When Maurice climbed up into the attic the first thing, he noticed was the smell – what on earth was it?
‘Have you been cleaning with some weird detergent?’ he yelled over his shoulder hoping that Phyllis could hear him below in the bedroom.
‘Christ Maurice. What did I say before you went up there?’
‘No, what did you say?’
‘Use your bloody eyes, Maurice, can’t you?’
‘Oh yes, I can see now you mention it you’ve obviously cleaned Nigel’s rocking horse. It’s come up quite good, hasn’t it?’
Accepting the conversation had finished he proceeded to look for the particular box of photos he was after. As he dusted off the lid hoping it contained the ones he sought, it now came to him just how long it had been since he was last up here.
It was Nigel’s untimely death that the attic became the closest place they had as their son’s burial ground. He was scuba diving in the Red Sea in Egypt with a French diving company. In a freak accident he was missed in the headcount at the end of the dive and the boat returned to the port without him. By the time he was actually missed he was posted missing presumed drowned.
There was a huge cover up between the Egyptian authorities and the Frenchman who owned and ran the company without the correct registration papers. As far as Maurice was able to ascertain when he visited Cairo a month after the event the Frenchman had left the country and there was no actual evidence that Nigel was even on the dive. The only piece of evidence Maurice had was a phone call from Nigel saying he was in Egypt and planning to go on a diving course in the Red Sea. Try as he might the disappearance of the owner of the company having fled the country, aided, and abetted by the Egyptian authorities stonewalling him and the British embassy being worse than useless Maurice was beside himself with impotent fury.
He spent three long weeks chasing his tail. He made many phone calls to his wife who simply couldn’t believe her ears. He just knew that failing to find out what had happened would be put it down to his incompetence. The one thing he was quite sure of was he would end up being blamed for not solving the mystery of what really happened.
He came home cap in hand and didn’t want to talk about it because nobody, and certainly not his wife would believe him. He approached a couple of national newspapers, but his evidence was so scant no-one was prepared to run with the story.
Recently, the news coverage of the diving capsule seeking to view the wreck of the Titanic and the suspense of the fate of the sub brought it all back to him. How he and Phyllis had scoured any and all news involving Egypt back then. Now he knew why she had been cleaning the rocking horse. Though they both commented on it neither of them acknowledged the fact that the recent news reminded them of that day they realised their son was lost. It was quite obvious to him now, why Phyllis had been up here polishing Nigel’s old rocking horse. But why the hell didn’t she say so? Yet again the silence spun round in Maurice’s mind. Just why could they never talk about it? The number of times he tried to bring it up she was always so quick to shut him up.
‘Maurice don’t bring it up. The boy’s lost and we will never see him again. That’s final. Understand, I don’t want to talk about it. I’m going for a walk now.’ That was it. He never tried again. Whenever it was Nigel’s birthday, he noticed that Phyllis went on one of her long walks. The ones that he was never invited on and having offered to join her once, he was turned down the same way he was always refused when he asked her if she wanted to dance at various functions.
‘No thank you Maurice, not now,’ she would answer him without even bothering to look in his direction. Not now? he thought in his mind. Not now? Just when in hell would they? The answer came to him without being spoken. Never! That’s when. Bloody never.
He started to look lovingly at all the photos they had collected of their son at the same time reaching in his pocket for his handkerchief even though he knew the tears would never come.
Neither of them had ever cried. He felt he was never allowed to join his wife in a proper sharing of grief and, opening the page of the main photo album he knew they never would. But, for the first time the tears did come, and he sobbed as quietly as he could.
‘You alright up there Maurice?’ Phyllis called into the loft hatch. ‘Yes, I think that stuff you used to clean Nigel’s horse overcame me. Sorry’, He wiped his face and closed the album and put everything back into place and swore he’d never come up here again. It wasn’t just Nigel who had died. The whole bloody family had, and he should have left years ago back when Phyllis went into herself. It was too late though. Not for the first time he wished he could join his son. But it was Friday the night he met his very old friend Brian Reynolds at the British Legion.
