Saturday, 30 January 2010

Earth Stood Hard As Iron: Part 3

It was her laugh that did it. That glorious sparkling laugh as she threw her head back, red hair splashing out behind her. That was when Gordon knew. She had been looking at him curiously all evening, brow furrowed, mouth closed but turned up at one corner. Eyes ablaze. Come on Gordon, her face seemed to say, I dare you to make me laugh.

Gordon had sat down at Mary’s table earlier that evening. They were all in the Trout and Carrot on Portobello Road, a respected Real Ale establishment of the 1960s. It attracted hippies, oddballs, students, Mary and her friends on this particular night, and Gordon. A low haze of cigarette smoke drifted across the room transforming it, at least in its clientele’s eyes, from a nondescript pub into a furtive noir speakeasy. Low conversation hummed across the tables while protest songs jostled with Thelonius Monk on the jukebox – here was a melting pot of idealists, cynics, critics and dreamers. In the corner by the toilets a drunk man with dank ginger braids threw his hands in the air and talked at all who passed, preaching to no-one in particular about nothing at all.

“Good evening ladies,” Gordon had said, appearing through the smoke and pulling up a stool, flashing his impeccable grin. Curly blond hair tumbled over his forehead and over his ears, and he had face so open and inviting that one couldn’t help but wonder if he was in fact an old family friend on a house call.

“So, I’m Gordon,” he said, cocking his head and nodding knowingly, “And you are?” Four slightly startled, incredulous young women stared back at him. Fawns in the headlights of his devastating social candour. It was Trish who broke the deadlock.

“Trish.” And then Jane.


“Mary.” Mary!


Well that was easy, thought Gordon.

They were art students, enjoying a night out on the tiles after handing in their portfolios. Gordon was, as always, charming and courteous, the consummate gentleman. These were the days when a gentleman could approach a lady and it wasn’t thought inappropriate or louche. Back then he was open, honest, joyful; a far cry from the lonely and cold old man into which Time had bent him.

“So Gordon,” the girl called Jane had said at one point, “We’ve told you about us. What about you?”

“Aha!” Gordon’s mischievous grin flashed once more across his face. “Ladies, I work in film.” He could anticipate the response. There was a series of Oohs and Ahs around the table, followed by an unintelligible babble of questions. What films? Who for? How much money do you make sorry for asking? None of them had ever met anyone who worked in film.

“Have you heard of Pinewood?” Of course they had. “I work on the Carry On films – we’ve just wrapped filming one this week, actually.” Gordon leaned back on his stool, trying to combine looking suave and not tipping off the back of it. He had no clue if the film had actually wrapped that week, but it sounded impressive. He finished off his pint.

As the conversation continued, Gordon and the girls became more animated as their defences came down – in part due to familiarity and in part due to beer. They talked life, loves (and ex-loves), they even talked politics. For some reason they discussed at great semi-sober lengths the relative merits of the Shetland pony. Eventually it was closing time and they bowled outside through the frosted glass double doors. The night was crisp, stinging their cheeks and numbing their lips, an unseasonably bitter breeze wound through the streets. Yet it was refreshing instead of painful, after the hours spent in the Trout And Carrot. The reek of second-hand smoke flushed from their noses and was replaced with the simple smell of cold.

Mary, the quiet redhead who had said very little all night, had captivated Gordon from the start. She was, in truth, the reason he had sat down at the table in the first place. As the group wandered aimlessly down the street he sidled up to her. She pushed her chin into the high collar of her woollen coat, hair spilling over the back, and turned to face him, a soft smirk on her lips.

“What do you really do, you charlatan?” were her first words. Gordon felt her peer right into him. Rumbled. He tried to stare back, to stare her down, but couldn’t hold it for long.

“Films! I work in films!” He threw up his arms in protest.

“Yes of course. But what. Do. You. Do?” She emphasised each word as if he were a disobedient child ignoring a mother’s instruction. Go and sit on the naughty step. He slumped his shoulders and dipped his head slightly in mock defeat.

“I make the tea,” he said quietly and then looked her right in the eye, smiling as if to express his innocence. But this was enough – Mary shook her head in disbelief at Gordon’s liberty with the truth. Then, her smile became a laugh, her warm, wonderful laugh. Incandescent.

