By M S Clements
The Democratic Republic of New Albany
From Here to There
Ramblers strolling along the track, point towards my car, and some wave. My first instinct is to shrink into the leather seat, and yet my pupils insist on darting right, observing them through the privacy glass. They are the little people who inhabit the filtered world of half-truths and spin. But in that brief moment when car and ramblers align, we each exist in the other’s world. I twist out of the safety belt restraints, craning my neck to get a second glance at them, now nothing more than diminishing smudges in the distance. Could they ever accept me as their equal again, an Albian, born and bred just like them?
The car rounds a corner, and with no one left in the vicinity, I lower the window. My world moves from monochrome to Kodachrome, from ghostly to vibrant, from surreal to real. Drawn to that square of life, I taste the dust from summer baked earth carried to me on fragrant air. It’s three hours since we left St Stephen’s Hall, and urban sprawl has given way to fields playing host to military rows of corn standing to attention, awaiting the final orders. The distant horizon is protected by spears of poplars, while above me, starlings duck and dive in disciplined formations. This is a New Albany August, when innocence is lost. Here, August is lust, it is desire, it is voracious greed. I drag it into my lungs, holding it inside me while I still can. As much as I hate what this country has become, this is my home. She runs inside me, she fuels me. Those precious reserves will sustain me when I am no longer free to breathe her in.
The window glides up, forcing me back inside the car.
‘I’m sorry, Sir, rear windows are normally disabled.’
Slightly shocked by the voice, I stare at the man in the driver’s seat. His head sports a buzz cut so short that I see flesh through the dark brown fuzz of hair. Below the rim of the cap, his scalp bulges into an angry wheal, making me want to comb through my own hair to eliminate the thought of a constricting band around my head.
‘I need some air,’ I say.
‘Shall I adjust the climate for you?’
‘No, I’d rather keep the window open.’
‘I’m afraid that’s not possible, Sir. It’s a security risk.’ The driver’s head moves slightly. Although his eyes hide behind dark glasses, there is no doubt that he is looking at me through the rear view mirror. I am the observed. The corners of his mouth lift upwards. ‘These cars are bullet-proof for a reason, Sir.’
New Albany has given me wealth, power, and position, but strictly on her terms. She gives, and she takes. Today, she stole from me with a bloodied right hand. She left me defeated and abandoned. Only then did she lift me up with her other hand, to pay me homage.
‘Pull over, now.’
‘Now, damn it. Stop the car.’
He indicates and slowly manoeuvres off the road, stopping close to a stone wall. I panic slap at the door handle, trying to escape the confines of the car. Every second in here pinches at my senses, from the sickly stench of cleaning balm rubbed into leather, to the warning bells ringing inside my head. I am hot. I am trembling. The door is opened, and I tumble out onto the sandy dirt. This bile will not be held back. I retch, dragging it up from the depths, and deposit it on the gleaming black boots next to me.
The driver ignores the vomit and lifts me just enough to prop me up against the stone wall. A deft hand movement releases the pistol from its holster, while he scans the view.
‘There’s a small army barracks not too far away. I’ll call them. The on-site medic can take a look at you.’
He’s jumpy, like a startled cat, tensing for the fight.
‘How much longer before we arrive at the Beach House?’ I ask.
‘Another four to five hours, but I’d rather not run the risk. If you’ve been poisoned, quick medical attention can make all the difference to survival, Sir.’
His concern strikes me. He says, ‘Sir’ in a way that is friendly, familiar, as if he could just as easily be saying, ‘Tim’. I reassure him, telling him that there is no need for a doctor. It’s quaint that he thinks I have been poisoned, and in a way, I have. Alcohol is a poison. However, he would need to be without sense of smell, or sight even, to not notice the state of me when Francis helped me down the steps. But whatever he thinks now, I cannot allow this inconvenience to delay me.
He removes the dark glasses and for the first time since he collected me outside St Stephen’s Hall, I see his face clearly.
‘What’s your name?’ I ask.
‘Mason, Sir, Corporal.’
‘I take it Corporal isn’t your first name.’
‘My name’s Tim.’
‘Yes, Sir, I know.’
‘Now you tell me yours.’
He looks about, uneasy with my request.
‘It’s…er…um…George. It’s George, Sir.’
‘Hello, George. I’m sorry, I made a mess of your boots.’
‘That’s OK, Sir.’
It’s not OK.
George reaches for a bottle of water in the open car door and hands it to me. ‘I haven’t touched this yet, Sir. You should try and drink some.’
I obey him, and gulp down the cool water.
‘No, Sir, you should sip it, you might be …’
The water comes back up and puddles in the dust. Chastened by my foolishness, I repeat apologies for being such a nuisance. His bulk shields me from the lowering sun. Despite the hour, it continues to be damnably hot. Dribbles of sweat roll down my back where the stone wall bakes me with radiating heat. I pour the remaining water over my head, which makes George halt his surveillance of the road to look down at me. He says nothing, and quickly resumes his watch. From the minute I stepped into the car earlier this afternoon, he and I became one entity. He is my shadow, the man who has pledged his own life for my protection. He tells me how he has admired me from his school days, and how delighted he is to be Timothy Smith’s bodyguard. I struggle to see his face now. The peak of his cap casts a long shadow, only his teeth are visible, giving away the breadth of his grin. I don’t deserve a man like George.
‘Maybe we should head off,’ I say, reaching for a protruding stone to act as a hand hold.
‘Are you sure, Sir? I know they have guest suites set up for visiting generals and dignitaries at all barracks.’
I shake my head. Thankful for the solidity of the wall, I ease myself upright and face him. ‘I need to be at the Beach House before dawn breaks.’
George grabs a blanket from the boot, laying it over me once I am back in the car. I protest, citing the heat. He ignores me and tucks in the sides of the blanket with the gentleness of a new mother.
‘Tissues and a bag in there, ’ he says, pointing to the armrest cubby, ‘you know, just in case I can’t stop in time, Sir,
We travel west into the setting sun. It hurts my head, so I focus on the little flag fluttering from the bonnet of my car instead. It is the most recent rendition of New Albany’s flag, the red cross against royal blue was deemed too similar to our old, pre-independence flag. Now we have one designed by our very own First Lady. They instruct us that the white, green and yellow diagonal stripes signify the purity, future and hope of this young nation, but in this fading light, the background is anything but white, which the cynic in me thinks rather apt.
