© Philip Bromley
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James turned off the main road into the tree-lined Avenue. The next moment his car shuddered to a halt on the grass verge. His stomach churned and his throat burned. He threw open the driver's door. His fingers trembled as he mopped his brow. Slumped back in his seat a grey haze isolated him from the rest of humanity.
His consultant taught him to 'focus', to take deep breaths. He hadn't taken his pills, after breakfast, they scrambled his brain.
He couldn't be late. James glanced at his watch, fifteen minutes ago he left the main road, but it seemed like a lifetime. He swayed to and fro as he tried to focus in the rear-view mirror. His crisp white shirt now creased, clung to the small of his back. and the black tie jutted from the side of his shirt collar. His damp hair had developed a will of its own.
The faint evocative smell of new mowed grass, stirred memories of his last visit. His father's death, so soon after his mother, left him heartbroken. Divorce, Death and Depression had taken their toll.
Today he'd come to pay his last respects to a client and yes, a friend. He liked Patrick Brownloe from their first meeting, twenty years ago. They got together four times a year in a small bistro, near Worthing's seafront. Patrick never married. Being the youngest of three children, he survived both his sisters.
James drove at a sluggish pace, along the lane and parked in the furthest corner of the car park. He tidied himself and checked his mobile phone then switched it to silent. He took several deep breaths as he eased his aching limbs out of his car. The fresh spring air might help.
With luck, he shouldn’t meet anyone he knew. He joined the tide of mourners winding their way to the Chapel to await the cortège. He scanned the crowd while he adjusted his cuff links and folded his hands together in front of him.
His shoulders lowered as he turned. A faint smile brushed his lips, "Hello Mark, Hi Miranda."
James had never seen Mark in a suit. The pin-striped material was perfect for Mark as it made him appear taller and less rotund. Miranda's long black coat was elegant and flattered her figure. But her high-heeled shoes left her towering over Mark.
Miranda's eyes filled with tears, "They do make these places so comforting and serene."
James answered Miranda's words with a slight nod. In the ensuing silence James glanced down and noticed errant hairs on the label of his dark blue suite. His hand flew to his head as he recalled the earlier state of his hair. A reassuring pat settled his mind, and he brushed the stray hairs from his lapel as he dropped his hand to his side.
Mark cleared his throat, “Have you met Patrick's family, James?"
“No, I haven't. He often mentioned his niece and her family.”
“Patrick used to bring them to our bistro for birthdays and at Christmas.”
For a moment bright sunlight engulfed the crowd. Dressed in an array of jackets, coats and cardigans it reminded him of a field of wild flowers.
A white-haired woman, with a slight stoop, gasped. James glanced up as the hearse disappeared from view behind a clump of Magnolia bushes. The crowd fell silent and filed inside the Chapel. Mark took hold of James' elbow and motioned him to sit beside them in one of the rear pews.
The hymn, 'Praise My Soul The King of Heaven', brought the congregation to its feet. Eyes filled with tears, glanced at the sad procession. A girl at the front sobbed out loud and a tall well-dressed man, in front of them, stifled a cough.
The procession made its dignified way to the dais, and James' eyes fixed on the light oak coffin. The single spray of cream roses epitomised Patrick's love of life's simple pleasures.
The youthful clergyman must have known Patrick well. He highlighted the humour and joy Patrick Brownloe brought to those whom he met.
Outside in the warm sunshine, heads raised, and the hum of relieved voices resurfaced. Miranda turned towards James, "Stay with us, we'll introduce you to Patrick's family. "Flanked by his two companions James could not make the discreet exit he had planned.
"Hello Mark, good to see you Miranda. Thank you for coming; Patrick enjoyed your company so much."
Mark nodded and smiled, “Patrick was one of the most genuine people we have ever met.”
Charles turned towards James, "I'm sorry, I don't think we've met."
Mark rubbed the back of his neck as he turned his head. "Sorry Charles, this is James Wardley, Patrick's stockbroker."
"James, humble apologies. Patrick often mentioned you but more as a friend than an adviser," Charles grabbed James hand in a firm grip. "I'll introduce you to my wife, and our adorable daughters, Rebecca and Julia."
James shook hands with his daughters but his wife appeared engrossed in conversation.
