More to the Picture

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Historical Fiction  |  House: Tell A Tale
R J Dent's More to the Picture is an urban horror story, based on a series of real events and real people, although the names have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent.

Submitted: April 21, 2016

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Submitted: April 21, 2016

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More to the Picture

by R J Dent

 

 

When he was drunk, which was often, Maxim was loud and obnoxious. When he wasn’t drunk, he was still fairly loud and obnoxious.

Normally, this would have been a severe problem, but with Maxim, it didn’t really matter because he was very good-natured and very funny. He would help anyone. He would also think up jokes and funny stories on the spot and relay them with perfect timing, sound effects, appropriate voices and wonderfully hilarious punch lines. He was good to be around.

A lot of people claimed he could have had a phenomenal career as a stand-up comic, and although this was often suggested to him, Maxim always self-deprecatingly turned the idea down flat – as though the suggestion was meant for someone else, not for him.

When I met him, he was living in a small town, working in a shoe factory and drinking heavily most nights. I’d wandered into The Saracen’s Head Hotel, the one mentioned in The Pickwick Papers, and Maxim was standing at the bar, entertaining a handful of rapt listeners with a new story.

This one was about how a traffic jam had made him late for liaison with his lover at the railway station and how he’d had to abandon his car in the traffic, running over traffic jammed car roofs, racing across the town, hurdling hedges, veering around people with dogs, vaulting kids, spinning pensioners around on their zimmer frames, kicking cats out of the way, etc, etc. Despite his efforts, he (of course) arrived at the station late, pushed through the double doors (which swished shut behind him like batwing doors in a western saloon), only to find the station empty, the platform empty, his lover gone, and nothing but a piece of litter, rolling tumbleweed-like in the breeze across the rusting tracks.

As I bought myself a drink, I listened to the story’s conclusion. It was a good story, funny, entertaining and told in a characteristically loud and foulmouthed way.

I stood nearby, then applauded along with everyone else when the story ended. I bought Maxim a drink and by the end of the evening we were conversing on (of all things) the discrepancies between the moral principles of Ptolemy, Copernicus and Galileo.

As I was reasonably new in town, Maxim had volunteered to be my guide and map for a while. I agreed and, as I got to know the town I was living in, I got to know more and more about Maxim.

As his name suggests, Maxim was of Russian descent. His father, Vasil, had come to England from St. Petersburg after the Second World War. Maxim’s mother, Rose, was English. He was their only child. When Maxim spoke about his father, he spoke reverently. Vasil had been a musician in Russia, a balalaika player of incredible dexterity and skill. It was obvious that Maxim idolised his father. So it’s not that difficult to imagine how he reacted when Vasil died suddenly one day.

Later, I found out that Vasil died whilst he and Rose were getting ready to go and do their weekly shopping. Rose had just gone upstairs to change into clothes suitable for wearing around the town centre. Vasil was in the kitchen, checking to see which grocery items needed replenishing, when all of a sudden, the many cholesterol filled meals Vasil had eaten over the years took their toll. His heart, suddenly unable to push his thinning blood through his hardened and furred arteries without an almost supreme effort, stopped in protest. Vasil felt the pain and the accompanying dizziness and reached out a hand to steady his suddenly weak body against the kitchen sink. He fell to the floor, his limbs, jerking spasmodically. He lay on his back, staring at the ceiling, his skin turning purple as he slowly died.

When Rose came into the kitchen, she immediately saw her twitching husband stretched out on the linoleum and emitted a piercingly anguished cry. She then tried to revive him with mouth to mouth and a heart massage. After a few minutes, she phoned for an ambulance and very quickly it arrived and took Vasil to the nearest hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival.

That was the story Maxim told me when I arrived at his house that evening. He’d phoned me, told me his father was dead, and said he was finding it difficult being in his house alone, but didn’t want to go out.

“Would you mind keeping me company for a while?” he asked plaintively. He sounded as though he’d been drinking a lot, which I suppose he had.

I agreed to keeping him company, but stressed the ‘for a while’. I don’t want to seem mercenary, but the one thing I didn’t want was to spend a whole night and an early morning listening to a drunken list of Vasil’s paternal attributes, punctuated with bouts of sobbing. I told Maxim I’d stay with him for a couple of hours, and then went round to his house. The door was open, so I went in, closed it behind me and walked into the lamp-lit living room.

