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Authors: Graham Masterton

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Ritual

BOOK: Ritual
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Ritual

 

By

 

Graham Masterton

Charlie strained his eyes. For one moment, through the rain that
herringboned the windowpanes, he thought he glimpsed somebody standing just to
the left of the shed, veiled like a bride with old man’s beard. Somebody dark,
somebody stooped, with a face that was disturbingly pale.

There was a third flash of lightning, even more intense than the first;
and for one split second every shadow in the garden was blanched white . . .

‘Optical illusion,’ said Charlie.

Martin didn’t answer, but kept on staring outside.

‘Ghost?’
Charlie suggested.

‘I don’t know,’ said Martin. ‘It gave me a weird kind of a feeling,
that’s all.’

CHAPTER ONE

O
utside the restaurant window, behind the trees, a huge
thundercloud ballooned up, luridly orange in the afternoon sunshine,
anvil-headed, apocalyptic, the kind of thundercloud from which Valkyries should
have been tumbling.

‘Well, then,’
said Charlie, his face half hidden in the shadows. ‘How long do you think this
baby has been dead?’

Martin peered
across the table.
‘Hard to say, under all that glop.’

‘This glop, as
you call it, is Colonial-style Sauce,’ Charlie corrected him.

‘It’s glop,’
Martin insisted. ‘Look at it. It’s so gloppy.’

Charlie bowed
his head so close to the lumpy scarlet sauce spread out over his plate that
Martin thought for one moment that he was going to press his face into it.
Charlie was sniffing it, to determine what it was made of. He was also trying
to decide whether the veal schnitzel underneath had been defrosted recently
enough to justify the menu’s confident claim that it was

‘Homestead
Fresh’.

Without raising
his face, Charlie said, ‘This is a mixture of Chef Boy-ar-Dee canned tomatoes,
undercooked onions, and Spice Islands Mixed Herbs straight out of the jar. Its
primary purpose would appear to be to conceal the midlife crisis being suffered
by the schnitzel beneath it.’

‘Is that what
you’re going to write about it?’ asked Martin. Charlie could hear the challenge
in his voice. He sat up straight and looked Martin directly in the eye.

‘I have to be
practical, as well as critical. Where else is your ravenous fertilizer salesman
going to eat, halfway up the Housa-tonic Valley on a wet fall afternoon?’

He picked up
his fork, wiped it carefully on his napkin, and added, ‘What I shall probably
write is, “The Colonial-style Sauce was somewhat short on true Colonial
character.”‘

‘Isn’t that
called copping out?’ said Martin. All the same, he watched with amusement as
Charlie lifted up his entire veal schnitzel on the end of his fork and
scrutinized first one side and then the other, as if he were trying to sex it.

‘Sometimes, you
have to be forgiving to be accurate,’ said Charlie. ‘The truth is, this veal is
disastrous and this sauce is worse, but we’d be wasting our time if we went
driving around looking for anything better. Besides, I’ve eaten far less
appetizing meals than this. I was served up with steak tartare once, in the
Imperial Hotel in Philadelphia, and there was half a cow’s lip in it, complete
with hair. The maitre d’ tried to persuade me that it was something called
Steak Tartare Napoleone. I said, “
This
is more like
Steak Tartare Vidal Sassoon.’“

Martin smiled,
one of those odd sly smiles which fifteen-year-old boys put on to convince
their forty-one-year-old fathers that they are still interested in hearing all
the hoary, unfunny anecdotes that their fathers have been telling them ever
since they were old enough to listen. He poked at his Traditional Connecticut
Potpie.

‘I haven’t put
you off your food?’ asked Charlie.

Martin shook
his head. ‘I don’t think you’ve done anything for their appetites, though.’ And
he nodded towards two white-haired New England matrons who were sitting at the
next table, staring at Charlie with their spectacles as blind as four polished
pennies.

Charlie turned
in his seat and smiled at the matrons benignly, like a priest. Flustered, they
attended to their fried fish. ‘The food is okay here,’ he told Martin. ‘The vegetables
are all home-grown, the breadrolls are fresh, and when they accidentally drop
someone’s lunch on the floor, they usually throw it in the trash. Did I ever
tell you about the time they dropped a whole lobster stew in the service
elevator at the Royalty Inn in Seattle? Yes – and scraped it up between two
wine-lists. Yes – and served it up to a legionnaires’ reunion party. No wonder
legionnaires are always having diseases named after them.’

‘I think you
did tell me that, yes sir,’ said Martin, and slowly began to eat. Outside, the
thundercloud was already dredging the upper atmosphere with rain. There was a
strange, threatening hush in the air, interrupted only by the sound of knives
and forks squeaking on plates.

‘This place has
charm,’ Charlie added. ‘These days, you don’t get to see too much in the way of
charm. And, you know, for most people, charm is just as important as food.
More important, sometimes.
You’re taking a girl out, hoping
to screw her, what do you care if they only half cook the onions in your
Colonial-style Sauce?’

Martin was
quite aware that Charlie was trying to talk to him man-to-man. But anybody who
had been sitting next to them, father and son, both silhouetted against the
pewterish light of an October afternoon – anybody would have realized quite
quickly that they were strangers to one another. There were too many empty
pauses; too many moments of un-familiarity and too many questions that no
father should ever have needed to ask his own son.

‘How’s the
potpie?’ Charlie wanted to know. ‘I never knew you liked potpie.’

‘I don’t,’ said
Martin. ‘But look at the alternatives. That fish looks like it died of old
age.’

‘Don’t knock
old age,’ said Charlie. ‘Old age has a dignity all its own.’

‘If that’s
true, your veal must be just about the most dignified piece of meat I ever
saw.’

Charlie was
cutting up his schnitzel with professional neatness. ‘It’s acceptable, given
the location, the net cost and the time of year.’

