Saturday, March 05, 2011

a pattern of circles

‘Have you come for me now?’

Geoffrey levers himself up in his chair to look at us as Maggie shows us into the room. It is icily cold outside, but the sun is sharp and bright. It splashes in through the windows and casts every item of furniture, every picture, photograph and domestic item into brilliant relief.
‘Hello Geoffrey. I understand we’re taking you to the hospice.’
‘Yes. I’m all done now and I’m going there to die.’
He settles back into his chair.
‘Do you suppose I might have time to finish my tea?’
‘Of course.’
Maggie shows us to the sofa next to Geoffrey’s chair.
‘Can I get you boys a cup?’ she says.
‘Why not? Always time for a cup of tea.’
‘How do you take it?’
She stands in front of us, hand in hand, a small, neat woman with a generous smile, her hair as perfectly ordered as the heavy tartan skirt pinned around her waist. ‘Milk and sugar?’
Geoffrey shifts in the chair again and almost spills his cup across his middle.
Frank helps him re-balance, then finds a cloth to dab his jersey dry.
‘Thank you so much,’ he says. ‘How clumsy and stupid I’ve become.’
‘It’s your illness darling,’ says Maggie, superintending the clean up. ‘All right? Okay? Shall I get you another?’
‘No, darling. This is absolutely lovely.’
She hobbles off to the kitchen.
‘I’ll give Tony a ring in a minute,’ she says over her shoulder.
Frank carefully hands Geoffrey his cup back, then sits down.

Geoffrey is ninety three. Age and illness have robbed him of substance; he sits in his chair like a meticulously realised soft toy of the man that was, the strands of hair across his head and the lines of his pencil moustache picked out in silver thread. The most vital thing about Geoffrey are his eyes – two dabs of aquamarine beneath the liver spots and the spilling, waxy flesh of his face.
‘I flew with Bomber Command,’ he says, turning just sufficiently to look at us, almost dropping his tea again in the process. It’s an odd feeling, as if he were scanning us for traces of the people we might have been. ‘Stirlings, Lancasters, Wellingtons. I’ve had my adventures. But now I’m just so damned tired. I’m no good for anything anymore and I just want to sleep
‘Most of my lot were in the army,’ I say. ‘But my Mum had a cousin, Arthur, who was a tail gunner in a Lancaster. She used to say she remembered standing on his shoes and dancing with him once when he came over on a visit.’
Geoffrey smiles gently.
‘Did he live?’
‘No. I’m afraid not. He was shot down somewhere over the North Atlantic.’
‘So many of us were.’
Maggie has come back in and settled herself in the opposite armchair.
‘Poor fellow,’ she says. ‘Such a waste. Do you know how many we lost? Fifty six thousand. Fifty six thousand! And it’s still going on today. All those boys in Afghanistan. There just never seems to be an end to it.’
Geoffrey takes another trembling sip of his tea.
‘Almost there,’ he says.

‘The hospice is lovely,’ says Frank. ‘Out in the country. Beautiful view of the hills.’
‘And the staff there are always so friendly.’
Geoffrey regards his wife.
‘Sixty five years we’ve been married. Just when it all finished. After a long and difficult courtship.’
Maggie laughs and dips her head; for a moment she could be twenty years old, swinging her legs on a chair at the side of a dance hall, waiting to be asked.
‘Long and difficult, my eye,’ she says. ‘It took five minutes and you know it. But things were different then. You didn’t have the luxury of time.’
‘No. No, that’s true. I know it.’ After a pause he says: ‘Sixty five years. I think we’ve come to – an understanding.’
‘Yes. I think we have.’

I put my empty cup down on the coffee table. I notice the scene beneath the glass: an ancient alabaster carving, medieval knights clashing swords on a battlefield. The sunlight lowers as the afternoon moves on. It intensifies through the windows, falling across us all and everything around us, the black and white photographs, the tea cups, our carry chair waiting in the corner, and framed in dark wood on the opposite wall, an embroidered piece, a simple pattern of three circles, blue, white and red.


Sabine said...

As always you are bringing across a slice of life many of us don't usually (want to) notice. This is hitting home. Thanks for such careful and loving detail.

Spence Kennedy said...

Thanks v much CMAN. It's a privilege to witness these things. I know it runs the risk of being intrusive or voyeuristic, but I can't help wanting to record what I see. Of course I change lots of detail, but the essential truth of it stands.

