Charles (Charlie to his friends) Fairford had been a founding member of The Circle, an ever-present until his illness. He had been more of an occasional visitor for a few weeks after his diagnosis, still the same old wryly amusing Charlie, but as the effects of his chemo slowly dragged him down, his visits became increasingly infrequent before, about three months ago, they had stopped altogether. But now, to everybody’s great delight, he was back; his dark hair replaced by a light, downy covering, his face gaunt, but still Charlie looking out from behind perpetually amused eyes. Everybody wanted to know whether he was back for good, but nobody wanted to ask.
Even Deidre could not hide her pleasure when he walked through the door. “Charles,” she had almost sighed. (She considered herself a friend, but would not consider calling him Charlie.) “Phillip, Francis, get Charles a chair. Put it here.” She indicated the space beside her. There was always a space beside Deidre. Phil fetched the chair and held it tightly, as though it might otherwise fall apart, whilst Frankie helped Charlie down into it.
“Really, I’m fine,” he said, slightly embarrassed by the fuss, but none-the-less grateful for the help. Everybody came to greet him, to shake his hand, to pat his shoulder, to hug him warmly, before returning to their seats; Vanessa introduced herself and he smiled warmly, it was good to meet new members. Terry did the same and Charlie didn’t seem to mind at all.
“So, what’s been going on?” he asked when The Circle at last settled back down.
“Well, as you see, we have new members,” said Deidre. “There is so much writing being done. Phillip has abandoned his book and is working on a play; Jane is formulating ideas – have you ever heard of ovinaphobia? – Mr Teasdale has told us a little about himself and William (Billy bridled as she knew he would) has let us in on the start of his new work. You’ve met Vanessa, she’s going to read to us soon, and Francis… Francis still blesses us with his humour from time to time. And Penny has read us some lovely poetry, haven’t you dear?”
“And you, Deidre?” Deidre blushed slightly as she was able to do when the situation demanded it. “I’ve seen your latest book advertised in the local press. When are we to hear some of your new one?”
“You’re coming back… again I mean. You’re coming back again?”
Charlie smiled. “I don’t know what else I’d do with my Thursdays.”
“What about you, Charlie? Have you had time to write? Is it Charlie? Do you prefer Charles? I…” Vanessa had spoken instinctively, feeling that he had a story to tell, but not knowing nearly enough about what that story might be. She regretted it instantly.
“Lots of time,” Charlie’s smile was as genuine as it was warm “just not much to say. I kept a diary. I will probably try to do something with that. My fingers are still a little numb at the moment; I struggle to hold a pen, so I’m doing battle with a laptop. Does anybody use a pen these days?”
“Just me, I think,” said Frankie.
“Of course, Mr Dinosaur,” neither Charlie nor Frankie could hide their happiness at being able to have this conversation. “Now don’t expect me to look surprised,” Charlie continued. “At least, not until I’ve grown my eyebrows back.”
A palpable sense of relief flooded the room. It could be spoken about.
“How are you Charlie?”
“I’m fine. The drugs help of course.” He smiled. “Nobody ever says you’re cured: it can always come back – I push it all to the back of my mind and I live a normal life. From today – everything starts today – each step is back to normality. Speaking of which, do we still have a gin at tea break?”
“Are you allowed?”
“Deidre, when you have been where I have been, the only thing that keeps you going from time to time is the thought of gin and tonic, probably warm because the landlord has run out of ice again, and almost certainly decorated with a glace cherry because the lemon has turned and the young idiot with the dragon tattoo can never remember what colour an olive is. Not only that,” he patted jacket pocket with a triumphant smile, “I have managed to smuggle my wallet out of the house which means that I can once again start paying for your friendship.”
“Well,” said Louise. “I, for one, am prepared to sing ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow’ if it’s going to get me a dry white.”
“Two if you don’t,” said Charlie.
The meeting became a single elongated ‘tea break’ with the whole of The Circle clustered around Charlie, telling him their plans and listening to his stories. As always, Charlie had a thousand stories. They were always amusing. They were never mean. Eventually plans were being made to pick cars up in the morning, taxis were being booked and everybody prepared to go home. Deidre looked at Charlie’s empty glass, not the first of the evening. “Have you driven here, Charles?” she asked.
“No, I’m being picked up,” he answered. “I’ll ring them now. They’ll just be a few minutes.” And so, assured that Charlie was settled, one by one the members of The Writer’s Circle said their goodbyes and drifted off home, leaving him alone, awaiting his lift home. Only after the last of his friends had left did the man in the corner take to his feet and wander over to his table. “OK now?” he queried.
Charlie nodded and wearily allowed the hospice nurse to help him to his feet. He’d enjoyed his evening. Everyone had seemed so happy to have him back, he didn’t have the heart to tell them that it wouldn’t be for long…