No traveller returns

He always had to tell the story at parties. Or any other set of circumstances in which he was guaranteed a decent hearing. Twisting his glass of cheap wine in thick, hair-meshed hands he’d clear his throat operatically to signal the arrival of his anecdote. I must have heard it at least a dozen times in different places, in front of different people; law students in  evil-smelling squats through to cinema critics in sumptious townhouses. This recital seemed to offer him some sort of catharsis; and everybody put up with it. He was in that respect like a pampered child who insists on forever repeating his tedious party trick before an assembly of vaguley irritated adults who stand around wondering why the parents don’t put a stop to it.

The contours of his story remained rigid; the grammar of the narrative was too well-scored in to admit any textual tampering. It was a reversal of the children’s story-time situation where the listening kids are reassured by the unchanging adventures, are, in fact, eager to hear again and again those reheated plots. Now it was the storyteller who seemed to seek comfort in his unvarying fairytale. Sitting back in our beaten leather armchairs, groovy plastic hip-high saddles, or improvised seats on stacked art books, we’d watch as he positioned himself in the centre of the room; he was very fluid, even theatrical, when it came to  delivering his story and would rotate himself so that all of us were within orbit of his voice.

I suppose it had initially been very moving, maybe even elicited goose-pimples, when I’d first heard it, but repeated airings had blunted its force. He must have first told me it when we were in university, sipping on our subsidised pints and hidden beneath our experimental haircuts. That would have only been a few years after the event, and since then I’d pretty much been present at all the subsequent recitals, could even have, if called on, told the story myself. Though perhaps not with the same vitality, having only lived it second-handedly.

He’d wait exaggeratedly until a thick-furred silence had formed and then launch himself into the story. He’d set the scene with inch-perfect accuracy, describing the lay-out of his parents’ front-room back in the seventies; the colours of the wallpaper, the types of wood used in the furniture, the acid-bright floral patterned dress that his mother was wearing. He watched unseen the guests as they arrived for the weekly soirée; the usual, local dignitaries – the dentist with his geometrically immaculate wife, the solicitor with his comb-over and younger girlfriend, the local JP with his succulent spouse. All the usual, monied crew hoping to escape the starched blandness of their respectable existences, even if only for the duration of an alcoholised Saturday evening.

For him, it had been much the same scene as all the others he’d witnessed growing up in that prosperous outreach of the town. He watched through the bannister rails as the bottles of expensive wine were throttled into emptiness and the ashtrays heaped up with dead dogends. Then, sufficiently emboldened, the games would begin; the die rattled in the mahogany tray, the random alignement then announced, the chance-established couple were sent off to copulate complicatedly in an adjoining room, and the remaining initiates examined the proceedings on a wired-up monitor set up on the scandinavian pine sideboard.

He’d stop at this point to survey his listeners’ faces, enjoying the impact of his carefully sculpted words, and then he’d strike on. His parents would also then go off with their dice-appointed amatory accomplices and he’d illcitly spectate their black and white movements on the grainy screen of the distant monitor; hidden up there on the lightless landing. This particular evening he saw his mother quietly crying in the corner of the front-room as his father strutted off with the dentist’s wife towards that room. Before settling themselves in front of the tiny monitor the others had tried to comfort her or at least talk her round, the rotund doctor had even admonished her, telling her they were all responsible adults and that, anyway, the physical act was only a transient, throwaway thing that could be forgotten in the blink of a lubricated eye. Yes, that’s the sort of thing people said back in those days.

He’d again break off here to take an elaborate swig on whatever he happened to be drinking. He’d rinse the liquid around his mouth, swallow precisely, and continue the narrative. His mother sat silently whilst the others peered at the enactments on the reduced screen; the blurred collision of soft-focus bodies provoking sighs of admiration or groans of encouragement. As the filmed coupling thrashed towards a conclusion, she threw her glass at the fireplace and stalked out of the room unmourned by her screen-distracted guests. The games continued that evening and her absence meant that the rotund doctor’s girlfriend had to redouble her efforts.  When the games had finally been wound up, the last guest reversing out of the drive, the last empty bottle placed next to the others in an immaculate phalanx on the kitchen floor, she still hadn’t come back. His father went to bed alone that night, exhausted by his athletic undertakings and unaware that the phial of strong sleeping pills had been removed from the wall-hung cabinet in their bathroom.

He usually lit a cigarette at this juncture, savouring the cool trails of silvered vapour sucked down into his lungs along with his audience’s unpeeled attention. He would stub out his cigarette with a flourish and continue. The next day, he would say, his mother was still unaccounted for and so he and his father walked together over the extensive grounds of their property to see if there was any sign of her, though he felt his father was doing it to keep himself occupied rather than realistically expecting to find anything. They looked in the delapidated shed behind the mouldering greenhouse but only found some broken egg shells left by a marauding fox or weasel. They even went down to the copse  and tramped over the spongey cushion of decaying pine cones, but found nothing there.

Weeks went by and still she remained at large, out there somewhere in the world, but his father was reluctant to the involve the police, knowing that he’d be eventually obliged to outline, however vaguely, the goings-on of that Saturday evening. But finally enough was enough, and he went to the small police station down in the village. The young officer on the desk listened politely, even making some spidery notes on a wire-bound writing pad, but after listening said that there was nothing that they could do for the moment. It was even too early to classify her as a missing person; she’d turn up somewhere down the line.

Now he’d reached the last act of his narrative and he’d look around at all those upturned faces, tilted towards him expectantly. He’d cough into the back of his hand and carry on. His mother had been gone seven weeks when he found her. Exploring the sheep-shaven fields adjacent to their large, red-brick house he reached the boarded-up building that used to be some kind of hunting lodge, but was now an overlooked relic strangled in flowering nettles and shoulder-high weeds. The side-door was missing a panel of wood, and so he put his hand in and released the catch. Inside he groped about the ground floor as his eyes got accustomed to a darkness that had been brewed in there for decades.

He checked out all the rooms, breaking a porcelain teapot he found on the floor with his foot, before deciding to navigate the unsure staircase. He stopped at the bottom as a shiver passed over him like a rain-bruised cloud staining a pristine sky. He now knew what he’d find up there, even his nostrils signalled something strange, a sweet smell that made him retch and reach into his pocket for a handkerchief. And it was in the second, smaller bedroom that he found her, lying on her side, still wearing that violently petalled dress. Her face was sliding off the exposed bonework of her skull; the gummy eye sockets were buzzing with maggot activity, and bluebottles had resettled themselves over her decaying features. He stepped back and was sick against the pale plasterwork of the wall.

The story ended here, and he’d then enjoy the commiseration that was thickly poured over him like honey. But he never told them what I knew, what I’d found out through late-night investigations with speed and cider, when he confessed to me. But what I knew I kept keylessly locked up inside of me. And I knew this: he’d seen her leave that night; he’d seen her go into the bathroom and then leave it clutching that phial of pills to her chest. He’d then watched her, from his bedroom window, as she walked out under the anoxeric moon buffeted by fast moving clouds towards the abandoned lodge. He knew what she’d taken, where she’d gone, and what would almost certainly happen, but he didn’t tell anybody except me. Almost as if he needed her to die in order to have his story to tell.

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