We met at the Post-Op Support Group. A more unlikely bunch you couldn’t imagine. Gareth and Clive were both around retirement age but Rob was a skinny little runt, scruffy jeans, rips in the knees.
‘You’re a bit young for this game aren’t you?’ I said.
‘That’s what I thought, mate,’ said Rob. ‘I went to see the doc and told him I couldn’t pee proper. He did a blood test, stuck his finger up me arse and sent me to see a consultant. When he told me what it was I didn’t believe him… I said, “Blokes of my age don’t get prostate cancer, do they? I’m only twenty four.”’
‘What d’ya make of the doc’s talk, Justin?’ Clive asked me.
It felt surreal to be chatting about incontinence with a guy who looked like a geriatric Bob Marley. Even here, where we were all in the same leaky boat, it wasn’t a subject you wanted to shout about.
‘I guess the message is “do your pelvic floor exercises – every day,”’ I said.
Suddenly the whole fucking business got to me. Suzi had walked out when the little blue pills failed to do the business. I missed the sound of the kids’ laughter and ached to kiss them goodnight. Now I’d had to put our home on the market. Was this really all I had to look forward to… standing in a run-down church hall with a load of dribblers?
‘Bugger this!’ I said, ‘Who’s coming down the pub? I’m buying.’
We got to know each other better over the coming weeks. Rob was the ice-breaker. He was young and gobby and had an opinion on everything from the tits on the blonde nurse to bankers’ bonuses. Of course, we chewed over what the oncologists and surgeons gave talks about, but down the pub we felt relaxed enough to chat about personal stuff, too. We hashed over the indignity of having our privates handled; our fear of biopsies, cystoscopies, MRI and CT scans; and the embarrassment of forgetting to take a spare Tena pad when we went out.
Lurking in the back of our minds, though, was the thought that the cancer might already have spread. But by the end of our fifth get-together, we knew what we were going to do to stop our minds running down that dark alley.
It all started the week before when Rob dragged us off to a gig at the King’s Head. The place was packed. There was a bloke with a guitar who could play anything – and I mean anything. People just called out the title and he’d be on it. He played the tunes and we sang – and danced. They were mostly oldies with a good beat: Sweet Caroline, Crazy Little Thing Called Love, Dancing in the Dark, Mamma Mia and Clive’s favourite – Three Little Birds. When he sang, ‘Don’t worry ’bout a thing ’cause every little thing’s gonna be alright’ and snake-hipped around the dance floor, it seemed like music had the power to magic away our fears.
So when we were talking about the gig the following week, Gareth came up with an off-the-wall suggestion. ‘Why don’t we form a barbershop quartet?’
Talk about laugh out loud. I wondered how many of the others had wet themselves, like me.
‘We’d look a right load of prats,’ said Rob.
‘So what, fella? You were happy enough to sing in the pub.’
‘That was just for a laugh.’
‘Well, this is just a bit o’ fun – to keep our spirits up.’
‘Well nothing else is getting a raise,’ said Rob. ‘I’ve only scored with five birds and now I can’t even wank.’
‘Who’s going to play the music?’ I asked.
‘No one,’ said Gareth. ‘A barbershop quartet doesn’t have any. The different voices have a range of tones. They harmonize together, see. That’s what makes the music.’
I thought that sounded even more scary.
Then Gareth confessed that he’d sung in a choir when he’d worked at the steel plant in Port Talbot but had always fancied singing in a quartet. Clive was a natural. He reckoned it was music that kept him sane, as he had to care for his wife with dementia.
‘I’ve aaalways got a CD on,’ he said. ‘Aaanything with rhythm. It keeps Beulah calm and she likes to dance.’
I pictured them swaying together up and down a dingy hall, round the kitchen table or at a church social.
‘I sing in the bath,’ joked Rob.
‘And I’ve sung at rugby matches,’ I said.
So we all agreed to give it a go.
‘We’ll need somewhere to practise,’ Clive pointed out.
My place was a converted farmhouse in the Chilterns.
‘We can meet there – until it’s sold,’ I offered. ‘And we can make as much bloody noise as we like.’
