The invitation came from Mortimer. We’d been close at school and for a bit after university. Now we only kept in touch via Facebook. He’d gone into venture capital, I’d gone into the services.
Traditional church service (very nice) then, after photographs, on to the reception at this big country place and more photos by the lake with champagne served in plastic glasses (a bit tacky, I thought). After an hour of this we were called in to lunch (which was just as well as I had reached, and then surpassed my optimum booze intake and could hear myself becoming over-friendly and loud).
It was a mansion built in the Victorian Gothic style. The large dining room was decorated in yellow and white, with accents of blue. A board with the seating plan stood at the entrance. I was on table 32, at the back. I didn’t mind; it wasn’t as though Mortimer and I were still tight.
A young woman stood next to me and traced a gloved finger down to a name next to mine, Jane Hoskins.
“It looks like we’re on the same table,” I said. She straightened up and took in my uniform.
“Really,” she said. “I can’t see where it is, perhaps you could give me a military escort.”
Using my advanced military map skills, I led the way to the table where we sat next to each other. There were a few others already there—people like us; friends that Mortimer had picked up on his journey through life, and now wasn’t quite sure what to do with. We were the odds and ends, not part of a set. Around us, people from Mortimer’s and Tara’s work: loud and expensive looking, they were like a race of über-mensch, shiny and lithe. I saw Mortimer’s mother and father sat up at the top table with the happy couple. They looked scared, as if they’d been invited to the rituals of a tribe of aliens and weren’t sure which debasements they might be expected to participate in.
“Richard Morgan,” I said to Jane, and offered my hand.
“Jane Hoskins. Don’t you have a rank?”
“Major,” I said, “But you can call me Richard.” She smiled at my lame humour. “So, how do you know Mortimer?” I asked.
“An ex-boyfriend from university. We kept in touch—he’s like that, isn’t he? Never wants to part on bad terms; has to make sure everyone’s happy.”
“Yes, I suppose he is.” It wasn’t something I’d noticed about him. I didn’t think he’d let it bother him when he was squeezing the juice out of some business he was asset-stripping.
“And you?” she said.
“School. We were at Glebe Hill together. Shared a dorm for seven years.”
“You’re lucky,” she said. “I didn’t keep in touch with any of my crowd. I expect you’ll know lots here then. I think he’s invited quite a few old school friends.”
I looked around at the other tables to see if there was anyone I could remember. Other than Mortimer, I hadn’t seen any of them for twenty years.
There was one I knew I wouldn’t be seeing; poor old Haylock. Got bullied something rotten by Forster and his friends. They found him drowned in the river. Whether it was an accident or suicide, no-one bothered to find out.
Still felt guilty about that—not that I ever bullied him myself I hasten to add, but I never said, “Come on, Forster. That’s enough. You’ve had your fun.” I like to tell myself that Forster probably wouldn’t have taken any notice of me.
Haylock even reached out for my help. “Morgan,” he said one day when he’d taken a real pounding. “You’re my house captain, can’t you help me out? They’re killing me.”
“No, Haylock. Ride it out, boy. They’ll give up eventually. If I step in, it’ll be worse for you. Or better still, take up boxing.”
He wasn’t one of us—he’d come on a Music scholarship from some inner-city school. He played the piano like an angel though. That was why he didn’t want to fight back; he wanted to protect his hands.
I remember listening to him on Founder’s Day. He was really something special, and played with such nuance and expression that you might have thought Chopin was speaking directly to him through the music. It was truly spellbinding…
I couldn’t understand what his parents were thinking of, sending him to a place like Glebe Hill. It was just asking for trouble.
The first course arrived (some sort of fishy salad thing) and so we tucked in and talked of mundane things; how elegant the table settings were, which route we took to get there. The wine wasn’t great but perfectly adequate.
“So, what do you do in the army?” Jane said.
“I’m in the navy actually, but good try.” I think she might have already been a little the worse for wear.
“Oh God, silly me. I should have known—that lovely blue uniform…So?”
“Nothing very interesting,” I said. “Logistics mainly.” It was my standard answer and avoided the inevitable probing questions afterwards. “You?”
“Publishing,” she said. “Account management. Not even as glamorous as logistics, I’m afraid.”
“Well, we can’t all have exciting jobs.”
They were serving the second course when a great uproar came from one of the tables near the front. It seemed that someone had said something, or done something that was considered funny to the point of hysterics by the other über-mensch from the city. Mortimer’s parents looked even more uncomfortable. But it was all right, Mortimer was smiling, Tara was smiling too—nothing to worry about.
How they used to laugh at poor old Haylock. He wasn’t safe anywhere; in the changing rooms was a favourite site for an ambuscade. They were big for their age, Forster and the others, physically mature. I remember they were always semi-erect in the showers—standing there, showing off. Unluckily for him, Haylock was a late developer, smooth and hairless, he had the soft curves of girl. And of course, old ‘Peg-leg’ the PE master would always go out of the room to smoke a cigarette and then Haylock would get it; punches and kicks most often. But sometimes they went too far—forced him to do things. They said they’d rent him out if we wanted, for a price, of course.
“Sir,” I’d said to Peg-Leg afterwards, “I think Haylock would like to speak to you about something.”
“Who are you, Morgan, his agent? Get him to come to my office if he wants to speak to me.”
That evening on my rounds, I told Haylock to go and see Peg-leg. He never did.
The second and third courses followed, along with more wine. By the time the pudding came around, I was drunk—so was Jane Hoskins.
“He couldn’t always get it up,” Jane slurred confidentially. “Mortimer. He had a hang-up about his thingy. It’s very small, you know.”
