I was on my way to the ocean to drown myself when I decided to say goodbye to Ron; he’d been a good neighbour. I didn’t intend to tell him what I had planned.
“Want a cup of coffee?” he asked.
I thought, Wot-the-hell, the ocean would wait.
Ron made the coffee and opened a packet of Scotch Fingers. We sat there dunking. Nice, it was, the company. I hadn’t had much company since … well, we won’t go into that.
“Life’s funny,” Ron said to me when we were on our second cup of coffee. “When the oncologist told me I had cancer, I was like, Whoooo! What are we going to do about it?”
I paused with the coffee cup halfway to my mouth. Cancer? Ron had never mentioned this before.
“He looked very serious, the oncologist,” Ron went on. “And I mean very. ‘There’s nothing we can do,’ he said.
“‘Nothing you can do? There must be something!’
“He shook his head. ‘There’s nothing we can do.’
“I took a deep breath.” Ron tossed down another mouthful of his black coffee. “It was starting to sink in. ‘How much time have I got?’ I croaked at the oncologist.
“He hesitated. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘with a prognosis like yours, the first five years is critical. More than fifty per cent of people don’t make it to the five-year mark.’”
“‘And if they do?’”
“‘If they do, then their chances go up proportionately.’
“I knew he was hedging.” Ron said. I asked him, straight out, “‘And if I’m not gonna make it to the five-year mark?’ He hated me pinning him down, but hell, I had to know.
“‘In your case, maybe five months.’
“I don’t remember the journey home,” Ron continued. “The first thing I do remember is sitting on the sofa in the lounge room. The Kid was out, the clock said 4.00 p.m. Somewhere along the way, I’d lost three hours, and now, in five months or so, I was going to lose my life. Want another Scotch Finger?”
“I poured myself a stiff bourbon and sat there. At first, I was angry. Why me? What had I ever done that was so wrong? Hell, I even bought water, the spring water I made the coffee with just now — you get it too, don’t you?”
“Yes. I do.” It was comforting to know the ocean was still there, still roaring for me. It would still be there when I needed it.
“The flat was soo quiet.” Ron passed me the packet of Scotch Fingers. “I just sat there and let the whole thing crash down on top of me, like a wave you take that goes wrong. I was going to die. Cripes, I can’t begin to tell you how I felt. Then, after a while, something changed in me and I thought: Well, if that’s how it is, that’s how it is. I might as well accept it.”
I interrupted him. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Ron looked sheepish. “Well, you know. Harry was sick at the time, you had enough on your plate. Well, anyway, there I sat in this totally quiet flat, resigning myself to the inevitable. The Kid was out raging somewhere — probably riding his trail bike around the nature reserve and ripping up the dunes. He was sixteen then, a hard kid to raise; the neighbours were always complaining about him, remember?”
“Yes.” I remembered Harry waving a rake at him one day. Back in the good old days when Harry could still wave anything at anybody.
“At 5 o’clock, I began planning my funeral. I’d just picked out the pallbearers when out of the blue, it hit me.” Ron thumped himself on the chest. “IF I DIE, WHO’S GONNA LOOK AFTER THE KID?
“My ex — you know, the one who took me for eight thousand dollars on my credit card when we split up — she’d remarried, and the new man and The Kid didn’t get on. It’d be hard to tell just who’d kill who, if The Kid ever had to live with them.
“Well, I thought, the ex is out, even though she’s his mother. Who else was there? I had no brothers, no sisters. My father was 82; he couldn’t do it. Besides, he’d remarried — why is everyone remarrying these days? If you met someone else now Harry’s gone, would you marry them?”
“Don’t think so,” I said through a mouthful of Scotch Fingers.
“’Course you wouldn’t. Anyway, Dad’s new wife didn’t want him to have anything to do with us, apart from a card at Christmas. The Kid couldn’t go there. What to do?
“And that’s when I decided I couldn’t die after all. Just when I was getting used to the idea and thinking what music I’d like at the service. No one else was going to look after that kid. They’d toss him into foster care and he’d end up in gaol. Can’t let that happen, I thought. He might be a bastard, but he’s my kid and he needs me.
“So I had another drink and pulled myself together. By the time I heard The Kid’s bike coming down the road, I had the water on for the spaghetti and was frying up the mince for the sauce — he loves spaghetti bol, it’s his favourite.
“And that’s it, really.” Ron spread out his hands. “All that was six years ago, the oncologist can’t believe it! I swear I was ready to let them take me until I remembered The Kid. Funny how life works out, isn’t it?”
He gave me a hug at the door. “Have a good one.”
And when I reached the road, instead of turning right to the ocean, I turned left for home.
ADDENDUM: Ron finally lost his battle with cancer on 12 October 2013, but he won the other battle: he lived to see The Kid all grown up with a kid of his own. Vale, Ron, have a good one.