December Fiction

Regular readers of Anecdotage may have noticed that November’s Fiction Month was missing this year, replaced by the last few episodes of Australia 2011. In recognition of this, December’s posts will feature short fiction. Here, then, is the first part of a story about a larger-than-life character who is not all he seems at the beginning. The story concludes in next weeks post:

A Neighbourly Manner [part 1]

‘I wonder what she sees in him?’ I kept saying.

            ‘Leave it alone, can’t you?’ Richard grumbled, or he would shake out a new page of his newspaper in a crackling signal of finality. But one month on the events following that afternoon dogged me as I weeded the border or strolled along the lane to the farm for eggs.

After we’d received the invitation I’d been full of excited zeal, wanting to make a reciprocal gesture before we’d even taken a step along the wide sweep of their driveway, but Richard had curbed my ambitions by frowning,

‘Let’s wait and see how it goes. We haven’t met them yet. We are only neighbours, nothing more. By all accounts they are society people so I don’t suppose we will be of any interest to them except as a kind of ‘country bumpkin’ story for their London friends.’

Despite my husband’s dashing of cold water, I continued to harbour fanciful thoughts of what might transpire. I knew that the manor house next door received a constant flow of visitors despite the seedy state of its accommodation. Some were well known figures in publishing, the media or the arts, invoking thrilling fantasies of meeting someone famous. Who knew what might transpire? This could be the beginning of a series of gatherings to which we were part. I began to run a mental inventory of the contents of my wardrobe and concluded it was lacking in some areas.

The previous occupant’s attempt to run Chiddlehampton Manor as a hotel had failed in a gurgling whirlpool of bankruptcy, depression and alcohol dependency. Villagers who had worked there told of stained carpets and mouldy en suites in the twenty three bedrooms; slimy, brown grease covering kitchen surfaces, dwindling bottles in the wine cellar, failed initiatives such as ‘poker breaks’ or ‘murder mystery weekends’ attracting a desultory handful of revellers and resulting in increasing event cancellations.     

            The parlous nature of the building lent even more urgency to my desire to see it and to meet the latest occupants, who wanted it for a country retreat, no less. A country retreat! Twenty three bedrooms and bathrooms, a ballroom, eight acres of grounds containing stables and seven cottages for staff plus a vast, walled garden with endless greenhouses-all now fallen into disrepair; disintegrating into the chalky, Dorset soil from which it had risen.

            There was a blustery March wind gusting across the fields as we walked through the open gate into the driveway; gaps in the two rows of elegant beeches that bordered the sweeping drive, and fallen branches. Weeds punctuated the centre of the crumbling tarmac as it curled around to reveal the yellow stone manor house nestling in a dip below.

            I stopped for a moment to admire it, tucking the box of homemade shortbread under my arm. Richard had scoffed.

‘They won’t want that. Their sort is used to posh nosh; Fortnum and Mason, Harrods, all that sort of thing’. I’d ignored him of course, as only one who is shackled to a curmudgeon for thirty two years can.

            Even in a decadent state the manor is beautiful. A graceful old house whose romantic symmetry complements the rustic setting of rolling Dorset countryside. As we approached the columns of the grand portico I shivered, hanging back as Richard strode up to the vast, oak door and pressed the bell in his no-nonsense way.

            In the ensuing hiatus my misgivings expanded. ‘Do you think they’ve forgotten?’

            Richard snorted. ‘Let’s hope so! Then we can go home and have a cup of tea.’ But steps could be heard echoing inside.

            I’d heard plenty about him from villagers, in the pub or at the community shop but I was still unprepared for the experience of meeting Jackson Agnew. That he was ‘upper class’, ‘stinking rich’and ‘ponsy’ was circulating the public bar of The Cuckoo, with ‘a bleeding, towny nob’ thrown in by Noah Barnes, Bendick Farm’s cowman, who was not known for holding back on his opinions. Little had been expressed about Dr Agnew’s companion; whether she was partner or wife or daughter no one knew, only that she was ‘posh totty’ [Noah Barnes again] and thought by some to be a model or an actress.

            The door was not so much opened as flung wide and filled with him; with Jackson Agnew. His frame crammed the doorway, everything broad, everything extended, from his lengthy arm and thin fingers reaching out to shake Richard’s to his gaping grin and booming ‘Hello hello-Welcome to my humble abode!’

