Part 3 - Besieged Fortress by A.J. Hall
It struck Laurie, back in London for the first time in nearly two years, that the sheer exhausted drabness of the place had increased well beyond that which he remembered.
The dragging hopelessness of the city reflected off the people one bumped into on the streets or who jostled one on the Tube; their faces wan, their eyes dull, each locked in his own dreary preoccupations. He found himself continually touching the cover of the battered book Philippe had given him as though it was a sacred talisman. The war, even his curtailed and limping share of it, had had its own texture, its own urgency, its own meaning: it had possessed a sort of vigour even (perhaps especially) when one hated it most. This nothingness was, he supposed, the Post-War for which they had all hoped for so long. And, he realised as a kind of belated truth, the Post-War was by definition amorphous; it had no boundaries, and therefore, apparently, no end.
It was a relief to see that Challans, at least, was unchanged. The stocky, dark little man got up and came round from behind his littered desk to pump Laurie’s hand vigorously.
Half apologetically Laurie pulled from his battered, bulging attaché case a by-now somewhat tired brown paper package which Annuciata - gathering, somehow, through the quick telepathy of the Rock and her own native instincts, that this meeting would be of importance to him - had thrust into his hands on the dockside.
“My - er - housekeeper - insisted I bring this for you. For - ah - ‘los pocitos’. ”
It was only the sight of Challans’ face as he sneaked a quick glance into the half-open parcel (Annuciata’s skill lay not in gift-wrapping, and the Customs inspectors at Marseilles had been thorough) which brought home to Laurie how much his country had sacrificed in the recent struggle. Good grief; it was only a dozen oranges or so, half a kilo of cheap turrón and a few trifles of that sort, not all the wonders of Aladdin’s cave at the pantomime!
“Very decent of you to think of the little brats at all, Odell,” Challans said. “Can’t have been easy to get this through Dover with all these asinine regulations to trip a chap up these days, hey?”
Laurie murmured something deprecating - a local saw (based, he had been surprised to learn lately, upon a saying of Pompey) to the effect that to the Gibraltarian it was necessary to smuggle, but not necessary to live - and found Challans’s bird-bright eyes fixed beadily upon him.
“Out with it, Odell,” Challans said briskly. “I can’t do anything about any sort of trouble my clients may be in unless they’re prepared to give me chapter and verse.”
His mouth must have gaped open because Challans laughed openly.
“Odell! I’ve been doing this job since a kind and disreputable uncle got me a few introductions once I’d recovered from being gassed off the Line in April ‘18. Don’t try to come over like a Girton virgin experiencing the boatshed lofts in May Week. From the minute you walked through that door I’ve known you were in trouble. So spit it out, man. Behind on the book and can’t think of anything to write, is that it?”
Laurie sank, weak-kneed, into one of the two easy-chairs towards the rear of the office Challans flung himself energetically into the other one. By some almost supernatural agency Miss Radcliffe, Challans’ efficient secretary, made her appearance at that moment with a tray bearing tea-pot, milk-jug and two cups, deposited it on the occasional table between the two chairs, and departed. Challans poured for them both in silence, which Laurie was compelled to break.
“Yes, but it’s not that.”
Challans raised an interrogative eyebrow.
“It’s Longenhurst,” Laurie muttered weakly. Challens exhaled.
“Is it, indeed?”
There was a note in his voice which was hard to interpret. Laurie raised his eyebrows. Challans shrugged.
“Well? As you know, he’s only Morris’s wife’s nephew. And which of us doesn’t have connections-by-marriage we’d rather disavow, given half a chance, eh, Odell?”
That particular question caught like salt on a gaping wound. The vision of the Rev. Straike caught in his throat, leaving him momentarily speechless.
Challans looked at him.
“Come on,” he said, “spill. Or do you need me to fill in the blanks for you? The execrable Longenhurst has been talking as though you were his own personal discovery for some time now. I suppose he thinks he has to do his best to flatter his own judgment given that so many of his recent swans have turned out to be geese. The trouble is he’s started to believe his own advertising.”
Challans took a sip of tea. ”I suppose he showed up in Gib and tried to trade off the obligation he expected you ought to feel towards him, and you told him what was what and he threatened to turn nasty. Be frank, Odell, was that about the size of it?”
Laurie nodded helplessly. Challans laughed.
“You aren’t alone, you know. You might not know it, but the rumour on the Bloomsbury cocktail party circuit is that he didn’t precisely go off to Tangier simply to “immerse himself in the local culture”, whatever he might have said.”
Laurie’s voice had an edge which startled even him. ”Hm. Well, he was certainly immersed pretty deeply last time I saw him.”
