The newspaper fell through the letterbox a few minutes after the grandfather clock in the hall had chimed for half past.
“Bit late today.” Harry rose from the armchair where he’d been waiting, and retrieved the paper from the mat.
“No it’s not,” Linda chided from the sink, but without force as she rinsed the morning’s cereal bowls under the tap. The kettle began to growl and gently rattle on its base – it had been a present from Julia, their eldest, and Linda was never entirely convinced that it would turn itself off. When she saw the water dancing through the clear plastic window she flicked the little switch, just to be on the safe side, and filled the two mugs she had put out already.
“He was earlier yesterday.”
“Maybe he was early yesterday.”
“As long as it comes, where’s the harm? Talk to the Spar if it bothers you,” she said, knowing that he wouldn’t, that this was the sort of easy, idle talk that had been the bedrock of their thirty-five years together. She bent to kiss the thin hair above his ear, close to the raised line of his rugby scar, and handed him his morning tea – with a sweetener rather than a sugar, although she didn’t tell him that.
Harry signalled a change in topic by snapping the newspaper to its full width, then carefully folded the pages over so they didn’t catch and bunch at the inside corners. “Let’s see who’s died now,” he said in what Linda called his gameshow voice, and what their children even now would remember as the voice that announced their birthday and Christmas presents. Checking the obituaries had been a pastime of his since they had moved back here in retirement, and every time Linda had said “Oh, don’t,” as she did now. But she couldn’t help her smile.
Linda had never herself been able to produce such deliciously daring comments as Harry – her conservative Catholic upbringing had seen that any such instincts had been starved of light. But from the first time they met she had thrilled to his dark, impish humour, and the way one side of his mouth would pull upwards and his eyes would flash to indicate that there was more to what he had said than first appeared. It seemed to Linda that she was the only person who could interpret these undercurrents to Harry’s conversation, and in the years that followed this was a constant comfort against the mundane anxieties of marriage, and a contradiction to her unspoken fear that a woman like herself could only ever be ordinary, could never be anything other than boring.
In other men, she knew, a wicked sense of humour could be the visible portion of any number of unwelcome, sour traits: melancholy, anger, a pervasive and mean disinterest. Her mother, perhaps thinking of her own experience, had warned her as much early on in the courtship, although only once; whether because she had come to know Harry, because she recognised Linda was unreceptive to her warnings, or just from relief at her daughter having found someone, it was never raised again.
That she had mentioned it at all was something of a surprise, as her mother had been beginning to worry aloud about her daughter having reached twenty-two without a boyfriend. Both of them attributed this to the two years Linda had spent at the Joint Cheshire Sanatorium, although for different reasons: for her mother it was a mark of sickliness that was sure to deter any man who was not already put off by her age; whereas Linda found that her stay there – months of bedridden boredom followed by a period where she was permitted to take short walks around the grounds – had turned her wry and solitary, with a particular disdain for smokers that she had picked up from the sanatorium doctors, and she considered what puppyish attentions of boys did come her way to be tiresome.
In any case, her mother’s fears had been unfounded. Not only had Harry not flinched when she told him about the consumption, but he encouraged her to talk about it, and she soon developed a spiel about the treatments (which included being wheeled outside in their beds in all weathers – even snow – and having bags of rocks placed on their chests to strengthen the lungs) that went down a storm at parties in later years once antibiotics and immunisation had reduced it to an antiquated childhood horror. He had remained resolutely caring and kind, and their parenthood had been a genuinely shared experience, unlike for many of Linda’s friends. They had three children and, recently, a grandson – Linda knew Harry wanted a grandchild with the family name, but that seemed likely to happen sooner rather than later with Andrew as settled as he was.
Harry had also proven to be a generous lover, in ways neither her magazines nor blushing gossip with girlfriends had prepared Linda to even imagine. Their first time had, by unspoken agreement, been on their wedding night; he insisted on wearing a sheath, which she thought gentlemanly (her parents’ Catholicism had been a casualty of the sanatorium). She wondered, although never asked, whether it was his first time – he seemed to know better than her what to do, but perhaps boys just did.
