A saga of everyday life in the Big L and a wry look at contemporary culture
Episode Forty One
Mary came awake with a start. Something had woken her. What is it? Her heart pounded. She looked around. Des was snoring beside her. But it was not these things which had alarmed her. She was sure it was something else. Perhaps a bad dream. Then she heard it. A rattling sound, like someone lowering a chain into a bucket.
There was no answer.
Mary was frightened. She pressed the alarm buzzer next to her night table.
‘That won’t do you any good you know.’ There’s an intruder! I knew it!
She could see a faint light in the corner near her dresser.
‘I’m not helpless you know.’ She pressed the buzzer again. Where is he? She nudged Des, but he only snorted and changed position. Fat lot of good you are.
The light grew stronger. Mary could make out a man. A young man. He was pale, almost white. Like a ghost. But there aren’t any ghosts. Who is he? He looks familiar.
‘Do I know you?’ Play for time for security to get here.
‘You knew me, yes.’
‘What do you want?’ Keep him talking.
‘Mary, Mary, come now. You should know better.’
‘Why yes. As PM you help govern this great country of ours.’ That sounds familiar.
‘I think I’ve heard that said somewhere before.’
‘Now, there’s a surprise.’ You can’t be! No! It’s not possible!
‘You sound like Ethan.’ But you’re dead. I know you’re dead. You were killed in that crash on the M40. She gazed at the man before her. You’re about the age he was when he died. But that doesn’t mean anything.
‘What a coincidence.’ That’s just what Ethan would say. An arrogant and sarcastic response. Mary had a vision of her punt along the Cherwell with Ethan pushing her along.
‘Ah! You now recognise me. Good.’
‘But you’re dead.’
Ethan patted himself down. ‘So, I am.’ I’m dreaming a bad dream.
‘This can’t be.’ Mary tried the buzzer again. He’s trying to confuse me.
‘It won’t work, you know.’ Guiltily, Mary pulled her hand away from the table. ‘We’ve got to have our moment together.’
Mary gazed at the ghostly form and remembered their time at Oxford. The sunny days; the days hiding from the rain in the Bodleian; or in Ethan’s room. ‘Have you come back to me, then, after all these years?’
‘Only for now.’ Why only now? She looked at herself. He won’t love me now I’m old. He hasn’t changed a bit.
‘We only have this one night?’
‘Come.’ He stretched out his hand.
As if mesmerised, Mary got out of bed and padded over to him. As she got closer, she could make out more details: the waistcoat he loved to wear, the baggy trousers that were seriously out of fashion with Oxford undergraduates, but a big thing for townies who liked their Noddy Toddler rip-offs.
‘You haven’t changed.’
She took his hand. The bedroom dissolved.
Somehow, it was day. The sun shone. She gazed about her and recognised her old college at Oxford. This can’t be. ‘That’s St Hugh’s. How did we get here? And how come it’s daylight? What have you done to me?’ Mary felt a breeze rustle her nightie. She looked down at her night clothes. People will be shocked to see me like this. She tried to make herself look decent.
‘You remember then?’
‘How could I forget.’ It was here…what happened exactly? It’s been a long time.
‘But you don’t come back, do you?’
‘No.’ Why revisit this place, it doesn’t have happy memories.
‘I think people move on.’ That’s a lie. We try to forget, that’s what.
‘Do you really believe that?’
‘It’s what I like to think.’
‘Come, I have something to show you.’
He led her along the banks. Ahead of them, on the river, a punt was slowly making its way against the current. The punter didn’t seem able to control the punt at all.
They came up as close as possible to the scene on the water. Why, that’s Ethan—and me! They seemed to be arguing. She strained to hear what they were saying.
‘…Of course not, Ethan, you know perfectly well that the will of the people is a chimera.’
‘If you think that, why engage in democratic politics. Why not appoint a strongman, an overseer?’
‘Well, they are entitled to elect their representatives. We’ve done it like that for hundreds of years. What did Churchill say? “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” See Ethan, it’s messy, often misguided but still better than all the alternatives.’
‘And yet…’ Ethan pulled the pole out and grounded it in the bottom of the punt. The punt gyrated alarmingly. ‘Without a proper steersman, the ship of state is directionless.’
‘Ethan! Watch what you’re doing!’
Standing, watching on the bank, Mary knew what was going to happen. I’ve got to do something. ‘Ethan! Don’t be an idiot. Stop playing games!’ But it was as if her voice went unheard. The Ethan on the punt let the pole drop. It bounced off the side of the punt, nearly hitting the young Mary at the aft of the boat before splashing into the water.
‘Now look what you’ve done!’
The current slowly moved the punt downriver. The pole drifted off.
‘How are you going to get that thing, then?’ Mary gesticulated at the rapidly retreating pole.
‘Why simple.’ He jumped in. ‘It’s f**king freezing.’
The punt rocked wildly from side to side. Mary had to cling on to the sides.
‘Ethan, what are you doing?’
Ethan started to swim, but his clothes made it difficult. He gasped, nearly went under before striking out for the bank, ignoring the pole which continued untroubled on its journey. He pulled himself out and collapsed on the grass. Mary who was now less than ten metres away from him, noted several people were shaking their heads reprovingly. Her attention turned to her younger self now alone on the punt which was steadily moving with the current. ‘Go help her, you fool!’ But it was as if the half-drowned Ethan was deaf to her instructions.
‘He—I—can’t hear you, you know.’
