one hundred and two minutes

Harry’s wife Jean has everything written down. She shows me her notebook – covered in tiny block capitals: one page for the dates and times of appointments, one for the names and dosages of drugs, another for all the names and times of the various clinicians who’ve visited over the last few months, and on the inside back cover, a list of all the important phone numbers, family included, some underlined, some with asterisks.
‘You’re pretty organised,’ I tell her, handing it back.
‘You’ve got to be,’ she says, carefully putting it away on the trolley she’s set aside for meds, dressings and everything else – a hostess trolley for the home nurse.
She’s even taken care of me. I came in with a cough, excusing myself, blowing my nose – an inauspicious start.
‘Oh dear!’ she said. ‘Are you alright?’
‘I’m fine. It’s this cold. Still hanging on even though it’s been three weeks now.’
‘Have some of this’ she says, plucking a bottle of cough mixture out of the air, like a magician. ‘It’ll blow your socks off but it’ll stop the cough.’
She pours ten mil of the gloopy brown mixture into a plastic measuring cup and hands it to me. I hold it up to the light like a fine brandy, and then throw it back in one.
‘Wow!’ I gasp, handing back the cup. ‘That’s potent!’
She raises her eyebrows and smiles.
The cough has gone.
‘I should definitely get some of that,’ I say.
‘Maybe you should. I’ll write the name of it down for you. Do you want to see Harry now?’

Harry seems much better. He’s sitting on the sofa sawing away at a fried egg on toast.
‘Sorry to disturb your breakfast,’ I say. ‘Good to see you eating, though.’
‘Pull up a plate!’ he says, gesturing with his eggy knife.
‘You’re alright, thanks, Harry. I’ve eaten already. Besides…’ I say, smiling at Jean, ‘I don’t think I’ll be tasting much for a few hours.’
‘The mixture? Aye – it’s strong stuff is that,’ he says, directing his attention back to the egg. ‘Kill or cure.’

Harry is an old tank soldier. He tells me about his life in the army whilst I finish writing up the notes.
‘I loved it,’ he says. ‘Signed up for five years. Made it ten. Came out for two weeks, turned round went straight back in for another ten. It’s been my life, man.’
‘You know – I remember, when I worked on patient transport there was this patient we saw a few times. He was a hundred and two or something, and he was a tank soldier in the First World War.’
‘Was he? Well – hats off. That was a tough business alright. I mean – it was never a picnic in the old Centurions. It was no Ford Fiesta, if y’know wha’ I mean? But those early tanks, they was regular death traps, man. I had a look in one once, in the museum. And I tell you what, I wouldn’t have driven it to Sainsbury’s, let alone the Somme.’

I have a sudden clear image of that old tank soldier, shutting his front door, carefully pocketing his keys, and then walking entirely freely and unaided down his front path to the waiting ambulance. I was struck then not just by how tough and wiry and cheerful he seemed, cap pulled down, a glance up at the sky, a cheery thumbs up before he grabbed the handles and pulled himself up the steps – but also by how bent forward he was, by age of course, a marked curvature of his spine, and something else, the posture and demeanour of a man who was used to squeezing himself into small spaces, resolutely getting into position for whatever lay ahead.

‘A hundred and two?’ says Harry. ‘Hats off. A hundred and two minutes and you’d a’ been doin’ well.’

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