You’d think sleep would allude me after everything that has happened today, but I am too exhausted to prevent it. At a rest stop, salty air hints at what lies close by. The Beach House can wait, first I must go home. I tell George that we are to make a detour through St Max’s.
‘St Max’s?’ he says.
I lie and tell him the other roads are too windy for me tonight. It takes me a minute to realise it is not the detour that concerns him, but more the actual location of the small fishing village. It had ceased to be St Max’s years ago, along with all the other places I knew and loved.
‘Oh, damn it, what’s it called now?’ I say, taking out my phone to scroll through some notes much to George’s disapproval. I ignore his warnings about security and the importance of the counter-terrorist naming system.
‘Ah, here it is, AZ8/C451.’
He nods and we resume our journey, past the towns of my youth, Miniver (AZ8/T345), bedecked with lights that sparkle off the bejewelled celebrities, Kitsmouth (AZ8/ST876), where Bianca sleeps in her small apartment, awaiting my call and finally, St Max’s (AZ8/C451), where every bend and dip in the road is familiar, even though it has been years since my last visit. We pass the old infant school where Libby and I played with Christopher and Anna. I heard it had become a recruitment centre in recent years. I have no idea where the new school is now, assuming there even is one.
‘Stop by the church,’ I tell George. ‘I won’t be long.’
George does not acknowledge me, and I presume he has not heard, so I repeat the order. Nothing.
‘George, did you hear me? I want you to stop by the church.’
‘I did, Sir, it’s just, well, I’m not supposed to make unscheduled stops unless it is an emergency.’
My temper is not what it should be and through the windscreen I see the faint outline of the church. In less than five minutes we will have exited the village and will be climbing the hill to the Beach House.
‘I’m going to throw up.’
We come to an abrupt stop and George races round the car to open my door. I push past him and stride up to the old lychgate.
‘Sir, sir,’ George pulls at my arm but I stand firm. A metal fence bars access to the lychgate, and a large sign hangs off the criss-crossing wires.
‘Sir, you must stay by the car.’
I step closer to the sign.
‘Please Sir, return to the car until I have assessed the situation.’
I use my phone light to illuminate the sign, its words punching me hard in the gut.
‘Keep out! Demolition site.’
I turn back to George, as though he might have answers to my questions. He hasn’t stopped trying to herd me back to the car, with his earlier concerns now verging on mild panic at my continued disobedience. I watch his marionette dance, outstretched arms bouncing in the air while his head jerks from side to side. We are both new to this sort of relationship and I’ll be damned if I will be dictated to by a subordinate, no matter how well meaning.
‘Come with me,’ I order. I’m more than slightly relieved when he approaches me, edgy but compliant.
I tell George to watch where he steps and use my phone to light our path. Worn down to a shine by centuries of feet from faithful, but poor parishioners, these uneven cobbles are prone to give the uninitiated sprain ankles. Beyond the lychgate, a wooden hoarding, maybe two metres high, conceals the graveyard. We turn a corner, where a row of terraced houses butts up to the hoarding. The nearest one is double fronted and slightly larger than the others. It is exactly like the doll’s house I had made for Sophie. Railings separate the house front from the pavement. In the middle there are two wide, stone steps up to the black front door, and above it a semi-circle fan light glows yellow from the hall light. That doesn’t mean the owners are in, most of these houses are empty half the year. Like Miniver, Kitsmouth and the other small villages along the coast, St Max’s is no longer home to a community, it has become a playground, a retreat and an investment opportunity.
‘Do you know this place, Sir?’
‘It’s where I grew up. It was our family home.’
George lights up the nameplate on the wall. ‘The Old Vicarage,’ he reads out loud. ‘Makes sense, seeing as it is next door to a church. Was your father the vicar?’
‘No, not my father.’
‘What a bonus for the owners of this place, eh!’
‘You know, once your promotion is officially announced.’ He sweeps his arms open in a theatrical gesture. ‘Here lived, Timothy Smith, Foreign Minister for The Democratic Republic of New Albany.’
‘It’s late, we might disturb the residents,’ I say, turning my back on the house.
Before reaching the car, I ask George to remind me to call the regional diocese office of The Church of New Albany. He nods, and says nothing more, yet I feel the urge to expand, explain myself.
‘My family are buried in that churchyard, you see.’
As we exit the village, I ponder George’s belief that the new owners of The Old Vicarage would be proud to advertise the association. Chances are they will shy away from telling friends that their house was once my childhood home. I imagine the plaque above The Old Vicarage’s nameplate, ‘Here lived Timothy Smith, Corrupt Politician and Traitor’. Not that I have betrayed New Albany, not yet anyway.
My birthday lies in what I always consider to be ‘The limbo weeks’. It goes back to my school days at St Jude’s when all exams were completed, but before the end of term. Most boys lazed both in and out of the classroom. However, for me, those days were filled with hours on a school bus travelling to various athletic meets, galas and regattas. I don’t think there was a single birthday between my fourteenth and eighteenth that didn’t involve, ‘An opportunity to make St Jude’s proud’. The first year I was away for my birthday, Grandad drove up with Libby. We lunched in a nearby hotel, where the atmosphere was awkward, and the tension between us, exhausting. I itched to return to school and serve out my anger on the tennis court. The following year I insisted Grandad shouldn’t bother, seeing how I’d be heading home less than a fortnight later.
‘We’ll celebrate once I’m home,’ I texted.
Of course, we never did, at least, not with Grandad.
Now, after all that has happened, it seems ironic that we used the excuse of my birthday to propel us into the path of the Elsvenor family. It hadn’t been my idea, no, that gem belonged entirely to my university friend, Jonathan Keeler. ‘A chance to make a difference’ Jonny had said. ‘We would make Albians proud again.’ Jonny was a confident sod back then, and had no difficulty persuading me that to achieve our dream, we would need the backing of Philip Elsvenor. To get to Philip, first we would have to lure his nephew, Benedict, down to St Max’s.
