The old man sat at the breakfast table. There was space for only two chairs and there were two dishes, two glasses of red fruit juice and two mugs of tea on the table. A younger man came and sat down.
“She’s just gone to have a chat with Joan next door. It’s to check she’s all right after … you know.”
The old man reached for a glass of juice, lifted and drank half of it. He moved a dish away, took a blue pill box and opened it. He tipped the contents out on the table mat. Then he began to poke at the tablets, shifting them into groups.
“Bloody hell Dad. How many are there?”
“Sh.” The old man waved his fingers at his son. “I’m concentrating.”
Richard counted for himself. “Twelve,” he said. “Twelve?”
The old man picked four pills and swallowed them with a mouthful of the red juice.
“What are they all for?”
“I’ll have to think and remind myself.” He began to poke the pills around again. “This yellow one’s for my heart. The blue one’s for the blood. Alf is for the prostate job. And this one’s for diabetes.”
“His name’s stamped on the tablets.”
“But twelve Dad.” Richard frowned. “That’s a hell of a lot.”
“Hell of a lot wrong with me.”
“So what about all these others?”
The old man poured cereal from a box then added milk. He began to eat “Some of them,” he said, “are to stop side effects of some of the others.”
Richard closed his eyes and shook his head.
“Some of them I can’t remember. One of them’s for blood pressure.”
“Have you got any apple juice?”
“What do you want apple juice for? Don’t you like pomegranate? It’s supposed to be good for you.”
“I don’t drink milk. I could put some apple juice on my cereal instead.”
“We only get this red stuff now. Mary says it’s good for you.”
Richard stood up and drank off his glass of juice then filled it with cold water. He poured some of the water on his muesli.
“Water on cereal?” The old man shook his head. “Whatever next.”
“Is this tea ready?”
“Do you have that without milk then?”
“I have just a little splash. Smooth out the bitterness.”
“Well I’ll have a right amount if you please.”
They ate without speaking until the letter box clanged.
“That’ll be the paper.”
The old man stood, put one hand on the table and pushed his chair back with his leg. He turned and put a hand on the door frame as he went to get the paper.
“Not The Sun I hope,” called Richard.
“Never,” said the old man. “I do have some principles.”
Richard picked up a small carton. He read the label and said the name quietly to himself. “Hydroxychloroquine.” His father returned and slapped the folded newspaper on the table.
“How long have you been taking this now, Dad?”
“Ah. I have to take that one today. It’s Wednesday.”
He opened the box and pushed a tablet out of the foil strip.
“Doctor said I should take it in the middle of Wednesday’s breakfast. So here goes.”
“So how long have you been taking it for?”
“Few months. It’s for arthritis.” He gulped down the rest of the red juice.
Richard remembered that this was a controversial topic between them. Because his father was taking this medication he had to have regular blood tests to check that his kidneys were functioning properly.
“It’s a bit naughty that one.”
“How do you mean ‘naughty’?”
The old man clicked his tongue. “Side effects,” he said. He went to the sink, leaned on the side as he filled a glass with cold water.
The old man took the rest of the tablets each with a sip of water. After that he had a mouthful of tea.
“Best drink of the day,” he said and rubbed his hands together. “Now let’s see what the incompetents have been up to.” He read the front page of the paper then turned the front page to his son. “What the bloody hell is he doing in New York?”
“And let’s not ask why he’s sweaty.”
“It won’t be because he’s been working hard.”
The old man took the newspaper into the sitting room. Richard saw him lower himself into and armchair and heard him groan as he began to read.
Richard was washing up when Mary returned.
“You don’t need to wash up Richard.”
The old man looked over his newspaper. “How’s Joan?”
“She’s all right. Just a little … you know.”
The old man got back to reading the paper and Richard emerged from the kitchen drying his hands.
“I’m not sure where you put your mugs and stuff,” he said.
“I’ll take care of that,” said Mary.
“I’m going to go for a stroll,” said Richard. “Breath of air first thing in the morning. Good for you.”
“Take him with you,” said Mary. “Do him good.”
“Nay,” said the old man. “I’ll never keep up with him.”
“Time was though,” said Mary. “Time was.” She rested her hand on the old man’s shoulder.
Mary was pouring milk into two mugs when Richard returned. “I’ve just mashed a pot of tea,” she said. “There might be enough for three.”
“That would be very nice but have yours first,” he said. “Don’t worry if there’s not enough.”
The old woman brought a tray with three mugs of tea.
“I thought you were getting a table out,” she said. The old man looked at her over his paper. “You’ve dozed off haven’t you?”
“I might have been resting my eyes.”
Richard pulled the smallest from the nest of tables and opened the legs out. He placed it on the floor near Mary. Then he took another table and stood it by the first table. He sat next to the old man on the two seat settee.
