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Come Back in Ten Years

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Come Back in Ten Years

Come Back in Ten Years

There was nothing wrong with my heart, as far as I knew. What happened was I went to dinner at my parents’ house one Sunday evening, and my father showed me his new pacemaker.

‘Look at this,’ he said. He unbuttoned his shirt to reveal a neat horizontal scar bellow his collarbone.

‘What happened?’ I asked, looking from him to my mother and back again. ‘Why didn’t you tell me this was happening?’

‘Oh, you’d only have worried.’ He waved his hand dismissively while my mother dished out samosas from the baking tray. They were playing Paul Simon with the volume down so low I could only just tell it was him. But who else was it going to be?

‘It’s not as though he went into cardiac arrest,’ Mum said. ‘He was just getting the odd pain.’

‘But would you look at this modern marvel?’ Dad still had his shirt open. He pushed his chest towards me and I could see the shape of whatever was inside him, below the scar. I touched the equivalent place on myself. It made me think of a time when I was a kid – Mum had sewn up a hole in the pocket of my anorak, after which we realised that a box of tic tacs had gone through the hole and was now trapped in the lining, rattling about when I ran.

There was a russet patch around the scar, which I assumed was the tail-end of bruising. The scar itself was tan, lighter than the rest of him, about halfway between his skin tone and my mother’s. My colour, in fact.

‘When they first put it in it hurt like billy-o, I can tell you,’ he said.

‘The things they can do these days,’ Mum said. ‘He was in and out in an afternoon.’ When she finished pouring the wine she reached over to do up Dad’s buttons. He kept his hands meekly by his sides while she worked. ‘It turns out your father’s heart’s been working harder than normal his whole life. His valves are on the small side, so the muscle’s been getting bigger and bigger, pushing all that blood about. Too big.’ Buttons done, she patted him once on the chest.

‘And you might have it too,’ Dad said, picking up his samosa and pointing it at me.

I was still trying to isolate the facts of the story. ‘Did the doctor say that or are you speculating?’

‘Speculating? Son, your heart is a pump that works non-stop, from the day you’re born until the moment it packs up. You don’t think that’s worth taking care of?’

Come Back in Ten Years

‘There’s a fifty percent chance,’ said Mum, ‘depending on whose genes you got. And if we’re going to be strictly accurate, your heart starts before you’re born. In the womb.’

Dad looked at her with a kind of awe. It was a look I had seen countless times. I spooned some more chutney onto my plate.

When the CD finished Dad got up straight away to change it, like somebody tending to a fire. Mum had bought him a box set of remasters for his birthday. She doesn’t mind Paul Simon, but to Dad he’s a kind of guiding spirit. The story he likes to tell is about the first time he took Mum on a date. He’d only been in the country a few months, starting his doctorate at Imperial College. He’d just got his English driver’s license and borrowed his flat mate’s car. Going out with an English girl was a transgression: his parents were sending him letters about potential brides they’d found for him in India.

He picked Mum up in Islington, and on their way to Hampstead the car broke down. He was frantic, convinced it had all gone wrong. He ran into the Odeon on Holloway Road to call for a tow – ‘Very nice to me they were in there’ – and when he got back my mother was singing along to ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ on the radio. ‘I fell in love with three things at once,’ Dad likes to say. ‘Your mother, Paul Simon and North London.’ He’d stuck to all three ever since. To me the music was just part of the family fabric, mundane and dependable, like the house they still lived in in Grange Park.

‘A pity Regan couldn’t come tonight,’ Mum said.

‘She’s working on job applications.’

‘Any developments we should know about?’ Dad asked.

‘About her finding a new job?’ I was playing dumb and all three of us knew it.

‘She’s a smashing girl is all I’m saying. No use standing on ceremony. By the time your mother and I were your age…’

‘Don’t harangue him, now,’ Mum said to Dad. To me she said, ‘You two take your time, darling.’

Regan was American, a straight-talker, a taker of baths, and the first girlfriend of mine they both genuinely seemed to like. She was an assistant producer on a TV drama that had just been cancelled, a thing with government whistle-blowers and lots of running through the streets.

We were just at the stage where she’d begun to come with me to family dinners. If she’d been there that night she’d probably have asked technical questions about the pacemaker, the kind Dad most enjoyed answering. They would have talked voltage and battery life. She might even have asked if she could touch the hard shape beneath his skin.

After dinner, Dad wrote the words Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy on the back of a receipt from his wallet, and told me to get checked.

‘Do it now,’ he said, ‘while the going’s good. Your mother and I are over the hill and heading down the other side. But you – you need to look after yourself.’

A few months later, just after my thirty-third birthday, I told most of this to Dr Kathleen McHugh at the medical centre. I had lost the scrap of paper, but I unlocked my phone and googled ‘heart muscle gets big’, and scrolled until I found the name. Dr McHugh may have assumed I was reading a message from Dad, or an email from his doctor, forwarded on to me. In any case, she gave me a referral to see a cardiologist. She also told me that the NHS was over-burdened like never before, and I would have to wait weeks if not months for an appointment.

While I waited, the weather got cooler and Regan was offered a job with a production company in New York.

‘You didn’t tell me you applied for that,’ I said.