The Democratic Republic of New Albany,
With each futile jump towards the top cupboard, my little sister’s sandy mane shoots up into the air, revealing a face that is not yet ready for the early hour.
‘Ah, fuck it!’ Libby says, returning to the sofa to adopt her strange, half foetal, half can’t be arsed position.
‘Hangover?’ I push aside an array of out of date medication to fetch down the paracetamol.
‘Ah.’ The pills fizz with their tango in the water. ‘Did you win?
‘Fucking hell, yeah, we won.’ A hand appeared from under the mass of curls to take the glass.
I wince with her language. ‘Fancy some breakfast? I’ll do you a bacon sarnie?’
I can’t let her ruin my weekend with false coarseness and tell her as such. Her response, to curl up even tighter.
I’m nearly done dicing the tomatoes when she deigns to speak again, this time her voice is small. ‘Are you ashamed of me?’
‘I’m not going to pretend to be someone I’m not just ‘cos your posh friends are coming.’
‘I didn’t ask you to be someone else.’
‘Happy fucking birthday, by the way.’ She slides off the sofa, taking a moment to consider how she’ll stand without causing herself distress. Upright, she shuffles across the kitchen, lifting onto her tip toes, to kiss me. ‘Anna’s got the present. They’ll bring it over later.’ She edges onto a stool opposite me, its brief spinning giving her an unwelcomed surprise. Her fingers clutch the worktop, forcing a sudden stop.
‘Wait ‘til your posh friends get to Kitsmouth. They’ll be fanning themselves in shocked disgust.’
Libby delights in her street savvy image, but we both know it’s a disguise. Life’s lonely for her now I work up in Corbison. Her Kitsmouth friends fill the void. I remind her that apart from Benedict and his girlfriend, the others are well acquainted with ‘The Smugglers’.
‘Yeah, so who’s this Benedict guy?’ She steals a tomato, and then another.
‘He’s Deb’s boss.’
Her fingers reach out for a third, her shoulders rising with the unasked question.
‘Jonny Keeler’s girlfriend, you met her last year, remember? Tall, long hair, elegant.’
Her head tips up to the ceiling as she mentally flicks through the contact list of my friends and acquaintances.
‘Bea’s friend?’ she says, having eliminated a dozen or so of my friends who could easily match the same description. ‘Why are all your friends so posh?’
‘Bea isn’t posh.’
‘Yeah, she is. But that’s OK, I like her.’ She dismounts the stool with a slight wobble. ‘I’m getting a shower. I’ll help later, kay?’
Libby re-emerges, only slightly less dishevelled, with her curls swept up into a pony tail and held in place with an old silk tie that once belonged to Grandad.
‘Can I do anything?’ she says.
‘What about the beds?’
I pause before answering, ‘Maybe. Sorry.’
We talk about sleeping arrangements and I suggest Anna bunks in with Libby. They haven’t seen much of each other in recent years, and it will do Libby good. I also hope Anna will warn Libby off her friendship with Jake Trentar.
She offers to mop the floor while I busy myself with more food prep. Her whole body moves with the mop, each sweep finishing with a flourished flick of her pony tail. She wiggles her way across the kitchen until she reaches the fridge where I am trying to shoe-horn in a dish of marinading chicken breasts.
‘Are we supposed to eat all of that tonight?’
‘Most of it is for tomorrow.’ I wag my finger at her. ‘So no snacking while I’m out. I need to get some stuff for Anna.’
‘Righty-ho.’ She sways off in the direction of the patio doors. ‘What time’s Bea arriving?’
I don’t answer.
The mopping stops. ‘Tim?’
I push my head deeper into the fridge. Behind me I hear the mop shoved into the bucket and the soft sound of stockinged feet approaching me.
‘Have you argued again?’
‘So what time’s Bea arriving?’
‘Dunno, she’s got an audition, depends on that.’
Libby’s head rests on my back and her arms wrap around my waist. That is how we stay, until the fridge alarm starts buzzing, warning us that the door must be closed. We resume our tasks, me grabbing some bags from the utility room and Libby sloshing water on the floor.
‘I won’t be long,’ I say and then add, ‘I’m staying down here for a few days, we could go and see Mum together if you want.’
Libby stops cleaning. ‘I’ve got Mums and Tots on Tuesday, but nothing else afterwards, we could go and see her then.’
‘Sure. Do we need to ring?’
‘I’ll do it. She’ll be so happy to see you, Tim. She’s much better, honestly she is. They might even let her home again soon.’
I had spoken to her consultant only three days before, Mum’s condition was unchanged, but my smile and a ‘That’s good’, was what Libby needed, so that is what I gave her.
Mrs Halmeer’s ancient runabout was parked in the bay opposite our railings. Christopher must have visited his parents’ before arriving at ours. I dump the shopping bags on the top step, clenching and unclenching my fists. Before I have a chance to find my key, the front door swings open.
‘I saw you from upstairs,’ says Anna, grabbing a bag off the step.
‘Hope we’ve got enough ice.’ I say, trotting along the corridor behind her. ‘Is Christopher in the garden?’
‘We’ve got loads in the freezer and yes he is.’ She empties the bag on the island and snatches up a peach, breathing it in. ‘Fabulous, smell how ripe this is?’ A peach is thrust under my nose. ‘Did you remember cherries too?’
I tell her that the shop was out, and that there’s tinned cherries in the pantry. I don’t tell her that fresh cherries are expensive and that my savings account is empty and my credit cards all maxed-out.
Anna flits around the kitchen opening cupboards, gathering equipment and ingredients like she owns the place. Then again, I suppose she does. This was where she learnt to cook, standing on a little stool next to my mum. I’m hardly here, and Libby baulks at boiling an egg.
I slide open one of the glass doors to ask Christopher if he wants a beer. The heat assaults my face making me anxious for tomorrow. Maybe the forecasters are wrong. At the end of the garden, leaves on the cherry tree tremble with a reassuring gust.
‘Where’s that beer then?’ says Christopher, pushing through the gap between me and the door. I watch him go to the fridge and help himself. He flicks off the beer caps and hands me a bottle, tapping the bottom of mine with his, in a toast as laid back as the man.
