Risk and consequence

Got the blood test results yesterday. Would you believe it’s four years since the last ones? Time flies when you’re having chronic degradation of your biological functions, doesn’t it? The best news was that I’m still not a diabetic, and that for a male in his late fifties, my PSA is normal, so no finger up the bum – not for medical reasons at least.
Cholesterol 8.3. Yes, that’s up on four years ago. So few scores increase these days, one thinks it’s something of an achievement – would that blood tests included IQ results – but then again, perhaps not.
So, what the hell is 8.3? Yes, Yes, it obviously combines good scores and bad scores – like getting 93% for your three point turn in the driving test, only to fail by running over a small child on a pedestrian crossing. It means that the doctor advises I go on statins.
What their records don’t show is that I was on them some years ago because I knew my cholesterol number was high and rather than get a prescription, which at the time would have cost me €45 per month to buy, I stopped into a pharmacy off the Ramblas in sunny Barcelona while weekending on rich creamy food and lots of drink, and bought a month’s supply for €2.50. Having a slightly older brother-in-law who also self-prescribes helps – like having an older brother who smokes I guess. Anyway, having bought a month’s worth, I decided to buy a couple of years’ worth and started self-medicating. After about two years of noticing precisely nothing from taking them, and failing to have another blood test, I went to India, and in a fit of holistic meaningfulness (something which India engenders), gave them up. A few months later, having blood tests for some other reason, I was told my Cholesterol had risen to about 7 from about 6. Who’s counting?
Back on the statins, and another year later, stopped again – I’m quoted as admitting to feeling under pressure to give them up because one side-effect reported in some medical journal is that they’re supposed to dampen your ardour, not so as to make you soft in your old age, but just to take away the urge. Did I notice this side effect? No, I can’t say I did, in retrospect, and even if there was statistically a shift in activity levels over a four year period, I’d have put it down to the chronic degradation of biological functions (again). But let’s not post-rationalise something so fundamental to one’s well-being as sex. If I was less driven, then I would risk a coronary to keep my mojo.
Two years later and 8.3 raises the question: what are the cons of statins, and do they outweigh the pros? The pro is singular, as far as I’m concerned. It is a reduction from 8.3 to something less – who knows what is appropriate, for an old git with so many other issues in his life, most of them from the neck up. Let’s say we get the number from 8 to 6 with the help of statins. Let’s say we don’t suffer from the myriad of other side-effects which include, incidentally, diabetes caused by raised blood sugar, muscle pain, diarrhoea and stomach problems, loss of memory and not to mention the pain in the bum caused by buying and taking a drug permanently …
Change your diet, I hear the multitudes cry. Get rid of all those cholesterol-inducing foods. Well, yes, I do have to admit to a passion for full fat cheese, bacon and other processed meats, and I will bite that bullet, if I must, but then I also love avocado, spinach, nuts, oats and dark chocolate – yes, chocolate actually reduces cholesterol.
But the issue is numbers. After all, like all probabilities, they’re only possibilities, risks. A score of 8.3 raises the level of risk of coronary. WebMD says:
190 mg/dL and above represents a high risk for heart disease and is a strong indicator that the individual can benefit from intensive treatment, including life style changes, diet, and statin therapy for reducing that risk.
For LDL levels that are equal to or less than 189 mg/dL, the guidelines recommend strategies for lowering LDL by 30% to 50% depending on what other risk factors you have that can affect the health of your heart and blood vessels.
Risk management. That’s the question. How do you look at risk as you move from the thrills and spills benefits of a life driven by the need for risk to the fears which go with risking the precious 8889 days left? Maybe it’s time to stop wondering about these things and accept that a healthy person is one who enjoys life and risks enough to be stimulated and stimulating, that so much else matters more than biological degradation… But interestingly, health is the number one worry for most people once they’re past the mid-point.
Fuck it. Back onto the statins!

