The Boys lived half-way down a row of bungalows set on one side of an unmade, no-through road dog-legging off a sunken lane in rural Essex. Between two villages, and belonging to neither, this little enclave seemed to attract the unconventional; but The Boys were the oddest. We always called them The Boys, in spite of their septuagenarian status. It seemed appropriate, somehow, for Harry Ames and Ian Nigel Ellis. Harry and Ian; two funny old queers hanging onto the tiny, fading glories of their staged lives; the runs of unloved parts in unloved plays, played out to bored audiences in village halls and school gymnasia. Who’d have thought that facepaint could taste so bitter?
In fairness, Harry had always appeared to be at peace with himself. He seemed to need nothing more than his horticultural obsessions: his vegetable patch and, above all, the palatial greenhouse-conservatory which he had erected against the back of his bungalow and along its entire width. Here he quietly obsessed over his grapevines, delighting in the technicalities of pruning, the slow science of vegetable nutrition, the wonder of gentle awakenings from winter dormancy; like a high priest presiding over the rituals of growth. But Ian, by contrast, was always on the point of eruption; a cluster of exposed nerve-endings and bad memories. Anything could trigger his outbursts of visceral rage. Like installing a sign at the bottom of our shared road: ‘20 mph: SLOW PLEASE’. The hope was to discourage speeding delivery vans from causing any more carnage; two dead cats in a week is sufficient, thank you. But Ian, infuriated to the point of apoplexy, took an axe to the sign the same day that it went up. I saw him, a dribble of saliva on his chin, his scrawny old arms shaking and eyes bulging with the exertion; his pale skin, normally the hue of old ivory, made incarnadine by the excess of his fury as he brandished the broken sign. He held it before him, like Yorick’s skull, for the benefit of God knows what audience, as he declaimed against the world; reading from God knows what script, gifted by God knows what maddened muse for Bedlam’s playhouse. Thence to his bungalow, leaving splintered wood and expletives behind him, but no explanation. Chris Page, the local copper, went to have a quiet word with him; an ambition that was rapidly proven to be unachievable. From the end of the road, in our back garden, we heard Ian screaming: ‘Arrest me! Go on, then, arrest me, you bastard!’ And more besides. Fortunately, Harry was there as peacemaker, and calmed both Ian and PC Page to the point where no further action was deemed necessary.
Well, that was just one of many examples of Ian’s randomly directed rages. It was clear that he was unstable, and becoming more so, and the residents of our little lane kept clear of him. And, like a warped reflection, he withdrew from us to an equal extent, doubling the distance, until the evidence of his existence was limited to glimpses and inferences. Sometimes he was heard in the quiet hours of the night, ranting and raving, but quickly and suddenly pacified, like a lunatic child; sometimes he was seen glowering and gesticulating from a window, mouthing obscenities, misting the glass with vapours from a distillation of slowly simmered hates. Soon he became like a kind of malignant memory, a bad fairy to scare the children. Poor Harry, we thought. No matter what decisions he has made in his life, surely he does not deserve this. Then, one day, Harry announced, in his diffident way, that Ian had departed to his flat in Spain, and was not coming back. At least, Harry mentioned this to Bernard, his neighbour, over the fence; which is the same as broadcasting it to the county. Anyway, it seemed to signal as formal a split as you could get in such an informal relationship; and we were all relieved–as much for ourselves, if we are to be honest, as for Harry. The atmosphere of our little community lightened immediately. No longer did we have to scuttle past The Boys’ Place, as we continued to call it, eyes down and ears cocked. And Harry, once shy and reclusive, gradually opened up to us; that is, in comparison to his previous closed and closeted persona. Perhaps, now that Ian was gone, he sought companionship from neighbours. Or perhaps it was just that he was no longer stifled by Ian’s unreasoning hostility. Whatever the reason, we soon got used to the annual ‘Drinkies with Harry’ ritual. When the weather started to turn, in November or December, we would hear the nervously cleared throat, the shy suggestion. And, at the allotted day and time, we would all dutifully rendezvous at The Boys’ Place, as instructed. Frankly, it was the only time we all got together en masse. And it was pleasant. Not riotous fun; not an excess of excited hilarity; just gentle conversation and pleasant company. Relaxing, certainly; civilised, too; perhaps Epicurean. We would bring sandwiches and cakes; and Harry would lay out nibbles in his kitchen, and ply us with wine.
