A short Story
“Fun as in ‘naked twister’ fun?” he quipped, slightly too hopefully.
Felicity shot him one of her narrow-eyed, ‘you better behave’ sort of looks and squeezed his arm.
“It’s just that I went to a party once and it was full of forty-something swingers and-”
“Oh you did not,” She admonished with a flap of her hand that signalled that she didn’t believe him and that the subject was dead. “Besides,” she added, almost as an afterthought, “they’re good Christian people, they wouldn’t be into anything like that.”
“They’re what?” A look of horror flew across Max’s face. Last time he’d encountered Christians en masse was his Christening, and he’d slept through that.
“Flick! Daaahling! Happy New Year!” A horribly ‘faux posh’ voice echoed from the porch.
“Tom, Helen, how are you both, awww!” Felicity gushed, hugging her hosts and flashing air kisses that missed by miles. It was at that moment that the girl that was once Felicity Harbour changed….in a way Max hoped he would never see again. The transformation was devastating, dramatic and swift. In that moment, she had become the entity known as Flick.
Max stood in the doorway and juggled the beer, a resigned but somehow desperate expression on his face. What had just happened? It was only seven pm and he already wished the night was over. As he walked into the predictably magnolia and laminate hallway he spared a thought for the lads in the King’s Arms, drinking, celebrating, happy, and single. Happy New Year indeed.
From inside, the stomach-churning soprano ‘Walking in the Air’ began to filter through into the hallway and he knew that with certainty it wouldn’t be long before Cliff made an appearance too.
Tom and Helen were pretty as boring as the house. Helen was slightly overweight and dowdy. Straight mousy hair framed a chubby face and she was dressed in a shapeless floral dress. Tom was the sort of guy you would want to beat savagely and, were it not for the fact that it would be something like kicking a puppy, you feared that you would. Sporting a pair of tortoise shell rimmed glasses and a drab loose knit sweater; he’d also adopted a magnificent eye twitch that Max found compelling. Tom would use words like ‘cathartic’ and ‘holistic’ a lot and pronounced the word beautiful as ‘buuudafull’. Max ground his teeth together and tried to smile.
“So Maximillian nice to finally meet you, how aaaare you? We heard you’ve been mentally ill is that right?“ Tom said all in one breathe.
Maximillian? Against his better judgement, he shifted the bitter into the crook of his arm and grasped Tom’s limp, slightly damp hand, pumping it in greeting whilst brandishing a vaguely threatening fake grin. “No, no it was a week off work for compassionate reasons, some work rela-”
“Super! Well, this is my wife Helen…” Tom cut in with a disarming smile and a sweep of his hand.
Feeling more than very put out, Max braced himself as Helen approached him for a double air kiss and he was horrified to note a wispy, grey moustache lying in wait across her top lip. She smelled faintly of Yardley’s English Lavender, and that was no great surprise either. Helen also had this irritating habit of talking to you through either closed or wildly fluttering eyelids, it made him wonder whether half way through a conversation he could nip away and come back without being noticed. “Soooo gooooood to seeee yooooou,“ she whined.
Tom and Helen invited them into an untidy living room and introduced them to the others: Jed and Hannah, Campbell and his friend Philip, and Camilla.
“Guys, this is Maximillian, Flick’s beau – he’s recently been mentally ill,” Tom was saying, nodding sagely, “So let’s hope he finds tonight’s diverse social integration… cathartic.”
Max raised a hand in salute. “Well, I wasn’t strictly ill, but hello.” Something told him that the five pints of John Smith’s he’d downed before meeting Flick and friends wouldn’t be enough. He then noticed Jed was wearing sandals with Argyll socks and briefly flirted with the idea of running away – quickly.
Dinner was a bland vegetarian affair that Helen had managed to become tearful over when she discovered that she had burned the crust of the leak and leak pie. The potatoes were more than slightly underdone and the onion gravy watery beyond compare, although the Swede and carrot mash was passable. She seemed heartened by the fact that her eye-watering, sugar-free rhubarb and gooseberry compote was edible, or at least that was the suggestion that everyone had given her by doggedly finishing their bowls.
“I think I’ve just developed a stomach ulcer,” Max whispered to Flick, who shushed him tetchily.
“Matchmakers and coffee?“ offered Tom, as if it was the height of sophistication.
“I’ll stick with the beer, thanks.” Max pointed to his fast depleting stock. The group had barely managed to empty three bottles of predictably cheap wine over dinner. He cracked open another can and tried to get comfortable on the lumpy sofa.
“So,” Jed was saying, his legs crossed and his hands constructing a pyramid at his chest, “Hannah and I met Campbell whilst on sabbatical in Bratislava in 1999…”
“Yea yea, Bratislava’s an awesome country”; Campbell interjected as if anyone was interested in his point.
Max rolled his eyes, but thought again about speaking out, leaving the group to embarrass themselves.
