I am a practising criminal barrister who writes. I have had one short story published in the Bristol Anthology and I continue to write short stories along side working very slowly on my first novel.
“You haven’t made a move for half an hour, what on earth is biting at you this morning old man”.
Raoul looked at the man sitting across the table from him, his head in his hands. He knew, as he had known all morning, that something was troubling his old friend. In fact, he knew exactly what it was that was causing him such despair. Raoul had received a letter that morning telling him the news that he had been dreading for months and he knew that Patrick would have received a similar one.
His immediate reaction had been not to make the daily trip to the café where he and Patrick met each morning for almost as long as he could remember. But he knew that was a coward’s choice and a coward was something he had never been. He knew that that day, of all days, he had to act perfectly normally. At one point it seemed as if the task of veiling his own grief would be too much for him and he considered turning back. And now, with the torment so clearly etched on the face of his oldest friend, he knew that he would be unable to keep up the pretense for much longer.
But instead of the harsh words forcing him to make his move Patrick answered with a question of his own.
“How many years is it since you came back here?”
“Thirty four as you well know”
“And what was it that brought you back?”
For a second only, Raoul considered not answering. This was a game just as the one that they had been engaged in only a short time before. A game, much like the one they had been playing against each other for the past twenty years or so. Neither could remember now when or how it had all begun but there came a time when each became aware that their life existed as a result of the routine built around the other. The course of their days followed a pattern much as that on the board between them. Coffee in the primrose café, brought by the loser of the previous day’s game, drunk as each caught up in their own thoughts, read their respective papers, his The Guardian, Patrick’s The Times. Then a second cup of coffee was bought by whoever had been treated to the first. This time as they drank the second Patrick would place the pieces on the board; black pieces first then the white. Always in that order and he always played black.
This discourse that they were currently engaged in was a contest of a different sort but it was one that he knew would be just as, if not more difficult than the board game they knew so well. For even as he spoke, Raoul knew that he was going to have to navigate his way through some near impossible terrain and that his mastery of tactics, so useful when moving the wooden pieces would be even more essential if he were to succeed. But succeed in what, in remaining calm and not allowing his own grief to become exposed? In keeping his friend from learning the truth, in deceiving and lying to his oldest friend? As in chess, when the stage is reached where every option appears to lead if not to defeat then to near fatal complications, Raoul felt that what he was expecting of himself at that moment was too much. He knew that he would fall into the trap set by his opponent at some point and he suddenly felt very weary.
“It was my home, where I grew up, where I went to school. My parents lived here. The house I grew up in, where I live now, was here. But you know all of that.”
“I didn’t ask why, I asked what it was that brought you back. It wasn’t the house. You hadn’t bothered about it for all those years after your parents died. You would have gone on not bothering about it. So what was it Raoul that brought you back?”
Raoul took the queen between his fingers and twisted her back and forth. He felt the weight of her body, the smoothness of the wood, the solidity of something real. He was too tired to play the game any more. Looking not at Patrick but down at the board he said, “I came back because I had no choice.”
“You had every choice. You could have stayed away. You could have let us be. You had that power; it was and has always been about you”
“I came because she asked me to. Had she asked you, you would have done exactly the same.”
“Of course I would, I would have done anything she asked, anything. But she was my wife.”
The last five words were almost spat across the table at him and taking his eyes from the board Raoul saw the tears in the eyes of his friend. He saw the corner of his mouth turn up as he tried to quell the despair within him. And in that moment Raoul knew that he too was defeated.
“Yes she was your wife and she stayed with you. You have had a life of love and you have your memories. I have had a life of imagining; a wasted, unfulfilled half existence. You have lived while I have survived.”
It was Patrick’s turn to look to his friend and for a moment it seemed as if the words had succeeded in damping the flame so clearly rising within him. He put his hand in his pocket and took out an envelope. Not passing it directly to Raoul, he put it on the table and for a moment he kept his hand upon it. It was clear that he had not finally decided what he wanted to do with it. Then, with an air of weary resignation, he pushed it across the table and got up leaving Raoul alone with the age worn envelope.
