Barry used the private moment to check his smile against his reflection: warm, genuine, kind-hearted – he was almost there.
An old woman opened the door. Her face suggested that she was not expecting company. Her confusion was left unclarified by recognition of Barry’s face. They both lived in the village and so they knew each other of course; and yet, the question of what she owed this pleasure was no mere courtesy.
“Hello Polly” he replied. “I’m here because fortunately, these won’t eat themselves!”
Barry presented a tray of freshly-baked cheese scones.
“Oh” exclaimed Polly, “how lovely”. “Do come in.”
She sat him at the dining table before pottering out to boil the kettle. Barry cast curious eyes over the place. The decor hadn’t changed since his habitual visits back in the late nineties. The same watercolour of a village pub hung on the opposite wall; the same grotesque china dolls guarded the mantelpiece.
The air was different, however. Before his passing, Mr Field’s endless rollups once filled the house with dense smoke which choked the uninitiated and saturated hair and clothing.
Polly returned bearing a teapot and cups.
“How do you like your tea again?”
“Well”, Barry replied. “Just like my women – five times a day if possible!”
Polly giggled. Against her better instincts she retained that uniquely British appetite for amiable smut.
“Barry – stop that at once. You know I don’t approve of that kind of talk.”
“Never approved; but you always laughed.”
“Yes, quite…” She trailed off trying to recall the referenced memories. Thwarted, she instead observed. “This is a pleasant surprise; but a surprise nonetheless. It’s been quite a while.”
“Yes. Well, mother has gone now hasn’t she? It occurred to me you lost a good friend then. You probably miss her too.”
“Oh Barry, that’s sweet of you. I miss Victoria of course – God bless her soul.” Polly paused forlornly and served them each a scone. “You are a good man. Let me tell you, there’s not many of those around.”
“We’re a dying breed alright.” The conversation stalled a little. Bored, Barry poured out a weak cup of tea. “Been up to anything recently?” he asked eventually.
Polly began a dithering anecdote about a bout of earache, a phone call with NHS direct, and a visit to the doctors. After a minute Barry struggled to keep focus. A song from the radio crept into his mind instead. As the old woman’s thin voice vied for his attention with Moonlight Shadow he threw in the occasional “sure” or “uh-huh” to suggest responsiveness.
He checked the clock. Emma would soon be home.
Polly’s daughter was true purpose of today’s visit; same as it was all those years ago. Emma always had been his major crush, though he lacked the courage to ever tell her. Even if he’d tried her mere presence halved his IQ, leaving him gawking and blushing in awkward silence.
His indecision cost him dearly. Emma fell for the rudimentary charms of some caveman she met while drunk on a night out. In 2001, she announced her engagement and that she was set to leave the village. Lost forever.
Then four months ago, there she was, in Londis. Emma was older, naturally. She looked gaunt, pale and tearful. And yet, still she was Emma Fields. Newly divorced, and back in the village, living with her mother.
Barry kept his distance for those four long months – a necessary mourning period for her. Now was the time to move in. Polly was home around four. Half an hour of polite small-talk with the mother therefore fashioned a seemingly organic meeting. Who knew – if Emma was feeling lonely at the end of a long working week, she might even suggest going out for a drink?
Barry realised the room was silent. Polly had asked him a question. Unable to answer he smiled. Polly chuckled slightly.
“Honestly dear, perhaps it’s you who’s hard of hearing. I said what do you think of it?”
“The painting!” She pointed behind him for emphasis. Barry turned and saw it, a small canvas depicting a vase of flowers.
Barry walked over. It was hideous: compositionally sloppy; a soft mess of pink, yellow and green; the background streaky-brown; the colours dulled just so sufficiently that it might even be authentic.
“It’s beautiful,” Barry replied, barely able to keep his tremulous voice from betraying his excitement. “Where did you say you bought it?”
Polly tutted, half-joking in her annoyance.
“That’s settled. Next syringing you’re coming with me. I got it at a car boot. Twenty pounds he wanted; I had eighteen-fifty on me, and he took it.”
Eighteen pounds fifty. For a possible Renoir.
The style was distinct; the signature clear and legible. Barry fixated on it while he regained composure.
“It’s really nice,” he managed, turning back with a contrived expression of stoic semi-interest.
