The Birthday Guest by Anna Lewis
Our Short Story of the Month is ‘The Birthday Guest’ by Anna Lewis.
Pushed unwillingly back into his thoughts, a man remembers a marginal figure from his school years – the ‘new boy’, odd and overweight – and his strange, uncomfortable birthday party, a party to which no-one else was invited.
Anna Lewis lives in Cardiff. She has won the Orange/Harper's Bazaar short story prize, and her stories have appeared in magazines including New Welsh Reader and The Interpreter's House. She has published two poetry collections, and is completing a collection of short stories.
The Birthday Guest
“Do you remember Fits?”
For a moment I considered pretending I didn’t. I was near the bottom of my second pint; I’ve never been one for afternoon drinking, and Jeff’s question threatened to trail a long story. “You know – Fits, from school? Robert Fitzsimmons.”
“Oh yeah, of course,” I said. I couldn’t really claim to have forgotten. Fits had seemed a delightfully clever nickname at the time, because of his surname and because of the hysterical episodes he went in for, gasping and howling and flinging himself about on the floor. It would happen once every few weeks, and we all assumed he was faking them. There was a steady look in his rolling eyes as though, from under our feet, he was assessing us.
“Well, you’ll never believe it,” Jeff said, “But I saw him in the paper. It was just a mention, but I wondered if it was the same guy, so I looked him up online and there’s a whole great profile on there. He’s standing as an MP! For some little borough in North London – can you imagine?”
I couldn’t. It was hard enough to imagine Fits in London. I had been in the city for almost fifteen years, and was still not used to the idea that anyone, from any part of my life, was liable to wash up there at some point. I would have had a better chance of avoiding the spectres of my childhood if I’d stayed put, and gone on living with my parents. This was how Jeff and I had become drinking pals: we’d lost touch after leaving school, but bumped into each other four or five years ago on the Circle line. We swapped numbers out of politeness, and that was it. We would revolve together endlessly now, throughout the rest of our adult lives, or at least until one of us moved away from London. Now Fits was here too – and in Parliament, of all places.
Jeff had a beer belly on him now, but it was nothing compared to the belly on Fits, as I discovered later when I clicked on the link Jeff had sent me. Robert Fitzsimmons: Raising the Standard. Fits had been a plump child, dressed in clothes which were clearly expensive and tailored to flatter. It was embarrassing: it meant that his parents knew he was fat, and cared. Fits had nothing but scorn for his parents; he claimed that they were not true relations, but that he had been taken in as a foundling. He had been raised by foxes in the woods on the Fitzsimmons estate, and removed to human company by force. His parents had been desperate for a child, and the only alternative was to buy a baby from China, but that was far too expensive – and anyway, they would have had to take a girl.
Fat, feral Fits. Foaming, floor-rolling Fits. It was true that his parents were very old. Now, in the picture on his profile, he ushered his stomach before him like an emissary: it would open doors for him, announce him before he arrived in a room. A gingery stubble blotted his jaw. His complexion was meaty, but there was something of the old Fits – or the young Fits, the Fits I grudgingly remembered – in his expression: a corner of his mouth which folded slightly downwards, and a gaze which was less convincing than the impression made by his body. There he goes again, a teacher said once, Thinking.
There was a picture, too, of the Fitzsimmons estate, taken from the terrace outside the french windows. A dark band in the foreground marked the line of the haha, the grass in front of it plush and unobtrusive; behind it, scrappy with thistles, the field sloped away towards the ancient oak woods of Fits’s nursery. The caption only said that the view was of Fits’s family “grounds”: it didn’t mention the house at the photographer’s back. From the absence of shadow, the picture had surely been taken late in the afternoon, at the last moment before dusk spoiled the shot. I saw the moment precisely, and felt it: the passing shrug of wind, the chill gathering behind me, shadow reaching to my shoulder. I had only been there once.
Fits was not popular at school. He had joined late, towards the end of junior school, when – according to received wisdom – his family’s already declining fortunes had taken a turn for the worse, and his parents had been forced to remove him from boarding school. This was very nearly the ultimate sacrifice: the only thing worse would have been to sell the estate. If that ever happened, my mother said, she wouldn’t be surprised to find the three of them hanging in the oak woods. Statements like this – which my mother made fairly often – had quite an effect on me, so when Fits invited me to his eleventh birthday party, I was horror-struck.
