Originally published in The Wells Street Journal, Issue 11, Spring 2019.
Gloucester Terrace. Or Westbourne Terrace. Or Craven Terrace. Well, one or any of those streets leading north from Hyde Park, they’re all the same at any rate. All five stories of regency stucco flanking either side, which appeared to Mr Wood at the time to be almost oppressive, but of course that could have been the driving London rain and its overcast point of origin. It collected there in the rim at the back of Mr Wood’s trilby and left via the front in a sort of depressed, miniature waterfall as if in an attempt to erode the overzealous bridge of his nose. From there, it parted at the tip to follow natural gorges along the edge of often flared nostrils and found its home in Mr Wood’s well-plumped and carefully positioned moustache. The point of a hat such as this, after all, is not to protect the face from the elements, but to protect the emerging bald spot from ridicule.
Mr Wood turned directly, in a fashion which seemed at once purposeful and arbitrary, to face number sixty-seven of Gloucester, Westbourne or Craven Terrace. He pulled a damp note from his satchel and brought it close to his face, trying desperately to decipher meaning within scrawled letters and running ink, and promptly sidestepped the entrance to number sixty-seven to stand before a gate leading down to its basement flat. In doing so, Mr Wood caught sight of his reflection in the rain-spattered window. He considered that he might not be welcome here, that his visit could be inappropriate. This neighbourhood certainly wasn’t right for him, not fit for purpose. Not suited for Mr Wood, who was suited, as he stood before the window of number sixty-seven of Gloucester, Westbourne or Craven Terrace in an old dinner jacket, which fit him perfectly well, and a new pair of slacks, which did not.
He lingered a moment longer before the gate, upon which his left hand, less one finger, which hung uselessly, and another, which had been lost many years earlier in an accident involving an at-home, table-mounted mincer, rested, along with roughly a quarter of Mr Wood’s weight. The rest of Mr Wood’s weight stood and waited for that initial quarter of his weight to apply itself and force life into a pair of hinges, which he fully expected to be old and stiff, but were, in fact, new and well-oiled, so the rest of Wood’s weight followed the first of Wood’s weight all too quickly through the now open gate and the whole of Wood’s weight found its way all too firmly, after a short tumble, to the cold, concrete ground.
This, however, was London and the sight of a man falling through a well-oiled gate, tumbling down stone steps and landing on concrete is barely a reason to lift one’s eyes from one’s newspaper, even if he does have remarkably well-kept upper lip decoration, since one is busy and sees this breed of minor calamity daily in the capital. Mr Wood, to his great fortune, was largely unharmed and proceeded to extract himself quickly from the tangle of his own limbs. He rose to his full height, drew in a lungful of air and turned to face the black door of the basement flat at number sixty-seven of Gloucester, Westbourne or Craven Terrace, knocking over, as he did, a rusted steel bin and thereby startling a cat, who until this point had been watching with a level of detached amusement from under the porch of number sixty-five of Gloucester, Westbourne or Craven Terrace.
The figure who answered the door stood a good head and a half shorter than Mr Wood could, but he lowered his own head to offer a friendly and familiar kiss to her cheek. She, of course, pulled her face away and pulled a face to say, ‘Your visit is inappropriate and you kiss even more so.’ Her eyes tightened and her lips tightened and the lines upon her forehead and around her mouth tightened. She began to speak through the few clenched teeth she still had.
“You’ve a nerve, coming here.”
Mr Wood cleared his throat. It was true that his presence here displayed a level of grit even he had not imagined himself capable of. He cleared his throat once more.
“Mrs Evans, please. I wish to see my friend.”
“Well,” she responded, unable, despite all attempts, to accurately mimic his entitled arrogance through deep roots stretching all the way from Swansea, “he doesn’t wish to see you and he certainly isn’t your friend.”
“I think we’ll let him decide that for himself, shall we Mrs Evans.”
