‘Come on, George,’ said Mariam. ‘We can’t stay in forever. You’ve been nursing that cold for three days.’
George didn’t want to move. He still had a headache and felt weak. He knew why Mariam was keen to get out. Steve was coming to the café: he’d speak about another of his projects to stage a film in the quarter, and these plans always fascinated Mariam. George knew it was important, in a way: just talking like this, openly, was a sign that things had changed. Should he tell Mariam to go by herself? That seemed mean. It was time he started moving again: after all, it was only a cold.
The electricity supply was on, so he could have a hot shower. It made him feel a bit better. He found his smart jacket from the back of the wardrobe: he was sure that Mariam would be dressing up for the occasion, and he wanted to wear something suitable. As he put his jacket on, he felt a sudden tightness when he inhaled. There was a dull pain around his lungs, which grew more intense with each breath. He sat down.
‘George!’ called Mariam for the other room. ‘Are you ready?’
He took a deep breath, and then emptied his lungs slowly. The pain ebbed away.
He breathed again, slowly and deeply.
Steve was holding court in the little café. All eyes were on him as he outlined his plans: the waitress and the cook stood silently by the till; the students were crowded round one of the uneven wooden tables, coffees in front of them, while George and Mariam sat at the other. As Steve reached one of his jokes, the students laughed, and Mariam grinned, nudging George, who stayed silent. He felt distant: he didn’t resent Steve, he even admired him for being able to give them a bit of hope. He liked his patter and his easy way with words, he even liked the vision he was giving them of a different future… but George was certain that nothing would come of this project.
George looked round the room and noticed a new face: a pale young man, carefully dressed in a stylish black jacket, white shirt and well-polished shoes. What was he doing here? He was leaning against a wall, away from the tables, and paying no attention to Steve. In his hands, he had something which held his attention: was it a phone? A small book? He had an attractive, regular face and dark eyes. The sort of man that women would call handsome. As George watched him, he turned round and looked back at George, nodded in an almost friendly fashion, and then stared back at whatever he was holding in his hand.
The people in the room laughed at another of Steve’s jokes, and the Iranian student said loudly: ‘Let’s hope so!’
Mariam nodded vigorously.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘And about time.’
George felt another jolt of pain in his chest, and then a curious, cold sensation, creeping out from his left arm, and going around his torso. He sat back in his chair, and gasped, but any noise he made was drowned out by another wave of laughter. The room began to get misty.
The young man turned to look at him, then weaved his way through the little gathering of people. Curiously, no one looked up as he passed. When he stood in front of George, he held out his hand. The pain in George’s chest lessened.
‘It’s time,’ said the young man in a clear, gentle voice.
‘Yes, George. I’ve been waiting for you.’
The other people in the room were concentrating on Steve’s words. No one looked at him.
‘Mariam will be okay. Look at her: she’s a fine woman, a strong woman. She’ll manage. And anyway, you’ve got to go. There’s nothing you can do.’
‘Is this it?’
‘This is it. Think yourself lucky. No lingering, painful disease. No horrific outburst of violence. If you’d taken more care of yourself, perhaps you would’ve had longer. But you’ve lived through some tough times, haven’t you? And now you’re just going to slip away.’
‘Can’t I stay just a little longer?’
The young man pulled out his mobile, pressed a button or two, and then nodded.
‘Okay, no hurry. We can wait a bit. But it is your time.’
‘What will happen next?’
‘How do you know that there’ll be a “next”? No previews, George. What will be, will be. You’ll find out soon enough.’
George looked at Mariam: he noticed her mirrored glasses, pushed up high over her forehead; her dark eyes, shining with delight at Steve’s words; her mouth, moving into a smile. He’d been lucky. Fifteen years with her… fifteen good years… probably more than he deserved. Oh dear.
‘Okay, George. Come on. Time to go.’
The young man held out his hand as if he was inviting George to dance.