Fits had decided, it seemed, that I was different from the other kids in our class. I didn’t make fun of him as much as some of the others, I suppose, and occasionally I spoke to him normally, if no one else was around. But this was because I thought he and his family were mad; I didn’t want anyone to hang themselves on my account, but I didn’t want to be friends with Fits either. My mother agreed with me, and said that if I entered that house, there was no guarantee I would ever come back out. My father said this was nonsense, and that Fits – Robert – was a sad, lonely child who was reaching out for company. It was a tribute to my mother, he said, that Fits – Robert, sorry – saw me as kind, and felt safe with me; and anyway, wouldn’t it be amazing to know what that place was like inside? Was it true that they kept cattle in one wing?
My mother was persuaded, although she made my father speak to Fits’s father on the phone first. Mr Fitzsimmons asked my father whether I would like to spend the night, and my father said that he was sure I would. When the day came, I was so nervous I could barely speak. My mother warned me not to eat or drink anything that I had not seen prepared or poured in front of me; if there was a lock on my bedroom door I was to use it, and if there was not, I must block it with a chair or other piece of heavy furniture. I must not go into the woods. I must not go into the attic, I must not go into the cellar. At the top of the Fitzsimmons’ driveway, my father had to pull me out of the car.
I was welcomed at the door by Fits himself, wearing russet flaired cords, a floral shirt, and a cord jacket to match the trousers. A large yellow badge bearing the number “11” was pinned to his lapel. My father made a choking sound, which he tried to stifle with a cough; I did not possess a suit, and I’m not sure that at that point in time my father did. I held out the parcel I had brought, which Fits received graciously, although I don’t remember him unwrapping it. Perhaps embarrassment prevents me.
My father had bragged to my mother that he would angle for a cup of tea, get a proper look at the place, but in the end he left hastily without even stepping through the door. Fits led me through the cold hallway into a room he described as the “parlour”. It smelt damp, but a three-bar electric fire glared from the hearth, and I felt myself beginning to sweat. Not quite far enough from the fire, a collapsible table was set with bowls of ice cream and jelly, and glasses of lemonade. My friends went bowling or to laser quest for their birthdays, and ate afterwards at Burger King; this was the kind of party a seven-year-old might just about tolerate. My gaze shifted from the table to an armchair beside it, where a girl of jelly-and-ice-cream age was licking a bowl, her feet kicking with pleasure.
“Meet my cousin, Angela,” Fits said to me gravely.
Angela was, it appeared, the only other guest. Her mother, a thin, pale woman with dark hair knotted clumsily on top of her head, tried gently to pull the bowl from Angela’s hands. “Say hello, darling,” she urged – “Angela, darling, be polite.”
Angela’s mother had been sitting in the middle of a sofa between Mr and Mrs Fitzsimmons, both of whom greeted me warmly, although neither stood up. Mr Fitzsimmons had a newspaper on his lap, and Mrs Fitzsimmons had a cat.
“Do you want ice cream?” Fits asked me. “Jelly?”
“No thank you,” I said. I tried not to whisper, but couldn’t help myself.
“Good,” said Fits, “I don’t either. Shall we go outside?”
“Me too, I’m coming!” shrieked Angela, throwing her empty bowl to the floor and wriggling down from the chair.
Fits pulled a face. “I didn’t invite her, just so you know,” he said.
“Angela – pick up that bowl,” said Angela’s mother, reaching towards it.
Angela ignored her, and grabbed at Fits’s arm. “You didn’t invite me, but I’m here,” she said. Fits turned back to the door, trying to shake free of his cousin, who clung all the harder, allowing herself to be dragged across the carpet. I followed them out of the parlour without a word.
In the hallway, Fits stopped. “Angela,” he said, “Seeing that you’re here – would you like to come hunting?”
“Will you get my gun, then? It’s in my room, in a shoebox in the bottom of my wardrobe.”
“Yes!” She let go of Fits’s arm and ran up the broad staircase, the soles of her pumps making little scuffing sounds on the carpet.
