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The Timeless Mr. Thelwall

by Ian D. Smith

Mary slammed the freezer door and held up a plate. She lifted the tinfoil off the plate and sniffed some sausage rolls. She punched the microwave door open, put the plate inside, shut the door, and selected defrost.

“All the same, Phil, I have to tell you. I really don’t like Thelwall coming round here any more. He’s worn out his welcome in my home.”

Phil leaned on the door frame and folded his arms. The microwave crackled. He wasn’t surprised Mary was complaining. They’d met Thelwall at Greenglades. They’d been visiting Phil’s mother who’d endured a long stay there.

“But he’s nowhere else to go, Mary.”

“He’s too difficult. He doesn’t say a word. He doesn’t like it here. Maybe he doesn’t like my cooking. Maybe that’s what it is. You’d think he’d be more grateful.”

When Phil’s mother died, there was no reason to visit Greenglades. He missed seeing Thelwall by the door with his cigar twice a week. He missed Thelwall’s “evil warders.” No one could say Thelwall was pleased about being stuck in Greenglades. So Phil arranged with Greenglades to have him over at weekends.

“Take heart, Mary. I mean, he’s just a sad old man in a care home. I’ll talk to him.”

Mary screwed up the tinfoil. “Sad old man or not, he’s no right being miserable after all we do for him. When you collect him, tell him from me.”

Phil grabbed his coat and keys. “I’ll do that, Mary. I’ll tell him. See what he says. Maybe I can cheer him up a little before he gets here.”

“Well you can try.”

Phil closed the door and opened the garage. He climbed in the car, started the engine and rolled the car forward. He watched the rain hit the windscreen. He set off for Greenglades.

It was going to be difficult. Thelwall was one of those people who would never cheer up. He was the youngest there. No reason why he should be there, except otherwise he’d be on the streets, and unlike the others, he still had his marbles.

Thelwall was waiting out of the rain under the porch. Phil pulled right up to the porch, and Thelwall climbed in the back. Phil turned round. “Now look, Thelwall. Is there anything you’re unhappy about?”

Thelwall brushed rain off his jacket. “No, I’m fine, Phil... Why do you ask?”

“Well, you see, Mary says you’re a bit quiet these days. I know Greenglades took your bottle of whisky away. What would you say to a replacement? Take it back with you. Smuggle it in. How about that?”

“No thanks, I’m fine, Phil. Really.”

“Well, what is it then? You know... I’ll be straight with you, Thelwall. Mary’s had enough.”

Thelwall glanced back at Greenglades.

“I’m fine, Phil. Really.”

Phil turned round and shoved the car into gear. Greenglades was only a ten minute walk away, but Thelwall couldn’t do ten minutes on account of his leg, which had swollen. So Phil had to get the car out for him each time. It took a minute to reach the front door. He stopped the car, climbed out, and opened the door for Thelwall.

“Easy does it, old chap.”

“Less of the ‘old chap’.”

Thelwall climbed out of the car and made it to the front door. He went into the hall. Phil followed him through to the lounge, and Thelwall removed his jacket. He held it out for Phil. Phil took it, but Thelwall kept hold. He held it tightly.

“Let go, Thelwall.”

“It’s just that I’m an imposition, Phil, an imposition.”

“That’s nonsense, Thelwall. We’re glad to see you. Let go.”

But Thelwall held the jacket. “No, I am. I’m no use to anyone. Time has caught up with me, Phil.”

“Well that’s just not true, Thelwall. Listen to Mary. Mary will tell you.”

Phil tore the jacket free, and carried it out of the lounge shaking his head. He hung it in the closet. Mary was holding the tray of sausage rolls with an oven glove.

“Well, what does he say?”

“He says he’s an imposition. Can you believe that, Mary? Will you tell him?”

She slammed down the tray of sausage rolls. “An imposition? Is that what he says? We’ll see about that.”

She threw down the oven glove, and marched into the lounge. Phil followed. She stood in front of Thelwall, and folded her arms.

“Thelwall. Is there anything you’d like different? Be honest now.”

Thelwall was sitting in his usual chair. He leaned forward, and held his glasses up to the TV guide.

“I won’t have anything to eat this time round if you don’t mind.”

“Fine. Anything else?”

“You mind if I light up?”

“Go ahead! Be my guest!”

Thelwall drew a large cigar out of his top pocket. Mary looked at Phil, and Phil came back with an ashtray.

“What will you drink, Thelwall?”

Thelwall lit the cigar.

“What about that whisky you mentioned? Do you have a single malt?”

Phil went into the kitchen, and came back with a glass of single malt.

“Anything else?”

“I’d like to hear some Beatles. Do you have any Beatles? ‘In My Life’. Greatest song ever written.”

Phil pulled open a cupboard door, and found his Beatles CD. He slid it into the player. The song started. Thelwall sat back in the chair, and drew on the cigar.

“Now that’s a fine song. That song will still be playing after we’re all gone. Do you ever think about things like that?”

Phil and Mary looked at each other. The song finished.

“Put it on again.”

Phil kneeled beside the player. He’d never really listened to the song before. He knew the early hits, but The Beatles were just a big noise, and then nothing. He set the track to repeat. Thelwall drank the whisky, and smiled.

“Do you hear that? You’re listening to the future. Do you know, Phil, Mary...? This is the way I’d like to go. Do you think you could arrange it?”

Phil closed the cupboard door.

“Come on, Thelwall. Don’t talk like that.”

