It’s a long climb up but it’s worth it. Peter’s flat is meticulously neat and spare, perched like the lamp at the top of a lighthouse, high above the world on this bright, blue, early spring day. Peter keeps the place immaculately, a pierced mirror over the fireplace, a vibrant figurative painting above the sofa, well-made chairs placed just-so, an oak writing desk under the window, and on the desk, a small ceramic vase with half a dozen stems of daffodil, yellow and gold in the mid-morning sunshine.
‘I brought those,’ says Stephanie. ‘I wanted to make the place look bigger.
‘Or further away.’
‘But at least we know the desks was always going to be strong enough.’
‘Well I think they look absolutely charming, Stephanie. And nobody has to feel the slightest bit guilty about air miles.’
Stephanie is an old friend of Peter’s. She’s come round to have lunch with him before his big day tomorrow. He’s been called back in for surgery. He fell ill out walking in the street, and a scan confirmed what everyone was dreading – the return of the cancer he thought he’d beaten a couple of years before.
‘At least they didn’t tell me I was riddled,’ he says. ‘I was fully expecting that conversation – you know – the one where they tell you it’s metastasized everywhere, from your liver to your socks, and there’s nothing more they can do.’
‘Rubbish. There’s always something,’ says Stephanie. ‘You can always go barefoot.’
‘You’re right,’ he says. ‘But listen. It won’t come to that. Tomorrow I’m under the knife again, so there’s hope yet.’
‘You see – that’s the other thing,’ says Stephanie.
‘I didn’t want to get you a fancy bouquet because I knew you weren’t going to be around.’
‘You could’ve taken them home with you.’
‘Some friend I’d be, buying you flowers and taking them home again.’
‘Some friend you are buying me daffs.’
‘It’s St David’s day!’
‘Yes – and St David can shove them up his arse!’
‘That’s not very patriotic, is it?’
‘Who cares? I’m not Welsh.’
‘Well you won’t be at this rate’
They both laugh.
Hans seems too full of life to be dying of cancer. With his bald head, handlebar moustache, fierce expression and thick wrists, all he needs is a leopard skin tunic and he’d be a cinch for a circus strongman. As things stand though Hans is confined to bed, his lungs corrupted with secondaries, metastasizing like acquisitive weeds from the seed pod of his liver. When Hans talks he has a curious habit of repeating certain phrases at double the volume, and sitting up a little at the same time. It’s a funny thing, like a verbal sneeze. I guess he’s done it all his life, because his wife June doesn’t seem to notice.
‘I cannot believe zis thing,’ he says, his German accent somehow adding to the strongman effect. ‘I cannot! Y’know? Listen. Just the other month I was swimming in the sea in Spain. In Spain! Making faces at all the little fishes there. Now look at me. Hopeless. Hopeless.’
June is putting a brave face on it, though – her and the family dog, Boney, a bichon frise made entirely of clouds, who sits by my bag and frowns anytime I take something out.
‘What do you make of it, Boney?’ she says, brightly.
‘Well – vat can the poor dog make of it?’ says Hans. ‘Apple pie? I say apple pie?’
margaret sits in the flickering gloom
cancerous queen of the old front room
presses a B&H to her lips
watching antiques road trip
I think that wonnacott’s such a wheeze
she says, nodding at the little TV
margaret worked for the HMRC
(she didn’t want to confess it to me
because people can be seriously off
when it comes to money and all that stuff)
she says she was in her element there
up to her elbows in people’s affairs
margaret nursed her dying mother
endless nights watching TV together
blind date, ruth rendell, mr bean
furosemide, ramipril, mirtazapine
she’d never have believed it if you’d said
one day she’d be the one in bed
margaret takes one last long drag
then carefully grinds out her fag
as wonnacott models a regency muff
and worries if it’ll earn enough
she shakes her head and sighs
wonders when the woman died
margaret has her things to hand
remote control, juice and contraband
cheerfully waves me out the door
as wonnacott paces the auction room floor
and the muff bottoms out on the closing bid
and the gavel comes down on eighty quid