I stared at Fits in astonishment. “You’ve got a gun?”
“Don’t be stupid. Come on, quickly.” He beckoned me down a corridor behind the staircase and into a room which was longer and lighter than the parlour, but so cold that I gasped. A strip of paper hung from one wall; at the far end of the room, through a pair of high windows, gold-tinted clouds sped across the sky.
“Come on.” Fits hurried down the centre of the room and, after fiddling with a lock on the windows, pushed them both open. They were not windows but doors, and they led onto a terrace which, at its edge, dropped steeply down to the level of the fields beyond. Past the fields were the oak woods, which my mother had forbidden me to enter. Fits was already fastening the glass doors behind us and then, with far greater vigour than I had ever seen him demonstrate at school, he leapt down the bank and began to run across the grass. Without a pause, he sprang into the air to clear a ditch and, landing solidly on the other side, turned to wave me after him.
From somewhere above me, I heard a screech: “Robert, wait for me!”
“Come on!” Fits bellowed. His face had grown red. I jumped after him down the bank.
Perhaps the sprint across the fields had warmed us, but the wood seemed not as cold as the long room with glass doors. Although just visible through bare branches, the house looked very far away. Fits went on breathing heavily for some minutes after we stopped running, the yellow badge lifting and falling on his chest. Between wheezes, he carried on talking. “They’re about a thousand years old, these woods,” he said, “They’re protected and whatnot, but we’d never touch them, anyway. You don’t have a thousand-year-old tree in your garden, do you, let alone thirty acres of them? I bet if you did, you’d want to look after them. Stands to reason.”
“We have got trees in our garden,” I said, “But I don’t know how old they are. They’re older than me, I know that.”
Fits looked at me with that little fold in the corner of his mouth. “But not a thousand years old.”
“I don’t know.”
“They’re not,” he said, and then, “Anyway, I’d fight to the death to protect these trees. I lived in the woods for the first five years of my life. This is my real home.” He turned his back to the house and began to plod deeper into the undergrowth.
I followed. The twigs and leaves grew denser, so that after we had pushed only a short distance, the house behind us was no longer visible at all. Fallen leaves, mouldering into a uniform black, plastered the path which slumped now and then into gaping mud. Fits, although larger than I was, seemed to proceed with near silence, scarcely disturbing a single branch. I stamped along in his wake, until he stopped in a small clearing with a stump at its centre. Reaching from the stump was the thin, forked arm of a some lesser plant, which had seeded itself in the decaying tree. Its bough was smooth, almost black, and a handful of red berries hung from the tip.
I stopped behind Fits and rubbed my hands together roughly. The cold was more obvious now that we were no longer moving; my breath drifted over my fingers in a thin cloud. Above us, through the branches, light was fading. The red berries gleamed above the trunk.
“This is an important place,” said Fits, with his back to me and without turning his head. “I’m going to tell you why.”
I said nothing. I was no longer blowing over my hands, but my breath sounded loud and rough. There was a scurry of birdsong from the branches above me, a clatter in the twigs, then quiet once again. I saw Fits’s shoulders lift and fall and his plump fingers flinch at his sides. I tried to steady myself, but my heart was beating too quickly. I heard Fits breathe too, the tiny wheeze in the back of each breath like something trapped, and around us there was silence. Then, from behind me, came a crash as something drove into the bushes: something large and fast, its force splintering the twigs and the last few leaves. Fits and I span around at the same moment, and, “God!” I shouted, as Angela flung herself into the clearing.
I was glad she had come. I scoffed, as Fits did, at her filthy pumps with their skin-thin soles, and at her white party dress smeared with mud and moss and, possibly, a little blood; but her presence spoiled the woods for Fits and almost straight away he stalked off, back the way we had come. She chattered all the way to the edge of the wood, giving Fits no more chance to speak. The last remaining daylight hung behind the roof of the manor house, but the grass between the house and the woods was weary. A single light shone, in the long room with glass doors, brightly enough for me to see that the doors were both open and a figure between them. I couldn’t tell who it was, until I heard it cry dolefully: “Angelaaa! Where have you been?” Now I saw the dark hair massed above its head. Angela flew ahead of us over the dim field, her white dress fluttering.
