Sean visited every year at this time, and had done so for seven years now. The first visit had been quite a surprise, but Frank had grown used to it, expected it, even looked forward to it in a strange, self-loathing kind of way. He kept the best armchair by the fire free for him, ensured the fire was well stoked so needed no attention for the duration of his visit, and placed a large whiskey on a little three-legged stool next to the arm of the chair ready for him coming.
He himself sat on a hard dining chair, some way to the back of the room, within the shadows of the old sideboard, dusty ornaments and fading pictures hanging on angled strings, a deeply patterned, rust coloured wallpaper as a backdrop. He had the rest of the bottle and his own glass by his side, keeping it refreshed regularly. The old grandmother clock on the wall behind him filled the frequent gaps in conversation with a gentle tick, measuring the time to when Sean would eventually leave as the fire crackled and sent images around the room, lighting up Sean’s figure which Frank would only view from behind, off to one side.
‘Lagavulin?’, enquired Sean, as he bent over the armchair and stared at the glass, the side of his face clearly visible to Frank by the light of the fire, though they made no eye contact at all.
‘Of course’, Frank replied, ‘Your favourite’. The clock ticked for a moment.
Sean straightened himself and stared back into the fire, though did not touch his whiskey. ‘Do you remember that first time we tried it, out by that bothy, what was it called?’
Frank knew the story. ‘Lochan Dubh’, he replied.
‘That was it’, Sean continued, ‘Lochan Dubh’. A spark leapt onto the carpet at Sean’s feet and fizzled out without either man attempting to extinguish it first. ‘And that shepherd bloke came by, do you remember?’
‘And we’d been out on the kayaks that day, out on the loch, just the two of us mind? And he came in for a bit of shelter, seeing the smoke from the bothy. Mind that?’ Sean half-turned towards Frank, though still did not look directly at him.
Frank remembered the day well. It was cold and the fire they had built a welcome relief from hours on the icy water. He wasn’t used to whiskey and when the shepherd had offered the bottle around, he’d coughed and spluttered his first measure into the sharp air. They’d laughed.
‘I loved it then, I love it now’, Sean sighed as he peered at the glass over the arm of his chair. ‘Shame the second time at that bothy wasn’t so good, was it?’ he continued.
The shadows within the room seemed to die a little as the logs shuffled themselves within the hearth. Frank watched them until the flames grew strong again. The second armchair by the fire, until then seemingly empty, now revealed a second visitor while Sean continued reminiscing, ‘Aye it was a damn shame, such a lovely boat you know?’
‘I know’, replied Frank, stretching his neck to see his second visitor better. She turned slightly and smiled a soft smile at him.
‘Oh God no.’ Frank dropped his glass. ‘Not Jeanie.’
‘’Fraid so mate’. Sean turned further round in his chair and for the first time made eye contact, a hard stare, a plain cold face with a deep scar running from left eye across his cheek to the edge of his mouth. ‘Her machine was finally switched off this morning, the eighth anniversary of that day. A hard decision for her parents. She wanted to see you.’
The woman nodded slightly, a single tear escaping and slipping down her face before she turned back to face the fire and nestled deep into the chair.
‘And what of Tommy?’ Frank almost shouted, ‘So where’s fucking Tommy?’
Sean returned to face the fire. The clock ticked. The fire crackled. ‘I’ve been coming here for seven years Frank. Not once have you ever asked about Tommy, not once.’
Frank wiped his eyes and spoke through gritted teeth, ‘I’m asking now.’
‘Well’, said Sean, last I saw he’d his ankle trapped and he went down, right down to the bottom of the loch and I swear his soul kept on going. Envy is a sin you know, you should think about that.’
Frank stared at the second chair, where Jeanie had sat. ‘Will she visit every year?’ he asked.
The clock, of a sudden, chimed. When it grew silent again Sean shrugged, ‘Not my call’.
‘And Tommy?’ Frank asked.
Sean looked at Frank again. ‘It was you that was supposed to go down you know. He did it to get you, not us, we were just collateral damage.’ He then stared absently into the fire. ‘For your sake’, he whispered, shaking his head slightly, ‘I’m hoping Tommy doesn’t take to visiting.’
The clock ticked within the silent room, as Frank finished the bottle alone, and cleared away the empty glasses.