Geoffrey is the very ambassador of punctuality. If he says he’ll be there at nine he’ll be there a minute before, pressed, polished, clipped, buttoned, straight-backed and smiling, a crisply folded newspaper under his left arm, his right reaching out for the measured handshake that will fade on the ninth stroke of the clock.
Which is why James knows something is wrong.
Usually the two of them catch the bus into town early every Saturday and stay until lunch, but James needs to pick up some shoes that have been re-heeled and Geoffrey needs to organise a present for his granddaughter’s wedding. So they arranged a special mid-week trip. Geoffrey was to call round for James as his flat is nearest to the bus stop.
The two flats – economical, sensible, self-contained – stand as well-appointed symbols for the position in life both men have reached. Retired professionals – James from the print trade (high-end catalogues and diaries for museums and art galleries), Geoffrey from the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and latterly the Civil Service – James has been married and divorced with one son in Australia, Geoffrey has two daughters at either ends of the country and a wife laid to rest in the local churchyard. Both men have been retired so long the memory of their working lives hangs in the air as abstracted and strangely coloured as the gilded photos on their walls. Shopping trips, bridge parties, family excursions, the Horse and Hounds and the Ten O’clock News - this is the comfortable currency of their lives now, and they spend a good deal of it in each other’s company.
But today is different.
James stands with the phone in his hand, picturing the little iron and glass table in the hallway the other end, hearing exactly the sound the phone would be making on it, every unanswered ring another reason why Geoffrey might not be able to answer: he’s forgotten the appointment and made other plans, he’s been called away on urgent business, he’s ill. But like little waves running out to a bigger, more destructive mass, the conviction grows in him that the reason Geoffrey is not answering is that he has collapsed on the floor.
James hangs up, then after a moment presses the green button again and dials 999. But then before that call is answered he replaces the handset in its cradle. He should go round himself and see what the problem is. Maybe he is the one who has got things mixed up.
He hurries round to his friend’s flat. He checks the windows from the road as he turns up the path. The curtains are open in the lounge. He walks towards it as quickly as he can, strides up to the door and knocks brightly three times. No reply. He knocks again, a different pattern, not his usual, and presses the bell for good measure. After a little while he walks round through the curved red-brick arch and checks the bedroom window. The curtains are still drawn there. On an impulse he knocks on the window, too, but immediately feels foolish. As he walks back through the archway he pulls out the spare key that he has been turning absently round and round in his raincoat pocket. He puts it into the lock and opens the door.
The silent interior draws him in. He looks into the lounge. Empty. He looks into the bathroom. Empty. He comes to the bedroom and steps inside.
Geoffrey had been sitting up in bed with a breakfast tray on his lap, reading the newspaper. Now he is sprawled face down, his glasses squashed cruelly into his face, one hand stretched out and over the side of the bed, a GTN spray on the carpet a few feet away. The contents of the tray – a hard-boiled egg, a slice of toast, a glass of juice and a cafetiere of coffee, are scattered around him on the counterpane. James reaches out and gives his shoulder a little push. It might as well be wood.
When the ambulance arrives, James watches them park down on the road. He waves as they look up towards the block so they know which entrance to come to. They collect their bags from the back of the truck, slam the door and make their way up to him. When they’re within hailing distance he says:
‘I think he’s gone.’
One of them says: Can you show us where to go?
He’s not altogether sure he can.