Doctor (2015)

I’ve got an early appointment but
there’s already a woman in the waiting room;
Small, solid and pale, tired looking.
She reminds me of the queen,
the world on her shoulders,
looking straight ahead,
absorbing her suffering.
She’s counting under her breath.

I think my heart is going to misbehave, you know:
pain in the chest,
down the left arm,
palpitations.
Classic: cut down when I’ve finally begun to get there.

We’re both looking for our fifty euro reassurance.
She thinks it’s mild for the time of year.
She smiles like a mother.
I’m thinking of Freud standing naked at the easel,
eighty, sinewy, staring intensely, wielding his brush,
ready for the fight.

He tells me it’s probably my back:
tension, too much coffee, wine, cheese.
But we’re not getting any younger.
I stopped taking the statin,
it took away my sex drive.
He’s older than me – he takes it,
but its OK to stop, he says,
half the world is on it,
but you seem healthy, for your age.

As I’m leaving, I see her
climbing into an ambulance.

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Tempus Fugit

− Hi. Can I ask you something?
− I don’t see why not.
− How long do I have?
− You want an accurate answer or will I make it up to make you feel immortal?
− No, the truth of course.
− OK, 24 years, 123 days, 4 hours and 16 minutes. 8889 days or 213,000 hours, 12.8 million minutes. Accurate enough?
− Yes, thanks. 8889 days doesn’t sound that much. 24 years ago I was already 35, and it doesn’t seem that long ago.
− True, and don’t forget how time seems to gather pace as you age.
− Thanks a bunch! So that’ll make me just under 84 when I shuttle off, which bears out the theory about knowing when you will die.
− What’s that? Not that God-awful idea in Tuesdays with Morrie? The one where you note the first day you spent more time looking back than looking forward and double it? Pile of crap, you know. Do you want to know how it ends?
− No, I don’t think so, thanks.
− So, why did you ask how long?
− I was reading about climate change and the prediction that Ireland will be overwhelmed with floods and storms and baking hot summers within the next few years and I was wondering whether it would be in my lifetime.
− It will.
− OK, so what am I going to do with the 24 years and some? I’ve been wondering if it’s all downhill from now.
− Well, let’s see. You currently spend 16.7% of your time watching television. And that’s actually 24.6% of your waking time. Can you go downhill from that?
− Sure. Not all of that is a waste – though nearly all. I’m assuming there will still be TV in 24 years, and that it will still be full of reality shows and soaps and movie re-runs?
− Yes, and news will be available on premium-rate channels which you’ll be vetted for before you can subscribe. Except during elections, when it will predominate on the soaps channels. There’ll be the ‘live war’ channel, and a whole raft of live disasters channels, mostly featuring storms, hurricanes, floods and suchlike
− And will I spend 16.7% of my time watching TV in 20 years time?
− No, 25%, which will amount to one third of your waking life. You’ll actually be sat in front of the holographic 3D light box on your coffee table, as it will be then, for one in every three minutes of your conscious existence. The quality of the input will have gone down, and your lack of processing will have gone up, so you’ll effectively be vegetating.
− What else will I be doing that I don’t do now?
− Well, you currently sleep 31% of your time, and that’ll drop to 25%, as you’ll need less. Not to mention the time you currently spend on the toilet, 1.7% of your waking time, will treble. You currently read 4.2% of your time, and I’d be lying if I said you’ll become a literary leviathan by then. You’ll try to read for half the amount of time you do now – you just won’t have the attention span. You currently spend 6.3% of your time eating, which is taken up with one hot meal and two snacks a day, with conversation and pace to them. This will remain the same, though you will eat less and more slowly, and the conversation will be desultory, or non-existent, depending on whether you outlive your wife.
− I hadn’t thought of being alone. Will I be? Alone? Wouldn’t that have a big impact on my use of time?
− Yes, but you don’t get to know about anyone else, so let’s make the assumption you go before she does.
− OK, let’s. What about exercise? I must spend an average of an hour a day in the gym or walking the dog?
− You currently spend 4.2% of your time on that, and it will halve, as you become less able to walk, though you’ll still try, but it will take you ages to get anywhere, so it will take 2% of your time. The gym membership will lapse pretty soon.
− So I make pots – I spend 4.2% of my time in the pottery – not a lot, I know, but I guess that falls away.
− Yes, and the 8% you spend earning your living on the computer. That goes pretty soon too, though you’d have it continue, you pass your sell-by date. Pretty ignominious really, but let’s not dwell on how everything falls away. You’re depressed enough already.
− What else?
− You spend time maintaining your home, cleaning (though that hardly counts), washing, doing paperwork and emailing, shopping, driving and lots of little things. Sex takes 0.3% of your time now, and you can guess how much that’ll be in 20 year’ time.
− Thanks. Let’s not dwell on that slippery slope.
− You currently spend 4% of your time doing nothing. On a good day. In 20 years’ time that’s trebled, and while your down-time now is infused with thoughts and ideas, creative nuggets, angst and schemes, it will be infused with confusion and numbness, blank spots and desperate attempts to recall names.
− Fuck. So it is all down-hill from here on in? Does it have to be? Shouldn’t I have one last fling? Another joust at the windmills of life? Take on a big challenge? Bite off more than I can chew?
− You really do fancy yourself as Don Quixote, don’t you. I was thinking more of Sancho Panza…
− Or maybe Brando in On the Waterfront: “I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it.”
− What I’ve told you is what will happen if nothing else changes. How it might be if the context stays the same and you don’t make anything happen. There are two options. Either you try and make changes, rather than strutting and fretting your last 213,000 hours upon the stage, or the world will change so fundamentally that whatever you think you’re going to do will be changed for you.
− And?
− And I’m not going to tell you how the world will change that will affect your life, but rest assured it will. I’m going to say that regardless of how the world is going to change – the climate, the migration of your species, the religious violence, the political violence, the economic injustice blaadie blaadie blaa – you’re going to have to make your own changes. Start with the hours in the day. Start with the minutes if you prefer, but make some changes, because the life force will not always be so strong. The opportunities for change will not be so great.
− OK, so. Any suggestions?
− That’s for another day, if you can spare some of that wasted time to think about it.

