He tried to have something ready to tell her when she came home: something about his day. It was not so easy. The little that happened had, generally, to be ruled out as something to be retold. He would not tell her anything he had seen on the television; he would not tell her anything about the simple progress of his illness.
Today, he had gone to see the doctor, however, and had something interesting to tell her. It had not been a regular appointment. They had decided the day before that he should turn up and ask to be seen. For that, you had to arrive at the surgery in Clapham Manor Street at 8am at the latest. Toby had to look after himself; Sonia was leaving home for the office at 6.30, these days. He had wrapped himself warmly, and the minicab had been ordered for 7.40, to allow for delays and confusion. (And the inevitable irritated argument, the exaggerated performance of illness when the driver discovered that he had been given a job that meant driving only 800 yards.) He arrived; he paid the driver; he got into the ill-sorted queue under the canopy outside the still-locked surgery. Then he saw something interesting, and as he watched it unfolding, he thought: I must tell Sonia about this, when she comes home.
Toby told her what he had seen. She hunched over her bowl of brown soup, lifting it to her mouth with pale concentration, vulnerable and exhausted. She might have been the invalid, but it was just a long day at work. The rain of the morning had cleared. Through the window the garden looked rinsed, photogenic, spring-like, and the camellias’ vulgar splash of red was shining. There were new beginnings going on down there.
“You didn’t have to wait long in the rain,” Sonia said, in the end.
“No, it was only a few minutes,” Toby said. “I was fine.”
“And the doctor?” Sonia said. “Did you see Molly”?
“It’s such a lottery, those on-the-day appointments,” Toby said. “I had to see Dr Lady Whitaker.”
“I thought you weren’t going to see Dr Lady Whitaker anymore.”
Dr Lady Whitaker was a GP; they had discovered quite by chance that her husband, also a Whitaker, had been knighted for services to the Conservative Party, or making money in the City, or something. She did not use her title in the surgery: Toby and Sonia did, sometimes speculating what she would be called if the government made her a dame. Dr Dame Lady, perhaps.
“That was all there was,” Toby said. “She was fine, really. They all have exactly the same information in front of them.”
Then he started coughing. He had to cover his mouth with a towel; it was disgusting to produce sputum while Sonia was eating. When he came back from his efforts, hunched over with the effort of coughing, she had finished her soup and had drawn herself upright. She was doing that thing with her tongue on her teeth, cleaning a leaf of suspected spinach off.
“But it was fine,” Sonia said in the end.
“Yes,” he said, determined that what he had to tell her would not be what the doctor had said to him in the surgery, a story at the beginning of managed decline. “Yes, they’re very pleased with me.”
What he had seen was a story of distinction and shame, and it had amused him. Perhaps he had not told it well enough. It had been raining, quite heavily, when the tetchy taxi driver had dropped him off. There was a huddle of patients standing underneath the canopy
“The rain of the morning had cleared. Through the window the garden looked rinsed, photogenic, spring-like…”
waiting for the surgery to open. He had joined that huddle, in which a queue was somehow manifest, like a hierarchy in a chicken pen. One person waiting was not underneath the canopy, however, but sitting on the wall three metres away, in the full force of the rain. She was getting soaked underneath a plastic rain hood, and was smoking a cigarette substitute with determination.
“I just couldn’t understand,” Toby said. “I couldn’t see—why would someone wait in the rain when there was plenty of room under the canopy with everyone else?”
“That must have seemed odd,” Sonia said, but she seemed distracted, picking at a dried piece of food on the tray.
“Then I saw,” Toby said. The thing was that next to the surgery there was a pharmacy where prescriptions could be collected. It opened at half past eight in the morning, some time after the surgery itself. The woman waiting in the rain, sitting on a wall smoking a substitute cigarette, she wasn’t a patient waiting to see a doctor. She was a junior assistant in the pharmacy, and was waiting for someone senior enough to be entrusted with keys to come and open up.
“Well, of course, it’s important,” Sonia said, rattling it off a little impatiently. “They can’t give keys to a pharmacy to just anyone, probably only to people with some seniority. There’s any number of things in the back there, heroin, even.”
“But the thing was,” Toby said, “she just wasn’t going to wait with patients. She really wanted to make it clear that she was much more important, or something, so she had to wait in the rain, 10 feet away.”
“That’s funny,” Sonia said. “And then they unlocked the door and let you in, and only when all the patients had been let in, then she got up and stood by herself under the canopy.”
