From one side Lawrence could see over the town. The Abbey was the most prominent feature. The Waitrose car park also drew the eye. Looking the other way he saw fields, clumps of trees, and in the distance were, indisputably, the Black Mountains, according to the lady from the Quakers. Lawrence was not so sure. One side Worcestershire, the other side Herefordshire, that much he knew.
He sat down at the base of the plinth. The Beacon itself was a little further on. A white stone obelisk with a square hole in the middle, for a flag or a flaming torch, Lawrence assumed. The idea of a square hole puzzled him for a few moments as he unwrapped his sandwich. He had forgotten the flask. He could picture it on the worktop near the sink. No one was there to remind him as before.
Still, there was always the Foley Hotel on the way back. On such a fine day, what harm could a pint of ale do? Perhaps a half, to be on the safe side.
He chewed, mindlessly, as he watched other walkers, couples, some with children, some with those modern metal walking poles, making their way up the hill. Dogs enjoyed their temporary freedom. A cooling breeze touched his face, cooling the sweat there. At his age, he felt good enough. Grateful to be this fit after all that had happened in the last two years. He brushed a fly from his bare knee. That was one thing that had never let him down. His joints. Most of his contemporaries would have no chance in getting up here, he considered. I’ve a lot to be thankful for, he thought.
A young man in a bright yellow t-shirt and dark glasses passed close by and bade him good morning. ‘Wonderful view,’ answered Lawrence.
‘Aye, it is that,’ the man said.
Lawrence crumpled the foil from the sandwich into a tight ball and dropped it into his rucksack. He picked up his stick and began a slow descent.
The new management of the Foley Hotel had installed a revolving door at its main entrance. Lawrence stiffened as he moved through it. Such doors made him slightly nervous. Another person might suddenly rush from the other side and push vigorously against their section, causing Lawrence to lose control of his passage into or out of the building. The thought of this, although it had never happened, made Lawrence resent the new management. That, and their two-for-one offers trumpeted on over-large flyers on each table.
Lawrence walked over to the bar and waited to be served. Several of the tables were occupied. The girl serving missed his turn when a group of younger people came in whom she appeared to know. Lawrence tapped a pound coin lightly on the counter. Behind him, a fruit machine flashed silently.
After some deliberation, and trying two sample glasses, he decided on Jacob’s Leap. A pint. ‘I don’t have to drink it all,’ he told himself.
Lawrence was pleased to find both the leather chairs empty. The nearby sofas were too low. ‘You’re almost on the floor.’ Phillipa had said this once. He resolved to visit her the following weekend, lay some flowers, tidy things up. On occasion, he heard her calling his name. Usually at night or very early mornings. Those soft Yorkshire tones. Her younger voice, as it had been.
He reached out for his drink and the long scar down his abdomen complained. ‘It will probably desensitise over time,’ the consultant had said. Lawrence pictured the man’s face. The longish hair, falling over his collar, had given him pause, initally.
One of the servers came buy carrying two plates. One in the hand and the other in the crook of the same arm. In his other hand he dangled a metal basket of condiments. ‘I’d drop one of those plates, if it was me,’ Lawrence thought. A moment later the same chap came back empty handed. He glanced over at Lawrence but seemed, to Lawrence’s mind, to look right through him.
A half-open window was by his head. He turned a little and could see the street. A car went by now and then. He heard people speaking French. One word stuck out, ennuyeux, said by a child in a somewhat whining tone. Lawrence sipped at his drink. What does that mean again? It was on the tip of his tongue. Still, French had not been his subject, although he had filled in once or twice with the younger ones. But all that was so long ago. Most things fall away.
The smell from the Sunday roasts was making Lawrence a little hungry. He checked in the side pocket of his rucksack and found that he did not have quite enough money. It was a good deal they had here. You got a free drink (from a limited selection) with each roast dinner purchased. ‘Next week, perhaps,’ he thought. ‘After the visit.’
Two men came and sat on one of the low leather sofas nearby. One of them placed two wine glasses on the table (how big the glasses were now), then the other poured from an open bottle. They picked up their glasses and clinked them together before drinking. ‘Bottoms up,’ one of them said. Lawrence forced himself to look away. He began reading down the menu as if genuinely interested.
In his peripheral vision Lawrence could tell that the men were sitting very close to each other, that they must surely be in physical contact. Yes, their upper bodies and their legs were touching. Perhaps they were brothers, Lawrence thought, pushing the obvious from his mind.
They were not young. Lawrence judged them both to be in their forties, possibly even late forties. They were well-dressed, fit-looking, and both tanned, as though they had recently returned from a holiday. Both had very short hair.
‘You’re not getting me up that damn hill again,’ said the man who wore a rather tight red polo shirt that showed off his muscular physique.
The other, who was of a lighter build and who sported a neatly-trimmed goatee, did not respond directly to this, but said, ‘I knew you’d like it here. All the times we spoke about…’
‘So where did you actually board?’ the other cut in.
There was a slight pause. ‘We could walk by there later, if you like. It’s not far from the cinema. We’ll go after the film, shall we?’ He took rather a large gulp from his glass. ‘Be odd to see the place again.’
‘Why would it be odd?’
Lawrence began to feel slightly annoyed with the low-level rudeness of the man in the polo shirt. The other man was instantly more likeable. Softer, more vulnerable.
