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Jeremy Browne's Guest

fiction by Alex Keegan


While Honore Browne was out - at some charity thing or other, he wasn't sure - her husband thought he was hungry and decided to raid the freezer in the garage.

The freezer was not as full as Jeremy expected. Two days before he had driven Honore to the supermarket and faithfully followed her round as she loaded a wide trolley with some fresh food, sundry tins and an assortment of frozen items, peas, peppers, fish, meats and sweets. The frozen food section was near the beer and wine and Jeremy had been allowed to buy two bottles of stout, one for Saturday, one for Sunday. Then they had come home. The freezer had been full on Saturday night.

The Brownes had a refrigerator in the kitchen, and a tiny freezer almost guaranteed not to have that night's required item, fish or fowl. The second freezer in the garage had been Honore's idea, a way of spending some excess cash Jeremy had acquired. And they filled it quickly and kept it full. But now it wasn't full. Jeremy had noticed it wasn't full but not noticed it, as in really seen that the freezer was less full than it should have been.

Jeremy took out, after wallowing in a secret, sensuous, deliberately extended agony of choosing, a salmon crumble, some oven chips, and a one-serving Tiramisu. He wanted peas too, but there appeared to be none. He had bought peas, petis-pois, on the Saturday, Birds-Eye Special Selection, but they weren't there. He decided that Honore must have transferred them to the smaller freezer in the kitchen. As he lowered the freezer lid and turned, something squidged beneath his slipper. A pea, two peas, careless of Honore.

The peas weren't in the kitchen freezer so Jeremy took out some carrots and put them in a saucepan with a sprinkle of salt. Then he turned on the oven and put the crumble in. He smiled. The chips wouldn't need to go in for another twenty minutes so he had time to iron a shirt for the morning. He put the tiramisu in the old microwave on thirty seconds low-defrost, clicked up the ironing board, switched on the iron, and went upstairs for a shirt.

In the morning, Honore and Jeremy travelled to the nearby British Rail station. They arrived at seven thirty-three. Jeremy got out of the car, walked round to his wife's side, and opened the door. Then Honore got out of the car, pecked her husband's cheek and went round to the driver's side. Jeremy followed, opened the driver's door for her and watched her tweed in behind the wheel. Today, while Jeremy was working at the Bank of England, his wife was due at the Oxfam shop in Chalfont St. Peter (morning), at a lunch in Gerard's Cross for Save the Children, and at a small garden-party in the after-noon in Little Chalfont (raising funds for Zaire). And she needed to buy some petis-pois. Jeremy had said there were no petis-pois.

From the train, on his way to Threadneedle Street, Jeremy saw peas, an advertisement, a bowl of rich green peas, a knob of butter on top, slowly liquidising, golden yellow, slipping slowly, delightfully, into the cracks between the perfect neat green pellets. And he thought of Honore, Honore, her hairdressed hair, her impeccable posture, the hint of some colour in her perm, her suits, neat suits, her sensible shoes, and garden parties, and evening telephone calls, received from the wife of the local Member of Parliament. He decided he would leave his office at lunch time, and go out and buy some peas, but then it occurred to him, that as far as he could recall, there were no grocery shops in the City of London. That night, commuting back to his home station, he did not think of peas, but on a railway book-stall he noticed the pink corners of certain types of magazines.

Jeremy took a taxi, as at seven thirty-four that morning he had been instructed, from the railway station to his home. Honore was at a garden-function, expected late, and he was to prepare his own dinner. When he arrived home, he removed his hat and coat, changed his formal shoes for some a little more comfortable, then brewed a pot of Indian tea and sat in the sitting-room and watched East Enders.

 

At eight o'clock, Jeremy went into the garage and looked in the freezer. He wasn't certain, but he felt there was less in there than there should have been. He chose a roast-beef meal for one then searched among the frozen boxes for a Bird's Eye Arctic Roll. He found none.