            Once I’d followed my husband into the hallway my own hand was enveloped and squeezed. ‘We meet at last!’ he said and his voice was like a deep, mellow gong echoing around the cavern of a hall with its bare walls and floorboards. After I’d glanced around the barren space I noticed he was scrutinising our faces, hungry for our reactions.

            ‘I expect you’ve been in here hundreds of times, haven’t you?’

            Richard was peering up at the ceiling, eager for a sign of damp, death watch or woodworm. He avoided Jackson’s gaze as he replied.

            ‘We haven’t lived in the village all that long ourselves; retired here from Bristol eighteen months ago. We had no cause to come to the hotel. If we want a drink we go to the pub.’

            ‘We met the Judds, of course, out and about, you know, when walking the dog,’ I added.

            Jackson grinned. ‘Yes. Pour souls. What a state they got into. Shall we move into the lounge and we can rustle up a cup of tea, or something stronger if you like?’ He looked beyond us to an open doorway, calling, ‘Darling, our neighbours are here.’

            We walked through into what had been the hotel bar but was now being used as a makeshift kitchen and dining room. Here, overhead the ceiling was adorned in an ornate series of murals decorated in gold leaf portraying rotund cherubs cavorting with plump maidens in diaphanous robes. Jackson caught me scrutinising it and barked in noisy mirth.

‘What do you think of that? Someone went to town, didn’t they? Are you familiar with the Baroque style at all? Ah, there she is! Darling! These are our nearest neighbours, Richard and er…’

I broke in. ‘Lena’

‘Lena, of course. Richard and Lena.’

She was standing behind the bar, motionless, an almost smile on her lips; eyes that had been fixed upon him moving in a slow turn towards Richard and myself. In that moment I understood why all of the descriptions of her had been correct and at the same time wrong, because while she was young and undeniably beautiful there was no element of Hollywood style; no trappings that could be considered cosmetic enhancement. And one thing was clear. She could not in any way be mistaken for his daughter, since no daughter in the world would ever look at her father like that.

She moved around to join us, extending a hand, first to me.

‘Imogen.’

Her voice was soft and low and her neat features dominated by intense, deep blue eyes that held mine; her short, glossy cap of black hair a stark contrast with the near translucent pallor of her skin. She took my proffered shortbread, murmuring ‘how kind’ before placing the plastic box on the bar.

While Richard’s responses are never obvious I noticed from the widening of his eyes and a slight flare of his nostrils when she took his hand that he was impressed.

‘Now’

We swung towards the master of the estate. He had a look of Christopher Plummer as Captain Von Trapp mustering his numerous children as he addressed us.

‘Shall I take you for a tour before we have tea?’

I nodded before catching my husband’s expression, which was set into ‘I don’t want to be here much longer’ mode. He glanced at his watch.

‘Perhaps just a short tour’ I suggested, and we followed Jackson through the connecting doors at the end of the bar into the adjoining drawing room; another vast, empty space with tall windows facing on to the grounds and adorned with only a huge, stone fireplace.

As we wandered through the network of rooms I hung back to allow Richard and Jackson to get beyond earshot and Imogen to draw level with me as I pretended to examine a carved mantel.

‘It’s all so big,’ I began, gesturing at the room. ‘Whatever will you do with it all? Do you have a large family to fill it up?’

‘Oh no,’ she shrugged. ‘I have one son and Jackson has a stepdaughter. But he loves large rooms and he wants a project now that he is semi retired.’

‘And how about you?’ I asked her.

‘I won’t be retiring any time soon.’ She gave that enigmatic half smile, yet I was undeterred.

‘And do you work in the same field, in art dealing?’

            She smiled a little wider then, as if enjoying a private joke. ‘Oh no, no-nothing so glamorous; I am a nurse.’ Though my surprise must have registered on my face she was disinclined to elaborate. I pressed on. ‘It will be difficult for you to spend so much time here then.’

She began to walk in the direction of the men’s voices, speaking swiftly, clandestine-voiced, over her shoulder.

‘We don’t live together, Jackson and I. He lives in Kensington and I am not so far from here, in Dorchester. We meet at weekends.’

            I caught her up, wanting to know more but she was intent on reuniting our group.

