Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Vol. 106, No. 4 & 5. Whole No. 648 & 649, October 1995
The Big Five-O
© 1995 by Gillian Linscott
We met for the first time in ten years at a gallery opening.
“Happy birthday,” I said.
She’d had her back to me until then, talking to a bearded man in denims. An elegant back in a blazer of black, sinuous silk, legs swathed in soft fuchsia-coloured pants in the same material. Silk spun by happy worms, naturally. She whirled round, spilling her Australian Sauvignon over poor denims. There was alarm on her face as she turned, but when she saw me it gave place to the familiar wide-mouthed smile. The smile had a question in it, eyebrows arched.
I explained: “Two days ago.”
She detached herself from the other man and stepped round a piece of jagged metal on a plinth.
“Of course. It’s only five days from my own. Forty-seven last Tuesday.”
“It’s been such ages, Peter...”
“That piece about you in the
They’d interviewed her because she was a candidate for Businesswoman of the Year award, importing fine fabrics from the Third World in a typically deft combination of profit, travel, and altruism. She wrinkled her suntanned nose. “Journalists.” Elbowed and jostled by people ranging for refills, we talked in the way you do talk after ten years, briefly regretting one broken marriage apiece and registering, almost as briefly, that we now each had more satisfactory and less formal arrangements in their places. She was candid about the bankruptcy of an earlier business venture and about her one son, now an unpromising nineteen and pretending to be an actor in Chicago of all places, would you believe?
“Much as usual.”
“Your very successful usual.”
We talked about Washington, Tokyo, mutual acquaintances. We exchanged London telephone numbers and addresses, card for card. I invited her to dinner afterwards but she had an appointment with some Lapps who wove birch bark. It was only when she’d phoned for a taxi and we were hovering by the door waiting for it that she came out with her question, apparently casually.
“Do you see anything of Welbrand these days?”
She turned away from me as she asked, pretending to look at a chromium thing in the window, but her shoulders had gone tense under the silk.
“Not for years. How about you?”
She shook her head. The taxi arrived, she darted into it, and that was that.
Next year, on her forty-eighth birthday and five days after mine, I rang and invited her to dinner. It was an impulse. I’d hardly expected her to be in London, let alone free, but after a gasp of surprise she said yes. Yes, let’s. We met at a little French place in Charlotte Street. We ate salmon fillets in a sauce of sorrel and lemon grass, drank Chablis, with a lime soufflé to follow. She wore a loose dress in a material that seemed to change colour with every movement she made, like the feathers on a pigeon’s neck. We talked about one of her recent journeys, to Afghanistan of all places.
“There’s this wonderful family — more of a small tribe. They’ve just gone on weaving their cloth through the whole thing, invasion, civil war, the lot. And it’s beautiful, quite beautiful. I bought all they’d sell me.”
“Like the squid?”
She looked at me, surprised, then laughed. It was a joke from a long way back, from the time when the three of us were sitting on the headland of some Greek island in the summer after we finished at university, watching the fishermen slapping dead squid down on the rocks to make them tender. Overconfident in her few sentences of Greek, she’d undertaken to buy some to cook for our supper and come back followed by a grinning fisherman stumbling under the weight of a basket-load, kilos and kilos of them. Welbrand and I teased her about it for the rest of that long summer. When we’d finished laughing, she sipped at her glass of armagnac and went quiet for a while.
“It’s funny. Just before you rang I was thinking about Welbrand.”
“What do you suppose he’s doing now?”
“About twenty years in some exotic prison.”
“Even seriously, you have to admit that prison’s about as likely as anything else with Welbrand. Or a mercenary somewhere, perhaps.”
“Wouldn’t he be too old for a mercenary?”
She was right, of course, but somehow I couldn’t imagine Welbrand growing older. I said the last news I’d had about him was from a friend who’d heard he was teaching in Cumbria.
“Oh, that was ten years ago at least. More. Anyway, it didn’t last. I had a letter from him soon after that postmarked Amsterdam. He claimed he’d been thrown out for doing Kerouac with the sixth form instead of Shakespeare.”
More coffee arrived.
“Peter, do you remember that last night on Andros before we went back to England?”
“I remember we got out of our minds on Moroccan and some vile wine.”
“I mean, do you remember the pact?”
I found myself looking into her eyes. They were grey and hard, much harder than the soft shifting colours of her dress.
“You do remember, don’t you? About what we were going to do when we were fifty.”
I said nothing.
“Yes, you do remember.”
The certainty in her voice seemed to take the temperature down by several degrees. She went on talking in a voice lower and more urgent than the one she’d used for our restaurant chatter.
“There was this science fiction book he’d been reading, you remember, about this planet where people killed themselves as soon as they stopped having new ideas.”
“M. P. Shiel, I think.”
No good pretending that I didn’t remember.
“Anyway, we agreed that was the way we should live our lives, a continuous blaze of ideas and actions, and as soon as we felt it dying down we should kill ourselves.”
I remembered a salty fire of driftwood crackling on the sand and the Aegean shifting itself gently in the darkness a few yards away. I remembered the bite of sharp wine and woodsmoke at the back of my throat and two faces in the firelight, hers like something let out from the temple of an archaic goddess, Welbrand’s eyes looking as if the reflection of the flames was burning them back and back into their sockets.
“He said by fifty, if not before. Probably it would come well before that, but by fifty we’d have no excuse for not knowing.”
“A typically Welbrand idea.”
“You swore too, in blood and salt and wine.”
A knife blade in the firelight. Welbrand’s eyes as he flicked it across my forearm, then hers, then his own, delicately, so that the soft skin just parted and enough blood ran. Then the three of us sucking from each other’s arms the taste of blood and salt and falling in a tangled heap on the sand so that it was difficult to tell where one body ended and another began. I looked at her across the restaurant table and saw that movement and colour had come back into her eyes.
“Yes, I swore too.”
“How naive we were. As if you gave up actions or ideas because of the date on a calendar. I feel I’ve got more energy and ideas now than I’ve ever had, don’t you?”
I forget what I answered, but the atmosphere lightened. We went back to speculating about what Welbrand might be doing. She wondered if we’d even recognise him.
“He might be anyone. He might have been there with my tribesmen in Afghanistan, or standing next to you in the taxi queue at Heathrow. For all we know he might be that waiter over there.”
She gave a little jerk of the shoulder towards the waiter standing by the doors to the kitchen. He was certainly about the right height and colouring for Welbrand, with a drooping moustache that looked false but probably wasn’t. At that stage of the dinner it set us both laughing until she worried that the waiter might think we were laughing at him. When he came over to offer more coffee she made a point of being specially nice to him and insisted that I should leave a tip well over the normal rate. She made no fuss about letting me pay the bill, but as we went out she insisted:
“Next year it’s my turn, and it’s your birthday we’ll celebrate.”
It was a good year for me, as if the memory we’d raised of that summer nearly thirty years ago had brought back with it some of the confidence and trapeze-poise of being young. If I’d met Welbrand that year, I’d have laughed at him. And yet, in spite of having more than enough to do, I somehow made sure I was in London in the week of my forty-ninth birthday. Two days before it, she rang.
“You remembered? There’s this rather good Armenian place I found in Camden Town.” She named an address. “Shall we meet there? Is eight o’clock all right?”
There was a lack of warmth in her voice, almost sharpness. I decided that must be because she was phoning from her office.
I was there before eight, drinking dry sherry in an anteroom pavil ...