“Unbelievable,” was the only word she could manage, taking his hand in hers.

Gordon was smitten.


The morning sun shone through his thin curtains, its pathetic rays illuminating brief pathways for dust motes across his off-white walls. The paint he’d used was called Summer Breeze or something, he knew that, but this flat never seemed to feel the summer. Gordon woke with a furry mouth and a throbbing head, wondering why his nights out always end up like that. He flung an arm across the bed to collect her and draw her close to him, but found himself alone. What time was it? 10am. Late. Where is she? She was here. She must be in the bathroom.

He rolled out of bed tangled in sheets and tripped his way into the bathroom. It was empty and the silence was punctuated by the staccato of the dripping tap that could not be turned off. She must be in the living room. He stumbled forwards again and discovered she was not. The living room was freezing and quiet and he hugged the sheets closer around his naked body.


Gordon’s heart nearly fell out.

Mary was gone.


“Hello?” says a voice he almost recognises. He breathes into the phone for a few seconds, unsure he’s even got the right number. “Hello?” says the voice again.

“He- hello,” Gordon manages at last. His mouth is dry, even drier than normal and his heart thuds loud in his throat. “I’m looking for Mary McCandless.”

“This is she,” says the voice. It is indeed she, almost exactly. Faded by time and brittle from cigarettes, but this is undoubtedly Mary. He can almost hear her laughing again and see her green eyes, her startling red hair. Almost.

“Someone – Joseph – told me to call you,” Gordon pauses and swallows, his mouth is dry, “This is Gordon Strathairn.” There is a gasp and the telephone receiver clatters to the floor. Gordon can hear a cough and a muffled curse as she apparently scratches around on the floor to pick it up again.

“It fell under the chair,” she says eventually, slowly, “Must have slipped out of my hand. Gordon – why? What’s going on? Why did Joseph call you?”

“I was hoping you could explain, Mary. It’s been a long time.” His heart is pounding and he doesn’t know why. He hasn’t thought about this woman in many, many years.

“Yes. Gordon, I never said, I-,” she pauses as her voiced cracks almost imperceptibly, “I’m sorry. For leaving that morning. I’m sorry.”

“Joseph called me and said that – I – I don’t understand,” Gordon sits back in his chair and suddenly it is all so obvious: He has lived his entire life in complete ignorance. Ignorance of a family, a son, a descendant. Of Mary McCandless, that radiant young woman from that one infinite evening. “I tried to find you, I went back to that pub every day for a month - ” But that is all he can manage.

“Yes,” Mary’s voice is low as she searches for the words, “I’m sorry.”

“But is Joseph, I mean,” Gordon cannot quite bring himself to say it, not yet, “Who is he?”

“He is your son, Gordon.”


“After all these years, you still don’t know how it works?”

“No I mean – how do you know he’s mine?”

Mary does not answer. Gordon is half convinced that this is all a trick, a prank, the other half of him desperate for it to be true. He has no idea why. He is desperate to just wake up, return to his low existence, safe. And then crosses himself – this is no dream. If he had never met Mary then life would be almost exactly the same, right up to this point. He wonders how his life might have turned out had Mary stayed in his bed just a few minutes longer. At last, Mary speaks.

“You were the only one.”

This time, it is Gordon who drops the telephone.

“What?” he says, picking it up from his lap.

“You were the only one, Gordon. I met you and I wanted you, only you. Then… well, then I got pregnant and scared. No man wanted me as a single mother.”

“And you never thought I should know I had a son?”

“My mother wouldn’t allow it. She was a hard woman with,” Mary pauses to consider her words, “different ideas.”

Gordon’s mouth opens and closes slowly like he is speaking through a plate glass window, making no sound because he doesn’t know which words to say. Is there a correct response to news like this?

“He was very much like you were, as far as I could tell,” Mary offers. Gordon is silent.

“What, um, what next?” he says eventually.

“I think that is for Joseph to tell you.” What do you mean? he wonders, “I’ll speak to you soon Gordon. Happy Christmas.” Mary replaces the handset and Gordon is left alone with the low buzzing hum of a dead line.

For a time he remains perfectly still, telephone glued to his ear, breath pooling in front of his face as it waltzes into the frosty air.

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