I’d been in London just over a week when Winston Churchill turned up in my flat. It was a rented place in Wandsworth, a sparsely furnished HMO on Lavender Hill, which was the most I could afford on call centre wages. From outside, the building was impressively large and Victorian, but the six flatlets hidden behind the communal front door were small and shabby. Or, at least, mine was.
The move to London had been designed to kick-start my life as a singleton. I’d married at seventeen, exchanging a home ruled by a father for one ruled by a husband, and for as long as I could remember had defined myself by my role in someone else’s life. Newly divorced, I wanted to find who I was, who I might have been. There was nothing to keep me in the coastal city I’d lived in since birth. So, as soon as I found a job, I moved. New career, new city, new me. Goodbye, shy menopausal introvert; hello, gregarious silver vixen.
The evening started like most of my evenings: in the kitchen preparing a vegetarian stir-fry. With the vegetables sizzling in the wok, I reached for the soy sauce. Somebody coughed. I froze mid-splosh, the soy wavering over the hob. The sound had come from the empty living room.
Seconds ticked by.
Nothing else happened.
I’d just managed to persuade myself I was hearing things when a gruff male voice called out, ‘My dear woman, might I trouble you for a glass of cold water?’
My heart rate doubled, but the speaker was so polite, and his request so easily fulfilled… ‘Bottled water, or from the tap?’
‘Oh, tap. Tap. Most definitely.’ The sentences rang through the flat, the pauses between them held a fraction too long. ‘Cold tap water will hit the spot nicely.’
I took the glass to the living room. Winston Churchill was on the grubby orange Ikea sofa, looking like every picture I’d ever seen of him. Black homburg, polka-dot bow tie, dark three-piece suit, the silver chain of a pocket watch pinned low across his waistcoat and patent black shoes polished to a glossy shine. His stomach was round and his hands, one of which held a cigar, were pink and podgy.
‘Ah, I am much obliged.’ He accepted the glass, his chins wobbling as if to convey the extent of his gratitude.
I was burning to ask, Who are you? and Why are you in my flat? But I couldn’t pretend not to have recognised him, and playing dumb would only have embarrassed us both. The last thing I wanted was to make myself look a din in front of Winston Churchill.
Despite his being as solid as everything else in the room, I thought he was either a ghost, with some hitherto unexplained reason for manifesting on my sofa, or a hallucination, in which case there was no point asking why he’d appeared, as he hadn’t.
I was still debating the whole ghost versus hallucination issue when he finished the water.
‘M’dear, I am much obliged,’ he said, blotting his upper lip with a cotton handkerchief. ‘Nothing else tastes like the water of London. Nothing else in the world.’
I nodded, taking the glass. Personally, I thought it tasted vile.
‘I was making a stir-fry, with Quorn,’ I said, compelled by a lifetime’s ingrained politeness to fill the awkward silence. ‘Would you join me? There’s plenty.’
There was. I’d yet to master cooking for one. My meals were huge.
He chewed the end of his cigar as he pondered my question. Its tip glowed.
I wondered how much he knew about Quorn.
‘Tell me, m’dear, this stir-fry, will it contain cashews?’
‘Well,’ I said, unsure how to interpret the question. Was it possible he was hinting, having nosed through my cupboards before I’d got home and discovered the jar of cashews? Or did he perhaps have a nut allergy and need to avoid them? If I sent Winston Churchill’s ghost into anaphylactic shock, I’d never forgive myself. ‘It could do,’ I told him, biting my lip. ‘Or I could leave them out, if you’d prefer.’
‘Ah, now.’ He settled his hat on the arm of the sofa. ‘I’ve always considered a stir-fry to be incomplete without a cashew or two. And, with that in mind, I would be honoured to accept your invitation to dine here tonight.’
He delivered his answer like a speech. My hands itched to applaud.
After that first evening, Winnie, as I secretly christened him, became a regular visitor. Uninvited, but very welcome. We’d sit next to each other on the orange sofa, our dinners on trays, and watch television. Sometimes he took off his jacket. He never cooked, or even offered to brew me a cup of tea. But I can’t say I minded. It was my flat, and he was a guest.
On weeknights we’d watch the soaps – all of them. Winnie liked dramas and sitcoms, but he never expressed any interest in watching the news. If he stayed late, which he did at weekends, we’d tune into re-runs of the ‘80s quiz show Bullseye, and cheer whenever it’s host, Jim Bowen, mentioned BFH. ‘Bus fare home,’ we’d chant in unison, then dissolve into giggles.