“In a boys’ boarding school, you have no secrets,” I said. Forster and his friends used to call him ‘Nub’. But they’d never picked on him—he was ‘acceptable’. That, and they had Haylock to play with. “Tara seems quite happy notwithstanding,” I added.
“I expect his money is a great consolation. Let’s have another drink.” She caught the attention of a waiter. “Another bottle of red for me and the sailor please, love.”
He looked at her and then at me and I think was about to say something, but decided not to. “Certainly, madam.”
“He thinks you’re drunk,” I said to her when the waiter had gone.
“He’s right—but what business is it of his? I need to be drunk to cope with the disappointment of…of all this.” She gesticulated around her. “All these wankers.”
The waiter returned with an uncorked bottle. It wasn’t the better stuff, but t’would serve. “Cheers,” I said to Jane.
At last the dreaded speeches were announced by the delicate tapping of knife upon glass stem; at least half an hour of toe-curling embarrassment for all concerned. Being used to this sort of thing (on parade, at regimental dinners etc…) I was able to tune them out to a burbling background.
On his last day, Haylock had at last turned against Forster and his cronies. Not that it did him any good.
It was in the changing room as usual. Most of us had finished dressing and had gone. I was putting some equipment away in the stores, but I saw what happened.
They’d hidden Haylock’s clothes somewhere, so he was still walking around in his towel. “Why don’t you leave me alone?” Haylock was shouting. “Give me back my bloody clothes and leave me alone!”
I heard the piss-taking. “Ohh, ‘ark at ‘im. Give ‘im back ‘is bloody clothes—I ask you. Here you are, catch.”
Some scuffling followed and then I heard a resounding ‘crack’ and a cry of pain. Haylock had hit one of them. I don’t know which one, but it didn’t matter. An attack on one of them was an attack on all.
“Get him,” Forster shouted. “Hold him down, that’s it. Hold his hands out.”
My feet appeared to be glued to that spot in the store cupboard. I thought about closing the door so I couldn’t hear what was going on, but then something broke inside me and I ran towards the changing room. I heard Haylock scream in pain.
When I got there, they had Haylock over one of the wooden benches. His hands held down on the floor by two other boys (whose names I don’t remember now). Forster had put his studs back on and was stamping on Haylock’s hands with all his force. “Hold him still!” he admonished when one of Haylock’s shattered hands broke free.
“Fuck off, Morgan,” Forster said when he saw me. “This is nothing to do with you.”
And so I did.
I went back when they’d gone, and helped Haylock get dressed. I think his hands probably looked worse than they were. I told him to go and see matron.
Later that afternoon, Haylock disappeared. He never went to see anyone, he just left. When they fished him out of the river the following day, the police didn’t mention his hands. No police officer came to interview me or ask me what had happened. I expect Forster’s father made it go away. He was able to do that sort of thing.
The bride’s father’s speech finished and we clapped automatically. Then Mortimer got up and said his bit.
“Small dick,” Jane mouthed at me.
Mortimer’s speech, like his penis, was short and uninspiring. I sometimes wondered how he had got on as he had. He really was a most mediocre little man.
“What are you doing after this shit-show?” I said to Jane.
“I’ll have to see” she said and squeezed my thigh.
The best-man got up—one of the über-people. He was tall and elegant and looked as though he’d just hatched from a cocoon, so shiny and new was he. As soon as he opened his mouth I knew it was Forster. He looked different, but it was him. Mortimer had chosen this…this…piece of excrement as his best-man.
“Are you all right?” Jane said.
“Yes fine. Just recognised an old chum from school.”
His speech must have been good, people laughed and clapped and cheered. I wasn’t listening to what Forster was saying, but putting those old words back into his mouth: Fuck off, Morgan. This is nothing to do with you.
When he’d finished they all applauded (I didn’t—I had that much integrity at least).
We had the toasts and then the band started playing and people got up to dance.
“Do you want to dance?” Jane said.
“Sure,” I said.
We took a turn around the room after Mortimer and Tara had done their thing. I saw Forster dancing with a woman who I think may have been his wife. She had that careworn look in her eye of women who had to deal with volatile partners; hunted, and watchful for the slightest change of mood.
When the dance finished, I saw Forster go towards the bathrooms. He looked under the influence—that was good.
I escorted Jane back to our table. “I need to use the facilities,”
“Hurry back,” she said.
Forster was standing at the urinal, one hand supporting himself against the wall, the other holding himself. I checked the stalls—we were alone. He was humming quietly to himself as he pissed.
I waited until he had put himself away and then took him down with a kick that shattered his knee. Standing behind him and using his eye sockets as handy finger holds, I twisted his head around until I felt his neck snap. It was a technique I had used many times before. I let him fall to the floor and washed my hands in the sink. I dare not look at myself in the mirror.
“There you go, you piece of shit,” I said. “That’s for Haylock.” It was pleasant having the scalding hot water run over my hands.
“Sorry?” Forster said from beside me. He, too, was washing his hands.
“Nothing. Talking to myself.”
“Appreciate all you do for us.” He clapped me sociably on the shoulder as he went out.
He hadn’t even recognised me.
I retched into the basin and washed my mouth out with cold water.
When I arrived back at the table, Jane was talking earnestly with another man sitting next to her. He had his hand on her knee. She, too, seemed not to recognise me.
D S Powell comes from London and worked there as a professional musician before moving to Italy in 2007. His writing had appeared in Litro Magazine, Bewildering Stories, and The Cabinet of Heed.