What Arnold found odd was that after Miles and Alison went to bed, leaving him in the study, and the time still only ten o’clock, the grumpiness had returned. It was as if the long, joyful thaw that had made this Christmas Day so memorable had suddenly stopped, reversed itself, and the ice age had returned in its place. Lying in the makeshift mattress on the sofa, wondering why he didn’t deserve a real bed like everyone else, Arnold was acutely aware of the cruel injustice of old age.
In his own mind, he was still the Arnold Fenway of his youth: bright, quick, eager, if a little too willing to slip into snideness and cynicism when the opportunity arose. What failed him were the ephemeral things: the flesh, the curious internal plumbing that kept the human beast alive and then, for no reason he could understand, decided one day to go into decline. He brooded on this for a while, then got up, threw on the old dressing gown and slippers he had brought with him, shuffled through to the kitchen for a glass and the bottle of malt and returned with both to the sofa, quietly cursing the world in his head. Arnold liked the booze, too much for his health, he knew that. But there was drinking and drinking. The way he sank the malt, seated bolt upright in the study of Priory House, was not like him. It had the steady, deliberate rhythm of the binge, with its ritualistic deadening of the senses. Two good tumblers full and then he’d be out of it, dead in some dark, dreamless sleep, only to wake up the following morning with a filthy head and a vile temper. Normality returns, Arnold thought sourly, and couldn’t work out why the prospect seemed somehow appealing.
He stared out of the window. The blizzard was in its stride by now. The snow came a good two feet up to the narrow full length windows that opened onto the back lawn. It was just possible to make out the skeletal outlines of a rose bush behind the pane. Beyond that the night was a thick, shifting snowstorm. Arnold suddenly gripped the whisky glass more tightly. Something outside moved. He was sure of it. Something large and upright.
“Bloody yokels,” he swore quietly. Arnold had theories about intruders. Briefly, when he was young, he had lived in Kenya, during the Mau-Mau emergency, and these were formative years. People in your garden were bad news. You either locked the doors and sat tight, waiting for the petrol bombs to come. Or you got your gun, went outside and fired first. It was simple yet, in those rudimentary times, effective, and it coloured for good Arnold’s attitudes towards dealing with trespassers.
But you are old.
He grunted, forced himself to his feet, opened the door and went to the foot of the stairs. Miles could deal with this. It was his house. Arnold paused at the bottom of the staircase. There he heard noises which filled him with utter despair. Upstairs, in the quiet, private quarters of the bedroom, Miles and Alison were making love. That lost cocktail of sounds — the squeaking of bed springs, the low, throaty moans of physical pleasure — fell down the stairs like rain.
Arnold listened and tried to understand the complex flood of thoughts and emotions running through his head. There was guilt, shame almost, that for sure. And puzzlement too, that time should wreak this cruel trick on him. In his head it was only yesterday that Miles was a small, bright-eyed child, sitting on his father’s lap, demanding stories and attention. Then, in the blink of an eye, he was grown, a man, performing this grunting ritual, with a beautiful, complex wife of his own. It made Arnold wonder what had happened in the intervening years. What line led from there to here? And how much laughter, how many tears, did it pass along the way?
Alison cried out, a long, insensate howl, and Arnold, in his still young and vivid imagination, saw her, naked, beneath Miles, both of them locked together in that distant place that lay beyond the earthly senses where the ritual, at its elusive best, always led. Arnold shook his head and, unsteadily, worked his way back to the sofa. The sounds produced such memories, and in these lay time’s cruellest trick of all. He closed his eyes and saw, so clearly it was real, a night, long ago in Cirencester, two bodies, naked in the straw of the old barn, huddling against each other because of the cold. Arnold could smell this place, smell her, the cheap, sweet fragrance of eau de cologne. It had been a long, desperate admiration on his part. She was olde and so beautiful he was speechless when she was around. She was kind and didn’t treat him as an oddity like the others. He was from the city, that made him unusual to her. And one night, when the rest were elsewhere, she had taken him — it was her choice, he would have stayed tongue-tied forever — to the barn, and undressed him slowly, kissing his hair, kissing his eyes.
