By William Hutton
First there were the court cases, which he won, god knows how, when the accused had been caught holding the damn thing. Then came the partnership; unheard of his being still so young. Followed by his setting out alone in the newly refurbished townhouse of an altogether neater part of Morton; the words PRESS & Co. etched on the lacquered plaque he had placed proudly beside the door. With him came the clients, followers of a messiah who could absolve them of their indiscretions. His reputation spreading far and wide; the cases, in certain circles, proving infamous: the getaway driver cleared for sleepwalking, the noted politician’s hit and run, the respected pediatrician caught shifting pills under the counter. Then, shortly before his fortieth birthday, in walked a Ms Trudy Sponget, with whom, after a whirlwind romance (soft-top rides in his new Mercedes coupé, weekend trips to Rome, countless affirmations of undying love), he married in a small ceremony of friends (hers) and family (mostly hers). With marriage came the house: the five-bed Victorian in the Thankful Village of Chipping Dean where they were greeted by friendly, professional-class neighbours on bosky Maple Close with home-baked scones and invitations to dinner. And with the house came the children: Lydia, wailing in the delivery room, and Chris: cautious behind those dark, brooding eyes – all Sponget; nothing Press about them – silent as the universe he’d been pulled from. With schooling came friends, the Matthews, and the Taskersons, the Hungates, and then, a little later, those Lambs, Karen and Stanley who never seemed to get along. As the kids grew up, he grew old and where once he would have been happy to be caught in the drive after another trying day at work to have his brains picked by an anxious neighbour served a summons, he found his brain running just a little slower than it used to; words which once came so naturally to him drifted up into the ether and … vanished–– poof! As the world went awry around him, as his daughter grew a worrying dependence on boys, and his son disappeared into his other life, his unknowable life away from home (where did that boy go at night?), Roger Press, at the ripe age of sixty seven, lay, as he had lain several nights that past week, in bed, eyes blinking up toward the ceiling following another one of those dreams, those awful, disturbing dreams involving his dead mother.
It went like this: he’s alone at midnight, digging up his mother’s grave, cutting through the dirt until he hits wood. He pulls up the coffin with his bare hands and lays it down beside the marble tombstone upon which is chiseled:
Gloria Gertrude Press
Loving Mother to a Loving Son
(Her words.) Roger breaks the casket open only to behold her shrunken face: skeletal, unreal, a woman so different to the one he remembers, and yet somehow just as he left it. And then, as if he’d stumbled into her boudoir unannounced, his mother’s lips part into a startled O and with a cry – Roger! – hits him, naughty boy, right across the mouth. He wakes up, a child from a nightmare, sweating.
She was speaking to him; he was certain of it. But saying what? What change in circumstance had brought her to him in dream form? What alarm had triggered this haunting? By now, his mother (Rest In Peace) was likely more dust than bone over in her loamy pit at St Bart’s. Dead – or maybe not quite – four years. He had buried her himself––well, paid for the burial, and watched them fill the hole long after everyone had left for the free buffet. By the time Roger’s secretary, bringing in the morning post, had found his mother, head tipped back like any other snooze, the rigor mortis had set leaving her jaw set wide as though, in her final moments (somewhere around six the night before, the coroner said), she had seen the judgement and knew the horrors awaiting them all. Paulette who never frightened easily dropped the mail and screamed before she called Roger over the telephone to come quick, it’s your mother, she’s passed. In death, as in life, Mrs Press cast a formidable presence in bumper bangs and pearls. And once she was wheeled out under a sheet, arrangements were made. A date booked. A moment’s silence held. The funeral director had a tough time sewing her mouth shut.
Roger continued lying there in a daze … :57 … :58 … :59 … as the clock on the bedside flashed 08:00. Unless he was already dressed and hurtling ninety along the motorway he was going to be late. After a reluctant sigh, Roger sprang–or rather, at his age, slumped–from the bed and made his way over to the wardrobe where laid out and waiting for him from the night before was his suit: the navy, double-breasted pin-stripe; a classic, though gone were the days of extravagance: the herringbone and houndstooth greys, the oh-so-soft cashmere–the summer linen. The pin stripe was all he had left; the last of the Mohicans–or should that be Moleskins? Roger’s last extravagance was in paying for his Italian tailor of forty years, Salvatore, brought out of retirement to refit the lining around his ever expanding paunch. Money, or rather its absence, the coupling effect of expensive private schools and an anxious economy that saw the arraigned take their chances before the judge solo. Well, if that was the case, so be it, Roger thought doing up his buttons. They’d get what they paid for–or rather: didn’t. He tackled the legs next, angling one socked foot in after the other; and started with the tie. His wife, Trudy, entered the bedroom with a pile of fresh linen. “You’re going to be late,” she said by way of a good morning.
Roger dropped the tongues around his neck. He knew he was late; he was always late. “I know!” He looked down at his knot. It was no good. He’d have to start again.
“If you must keep working at your age, the least you should do is arrive on time.”
