The evening changed when I entered the kitchen to see my host licking red wine off a cork. He had accidentally dropped it into the glass while pouring and swept it out with two fingers before bringing up to his mouth. It was my glass.
I stopped, my front foot frozen at the point of contact with the floor. My hand touched the door frame to stop me losing my balance. He pressed the cork back into the bottle, unaware. Now I stepped forward boldly, pretending to have entered the kitchen on a sudden whim on the way back from the toilet.
“Alright Tom?” I said, too loudly. He turned quickly, surprised to see me. His social aptitude lagged by a fraction of a second, and I caught a severe, preoccupied expression before the smile moved up his face like a seventies screen-wipe.
“Jaz! Here you go.” He held the glass out to me, and I took it. Holding it near my chest I studied his face. He was prematurely grey, and there were pouches beneath the eyes. I decided that he was alcoholic. Too many lonely evenings in this… this mansion.
“After you,” he said, expecting me to turn around and walk back to the living room. “They’re waiting for us.” We were seven. Old friends and their partners. I was one of the partners. I had never met Tom.
The house was very large and the route back to the living room comprised a series of ninety degree turns. There was small talk, so unimportant and artificial that I could barely maintain it. Halfway along the hallway Tom stopped, turned, and said,
“We really don’t have anything in common, do we Jaz?”
I stepped back, physically stunned. Tom pushed against a plain door, and the musty smell of a seldom used space made my nose twitch. Tom pointed into its dark interior. I hesitated, feeling threatened.
“What?” I asked.
“Come on Jaz, let’s chat a while. The others won’t miss us. They’ll assume I’m showing you something, a painting, the snooker table…”
I nodded and entered. Tom came behind and hit a light switch. Its click echoed across the empty room and an inadequate, yellow light tried to fill the space. The edges and the corners remained in shadow. I spotted a thin doll near a radiator. Its long white hair had a small comb stuck in it.
“What was this then?” I asked.
“It’s never used. Hasn’t been for years.”
He spoke slowly, leaving space after his brief sentences. It was a lordly, aristocratic style that irritated me.
“Is this house a burden, Tom?”
“In a way. Would you like that, Jaz?”
Now I was embarrassed. I had been trying to introduce an idea, the kernel of a genuine conversation. Now he interpreted that idea – the money-pit inheritance – as a chip on my shoulder, and he wanted to dissect it.
“No Tom. Not at all. Why do you think that?”
“You dislike me because I’m rich.”
“I barely know you.”
He moved towards a curtain.
“Let’s go back,” I suggested.
“No. Not yet.” He opened a curtain. A sheet of dust fell from above the rail.
“Christ!” I blew my nose.
“I saw you looking at me earlier on, in the kitchen.” said Tom. He looked through the night-mirrored window onto the moon-touched land that had been handed down to him.
“What do you mean? Looking?”
“Disdain, is the word. A disdainful glare.”
“But…” There was no point denying it. I had disliked him from the moment we were introduced at the front door by Anya, my girlfriend. No, earlier. From the day Anya told me about him. Tom was one her friends twenty years ago, but they had not kept in touch at all. Anya had been surprised to receive an invitation to spend a weekend in the house and did not feel able to decline. Tom explained in the email that he was inviting the whole circle. The five ‘friends’ who two decades ago had travelled through India together. I knew the whole story: Tom had been tolerated because of his money. He paid to get them out of various scrapes, he flashed his card in high-end hotels when they were tired and dusty and desperate for a real shower, he suggested and then subsidised meals in downtown restaurants when the urge for ‘normal’ food came over them. The asymmetry remained unspoken. And now, a generation later, he had brought them together again. The circle had allowed itself to re-form, mainly out of curiosity. Each member had his or her own life, and most had partners of the opposite or same gender. A few had children. They were all curious to see what had happened to Tom.
Now I pushed back. “I really don’t know you, Tom. I have formed no judgements?”
“You do know me. Anya has told you all about me.”
I adjusted my stance. I had to deal with this, adopt an offensive position.
“What is this about Tom?”
“To help you understand.”
“What? Your privilege? This?” I looked up to the elaborate ceiling roses and along the complex, excessively detailed coving.
“Jaz. You surprised me in the kitchen, and I noticed. But you didn’t notice me when you were waiting on the doorstep, with Anya. I was upstairs, by an open window. I heard you…”
“Oh, Tom, that was just…”
“No! Tom, listen…”
“Let’s head back Jaz. Come on, let’s go. Forget it.”
“Is that it? You’re done?” I asked, angry now.
Tom held an arm across the doorway like a barrier at a railway crossing.
“We’ll start over. Yes?”
I nodded. The barrier rose. I passed beneath. As my hair brushed his arm he whispered, “The house is too large, you’re right. It was better when there was a family to fill it.”
We entered the living room. As I sat down next to Anya she looked me up and down, sensing a change. She asked me what had happened with her eyes. I smiled, shrugged. Nothing, Anya. Nothing.
I gulped red wine, blood warm from the heat of my burning hands. I could taste cork.
Tom leaned forward, elbows on his knees. “Guys,” he said, “It’s time I brought you all up to date. A lot has happened since India, you see, and I thought you should know…”
As he talked, I looked around the room, and only now did I see the pale rectangles where photographs of his wife and child had been removed, their sunlit smiles having become too painful to bear.