Jackson was explaining his plans to Richard, his long arms waving about and his cultured vowels bouncing around the bare walls. When we approached my husband gave me a meaningful stare, which I chose to disregard.

‘We thought we’d make this our kitchen as it’s so sunny. Imo would like to turn it into a monument to Monet-all yellow walls and blue tiles, but I like a bit of sexy steel and glass myself.’ He beamed at us, ruffling Imogen’s glossy hair and she closed her eyes, liquefying under his touch. Throughout the remainder of the tour she stayed close to her man as if every moment without him was wasted.

All attempts to engage Richard in feedback regarding the visit were quashed, his only remark being ‘bought himself a trophy wife.’ I knew better than to argue, but it was obvious to me that beautiful Imogen was infatuated with her distinguished, older lover, wealthy or not. 

Grace is also known as the novelist, Jane Deans. Her new novel, The Conways at Earthsend is now out and available from Amazon, Waterstones, Goodreads, W H Smith, Pegasus Publishing and many more sites. Visit my website: janedeans.com or my author page on Facebook: (1) Jane Deans, Novellist, Short Fiction and Blog | Facebook.

A Day to Remember…

Today’s post is a short fiction, due to my being out of the country for a couple of weeks. I hope it breaches the hiatus…

A Day to Remember
It was rare for Shirley and Brian to visit London these days, but it was a special birthday for Shirley, who’d expressed a desire to see ‘Phantom’ and managed to drag Brian along this time; Brian, who was not fond of shows and would have preferred to have visited the museums or Kew Gardens.
Deciding to make the most of their day, the couple bought a newspaper for him and a magazine for her before settling themselves into a seat with a table on the train, where on glancing at the headline on the front of his paper, Brian read, ‘World Summit to be Hit by Protest’. He frowned.
“Looks like we’ve chosen a bad day to visit. There’s to be some sort of demonstration. Let’s hope the transport system isn’t affected.”
Shirley looked up from the article she was reading about William and Kate’s likely choice of baby names.
“Well I don’t suppose they’ll be going where we’re going, will they? They’ll all go to Trafalgar Square, or wherever it is they gather up for these protests, not Oxford Street shops and the theatres.”
While they had coffee, Brian studied his map of the London Underground. As he was so much more adept at finding his way around than she, Shirley left all the navigating to her husband, who prided himself on his ability to understand maps and directions. He’d been persuaded to further indulge his wife by accompanying her to various department stores, despite his innate aversion to such establishments, although he harboured a secret hope that she would not want to linger too long in Selfridges, John Lewis and Debenhams.
“What exactly is it you want to buy?” he’d asked her, prior to setting off, but her motives had been as unfocused as usual.
“Oh nothing special,” she’d told him. “I just want to look.”
He’d kept his exasperation in check, owing to the celebratory nature of the occasion, but nevertheless the next couple of hours until lunch stretched ahead like a wide yawn; a boredom endurance test when he’d be trailing around after her while she flitted from one display to another in a kind of random exploration of merchandise.
A successful negotiation of the tube saw them surface at Oxford Circus, where throngs of purposeful pedestrians surrounded them, buffeting them as they stood to get their bearings. Shirley’s face bore a momentary, wide-eyed look of panic.
“Brian, we must have got mixed up in the Summit protest!”
“No love. It’s just busy. It’s always like this. You haven’t been up here for a few years.”
He took her arm and propelled her in the direction of John Lewis, holding tight to her elbow while they tackled the barrage of oncoming pedestrian traffic that surged towards them like a tidal wave. Having gained the sanctuary of the store, Shirley appeared to rally and Brian was obliged to follow in her wake as she floor-hopped her way from bedding to kitchenware, from toys to lingerie.
At one thirty, by which time Brian’s stomach was growling starvation warnings, they decided to look for a lunch venue, choosing to walk up Regent Street towards Piccadilly Circus on the grounds that it was quieter and easier to travel along, besides which there would be a more salubrious selection of restaurants and cafes around Wardour Street and Leicester Square, where the theatre crowds were catered for.
There was a slight altercation at Piccadilly Circus. Brian favoured a pie and a pint in the dark, gloomy and comfortable, olde worlde interior of The Captain’s Cabin, whereas Shirley hankered after the more opulent and upmarket decor of The Criterion. It was while they stood on the steps under the statue of Eros in a dither of procrastination that the young man approached them, gesturing towards the London Underground map that Brian clutched in his hand.
“Excuse me, but could I borrow your map a moment?” he said.
Shirley looked him up and down in a rapid appraisal, taking in his dark eyes, his neat, dark hair, his pale grey tee shirt with a surfing logo and the dark blue rucksack slung over one shoulder. He must be a student, she decided, perhaps he was doing some travelling before taking up a college place. She smiled encouragement, thinking of their own son, James, who’d taken a gap year to Australia a few years ago. Beside her she could see Brian’s shoulders straightening in preparation for the directions he was about to give the young man.
“Where are you trying to get to?” he asked him
“I’m heading for Trafalgar Square.”
The student’s face was inscrutable, like the Mona Lisa in that painting. Shirley and Brian had been to Paris last spring and visited The Louvre.
“Was it the National Gallery you wanted? It might not be the best day, you know. There’s a big demonstration going on there today; huge crowds. Tomorrow could be better!”
A small, tolerant smile tweaked the corner of his lips.
“Please,” he said, holding out his hand for the map. Brian kept hold of it, leaning towards the young man and pointing.
“We are here, Piccadilly Circus. You go down and take the Bakerloo Line to Charing Cross. That’ll be your nearest to Trafalgar Square. OK?”
“Thank you.”
He turned and they watched as he crossed the road and disappeared down into the subway.
Forty minutes later the pair was seated at a table in The Captain’s Cabin when they heard the sound, and followed others out on to the pavement to look for a cause. After a few moments it was followed by the disquieting shriek of sirens as the emergency vehicles forged their way through the streets. A stricken look passed between the two.

