The night has rolled on, thinning to a scrape of heels on concrete, a shriek in an alleyway, bass notes spilling from a passing car. The pier has closed finally, shutting down its multicoloured circuits for the night, leaving just a workshop window illuminated, tucked beneath the dark boardwalk. There’s a barely discernible silhouette moving about in there, like an ant caught in a light box. Meanwhile, the moon leans down low and bright, scrying our fortunes in the polished black surface of the water.
Karol is sitting in a wheelchair by a tall, open window that overlooks the sea. He grips the armrests, leaning forwards with his chin up, his face whiter than the net curtains, breathing like he’s just been running a race.
His wife is holding on to one of the rear handgrips, either to keep herself upright or her husband in the chair, it’s hard to tell. She smiles at us as we haul our gear into the room – her smile, like her hair, thinning and untended.
‘Can’t you help him?’
Karol is a cancer patient of a year or so, the tumours slowly metastasising from where they first laid root in the right lung, creeping on through the rest of his body despite the drastic treatments called down on them. He manages his condition at home and at the local hospice, with a bottle of Oromorph to supplement the other pain relievers when things get too difficult.
The problem tonight, though, is that Karol is hyperventilating. He nods to say he understands what that means.
‘Don’t - leave me - until I’m better,’ he says.
I coach his breathing to bring it back down to a normal rhythm. He gradually relaxes his grip on the chair. His wife comes round to sit on a facing stool.
‘All day he’s been worrying that the cancer will stop him breathing,’ she says, rubbing his knee. ‘The doctors are happy with the way things are at the moment, and everything seems to be holding, but now and again Karol gets a bit – well - worked up.’
‘I think I tripped out on all the meds,’ he says, his breathing levelling out and his shoulders relaxing. ‘I grew up in the sixties. You’d think I could handle that.’ He laughs, but then his face seems to slacken again with a dreadful kind of existential sweat.
‘The walls just seemed to be bearing down on me,’ he says, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand. ‘I just couldn’t seem to get my breath.’
‘That’s why we came to the window,’ says his wife. ‘The ozone.’
‘It’s got to help.’
I make a phone call to request a home visit from the out of hours doctor. Karol could do with some lightweight sedation tonight, to see him through to a visit from a Macmillan nurse in the morning and a thorough-going review. A trip to A&E would only make things worse.
‘Karol is an artist. He did all these paintings,’ she says. ‘Look.’
We scarcely noticed them as we came into the room at first, but now things have calmed down we’re able to take in our surroundings. There are huge, square canvases hung around the room, vigorously painted, intensely coloured images of pelicans jostling on flaming yellow and blue beaches, a naked woman reclining on a leaping zebra, a cascading forest of orchids and tigers. And then, just by the door, an abstract canvas, the biggest of all of them, strung from ceiling to floor – a massing cloud swirl of ochre, burnt earth, carmine and terracotta.
‘I tried to get down how it felt to be told I had cancer,’ he says. ‘How it feels.’
We all look at the painting, as the net curtains gently bow and snap in the cool sea breeze.