Jeremy was a little bemused and moderately disappointed. He whispered, "Bugger," to himself, then, surprised at his utterance, he spun round quickly as if someone might be listening. In the half-darkness he thought about Honore, almost thought something about Honore, but it did not quite materialise. Then he went into the house. As he left the garage, he had the curious urge to sit down on an old armchair by the door. It made him pause, turn round and look at the freezer, the various stacked boxes, the dark spaces behind. Then he went inside and, while his meal cooked in the microwave, he ironed a shirt for the morning.

The next day, Honore and Jeremy drove to the railway station and parked, and Honore pecked Jeremy's cheek and Jeremy went to London; but, just before they parted, Honore said, "Jeremy, we must talk. This behaviour, the food, it cannot continue."

Jeremy said nothing, but nodded. Today his team was meeting with the Chancellor of the Exchequer's team and debating an interest-rate rise of half a point. The peas and Arctic Rolls could wait.

That night, after the taxi had left, Jeremy Browne opened the garage door, stepped in, closed the door and went to sit in the old armchair. He looked at the freezer and imagined it full, empty, half-full, and he remembered one night, standing on two peas. And Jeremy smiled, and he looked at the full half of the double garage, the boxes, screens, the not-thrown away pieces of his life, and he wondered. But as he wondered, though it was quite dark, he tried to keep his smile and appear non-threatening. He decided not to deplete the freezer contents. When he went back into the house, instead of cooking dinner, he ordered a pizza by telephone. When the boy on a small motor-scooter arrived, he paid cash and after he had finished the pizza, he cut up the box into small pieces, dropped them into a bin and put something on top. Then he telephoned for a taxi to take him to the supermarket.

Honore arrived home at nine o'clock. She felt in need of a bath, she said, and she went to go upstairs.

"I'll make you some tea," Jeremy said, "But didn't you say you wanted to talk about something? Something about food?"

Honore paused in the hall, one foot raised, about to step on the stairs.

"Yes, Jeremy," she said stiffly. "You're eating too much."

"Surely not, my love," Jeremy answered. The freezer stock is barely touched and do I look like I'm gaining weight?"

"The peas, the arctic rolls?"

Jeremy smiled. "The peas were down by the side of the freezer, my love, mea culpa, and as for the arctic rolls, I had one of them tonight and there are three more in the garage. I checked earlier."

"I still think you're eating too much."

"Then I'll cut down," Jeremy said.

Honore Browne nodded, paused another moment, then walked upstairs. She went into the bathroom and locked the door. When she had bathed, she emerged pink from the bath, dressed, went into her bedroom and slipped into her bed. In the other twin, with matching bedside lamp, Jeremy read for his allowed ten minutes. Then they each turned out their separate light.

"Goodnight, Jeremy," Honore said.

"Goodnight, my love," Jeremy said and he lay on his side, staring into the darkness at where his wife's bed would be, imagining Honore naked, the hour-glass shape of her back, her rear rising towards him. He felt dizzy with joy, intoxicated with power.

 

The next morning, a Saturday, Honore and Jeremy breakfasted together and Jeremy, over triangles of toast and rich, dark marmalade asked Honore, "And how is everything, my love?"

Honore Browne paused in mid bite.

"How is the charity work, I mean," Jeremy said, "The Oxfam shop, Save the Children and Joan Churchill's Zaire fund?"

Honore lowered her toast.

"They are fine, Jeremy. Is something wrong?"

"No, not at all my dear. Do eat your toast lest it get cold."

Honore bit, then swallowed.

"And you, dear, everything at the bank going well?"

"Certainly, my love. The Chancellor ignored our advice again and refused to raise interest rates; inflationary pressures are growing, but it's all a little predictable with an election coming."

"I'm glad," Honore said.

"Glad? Glad that the Chancellor ignored our advice, or glad that we are due for a jump in inflation?"

Honore raised her toast.

"Just glad, dear."

When his wife was out that afternoon - Saturdays she had her hair tidied - Jeremy Browne went into the garage, put two bars of chocolate on the freezer, coughed loudly and left. One hour later, he went to the garage, took time and noise to open the door, stepped in, sunlight around his head, saw the freezer top bare, and was so thrilled that he thought he might faint. He coughed again and said out loud, as if an actor in soliloquy, that perhaps he should store some potato crisps in the garage. Then he went indoors, to his wardrobe where he now hid foodstuff, took out two maxi-packs of Walkers Crisps (Cheese & Onion, Smoky Bacon, Ready Salted, Salt & Vinegar) and went back down to the garage. When his wife came home, Jeremy smiled at her, said her hair was noticeably nice and asked would she like some tea. Honore felt disturbed but said yes she would quite like some Earl Grey before they went shopping.

