SPOILER ALERT: This short story is a prequel of sorts to my first book, "Commitment Issues", and stands on its own. There are no major spoilers, but you do find out a little about the past of two characters, which is further explored in book one. If you enjoy reading this and you're new to my writing, then why not go and download the book, it's FREE too! Also, please share this story with friends and family if you think they would enjoy it.
GHOSTS OF CHRISTMAS PAST
Dedicated to Lesley Widdicombe
‘Is that the last one? You are an absolute angel, pop it over there with the others would you?’ Frankie directed Scott to the pile of cardboard boxes they’d spent the afternoon retrieving from Frankie’s tiny, overstuffed attic.
‘What did you say this all was?’ Scott asked.
‘The usual ephemera we gather during our lives.’ Frankie carried one of the boxes over to the sofa. ‘Letters, cards, theatre tickets - that sort of gubbins. I could never bear throwing anything away, always thought I’d want to look at it again someday and reminisce, but it’s time to start putting things in order. Would hate to leave all that detritus for someone else to clean up.’
‘What are you talking about? You’ve got years left, decades. Oh god, is there something you’re not telling me?’
‘No, no, don’t be silly. I’m fine, I promise. Just felt like a clear out and you know me, once I get a bee in my bonnet, I can’t rest till it’s sorted.’
Scott watched Frankie for a moment, as if he were trying to decide whether to believe him or not. ‘You get started then, I’ll make some tea.’
‘I’ve got some of those German Lebkuchen you like in the pantry. Bring a few mince pies through as well.’ Frankie brushed the dust off the top of the first box and tore off the tape. Inside were bundles of cards, tied with ribbon or string, some smaller ones just had a rubber band holding them together. He picked up one of the parcels and quickly saw they were Christmas cards, about thirty or so by the looks of it. He didn’t get that many these days, a dozen at most, so this must be from a while back. He pulled on the string and the cards spread out as if being released from confinement into the open air, spilling sideways off his lap, unfolding as if they were desperate to be read once more. He picked one up, he instantly knew who it was from. It showed Father Christmas with very red cheeks and a red nose, holding a generous glass of wine - ‘RAISE A GLASS OF CHRISTMAS CHEER’ across the top in bright red letters. Inside it said:
As if you ever needed any encouragement!
Wishing you all the usual festive frolics,
See you Boxing Day for some leftovers,
Paddy and Scott
Frankie ran his finger over the writing, knowing it had been connected to that wonderful man. Patrick. Paddy. His best friend. Scott’s husband. Gone now. This would be their second Christmas without him and it clearly wasn’t going to be any easier than the first. Frankie knew that part of getting older was saying goodbye to friends and family, people that had once seemed so intrinsically part of your existence, it was hard to imagine life without them. He had not yet reached his sixtieth year and already the losses were close to unbearable. Thank goodness for Scott. Although he’d resented his arrival on the scene all those years ago, they soon became friends; he was so guileless and charming, it was impossible not to fall for him. Now they were almost family, young enough to be his son, but Frankie preferred to think of Scott as a much younger brother. He closed the card and tucked it down the side of the sofa before Scott saw it and got upset. That one wasn’t going anywhere.
The next few cards were from relatives, distant cousins, his sister. They had the air of duty in their perfunctory greetings, no little flourishes, no real affection. Not that the lack of feeling wasn’t mutual - apart from his dear departed grandmother, his family wasn’t big on emotions. These would be the start of the ‘recycle’ pile. The next one he picked up was a glittery winter scene, like so many were, but as he opened it a photo fell out onto the carpet. He leaned over to pick it up and as he turned it right side up he nearly dropped it again. Now there was a face he hadn’t seen in many a year.
‘Who’s that?’ Scott came in with a tray and laid it on the coffee table.
Frankie shoved the photo back in the card and placed it on the recycle pile. ‘No one.’
Before he could stop him, Scott scooped up the card and took a peak. ‘She’s very blonde. She looks like fun.’ He turned the photo to face Frankie, as if he hadn’t already seen it.
Scott studied the photo more closely. ‘Use of past tense noted. You look like you’re having a good time here. Is that Tricky Dickys?’
Frankie smiled at the mention of one of Brighton’s oldest and tackiest gay bars, his favourite haunt. ‘Can’t you tell? That dive hasn't been redecorated since the days of disco.’
Scott read the card. ‘Merry Chrimble, you old sod, kisses, Maz.’ He turned it around to look at the design on the front. ‘Maz? Don’t think you’ve ever mentioned her.’
‘I’m certain I didn’t.’
‘When was this taken? You look so young.’
Frankie put the rest of the cards to one side, stood up, marched over to Scott and took the offending missive from his grip. ‘It was nineteen eighty something, I think. You were probably in nappies.’ He threw the card down once more, picked up his tea and a mince pie and sat down again.
‘So I take it you’re not friends anymore,’ Scott popped a Lebkuchen in his mouth and mumbled, ‘you and Maz?’