She looked up from drying the dishes to see Harry jerkily pulling on his coat. His right arm was in the sleeve, but his left arm, with the bad shoulder, wasn’t angled right, and that side of the coat hung loose around him. He was young for such ailments, although only a little, and he had always had a bit of trouble with his shoulder.
“Come here.” Harry relaxed as she lifted the sleeve opening and manoeuvred his arm into it, listening carefully for any intake of breath that might signify pain. “There we are,” she said, once it was done, and she left him to sort the zipper. “Are you off out?”
“Just to town.” He gave her a quick dry peck on the lips, and went to the door. “I’m going outside,” he said as he often did, especially when it was cold. “I may be some time.”
“Well, be back for dinner. I’m making cottage pie.”
After he’d gone, but too late to call after him, Linda realised that Harry hadn’t taken any of the change in the tin they kept on the shelf by the door for the bus. He might have some with him, but likely not, and they could get so funny about breaking a note sometimes. It was a good two miles into town, and he’d grumble about it when he returned if he’d had to walk. Serves him right, Linda decided. In another year he’d have his bus pass anyway, and the exercise would do him good in the meantime.
It wasn’t altogether unusual for Harry to make an impromptu trip into town, usually in connection with some financial matter that Linda was only too happy to leave to him. Today, however, the suddenness of his departure played on her mind, and when she came downstairs later in the morning to start on the potatoes she went so far as to check the death notices for a name that might have upset him. But finding none she recognised, she laid the newspaper back on the armrest and set a pan of salted water to boil while she peeled and chopped.
If you walked along the main road into town it took the best part of an hour, but there were back ways too, quieter and a little longer. This was ideal for Harry; it was not yet eight o’clock, and The Admiral didn’t open until eleven, but he fancied he would want a drink once he was done, so any extra time he could take would be welcome.
He held his thoughts back carefully until he was far enough from the house. It was rather like holding your breath, and when he could take it no more they rushed into his mind and he had to stop and stand still to make any sense of them. It had always been a possibility that Brian would have returned to Liverpool, albeit not one Harry had prepared for, nor allowed to affect the decision to come back. The last he’d heard, Brian had been in Preston, but that had been decades ago. Perhaps he had been here for years, or perhaps he too had returned in his retirement – he was a few years older, so would have reached pensionable age around the same time Harry had accepted the package offered by the council.
Harry felt light, as though he had not eaten for some time, and sat on a low garden wall, not trusting his legs. They could easily have been in the same pub, or out shopping at the same time. Would either have recognised the other? It was impossible to say. Perhaps Brian had once, and thought it better to say nothing, or dismissed it as just a likeness across the crowd of a room. Whatever the truth of it, one thing was certain: Brian Gemmill, from the only Scottish family on Beaufort Road, who Harry hadn’t heard of for twenty years and hadn’t seen for closer to forty, passed away peacefully in his sleep last Tuesday, survived by his wife, sisters, and two children. The notice had gone on to give the address of a church to which flowers could be sent: a Catholic one, if Harry remembered rightly. That must be Barbara’s influence, although the differences mattered less these days.
Sisters. The word rattled round his head as he pushed himself off the wall and continued through the tightly-packed terraced rows. ‘Sisters’ could be two, or could be three; there was nothing in the word to answer the question it posed, no matter what contortions he forced it into. The memorial service was for family and close friends only – they would be there, both or all of them. Harry would once have been firmly in the latter category, but no longer. Not for a long time.
He puffed out his cheeks and watched the mist escape from his lips then disappear. How was it that the cold could have the same effect as a boiling kettle? The thought reminded him of the tea earlier that morning, which led him sharply to Linda. He hoped he hadn’t worried her with his disappearance – he would need to think up a reason for being in town, in case she asked later in passing. A lie. The idea sent a wash of nausea over him, though there was little other option. He didn’t like to lie to her, not like some men he knew who would do so to their wives with the slightest justification. He had even met some who lied routinely, regardless of any immediate advantage to be gained, either as a form of power of because lying habitually made it easier to be plausible when there was something real to hide.
Harry was not like those men, and it hurt him to think that they shared anything in common. He loved Linda, and had done so truly throughout their time together. But this was a rare instance where he had to keep something from her. If she knew, she would understand, he told himself – but of course, then she would know, and after all this time he couldn’t only now tell her. So he had to trust that he knew her well enough; that she would, if an informed choice could ever be made, want him to lie to her.