“Yes,” Toby said. “She could have come in and sat in the warm in the waiting room, but then—Sonia?”
“It wasn’t this morning,” Sonia said, as the door to the bedroom opened.
A figure came in, standing there, just as Toby started saying, “Have I told you all this?” It was a girl, 19 or 20, her shoulders rounded in her green mackintosh, her blonde hair falling to both sides equally from a severe parting, dead on the centre of her skull. Toby recalled: her name was Lucy. She came every day.
“It happened weeks ago,” Sonia said, her head turning a little in the direction of the girl called Lucy, but not acknowledging her in any other way. “I’m sorry, Toby. You’re just a bit confused. It was the morning you first went to the doctor, the morning they diagnosed you. It’s the medication, it makes you not clear in your mind. Anyway. Are you tired? Lie down. I’ll rearrange the pillows and put the light out. Lucy’s going now.”
And then it did seem to him that he had been confused, because it came to him in a moment of understanding that he was, after all, in bed, and Sonia, his wife, was sitting in a chair by the side of him, finishing a bowl of soup after her long day. He didn’t know why he’d thought anything else. The girl called Lucy raised her hand in an upright gesture, unpractised and unfamiliar and embarrassed, a gesture from a political movement, or one made at first greeting or a first farewell, from one uncommitted to friendship and uncertain that any of this might happen again. He watched it with interest.
Maybe it was the next day that Lucy came into his room and said to him—
No, it was not like that. He was dressed and in his chair downstairs. But the chair had been moved and was now facing the mirror in the sitting room. Who would put a chair like that? It made reading so difficult, to look up between paragraphs and see that that was what you looked like, these days, and what you were made to wear by someone who thought you were old and might benefit from putting on your best clothes. (Cardigan, cravat.)
It was like that. Lucy came into the room and said to him, “I’ve forgotten my shoes.”
“I’m always forgetting things,” he said. But she was wearing shoes.
“I’m such an idiot,” Lucy said. “I’m going out straight away after this. When Sonia comes home, I’m going straight into Soho. I’ve got a date. I can’t be turning up with these on. I need my good shoes and I’ve forgotten to bring them to change into.”
“Is he nice?” Toby said. He looked at her shoes again. They were flat, practical, scuffed, the shoes of a carer with miles of corridors to walk. She was wearing a green tweedy dress with pockets in front, and black opaque tights: she looked charming, he said to himself, relishing the octogenarian expression.
“Well, I don’t know yet, do I?” Lucy said. “I’ve made a date on Tim”—that was what she seemed to say—“and I’m meeting him for the first time tonight. He sounds really nice but the things I said about myself—you know—the things I said about myself, I can’t be turning up with these on. I’m going to have to—”
Somewhere about Lucy a harp twanged. She was surrounded with haloes of annunciatory noises, the harp twanging regularly as if in joy or celebration. He knew now what it was: her mobile phone announcing a text message, but Lucy never answered it in front of him, and it was as if nothing had sounded at all. She ignored the invisible harp now, sounding a chord. She assessed him with a long up-and-down gaze. He couldn’t think what he had to do with Lucy’s tasks, her schedule.
“I like your shoes,” Toby said. “If I was meeting you for the first time, your shoes wouldn’t be the first thing I’d notice about you.”
“I don’t know what to do,” Lucy said, going to the window and peering out—up at the sky, down at the dry earth. “I don’t know what to do. How are you feeling today?”
“I’m not so bad,” Toby said, wondering. Had he had his lunch yet? There were no plates about with the lunch congealing on it. Lucy, he remembered, sometimes left his lunch there for an hour or two before she got round to clearing it up. His afternoon cup of tea, on the other hand, she usually took away quite quickly, washing it up with the lunchtime things so as to do everything at the same time. So, he thought with firm direction, he had probably not had his lunch yet. Then he remembered that he could have looked at the clock on the mantelpiece and he looked at the clock on the mantelpiece and it said that it was 10.30. “I don’t feel so bad today,” Toby said again.
“The shoes are at my sister’s,” Lucy said. “It’s not so far away. I lent them to her two days ago. She had a do to go to, she’s a PA in the City, she had a do to go to with her boss. I know where they’ll be—she’ll have kicked them off under her bed. She lives in Clapham, it’s only a mile from here. I’ve got my little car, I’d be there and back in 20 minutes if I can find a space to park in.”
She came over from the window and, delicately, as if a part of her own personal grooming, she straightened his cardigan. It hung loose over his shoulders nowadays, this blue one. He must remember to wear the brown one tomorrow. That was a better fit.