‘Right, I’m off dear,’ Maurice called from the hallway as he pulled on his car-coat and reached for the keys before letting himself out. He made as if to go by car but changed his mind and walked to his rendezvous with his friend Brian. Once again there was a time before Nigel’s death that he would have given her a kiss before leaving but he saw no point in such devotion anymore.
Seated in their usual corner of the member’s lounge of the British Legion, Maurice sucked the head off his pint of Guinness and exhaled loudly to the room.
‘Ah Brian, Guinness might not make women disappear but by golly it tastes good.’
Brian replied with a withering smile and said, ‘You really go on about your other half mate. Has she done something to annoy you?’
‘Other than breathing no, not particularly.’ Maurice took another swig of the stout and closed his eyes for a moment as though to shut his world out.
‘Oh, Come on Mauri, Phyllis isn’t that bad. Let’s face it she’s put up with you all these years.’ With that Maurice’s best friend drained his glass and urged Maurice to follow his example which he did, glaring slightly at Brian. Having purchased a refill of their glasses he put Maurice’s Guinness down in front of him and took a large sip out of his own pint of bitter before taking his seat and grabbing his friend’s knee playfully, but Maurice pushed his hand away rather brusquely.
‘You don’t know half of it Brian, you really don’t, or you wouldn’t have said that.’ He took a deep draught of his new pint.
‘Sorry mate, you are alright, aren’t you, I mean you and the missus, aren’t you?’
‘What d’you mean all right? Do I shag her? Is that what you mean by all right? Because if so, why can’t you say so in plain language Brian why do you have to be so bloody polite? You should have joined the bloody BBC or the fucking church.’
Shocked at this outburst Brian looked around the bar in the vain hope that nobody was earwigging their conversation. Fortunately, the bar was reasonably quiet and there was only one lady with her husband in the far corner. There were a couple of men standing at the bar who, while probably enjoying Maurice’s outburst, passed the odd remark between each other in hushed tones.
Brian was stunned into an embarrassing silence as though he had made a random pin prick and hit a main artery. ‘I’m truly sorry Mauri I really am I had no idea I really hadn’t.’
‘Oh, don’t worry about it Brian it isn’t your fault it’s mine. I’ve stuck with Phyllis ‘cos I didn’t have the guts to leave when Nigel disappeared.’
Brian sat back against the bench support in silence for a moment thinking carefully before he next spoke, ‘Nigel’s death? What’s all that got to do with you and Phyllis? It was hardly your fault either, was it?’
‘No, it bloody wasn’t. If anyone is to blame it was my son who left this earth without a single clue on where he was. Have you any idea what it was like dragging my arse around bloody Cairo looking for traces of what happened to him? I mean a big fat bastard Egyptian General actually had the bleeding audacity to ask me if I had seen his body.’
Maurice took a drink from his glass and looked around the room in silence. He was trying to answer the most difficult question he had ever faced. He picked up his Guinness and said to Brian, ‘Drink up Brian we’re going.’ With that he emptied his pint and Brian followed suit without a single question. He knew his friend well or thought he did so and he obeyed in silence.
Outside it was starting to rain, and they bowed their heads as they buttoned their raincoats.
‘D’you mind telling me what’s happening?’ Brian broke the silence wondering what was going on in his friend’s mind. If he was honest with himself, he was quite worried.
‘Certainly’, Maurice looked left and right then taking Brian’s arm turned him to the left and started to walk briskly. ‘We’re going to the Coach and Horses for a real drink.’
‘Why, whatever for Maurice; neither of us have been in there since we were youngsters?’
‘Because Brian I’m never going to drink in the Legion again. Do you know why we’ve been going there after all these years?’
‘Well, now you mention it was your idea and I was pleasantly surprised when you called me that night and suggested we meet up there.’