Josie’s Flowers was empty when he entered, although the ringing alert made by the door brought a young woman – Josie, presumably – rushing out from the back room, wiping her hands on her shirt to dry them. He had chosen the shop because he knew Linda had been there before, which he had meant as a reassurance, but now felt closer to a betrayal. At least he had never been there with her, so there was no connection that could be made.
From the way Linda had talked he expected the woman to be older. Instead she looked about the same age as Julia, and wore a chequered shirt and her hair was pulled up in a loose ponytail. “Sorry, I was in the back,” she said with a nervous, embarrassed laugh at having been caught away from the shop floor. “How can I help you?”
His request was a simple one, but to make it seemed to involve all manner of admissions and explanations, and he couldn’t do so immediately. Josie waited, her hands in front of her, until he said: “I need some flowers for a funeral.”
“Oh! I’m so sorry.” She took a step back at this and placed a hand on the counter as if to steady herself. Harry thought it a strange reaction: she must be used to serving the bereaved alongside the ecstatic and the shamefaced. But maybe these days they normally phoned or ordered online, rather than bring their raw sadness here in person. He felt very small. “Were you thinking of anything in particular?”
Not being used to ordering flowers, Harry shook his head. “Well,” said Josie, a briskness entering her voice. “Let’s see. Most people choose lilies – we have some lovely fresh white stargazers. Or there’s carnations or gladioli. Or chrysanthemums, although they use them in Europe really, not here.” With each suggestion she gestured to a different section of display on the walls around them. Harry felt surrounded, hemmed in by petals and stems, and was relieved when she gently took charge and steered him towards the lilies.
“Do you want to include a message?” she asked, once he had given the delivery address. Again he shook his head. She looked as if she might ask if he was sure, but she didn’t, so he paid and left.
A little further into town he bought a coffee and, despite the cold, sat outside without drinking it. He wished he still smoked. When he returned to the house, their house, he would not allow himself to think of it, but here he indulged the fantasy of attending the funeral. It was a necessary and not entirely unpleasant thing, like scratching at a patch of dry skin: he could taste the fear of being noticed by Barbara, or at least two of Bonnie, Paula, and Frances, as he walked through an imagined graveyard. Before he was seen, however, the table boy ended his reverie by asking if he was finished, and he thought it best to leave. A short but dawdling walk later he reached The Admiral as it opened; some of its chairs were still upturned on their tables. He ordered half a pint of IPA, and paid with a note – so that when he finished his drink and left, he could take the bus home without the driver being difficult.
He was Henry back then: Henry Wick, still the 100m hurdles record-holder at St Martin’s despite having left several years earlier, tipped for county-level competition and maybe more, until a fall from a tree and the subsequent dislocated shoulder put paid to that. He worked four days a week in his father’s butcher’s shop, and the rest of the time could reliably be found with Brian Gemmill – ‘the Scottish lad’, as he was known in the Wick household, although he sounded no more Scottish than Henry himself, who had never been north of Blackpool.
John Wick did not entirely approve of his son’s friendship with the older boy, and particularly the manner in which Henry seemed to defer to him on any matter of importance. This idolatry, for which he could see no rational basis, went against his own beliefs that a man should be independent, firm, and decisive in his conviction, and he feared his son might be soft, or worse. His attempts to talk to the boy, however, were tortured and unproductive, and liable to descend into argument, for which neither party had a taste. When they worked together, it was mostly in a strained silence.
Despite their sons’ friendship, the two families were not close – they had differing politics, and attended different churches. So when Henry casually announced at the breakfast table one day that he was seeing Frances, the youngest of the Gemmills’ three daughters, no-one said anything at first. “She seems a nice girl,” Henry’s mother said eventually. John said nothing and drained his coffee. But when the following week she came round for tea, Frances was welcomed by both in a way that neither she nor Henry had expected. Brian, too, reacted well to this new aspect of his family and social life; there was inevitably some good-natured joshing to begin with, but that soon subsided, and the sight of Henry and Frances walking hand in hand next to Brian and Barbara became a common one in the area.