It felt so weird in Frankie’s ears, that name again, after all this time. ‘Congratulations, Miss Marple. You’ve solved the case.’
‘Not entirely. I have the suspect and the location, but still haven’t guessed the murder weapon.’
‘You’re not going to let this go, are you?’
Scott leaned forward in his seat. ‘I know so little about those days, you and Patrick would never talk about them. You’d let little details slip here and there, but it’s like there’s this great prequel to our friendship that I’ve never got to hear about.’
If it had been anyone else Frankie would not have caved, but for Scott, at this moment, he was willing to go there. ‘Maureen Clarke, Maz, was one of my closest friends. I’ve known her since we were fifteen years old. We both ended up doing law, same university, we both got internships at the same law firm, we were inseparable. And then, I met Patrick.’
Scott’s eyes widened. ‘And? What does Patrick have to do with it?’
Frankie finished his tea and put the cup down. He wasn’t proud of this part of his history. ‘Let’s just say that certain suspicions I had about myself were confirmed when I met Paddy. It is fair to say that man changed my life.’
‘You mean… you weren’t out before you met Patrick?’ Scott’s expression suggested he thought Frankie had never been ‘in’.
‘Dear boy, I didn’t know gay existed. Nobody talked about it, not in any positive way. It was seen as an illness, an aberration. I didn’t think for a second that when they spoke of these sad, unfortunate men and women, these queers and fairies, that they were talking about me. How could I know? How do you tell that the feelings inside you are different from your fellows’? Besides, I had a girlfriend.’
Scott choked on a mouthful of tea. ‘You had a what?’
Frankie watched as the master sleuth put together the final clues.
‘So where is she now?’
Frankie gathered up the cards next to him and threw them back in the box. ‘This was a silly idea, what’s the point in raking about in the past? I should just throw the whole lot away.’
Scott had taken out his phone and was fiddling with it. ‘Here she is.’
‘Maureen Keller, was Clarke. She lives in Hove. Amazing you’ve never bumped into her.’ Scott handed the phone to Frankie.
Sure enough, there she was. Older, obviously, but unmistakably her - and still very blonde. Nobody smiled like Maz, it took up her whole face, infected everyone who saw it. Frankie handed the phone back. ‘Yes, that’s her.’
‘Do you want me to send her a message?’
‘Why would I want you to do that?’
Scott furrowed his brow. ‘She obviously meant a lot to you. Isn’t that what Christmas is all about? Getting in touch with friends, loved ones. While we still can.’
Frankie thought that when Scott was older he might understand that relationships weren’t always that straightforward. Still, it had been over twenty years. Maybe it would be nice to see her again. Heal old wounds. ‘And how exactly does this magic messaging thing of yours work?’
It had only taken a little bit of back and forth on Scott’s Face-thingy and the meeting was arranged. Frankie had suggested a lovely little restaurant in The Lanes, somewhere nice and public and neutral. Plus this place always played proper carols, sung by a boys’ choir - not those modern so-called Christmas songs that you heard a million times every December. You could keep your Mariahs, your Whams and your Slades, Frankie would take a Ding Dong! Merrily on High or a Deck the Halls any day of the week. He was glad he’d booked a table, as Christmas shoppers were out in force. He’d already bought Scott’s gift, a collected set of Christopher Isherwood’s diaries: important to educate the next generation on their history.
Maz was late, but that was nothing new: she’d always had a flexible arrangement with time. Part of him hoped she might not show, but only a small part; his curiosity was far more dominant. The tone of Maz’s replies to Scott’s messages had seemed quite friendly, if a little subdued, but then it was hard to judge tone from such brief exchanges. Nevertheless, Frankie felt an air of foreboding as he nursed a glass of Prosecco and studied the menu.
‘Good god, you look old.’
Frankie looked up and there she was: Maureen Clarke in all her glory. She’d stayed trim, and wore a perfectly tailored red suit jacket, white blouse and an A-line black calf-length skirt. ‘I am old. You look fabulous, of course.’ He thought he detected a surgeon’s hand in her almost lineless features, but was too gallant to mention it.
‘I do, don’t I?’
Frankie stood up and pulled out Maz’s chair. She flung her raincoat over the back of it, put her bag on the floor and sat down. Frankie poured her a glass of Prosecco. ‘I take it you still drink?’
‘Not usually this early, but I suppose it’s almost Christmas.’ She took out a pair of spectacles from her bag and looked at the menu. ‘What do you recommend?’
‘It’s all good, but their pumpkin arancini is to die for.’
Maz seemed satisfied with that and put her glasses away. She lifted up her glass. ‘To old, old friends.’
Frankie pursed his lips and chinked glasses. ‘What did you expect, that I’d be wrinkle free and tucked and toned like you? I’m growing old gracefully, dear.’ He knew his hair was mostly grey now, and his waistline a little thicker than he’d like, but he still liked to think he cut a dash.
