We had coffee in the lounge. For some strage reason, Anne warmed towards our guest. He told her about his work and vegan cuisine. She gave him some recipes that her mother had handed down to her. Her parents had been hippies, Risley had heard of them and was all ears.
In the middle of this, I got a text message from Maurice. I’m leaving.
When I heard steps on the staircase, I left the room. Maurice was at the front door, holding a suitcase and a laptop bag.
‘We’ll kick him out tomorrow,’ I said. ‘No need for you to…’
He laughed. ‘No, you won’t. Just look at yourself in the mirror, Clive. Your eyes are shining as if you just won the sweepstakes.’
‘I don’t want this any more than you do, Maurice.’
‘I appreciate that, but spending the night under the same roof with Risley will get me and Alec arrested by tomorrow morning at the latest.’
‘Where are you going?’
‘Don’t know. I’ve got a sleeping bag in the Ford, I shall be all right.’
‘What about Alec?’
‘He’s in a muddle, bless him. When we were having a brunch at my dad’s, he got a text message from TNC Logistics. He was a forklift driver at their warehouse a few months ago, remember? It turns out that they are short of one truck driver. They want him to haul a load to Chester tomorrow.’
‘He may have to stay there overnight to observe resting hours.’
‘I expect so. At least he won’t be here to cause any trouble. Little bird tells me you won’t be rid of your Regal Risley anytime soon, Clive.’
He read my eyes and responded with his characteristic softness.
‘Don’t take this too hard, love. I have to do what has to be done. We’ll be in touch, won’t we?’
I watched him get into the Focus, wondering why he did not use the Jag. Then it dawned on me. The Ford was a diesel and therefore much less expensive to take on a long journey. And it had more boot space.
He backed out of the drive, kindly sounded the horn and disappeared into the evening mist.
I closed the door and went back to the dining room, feeling relieved that no suckerpunching had been done.
I woke at seven the next morning. Anne was in the kitchen making coffee and ready to leave for her office in Croydon. When I heard Alec come downstairs from the attic, I put on my kimono and rushed out. He was wearing work clothes, steel-capped boots and carrying an overnight bag.
‘I heard you’re taking a freight to Chester today,’ I whispered so as not to wake up Risley.
Alec nodded and said he expected to be back the next day.
‘Maurice will be here then too,’ I rather hoped than confirmed.
‘Fat chance, Clive. He wouldn’t even tell me where the fuck he was off to last night. Probably crashed at his office in London. As long as that wanker is staying here, Maurice would rather freeze to death in the car than come back.’
At that moment, said wanker opened the door of the spare room and came out wearing an old dressing gown. ‘Sorry, gentlemen, good morning,’ he said hoarsely. ‘I’ve got to go to the toilet. I had too much tea last night.’
‘You’ll be sucking it through a feeding tube when I’m done with ye, mate,’ Alec said. Risley laughed and disappeared into the bathroom, leaving a trail of alluring, smoky perfume.
‘I’m off,’ Alec said. He kissed me and rumbled down the stairs.
My staff knew that I would not be at my office until after New Year’s Day. Anne was in Croydon and leaving Risley alone did not seem like a good idea to me. It’s odd, but I caught myself thinking he might steal Anne’s antique ormolu clock or our silver-plated cutlery.
He came down to breakfast, had a cup of coffee and some raw vegetables and barely spoke. His eyes were never off his phone. ‘That’s him,’ he said with difficulty, pointing at some pictures.
And there was Sandro, a beauty indeed, clad in tight boxer shorts and flexing his incredible muscles and giving the photographer sweet looks. His likeness to Alec was uncanny, with the distinction that this young man had snake tattoos on his forearms. ‘Awfully anti-social,’ I remarked.
‘Ink is only skin deep, my love,’ Risley said. ‘Any person from any background can rise and educate himself…Sandro has the makings of a scholar. He’ll discover his higher self yet.’