Christopher is Samson-like, with hair long enough to rest on his broad shoulders, and skin permanently tanned by his love of the outdoors. When we were at university, his size and unorthodox attire could be intimidating to those who did not know him well. That never bothers Christopher, other people’s opinions are not his concern.
‘How are your folks?’ I ask.
‘Good, yeah, all good. We got down yesterday afternoon, so had plenty of time with them. You?’ The sofa creaks under his bulk.
‘Last night, train was delayed and Libby was out, so I went straight to bed.’ I look about only just noticing Libby’s absence. ‘Where is she?’
‘Jake rang,’ says Anna. She walks to my side and rubs my arm. ‘She won’t be long.’
Christopher has the habit of picking at labels when he is uncomfortable, and the sight of a dozen or so damp scraps of paper clearly indicates that something is amiss.
‘What are you not telling me?’ I say.
Anna and Christopher share a look, but it’s Anna that does the talking.
‘We’re worried about Libby, she’s so alone here, and this house is far too big for her.’
‘I’m not selling.’
‘No one is suggesting that, Tim. It’s just, Christopher was thinking—’
‘I’ve got a sabbatical coming up,’ he interrupts. ‘I could write up my paper here, I’ll pay rent and everything.’
‘Why wouldn’t you stay at your folks place, it’s just as quiet, if not quieter up on the hill?’
‘Dad’s put in for a transfer, a while ago actually and—’
‘Don’t tell me he’s finally found the balls to leave FinCom.’
Christopher shakes his head. ‘No, it’s a promotion, back home. Well, back to his home. New Albany is my home now, and I think that’s why he wants to go. I’m an adult and it’s their opportunity to return to their roots.’
A sense of panic wells up within me, I listen to one thing but hear something else entirely. How long before Christopher looks for promotion outside New Albany, and wherever he goes Anna is sure to follow. They’ve never been apart, not from the first day of school. I can’t absorb this, not today, not on my birthday.
Anna touches my arm making me jump. I knock the bottle of beer that was standing on the edge of the island. It smashes on the floor sending shards of green glass across the room.
Christopher is already in the utility room, looking for a broom, while Anna is at my feet picking up the larger pieces.
‘Do you ever think about returning home, Anna?
‘Me?’ She looks up. ‘No never. Two weeks, twice a year is quite enough thank you.’
‘But you do love Marnie, don’t you?’
‘Of course I do.’ She stands and stares into me, reading the thoughts I can’t vocalise. ‘Mum and I are different people. Her life is travel and adventure, that has never appealed to me. I like my life here, with you, Libby and Christopher. I’m not about to abandon you, Tim. Neither of us are.’
Christopher heads outside with the dustpan of broken glass.
‘If you promise to help me split up Libby and that Jake guy, then Christopher can stay rent free,’ I say.
‘It’s her calling, we can’t interfere.’
‘It’s not a calling, it’s a cult.’
‘What cult?’ says Christopher, returning to the kitchen.
‘Nothing,’ we both reply, simultaneously.
Before he could wheedle it out of us, the front door slams and a ‘Hiya!’ resonates from the hall. Libby pops her head round the kitchen door. ‘On the beers already, cool. I’m going to change and then you can tell me what to do. Oh, you haven’t given him his present yet, have you?’
Anna and Christopher tell her no and to hurry up.
I’m surprised by Libby’s outfit when she reappears. The customary jeans and top are replaced with a short summer dress and her curls scrapped back and tied up with a conventional ribbon.
‘Gotta look good for the posh-toffs,’ she says, twirling her way to the utility room. She reappears with a large box, wrapped in navy paper, with a silver bow. ‘Here you go. Happy birthday from us.’
She puts it on the island, and the three of them position themselves on the other side, phones ready to take pictures. I rip open the paper and make mock faces of surprise with each gift removed from the bundles of tissues – three soft crew neck tee-shirts, blue, black and grey; six bars of high cocoa chocolate bars, three plain, three flavoured; a bottle of whiskey, single malt. I thank them each with a kiss for the girls and a hug with Christopher. The gift hasn’t altered in five years. It is what I want and so that is what I get. I pour out a small glass of whiskey for all except Anna, who drinks tea, and pass around chunks of the chocolate bar.
It’s Libby’s turn for the toast. She raises her glass and calls out, ‘To Tim, big brother and best friend.’
The three of us on whiskey empty the glass followed by eating our chocolate like children in a midnight feast. As it is my birthday, I do the response, refilling the glasses and breaking off more chocolate.
‘To our family!’ I say. ‘Oh, and by the way, Christopher is moving into The Old Vicarage.’
Libby looks at me in surprise, then immediately flings herself around Christopher, covering his tee-shirt with little dabs of pink lipstick.
Christopher and Anna are only trying to look after us, it’s what they do.
Jonathan Keeler and Debs were regulars to St Max’s when we were at Bridgestow together, so there was no ceremony when they arrived in the early afternoon.
Debs passes me in the doorway and points upstairs. ‘Usual room?’
‘Yeah, do you need a hand with the bag.’
She flexes her arm muscles. ‘I’m the TV show dogsbody.’ She picks up the brown leather holdall and disappears upstairs.
‘That bag’s only for make-up, her clothes are here.’ Jonny pushes a suitcase into the hall, not that I can see his face, as he is hidden behind a large box. From the sound of glass clinking, I assume he is adding to our drink supply.
‘I need your help, guys,’ Debs says, when she enters the kitchen.
We all peer into the box, pulling out the bottles with increasing concern.
‘Are we supposed to drink…’ I hold the bottle up, ‘Nettle Liqueur’. I read out the description with sommelier enthusiasm. ‘Simple days revived with the fresh notes of summer blending superbly with all the fruitiness of country hedgerows.’
The others laugh, but not Deborah. She snatches the bottle off me.
‘It’s going to be the next big thing, hedgerow cocktails.’
‘Do you mix it with dock leaf tonic?’ asks Anna.
We join in with our other suitable mixers, ‘Dog Shit Fizz’, ‘Hawthorne Syrup’ and a good dose of ‘Don’t Touch That Billy, It’s Poisonous, bitters’.