The man with the goatee placed his hand on the other’s knee and left it there as he leaned in and spoke more quietly. ‘I’ve told you heaps of times. Don’t you listen? I was very unhappy there.’
‘Was that where…?’
‘Yes. I told you.’
‘I still think you could report it. Especially with all the other stories coming out, historical cases, the general climate.’
‘It’s not a story,’ said the man with the goatee, removing his hand.
‘No, I didn’t mean…I didn’t want to suggest that. If it was me, I would. I would go to the authorities. Or a solicitor, or wherever you take these things.’
At that moment, simultaneously, both men looked over in Lawrence’s direction. Lawrence froze for a moment, fully aware that he had been caught listening, caught watching. But how could he help it? He was only a few feet away, and if they would have awkward conversations in public, it certainly wasn’t his fault.
The man in the polo shirt moved his glass up a few inches in what Lawrence took as salutation. He did not smile. The other smiled openly. Lawrence echoed the gesture. ‘I must say something,’ he thought.
Before he could, the man with the goatee said, pleasantly, ‘Is the food good here?’
‘Erm…yes, I believe it is. Reasonable, I’d say,’ said Lawrence.
‘We’re thinking of the beef,’ the same man said. The other now seemed more interested in his wine. He gazed down into it. His face stony.
‘Thank you,’ said the man, holding Lawrence’s gaze for a few seconds. ‘Thank you,’ he repeated, before turning away.
Lawrence shifted in his seat. He had drunk about half the pint. Perhaps it was time to go. Places like this reinforced his loneliness. He would not have named it such, preferring to say it was too noisy, the décor too cloying, the bar staff surly.
The two men carried on their conversation barely above a whisper now, almost conspiratorial. Lawrence tried to shut it out. He closed his eyes. Thinking hurt. Best to let your mind be like an empty sky, he repeated inwardly. He had tried a local meditation group a few times. The person leading the group, facilitating it, had given himself a Sanksrit name, and one week suggested others might also do so. Lawrence had not gone back after that.
Lawrence jerked awake.
‘Sorry, I didn’t mean…’
It was the man with the goatee. His friend was no longer there. ‘I just wondered if we may have met somewhere.’
Lawrence wiped his hand across his eyes. ‘Oh, I doubt it. I hardly ever go out these days. Apart from the hills that is.’ He touched his stick as if to signify this. ‘Are you visiting?’
‘I am. I mean we are. But I used to go to school here. Aeons ago. One of the private schools.’
‘Yes, there are a few still about.’
‘I’m sorry, but you look quite familiar. I’m probably wildly mistaken, but were you a teacher at one time?’
Lawrence did not reply. A tightness around his throat forbade him. He forced a smile, then took a sip of his beer.
The man looked down. He stroked at his beard. Then he looked up again. ‘Mr Warren. It can’t be.’
Lawrence stared at him, as if uncomprehending.
‘It is, isn’t it? You’re Mr Warren.’ The man’s tone had hardened somewhat. And when he had spoken the name his voice almost broke.
Lawrence began to feel quite hot. ‘No. I’m sorry, I really must be going. Shouldn’t be drinking, actually. Had an operation not long ago. Shouldn’t touch it.’ He began to get to his feet.
The man with the red polo shirt returned with a full bottle of wine, fresh glasses, and two bags of crisps dangling from his mouth. He let the crisps fall onto the low table by the sofa. ‘All right?’ he asked his friend, as he sat.
But the other was still watching Lawrence as he looped his rucksack over one shoulder then reached for his stick. ‘I don’t know,’ the man with the goatee said. ‘I don’t know.’
‘I thought we’d try the Rioja,’ the other man said, pouring genorous amounts into each glass.
Lawrence edged awkwardly between the chair he had sat in and the table. His legs were wobbly, so that he needed to steady himself for a moment. That would teach him to drink on a near-empty stomach. And on tablets as well. How irresponsible, how foolish he was. ‘Have a nice stay,’ he said to the men without looking at them. He could feel their eyes on his back as he walked to the revolving door. It was not until he was level with the church, where the road flattened out, that he could breathe easily.
He shut the door behind him then locked it. He placed his stick in the stand, alongside hers. He went to the bathroom and splashed cold water over his face. Then, as he rose, he was caught by his reflection in the cabinet mirror. ‘Don’t look like that,’ he said.
The rest of the afternoon and evening were uneventful. He prepared then ate a ham salad. He read a little. Listened to a radio programme about Halal meat. He cut his toenails.
It was nearly time for bed, time to turn in, as she might have said. On the bookcase was a gilt-framed picture of Phillipa. Always his favourite. It was taken before they had met. Only a year before. She looked quite boyish, actually. Gamine was the word. She stood in a garden, perhaps her parents’. Lawrence no longer remembered. A large flowering bush was to one side. It was a black and white photograph so he could not tell the colour of the flowers, or indeed her eyes. Had she said blue?
Lawrence approached the bookcase, picked up the photograph, and looked into those eyes. They burned. He turned the image away, and gently placed the photograph face-down into a drawer. Closed it. With the side of his palm he wiped away the dust around where the photograph had stood.
Something prickled. He would not give it room. Like an empty sky, he thought. Like an empty sky.
Mark Mayes has published short stories and poems in magazines and anthologies, including Unthology (5, 9, and accepted for 10), The Lonely Crowd, The Interpreter’s House, Under The Radar, and The Reader. His debut novel, The Gift Maker, was published with Urbane in February 2017. Mark is also a songwriter.