by Max Leonard Hitchings
I receive an invitation.
The invitation is made of thin card and has a border of holly leaves around the edge. In the centre of the card, in gold letters, it says REUNION. It goes on the fridge.
In the months that follow, I look at it twice daily: every morning, when I have my breakfast, and every evening when I get home from work. On Sundays, I clean around it.
I am conflicted about whether or not to attend the reunion. On the one hand, I am happy and a little surprised to have been invited, whilst on the other, I haven’t seen these people for a long time. And my ex-wife will be there. Maybe even her husband and kid. It could be… awkward.
I step off the train into the old familiar station. I decide against taking a cab, thinking it will be nice to see the old town. It is a pleasant enough evening, despite the cold.
I walk along a pavement that I have walked on many times before and recognise little features around me – cracked walls filled with mortar; a charity collection box outside the butcher’s; even one or two carollers singing in the town square. It’s odd how some things stay the same.
My shoes grind on the gravel path as I approach the house. A warm glow emanates from the windows. I adjust my collar and check my hair in a car wing mirror. The front door is ajar and I can hear raucous merrymaking within – I push the door open and enter the house.
I see many familiar faces, ones I used to know so well. It’s hard to believe it’s been ten years since I last saw them. There is plenty of booze flowing and any initial awkwardness is offset by laughter and good cheer.
I feel the familiar embrace of my ex-mother-in-law. It is good to see her.
Then Kate, my ex-wife, enters the room. It is a little tense at first, but she invited me after all, so it’s not as if she wasn’t expecting me. I click my fingers as I remember that I’d brought a bottle of wine. It saves us from the moment. She says thank you and takes it through to the kitchen.
I mingle among the guests. Most of them are old friends of the family – a family I used to be in, although as I’m no longer in it, it’s hard to say whether or not they are friends of mine.
There’s one person in particular there that I am delighted to see – Kate’s dad, Dennis. He sits in his chair by the fire, smoking his roll-ups like he always did.
After the initial weirdness, I circle back around to Kate, and this time we get along just fine, laughing like old friends, but her face darkens when I ask about her husband and child. It isn’t clear if that’s just because she feels it’s none of my business. Could well be.
Crackers are pulled, paper hats are worn, mince pies are scoffed. All the joy of Christmas is present. Chestnuts are roasted on the fire, with Dennis telling everyone not to get bits of shell stuck under their thumbnails.
“It hurts like a motherfucker,” he says.
At some point Dennis calls me over, and gestures towards Kate.
“You seem to be getting on well,” he says.
“As much as can be expected,” I reply. “She seems happy.”
“She isn’t,” Dennis says matter-of-factly. “Come on,” he says. “When are you going to come back? When are you going to come and take back your woman?”
I laugh a little nervously.
“It isn’t that simple, Dennis,” I say. “She’s moved on – she has a husband and a kid. Probably have a second in the next year or two.”
“I know,” says Dennis. “I was at the wedding.” He makes a kind of zonked-out pantomime exhausted face. “It isn’t right,” he says. “She isn’t happy. Just look at the way she lights up when she looks at you. I’ve never seen her look at him that way.”
I gaze over at her. She’s rummaging in a cupboard with her mother, looking for a decanter of sherry.
“I think she’s just pissed,” I say, and Dennis chuckles.
“We miss you,” he says. “Come back.”
“I can’t, Dennis. I can’t just rock up here after ten years.”
I look at his face. He suddenly seems very old indeed. The lines on his face intersect like a Gordian knot. I must be old too.
“I’m glad you’re here,” I say. “I wasn’t expecting you to be. When I got the invitation, I wasn’t sure whether I ought to really come. But now I’m here, I’m glad I came. It’s so good to see you, Dennis. There are so many familiar old faces here, and I miss them all. But none so much as yours.”
He smiles, while rolling himself another cigarette.
“Likewise,” he says. “Listen, I’ve pretty much moved out to the shed. Why don’t you stay for a couple of days? You can have my room. See the old country, etcetera, etcetera.”
“I couldn’t, Dennis, really I couldn’t. You’d freeze to death in the shed.” He lights his rollie with a wry smile. “Besides,” I say. “What would she say? She always thought we had a conspiracy going on. No, thanks – but if I do stay, I’ll stay at a B&B.”
“They’re all booked up,” he says, and exhales a long, thin, stream of smoke. “Stay. Please.”
He puts his hand on my shoulder. I look him in the eyes. Big, wet eyes he always had.
“I really can’t, Dennis, I have to get back – ”
“It’s not that simple, Dennis.”
“If you go, I’ll go.”
“You’re always welcome to visit me.”
“No,” he says. “I’ll go.”
He fixes me with his eyes. I wonder if he’s joking, but he seems dead serious. His hand tightens on my shoulder. I look round at the room. There’s a loud cheer as the stopper is removed violently from a decanter of sherry. Drinks are poured out. Kate brings me over a glass. Somebody tinkles on theirs with their keys. My ex-wife addresses the room.
“Thanks for coming, everyone. It’s wonderful to see so many old faces. It’s been ages since I saw some of you.” She gives me a little smile, and glances around the room. “Some of you have come a great distance to be here. So, from Mum and me, thank you. And merry Christmas.” She lifts up her glass. “As you know, this Christmas it’s been ten years, so… to Dennis,” she says, and gestures towards the chair by the fire.
“To Dennis,” come the replies.
“Bugger off!” says Dennis. But then he looks around the room. Everyone is looking in his direction. He glances over at the mantelpiece over the fire. A nice big photo of him is sitting there, with tinsel around the frame.
He looks me straight in the eyes.
“Come back,” he says. “You’re needed here. You can have my old room…”
“I really can’t, Dennis. And actually, I’m going to have to leave now. I have to get the next train or I’ll miss my connection… you know how it is. It’s been great to catch up, old friend. I’ve missed you so much these past ten years. I think I always will. Be at peace, Dennis.”
I mingle for a bit and then I say my goodbyes and Happy Christmases. Kate stops me on the way out.
“I’m glad you could make it. Let’s not leave it so long next time?”
I look over, expecting to see Dennis giving me a cheeky wink. No, not expecting. Hoping. Yearning. What I actually see is what I was expecting to see all along. An empty chair.
“Sure,” I say.
She hugs me goodbye.
“Safe travels”, she says.
I step slowly down the gravel path away from the house. I look back at the living room window. The house gives off a warm, inviting glow.
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