Thelwall held up the glass, and looked right through it. Then he drank the lot.

“No. I’m serious. Right here, now. What am I? I’m a burden on you both. I’m nobody. Greenglades don’t want me. I’ll be out on the streets next. Half a bottle of single malt would do it. Tell them I didn’t want to go back.”

Thelwall went for a refill, but Phil stood up and took the bottle out of his hand. Mary stood beside Phil.

“We’re sorry, Thelwall. You know, it’s best to stay cheerful. What brought this on?”

“What brought it on? What do you think brought it on? I’ve had a long time to chew it over. Nobody knows me. You don’t know me do you?”

Phil and Mary looked at the floor. Thelwall jabbed his finger at them.

“Well do you? Do you know the true nature of what I am?”

Mary put her arm around Phil. “We don’t know, Thelwall. What would you like us to know? You live in Greenglades. You like the Beatles. That’s good. Is there anything else you’d like us to know?”

Thelwall laughed. He drained the last drop from the glass and held it out. Phil refilled the glass. Thelwall threw it back so the rim of the glass hit his teeth. He rubbed his mouth with the back of his hand.

“I like classical.”

“Anything in particular?”

“Bach. Do you have Bach?”

Phil kneeled by the cupboard. “I’ll see what I have.”

He found a compilation disc that came with the Sunday newspaper. He slid the disc in the player, and Thelwall sat up.

“How about that.”

“I knew I had it somewhere.”

“Let me take a look.”

Phil handed over the case. Thelwall looked at it, and smiled.


“Well, it’s just a free CD, Thelwall. They do it all the time now.”

“Free? Would you believe it? Four hundred years old, and it sounds like it was made yesterday. Do you know how long I’ve waited to hear that?”

Phil laughed, and closed the cupboard door. “What are you now, Thelwall, some kind of time traveller?”

“You can laugh, but I’ve seen things come and go. You can span a lot of time if you’re lucky. It’s a privilege.”

Thelwall closed the CD case, and balanced it on the arm of the chair. He put his hands on his knees. “Sit down and listen to your uncle Thelwall. Let me take you on a journey.”

Phil sat down. Mary sat on the arm of the chair and held Phil’s hand. Thelwall blew cigar smoke.

“Seventeen-hundred A.D. Fifteen-year old Johann Sebastian Bach sets out with a school friend for Luneburg, the centre of things in those days. Are you with me so far?”

Phil looked at Mary.

“Good. They walk one hundred and eighty miles. One hundred and eighty miles! Would they have made it if a kind-hearted barge owner hadn’t given them a lift? Without that barge owner, Bach would never have made it to Luneberg. Does history report the name of the most important barge owner in musical history? Well, does it?”

“I don’t think so.”

“No, it does not.”

“Come on, Thelwall. What are you getting at?”

“Seventeen-sixty-two. Six-year old Mozart is taken to the Court of Maximilian III in Munich. Who made that trip possible, Phil? Mary? Do you know?”

Mary squeezed Phil’s hand. “We don’t know, Thelwall. What are you getting at?”

Thelwall hit the arm of the chair, and the CD case slid into his lap.

“Seventeen-ninety-two, the twenty-two year old Beethoven leaves Bonn. He arrives in Vienna several days later. Who changed the course of musical history, Phil? Who? Come on, Mary, do you know?”

“Can I phone a friend?”

Mary put her hand over her mouth to laugh, and Phil nudged her.

Thelwall raised his hands. “Name the man who brought the Beatles together?”

Phil clapped his hands. “Easy. That was Epstein.”

“That’s what people think, but take a look at the facts. 6th July nineteen-fifty-seven, St. Peter’s Parish Church Fete. Seventeen-year old John Lennon meets fifteen-year old Paul McCartney. Who made it possible? Who was it, Phil? Mary?

Thelwall grabbed the whisky bottle. He swallowed a giant mouthful and slammed the bottle down. He lifted his hands, pulled up his sleeves and stretched his fingers. Then he held down a chord on an invisible piano. He closed his eyes and played the invisible piano. His hands moved up and down the keys. The music finished, and Thelwall pulled down an invisible piano lid. He opened his eyes.

“Well, it’s time I was going, don’t you think, Phil, Mary? Time I was moving on. It’s been my pleasure, and I thank you.”

Phil took the bottle away.

Thelwall tried to stand. “I’ll walk. The exercise will do me good.”

The whisky glass landed on the floor. Phil supported Thelwall by the elbow. “It’s too late for you to be out, Thelwall. What about your leg?”

“Nonsense. Let me go.”

Thelwall pulled his arm free and Phil stepped back. Thelwall stood.

“Look at me.”

He stretched and stood tall. He straightened up and walked to the door. He turned round. He held the CD with his thumb through the hole. He held it so it caught the light. Mary and Phil shielded themselves from the brilliant light coming out of Thelwall’s raised hand. He laughed.

“I thank you for the whisky, for the music, and for the hospitality,” he said. “Without you, I would never have escaped the warders at Greenglades. I would never have had any visitors. I would be like everyone else, the concert pianists, cleaners, nuclear physicists, grandmothers, chess masters, all united by one thing.

“People can watch all the TV they want. They should take a look inside Greenglades. That would give them all the time travel, the evictions, the big deals, the poker faces, the winners and losers. Eh? Nobody knows anything, you see. Nobody knows a damned thing. I’ve travelled quite a bit in my time, you see.”

And then he was gone.

Copyright © 2010 by Ian D. Smith

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