Poor Deborah has her work cut out to get us to listen to her pleas of support. It isn’t that there is only one bottle of God Knows What, but eight, and she is expecting us to taste them all.
‘Hope this isn’t my birthday present,’ I say to Jonny.
‘Of course it isn’t.’ He slaps my back. ‘Your present is Benedict, brought to you by my very own Deborah, so be nice and drink up.’
The liqueurs are as unpalatable as their over the top descriptions. We decide they are perfect for anyone wanting to cut down on drinking. Debs gets her vox-pop survey completed for the consumer slot, and we get very tipsy. I do nick the nettle liqueur though, for Jake’s next proselytising visit.
The girls give up on the idea of sunbathing fifteen minutes after they leave the kitchen, with Libby declaring, ‘Too fucking hot!’ She sprawls herself across the tiled floor. I pull down the blinds, hoping a little shade might make some difference. Needless to say, I’m wrong. Alcohol, heat and lethargy get the better of us and it’s all we can do to keep our eyes open.
‘Remind me again, what’s Benedict’s girlfriend called?’ I ask Deborah.
‘Emily, but she’s his ex now.’
Conscious of the limited sleeping arrangements, I ask, ‘Is that going to cause a problem, him here with his ex?’
‘No, she’s not coming. Sorry I should have texted you, but it went clean out of my head.’
‘One less toff to deal with,’ says Libby under her breath.
I kick her with my toe, but looking up at Jonny and Debs, I’m certain they haven’t heard. I do not have my sister’s inherent dislike of the upper class. I can’t really, given my education was with some of the country’s wealthiest. My own circumstances was never an issue, not when you are winning for the school team or have learnt to charm away their innate prejudices. Libby didn’t have the same opportunities as me. Her life is insular. These friends of mine are subject to her anxieties.
‘It’s not a problem, is it?’ Debs appears upset. Maybe she did hear.
‘No, no, that’s fine. Gives us a bit more space on the yacht.’
‘The thing is…’ Deborah’s tone gives me a sinking feeling. Ben isn’t coming either. All that money spent for nothing. ‘…he asked if you’d mind him bringing his little sister. You don’t mind, do you?’ she asks with pouting lips and batting eyelids. ‘You’ve probably heard of her.’ Debs looks around the room, gathering in us country plebs. ‘It’s Michelle Egerton.’
Of course I have heard of her, but I’m not going to admit to reading articles about Corbison’s latest celebrity, and it looks like nor will anyone else.
Frustrated by our silence, Debs elaborates. ‘You know, Michelle E, hashtag The Goddess?’
Libby and Christopher shake their heads.
‘You’re going to have to explain, Debbie,’ says my sister.
Jonny taps Libby on the shoulder. ‘She prefers Debs or Deborah.’
Libby gives Jonny a warning stare that makes me I wince. ‘Sorry, DE-BORE-RAH,’ is her withering reply.
Between Debs and Jonny we are made privy to all the scandalous details. Ben and Michelle are not real siblings. Ben is her adopted brother, and Michelle is Philip Elsvenor’s step-daughter. Michelle’s mother adopted Ben after he was orphaned as a ten year old, shortly before she married Philip.
‘Hang on, hang on.’ This is not Christopher’s comfort zone and his brain must be going into illogical, celebrity gossip overload. ‘Let me get this straight, they are adopted siblings, but his father is his uncle? Monied people are weird. Right, shower time before this show starts.’
‘Not as strange as physicists,’ Jonny says to the departing giant.
‘Can I use your shower room, Libby?’
Anna and I look horrified when Libby tells Debs, ‘Of course. I put towels on your bed.’
‘What?’ says Libby after Debs leaves. ‘I cleaned it, took me fucking ages.’
News of an unexpected guest leaves me with a problem, where should she sleep? Bianca texted me after lunch to say she will be coming, but the train arrives late, so I can’t give up my room to #TheGoddess. With the three upstairs rooms occupied and Christopher in the study, that only leaves the sitting room.
Anna finds me rummaging at the back of the garage for Grandad’s old camp bed.
‘There’s no need for that, I’ll sleep in the sitting room, on the sofa. After all my night duty shifts, I can sleep anywhere.’
‘Libby’s really looking forward to chatting with you into the small hours.’ I rub the base of my knuckles. We all have our little quirks, don’t we? ‘You say you don’t want to interfere, but I have a bad feeling about Jake and it might be easier coming from you. Girl chat, you know.’
‘Libby is twenty-three, not fourteen, and we have talked.’ She pulls out her phone. ‘You might want to try it sometime.’ Anna holds my hand to encourage me out of the garage. ‘It’s only one night and it won’t kill any of us. Anyway Michelle and Libby are the same age.’
It seems Anna has been reading the gossip pages too, which is rather surprising.
Ben was meant to arrive at six, but I had enough experience of Jonny, Debs and Bea’s attitude to time keeping, not to be overly concerned. Bea and I once had a massive row where she threatened to break-up with me. She arrived for Sunday lunch over an hour late, and even though she saw I was cross about the ruined meal, her reply was to tell me to not be so middle class. My solution was to ask her to move in with me, then at least she’d be punctual some of the time.
But now I am worried, not because I think anything has happened to our guests, although I’ll admit I’d rather that than the alternative. Jonny has lit the barbecue, and the others decide to start the party without the guest of honour. I’m not so relaxed. At every opportunity I nip to the study to look out of the window.
‘I’m going out for a smoke, want to join me?’ Libby stands at the study door, retrieving a joint from inside her bra.
‘You shouldn’t be smoking that, not here,’ I say.
‘It’s not illegal, and you could do with a bit of mellowing.’
Libby tugs at her dress, pulling it down as far as possible to act as a barrier between the skin of her thighs and the still hot front step. She sucks on the joint, leaving a pink band on the rolling paper. After a few seconds, she releases the smoke in a steady stream. She doesn’t cough or splutter the way I do. There were plenty of drugs available both at St Jude’s and Bridgestow, but I never got into that scene. Sport and the fear of letting people down kept me clear of most substance abuse. She hands it to me and laughs at my attempt to inhale. I return it to her just as a car mounts the pavement in front of our house.