Next morning they switched on the television news to see an image they recognised. It was the unmistakeable face of the lovely young man. Hussein Omar, he was called; the suicide bomber of Trafalgar Square.

Next week-Eastern travel tales…

The Uninvited Guest

Today’s and next week’s posts are short fictions as we are away. Normal service resumes in 3 weeks time with travel notes.

The Uninvited Guest

How many there are! The only space remains here at the back, near the door. I’d have chosen to sit here anyway, since I am less likely to be spotted and can make a swift exit whenever I choose.
Who selected this music, I wonder? It makes me realise how little we know those who are closest to us. I wouldn’t have opted for ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. It is far too gloomy. ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ would have been a more cheerful opener-and more appropriate, of course.
Ah-someone is closing the door. The service must be about to begin. And there is someone approaching the podium, the woman they’ve chosen to officiate. She’s Pastor Mona Chesterton, according to the programme. They’ve got that correct, at least; getting a woman to do it.
I can just about see the casket from here, between the heads of those in front. I’m hoping it’s cardboard, sustainable and eco-friendly; only one spray of flowers so they must have asked for donations instead.
Pastor Mona has asked Val to take the stand. She’s going to read a poem. Ha! This will be interesting! Although I love my sister Val, she isn’t the most literary of people. I think her reading material consists mainly of ‘Hello’ magazine and the Daily Mail so she’ll have had to Google funeral poetry or ask someone for a suggestion. Yes. Just as I thought: ‘Stop All the Clocks’. She’d have remembered it from ‘Four Weddings’. When it comes to Auden I’ve always thought ‘Tell me the Truth about Love’ was one of his best. She must have practised reading the poem but she’s made the classic mistake of reading too fast. I notice she’s sat herself next to Stan, close enough for their arms to be touching and a little too close for mere comfort. I suppose she’s got what she wanted now, hasn’t she? Good luck to them is what I think.
Stan isn’t going to say anything. That’s wise of him. The hollow echo of his words would be magnified in this cavernous building with its barrel-vaulted ceiling.
They’re all standing to sing ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’. What a cliché! The singing is a bit weedy, as if they are a load of drunks at four o’clock in the morning, which is disappointing. I’d have liked some gusto, a rousing chorus of enthusiastic mourners.
Ah, here are James and Becca, together, for moral support, perhaps? They’ve got scruffy pieces of paper. I suppose James has scribbled something on the way here, which is his normal approach to any task. Becca looks pale but dignified and I expect she’d be delighted to be described so. They are a handsome pair of young adults, considering the genes they’d have been handed. I’ve enjoyed hearing their childhood memories but I was startled by their choices. Camping? When was that? Perhaps they went with Aunty Val…
Pastor Mona is summing up now, with the platitudes used by those who never knew the deceased. She’s asked everyone to stand for the final hymn, ‘Abide with Me’, which will be appropriate for Stan and Val, at least, as the carton begins to slide away behind the blood red curtain.
It’s time for me to leave so I’ll slip out during this dirge of a hymn. I’m glad I came but happier still to be outside in the fresh air of this April afternoon.
I know what you did, Stan and Val. They say revenge is best served cold and cold is my future now. I’m going to extract a great deal of entertainment from watching your regrets as I occupy your dreams and loiter around your shared bed disturbing your recreation.
I feel a new spring in my step and a soaring joy to be away now. You’re a long time gone. Can’t wait to get started…