Raoul recognized the handwriting even before he picked it up. It was had no address and bore just a single name, Marianne written in black ink that was obviously fading. Just as Patrick had appeared reluctant to relinquish control of the prized paper, he was just as reluctant to pick it up. The rush of emotion that flooded, uncontrollably at the sight of the envelope was something he knew, once released could never be dammed. Why, after all this time would he want to confront what he had spent a lifetime banishing from his mind? Each morning she was the first thing he thought of as he woke from his fitful slumbers. Each night, his head heavy on the pillow, it was her name that kept him from release. To try to stop thinking of her had been the only way he had survived. Yet now here, held in his hand, was an envelope bearing her name.
Suddenly, in an almost involuntary act, he grabbed at the envelope, opening it before he had a chance to change his mind. Carefully drawing out the single sheet of folded paper within, he read the words that he himself had written all those years before. Tears blinded his eyes as he returned the paper to the envelope, placing it once again back on the table in front of him. All at once thoughts crowded in on each other, each one vying for attention. How long had Patrick known? When did he find the envelope? Why had he never challenged him about it? And at the rear, niggling away at the back of his mind, the news he had received that morning. Marianne was dead. Passed away in her sleep, happy and without pain. A lifetime of unrequited love finally laid to rest.
It was at that moment, sitting back down at the table, that Patrick reclaimed him from his memories
“I have always known. I knew that summer when we visited you in France. You had always been so sure of yourself, so confident but on that visit you changed. Not so that anyone else would have noticed but to me, who knew you so well, it was so clear. You became clumsy. You lost, just for a moment, your ease with your self; the one thing that had always come so naturally to you. Do you remember our first trip to school? We caught the bus together you and I travelling from Clevedon, over the suspension bridge into the heart of the big city. Our uniforms too clean to be anything but the uniforms of new boys. Some older boys on the bus started to pick on us. You took them on and by the end of the journey we had made friends with the lot of them. That was how you have always been and I had always been happy to follow behind in your wake. But Marianne was mine. I had met her without you. She was something that was totally and utterly mine.”
“I tried not to let my feelings for her show. I was battling with my soul. You were my best and oldest friend and yet I wanted the one thing that I knew, if I succeeded would destroy you. I wanted Marianne more than I had ever wanted anything.”
“You should have battled harder. I knew that we shouldn’t have gone to visit you. I had put it off time and time again. When I first got the seat at the University it was easy, I claimed that my workload was too heavy to allow for a long trip. I persuaded her that it would be suicide to take time off so soon after receiving the position. But Marianne was curious about you. You didn’t come to our wedding and she had heard me talk so much about you. And then by the time of the long vacation I had run out of excuses. You wrote to us congratulating us on our news and inviting us to join you for a belated honeymoon. You and your bloody St. Paul de Vence. Had I stuck with my instinct we should never have gone”
“When did you know for certain?”
Patrick picked up the envelope that lay on the chessboard between them. Opening it he drew the paper out as Raoul had done just a few moments before and read it to his friend.
We can but dream who nature know
Whose cares are wrapped in morning glow?
We can but sigh with each lost breath
Whose heart stands true in life and death.
I look upon your face in sleep
Yet know ye that my heart doth weep.
For though you know my heart is true
There is a price that will be due.
As roses yield their petals down
So falls the clasp that ties your gown.
And as I glimpse what lies within
I know true love is not a sin.
For you and I can love as one
And in such a moment all else is undone.
I live each day to look into your eyes
I wallow in contented sighs
Know ye as I walk away
From you alone I will not stray.
“I found it unopened on the dressing table when I came back from the pool early one day. I recognized your handwriting and I thought it was probably a note about an assignation. It wasn’t until much later, after she left, that I read it.”
“You found it unopened. You mean she never received it?”
“No. She had no knowledge of its existence at all.”
Raoul looked up at his friend with the air of someone who is completely defeated. “Well why have you never said anything to me about it? You obviously kept it for some reason. Why on earth have you tortured yourself by keeping it?”