And what wine it was; home-brewed wine, yes, from his own grapes, but unexpectedly strong and warming, rich, dark and spicy, the black-red of clotted blood, peculiarly intoxicating. An unusual wine; somewhat similar to Pinotage in its burnt undertones. I remember, the first time we were invited, picking up a bottle to look at the label. It was a self-adhesive rectangle, of the type you can print on from a computer; white, with rounded corners. The design was very simple; just a line drawing of some dark grapes and vine leaves, and the words ‘Chateau La Haine’. I teased him about this, contrasting his two-bedroom Essex bungalow with the image of a French castle. He took it in good humour. I also asked him about the La Haine designator; after all, his bungalow was just called Number 6. He smiled in an embarrassed sort of way. Our initials, he said. Harry Ames, Ian Nigel Ellis. They spell out Haine. Anyway, he said, changing the subject, come and see my greenhouse. I’m very proud of it. And so he should have been–it was a labour of love, no, of adulation, of worship, of devotion. With its brick-based walls and wooden frames, its heaters and fans and vents and shades, it was a temple to the vine gods. Here, in his sanctum sanctorum, reverently and with hushed voice, he introduced us to the Lares and Penates: Black Hamburgh and Chasselas. He stroked their gnarled stems, thick as pythons; patted them lovingly, taking off loose bark here and there. Then, becoming more loquacious, but never loud, he softly expounded his credo in its various manifestations. He told us of the virtues of cordon training over the Guyot method; of slow warmth in Spring to resurrect the dormant sap. Of the delights of gentle hand pollination in May, flower by individual flower; and of the paramount importance of correct fertilisation. High potassium feed, he insisted; it is crucial for the health of the vine and the burgeoning of the fruit. Absolutely critical. And do you know, he made it all sound quite interesting.
Yes, we all got used to Harry’s Drinkies. Not that we became close friends with him, any of us. He was too private a person for that. Good neighbours, I think, rather than good friends. So it wasn’t unusual that nobody saw him for a month or so over the summer, one year. We had been on our holidays; he, we presumed, had gone on his; and if he had left just before we returned, then of course we’d not see him for a while. Indeed, it was only the increasing length of his grass that suggested to Pam and Bernard, at No. 5, that something was amiss. Not like Harry, green-fingered Harry, to neglect his garden so. Well, after knocking on the front door, Bernard went around the back, and peered in the greenhouse. He came back much more quickly than he’d gone, Pam said, scrabbling for his mobile, white as bindweed blossom. Harry had been in the greenhouse some time. Maybe three weeks, the papers said, and maybe for once they were right. Yes, three weeks, in a greenhouse, in summer. ‘The flies!’ Bernard kept saying; ‘Oh God! The flies!’ And it wasn’t pleasant; I know, for Bernard’s hysterical phone call had obliged me to investigate. Harry was sitting there, what was left of him, in a chair, in his greenhouse, next to Black Hamburgh; upright, as though posing for a portrait. Vines had grown around him and into him and through him, the tendrils forcing their way through softening flesh with blind vegetable vigour. Oddly, one shoot had looped around his neck, and, I guess, finding little resistance, had constricted in its efforts to gain purchase, constricted until it had nearly severed poor Harry’s head. In fact, Black Hamburgh’s weak embrace was all that kept Harry entire, for when the police came to poke and prod, their manipulations disturbed this fragile equilibrium. The weight of the head, pushed off balance, finally cut the tired strings that bound it to the rest of Harry. It fell forward, dangling from the vine, pulling the vegetation downward, the strangest of fruit; a foul pendulum marking eternity. And as it gently swung, it scattered maggots like seeds; ‘tick, tock, tick’, they went, as they hit the tiled floor of Harry’s temple. At least, so said PC Page, holding forth in the bar of the White Hart, with the gravitas of one who has seen visions and wonders:
“Tick, tock, tick; bloody things were as fat as my thumb, sure as my name’s Christopher Edward Page.”
I suppose we’ll never know what really happened. Officially, Harry had a heart attack in his chair, and then was covered by the vine. But Bernard swears that it was suicide. Would you remain sitting bolt upright in your chair after a heart attack? he asks. No. Harry deliberately trained the vine around his neck, Bernard says; and then just sat there, in his chair, until it throttled him. But Bernard is imaginative, somewhat sensationalist; and, perhaps, not terribly clever. And anyway, there’s more to the story. Yes, the saga of Harry and Black Hamburgh would be enough; but there’s more. They found another body in the greenhouse. Or rather, a skeleton. Buried foetally in the soil around the base of Black Hamburgh, its ribcage and femurs resting against cold roots, like an old sacrifice to older gods. It was Ian, of course. Crazy Ian, steeped in bitterness and hostility, his pale flesh long since turned into dark, convivial wine. Now there’s a miracle, if you want one.