"Darling! Darling, sorry to interrupt. I want you to meet your Uncle's friend and adviser, James Wardley."
Wendy turned towards her husband, stared with those alluring green eyes and blushed. She embraced James and kissed him on each cheek, "James, how wonderful to see you after all these years."
His heart beat rose to a crescendo, "Hello Wendy, I didn't expect to meet you again, in such circumstances!"
Her grey dress and jacket complimented the rich auburn of her shoulder-length hair. Her still slim figure gave her a demure and yet stylish look.
Charles' frowned and blinked, “I take you know one another!"
“ Yes! yes!" Wendy's cheeks glowed as she glanced at her husband.
“I'll catch you later, James,” Wendy smiled as she turned back to the group of mourners who hovered to her left.
Miranda stared at him and grinned, “I didn't realise you and Wendy knew each other.”
"Oh, it was a long time ago. We met at university."
"Didn't you keep in touch?"
"At first we did.”
Charles stepped back and coughed, “Let's make our way to the Homestead in Findon?" He turned away and took out his pocket-handkerchief to mop his brow. “Come on Miranda, Mark, James, you must join us; we'll see you there."
Wendy's warm greeting ignited emotions deep within his soul. His plan to slip away, forgotten. Mark's eyes fixed on him as they walked, “Do you know the way, James?"
"No, I don't."
"Don't bother setting your 'sat nav'. You can follow us."
James eased his Jag into the queue of cars behind the Cardwell's Volvo. His thoughts wandered back to the day he and Wendy met. His heart missed a beat and a tear ran down his cheek. Wendy's display of affection may have raised a few eyebrows. Wendy was always affectionate, but their close relationship was history.
Once on the dual carriageway the Cardwell's car slowed and signalled a left turn. Too late to run.
His first glimpse of the venue, brought a broad grin to his lips. The converted Victorian mansion reminded him of a 'movie set'. Griffins adorned the balcony over the main entrance. He glanced at these mythical beasts and smiled. Had Patrick received a silent acknowledgement from these splendid beasts? Were these creatures aware of Patrick's love of ancient civilisations?
He joined Miranda and Mark as they headed for the main entrance. The faint aroma of warm food filled the air
Marks nostrils flared, "Excellent".
Miranda turned to James and winked. "You can remove the chef from the restaurant, but you can't remove the restaurant from the chef.”
Inside the Homestead the mourners gathered in the rear section by the Buffet. Waiters circulated with trays of fruit juices and glasses of sherry. James glanced at the open patio doors. A group assembled in the smoking-area in the garden.
He craved a cigarette. His smoking always caused friction, during his time with Wendy. He chose to stay in the confines of the restaurant. Patrick enjoyed a cigarette. He often recounted how his grandfather lived to 98, despite his love of cigarettes.
James eyes tracked Wendy as she circulated among the guests. There was no sparkle in her eyes and she smiled through half-closed lips. Wendy smoothed the hair on the back of her neck as she sat down at a table with a group of elderly guests. She shuffled on her chair and her gaze flicked around the room. Her voice sounded high-pitched when she thanked everyone for attending. James turned around and decided he ought to find Mark and Miranda before slipping away.
"Well James, what an unexpected turn of events!”
James turned back, and their eyes met. He'd never forgotten Wendy's beautiful big eyes. When he tried to speak a lump in his throat grew. His dry mouth made it difficult to clear his throat. When he managed to speak his tone approached falsetto.
“I never realised the Wendy, Patrick often mentioned , was you.”
Wendy shook her head and grinned,“It never occurred to me either, and you'd not changed your surname.
A faint smile flashed along her lips as he sighed
Wendy stared for a moment then fixed him with a stare, “James have you been ill? You looked dreadful at the crematorium.”
His back straightened and he shook his head, "No, I'm fine."
Wendy frowned and fixed him with those big bright eyes, "Do you still live in London?”
His whole body tensed, and he lowered his gaze to avoid eye contact. "No! I live near Littlehampton."
Wendy flinched and shuffled her feet,“Married?”
Wendy reeled at the curt replies, "Oh, do I detect a touch of pathos in your voice. Tell me more?"
"Sorry but funerals always make me turn in on myself.” He decided he needed to steer the conversation away from his personal life.
”You look well."
