By Robert Stone
It might almost have been a coincidence but Heriot always and instinctively shied away from that idea. Whenever an underling, even a colleague, suggested coincidence, he suspected an evasion, the making of an excuse. Even so, it was hard to say that this had been planned.
The conductor had announced that the delay was likely to be prolonged but when Heriot had spoken to him privately he had confided that he thought the train would be forced to return to the city and that none of its passengers would make it to the coast that day. Not by train anyway.
People, half a dozen of them, had disembarked to stretch their legs and to smoke. Heriot thought that the company might have gotten a taxi for them though he felt disinclined to suggest it, or even to insist.
This obscure rural station had not been a scheduled stop and he had not thought about its name until now, but looking up at the sign he recognised it. This is where Maurice lives, or at least this is his nearest station. He had his address book with him of course and he did check but he knew he was right. He brought up a map on his phone. About four miles. Maurice, typically, had no telephone. Poor Maurice. He couldn't help but call him that. He decided to pay an unheralded call on his old university chum. He had not spoken to him meaningfully for many years but they exchanged Christmas cards. Didn’t they? His secretary took care of that. He was on her list. A long time, but Heriot was sure that Maurice would be at least interested to see him.
He looked at the hapless man engaged in justifying the delay to the cluster of passengers. That absurd cap. Almost all men in uniform have the aura of imposters. Heriot could see the grey hairs curling over his collar at the back of his neck and a sickle of lighter skin, probably a boil scar. He didn’t tell this man he was abandoning his journey as he didn’t care to hear so-called reasons and pointless condolences. He walked out of the station and strode away along the only road.
This was a good idea. After all, this had really been the plan; a steady, solid, relaxing walk in roughly bucolic surroundings. Somewhere he had never been before. Forget about the ministry for a couple of days. Soon he was off the Tarmac, the road was powdery and white and the summer sun warmed his shoulders. He resolved to attend to the flowers on this walk, to pause and examine those commonplace-looking species and make sure of an identification. There could always be something unusual in these unregarded places. Maurice had been keen on flowers. Heriot had picked that up from him. One or two other things also.
A process of attenuation had taken place over the years, rather than a series of decisions. Heriot had slowly forgotten Maurice, as though it had required a conscious effort to keep him vivid and then his concentration had lapsed. He had gotten thinner, more transparent. An idea that no one believed in any more, except for a handful of cranks. His existence had become academic, not a real man in any sense. Heriot wondered what Maurice had thought about him. If he had ever felt haunted by his old friend. There had been notices in the press, even one or two brief interviews on television and radio. Ministry work creates a certain modest celebrity no matter how carefully one strives for discretion.
There had been a time when Heriot had considered Maurice the cleverest, funniest, jolliest young man he had ever known. He had made the university for Heriot. Despite this, there had never been a single moment when he had doubted that he would beat Maurice in any contest that was worth the candle, to any really desirable prize.
He stopped for a drink from his water bottle. The weather was hot but not uncomfortably so. The sun felt good. He kicked up a little dust. The value of a sturdy, expensive pair of boots. He consulted his map once more. No more than three miles but it would be a nuisance if Maurice were not at home. He raised his binoculars and watched two buzzards circle over the pines. Flap flap glide. Round the next bend would be the one place where the road got close to the river. Maurice would walk this way. His regular route. Birds and flowers. It had been a long time since Maurice had had a book out. One that had got a review at least. Of course, for all Heriot knew the man might be dead. It made him suddenly uneasy to think that. If he saw him now, even on this sunny road, it could be his ghost. And Maurice might think the same of him.
The trouble with Maurice was that he was a fantasist, living too much inside his own head, behind his commodious brow. He had known that himself, admitted it, but not admitted that it was a bad thing. That had undone him in the end. Confronted with a real problem, Maurice resorted to an imaginary solution and was content with that. Imaginary keys do not open real locks.
Beyond that spot where you could see the river there was a crossroads that might be signposted and from there the road was pretty straight. He really would meet him if he were out and about.
He came to the river view soon enough and hopped up the embankment. A redshank scooted across the broad water protesting hysterically, but the other birds were uninterested. A waddling oystercatcher raised its head from the mud and appeared to scrutinise the interloper before continuing its hungry probing. Nothing unusual, of course. He could see a curlew on the other bank and wondered whether it might not be a whimbrel. He did not know how likely that would be here or at this time of year. He wanted it to be a whimbrel and that was not good enough. Look at the facts. A whimbrel is what Maurice would have seen.
He decided that this was a good place to rest. He took off his jacket, folded it carefully and put it in his rucksack. There was plenty of room. He laid the sack next to the willow stump and leaned his back against it. He found a little patch of moschatel and that was pleasing. He fell asleep. He dreamed of Madeleine, a whimbrel and the first occasion on which Maurice had invited him to his home. Two aged parents of an only child. Very predictable. They would be dead now certainly. Nice people. Unassuming but obviously proud of their son. A little eccentric and a little too tenaciously attached to their harmless and mediocre ideas. He had never invited Maurice to meet his own parents.
He stretched and yawned. He hoped his old friend would be pleased to see him. He couldn't see why not. There had never been a real breach. You drop people because they exhaust you. You get to the point where you are simply going round and round and then hanging on is just sentimentality. The crossroads next. The nap had done him good.
