I set off in a rainstorm. Whether it is, or isn’t, caused by CO2 emissions triggering global warming, I’ve never seen an English monsoon season like this one. From our house, there’s a five-mile-long, single-track lane to negotiate before you can get anywhere. Normally in heavy downpours the water pours into the lane off the fields and lays in one or two low-lying dips. But in this new, more concentrated type of precipitation we’ve been getting, the lane itself is a live torrent.
At least the tempest and early darkness have kept other people indoors by their fires. I meet no other cars. A section of the lane where I’ve never seen standing water is flooded to the tops of my wheels. I lean out of the window and inch forward in first gear, hugging the hedge where I’m hoping the water might be shallower. But instead it gets deeper and starts coming in through the doors. At Sunday School I was taught to give praise and thanks in every situation. Easier, perhaps, for a devout bright-eyed lad than for the 52-year-old depressive bachelor who loveth not, knoweth not God that the lad became. But when tarmac reappears at the far end of the lagoon, I mutter grudging thanks on behalf of us both.
Finally, I reach the main road into town. This road is also flooded in places, but at least these places are preceded by flood-warning signs. Now I can take my nose away from the windscreen and relax a little.
In town I stop at the supermarket to buy flowers. ‘Whatever you’ve done, it must have been pretty serious,’ says the lad on the checkout, as I lay cellophane-wrapped bunches of lilies, chrysanthemums, carnations and roses on his conveyor belt. Nobody in the checkout queues looks damp or windswept. Nobody even looks fully human. Perhaps it’s the lighting. From somewhere up among the ventilation pipes in the roof, Slade are singing ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day’. Stuffing the flowers into a plastic bag, I wonder whether capitalism’s current goal isn’t to exempt itself fully from the laws of Nature and then to turn on us all in some horrible and unimaginable way.
Then I’m back outside searching for the car, the wind trying to snatch the flowers out of my arms, the rain to batter them to death. Another sodden, up-and-down, five-mile lane. Then an exposed outer ring road where the rain comes down so hard I can’t see anything, even with the wipers going like maniacs, and I pull over and wait until the fury abates.
In the hospital car park the wind snatches at the flowers again and rain raps on the cellophane. During the long wait between the last of my coins dropping, and the robbing bastard of a machine printing my ticket, the backs of my legs are soaked to the skin.
From his glass fortress next to the hospital main entrance, a porter in a Santa hat directs me to Zone Blue, Level 3. First, a corridor long enough to prove the curvature of the earth to a naked eye. It is hung with children’s paintings and here and there with polystyrene snowdrops, one metre in diameter. Next, a lift, cavernous, in which I can’t make a final decision about where to stand, so walk continuously about while it descends. Then a door, reinforced glass, firmly locked, but off to the side a green buzzer and a handwritten notice inviting me to press it. Finally, a nurses’ station on a strikingly peaceful ward.
There’s one nurse behind the counter. She’s wearing a tinsel decoration with flashing lights and sitting bolt upright as though worried that too much deskwork might give her a bad back. Maybe she has one already. Before I go any further, she says, pointing to a piece of paper clamped to a clipboard, I must sign in. And who was it I had come to see? I’m awfully sorry, I say, I only know the Christian name.
She gets a screen up on her desktop. By a process of elimination (a guess at her age, a half-remembered address, the date and approximate time of her admission) we work out that the surname is De Ville and that she is in side room number three.
The door is ajar. I elbow it aside and step in. I see my boy first. He’s standing beside the bed, speaking calmly to the patient, his girlfriend, who is sitting in the chair. They both look up at me, he with gladness, she a little sheepishly. (She and I don’t know each other very well yet.) She’s holding a new-born baby. My first grandchild.
It’s a he. He’s got brown hair, a ruddy complexion and he’s asleep. ‘Eight pounds, seven ounces,’ says my boy. ‘Say hello to Oscar,’ says Mum, to me. ‘Hello, Oscar,’ I say.