‘Oh Lord, here he is,’ Mrs Benheim was thinking, as I crossed the threshold of her pub. ‘I don’t have any quarrel with his sort, but if he ever brought a boyfriend in here I wouldn’t know where to look.’
I nodded to the uncles playing cribbage at the card table as I strolled up to the bar, and they nodded back, squinting through their spectacles to see if I was one of their more obscure male relatives.
‘Evening Mrs Benheim,’ I said, with a cheeriness I had been practising moments before, outside the pub.
‘Evening Glenn.’ Her smile was fixed and calculating, weighing my appearance now against the teenage version she had last seen five or six years ago.
‘You look, erm, well…’ she hesitated, taking in my neatly trimmed goatee and gelled hair. ‘You look well.’
I ordered a gin and tonic, which seemed to confirm something with her, and we fell into an inane chat that carried across the cosy pub and into the conversation topics of every quietly inebriated local. Sensing the bar patrons hanging on my description of the drive down from London, I mused that being back in the countryside after so long was a bit like being a celebrity.
‘Six hours in the car?’ Mrs Benheim was saying, ‘Poor love, you must be tired.’
I could hear her thinking about her own journey to London a few years previous; her late husband Paul had done the trip in just under four and a half hours. ‘But then, he was a proper man,’ she thought. I fastened my affected grin more firmly. ‘You’ll be meeting your father then?’ she asked.
I consulted my watch in an unnecessary gesture.
‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘In a little while.’
Stock still, this shrivelled woman briefly searched my eyes.
‘Small wonder you’re in here,’ she was thinking, ‘I imagine you’ll need a few drinks to brace yourself for that meeting.’
I was tempted to ask her if she had done something different with her hair, knowing that it had not changed style in my lifetime.
‘Evening Fred,’ hailed one of the uncles, approaching the bar and shaking my hand.
He stared along his narrow nose at me, under his glasses.
‘I haven’t got a bloody clue,’ he was thinking, ‘Is this one of my Ilsa’s lot?’
‘Ah, Glenn,’ he said, clapping me on the shoulder, ‘Good to see you lad. How’s your mother?’
I blushed and Mrs Benheim’s wart girdled eye gleamed maleficently.
‘Glenn is Tom Watkins boy,’ she announced.
The old uncles eyes glazed over and I could hear him quickly revisiting my family history to try to place me in his past experience. At the cards table the other miscellaneous uncles looked away as this one among them struggled through my entire genealogy, to arrive at the faux pas he was currently making.
‘Ah, I’m sorry lad,’ he said, slapping his forehead. ‘You’ll be here to see your father I suppose?’
‘Yes,’ I replied, repeating the artificial watch check. ‘In a little while.’
We stood through a miasmic silence before he remembered why he was there.
‘Pint of the dark tower please Betty,’ he said, fishing a fiver from his breast pocket. I wondered why I still couldn’t bring myself to call Mrs Benheim “Betty”.
While Mrs Benheim was pouring the dark goop into a pint mug, I listened in to this awkward uncle’s thoughts as he searched for a way to breach the dead air between us. Mental images of the Britain in bloom committee, the prayer group and the summer grain harvest flicked through his mind but he dismissed them. When Amy settled on the forefront of his thoughts I was so intrigued that I accidently turned to listen before he started talking.
‘Ere,’ he said, ‘you knew my Amy didn’t you?’
I feigned a dim recollection as my extremities tingled with charged nostalgia.
‘Amy…’ I murmured, speculatively stroking my goatee. ‘Oh yes, Amy. She moved away, no?’
‘That’s right,’ the uncle said roundly, warming to his topic, ‘her folks took her off Bristol way when she were a teen. You were quite keen on her, the story goes?’
Along the bar I heard Mrs Benheim thinking, ‘Quite a little tomboy that Amy.’ Then, with a glance at me, ‘That was a foreshadowing. I wonder if it was the big city that queered him.’ I ignored her and let my nerves ache at the ascendant cognizance of all the things that I nearly did with Amy. A memory surfaced, more sensation than image; a smooth crease of inner thigh and short, rapid breaths that drew in the intertwined scents of her juvenile perfume and the hay which carpeted the floor of the barn where we were to make our tryst; the unconquered perimeters of cotton underwear, once mysterious but in that moment yielding; a keen advance by millimetres, the slim chasm that remained and oh, oh the proximity. That most crucial moment had been obliterated by her father’s voice from the house, her quick departure from the barn and soon after, her complete departure from my life.
‘I had quite forgotten,’ I breathed.
