‘Have you come for me?’ says Lionel. ‘Well. Bye, bye, dear.’
We help him out of his chair. As soon as he’s up and stable, his wife June gives him a kiss on the cheek, then stands back, anxiously smoothing her apron.
‘You don’t mind if I stay, do you?’ she says.
‘No. Of course not. You’ve only just come out yourself. You don’t want to be going back to that place. No, no – you stay here and get an early night. I’ll be okay. Maybe David will come up later? Anyway – bye, bye, dear. Bye, bye.’
I pass him his walking stick. The hallway of their flat is bare, just a couple of framed pictures on the wall, and a row of energy-saving light bulbs glowing without shades above our heads.
We start the long shuffle out to the ambulance.
Lionel has an extraordinary mouth. The upper jaw is tight, rounded out like a quarter of coconut, utterly immobile. The lower jaw hardly moves much, either – just enough to get the words out, past a row of pointed, grey and fish-like teeth. In fact, hunched over in that grimy raincoat, flicking a sideways look in my general direction every now and then, he might easily be an ancient species of land-dwelling fish, in old man-disguise for a trip to the vet. He speaks softly and rapidly without much pause for breath, none for questions. All he needs from me is the occasional grunt to show I haven’t wandered off.
‘When I came out of the army I had no idea what I was going to do next. My father didn’t help all that much. He wasn’t any good. He used to say “What nonsense have you been thinking now, Lionel?” In some ways he was right, I suppose. I didn’t apply myself, you see. I thought I could do all kinds of things, but they just didn’t seem to go my way. So when I got out of the army I found myself a job in the stores department of an engineering firm. That was a good job. I liked that job. But then after seven years I got made redundant. So I gave myself a jolly good talking to and I said: “Right! On with the new!” And I came to London. And I went in to the Labour Exchange there, and I said: “What have you got for me?” And in turns out, what they’d got for me was another job in stores. In a… in a fabrication place. You know. A place where they make things. Anyway, I was there for seven years, I think. And then I got made redundant. But by that time June had got her eye on me. I used to work with her brother, you see. That’s how we met. Well one day she came up to me and she said “I’ve got tickets for a show. At the Royal Albert Hall.” And I said “Oh?” And she sort of waved them in my general direction. Well – we went to that show, and it was very good. But we took things slow, d’you follow? I don’t like to rush things. We didn’t even hold hands until a week later. And stuck at that for a month. But anyway, things happened, and here we are now, forty years later.’
He pivots in the chair and tries to look at me.
‘Do you think David might be up later?’ he says.