(first published in The Cabinet of Heed, Issue 24, Sept 15th 2019)
On his way to the airport for his early morning flight, Charlie felt shrivelled and cowed. The previous evening, a meeting at the university had been cancelled and so he’d arrived home early, only to find Huw Pryce-White at his ease in an armchair with a whisky glass in his hand. Charlie’s wife, Felicity, had explained (a little too quickly) that Huw had popped round to borrow a book, and she’d poured him a drink while she searched for it.
There had been a pause. Pryce-White, his famous, battered, leather jacket unbuttoned, had simply stretched out in the chair, smiled, raised his glass and winked. The wink was disconcerting, since Pryce-White had one green eye and one brown eye. Closing one eye wrought a complete change in his physiognomy. A number of past female students had allegedly found themselves fascinated by those piercing, dissimilar eyes, to be released only when they were hooded.
Charlie, initially nonplussed, then worked his way through an unpleasant train of thought, carriage by carriage. ‘What was the book?’
Pryce-White had remained silent, still smiling. Felicity supplied an answer: ‘Er, Louis MacNeice’s autobiography…’
Another pause. Charlie muttered, ‘It’s in the bookcase in the spare bedroom – I’ll get it.’
As he climbed the stairs, he recalled a poignant passage from the book. MacNeice, on first arriving at boarding school as a child, had not gone to the toilet for two days, because he was too embarrassed to ask for directions. Charlie knew how that child had felt. After Pryce-White left, Charlie had failed to ask Felicity for directions.
* * *
Boarding the Aberdeen-Heathrow shuttle, Charlie was shrivelled once more to find the adjoining seat already taken by a very large, bearded gentleman. But in the event, he proved an entertaining companion – Gunnar, a Norwegian oilman – who had just been dispatched by his drilling company to a place in Africa called ‘Libreville.’
‘What do you know about Libreville?’ Charlie had asked.
‘Don’t know a damned thing.’ Gunnar laughed and signalled for a tonic water and a complementary packet of peanuts. He topped up the tonic water with a whisky miniature from his side pocket.
‘If I were in your shoes, I don’t think I’d like not knowing. Unknown prospects.’
Gunnar shrugged: ‘I imagine there will be someone there to meet me – there usually is.’ He fanned some boarding passes: there would be two more flights to board after he arrived at Heathrow. ‘Maybe I’ll find out something by the time I arrive.’ He laughed again.
‘Does this kind of thing happen to you a lot?’
‘Every once in a while. Before I was in Aberdeen, I was in Azerbaijan. I’d never heard of that place either.’
‘What was Azerbaijan like?’
‘Don’t really know. I was in one of those places… er, “gated community.” Everybody there was in the oil business too. Fancy a whisky?’
‘It’s a bit early for me… but, why not?’
Gunnar produced another miniature from his side pocket, poured half into his tonic water and the other half into Charlie’s plastic teacup. Charlie had never tasted whisky in tea before. He reckoned it was a good combo.
Gunnar asked what Charlie would be doing in London. He was told about the dreary academic journal and its dreary editorial board meeting. There was a pause. ‘If I may say so, Charlie, you seem a little gloomy.’
Charlie stared into the now-empty teacup. ‘Gloomy?? Gunnar, I feel like a man on a beach watching the ebb tide and knowing it will never return.’
More whisky appeared, a half-bottle this time. And Gunnar listened to the story of Huw Pryce-White sitting in Charlie’s armchair. ‘Hmm. Hoo Priss-Vite, you say? A curious name: hyphenated, perhaps? Is he Scottish?’
‘He likes to pretend he’s Welsh, likes to play the hell-raising Celtic Bard, but he’s actually from a place called Blundellsands, outside Liverpool.’
‘Heh. You would like to do him harm, I think?’
‘Dead right, pal.’
‘Heh, heh. I was born in the Lofoten Islands, in the far north of Norway – a fishing community. You know how superstitious are fishermen. My grandfather, he knew many spells, many charms. Also, secret signs – staves – that can be drawn or carved to bring luck. Or bad luck.’ Gunnar paused to top up Charlie’s cup and murmured confidentially, ‘You simply hide the stave among a person’s belongings.’
It was a tough call. Charlie took another swig, thought about it, and then asked politely about Gunnar’s granny.
The moment passed (apparently, Lofoten Island women were bad luck anywhere near a fishing boat. No spells or staves, but she cooked a mean fish soup). The conversation moved onto the disappearance of the Scottish herring fleet. But a seed had been sown.
* * *
Two days later Charlie, through his open office door, watched Pryce-White wander along the corridor, into the staff toilets. Charlie snuck quickly into the vacant adjoining office and stole Pryce-White’s famous, battered, leather jacket. That night, he burned the fucker in his backyard.