‘Well, she’s back in town,’ the uncle wheezed, collecting his change from Mrs Benheim, who added, ‘Because of the divorce.’
‘Old hag,’ thought the uncle, with a rheumy glare. ‘Thanking you,‘ he said, raising his mug to her with a flourish. ‘I’m sure you’ll see her about,’ he continued sheepishly, ‘she’s often… she’s often about.’ He walked back to the cards table with a slight stagger and I turned to Mrs Benheim.
‘Has Amy been back long?’ I asked with a practised nonchalance, knowing that if the old crone could have read my mind, all her doubts about me would have been alleviated.
‘Oh, about a month I believe,’ she replied, polishing a glass and holding it up to light. ‘I suppose you heard about the divorce?’
I felt an unreasoning jealousy stir in my stomach.
‘Actually I had no idea she had got married.’
Outwardly Mrs Benheim remained unmoved, but in the cramped recesses of her mind a narrative was shaping: Amy’s story and how best to tell it.
‘She was married not quite two years ago,‘ she said , leaning closer to me with a glance at the uncle over at the cards table, ‘to a fellar she had known for six months.’ Her eyebrows lifted with the significance of the statement and I nodded to encourage her on. ‘Course, it didn’t work; he wasn’t “mature enough” apparently, and they had their difficulties, all told.’
‘Still had some of the bruises when she turned up here,’ Mrs Benhiem was thinking. ‘She never did know when to keep her mouth shut.’
I balked at this odious matron’s pitilessness but asked her where Amy was staying.
‘Why, in your father’s guest house as it happens. Funny he didn’t mention it to you.’
I thought back to the terse telephone conversation with my father which had prompted the visit; it had been strictly no frills and completely devoid of gossip.
‘Perhaps he was keeping it as a surprise.’
Mrs Benheim nodded as she inexpertly sliced a lemon for my second gin and tonic.
‘Perhaps.’‘Or perhaps he’s keeping his cards close to his chest, as always. Never did have much occasion to talk to you.’
I excused myself, hiding my balled fists and made for the restroom.
While I was standing at the urinal, relieving myself and trying to calm down, a cubicle door swung open and a portly figure stumbled out over the slippery off-white tiles.
I saw him out the corner of my eye, washing his hands and doing a double take when he recognised me.
‘Evening Glenn!’ he said, turning to face me.
‘Evening, mate,’ I replied, with the twin embarrassments of failing to recognise him and having him watch me piss.
‘You don’t remember me, do you?’ he said accusingly.
I did a quick tour of his memories and saw the two of us, still in short trousers, collaborating on mother’s day cards in primary school.
I finished, shook and zipped.
‘Don’t start with me Harold,’ I said, grinning, ‘of course I remember you.’
He chortled and slapped me hard on the back as I rinsed my hands.
‘So what brings you back to rural life?’ he asked.
‘I’m meeting with my father.’
Harold was a little too drunk to hide the surprise from his face. ‘Meeting him in the pub? Do it in a public place I suppose, less fuss.’
‘Well that’s nice.’ He paused. ‘Did you know Amy’s back?’ he asked as we left the bathroom together.
‘That’s what they tell me.’
‘She’s all grown up now.’ He made an hourglass motion with his hands and pulled a rapturous face.
I nodded meekly. ‘Quite.’
‘Yeah well,’ I could hear him thinking, ‘can’t expect you to be too interested in the women folk can we?’
‘Have you seen much of her?’ I asked, through gritted teeth.
‘Not nearly enough,’ he said roguishly, swigging at his pint, ‘I should like to see more.’
I sipped my gin and tonic without comment. The pub door swung open behind us and I glanced over my shoulder reflexively.
‘Keen to see her are you?’ Harold asked, catching my look.
‘Now you leave him be,’ interjected Mrs Benheim, ‘I’m sure he’s just looking forward to seeing his father.’ The two of them looked at each other conspiratorially, without saying or thinking anything.
Harold took his leave and joined his table, leaving me to tune into the background chatter of the pub. Across the room I saw an old neighbour of mine and I waved with genuine warmth.
He returned the wave, thinking ‘Poor lad doesn’t deserve this.’
Acquaintances from school were huddled around a long table with Harold; they looked away when I spotted them and I received a mishmash of thoughts from the group.
‘…and do we really want to be in here when…’
‘…old enough to be her…’
‘…heard the son’s gay but will that make any…’
‘…could have just said over the phone…’
I felt a tap at my elbow and turned to see Mrs Benheim sliding another drink across to me.
‘Have this, love,’ she said, leaning slightly over the bar as Amy and my father entered.
‘And please don’t make a scene.’