Most people don’t live in a building with a Wikipedia page, or in a flat that would bankrupt you to rent, a flat that needs three boilers to heat, a flat that should normally be owned only by overseas oil barons. It squats across the top three floors of an old Georgian building plastered with false colonnades and bulging windows. You can see it from Green Park station.
I pull into a side street and find the secret parking spot, the no-permit four-hour-stay one. I picture him shuffling around above me, going from room to room like a dormouse in a Greek labyrinth.
He opens the door and puts on a show, shouting out my name like he hasn’t seen me in decades, and I’m ushered inside quickly, as if I’ve been waiting for hours. Old portraits stare down at us from a musty gallery of high frames. He gives me a tight hug.
“Hairless everywhere?” I ask once we reach the kitchen.
“Everything,” he said. “And all at once. Overnight, basically.”
“Jesus,” I say, staring at the part of his face where his eyebrows should be. He’s eager to talk about it more.
“The thing is,” he says, running his hands over his scalp, “it’s already started coming back.”
“That’s great, right?”
“I mean yeah, but it’s coming back grey.”
He’s smiling, so I choose to laugh. “So, you’re going to be a–”
“A silver fox, or whatever, yes.” He offers me a drink, which I decline, so he has wine and I have tea.
“Eyelashes,” he continues. “Leg hair, nose hair, pubes, everything is gone.”
“Toe hair?” I ask.
“Let me check.” He pulls off a sock and squints at his toes.
“Nope, gone too.”
The kettle boils as we laugh and talk. It looks so out of place in the stately kitchen, like a forgotten prop on a film set. I tell him about my last shoot, the darkroom I built in my attic, my next job coming up in Paris, and his eyes take on a genuine shine.
His immune system is compromised from all the chemotherapy, so he can’t leave the flat safely – a cold could leave him bedridden for weeks. I’m his first visitor in seven months.
His parents have come back from New York a few times, and his sister too, from Scotland. But I’m the first part of the outside world he’s interacted with again, so he marvels at me like I’m hewn from precious stone. There are a thousand things to tell me, but he remembers to pause and ask me a thousand in turn.
At school, he effortlessly took up the central social role – pulling people into his orbit with nothing more than an educated charm and implacable confidence. He wore velvet jackets and leather boots so blithely that others started to wear them too. He was polite and impish in equal measure; so devoid of ego compared to the rest of us, as we tried so hard to imprint our own identities onto ourselves and others.
The kitchen in the flat is a mess. In the fridge, the food is expensive and mouldy. From the top of a cupboard, the old family cat watches us as we speak.
Drinks in hand, we walk down the hallway that connects most of the rooms. Colourful figures dance across a dozen tall canvases that lean against the wall.
“You drew these during chemo, right?” I ask, making an effort to lean in.
“These and plenty more. I’ve managed to sell two, the rest I’m going to paint over again.”
“What?” I say. “Why? They’re really good.” I mean it when I say it.
“I like them for a week or two, maybe three, but then the colours start to look wrong. This green here,” he points, “is too pale next to the red. It looks awful now. Like a fucked-up Christmas decoration.”
The abstract figure he points to, a dancing woman, stares out at us mid-pirouette. Her expression is pleading.
“I don’t think you should paint over them,” I say, quietly. “You have more canvas, right?”
He shakes his head. “That’s not the point.”
I gesture to my camera, and he waves his hand to signal go ahead. I take a picture of each painting and each time the shutter echoes down the hall.
“You haven’t signed any of them, either.” I say, straightening up.
“Why would I sign them if they’re not finished? I could wake up any day and realise that the colours are wrong, or the lines are shit, and it needs painting over. I only sign them if I sell them, because I can’t change anything after that.”
I’m not quite willing to concede the point, yet. “Surely if you look at these for long enough, you’ll see anything.”
He shrugged. “I see that they’re not right. Not yet.”
I look at the line of acrylic figures along the hallway, their colours already shifting. Each one seems to dance earnestly for the two of us, trying to steal attention and favour. I imagine them shifting from canvas to canvas, jostling for position and the best spot.
“Fuck!” he says suddenly. “I almost forgot!”
Outside, the streetlights from the main road don’t reach far into the private side-street, so he stands on the tarmac and waves at a motion-activated floodlight until it turns on. The air is dry and cold and quiet.
“I bought it when I thought I was going to die. All the research I read gave me a fatality rate of ninety percent, but apparently I was reading stuff published in the eighties.”
I’m briefly speechless. “What is it?” I ask, feeling like an idiot.
“She’s a 1961 Chrysler Newport. V8 engine, dual carburetor, matching numbers, steel bumpers, original Mojave Grey paint job on the nose. The roof even comes off.”
The tail-lights are shaped like rockets, and the rear end has fins to match. The headlights look like they’ve been sculpted out of the hood metal. It doesn’t have any wing mirrors. The tyres are white-walled, matching the roof. It looks both futuristic and classic. The car stretches out luxuriously across the tarmac, and the bullet-grey paint makes it look even more impressive than a childish red or blue finish. I feel like I’m standing next to the Venus De Milo.
I’ve been silent for a minute, and he’s waiting for me to talk.
“I feel like I’m standing next to the Venus De Milo,” I say, aloud.
“She’s beautiful, isn’t she.”
