“Have you been in there yet?” he said, turning to me.
“Of course I have. Not today…”
“What’s wrong?” Jon asked. “Did you break something? Doesn’t matter if you did, most things in there have been broken at some point.”
“No, I mean, have you seen that picture?”
“Oh, that picture.” I knew immediately which one he meant. A haunting cartoon of four girls dancing under a tree, with a fifth girl at the front staring straight at you – pale-faced, unsmiling. One of the four faced the viewer, too, with a similarly unsettling expression. Coloured in basic pastels, it was titled ‘Ring, A Ring of Roses’; and it definitely evoked the sense of death that the terrifying children’s rhyme was supposed to.
I turned to Jon, describing the picture Chuck was referring to. “Why do you even have that? It’s horrible!”
“What’s wrong with it?” he said innocently.
“You don’t feel like at some point they’re going to climb out of the picture frame and murder you in your sleep?”
Jane guffawed from the kitchen and returned with a bowl of Japanese crackers and a small stack of biscuits. “Do you know I’ve seen that so many times and it’s never creeped me out. I’ve never given it a second thought, but now you say it, it is creepy isn’t it? It’s about children with the plague!” She spoke with such incredulity that it could’ve been the first time she had made the connection. The conversation continued on the theme of children’s nursery rhymes before touching on the contentious issue of private schooling, which divided the room. Jon and I agreed in opposition, while Jane and Charles found common ground in discussing his education, including the armoury under the dining room. This was something he frequently raised when talking about his old alma mater with people he hadn’t met yet, usually in the tone of ‘oh, you didn’t have a shooting range next to your school’s wine cellar?’
I made a parting jibe and took the chance to pee while averting my gaze from the scary plague girl with the ceaseless stare.
I returned to find Chuck thumbing through the bookcase next to an old record player.
“You have a lot of books on history,” he said.
Jon was knowledgeable on a variety of topics in that field; something I was never good at in school, but then he and I both told stories in a similar way – with tangents, and picking out the interesting elements of character and theme, rather than focusing on the names and dates. He, at least, could remember the names if called to. I didn’t know my George IIIs from my George Vs, or even come close with a year. We once got talking about my birth father, an Iranian of Turkmen descent, who boasted of Mongol origins, claiming to have a certificate from the great Genghis Khan. Why anyone would care about such a lineage was beyond me. I would rather not draw lines to his obvious rape-centric feculence and career of violent conquest. However, Jon taught me a lot about the drift of the early Mongols, and the spread of the Genghis genome. Chuck would eagerly sit and listen to such a story, and they would have indulged each other in their respective awareness of the era while I sat there shamefully dumb, in spite of my own heritage.
Still, there they were, a set of dense, dark blue books on the histories of a variety of world cultures, albeit written using outdated terminology. Jon and Jane were people-people; they were ever curious about the human condition, though in slightly different ways. Jane was always the interviewer, asking a million questions, curious to get to know as much about you as you were willing to give. Jon was the raucous bon viveur, keeper of the stories of mankind. These thoughts all occurred over a minute or two of discussion I had allowed to happen while I wander into my own mind. I eventually grew tired of trying to remember the song about the order of the kings and queens, which kept turning into other songs, because it was more interesting.
“I love this hat,” I said, walking over and picking up the top hat with the red, white and blue ribbon and setting it rakishly my head. Assuming it’s possible to self-declare as rakish.
“Really?” Chuck grimaced as I put it on.
“Don’t make that face, you don’t know what this hat represents,” I said, delighting in the moment before a secret is revealed.
Jon had chaired a twinning association between his town and one in France. I took the hat off and replaced it with the black beret. A small, black jewel mounted in a silver star-shaped pin had been secured to the front, off-centre. Chuck couldn’t help but make a face again.
“That looks so good on you,” Jane said to me, in her own red beret. “You know that the beret was a symbol of rebellion. John and I have always felt a bit of French defiance in us.
“Vive la revolution!” Jon declared, finding a comically small French flag to wave.
“What do you do, Chuck?” Jane said, as a gesture that acknowledged that perhaps things were getting slightly surreal, and that not all newcomers were ready for it.
“I’m a barrister,” he said.
“Gosh, really? We should introduce him to Oscar,” she said to Jon, who like me moments before appeared to have retreated into a world. He realised his input was required, nodded, and Jane turned to Chuck without a beat. “One of our friends is a barrister. He works in family law, I think.”
Chuck grimaced again. “Oh, right,” he said, only partially concealing his discomfort at the idea of being one of those. “That’s a difficult area.”
“I take it that’s not your cup of tea, so to speak,” Jane said, with one of her trademark disarming smiles.
“No, ha, no,” Chuck laughed. “Well, it’s really difficult, and a lot of cases would be difficult to stomach. Then you don’t get paid to make up for that. No. I work in PI.”
“Private Investigation?” Jane frowned in confusion.
Chuck delighted in it. “No, Personal Injury.”
“So you must be good at dealing with people,” Jane said. Another smile.
“I suppose so,” Chuck said, scratching the back of his head. “A lot of people I talk to are the people who have the accidents and it can be difficult, especially if their English isn’t good, or if they’re old.”
“Oh, but that’s a good thing.”
“Mmm,” he responded, unconvinced. “A lot of the time we’re being hired by the insurance companies, though. So half of the time we represent the supermarket, or the defendant.” He changed the topic. “What do you both do? Or used to do?”
“I used to work in retail. There’s a little knick-knack shop down the road I used to work in. He knows,” she said, pointing at me with another big smile, “every Christmas present used to include something from that shop.”
“I quite liked them though. They’re quirky,” I said in defence.
“And Jon still does a bit of acting here and there, but he started out training as a chef, then changed direction,” she started, indicating to Jon to continue his own story.
“I was a plumber!” he exclaimed, proudly.
“Oh right,” Chuck said, slightly surprised. I couldn’t tell whether he was impressed or underwhelmed.
“It takes six years to become a plumber,” Jon continued, growing more animated with each sentence. “Six years, just like a doctor. Plumbers are the most important profession. You need clean water, so you won’t need the doctor.”
“Yes, it’s good that you have that skill,” Chuck replied.
“He means,” I smiled wickedly, “that he has no interest in learning about that but he’s very grateful that there are people in the world he can pay to do such things for him,” I explained.
Chuck laughed awkwardly. “Well, it’s not that I have no interest, it’s just that, well yes, I have no interest I suppose.” I smiled across at him to show there was only love in my exposing his truth.
“What are you interested in, Chuck?” Jane asked, leaning in with a curious gaze and another charming smile.