In a sleepy town like ours, not much really ever happened. Small, inconsequential events were talked about for days and weeks afterward, for want of anything better. The name of the neighbour's new born son was, I remember, a topic of heated debate for several weeks. If someone purchased new furniture, we'd talk about his taste (or lack of it), how he could have arranged for the money, if his wife pestered him into it or whether he was just a closet interior decorator. That last was a favourite joke of mine for a long time.
I hope that this introduction suffices to justify, or at least explain to a slight extent, the flurry excitement that was generated when the strange and mysterious Mr. Tweed moved into the old Jameson’s' residence a couple of blocks down from the pub. The gossip mills had fresh stock to run on, and everyone wanted something original to say. The tiniest details of his historic moving-in event were brought up and analysed by men and women alike, over mugs of beer or pots of tea respectively.
"Did you see how little he brought with him? I mean, just about three or four suitcases. And furniture barely enough to cover one room! Do you think he's poor?” enquired Mrs. Jones, with more than a touch of smugness at her astute observation. Of course, she didn’t mention that she'd been watching the man move his things all the while from her living room window, with a pair of binoculars to her eyes. One did not say that sort of thing.
"Nonsense! How did he move into the Jameson’s' then? Humph! Poor! Take it from me, poor he can not be", retorted her friend, the sound of a final judgment in her voice. She had lived in the area for over 30 years, and considered herself somewhat of an expert on the property values in the surrounding locality. She had claimed often enough that she would have made a most excellent realtor had family obligations not tied her down. It was her favourite topic of conversation.
"I asked a few questions of some people myself. Turns out he's recently divorced! Something nasty about an affair of some sort. What kind of man, I must say!" exclaimed an outraged Mrs. Harding. Her husband had died two years before, not to too much sorrow from her side. Her lack of emotion, coupled with her efficient dealing off of his estate and properties, had made her a hot topic of discussion for a couple of months at least. She tried her best to stay on the other side of the discussion nowadays, and was quietly renowned about town for her local antennae and lightning fast information system. She was a sort of local breaking-newscaster.
"What kind of person moves house on a Tuesday morning? He must be unemployed!" said Jonah Burton, bartender and owner of Jonah's Pub. It was the following Friday night, and we were all sitting at the counter, discussing the new neighbour. Jonah's is the perfect image of the old village pub that you read about in stories. An old wooden sign hangs out above the wooden door, with a fancy JP written on it in flowing lines. The furniture inside is minimal and certainly not designed for pure sitting pleasure. The chairs are plain and wooden. The tables are round but small with crisp, white sheets to cover them. The stools are high and not very wide, although more comfortable than the chairs. That is good for business, since it keeps most customers right up at the counter, where a mug of fresh ale is always kept available. It looks like an age-old establishment, providing satisfactory service for tens of years to the surrounding male population. We believe Jonah gave it this specific look intentionally, for this very purpose. The pub opened its doors on the first day, instantly assuming the stature of an ancient and irremovable town fixture. A monument of local heritage, so to say.
This was the place we met every evening, work for the day having been concluded. I closed down the shutters to my shop, selling and repairing clocks and watches since the days of my father, at some time close to eight and headed straight to Jonah's. It was a soothing, daily routine for me. Be assured, I wasn't an alcoholic in any way. I only ever had up till three pints in a single evening. But the women had their tea parties, or circle meetings as they called them, and this was what we had for ourselves.
Since Mr. Tweed had just moved in, I could anticipate a long, fulfilling discussion ahead at the pub covering all the information and news gathered in from everywhere. We men, we listened quietly as our wives spoke over mealtimes. We pretended to not care, or hear much. Once or twice, I had even asked the missus if she could not talk about other people so much. But God knows all of us relied on our wives for the information and gossip we shared so eagerly at the pub. Secret and solicited information was like an ace up your sleeve. You kept it hidden, till the opportune moment when you brought it out before the unsuspecting audience.
It was a chilly evening and I entered hurriedly through the doors of the pub, both for respite from the cold and the curiosity to hear of this exciting new occurrence our lives. I must apologise once more for how it must sound, to derive so much joy from such commonplace events. We really had little else. And it was all essentially harmless, wasn't it? So there wasn’t anything very wrong about any of this.
