‘Not bad – considering I’m ninety-three.’
‘If you’d have said seventy-three I’d have said no.’
John narrows his eyes and leans forward, his wiry white eyebrows tangled as a hedge in winter.
‘Yep,’ I say.
He holds my gaze a little while, then relaxes back again.
‘Well, I’ve looked after myself,’ he says. ‘Smoking, drinking – it all comes out in the wash.’
Trudy, his daughter-in-law, stands by with all his bags – the medication and the toiletries, the clean pyjamas and the spare dressing gown, the newspaper, address book, brushes and slippers – whilst we help him into our chair.
‘Don’t spare the horses,’ he says.
‘Shame it’s such a short ride to the hospital,’ I say to John, the paperwork done.
‘We could’ve had a nice chat. You could’ve told me about your life.’
‘That would take a long time,’ he says. ‘I am ninety-three, you know.’
‘That’s what I mean.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean – for instance – where were you born?’
‘I know Shoreditch.’
‘Yes. I used to live in London. I was born there. Pimlico. Just behind the Tate.’
‘Oh yes,’ he says, closing his eyes and nodding, as if he could see it all laid out in front of him.
‘By the river,’ he says.
‘Ooh!’ says Trudy. ‘Pimlico. Isn’t that quite posh?’
‘It is now. I don’t think it was then.’
‘It’s all gone up market,’ she says, brushing something from the coat on her lap. ‘I think even Shoreditch is dead trendy now.’
‘Ye-es,’ says John. ‘The railways. All that noise and fuss. I used to spend a lot of time in Farringdon. Liverpool Street. The bridges and arches. ‘Course it was all steam in them days. Great crowds of people coming and going. And the noise! One big, tremendous fuss. And they had these enormous sheds where they used to turn the engines round. The steam engines. You know? Oh yes. When I think back. I must have spent half my life in a cloud of smoke.’
‘Did you work on the railways, then?’
He opens his eyes, turns his head and frowns at me again.
‘The railways,’ I say to him. Did you work on them?’
‘No I did not!’ he says.‘Here we are!’ says Trudy, folding the coat over her arm and putting a hand to the bags. ‘You were right about the hospital. That was a short ride.’