She stood motionless, squinting, her small eyes full of suspicion and derision, and Mr Wood cleared his throat once more, with greater purpose. Mrs Evans caught sight of scuff marks on his slacks and a tear in his dinner jacket at the elbow and allowed herself a cruel laugh. When finished, she stepped aside, bowing and spreading her arms in a gesture of affected respect, and Mr Wood pushed his way roughly past her into the basement flat at number sixty-seven of Gloucester, Westbourne or Craven Terrace.
The basement flat’s interior was precisely what he had imagined from the street, if not from the knowledge of his friend’s opulent tastes. The floor of the entrance hall, into which Mr Wood now stepped, was laid with a diagonally checked pattern of black and grey tiles, which had presumably at one stage been black and white tiles, but were dulled now by over a century of grime. The hallway led out into a small paved yard at the back, but Mr Wood turned directly again and found himself nose-to-nose, as it were, with a great pair of closed doors built from a sturdy hardwood, which revealed itself from behind cracked and peeling paint, existing somewhere between shades of blue and green, but not quite turquoise and certainly not teal. He placed the five fingers of his right hand and the four of his left gingerly upon a reluctant pair of brassy doorknobs and pushed.
Thankfully for Mr Wood, he had retained the possession and position of his trilby and his assailant’s aim was unpolished at best, so the unplugged toaster which grew rapidly in his field of vision missed his rapidly thinning scalp by half an inch and instead knocked his waterlogged hat back into the hall. Startled, Mr Wood wrenched the blue-green, hardwood doors back into their original lodgings and took a moment to recover a healthy heart rate and a healthy posture, mocked all the while by Mrs Evans, who cackled gleefully as she bent to pick up the offending toaster. Mr Wood hurled a menacing look at the back of her head and replaced the trilby on his head. He turned back to the doors and once again placed the five fingers of his right hand and the four of his left more firmly upon the unwieldy pair of brassy doorknobs and pushed.
Mr Wood re-entered the room with a good deal more conviction. The walls were dressed in hardwood panels, painted decades ago to match the doors, and across the room was a grand stone fireplace. It was the sort of room which deserved high ceilings, but the top of the doors fouled up against it and Mr Wood felt the urge to hunch his back. Seated at a small, felted table was Mr Sands, Wood’s erstwhile friend, and upon the table were two discarded hands of cards in a combination to suggest whist. Had Mr Sands and Mr Wood been conceived and born at precisely the same time to precisely the same mother, they could have been considered identical twins. Mr Sands had the prominent nose, the height, the growing bald spot and the proud facial bristles. The only real difference was where Mr Wood’s moustache tended to slope downwards at the corners, Mr Sands’ were trained into small, upward peaks.
Mr Wood extended a hand to his friend. Mr Sands looked up from his cards in disbelief, holding the other’s gaze for a few uncomfortable moments before reluctantly forcing his chair back and clasping the open hand before him with just a little too much pressure.
“I can’t believe you’re even touchin’ him, you buck eejit.”
From the kitchen, striding purposefully towards them and carrying a food processor, was Mr Sands’ whist partner and Mr Wood’s toaster assailant. Iphigenia was the youngest of Mr Sands’ sizeable brood and looked very much like him, save for the thinning hair and the majority of the moustache. Mr Sands released Mr Wood’s hand.
“Put down the appliance, girl.”
And she did so, with attitude, upon the felted card table. She looked at Mr Wood and he looked at Iphigenia for the first time in what must have been nearing fifteen years. He had always pitied her. There were many things he admired about his friend, but whenever he thought about Mr Sands’ daughter, he was reminded at once of Mr Sands’ loathsome, pretentious nature and of his many families across Europe. Mr Wood had asked her about it on one occasion, when she was in her mid-teens.
“Can you imagine growin’ up with Ma in a town like Derry with a stupid name like Iphigenia?”
And that, like many of Iphigenia’s interjections, ended the conversation. On this occasion, however, it opened one.
“What the fuck is he doin’ here?”
Mr Sands grimaced as if slapped around the cheeks with the back of an empty, leather glove.
“Language, please Iphigenia. We do have a guest.”
“Well, I didn’t ask him here. Did you?”
“I confess, I didn’t.”