I’ve never seen Ben in the flesh, but there is no mistaking the man. A good decade older than me, and a fair bit shorter, he is pristine, graced with effortless style. The young woman next to him is not someone I’d describe as #TheGoddess. She is pretty enough, and tiny, only reaching to Ben’s shoulders, even in her high heels.
‘Watch the cobbles in those shoes!’ says Libby.
I can only described the look she gives my sister as ‘insulted’. I half expect a spat between them, but Ben’s sister somehow makes it to the pavement in one piece, where she stands behind her brother, which strikes me as odd.
‘You must be Timothy Smith.’ He has taken off his sunglasses and holds out a hand.
I get to my feet and shake his hand. ‘I am indeed.’
‘Debs described you perfectly, though she didn’t mention the smoking. I got the impression you had no vices other than the occasional glass of whiskey.’
I redden with embarrassment.
‘It isn’t his joint, it’s mine. I’m Tim’s wayward sister by the way.’ Libby scrambles to her feet, pushing her face forward for the customary two kisses. Ben steps back.
‘I see, well pleased to meet you.’
Libby turns back to the house, yelling loud enough to wake our neighbours in the graveyard, ‘Debbie, your boss is here.’
There are times when I could murder my little sister.
The others hurry out to fuss over the guests, chivvying them inside with offers of drinks.
‘I’d rather have what she’s smoking,’ says Ben, to the amusement of the others.
Ben doesn’t give a reason for his late arrival, and it is only through overhearing his conversation with Debs that I find out he was having lunch with friends in Miniver. I guess the lunch started late.
Although not introduced, Anna takes Michelle under her wing, showing her upstairs to Libby’s room. I carry his bag up to the guest room and when I return to the garden, Ben is commanding the small audience with an anecdote about a well-known celebrity and his mistress.
Christopher comes up behind me, handing me a beer. ‘He’s a jerk. You’re better off without him.’
He is only slightly wrong. Ben may well be a jerk, but I need him to introduce me to Philip. This new friendship is only temporary.
Michelle appears at her brother’s side maybe ten or fifteen minutes later. Again she hovers behind him until he lays his arm over her shoulders to pull her in close.
‘Everyone, this is my kid sister, Chelle Belle.’
She has a ‘Finished’ smile. I first encountered it on Jonny’s older sister, who had chosen to attend one of the new ladies colleges that were opening, where acquiring academic knowledge was secondary to lessons on femininity, charm and how to delight an eligible young man down the aisle. Jonny’s sister threw all her delight towards me for a while, but I was, and am, devoted to my Bianca.
Michelle greets all with delicate air kisses that smell of champagne and roses. When Anna is being introduced, Michelle says, ‘We met a while back’. She kisses Anna’s cheeks leaving a lipstick mark.
That explains how Anna knew Michelle’s age and their friendliness at the door, when Michelle was so timid with the rest of us, but I can’t understand why Anna didn’t say anything earlier. Ben’s voice has an edge to it when he asks where they had met.
We listen to Anna as she recounts their meeting at an exhibition of 19th Century Women Artists. Christopher catches my eye, and I mouth, ‘Did you know?’
He nods and now I am doubly baffled by their uncharacteristic silence.
Michelle clings on to her brothers arm and I notice her glances up to his face, which is stern, almost cross.
‘I asked you to come with me but you were too busy,’ she says to Ben, when Anna finishes the story.
He stares back at Anna. ‘So are you Doctor Von Stauffenberg?’
He pushes Michelle’s hand off his arm. ‘Let me guess, Maternity or Family Practice.’
‘Thoracic and Pulmonary.’
He raises his glass to Anna, then turns to Debs to enquire on her father’s latest race horse.
The Old Vicarage garden soon fills with the smells and sounds of a summer party. Judging from the glow on his face, Jon is suffering from the double heat of the barbecue and the evening temperature which hasn’t dropped below the high twenties any night in the past three weeks.
‘Have you spoken to Ben yet?’ I say, bringing him a cool beer.
‘Thanks. A bit, have you?’
‘Only polite stuff, nothing of consequence. What do you think? Is this a mad idea?’ Christopher’s dislike of Ben has coloured my view of the whole endeavour.
‘Have faith, Tim. This will work. I chatted about social reform. He seems genuinely interested.’
A prickle of goosebumps runs down my spine. ‘Interested enough to introduce us to Philip?’
‘I think so. Pass me the sausages, would you?’ He lays them out carefully. ‘They’re an odd family, the Elsvenors. All that money but a bit weird as your friend Christopher might say.’
In the kitchen, Ben is joking with Debs, with a closeness that speaks of life beyond an employer/employee relationship.
‘I thought Debs was quite junior at the TV company.’
‘She is, but it was Ben who got her the job in the first place. Colonel Fitzpatrick is friendly with Charity, Michelle’s mum. It’s through him I get all the gossip.’
My ears prick up. No one does gossip better than Deborah’s father. Jonny tells me about Mrs Elsvenor’s life as an opera diva, her love affair and brief marriage to a jazz pianist, Michelle’s father, and then her conversion into a religious group with extreme views.
‘If you are trying to compare her to Libby, you are miles out, She’d happily burn Libs for a witch if it were allowed.’
I am surprised by how shocked that makes me feel. I may not agree with my sister, but I can’t imagine anyone wanting to hurt her for her beliefs.
‘Yeah, so, Mrs E is uber old school when it comes to women,’ Jonny continues. ‘Full on loopy if you ask me.’
I am baffled by what a progressive like Philip would see in Charity, but Jonny puts it down to the blindness of sexual desire.
‘Did you know that Charity Elsvenor is one of the founders of Family First?’
I didn’t and it is a concern. Our beliefs are about as far away from Family First as it is possible to get. I suddenly worry about Philip’s credentials. Jonny assures me that Philip has nothing to do with them, and nor does Benedict.
‘What about Michelle?’ I ask. Michelle has spent the evening either talking to Anna or hovering silently by her brother’s side. ‘There’s something odd about the way she acts around Ben. It’s not natural.’