“I was going to say,” Lucy said. “You don’t mind being left for half an hour, do you? I was going to say that, but you’re feeling a bit better today than you were, aren’t you? Don’t tell Sonia, but I don’t see why you shouldn’t put on a coat and get in the car and come out with me. It’ll be good for you to get some air. And then you won’t be on your own, not for a minute. That sounds better, doesn’t it?”
“I don’t know when I went out,” Toby said. “It was some days ago, I know.”
Lucy peered at him, as if at a shy beast in an overgrown burrow, not quite sure that she could see him there at all. She might have been trying to read the phrase that was now coming to the front of his mind: total rest. Was it for him to make up his mind? It was all coming at him backwards, and sorting it all out was too much. Lucy was going to take him out now: she would put him in his coat and scarf and put him in the car and drive him to the place where she wanted to go and then she would bring him back and everything would be just as it had been before. It was all decided. But who was Lucy?
He asked her as she was dressing him, in a grey tweed coat that belonged to someone else, someone much larger whose possessions flapped about him in a warmly annoying way, as she was placing a woolly hat on his head, and she told him quite quickly. She had been with him for three months now. She was the daughter of Sue, who was in Caroline’s book club—Caroline who worked with Sonia his wife? (He knew who Sonia was, bridling a little.) She had finished at college and was looking for a job, had been looking for a job for eight months now without much luck. Remember? (He might have remembered.) It was a job in journalism she was after, in the fashion world, she loved that, but it was all sewn up, daughters of friends getting everything, she didn’t think they read what she sent them. So it was this, this was to fill a gap, coming in to sit with Toby during the day so he wouldn’t be on his own while Sonia was at work, doing, Lucy said, whatever it is I do for you. But Sonia doesn’t want you to be alone in the house for a moment. I can understand that, Lucy said. But don’t tell her what we’re doing today, Lucy said. And then the door was open and Toby was in the outside world.
“She came over from the window and, delicately, s if a part of her own personal grooming, she straightened his cardigan”
They had lived in this street for nearly 20 years—had bought the house at the stretch of their incomes, had renovated it, then done nothing more. The street had risen about them; the pub that had been at the end, an old Irishmen’s drinking den, had been utterly transformed into a chichi cottage with a sage-coloured front door and suggestions of tongue-and-groove through the frosted downstairs glass. The pub that had been at the other end was now a gastro-pub, with floorboards, that served shin of beef and took bookings. The street was altered, he knew that, but no alteration was like the one that had taken place in the weeks or months since he’d gone outside. He knew it had been weeks or months from the alteration. There was a lightness and a delirium about the air. The houses were luminous, weightless, drawn clearly against the purity of the air’s colour. He felt if he touched anything in this street it would have no more substance than a Ladybird illustration of a happy suburb: that, dislodged by his pained touch, it would most likely float away into the blue sky. Lucy was here as his guide. It did not matter that his eyes, until just now, had not been asked to look at anything more than 15 feet away, that looking down a long street or upwards into nothing at all, they sang and resonated with the effort. She lived in the world, stepped outside and inside without thinking about it. That was what she was hired to do, and now as she opened the door of the black Mini that was parked at the bottom of the steps, she was talking about something else entirely.
“She’s not at work today,” Lucy was saying. “She’s only got two weeks to go before she’s off permanently on maternity leave. Well, I say permanently—it’s only six months. It’s not much. She was wondering whether she should be wearing the heels to the do last night at all, whether she’d be better advised to go in flatties. But she’s like me, she wants to be glamorous. She should be in work today, but I know she’s not. She was planning to call in sick today, she said they’d not care, it only being two weeks before she’s off anyway. Are you all right there? Tuck you in. Do you want a blanket? It’s not cold, but if you want one, I’ll get you one.
“And off we go,” Lucy said. For the first time he could remember, she plucked out the mobile phone from one of her pockets, and stabbed at it with both thumbs. She sighed, put it back, and started the car. “It’s been a while since you’ve been out. Do you fancy going anywhere? Not to get out, just to have a look as we drive through.”