Rachel and Joe

“Dad, you forgot your pills last night. You have to try to remember to take them twice a day.” Rachel emptied three small pills from the Tuesday compartment in the dispenser and transferred them to the following Monday, the first empty box in the sequence.
“What’s the point of all that time in the hospital, and the expense, if you don’t keep up with the prescriptions?” She picked up her father’s empty whiskey tumbler, which lay on its side on the carpet beside his fireside armchair. “Did you go to bed last night?”
Joe slouched in the chair, a rug pulled over his legs. His brown wool cardigan was buttoned incorrectly so that one side pulled down and the other up. His slippers and the bottoms of his trousers were muddied, from walking in the garden without putting shoes on, and his grey hair was unkempt. He looked at Rachel through bleary eyes, whose whites were now a jaundiced yellow. He looked hung over but she knew he was being overwhelmed by the pain in his back, since he’d forgotten to take his codeine last night.
“No, love. I fell asleep by the fire. I just can’t seem to drag myself upstairs these days.” He stared into the burned out fire as Rachel tucked the blanket more tightly around his legs.
“That’s the drink, and you shouldn’t be drinking on this medication. You know that. Would you like Richard to organize a bed in the study for you?” Joe didn’t answer. He didn’t like Richard and wouldn’t accept his help.

Rachel was only thirty but had the gait and dress sense of a much older woman, something of a throwback, in her herringbone tweed skirt and pastel blue cashmere cardigan. She had bustled through the front door soon after 7am, dropping her shopping bag and handbag in the hall, and bent to pick up the post on the doormat, sifting through the circulars and personal correspondence to see if Joe had received any bills. Since he’d deteriorated, she and Richard had taken over paying his bills, after wresting control of his day-to-day banking from him.
Today, as always, she’d spent time the kitchen, cleaning the surfaces and cooking Joe’s bacon and egg, though he rarely ate anything for breakfast nowadays. Now she moved around him, wiping the dining table with a damp dishcloth and shifting chairs into alignment. Nothing had been used since yesterday, but Rachel needed to feel she was making a difference. She moved efficiently, cleaning up his dirty ashtray, opening the curtains and a window, and checking he was still coping, before she went in to work herself.
Each morning, Rachel tried to be in and out of Joe’s house in fifteen minutes. She rarely entered his bedroom, which she found hard to do, but it was a choice between paying a cleaner out of his pension, or doing it herself. She begrudged spending money on Joe, even if it was his money for now, and anyway, she knew it would be hard to retain anyone for long, given Joe’s living conditions. Really, he should be in a home or a hospital or hospice, but he was a stubborn old sod. She decided to leave the bedroom for the weekend.
“I have to take Emily to dance classes after school, so I’ll look in on my way home, about five thirty. Richard’s going to stay in tonight so I can take you to Hampstead for your reading.” Rachel stood looking in the mirror as she put on her coat and headscarf, reminding Joe of her mother.
“We’ll be leaving at six, so can you get yourself ready by the time I get here, OK?”
This had begun to create friction, as Joe might agree to prepare for an outing, only to fall asleep or become distracted, so that he was not at all ready when Rachel returned at the agreed time, and in a rush to leave.
“For God’s sake make an effort, dad, when you’re shaving. Last week at that college dinner, it was pretty embarrassing seeing you with bits of bloody toilet paper stuck to your chin.” She hated criticizing him. It seemed like bullying, now that he was so frail, and she felt it was somehow out of place, when she’d spent her whole life in fear of him. But since he’d become sick, she had effectively become the parent and he the child.
Really, Joe had it coming. He was always a bully himself, and she got precious little attention from him when she was growing up. What little time he did spend at home was given to her older sister, Emily, not her. When Emily died, Joe was just not there for Rachel or her mother. Now that he needed her and she felt nothing for him except a vague contempt, it was easy to push a little harder. She wanted to make him realize that he owed everyone, even if he was past the point when he could give any of them what he’d failed to give all his life.
