A little later, Anne and I were at the kitchen table, chainsmoking and drinking beer while Risley was bawling in the downstairs bathroom.
‘He’s got to go,’ she said. ‘I feel really sorry for him and I understand why staying at a hotel is not feasible, but I don’t want him here and neither do you.’
‘True,’ I nodded. ‘If you can tell me how we can make him leave.’
‘I wouldn’t know, love,’ she sighed. ‘It’s not your fault, but how the fuck are we going to deal with this? I’m clueless.’
‘We’ll have the press on our doorstep by the end of the day,’ I said. ‘His BMW attracts too much attention.’
She laughed. ‘Not in a neighbourhood like ours.’ Then her face sank. ‘The press won’t get him. He’ll be unrecognizable by then.’
‘Maurice will kick the shit out of him and then strangle him. Have you forgotten?’
Oh, fuck. She was right. This was not about her or me, but about Maurice. He was forty-eight but heavy. It would be the easiest thing for him to tear Risley apart, the man who had caused the breakup between him and me at Cambridge. There was a literary, feminine side to Maurice. He was atrociously unforgiving, bearing his scorn like a sacred shield until the day came when he could finally settle the score.
‘We’ll have the police on our doorstep,’ I said.
‘And an ambulance before that,’ Anne added.
‘There goes the neighbourhood,’ I moaned. ‘We’re fucked.’
Risley would not leave. He was too nervous to drive anyway. Anne and I tacitly exchanged glances while we were sitting in the lounge and having more tea.
He went to the loo often, presumably to pee or to throw up or to dab his swollen eyes. These were the moments when Anne and I talked.
I remembered it was my turn to make dinner. ‘We’re having roast beef and he’s a vegetarian,’ I said to her. ‘The very sight of meat makes him nauseous. He’ll go then, I’m sure.’
We told Risley when he came back. He smiled. ‘In fact, I turned vegan a few years ago. I appreciate your concern. I’ll have potatoes and vegetables then and there are bags of rice crackers and dried fruit in my car. No problem, my dears.’
‘Oh yeah, and I believe he’s horrendously allergic to cat hair,’ I said to Anne during his next bathroom session. ‘He’ll start sneezing soon enough, and then he’ll leave.’
Fifteen minutes later, Clivie and Lily walked into the lounge and greeted the gest with question-mark tails and rubbing against his trouser legs. ‘Hello, kitties,’ he smiled. ‘You’re sweet, aren’t you?’ He petted them.
‘I thought you were allergic,’ I remarked. He nodded. ‘I was,’ he said. ‘I had some homeopathic treatments years ago. It cured me to a point where I could take in cats myself. I had to give them away when Sandro moved in, because he was allergic and he would not respond to any medication.’
So we were fucked. There was no way we could get rid of him.
‘There is,’ Anne said. ‘We’ll tell him who lives here now. I reckon he doesn’t want Maurice to kick the shit out of him, even though it’s Boxing Day.’
So we told him as soon as he was back from the loo. His face lit up. ‘Maurice Hall? The campus Apollo? He must have aged beautifully…I mean, I don’t expect a cordial reception from him, but time heals all wounds and it would be heaven if I could shake hands with him.’
‘Wouldn’t bet on it,’ Anne grinned sourly.
‘I would,’ Risley piped happily. ‘Youth is prone to useless displays of passion…I looked him up on LinkedIn some time ago. There was no picture, but I learned that he’s running a rather successful business now. He always had the makings of a gentleman. I do hope that Ford estate outside is not his. A plummer’s car, really.'
‘It’s his,’ I confirmed, secretly pissing myself laughing. ‘But his boyfriend drives it most of the time. He’s staying here too, and he’s the owner of the Lancia.’
I had hoped this would prompt Risley to leave. The very idea of his former idol at the wheel of a suburban vehicle, now a man who was in a steady relationship with a guy who drove a working-class lemon must be the biggest turn-off ever.
‘That’s very nice indeed,’ Risley said. ‘I’d love to meet them both.’
I wonder if you ever felt so fucked as Anne and I did at that moment, dear reader.
We drew all the curtains to prevent anyone from peeping in. We let Risley have the spare room at the back of the house. It was full of boxes of stuff that had been used by our foster children and it had a very uncomfortable fold-out single bed. He loved it and thanked us warmly.
I made dinner, a side of roast beef with all the trimmings and apple pie for dessert. Risley complimented me on the potatoes and the broccoli and generously offered us some vegan treats he had taken from the boot of his car. He kindly declined wine and explained how alcohol, even when taken in moderate quantities, was harmful, but he said he hoped that Anne and I were enjoying our meal.
She and I had tacitly decided not to text Maurice about our visitor. He would probably be the one driving back from Oxford and then from Alec’s mum’s house and we feared he might get into an accident.
We were having apple pie (it had butter and eggs in it, so Risley was munching his own non-dairy carrot cake) when Alec came into the dining room, looking nervous as if he sensed what awaited him.
‘This is Professor Risley,’ I said. ‘An old college chum of mine…Risley, this is Alec Scudder, Maurice’s boy-‘
‘Fuck this,’ Alec interrupted. ‘We’re in a pandemic so I wouldn’t shake hands with you anyroad, Claude. But you and I are going to have a talk outside, mate. No social distancing then. I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time, pal…Come on, stop eating, we’ll settle this before Maurice…’
At this moment, Maurice came in, wearing his overcoat and taking off his driving gloves.
He was unbelievably compos mentis. It only took him a second to review the situation.
‘Alec, please calm down, love,’ he said softly. Then he looked at me.
‘You might have told me, Clive.’
Then his eyes met Risley’s. ‘And now to you. I won’t degrade myself by doing what I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. I’m in no position to tell Clive and Anne whom they can receive, since this house is theirs and not mine.’ He drew a breath. ‘But I take the liberty to warn you to protect yourself from bodily harm, Risley. Be sensible, get into that idiotic petrol-guzzling BMW of yours and take your leave…Come on, Alec, let’s fix ourselves some plates and have our dinner upstairs.’
‘Not hungry,’ Alec burbled. Then he yelped as Maurice drew him out of the room by his polo collar.
There was silence now. Anne ate her pie undisturbed, clearly enjoying it.
I looked at Risley. He was beaming as if he had seen Paradise.
Only when Anne cleared the table and went into the kitchen to make coffee, he sighed.
‘Well, that’s a surprise. Maurice has changed beyond recognition…His voice is still the same, though…He was incredibly beautiful as a young man, a precious pearl, slim, muscular, supple…Good heavens, he must be weighing a ton now and his hair has turned from gold into moldy straw. His glasses…ridiculous! Horn-rimmed if you please…Yuck, I see why he took to driving a Focus estate…No taste, no glory, just suburban rot. I ought to feel sorry for him.’
‘Risley, that’s quite enough,’ I said angrily.
Risley, not in the least insulted, smiled. It almost made him handsome.
‘But I say, that Alec…What a voice, what a body. Wonderful black hair and elegant grey patches at his temples. In his forties, I presume, but the spitting image of my Sandro.’
‘He’s going to kick your arse,’ I pointed out.
‘No, he’s not,’ Risley cooed. ‘That’s just talk-talk-talk. He’s natural, that’s a quality that wears off as you rise socially and professionally. Now there’s a man who incorporates Rousseau’s ideals.’
‘He’s an electrician.’
‘So what? He’s heaven to me.’
I was fucked, royally so.