During the week, Frances worked the daytime shift at the Odeon, and Henry would often meet her afterwards to take advantage of her discounted staff tickets. They were only available for the less popular showings, but as much as the pictures themselves they enjoyed the time spent together, which was otherwise hard (although not impossible) to find.
It was after one such outing that it happened. Neither of them had particularly enjoyed the film, and this was always liable to make them irritable; as they left, Frances had accused Henry of staring at another girl in the cinema, not without cause. When he pulled his hand away from hers to light a cigarette, she continued out into the road, blind in her anger.
Henry could not at first put the splinters of sound and vision together: the horn, the wail of brakes, the thud and shatter, Frances unmoving on the road in front of a car, a man inside it bleeding from the head. When he did, it came all at once, and although he was told that he ran back into the cinema to call an ambulance, then Brian, then his own parents, he remembered none of it later.
The family room of the hospital was an airless, boxy place, lit a jaundiced yellow and with children’s drawings taped to the wall alongside informational posters. They spent hours in there, breathing the same thick air, not talking because there was nothing to say. When the doctor entered, they stood.
The news wasn’t good. Frances had suffered extensive injuries to her legs, back, and head. In all likelihood she would be confined to a wheelchair. At some point someone used the word ‘brain-damaged’ and was not contradicted, and a heavy silence settled on them until Henry’s father, who had closed the shop early upon hearing of the accident, spoke.
“Can he see her?” The doctor nodded, and Henry followed him blankly through the corridors to where Frances lay. He had been told she would be asleep; the only sounds were the pump and hiss of unknown machines. Her face was partially covered with a clear plastic mask that misted with her breath. Henry started to talk to her, but felt foolish and stopped. Instead, for twenty minutes, he sat in the small, hard chair with his hands clasped in front of him, like a schoolchild who has been told to consider a certain painting in a gallery, dutiful and uncomprehending.
He visited regularly in the coming days, and the nurses would bring him fruit or a polystyrene cup of tea when they passed. Only once was Frances awake: when he saw this he began in his delight to tell her about the preparations for the summer street party. But it was clear that she could not understand, and when he stopped she let out an awful howl that brought a nurse in to bustle him out.
After this incident Henry returned to his father’s shop, and his visits to the hospital became less frequent. At first he made excuses to himself, but they soon hardened into moral justifications: he was a young man who could not be expected to handle such a situation; his visits only seemed to upset Frances in any case.
Eventually, in the fourth week after the crash, he came home from the hospital and informed his parents that he would no longer be visiting Frances. His father asked him only one question, which Henry answered truthfully ‘no’, although he did not mention the scare they had had a few months prior. At this his father nodded, as if this absolved Henry of any further responsibility. His mother said nothing, but Henry would always detect a barely perceptible coolness towards Linda who, if she noticed it, must have put it down to the natural threat a mother feels from the bride of her only son.
The Gemmills moved from Beaufort Road not long after, although there was time for Brian to leave Henry with a black eye and a deep cut to the forehead. After that, little more was said of them; if anyone ever did hear talk of the family or of Frances’ condition they kept it from Henry, it being understood that he too had been damaged in the incident, and in time it was almost as though there had never been a Scottish family on Beaufort Road.
“Just in time!” called Linda when she heard the door. “Did you get done what needed doing?” Harry grunted a response. The house was warm with cooking, and Linda was spooning steaming piles of mince and mash onto their plates. Harry shook off his coat and joined her in the kitchen.
“Do you think there’s enough to freeze?” she asked. It was a decision she could take herself, but she liked the feel of Harry behind her, slipping his hands around her waist as he considered the question. They always liked to have a proper meal at dinner when possible, although there was no harm in saving a bit for another day.
There was enough, they decided, so she opened the cupboard by the fridge and took out a foil tray for what was left. They sat at the table to eat, and Harry turned the radio on to catch the weather.
Jamie Thunder lives, reads, and writes somewhere near London, and tries to behave better than his characters. He’s been published by Storgy, Spelk Fiction, The Pygmy Giant, and The Drabble – he also writes at http://asintheweather.wordpress.com and tweets as @jdthndr.