“Which is mine?” The old man folded his paper and stuffed it under his leg.
“Doesn’t matter,” said Mary. “They’re all the same.”
“There’ll be too much milk for him then.”
“How do you mean?”
“He doesn’t like milk any more.”
“Don’t you, love?”
“It’s OK Mary. That looks fine.”
The old man shook his head and lifted the mug to his mouth. He blew on the surface of the drink and took a tentative taste. He put the mug down quickly and began to wave his fingers over his lips.
“That’s bloody hot,” he said.
“I told you,” Mary shook her head and frowned. “He’s so impatient.”
The old man nudged Richard. “Hey,” he said.
Richard looked at the old man who lifted his eyebrows and smiled. He rubbed his hands together then adjusted his glasses and smacked his lips.
“Do you fancy a chocolate biscuit?”
Mary had picked up her needlework and was sewing, her tongue poked between her lips. She drew the needle through the cloth and pulled the yarn to make a stitch.
“They’re in the fridge, Richard.” She leaned over to the old man and tapped him on the knee. “And you’re only allowed one.”
Richard opened the fridge and saw a four pint container of blue top milk, two cartons of fruit juice and a dozen eggs. There were also two tins of salmon, tins of baked beans and a punnet of tomatoes. He tutted and shook his head. “Why would you keep tins in the fridge?” he thought. There were several tupperware boxes stacked on the shelves. He could make out the label on a packet of chocolate digestives through one container and lifted it off the shelf. Behind it was another similar box containing more chocolate biscuits. Richard shook his head, closed the fridge door and returned to the sitting room.
“No,” said the old man. “Not them.”
“He’ll be after his M&S ones,” said Mary.
The old man stood up, took the biscuits from Richard’s hands and shuffled into the kitchen. Richard sat on the settee.
“If we go to Marks and Sparks he always buys some of their biscuits.” She kept her eyes on the needle and thread as she spoke.
The old man put a smaller box in Richard’s hands.
“These are the ones lad.”
“They are good,” said Mary. “Loads of chocolate.”
“Come on.” The old man nudged his son again. “Get a move on.”
Richard took a biscuit and bit through the chocolate that had been hardened by the cold of the fridge.
“That’s very nice.”
“Have another,” said the old man. “Try this one in blue tinfoil.”
“What flavour is it?”
“I’ve no idea.”
Richard unwrapped the biscuit and bit into it. “Chocolate’s hard,” he said.
“Makes it taste better though,” said the old man. “Well?”
“I’m just going to have Mary’s now because she won’t have one.” The old man had already eaten two biscuits.
“How do you know?” Mary pulled her needle through the square of material she was stitching. She brought it to her lips and bit through the cotton thread. “I might fancy one today.” She reached for the plastic box but the old man theatrically moved it away from her. Just as theatrically he lifted a biscuit from the box and put the whole thing in his mouth. He chewed mightily and made delighted humming sounds as he ate. Then he took a fourth biscuit. He rubbed his hands together and kicked his feet like an excited child would. Mary leaned over and snatched the box from him. The thimble she had been wearing fell off her finger and rolled under the settee.
“Enough,” she said. “And no more for you either.” She swept into the kitchen. When she returned, she placed a half eaten biscuit on the table next to her tea. Richard had retrieved the thimble and gave it back to her.
“Thanks love,” she said. “If he’d gone for that I’d have had to call for help to get him back up.”
“You shouldn’t eat chocolate with your diabetes, Dad.”
The old man shrugged.
“I tell him that every day.” Mary sat in her seat. She drank from her mug and sat back, shuffled her shoulders to gain comfort. “Does no good. In one ear and straight out the other.”
The old man shook his head. “There’s no pleasure to be had in being old.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, I don’t mind fruit and veg but everything that’s bad for you is what makes you feel good.”
Richard looked at his father and saw a real sadness in his eyes. He wanted to hold his father and tell him that he loved him. But he didn’t want to do that in front of Mary.
“I’m fed up of just having the memory of feeling good. I don’t drink and I don’t smoke. What’s wrong with a couple of chocolate biscuits?”
“If it was only a couple it wouldn’t be so bad.” Mary waved her forefinger at the old man. “But with you it’s a couple now, then a couple this afternoon and a couple after tea.” She tapped the table. “It all mounts up.”
Richard patted the back of his father’s hand. The old man took Richard’s fingers and squeezed. He looked straight at his son and smiled. Richard smiled back.
“It seems like anything that’s bad for you is as good as it gets.” The old man shifted in his seat.
“We all have to make sacrifices,” said Richard.
“I suppose so,” said the old man. “Now drink your tea before it gets cold.”