His English Wife (short story)

If only

More of less twenty years ago, I was in a pub with my brother in law who bore an uncanny resemblance to my husband, his brother.

Approaching the bar, as my brother in law was drawing his wallet from a pocket, the barman began,

‘Got your wallet on you for once you ball bag of a …’ and, if you’ve ever lived – or been to an ice hockey match – you’ll be able to imagine the textures, excretions and body parts used to describe the ball bag who was attempting to buy me a drink.

‘I think you’ve taken me for my brother,’ said my brother in law, placing a flat hand on the bar.

‘Oh, Jesus, I’m so sorry. I did so,’ admitted the sweating barman, pulling a pint of Guinness yet evidently still wondering if there might be a chance of getting the whatever it might be, from my husband. ‘Sure now, you look alike now. But it’s usually him, should I say it used to be him usually and you with him, but only on occasion which always like, made me think, I’m seeing double you know?’ He shuffled and we all pretended it was the first time anyone had come up with the witty thing. ‘I don’t see you without him you see’. I felt for the man. He bumbled, ‘But I’ve not seen him, not for, I don’t know. A while. So I thought like, so. I’m, um. You, you know, your brother. He’s nothing like you now.’

‘You’ll be right there, now. That’s for sure, now.’

‘Was it a gin and tonic? My you’ve nice eyes.’

‘A double.’ I’d spoken.

‘A double for the lady now.’ and fuss about lemon besides a bit of banter about the cold and ice as it was November, until he risked, ‘Aren’t you, like, the one, the english, his,’

‘Wife. Yes. Spot on. The english wife,’ and my brother in law and I looked at each other as the barman turned to get the change from the till. We agreed, through the gaze, it was wrong but it was the most fun possible in the circumstance really – we knew it wasn’t really fun.

The bar man turned towards us, ‘your brother now, your man like. There’s a few matters the – er – he, sorry, your man has a few things to to deal with. Would you either of you know where and be willing to tell me where he is?’ I thought I really ought to break the ice but my brother in law got in first.

‘For once in my life I can and will tell you for certain where my brother is. I’ll even give you the post code. He’s on a shelf in the mortuary. We’re just fresh from there.’ The barman fell against the till. ‘24 hours ago you might, I say might, we’re not so sure yet, but you might just have had him, a day or so ago, maybe, but, sadly, you’ve just missed your chance.’

It wasn’t funny.

My brother in law and I had hoped a drink might ease the shock of being called to identify the body of the man we had both loved and still did.

The barman did what people do and it actually was very funny. it was hard not to laugh which came as a surprise. We’d thought we’d never laugh again.

He doubled the round, sloshing drinks everywhere, grabbed the change back and handed crisp notes across the bar. He clearly wanted to know how and why but didn’t dare ask so instead, sank a measure of whisky and explained how the man who had been while assumed alive, described in terms even I wouldn’t repeat , was, now dead, heroic and besides being his one and only – was also – the whole world’s, closest, greatest best and most reliable, trustworthy friend ever. ‘One of those, you know. You always know where they are, and they know the same of you and, if it all goes tits up, you’ve got each other’s backs.’

I lit up – you could then, and we seemed to hang about in the fug from a fag, like cows round a tree when it’s close to milking, pausing, as the barman mopped, sorted out a tray and finally we felt set free to turn towards the snug, as he asked,

‘What should I say, do you mind, to, you know, the lads, you know if,’

‘He died by suicide,’ I said, hearing the new phrase.

‘He committed? Your husband passed by? He?’ gasped the barman.

‘No. He died. He died by suicide,’ I explained. ‘He’ll not be passing – and, well, committed? A husband?’ I taunted the poor man as we moved, numb and smug to the snug. ‘If only.’

Talk to someone – or pretend to be your brother.

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