It was Larinda who reacted first, once again showing who was stronger in our partnership. Ian had cut me off to ring Ralph, Neil, any others who he could find the strength to tell, and my wife just took the phone from my hands, looked through a small notebook she pulled from her handbag and dialled a number. We were still in loudspeaker mode.
“Brains’r’Us Undead Deli!”
“Sorry, Ginny, this is a serious one. Is Kate in?”
“Off to work in an hour. You sound like shit, woman”
“Feel like it, girl. Can you give her a shout?”
Kate came straight to the phone, and Larinda gave her the condensed story.
“Hell, I am so sorry, Larinda. Jill there?”
“Speaker phone, sat next to me”
“Jill, not my field, yeah? Where is he? I mean, where’s he live?”
I caught my breath again. “Over in Wilts”
There was some muttering, and then Kate was back. “Look, I am going to give you no fairy stories here. Normal tactic with that particular species of bastard is really heavy chemo, with steroids, all sorts of nasties. There’s work on stem cell stuff, but he is going to suffer a lot just from the therapeutic sessions. Here’s the deal: I will have a word at my place, and I’ll shout Eric. You call Alec, and you do it today”
“Eric’s in Crawley, Alec’s in Surrey. We lay out the situation: single man, single parent, nearest family in Surrey, see if we can get Sussex or Surrey to take him in”
She was talking to herself by then, rambling on about crosscharging primary care trusts or something like that, and then Ginny came back on.
“What are we doing for Christmas? His last healthy time, yeah, before he turns into a bag of shit and pain? Got an idea…”
Kate muttered something else. “Yeah, sweety, we do that. Simon’s place, usual CBT Chrimbo, except it’s never CBT for you cause I always warms it up for my girly cause she is only ickle and has a small but very nice bum”
Kate came back on. “Ginny could be right, girls. I am pulling no punches here, you need to understand this. He is going to hurt, feel sick, want to give up and die, and sitting on his own over there will not be good. If we can get his treatment transferred over here, would you put him up, him and the youngster?”
Larinda took my hand and nodded, as if I had actually needed such a signal.
“Family, Kate. My brother in law, my niece. Nieces. What else would I do?”
“I didn’t really need to ask, did I? Right. We start the negotiations today. My darling will give Annie a shout, I’ll kick my own admin people, and you call Alec. The Christmas thing we have in mind is camping at the church. Music, silliness, beer. If Simon has room we put Ian up in his place. Jill, I have to say it, but his kidneys might be one of the first things to start misfiring, so… shit, good idea if you call him back and get the name of his lead doctor. Go on. Calls to make…and Jill?”
“None of you are on your own in this”
I forced a smile. “I knew that already. Thank you”
Alec was my first call, and he swore sharply. “Kate’s absolutely right, Jill. He needs company, and support close by. I will speak with the Royal East Surrey, lay on the family and single parent stuff, if that’s OK”
“Whatever it takes, love”
“First time you have called me that, woman”
“Well, I suppose it is only just becoming clear, like”
There was a light flashing on the phone, another incoming call, and then my mobile went. Larinda took the land line call as I opened mine.
“Slowly, Von, slowly!”
Deep breathing. “What is it with me, Jill? Kiss of bloody death, innit?”
“Not you, Von. Never you. It’s just that the world throws shit around, and every now and again we catch some”
“Yeah, but now, right now, Christmas… no wonder he was moving so quick, aye?”
I quickly explained the plan to get his care transferred to somewhere nearby.
“Makes sense, it does. I mean, I would have visited him, but family, that’s the thing. I can still… I can still visit, can’t I? At yours?”
“Always, Von, always. Look, we will try and sort out a Christmas for him, over here, like, so if you want to stay over here…”
There was a pause. “I was going to spend it with the boys at Dad’s, see, but, well, there’s a bit of tension still, innit, with Will and him, and… could you take two of us?”
“One way or another, pet, we will cope. Now, got to get organised, aye?”
“Please understand this, but I still love you. I mean, not like that, I see you better now, clearer… but I think it’s time I was there for you”
“Thanks, Von. Really thanks”
I was speaking to a dead phone. She had made her declaration and then run away. So typical of her. I turned my attention back to my wife, who just mouthed the word “Annie!” and carried on that odd half-conversation that consists of “Yes…uhuh…absolutely…of course…really grateful…bye”
“That was Annie, lover. Ginny rang her, she scared up Eric, and he’s working on Crawley. She’s already offering a spare bed or two, and then she says ‘Steph’s house is hee-yooj, aye’ and Darren’s grandparents are next door, and, shit, like half the bloody country’s offering! Shit, call your brother back, before he gets like you were before you got sensible”
Bethy answered, and it was obvious from her voice she had been crying. “He’s in the garden, Aunty Jill. He’s…he doesn’t like me to see him like that”
“Call him in please, love?”
Some more muffled noises.
“We are working on a plan, Ian. Me, Larinda, some friends. There’s two bits to it. First, what were you doing with… no. Better I put it this way, like. Your Christmas is going to be over here, with family”
“I was going to have Hays back…”
“Aye, but you bring her over here. She hasn’t… met her aunty yet, and it sort of fits into the second bit”
“Kate and Alec, and Eric--- arse, you probably don’t remember who I mean. Two friends, who are doctors, are talking to their people to try and get you a transfer, and a third who works at another hospital is talking to his own. That’s Brighton, Crawley and Redhill. You come over here for your care, we look after you, you and Bethy. There are people offering you rooms, no questions, no conditions”
Silence once more. “You never had friends like this before. Not so many”
“Shit, Ian, I was never allowed to be me before. I think…look, I am not going to say I’m a nicer person. I’m the same person I always was, like, it’s just…”
He laughed, really laughed. “I am having bloody silly thoughts, lass! Just got this sudden daft picture in my head!”
“Tell us then”
“Look, what I said to you, what Neil’s said, Mam, it took me a long time to see. Looks like your friends were quicker. You are real now, aye? They all thought you were a puff at school, and that, looking back, was so completely wrong, but they were still catching hints, like. I’ve done a lot of reading since, well, you know, and I’m getting some idea of what you’ve lived with”
Another silence. “What you were thinking of not living with, am I right? I remember, those times, when…different world back then, pet, different world. Look, are you sure Hays will be fine?"
“She’ll be with good people, Ian, lots of them”
“Aye, I am only just starting to realise how many. Let me sort her out, and aye, we will do the Christmas thing with you. Make it a good one, like”
Unspoken, the words hung: in case there are no more.
“Von’ll be there, love”
“Aye, I know. She rang me, so it all works out OK. What’s this Christmas thing then?”
“At a church, camping”
“You are taking the piss!”
“No, not at all. There’ll be live music”
“And lots of friends and family”
“And Hays will be safe?”
I smiled. “Can’t think of anywhere safer, pet”
Just before he hung up, as I realised how firmly he had dragged himself out of the despair that he had shown earlier, I had to ask about the idea that had made him laugh.
“Oh, lass, it was a bit silly, and a bit rude. I just thought, if people had a choice between being a friend to you when you were pretending, or to you as yourself, it was a bit like offering a lad a choice between shagging a real woman and an inflatable doll, like, and then, well, I couldn’t get the image out of my head. My sister, in that position, arms just so, gob open…”
He laughed again. “And that was when I realised that I love you, and trust you, and shite, see you at Christmas”
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