Toby thought, but nothing came to mind. The high street was astounding, full of people. What were they doing? What did their lives contain, so separated from Toby’s long days in his interior? He must have seen them so many times before, been part of them, walked among them with no sense of detachment or ecstasy, never been overcome by the shimmer and flash of life reflected in the polished glass of the front of Sainsbury’s shop; never seen with a full view the promise and meaning of people, animals, properties going between the long history of buildings and the lives they contained and still would contain. The dizzy quality of light held all of these for him as, with an invalid’s eyes, he reflected on the unconscious world of the healthy. Could they see him? Driven by Lucy, he was not sure. And after a pause at the traffic lights, the rich openings of the high street proved to be only a preface, because in a moment of splendour the forgotten possibilities of the Common were before them, the shining round of the pond, the tall outlined possibilities of the white noble church, and beyond that, the green and brown atmospheres piling up in the radiant clarities of the Common itself. He had not thought there were such spaces in London, any more.
“I think I’d like to go to the butcher’s shop,” he said eventually. “The posh one over there.”
“We’ll go on the way back,” Lucy said reassuringly. “If that’s what you’d like. We’ll get something nice for your tea, if you feel up to it. She’s in South Clapham—well, she says Battersea, actually, but it’s hardly even South Clapham, it’s more like Balham borders. I don’t really know where these things begin and end. You’re in Clapham proper. I wish she’d text me.”
“Look at that,” Toby said, meaning the boy running across the vast expanse of the Common, a kite high above his tipped-back head. To run like that!
“I’ve met some quite nice people through Tim. I’d tell you but I’d never tell my mum, and I don’t know that it was a good idea to tell Katy either, the way she goes on about it”
“My sister’s on at me to sort out my life,” Lucy was saying. “She never shuts up. When I told her about this date tonight—the date I sorted out through Tim I was telling you about—she said, Oh, you mustn’t do that, you don’t know what they’re like. But I’ve told her all about it, I’ve told you, I’ve told everyone, so I’m not going to get kidnapped or murdered or anything. It’s quite safe, Tim.”
“I don’t really know who Tim is,” Toby said.
“It’s not a who,” Lucy was saying. “It’s a nap.” Or that’s what he thought she said, but then she said, “It’s a dating app,” and he remembered what those were, or nearly. “You put in your details, and he puts in his details, and you go on a little shopping expedition, and you chat a bit, and if he seems OK and you seem OK to him, then you might meet up. I’ve met some quite nice people through Tim. I’d tell you but I’d never tell my mum, and I don’t know that it was a good idea to tell Katy either, the way she goes on about it. We can’t all be like her with a steady boyfriend going to antenatal classes alongside.”
The glow and song and lightness of the world beyond the windows was gone now. Toby felt tired, or that phase of the body that he summed up by using those words—a tremor, a pressure, at the extremities of wrist and leg and a pressure on the part of the chest where you might breathe and even eat. The world seemed to be going past too quickly now. He closed his eyes and it was gone. When he opened them again he did not know where he was. The car had stopped and it was in a street with large houses set back from the road, mature trees to either side. He was in the passenger seat of a car, parked to the side of the road. He felt shaky: his hand when he held it out had a tremor in it, and when he pulled down the mirror in the sunshade against the windscreen, the face in it was white and frightened. A woman in her sixties, a well-dressed woman in a brilliant yellow coat and a headscarf, was standing across the road inspecting him. In a moment, she crossed the road, her polished handbag swinging with purpose, and rapped on the window of the car. Toby wound the window down.
“I don’t think you can sleep here,” she said; her voice was patrician but regretful, kindly. “You’ve been asleep for half an hour at least. I think you’re going to have to move on, I’m afraid.”
“I’m waiting for someone, actually,” Toby said.
“You’re lucky that the traffic wardens haven’t been along,” the woman said. “They’re a holy terror in St Bartholomew’s Avenue, patrolling up and down like soldiers on an exercise. Are you all right? You look rather unwell.”
“I should be all right,” Toby said. He tried to remember how it was that he’d come here, and in a moment he remembered that he had been driven. If he could just stay here for a few minutes then the person who drove him would drive him back safely, and then everything would be quite all right. “I live in Clapham,” Toby said.
“Well, you’re not so very far from home,” the woman said. “But I don’t think you can sit here all day. People might think you were casing the joint, you know.”
He did not know what to say to that and, quite at once, he felt extremely ill. The head he seemed to be in was expanding and yet stony, inflexible, and great invisible rocks were inflating within his mouth. He could not breathe. Soon it would be time to go home but how he was to find his way home he did not know. The woman standing outside the car might help him. He was in a car and he did not know how he had got into the car and how he had been taken to this place. The word Lucy came into his mind. He opened his eyes, not being quite aware that he had shut them, and although he did not feel quite as good as he should, the pitch and toss of the world had subsided.