The drill was that Gareth picked up the others, plus some pizzas, and I had the beer waiting in the fridge. Rob’s answer to his humdrum day-time job at Lidl was to rummage through the Pandora’s box that was the internet at night. By the first session, he’d come up with some information that tickled Clive.
‘Barbershop quartets were started in the States by bla… I mean, African Americans,’ he told him.
Gareth had brought along some audio-learning CDs that gave all four parts to the songs and some sheet music, complete with the words – although only he could sight read, of course. I downloaded some live performances and we watched them while we ate our pizzas.
As he knew our voices well, Gareth decided that Rob should sing the tenor’s part because he had the largest vocal range; Clive was the bass, I was the baritone and he took the lead as he had the strongest voice.
‘What are we going to sing?’ I asked.
‘Nothing, yet,’ said Gareth. ‘We’ll start with a few warm up exercises.’
Rob dropped to the floor, attempted a few press-ups and collapsed on the Chinese carpet in mock exhaustion.
‘No, boyo,’ said Gareth. ‘It’s exercises for your voice I mean.’
Rob laughed. Clive rolled his eyes.
‘Seriously?’ I asked.
We circled our shoulders backwards and forwards, rolled our heads from side to side and made open-mouthed ‘Ahhs’ and trumpet-lipped ‘Ooos’.
‘Let’s try singing all together first, in the normal way,’ suggested Gareth.
We settled on You’ll Never Walk Alone as we’d all heard the Liverpool fans singing it. Gareth counted us in but we had a couple of false starts and a few nervous laughs before we got going properly. When we reached Don’t be afraid of the dark, he held up his hand, ‘Hang on a minute.’
‘What’s the problem?’ I asked.
‘Tone. You’re flat, Justin. You need to loosen up, man. Give yourself a shake … Like this.’
He swung his arms around and jumped up and down on the spot. ‘Go on, have a go.’
Something clicked in my neck and my left ear popped and the tension in my upper back, which I hadn’t even known was there, melted away.
‘We’ll try again,’ said Gareth.
This time, we sang all the way through and it was only on the Never and Alone of the last line that we sounded a bit off.
‘Now how about trying it in four parts?’ said Gareth, and he handed out the music.
After five attempts, I thought about the blokes on the video and wondered if we’d ever be that good. Singing our separate parts, the result did not sound a lot like the sweet, silver song of a lark.
‘That’s enough for tonight,’ said Gareth after an hour.
Singing was thirsty work so we cracked open another four-pack. Somehow the evening seemed to have flown by, and I slept like a top that night.
The next week I had a meeting that overran and was late back. I couldn’t afford to dip out early and risk losing a high-fee client, not with our divorce settlement pending. The guys were waiting on the drive.
‘Sorry fellas,’ I said, scuttling across the hall to switch off the burglar alarm before it started to scream. ‘Don’t worry, the beer’s cold.’
With all the kerfuffle, it was only when we sat down with our pizza that I noticed Gareth was looking a bit out of sorts.
‘What’s up?’ I asked.
It turned out to be a googly we hadn’t expected. The Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone was hot news just then and we knew that his daughter was a nurse.
‘Megan’s volunteered to go out there,’ he said. ‘Jan and I can’t sleep a wink.’
That was a downer. But we all made a special effort to take Gareth’s mind off it. We started with our warm-up, Rob gurning as we exercised our face muscles, and then sang the Anfield anthem again.
‘We’re getting the hang of it, lads,’ said Gareth. ‘Shall we try another song?’
Sticking with the Liverpool theme, we had a go at the Beatles’ Penny Lane.
‘Bet I know what the barber’s photographs are really of.’ said Rob.
By the end of the evening Gareth had smiled at least half a dozen times and we reckoned we’d done a good job.
‘Thanks, fellas,’ he said, and gave us all a hug.
We’d been singing together for nearly four months in early December when Gareth came a cropper on a patch of ice outside his house. He sprained his ankle quite badly so Jan drove the guys to my house for our weekly sing-along. She brought a huge, mouth-watering lasagne for us – and I realised it was the first proper home-cooked meal I’d eaten since Suzi left.
After we’d wolfed it down we sang one of our favourites, Stand by Me. It’s got a pleasing bass riff and a good beat. I guess we all tried our hardest because she was there.