With only a mild scolding, we were ushered by Mrs. Fitzsimmons into the parlour once again. The electric fire, sizzling slightly, burned on in the grate, and after a minute I took off my jacket. The bowls of ice cream were still on the table but had melted completely, each filled with a stagnant yellow pool. A sponge cake had appeared, and I accepted a slice although Fits did not; Angela ate two. The three of us sat in a row on the sofa, as the adults aimed cheerful questions towards us. Fits and I said very little.
After the cake, we played games – Happy Families, Snap, Pin the Tail on the Donkey – and an acting game which involved dressing up in clothes which smelt of must and ancient perfume. I was rigid with embarrassment. I could imagine my mother watching from a corner, laughing with tears on her face, and my father trying to lure me away with intense and meaningful glances. I knew that boys our age didn’t behave like this, but I had no choice. I tried to pretend that I was humouring Angela, but she seemed bored, her attention straying towards the remnants of the sponge. “You’ll be sick, Angela,” her mother wailed as, while Mr. and Mrs. Fitzsimmons struggled into costume, she carved another slice for herself.
“I’ll be sick anyway,” Angela reported.
I thought I might be ill as well. There was no clock. I had no idea how long we had been in the parlour.
Eventually Angela was dispatched to bed, and Fits and I were sent up not long afterwards. I brushed my teeth in an upstairs bathroom, and found Fits waiting for me outside the door.
“Have you finished?” he asked.
“I need to show you something, before we go to bed. It’s important.”
“I don’t want to see anything,” I said.
“Well, come anyway. It’s just down here.” Striped pyjamas had replaced his cords; his feet were bare, and puce against the floorboards. His progress down the unlit hall was neither fast nor slow, and made hardly a sound. He did not look back. After a moment I trotted after him, and caught him up in almost total darkness, outside a closed door.
When I drew near he put a finger to his lips, took a deep breath, and pushed the door open. The smell reached me first, not terrible, but an intensification of the smell that filled every corner of the house: damp, rot, mould. It was the smell of a world without sunlight or breeze, it was hard to know how any living thing could breathe its air. After Fits, I stepped into the room. Like the room with glass doors it was long and narrow, and cold; a window at the far end admitted moonlight, which cast a grey pall over the room and its furniture. Most of the contents were vague, covered in rugs and drapes, and all were colourless. Fits pointed. My gaze followed his finger. Above an empty dresser, halfway down the right-hand wall, a fox’s head was mounted on a wooden plaque. Its lips were drawn back, its teeth stark in the moonlight. Its false eyes glinted.
I turned, then, and ran back down the corridor to the room I had to share with Fits. I heaved the door closed behind me and buried myself beneath the blankets on the camp bed, pulling them over my head, and curling as tightly as I could. The sheets were cold as earth. I began to cry. I wrapped my arms around my shins, pressed my head to my knees. I hadn’t cried for almost a year.
I did not hear Fits enter the bedroom; the door under his hand was as quiet as the boards beneath his feet. His voice came from outside the blankets, close to my head.
“Are you crying?”
“You are crying. I won’t tell anyone. They might make fun. That wouldn’t be nice.”
I never spoke to Fits at school, afterwards, although when the others jeered him I sometimes joined in. I couldn’t look him in the eye; I concentrated on those round, ruddy cheeks, on that tiny sneer. He did not go up with the rest of us to secondary school: during the summer holidays a relative died, and Fits’s parents came into enough money to send him back to boarding school.
Fading, forgotten Fits. From the secondary school science block, which was built on a low hill, you could see the roof of the Fitzsimmons manor and, behind it, the oak woods softly shaking.
So, I said to myself, my eyes still on the computer screen, I hope those poor North London pricks have some idea what they’re in for. They didn’t, of course. Fits could be anyone now. I told myself that he had been unhappy, lonely, just as my father had said, that damage could have its consolations, could be converted into resolve or idealism; but none of this sat with Fits. I couldn’t look away from the photograph: the great gut, the solid face all shades of red, the light in his eyes. I couldn’t shake the thought that Fits had always known exactly what he was doing.