Subject:Fifth Meeting of the Crumbington Summer Fête Committee: Thursday 4 May Attendees: Arlene Killjoy (chair); Doris Watts; Nathan Fresher; Polly Fischer; Arbuthnot Mulligan; Michael Stanton
Ten minutes after the official start of the meeting, Nathan sat alone in his usual plastic seat in the village hall, staring at his open palms. Although the chairs had been laid out in the standard semi-circle, neither Father Mulligan nor Doris Watts appeared to be around. Grateful for the quiet time—the shop had been chaotic all day—he sat back and stared into space. Something had shifted in him, and he couldn't pinpoint exactly what. Margaret's revelation had undoubtedly played a part. He simply had no idea what had changed. After she dropped him back home on that day over a week ago, he'd spent the evening pouring his heart out to poor Jaymes, trying to piece together old memories, trying to find clues maybe he missed from his childhood.
Jaymes had been nothing less than a saint.
"What about other friends and family?"
"That's the thing, there weren't any. My mother may have been friendly to everyone, but she was close to nobody. Except, perhaps, Margaret. Mum was an only child and her parents—who I never met—died years ago. Apparently, it was she who insisted on having no funeral. So, at her request, my father spent some of her life assurance monies sorting out a simple cremation and the rest getting the bench arranged with the local authority in Hastings."
“I thought you mentioned remembering your father and grandfather closing the shop to attend a funeral. Was that someone else, then?”
“No. Apparently, that was the day they went to Hastings to scatter her ashes in the sea.”
Jaymes nodded but passed no judgement. After a few moments of silent reflection, Jaymes spoke.
"Do you hate him?"
Nathan turned to Jaymes, stunned at the question.
"My father? Why would I hate him?"
"For keeping the truth from you all these years? Some people might call what did cruel."
Nathan thought about that for a moment.
"No, I don't," said Nathan eventually. "And as for those people you refer to, whoever they may be, if they knew my father they'd know he didn't have a cruel bone in his body. I may not agree with what he did or entirely understand, but I don't hate him. What would be the point? If I had any hate in me—and I no longer do—it was directed at my mother for deserting us. And what a waste of emotion that turned out to be. I am not going to be one of those people feeding off their own hatred, blaming others for the shortfalls in the lives instead of actually living. I am stronger than that. As for my father? We're all flawed in this life, we all have our weaknesses. Poor man, I think he was lost, still mourning the loss of my mother up until the day he died. I have to remember that she didn't just leave me, she left him, too. My father had the love of his life ripped from him. Something I do remember is that it killed him to talk about her. The second time I had an argument with him about her—a blazing row that time—he cried in front of me. And for someone always so restrained, that shocked me to the core. Except I was upset too, so I locked myself in my room and cried the whole evening, vowed never to speak to him again. But then I suddenly got scared that he might up and leave me, too. So I went and told him I was sorry, that I loved him, and vowed to myself never to mention her leaving again."
Jaymes nodded his understanding, allowed Nathan's thoughts to settle before going on.
"Do you wish you'd never known? Wish Margaret had kept the secret?"
Perhaps the answer should have been easier, but Nathan had to weigh up what Jaymes meant. Would he better off not knowing?
"That would be easy, wouldn't it? But no, definitely not. Although I am still processing exactly what this means to me if that makes sense?"
"Of course. I'm so proud of you, Nate."
"But Jaymes, please. Don't ever keep secrets from me. Big or small, however bad it might be, I want you to be honest with me. I don't want anybody else thinking they know best and vetting what I'm told in this life."
Instead of answering with words, Jaymes pulled him into a tight hug, kissed him on the side of the head until his body began to relax, and eventually, his mind stopped churning.
But now he kept having a recurring dream, disturbing, not about his mother but about Jaymes.They sat together on a tube train late at night. On which line, Nathan had no idea. Opposite from each other, Nathan observed every little movement of Jaymes' face as he talked, each one a tell, each sentence ending in a smile. Even though Nathan couldn't hear Jaymes’ words above the roar of the train, he loved his partner’s expressive eyes; cobalt blue, and thick, honeyed eyebrows, holding a promise of untold pleasures once they reached their final destination.
