Kenneth’s house is so ancient and well-heeled it has its name stencilled on the curving corner brickwork of the street. Black railings lead round from the sign beneath tall windows to the porticoed entrance, three wide steps up to a black and white tiled threshold, a wide oak door and worn brass bell-pull. The keysafe to the side is a glaring modern expediency whose installation I imagine took some persuading, but given Kenneth’s age and poor state of health I’m glad he agreed. When I’d called earlier to arrange a time, Kenneth told me to retrieve the key and let myself in. ‘I’ll be in the drawing room’ he said, room pronounced rum. ‘Just holler out when you’re in the hall so I’ll know it’s you,’ he said. ‘There’s a fellow.’
The hall is as sumptuous as you’d expect from the exterior. A wide, softly curving staircase, smooth as the whorled interior of a whelk, rising on plush red treads past paintings, prints by Gillray, fading family pictures dating from the age of the plate, up past a gilt and crystal chandelier to the honey-moted tones of the upper storeys. Another jarring note, though – the stair lift, whose track starts by a walnut table for keys and things, where there’s a silver framed photograph of Kenneth as a young airman, leaning forward in that earnest, David Niven way, cap jauntily back, arms crossed and resting on an immaculately pressed trouser leg.
‘Up here!’ he says when I call – then subsides into a series of rattling coughs.
I squeeze past the chair where it’s come to a stop at the top of the stairs, and walk into a bright and beautiful room, where Kenneth is waiting for me in his favourite chair.
‘Thank you so much for coming,’ he says, shaking my hand. ‘Do take a pew.’
* * *
Kenneth’s observations are below normal range but unsurprising given his COPD and recent chest infection.
‘It doesn’t help that I smoked for fifty years or more,’ he wheezes. ‘Well everybody did. It was almost compulsory. And during the war one tended to live day to day. I loved to smoke, though. It was one of the few things I was good at. If I didn’t have a cigarette I’d smoke a pipe. And if I didn’t have any pipe tobacco I’d jolly well cut up some old carpet and smoke that. I managed to quit in the end, though.’
‘How did you manage it?’
‘Funny story. My wife had arranged a family trip. A pauper’s experience of Paris she called it. Didn’t sound at all like my cup of tea but I went along with it as I often did. I’d read George Orwell of course. Down and Out in Paris and London. Marvelous book. I remember him talking about the twopenny hangover, which was a rope you could lean on whilst you were sitting on a bench. And then at the end of the night they’d untie the rope, and there you were! Orwell smoked like the proverbial, of course. Didn’t do him any good either, although I think he had a touch of the old TB. Anyway, there we were, checking into this blackened ruin in the Place de la Contrescarpe – or the Can’t Escape, as I called it. Awful. Indescribable. And I remember lying there that night, staring up at the ceiling, smoking cigarette after cigarette – A because I couldn’t think what else to do and B because I thought it might discourage the fleas. And I thought to myself Kenneth! What on earth are you doing, lying here like this, killing yourself! So we checked out and went somewhere a little more civilised, I gave my last pack of Chesterfields to the person sleeping in the doorway, and I never smoked again. And now here you are telling me my breathing’s no good!’
‘Well – it’s not great.’
‘I’m ninety-five, Jim. I don’t think you could truthfully describe any aspect of me as being great. But there we are. You’re a smashing fellow and I thank you for your time.’