At the superstore, Jeremy felt animated, so animated that he suggested that perhaps they might buy some wine, and he an extra few bottles of stout. Honore was surprised, considered challenging this new person, but rolled instead with the shock, and allowed Jeremy two extra Mackeson's. They also bought a good Fleurie and a Cotes du Rhone Village.

In the frozen food section Jeremy bought peas again and wondered what they were like, still frozen, warming on the tongue, the ice giving way to the delicious fresh-pea taste, fresh as the moment when the pod went pop. He bought frozen blackberries too, and more sweets, and when Honore protested he said, "But you're out so many evenings, my love, and these sweet things are poor compensation for your absence."

Honore flushed. It was amazing, but she flushed, and then she reddened again as she tried to remember the last time that she and Jeremy had had "a Saturday night". She looked at her husband as he walked ahead, between the fish-fingers and the extra-lean mince, and she felt sure he was taller, his hair not quite so thinning. Later that afternoon she checked beneath his pillows and underneath his mattress but there were no unusual things stored there.

That evening, Jeremy asked Honore, which of her charities mattered most. If she had to give up working for all of them bar one, which cause would survive? Was Save the Children as good as or better than Oxfam, were the children in Eritrea more or less deserving than those in Zaire? Did she ever wonder about one-parent families, the disenfranchised, the homeless, say in the Home Counties, or was there some instinct she followed that made her think of brown-skinned people as more needing of her help?

"Oh, Jeremy!" Honore said. "Charity is simply something I do. It's what my friends do, what my circle does. It's why you and I pay for Abile and Beeka to go to school in Mozambique. It's like the aid our country gives to others, the better off helping the worse off.

"But not prison-visiting, say, or building shelters for street-people?"

"Oh, Jeremy!" Honore said. "We don't have prisons around here, and as for shelters, where do you propose we put them? One can only do so much, can't one? And besides, there are others working for homeless types aren't there?"

"Yes, dear," Jeremy said, then he said, "Your hair is nice tonight, my love, perhaps we could go to bed early?"

"I have a letter to write," Honore said quickly, "but if that doesn't take too long…"

"Of course, dear. Would you mind, then, if I went for a short walk?"

"Of course not," Honore said.

"Thank-you, dear," Jeremy said and left his wife and went into the garage. And as Honore Browne sat at her writing desk, in no hurry to finish her letter yet waiting for her husband's footfall and his key in the door, Jeremy was barely ten feet away from her, sitting in an old arm-chair, whispering to the darkness. He spoke softly because he did not want his wife to hear.

"My name is Jeremy, surname Browne, I work at the Bank of England. When I was a young man I wanted to live in Suffolk, own a small-holding and paint a little. I last had sex with my wife on October the 14th last year. It was a Saturday night at ten-oh-three. Honore was happy. She had been invited to a garden-party at Buckingham Palace. We had drunk a bottle of wine to celebrate. The night was very pleasant and it made me remember my young man's dreams."

He waited, listening for Honore, imagining her scratching pen. He spoke again to the darkness, the boxes, screens.

"I don't mind you stealing from my freezer. I will keep it well-stocked and will shop in secret so Honore doesn't suspect anything, but please, try not to take too much of any one thing and please don't eat fish or meat that needs to be properly cooked. I will do my best for you, but I must go now, Honore will soon be finishing her letter and it's a Saturday. Good night, God Bless."

On Monday night (Eritrean Famine Relief), Jeremy took two blankets down to the garage, and an old cushion he had used for his bad back. He was nervous as he placed them on the garage floor, near where the boxes were piled high, at the end, where he thought there might be room underneath. He averted his eyes, but he felt both frightened and aroused as he left his little gifts and again he thought about his wife. Then he went into the house, poured a little Fleurie into a paper cup, went back to the garage and put it on the freezer. Then he sat in the armchair. The blankets had not moved.