Mary turned to the double at her side. ‘Why did you do that?’
‘To make a point.’
‘It ruined our whole day.’ No. Worse than that. My whole experience of Oxford. That’s why I haven’t been back. ‘Can you help her?’
‘No. We’re just watchers.’
‘You know I was furious with you, don’t you?’
‘I recall that very well. You said you didn’t want to see me ever again.’ And I didn’t. I didn’t even go to your funeral. But I didn’t mean it—and you knew that, surely?
‘Since you refused to have anything more to do with me, I took up John’s offer to go down to London with him.’
‘Is that why you went?’
‘Well, yes. Remember, you and I had planned to have the evening together. I ruined it.’
‘No. I shouldn’t have been so judgemental.’
‘You always were—and still are—judgemental.’
‘No, I’m not. I’ve learned since.’
‘You only think you have.’ He gestured at the now quite distant punt. ‘You’re still the same and that has got to change.’
The scene around them dissolved. They were back in the bedroom. Mary guiltily glanced over at Des. He was still asleep. Still snoring gently. She turned to Ethan.
‘I made a mistake back then for which I paid. I’m now doing better.’
‘Pah. Who’d believe you.’
‘I’ll try harder.’
‘You’ll have to if you don’t want to be stuck on a punt again.’
One moment, Ethan, the pale spectre that she had loved, was there—a reminder of what could have been—and then, as if a lamp had been switched off, she was plunged back into darkness. Only the pale light given off by a digital alarm clock lit up the bedroom. How painful it is to relive the past. Her mind brought up the shambles that Chequers had been. The dismissals and resignations over Brexit. Why these thoughts?
* * *
‘How about this for a Christmas present?’
Clarissa came and peered over Quinn’s shoulder at the screen. ‘What? A set of coloured spray cans? You’ve got to be joking?’
‘Well, you said Duane was a street artist.’
‘Well yes, but he’s not a graffitist.’
Quinn jiggled her mouse and clicked it a few times. ‘How about some charcoal sticks? He can use these to draw on the pavement.’
‘No way. He’d just laugh.’
Quinn turned from the computer and looked at her friend. ‘So just what kind of artist is he, then?’
‘He does mime and street theatre.’
‘Ah!’ She shook her head. ‘You could have told me.’
‘Quinn, I’m sorry, I thought you knew.’ She chewed at her lower lip. ‘I’m at a total loss as to what to get him.’ She walked around the room flicking her fingers. ‘What if I offend him?’
‘I’m sure we’ll come up with something. What does he wear when he performs?’
‘A dark suit, a gaudy tie, a large pair of Doc Martens and a bowler.’
‘I know! What about an umbrella to go with his outfit?’
‘Quinn, you’re a genius. He’d love that. He could twirl it around as he paraded up and down.’
‘Just like Charlie Chaplin.’
‘Oh no! An umbrella won’t do!’
‘Why ever not? Lots of blokes have them.’
‘But he told me he didn’t want to look like Charlie Chaplin. He specifically is trying not to be like him.’
‘But he wouldn’t. Charlie Chaplin had a cane. Duane would be more like Gene Kelly in Singing in the Rain.’
‘I’ll think about it.’ Clarissa came over and hugged Quinn. ‘What will you get your man?’
‘I haven’t got one. As you very well know.’
‘What of that man.’ She put a very strong emphasis on the that.
‘Who are you talking about?’
‘Don’t be coy with me, you know very well who.’
‘Aiden? Don’t be ridiculous. I wasn’t thinking of getting him anything for Christmas.’
‘Really?’ Clarissa tilted her head and gave Quinn a mock expression of disbelief.
‘And you can cut out the sarcasm.’
‘When I suggested someone, you were quick to come up with Aiden’s name.’
‘I hate you Clarissa.’ Quinn got up and brought up her hands as if to strangle her.
Clarissa grabbed her friend’s hands and forced her to dance around the room. ‘That’s why I’m your best friend.’ She grabbed Quinn by the waist and started the squeeze her.
‘Stop! Stop! Have it your way. I’ll get him something.’
Clarissa released her grip. ‘Don’t pretend. You were always planning to.’
Quinn gave her a guilty expression. ‘You know me too well.’
‘Best friends are for forcing recalcitrant lovers together. Just like Friar Laurence, I’m keen for the lovers to…’ She let the rest of the sentence unfinished.
Quinn sat down in front of her computer. ‘So Laurencia, what do you suggest I get him?’
‘Now that’s a pretty question, dear penitent.’ She came and stood behind Quinn and placed her hands on her shoulders. ‘Something that sends the right message, clearly.’
‘And that is?’
‘You know him. What would be a surprise and something he’d really value?’
‘He’s taking an interest in art.’
‘Thern the charcoals maybe?’
‘Now don’t tease me.’
‘Fair’s fair. You did the same to me.’
‘No, I didn’t. I’d no idea Duane was a performer.’
‘He prefers the title street artist.’
‘Well, whatever.’ Quinn went to the outdoor section on Amazon. ‘How about something for walking?’
‘That’s not very romantic.’
Quinn looked at the menu. ‘A watch?’
‘Have you ever seen anyone wear one?’
‘I’ve an idea.’
‘Well, spill it.’
‘How about you present him with a card with an offer of a date?’
‘You’re not serious?’
‘Was I laughing?’
To be continued…
All characters appearing in this work are fictitious.
Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
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