‘It’s just a shock to see you after all these years. You’re still handsome, for your age.’ Maz smiled that broad electric smile. ‘That’s enough, I’m over it now. No more digs. I was surprised to get your message, was that your son who sent it?’
‘No, Scott’s a dear friend. I don’t have any children. Do you?’
Maz wore a look of pity for a brief moment. ‘Yes, two. One of each. Petra is finishing off a degree in biochemical sciences at Manchester and Dieter is about to start an acting course at RADA.’
‘Wow, that’s fantastic. Rather Germannic names you’ve chosen.’
‘I married a Kraut. Wolf. He’s a lawyer too, we met on a course in Berlin.’
Frankie had always loved the name Wolfgang, it sounded so exotic and dangerous and sexy. ‘That’s wonderful, I’m very happy for you. Do you have any photos?’
Maz pulled out her phone and poked at it for a second. ‘That’s Petra, she’s got my looks thankfully. So smart and quite jolly for a scientist.’ She swiped. ‘This is Dieter, he’s the apple of my eye. Had enormous fights with Wolf about letting him do this acting thing, but as I said, if it all goes tits up he can retrain later as something more boring. You have to let them live their dream, at least for a while.’
Frankie looked at the two young people whose existence he had not even known about until a few minutes ago and felt an intense ache. In another life these might be his children.
‘And this is Wolf and me, at a work do a few weeks back.’
‘He’s very striking.’
‘And hung like a stag.’ Maz laughed and threw back a shot of Prosecco. ‘I assume that kind of detail still interests you?’
‘If you’re asking if I’m still gay, then yes.’
Maz sucked her teeth. ‘Married?’
Frankie shook his head.
‘In a relationship though?’ She said this as more of a statement than a question.
Frankie looked down. ‘No. Not for a while now.’ He looked up to see a satisfied look on Maz’s face and he hated her for it. ‘But I’m happy, I have a very fulfilled life.’
Maz nodded, but her expression suggested she didn’t believe it.
The waiter arrived and took their order. They chatted for a while, little things - where they lived, current affairs, TV shows they liked, theatre they’d seen - Frankie believed such natter was the mortar that held society together. As they became more relaxed in each other’s company, he began to see glimpses of his friend; the warm, loving woman who had been so present in all the memories of his youth. The food arrived and they ate and chatted some more. Thankfully their world views were not so dissimilar, she was less of a firebrand than Frankie recalled, but then even the fiercest rebels tended to soften with age. He thought for a while about leaving it like this - two old friends reunited, strangers really, just with a distant shared history - but he knew this was his chance. That buried hurt that had gnawed away at him, that tarnished every happy recollection of that time, now was his chance to resolve it.
‘Well, this has been lovely,’ Maz said, ‘but I should think about making tracks.’
‘Why did you do it?’
Maz wore her surprise like Bambi. ‘Do what?’
‘Why did you out me? At work, to my friends. To my mother.’
Maz laughed. ‘Did I? I honestly can’t remember.’
Frankie felt the red flood his face. ‘Really? You can’t remember your little campaign to utterly destroy my life?’
‘Oh, darling, don’t be so dramatic. I’m sure everybody had guessed anyway.’
Frankie knew this wasn’t true. His mother’s tears were proof of that. As was his dismissal from the law firm a few months later. He opened his mouth, but swallowed the tirade - what would it gain him to fight that battle now? He should have had the courage to face her then, instead of taking the coward’s route and exiling her from his life. ‘If that’s what you choose to believe.’
Maz went quiet. She closed her eyes. ‘Did you ever think about how I felt? We were engaged. You were my life. Then, suddenly, it was all gone. You were gone. At least the man I thought you were. I tried, you know, to just be fine with it all. I played along, became your gal pal, as if seeing you with him, kissing him, touching him, didn’t rip my heart to shreds.’ She opened her eyes. ‘I’m sorry for what I did. It was vicious, cruel. But at the time I wanted you to hurt like I did. I wanted you to feel something for me again, even if it was hate.’
Frankie was shocked, not by the confession, but by the realisation that deep down he had known this all along. Instead of owning up to the hurt he’d caused, he’d chosen to focus on the wrong that had been done to him. He laughed.
‘What’s so funny?’
Frankie reached across the table, Maz cautiously gave him her hand. ‘The fiction we write for ourselves. The version of our life that we compose. The narrative we finesse over the years that helps us live with ourselves. It’s good to have that shattered once in a while. I’m sorry, Maz. I was too young, too self-absorbed to see what I was doing to you. I hope you can forgive me.’
Maz used the back of her free hand to dab the corner of her eye. ‘The worst part is when we write people out of the story. Edit them from existence. I’m glad we got this chance to write an epilogue to our little novel.’
‘It could be the start of a new book,’ Frankie said, ‘a sequel.’
Maz took back her hand. ‘Maybe. Though they’re rarely as good as the original, are they?’
Frankie knew in his heart that this would be their last meeting. All that needed to be said had been said; the best authors knew when the story had come to its conclusion.
Copyright © Bradley Brady 2019