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Visiting Hours by Jonathan Skinner

© Jonathan Skinner

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I go most afternoons and evenings. There are two sessions a day. Two o’clock until four, then half-six ’til eight. Weekdays and weekends. Seven days a week. Of course, there’s the occasional day when I can’t make it. When something crops up. When I had my wisdoms out I was too woozy afterwards and the last place I wanted to be was a hospital. But I covered the festive period without any gaps: Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day. There was only a skeleton staff but the few nurses on duty did their best to make it jolly. I think they felt sorry for me, sitting at Tony’s bedside when most folk were at home celebrating with their families. But I didn’t mind at all.

I’m the only one who visits now. But it wasn’t like that in the early days. Just about everyone from the wine club showed their faces back then. They’d pop in with their flowers and grapes – well they would bring grapes, wouldn’t they? Fat lot of good. He can’t eat grapes, or anything else for that matter. No, I’m afraid it’s nil by mouth for Tony. It’s all intravenous these days. But that’s normal for coma patients. And I’m pretty sure flowers are the last thing on his mind, or what’s left of his mind (the doctors don’t seem too sure about that). So I never take anything. Just myself. Just me.

At first it wasn’t possible to visit at all. They kept him in Intensive Care for three weeks and it was touch and go for a while so I understand. I used to telephone every morning and ask the duty nurse how he was doing. Was he going to pull through? Of course they had to be careful what they said. It wasn’t as if I was family, just an acquaintance and fellow wine enthusiast. I asked if I could visit. At first they said no, it was close relatives only. But it wasn’t long before it became apparent that Tony didn’t have much family to speak of. Sad really. Three ex-wives, none of who could stand the man. No children. No siblings. Neither parent living. And apparently no friends or colleagues who cared enough to show an interest. Not much to show for fifty-two years of life, is it?

Still, he had me.

He’d only been a member for three months or so, whereas Cheryl had joined the wine club a year ago, and I’d been a member for some fifteen years. That’s where we met, Cheryl and me. It had been my turn to host and I’d laid on a selection of French whites. We did the usual blind tasting and as we sipped and sluiced our way through Chenin, Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, Cheryl impressed me with her vivid descriptions.

‘Watermelon and fleshly cut grass,’ she announced in her Brummie accent, as she hung her nose over my Muscadet. And I don’t mind admitting from that moment a certain spark was lit. She offered to stay behind after the meeting and help me clear up the glasses. She washed, I dried. And it was while we were standing at the kitchen sink that she told me how she’d moved down from Birmingham a couple of months ago and had thought the wine club would be a good way of making new friends. She admitted she was no expert. She’d done an evening class at Birmingham Polytechnic the previous year – “An Introduction To Appreciating Wine” – and had enjoyed it. I showed her my Burgundies, which I keep racked in the cupboard under the stairs, then I called a taxi to take her home.

Things progressed reassuringly slowly. I’ve never been one to rush. Romance is like fine wine, best manufactured unhurriedly and allowed to mature before enjoying. Even so, within the year, Cheryl and I were occasionally stepping out together. It came as a bit of a surprise to me. As a lifelong bachelor, in my middle years I’d suddenly found my soul mate. So there you have it.

But of course there was no monkey business, no mucky stuff. That’s not my style. If you take a lady out for dinner the last thing she wants is her companion drooling over her while she’s tucking into her prawn cocktail, or a hand on her knee under the table while she’s digging into her trifle. No, I was always the gentleman. Which is not to say that Cheryl and I didn’t have our moments. Once, when we were browsing together in the library, we were standing quite close and she sort of leaned on me while I was flipping through a compendium of South African reds. I could feel the warmth of her, the weight of her, against me. I backed away and she slipped me a shy look. But it was most definitely a sign and one I intended to pursue in due course.

As well as the wine club meetings we’d go to the pictures when there was a film on that we both fancied. But now I think about it that wasn’t so often, what with my predilection for historical drama and Cheryl’s preference for what she called slasher thrillers. Our local cinema started offering special "couples’ seats" – a sort of mini sofa, two seats joined together as one. But out of respect for Cheryl I always opted for separates. Adjacent of course.

We’d go out for the occasional meal and I’ll admit it gave me the opportunity to demonstrate my knowledge of the grape in a real-world setting. It’s all very well making notes and evaluations in the analytical arena of the wine club, but choosing a suitable accompaniment for chicken fajita, refried beans and guacamole can be more of a challenge (Cheryl had a worrying penchant for Mexican food). For the record, a plumy shiraz resolved that particular dilemma. My point is, all was going well.

Until Tony arrived.

