near enough

Anthony is waiting for me at the door of his flat. A desolate, strangely inert figure, he watches my approach with the hollow expression of someone who’d been standing there a hundred years and forgotten why. When I hold out my hand to say hello, I may as well be practising on an empty jacket.
‘Have a seat,’ I tell him. ‘I’m sorry to disturb you. I promise I won’t take long.’
‘I see’, he says, but makes no move.
‘Your favourite chair,’ I say. ‘How about that one, over by the window?’
He turns to look.
‘Let me help you.’
I guide him gently by the elbow, and sit him down on a worn armchair with a saggy cushion.
‘There! That’s better! Now – can I get you anything? A cup of tea…?’
It all feels slightly odd, as if I’m the one who lives here and he’s the visitor.
‘Coffee,’ he says. ‘Black. No sugar.’
‘Okay! Shan’t be a moment.’
When I walk over to the kitchen area he gets up and follows me, then stands watching as I fill the kettle and get the coffee things together.
‘I love all your pictures,’ I tell him.
I’ve never seen so many. All four walls of the sitting room are covered with framed photos of all sizes, mostly cats and dogs, but a few family portraits, too. There’s one prominent picture – a man in a naval officer’s uniform, standing at the wheel of a ship.
‘Is that you?’ I ask him.
‘Everyone says that.’
‘Is it, though?’
‘Yes.’
‘Wow. Were you in the navy?’ I stir the coffee and gesture for us to go back to the chair.
‘I was on a cruise,’ he says, with surprising fluency. ‘You could pay ten pounds and have your photo taken dressed up at the wheel.’
He goes back to the chair. When he sits down, he rests his hands right and left, puts his feet just so, and his head in neutral alignment.
‘There!’ I say, drawing up a carved elephant stool and placing the coffee cup within reach.
Just behind him is another framed picture – this one an old playbill – John Gielgud’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest, Globe Theatre, London.
‘That would’ve been something,’ I tell him, taking out my obs kit. ‘What a cast! Jack Hawkins, Margaret Rutherford. Edith Evans…. A handbag?
‘Look at the date,’ he says, turning his head slowly, his chin parallel with the parquet floor. ‘I bought it because of the date.’
I lean in to look a little more closely. October 10th, 1939.
‘Oh! The war! Was that the date war was declared?’
‘No,’ he says, turning to the front again. ‘September 3rd. But it’s near enough.’

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