May Golightly rented her suite of attic rooms to Charlie for over twenty years. He was an ideal lodger, smart and courteous, and always paid his rent in cash. It was a convenient arrangement because his presence afforded her both peace of mind and financial security during her retirement. She’d never interfered in his affairs until one morning a letter appeared on her doormat. May recognised Charlie’s cursive script and opened it to discover a brief note, saying he’d gone away. Charlie asked her to secure his few valuables and box up his clothes for charity. He apologised for any inconvenience in advance and signed it, your ‘darling’ Charlie.
She’d never considered the condition of Charlie’s room or interfered in his lifestyle until after the sudden departure. It turns out that Charlie Fairbrass was a bit of a hoarder. His habit of collecting newspaper articles and filing away interesting stories had started as a young lad. Every morning, after his father left for work, he’d rescue his father’s discarded newspapers. Scissors at the ready, he combed the dailies for articles about unusual people in far-flung lands. He’d salvage the best stories for future reference and add them to the ever-expanding collection.
Young Charlie soon noticed there was a clique of writers rotating on a circuit of exotic locations. “What a life,” he said to himself. “I want to do that too.”
He mentioned the idea to his mother, and she saw every reason to promote Charlie’s aspiration. He would be her precious little foreign correspondent. They discussed the notion further and formulated a plan. He’d start off on local papers and work his way through the broad sheets. His mother convinced him he was destined for the jet set and he’d visit every continent before he was thirty. That dream was foremost in Charlie’s mind when he began his education at the local Grammar School.
Mister Trimble, a former pugilist, governed Charlie’s school with iron fists and a short temper. He was a disciplinarian who prided himself on producing high achievers in the class and on the field. If he couldn’t beat an education into their heads, he’d kick them round the football pitch instead. The competitive environment didn’t suit all the lads who studied there, and Charlie was a shy boy who struggled to overcome a speech defect.
When his parents separated at the start of his second year, he lost heart and retreated into his own private world. Besieged on all sides, by the start of the fourth year, he communicated with a voice reduced to a slurred whisper. How could he interview people if he was too embarrassed to speak to them? What use was a reporter who couldn’t ask questions? Charlie was beaten down before he started. There’d be time later, he convinced himself; big dreams don’t go away forever.
By the age of sixteen, Charlie had completed his schooling and his exam results were less than monumental. Having buried Charlie’s interests and cremated any ambition, his teachers agreed he showed little academic ability and no sporting prowess.
‘Quiet and thoughtful,’ wrote Mister Trimble in his final report. ‘Charles is a modest lad who should neither be under valued nor over estimated.’
Nobody had pretended Charles was a genius; except his mother for whom he could do nothing wrong. So when the headmaster described Charlie as, ‘a shining example of ingenuity triumphing over intellect,’ her jaw was agape. Reeling from Mister Trimble’s upper cut, her eyes welled up as she processed the wounding remark. Could he be referring to that silly incident when the bomb disposal squad was called to the school’s chemistry lab? Surely that was all forgotten about? Charlie was never reprimanded, because there was no proof.
Crestfallen by the faint praise, Mister Trimble’s summary uplifted her mood.
‘Charles is not without spirit, and will no doubt go far.’
‘The further away, the better,’ said Charlie, filing the report for posterity.
He was glad to put his school days behind him and looked forward to engaging with the university of life. Unperturbed by Mister Trimble’s words, he wrote enough enthusiastic job applications to warrant at least one positive response.
Gerard’s, the local auction house, accepted Charlie as an assistant in their showrooms. Before long, old Mister Gerard spotted the dapper lad going about his business. He observed the Charlie taking charge of his stock and noted the speed with which he stored and retrieved items from the warehouse. He had to admit, he was impressed. Within twelve months, he promoted Charlie to auction room assistant.
The elderly proprietor had big hopes for Charlie. He imagined he’d make a fine auctioneer; but alas, it wasn’t to be. Despite being smart and unflappable under pressure, his powers of speech often deserted him. The lisp proved to be a major issue that affected his confidence and hindered progress beyond the silent assistant’s job. However, in this role, Charlie demonstrated his thespian talents and entertained the crowds of punters bidding for dusty bargains and misplaced treasures. Charlie was the handsome clotheshorse who revealed all the lots with a theatrical flourish, like a magician’s apprentice pulling countless white rabbits from a bottomless top hat.