‘With your aid,’ I quipped. To my astonishment, Risley nodded.
‘I loved a moving man once,’ he said dreamily. ‘He was mesmerized by my surroundings, he wanted to be like me. He went to college, got a degree and is now a manager at a temp agency.’
I thought of Alec, who had never wanted to become more than an electrician and who didn’t give a shit about the fact that Maurice was an internationally acclaimed businessman. Maurice never stimulated Alec in any way and loved him for who he was.
‘Listen,’ I said to ward of the haze off pity and kindness that rose within me. ‘Maurice left yesterday because he wouldn’t be anywhere near you.’
Risley nodded. ‘Yes, I thought so. Must be hard on him. I had a look around the attic this morning. One room was locked, but the other wasn’t. I thought that they were guests at first, but it’s obvious that they live here.’
‘What business have you poking your nose in Maurice’s and Alec’s belongings?’ I snapped. ‘You’re a guest, so I expect you to behave like one.’
Unaffected, Risley smiled. ‘Maurice uses Eau Sauvage, doesn’t he? I spent quite some time in their little bathroom with my nose buried in a towel. His towel. His natural smell is just like twenty-six years ago. The olfactory outlived the horrid process of aging.’
‘Leave him alone, will you? You’re an intruder.’
‘Got you!’ he grinned. ‘You and Maurice, eh? And you and Alec, eh? I detected a faint whiff of your perfume in the attic too. So who are you to judge me? You are living in your very own Sodom and Gomorra.’
‘Risley, take your car key and leave. Leave now or you will be sorry.’
‘You would feel sorry, my dear. Who pretended to be heartbroken when Maurice dumped you at Cambridge? Not me. You all to eagerly came back to me for seconds after the first time. I knew you did it out of despair, but, dear me, you were a blissful piece of cake.’
‘Well, that’s true. You’re sleeping with a woman. Don’t get me wrong, I think Anne is fabulous, a find in a thousand. But the thought of you sharing a bed with her is utterly revolting.’
‘So what keeps you here then? Not Maurice, not my wife, not me.’
His triumphant look told all.
Poor Alec, was all I could think.
I got an idea when Risley announced that he would be off to Tesco’s in the car to get some toiletries and more vegan goodies and some nice treats for Anne and me. He would be unrecognizable under a face mask and wearing sunglasses, so it was safe for him to go.
As soon as the BMW was out of sight, I put on my overcoat, grabbed the key to the Audi, activated the alarm system and locked the door. Five minutes later, I was gunning it on the motorway to London.
What had Risley and Maurice been up to when we were friends at Cambridge? Probably more than Maurice would ever confess. I had seen them kiss once at Glastonbury, a brief episode that had ended with Maurice elbowing him in the stomach. Arthur, who saw his best friend being disgraced, had challenged Risley to a fight. It was Maurice who had made him leave after that.
We had all been young then. And drunk. And high. That is why I believed that more must have happened between Risley and Maurice, with mutual consent.
I stayed on the motorways for hours, speeding and overtaking trucks and giving any traffic camera the finger until I got tired and hungry and went home.
It was well past sundown now and jolly cold. I had hoped that Risley would decide to move on to a hotel after finding the house locked and deserted,
But the BMW was parked in Alec’s spot now and Risley was standing under the awning, holding a Tesco bag and shivering and talking to Jane, our neighbour who was out walking her dog.
She gave me a devastating look as I got out of the Audi. Her dog barked at me. ‘You’re some host, Clive,’ she hissed. ‘I was about to invite Professor Risley to tea at my place to keep him out of the cold. Couldn’t you at least have notified him or given him a spare key?’
‘It’s most kind of you,’ Risley said to Jane. ‘But as you see, Clive is back now. Not a minute to soon. I really have to…’
By now I had opened the door and let him in. He rushed to the loo.
Jane’s dog was still barking in our drive when I used the bathroom after him and then went to the kitchen to put on a kettle.