A conversation had already started when I arrived to take my place. "Got in close time, eh?" laughed old Arthur, entering just behind me. We sat in close, nodding to the others. It was a chilly evening. The fire had been fed with extra logs of wood, and all the occupants of the bar wore scarves and a warm jacket. With a mug of beer in his right hand sat Kenneth, the centre of attention.
"...So this is what I've heard about this new chap. To fill you latecomers in, divorce in the city, was married for four years, no children, of course. There are only sketchy details of the divorce too. And the guy's bitter from the legal work, of course. But he must be a slinky one, eh? I mean, I picked up all the talk of an affair. That was how the divorce came about, of course. So, that's that", said Ken as he took his seat contentedly. Ken was a great believer in all things being a matter of course. It was his favourite way of ending his sentences, and it infuriated his customers to no end. He owned the local mortuary, and also ran a side-business that supplied coffins. The florist's across from the cemetery also belonged to him. It wouldn't be wrong, just slightly impolite, to say that he'd effectively cornered that market.
Anyway, divorce was something we didn't deal with that often in our quiet corner of the world. The word drew excited murmurs, as everyone realised they'd gotten enough fuel to last them for several more weeks. We discussed the nature of divorce, the hopelessly increasing rate and the futility of marriage itself if it had to end with a messy divorce. Someone raised the question of the futility of marriage itself, drawing some laughs and a couple of mildly admonishing remarks. Discussions over divorce led to discussions about the decadence of modern society, the crime, the corruption and the hopeless modern government. Soon, the existence of Mr. Tweed had been forgotten, although he had served his worthy purpose for the night.
The ladies' tea parties also discussed the topic of strange Mr. Tweed over the next few days. Mrs. Andrews exclaimed how she had been taken aback the previous afternoon, seeing Mr. Tweed walk up to her door. Mrs. Harding remarked that she had also seen him walking up that day. In mild consternation, at having her clinching experience shared thus, Mrs. Andrews continued with her riveting tale of mystery and soap-horror.
The man had introduced himself. His name was Howard Tweed. He said he'd just moved in recently, and couldn't find the local grocery store. Could she please point him in the correct way? He'd seemed not very friendly, and more than a little haggard. Then as a matter of course, as her story progressed, he even became a lascivious old lout with glaringly obvious moral deficiencies. His expressionless eyes had conveyed a mind inclined to unfaithfulness, and the way he nervously held his hands confirmed the impurity in his heart. He was a man, she declared emphatically, who certainly didn't know what love was. He could cheat and betray anyone. He had looked suspiciously at her pet kittens!
Thus, over tea and biscuits and jam and cakes on one front and over beer with the smoke of cigars on the other front, the reputation of this strange, disturbing, machiavellian, monstrous, and certainly heartless Mr. Tweed was constructed. Entirely outside of his knowledge. Of course.
We were all still decent folk at heart. Although we do appear to discuss relentlessly the lives of other people, never had anyone let that affect their relations with the person in question. Everyone knew exactly what was being said about him or her and by whom. We took it in stride. This was something we had for ourselves within the confines of our own privacy, and we let nothing drive a wedge through it. Not even ourselves.
But Mr. Tweed now, his was a different case. It was assumed before that nothing would be changed in his case. But the man was new, and never before had our little town collected such immense volumes of such incredible stories about any single person. The strange, mysterious, and now decidedly evil Howard Tweed met with a more than icy reception every time he tried to make conversation with one of us.
He met Doug Johnson, the local grocer and a Jonah's regular as permanent as the plumbing there. In his own words, Doug refused to make any sort of conversation with the blighted fellow, who had the nerve to ask him what people did for recreation around here. When he encountered some of the ladies on the street one day, they sniffed at him loudly and walked on past. He was left standing outside his porch, scratching his head in utterly bewilderment. I once snubbed him at the pub, when he'd shown the temerity to turn up and sit in with us. I must say, I felt quite proud of myself that day. It was a feeling of having done the right thing, for me, for our town, even for the country.
