A heavy aroma of lilies hit Michael when he entered the hallway of Sean Matthews’s house. They ornamented the side tables and the carved banisters of the staircase as it curved upwards from a pyramid of turquoise gift boxes, each one tied with an identical white ribbon. Unable to control a basic compulsion, he climbed the staircase. He didn’t remember anything in Tracy’s rules about staircases.
On the upper-landing he saw a maid enter one of the doorways carrying a stack of thick towels. He waited for her to return and she bowed her head gently in his direction as she descended the staircase. When the house was still and calm he crossed the landing and entered the same room, closing the heavy oak door behind him.
An oversize antique bed stood against one wall of the master bedroom, the bedclothes were creaseless, the headboard piled high with pillows in crisp white linen. The stack of towels lay on the edge of the bed next to an ornate carved balustrade. To his left stood a pile of matching, brown leather suitcases and ahead, below a panelled window, a small table with a collection of silver frames and trinket boxes.
He noticed another door built into the wood panelling and when he opened it light slowly rose from behind neat, laden shelves illuminating a dressing room. Clothes were arranged department-store like, stacked neatly behind glass drawers or hanging in perfect lines above multiple rows of shoes. A table in the centre held more fresh flowers. Beyond this another door led into a marble bathroom with grand windows at either end.
Michael smoothed down his fringe with one the many unopened products hidden behind the mirrored cabinets. He slipped into the large bath in the centre of the room, smiled, and stared out at the Hampshire countryside.
“For fucks sake, Michael” he said aloud.
He lay back fully clothed and watched the sunlight bounce from the white tent-tops below, illuminating the ceiling with the shadows of branches.
When he returned to the bedroom, he could see guests mingling below the window. He picked up a silver frame from the small table containing a photograph of a blonde woman holding a new-born child. An embossed inscription read: To my godparents - love Molly. The other frames held photographs of the two men in different places. In one they stood dressed in skiing clothes at the peak of a glacial mountain with the blond groom holding up his index finger to touch a distant peak. Another revealed them standing soldier-like at the foot of the Spanish Steps, another wearing formal evening dress, smiling from a gilt opera box. Michael noticed an antique frame containing a yellowing photograph of a young man in military uniform. It carried a faint inscription on the lower edge: Lt. D. Matthews. 1947.
He picked up an envelope propped up against a trinket box.
Mr Sean. D. Matthews,
9023, University College Hospital,
Smaller writing in the top corner displayed the address of a pharmaceutical company in Boston, USA.
The door handle creaked behind him and, in a single movement, Michael shoved the letter into his jacket pocket and picked up the stack of towels from the corner of the bed.
A loud American lady wearing a vivid pink and blue dress sailed into the room mid-sentence escorted by another silent, smaller woman trailing behind her.
‘They get their taste from my side of course,’ the woman droned, ‘the armoire here’s from Normandy, France…’
Nancy Ganley stopped when she saw Michael and held an index finger to her bottom lip.
‘Oh, I’m sorry, sweetie,’ she said
Michael smiled and exited holding the towels above his head.
‘For the guest room, sorry...’ he said, allowing the oak door to glide shut behind him.
On the landing Michael’s phone vibrated and rang out. He threw the towels underneath a side table and cut off Tracy’s call for the last time, turning the handset off as he descended the stairs. Sunlight streamed through the stained-glass window of the stairwell and danced upon the carpet. Through a section of the window Michael could see the guests milling their way into the entrance of the dining marquee. And, although his hunger had taken him over, he knew he would have to sit this one out since there was not yet a place for him at this table. He felt a celebratory twitch deep within his belly, the one that broke which Tracy’s first rule of the day. The one to have another drink.
After dinner, at the edge of the larger marquee, John Matthews stood unknowingly next to Michael Lukas who held onto a tumbler of whisky and puffed on a large cigar he’d taken from a passing waiter. The unkempt wiry-haired best man had taken over the microphone and drunkenly announced the first dance of the lucky couple.
‘So, which one’s the wife?’ Michael said, as if to himself but essentially as a conversation opener to another guest. Michael never received a reply from the old man but heard the glass he held shatter as he stormed off across the lawn. Michael brushed some shards away across the parquet with his foot and heard someone shout after him, across the din of the reception.
When Michael lifted his head, the darker-haired groom stood next to him. The woman who held the baby in the nightstand photo followed him.
‘Just leave him too it…’ the woman said and turned to Michael.
‘I’m sorry, did any of that glass hit you?’
Michael shook his head. ‘Ignore the old bastard, Sean…’ she said, gently guiding the groom back into the crowd, ‘don’t let him fuck up your day.’
Within a few seconds of close proximity, Michael scanned Sean Matthews’s face for the second time that day. The eyebrows were the same, he was perhaps an inch taller with dark hair and those perfect teeth. Sean faced Michael, smiled and shrugged. His shoulders were broad. The shirt was starched and there was a chin dimple which Michael had once tried to accentuate on himself by pinching it together. Yet, even after identifying the object of his quest, Michael’s attention turned towards the old man standing alone at the edge of the lawn and it was to him Michael felt drawn.
Michael weighed-up the evidence before he reached John Matthews: the golden oyster perpetual wrapped snugly around his tanned wrist, the signet ring worn at an angle on his smallest finger, the tailored shirt, the military tiepin. Michael offered John Matthews one of the cigars he’d collected, it was all he possessed as a peace offering.
‘I’m sorry, ‘Michael said, ‘I do that sometimes – say things without thinking.’
Michael pushed the cigar closer to Johns face. ‘Go on - have one. To hell with them all.’
John took the cigar and sniffed its length. He glanced up when took a light from Michael and then exhaled, blowing the smoke into the air above their heads.
‘I’ve never been so humiliated in my life,’ John said, rolling the cigar between his fingers.
As they spoke, both men faced the marquee, standing side by side as men do sometimes when getting to know each other - padding about in uncertainty without engaging eye contact.
‘I know the feeling, ‘Michael said.
‘How the hell could you?’ John snapped back.
With his head held forward John strained his eyes sideways.
‘Well,’ Michael said, ‘it isn’t exactly your fault is it. Sir.’
Michael produced the hip flask from his inside pocket and handed it to John.
‘I know you,’ John said, his eyes searching around Michael’s face, ‘What side are you on?’
‘Side, sir?’ Michael replied, continuing his unconvincing military manner.
‘Family boy, family…’
It occurred to Michael he was now breaking Tracy’s two rules in one hit. Since rebounding questions from such military sources was not something he felt equipped to handle in this state, he drew upon further subterfuge.
‘I wouldn’t worry,’ Michael said, clinking his own glass against the hip-flask John held onto, ‘I’m sure as hell not on that side, if that’s what you’re getting at.’
The comment diffused John’s enquiry and the two men, young and old, side by side, stared at the floorshow before them. Sammy Ganley tried to bring his own cultural stamp to the occasion by smashing a wine glass he’d wrapped in a napkin against the bottom of a tent pole. A flower girl screamed and held a hand to her face as it scattered.
Michael raised his glass in a toast.
‘To families, ‘he said.