‘I used to chase people for debt.’
Charles rearranges the blanket over his legs, and then adds: ‘But I was never mean to anyone. If they didn’t have it, I didn’t mind.’
Mean or not, Charles’ chasing days are over. Now, he finds it difficult making it to the bathroom without collapsing.
‘You’re not taking me to hospital again,’ he says.
‘Not if you don’t want to.’
‘No I don’t, thank you very much. I’ve seen quite enough of it – just as I have absolutely not a shred of doubt they have seen quite enough of me.’
Despite the ravages of his various illnesses and the depredations of age, Charles still has a certain poise about him, sitting straight-backed in his chair by the window, suspended by an invisible chord like a palsied but resolute puppet.
‘Have you been to America?’ he says, pointing to a postcard on the mantelpiece. A city at night. Welcome to Chicago busting over the skyline in block yellow.
‘Only New York,’ I say. ‘And some of the west coast. I’d love to see the Great Lakes, though.’
‘I’ve not been either,’ he sniffs. ‘But I understand my great nephew is having the most wonderful time there. Studying. For six months.’
‘What’s he studying?’
He looks at me for a moment, then blinks, the left slightly slower than the right.
‘Your great nephew. In Chicago.’
Charles thinks about it, but the moment has crumbled away from him again. The little tremors in his neck and face intensify for a second, then pass. Finally he says:
‘I did my national service in India you know.’
‘Oh, really? My dad was there, too.’
‘Is that so? Where did he serve?’
‘I don’t know! He didn’t ever talk about it and I never thought to ask. I have a feeling he was a gunner, but that’s about it. Do you fancy a cup of tea?’
‘That would be marvellous. I’m quite parched after my ordeal.’
He watches me from his chair as I crash about in the galley kitchen, finding things. As I set the kettle to boil and sniff the milk just in case, I shout over my shoulder:
‘You and dad must have been in India around independence, and the partition and everything. That must have been difficult. But the only pictures I can remember seeing of him were when he’s got one foot up on a truck wheel with a fag in his mouth, or when he’s fishing in some river. It’s funny, really. I wish I’d asked him a bit more about it. Anything about it.’
I can sense Charles isn’t listening.
I find a box of sugar lumps behind the tea bags.
I turn round and rattle it in his direction.
‘One lump or two?’ I ask him.‘What?’