Winnie’s general knowledge, as you’d expect, was excellent.
After a couple of visits, I stopped wondering whether he was a ghost or a hallucination. It didn’t matter anymore. He’d become my friend, at a time when I had none.
Ours wasn’t a perfect friendship, but we rubbed along without too many problems. He never dictated what we watched or fell asleep in front of the TV, which made him far better company than my ex. At times he was pompous, and often I suspected he was humouring or indulging me, as if I were some kind of pet. It wasn’t that he patronised me; more that an unspoken agreement existed between us to the effect that he’d always know best.
But perhaps that was only how I saw us. After all, he was Winston Churchill, and I was just me.
Very often we’d open a bottle of wine over dinner and polish it off during the evening. Winnie would have preferred a good malt – a fact he never failed to mention – but supermarket vino was the best I could do. Regardless, we both drank more than was sensible. In some ways he was quite a bad influence.
One night, during Bullseye, when I’d drunk almost enough to blot out the misery of my day at work, I nudged him and dredged a nugget of trivia from the depths of my memory.
‘Did you know you were voted Greatest Ever Briton?’
He blushed. ‘Really? By whom?’
‘Oh,’ I said, my mind instantly blank. ‘I’m not sure. I’ll find out.’
‘No matter, m’dear. No matter,’ he said, waving his cigar. ‘Winning’s the main thing.’
I’d already reached for my phone. On the tube each day I’d watch people work theirs with one thumb, swiping or typing as though the screen had evolved as part of their hand. My thumbs didn’t move that way. I tapped in Winston Churchill with my index finger, one letter at a time.
‘This should have it,’ I said, prodding the link to his Wikipedia page. I’d not Googled him before: digging about in his past behind his back hadn’t felt right.
He put on his reading glasses and scrutinised the phone’s display over my shoulder. His breath snorted onto my neck.
The first paragraph contained the dates of his birth and death. I angled the screen and scrolled down, hoping to spare his feelings. Winnie had never mentioned being dead, and I wasn’t sure how he’d react to the details of his demise being common knowledge.
I sipped my wine as I scanned the page.
‘I won the war, you know. Does it say?’ He shuffled in his seat, craning his neck for a better view. ‘The Second World War. Bulldog spirit, and all that.’
As strange as it might sound, we’d never discussed the war or his role in it. I suppose it was such a given I’d never felt the need. I wondered whether he’d spent every evening waiting for me to ask, too polite to bring up the subject.
‘You won it,’ I said, unaware of how much the wine had loosened my tongue until I heard myself add, ‘but lots of people died. Innocent people. On both sides.’
I waited for him to say – That, m’dear, is a viewpoint afforded by the luxury of living through a prolonged period of peace – fully prepared to disagree by citing The Falklands and various Gulf wars. But even as I imagined us arguing, I realised those conflicts had happened thousands of miles away. The closest I’d come to being in danger was from the IRA or Al Qaeda. I remembered pruning the honeysuckle in my garden the day after the Twin Towers fell, and the rush of fear provoked by the sound of a light aircraft overhead. It hardly compared to surviving the Blitz.
Winnie didn’t say anything of the sort though. He merely nodded in agreement. ‘Undoubtedly. Lots of people died. But many more lived.’
‘Well, yes,’ I said, deflated. ‘I suppose they did.’
I went back to scrolling. The page was longer than I’d expected. It occurred to me how little I knew about him. Rousing speeches, V-for-victory signs, talk of a black dog, and the statue in Parliament Square. That was it. He’d filled a whole lifetime; I knew the rough outline of a few calendar years.
A line caught my attention.
‘You called the Suffragettes a ridiculous movement.’
‘They were. You’ll notice, however, that I supported the bill which gave women the vote.’
‘And did you really write this: “I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes”?’ I turned to him, stunned. I’d assumed that, as my friend, he’d share my values. ‘How could you?’
‘It was a long time ago.’
He stared at me.
I felt awkward, forced into explaining something so clear. The man wasn’t stupid. He knew what I meant.
‘Are you saying you can’t remember writing it, or that the world was different back then or, maybe,’ I said, hoping he’d grasp the olive branch, ‘you mean that you’ve since changed your mind?’
He rolled the end of his cigar in the ashtray I’d given him for his birthday. ‘I quite plainly meant that those words came from a long time ago.’ He re-filled his empty glass. ‘Nothing more, nothing less. Top up, m’dear?’
