Monday, January 23, 2012

Harry, Charles and Joan

One - Harry

In his front garden, Harry Baker smiled. His roses were a profusion of colour and perfume, a more than adequate reward for the hours he had allotted to their care. He inhaled with delight as he walked along the path towards his home.

A small, pale, forty-two year-old man, he had delicate hands, a round tummy and thick, black eyebrows. His suit was a reasonable fit but its seat was mirrored by sedentary friction. His brogues gleamed. His umbrella, tightly furled, dangled on his left arm. In his right hand his briefcase contained only an empty sandwich wrapper. He took the case to work every day because of its rich brown leather, rugged stitching and brass combination locks. It was an expensive way to carry a sandwich but Joan had given him the case on their first married Christmas.

The umbrella was superfluous on this bright June evening but Harry’s occupation demanded certain standards. They were a small price to pay for a regular income, a useful occupation and a fulfilling married life. He toiled in the offices of a large insurance company. His mortality calculations formed the basis of contracts between his employers and people who wanted to transform their inevitable death into good news for their family. He knew, statistically, about death.

He came home each day on the Metropolitan Line tired but looking forward to an evening with his wife. He had never understood why Joan was willing to spend her life with him. She was an inch or so taller than him, a year or two older. Her mouth was large and usually smiling. Her figure was trim, her makeup perfect and her eyebrows punctiliously tweezered. Her hair sometimes suffered from an surfeit of hairspray but was, in all other ways, tonsorial perfection. Harry considered himself lucky to have met, wooed and married her.

At the front door his left hand vanished into his jacket pocket and emerged clutching a key-ring with two keys and a transparent plastic block containing a tiny model of St Paul’s Cathedral. The smaller of the keys unlocked his office desk so he used the larger to open the door.

‘I’m home, darling,’ he cried in an affectionate sing-song tone.

He closed the door with a brogue, dropped his briefcase on the parquet and the umbrella into the hallstand. A flight of stairs grew out of the hallway, his staircase to marital delight. ‘Soon,’ he thought and headed for her daytime empire, the kitchen.

It was almost new with white cupboard doors and thick wooden worktops. It was warm and held not Joan but a hint of her perfume. There were two circular sinks, a ceramic hob and glass-fronted oven. A large window looked out on Harry’s roses.

‘Where are you?’ he sang, ‘You’re not in the kitchen. Where are you hiding? I’m coming; ready or not.’

He opened the fridge and found the lemonade. He collected glasses from a wall cupboard and partially filled them. A glass in each hand, he set off for their living room.

‘Drinky, darling,’ he said, ‘I bet you’re thirsty.’

Harry was used to Joan’s games. It had started on their first wedding anniversary.

She’d made a spectacular dinner: Beef Wellington with scalloped potatoes, green beans, sugar snap peas and a Caesar side-salad. He’d bought a bottle of Sainsbury’s champagne but they’d drunk the Chateau La Mondotte Saint-Emilion she’d somehow found. It was divine. The evening was a great success until she asked him to do the washing up. He was quite merry at the time but she insisted, reinforcing the order with a wink, raised eyebrows and a seductive glance upwards. By the time he’d finished she was in bed, fast asleep.

Her engaging coquettishness wasn’t limited to the dining room. In the bedroom she was active, demanding and innovative. Her closet contained interesting clothing and selected items from the Ann Summers catalogue. Her inventiveness was lightened by her smile and gentle insistence. They seldom slept early but always slept well.

Harry’s living room was about fifteen feet square with an unlit wood-burning stove, presently unlit, in an Inglenook fireplace. The south wall held large patio doors giving out on to some decking and Harry’s garden. The doors had Roman blinds in a dotted pattern matching the fabric on the three piece suite. The sofa was angled to face a flat-screen TV. The blinds were down.

Harry put the glasses on coasters on the coffee-table and hit the switch. Nine ceiling-mounted LEDs flooded the room with light. No Joan.

