Friday, May 01, 2009

two old friends

Geoffrey is the very ambassador of punctuality. If he says he’ll be there at nine he’ll be there a minute before, pressed, polished, clipped, buttoned, straight-backed and smiling, a crisply folded newspaper under his left arm, his right reaching out for the measured handshake that will fade on the ninth stroke of the clock.

Which is why James knows something is wrong.

Usually the two of them catch the bus into town early every Saturday and stay until lunch, but James needs to pick up some shoes that have been re-heeled and Geoffrey needs to organise a present for his granddaughter’s wedding. So they arranged a special mid-week trip. Geoffrey was to call round for James as his flat is nearest to the bus stop.

The two flats – economical, sensible, self-contained – stand as well-appointed symbols for the position in life both men have reached. Retired professionals – James from the print trade (high-end catalogues and diaries for museums and art galleries), Geoffrey from the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and latterly the Civil Service – James has been married and divorced with one son in Australia, Geoffrey has two daughters at either ends of the country and a wife laid to rest in the local churchyard. Both men have been retired so long the memory of their working lives hangs in the air as abstracted and strangely coloured as the gilded photos on their walls. Shopping trips, bridge parties, family excursions, the Horse and Hounds and the Ten O’clock News - this is the comfortable currency of their lives now, and they spend a good deal of it in each other’s company.

But today is different.

James stands with the phone in his hand, picturing the little iron and glass table in the hallway the other end, hearing exactly the sound the phone would be making on it, every unanswered ring another reason why Geoffrey might not be able to answer: he’s forgotten the appointment and made other plans, he’s been called away on urgent business, he’s ill. But like little waves running out to a bigger, more destructive mass, the conviction grows in him that the reason Geoffrey is not answering is that he has collapsed on the floor.

James hangs up, then after a moment presses the green button again and dials 999. But then before that call is answered he replaces the handset in its cradle. He should go round himself and see what the problem is. Maybe he is the one who has got things mixed up.

He hurries round to his friend’s flat. He checks the windows from the road as he turns up the path. The curtains are open in the lounge. He walks towards it as quickly as he can, strides up to the door and knocks brightly three times. No reply. He knocks again, a different pattern, not his usual, and presses the bell for good measure. After a little while he walks round through the curved red-brick arch and checks the bedroom window. The curtains are still drawn there. On an impulse he knocks on the window, too, but immediately feels foolish. As he walks back through the archway he pulls out the spare key that he has been turning absently round and round in his raincoat pocket. He puts it into the lock and opens the door.

‘Hello? Geoffrey?’

The silent interior draws him in. He looks into the lounge. Empty. He looks into the bathroom. Empty. He comes to the bedroom and steps inside.

Geoffrey had been sitting up in bed with a breakfast tray on his lap, reading the newspaper. Now he is sprawled face down, his glasses squashed cruelly into his face, one hand stretched out and over the side of the bed, a GTN spray on the carpet a few feet away. The contents of the tray – a hard-boiled egg, a slice of toast, a glass of juice and a cafetiere of coffee, are scattered around him on the counterpane. James reaches out and gives his shoulder a little push. It might as well be wood.


When the ambulance arrives, James watches them park down on the road. He waves as they look up towards the block so they know which entrance to come to. They collect their bags from the back of the truck, slam the door and make their way up to him. When they’re within hailing distance he says:

‘I think he’s gone.’

One of them says: Can you show us where to go?

He’s not altogether sure he can.


crowlord said...

Every entry I read of your blog is a magical journey. I really am amazed each time how you can take a subject that is often emotive, certainly everyday and yet make it so interesting and vivid with any kind of vitriol or condemnation.

I think that the thing that strikes me is that I have yet to read a blog entry that you pass any sort of judgement in. In style you remind me a lot of Herriot in his sadder stories. I expect you excel at your job.

Well done, keep it up Sir.

Anonymous said...

