(A Comedy of Bad Manners)
At the end of the meal, it is Gerry who brings up the subject of names, particularly ones that don’t suit. His middle name is Ewart – Gerald Ewart Forrest. Its provenance baffles him. As a child he never bothered to ask his parents why they’d chosen it and as a teenager he was too busy ignoring or concealing it to really care. But it isn’t his that amuses him now: it’s the first name of a company rep he’d met the previous week – Arlo.
‘The poor bugger must have been knocking fifty,’ Gerry says. ‘From Manchester for Christ’s sake. Who’s called Arlo except that folk-singing guy, whose name escapes me?’
‘Guthrie,’ Mike says, twisting a cigar butt into his ashtray.
‘Whatever,’ says Gerry. ‘Parents in the 1960s have a lot to answer for. I wonder if the first ‘Shane’ or ‘Arlo’ has been carved on a gravestone yet? Only a matter of time.’
Swirling the wine in his glass, Mike smiles in the way he has of agreeing with a viewpoint that requires no verbal confirmation. He always says it is the journalist in him, the instinct for not prolonging an exchange with redundancies. He told Stella, his wife, it could make him appear bored, even rude, but never indifferent.
‘Where does yours come from, Calum?’ Stella asks, jumping in front of what she but no-one else at the table perceives as her husband’s reticence. Calum, the restaurant chef, has already been on one of Mike’s benders.
‘That’s easy,’ Calum says, with a glance at Beth, his girlfriend. ‘My old man was Irish.’
Because everyone’s eyes are on her, Beth almost feels the need to confirm her partner’s explanation or to admit that she also stirs with Irish blood and therefore enjoys a strengthened bond. But she smiles, too, like Mike, at nothing in particular. Mike notices it just as she is looking at him as if wanting to know how you carry off that sort of thing without anyone taking offence.
They are all in Gerry’s loft conversion, the only major building work he has allowed himself since taking over the restaurant-with-rooms beside the river. Stella replaced the former housekeeper, who retired rather than endure the upheaval that came with a new boss. She must also have been saying farewell to some unspecified friction, because in passing she told Stella that the restaurant needed a boost. It was true. That afternoon, with no bookings, Gerry shut up shop and invited Calum and the others upstairs to an early evening meal he’d cooked himself. They all know he hopes beyond hope to join the little group of rural eating-places that win mentions in the national Press.
‘Sounds like the title of a song,’ Mike says, breaking into a soft baritone:
‘My old man was Irish,
He went from town to town,
Took two bob from everyone
And gave them half a crown.’
‘Very funny, I don’t think,’ Calum says.
Mike and Beth exchange glances again, thinking better of a smile this time, as Calum sounds serious and his response and tone of voice – ‘turn of voice’, Mike has called it – is known to spoil a get-together. Gerry has told Stella that Calum might be an obstacle to attracting far-flung attention to the restaurant. On the night Calum bumped into Mike and his fellow scribes in town, reference was made to Irish drinking exploits and Calum switched from Guinness to whiskey with embarrassing results. Mike took him home, where Beth was waiting. They talked, after putting Calum to bed, about the possibility of Gerry having to appoint a new chef. Naturally, Mike was discreet, even with the impressionable Beth.
Everyone suspects Gerry is what Mike sniggeringly calls, with not much originality considering his job, ‘a confirmed bachelor’. He has men friends – and women, come to that; but Gerry himself never talks much about his personal life, never goes into much detail about his past, and the others won’t bring up the subject for fear of appearing unsophisticated. It’s as though ‘gay’ doesn’t suit, like ‘Ewart’. But from his fixed point in the mist, the sometimes clearing mist, he has inklings about others – more if he’s lucky. When Mike arrived two weeks before to do a write-up for the local weekly paper, Beth was outside the kitchen, waiting for Calum’s lunchtime stint to end. From the bottom of the stairs in his bare feet, Gerry saw Mike fingering Beth’s necklace. They weren’t chatting, so Mike wouldn’t have been taking an academic interest in jewellery or overstepping the mark as a payer of compliments. Also, the closeness of their faces suggested a stolen act, its hints of bravado and carelessness, the signs of a tragedy to come. Seventy-year-old Gerry knew all about those, and their ensuing heartache, having once been obliged to consider whispered endearments as the utterances of a victim in more reproachful company than that of the rival in love or the busybody. Stella was upstairs in her sensible shoes, hugging laundry in multiples and making a snowy mountain of it at the end of the corridor.
‘When’s my buckshee ad going to appear?’ Gerry asks Mike.
Beth turns to him as though he has interrupted a connection between her and Mike that requires a response from them both.
‘Out of my hands, old feller,’ Mike replies, before Stella can grasp then ponder a hint of distraction in her husband’s manner.
‘How did you come to marry a journalist?’ Calum asks her. ‘It must be a nightmare, living with someone like him.’
Beth elbows Calum openly, so that Stella can see it.
‘Yes, Stella – how could you do such a thing?’ Gerry asks, jokingly.
Mike leads the others in turning their gaze on his wife, who is trying to erase a small stain from the front of her dress, a blemish so insignificant it can barely be seen. Stella doesn’t much take to light-heartedness around the dinner table. She sees it as a competition of wits lubricated by drink, or people who think they are witty, and therefore her contributions can appear dull when they are simply meant to be serious. She admitted as much to Mike in the days of personal confession, when he explained his so-called rudeness, not very convincingly.
‘Because I love him,’ she says, ‘and always will.’
Her ministrations with the serviette , which she now suspends and waves in front of her like a flag of surrender, make her look vulnerable, at least to Gerry.
