I didn’t like him. I handed him the gloves and he nodded. I didn’t like that smirk. He said nothing, just turned away, his broad back mocking me.
Tomorrow, I promised myself.
That night there was a storm – violent, tropical. Lightning rent the sky, thunder crashed and rain sleeted down, oppressive. I couldn’t sleep, thinking of the next day, as the water gurgled in the gutters and pipes.
The next morning, I went out early.
To find him. To find Roderick Fourmyle.
I’d decided to retire to the seaside after my wife died. Almost as soon as I arrived in Allcombe, I’d gone to the town’s only department store, Mingles, and bought the best pair of gloves in the shop: fine leather, lined with lamb’s wool, neat stitching. It’s silly, but Norah would never let me buy gloves, she always knitted them for me. I tried to wear them out, and she’d just say, ‘Oh, I’ll get started on a new pair.’ People at work noticed and remarked behind my back, I could tell by their manner, and the odd remark they made about them. The new gloves were a special present to myself, something to put my past behind me and to start a new life, a life where I did what I wanted to do, not what others dictated, not my wife, not my bosses at work: no domineering, no one hogging the limelight. I treasured my gloves and always treated them with care.
I’m not a naturally ‘matey’ person, I’m uncomfortable in social circumstances, but I’d joined the Allcombe Writer’s Circle. For the first time in my life I felt at home, comfortable with people. Each Friday evening we met: a group of friendly, sociable folks bound with a common love of literature and self-expression. I was happy and content in my new home, with my new life.
Then one Friday, Roderick Fourmyle had arrived. And ‘arrived’ was the word. We were reading our poetry. I had a new piece called ‘Shine Forth Bright Morn’ which I was very proud of. Halfway through, the doors to the hall banged open and everyone turned to look. I had to stop reading as no one was taking any notice of me. Then he came in! Tall, fair curly hair, smartly dressed. I could hear the whispers of appreciation from the ladies.
‘I say,’ His booming voice filled the hall. ‘Is this the writer’s group? Thought I’d have a go at the old scribbling. Can anyone join?’
I could have killed Mrs Watts, the librarian. She simpered up to him. Others clustered round. ‘So pleased to have you with us.’ ‘Welcome.’
My poem was totally forgotten. I sat down. Who was this man and why had he chosen to spoil the one place I’d found where I could be accepted and even admired?
I began to hate him. I stopped reading my pieces and sat quietly at the back, listening to others. I don’t think anyone noticed. I got a few questions, invitations to read, which sometimes I accepted, but mostly I shook my head and smiled.
He always read his work. It was crass, lacking any subtlety, with common rhymes and always that tum-te-tum rhythm. I had to admit it was dramatic, always ended with a bang and to the applause of the group, but they all reminded me of ‘Eskimo Nell’. Couldn’t the fools see it for what it was? And him for what he was?
After a while, I started reading pieces regularly again. People encouraged me, saying ‘Come on John, let’s hear you’ in a very friendly way. But he even ruined that. He would applaud in an exaggerated fashion, praising me in a loud voice, drowning out the others. I didn’t want to hear his false compliments, his know-nothing ‘appreciation’.
A few times I arrived to find everyone present ahead of the usual time. They would fall silent as I entered and not meet my gaze. He would stand up from the middle of the group and come to greet me. I knew they had been talking about me. How I hated him!
Of course he was well-connected, local family and everything. He’d retired from the Army as a Captain, and was taking what he called a ‘gap year’ before he plunged into his next career, as he put it.
Occasionally he would miss a meeting and breeze in the next week telling us he’d ‘had business in London’. I didn’t know what business. I asked him once and Mrs Warner told me not to be nosy. I was hurt.
He’d been around for about four or five months when one Friday Mrs Watts announced that the following week there would be a special meeting and we should all attend as ‘Captain Fourmyle’ would have something special to announce. He’d beamed and smirked. It was probably another god-awful poem, or maybe he’d got a self-published book of them. Others had done that, and we had to falsely praise them and congratulate them while they preened and grinned and showed off.