“Do you remember we returned home early? I said that something had come up back here that required my attention. You suggested that there was no need for Marianne to ruin her holiday simply because I had to work. And I panicked. I thought that I had thrown her into your hands. If I left without her I knew that I would never get her back. So I forced her to come with me. I said that I had found a letter from you to her on the bed. That it was a letter breaking the whole thing off. That you couldn’t bear the deceit, that you had made a tremendous error of judgment and that it would be better for all three of us if the relationship became what it had been before. Of course she was so shocked at my having found out that she didn’t even ask to see the note. She completely broke down and we left before breakfast the following morning”
“I didn’t see her again. When I moved back here she had gone”
“She couldn’t live with her deceit. Or rather she couldn’t live with the fact that I knew of her deceit. I never spoke of it again but I could see it in her eyes. The closeness that we had enjoyed for that short time was gone. She shut herself completely away from me. And as you know, after that she left.”
“And now she has gone leaving the two of us to wrestle with her even in death. Why, over all these years have you never spoken to me about this before? We meet here every day. How can you have done that if you knew and felt such hatred towards me?”
“When you first came back I wanted to. I even came to the Square one night armed with the letter to challenge you about it. Before knocking I went and sat in the garden and I looked up at the houses bordering it on either side. I saw the lights in the drawing rooms, the mantle-pieces bedecked with lights and cards for the coming festivities. And then I looked across to your house, distinctive without its balcony. Though the light coming from your window was less bright than from the other houses I could still make out your silhouette against the window frame. You were looking out towards where I was sitting although it was clear that you hadn’t seen me. You seemed so small, so much less of a man than you had been and my heart ached for what you had been, for what we had been. After I watched you turn back into the room, I walked out of the garden, out of the square and back home. For in that moment I realised that what bound us together was so much more than I was willing to relinquish. And so I began to follow you. To find out where you went and what you did. When I was certain that you were alone and that she had not run to you one day I sat down opposite you in this café and asked if you wanted a coffee”
“But we had never even kissed. I wanted her so much and yes she wanted me. But we could never have done anything to hurt you. I left her that poem after we had talked late into the night the night before. We knew that we could never allow what we felt to develop into any more, that it could never be anything other than friendship. Just before we went to bed I upset her by saying that for me that would be too painful. I insisted that when you both left I could never see her again. I left the poem to tell her what I could never have told her to her face, that I loved her and that my heart would always be true to her. When you left that morning without even saying goodbye I assumed that my note had caused her further upset. Over the years, I hoped that I would hear from her again. I believed, that having read it she would one day feel able to be with me. But as the years passed by and I heard nothing, I began to doubt what my heart had told me all those years before. I doubted her love for me and then, when I heard that she had married again I felt that I had been duped in some way. That I had been part of some elaborate escape plan. And now, after all this time, I learn that she didn’t even know how I felt about her.”
Once again the tears ran down Raoul’s cheeks. Patrick took the envelope and put it back into his pocket. He picked up the chess pieces one by one and placed them into a box. Getting up, he took both the box and the board to the counter giving it to the barista to put on the shelf behind the counter as he did every day. Ordering a third coffee, he returned to the table, pushing one of the cups towards Raoul. Without taking his eyes from his friend, Patrick withdrew the envelope from his pocket. Slowly, with almost exaggerated care, he then tore it into tiny pieces until a white mound sat on the table between the two men.
“My friend, we have each of us lived with this pain for so many years. We have let it dominate our lives. And yet despite what was between us we have each become a necessary part of the existence of the other. Without you, I would not be here and I suspect, without me neither would you. Let us now feel sorrow not for the death of someone we have both loved and lost but for the lifetime we have each lost to that love”
Reaching across the table he took his friend’s hand, marveling both at the softness of the skin and its weightlessness. Returning the gaze upon him, Raoul, withdrew his hand he picked up his coffee. Then, smiling a little before drinking he said “This is the first time I can remember the game ending with both of us caught in checkmate.”
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