Ken’s heart is skipping like a syncopated jazz score. It’s almost certainly the reason he collapsed. For some reason the on-demand pacemaker he had fitted just a couple of months ago hasn’t kicked in, so we’re taking him to hospital to have it checked.
‘Ever since Ruth died I’ve been treading water,’ he says. ‘I don’t want to drag on too much longer. Sixty years we were married. And that’s a very long time.’
He lifts his head from the pillow, lowers his chin and stares at me over the rim of his silver glasses. ‘Sixty!’
He rests back, laces his fingers across his belly, and closes his eyes.
‘I met her at a dance when I was on leave. There were three of them and I went straight for the pretty one in the middle. I said Are you dancing? and she said Well I suppose I better had. And that was that. She was the most wonderful woman you could ever meet. I knew a good thing when I saw it. We got married a couple of months later. Well – you didn’t hang around in them days. And after the war, we were never apart. Not once.’
He flexes his jaw, like he’s testing the shape of the words he’s about to say.
‘I can’t believe she’s gone. Still – I won’t be far behind.’
Sunlight flickers in through the slatted ambulance windows. There’s a warm and boxy feel to the afternoon, closed-in, sleepy.
I ask him about all the paintings back in his house. Watercolours of harbours, fishing boats, country scenes, churches.
‘I used to teach painting,’ he says. ‘Adult education, art clubs, that kind of thing. And then I’d be off with my easel somewhere, and sometimes there’d be a little crowd gather, and I’d end up putting the picture aside and giving a lesson instead. I remember one time, I taught a group of kids who’d been getting into trouble. They weren’t bad kids. They just needed something to do. So I took them outside in the fresh air and I sat them round this big old oak tree and I got them to paint what they saw. There was this one kid, the roughest of the lot, a real scrag-end. And he did a marvellous picture, full of energy and colour. And I said to him “Is it finished now?” and he looked at it for a minute or two and he said “Yep”. And I said “Are you sure about that?” and he said “Yep”. And I said “Are you absolutely, one hundred per cent, positively sure there’s nothing else at all you could add to this picture to finish it off?” So he looked at it for another minute. And eventually he says “I said it’s finished so it’s finished, all right?” “Okay, then” I said. ‘Right!’ So I leaned over and I wrote my name in the corner of it and I said “Well you won’t mind me doing that, then, will you?” He knew what I meant. We had a good laugh about it.’
Ken shakes his head, then turns and gives me another stern look.‘Sign your bloody name!’ he says. ‘Always! It’s yours and no-one else’s!’