And then Jaymes' face changed, posing a question, an invitation. Nodding his chin a couple of times towards the glass window of the carriage door separating their car from the next which contained barely any commuters, he was soundlessly urging Nathan to join him. With his usual enthusiasm, he bounded up from his seat and stood one side of the closed door, beckoning Nathan to follow. But when he pulled the portal wide open, an unnatural and crippling terror consumed Nathan, as though Jaymes had unleashed something evil and unspeakable. When Nathan looked through the doorway, the view did not show the other carriage, but a total absence of light. Except when Nathan's gaze drew closer, the darkness was not complete but punctuated by white pinpricks of light, like a summer night sky, cloudless and untainted by skyglow. In spite of Nathan's desperate warning which went unheard, Jaymes stepped into the darkness and disappeared, leaving Nathan alone in the carriage, terrified and sobbing. Each time the dream occurred, he woke up panting for breath, his heart racing, trying to get his bearings and wondering what the hell the vision meant.
And that very morning, as if Nathan didn't have enough to contend with, Jaymes showed him the email confirming his flights to Malaysia. The final nail in the coffin of their separation. Gentle reminders had already been popping up; more early morning conference calls, finding Jaymes' huge suitcase open on the bed of the usually closed guest bedroom, items like towels and handkerchiefs and rainwear already packed. When Nathan spotted this, he backed out of the room and pulled the door closed. What the eye doesn't see. Maybe his father's blood did run through his veins. At least with Jaymes, he'd known he would be leaving from the start, knew there was nothing clandestine about his departure. Since their intimate chat at the Lakes, neither had mentioned the looming deadline.
"Did you meet with Margaret, dear?" came Doris' voice, bringing him out of his reverie.
"Evening, Doris. Yes, I did. Last Wednesday."
"How is she," she asked, coming to sit next to him.
"She's looking good. I think LA-life agrees with her."
"And?" said Doris, looking hopeful. "What did she want? What was this favour she mentioned?"
"Nothing big. She wants me to accompany Clifton to an awards ceremony later this month. His husband's not in town, and she feels he needs a friend right now. I checked with Jaymes, and he's fine."
"That's good. Good of you to do that."
"She also told me about my mother."
"What about her?"
"She didn't run away, she passed away. Back in 2001."
Doris blinked at him a couple of times as though she didn't hear properly. Eventually, she gently shook her head and squeezed together her old hands, one in the other, resting in her lap.
"I'm so sorry to hear that, dear," said Doris, looking apologetically at Nathan. "But I have to say, it makes more sense than her running off with somebody. She and your father seemed so happy together, especially when you came along. But that explains Margaret's hesitation on the phone. When she called last month, she asked me how you were, and I told her you were lovely as ever, but still missing your mother, still fretting about why she upped and went. I can't remember her exact words, but I remember she let out one of her long sighs—as though she's ever known what it's like to have the weight of the world on her shoulders—and said something like, looks like it’s down to me, then. That's when she asked me for your number. Poor Ellie. I'm glad she's at peace now."
"You didn't know? She told you nothing?"
"Your mother? Heavens, no. For all her friendliness to people, she had very few close friends—not that I could tell. I can only guess Margaret Hogmore was one because you and her son were of the same age. They had little else in common, Margaret with her expensive tastes, and la-dee-da airs and graces."
Margaret had said the same thing about his mother. As a child, he never saw that side of her. But Doris’ assessment of Margaret was spot on.
"I thought you and Margaret were friends?"
"I'd hardly call it friends. She rarely called, and then never just for a chat. Usually, she needed me to do something, or find out some information for her."
"Like needing someone to do a favour for her son?"
"Exactly," said Doris, smiling. "But I got the impression she was going to do that over the phone. I'm glad you had the chance to catch up with her. Face to face."
Father Mulligan entered and took his seat, clutching a book to his chest which Nathan thought to be the Good Book, but which was more likely to be the committee accounts. Once he had nodded a greeting, Doris turned to Nathan and, in a hushed voice, spoke again.
