I took the small teapot and my large mug over to an empty chair, which happened to be between Mrs Shelley and Natasha. They both greeted me by name - Mrs Shelley knows all the regulars in her coffeehouse, and I'd known Natasha for years - and I asked them the topic of the discussion I'd just joined.
"We're talking about amusement parks," said Ron, from the opposite side of the low coffee table in front of me, "It seems our esteemed host has never had the privilege of riding a roller-coaster."
I turned to Mrs Shelley. "I can do very well without," she said. "That sort of excitement is more for the younger generations, in my estimation. Besides, how can one be guaranteed of safety?"
"The modern roller-coaster is full of safety features," Natasha pointed out. "Locking restraint bars so you can't fall out. Automatic failsafe brakes. Cars locked to the track so they can't derail. Computer control. Regular safety inspections of the trackwork. It's safer than travelling the same distance in a car."
"That's all very well," conceded Mrs Shelley, "but what about the dangers which nobody has yet foreseen?"
Natasha frowned slightly. "You sound a bit like Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park. Harbinger of doom through unseen consequences."
"There were unseen problems with roller-coasters," I said. "The first coaster with a loop in it caused people to black out because of the g-forces. Nowadays they have to design the shapes of the curves very carefully to avoid the same problem."
"Okay," said Ron, "But surely by now they've ironed out any possible dangers. People defy gravity in all sorts of ways these days. Roller- coasters must be one of the safest."
Mrs Shelley smiled gently. "The questions to be asked are: Can you be absolutely sure that it's safe? And should we be using technology to modify natural laws to our whims without regard for what we are doing? I don't mean just roller-coasters. I must admit that they don't seem nearly as ill-considered as some of the other things that..."
She trailed off, staring over towards the entrance to Amethyst. We followed her gaze and saw Simon striding right past Galileo and heading purposefully toward the bookshelves. He pulled out his Book, a worn ring-binder, and snapped it open. He produced a page torn from his pocket notebook and clipped it in. Then he headed for the stage.
By this time, Tim had allowed his playing to fade away, slowly and deliberately, leaving no impression of an unfinished piece. He rose from the piano and took a chair in the body of the House. Conversations all over Amethyst hushed as Simon climbed the single step and turned to face us. His hair was dishevelled and his eyes looked a little red.
"I wrote this on the bus here," he began softly. He swallowed and read from his Book:
"There's a rose bush in my garden, Which I've never had time for before. It's grown tall with neglect - The branches reach skyward, They strive and let nothing daunt them, And the flowers which appear in the spring, In the season of growth and life, Are always at the very top, And the stems are covered in thorns, And the flowers Are now forever out of my reach."
Simon paused and took several deep breaths. He looked at us over the top of his Book. "I came here from the hospital. Susan's having biopsies done right now."
The House was silent, in frightful anticipation of bad news about Simon's wife. His next words began with steel self-control, but faded into a choked whisper. "Melanoma. They don't know how severe..."
Mrs Shelley was already rising from her chair, but Simon held a hand up, stopping her before she took a step. She remained standing as he continued speaking.
"She might be all right. Or it might already have spread so far that..." he trailed off, although not as convulsively as before. "We'll know after the biopsies have been analysed, but right now I feel so..."
"Helpless?" finished Mrs Shelley in a gentle voice.
"Yes," Simon nodded, stepping down from the stage and into her spread arms. He cried on to her shoulder and clenched his fists and twisted his face in silent anguish, while she held him tightly and provided the comfort we all wished we could give.
"It's not fair," he cried, sniffling slightly. He released his grip on Mrs Shelley and stood back, wiping his eyes. She handed him a large handkerchief and nodded, indicating he could blow his nose.
He did so, then looked at the rest of us. "Thanks everyone. I... I'll be okay now. Thanks." He smiled weakly and nodded at the genuinely concerned faces.
Mrs Shelley eased him into the chair between hers and Ron's as quiet talking began again amongst some of the other people. Simon nodded hellos to Natasha, Ron, and me.
"Hey man," said Ron, slipping into Jamaican colloquialism and shaking his head very slightly, "I'm real sorry."
"No need for you to be sorry," Simon gave a wistful smile. "Not your fault." He sighed heavily. "Although it may well be the fault of humankind."
We all knew what he was talking about. Susan was from southern Australia, where the solar ultraviolet radiation is the harshest of any densely populated area, thanks to the hole in the ozone layer. And that is thanks to over two hundred years of industrial pollution. The incidence of melanoma is far higher there than anywhere else in the world.
"Mmmm," I agreed with distaste. "I hope she'll be okay."
"To be truthful," said Simon, "the doctors said she has a good chance of that. They seem to think they caught it early enough. They're doing the biopsies to make sure, but they were cautiously optimistic."
"That's good to hear," said Mrs Shelley.
"Yeah. But what really pisses me off is the fact that it may not have had to happen at all! All this junk we've been pumping into the air, it's definitely affecting people, and there's nothing we can do about it now."
"It is a shame," agreed Natasha. "It's another example of humanity imposing itself on nature with no regard or thought to the possible consequences. People should know better than to tamper with the global ecosystem, which is the very force of life itself."
At that point Galileo wandered over, carrying a cup of Simon's favourite Brazilian blend, brewed just the way he likes it. "I thought you could use this," he said as he set the cup on the table. "Give my best wishes to Susan when you see her."
"I will," Simon smiled again. "You didn't hear... I was telling these people that the doctors do think her chances are quite good."
"Ah, that is encouraging," Galileo's eyes twinkled. "But I should get back to the espresso machine. If you will excuse me... Mary, Simon..." He nodded at the five of us and went back to the counter.
Simon watched him go, then rose from his seat. "I'll be back in a bit. I want to mingle a bit and tell everyone the doctors' opinions so far. And I'd like to add a photo to the back wall." He pulled a polaroid picture of Susan out of his top pocket and passed it around.
She was sitting up in a hospital bed, long golden hair glowing in the reflected sunlight from the window. A large vase of roses stood on the bedside table. It was the Susan we knew - Susan who wouldn't mind having her photo taken in hospital, because she was a keen photographer herself. She looked a little pallid, but otherwise healthy and happy. And with an outlook like that, we all knew that she'd pull through.
Simon retrieved the photo and walked away towards the back wall, where he pinned it up next to another picture of Susan. Then he started wandering around Amethyst, talking to all of the people who had listened to him earlier.
At our table, we sat in silent thought for a few moments. I picked up my mug and drank a mouthful of tea. I glanced from Natasha to Ron, to Mrs Shelley... and a thought struck me.