‘Well, he’s not actually her brother, is he, not genetically at least.’
‘Really? They’re not…, you know.’
Jonny taps his nose. ‘You didn’t hear it from me, and it’s all rumour, but she does stay with him when she’s in Corbison, and Debs says none of Ben’s girlfriends last beyond one visit to his family home.’
‘That could be the mother, though.’
‘It could be, oh hang on, she’s heading our way.’
Jonny puts his head down and busies himself with the charring meat, while I watch the girl step carefully down the garden, lest her heels be damaged by our unkempt grass pretending to be a lawn.
‘What’s on the menu?’ she says, sniffing the air.
‘Meat mainly.’ Jon prods a steak. ‘You’re not veggie are you?’
‘No, I like meat. The rarer the better.’
Jon and I exchange a glance, and I assume he too is desperately trying to supress laughter.
I try to be pleasant, asking her about work and her life in Corbison. Maybe it’s because seeing me in my home environment makes her think I am not one of her set, but her replies soon puts me on edge, and I find it harder and harder to find merit in this minor celebrity. She is all gloss which works well when your life is about being seen in the right places, wearing the right clothes, but there is no substance to her. She is dull and it’s no wonder Anna hasn’t mentioned her, and besides, she’s far too polite to throw off this annoying girl.
‘You’ve a pretty house, Tim,’ she says, once it occurs to her to pay some interest in the other people. ‘Is it true it was the vicarage for the church next door?’
‘The clue’s in the name,’ I say. When she says nothing, I add, ‘The Old Vicarage.’
‘Oh I see.’ She scans the garden, taking in the neglect. ‘And do you have to be extra good if you’re the vicar’s son?’
‘Define being good.’
‘Oh you know, the usual.’
‘The usual?’ Given what Jonny has revealed, her usual might be a long way from anyone else’s. ‘I suppose I am lucky in that I don’t have to care what my father or anyone else thinks. I am an orphan.’
Jonny looks up in surprise, but doesn’t contradict me. I have used that convenient half lie before when I want to end conversations. Shallow people tend to become uncomfortable when faced with death, but I had forgotten that Ben was a real orphan. There is no, ‘Oh I am sorry,’ or ‘ my condolences, ‘ before making a rapid exit. No, this woman stares at me with one of her slightly off balanced, Finishing College smiles.
‘You are indeed lucky. My father’s a bastard.’
I choke on the beer and cough out, ‘Philip?’
Jon bashes my back to help me clear my lungs of the misplaced beer.
‘Philip isn’t my father.’ She waits until I catch my breath again. ‘Isn’t it a little inconvenient for the vicar then, you and your sister living here.’
‘Oh, Tim’s dad wasn’t the vicar, he was a yacht designer, in fact—’ began Jon.
Michelle interrupts him, ‘Where does the vicar live, then?’
This is not a conversation I am comfortable with, and Jonny starts to take over.
‘He lives in Kitsmouth, on one of the housing projects. Closer to his flock I suppose.’
‘What about his flock here? Are they to be abandoned and left to party?’
Jon looks over to me and I return it by draining the beer bottle.
‘Um, so Tim’s sister, Libby. You’ve met her, haven’t you?’
‘The pot smoker?’
Jon laughs nervously. ‘Um, yes, but she doesn’t normally.’
Which is a complete lie, and I’m sure Michelle notices my raised eyebrow.
‘So, well, yes, so she’s the parish curate. She’ll be fully ordained next year, won’t she Tim?’
I lower the bottle. ‘You’ll have to ask Libby, I’ve no idea.’
Michelle’s right cheek rises with her strange smile and her eyes open wide in delight. ‘How lovely! The Old Vicarage will have a vicar again, although, you’d never guess she’s the religious type.’
I have been drinking pretty continuously since early lunchtime, so perhaps it’s the drink or perhaps I am still shocked by what Jon said about Michelle’s mother, but whatever the reason, my reaction is extreme. I slam the bottle down on the table next to me, making Michelle flinch.
‘And what exactly do religious people look like?’ I step closer to her, stabbing what I assume is a Family First brooch with my index finger. ‘Do they wear diamond brooches, Miss Egerton?’
She steps back, her hand reaching up to finger the brooch. There is no sense of embarrassment as she runs the tip of her finger over the jewels that form the intertwined daisies.
‘Diamonds, are not a requirement. Good manners generally are, though.’ She picks up my empty bottle. ‘I’m going to get another drink, looks like you’ve had enough.’
Once she is up by the kitchen, Jon thumps my arm. ‘What the fuck was all that about?’
‘I could ask the same of you. Why did you tell her about Libby?’
‘She was making conversation. We need Ben on our side, insulting his kid sister, who he may, or may not be poking isn’t going to help our cause.’
I avoid Michelle as much as possible for the rest of the evening, which isn’t hard. Ben proves to be remarkably interested in our plans, mentioning several times how much his uncle would want to hear our ideas. It buoys me, making me hopeful for a successful result tomorrow.
It’s not long after eating that we each grab bean bags and deck chairs and travel down the garden towards the graveyard gate, so as to avoid the suffocating heat coming off the house. It’s not much better here, but every now and again we catch the cooling sea breeze that cuts across the graveyard and into our garden. But when the church bell starts to chime the hour, so the party breaks in fairy tale fashion. Christopher is first, Libby next, with Michelle following her, stating that she wouldn’t want to disturb her later. Jon and Deborah leave hand in hand, so by the time the bell strikes the quarter hour, it is only Ben, Anna and me in the garden. Despite Michelle’s accurate observation that I had already drunk too much, I continued drinking, graduating from beer to spirits. My conversation had gone from animated to truculent. Bianca says I am difficult when I drink, and she’s probably right. When Anna stands to leave, she picks up my glass.
‘You’ll have a headache in the morning. Shall I get you something soft.’ And just like my mother used to do, she’s gone before I have a chance to reply.
She re-appears moments later with a large glass of water, and instructs me to drink that one, then another before bed. Her kiss on top of my head is gentle and her goodnight to Ben, cordial.
‘You’re not really going to drink that, are you?’ says Ben, once Anna has gone.