Rachel’s life had swerved in Joe’s direction once he was diagnosed with myeloma. The family had assumed that she would look after him, despite her anger, and though her mother, Ellen, was in greater need of her company. Chloe, Rachel’s younger sister, was living overseas, and Joe’s second wife, Maria, didn’t involve herself. If Rachel could have shared the responsibility for Joe, or passed it on, she would have done so.
Ellen was at least independent though, and she loved her grandchildren. If it wasn’t for Ellen baby-sitting for her most weeks, it would be twice as hard for Rachel to spend so much time cleaning up after Joe. But Ellen wouldn’t want to hear that – she’d have lain down on the motorway rather than help Joe. Rachel understood the source of her mother’s anger, which seemed as strong now as it had been ten years ago, even though Ellen wouldn’t discuss Joe with the children.
“Leave it, Rachel darling. There’s just no point going back over old ground.” Ellen had barely spoken to Joe since the divorce, even when Rachel told her of his cancer. To Ellen, his behaviour after Emily’s death was unforgivable.
It had been six months since his diagnosis, and Rachel had found herself drawn into his illness, first as occasional chauffeur to hospital visits, or to pick up his weekly shopping, and later, when he couldn’t keep house for himself, as his daily skivvy. It was in her nature to be a carer. Since her early teens, Ellen had leant on her, and then she’d married Richard, who was pretty dependent in his way. Perhaps she’d chosen him for his self-pity. He certainly didn’t give her the protective support she craved. Like Joe, Richard was only really interested in himself, but unlike Joe, he hadn’t the charisma to make that attractive on any level. Richard’s best feature was his dedication to the children. Needless to say, Joe disparaged Richard to his face and behind his back, and Rachel often wondered how much longer she’d have to put up with the depressing dynamic between these two men. She knew that Joe’s death wouldn’t make everything right in her marriage, and she knew she couldn’t pretend that the current daily tension was just between her father and husband.
Emily had been gone over ten years, though her name lived on in Rachel’s daughter. Naming her child Emily had been discussed with Ellen, but Joe had not known until he attended her christening, and he had turned white when he saw her name in the order of service. Rachel chose the name in memory of her beloved older sister, who had fallen, or jumped, from Lambeth Bridge, while high on cocaine, and drowned.
Emily had been three years older than Rachel, and always more confident, and very daring even as a small child. Rachel had looked up to her throughout their childhood. She was a great performer in social situations, while Rachel had hidden in her shadow. Emily was the more beautiful, alluring even, while Rachel had only begun to lose weight and develop her looks when Emily died at 20. During their teens, Emily’s popularity and Rachel’s shyness were opposing forces.
“Oh come on Rach, let’s go to the rowing club disco on Saturday. Freddy’s going to be there and I know he wants to get serious.” Emily would be grinning into the dressing table mirror, while stroking her eyelashes with her mother’s mascara. At fourteen, she didn’t seem to care that Rachel, then only eleven, would be too young to get in to the disco, or that Ellen wouldn’t let her leave the house.
“Freddy’s brother is fourteen, so he’d be ideal for you, and he could bring you home, in case I’m occupied.” She cared about Rachel’s well-being to a point, but Emily had only one objective in life, and that was to push the boundaries for herself.
“You go. I’ll be fine.” Rachel would say. And that was usually what happened.
Emily died when Rachel was studying for her A levels, and Rachel’s life just seemed to fall apart. She took to staying in her room, staring at the walls, only venturing out to buy chocolate and biscuits. She slept most of the day, dropped out of school and had to repeat her final year. Despite everything, she managed to pull through the exams, and got accepted to do psychology at Oxford Brookes.
During her gap year, Rachel became pregnant, by a boyfriend she didn’t love, and the baby was due just before she was to start her college course.
Ellen, who was herself drifting hopelessly through her grief, offered to take care of the baby in Bayswater during term-time and Rachel could come home at weekends from Oxford, until things worked themselves out.