At the centre of all of these situations, the horrible and unsocial Mr. Tweed had not uttered more a few words. He had watched silently, his eyes betraying his confusion. He had gone on to show absolutely no reaction on more than one occasion. I think it was his lack of emotion that lit things up finally. No one snubbing another person likes to feel that his or her snubbing is going to such waste. It can be extremely frustrating. We were incensed to see our cold behaviour not producing a satisfyingly shocked reaction after the first couple of weeks. I mean, what right did he have to make us feel so irritated? He should have been the one suffering, right?
Thus, one thing led to another, and heated discussions were had. We had to know what next to do. Some step had to be taken. You might, at the point, raise the question about why a step was even necessary. We could just leave him be, couldn't we? In our defense, all I can say is that the option of letting things be did not occur to a single one of us. We were consumed in our surroundings. There is a feeling of bravado in one's self-righteousness that comes when a group of people together agree over something. Finally, after hours of argument and counter-argument, we decided to convert him. In his time of loneliness and desperation, it was unanimously decided that it would be best for Howard Tweed to turn to God. He would turn to the church to make him a better man and a respectable member of society. Now, now, it wasn’t an easy decision by any means. We knew it would be tough for such a man to submit to a higher power. Repenting one’s sins was no easy task, and we could admit so to ourselves. But no matter how difficult, we also knew that it was necessary. Howard Tweed would have to take this step.
And that is how, upon a well co-ordinated sudden impulse one fine afternoon, the prominent ladies of our area decided to confront the man. The men obviously followed in tow. We had to find out more about this man, didn’t we? In our duties as self-appointed local missionaries, we didn’t call ourselves that back then of course, we had to talk some sense into him.
So with all the look and determination of the Vatican Commission, we walked up to the old Jameson residence. I rang the bell myself, I remember. So I also remember the incredulous look on Howard's face when he saw the lot of us standing outside his door. In my best cold voice, I said we had a matter to discuss with him. Mrs. Harding added, from somewhere at the back of the line, that it would be best if we all stepped inside to discuss things fully. The rest of the group concurred, in voices dripping with condescension and self-righteousness. We were becoming more like the Vatican every minute. Deep inside, we’d begun to really enjoy ourselves too. Howard just nodded quietly and ushered us into his new, and rather derelict, home.
“To what do I owe this..err..this pleasure?” he asked, more than a little nervous.
“Now, Mr. Tweed, we are not your enemies. We are your friends and we wish you well. Let us first be clear about that.” I said. It would be important to placate the man first, I figured. We had to reach to him. He would be less inclined to turn to the Light if he thought we hated him too. I’d read that somewhere.
“All of us make mistakes in life, Howard. But try and understand what we’re trying to say. It isn’t too late for you. As a community, we would like to offer you the chance to cleanse yourself of your sins. This is your hour of need and loneliness. This can be your time of salvation. You must turn to the Lord.” I said, rather pleased with myself. I had had this nagging habit of never being able to complete my speeches without putting in those embarrassing umms and aaahs. It always spoilt any environment I was trying to stir up during sittings at Jonah’s pub, and that one time at cousin Marissa’s wedding things had gotten just out of hand.
Not this time though, I noticed, as I saw a shocked expression appear on Howard’s face.
Obviously I was reaching across to the man.
“I’m not sure I understand, sir...”
“Come now, young man. Get off it. We know. We’ve heard enough about your past. There’s nothing to be gained by feigning ignorance!” said Mrs. Harding, getting perhaps slightly too vocal about this. An opportunity had presented itself, to make the townspeople forget her own previous transgressions. She probably intended to crucify this man for it.
In light of what we ourselves were trying to do him, I think maybe that last was a slightly inappropriate comment. But I digress.
Howard was looking openly shocked now. But we weren’t quite done yet. Like any good general, Jonah noticed Howard’s shocked expression and pressed home the attack.
"Well, maybe we shouldn't go that far," said Jonah, "but certainly you have sinned, Mr. Tweed. Are you at all apologetic for your sins?"
“My sins? Now I’m quite sure I don’t understand you.” he said, exasperation rising in his voice. The man certainly had some nerve.
