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Coming of Age Friendship Fiction

Arthur narrowed his eyes and studied his moustache in the bathroom mirror; a cut-throat razor in one hand and trimming scissors in the other, poised and ready for battle. He’d maintained a pencil-thin moustache throughout his career in the Welsh Guards; from humble squaddie to regimental sergeant major; it was his trademark. 

Today it looked immaculate, as always, perched three-eighths of an inch below his nose and stretched across his upper lip like a fox moth caterpillar with rigor mortis.

#

There was no doubt Arthur was a strict disciplinarian and a perfectionist who clung to his principles like a bearded mussel adhered onto a rock at high tide. 

However, after thirty years of barking commands on Combermere’s parade ground, his throat said, “No more!” 

Arthur’s battalion of guardsmen breathed a collective sigh when he marched off to a desk job even if, in secret, they missed his fearsome presence. He’d drilled them to within a whisker of their lives so they could perform royal duties without breaking a sweat. They all owed him a debt of gratitude in that respect, and later would thank him in combat when action was required without question.

#

Shelley had said it was a relief for one and all when his booming vocal cords gave up the fight. She was correct, as always, bless her. They’d had a long and happy marriage until the Alzheimer’s colonised her mind and claimed her cheery soul. During Arthur’s fifty years of military service, Shelley had been the mouse that roared, but only when he stood out of line, which was rare in retrospect. Arthur only played devil’s advocate with her when he felt frisky and relished their playful badinage. Shelley was bright and quick-witted enough to keep him in check. However, he was always respectful, and why wouldn’t he be? Shelley was up early every day, preparing a stout English breakfast for him, but only after completing her other chores. By six o’clock she’d have ironed his shirt, polished his brass buttons and pressed his trousers, furnishing them with razor sharp creases. Arthur may have instilled fear in his men; woe betide those failing to meet his benchmark; but only because his standard of dress was so high and she helped maintain it. 

#

Arthur and Shelley were old school; disciplined and dedicated to a life of duty. They both followed the orders to the T and never once questioned military wisdom. When the government closed down the sangars on the Irish border, they packed their bags, said goodbye, and left for the mainland without hesitation. Here today and gone tomorrow, they departed with no regrets; that’s the military life.

Arthur’s only complaint was that the new generation were too smart for their own good and needed educating. 

The army doesn’t need know-alls who question commands, he’d said to Shelley. We need men who’ll follow orders. 

But surely clever soldiers are useful, dear? She’d said. 

No way, he’d said. Soldiers who think are useless and put everyone in jeopardy. 

Why’s that, dear? 

When I say “dig,” it’s because I need a hole digging, end of story. I don’t want some clever dick asking me, “how deep?” I’ll tell them when to stop digging and that’s that. 

You’re ever so strict, dear. 

I have to be, love, that’s what the military’s all about. 

Shelley could be the devil’s advocate, too. She knew very well what Arthur’s job entailed and “orders were orders,” but she liked to tease him and deflate his ego once in a while; and show him who was the boss.

Arthur was a menacing presence on the parade ground, but Shelley knew him as a loving husband; a pussy-cat with a lion’s mane. She’d listen with pride as his roar echoed round the barracks. He was the mighty voice of the British Army and yelled commands all day long. 

#

Shelley’s circle of friends on the base never saw Arthur’s gentle side. 

They asked, How can you stand that endless shouting? 

You get used to it after a couple of decades, she’d said.

They presumed he was an ogre and a bully, but she put them straight. 

He doesn’t shout all the time.

Well, when does he stop, Shelley?

She’d just smiled and said, No comment.

What did they know? If the country went to war, Shelley knew all their husband’s lives would be safe under Arthur’s command. The men feared his wrath, however they trusted his judgement, and that was important. 

#

Arthur glanced at his reflection in the bathroom mirror and considered his options for the day, the week, and the years ahead. He was still in good shape for eighty and enjoyed an active outdoor life, though it wouldn’t be the same without Shelley. She had organised their holidays, social life and all their family celebrations.