Thanks again for reading and commenting.

BB said...

That is a beautiful yet sad story. It's time to go and they both know it. Yet he's so aware of it all and has dignity. Very beautiful.

Baglady said...

This is one of the most beautiful things you've ever written in my humble opinion. The details you pick out the the way your writing has such a heart to it is incredible. Fantastic stuff.

I hope the hospice is a fitting end for Geoffrey, worthy of someone like him.

Karla said...

Touching. I don't comment often, but I wanted you to know I read every word. Anything I would have to say just seems so inadequate after reading your "poetry".

Unknown said...

That was beautiful. Just a short conversation over tea that reveals so much and touches my heart so deeply. It's a mystery to me how you are able to relay such depth with an economy of perfectly placed words.

Andy said...

A wonderful, wonderful piece that captures the dignity of a generation fast leaving us. Thank you for this, and for all your writing.

(Tiny, tiny pedantic point - it's Stirling after the city, not Sterling. But I promise that's not why I commented!)

martine said...

that was so poignant, it bought tears to my eyes.
thank you

Spence Kennedy said...

BB - One of the bravest and most poised human beings I've met. Great dignity and courage. I wish I'd had more time to talk to him.

Baglady - Every hospice I've been to has been fantastic, but this one is especially good. Very homely and bright.

By the way, I still can't believe that the vast majority of hospice funding comes from charitable donations. I don't understand why they aren't fully funded as an integral part of the NHS.

Karla, Nari & Martine - Thanks v much for reading & commenting. Much appreciated.

Andy - Don't worry about picking me up on these mistakes. *blush*. It's important to get it right.


Thanks again to everyone for your lovely and encouraging comments. :)

Philip Dodd said...

wow. that was good. Beautifully poised bit of writing. Thank you

Crimson Ebolg said...

Beautiful stuff Spence. And so wonderfully detailed as always. I particularly loved the image of grey hair as 'picked out with silver thread.' Just marvellous.

Mike said...

They don't make them like that any more.
Beautifully and sensitively written Spence. Thank you.

Spence Kennedy said...

Thanks v much Philip & Crimson. As so often's the case with these pieces, there were lots of other interesting details that would've fleshed it out a bit more, but I had to resist using them to disguise the identity. Frustrating - but I suppose it makes me focus on what I can say! Glad you liked it - and thanks for commenting.

Spence Kennedy said...

Mike - (sorry for the delay replying - caught in the crossover...)
That's what I thought when I met him. A rare breed - backbone of the nation.

I read a little about bomber command recently. It said that the mortality rate for aircrews was worse than for a WWI soldier - almost fifty/fifty survival chance. The crews would've been aware of the high death rate, yet they went out in those crates time and time again. Incredible to think of that.

Thanks v much for the comment.

Tony Van Helsing said...

Humbling, I got a lump in my throat reading this but don't tell anybody.
Oh, shit.

Spence Kennedy said...

Thanks TVH. It was a terribly sad thing - but even worse was thinking about Maggie carrying on after him. They've got a lovely family though - as you might expect - so hopefully she'll find some peace in the months following.

karenm said...

Thank you for this wonderful post. I volunteer for a Canadian hospice and you express so well the need for caring, dignified final days.

Spence Kennedy said...

Thanks Karen. The hospice movement is so vital. I think you do an amazing job.

Stonehead said...

My family lost 10 in WW2. One of them was a WAG, killed when his Halifax was shot down by a German nightfighter over Belgium in 1944. It's always a pleasure to read about the ones who made it back to a peacetime life and a dignified farewell after 65 years of understanding.

Spence Kennedy said...

One of the (many) things that impressed me about him was that despite his advanced illness and age, he was still asking questions and still interested in the answers. Lovely guy. One of the perks of the job, meeting people like Geoffrey.

Interesting to hear about your relative, Stonehead. It's the first time I've heard the acronym WAG in this context - which is what my relative must have been. I should do some research...

Cheers for the comment.

Anonymous said...

Simply beautiful Spence
It so brought to mind a man I once knew. They were something special, those guys.

Spence Kennedy said...

Thanks UHDD

I read your lovely post about Mr Johnson. It's always so poignant when people like this die. On the one hand, there must be a sense of celebration for a long life well lived, but on the other, there's the feeling that people of such bravery and grace are not so easily replaced.

A special breed, for sure.