“Well all things considered, it wasn’t a bad service.”
“I liked how his workers took turns spitting on the casket as it was lowered.”
“I myself found that a little tasteless, but still extremely entertaining.”
The apartment was rundown despite the aged man’s wealth. Even to his end he was known to be stingy, too cheap to even pay for his own medicine, a miser to the grave.
“Did he ever pay you back the ten pounds he owed you?”
“What ten- right! How long has it been now?”
“You can bring me my money on Tuesday.”
“You both owe me five pounds.”
“I don’t recall – ah yes, the other bet. I suppose you did win.”
He had died three days ago after a long bitter battle with pneumonia. Ironically a rare act of charity was his undoing. As he threw a beggar a halfpenny his grip loosened on his umbrella and he lost it to the wind and rain. His frailty and stubbornness prevented his recovery and even accelerated his demise.
“How do you like your tea Johnson?”
“Three sugars. Thank you.”
“He left you his car.”
“And you the factory.”
“No, Smith gets the factory, I get this cockroach nest.”
“Sorry to hear that.”
The paint was peeling as the men sat in the living room. A soggy log rested in the fireplace and the only heat came from the faint winter sun through the lonely, dingy window. The men sat there in their coats.
“Sorry I’m late gentlemen. How was it?”
“You missed quite the show.”
“Care for some tea?”
“No, it’s something from the west-indies. A friend of mine who just made a nice profit in shipping told me about it.”
“Well, try new things I always say.”
“This coming from the man who refused to enter a pub because they had painted their walls green.”
“Liar, they painted their walls purple. That’s no colour for a respectable drinking establishment.”
The men knew each other from years ago, before any of them had made their fortune, when they were healthy and young and strong and when the docks and factories and taverns were practically their second homes.
“Was Mary there?”
“No but she was.”
“She did look upset.”
“Upset that it wasn’t more painful for him maybe.”
“Or that he left her a tin bucket.”
“A rusty tin bucket.”
“Can you blame him? I would have left her a bottle of piss.”
“A dirty bottle of piss.”
A draft blew in blew in through an unseen opening and rattled a picture frame against a wall. The photograph it held had long since faded but with enough imagination and squinting one could still make out a charming young couple, a tall dark haired man and his beautiful bride holding her belly, standing outside an unassuming cathedral. Both looking hopefully into the future and smiling at what was to come.
“Remember when we used to visit the pub after work? The one by the docks?”
“There were five by the docks.”
“The good one, with that waitress – er, Elizabeth!”
“Ah yes, I remember Elizabeth.”
“The Red Barrel Tavern.”
“Is it still there?”
“I haven’t been in ages, since…”
The men stopped talking and looked at their empty teacups, each other, the apartment in which they sat and themselves. None of them made a sound but they all knew exactly what the others were thinking. Somewhere outside a man shouted, a horse whinnied and a boy no older than ten tried to sell hair growth tonic to a cynical public.
“Thanks for the tea Arthur.”
“My grandchildren have been begging for me to take them to the circus. I think I might surprise them today.”
“I should be off as well. I have a dinner date with my daughter and I am to finally meet her … doctor.”
“Be gentle Max.”
“I have business with the bank myself. But we should meet again.”
“Under better circumstances.”
“And in a better location.”
The men cleaned their cups and made their way down a flight of creaky stairs. An impossibly heavy door separated them from the world outside and upstairs the apartment rested empty save for the ghosts of memories and the echo of two smiling faces in an old photograph.