He examined all his crags, crow’s feet and gnarly lines on his face and considered how well she knew him. Shelley’s talent was knowing what he needed, as much as what he’d appreciate for his birthday and at Christmas. It wasn’t until the latter stages of Shelley’s illness that he’d received endless boxes of gift-wrapped shaving sets. He had twenty shaving brushes at the last count and countless packs of replacement blades for his safety razor. He hinted that an electric trimmer would be handy and Shelley laughed out loud. 

That’s all very modern, dear, she’d said, snorting. But it’s just wrong and feels like cheating.

#

Arthur was faithful to Shelley during their marriage and courageous throughout Shelley’s twenty years long spiral into dementia. Her descent into the realm of the unwell was an incremental journey of painful little steps. Shelley’s entire being fell apart before Arthur’s eyes; fragmenting into painful shards. She was unrecognisable at the end, like an awkward mound of colourful jigsaw pieces that once described a beautiful rolling landscape. When the latter stages of dementia had taken hold and she barely knew him, he held tight and maintained his faith even when hope had all but disappeared. Keeping sane and maintaining his patience became the biggest battle of his career by far.

#

In the end, it was his pencil-thin moustache that gave Shelley a solid anchor of recognition and an aide-mémoire. That familiar strand of facial hair tethered her to reality by a thin whisker and jogged the withering grey cells back to life like an elderly motor spluttering on fumes by the side of life’s highway. 

You're Arthur, aren’t you, dear? She asked, clutching his arm.

Yes, love, he’d said, stroking her cheek. I’ll always be here for you.

I know who you are, silly, she’d said. 

There’s no fooling you. Arthur chuckled.

He never failed to respond with patience, as if it was all a guessing game, and she’d known the answers all along and was just pretending. There were days when Shelley would feel lost and panic, and his affectionate manner settled her, restoring her dignity and peace of mind.

#

Arthur had dedicated his life to duty, but beyond that; he’d loved every delicate bone in her body. Looking back at their marriage, he knew he was a lucky man because they’d both remained happy even when Shelley’s behaviour first became erratic. Before the official diagnosis, Arthur often woke up at night by himself, next to a bed space. He would search the house for Shelley, knowing everyday objects were potential hazards and sources of harm; hot pans, knives and kitchen implements were all problematic. 

On one occasion, he’d heard the distant sound of a vacuum cleaner and discovered Shelley in the front garden in her dressing gown, hoovering up rogue dandelions and clover from the lawn. Inhaling and rubbing his furry upper lip, Arthur had approached his wife, determined not to startle her, and encircled his protective arms around her shoulders in a gentle embrace. Arthur reassured her bewildered mind, distracted her attention from the daisies, and shepherded her back upstairs, despite her protestations. 

He’d never mention the incidents afterwards and if Shelley had shocking moments of clarity, Arthur avoided any discussion, making light of the matter, so as not to cause her undue stress. 

#

Last week’s funeral had been a quiet affair and the closest Arthur had ever come to crying in public. In his brief speech, Arthur said Shelley was the best thing that happened in his life and recalled the joy they shared and the love she’d given him. He spoke about the little things she’d done: sewing on his tunic buttons, buying his first monogrammed shaving brush and baking his favourite homemade rhubarb pie. Arthur summed up the occasion as a last farewell to his wife and an emotional “auf wiedersehen,” however, at eighty years old, all he had left was a moustache and a hoarse whisper.

#

The subsequent few days were hellish for Arthur as he drifted from his daily routine. Marooned in his deserted home, regular meals went to pot, and his regimented sleep pattern soon evaporated. Arthur had forsaken all obligations and without Shelley to tease him, he’d gone unshaven for a week. He was a mess and couldn’t stop thinking about their life together.

What would Shelley have said? 

She’d have had words with him, that’s what.