Charlie still dreamed of foreign adventures and was convinced of his place in the sun.
May Golightly was a night cleaner at Gerard’s when Charlie first arrived at the company. She encountered him organising the items to be auctioned prior to the big day. He’d stay late into the night cleaning and lining up the lots, before their introduction for sale. The two night owls often shared restorative cups of tea and a cheery smile at midnight. He had a good sense of humour and made her giggle with his witty one-liners and pithy insights.
“You’re a funny onion,” she’d say, tweaking his nose. “You don’t half make me larf.”
“You know me,” he’d say, grinning like a Cheshire cat. “Service with a smile.”
“You’re a darling,” she’d say, laughing. “I’ll give you that, Charlie Fairbrass.”
Charlie became an orphan at twenty when his mother passed away from self-neglect and a broken heart. Old Mister Gerard continued to support Charlie and welcomed him as a new member of his extended family. Charlie had become accustomed to the shenanigans of the auction world and its eccentric denizens. He’d learned to abide with the broad church of people he encountered; shrewd connoisseurs and wily antique dealers, shadowy handlers of stolen silverware and crooks who delivered goods to order. They were all one big surrogate family and more than just friends, colleagues or acquaintances. It was in everyone’s best interest to tolerate each other. One never knew when the entire empire would come under scrutiny and all were culpable in some way, shape or form.
May’s husband had long passed away when she met Charlie at Gerard’s. She was desperate for extra housekeeping money, and Charlie was looking for a room. May offered him ‘room with half board and his milk,’ and for two decades they never looked back. She often wondered if Charlie would ever meet a nice girl and move out, but he mentioned no one special. May got used to spotting letters addressed to him on her doormat. Often she detected a whiff of expensive scent on the envelopes, but he never invited guests up to his eerie. May assumed Charlie was single, and he’d stay forever. It’s easy to take things for granted.
Charlie’s formidable organisational skills and keen eye for detail offered other possibilities in this unscrupulous world. He understood his limitations only too well, and after elocution lessons failed to cure his speech impediment, he cultivated a decorous drawl instead. Charlie’s confidence grew as he mastered his unfamiliar vocal delivery, and people noticed him for the first time.
“He’s a bit of a character,” they’d say. “Where’s he been hidin’ then?”
Soon enough, Charlie worked in every post available in the company, from photographer and catalogue compiler to warehouse manager and accountant. However, the post he excelled at was ‘Head of Purchases and Appraisals.’ He’d found his hidden talent and a special gift. He could spot an unpolished gem a mile away and calculate its latent value instinctively.
At last, Charlie had attained a position of supreme trust that required discretion and maturity. Gerard’s clients saw him as an expert in his field who projected a quiet sense of authority. To succeed in a world of rogues and reprobates, all he had to do was act in good faith.
“What am I supposed to do with this lot?” May muttered, hovering in the doorway of Charlie’s vacant reception room. A single tungsten bulb suspended from a decorative plaster rose illuminated the clutter below. “It’s a flaming fire hazard,” she swore, scanning the attic room for health and safety issues. May spread the curtains and opened up the window to counteract a lively musk. The sofa and armchair were buried under his collection of newspaper cuttings and exhibited the signs of rodent infestation. Amongst the papers piled up around the room, May noticed a stack of obituaries dating back to their first encounter two decades ago.
“Bleedin’ weird is what he is,” she cursed, rolling up her sleeves. “Leaving obits of dead people lying about ain’t natural.”
Blaming herself for being naïve, she removed two bin liners of Charlie’s cuttings and returned from downstairs with a cardboard box for his clothes.
By comparison, Charlie’s bedroom was neat and businesslike, and reflected on the man she’d known and trusted. Nothing had changed. It was a throwback to the popular furniture styles of the late 1960s. The bed with its wooden headboard still faced the matching wardrobe and the dressing table with its three vanity mirrors was opposite the bathroom door.