After a year of commuting at weekends to London to be with Emily, Rachel couldn’t bear being alone in Oxford without Emily any longer. She had been dreading talking to Ellen about taking Emily away from Bayswater.
“Emily loves her Gran, don’t you,” she said, “and it’s been wonderful knowing you’re looking after her so well while I’m away, but I can’t bear being there all week and her not with me.” Ellen sat stiffly in silence. She’d obviously been expecting this would come sooner or later. “Richard and I have worked out our lectures and we can manage her this year, and there’s a crèche on campus.”
“That’s fine, love, when you’re both settled in jobs and have an income, but it’s not an ideal environment to bring up a small child as students.”
“Mum, I know how much you love having Emily, and it’s great here, with the nursery and the garden, but she needs to be with her mother, now she’s learning to talk and walk. I don’t want to miss out on her growing up.”
Ellen smiled, resigned already to the change. “Emily will miss me and I don’t know how I’ll manage without her,” she said. Her whole body sagged and she looked suddenly much older. She stared out of the window.
“We’ll come home every couple of weeks to see you, and if you don’t mind the sofa, we’ll always have room for you in Oxford. It’ll be handy if you do come to stay, too.”
Emily spent the next two years in Oxford while Rachel and Richard both graduated and Richard found a job. Ellen came to stay as often as she could, but she was so depressed and had begun drinking heavily. It wasn’t good for Emily, and Rachel did whatever she could to put off the visits without being confrontational.