He pushed the button on the remote. The blinds hummed up making a blue pelmet at the top of the doors. Beneath them, through the double-gazing, he could see the privet hedges that bordered the garden, the two sun loungers, his kettle barbecue and the neatly mown lawn.

He killed the LEDs and sat in his favourite armchair.

‘Come on, Joan,’ he said, ‘It’s a lovely evening. I thought we could have a barby.’

He could not prevent a wisp of annoyance in his voice. She was a wonderful woman in every possible way, he reflected, but her tendency to go just that bit too far was sometimes a challenge.

He shouted ‘Joan! Come on. Let’s stop mucking about and have something to eat.’

Then he saw the note stuck in the iron band at the base of the chimney.

She had pencilled it on a piece of paper torn out of a reporter’s spiral notebook. Twelve words that drove him back on to the chair, unable to breathe, stunned:

“I can’t stand it any more. I’m leaving. It was fun. Joan.”

He read and reread the note, as if trying to divine a hidden meaning. At last, he groaned, crumpled the note into a pocket and drank some lemonade. He staggered into the hall, grabbed the telephone and called his brother.

Two - Charles

Charles Baker was three years older than Harry and lived around the corner. Harry had been surprised when Charles, fitter, taller and richer than Harry, announced his intention to move closer to “tighten family ties” but Joan had reminded him that, as the artist Jane Howard said, “Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family: Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.” When Harry told him this, Charles growled through his neatly trimmed moustache, ‘Bloody artists, Idiots. Spongers. Shoot ‘em all, I say.’

Harry knew irony when he saw it.

Charles’s new garden backed on to Harry’s and their relationship was lubricated by the Screwdrivers they shared across the hedge. Charles made a mean Screwdriver with ice-cold orange juice and Beefeater 24 gin. Not much orange, of course.

A writer by trade, Charles had had a number of novels published with one, “Death Cairn,” made into a reasonably successful Hollywood movie. He specialized in science fiction thrillers wherein the central character embarked on violent crusades of bloody retribution, pausing only to spread his genetic code. Charles claimed to be a realist and told Harry that a Hollywood movie’s success was proportional to its body count and the exposed area of its leading actress’s flesh.

Soon Charles was Harry’s and Joan’s regular supper guest. Joan remarked on this development a number of times and treated Charles not as one of her clan but, rather, a visiting celebrity. She wasn’t fond of celebrities; Harry was usually able to soothe the occasional friction between his two favourite people. He enjoyed the competition they displayed for his support. He always, eventually, sided with Joan and laughed off Charles’s rage. Such disagreements, often noisy, never came to blows.

Harry’s knuckles were white on the telephone handset.

‘She’s left me,’ he said.

‘Harry?’ Charles didn’t seem surprised and his beautifully modulated, glutinous voice was calm.

She’s gone.’


‘Of course! There’s a note. I don’t know what to do.’

‘You’d better come over.’

Harry dropped the phone and made for the door, collecting St Paul’s Cathedral on the way.

Five minutes later he was sitting in one of his brother’s four leather armchairs sipping a Screwdriver.

The room couldn’t be more different from Harry’s. Oak panelling, brass candelabras, a modern open fire, a log basket. A faint aroma of warm circuit boards came from the loudspeakers and TV screens all over: on the walls, on pedestals, on towers, under the furniture, on the ceiling. Harry never understood why Charles should want to sit in the middle of an orchestra. Surely the auditorium would be better. When he had mentioned this, Charles pressed a button and his living room instantly transformed itself acoustically into the Albert Hall. Less crowded, of course.

Harry had been mildly amused when Charles demonstrated his home security, bringing High Definition images of the surrounding area to the screens. It was as if the house had suddenly vanished and they were standing outdoors. Charles obviously liked to keep an eye on things. When Harry had jokingly described the system as Megaparanoia, Charles smirked, ‘I’m watching you, sonny.’