At the crossroads he saw that someone had left a perfectly good bicycle in a patch of nettles. Now that really was the sort of thing that Maurice would do. It was almost a sign of his having been there. Heriot ought to have looked at his map again but his phone was in the pocket of his jacket and he couldn't be bothered to get it out. He was sure he had remembered the right way. He could see the wheat crop was still under-ripe, a little green in the heads, like a blush, and the unsown fields were a rich faecal brown despite the lack of rain. A ditch was choked with edible cress. He could take that bicycle. It was probably Maurice’s anyway. Wouldn’t it be funny if he peddled up on that?
It was trite enough, but when it was laid out like this, as bland as a diagram, you had to think about crossroads. A place to bury a condemned man. He wondered if that white house he could see through his binoculars was Maurice’s place. Looks too prosperous. Heriot had idolised Maurice. It was Maurice who was the man of promise, but there had come a time, a crossroads, he really did remember it like this, when he had had to decide whether he was going to be a man more like Maurice, or not. Maurice perhaps had faced a similar dilemma. And he had chosen rural obscurity, a low energy, low achievement life of modesty, relative poverty and the denial of his earlier potential. He had made his bargain with misfortune. Well he had had a lifetime to repent. What a man has the power to do, he has the power not to do. What you decide must haunt you, when you are at this critical point. The birth of a phantom self.
Madeleine must have had a lot to do with it. Not that any blame could attach to her. If Maurice had not been so timid, behaved like such a moonstruck sap he could have had his time with her. Being a fantasist is not the same as having a quality imagination. Heriot had told him that. I wish I were dead, Maurice had once said to him and that was because of Madeleine. Not her fault, but because of her. Faults? Blame? Things just happen to people. He wouldn't have to ask him if he still thought of her. He knew he did. Probing an open wound. Whereas Heriot often thought of her with pleasure, conjured her up. He had numerous memories of her over which he lingered. Was that a flock of redwings? No, not in the summer. Starlings merely.
He had chosen correctly. When he got to the house he knew it was the right place. Obviously the house of a single man. It was a shipwreck left isolated and exposed by an outgoing tide. It wasn’t as bad as he had feared, or anticipated. It was a little shabby. It made him feel dapper just to look at it. He suddenly felt hesitant about simply barging in. He didn’t want the fellow to have a heart attack. He might even think that Madeleine would be with him, which was certainly not the case.
He had a look around the garden. This was a nice spot. The flowerbeds were cared for and colourful. Wild flowers. Very Maurice. He wasn’t dead then. Heriot had feared walking in there and finding him strung up with the washing-line. Lovely flowers. That was Maurice’s non-problem-solving sensitivity. Almost a religious thing. He was a visionary. A shambolic visionary. A shaman. Heriot had thought of him like that for a year, two terms, or four. He found a flower he knew. Moschatel again. Had Maurice brought this here from the river bank? That would be like him. He looked around at all of the space and he felt glad for Maurice that he had found this place, in a basin of blue hills, where he might at least hope for contentment. A foxglove, overburdened with blooms, had toppled and he tied it up to a cane with a thread he just happened to have in his pocket.
The door was open, of course. He stepped in and called but he was not answered. There was a chill in the place that could have been pleasing after the heat of the day but it was stale as well. There were many books. Dusty books everywhere in unsorted piles. Truly a house of dust. Oh Maurice, there is no need for this. Heriot wrinkled his nose. Time and money spent on books that should have been spent on people and cleaning. Renovation and decoration.
He moved sadly from room to room. The kitchen was the worst. The lavatory as bad as it could have been. He found an open bag of bird seed and took a cupful outside for the table he had noticed was bare. The house of a solitary man. Someone once said that we don’t mind humiliating ourselves to ourselves because there are no witnesses. But that is not so. There is always a witness. We can be bitterly ashamed of utterly secret failings.
He thought about making himself a cup of tea but the milk was sour. There was a fridge but it was not switched on for some reason. That tea towel could do with a wash. Good Lord. He wouldn't want to eat off anything that had been dried with that. He avoided the bedroom.
There were objects of interest in the study. Letters, postcards, newspapers obviously unread and some letters unopened. He regretted that there was not one from him among them. Because none of this was expected to be seen it was as though it had been arranged for some esoteric, even magical, purpose. There was something shrine-like about this place. The past was preserved here. Maurice had always been too comfortable with his misery to really want to change. Had he ever felt disappointed with himself? Had he never sat in this squalid house and imagined what his life could have been like if he had behaved more like Heriot?
He sat down at Maurice’s desk and picked up a fountain pen. It was engraved MH and then some words hard to make out. Esteem. Ever. Had Heriot given Maurice this pen? It seemed very familiar. If he comes in now and sees me sitting here with my back to the door he will think that he is dreaming or that I am a ghost. He rubbed at the back of his neck. That still irritated him. There were spectacle-cleaning wipes in a grubby box but no spectacles to be seen. He took a wipe and thoroughly cleaned his own spectacles before dropping it, quite black now, near a loaded waste-paper basket among several of its crumpled brothers.
He would wait here. He picked up a book from the desk and began to read at a page that was marked.
About the author:
Robert Stone was born in Wolverhampton in the UK. He works in a press cuttings agency in London. Before that he was a teacher and then foreman of a London Underground station. He has two children and lives with his partner in Ipswich. He has had stories published in numerous British, American and Canadian magazines, including Stand, 3:AM, The Write Launch, Confingo, The Decadent Review and Lunate. More details can be found on his website. He has had two stories published in Nicholas Royle’s Nightjar chapbook series. A story will soon come out in the Westchester Review and another in Handwritten. A story appeared in Salt’s Best British Stories 2020 volume.