“Hi Richard, how’s the day going?” Rachel had the phone squashed between her ear and her shoulder as she opened the car door for Emily outside the dance studio. “Could you meet me at Joe’s at six on your way home? I want to move his bed down into the study, and I can’t do it on my own.”
Emily, like a sprite in her pink leotard and tutu, jumped into the back of the Volvo, still flouncing and swinging her arms after the class. She had an oval face and a shock of black hair, and every day, it gave Rachel a sharp pang, seeing her sister’s looks replicated in her own daughter. Emily hadn’t bothered to change out of her ballet slippers, which would need replacing before the end of the term at this rate.
“For God’s sake, Richard, not that again. I know he is, he’s my father isn’t he? He still needs looking after, whatever you think. And you’re doing it for me, not him.” Rachel was sick of defending her father to Richard and vice versa. It would be easier for her to keep them apart, but she sometimes needed Richard’s help, which meant walking the tightrope in an effort to keep the peace.
“OK, love. See you there. You know he’s got that bloody reading at Waterstones tonight, so you’ll have to take Emily home and I’ll take him, unless of course you’d prefer to… No, no, I thought not.”
She hung up, knowing full well that If Richard had to take Joe to his talk, she’d suffer for it. Richard would spend the night whinging about Joe’s bullying manner. Even though he was dying, he could still spit nails, and Richard didn’t deserve that. But just as she wanted to hurt Joe for all his carelessness over the years, so she wanted Richard to toughen up, and stop suffering for his placid weakness and lack of fight.

They got to Joe’s by 5.30, in just enough time to get him spruced up and ready to leave before Richard arrived to help move the bed. Rachel was hoping Joe would be dressed in his suit and just needing a once-over, so she would have time to cook Emily some fish fingers and chips at Joe’s before Richard took her home. Richard was apt to hit the wine and leave her in front of the TV till seven or eight, and not notice she hadn’t eaten. Richard worked in Human Resources, but dreamed of becoming a best-selling writer. He’d been trying to work on his novel in the evenings after work, and wasn’t getting anywhere as far as she could tell. At various points over the last two years, when he was sober enough after dinner, they’d talked about the plot, which she thought sounded two-dimensional. He was working through his father’s role in German politics, re-casting him as some sort of Nazi strategist, in a complicated plot-heavy thriller, despite his Jewish origins. As subtly as possible, Rachel had fed him her ideas, and he’d gone away happy for a while. Perhaps she should get co-author credits.
“Dad. Dad. Wake up! What the hell have you been doing all day? As if I need to ask.” Joe was sprawled in the armchair, and he stank of whisky and cigarettes. He had a damp patch on his shoulder where he had been drooling in his sleep.
“I’m completely bloody sick of your drinking. I’m sick of trying to make you comfortable and you not helping yourself one bit.”
She heaved at Joe’s arm to lift him out of the chair, though he wasn’t making any effort to lift himself. She gave up. Joe smelt as though he’d wet himself, and his half-closed eyes were sticky with mucous.
“Leave me alone. I’m not going to the fucking talk. I’ve got nothing to say. Get off me.” Joe didn’t slur his words, but his eyes were slow. “Hello Emm.” He added as Emily pranced into the room and tried to spin on one toe.
“Emily, take this into the kitchen and put the fish fingers under the grill. I’ll be in in a minute to start the cooker.” Rachel gave Emily the bag of food and waited while she left the room.
“How dare you. Who do you think you are swearing like that in front of my daughter, your own granddaughter?” Rachel was red in the face. “Do you think I want to waste my time coming here to look after you when you can’t be bothered? I hate you!”
“Don’t worry, I’ll be out of your way soon enough. I didn’t ask for your help,” he said with a grimace. “I can manage. You’re always bloody interfering. You were always the same, even as a child.”
“You selfish old bastard. You never cared about mum or me, did you? All you cared about was your bloody career, and screwing around.” She’d tried to keep the lid on her feelings. She hated swearing, and Emily was bound to be listening.
“What did you do with my glass?’ Joe stood up and searched the table. Rachel stepped across him and took his half-empty whisky bottle.
“Hey! You give me that bottle back or you’ll feel my hand.” Joe made a grab for it, and she stepped back out of his reach as he swayed and fell back into the chair. His impotence disgusted her. If he’d tried to slap her, she’d have hit him without a thought.
The doorbell rang and Rachel turned to go and open it with a mixture of relief and trepidation. She began to cry as Richard looked from her red face to the whisky bottle and reached out to hold her steady. She brushed past him and turned before he could comfort her, and opening the door to the under-stairs cloakroom, she quickly emptied the remaining whisky into the toilet.
“Right Joe. Richard is here and we’re moving your bed down to the study. Then we’re going to take Emily home, and you can get a cab to your bloody reading, or not. Please yourself.” She went into the kitchen and began pushing the frozen fish fingers, which Emily had arranged neatly on the grill pan, back into the Birds Eye box, which she stuffed back into the carrier bag. Emily looked at her mother and said nothing.
“What’ve you been doing to her, you old fucker?” Richard stood over Joe, clenching his fists and showing a rare attempt at confronting Joe.
“Leave me alone, Nancy boy.” Joe didn’t bother to look up to see the effect of his insult, but he knew it had hit home, as Richard retreated to the doorway.
“Right, let’s get that bed moved and get out of here.” Rachel barged Richard into the hall, and towards the stairs. She had heard Joe’s comment but said nothing. She too knew it was only said to hurt, but she couldn’t defend Richard on this one.
That evening and the following day, Joe pervaded Rachel’s thoughts. She couldn’t come to terms with his coldness and lack of appreciation for all she’d been doing for him. Despite the years of his inconsiderate behaviour, and of his desertion when she needed him most, Rachel couldn’t face the possibility that Joe didn’t love her. It seemed possible that he was overwhelmed with guilt, and that he saw her as an extension of her mother, and someone he couldn’t avoid in the way he had Ellen. The only answer she could come up with was to leave him to decide whether he would engage, and not visit him every day. She knew he’d be on the phone when the food ran out, or he couldn’t get a replacement for the bottle she’d poured away.