Spence, you really do have a talent for writing. Ive been in this game for 9 years and I was starting to get butterflys whilst reading the post. Even though I knew what was coming, I was hoping I was wrong.
We never tend to think about the anxiety and fear that has happened before our arrival (or at least I never did until I had to go through it myself!)
Powerful writing mate!

petrolhead said...

Oh, poor guy. I can't imagine how devastated James must have been to find his best friend dead in bed like that. What an awful discovery to make.

loveinvienna said...

How awful for him to find his friend like that. Must have really scared him. Did you do much for him - as Geoffery was obviously beyond your aid. Cup of tea, bit of comfort? :)

Liv xxx

Spence Kennedy said...

Thanks Paul.
I suppose my ideal in these pieces is to keep myself out of it as much as possible (although that's difficult sometimes). I want to try to get across what happened, what it was like. I suppose you can't really be wholly objective, and there's an almost irresistible temptation to 'point up' the drama or the pathos, but that's the ideal, anyway. Thanks very much for your kind comments.

Thanks M999!
You know, when I'm at work I always like those 'fall behind closed doors unknown status' jobs because they're an opportunity to climb over fences and kick down doors - all action stuff. It's easy to forget the human reality behind some of these cases, though.
The other thing about this particular job was the very real sense of a significant moment, a line being crossed. James had coped with his retirement with this close friendship, and you had to wonder how he would adapt and carry on. I mean - you see it a fair bit, but it's always a tough thing to witness.
Thanks for your lovely comments, M999.

Hey PH!
Horrible for James. But at least there was some comfort in the fact that it was very obvious Geoffrey had been enjoying a leisurely breakfast in bed when he was struck down quickly with a heart attack. If you had to choose a way to go, that's not too bad (excepting the awful pain you'd have to endure for a few minutes, but at least it wouldn't have been protracted).

Hi Liv!
We stayed with him until the police sent an officer (the usual continuity of care thing), so we did have a long chat and - yes - a cup of tea. I think these days my kidneys must look like two tea bags.
:0) x

joan said...

Hi Spence well written as usual, Similar situation, recently a friend of mine and her husband was on holiday, to the same place they had there honeymoon, they had a wonderful day out, and in the evening lay on bed watchin tv, he reached over to get a drink and slumped forward, My friend rang reception to get help and carried out CPR with help of ambulance control and hotel staff.
Unfortunately he had gone.
No time to say goodbye but she was calm and said what a wonderful way to go!
Take care

Spence Kennedy said...

Hi Joan
So sorry to hear about your friend's loss. Even if you're right on the spot to help sometimes there really isn't anything anyone can do. I think as far as getting to say goodbye goes, I'm sure he would've known how much she loved him, and that's the most important thing.
I hope your friend is doing okay.
Thanks for the comment

Grace said...

So sad, but beautifully written. I agree that if it was Geoffrey's time, then that was a pretty good way to go. But I feel for James. I love the way you make us picture James doubting himself when he is calling 999 (911 here in N. America). That is so understandable. And again, at the end when James is not altogether sure he can show the ambulance people where to go ... heart wrenching.

Spence Kennedy said...

Thanks v much Grace

I was really touched by their friendship and the way they obviously supported and cared for each other. Poor James was coping well when we arrived, but it was going to be hard on him. Starting over is always difficult, especially when you're older. But I thought James was an outward looking, resilient kind of person. I'm sure he'll make the best of it.

Thanks for your comment.

.. said...

You astound me with every post you write. I cannot stop reading them.

Spence Kennedy said...

Hey B!
That's so kind of you. Thanks for your lovely comment. Hope you're well.

cold sun said...

Really excellent post.

Spence Kennedy said...

Thanks v much, cold sun!

Unknown said...


what a one liner, that could only have come from an emt.

but i have alsways liked your writing. please do not stop

Spence Kennedy said...

Cheers Ian! I absolutely will not stop (reminds me of a line in The Terminator...) :0)