"I expect nothing," Jeremy Browne said to the boxes. "I expect nothing. But I hope the blankets will help, and that you enjoy the small drink." He sat in the armchair for five more minutes, then stirred, coughed, got up and left.

On Tuesday, after a day-long meeting on third world debt management, (with a delegation from the International Monetary Fund), Jeremy rolled home, first on a whistling tube train - he put two pound coins in a box in front of a dirty woman waiting at Paddington with an even dirtier child - then tiredly, on a slow-clacking, clattering train to his local station. Honore was waiting with their small car but she was dressed for another fund evening. Yes, she was going out, but first she would take him home.

After he had showered and Honore had left, while his wife was out doing good works, Jeremy sat in his lounge with a glass of Fleurie, and felt guilty. His house was warm and comfortable, fine rugs were scattered on the good fitted carpets, the lounge furniture was large and soft, and expensive shaped drapes hung at the long Georgian windows. Jeremy had earned all of these things, but still he felt selfish. Soft music played on his Bang & Olufsen stereo system and Jeremy listened, but the sweet sounds seemed stolen, or obscene, Jeremy could not think of the best word, all these things. He sighed. Then Jeremy rose, walked briskly into the kitchen, unplugged the micro-wave and carried it through to the garage. As yet he hadn't thought of any consequences. And still he expected nothing.

Jeremy went into the garage and set up the microwave. As he did so the hair on his neck prickled and he could feel sweat on his forehead and on his neck, and rolling down his spine. He talked to the glass oven door.

"Well, you still work, old thing, but you can rest out here in the garage. You're to be replaced by a wonder machine. Hah!" Then he thought out loud, "If ever I decide to eat out here, I've got everything I could ever want."

Then Jeremy remembered the blankets, and as he moved away toward his armchair he had to force himself not to look around or down. But he was sure he hadn't seen them, he hadn't seen them! As he sat down, he kept his eyes closed and then, as he opened them, exhaling a theatrical "Ah!", he saw their absence and smiled. But he had to go. Honore might come home early.

"Honore…" he said to the boxes. "She might come home early."

But Honore Browne did not come home early. She came home just a little later than Jeremy expected, full of the true-blue charms of Mr Churchill and his wife, of constituency boundary changes, of the coming royal garden party, and news of another postal adoption, Majorie Bickerstaffe with a direct debit from her account at Coutts & Co that was enough to support half a village in North Swaziland or was it Gabon?

At this moment, Jeremy broke wind, an uproarious fart, surprisingly loud, and where one week before he would have been mortified, he giggled and Honore stiffened, "Jeremy?"

Honore had managed not to ask, had Jeremy been drinking, but Jeremy answered her question anyway, "I have shared a bottle of Fleurie, my sweet, but I think my unfortunate intestinal faux pas is due not to that, but to lunch, a buffet, a very difficult meeting." Then he added, "And some samosas."

"I'm worried about you, Jeremy, this thing with food."

"But not the wine?"

"Shared?" Honore said, a little surprised, "Have we had a visitor?"

Jeremy smiled. " Did you know, my love, that the total of third world loan repayments to western banks far exceeds all overseas aid?"

"Did someone call, Jeremy?"

"No, my dear. Would you perhaps care for a glass of Cotes du Rhone?"

"I have had a dry sherry, thank-you, Joan Churchill, she - "

"A fine woman."

"Please, Jeremy."

"I'm sorry, my love, I think perhaps the wine…"

"I think so too," Honore said.

 

That night, in their designed darkness, Honore Browne lay fearful and her husband lay vaguely amused, smiling, still excited, wondering. And after their lights had been switched off for three minutes, Jeremy crooned softly, "Honore? Honore, my love?" and Honore feigned deep sleep.

In the morning, normal service was resumed, breakfast correctly served, the toast triangles properly triangular, the scooped butter properly ribbed, the small pot of marmalade properly silver and properly silver-spooned.

Honore thought Jeremy should buy rather than hire top hat and tails for the Royal garden-party. Jeremy asked why.