"Thank you!, I would appreciate your help with Uncle Patrick's affairs. Can we arrange to meet soon?"
“Sorry but I've retired."
Wendy stamped her foot and groaned, "James, you've not improved over the years. You're still the pompous ass of old! I didn't ask you as a stockbroker but as a friend! Give me your number. I'll call you."
James drove home, his head so full of the day's events, ached in sympathy with his heart. At university, they were intellectual equals but her life skills far exceeded his.
Wendy's daughters both at university. Her husband high up in the Civil Service, according to Miranda.
His marriage to Amelia a disaster, a 25-year disaster. Her fixation with the teaching dominated her every action. She had no time for motherhood.
What had happened to Wendy, the anti-establishment figure and supporter of 'woman's lib'.
Once at home his thoughts focused on his own predicament. A deep pain-filled groan echoed in his ears.
Chapter 2 The Past Revisited
After a day of high emotions, Wendy retired early. She tossed and turned, counted sheep then counted backward from 100. The funeral, her reunion with James, her heart missed a beat. Lips pursed, she fidgeted in her bed. She threw back the duvet as perspiration peppered her brow. “Oh Shit” she mumbled out loud as she contemplated tomorrow's early start. The girls must catch their train. Wendy couldn't over-sleep. Charles was due in Whitehall at eight o'clock, to brief for an important meeting.
Early starts rattled Wendy, this was one of the reasons she left teaching. “Thank God for flexi-time.”
The alarm clock roused her from her shallow sleep. She saw Charles as he bid farewell to Rebecca and Julia. An hour later she drove them to the station, in good time for the Southampton train.
Wendy still had a day's holiday left . She resisted the temptation to climb back into bed. Coffee in hand she settled in the lounge to read the morning paper. The sky was heavy and rain was forecast for later in the day, so the 'Telegraph' front page announced.
A smile crossed her lips as she offered a prayer of thanks for the fair weather for the funeral. Wendy glanced through the headlines. 'Ex-Prime Minister Baroness Thatcher Dies'. Charles had mentioned something after the funeral. Seeing it in 'black and white' brought a tear to her eye.
The newspaper tossed to one side, she took a deep breath, grabbed her phone. Her eyes still moist she began to dial.
"Hello James I hope I'm not too early, but I've discovered I'm free for lunch today!"
Silence punctuated the conversation as the seconds passed.
“Ah....Hello....Ah, Wendy" .
“Let's book a table at Miranda's Bistro and toast Uncle Patrick in style!”
At once, she noted his reluctant tone.
“Excellent! See you at one o'clock.”
Another silence gave Wendy enough time to end the call. Her hands shook and her mouth went dry.
She stood transfixed with her finger on the button. “Yes yes yes” tore from her lips as she punched the air with delight at her mischievous action.
James hand trembled as he recovered the phone, which had slipped from his ear. Wendy had
hung- up. He wiped his hands on his handkerchief, then mopped the sweat from his brow.
His eyes fixed on his phone as he licked his parched lips. His brain wanted to phone back with an inane excuse but his heart ruled his head.
Miranda's Bistro nestled in one of Worthing's Victorian squares. It glowed like a beacon against the slate grey sky as James searched for a place to park.
The rain lashed the windscreen like shards of broken glass. James had not checked the weather forecast and not thought to bring a coat. The only item he had, to ward off the elements, was the small attaché case he picked up at the last moment. This was only a meeting, he told himself for the tenth time in as many minutes. It was a quarter to one. His search for a parking slot seemed to take him further away from his rendezvous.
James parked his car and make a frantic dash for the Bistro. As he left the car the onshore wind brought the scent of ozone, salt and seaweed far inland.
He scurried from doorway to doorway. Jumped over puddles and skipped around streams of rainwater along his route. His sodden clothes clung to his skin and his body quivered. The lights of the Bistro flickered through the murk and he crashed through the door. He knew he must have looked a sight as he entered the bistro at full gallop.
Rain dripped from his face on to his sodden jacket and tie. He panted like an old greyhound as he stood by the entrance. He felt every eye in the restaurant had focused on him.
Miranda came to his rescue. She greeted him with a kiss on the cheek and a large fluffy white towel, “You can dry off in the cloakroom, James. Don't worry, Wendy phoned a few minutes ago. Her taxi has not arrived. She'll be fifteen minutes late."
