Just after lunch he arrived. Mark had been fidgeting with anxiety, the mind a clutter of questions.
The house had been in preparation for days: items cleaned, dusted, moved; carefully positioned. Specks of dirt, fluff, and scuffed carpet, all dutily managed.
When the doorbell eventually sounded, Mark wasn't ready, but had been umpteen times previously, then scurrying to the window, only to see a postal van or a neighbour's visitor instead.
So Daniel had had to ring several times and was therefore a little impatient and frowning by the time they saw each other.
"Hey! How long is it? Good to see you!" Daniel began, outstretching one arm.
"Some time, most certainly," Mark replied.
Mark beckoned, led him through the door and into the back room, pointing towards the comfy seat with a smile.
"Be nice to spin round ya place first, see what you got here. That ok?"
"A cuppa when we're done, then. Suits me."
The tour didn't last long, five minutes, if that. The time had been filled by nods of seeming disinterest, no matter what level of enthusiasm Mark endeavoured to inject into the rooms.
While the refreshments were being prepared Daniel could be seen frantically flicking through the two chosen magazines on the coffee table. His right foot was leaning on his left thigh; it twitched furiously up and down as fast as the pages turned.
"This all you got, Marky boy? What is this stuff you into?"
"What, you mean the mags, oh love all that kinda thing," he responded, placing the cup of sweet milky tea on a coaster.
The silence was broken by the clinking of cup and saucer and Daniel's foot which continued to snap about in the air.
"You're looking good, Daniel. How you been?"
"Walking's not for me. Like my cars, I do. Played a round of golf years ago, pissed down, it did, won't be doing that again."
"Ok, well, it's not for everyone. We moved up here because of the open spaces, the hills and all that. Always loved it."
"Gotta TT, bird puller, bloody great. They fall around it. It draws 'em in."
"And Eve...She still with you?"
"Yeah right, you not heard?"
"No, heard what?"
"She met some other wanker, from work, heard 'bout it from Bez, remember him? Confronted her, like, and she ditn't deny it. She coulda at least bullshitted me a bit, had something thought out."
"Don't be. I'm not. Cow!"
Mark fought for a new position in the chair but failed.
"Got any beers, could do with a softener?"
"You ok to...you know...is it?" Mark stuttered nervously.
"Yeah, any Stellas?"
Mark watched curiously from the back of the kitchen as Daniel tapped into his phone, angrily shaking his head when a key was mispressed. Mark was stalling for time out there, busily rummaging for his next best move.
Handing the cold lager to Daniel, he perched on the edge of his seat, leaning his elbows on his knees. He waited for him to stop typing.
"Only had it two weeks and already I hate it," Daniel sighed, waving the phone in front of himself. Not even getting a response from her."
"Eve. She ditn't even see me in hospital. Ever since I found out, not once. Cow!"
"Yeah, not bloody once, can you get that, Marky?
Twelve years been with her, Marky."
Daniel bolted to his feet, took three paces towards the window, sank his bottle in one, asked for another and sat down again.
Mark fished for words, licked his dry lips in anticipation and somehow avoided Daniel's empty glare from across the lounge.
"Dan, you been sick?" he asked again.
Daniel sat rigid, eyes fixed unblinkingly.
The clock chimed and it felt a relief for Mark; he took the opportunity to rub his face and head repeatedly with both hands, coaxing the blood back in, until Daniel broke the silence.
"I've danced with the devil, Marky, you know that.
How long you known me? Twenty...five?"
"You're shitting me!"
"I've lost a few of those. Seems like yesterday though. Yeah, yesterday though," he repeated appearing dazed and confused.
"Truth is Marky, I ain't treated you the best, and, I know it. Money, favours."
"That's gone now, you know, you're stomping over old ground here, let’s move on."
"But ain't that why you not been in touch. Course tis, fed up weren’t ya?"
Daniel rubbed his eyes vigorously with the back of his hands, then crossed his feet up on to the small table in front, the palm of his hands already supporting his head as he leant back.