Arthur made his way upstairs, intent on ending his distress. 

He prepared his soap brush, daubed his hairy face in foaming lather, and considered his future. His retirement was bleak without his soulmate to look after.

Arthur picked up his cut-throat razor and snapped back the blade, exposing its sharp edge. He raised the cut-throat to his chin and stroked the honed steel over his silver stubble, jettisoning the detritus in the porcelain sink. Arthur narrowed his eyes and studied his soapy moustache in the bathroom mirror one last time. With Shelley’s quivering smile in mind, he raised his trimming scissors, snipped away the thicker strands, and removed the remaining bristles with the gleaming blade. 

That’s better, he said, twitching his nose and sniffing. A definite improvement. 

Arthur chuckled under his breath. 

I should’ve done that years ago. 

 

THE END




August 19, 2023 03:38

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23 comments

08:41 Aug 22, 2023

Arthur is the picture of dedication. you bring a lot of sympathy to why he's so gruff with the soldiers and the need to toughen them up. And with Shelley it was a very accurate picture of dementia. It was heartwarming the details of how Arthur would fix things for her and cover up her mistakes. And the little cliffhanger at the end worked perfectly too.

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Howard Halsall
00:20 Aug 23, 2023

Hey Scott, Thank you for taking the time to read and comment on my latest story. Your brief analysis was concise and to the point. I’m glad you picked up on the ending and relieved it worked for you. I was worried that it was a bit melodramatic, so your positive comment is a relief and much appreciated. Take care HH

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Olivia Lake
03:54 Aug 25, 2023

This was really powerful. Love the framing device of Arthur at in front of the mirror. Shaving off his moustache felt so cathartic in the end, and it was all due to how well you built and layered his relationship with Shelley.

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Howard Halsall
04:06 Aug 25, 2023

Hello Olivia, Thank you for reading my story and sharing your thoughts. I’m pleased you enjoyed it and relieved the ending worked. I was concerned that the final moments might be a bit melodramatic and rewrote it several times before I was happy to upload it. Take care HH

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Georgia Blair
12:51 Aug 24, 2023

Your characterization is excellent, driving this poignant story from beginning to end. Your deft and subtle nudging prompts us to wonder whether Arthur might meet this emotional challenge with his trademark no-nonsense decisiveness. But at the end we're left with the sense that he will now move on to life without Shelley with the same fortitude that saw him through all his military postings. After all, as you pointed out, that's the military way. Thumbs up! :)

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Howard Halsall
22:38 Aug 24, 2023

Hello Georgia, Thank you for taking the time to read and review my story. I’m pleased you enjoyed it and flattered by your comments; they’re much appreciated. Regarding Arthur’s future; we can only hope he will put his best foot forward and march on without his dear wife; it’s the British way, of course and encapsulates the notion of “the stiff upper lip.” Take care HH

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Steffen Lettau
16:19 Aug 23, 2023

That is quite the sad love story, though I do like how he manages to get through one more day at the end.

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Howard Halsall
23:51 Aug 23, 2023

Hey Steffen, Thank you for reading my story and sharing your reaction. I trust it wasn’t too sad for you and hope you enjoyed the characters. Take care HH

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Zyn Marlin
05:57 Aug 23, 2023

What a sweet little story! I loved seeing the different sides to Arthur, and you treated Shelley's decline so tenderly and compassionately. I was also glad that Arthur did not take drastic measures at the end! Having him shave off the moustache felt very satisfying as an ending - it served its purpose and now it's time to see what the new future holds for him. I enjoyed it very much!

