‘Yes ... thanks.’
Barbara draws the blanket more snugly around her shoulders. She breathes with a kind of brittle, mechanical lurch to her shoulders, her large eyes emphasised by the scooped lines of her face. The nasal specs she wears keep her going on a trickle charge of oxygen; her disease has reached that precarious point where the balance between oxygen and carbon-dioxide saturations has a critical influence on her breathing. There’s no room for error, certainly no room for infection. The asbestos she worked with all those years ago buried its noxious roots deep within her lungs; now, she has to contend with its ruinous fruit – pleural effusions and thickenings, lesions, consolidation, a lobectomy. She bears it all bravely, with the love and support of her husband, sons and daughters, grandchildren.
‘I can’t believe... I’m going back in,’ she says. ‘Two weeks ... two weeks I was in....only came out the other day.... they’ll take one ... look at me and say ... not her again.’
‘No they won’t, Nan,’ says Luke, leaning in, giving her a slap on the knee. ‘They love you. They’ll say “Great to have you back. We missed all your moaning.”’
She squeezes his hand.
Luke would cheer anyone up. A funny, open-faced guy in his early twenties, there’s a warmth to him as vigorous as a wood-burning stove.
‘Here, Nan,’ he says. ‘Did I tell you about my trip to Blackpool?’
‘I heard... it wasn’t quite what ... you were expecting.’
‘It was rubbish! What a dump! If you ask me they should just bulldoze the lot and start again. I tell you what - when I got back I just felt grimy. I stood under that shower for an hour, heat on top whack, but even then I still felt grubby. Honestly, Nan. What do people see in the place? I went up that tower there. About two hundred years old, they said – which didn’t surprise me. I bet they haven’t taken a brush to it since. You can’t go all the way up to the top ‘cos it’ll probably tip over, but there’s a bit just shy of it where you can stand on a glass platform and look down. Nan – you couldn’t ‘a paid me to go on there. All those rusty old rivets. You may as well have paid a tenner to throw yourself down a lift shaft. Honestly, it were that bad. And the beach! Don’t get me started on the beach! What a slum! All these knackered old donkeys standing round given you a look like they’re in two minds whether to ponce a cigarette or kick you to death. We just hurried past and didn’t make eye contact. Anyway, finally we made it out on the town for Henry’s big do, and that weren’t too bad. I think I drunk more than I was planning to, just to get warm again, you know what I mean? But I tell you what, Nan – the girls there! It was like “You’ll do, mate,” Wham! Over the’ shoulder, out the door. I didn’t stand a chance. And then the hotel – well, that’s not what I’d have called it. Zoo, more like. I tell you what, Nan – David Attenborough might have liked all the wildlife crawling up the walls, but it just brought me out in a rash. And it weren’t cheap. I probably spent about six hundred that whole weekend. May as well have gone to Spain and be done. At least it’d have been a bit warmer. One whole hour I was in that shower. It was like sand-blasting a dirty wall. And when I came out, I still felt grimy.’
Barbara smiles at Luke and gives her head a little shake.
‘But you ... had a nice time... despite all the ... difficulties.’‘S’all right,’ he said. ‘But I’m never drinking again.’