“Well, I just couldn’t walk away from it.” Polly did that cute little shrug that only the genuinely happy do as she sipped at her tea. Barry scrutinised her – surely she had no idea who the artist was, or else her first question would be how much the monstrosity was worth, and how best to flog it. How could someone exist for more than six decades without hearing of Pierre-Auguste Renoir?
“Emma didn’t think much of it”, Polly continued. “Called it “chocolate-box”. Well, maybe it is but I like that.”
Emma too? The depth of ignorance amongst the British public really is a marvel – Barry could kiss the pair of them for it.
“Well… what makes art good anyway? This is a bit home-spun, a little Sunday-painter perhaps. But worthless doesn’t necessarily mean charmless. I like it a lot, Ms Fields.”
“You do? That’s lovely – I know just who to leave it to when I pass then.”
They were interrupted as Emma returned early. She entered the room smiling and brandishing a bottle of wine. Smiling was Emma’s natural state. He’d noticed even during that chat in Londis she couldn’t help but radiate somehow. Now, she looked exhausted, but tried her best to hide it and act hospitable. Barry liked that about her. He liked a lot of things about Emma: her dress sense, her lovely hair, her face which had aged beautifully, like some…
“Barry?” Emma sounded uncomfortable. He realised he was doing that staring thing again.
“Terribly sorry,” he began, jumping to his feet. “I made scones for Polly today – I shan’t intrude any longer.”
“No, apologies – I didn’t mean anything by that. You’re absolutely welcome to stay. Would you care for some wine?”
Barry wasn’t truly welcome; he could hear the obligation in her voice. Only ten minutes ago that would have left him deeply disappointed. But for now, Barry had food for thought.
There were roughly a thousand people living in Brill. Barry could personally name six-hundred and thirty-three. Furthermore, should an interested publisher of local history ever frequent the Pheasant, Barry could provide comprehensive biographies of maybe fifty of the villages most prominent and established residents.
If said publisher had an ear for a more, shall we say, alternative account of the community, Barry could help there too. His many walks around the area, his inclination to observe everything and absorb all information had facilitated glimpses behind many a closed door.
For instance: one afternoon’s walk along the back fields presented the sight of a villager named Mr Howard, drifting cautiously ahead. Instinct told Barry it was worth hanging back, dropping low and hiding amongst trees as he stalked the meandering gait of his furtive quarry. Soon Mr Howard seemed satisfied and made swiftly towards the fences of Tudor close. Barry watched him rap his knuckles against the fence of The Vogt family. Immediately, the back gate opened.
The ensuing investigation took months of return visits. Mr Vogt’s absences followed no discernible pattern. Nevertheless, Barry realised that Mr Howard’s arrival was heralded by the shutting of all curtains in the house – whatever the time of day. The moment they shut, Barry would race back to his observation spot in the back fields. With the use of a good camera lens, he was able to gather compelling evidence of the affair.
Barry confronted them, individually of course. Mr Howard fumed and puffed before valuing his marriage at the price of seven thousand pounds. Mrs Vogt gave some consideration to the matter, concluded that her husband would notice the loss of such a large sum of money. She then dropped her voice, rather shamelessly, to a seductive whisper, reclined in the doorway, and suggested that some other form of payment might be acceptable.
“Apologies Ma’am,” Barry replied, “But I wouldn’t even eat at a buffet.”
They agreed to payment in instalments, copies of film to be handed over once the sum of three thousand was all accounted for.
This was just one example of Barry’s curiosity and assiduousness receiving just rewards. Over the years there had been several. Yet nothing compared to the potential pay-out of a lost Renoir. Across the weekend he poured over articles online of similar cases: a similar Renoir sold for half a million in 2012; 2014, a Pissarro landscape sold for nearly three-quarters; so on. Polly’s painting was a modest affair. Yet millionaires are forever seeking assets with depreciation immunity; and consequently, even the most prosaic of paintings by a famous name can fetch prices so absurd they sound like a toddlers’ boast.
Barry just had to have it.
Three stratagems were obvious:
He could make Polly an offer. A low offer would be pointless, a high one deeply suspicious.