"Thanks Miranda," James sighed then made a dash for the cloakroom.
Minutes later he crept back into the restaurant. A wry smile flickered across his lips as he caught sight of his reflection in the mirror behind the bar.
He handed the towel to Miranda, “Thanks, that's a lot better.”
She led him to the table in the rear corner of the bistro.
“Wendy requested this table, James”
Miranda lowered her voice as she drew closer to him. “We thought this would be more private and out of earshot from the other diners.”
Had James imagined it or was there a hint of a smile, on Miranda's lips? He pondered for a moment before he dismissed such foolish thoughts from his mind. He was a grown man, not a stupid, love struck teenager.
It was he who ended to their relationship with his stubborn and intractable stance.
Wendy swept into the bistro and paused like a model as she furled her umbrella and smoothed her hair. He rose to his feet as she approached and his damp shirt chaffed his neck. His discomfort eased by the warmth of her embrace. In James' eyes, nothing could detract from her radiance as she took her seat.
She smiled at James, “Sorry I've kept you waiting.”
As James slid her chair forward Wendy' brow wrinkled, “My, you did get wet, didn't you?"
James' dropped his gaze toward the floor as he settled back in his seat. At that moment, he wished he had stayed at home.
"Oh James, I'm so sorry.”
Their eyes locked then she giggled as she had always done, in the face of misfortune. His heart ached as he remembered the fun and laughter she brought to his life when they lived together. The flat in South London was poky and drab. She began her teacher-training course, and he embarked on his career in the City.
“We could go back to my place? I'll rustle up a set of dry clothes and a spot of lunch. My culinary skills have improved over the years."
James sensed the heat rise in his cheeks, which made him fear he resembled a human traffic light. Oh how he wished he'd never agreed to meet.
“James, I didn't mean to embarrass you."
Turmoil scrambled his brain as it battled with the ache from his heart. It was years ago he played and lost. Lost was no exaggeration. Today he sat face to face with an elegant, married, mother of two.
He straightened his shoulders then cleared his throat, “Let's order lunch.”
As Miranda left after she took their order, Wendy turned to face him. She leaned forward as a smile enlightened her face, “So, tell me, why have you retired?”
James frowned, “Oh, no real reason."
Wendy stared at him for a moment, “At the Homestead, you told me, you lived alone.”
“Yes I do. My parents died a few years ago.” He paused and placed his clasped hand on the table. “So how can I help with Patrick's affairs?”
She smiled and her eyes twinkled with a warmth he had forgotten over the years. “Let's eat first, then we can talk.”
Had he imagined it or had her nose twitched as it had done all those years ago?
They ate in silence. Wendy finished her meal, patted her lips with her napkin and sat forward on her chair. He noticed small beads of perspiration on her furrowed brow.
"James, I realise you may regard this as impertinent, but why are you so quiet? You've barely spoken to me, since I arrived.”
“Sorry, I shouldn't have come here.”
He couldn't allow his inner emotions to show and ruin everything.
Wendy leaned forward in her chair, “James, I realise I forced your hand.”
“Don't be so apologetic. Let's be friends again, please.”
“Yes, I'd love that.”
“You're so defensive!” Her eyes opened wide as if the upper and lower lids had engaged in a bitter feud.
His gaze dropped, “Life has been difficult, of late. My wife, Amelia, had an affair with a colleague, and I didn't find out for two years.”
“Oh James, how devastating!”
James raised his hand and swallowed hard. “I suffered a complete meltdown. I couldn't concentrate on my work, and I found myself bundled into early retirement.”
Wendy' shook her head and sighed, “Oh James!.”
He cleared his throat and smiled, “Please, I don't want sympathy. I want to explain it 's me, not you. It's my problem.”
“You poor thing, James!”
He looked deep into her eyes, “Let me finish, please!”
Wendy dabbed her eyes with a tissue and nodded.
“ I know I'm a pain sometimes, but I do so want your friendship."
“James, you're the kindest, most considerate man I've ever met.” Wendy stretched her arms across the table and motioned him to hold her hands. He took her outstretched fingers in his and the faint scent of Chanel sent a tingle down his spine. He bought her Chanel the last Christmas they lived together.