I can’t speak again. The car is incredible, it’s everything we had ever talked about. Since we were twelve, we’ve compared dream cars and fought over which classic car was the coolest, the fastest, the most powerful. When we were eighteen, we planned out a naïve cross-country road trip across the States, promising we’d save and buy a second-hand Mustang when we got there.
I take a picture with him sitting on the bonnet before we open the doors and clamber inside. The steering wheel is enormous, like the helm of a ship.
“You see the red arrows on the radio dial?” he asks, tapping the strange wooden dashboard. “They’re supposed to be the radio channels you could tune in to if you thought there had been a nuclear attack, back in the sixties. In the US, they were so sure that the Cold War was going to kick off that there were two radio frequencies giving twenty-four-seven updates on if the nukes had been launched.”
“Wow,” I say, impressed. Then, after a moment: “What’s the point of tuning to a radio station if there is a nuclear attack? What would you even do?”
“Don’t know,” he said. “Maybe if you wanted to go underground? I’ve been speaking to some guy on a forum about it.”
I nod, looking at the detailed leather. “What’s it like to drive?”
“The steering is all over the place.”
“Where have you taken it?”
“Just around, you know,” he says, gesturing.
I don’t ask how much it was; I figured he would tell me if he wanted to.
“Should we start her up?” I ask, with a grin.
“I left the headlights on last weekend, so the battery’s dead.”
I think about what the sound of the engine is like, tearing through west London with the steering pulling to the left, like all old muscle cars.
“Will the cancer come back?” I ask.
He looks surprised. He wanted to keep talking about the car.
“I have one more treatment scheduled. The specialists say it has a forty percent chance of coming back after that.”
“The numbers start to lose meaning after a while.” He looks in the rear-view, then over his shoulder. “I can’t do anything to change them. I can’t make them go up or down.”
When we get back inside, he asks if I have any cigarettes, so I nip out to the car to grab the pack in my glovebox – the pack I haven’t touched in over a month.
I never seriously considered telling him it was a bad idea to smoke. He’d had a year of people telling him again and again all the things he couldn’t do, and it had hardened him. Maybe it was irresponsible, but it was his decision, and I wasn’t going to overrule him like he was a child. Besides, they were my cigarettes, so who was I to tell him not to smoke?
He starts up a keening record player in the lounge as we sit and smoke. Rugby trophies glimmer from dim corners. Chinese porcelain, decorated vases and dignified old paintings crowd the room, as if we were in the belly of a giant wood-and-stone beast.
He proffers a handful of antiques he has bought from online auctions. A silver clock from 1895, which has stopped. A Napoleonic naval telescope and an old Scottish coin, called a groat.
He takes particular care to hand me a small bell. The black metal is warped and dull with age, with large letters etched into the surface, and it bears a crest I don’t recognise. It feels almost perverse, to be touching something that looks like it belongs behind museum perspex.
“It’s a dead bell,” he says. “This one is from a town called Hawick. The church used to ring them when someone in town died. Three sets of ringing for a man, two sets for a woman. Oh, and it warded off demons and spirits from the souls of the dead.”
I turn it over in my hands and shake it slightly. It doesn’t ring.
I thought he would be too tired to see me for more than an hour or two, but he talks fast and loud and burns with a comfortably recognisable enthusiasm. Tall shadows from the corners of the room rise and fall across him like wet logs over a roaring fire.
He doesn’t tell me how hard it must have been, even though it must have been very hard. We talk constantly about his cancer, and not about him. I ask about the size of his tumour, and he says it was a tennis ball, then a golf ball. It’s the size of a marble now but will be gone when his treatment is finished. I ask what he’s going to do when he’s cured, and he demands that I come with him on a holiday to Sicily with friends.
“I thought I would meet lots of people during chemo,” he admits. “It’s not like a movie. It’s not chill old guys all hanging out together for hours. I just spent weeks in a room.”
“Maybe because you went private?” I suggest. “It might be an NHS thing, the group rooms. I bet those old guys would have killed for their own room.”
“Maybe.” He toys with his cigarette butt, pulling it apart slowly. “I only spoke to the nurses. The doctors wanted to put me on a different treatment, which I refused. We’d just argue, so they would avoid me.”
“Yeah, that sounds awful.”
“I was always so tired too. I still am.”
I can’t pull any more words together.
“I just can’t wait to restart my life.”
Film photography is the process of exposing parts of silver halide-coated plastic to light, which burns a pattern, or image, into the plastic. After washing the plastic with chemicals, areas where the light was unable to reach are dark. These are what denote subjects and details, showing up as transparent – invisible – on the negative.
In the burned-bright areas of the photograph we talk, tracing a path through the light to navigate around invisible details.
He hugs me again at the door. “Thank you for coming, really. And for the card at the start, that helped, too.”
When he was first diagnosed, I sent a card around to all of our friends. He had just sent us a picture of him after shaving his head, so we covered the front of the card with pictures of Sinead O’Connor, Bruce Willis and Humpty Dumpty. Even a white cue ball.
Everyone wrote the same thing in it.
He keeps waving from the window as I get back into my car and pull out of the side street. On my way home, a stranger might swerve into me from the oncoming lane. Blow a tyre on the bridge. Close my eyes for a moment and drift off. The lift to my own flat breaks and falls four floors with me in it.
Streetlights illuminate the roads with blank white light. Huge shapes of buildings pass by unseen in the dark.
The image is cuballnewpic.jpg, MIR Graphics