The concrete marina wall does a pretty good job of protecting the boats from the worst of the weather. Still, when it’s as rough as it is today, there’s still enough of a swell pushing through the mouth of it to move them all restively up and down at their moorings, and for spouts of wild white water to jump up from time to time at different points, and fall back again in a spattering of foam.
Rita’s flat overlooks the marina. Watching the boats all move together like that, it’s easy to imagine this block is a boat, too, and we’re just waiting for a break in the weather before we open the patio doors, unfurl the tablecloth and set sail for someplace else.
I think Rita would settle for anyplace she could breathe more easily. She’s diagnosed with COPD and a history of infective exacerbations. For some reason this year’s been particularly bad, though, and she’s only just come out of hospital after a long stay with pneumonia. After I’ve finished the examination she sits in that characteristic way you often see with respiratory patients, inclined forwards with her back straight and her arms resting on her knees, to ease her breathing. She has a puffy, steroidal look, and her arms are bruised from countless needling.
‘What’s the verdict?’ she says. ‘And don’t you dare say hospital.’
‘Oh God. Here we go.’
‘It’s fifty-fifty whether you stay or go.’
‘In that case I’ll stay.’
I go over the facts and figures, the risks, the realities. She nods or shakes her head, depending, and when I’ve finished, gives her face a brisk rub with her hands.
‘It’s not as if you’re so bad I’m reaching for the phone while we speak,’ I tell her, trying to be as nonchalant as possible. ‘On the other hand…’
‘…on the other hand don’t start any long books.’
‘What I’d like to do is talk to your GP and see if they’ll come out and review the situation.’
‘Good luck with that. They never come out.’
‘I think they have to some times. It’s not as if you can go to them, is it? You get out of breath just standing up.’
‘You don’t know my GP. You’d have to be dying before they’d come out, and even then they’d probably just send a hearse.’
‘Let’s see what they say.’
I use Rita’s house phone. For some reason I haven’t got the bypass number for this surgery, so I opt to use the main number and take my turn like everyone else. I’m hanging on hold for some time, watching the boats riding up and down at their moorings.
‘I wouldn’t mind having a boat,’ I tell her, for something to say.
‘Yeah?’ she says. ‘Done much sailing, have you?’
‘Only once. I went sea fishing with a friend. I felt so seasick I wanted him to throw me overboard.’
‘The omens aren’t good then, are they?’
‘No. Not really. Although Nelson wasn’t supposed to be all that as a sailor. Y’know? Not in terms of defeating the French. I mean in terms of not throwing up.’
‘Yeah – but look what happened to him,’ says Rita.
‘You’re right. Maybe I’d be better off sticking to cars.’
‘Kiss me Hardy!’ She laughs, which immediately degrades into a thick and rumbly series of coughs, like a heavy storm massing in the distance. When it passes, she rubs her face again.
‘Mind you,’ she wheezes, ‘I think I know what he meant.’