He could claim it once she expired. This would also not do. Polly was mid-sixties and could live decades more. Never mind those lost years of wealth, that was enough time for a visiting relative, a radio broadcast, or a TV documentary to give the game away.
Finally, he could tell her what she owns and hope for a share. A parochial heart such as Polly’s would almost certainly see Barry rewarded. However he could also envision her tracking and partially reimbursing the boot-seller. Perhaps also doling out money to her daughter, other families members, herself, maybe even to charitable causes. What would be left for Barry? A token sum of a mere few thousand would leave a bitter taste.
The weekend drew to a close. Barry opened his phonebook and noticed decades-old writing spelling out Emma Fields’ home phone number. He half-expected the hum of a dead line. Instead it rang out and Polly received the call.
“Good evening Polly – me again! I couldn’t help but notice that sapling in your garden; the one that will grow right through your fence within two years. Would you like it taken down?”
“Thank you Barry, but I couldn’t ask you to do that.”
“It’s a good job you’re not asking then. I’m offering. Frankly it’s been bothering me all weekend. A stitch in time as they say…”
“You are an angel… I’ll bake you something to say thank you.”
“Deal. See you next weekend!”
And so began a long series of odd-jobs. As one ended, Barry found another. The shed could do with a lick of paint. While painting the shed, I noticed just how full it is – by chance this weekend I am going to the skip – would you like me to take some things? Each trip to the house he watched and waited: he wrote a schedule of Emma’s work patterns, he mapped out every possible entrance point. Never did his attention linger on the painting, and not once did he bring it up in conversation.
Polly became gladly accustomed to his company. She baked cakes and pastries and spent many hours drinking tea and making small-talk. Soon she was wittering away useful information. Her regular hospital appointments for example, each one would leave the house empty for two hours or so a time.
At first Emma was irritated by his persistent presence. She acknowledged him only with passing nods and cursory waves. The house and garden were undeniably beautified though, and his companionship made Polly seem happier than she’d been in years.
One day, Emma watched Barry digging up the weeds in the flowerbeds. As she poured herself a lemonade, she noticed his red face and sweaty brow. She determined to pour a second glass and take it to him.
“Are you thirsty?” she asked, catching him quite by surprise. Barry nodded, avoiding her gaze like a schoolboy. “You can have some lemonade, but on one condition: if you absolutely insist on being at my house every weekend, you ought to talk to me properly – no more awkward grunting and hiding from eye contact, OK?”
“I see” Barry replied in a slight voice. “Quid pro quo is it?”
“I’m sorry – what?”
“Oh, it’s an expression – Latin I believe. It means the lemonade comes with strings attached.” Barry gained confidence speaking about a familiar subject.
“What? Kind of like “tit-for-tat” for pretentious people?”
“Oh no, it’s exactly that.”
They shared a slight smile.
“So, Barry blushes grew up to be pretentious did he? Who would’ve thought?”
This time, there was no obligation in her friendliness. Barry was encouraged. Enough to attempt a flirt.
“Oh sure; I grew up to be pretentious alright. As pretentious as a concept album by the Wurzels – and that’s basically just recordings of farm equipment.”
His joke caught her off-guard. Polly actually found herself laughing
“Pretentious and funny too. I simply had no idea” she told him as she started away.
Initially he was hurt by the observation and assumed the attempt had failed. It proved otherwise though. From then on Emma talked to him and gave him genuine smiles.
June passed and then July. The list of obvious jobs were diminishing and truthfully, Barry was tiring of gifting Polly his free time and energy. He was getting just desperate enough to consider using one of those hospital appointments when the payoff finally came.
Polly had a friend wanting to take her to the Yorkshire Dales. The house would empty every single daytime all that week.
“I hear it’s beautiful up there” he replied as he left their house. “Oh actually, could I just…” He pointed in the direction of the downstairs loo. He took some wet wipes from a cupboard inside and flushed the entire packet.
The Yorkshire trip approached slowly, inch by inch. On the Saturday Barry took a routine stroll, making sure to pass Polly’s house. She was tending to a flowerbed when she spotted him and ambled cheerfully towards her gate.
“Morning Poll! All set for your holiday? Monday morning right?”