‘I never thought I would get it. Can you believe it?’

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘I can.’

We were eating dumplings at Lulu in Stoke Newington, near her flat. I told her she had been deceitful. She accused me, I won’t forget the phrase, of dousing her embers. I told her I had never felt about anyone the way I felt about her, but part of me knew I was only saying that to make it harder for her.

‘Then come with me,’ she said.

My phone buzzed and I decided to answer. It was Dad. Regan was looking past me, angry, I could tell, that I had taken the call. Her chopsticks hung limply from her left hand, not parallel but not touching either.

‘Wait, who died?’ I asked, and Regan’s eyes snapped towards mine.

‘Vincent Nguini,’ Dad said. ‘Paul Simon’s guitarist. Cancer, apparently. What a player – an absolute magic-fingers. And the two of them had been friends for years, since Rhythm of the Saints. I mean, none of us are getting younger, but how do you stand losing someone like that?’

Come Back in Ten Years

An unexpected thing happened: Regan and I made up, and as her departure edged closer we enjoyed ourselves immensely. We did things we had never made time for – we went on the London Eye, went to Margate, tried to have outdoor sex but ended up laughing too much. I told her it made sense to stay with me for the final few weeks, after her lease expired. And on Sundays she came to dinner with me at Mum and Dad’s, as though everything was normal.

‘We hear you’re deserting our son,’ Dad said once, after cheek-kisses in the hall.

‘I’m not leaving him,’ she said, her hand snaking across my back, ‘I’m just leaving the country.’ She had said the same thing the week before, when we were out with some of her friends.

‘I’ll never understand you kiddos,’ Dad said. ‘But I’m glad you’re enjoying yourselves.’

I watched Regan follow my father into the kitchen. Graceland was playing, and I waited for the inevitable, for him to tell her his favourite Paul Simon fact.

Sure enough, in the middle of ‘You Can Call Me Al’ he took hold of her hand.

‘The bass player only soloed for two bars, not four,’ he said. ‘And then everyone went to lunch except the engineer. He was the one who had the idea. He reversed the bass track so the solo mirrors itself. It’s a palindrome. It’s coming up now, listen. Here, listen… now.’

Two nights before Regan left she and I got drunk and bought a packet of cigarettes and decided to stay together. I would save up and work out a way to join her. The letter abbreviations of visas sounded smoother and more obvious the more I said them, the more I drank. After a while we started joking about getting married. We smoked every one of the cigarettes and we came up with a plan. But the next morning over bleak coffee I told her I would rather make a clean break than watch what we had made slowly atrophy in text messages and video chat. The following day, after I got back from Heathrow, I got into bed and swapped the pillows so I was lying on the one that smelled like her.

I sat upstairs on the bus to the hospital, towards the back, and listened to branches slapping and scraping the roof as we drove through winter streets. Near the end of the line, when it was clear that everyone still on the bus was going to the hospital too, I tried to guess which ones were doctors and nurses, and which ones were sick, by looking at their jacket collars and the backs of their heads.

In the waiting room I was one of the only people under sixty. There was also a boy of four or five, and when they called Dylan Foster the rest of us watched his father take his hand and lead him towards the nurse. I imagined everyone wondering what had brought him there, what cruelty demanded his presence sixty years ahead of schedule. When my name was called I was taken to a bed covered by a thin paper sheet. As I lay down, I realised that Dylan was in the bed next to mine, beyond the curtain, having the same things done to him.

‘I have to put these stickers on you,’ a kind female voice said from Dylan’s side of the curtain, as my nurse wordlessly attached nodes to my shins and ribcage. ‘You’ll have to pretend you’re having a little sleep, Dylan. How about you imagine something nice?’ Dylan’s father said nothing, and I wondered if he was even there, or if Dylan was alone with the nurse and the lion soft toy I had seen him stroking in the waiting room. ‘Think about something nice,’ the nurse said in her stage whisper. ‘Imagine you’re going on a holiday.’ My nurse and I exchanged a conspiratorial smile, the look of eavesdroppers.

After a pause, Dylan’s voice came startlingly clear and strong: ‘I’m thinking about my sister’s birthday!’

‘That’s lovely. How old is she turning?’

‘One.’

‘One!’

‘Yeah.’

Dylan was an old hand compared with his sister, I thought. He’d seen five times as much and knew five times as much, and he would teach most of it to her, over the years, as they grew up together. As long as his heart held out.

After the ECG I was told to report to a different ward for my appointment with the cardiologist, Mr Nair. The automated voice in the lift had an Australian accent; I wondered if it had been chosen for its calming effect, like the art in the waiting rooms.

At reception a woman asked me to confirm my birthday, then pointed to a laminated sheet on the counter. On it was a list of ethnicities: 1. White British, 2. White Irish, 3. White Other, 4. White & Black Caribbean, 5. White & Black African, 6. White & Asian, 7. Mixed Other, 8. Asian British Indian, 9. Asian British Pakistani, 10. Asian British Bangladeshi, 11. Any Other Asian, 12. Black or Black Caribbean, 13. Black or Black British African, 14. Black Any Other, 15. Other Ethnic Group Chinese, 16. Any Other Ethnic Group, 17. Not Stated.

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