‘I’ll tell you this for nothing, Sam you need to get out more. Look at me, old man!’ Richard beamed from the height of his stool. His elbow was propped on the edge of the bar, his right foot on the rung of the stool, his left, firm and assertive, planted flat on the floor. He had pulled back his shoulder blades and thrust his chin forward as if he were posing for a portrait. He was several years Sam’s senior. The cheek of calling Sam old!
‘Yes, I’m looking. What am I supposed to be seeing?’
‘My vibrant and unbridled youth.’
‘I’m glad you do!’
The hint of irony bypassed Richard, but Rhys, the barman, exchanged a bemused glance with Sam. He swept past them, casually wiping the counter and collecting a few empty glasses along the way. An ex-full back, he had a boxing-glove textured body, heavily padded with raw muscle. A dense tangle of tendons, veins, and sinews teemed beneath his rolled-up sleeves. He was young and strong. Had it not been for a neck injury, he would still have been on the pitch instead of manning the bar at Bishops Well Rugby Clubhouse. By comparison, Richard came across as an old man, whether he cared to admit it or not: his frame was hollowed and his skin leathery and wrinkled, the hue and texture of tea-soaked parchment. But he knew how to carry himself with bravado.
‘I look youthful,’ he proceeded to expand his point, ‘because I don’t hang on to the past. I catch the moment, here and now! Carpe diem, old man! Carpe diem!’ He slapped Sam on the arm and squeezed it with his bony fingers.
‘Yeah,’ Sam agreed distractedly and took another long and pensive swig from his pint glass. He jolted as he caught his own reflection in the mirror behind the spirit bottles lined up on the shelf. He looked a washout, which was precisely how he felt. Nevertheless, his own face took him by surprise. It was blotchy, unshaven, and swollen from another restless night. His hair, once thick and black, seemed faded and dusty, as if he had scattered ashes over his head.
‘How long has it been now – eighteen months?’
‘It’s time to move on, for pity’s sake!’ Richard leaned forward and gripped his arm. ‘You’re bloody well coming – I won’t let you off the hook, not this time! This is my last birthday bash, I have decided, and that is final. Sixty-eight, well past your average retirement age, and that’s it. After this one, I’m well and truly retired from birthdays. Last chance!’
‘I really don’t think so. You know I’m not good with people I don’t know. I’ll only feel rotten.’
‘Bring someone you do know.’
Sam emitted a derisive snort. He had left the people he knew behind him, in London.
‘In fact, I can think of someone just perfect for the occasion. That charming little neighbour of yours – she’ll be fun.’
‘Maggie Kaye?’ Sam found the idea preposterous. He hardly knew the woman. Their dealings had been limited to him buying one half of her house, a pleasant enough and straightforward transaction.
‘Yeah, Mystic Maggie! I know her old man, Eugene. Even he doesn’t know what to make of her, but one thing is for certain: you won’t be bored. She’ll have plenty to say – she always does. I have it on good authority that she even talks to the dead – she might get a direct line to Alice and bend her ear. I wouldn’t put it past her!’
Amused by his own joke, Richard slapped Sam again – this time on his thigh – and gave a jolly loud guffaw. Sam didn’t join him. He wasn’t in the mood, especially now that Richard had managed to bring Alice into this. Two years and four months… it felt like only yesterday.
Richard sighed. ‘Just do it for me, Samuel. I’ll need you there. You’re my oldest friend here I don’t have many, old or new, come to think… I’m better at making enemies.’ A false note rang in his laughter. ‘Seriously, Sam, I want all of the people I love to be there. You’re one of them. You know you are. You’re sat deep in here, in my soul!’ With his typical Slavic exuberance, Richard thumped his chest. It reverberated with a hollow sound. ‘I want you all together, raising a glass to my good health. That’s not too much to ask, is it?’
Sam sighed in reply.
‘Even the scorned wives are coming.’
‘Oh yes! And Dotty, all the way from Florida. I pray to God I recognise her face.’
‘It’s been a good few years…’
‘It’s not that. Yes, she may be a few decades older since I last clapped my eyes on her, but it’s what she’s done to herself in all those years.’
‘What has she done?’
‘All the bloody surgeries and implants she’s been through. She’s made of silicone or whatever it is she pumps into herself. A friend of mine said she looked like a puffer fish. At least I’ve got a pool.’ He laughed again, then quickly pulled a supplicatory face. ‘Be a good sport and come… Come, for old times’ sake.’
‘I’ll see. I can’t promise ’
‘Good! I’ll take that and I’ll drink to it!’ Richard raised his glass, swivelled the honey-coloured brandy with panache, and downed it. He banged the empty glass down on the bar and gestured to Rhys for another round. His eyes wandered aimlessly around the half-empty bar and halted abruptly. He twisted his lips with dismay. ‘Hell, not him!’
Henry Hopps-Wood was ambling into the bar from the restaurant end of the clubhouse.
‘Richard! Samuel! Good to see you!’ Henry arranged his face into a poor impression of a smile. His face muscles struggled to stretch his small, tight lips. He sailed towards them and shook their hands, Richard’s first. ‘Birthday wishes are in order, I hear. Many happy returns!’
Richard murmured something remotely resembling a grudging thank you.
‘Vera and I are coming to your bash. Wouldn’t miss it for the world… Especially Vera!’
‘Who told you?’ Richard’s question sounded like a grievance.
‘Penny, of course. Oh, have I just put my foot in it? It isn’t one of those surprise parties, damn it? You do know you’re having a party?’
‘Yes, I know. I just wish she left the guest list to me. It’s my bloody birthday!’
Henry stared, his nose out of joint, but Richard merely went on steaming with frustration, expelling grunts of discontent.
‘Whatever do you mean?’ Henry demanded as soon as he recovered his voice.
‘Do I have to make myself any clearer? I can, you know! I bloody well can, but you won’t like it.’
‘Why don’t you try me?’
The staring competition between the two men was turning nasty. Finding himself between them, Sam felt decisively squeezed. He groaned inwardly and spoke with a put-on joviality, ‘Richard, you devil, I almost took you seriously!’ He slapped the old boy on the back and laughed.
On reflection, Henry laughed too, insincerity rattling in his throat. ‘You got me there, damn it!’ He turned on his heel and hurried away in the direction of the exit, from which he then promptly retreated to finally find his way to the gents’.
‘I wasn’t joking,’ Richard told Sam. ‘He’s a damn snake in the grass, Hopps-blinking-Wood! Hopps… Slithers, more like!’
‘What’s brought this on?’ It was common knowledge that Richard, a confirmed Tory, had campaigned for Henry in last year’s election, staking his reputation and fame to unseat the Lib Dem incumbent and successfully getting Henry elected. Penny, Richard’s third and present wife, was still driving Henry’s PR wagon and ghost-writing his speeches, so far as Sam was aware. They were in each other’s pockets one happy family.
Or were they?
‘Don’t get me started! He is a bastard through and through. I know things…’
‘Bah! Don’t ask! It’s nothing.’ Richard looked atypically downcast, but only for a few seconds. He downed his brandy, which Rhys had just placed before him, in one go and exhaled. The alcohol seemed to lift his spirits. ‘Who knows,’ he raised his brow thoughtfully, ‘he might yet regret gate-crashing my birthday do. If he insists on coming.’
‘What are you getting at?’
‘We’ll see… We have to keep our politicians accountable. For all their sins.’ The mischievous spark returned to Richard’s eye. He glanced at his watch and sprung from the stool. ‘Damn it! Have to run! I’m already late.’