“Actually there’s been a turn for the worse,” came her sad reply. Inside his pockets, Barry clenched his fist. “My friend Mary who paid for the trip. She’s ill – norovirus she reckons. Poor thing had to gift her booking to Emma. Well, it’s a good job Emma has holiday left to use isn’t it?”
Barry felt like punching the air. How could events turn any more fortuitously in his favour? As if in answer to his silent rhetorical, Emma stuck her head out the window; sheepishly informing them of a block in the toilet, and asking if she should ring a plumber.
“No need – save your money,” Barry called back. “I’ll bring the toolkit right over!”
Whenever and wherever he’d worked that summer, Barry always worked in silence. He told them it aided his concentration. As he worked on the blockage, he distinctly heard both women moving upstairs. Barry crept into the utility room. Previously he’d seen Polly putting her keys in a small drawer here. With his heart in his mouth, he opened it for himself. One keyring was marked “kitchen windows”. Four little keys serviced the two windows. He pulled off one key and pocketed it. God knows how long until that was noticed.
He then finished the job and packed up his tools. In the hallway he shouted up, informing them he was done. Emma started down the stairs, beaming with gratitude. Barry felt peculiar as he watched her barefooted descent. She looked so wholesome and nice. He realised it was certainly not too late to hand back the key and say he’d found it on the floor.
Barry remained silent.
“One hundred per-cent un-blocked,” he confirmed.
“Thank you so much… You… you’ve been a tremendous help to us these last few weeks. Constantly putting yourself out for mum and me.” She faltered momentarily before blurting out, “And I just can’t help but wonder – why?”
Paranoia engulfed him. Guilty blood flushed across his cheeks, into his tongue. If she pushed him to answer he would surely choke.
“Barry… don’t be shy. You know, I always suspected there was something unsaid between us. Sincere apologies if I have the wrong end of the stick here – but, it did seem like you once felt something for me. Can that be it? Still – after all these years? Wait, don’t answer. Please, hear me out. I was thinking, what if I said to mum, it’s a lovely invitation, but actually something’s keeping me here? We could have a little alone time. You could… we could have dinner together – call it a date if you like?”
Well God you son-of-a-bitch, Barry thought, you still know how to torture someone. For years – decades – Barry would’ve described the prospect of a date with Emma Fields as priceless. Still, priceless is a turn of phrase, not a value; half a million or more in real money was enough to tempt just about anyone. All he had to do is fight every impulse in his heart and say…
“Sorry Emma. I… I’m not sure about forming a relationship right now. Besides, you couldn’t leave poor old Polly all alone.”
Emma’s face could not disguise her hurt.
“Oh,” she replied, in a soft and deflated voice. “Barry, forgive me – I totally misread the signs. I… I think its best you go now.”
She fled swiftly back upstairs. Barry dithered before picking up his toolkit and leaving for home.
Polly’s car left the driveway around nine on Monday morning.
Barry achieved nothing at work all day. His thoughts were haywire: should he take just the painting? Or trash the house and take several other valuables? Perhaps some trifling little ornament might be forgotten by them both. He could replace the window key. Maybe they would blame themselves for the break-in and assume improper locking.
Would there be any chance of reconciliation with Emma?
The long summer day tried his patience. When night it finally arrived, the darkness seemed somehow unconvincing. Around midnight, Barry changed into all-black clothing and made his way on foot through the sleeping village. In Polly’s close, every bedroom light was off.
Barry reached the garden gate he had become so well-acquainted with. He pulled on a pair of rubber gloves and carefully opened it, with a slight lift to avoid the squeak.
He snuck up the front lawn and shimmied around to the back garden. Gently he inserted the key and unlocked the window. His fingertips clawed around the frame and slowly he pulled towards him.
It didn’t open.
Annoyed, Barry tugged harder. The window swung open harder than anticipated. Barry lost footing and slipped, knocking a nearby flowerpot over. The crash of the shattered crockery felt deafening. He froze and waited breathlessly for the longest minute of his life. No lights switched on in any neighbour’s house.
Perhaps the noise wasn’t so loud after all, it only seemed so to his heightened senses.