‘You always say
that. You’ve been saying that since I was five years old. You said that about
the very first catcher’s mitt you bought me.’

Charlie laid
down his fork. ‘I told you. I have to be practical as well as critical. I have
to remember that most people aren’t picky.’

Martin said,
more venomously than he had ever dared to speak to his father before, ‘You’d
eat anything, wouldn’t you?’

Charlie looked
at his son with care. At last, he said, ‘It’s my job,’ as if that explained
everything.

For a few
minutes, the two of them were silent. Charlie always felt tense when they were
silent.

There was so
much to ask, so much to say, and yet he found it almost impossible to express
what he felt. How can you explain to your son that you regret every minute you
missed of his growing up, when there had never been anything to prevent you
from being there but your own misguided sense of destiny?

He carried a
plastic wallet that was fat with dog-eared photographs, and for him they were
as progressively agonizing as the Stations of the Cross. Here was Martin
playing in the yard at the age of three with a bright red firetruck, his eyes
squin-ched up tight against the summer sun.

Here he was
again, dressed as Paul Revere at the grade-school concert, unsmiling, unsure of
himself. That picture had been taken in 1978, when Charlie hadn’t been home for
over four months. Here was Martin after his team had won the Little League
baseball tournament, his hand raised up in triumph by some ginger-haired
gorilla of a man whom Charlie had never even met.

Charlie had
missed almost all of it. Instead, he had been dining in strange hotels all
across America, Charlie McLean, the restaurant inspector, an unremembered ghost
at countless unremembered banquets. But how could he explain to Martin why he
had been compelled to do it, and what it had been like?
Those
solitary hotel rooms, with television sets
quarrelling through every
wall; those fifteenth-floor windows with soulless views of ventilation shafts
and wet city streets, into which the taillights of passing automobiles had run
like blood.

Every meal taken alone, like a penance.

Watching his
father’s face, Martin said, ‘Sounds like that
storm’s
headed this way.’

‘Yes,’ said
Charlie. ‘There’s a legend up here in the Litch-field Hills that electric
storms are caused by ancient Indian demons; the Great Old Ones, they call them.
The Narragansett medicine men fought them and beat them, and then chained them
up to the clouds so that they couldn’t escape. But, you know, every now and
then they wake up and get angry and shake their chains and gnash their teeth
together, and that’s what causes electric storms.’

Martin put down
his fork.
‘Dad?
Is it okay if I have another 7-Up?’

Charlie said,
‘You know – you can call me Charlie. I mean, you don’t have to. But you can if
you want to.’

Martin didn’t
say anything to that. Charlie beckoned the waitress. ‘You want to bring me
another 7-Up, no cherry, and another glass of the chardonnay?’

‘You’re not on
vacation,’ the waitress said. It wasn’t a question. She wore a blue satin dress
that stuck to all the most unflattering parts of her hips and her buttocks with
the tenacity of Saran-wrap. She could have been quite pretty, except that one
side of her face didn’t quite seem to match the other, giving her a peculiarly
vixenish appearance. Her hair was the colour of egg-yolk, and stuck up stiffly
in all directions.

‘Just making
the rounds,’ said Charlie, winking at Martin. There was a distant grumble of
thunder, and he pointed with a smile towards the window. ‘I was telling my son
about the Indian demons, chained up in the clouds.’

The waitress
stopped writing on her pad for a moment and stared at him. ‘Pardon me?’

‘It’s a
legend,’ said Martin, coming to his father’s rescue.

‘You’re not
kidding,’ the waitress remarked. She peered down at Charlie’s plate. ‘You really
hate that veal, don’t you?’ she told him.

‘It’s
acceptable,’ said Charlie, without looking at her. Like each of his five fellow
inspectors, he wasn’t permitted to discuss meals or services with the
management of any of the restaurants he visited, and it was a misdemeanour
punishable by instant dismissal to tell them who he was. His publishers
believed that if their inspectors were allowed to reveal their identity, they
would be liable to be offered bribes. Worse than that, they would be liable to
accept them. Charlie’s colleague, Barry Hunsecker, paid most of his alimony out
of bribes, but lived in a constant cold sweat unless he was found out, and
fired.

The waitress
leaned over, and whispered to Charlie, ‘You don’t have to be embarrassed. It’s
awful.
Listen,
don’t eat it if you don’t want to.
Nobody’s forcing you to eat it. I’ll make sure they charge you for the chowder,
and leave it at that.’

Charlie said,
‘You don’t have to worry. This is fine.’

‘If that’s
fine, I’m a Chinese person.’ The waitress propped her hands on her hips and
looked at him as if he were deliberately being awkward.


It’s
fine,’ Charlie repeated. He could hardly tell her that
he was obliged to eat
it, that
doggedly finishing his
entire portion was part of his professional duties. And he was supposed to
order dessert, and cheese, and coffee; and visit the restrooms, to scrutinize
the towels.

‘Well, I took
you for a gourmand,’ the waitress told him. She scribbled down ‘7~Up + Char’
and tucked her pad into the pocket of her dress.

‘A gourmand?’
asked Charlie. He lifted his head a little, and as he did so the last of the
sunlight caught him, and gave his age away, but that was all. A round-faced man
of forty-one, his roundness redeemed by the lines around his eyes, which gave
him a look of experience and culture, like a Meissen dish that had been chipped
at the edges. His hair was clipped short and neat as if he still believed in
the values of 1959. His hands

.were small, with a single gold ring on the wedding finger.
He wore a grey speckled sport coat and plain grey Evvaprest pants. Perhaps the
only distinctive thing about him was his wristwatch,
an
eighteen
carat gold Corum Romulus. That had been given to him under
circumstances that still made him sad to think about, even today.

BOOK: Ritual
3.87Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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