Ganton Villas – Hove, Sussex
He stuck a leg out the side of the duvet. The room was cold, or he was. These days he could quite easily catch a chill in Mediterranean heat. He coughed and whacked a clenched fist against his chest, trying to dislodge whatever had collected there overnight. The decades of fags and pints always affected him in the morning, when his ill health was felt most keenly. Gerry Cadogan hadn’t woken up feeling comfortable in well over fifteen years. Tina would be coming soon. She’d let herself in and start busybodying around the kitchen, making tea and refusing to put any sugar in it. Gerry couldn’t understand this. At his age, cutting back would hardly make a difference to his long-term health prospects. But that was an argument he couldn’t be bothered to have. A hill not worth dying on. Gerry had to get it all done before she arrived. No doubt she would insist on his resting, which equated to sitting in front of the television for hour after hour, watching dull presenters force celebrities into flogging antiques, or some such. Occasionally he would ask to go for a walk, just down to the seafront where he could listen to the sounds of the gulls as they soared over the beach or hovered in the breeze over the coastal path, waiting for a dropped chip to dive for. He missed Sandra. She was brash but she was always up for bending the rules. Gerry felt like more than just a cancer patient when she was around. Although, given that he’d not heard from her since she took a new job a couple of months ago, just a cancer patient was certainly how she saw him. ‘Right then,’ he said, climbing out of his bed and finding his slippers. They felt loose, as most of his clothing did now. The weight he’d lost since his health had gone south had made him almost half the man he was. Literally. He joked that liver cancer was a better way to lose weight than long walks and less beer. Very few people seemed to find that funny. Gerry opened the pill case on his bedside table, where it sat beside a copy of Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy, and tipped that day’s chemicals down his throat, chasing them with a mouthful of water. He stood up, pulled on the Watford F.C. hoodie Patrick had bought him for his last birthday, and gingerly stepped down the stairs. Time was he would talk as he went about the house, making his morning tea and toast. Mostly to Sue, of course, with benign little bits of narration like ‘I’ll pop the kettle on, then’ or ‘marmalade this morning I think, love.’ Just as he would have when she was around. It was maybe six months ago that he’d stopped involving his wife in his day to day conversations, deciding that he sounded ridiculous, or like a golf commentator who’d lost his mind. People always said that they spoke to passed on partners – but really, how many of them actually did? With his tea made, Gerry shuffled into his old office to set about his task for the morning. Around him, the walls were full of reminders of better times, a highlight reel of his life. In the centre of the room stood an old desk, topped with piles of unopened post and a lamp. There was also a laptop he barely knew how to use, hidden beneath a pad of paper and a Parker pen that he did. Above the desk chair was a photo of his family – all six of them standing in front of the house he now lived in. It was taken on the day they got the keys, with him and Sue holding up a sign reading:
‘CADOGAN FAMILY BUILDERS – THE MOST TRUSTED NAME IN HOVE!’ ‘Are you sure about this?’ Sue had said when he pitched the idea of buying the place. It was big, much bigger than they thought they could possibly afford. But that meant it was also a wreck, with no central heating, holes in the roof and a mouse infestation so severe that the top floor wasn’t fit to live in. ‘It’ll take three months. Tops,’ he’d said, knowing full well it’d take at least nine (and in the end took two whole years to complete). He wanted the house to show what his nascent firm could do, something he could use to convince people that he was more than just a builder who’d started up on his own. Recently, Gerry had been thinking how his life might have been different had he never started the firm and instead stayed on other people’s jobs. The Cadogans might have had less money. But they’d probably be happier. Behind his desk lamp sat the other photos that he looked at every day, always positioned so he could see them out of the corner of his eye during the late nights spent working on plans or settling the company’s books. The photos were always a comfort when he had his late night whisky at his desk. They were all of his kids, mostly taken on various holidays and on special occasions like Christmas and birthdays. And from collections in the three albums on his desk. ‘Christ,’ he said, bending down to retrieve his big red metal fishing box from beneath the desk, where he’d been storing it since he had this idea. ‘Weighs a bloody ton.’ Gerry set about emptying the box of reels, floats, hooks and weights. He dumped most of it in his bottom desk drawer – already so full of rubbish that he felt genuinely sorry for whoever’d be in charge of clearing it out when he finally popped it. The two beaten and battered books in the box (a good pub guide and a book of fishing tips) went on the shelf above his desk. And his hip and tea flasks went in a pile to be cleaned up later. He sprayed the box with a bit of disinfectant, hoping to get rid of the musty smell of river-soiled fishing kit and old bait. First, he put the whisky inside, feeling a pang of regret that he’d never get to taste it. Over the years, the bottle had taken on almost human significance among the family. Always referred to as ‘the Port Ellen’ and looked at with either reverence by those who wanted some, or wonderment by those who couldn’t believe he’d spent over a grand on it. Gerry almost kissed the bottle. He had been saving it for his seventieth, which he knew he wouldn’t reach now. And besides, the repercussions of a little dram were not worth it. Next, he took the newspaper article and the brief, cursory letter. He remembered the day he received the battered, German postmarked envelope. It had set him on edge almost immediately. He didn’t know anyone in Germany . . . He had typed the contents of the article into Google Translate, one letter punched in with one index finger at a time. But he already knew what the story would bring. Bad news. Gerry put the envelope away into the most recent photo album, as he heard the door open. ‘Bollocks,’ he said. He could hear Tina in the hallway, taking off her great clodhopping boots and replacing them with slippers, unzipping her bag and fishing out the four tupperware boxes of healthy snacks she’d eat through the day. Tina was permanently on a diet that she couldn’t stick to, which Gerry realised when he discovered that she’d been at his crisps. ‘Where are you then?’ she bellowed. ‘Better not be in that garden of yours,’ she said, referring to last week when she’d found him outside pruning and readying the perennials bed for winter. (Neither of them mentioned that he wouldn’t be around the next spring to enjoy them in bloom again.) The slap slap slap of her slippers against the ceramic kitchen floor. The opening and closing of the fridge. The click of the kettle’s ‘on’ switch. ‘It’s still hot,’ she called. ‘So at least I know you’re not dead.’ Tina laughed. Gerry shook his head and muttered, ‘Christ almighty.’ This was her idea of a laugh. Sandra had made similar jokes, but hers landed better. Maybe it was her kind, jovial Geordie accent compared to Tina’s estuary English. Gerry quickly checked the photo albums to make sure that they were the right ones. Holidays in Cornwall and France, and New Year’s Eve in 2009, each taken a decade apart. He put them in the fishing box next to the whisky, then tossed in the keys to his camper van and the copy of his will he’d been keeping on his desk. But there was still one last thing to do before he was finished. He had just picked up the pen Sue had given him for his sixtieth when Tina opened the door. She was wearing her pink nurse’s uniform, with her greasy grey hair pulled into a bun behind her head, revealing numerous ear piercings. ‘There he is,’ she said. ‘Working, would you believe?’ ‘Ish.’ ‘What’s “ish” about it?’ ‘Well, I’m not really working. I’m making something for the kids.’ ‘And you should be resting up.’ Gerry resisted asking her what the fucking point of resting up would be. In a couple of months he’d be doing nothing but. ‘Two minutes.’ ‘Have you had your break—’ ‘Tina, please,’ he said, firmly. ‘Two minutes. I need to get this done while I’ve got the energy.’
Affronted, she said, ‘As you wish,’ then left him to it. His office led off from the lounge, so he could hear her flop down on the big sofa and turn the television on to one of the morning programmes. A belligerent man was hectoring a guest about shopping in charity shops despite being wealthy. Gerry shut the door and went back to his desk, where headed paper (A Note from Gerry) and a pen waited for him. He didn’t know what he was going to write. He never did. Letters weren’t his strong suit. When he and Sue first started seeing each other she used to send him long letters. He remembered how excited he felt seeing the Brighton postal mark. Gerry had rarely replied, and if he had, it was only ever a few lines scrawled on a postcard that would arrive smelling of whatever pub he’d written it in. Before he started, he looked back down at the box. The albums, the whisky, the keys. Just a sniff he thought, taking the whisky out and pulling it open. Spying the empty miniature on top of his filing cabinet, he had a better idea, pouring a small measure into the tiny bottle. Something for when the time comes. A way to raise a glass at the very end. He returned the bottle to the tackle box. Finally ready, he began to write.