‘I’m afraid,’ she started hesitantly, ‘that it’s not good news.’ She looked up, first at George, looking straight into his eyes, and then after a few seconds, at Helena. Then she dropped her eyes, and shook the paper she was holding as though to straighten it. She hesitated again.
‘It’s cancer, isn’t it?’ George said quietly, and Helena flinched as though slapped.
‘Yes,’ the doctor said. ‘Well, it’s a type of cancer.’ She looked at the two of them, and her face clearly showed compassion. ‘It’s mesothelioma. A type of cancer, but thankfully rare. Have you had much to do with asbestos?
‘No’ George said.
‘Have you been involved in the construction business? Or in the navy?’
‘I did my ten in the navy,’ George told her. ‘Back in the early sixties. Stoker, I was.’
The doctor nodded, slowly. ‘It could be that,’ she said. ‘But it could be almost anything, rare though it is. Just a tiny fibre getting into the lungs. They used to use asbestos lagging around steam pipes in naval ships.’
George shook his head. ‘Weren’t told anything about that,’ he said. ‘You sure it’s that?’
Helena couldn’t stop sobbing. They sat in the car outside the clinic, rain drumming on the roof of the car. George put his hand on her knee, and let her cry, patting her helplessly. The car rocked a little as each truck passed, and waves of rainwater were thrown up by the passing wheels. Every few minutes lightning struck nearby, followed by rumbling thunder. After a very long time, Helena’s sobs began to subside. ‘I’m so sorry, George. I know I’m making things worse, but I just can’t seem to stop.’
‘I don’t blame you, love,’ he said. ‘It’s been quite a shock. For both of us. Three months? Bloody hell.’
‘I wish you had been to see your GP when you first started coughing.’
‘It was just a cough, then. No different to any other sort of coughing. How was I to know?’ He looked at her, and she seemed to have calmed down a little, though she was still clutching a handkerchief and holding it to her mouth sometimes. ‘Shall we get on home?’
‘How’re we going to tell Kasey?’ his wife said.
‘Reckon we’ll just have to give her a call as soon as we get home.’
He smiled at her. ‘She’s not going to like it, is she?’
Helena looked for a moment as though she was going to smile.
‘She won’t. She’ll go on about doctors being wrong, then she’ll tell us it’s all your fault, and why didn’t you know all about it years ago.’
‘I expect you’re right. Anyway, let’s get going.’ He turned the ignition key, fed the engine a little juice, put the car into gear, and cautiously edged into the stream of traffic. ‘Going to take a while if this traffic keeps up.’ And it did. And the rain continued to pour down. It was nearly dark by the time they reached home.
Helena rang Kasey. ‘It’s bad news, I’m afraid.’
‘Oh no!’ Kasey cried.
‘Afraid so. It’s a type of cancer. Mesothelioma.’
Kasey started to cry. Helena waited until she calmed down a little. ‘Yes. It’s pretty bad. I think you should come home, if you can.’
‘As bad as that, Mum?’
‘As bad as it can be. They give him three months.’
‘Oh no. Let me speak to him.’
Helena handed the phone to George. He nodded and took it from her.
‘Kasey love. Yeah, I know. Can’t be helped, though, and I’m not going to kick the bucket immediately.’
Kasey started crying again, and George waited patiently for her to stop. ‘It’s a shock isn’t it? It was a shock to me, I can tell you. But there, I’ve got some time.’
‘But Dad, three months? That’s no time at all.’
‘I know love. But I’m not even really ill yet, so I guess it could be longer.’
‘I’m coming home, Dad. I should be able to get there the day after tomorrow.’
‘Look, don’t rush, love. I’m not going anywhere just yet.’
Kasey, true to her word, got there on the Thursday just after lunch. ‘I half expected you to look terrible,’ she said. ‘But look at you. No change at all.’
‘Maybe not on the outside,’ George said. ‘But it’s true nevertheless. Short of breath most of the time, coughing and chest pain. That’s at the moment. It’ll get worse in time.’
‘But can’t they treat it?’
‘Look, there are a few things they can do, but they don’t seem to do a lot of good. And there’s no cure.’
‘Oh Dad, you should have gone to see your GP earlier…‘
George chuckled. ‘Don’t want to upset you love, but when it started maybe a year ago it was just a fairly persistent cough. Didn’t want to bother them at the clinic when it wasn’t really bad yet.’ He smiled at his daughter. ‘You know, I’m seventy-six years old, so I reckon whatever happens, even without this mesothelioma, I’m not likely to live more than another ten years, am I?’
‘Don’t talk like that, Dad. You’re not old.’
‘Old enough. Anyway, no point making ourselves miserable about something we can’t do anything about, is there?’ He patted her hand. ‘Now look, I’ve got a very important request to make before it’s too late.’
‘What’s that, Dad?’
‘I want a wake.’
‘Have you heard anything about a wake?’ Kasey asked her mother.
‘Awake? No, What’s that?’
‘No Mum, a wake. Has dad talked to you about holding a wake?’
‘No. I suppose we’ll have to hold one, or his mates will play up. Has he been talking to you about it?’
