used to it,’ he says, but then stands there looking a little crestfallen.
‘Sit down for God’s sake. You’re making the place look untidy,’ says Jean.
‘See what I mean?’ he says, and gives me a wink.
I finish my paperwork.
‘That’s them in that picture,’ says Lionel, nodding at a black and white portrait on the mantelpiece.
A young man and woman, dancing in a nightclub sometime before the war, the man in a formal suit, the woman in a flouncy dress, both wearing the number seventeen. The man is dipping the woman back; she’s virtually upside-down, her facial expression held in place by her make-up.
‘It was only last week,’ says Lionel, nodding to his mum on the sofa and folding his arms. ‘But I tell you what, that competitive ballroom dancing, it really takes it out of you.’

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