The Life of Henry Chapel
By James A. Beaumont
‘I think it’s this one.’
A turn of a brass key unlocks the door into Henry Chapel’s life.
Assorted objects hang in the hallway like items in a bric-a-brac store. Henry’s gaze wanders over the butterfly collection in a glass cabinet; flickers over the old signpost from the railway crossing and then tiptoes amongst the black and white photographs of relatives long since passed away.
He nods to the living room doorway and even this is a canvas of memories. Childish sketches – crayon colours, some keeping in the lines, some creeping over. A round piece of plastic is pinned to the very centre; last week before the school holidays, behind the bike sheds, a single button coming loose from a dress.
Henry and his guest move through the doorway. Everything is just how he left it earlier that day, except the log fire is now burning and the room is cast in saffron. Cynthia’s work, no doubt, and Henry allows himself a smile; his wife is only too aware of his rheumatism.
The TV is playing in the corner. It’s always on, except at bedtime, for the sound airs life into the home. A quiz show – one of Cynthia’s favourites. Some days they grab pen and paper and compete against one another. If she wins, Henry calls it luck. If he wins, she calls it a miracle.
‘Just through there, please,’ Henry says, or at least means to say.
He tries to get a better look at his guest but he can’t bring him into view. The man is wearing a suit – that much he’s noticed. Banker, is it? Estate agent? Solicitor?
The glistening of gold catches his eye. It’s a medal framed on the wall, the word Athletics engraved onto the surface. . .
First place. Hurdles. Thomas outstripping them all. He’s cut his knee. Cynthia overreacting; rushing around to find the nurse. Thomas notices the blood. Tears are in his eyes but he brushes them away when he sees his father watching. Stands up straight. Henry moves forwards, reaches out with one arm but retracts the movement halfway. He nods instead. Thomas nods back.
They move deeper into the house, passing a pile of toy soldiers on the carpet, their war temporarily abandoned.
‘Ha,’ Henry says, ‘He’s got the Jerries on the run there!’ He wants to gesture from his chair but the action fails him.
Now the dining room. The table already prepared; six plates and it’s the good cutlery too. Henry can smell the chicken roasting in the oven. . .
Cynthia’s parents will be here any moment. He’s not seen them since the wedding. Cynthia fussing like he knew she would; everything has to be perfect. Henry’s fingers hover over the hors d'oeuvres as a Mercedes pulls into the driveway. The father-in-law. He’s never taken a liking to Henry. Can’t remember why now.
Henry gazes up at the portrait of The Baltimores; his wife in the centre – an only child with her parents. A jade necklace hangs beneath it. To the right, a row of china plates. Numerous images: An orchard with a boy and a girl sitting on a bench. Two lovers before an altar. A man out hunting. A boy cradling a kitten.
‘Will you be staying for dinner?’ Henry asks his guest.
No response, just a laugh or a cough.
They move forward once more, this time into the study. Now it’s more of a storage room, the contents in disarray. In the far corner there’s a plant pot, the home of a cane, an umbrella and three plastic swords. Rows of books line the shelves with one devoted entirely to journals. 1951; 1952; 1953a; 1953b; 1954; 1955 . . . the list goes on, through the sixties, seventies – fewer volumes for each decade, with just one for the nineties. All of them are in hardback. Red. Leather-bound.
Red like the carpet. . .
A model railway track twists and turns across it. Started in September; has to have it ready in time for Christmas. Henry keeps the study door locked when it’s finished. Six am on Christmas day (Cynthia adamant on seven; rule disregarded). Henry waits until the last presents have been opened. Why don’t you take a look in the study? Their eyes widen. Rush to the end of the room, peering through the glass pane of the door. Henry moves so he can see them. Their faces as they realise, mouths open. No words, no camera, no need.
The trains are speeding along the rails. John must have left them on. A waste of electricity, yet there is a certain satisfaction in creeping up on them like this, catching them in the act so to speak; the Cheltenham Flyer with the Flying Scotsman close on her tail.
Henry attempts to follow the green blur of the Scotsman but struggles to keep her in focus as she whizzes round once, then a second time, then he is no longer in his chair but onboard the Scotsman itself, gazing through the window at the plastic figurines shooting by. In the split second that his eyes linger on each, he feels he can pick out a likeness but he can’t tell whose, nor to which time each belongs. Just outlines. Blank. Yet to be filled in. Or once filled now rendered blank.
The cardboard buildings are blurry as they pass and Henry can’t make out anything but the bakery on the corner. He’s sure he can smell it – the bread dough from that school trip; Debby Morris holding his hand. The bakery has gone on the next circuit and a cemetery has taken its place. A row of people hold a coffin aloft at the head of a small congregation.
Henry makes to remove his hat, until he remembers that his arms are useless. He remembers also that he isn’t wearing a hat and that this isn’t real.
‘I’ll get it.’ It’s the estate agent that says this.
They’re in the kitchen. The sunlight teams in through the curtainless window, a harsh contrast to the dim light of the other rooms.
The door opens.
‘Lot’s about to start,’ a voice says.
The estate agent nods and then turns back to the old man who seems almost lost in the confines of the bulky wheelchair. The word withered creeps into mind as he watches him. The old man stares vacantly into space behind the thick spectacles and the estate agent wonders, not for the first time, whether the poor soul is actually getting anything out of seeing his home, barren as it is, after all this time.
‘There’s no need for him to watch,’ he remarks to the man at the door, ‘I’ll take him to the end of the garden for some air.’
‘Fair enough. I’ll grab you when we’re ready.’
The estate agent props the door open and turns back to the old man, forcing a smile.
‘I hear you’ve lived here your whole life.’ It’s the voice one reserves for the very old or the very young with very little to distinguish between the two.
The old man seems to stare right through him as he replies. ‘Not long,’ he says, ‘Just after the war, you know.’
The estate agent nods. He takes one last look over the naked room. He has to admit, the renovators have done a great job in such a short space of time; the house is completely empty, its walls bare, ready to be decorated however the new occupants see fit. The old man, it seems, was quite the hoarder. Most of it was junk, of course. Scrapped. But there were apparently some pretty valuable antiques, fetching quite the sum.
The estate agent looks at the man in the wheelchair with more than a trace of pity. Poor bugger wouldn’t see a penny of it. And no family to leave it to either. He glances at his watch. ‘Come on,’ he says, standing taller. ‘Let’s get some sunshine, eh?’ And with that, he wheels him outside.
It’s a nice day. The sky is a clear pale blue, the sun still high on the horizon. A portly man is stood on a makeshift platform, calling out numbers and holding one hand aloft at the head of a small congregation.
They come to a wooden gate at the far end of the garden that overlooks the hillside beyond. Their arrival is punctuated by a troupe of blackbirds that dart out from a nearby sycamore to chirp their way noisily to the sky. As the clamour of beating wings and torn leaves dies out, a voice rises from the other end of the garden. ‘I hear ninety-eight thousand. Any raise on ninety-eight thousand? Going once, going twice, sold for ninety eight thousand pounds.’