There was something awry in the pitch of her voice; a wound being licked; a grudge held. When did she care what time he got to work? Roger finished re-looping the tie and lifted his jacket from the hook.
“What is it, Trudy? Out with it.”
Trudy said nothing, focusing her efforts instead on making the bed; letting her abject quiet do the talking for her.
Roger’s jacket barely made the trip around his waist. He’d put on a stone since Christmas. He blamed it on the little bowls of salted nuts Trudy left out, knowing he couldn’t resist a nibble. They weren’t good for the heart. He had high blood pressure, doctors told him; it ran in the family.
“We have drinks at the Hungates tonight,” she said running a hand over the straightened duvet, smoothing out the ruts.
Just the thought of it: drinks at the Hungates–my god! Roger felt a destabilizing judder. He needed a cigarette. “Have you seen my briefcase?” He cast a searching eye across the room. Since promising his family he would quit, Roger had taken to the shadows: sneaking out late at night, getting his fix behind garden bushes while Trudy slept. Like secret files, Roger kept his cigarettes concealed in his briefcase which, unlike his pockets, Trudy didn’t bother going through.
“How should I know where it is? You drop it the moment you walk through the door.”
Roger noted the petulance. “Trudy, what have I done? Why are you acting like a child?”
“Me? The child?” Combat ready. “You were the one behaving like a little boy last night, Roger.”
Last night? he thought. What had happened last night?
“Do you even remember?”
Roger stood there. He didn’t remember. “Of course I do,” he muttered, unconvincingly.
“How much did you drink last night?”
Drink? “I…” He didn’t remember that either.
Trudy shook her head. “It’s not worth fighting with you.”
Downstairs, there was still no sign of his briefcase. Since the question of his retirement was on-going for the board, Roger’s continuing at the firm (his firm) was, in effect, in an honorary capacity––he being the Roger Press with his name on the fucking door. The good cases, fewer these days, being passed over him to hot shots half his age. They were jackals, he thought, the lot of them. Roger didn’t need his briefcase but he had carried one through those doors every day for the past thirty years and wasn’t going to stop now.
And then he remembered: his briefcase was in the Mercedes. He went to the key drawer in the kitchen and rummaged unsuccessfully through a miscellany of pens, bills and half consumed packets of breath mints.
“What are you doing?” Trudy asked finding him hunched over, scavenging.
“Your keys are at the garage.”
“What the hell are they doing there?” as though she’d connived behind his back.
“You left the car there yesterday. It’s being serviced–goodness, Roger, what is with you this morning?”
Roger grumbled. There was nothing with him.
“You’ll have to take my car–” Trudy had a new Fiat 500 for ‘zipping’ about town in “–and leave it at the garage. I’ll catch the bus in to collect it.”
“The bus?” Why had she become so keen on catching the bus everywhere. “Take a cab,” Roger said. “Don’t take the bus, it’s undignified.”
“Oh, don’t be such a snob. People have to take the bus every day, why shouldn’t I?”
We’re not people, Roger wanted to say. He took Trudy’s keys, identifiable by the plastic gondola keyring she’d bought at the airport back from Venice. “I’ll be back at six,” he announced, heading for the front door, his wife’s voice giving chase: “Remember! The Hungates! Seven o’clock!”
Outside, Dustin was unloading the hedge cutter from the back of his truck. Hearing the door slam, he looked over and, seeing Roger, waved.
Roger lifted his hand to wave back but forgetting the wrist flick – some trouble in the neuron transmission – he looked like he was trying to ask a question.
“Hiya, Mr Press!”
Roger liked that that he called him that without any prompting; didn’t like so much that Dustin was also cutting every other damn lawn in Chipping Dean which meant less time for him. Roger, after all, was the one who found him first; eight years ago; hanging around the courthouse, awaiting the verdict on a drug charge (guilty: sentence suspended.) Like a stray in need of a home, Roger had taken him in. Build people up and they stab you in the back.
Leaving Maple Close took you to Church Lane and the somber, leaf-thinned streets that pushed onto Vale Road where the Hungates lived. For twelve years, the Presses and the Hungates had been a part of an informal synod of families (incl. the Matthews; the Monahans; the Pfeiffers) known as the Village Association which met the last Tuesday of each month to discuss community issues over wine and cheese. As a lobbying group, they used the full clout of their class (they were an assortment of lawyers, doctors and dentists) to halt new development plans targeted at the village; none of which, beside a street lighting scheme for Vale Road, had seen much success. On the village limit, a hundred new houses had been built. Billboards already welcomed new families for the autumn. The disaster of this: declining property prices and long standing Chipping Dean families (the Morgans; the Williamses) upping sticks, but in a stagnant market few homes had shifted; and in rain beaten October their boards (brighter moves: for sale) remained pierced to their soggy lawns. Nearing Halloween, pumpkins lined the walls and windows of houses along the street, homemade Guys thatched with straw and dressed in hand-me-downs for the Bonfire Night Comp scared the long road like Roger’s mother had in his dream.
Art by Abigail Hodges