‘Have you come for me now?’
Geoffrey levers himself up in his chair to look at us as Maggie shows us into the room. It is icily cold outside, but the sun is sharp and bright. It splashes in through the windows and casts every item of furniture, every picture, photograph and domestic item into brilliant relief.
‘Hello Geoffrey. I understand we’re taking you to the hospice.’
‘Yes. I’m all done now and I’m going there to die.’
He settles back into his chair.
‘Do you suppose I might have time to finish my tea?’
Maggie shows us to the sofa next to Geoffrey’s chair.
‘Can I get you boys a cup?’ she says.
‘Why not? Always time for a cup of tea.’
‘How do you take it?’
She stands in front of us, hand in hand, a small, neat woman with a generous smile, her hair as perfectly ordered as the heavy tartan skirt pinned around her waist. ‘Milk and sugar?’
Geoffrey shifts in the chair again and almost spills his cup across his middle.
Frank helps him re-balance, then finds a cloth to dab his jersey dry.
‘Thank you so much,’ he says. ‘How clumsy and stupid I’ve become.’
‘It’s your illness darling,’ says Maggie, superintending the clean up. ‘All right? Okay? Shall I get you another?’
‘No, darling. This is absolutely lovely.’
She hobbles off to the kitchen.
‘I’ll give Tony a ring in a minute,’ she says over her shoulder.
Frank carefully hands Geoffrey his cup back, then sits down.
Geoffrey is ninety three. Age and illness have robbed him of substance; he sits in his chair like a meticulously realised soft toy of the man that was, the strands of hair across his head and the lines of his pencil moustache picked out in silver thread. The most vital thing about Geoffrey are his eyes – two dabs of aquamarine beneath the liver spots and the spilling, waxy flesh of his face.
‘I flew with Bomber Command,’ he says, turning just sufficiently to look at us, almost dropping his tea again in the process. It’s an odd feeling, as if he were scanning us for traces of the people we might have been. ‘Stirlings, Lancasters, Wellingtons. I’ve had my adventures. But now I’m just so damned tired. I’m no good for anything anymore and I just want to sleep
‘Most of my lot were in the army,’ I say. ‘But my Mum had a cousin, Arthur, who was a tail gunner in a Lancaster. She used to say she remembered standing on his shoes and dancing with him once when he came over on a visit.’
Geoffrey smiles gently.
‘Did he live?’
‘No. I’m afraid not. He was shot down somewhere over the North Atlantic.’
‘So many of us were.’
Maggie has come back in and settled herself in the opposite armchair.
‘Poor fellow,’ she says. ‘Such a waste. Do you know how many we lost? Fifty six thousand. Fifty six thousand! And it’s still going on today. All those boys in Afghanistan. There just never seems to be an end to it.’
Geoffrey takes another trembling sip of his tea.
‘Almost there,’ he says.
‘The hospice is lovely,’ says Frank. ‘Out in the country. Beautiful view of the hills.’
‘And the staff there are always so friendly.’
Geoffrey regards his wife.
‘Sixty five years we’ve been married. Just when it all finished. After a long and difficult courtship.’
Maggie laughs and dips her head; for a moment she could be twenty years old, swinging her legs on a chair at the side of a dance hall, waiting to be asked.
‘Long and difficult, my eye,’ she says. ‘It took five minutes and you know it. But things were different then. You didn’t have the luxury of time.’
‘No. No, that’s true. I know it.’ After a pause he says: ‘Sixty five years. I think we’ve come to – an understanding.’
‘Yes. I think we have.’
I put my empty cup down on the coffee table. I notice the scene beneath the glass: an ancient alabaster carving, medieval knights clashing swords on a battlefield. The sunlight lowers as the afternoon moves on. It intensifies through the windows, falling across us all and everything around us, the black and white photographs, the tea cups, our carry chair waiting in the corner, and framed in dark wood on the opposite wall, an embroidered piece, a simple pattern of three circles, blue, white and red.