"Who knows, my dear, who may have worn a hired suit?"

"Is it not cleaned?"

"I dare say, but still - "

"Whatever you think best, my love."

"Of course," Honore said. "We shall have you measured this weekend."

"Yes, dear," Jeremy said, "in town no doubt, and we will buy a new micro-wave. The old one is broken."

"Oh," Honore said.

The suit was fine, truly elegant, and they bought a fine topper too, perfect for Jeremy, Honore said, and perfect for Royal Ascot, and perhaps Derby Day accompanying Mr & Mrs Churchill.

"I do look quite dapper, do I not?" Jeremy said, and Honore concurred. Indeed, dapper was quite apt. In the last few weeks her husband had shaken off more than a few pounds and now stood taller.

"Yes, dear," she said.

"And you, my love, you look as radiant as always," Jeremy said.

 

But Jeremy did not attend the Royal Garden party. In the last two weeks before their trip to Buckingham Palace, he complained intermittently of a stomach disorder, went for his walks to "shake of this heartburn" and, when he was forced to take a day off work with a "possible ulcer", he managed to appear grey-faced until Honore went out on yet another fund-raising jaunt.

And in his dark secret moments, grey-faced or not, Jeremy Browne sat in his special chair in the garage and whispered at the boxes, the gloom. One day it would be beers, experiments with light lagers, rich stouts, and once, a bottle of Newcastle Brown. Another day he brought chocolates, on another he brought a bowl of faintly scented water, a fresh razor, a tin of shaving foam.

And still Jeremy Browne expected nothing, and though the beer and the crisps, the chocolates, the fruit, and the raisins always disappeared, and though the scented bowl was disturbed, the shaving equipment untouched, but the towel left damp, he expected nothing, nothing.

Until finally, the day arrived and Honore left for London without him and Jeremy groaned appropriately and Honore said, "Well, yes," and left quietly.

And later, Jeremy rose, dressed and went downstairs, out to the garage. He sat down.

"We have been friends now for three months, Jack, and still I don't know your name. But I think of you as Jack, Jack, or Reg or Tom and sometimes I wonder why you ever felt the need to live as you do and sometimes I wonder why you chose to come to me, but I'm glad you did."

Jeremy paused, his breath a little too hot, a little too shallow.

"But Jack, today is a very special day. Honore has left with Mr Churchill, with Joan Churchill and she will be at Court for lunch. She is happy."

He felt almost sick with sensation.

"And, Jack? Jack I wanted to give you a treat. I have run a bath upstairs, and put some things out. And I thought - well Jack I thought you might like to come out from behind your boxes, perhaps go inside my house and rest, use my facilities."

Again Jeremy paused, breathless, unable to swallow. "So Jack, if you could just let me know you're there, perhaps a single knock, enough for me to know you hear me? One knock and then I will go away, for a long walk, two hours or so. And you can wait until I am not here and should you wish, you may borrow my house."

Jeremy had thought he expected nothing. Now he did.

"I will go, but please, just a quiet tap, tap the boxes?"

And then the soft, soft, sweet, tap-tap.

"Jack?"

Tap, tap.

And pleasure rolled up through Jeremy Browne, warm red pleasure like an afterglow and he smiled, his eyes wet, and finally he took a long, long belly-deep breath and said, "Thank-you, Jack," and stood, ready to leave.

And there was a further tap from the boxes, then some movement, and then, from deep in there, from deep in the dark mystery of the garage, a voice.

And Jeremy, bewildered, heard softness, sweetness, a female voice, not a Jack but a Jill, a feminine voice, a young woman's voice, a beautiful voice. His head spun and he sat again.

"You are a kind man, Jeremy Browne. And I know you expect nothing. I know you give because you want to give. Yes, I would love to bathe, oh, Jeremy, to bathe would be wonderful."

Jeremy could hear movement and the female voice was closer and closer, slowly but surely clearer. He felt weak.

"Yes, I would love to bathe, but please, don't go for a walk." He waited.

"My name is Alice, Jeremy. Please stay."

"Yes?" he said.

There was a long silence, then, quietly, "If it's all right with you, Jeremy, I'd like to come out."


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