I stare at the water in the glass. It appears black, just like everything else.
‘I ought to, Anna’s right, I will have a hangover in the morning.’
‘And you think a glass of water will make any difference?’ Ben leans forward and takes the glass from me. I can hear the black water cascade out of the glass and onto the hard ground. There is a hiss, as though the parched earth cannot wait to draw in the water. Ben refills the glass with a generous measure of cognac and hands it back to me.
‘My advice, don’t sober up, it’s the best way to avoid a hangover.’
I take the glass, but I don’t feel like drinking anymore. What I want is for Ben to go to bed and for me to be alone.
‘I was telling Jon earlier about my father-son…’ Ben stops. ‘Or rather in my case uncle-nephew lunch on Tuesdays. I think you two should join us. Can you do this Tuesday?’
I don’t stop for a second to consider my diary, nothing can be more important. I note down the time and place in my phone diary and immediately invite Jon. Moments later, a thumbs up appears on my phone.
Ben laughs. ‘Guess they’re not asleep then.’ He bounces the deck chair closer and leans into me. ‘You know, I’m glad Deborah suggested this weekend. Uncle needs people like you in the party. You could make a real difference.’ He slumps back into the canvas seat. ‘Oh, and I love yacht weekends, so it’s win-win for all of us.’
‘You won’t regret it.’
‘The boat trip or bringing you and Jon into the fold?’
He downs the remaining cognac, swaying as he stands. ‘In that case, I’m heading for bed too. It’s an early start, isn’t it?’
‘Yes, sorry. Luke is expecting us at the club by eight.’
‘I have my morning tea black, no sugar.’
His room is on the back of the house, next to mine. Shortly after leaving me, his light comes on, lighting up the garden. His black silhouette stands at the window. Dashes of bats pass in front of him, swooping to devour the night time insects. And then I am in darkness, all alone.
Vibrations from my pocket informs me that Bianca is on her way, but when I check the message, it tells me that her train is delayed and it will be a couple of hours before she arrives. A ‘Don’t wait up. X’ her sole apology for missing my birthday.
Conscious of the early start, I head back towards the kitchen. After locking up, I toss the key onto the island, where it spins in circles, gliding across the surface until it touches my bottle of birthday whiskey. I grab the bottle and head to the utility room. The key to the graveyard gate dangles from a red velvet ribbon. Unhooked with my index finger, its weight surprises me. I catch it mid fall. There is gravitas to that iron key, at once comforting and appropriately solemn.
Outside, the dense sky cloys with the lingering smells of burnt meat melting into the sweet night time florals. I flip-flop back to the end of the garden. Witching hour magic conceals the day time neglect of the wrought iron. I touch the twists and curls remembering the stories Dad used to make up about our ‘magic gate’. Back then, he’d twirl the key on its red ribbon like a hypnotist while I held onto his trousers listening to tales of pixies and dragons. Like its companion, the key, the gate padlock is oversized and heavy. I angle the lock in my palm and slide in the key. A slow turn edges it towards the lock mechanism, the metal slipping out of my fingers as it stubbornly refuses to budge. I wipe rusty sweat onto my shorts, shaking away the tension from my hand. Round two, and yet again the key jams, but I do not relent. Hunching over, my back and shoulder muscles tense. I grit my teeth, groaning from the depths of my stomach. Movement is sudden and stumbling forward, I scratch my cheek on one of the gate’s arrow head decorations.
This end of the graveyard is left wild, with waist-high grass and flowers becoming the arms of the unmourned, gathering me into their solitary world. I stub my toe on a child’s grave hidden in the undergrowth. The route is mapped out by familiar monuments poking above the foliage; the one armed cherub, two doves, and the headstone with a jagged left-hand corner. Stepping out of the long grass, silvered engravings gleam from more recent granite memorials. These are the neat, upright, domino gravestones, with flowers at various stages of decay lying at their base.
I take the gravel path towards the rear of the church. Even the hottest of July days cannot penetrate the grey stones lined up in this part of the graveyard. When I place my hand on top of the granite, a cold shiver runs through me. I lower myself into position, taking the headstone into a hug, my legs and arms crossed behind it, and my forehead cooled by the stone.
‘Here we are again,’ I say. ‘Me drunk and you, dead.’ I unscrew the top off the whiskey bottle and let the liquid burn my throat until I can swallow no more, then, without halting the flow, I pour every last drop over the headstone and onto the ground. The bottle slips from my fingers, chinking against the stone to break the silence with its cracking toast. I slump down, my face pressed into whiskey soaked earth, its peaty flavour on my lips as I whisper, ‘Happy Birthday, Dad.’
Dad used to say I could sleep standing upright in the middle of a riot. That was before he died though. Sleep does happen, but invariably after hours re-living arguments or plans. It comes when I am too exhausted to fight it anymore.
I don’t bother drawing the curtains, letting in moonlight as well as the sea breeze. It pushes apart the voile drapes, filling their folds with pregnant anticipation. Downstairs I hear the quiet clicks of a key in the front door. There’s a creak from the floorboard by the family bathroom, and then the glint of light on the door handle as it gently lowers. Bianca tiptoes in. The silver glow coming in through the window turns her bathrobe into a ghostly shroud. She slips it down from her shoulders and is left naked and lunar gilded beside my bed.
‘Hello, birthday boy,’ she says.
‘You missed it.’ I turn away onto my side. The sheet ripples and long legs glide down mine. The softness of her stomach pushes into my lower back and her lips find the hollow below my shoulder blade, laying warm, gentle kisses of apologising tenderness.
‘Let me make it up to you.’ She grips my waist, shuffling herself closer into me. Fingers travel over my skin, pushing tips of manicured nails into soft flesh with the precise pressure to elicit pleasure, not pain. It would be so easy to give into her.
I put my hand on hers. Behind me, she lifts herself up onto her elbow. Those warm soft lips are deep within my neck and corkscrew curls waterfall over my shoulder. I call her my Midnight Goddess, but tonight I reject her with ‘We’ve an early start’.
The kisses stop and the mattress dips and rises with her retreat. Toes become heels and the rounded stomach is replaced with the firm muscles of her backside.