calamity june

I ring Albert to ask if it’s okay to come round and see him. When he picks up I wait for him to say hello or something; when he doesn’t, I say hello instead – but then he talks over me, pretending to be an answer machine:
I’m sorry we’re not here to take your call, but quite frankly, we couldn’t be arsed. So if you’d like to leave your name and number and what you had for breakfast, then – please – do that, but don’t hold your breath for a reply, because quite honestly you’re not going to get one. Thank you very much, and goodbye…
I hear his wife June in the background saying Who is it, Albert? – a scuffling sound as the phone gets handed over – then: Hello? Who IS this?
‘Hi June. It’s Jim, from the hospital. I came round to see Albert the other day.’
‘Yes. Hello. Sorry about that. Albert does like to muck about.’
‘He probably thought it was a nuisance call. The number comes up as private.’
‘We get a lot of that.’
‘Me too.’
‘So what do you want?’
‘Is it alright if I come over and do Albert’s blood pressure again? The GP wanted a few days’ worth…’
‘That’s fine. Come over. It’s not as if we’re going anywhere.’

*

‘Sorry about earlier,’ says Albert, answering the door and shaking my hand. ‘I get a bit carried away sometimes.’
June is standing behind him, leaning against the doorway to the kitchen, wiping her hands on a tea towel.
‘I wish you would get carried away,’ she says.
‘Hark at that’ says Albert.
‘Well I thought it was great!’ I tell them both. ‘I always swear I’ll say something clever or weird next time we get a nuisance call, but of course I never do. I always end up saying Please don’t ring here again. Which is so pathetic it practically guarantees they will.’
‘I’ve had a lot of practice,’ says Albert. ‘I’ve always been a bit of a clown.’
‘Is that what you call it?’ says June.
Albert shakes his head, then turns and walks unsteadily to his favourite chair, lowering himself into it with exaggerated care. June follows behind, perching herself on the arm of the settee opposite, whipping the tea towel over her shoulder, then folding her arms. It’s difficult to figure June out. She doesn’t smile easily, and when she speaks it’s clipped and to the point. It’s understandable, though. The strain must be awful.
Albert and June are a retired couple in their late seventies. June is as fit as you could hope to be – as rootin’ tootin’ as Doris Day in Calamity Jane – but Albert looks twenty years older. He has a palliative cancer diagnosis, and he’s becoming frailer day by day. Symptomatically Albert’s steady, functioning at a reasonable level, the pain controlled pretty well, but the prognosis is bleak. It’s impossible to say when he’ll enter the End of Life phase. One month, six months, a year, two…. I’m not surprised June has her pistols drawn.

I run through the observations. At every point, Albert makes a joke. When I put the tympanic thermometer in his ear (The light’ll come straight out the other side); when I count his pulse (So I’m not dead yet?); when I pump up the cuff to do his blood pressure (Jesus Christ! You’ll have my arm off at this rate); when I scratch his finger for his blood sugar (That’s very nearly an armful).
June sighs heavily each time.
‘Just let him do his job,’ she says.
‘There! All done!’ I say, packing my stuff away.
‘A-one back to the front!’ says Albert.
June fold the tea towel into a square and smooths it flat on her knee.

When I’m ready to go, Albert insists on seeing me to the door. When he gets there, he turns and leans against it.
‘Can you give me some advice?’ he says.
‘Of course. What about?’
‘I don’t want my family coming round any more.’
‘Why?’
His chin starts to tremble. He takes a breath to steady himself, then raps his stick on the carpet a couple of times, summoning the will to speak.
‘I don’t want them seeing me go like this,’ he says. ‘I want them to remember me as I was. So what would you suggest I do about that, hmm?’
‘It’s hard,’ I say. ‘I know what you mean. But I think anyone who loves you would want to see as much of you as they could. I know I would. I think they’d find it hard staying away.’
‘Well. There we are,’ he says. ‘Thank you.’
I give his shoulder a squeeze.
‘Come and sit back down, Albert. I worry about you.’
‘I’ll be alright. I’ll keep on my feet if you don’t mind.’
‘Okay then. You take care. I’ll let the GP know what your facts and figures are.’
‘Thirty-eight, twenty-four, thirty-six,’ he says, then takes out a hankie and blows his nose.
June comes over and leads him back to his chair.
‘Close the door on your way out,’ she says.

peter & st david

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.
‘What?’
‘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.

making faces at the fishes

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?

the last bid

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