“Well, it’s funny,“ Campbell continued in his soft, whiney Scottish accent and patted his ‘friends’ arm, “because Philip and I met during his gap year in Burundi.”
“Yes I was working with Médecins Sans Frontières as a volunteer nurse.” Philip added with a self-satisfied smile.
“Oh that’s riiiight,“ gushed Helen. “I heard that you had done a lot of good work in the Third World.”
“I now do some volunteer work with special needs, but not as much as I’d like to” Philip continued, “in fact I’m a dedicated helper in the community for a great person called Ben Calloe.”
“Wonky Ben?“ Max said.
The front room fell silent. To look at their faces so aghast, one would have thought that he had just dropped his pants. “What? Wonky Ben, gammy leg, he comes in the pub.”
“He’s got cerebral palsy, Max,“ Philip said with the measured patience of somebody trying to break some really bad news.
“Yeah but you want to try and race lad, he’s pretty quick after a few rum and cokes I can tell you.”
“You feed him alcohol?“ Campbell seemed genuinely horrified.
Max shrugged. “He’s a bloke not a gerbil. Why shouldn’t he enjoy a drink or two, he’s still a person”. He was vaguely aware of Flick tugging urgently at his sleeve. “What, you’ve never raced a drunken spazz?“
“We don’t refer to them as ‘spastic’ anymore.” Hannah said gently.
“Anyway…” Tom intervened. “Campbell, you were saying about Burundi…”
Max’s eyes darted incredulously from speaker to speaker, what irritated him more than the inane anecdotes of who met whom and during what Hutu uprising, was the fact that Camilla simply nodded in agreement to every statement and mmm-mmm’d her approval. This further cemented Max’s theory that she had nothing to add to any conversation. Anywhere. Ever.
Max sighed and cracked open another can.
“So Maxi, did your faith helped you through your period of mental illness?” Tom said, some time later, turning his attention across the table.
“Sorry, what?“ Max jumped awake from the semi-doze he’d fallen into
“Your faith, was it a crutch?” Helen asked. “I found that my faith brought me through my darker moments when I was diagnosed with uterine polyps.“
“Mmm, yah, polyps.” Camilla nodded seriously, shooting Helen a tight lipped look of unswerving support and female camaraderie.
“Er, no, I’m not a big church goer to be honest.“ Or at all, but he wasn’t going to admit that.
“Awww.” The group crooned in an ‘oh you poor, silly, ignorant little man’ fashion.
He noted that Flick looked suitably embarrassed and could not help but feel a little crow of jubilation inside him.
“You really should consider taking Christ into your life.“ Hannah said.
“Mmm-mmm, yah. Christ our Lord.” Camilla spouted and actually held up a hand in some sort of ‘hey Jesus, here I am,’ wave.
Max drew a patient breath and forced a smile. “No, thanks all the same. I’m happy with my lot and it’s not really for me, but cheers.”
“Don’t worry; I’m sure you will regain your faith with Flick’s help, she is such a strong woman.“ Helen sympathised. “You will find that it was the glory of the Lord that drew you out of your mental illness.”
“Oh, I’m not so sure!“ Max replied smoothly.
They all looked at him in earnest. “Yes Max… it was. They nodded as one. “Oh yes, Jesus loves you. He loves us all.” Hannah intoned. This was getting a little creepy, and Max edged his way along the sofa.
“Doesn’t seem to love wonky Ben that much does he now,“ Max replied sourly.
“Ah, don’t worry, the Lord has His own plan for Ben. His physical illness is part of god’s plan, as was your mental illness.”
Max slammed his hand down on the nearby table causing everyone to jump and sending John Smiths tins scattering. Camilla stopped mmm-mmming all of a sudden and looked petrified. He stood up and stared at them all.
“Look, I’m not mentally ill. I never have been; I had a week’s leave of absence after some work related stresses and my mum dying. And before you say it, no, she’s hasn’t ‘crossed over’ or ‘become spirit’ or whatever it is you nut-jobs think and she’s not ‘in a better place’. She’s in a box, in the ground, in Highgate cemetery. Oh and in case you were wondering, I don’t want to join your blasted Christian polyp support group or whatever it is. I have been listening to you lot for the past four hours and you have yet to say anything remotely constructive or interesting!”
“Maxi, I really don’t think this is-” Campbell began to speak, looking pale.
“It’s Max you irritating Scottish poof!”
“Wha-what?” Campbell and Philip both looked stunned, as if some great and unspoken secret had been splashed across the national news.
“Oh come off it, people! If these two were any more mince they’d be a Chilli Con Carne.”
An awkward silence fell across the group, broken only by Philip, who began to weep quietly into his napkin.
He glared at them for a few seconds longer before about turning and striding into the hallway. “Jesus Christ! No wonder they threw you lot to the lions!”
The door slammed shut in his wake.
“Peace be with you…” Tom murmured cheerlessly, smoothing his pullover.