Ghosts of Chatham

Chatham, England, January 1985

"That man was never any good for Margaret."

With a groan of almost physical pain, Malcolm Redgrave dropped his head onto his arms, shutting out the sight of his sister-in-law. Lost in grief and the numbing effects of just a bit of brandy, he absorbed only fragments of the conversation—the argument—taking place around and over him at the table in the busy Chatham pub.

By and large, life had been one long sojourn in hell for the last five years, but today he must somehow have descended into yet a deeper level of the abyss—one dominated by a cold blonde demon with a venomous tongue. He could hear Kenji and Tom, an unlikely pair of errant angels trying to quiet Madeline, but that wasn’t apt to do much good.

After all, she only said the things that had been lurking in his mind for the last half-decade.

Today was—would have been—Margaret’s birthday. Only her thirty-sixth. He always degenerated into an incomprehensible mess on two days of the year—the days of her birth and death—and this time was no exception. Kenji and Tom had come to visit, as always, and Tom had suggested they go out for a drink. "To steady the nerves," he said.

"Madeline, leave the man alone! Can’t you see what she meant to him?"

Fifteen minutes after the men had gone into the pub, Margaret’s sister Madeline had turned up. Entirely a coincidence—she only happened to be on assignment in Chatham that week, and the day being just as painful to her, she had dropped by the pub for much the same reasons as his. The resulting confrontation, however, was the worst since… the funeral.

"He did everything he could for her, Miss Alston."

Later. He would deal with them all later.

At least until their last holiday season together, Margaret had always put great stock in the word "later". They would settle down "later"—they would have children "later". He’d been more than content with that. Skating was a game for the young, and soon enough he wouldn’t be so young anymore. Let him take his opportunities while he could, because "later" would be a long, long time.

Longer than he'd ever imagined.

"Madeline, will you shut up!"

At Tom’s outburst, Malcolm at last raised his head. Madeline’s mouth was actually closed, and it was a rather novel sight. Kenji and Tom were staring at him now.

"She never… never said, Maddy." His voice was almost inaudible, ending on a stifled cough. "Never said she wanted. Until Christmas. I gave up the Olympics."

Madeline glared her fury at him. "If you’d really loved her, you would have known. She told me, Malcolm--she wanted children!"

Tom straightened to his full formidable height, glaring right back at her.

"If she’d said," Malcolm murmured. "If she’d only said."

Kenji, sitting beside him, squeezed his shoulder. "Steady, Mal… Miss Alston, I really think you’d better leave."

"No. I’ll leave."

Malcolm didn’t realize he'd said the words until after he heard them. He blinked, his murky thoughts and clouded eyes suddenly clearing, and stood up.

For a moment, everything was clear.

"I’ll leave," he repeated hoarsely. He fumbled an uncounted handful of cash onto the table, took up his coat and walked away, briskly. Almost running.

He wanted to run. From everything.

Behind him, Kenji and Madeline started in again. Dear Ken, an affable diplomat, a father with the patience of Job, was angry—and still his voice was steady and calm as he told Madeline what he thought of her. Somehow his quiet tones dulled her harsh acidic ones. Malcolm shook his head and stepped out through the door of the pub, into a dark and bitter-cold winter’s night.

"Mal, wait!" Tom’s voice confirmed the long-striding footfalls pursuing him across the car park. A hand fell on his shoulder, firmly enough to spin him around, and he was looking into Tom’s worried eyes.

His friend was thinking of the last time.

"What are you going to do?" There was an odd strain in Tom’s voice.

With a calm he didn't feel, Malcolm slowly shrugged on his coat. Andre’s coat, with the soft fur collar that still smelled of the lavender-water their old mentor used to wear.

"Exactly what I said, Tom. I’m leaving."

He didn’t much care for the mechanical monotone of his voice. Tom clearly didn’t either; his hand tightened on Malcolm’s shoulder. "Come on. We’ll fetch Kenji, and we’ll go. We’ll take you home."

"Home?" A more unsettling quiver that was not quite laughter broke the flatness of Malcolm’s voice. "I’m not going home."

Tom’s brow furrowed anxiously. "Then—"

"I’m leaving England."

Tom stepped back, flinching as if he had been shot. His astonishment seemed to recall Malcolm to himself; the older man closed his eyes, and took a deep breath to steady his voice. It was quiet and sure when he looked up again, leaning close to speak to his friend—broken, yet as always full of dignity and grace.

"Listen to me, Tom. For three years, I’ve tried to be the man I was… when Margaret was alive. But that man died with her." He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, then went on. "It’s time I got to know the man he left behind—but I can’t do that here. Not in Chatham… not in England. Not where my memories live."

Tom let out a deep breath, and though there was still anxious puzzlement in his face, there was something of relief in that sigh. Malcolm was talking of life. Of living. Fears for his safety, even his sanity, could rest once again.

"Where will you go?" he asked quietly.

Malcolm canted his head to one side, rubbing his cheek against the fur collar of that old coat, and cracked a smile for the first time in a week. "To America, I think… Yes. Perhaps I’ll take up coaching there—Andre did always want one of us to do that." As his friend stared at him in uneasy wonderment, he was actually moved to a chuckle, and clapped Tom on the shoulder. "Now, Tom, you’ve nothing to worry over. Ken will look after me. After all, that’s what I pay him for."

Tom blinked a few times, then shook his head broadly and briskly, letting out a windy sigh. "Dash it all, Mal, but you’re mad sometimes." But the tone of his voice proved he did not believe those words.

"I know," Malcolm said lightly, and let go of his friend’s shoulder. "Go on and fetch Ken from Maddy’s clutches. I think I shall have a lot of explaining to do."

Tom hesitated for a moment, but Malcolm’s expression was oddly serene, and he made a small shooing gesture that decided him. Still shaking his head, Tom went back into the pub to extricate their friend… and Malcolm waited.

Perhaps not even in America would he find the new man he sought in himself. Perhaps he would not like that fellow if he did—but perhaps there would be value enough in the search itself to make the effort worthwhile.

At the least, the ghosts of Chatham would not dare to follow him.

© 2002 Jordanna Morgan