I should have spotted the trouble sooner than I did. It was Cheryl’s first time to host and she’d laid on a dubious range of eastern European reds to bamboozle us with (I have nothing against Hungarian merlot so long as it stays in Hungary). She rang shortly before the off and I could tell by the slight slur in her voice that she’d already conducted a preliminary sampling. She was nervous and had clearly phoned for some moral support. I reminded her to put out some water biscuits, essential for cleansing the palate when changing from one wine to another. And I assured her I’d arrive before anyone else, to hold her hand through her inaugural event so to speak.

But I wasn’t there first.

Parked in the space I used when picking Cheryl up, a muscular coupé squatted, all testosterone and fog lights. It must have been twice the length of my Mini. I had a feeling something was afoot. Call it intuition if you like. A nasty acidy feeling at the bottom of my stomach, just like you get with cheap Rieslings.

When Cheryl introduced me to Tony she was all tongue tied. At first I assumed she was just a little nervous about hosting her first meeting, which would have been quite understandable. I can well remember my own 'first' and the tizzy I got into when I discovered my Malbec was corked. I was about to place a reassuring hand on her arm but somehow it didn't seem appropriate in company. It was only later that I realised the true reason she was flustered.

‘This is Tony,’ she announced, proudly. ‘He’s a project manager.’

He was tall and dark, but I don’t think even Cheryl would have described him as handsome. His skin was craggy and cratered like the surface of the moon and his fingernails were bitten. But even I will admit that he had something. Call it presence if you like. Somehow he was impossible to ignore, with his deep gravelly voice, tufts of coarse black hair sprouting from the top of his shirt, and a chunky gold neck chain inscribed with his name. In case he forgot it, I suppose.

The others arrived and after a while the serious business of tasting commenced. Cheryl handled things well for her first time. The paper and pencils for the tasting notes were neatly laid out, there was a plentiful supply of polished glasses, and even some mildly pleasant surprises among her somewhat eclectic selection of wines.

Tony, it turned out, was widely travelled due to his job. He was keen to inform us how he’d dined out all over the world and made sure we understood it had all been “on expenses”. But he’d never tackled the intellectual aspects of oenology, hence his enrolment in wine club. As such, he had to be considered a beginner so I, as a senior member, was called upon to give an overview of the basic techniques of tasting. I demonstrated how to swirl the wine and observe the extent to which it clings to the side of the glass – a measure of it’s alcohol content known as its ‘legs’.

‘I like a nice pair of legs,’ Tony guffawed, as if none of us had ever heard that particular joke. And before I had a chance to explain about oxidation or tannin, he’d quaffed his tasting sample down in one huge noisy gulp. And although I wouldn't swear to it, I'm pretty sure he gave a little silent burp. ‘Do we spit or swallow?’ he winked, causing Cheryl’s cheeks to blush like a Loire valley rosé.

I soon realised something was going on because when I phoned Cheryl a week later to suggest a walk in the park she said she was busy – she was off out to a casino with “a friend”. A casino indeed. And there was no need to ask who the friend was.

At the next wine club meeting Cheryl was kind and polite but made sure she sat next to Tony. Kind and polite was her way of telling me it was over. During the next few weeks I saw them driving around town in his car, which turned out to be an Aston Martin. A thoroughbred marque so I understand, but I did wonder if it could match the proven reliability of my Mini. I didn’t ring Cheryl anymore. There’s something undignified about chasing after what you can’t have. But the thought that I’d had it – her – in the palm of my hand, gave me, I will admit, more than a few sleepless nights.

The accident made the front page of the local newspaper. The police estimated they’d been doing ninety when they hit the tree. Needless to say, there wasn’t much left of the Aston Martin. Or of Cheryl.

It’s been nineteen months now and there’s no real change in Tony’s condition. No improvement at all. Which is fine. In fact it would be quite disconcerting at this stage if anything altered. I’m in a routine now. Settled.

According to the consultant there’s little hope of a recovery. Too much damage to the cerebral cortex. In other words it’s more a matter of when than if. A slow decline or a quick end? It might sound unkind but if it were down to me I’d prefer the former. A sudden departure now would upset the apple cart. I don’t know what I’d do if I came in one afternoon and bed seven was empty.

No, a gradual wind down is what’s in order, so that yours truly can get used to the idea. I don’t wish to sound selfish but there is the small matter of how I’m going to spend my time after the event. The wine club only takes up one evening a month so there’ll be plenty of spare days to fill. Still, that’s all for the future. No point in worrying needlessly. For now I’ll carry on coming in every day. Keeping an eye on Tony. I’m not gloating. Just mulling things over. Watching and waiting.

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