In darkness it could be anywhere and he could be anywhere. He opened his eyes again in experiment and the street was as it had been. The woman who had spoken to him from outside the car had gone. A different woman was opening the car door and getting in.
“I don’t feel all that well, Lucy,” Toby said.
“Did you want Lucy?” the woman said, and now Toby looked at her and found that she was not someone he had ever seen before. “You’re Toby, aren’t you? I’m Lucy’s sister’s flatmate—I’m Minnie. She was lucky—it was my day off. I was just lazing about the flat. I’m so sorry. I wanted to come and bring you in, it was all taking so long, but we came out and you were fast asleep. You looked so peaceful Lucy said to leave you be. It’s quite a performance. The famous shoes—they’re not here. It took us 25 minutes to establish that elementary fact, and now it turns out that Charlotte, Lucy’s sister, she left them at her friend Giuseppe’s last night. How she came home and in what condition, I really don’t know. Shoeless.”
“Is Lucy…” Toby said. He felt there was a question he needed to ask.
“She’s all right, but it’s all proving a touch more complicated than she thought. She’s gone to Giuseppe’s, he’s only round the corner. I thought she’d driven there but she just sent me a message, can you believe it, saying she came out of the house and was so focused on the shoes and how to get to Giuseppe’s that she totally forgot she had you sitting outside at all. She says she walked but I don’t see how she can have done. She must have taken a taxi. So she says can I drive you home and she’ll come back very shortly and she’ll get another taxi, just once she’s got her shoes from Giuseppe. She shouldn’t be more than an hour all in all. I’m so sorry about all of this.”
Toby shut his eyes again.
“You’re ill, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” Toby said. “I’m very ill. I should be at home.”
“What is it?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Toby said. “I haven’t been outside for weeks.”
“You shouldn’t be outside now,” the woman said. “Shall I drive you home?”
“I don’t have the keys,” Toby said.
“House keys or car keys, do you mean?” the woman said. “Because she’s actually left the car keys in the ignition, look. Very unlike her, planning ahead.”
“I don’t have either,” Toby said.
“And no-one at home to let you in, I suppose. And no key under the doormat, I hope. Right,” the woman said.
It struck him that in that other world, where he once had lived, men like him had left the house with a number of important props for their future convenience. There was the car key, and there was the house key, neither of which he now had. He would be taken from place to place and deposited like luggage. And there was the wallet, which contained money for any important purpose and the cards that went with money. He felt in his pockets, but there did not seem to be any wallet there. There was a hard rectangular lump, but that was not his wallet. He remembered that he was hoping to go to the butcher’s shop later, that he really wanted to go to the butcher’s shop, but now he did not know whether he could. He fetched out the hard rectangular lump, and that was the other thing that people took out with them, that he had taken out with him: a mobile phone. He did not know the last time he had used or answered it, and placed it quietly on his lap.
“Do you want to call Lucy?” the woman said. “Was that what you wanted?”
Toby was not sure. Outside, the other woman was standing at her gatepost. Now she had a small white dog in her arms, a terrier of some sort, and with its right paw she was imitating a sort of wave, a wave hello or goodbye.
“There’s loony Georgina,” the woman in the car said. “She’s always bringing her awful dog out to say hello to the street. Pay no attention. Shall we call Lucy? I know where she’s gone, it’s not far. We could just drive round there.”
“I really wanted to go to the butcher’s shop,” Toby said. “But I think it might be too late now.”
The woman whose name was Minnie gave him a sideways look as she started the car. “It’s not late,” she said. “It’s not lunchtime yet. Is it the butcher’s in Clapham you want to go to? They’re open until 7pm today, I happen to know. Is it all a bit much?”
They began to drive off. When Toby opened his eyes again, they were on a dual carriageway, and the woman Minnie was explaining something.
“It’s cruel, really,” she said. “My sympathies are with you. My boyfriend’s looked into it a lot, and I must say, when it comes to my turn, I’m absolutely clear—I don’t want to drag on for months and years becoming a… just getting iller and iller. Just a quiet little pill and that’s the end of it, and everyone can remember you how you were. It’s simply tragic, though, you can’t do that, it’s against the law. My boyfriend says that by the time it comes to it—I’m only 32—the law’s going to turn a blind eye. I don’t know. I think we’re going to have to confront it sooner or later. I’ve told him that he can just grind up the pill in my food if I can’t talk or move or anything, but he says he’ll just do it anyway, anyone would. I’m sorry. I don’t mean to go on…