Every last drop of comfort has been wrung out of the place. The walls are smeared a cornflower blue. The floor has a dull sheen to it that can only be achieved through plentiful and consistent buffering. He slumps in his seat, shoulders and eyes already weary before the consultation begins. He knows what is coming. More white-coat jargon and pained smiles bordering on optimism. His suit is about as tired as he is, just as worn and frayed. Especially the back of his right sleeve. Across from him, a coffee vending machine whirs away with a steady drip. Drip. Dri-
“Mr. Lambert?” The doctor addresses the room. The man is the only one there. It is a tired tradition.
He gets to his feet, bones cracking back into position, then follows the little man into his little room. It was in here that he had learned his prognosis. Was here that he had his future snatched from him.
In a single word he had lost summers idling along the coast of Italy, eating meatballs in pokey Venetian cafes and sipping wine amidst wreaths of purple cigar smoke. Had lost countless foreign sunrises, lazy evenings on beaches, warm nights gazing at unfamiliar stars. The prospect of spending life sauntering from one postcard to another. But it wasn’t just time that had been stolen from him. It was the promise of a future. Of getting to see his son progress to be the one building the treehouse instead of hiding in it. Of maturing bonds and retirement. Of sampling home-made jams and settling down for the evening with a newspaper and a pot of tea. Of being comfortably old.
He carries his deteriorating form into the room and sits in the chair before it is proffered. His tongue drags over his ragged lips and he takes a measured breath. Bracing himself for the inevitable blow, he inquires about the results of his most recent blood test.
“Well… you see. We’re not quite sure what has happened.” The doctor casts a nervous glance over his shoulder at his nursing colleague as though seeking back up. She forces a grim smile too.
An unsettling cold creeps through the very bones of him. His jaw clenches and something deep in his gut wails. The pulsing of blood fills his ears. He makes a monumental effort of swallowing down the little shriek of panic threatening to erupt from his mouth. Tensing every muscle he is aware of, he quietly gathers his dignity and bolsters himself for whatever is about to come out of the doctor’s mouth.
A breath catches in his throat. The moment hangs there, open.
“What do you mean ‘it’s gone’?”
Another nervous laugh. The doctor looks down, pats his hands over his empty pockets as if hoping to find a suitable answer in there. Looks up and finally – finally – makes eye contact.
“There’s no trace left in your body. We don’t know how it’s happened… but it has.”
Relief and trepid joy swell in his chest, merging thickly in the middle and threatening to send another ripple of discord into the depths of his belly. The breath that caught finally completes its journey to his brain and is immediately overwhelmed by an outpouring of thought, as though it were the guard responsible for opening the doors to a going-out-of-business sale.
“So, what do I do now then?”
Now? Now you go home and live, Mr. Lambert. That’s what he said. And so he was. Seated outside a prestigious coffee bar, his fingers splayed about the bulb of a fine cognac. Over in the corner two teenagers fuss and snicker at the menu, they can’t even pronounce pinot grigio…
She is late.
Nothing irks him quite like poor time-keeping. He swills the caramel fluid around the glass with a practiced air, then dips his nose into its sweet perfume before luxuriating in a large swallow. His eyes close involuntarily as its warmth slinks down his throat and gently burbles into his empty stomach. When he opens them again, she is sat before him, unapologetic but timid. A glass of wine stands untouched between them on the pristine cloth, a blotted accident waiting to happen.
After allocating her assorted belongings to the table top and the backrest of her chair, she finally sits still, clasping her fingers before her like an obedient child at a spiritual congregation. When he doesn’t move, she nervously lifts the glass and sips at it. He has made a fine selection indeed.
The moment of silence creeps onwards. She lingers, sliding pinched fingers up and down the slender stem of her wineglass. The teenagers giggle their way through their order and lapse into snorts of laughter once the waiter has left them.
“As you know, I had an appointment with Doctor Patel today,” he says.
She waits a beat, then nods, uncertain as to whether she is meant to say something or simply acquiesce.
“We discussed my recent blood work.” He pronounces the phrase with all the medical authority of a seasoned lab technician. The effort of speaking has caused his lips to dry, so he takes in another mouthful of brandy.
Another lengthy interlude.
“For god’s sake, Samuel,” she erupts, “what did he say?”
He bristles and fixes her with a haughty glare. Her nerve collapses under the pressure of his gaze.
“I’m sorry.” She avoids his eye, picks at the silverware arranged in front of her, chews her lower lip, fumbling to excuse her outburst.
He slowly draws his arm up to his side and perches his elbow upon the backrest of the chair, aiming for an air of the casual.
“Well the good doctor tells me that, after thoroughly inspecting my sample, I am in the clear.”
“You’re… what? Sorry. Say that again.” Her brows suddenly squeeze together, forcing her eyes into a confused squint.
“It is gone.”
The pinching in her features suddenly relaxes, as though a tourniquet had just been released. It cascades from her brightening eyes to the perking edges of her smile. She radiates the unexpected warmth of a pleasant turn of events.
“That’s amazing, Sam!” Tears swell in the corners of her eyes and she affects a fanning motion with her hands, as though the tears could be coerced into retreat if she cooled them sufficiently. Then, realising the futility of her attempts to quell them, she instead lets a hand drop to her lips, where it holds back her startled breaths. “We can do Venice,” she gasps.
He shifts his weight and returns his elbows to his sides. With delicate fingers he smooths the folded edge of a spotless napkin.
“Well, I do not think we should rush into planning anything just yet.”
“You mean, they’re not sure?”
“Oh they are sure. I just meant, well, Terry has been struggling a bit with his business of late. I thought it might be prudent to… hang fire on splashing out. Just in case.”
“Samuel!” Her fingers perch on the table’s edge. “We have worked hard our whole lives. Never asking for anything from anyone. Always paying our own way. Doing without so that we never lived beyond our means. Isn’t that the sort of mentality you would like to instil in our son?”
“Hard work is one thing. But hard luck, that is something else entirely.”
“You make it sound like he’s destitute. If he needs help, let him ask. And in the meantime, I think we both deserve a bit of happiness, especially after these last three years.”
He agrees with her, naturally. They had, after all, spent the better part of a decade planning the trip. But martyrdom is in his nature, and ultimately the cloying burden of parenthood clogs and clips his wings. “I am only saying that you never know what could be around the corner. Surely you can appreciate that as much as anybody. If not more, after what we have been through.”
“All the more reason to grab hold of this opportunity while we can,” she says. A hold-your-breath pause. “What if it comes back?”
He swallows. Unthinkingly he dabs at his lips with the napkin then returns his hands to the table, still clutching the cloth gently. The thought had occurred to him earlier whilst making his way here.
“I just think that, for now at least, we should carry on as though nothing has changed. Just in case.”
On the drive home the conversation had briefly strayed back to the topic of their impending future, but had circled back to more forgiving ground, namely what meal she would be preparing this evening and what housework he would be completing in the meantime. Climbing the steps to their handsome semi-detached, he turns the car keys over in his hands. He is sure he has locked it up fully, but he seeks further reassurance. He turns back to the car, aims the key fob at it and presses the little padlock button. Nothing flashes. He smiles to himself. It was already locked.