Mark felt enough had been said now to give him the green light to probe again. He needed to be on his feet to do so though.
"Why you hear, Dan? Why did you call, arrange a meet, after all these years? Didn't you think enough had been said and done?"
"I ain't got long, Marky," Daniel whispered apologetically.
"It's early, don’t worry, you can stay if you want.”
"No. I ain't got long. Not long. Here. End of the line. Been diagnosed. Few months max. Tried everyfing, taken everyfing. Nothing left." Looking down, with his chin resting firmly on his chest, he shook his head over and over, yet slowly.
"Fucking hell, Dan. Shit. You're joking. Shit. What, cancer?"
Daniel briefly stopped shaking his head to nod his response. He then resumed once again.
"I ain't finished mate, not done. I wouldn't 've come here just for that. “ He paused. “Got a confession. Bigger. Well, feels bigger.”
"Bigger? How can it be worse?" Mark racked his brains, scanning thirty-two years in three point two seconds.
"Yeah. I couldn't leave it, Marky, got enough Karma as it is. Can't take this one with me when I go."
At this point Mark really felt like he wanted him to.
"Remember that trip skiing back in...can't remember. You know. Course you do, you had the fall, leg all plastered. Went out with Sophie and Maise, Soph went back early, we carried on and...erm...it got outta hand a bit. We ended up...I don't know why, was stupid. We decided not to say anything because..."
Mark leapt up, fumbled for the keys to the back doors, and paced rapidly down the end of the garden with his arms folded tightly. The late autumn sun was weakening and fell from his face within minutes, momentarily flickering through the branches of the mighty oak of number thirty-three.
France, 1998, in a chalet overlooking Chamonix, threw itself around his hollow mind, resting briefly to serve a dollop of pain. Every conversation paused and dragged its heels to echo buried details - at the time unheard, unseen. The love of his life; no one had ever come close, she touched his heart, shared his pain, laughed and cried with him, he trusted and risked the words coaxed out of hiding that were deeply buried for this girl.
‘And Dan, fucking sick Dan, you fuck. How could you? You knew what we had. You come here…’ Mark thought.
“Mark. It was nothing, really.”
“Don’t you fucking dare. Nothing?! Even worse. You come here to tell me the worst thing you could ever tell me when you have months to live. You haven’t done this for me, have you? You have come here to fuck me over before you snuff it to make yourself better, to clear the guilt, to smooth your ride. What do you care about me? Well, that’s obvious.”
Daniel stood in the late afternoon air. His face was pallid, his eyes bloodshot. His breathing was shallow as the sadness rose, tears welling, glistening in the dimming light. He had lead a selfish life, learnt little from mistakes, repeating most again, battling the past with shining armour and a cheeky smile. He was not proud. Without the doctor’s words some six months previously he would still be running now but feared the end, the unknown. Estranged from family, no one had come to see him, no one ever had come. There was a lot of time to think, to dwell, to sink down into the life chosen, to see it up close. Truth is Mark had saved him up to now and he knew it, had always known it.
Daniel fell to his knees heavily, sobbing uncontrollably. Suddenly he looked up to Mark, his face swollen and reddened. Mark had never seen him cry.
“Marky, I ditn’t come here because I wanted to…” His head dropped as he searched for the right lines. “…because I wanted to hurt you, but because I wanted to thank-you and tell you that…to tell you that, I wouldn’t have made it this long without ya. You were the only one who cared.”
“And you repay me by…”
“I wanted your life, Marky; I wanted your fucking life. So I wanted to take something from it, I guess, Marky. Punch me if you want, take a shot. I deserve it. “
Seconds later Daniel hit himself once, twice, three times before Mark intervened. He’d seen enough when the blood started to drop from his nose; not before. He grabbed his raging fists, holding them down, however one more hit got through, grazing his left eyebrow.
On the chilled, damp lawn, two men held one another. It was late now; the shadows had risen and were almost gone. Birdsong was fading. In the doorway stood a girl, her fingertips were touching her mouth, pulling it open even further. Her eyes widened and stretched. She said nothing. The robin sang on.