He stretched onto his toes and inserted one arm into the house then the other and got a firm grip. He pulled himself up, quiet as a snake, until his head and shoulders were inside. From there he need only swivel his torso round, pull himself up for just a moment longer; start to lift a leg up and over the ledge, onto the worktop…
The light in the utility room suddenly flicked on. Barry leapt out of his skin, a squeal near-erupting from his mouth. He had just enough time to raise his leg back to waist-height when the door burst open. Emma screamed for help at the sight of the intruder and bolted out of the room.
Indecision paralysed him. What the hell was Emma doing here? He lent backwards outside. The scream had woken the neighbours: lights were switching on around the close, curtains parting, windows opening. There would be no getaway. Fuck. Reluctantly he pushed on inside and called out.
“Emma? Emma – it’s me, Barry. This isn’t what it seems.”
He found her quivering on the living room floor, underneath that damn painting, with the home phone in her hand.
“Barry?” she whispered as he approached, his hands up in a display of obsequiousness. “Barry? What’s going on?”
What was going on? What explanation could he possibly offer without spending the night in jail?
“Well, Emma… Please put the phone down. Emma, I remembered the hot kitchen tap was dripping. Non-stop. Couldn’t sleep for the thought of your bills.”
“What are you talking about? Why the hell are you here?”
“I could ask you the same thing – you’re meant to be in Yorkshire!” He emitted an involuntary high-pitched giggle that was not reciprocated.
“Mine’s easy Barry. Mary didn’t have the norovirus after all so she’s with mum. I live here. Your turn.”
“Well… Truth is – Emma, and you mustn’t get unduly upset here. You see Polly and I have a thing going on. She would not object to my being here because… there’s life in the old dog yet! She likes romance, surprises, big gestures, that sort of thing. I was going to her bedroom to perhaps leave a note on her bed. Possibly some underwear. Naturally we had to keep the truth from you because – well perhaps you might not have accepted our love.”
“GET THE FUCK OUT MY HOUSE” she yelled taking shakily to her feet and brandishing the phone. “Right now. Otherwise I’m calling the police.”
She threw open the front door and pushed him outside. Barry continued to blather his assurances. Several neighbours remained at their windows. They shouted out to Emma, asking if she was okay. None of them talked to Barry directly though; he felt there could be the residue of dignity left in that.
After that night Barry kept to himself. He only left his house for his job in Aylesbury and did all his shopping there too.
He drafted one story after another in explanation. None came close to being convincing. Eventually he came to terms with the stark truth – he was at their mercy and nothing he could say or do could improve his chances. His nights were sleepless. Every car that pulled up outside his house had him peeking through windows to check if they were police.
They never were.
It was fully six weeks later that the letter came through. Barry had spent enough time with Polly to recognise her handwriting when he saw it. He noticed it as he walked in after work. He picked it up, turned it over, panicked and threw it on the sofa where it stayed unopened for a good hour. He returned to it, unable to focus on anything else, and forced himself to face Polly’s judgement.
Words cannot express how I am feeling right now. The time, care, and attention you bestowed upon me were beyond touching. Indeed, I was beginning to think upon you as something like a son-in-law. In all honesty I rather presumed you had those sorts of designs upon Emma in any case. You should know that I spent many nights singing your praises. He may not be a looker, I’d say, but looks fade and character is permanent. Look how caring he is. How practically minded and proactive! I believe she was quite coming around to the idea you know.
Needless to say we were both mortally wounded by your attempt to break into our home. We have moved away from Brill for good now. You shall not see us again.
Nevertheless, you may be wondering why no charges were pressed. That is a thank-you of sorts. We reported the incident, naturally. Yet while we gave a statement you inadvertently helped us one last time. The policeman asked what valuables you might possibly be looking for. We have nothing of the sort I replied, earnest in my ignorance. He took a quick look around – do you remember that little painting I showed you some months back? As it happens the artist was rather famous, it proved to be worth quite a considerable amount! Needless to say, our new home is compensation enough.
P.S. While in Yorkshire I was consumed by feelings of guilt. I wondered how I could ever repay your endless kindness. As mentioned I had little money and did not own much except my house. That, and a little painting that I recalled you were fond of. It wouldn’t be much of a gift I reasoned, but upon my return it would have most certainly been yours.
Jake Kendall is a Creative Writing graduate of Cardiff University. He writes sad jokes and tragic comedy from his hometown of Oxford. He rambles into the void and self-promotes shamelessly @jakendallox.
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