“We all have regrets, James! Teaching in Germany was great, at first. The social life was hectic. 'Schoolies' always got invited to the Mess parties.”
He frowned and loosened his hold on her fingers. Wendy tightened her grip, “Please let me finish.”
“What the hell is a 'Schoolie'?”
She smiled and then looked contrite, “It was the nickname for female teachers working for BFES.”
James sighed under his breath.
“Sorry! British Forces Education Services. One night at a leaving party for a colleague in Rhinedahlen I met Charles.”
“Oh, love at first sight?”
“James there's no point trying to help, when you're in this mood.”
Wendy downed the content of her wine glass and snatched her handbag off the adjacent chair. “Don't worry, I'll settle the bill.”
James held his breath. The atmosphere was heavy with silence. Every eye in the restaurant appeared fixed on him but he held his nerve. The hum of contented diners began to return. He glanced behind him like a private detective in a third rate movie.
A second look behind him confirmed Wendy had left. With a shy but polite nod of the head he acknowledged Miranda as he made a hasty dash for the door. He leapt through the door colliding with Wendy as she climbed into her taxi.
“For God sake James, haven't you done enough damage for one day?”
“Sorry, I'm...” “James stop now. I wish I'd never...Ah!” She slammed the door as her taxi set off at high speed. Like a speedboat it ploughed through the deep puddles and disappeared in its own spray.
Chapter 3 A New Dawn
Wendy's words had pricked his consciousness, as if they wore running spikes. He tossed his car keys on the hall table and sauntered into the study. “No messages, thank god!” He puffed up his cheeks as he slumped into his chair.
He rested his elbows on the desk and held his head in his hands. Self-pity and useless recriminations ruined his whole life. Amelia behaved like a cow, but it takes two to cause a break-up. Pressures of work and the stress of his daily routine made life unbearable.
James cradled a cigarette between his fingers. He paused then lit it and inhaled. His fingers tingled, his brain fog eased. He rocked to and fro in his chair. One day, he would quit!
The jangle of the front door bell invaded his thoughts, James froze. With luck they might go away. What if it was Wendy? In silence he crept behind the front door and peered through the spy hole. His expression softened as he unlocked the door.
“Elizabeth, it's ages, since I saw you.”
"Hello James. Whilst you were out, a courier asked if I'd take in this package.”
She stepped inside out of the rain and wiped her feet on the door mat, then handed him the bulky envelope.
“The courier didn't want to damage it, forcing it through the letter box."
"How kind, thank you,"
“It was sad about poor Maggie, wasn't it James?”
“Yes, I heard it on the news.”
He took the envelope from her and placed it on the hall table.
“I was about to put the kettle on, care to join me?"
"If it doesn't stop you working, I'd love a drink." James motioned to her to follow him into the kitchen. Faint rays of sunshine pierced the heavy overcast, which had followed the rain. James carried their mugs into the lounge and placed them on the table between the armchairs.
"It's stuffy in here. I'll open the patio doors a fraction."
Elizabeth nodded as she settled into the armchair furthest from the kitchen.
James walked back to his seat with a laboured gait.
“I hope you will not take this the wrong way, but you look exhausted.”
“Sorry! Is It's the new medication the consultant prescribed”
Elizabeth's eyes narrowed as she gazed in his direction. He panicked at her directness.
"You'll never guess who I bumped into today?"
Her face went blank and her forehead wrinkled, “I don't know your friends, any more, James."
"You must remember, Wendy?"
Elizabeth's grinned, "I remember a high-spirited girl you met at university."
"Right first time!"
"I didn't realise you two still kept in touch"
"We met by chance."
"How marvellous for you," Elizabeth smiled, and clasped hands across her chest.
James' swallowed hard.
Elizabeth's feet fidgeted.
"Does Wendy live around here?”
After a few seconds he regained his composure.
“I'm so sorry. Yes, she lives with her two daughters and her husband in Worthing."
Elizabeth sipped her coffee and fumbled with her watch. She glanced at James, "How's early retirement suiting you?”
James told everyone he took early retirement. He never mentioned his Breakdown. His consultant was happy with his progress.
"I did find it difficult to adjust. The lack of purpose in my life created a void. Now I'm rebuilding my life, and I'm OK."