Fiction Month 4-The Exchange [part 1]

The Exchange

            I am first. I am always first; always too early. I don’t mind. Getting here before the others gives me an opportunity to peruse the cakes and pastries at my leisure without the pressure of pretending disinterest. By the time they turn up I’ll have chosen; even, perhaps have consumed something. I’m leaning in favour of the ‘special’, a slice of Christmas cake, a rich, aromatic slab speckled with fruit and topped with a glistening, tooth tingling band of white icing and a dark green fondant holly leaf.

On the other hand, if I buy it now I may not have finished devouring it by the time one, or both of them appear, which would present an unseemly image. I should wait. I exert a seldom utilised self control, and having made a mental note of my preferred option I go straight to a table-the only remaining table, which is next to the toilets.

There are diners who are perfectly at home eating alone, able to consume an entire meal in solitude without appearing uncomfortable. They pull out a phone or a tablet with what seems like an endless deluge of emails, texts or photos, or they have some absorbing task to complete. I could take out my phone, but then I’d have to feign interest in the one text I’ve received today, from ‘Store 21’, alerting me to their ten percent off day, a snippet of information I have already viewed and which is unlikely to sustain my interest for the unspecified period I must wait. I fall, instead to studying the menu and have read it all through twice and memorised it before I spot Beverley weaving her way through the tables towards me.

While her sunglasses are incongruous on a winter’s day in the gloom of this dark corner of the café by the lavatories, she is dressed in her customary way, in flowing layers and expensive fabrics. She is a tall, statuesque woman and can get away with this look in a way that the shorter and dumpier of us cannot.

I rise to greet her and we embrace gingerly, like wary politicians before she discards her tweed cape and sinks down on to the seat. She is forcing a wan smile, which may indicate tiredness or something more sinister. When she tells me that Ava will be late I can only smile. Ava is late in the same way that I am early-by default. Not wanting to share too much before she arrives we talk of the weather, the traffic, how busy the shops are. I know my eyes are straying towards the menu as my stomach growls in an impatient demand for the cake, although Beverley is occupied in checking her phone to see if Ava has called again.

Then she is coming in, bumping tables and customers with assorted bags, turning this way and that as she scans the café for us. For a few moments I observe Ava, taking in her discomfort, her small, breathless panic as she stares over the heads of the assembled diners until at last I relent and offer a wave.

She bustles up, all puffing and blustering excuses. ‘What a busy life I lead’, she seems to say, though the bulging bags of her purchases tell a different tale. She is so sorry to have kept us waiting and only wants a black coffee. She places a solicitous, manicured hand on Beverley’s arm and inquires if she’s alright because she looks tired. I volunteer to order, more a ploy to ensure the capture of the Christmas cake than a magnanimous gesture, returning to the table to find them already engaged in showing each other photos on their phones. In the competition of life’s successes Beverley has scored the giant prize of acquiring a grandchild.

They turn to me-a diplomatic nod of interest in my unglamorous existence. Has George retired yet? Is Jacob working now? Still living at home? Such a shame.

The order arrives; black coffee for Ava, cappuccino for Beverley, hot chocolate and the cake for me. There is a slight pause as we all regard the cake, before I lever off the first, sweet, rich forkful.

Ava is asking Beverley how Rob’s business is going now, since he had to reorganise and lay off staff. Bev removes her sunglasses and rubs her eyes, bloodshot and dark ringed. The business is ‘ticking over’. They’ve begun looking for a smaller property in a less expensive area, seeking to down-size, to release capital. She speaks to Ava, avoiding my gaze. I am allowing a chip of hard, sugary icing to melt on my tongue, recalling how I visited for coffee one morning and found her in the kitchen, working her way through the contents of a vodka bottle with a determination that had eclipsed her memory the invitation. The failure of the business is not the sole reason for needing to release capital.