Maxim was sitting in an armchair, his face tear-streaked; a full brandy glass in his hand. He waved the glass towards the kitchen.

“Pour yourself a drink,” he said, his tone vague, as though he was unsure of what he was saying.

“Thanks,” I said. In the kitchen I found a huge bottle of brandy and a medium bottle of coke. I poured myself a large one and added nothing to it. Back in the living room, Maxim was sorting through a jumbled assortment of tapes and discs.

“Mozart was the fucking king,” he snarled, brandishing a cassette.

“That was Elvis,” I said, as I sat in the other armchair and sipped my drink. “You’re getting your musos mixed up.”

He laughed, spraying a fine brandy mist into the air. He examined the tape label, nodded his approval and put the tape into the stereo. A few seconds later, the opening bars of Mozart’s Fortieth Symphony started playing mournfully through the speakers.

“Mozart hated all foreigners,” Maxim declared belligerently, as he slumped back in the armchair. “And I don’t blame him.”

I didn’t bother responding – Maxim nearly always made comments that were deliberately contentious or provocative. Now, in desperation, he was simply trying to be the person he usually played at being, but his usual humour and kindness were, perhaps not surprisingly, absent.

“Your dad–” I started, but he rode over my attempt to address the real issue.

“Listen to that. That’s fucking sublime, that is.”

I listened to Mozart for a while, sipped my drink, and kept an eye on Maxim. He got up and went into the kitchen, then came back with another huge glass full of neat brandy.

“To Mozart,” he said, raising his glass.

“To Mozart,” I said, raising mine.

We drank to Mozart. Maxim sat down again and started to cry.

I got up and went over to him. I sat down on the floor by his chair. I waited. After a while, he stopped crying, wiped his face with the back of his hand, took a long drink, and then looked at me.

“I loved him, you know.”

“I know you did.”

“More than anyone. And I do mean anyone.”

I nodded. “Yes, I know.”

“He was a good man,” Maxim said earnestly.

This was unknown territory for me so I stayed silent. The living son could eulogise the dead father as much as he wanted to, but I had only ever exchanged a few words with Vasil, so I didn’t know if he was good, bad or indifferent.

Then slowly, in painstakingly accurate detail, Maxim told me how Vasil had died. I found it disturbing and repellent, but fascinating.

Having finished recounting the details of his father’s death, Maxim got up clumsily and pulled another tape from the stack. He put it in the machine, switched Mozart off, muttered “Fucking Kraut-Wop,” then sat down again as the twangy strains of a balalaika rang out tinnily. After a few chords, Vasil’s nasal voice began singing a song. In Russian. It sounded like a folk song.

“Now that’s what you call real singing,” Maxim said, his eyes filling with more tears.

Although I sympathised, my worst fears were coming true. The night was going to be the dreaded list of attributes, followed by crying, all to the accompaniment of Vasil’s nasal warbling. It was more than I could stand.

“Maxim, I can’t stay. I have to go. I’m sorry.”

“Just a bit more. Come on. My dad died. Don’t go yet,” he pleaded.

“Ten more minutes, then I really have to go.”

We looked at the clock. It was quarter to ten. I knew Maxim well enough to know what he was going to say.

“Stay till ten,” he said.

“Okay,” I sighed. “Ten. But no later.”

“It’s a deal!” Maxim yelled, as though we’d been bartering, which I suppose we had. He swigged his brandy, draining half the glass in one go.

“Help yourself to another drink,” he said. “And don’t be so mean; it’s my brandy.”

He laughed softly to himself, then cried some more. He put his glass down on the floor in that overly-careful way very drunk people have of doing things, usually in an attempt to show you how sober they really are, even though they know that you know they’re drunk, and are being very careful because of it.

It’s the time they do the most damage.

He got up and wandered out of the room. I sat there silently cursing Vasil for dying and lumbering me with his emotionally-draining son. As soon as I’d thought it I felt terrible. My friend’s father had died. Maxim was being as he always was when he wasn’t being amusing. I knew his temperament, so why was I expecting him to be any different? Did I think he was going to tell me funny stories? Perhaps I did.

After a few minutes, Maxim strode back into the room and dumped a load of photos in my lap.

“He was a man,” he said. “A real man, not one of these over-sensitive pansies you get these days.”