He leaned forward, reached around my shoulder and tilted the neck of the bottle towards my glass. I covered its rim with my palm. I’d had enough. Of the plonk and of him. His evasion of my question had riled me far more than it would if I’d been sober. Half-cut, it brought to mind too many talks with my father, in the years before I could dismiss his condescension as dementia.
‘You know people say you’re a white supremacist?’ I said, directing decades of frustration at the wrong man. ‘And a mass murderer.’
Winnie shrugged. ‘People tend to say a lot of things.’
‘It doesn’t bother you?’
‘Not especially. Not as long as they also say I won the war.’
I looked at him, sitting there on the tatty orange sofa. He was a dinosaur. Old and out of step with the modern world, but not a bit like my father. A wave of affection for our unlikely pairing washed over me, replacing my anger with impatience and pity, for Winnie and everything he represented.
‘The way I view it,’ he continued, oblivious to my fluctuating emotions, ‘every man, woman and child is entitled to hold an opinion. However, opinions, like reputations, come and go. Opinions are transient, much like the weather or young ladies’ fashions. But facts, such as whether you win a war or not, are what last. A fact creates an undeniable truth. Thus, a man’s legacy, by which I mean the thing for which he will be remembered, is dependent on fact, on demonstrable action. Achievement. Not the opinions of others.’
‘What about the opinion you hold of yourself?’ My voice wavered. ‘Surely that’s important?’
‘Quite the opposite,’ he said. His jowls shook. ‘That form of opinion is the most transient of all. Highly undesirable.’
‘You call having a conscience undesirable?’
‘Certainly not.’ He set down the wine bottle and placed his hand on his chest, grasping the lapel of his suit jacket between his finger and thumb. ‘A conscience is essential. Never confuse knowing right from wrong with the way you regard yourself. The two are different, very different indeed. To be alive should be to embrace opportunity, to change not only who you are, but what you think.’
‘Do you really believe that, Winston?’
‘Karen, m’dear,’ Winnie concentrated on my face as though his tiny eyes could see into my mind. ‘It doesn’t matter what I believe. The only things that matter are what you believe and what you do about it.’
On Bullseye, Jim showed two mullet-topped postal workers from Bolton what they would have won. Stock footage of Majorca filled the screen: limestone mountains and sheltered coves edged with pale sand. The Mediterranean, so clear it could have been blue cellophane circling the land, sparkled under a cloudless azure sky.
‘I miss living by the sea,’ I said, unaware of how true it was until the admission had tumbled from my lips.
‘You’ve got the Thames.’
‘A river’s not the same as the sea.’
‘But it’s not the same.’
Winnie seemed to take my disagreement as a personal affront. His bottom lip jutted out like a child’s. ‘If it means so much to you, why did you leave?’
‘Because,’ I said, then faltered, suddenly unsure. ‘Because I wanted…’
What had I wanted? More importantly, what did I want now? I hated my new life. I hated London. I hated its arrogance, the crush and hustle and grime and noise. I’d put those feelings aside, not daring to admit them, even to myself. To acknowledge my fresh start had been a total disaster would be to concede how completely I’d failed. It would confirm I was a useless, dried-up old woman who couldn’t get by on her own.
‘Going back wouldn’t be the end,’ Winnie said softly. ‘It wouldn’t even be the beginning of the end. But it would be, perhaps, the end of the beginning.’
His words felt familiar. Profound truths often do. Had I failed? Or had I, in fact, figured out how to succeed? What was stopping me going home, gathering the pieces of my old life and re-assembling them into something that made me happy?
I looked down at Wikipedia.
‘Here it is,’ I said, finding what I’d been searching for. ‘100 Greatest Britons. BBC viewers voted you greatest of them all.’
‘Ah. The BBC, yes.’ Winnie gave a satisfied smile. ‘Well, there’s a fact.’
‘Or, maybe,’ I said, ‘it’s just an opinion.’
A sly glint came into his eyes. ‘Either way, it was very nice of them.’
‘Yes,’ I said. I had a fleeting vision of Jim Bowen revealing a terraced house, with a single bay window and small forecourt, in a road that led to a wide promenade and a pier that stretched out over an opaquely dark sea. ‘I suppose it was.’
About The Author
Jacqui Pack is a writer of fiction and poetry, and hold an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Chichester. Her work has appeared with a variety of publications, including Litro, Synaesthesia, FlashFood and Storgy.
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