Her husband’s oak writing desk lived under the sloping skylight and was home to his old reading lamp, with the articulating arm. A Miller’s Antique Guide lay on the worn leather top surface, along with a notebook and pencil. There was also a magnifying glass and a pocket catalogue of international gold and silver hallmarks.
A thick electrical cable snaked its way across the carpet and under the bathroom door. May peeped inside. “What’s he been playin’ at?” She gasped. “This’ll never do!”
Charlie had covered the Victorian claw-footed bathtub with a thick metal plate. Resting on top was a peculiar container made from heavy cast-iron. It was about the size of a litre-capacity mixing bowl. Its charred black innards suggest intense heat had been employed to melt something. When May unplugged device from the mains and tried to lift it, she’s surprised by its weight. The scorch marks on the protective metal surface below are further evidence of ferocious heat.
May inspected inside the crucible and detected a loose cluster of shiny metallic spheres. They’re like ball bearings but the size of pin heads. The cheeky little orbs bear all the characteristics of a precious yellowish metal and twinkle mischievously in the dark ashes and volcanic debris.
May returned to the bedroom and opened the oak closet’s double doors. Charlie’s clothes are smart and hard wearing. He has eight pressed white shirts on cheap dry-cleaner style metal hangers and four neck ties. Next to them on the clothes rail are three suits: one for work in durable wool, a sombre gabardine three-piece for a funeral, and a third in light summer linen. On the right, there’s a smart charcoal grey Macintosh and a plain black scarf hanging next to a couple of shelves. One shelf bears a wooden box with an inlaid design. Inside are letters signed from his mother, a school report and a birth certificate; things he’d miss, she imagines. On the second shelf is a stack of monogrammed handkerchiefs, embroidered with ‘C.F.’ and two pairs of matching cuff links.
May hauls in the cardboard box and makes a start on Charlie’s clothes. She folds the shirts and pads down the suits to check for belongings and discovers a wallet. It’s empty except for a photograph of a beach hut. On the back are a few words, ‘Missing you, Charlie. Much love. X.’
Inside another suit, she finds a local newspaper cutting. There’s a woman’s picture and a one-line obituary. ‘Mrs Cynthia Fairbrass, née Gerard, is greatly missed and leaves a loving son called Charles.’
In the raincoat’s outside pocket, May discovers an order of service from twenty years ago. The photograph looks like Charlie, however it’s dedicated to Mister Steven Fairbrass. The church address is a hundred miles from London to the east in Kent.
May feels inside the coat and finds an envelope. It’s sealed with parcel tape.
She recognises Charlie’s handwriting.
It’s marked, ‘For the attention of May Golightly.’
It contains Charlie’s simple request.
‘Please take these items to James Buchanan, Purveyor of Rare Stones, The Hove Road, Brighton. Tell Jimmy you know me. He’s expecting you and offers a fair price. Jimmy owes me big. Insist on cash. Please pay it into your account. Your darling Charlie.'
At the bottom of the envelope are a dozen multi-facetted stones. They sparkle in the evening light as she rolls them into the palm of her trembling hand. Even without a magnifying glass, she can detect the work of experienced craftsmen.
May drops the diamonds into their paper wrapper and leaves the bedroom, catching herself in the dressing table’s mirror as she places the package in her apron’s front pocket. Shaking her head, she gathers up all Charlie’s valuables and returns to her quarters. It’s late in the day to travel from Waterloo to Brighton, but she’ll risk it. She’d do anything for Charlie, after all.
It takes May four weeks to finish cleaning and overhauling Charlie’s rooms. During that month, her mousetraps have done their worst and she no longer has a problem in the attic. Gerard’s men removed the strange cast-iron crucible, and now she’s considering a new bathroom, courtesy of her former tenant’s generous gift.
The charity shop owner thanked May for donating Charlie’s old clothes and enquired about her empty lodgings. May declined to offer her rooms again and doubted if she could stand all the excitement.
On returning home, May opened her front door and found a postcard on her doormat. There’s a picture of a perfect beach; white sands and clear blue water. On the reverse, there’s a Caribbean postage stamp and a brief message that speaks volumes.
Thank you for everything.
Take care of yourself, love.
Your darling Charlie X.’