‘I can’t have much longer,’ says Douglas. ‘Weeks, I expect.’
Despite his hangdog demeanour, Douglas is in the best physical condition of any ninety year old I’ve ever seen. He’s just out of the bathroom, wearing a Kung Fu style bathrobe and suede moccasins, looking as svelte as Hugh Hefner on his way to the pool.
He sits on a cane chair whilst I check him over.
‘I smashed my head on the coffee table,’ he says, touching the dressing on his forehead. ‘The paramedics said I had to go to hospital or I’d die of a brain haemorrhage, but there was no way I was going to A&E, not on a Friday night.’
Neurologically he’s perfectly intact, though, and his observations are all within normal range.
‘Why do you think you fell, Douglas?’
‘Nothing works as it should,’ he says, waggling his feet backwards and forwards in the moccasins, a jaunty old Vaudevillian more than a palliative geriatric. ‘My family all hate me,’ he says, lugubriously, covering up the sudden gape in his robe.
‘I’m sure they don’t.’
‘They do. They can’t wait for me to go.’
Once the examination’s done I leave Douglas to finish changing whilst I go downstairs to chat to his wife, Rene. She’s in her eighties, as immaculate as Douglas, her hair coiffed and banded, her pinafore starched and neatly tied, her hands folded in her lap. But there’s a tension in her face that underlies the perfection of her makeup, like seeing real eyes moving back and forwards in a doll’s face.
‘He’s always been a glass half empty kind of man,’ she says. ‘These last few years are worse, though. He won’t do a thing for himself. Make me a cup of tea he’ll say. But if he makes one for himself he’ll never think of me. He doesn’t cook or clean or do anything to help. Not that he isn’t capable. Half the time he’s walking up and down the garden, if the weather’s nice. Either that or sitting reading one of his big books on World War Two or watching television. I feel mean, talking to you like this, but I don’t know what to do. We went to visit an old work colleague of his the other day. The poor man is dying of cancer, just a few months to live – you can see it in his face. And do you know what Douglas turned round and said to him? He said I know exactly how you feel. I haven’t got long myself. I mean – what a dreadful thing to say to someone in that situation? And then to make things worse, he said But at least you’ve got a supportive wife. And I was right there, with them, in the room! When I told the children they were furious, but I wouldn’t let them say anything. I’m just hoping he’ll go into respite somewhere, so I can get away. Because otherwise I don’t know what I’ll do. I could scream with it all, sometimes. I could absolutely scream.’