the twopenny hangover

Kenneth’s house is so ancient and well-heeled it has its name stencilled on the curving corner brickwork of the street. Black railings lead round from the sign beneath tall windows to the porticoed entrance, three wide steps up to a black and white tiled threshold, a wide oak door and worn brass bell-pull. The keysafe to the side is a glaring modern expediency whose installation I imagine took some persuading, but given Kenneth’s age and poor state of health I’m glad he agreed. When I’d called earlier to arrange a time, Kenneth told me to retrieve the key and let myself in. ‘I’ll be in the drawing room’ he said, room pronounced rum. ‘Just holler out when you’re in the hall so I’ll know it’s you,’ he said. ‘There’s a fellow.’

The hall is as sumptuous as you’d expect from the exterior. A wide, softly curving staircase, smooth as the whorled interior of a whelk, rising on plush red treads past paintings, prints by Gillray, fading family pictures dating from the age of the plate, up past a gilt and crystal chandelier to the honey-moted tones of the upper storeys. Another jarring note, though – the stair lift, whose track starts by a walnut table for keys and things, where there’s a silver framed photograph of Kenneth as a young airman, leaning forward in that earnest, David Niven way, cap jauntily back, arms crossed and resting on an immaculately pressed trouser leg.

‘Up here!’ he says when I call – then subsides into a series of rattling coughs.
I squeeze past the chair where it’s come to a stop at the top of the stairs, and walk into a bright and beautiful room, where Kenneth is waiting for me in his favourite chair.
‘Thank you so much for coming,’ he says, shaking my hand. ‘Do take a pew.’

* * *

Kenneth’s observations are below normal range but unsurprising given his COPD and recent chest infection.
‘It doesn’t help that I smoked for fifty years or more,’ he wheezes. ‘Well everybody did. It was almost compulsory. And during the war one tended to live day to day. I loved to smoke, though. It was one of the few things I was good at. If I didn’t have a cigarette I’d smoke a pipe. And if I didn’t have any pipe tobacco I’d jolly well cut up some old carpet and smoke that. I managed to quit in the end, though.’
‘How did you manage it?’
‘Funny story. My wife had arranged a family trip. A pauper’s experience of Paris she called it. Didn’t sound at all like my cup of tea but I went along with it as I often did. I’d read George Orwell of course. Down and Out in Paris and London. Marvelous book. I remember him talking about the twopenny hangover, which was a rope you could lean on whilst you were sitting on a bench. And then at the end of the night they’d untie the rope, and there you were! Orwell smoked like the proverbial, of course. Didn’t do him any good either, although I think he had a touch of the old TB. Anyway, there we were, checking into this blackened ruin in the Place de la Contrescarpe – or the Can’t Escape, as I called it. Awful. Indescribable. And I remember lying there that night, staring up at the ceiling, smoking cigarette after cigarette – A because I couldn’t think what else to do and B because I thought it might discourage the fleas. And I thought to myself Kenneth! What on earth are you doing, lying here like this, killing yourself! So we checked out and went somewhere a little more civilised, I gave my last pack of Chesterfields to the person sleeping in the doorway, and I never smoked again. And now here you are telling me my breathing’s no good!’
‘Well – it’s not great.’
‘I’m ninety-five, Jim. I don’t think you could truthfully describe any aspect of me as being great. But there we are. You’re a smashing fellow and I thank you for your time.’

sea storm

The concrete marina wall does a pretty good job of protecting the boats from the worst of the weather. But 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.’

addio catania

‘The doctor, he was here yesterday, he said Squeeze my hands. Hard as you can. I said to him, I said You sure you want me to do that, squire? He said Do your worst. So I grabbed a hold and give him a squeeze, and the next thing you know he was pulling ‘em away shouting All right, mate! All right! You’ve made your point!
Mr Wilson laughs, a desiccated kind of rattle, and shakes his head.
‘I was a stone mason all my life. I could squeeze the juice’ve a pebble.’
I think the doctor was being kind, though. Whilst it’s true Mr Wilson’s wrists are still impressively thick, the rest of his body has been sadly depleted by age and illness, and he pays for his enthusiastic outbursts with a degree of gasping that the oxygen through his nasal cannulae struggles to correct.
I’ve arrived at the same time as Mr Wilson’s morning carers. It’s lovely to see how they chivy him along, making a game of it all, distracting him from the frustrations and indignities of his situation. I’ve no doubt Mr Wilson has been a positive kind of person all his life, though, used to making the best of things. He cusses and carries on in the wheelchair, tetchily snapping the oxygen cable when it gets in his way, kicking his slippers off when they snag in the footrests. The carers obviously love him.

When he’s settled in the wheelchair and recovered his strength, and the carers have given him a peck on the cheek, signed the book and left, he folds his great hands on his middle and shakes his head.
‘I can’t go to Catania,’ he says. ‘I don’t suppose I’ll ever see it again.’
I get the story in short bursts. He fought in Italy during the war. Met his wife there. Settled back in the UK, but every year they went back to Catania to see her family. But his wife died last year, and his illness had progressed, and he was faced with the fact that he’d never see Catania again.
‘I wanted to say goodbye proper, like,’ he said. ‘I wanted to say Addio. Now look at me.’
He picks up the green plastic tube and holds it in front of him, like he was showing me something else, the thing that was tethering him to this world, the line that he’d play out if he could, all the way to the eastern shores of Sicily, and Catania, and his wife, and the adventures and the life they’d had together, so he could relax his grip, and let go the end, and disappear himself, off into the sun.