“You sound a lot like him,” I said, knowing it would be taken in a way I didn’t mean. As I spoke, I flicked through the sheaf of photographs.

Maxim was slumped back in his armchair. He nodded his approval at my comment.

The majority of the pictures were old. Most of them were black and white photos. Some showed Vasil as a young man. He looked like an unsuccessful used car salesman. There was one with some fat, walrus moustached man holding a baby; Vasil’s father, no doubt, holding his own son; the father of the angry, grieving drunk in the room with me.

I stopped on a picture of Vasil in military uniform. He was grinning stupidly.

“If you ever tell anyone, I’ll punch your fucking face in,” Maxim said belligerently.

Shocked, I looked at Maxim sharply.

“What!” I said, enraged.

Maxim shook his head, suddenly ashamed.

“That’s not what I meant,” he dissembled. “I just meant I don’t want you to say anything…”

I stood up and held the picture up to him.

“You deliberately gave me this picture. If you didn’t want me to say anything, why the hell did you show it to me?”

Maxim looked at the picture for a moment. The room was quiet enough for me to hear the ticking of the clock.

“Sieg Heil!” he barked suddenly, jumping to his feet and raising his arm in a Nazi salute.

I stared at this bizarre scene for a moment, then looked at the picture in my hand, the picture of Maxim’s father in his Nazi uniform with its very distinct SS insignia on the tunic collar and sleeves.

A Russian man wearing a Nazi uniform is a double betrayal. Wearing SS insignia was a triple betrayal. I looked again at the dementedly-saluting Maxim and made it quadruple. Considering the high esteem in which Maxim held his father, it was maybe a lot more than that. And then, for the first time, I knew what was meant by the sins of the fathers being visited on the sons. I also grasped the cause of Maxim’s heavy drinking, the caustic comedy, the self-loathing, the gutter language, the dead end job, the extreme kindness – the lot. But suddenly I didn’t care enough to care.

“I’ve got to go, Maxim,” I said, but I might just as well not have spoken. He was like a statue, still standing to attention, his arm again raised in the Nazi salute. He stayed silent for a moment, then yelled: “Sieg Heil” again. Then, without warning, he started to goose-step around his living room.

This was utterly bizarre to see, but chilling too. Goosebumps rose up on my arms and shoulders and the hair prickled up on the back of my neck at the scene. Like a robot with a faulty mechanism, Maxim was goose-stepping, saluting and sieg heiling up and down his living room carpet, with Vasil serenading him reedily in the background on the badly tuned balalaika. It was surreal. It was too much for me to cope with.

“Maxim!” I yelled. “I’m going!”

Maxim halted abruptly.

“I love my dad,” he slurred, “and there’s nothing he did that I’m ashamed of. I don’t think he did anything wrong.”

“Then you should,” I said softly. “You should praise and love his goodness and accept his faults as faults.”

“Faults!” Maxim barked. “My father had no faults! All he did was kill a few fuckers that deserved to die. Vermin. Fucking vermin. God, I loved him. Still do.”

There was a long silence. Then suddenly I knew.

“And how long before you decide to go out and buy yourself a Nazi uniform?” I asked.

Maxim stared at me, then nodded.

“I’ve already got one,” he said. “It’s upstairs, in my wardrobe.” He reached down and picked up his brandy glass, draining it in one swallow. “It was on a mannequin for a while, but that used to freak me out when I went into my bedroom. Now it’s hanging up in the wardrobe. I’ve got the jacket, trousers, insignia, hat, boots, belt, riding crop, the lot.” Then he marched out of the room. I heard him go upstairs.

As I put the photograph down on the chair arm and straightened up. I looked around the room. Cold and impersonal. I wouldn’t miss visiting it. Out in the hall, I called up the stairs to Maxim.

“Maxim, I’m going now,” I said. “Sorry about your dad. I’ll see you around in a few days.”

“No, wait!” I heard him call, but I didn’t want to wait to see someone who’d been a friend descend the stairs wearing a Nazi uniform on the night of his father’s death.

I hurried through the hall and out the front door.

As I made my way home, I wondered how much of my evening had been real. I sincerely hoped none of it, but I knew I had seen the truth.

And it wore such terrible clothes.

 

*

 

More to the Picture (2554 words)

Copyright © R J Dent (2016)

 

 

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