Elizabeth stared into space and her eyes watered. "I know what you mean. When my mother died, I found life impossible. After years of waiting on my parents hand and foot I relished the freedom to choose my routine. For a while I drifted along without any real purpose.” She took a deep breath and paused before exhaling. "I'm sorry James; I do get carried away.”
James smiled at her forthright attitude, “Please don't stop.”
“James may I ask you a question, first?"
James looked at her wide-eyed as he stroked his chin, "Ask away."
"Do you still smoke?"
"Yes I do, why?"
"I'd love a cigarette."
"Then, Elizabeth, a glass of wine is in order, with our cigarettes."
James returned with a bottle of Pinot Grigio, two wine glasses and two ashtrays. At least the ache in his head had faded. His heart would take longer.
As he handed Elizabeth an ashtray he sighed, “All these years of living next door to each other. This is our first real conversation.”
"You never appeared to have time for idle chatter," She fixed her gaze on him as a parent looks at an errant child. He smiled as he poured the wine, “So how did you cope with life's difficulties, Elizabeth?”
As he sat down Elizabeth paused to light her cigarette, “Books became a form of escape. I remembered something my English teacher told me. 'Literature expresses life in words of truth and beauty and is the only history, of the human soul'.”
“Please carry on Elizabeth while I close the patio window.”
“Our forefathers' writings show us they were more than savage warriors. Their manuscripts teach us they cherished the same values; we have today.”
The more he listened the more he admired Elizabeth. Despite her restricted lifestyle, Elizabeth enjoyed a life full of contentment. Her love of books took her on a journey of exploration. She showed no regrets and no unfulfilled longings.
Once he was alone he realised he had not eaten since his lunch date. He dashed into the kitchen and made himself a sandwich. Settled back in the lounge he flicked at random, through the TV channels, as he ate. One programme caught his eye. A view of a Roman Villa panned past the camera. Roman Britain became his special project at university. He remembered a school visit to Fishbourne near Chichester, to see the Roman Palace. To this day, he still remembered his elation when he saw an actual Roman building.
That night sleep eluded James. He relived his school trip to Rome. The special Mediterranean aroma of unfamiliar scents and dust. The hot sunshine as he descended the plane's steps.
But he couldn't get Wendy out of his head. He knew there could be no future, but memories from their past spun around in his head. Her parents lived in Brighton. The Mods and Rockers of the sixties had become history. Brighton teemed with nightlife. The Eurovision Song Contest in 1974, won by ABBA, reignited the Town's allure. Wendy had been eager to wallow in its ambience.
In the long summer holidays she worked, part-time, in a gift shop owned by friends of the family. This gave her a taste of independence, which she relished. Freedom fueled her rebellious nature.
He remembered the first time they argued. They had enjoyed a wonderful day together in Brighton and out of nowhere she exploded. Her sharp retorts haunted him for days.
The telephone rang and woke him from his fitful slumber. His watch showed it was not yet eight o'clock. Who could want him this early?
"Guess what I found last night?" Wendy's triumphal tone irritated him.
He raised himself on one elbow and tossed aside the quilt, "It's too early for guessing games, Wendy”
He heard Wendy take a deep breath, “Well, Charles needed to stay overnight in London. I decided to search through my old photos and guess what I discovered?”
"Do tell me." His flat tone conveyed as much enthusiasm as he could muster after his rude awakening.
Her voice reached a crescendo, "Remember the Summer of '85 when we went on our Camper Van adventure?"
James decided not to enter the conversation at this stage as Wendy continued in full flow.
"I found our photographs of that holiday, and you'll never guess what else was there? Remember the talking Teddy you won on the fairground? Well he's here too. You told me, it cost more to win than to buy. "
James realised it was time to add a suitable anecdote, "So long ago!"
Wendy paused to catch her breath but appeared oblivious to his retort.
"You won't believe the outfits we wore! Must dash. I'm at a meeting in Arundel today. See you around five o'clock, then the line went dead.
The last twenty-four hours had been surreal. He'd spent long days alone while off work on sick leave. After he retired he had vegetated. Now life had changed gear, and careered off in overdrive.
His first true love now acted as though she was an older sister. Elizabeth Silvester, last night emerged from her shell before his eyes.
As he reached the bottom of the stairs he saw the padded envelope. He glanced down at the table and paused, I need a coffee first!