"Can I confess something I'm a little ashamed of?”
Nathan wasn't sure he wanted to hear any more confessions, but nodded his assent anyway.
"As I told you, Ned and I never had children of our own, not because we didn't want to, because we couldn't. So when I heard your mother was pregnant with you, I'm ashamed to admit I resented her. Yes, publicly I congratulated her and your father, even arranged for one of my best bouquets to be sent to the hospital. But I was still envious. And envy is a horrible emotion, Nathan. Pointless and all-consuming. After you were born, I rarely spoke to your mother, and then she was gone. Of course, her disappearance was scandalous tittle-tattle for us old women. And then one day you came into my shop with your father. You must have been around nine or ten. I'd never properly met you before then—seen you in the bakery from time to time. When he formally introduced us, and you shook my hand, you had a little lost look about you. But when you caught my eye, you gave me such a bright, wonderful smile. Right then, my heart broke for you. So I saved those rings up, looking for the right time to give them to you when it looked as though happiness might be within your grasp. So it warms my heart to see you're wearing them now. If anyone deserves a little happiness—"
Right at that moment, Arlene burst into the room, looking flustered.
"Looks like Boudicca has arrived on her chariot," said Doris, patting his arm, before sitting back in her chair and folding her arms. "I'll talk to you later."
"Okay," said Arlene, placing her handbag on the chair next to her, and plucking out a file and pen, before staring at her wristwatch. "Where is everyone? Heavens, can't anybody be on time? We need to make this meeting quick, get things over with as soon as possible. My husband's picking me up from outside at eight o'clock sharp. And he has less patience than the current American president."
As she finished the last sentence, Polly and Mikey strolled casually into the hall, chatting together.
"Quick march, quick march, you two. Am I the only person in this committee who knows the meaning of the word punctuality?"
Nathan should have taken affront, but he could not help smirking at the sight of Polly and Mikey.Considering Polly usually spent her day rounding up and hushing kids, Arlene doing the same to her and Mikey amused the hell out of him. Without a glance at this week's agenda—something Arlene chose to ignore completely—she launched straight into her own list of items.
"First thing I need to voice, only because I've heard a few grumbles from within our community. Bearing in mind all the recent salacious publicity, should we consider cancelling Clifton O'Keefe and his partner for the opening ceremony and general proceedings? What do you think?"
"Now hang on—" began Nathan.
"Are you serious?" added Polly, almost at the same time.
"Don't be ridiculous," said Doris, even though she was already resting her eyes.
Arlene certainly knew how to keep the committee members alert. Nathan waited until everyone had stopped talking before taking up the reins.
"If we cancel, it's tantamount to agreeing with all those vicious, homophobic media trolls who want to see them both crash and burn. We should be setting an example, sending a positive message that Crumbington supports all of its citizens; past and present, no matter what. Not shutting the door in their faces.”
"Hear, hear," said Father Mulligan.
"And what's that saying?" said Mikey. "'There's no such thing as bad publicity—'"
"'—except your own obituary.'" finished Polly smugly, which had the whole room chuckling. "Brendan Behan. Irish poet and writer."
Arlene waited until everyone had calmed down before she continued.
"Well. Looks as though that's not even a matter for debate," she said, smiling. "So let's move on to my next concern. The ducking stool. Polly. Can we have an update?"
"Equipment’s all arranged. A couple of volunteers, but nobody people would happily throw sopping wet sponges at or care enough to drown. I don't suppose you'd consider sitting, Arlene?"
Arlene provided a thin, humoured smile in return, as though sucking on a sherbet lemon.
"Need to get your finger out, Polly. Everyone else here is pulling their weight. Father Mulligan. How are we getting on with the insurance cover for the event?"
"Oh, um. Well, our local solicitor and insurance representative, Gupta Mahtani usually deals with that. I've been rather busy lately—"
"I can sort that out," said Nathan, looking up when he thought he heard the distant tooting of a car horn from outside. "I've got to see him about some other business, so I can happily kill two birds, so to speak. Will he know what it's about?"
