Mac is sitting on the balcony, smoking a cigar. It’s so bright when I step out to join him I can barely open my eyes. We don’t shake hands because of the virus, and I’m careful to keep my distance, but even as we make the usual jokes we both know the strange quirk of this situation. It would matter to me if I caught C19, but not really to Mac. He’s been sent home to die, with a prognosis of ‘weeks’.
‘What a view!’ I say, sitting down on one of the wicker seats opposite, shielding my eyes.
‘I’ve missed it so much,’ he says. ‘I was going a little crazy back in that hospital.’
I’m not kidding about the view. The balcony overlooks a busy port area, stacks of lumber, pyramids of gravel, warehouses, through-ways, the deep waters of the quayside in contrast to the silvery-grey ocean on the other side. It’s eerily quiet, though. All the cranes and forklifts are parked up. No people, no ships. The pandemic has cleared the place. Even the seagulls look uneasy, gliding past, wondering where the change is, what it means.
I’ve been asked to find out what Martin needs immediately, with the longer-term palliative teams to follow. I was a little nervous coming to see him. It’s never clear from the documentation just exactly what the patient knows or has accepted about their diagnosis. You have to tread carefully, feeling-out the right approach. Martin makes it easy, though. From the outset he’s able to talk freely about the treatment options that gradually closed off to him, the hard decisions, the plan as it currently stands.
‘I don’t need anything for the minute,’ he says, blowing out another, luxurious cloud of smoke. ‘I’m getting by, taking it as it comes. I know it’s going to get harder but for the minute I’m alright.’
I tell him how the service works, how quickly we can get back in touch if anything changes.
‘We’re just on the end of the phone,’ I say. ‘A couple of hours and we’re back.’
‘That’s good to know,’ he says.
His family join us. We sit in a semicircle, squinting out over the silent dockyard.
‘They asked me whether I wanted to go to the hospice,’ he says. ‘But – n’ah! I’m not there yet. Maybe it’ll come, maybe it won’t. I’m not sure.’
‘You could stay at home, if you wanted,’ I tell him. ‘We’d have to change things round a little, nearer the time. Put in a hospital bed. Other stuff. It’s up to you. It’s so lovely here. And you’d have the nursing teams coming in to support you.’
‘Everyone’s been so good,’ he says.
‘But the hospice is always an option, too.’
‘I mean – it’s a nice place and everything,’ he says, leaning forwards and carefully knocking the ash from his cigar against the edge of the ashtray. ‘I went there for a bit a little while ago.’
‘What did you think?’
‘They even had a cat wandering about the place. The way they treated him, you’d think he was one of the consultants.’
‘Yeah! I’ve seen that cat! He’s hilarious!’
‘If you like cats. Which I do. No – I’ve got nothing against the place. But it’s just – I don’t know. You get chatting to the geezer in the next bed, and you think you’re dying. And the guy opposite. And the guy next to you. Stuff like that. It can really freak you out.’
He takes another toke on the cigar. A lone seagull wheels and turns overhead. And in the near distance, and further away, the waters around the dock, the sea running out to the horizon, every last plane and detail of it – everything – it all just crackles and jumps with light.