“Mr. Tweed, now you force me to speak of the things we would have wished to avoid mentioning. Suffice it to say, we know of your divorce. We have heard rumours of the dreadful affair you were involved in too. All of these, these are your sins. It is what you must repent, before God at his altar. I understand it might be difficult for you to accept your own baseness in front of –"
“My divorce? Affair? May I even ask what right you have to enquire of my private life?” he asked shrilly.
He was looking at us with hostility. This was not going to plan. Hostility, I remembered reading, had to be avoided at all costs. You must secure the lost soul in yours arms as a brother, and what not else. But the man seemed to be incorrigible. What right we had? That was just inconsequential talk now.
“Perhaps you would feel more secure if...aah...you told us the facts about this entire..umm...affair? Mess?” I offered. It was tough at this job, I tell you.
“Oh really? You want to know? You really want to know? Alright. I’ll tell you.”
“Yes you will. I mean, kindly continue. Please just remember, you are as our brother.” I said, hoping it would have some conciliatory effect.
“Right. I divorced my wife. And now she has my money, and my house. That’s all! If you would, kindly, point to me the part which requires me to repent my sins, I would be most obliged to you.”
“What do you mean, son? You committed a heinous crime. In the eyes of God, you are a sinner!” I said, rather loudly. The man was being thoroughly unrepentant about all this. The entire process of missionary conversion was getting derailed!
"You betrayed the bond of marriage! You cheated on your wife, didn't you? And now you've lost it all. Everything is hers, and rightly so!" I finished, panting now, and my face not so slightly red with indignation.
The man laughed. He laughed so loudly, the sound of it rang across his empty house. He laughed on and on, louder and louder, as we stared at him with disbelieving eyes, wondering if he had lost his senses too. Tears rolled down his eyes, and his body shook with spasms. After what must have been a full minute, he stopped laughing. He was lying on his couch now, brushing away the tears.
He looked at us, and he said, "I didn't cheat on her. For four years, I was a faithful husband to her. I worked hard, and I came home in time every night to be with her. One day, I came back earlier than normally. To surprise her. Nothing else. I caught her in bed, with a best friend from before our marriage. She didn't cry, or say it was a mistake. I hadn't had time to even absorb the magnitude of what I'd seen, and she gave me my two options. I could take her to court, and she'd run me through a long legal battle. Her friend, the one she was with, was one of the best lawyers in the city, and I had no doubt she could run me to bankruptcy if she wanted to. I was never a fighter. That was my mistake. My only mistake. That I backed away from a fight I had every reason to fight. As I looked up at her, the tears starting in my eyes, she gave me my second option. I could sign the house over to her. She would have 70% of the savings from after the marriage. Then I was to give her a quiet divorce. With the remaining money and my car, I could go where I wanted to."
We looked at him, our faces no doubt registering our shock, and he smiled sadly.
"Women, I tell you. I'm terrified of them now. What can a man do in this world? I mean, really, what chance does a decent man have? A woman slaps a stranger in the middle of the street and screams for help, accusing him of misconduct. The man gets jailed and loses his entire reputation, before the charges are even proved. They don't even have to be. Harassment, misconduct, lawsuits, the whole lot – so easy to arrange. We live in a gender-biased society, I tell you. Really, what can a decent man do in this world? Women. I hate them! All of womankind!"
The silence that followed his words rang through the house. We didn’t look at each other, and nor at him. I looked at my shoes, wondering strangely how we’d suddenly lost all our conviction and intent to rescue the man. We were all a little blind. The man got up and left the room, and we left his house.
The incident of the strange and mysterious Mr. Tweed has never been discussed in the town since. Not at the pub, nor at the tea parties. Mrs. Harding’s cunning still reigns as the most discussed topic. Nobody has spoken of what happened at the Tweed, and formerly Jameson, residence. Not until now, as I say this to you.
I wonder how much truth his words hold. The words he said at the end, about all of womankind. I don't know. I couldn’t say it in front of anyone. Not my wife surely. Nor in front of the guys at the pub, because surely they would tell their wives and that would be that. How really can anyone know this? I hope the wife never gets to hear me say this but, could it all be like that?
I don't know. I really don't know.