‘Well spoken, my dear,’ Gerry says. ‘He obviously doesn’t deserve you.’
Stella is plumper and older-looking than Beth, though there is only a difference of ten years between them. Mike is two years Stella’s junior. Gerry’s remark somehow draws him closer to Stella. Gerry, older than all of them and wearing a cravat pinched at the neck by a garnet-studded signet ring, is very much on his own at the head of the table.
‘Has anyone else seen Mike’s feature?’ he asks. ‘I like the way he’s emphasised the romantic nature of the place – out of town, nestled in the dell, beside the purling river, moonlight on the water. I liked ‘purling’ – after I’d looked it up. Mike’s got a way with words.’
At this last remark, Stella looks down into her glass, cheered at being the only one to have noticed the double entendre, unless everyone else had but was too polite to react, an unlikely event given the company.
Calum places an arm around Beth’s shoulders. ‘We’ll believe it when we see it,’ he says, fixing Mike with a stare that Stella recognises as symbolising the flippant view the world takes of her husband’s profession, though even Mike jokes about having been relegated from the fourth to the ‘eleventh’ estate; Mike gives Calum the withering look of a man for whom failure in the drinking stakes is viewed from the redoubt of such a demotion as proof of its injustice.
‘Anyway,” says Gerry, ‘let’s go down and see if he’s right.’
It’s a pleasant evening outside, with that feeling of even better to come following the end of Spring. There’s a twee, crazy-paving path leading down to a small shingle bay standing aloof from the hurrying waters. Drinks in hand, the five straggle down the grass bank to some seats above the bay. The small village across the bridge sends no signals of occupancy bar the sound of someone hammering nails, reflecting the building behind them, turned private for the evening and with only two vehicles in the car park beside Gerry’s four-by-four. From the seats rises the faint whiff of creosote.
‘Are there fish in the river?’ Beth asks, getting up and teetering closer to the water on high heels. She is over-dressed for a dinner arranged at short notice, her almost see-through skirt allowing the dipping sun through to reveal long, slender legs. Unlike Beth, she is wearing perfume.
‘Chubb, roach and rudd, apparently,’ Mike says, following her. ‘I should have mentioned it in Gerry’s free puff. Might have brought some anglers to the table.’
Gerry contemplates the two of them, Mike approaching behind as if intent on pushing Beth in. ‘Where do they come from?’ he asks.
‘Who?’ says Stella, with mild alarm, taking a sidelong glance at Calum, who is walking away from them all to light up a cigarette .
‘Not who, dear – what,’ Gerry says, still staring ahead, his tanned brow creased. ‘The bloody stupid, monosyllabic names of fish.’
Stella looks at him in hope of an explanation for his barely-suppressed anger, but none is forthcoming. She is confused. She thinks of salmon, halibut and pollock, but says nothing. Her attention is drawn to the hoo-hoo-hoo of a grounded collar dove a few yards to her right. No-one else has seen it. In seconds it is joined by another. The hammering has stopped, to be replaced oddly by a chill breeze. The call of the dove – is it a call, or, as her grandfather once told her in relation to seagulls, a signal of pain, of perpetual hunger? – is the only sound, eclipsing even the purling of Gerry’s river, whatever that is. Perhaps ‘purling’ is not quite right, one of the half-truths that Mike always excuses as being ‘as near as dammit’, like that Christmas when he got into trouble in a Yuletide Tales spread for making up a story about a little girl begging outside a bank with her young mother and being moved on by a policeman. When the editor took a liking to it and wanted a picture, the pathetic mum and child had gone and the police denied having ‘harassed’ anyone; in fact, they denied having moved on any vagrants in that area for some months and sent a letter of complaint to the paper, signed by the assistant chief constable. It was a good story, too; it almost made her cry. Mike was always going on about colleagues who ‘couldn’t write themselves out of a Sainsbury’s bag’.
Then the doves take off, flying high over the bridge, away from them. Everyone, everything, is on the move. Mike wants to get to London. ‘Get to’ is his expression, as if, in his imagination, his unshared thoughts, he is already fleeing from what he no longer has use for. She watches the doves, banking to the left, ever higher, and wonders if they notice the five figures on the other side of the water, their serenity concealing their turmoil, like the grace and frantic paddling of a swan, though Mike would call that a cliché. Her gaze switches to the river, where she can see him and Beth cut off at the waist and gradually disappearing down the slope to the water’s edge, while Gerry – Gerald Ewart Forrest – examines his fingertips for evidence of tar.
‘Did you get Arlo’s autograph?’ Stella asks. ‘Arlo Whatsisname?’
‘Guthrie,’ Gerry says, with a deep sigh that allows her the merest whiff of bad breath. ‘Arlo Guthrie.’ He smiles at her, breaking up an expression of what she has vaguely interpreted as rootless sorrow, and smoothes her hair: ‘Darling, why would I want his autograph? You really must concentrate.’
On the wind, chiller now, flying suddenly upstream towards the empty building behind them flutters the sound of unseen but not-too-distant laughter.
‘Anyway,’ she says distractedly, craning to see where her husband has gone with Beth. ‘You should keep in touch. It’s not every day you meet someone famous.’
Nigel Jarrett is a winner of the Rhys Davies Prize for short fiction. His first story collection, Funderland, was published to wide acclaim, notably in the Guardian, the Independent, and the Times. His début poetry collection, Miners At The Quarry Pool, was published by Parthian in November 2013 and described by the New Welsh Review as ‘evocative, provocative and gritty’. A former daily-newspaper journalist, he is now a freelance writer, and reviews poetry for Acumen magazine and jazz for Jazz Journal. He lives in Monmouthshire.