Tonight, they were thoughtful as the Brandenburg Concerto enveloped them, Charles examining the crumpled note. They sipped their Screwdrivers, excellent despite having been made in haste.

Charles said, ‘This is her handwriting?’

Harry said, ‘Of course! Well, it must be. I’m not sure. For God’s sake, Charles. It was in the Inglenook!’

Charles said, ‘All right. I’m just trying to help here.’ He sipped his drink, ‘Was there a row?’

‘No. Nothing like that. When I got home she wasn’t there.’

‘Women are strange and unpredictable creatures.’

Charles’s experience of the fairer sex was a mystery. Joan had once told Harry that she suspected Charles was gay, what with all the bloke toys and the moustache. Harry disagreed, confiding that Charles once, it was rumoured, had an unhappy affair at the height of which the object of his affection had run off with the “”Death Cairn” director. Charles had written a book about it: “Death Direction,’ but sales were disappointing. Joan was unconvinced.

‘What are you going to do?’

‘I don’t know. I don’t know where she is, why she left, what happened. I’m entirely in the dark about my marriage. My God, Charles, that’s fifteen years down the drain.’ Harry was close to tears.

Charles said ‘Has she got a mother?’

‘A mother? She died when Joan was a child.’

‘In extremis, women always go back to mother. It’s genetic. Has she got any money?’

‘We have a joint account with Barclays and she has a housekeeping account with the Post Office.’

‘Not a problem.’ He stroked his moustache, ‘Right! What you need is my Seven Step Plan for the Innocent Victim. You are innocent, aren’t you?’


‘Okay. Step one: Call the office. Tell them you’ve got a virus but will be in tomorrow.’


‘Step Two: Call your doctor. Make an appointment. When you get there, appear glum. Feign depression. Weep. Talk about stress. Get a note for a least a week.’

‘I am stressed!’

‘Even better. Go for a fortnight, then. Send the note to your office. Enclose a tear-stained note.’

‘I can do that.’

Good. Step Three: Call Barclays. Open a new account in your name and transfer all the money to it. To survive you’ll need money. It’s your money, after all. Step Four: call a locksmith and change the locks. She might come back.’

‘Charles -’

‘Step Five: Make a big pile of all her possessions, clothes, frying pans, make-up, tights, toiletries etcetera on the front lawn.’

‘But -’

‘Step Six: Go out for dinner. Choose a restaurant that she wouldn’t like. Harvester, maybe. Keep your eyes open for unattached women. You never know.’

‘I couldn’t -’

Step Seven: Sleep the sleep of the innocent wronged.’ He took a significant pull on his Screwdriver, ‘Would you like me to write all that down?’

‘No. I think I’ve got it.’

Charles insisted though, booting up his desktop computer and making an Excel spreadsheet which he printed on his laser printer. Harry noticed that the heading, “Seven Step Plan,” like the plan itself, was bold. Charles extracted a promise that Harry would start the Plan first thing in the morning. Harry finished his drink, thanked his brother for everything and wandered home to his empty bedroom.

Three - Joan

Charles strolled into his own kitchen. It was entirely unlike Harry’s. It had screens, stainless steel surfaces, switches and dials, twinkling LEDs, a walk-in freezer of dazzling aluminium, seven feet tall, six feet wide and an electronic combination lock on its door.

Charles added his and Harry’s Screwdriver glasses to the neatly racked crockery in the dishwasher and, with nimble fingers, hit a pattern of twelve digits on the freezer door panel. Deep inside, electric motors whirred and tumblers shifted. The door opened. Bright freezer light, cold air and an unusual smell filled the room.

With the freezer door open’, Charles could look into Joan’s eyes. She stared, sightless, eyes wide, through the clear polythene he’d wrapped her head in before parking it on the fourth shelf. A rip in the polythene explained the smell, a combination of hairspray, perfume and blood.

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