‘What he’s talking about,’ Kasey said with a certain amount of indignation in her voice, ‘is having a wake while he’s still alive.’
Helena turned and stared at her daughter. ‘While he’s still alive? What put that into his head, I wonder?’
‘Well, he seems pretty serious about it.’
Helena turned back to the sink, and carried on peeling potatoes. ‘As if I haven’t got enough to worry about,’ she muttered.
So after dinner she tackled him. ‘What’s this about a wake?’ she asked.
George smiled. ‘No point people saying nice things about me when I’ve already gone,’ he told her. ‘I want to hear what they say.’
‘I don’t think I’ve ever heard such nonsense,’ Helena said. ‘A wake isn’t supposed to be for you.’
‘So who else is it for, then?’
‘For the tiny number of people who just might come along.’ Helena said.
‘Mum! You can’t say that.’
‘No. I take that back. It was just a very poor joke.’
George grinned. ‘Not quite sure about that, either,’ he said, winking broadly at Kasey. ‘Anyway, I’ve thought about it for long enough, and that’s what I want. I’ll draw up a list of people to invite, and we’ll have it in a month. Should be safe enough. Perhaps wise not to leave it much later than that.’
And that’s what he did. After a few days Kasey started to help him ring people up. She was surprised to discover that a huge proportion of his friends thought it was a great idea, and got very excited at the plan. Many of them volunteered to speak at the wake, some hinting that George might not be so delighted at what they might say about him.
‘They’re only joking,’ George told his daughter.
‘Some of them sounded pretty serious,’ she muttered. ‘But I don’t suppose they’d come just to say something unpleasant.’
‘Reckon you’re right. Anyway, what’s that, twenty-five coming?’
‘But Dad, they’ll bring their wives too, won’t they?’
‘Them that have still got wives.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, some of them are widowers, and some of them have been divorced. And as you’ve been finding out, some of them are dead already, too.’
‘Not too many, thank goodness. When you tot up the numbers, you and your mates have done pretty well in the old-age stakes.’
‘Anyway, we’ll have to hire some place big enough to fit them all.'
'Didn’t think of that. And feed them all, too.’
‘I’ll find out tomorrow. The Commercial Club might be the go. Or perhaps the Footy Club. I’ll see tomorrow.’
Five days before the wake, George put a notice in the local paper, and had a chat with the events manager at the Footy Club, which Kasey had determined to be the better deal. ‘Looks like at least fifty will be here,’ George told him. ‘Could be more, though.’
The manager looked at him a bit oddly. ‘It’s rather strange,’ he said. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone arranging their own wake. For a start, you look perfectly well.’
‘If only,’ George said. ‘Reckon it’s right though. A couple of months, they say’
‘Well,’ the manager said, slightly flustered, ‘I’m terribly sorry.’
‘No need for that,’ George said cheerfully. ‘I’ve had a bloody good innings. This is going to be a celebration, not a lament.’
‘Well, I dunno. What do you reckon?’
‘Perhaps not, I suppose.’
It must have been the notice in press, because the hall was packed. George took the microphone from the stand, and greeted the gathering. ‘Friends,’ he said, ‘this is great. I know some of you, including my wife Helena and daughter Kasey, think I’m mad, but I’m not. I’ve had a brilliant life, full of adventure and friends, good times and just a few bad. So I wanted to thank you all for your part as extras in my story. I’m not going to say much more. If any of you want to step up say something, something nice, of course, then come on up.
And they did, nearly all the men, and some of the women, too. Helena found herself enjoying it enormously, and so did Kasey. The funny stories started to get a bit over the top, but they kept coming for well over an hour before everyone could see that George was growing tired, so soon enough the compliments came to an end.
Helena had the last word. ‘I’ve been with George nearly fifty years, and I can’t imagine a happier life,’ she said, tears pouring unhindered down her face.
Everyone wanted to shake hands with George, or hug him, and mutterings of ‘Good luck, mate’, were repeated as the crowd left the clubhouse.
‘Well, love,’ George said, ‘that was great. Reckon everyone enjoyed it.’
‘You were right about that,’ Helena said. ‘But I’ll be glad to get to bed.’
‘So will I,’ George said. And Kasey drove them home through the darkened streets.
‘Want anything, Dad?’ Kasey asked.
He put his arms around her and kissed the top of her head, then gathered Helena too, and they hugged for a while. ‘No love,’ George said, ‘I’ve got everything I need. Let’s get off to bed. Reckon I could sleep for a week.’
George was last in the bathroom. He took a small package from a cupboard. He re-read the instructions, then took one of the bottles and swallowed the contents, an anti-emetic. He checked the time and went to the bedroom. With Helena tucked in and reading for a while, George got in beside her. ‘Don’t stay up too long,’ he said. He kissed her and looked into her eyes.‘Thank you for having made my life so fantastic,’ he said. ‘Couldn’t have been better.’
He lay back with his eyes closed, and contemplated his actions: in half an hour he would go back to the bathroom, get the second bottle from the package, then get back into bed and swallow the contents. On his bedside table was an envelope.