They had only once tried to talk about Emily since her death. Rachel and Richard had brought their daughter Emily, then three, to see Joe on his sixtieth birthday. Chloe was over from Paris, but she had made the decision not to see him. Chloe had a much tougher approach to Joe than Rachel did, and would never forgive him for the past. She was a chip off the old block really, and she’d told Rachel over dinner with Ellen that Joe could burn in hell for all she cared, though Rachel thought she said this mostly for Ellen’s sake.
Joe hadn’t seen his granddaughter since the christening, and now, as she played happily at his feet, he tried in his way to interact with her.
“Does she remind you of me at that age, dad?” Rachel asked. She knew he had little recollection of her early years, when he’d been in Westminster or his constituency almost all the time, and as she now knew, living with his secretary.
“I remember you when you were about four, looking just like this one. You were in awe of Emily then. She could do no wrong in your eyes, and we had the devil’s own job trying to separate you,” he replied.
“Why would you want to do that, dad? Did you think Emily was bad for me or something?” Rachel’s irritation was quickly stirred.
“No, love. It’s just that she was far too willful. Your mother couldn’t handle her, even then, and we just wanted you to have space to grow up as your own person.” Joe looked at Rachel a little longer than usual, as though he were inspecting her after years of not noticing her. Rachel blushed.
“So when I was a teenager, and Emily was living away, becoming harder to… you know, to predict, was I my own person then? Do you remember, dad?” She saw Joe disappearing into a reverie in front of her, hardly listening, and no longer looking at her.
“When Emily fell into the river…” Joe’s voice thickened.
“When she jumped into the river, dad.” Rachel could feel her anger bubbling up.
“We don’t know that, love. We don’t know at all. With all those drugs and drink inside her.” Joe looked suddenly terrified by the notion of Emily’s suicide, almost as though he hadn’t considered it before. “I blame myself for not being around enough, you know. I might’ve helped her.”
“And do you blame yourself for not being around for me and mum when she died?” Rachel had wanted to say that one thing for so long, and yet it didn’t feel in any way satisfying now.
Joe bent down again to Emily without looking at Rachel. “I think I know someone who might like a chocolate biscuit,” he said, and he went to the kitchen to fetch the tin, cutting Rachel off in the process.