‘And you never wondered why I did?’
‘I rather thought it was in respect to Nigel’s death.’
They were now outside the Coach and Horses a rather up market pub that had been recently renovated. Maurice stepped into the revolving doors and Brian followed him into the lounge bar on the right hand side where they both took off their raincoats and hung them on the wooden hat stand inside the room.
‘Find us a seat Brian and I’ll get the drinks.’ He walked to the bar and ordered a pint of best bitter, a pint of Guinness and two double malt whiskies. He made two journeys to Brian’s table and sat opposite him.
‘Cheers,’ Maurice said and the pair of them took large draughts from their beer glasses. ‘You’ve been a good friend to me Brian, you really have. You never ever questioned why I asked you to the Legion that night and every week since. You were right, it was about the loss of Nigel but today up in our bloody attic I cried for the first time. Nigel is bloody dead and Phyllis and I have got to learn to accept it because we’ve only been pretending.’
The following morning Phyllis was sitting at their breakfast table in the kitchen when Maurice came down after taking a shower.
‘You were late coming home last night, weren’t you?’ Phyllis said quietly not looking in his direction sipping her tea, her forehead furrowed in a frown.
‘I suppose I might have been later than usual. Brian and I went on to the Coach and Horses for a special occasion.’
‘A special occasion?’ Phyllis put her cup down and looked up at her husband as disapprovingly as she could muster. ‘What special occasion, did he propose to you? You two spend so much time together I often wondered there was something strange about your relationship. There’s a lot of it about in the papers.’
Maurice stood both his hands gripping the back of his chair with all the strength he could muster and waited until she had finished and was taking another sip of her tea. She turned her stare away from him and looked down towards the corner of the room.
‘Are you tempted to cry Phyllis?’
She put her cup down and glared up at him. ‘Me cry? Don’t be so damned stupid you foolish man. It would take a lot more than the thought of losing you to bring me to tears I might tell you.’ There was a venomous passion in her voice that he had not heard in years when they used to argue about money.
He stood quietly after that last outburst and let her settle. After what could only be described as an embarrassing silence, he took his hands off the chair back and calmly folded his arms across his chest.
‘Well, I did yesterday when I was up in the attic, and I can tell you it did me the world of good. For the first time in however many years it is since Nigel died. Yes, you did hear me say it, Nigel died! That is what I was celebrating last night with my best friend, I could say my only friend because you’ve made it plain enough that you and I ain’t friends. Are we? How would you describe our relationship, Phyllis?’
She sat motionless her cup back on the table half full still. Her face contorted somewhere in between a smile and grimace. It was quite obvious that she was close to tears. She stood up pushing her chair back with one hand, walked out of the room bent in silence and climbed the stairs. He heard her close the bathroom door and was sure he could hear her sobbing.
Maurice climbed the stairs gingerly making sure he could hear her crying, tapped the bathroom door, and entered. Phyllis was sitting on the toilet sobbing into her hands.
‘Go away please Maurice will you, please? Can’t you see how you’ve upset me?’ She spoke at the floor, but he ignored her plea and walked up to her and gently lifted her by her elbows and once she was upright, they hugged one another warmly.
‘I’ve been such a damned fool Maurice. Can you ever forgive me?’ He held her at arm’s length, kissed her on the forehead and said, ‘Course I can, consider it done.’ With that he pulled her towards him, and they stood clung to one another for what seemed like an eternity until he gently separated himself from her and said, ‘have a shower love and get dressed, we’ve got some shopping to do not just you or me, but us.’ He then left her and went downstairs.
Once there he poured himself a cup from the pot, added milk and took his usual seat at the table. ‘Let me see. Waitrose first and a nice bottle of Cote du Rhone and soft Camembert; looks like it could be a long weekend.’ He said to the room sitting down and taking his first sip from the cup. ‘I might have just returned to a marriage.’
About the author
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