Then he’d done the awful thing. The first thing I could never forgive him for. As he stood in the entrance to the hall, he was talking loudly to Mrs Watts. ‘Don’t suppose anyone’s got a spare pair of gloves to lend me, that wind’s freezing and I suffer from this old complaint I picked up in ….’ Apparently, he had arthritic finger joints or something. Thankfully he didn’t refer to it as a ‘war wound’ but the inference was there.
I took little notice, buttoning my coat and moving towards the door with my gloves held carefully in front of me, ready to put on when I got outside. It just so happened that there was a small hold up in the entrance – caused by him of course. So I was stuck, waiting for him to get out of the way. Then he turned and looked me up and down. His eyes fixed on my gloves.
‘John! How kind of you. I really appreciate you lending me your gloves, you are always so kind and thoughtful.’ He put out a hand.
What could I do? Everyone was looking at me. I was self-conscious, embarrassed. I was confused. I held the gloves out and just stood there. He took them, turned and left.
He took my gloves.
I’d fretted all night. At some stage I’d determined to get my gloves back as soon as possible and I went out early. I knew he walked by the sea each morning – he’d told us so many times: his ‘constitutional’, as he called it.
I found him facing the sea, head tilted in the spray, legs apart. He was wearing my gloves. But I couldn’t confront him. I couldn’t face the stress, the unpleasantness. I decided to wait until next week’s meeting, when presumably he would return them.
I watched for him each morning for the rest of the week. Three mornings he wasn’t there, but on the Friday morning he was back again. It had been stormy all week. The rain had abated, but the wind was strong again and sea wild. Great waves slammed against the harbour wall, with that deep, booming sound that indicates they are digging deep into the depths, swirling, sucking and eddying. The wind howled. There was no one else about.
Then it happened. A gull skated sideways overhead, driven by the wind, and a white spatter fell on the shoulder of his coat. What did he do? What did this crass, insensitive monster do? He wiped it off, with my gloves. With my gloves!
It was too much. I ran towards him, ran at him, calling out. He turned, and his mouth opened. I reached him and shoved him in the chest, shouting at him, shouting …. The wall had no railing, it was a sheer drop into the surging waves. I pushed with all my might and he was gone. For a moment I thought I might join him, but recovered myself in the teeth of the wind on the slippery wet stone. Looking down, I caught one glimpse of something in the roiling waves before it disappeared.
I stood for a while, then turned and headed for home, my head spinning.
That evening, I approached the meeting with trepidation. However, I put on my usual non-committal grin and entered the hall. Everyone was there. All eyes turned to me in consternation. I felt they knew, that they were accusing me. I stopped, lost for words.
‘Well …,’ Mrs Watts said in a loud voice, ‘even though this is Captain Fourmyle’s show, he seems to have been delayed, and I don’t think we can wait now.’ She glanced nervously behind her, where a number of books were arranged on a table. There was a murmur of agreement and she pulled herself up straight and faced me.
‘We have to come clean, John.’
I knew it! It was some kind of plot. They wanted me to leave the group – it was all his doing. But as she continued …
‘John, for some time we have all admired your work and felt you deserved a wider audience.’
Where was this leading?
‘It was Captain Fourmyle who recognised this and put a plan into action. You have many reasons to be grateful to him, and I’m sorry he is not here at this moment to hear me say it.’
Grateful? Grateful? My head began to spin.
‘He told us that he admired your work and the way you encouraged others and didn’t push yourself forward, despite the fact your work was the best here. He admitted to me that his own work was amateurish, but he was grateful that you never showed him up.’
Where was this leading? I could hardly understand what was being said.
‘To cut a long story short, he’s been visiting an old army friend with some of your work.’
Mrs Watts and some of the others had the grace to blush. Several called out, talking together. ‘We collected them, John, the copies you gave out.’
‘John, to cut a long story short his friend is a publisher, quite well known in poetry circles. At first Roderick was going to pay him, but his friend decided to publish them on merit.’
She stepped back, waving an arm at the books. ‘This is your book, John. The publisher will contact you, but sent some copies for us all, and for you to check before the main print run. John …?’