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Howard Halsall
06:06 Aug 23, 2023

Hey Zyn, Thanks for reading my story and leaving your positive comments; they’re much appreciated. I found it tricky to balance both characters’ stories and create sufficient empathy to make the ending work, however your remarks are encouraging in that respect. Take care HH

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Chris Campbell
02:39 Aug 23, 2023

Howard, A beautiful and moving story told with the sharpest of writing skill. It's message of love and dedication shone through so brightly, that I shed a tear for the loss of Shelley. You taught me a new word, "Badinage." Thank you for that. I loved the following line: "She was unrecognisable in the end, like awkward mounds of colourful jigsaw pieces that once described a beautiful rolling landscape." What a great description of Shelley's decline. Coincidentally, my story this week (still in progress as of Aug 23) references the Welsh ...

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Howard Halsall
03:42 Aug 23, 2023

Hey Chris, Thank you for reading my story and sharing your thoughts. I’m pleased it hit the right notes and relieved it didn’t strike a melodramatic chord. It was difficult to balance all the elements and I had several rewrites to make it readable. So phew! It seems like I cracked it; although if I had another read through, I’d probably change it all again. Note to self - put it down and walk away…. I look forward to reading your Welsh Guards story when you release a final draft, unless you require a work in progress review? And “yes,” of al...

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Chris Campbell
04:28 Aug 23, 2023

The story is a first part of what may turn out to be a compendium of adventures involving an ex-Major of the Welsh Guards and his former adjutant (now his assistant) who both work in a lesser known but curious department of the post office. Following the cryptic clues of an ancient book of Egyptian spells that turns up on the desk of the Major, they are drawn into the pursuit of the meaning of the book that mystically transports them to various times within the Earth's history. I'm thinking of the old Saturday morning movie cliffhanger type...

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Howard Halsall
04:56 Aug 23, 2023

Hey Chris, In response to your idea, which sounds intriguing, may I suggest that your former major accepts a post in a curious department in Whitehall; maybe he’s a consultant for an obscure office within the Ministry of Defence. It would seem an appropriate career move to utilise his military knowledge and a suitable job for a Guard’s officer; given the old boy network and all those connections…. Just a thought and not entirely an arbitrary suggestion; but that’s another story :) Anyway, I’m sure it’ll work well, judging from the examples o...

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Chris Campbell
07:04 Aug 23, 2023

Hi Howard, Thanks for your suggestion; however, I have discovered a department at the post office not too widely known. I'm keeping my cards to my chest on this one, until publication. The MOD, I reserve for my Anthony Pratt stories.

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Mary Bendickson
14:35 Aug 22, 2023

Like Jessie I am glad he only shaved. But that had to be a collosal step. Nice depiction of long-long term marriage. Thanks for liking my story.

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Howard Halsall
00:05 Aug 23, 2023

Hey Mary, Thank you for reading my story and sharing your thoughts and positive feedback. I’m pleased you enjoyed it and glad it rang true; it was a tricky topic and I’m relieved it didn’t become too melodramatic. Take care HH

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Jessie Laverton
14:04 Aug 22, 2023

This is really lovely. I was so relieved when he only shaved at the end!

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Howard Halsall
00:07 Aug 23, 2023

Hey Jessie, Thank you for taking the time to read and comment on my story. Your positive response is much appreciated. Take care HH

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Helen A Smith
08:51 Aug 22, 2023

Great story Howard. I got completely drawn into this private world. Very touching without being sentimental. Wonderful depiction of characters and a tale of love and courage. Also, some great lines. “Keeping sane and maintaining patience became the biggest battle of his career. “ Really enjoyed reading it.

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Howard Halsall
00:15 Aug 23, 2023

Hey Helen, Thank you for reading my latest story and leaving your positive comments. I’m pleased it all made sense and wasn’t too sentimental. It was an interesting challenge trying to condense a character’s life into less than 2000 words and distill it down to one meaningful moment of change, however I’m much encouraged by your words of support. Take care HH

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Lily Finch
19:37 Aug 19, 2023

Hear hear, well done Howard. Great story. LF6

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Howard Halsall
21:54 Aug 19, 2023

Hey Lily, Thank you for the positive feedback…. I can’t help thinking it’s far too sentimental and a bit mawkish, perhaps? Take care HH

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