Max. Which is all there was to him, really. A three-letter name. ‘It’s short for Maximilian,’ he used to say, but he was joking. So we knew something about him: that he wanted us to understand in his clever way that he was ‘five-syllable sophisticated’. We also knew that he’d probably got a girl into trouble, as they say around here, and had once been banned from driving after being found drunk at the wheel of his car following an accident. It was a long time ago, pre-breathalyser, and late teen stuff. But he was coming home.
There were six of us waiting: his mother, his sister and brother and their spouses, and me. Drink had been taken, except by the mother, a ninety-year-old lapsed Methodist, her liveliness at last muted. There were silences. And a lot of getting up and walking around. In one of them, imagination played: a car zooming up the valley (he’d long served his disqualification), its headlights full on; and those two – the roar and the full beams – becoming real in the distance as we stiffened to face what we had to face. Max. He’d kept himself to himself.
What we knew of him before he left:
‘And the English essay award goes to Max Fisher.’ Applause. Half-smiles and polite clapping from the staff, a semi-circle of downside-up bats (as he later described them in a magazine interview) who were not to be answered back. Max had thought Yeats over-rated. And said so. Eloquently.
Incident at Fulgoni’s
We heard it from widower Luther, the big Pools winner who lived sadly on his own with a bulldog called Bosun and kept his dead daughter’s fur coats in a wardrobe. Max had been thrown out by the waiter Flavio Gazzi, he said, for being abusive, and was screaming at passers-by. Luther didn’t know Max: some red-headed lout, he reported, who’d been ‘at the gut rot’ and was taken away by the police.
In the Matter of the Pudding Club
It could have been anybody’s, they hissed, but Janine knew it was probably Max’s. There were no ways of properly telling then, but her cousin Sue’s parents in Kircaldy had gone to court and it was all over the Fife Free Press for weeks, so she didn’t bother. Poor Sue. It turned out that the respondent was not the father. Paternity suit it was called, like something a dad might wear to a christening. Sue named her son Rory. Janine named her daughter Isobel. The bastards.
Scene at The Goose & Cuckoo
The landlord was ticked off in court for serving Max drinks when it was obvious he’d fuelled up before arrival. The locals liked Max, the lone nineteen-year-old regular with the Frogeye Sprite some garage-owner friend had let his father have for a song. ‘The Rat & Pickled Egg’, Max called the place. The tree he drove into is still there, ever waiting for all-comers. He later fictionalised the crash, describing animals which ‘came silently out of the night’ to investigate the hissing car and its driver, bloodied and asleep against the steering-wheel.
The view from here skedaddles down the slope to the valley bottom, where a vein of neon light tracks the way out. Max took it one night when his father was pick-axeing below for black gold, and hardly ever returned. It’s another world now. Winding gear has wound itself into the ground. Cataracts that were once just stifled drips thunder beneath – so they say. The invisible gas that would ping a canary off its perch like a pock-marked target at Danter’s Fair now swirls in abundance. The past down there is a space being refilled.
We could have talked about Max but we didn’t. We speculated on why. Someone said it was a long time since his novel, The Unbridled Guest, was reviewed in the Sunday papers, though not ones that most people around here bought. Cuttings would be sent by others that mentioned him in passing: at raucous parties in Switzerland and the south of France. There was a follow-up to the first book but it was a pebble cast into a fast-flowing brook: it caused no ripples, and got left behind by the glittering onward rush.
Anyway, like Max, we’ve shuffled towards the abyss, those of us who haven’t vanished already before their time. We head the queue. Behind us are the frolics we once enjoyed ourselves; the spent party-poopers and pointed hats, music’s dying fall. We are growing old, and the prodigal is coming home.
Max never wrote many letters. When humanity stopped doing it and went digital he more or less gave up communicating altogether. So the last one had come as a surprise. He’s not on Facebook or anything else. Being ‘on’ anything would probably irk him. He had his standards. He used to write to me once every couple of years and I understand his sister received the odd missive. It was all about thoughts of himself. Max’s shortcoming was his neglect. No-one had his postal address or his phone number. It was as though he didn’t want us to believe he existed any more.
The sun leaves the scene early here. Sometimes, having sought a gap in the hills, it nevertheless illuminates a high cluster of farm buildings, pointing out some New Jerusalem destined to fade. Now, it has grown dark and cold. Eventide, as our long-forgotten hymns have it, has passed.
His brother reminded us that Max was always on time. And so he was.
We gathered and stood back from the window, with just his mother’s table light on. It was an attempt at a surprise by those who had lost faith in surprises. Far from ‘roaring’ up the hillside, he came quitely, his headlights dipped, and pulled slowly into the yard in front of the house. He seemed to need help in getting out of the car; but he managed it. Dressed in a thick herring-bone overcoat and with his hair grown long and yellowing, he looked older than we expected. Half way to the front door – I’d put the outside light on – he stopped and looked up at the stars. He appeared raffish in his corduroy trousers, red shirt and orange-and-blue tie. We didn’t go out to greet him; we waited till he knocked. His overcoat seemed an encumbrance.
‘I’ll go’, I said to the others, as they clustered around his mother like nestlings.
Under the porch light I barely recognised him.
‘Maximilian,’ I said.
‘Jan’, he answered, half-grimacing.
He brushed past me. I could smell drink, cigarettes.
Tea and cakes were brought out and we settled into muted talk of the old days. It was a while, but not that long, before he told us how many months he had left. And only much later, when his mother had gone to bed, the others had departed, and he was smoking without having asked if I minded, did I break the news that Isobel had agreed to seek treatment.
In the Matter of the Self-Harming
Just to say that it’s been happening for a while now.
‘I never knew,’ he said, leaning across but meeting some undefined obstacle. ‘Poor Izzy.’
There was a lot the all-knowing Max didn’t know, but I knew some of it; and, being one of those who’d stayed, I could comfort him with the knowledge he’d discarded and left behind, as he covered his tracks in all innocence. But we could never be an item again – not now (he’d hate the word ‘item’). We once had a brief shared history. But it had separated and each was well along its pre-determined path. At the end of his, some evidence of turmoil could already be seen, and some inner wailing, and then silence; at the end of mine? We’ll wait and see. But here he was. Back at last.
NIGEL JARRETT is a winner of the Rhys Davies prize for short fiction and the Templar Shorts award. He’s had two collections of short stories, a novel, and a collection of poetry published. A former daily newspaper journalist, he now reviews and writes for Wales Arts Review, Jazz Journal, Slightly Foxed and several others. He lives in Monmouthshire and swims whenever he gets the chance.