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Jolly Rotten Holidays

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Maurice was having a cup of coffee and a slice of brioche in the kitchen when I got a dish towel and beckoned him. ‘We need to talk,’ I said.

He grew pale and followed me to the dining room. ‘Take off your glasses,’ I ordered, and before he knew it, I had tied the cloth around his eyes. ‘Filthy Shades of Durham,’ I could hear Alec say to Anne in the lounge. ‘God knows where that rag has been.’ They stayed put, knowing that this moment was only for Maurice and me.

I took Maurice’s hand and gently led him across the room to the double doors of the conservatory. I opened them and told him to stop on the carpet. He sniffed, probably because the blindfold smelled bad indeed. He cringed as I untied it and then he went rigid, digging his heels into the rug. His mouth opened, but he was speechless.

In front of him was the Steinway grand piano that Mum had bought for her own home in 1990. When she had moved to a flat in 2012, we had it stored in a deserted part of the warehouse, hoping to pass it on to one of her grandchildren, but none of them showed any interest in music.

I had bought it from her and she had tacitly understood the purpose.

‘What happened to the old one?’ Maurice asked. ‘I mean, it was out of tune, but no one played it anyway.’

‘We donated that to the church,’ I said. ‘This is yours now.’

He laughed. ‘Don’t fool me, Clive. I’m horribly out of practice. I’d be delighted to give you some musical entertainment, but…’

I grabbed his hand again and led him to the long side of the instrument. ‘Look there,’ I whispered. ‘The badge.’

On the inside of the casing there was a neat copper plate with To Maurice with all my love – Clive on it.

I felt his hand tremble in mine now. Then he hunted for a tissue. He could not find one and so his tears wet my cheeks as he took me in his arms. We stood there for quite some time, with him whispering ‘I’m so happy…I really am’  until Anne and Alec turned up cheering and applauding.

He understood that they had been in the complot as well and hugged them, still sobbing.

Then he sat down and played an etude by Chopin, hesitantly and all thumbs, but I could tell that he only needed a little warming up to become the marvelous pianist he had been at uni.

Anne’s face was flushed with joy. Alec, who was standing beside her, looking absolutely stunning in a black polo neck, a grey tweed jacket and press-fold trousers, rolled his eyes.

‘Yuck, so it’s going to be like this every night from now on…I’m gonna start the Jag if you don’t mind.’

When our techno enthusiast had gone outside, Maurice rose from the piano stool and adjusted his burgundy-red tie with trembling fingers. He was an absolute god in his dark-grey three-piece suit and black loafers. Anne saw it too and bit her nails. ‘I’ll get you sheet music,’ she promised him.

Maurice glided to the hallway, where he put on his black winter coat. He said that he was looking forward to seeing his father and his stepmum and Alec’s mother and her boyfriend after that, but he would not be back until gone eight o’clock and that sucked royally. He wanted to play the piano.

Anne and I stepped out, watched him get into the passenger seat of his own vehicle and waved until he, Alec and Pussy (the nickname of the Jag) were out of sight.

When we closed the door, I felt Anne’s eyes on me and burst into tears. She held me and whispered that the plan had worked. Maurice and Alec would stay.

She and I were actually supposed to pop in at Emilia’s place opposite our house. Emilia was Italian and needed some help with the preparations of a real English afternoon tea for her in-laws.

‘You’re in no state to go, Mr. Muddle,’ Anne said to me. ‘You’d be hawking snot and drool all over the crumpets and the sandwiches…I’ll go and tell Emilia you’re not feeling well.’

She wouldn’t leave until she saw me safely sitting on the sofa with a cup of coffee and a slice of cake. Then she put her apron in a shopping bag, kissed me and left.

I was all alone now in my eight-bedroom house. I turned on the TV and found nothing but crappy holiday shows, so I switched to Spotify and looked for a mellow Boiler Room session.

Greenwood, I thought, or else I’ll be prancing up and down the walls until it’s time to prepare dinner. I dashed up to the attic.

The landing smelled of instant coffee and Eau Sauvage. I burst into Maurice’s office and found a little bag, tobacco and papers. My fingers trembled as I rolled myself a blunt, but as I lit up and poured a glass of Armagnac, I felt better.

My eyes wandered over Maurice’s books, the pictures, his belongings carelessly shattered here and there to mark his domain. Pointy shoes with gold-coloured buckles, some ties he must have tried on, his elegant toiletries and cufflink boxes and knick-knacks. I felt unbelievably happy for having the most beautiful, desirable lover in the world, a man who would never leave me, my salvation after twenty-five years of confusion.

I was floating among pink elephants and naked fauns when I heard a faint, jangling sound. The bloody doorbell.

Durham, you’re high, whoever would come and see us now, I told myself, we’re not expecting anybody.

But there it was again. Probably a neighbour complaining about the cats using their gardens as litter boxes or…Anne, who had forgotten her house key. She must be done prepping at Emilia’s.

I rushed down two flights of stairs and the signal wailed again. That was not like Anne.

When I opened the door, ready to tell any neighbour with shitty complaints to piss off (pun intended), I saw a tall figure, dressed in a grey overcoat, standing on the flagstones.

‘I had to ring twice,’ the man complained. ‘Twice. Or more often even. But I reckoned someone must be home. There are four cars in the drive, so…’

He spoke no more, and I was at a loss for words anyway. No weed could be strong enough to create this illusion, so this must be reality. The man who was standing opposite me was Claude Risley.