There was no God, of that Arnold had become sure over the years, when the memory had refused to fade from his head. A benign deity would have erased it, prevented this stain inside him spreading, poisoning every future relationship he would have in a long, full life. Instead it stayed alive, even now, more than sixty years after the event. He could almost touch her pale, warm skin, feel the rosy hardness of her nipples. And he could remember, too, his own feelings at that pivotal moment: that, after this long period of distant admiration, this was now the beginning of his life. He had found love, a joyous, mutual sharing. From this point on there could be only sweet goodness in the world. He had finally found a purpose, and it came in the shape of someone else.
Shaking, with fear and fury on the sofa, the malt whisky spilling over the edge of the glass, Arnold recalled the innocent delight he felt when they went beneath the straw together. This was the beginning of a lifetime of devotion. There was no need to rush a thing. The physical side was something they could grow into, over the months, over the years, slowly, delightfully, subsuming their identities into a single, shared oneness. So when she touched him, when she moved too close, he did nothing, smiled, kissed her, whispered his love, in words so fulsome and flowing he wondered, at times, whether she understood.
After some hours they dressed and returned to their separate homes. The young Arnold spent the next day in a dreaming paradise, desperate for their next tryst. But it never occurred. A month later, when she had been noticeably avoiding him, they met and she hardly spoke. Arnold had talked, though, to others, and it was like a jigsaw that suddenly fell into place with an awesome, terrible certainty. There were words he only dimly understood, like “slag” and “mucky”. He spent weeks living through a nightmare of doubt until, finally, he saw her again, alone in the barn, and told her all the thoughts that had been running through his head, all his dreams of love, his hopes.
She had grinned, a little stupidly his adult memory now recalled. And said, in a broad country accent, “You’re just like the others. You just wanna tup me, don’t yer?”
Arnold lost his virginity that night. With it, he realised soon after, when she had disappeared entirely from his world, went some basic function of human trust too.
The present Arnold Fenway saw all this in his head, heard her voice, smelled her fragrance, felt the sharp prickling of ancient straw on flesh that was now old and wrinkled and dying. The memory filled him with a black, all-consuming fury. From upstairs, louder than ever, came the sound of climax, a long, mutual bellow that, for Arnold, was as much terror as rapture, as animal as human.
He stared out of the window, out at the snow, feeling murderous, and saw there something that made his blood boil. There was an intruder. A face briefly stared back at him disfigured by snow, but with something odd about it that Arnold’s mind could not, at that moment, filled as it was with memories, begin to decipher.
He waved an ancient, bony fist at the figure. It withdrew into the whiteness. Arnold let out a long, low howl of anger. There were intruders in the grounds, and all Miles could do was fornicate.
He stumbled to his feet, feeling suddenly alive and active, went to the kitchen, opened the back door, and, in his long dressing gown and slippers, stepped into the outside world. It was cold, Arnold knew that, but this was somehow important. Miles and Alison had found some island of happiness in their lives. It had even, briefly, touched him. And now someone was violating this, like a peeping tom, crawling through the night-time blizzard to peer through windows.
Furious, yelling words that meant nothing, Arnold stepped out into the garden and walked into the teeth of the gale. The snow entered his eyes and ears, he felt its clean, icy coldness in his mouth. His feet went first damp, then cold, and finally numb. He walked, screaming nonsense at the top of his voice, out into the darkness, away from the lighted kitchen of Priory House, out to the back of the big, sprawling, snow-covered garden.
It was a while before Arnold asked himself why. By that time he was lost. There were no lights anywhere, nothing but the hazy illumination of the moon through the torrent of snowflakes falling on his head. Nor was there anyone to be seen. Arnold cursed and fell to his knees. Suddenly, he was cold, cold in a way he had never known before. The ice seemed to have penetrated his body, eaten its way straight into the blood and bone. He could no longer feel his fingers.
Arnold Fenway closed his eyes for the last time. Still there, laughing at him from his fading consciousness, was the ancient image: naked bodies against straw. And more too. With his final shred of consciousness, he recalled something else. The face against the window, odd against the blizzard. Arnold’s fading brain decoded the picture. Down one cheek, livid and visible, as white as the snow itself, was a scar. Like a lightning bolt. It zig-zagged once in the image running through his head then faded into the swelling, enfolding darkness.
(C) David Hewson 2012