Jan was toasting her toes by the wood fire but she burst into applause as we finished, ‘Oh, well done,’ she said, wiping a tear from her eye. ‘I’d never have guessed you could sound so good … You should give a performance.’
Of course we didn’t think she was serious but our smug grins must have put an idea into her head.
‘I know,’ she said. ‘How about singing at the Post-op Group?’
‘You must be jokin’, woman!’ spluttered Clive. ‘Stand up in front of everybody?’
‘Why not?’ she said. ‘Mary, the nurse who arranges the meetings, told me they’ve been wondering what to do for the pre-Christmas jolly. This would be great.’
‘We’d need special outfits,’ said Gareth.
‘No you wouldn’t,’ countered Jan. That woman just wouldn’t give up. ‘You’ve probably all got black trousers and a white shirt. All you need is red bow ties.’
‘We’ve only got two weeks to rehearse,’ said Clive.
‘You can do it,’ she insisted.
Next Sunday night, just after I’d got back from seeing the kids, Rob’s name flashed up on my phone. He didn’t often call so I wondered what was up.
‘Oh, shit, Justin… My PSA’s shot up again,’ he said, ‘and there’s blood in my pee. I’ve gotta see the consultant next Monday.’
My stomach squirmed like a fish on a harpoon.
‘Not sure if I’ll make the Post-op gig,’ he said. ‘Sorry.’
I tried to reassure him but blokes aren’t good with words.
Rob had asked me to let Gareth know but I poured myself a whisky before I made the call. The quartet had been his suggestion: he’d got the music, taught us how to sing and coached us. What had seemed like a daft idea had brought four blokes together who’d had as much in common as Marx and Mussolini. And it wasn’t just that this looked like curtains for the quartet; worse, it felt as if we’d let Rob down.
‘I’ll go round and see him after his appointment,’ said Gareth.
We didn’t meet the next week as my house sale had gone through and I was moving into my penthouse flat. From the balcony you can see over the river, the town and out to the countryside beyond. The kids love it. Archie says it feels like living on a cloud and Cassie’s hoping she’ll see Father Christmas riding across the sky in his sleigh.
Gareth rang with the news that Rob was due to start radiotherapy the following week, and, much to his and Jan’s relief, that Megan was safely back from Sierra Leone.
‘Will he make it to the Christmas do?’ I asked.
‘He’ll see how he is on the night.’
The hall was locked and in darkness when I arrived. Jan, Gareth and Megan were standing outside with the other Post-oppers and their families. There was no sign of Rob. We stomped our feet in the biting cold wind, while Mary, the Macmillan nurse, phoned the caretaker.
‘He’s in bed with flu,’ she told us. ‘He’d forgotten all about our event.’
‘What are we going to do?’ I asked.
A voice we all recognised came from behind us, ‘I’ve got a penknife. Shall I pick the lock?’
‘Rob!’ Jan gave him a hug. Above his wine-red scarf, his face was pale and pinched but his old, familiar grin was still there.
‘You’d better watch out you don’t get nicked,’ said Clive.
But Gareth wasn’t going to allow the lack of a hall to put the kibosh on things. We’d worked too hard over the months and had psyched ourselves up for this night.
‘Come on, guys,’ he urged us. ‘On the count of four…’
So there on the pavement, we launched into You raise me up, and followed it with I can see clearly now, When you’re smiling and With a little help from my friends. While we sang, Jan and her daughter handed round plastic boxes of warm mince pies. People were swaying in time to the music and three little girls were jigging about.
As we began to sing Silent Night snow started to fall: big, fluffy flakes of it. It sat on our shoulders, on the cars and on the tree with the twinkly lights in the garden opposite. Somehow, everything Gareth had drummed into us about timing and synchronization came together and our voices floated out clear and true in pitch-perfect harmony.
When we finished, there was a moment of silence: no traffic, no planes, no one walking past. Then the audience started to clap and cheer.
Tears pricked my eyes as a roller coaster of emotion washed over me. I looked around at the others and saw they felt the same. Never mind dying. This was living, and nothing could take that away from us.
Sarah Houghton asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work