She straightens, takes a sip of the creamy cappuccino. In an abrupt change of subject she questions Ava about Matthew. Does Ava have any recent pictures? Ava reddens as she fumbles with her phone, then hands it across the table. Bev studies the photo of Matthew for what seems like a screen bite as Ava glances at me, eyes wide in her frightened face. Matthew is only two, an ‘afterthought’ as Ava describes him. Holding out the phone, Beverley frowns at the tiny sparrow of a woman opposite her and declares she cannot see anything of Steven in Matthew and I’m thinking, no, because there is nothing of Steven in Matthew-a fact that Ava confessed to me prior to his birth when faced with the dilemma of whether to tell her husband he was not the father. I lick my finger to sweep the remaining crumbs from the plate, wondering how three years can have passed since Ava blurted the tale of her sordid affair out to me in a moment of tearful desperation. What should she do? Should she tell Rob he could be the father of her baby? I’d advised her to leave well alone-after all he might not be the father. Who would know? She was frantic, sobbing. The child might resemble her friend’s husband; and of course, now he is older, he does.

To be continued-Part 2, the conclusion in next week’s post…

Fiction Month 5

Fiction month concludes with the prologue from my novel, The Year of Familiar Strangers, a tale of trust and betrayal, a friendship forged then mired in deceit. It is written by my alter ego, Jane Deans and available to download from Amazon: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Year-Familiar-Strangers-Jane-Deans-ebook/dp/B00EWNXIFA/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1417341020&sr=1-1&keywords=the+year+of+familiar+strangers

Prologue

“Look round” he whispers. “Look back! Please!”

He stares out at the receding figures as they cross the tarmac; the urgency of his whispered request growing weaker with their diminishing size. He stays, leaning forward in the seat, craning, until they reach the building, a squat, ugly concrete block. They are in profile now, moving along the side towards the entrance. In a heartbeat the two tiny figures will disappear. He holds his breath.

“If you turn and look back I can’t do it.”

Then they are gone.

For a moment he cannot shift his gaze and continues to sit motionless as the audacity of the act he is about to undertake seals him into a rigid inertia. A second later he is out of the vehicle, heart pounding, slamming the door shut with a force that sends a few prowling seagulls into the air in a corporate flurry of panic.

He dives to the back of the car to wrench the boot open. Beneath him the assorted bags and cases glare back in silent accusation. He reaches in. As he withdraws the case the surrounding luggage sags into the space it has left, as if his absence, as yet unmarked, has already begun to be obscured.

He drops the case on to the tarmac, closes the boot, fumbles in his pocket for his keys then realises he must not lock the car. He glances over to the terminal once more to check that they have not emerged and opens the driver’s door to reinsert the keys into the ignition.

He must be quick now. A rapid scan of the loading area reveals little cover except for  a couple of container lorries further along the quayside and it is these he makes for, imposing a fast, business like stride upon his flight while his instincts scream at him to run. When he has gained the shadow of the lorries he looks again at the terminal building before scuttling through the gap between them. He pauses, trembling. His shirt is soaked with perspiration. He takes a handkerchief from his pocket and wipes his face. The sun is high, unforgiving. There is a stifling smell of mingled diesel fumes and metallic tarmac.

The lorries provide a barrier between him and the car. He continues towards the street, squinting against the glare, cursing his forgetful abandonment of his sunglasses on the car’s dashboard. At the pavement he halts to look over his shoulder once more but is unable to see the vehicle lanes from here. He wonders if they’ve returned to the car, although it’s only been a few minutes and he wonders what they will do. The thought that they may come running to find him spurs him to make haste with his disappearance and he hurries across the busy road, looking up and down as he goes, seeking a taxi. On the opposite side he manages to flag one down, leaning in to give his directions.

“Atesa-alquiler de coches, por favour.”

He throws the case on to the back seat of the cab before scrambling in. As the cab pulls away he allows himself a long intake of breath, closing his eyes to exhale, smiling a little in acknowledgement of the anticipation that is growing inside him like a slow, insistent flame.