For three days Rachel held off visiting Joe after the incident with the whisky. He didn’t call her, and she actually had a few hours each day without thinking about him.
On the third day, she was sure he’d need more food, and she had begun to regret the fact that they’d left him completely to his own devices, when the phone rang. The moment she picked it up she knew.
“Hello. Is that Rachel? Hello dear. It’s Mrs. Warburton, your dad’s neighbour.”
“Hello Mrs. Warburton, is everything all right?” She tried to sound calm.
“I was worried, so I used my front door key to check on him.” Her voice was even more shaky than usual. “Rachel dear. I found him in the chair. He was stone cold, dear.” There was a long silence. “The ambulance is there now, if you could come.”

On smoking

Now smoking was a different kettle of fish. When I started smoking back in 1977, I had to force myself to keep going for several days with my pack of Embassy, despite feeling sick and dizzy. I got through all 20 before I even enjoyed one drag. Amazing how self-image drives sacrifice in a teenager!
Actually, I started when I was five or six, because my mother smoked untipped Senior Service and I was unnaturally interested in how she made the smoke come out of her mouth and nose in swirling whisps, and how she pinched her tongue after the first drag to pull stray bits of tobacco off it.
One day she offered me a puff, and thinking that meant blowing, I didn’t demur. It seemed fun to hopd a cigarette and to blow into it.
But once she clarified that you suck not blow, I realized how disgusting and choking it was, and didn’t try again for fifteen years (although I do recall being arrested at the age of ten for smoking on the street in Cambridge).
The commitment I then made to getting through the first packet as a student paid dividends for 35 years – only they were dividends on tobacco company shares, not on my own. I persevered because it was cool, or at least I thought it was, and because about 90% of my fellow students smoked. Like most smokers, I wish I’d never started. There was the cost, which over the period I smoked amounted to over €60,000 at today’s prices and based on my average consumption of ten a day for 35 years. There was the smell, the environmental damage, the distain of half of a divided adult population, and of course the ill health. There’s no point writing about the downsides of smoking, and for smokers, no point in describing the benefits of it – you all know them. For the non-smoker, it’s hard to capture the pleasure involved in the first surge of nicotine through the body in the morning, or the pensive moments of taking out and lighting up a fag. In the end, the interesting thing is how, when and why to give up in middle age. It generally comes down to health, but it would be lying to pretend that self-image doesn’t play almost as large a part in the giving up as the taking up.
Yes, despite the cravings, the pleasure and the shear usefulness of the habit, those health issues weighed heavily. Now any smoker will tell themselves that they are fine with their shortness of breath, the bronchitic tendencies, their lack of taste and smell, their dry corneas, and their lack of sex drive. Come on! Let’s be realistic. Who would admit to that and be fine about it unless they were single. More likely, smokers won’t admit to suffering with any of these ailments, but they probably notice them. In the end, if they’ve given up and stayed with giving up, they’ll also admit to themselves how much better they feel about all these ailments.
For me, giving up was an on-off affair for several years, because stopping was easy, so re-starting was also easy. In the end, it seems that a slight and then greater tipping of the scales in favour of staying off them took place – the health issues were most evident, and the cost savings, but also, in one’s fifties, in a country where the smoking ban made it an outcast activity, the social pressure was increasing. And now, I can’t think of many people my age in my social circle who are regular smokers. I don’t miss it, even the pleasure of the habit. I gained some weight after giving up, which I didn’t lose again, and for a time I couldn’t watch someone lighting up my brand, Marlboro Lights, without a sense of regret, but that passed too. Sure it’s tempting to become a moralistic ex-smoker, and an evening in a room with smokers certainly smells much worse than it used to, but being comfortable with the lack of something is another lifestage thing which characterizes middle-age.