Mr Sands looked Mr Wood up and down with as much repulsion as Iphigenia. You see, nearly fifteen years ago, Mr Wood eloped with Mr Sands’ second youngest daughter, Estonia, to, somewhat confusingly, Estonia. Estonia was the jewel of Mr Sands’ progeneic crown and had been promised by Mr Sands to a far wealthier and far younger friend, who was able to trace a number of direct lines from the Habsburg princes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Mr Wood, on the other hand, was a largely charming opportunist, although his charm had faded over the years with Estonia in Estonia.
“Well then, Wood,” Mr Sands used a tone mimicking the head prefect from their time together at Harrow, “what have you got to say for yourself?”
“Aye, out with it, ya dick. What do you want from Da this time?”
Iphigenia’s large hands were still alarmingly close to the food processor, so Mr Wood spoke quickly.
“Estonia has left me. Well, she’s left Estonia. Estonia has left me and I was in Estonia and therefore she has left both myself and Estonia.”
“Good girl,” Iphigenia took a menacing step towards Mr Wood. “Well, is that you then? All you came to tell us? I have to say, it’s been an absolute pleasure seein’ you again. I imagine you’ll want to be gettin’ yourself off now?”
Mr Wood took a nervous step backwards, “Well, I—er—”
“Iphigenia,” Mr Sands said with authority, “Mr Wood and I would like tea.”
Iphigenia cast her gaze between the two men in disbelief, “Oh and I suppose I’m the one to make it then?”
The following silence answered her question well enough and she stormed from the room, taking the food processor with her.
Mr Sands resumed his seat at the felted table and gestured for Mr Wood to take the other. He gathered the cards into a single pile and began dealing seven cards apiece before turning the top card – the queen of clubs.
“Have you any idea where she might have gone?” he asked his opponent.
Mr Woods watched him pick up his cards and begin to sort his hand and he followed suit. Mr Sands played the ten of spades and he followed suit, losing the trick.
“No, I assumed she would have come here, or at least contacted you.”
The next trick, jack of diamonds trumped by a five of clubs, went to Mr Wood.
“She did not and she has not.”
Another trick to Mr Wood.
“Well,” Sands continued, “what do you intend to do about it?”
Mr Wood was puzzled, “She’s your daughter.”
Mr Sands was resolute, “She’s your wife.”
Iphigenia returned with the tea, glaring at Mr Wood, “She’s a big girl, she can take care of herself. Boys a dear. Honestly, I’m surprised you even dare to show your face in London. You know Rogers is still out for blood?”
Mr Sands won another trick, nine of hearts to a useless three of spades, “Rogers?”
“Oh, did you not know that, Da? Aye, he stole thirty grand from right under Rogers’ nose. The big fella wants to string him up by the neck and it’ll be some real good craic when that happens.”
“Well, you can’t be here, then,” Mr Sands hardened his face, “we’ve been mistaken far too many times before.”
“I see,” Mr Wood allowed his eyes to drop to the table, losing the final trick. “You’ll let me know if you hear from her?”
Iphigenia’s large hand dropped solidly upon her father’s arm, “He certainly will not. Now, good day to you sir.”
Mr Wood and Mr Sands stood and shook hands for the last time across the felted table and under the steely gaze of Iphigenia. Mr Wood gently closed the doors behind him and remained for a moment, listening to Iphigenia’s loud reproaches and appreciating the way in which they rose and fell to allow room to hear Mrs Evans berating the cat from number sixty-five of Gloucester, Westbourne or Craven Terrace. In the hall, he stopped to retie a shoelace, then lifted Mr Sands’ characteristic bowler hat from the stand and replaced it with his waterlogged trilby. He shoved open the heavy black door and stepped outside, pulling the bowler hat over his balding head and looking up to the sky. The rain had abated, but the thick cloud remained. Mr Wood imagined he could see a silver lining, but it was, of course, the result of a passing aeroplane. On the street, passing the railing at number sixty-seven of Gloucester, Westbourne or Craven Terrace, Mr Wood glimpsed a woman who looked almost exactly like Estonia, but he was, of course, mistaken.