"Yes," said Father Mulligan. "He does the same thing for us every year. Has for the past seven years."
"Leave it with me, then."
"And as for you, Nathan. When is your team playing again?"
"This Sunday. Semi-finals in the sports stadium at Eastbourne."
"Well, make sure you win. We're getting more and more interest in the calendar and the player raffle with every match you win. Pre-sales are off the charts. How many, Doris?"
When eyes turned to Doris, she still had her eyes closed.
“Around six hundred and twenty now," said Father Mulligan, on her behalf.
"You see? Not even a single foot has stepped onto the fête grounds, and already we've made more than last year. And talking of the calendar, the launch on the eighteenth is all arranged. Caterers are confirmed, Jenny will be there to take any questions about her concept and the shoot, I've alerted all my contacts in the press, and I will do a short presentation to the audience to promote the calendar and the upcoming fête. Apart from committee members, I expect all of the team to be there, Nathan, to sign calendars. So please remind them. The printed calendars will only be sent from printers the day before, but Jenny has proofed them and is extremely happy with the finished product. So make sure all of the team is there."
"I'll do my best."
"In which case," said Arlene, who had already started packing her handbag. Once again, an impatient car horn sounded from outside. "I call this meeting to a close and see you all on the eighteenth. All we need now are people to turn out, so rally around everyone and pray for a rain-free evening. After that, we have one more meeting before the big event. Please make sure everything is on target for our next get-together because I'll want a full update from each of you. Have a nice evening."
With the bag dangling from the crook of her arm, Arlene marched out of the hall. A frozen tableau, everyone watched her go.
"All clear, Dolly," said Father Mulligan, patting Doris on the shoulder. "You can open your eyes now."
"Sherry time?" said Doris, cranking her eyes open and smiling at Father Mulligan.
"Any other business, anyone?" said Polly, standing and mimicking Arlene's stiff pose, with her shopping bag dangling from her arm. “Tough luck. Meeting's already ended. Ta-ta."
Mikey and Nathan laughed at Polly, walking stiffly, affectedly, towards the door.
"Pub?" said Nathan, to Mikey.
"Can't tonight. Wife's parents are staying, so I need to get home."
"No problem. See you at the coach on Sunday. Ten-thirty pick-up. Polly, are you coming to the pub? Jaymes is going to be late, and I need some company."
"Try and stop me."
In the pub, Grant arrived just as Polly had gone to the bar to buy a round of drinks. Polly had obviously texted him on their way. After Jaymes, Grant had been the next person he spoke to about his mother. Of all people, Grant was no stranger to family secrets and sympathised genuinely. Tonight, he led Nathan to a quiet corner table, wanting to have a quick chat. Looking furtively over his shoulder, Nathan guessed the reason had something to do with their family and his recent discovery about his mother.
He guessed incorrectly.
"Look, cuz. I've asked Polly to come back to Melbourne with me over winter—I mean, your summer. For a holiday during her school holidays. Spend the whole month of July with me at my place in Melbourne. She's never been, and it's on her list of places to see. I just want to know if you're okay with that?"
"Of course, I'm okay," said Nathan quickly, trying to smile. "Why wouldn't I be?"
But in truth, he was not okay at all. Something in the idea unsettled him. Jaymes would be gone by then, and now both Grant and Polly would not be there. Just as everything had settled to a new normal.
"I'd invite you, too. But, you know, with the shop and all."
"No, it's fine. I completely understand. And yes, of course, Polly should go. I'd just—um—got used to having you around."
"I'm not going forever, mate. I'll be back in September to finalise my UK passport. Some interview or another, something your Home Office insists on me attending. But I just wanted to make sure you're okay with me inviting Polly to come with."
"I told you I am. She should definitely go. She'll love the place."
"She will, right? And I promise she'll be back with you by August."
Nathan forced a grin and nodded his approval. Polly would definitely love Australia. And she’d soon be back to Crumbington, to her teaching post.
So what was with the nagging voice inside telling him that perhaps she wouldn’t?
Thanks for reading.
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