Challans grinned. “Yes, I can assure you the cocktail party set have picked up on that one, too. Nevertheless, the fact is that Morris and he haven’t been seeing eye to eye for some time - and I know for a fact that a number of Morris’s authors have told him that if they have to deal with Longenhurst for the future they’ll be seeing what Faber or Longman can do for them for their next works. And they say Morris and his wife may be getting divorced in the New Year, which can’t help Longenhurst’s position in the firm.”
Laurie finished his tea and leaned back in the armchair with an assumed air of nonchalance.
“It sounds as though attending cocktail parties was a rather important part of your job.”
Challans grinned. ”Regrettably, yes. Though not as important as making sure my authors don’t go off their feed and let themselves down in the final straight.”
He leant forward, his face suddenly serious.
“You know, Odell, absent my commission I could have wished your first novel hadn’t been the runaway success it was - or at least, that it hadn’t been that sort of success.”
He lit a cigarette and held his case out for Laurie, who accepted. ”In my experience, Odell, most people’s first novel is more or less bad.”
He must have been looking mortified, because Challans smiled.
“Yours was a lot better than the general run of first novels, but still - there was a lot of clutter in it you no doubt needed to get off your chest before you could really start writing. Your trouble was that it sold - thanks in no small part to the good Bishop -”
Laurie felt his mouth twisting up wrly. Challans had noticed it too, evidently.
“I don’t doubt that when you came to decide what to leave in and what to discard when writing the next one that the question about whether you might be losing that golden touch was lurking around the back of your mind - just where it has no business to be for a writer at your stage of his career!”
There was too much truth in that. Laurie began to say something, but Challans stopped him with an economical gesture sketched in the air.
“The problem, it seems to me, was that the Bishop found you an audience, but they were - if you’ll forgive my saying so, Odell - rather too specialised an audience. At least for you, at this stage in your writing career.”
There was quite clearly nothing Laurie could say to that. Uneasily, he remembered a party, long ago, and conclusions drawn then and never resiled from.
Challans got to his feet. “Come on! For some reason, whatever else seems to become more and more strictly rationed, gin seems to be still obtainable. I’ll take you round the corner to the Ring O’Bells, and you can show me whatever it is you’ve been writing when it wasn’t your novel.”
“But I said - ”
Challans laughed. “Odell - I’m sure there’s more in that attaché case than smuggled nougat. I said - I’ve been looking after authors for a long time. You may try to tell me that you haven’t written a line in the last three years - but then, my wife claims to be an insomniac, but every night when she tells me she hasn’t slept a wink all night I can distinctly remember an hour or so when I’ve been lying await waiting for her to stop snoring.”
Despite himself, Laurie laughed. It was true; there were a few sketches and snippets buried in there - things he had jotted down over his time on the Rock. But none of it led anywhere; Challans would see that sooner or later.
He pushed himself to his feet and reached for his hat.
“I’m afraid I’m a bit of a hopeless case, Challans,” he said. “But provided you allow me to buy the gins, you can try to convince me otherwise.”
They made their way down the stairs and out into the chill of the drab street outside.
Laurie found himself at loose ends the next day. Challans - after making what Laurie thought of as a ridiculously disproportionate (though nonetheless heartwarming) fuss about the fragments in the attaché case - had given him a brisk order not to clutter up the scene until told it might do some practical good.
“Morris,” Challans had said, “is at heart a gentleman. And his profession is still one which claims some gentlemanly values. Furthermore, while he could - of course - sue you, what use would it be? Perhaps he gets his advance back - so what? It might have been generous for a second novel, but it isn’t as if it was enough to make a ha’porth of difference in the fortunes of his firm. Or - at best - you deliver a rushed, late, resentful book, and force him to make the best of it. And as I said, his authors are already somewhat unsettled. Once the news got round - and I assure you, it would get round - his problems would merely be compounded. Especially if it were known to have been Longenhurst’s doing. No; let me tackle Morris. And keep your head down until I’ve done it.”
So Laurie found himself thrown upon the chilly comforts of the intensely - ironically - respectable private hotel near Russell Square he had booked practically at random. Fairly soon that morning the atmosphere of godliness, stale boiled cabbage and horsehair proved too oppressive to linger in. He was driven to wander out into London, with no specific object in view and the few ideas which came to him seemed to be ruled out either because of war damage or Austerity.
Eventually he found himself in the British Museum, where the galleries still had the odd, denuded appearance which denoted that much of the permanent collections had not been retrieved from caverns in the Mendips or whatever other refuge had been found for them against the Blitz.
But there was enough remaining in the Graeco-Roman galleries to give him, nonetheless, a sense of homecoming which had eluded him so far. He had spent too much time here, stolen hours in half-term holidays, a sketch-book on his knee to provide some kind of alibi against overly inquisitive grown-ups, who would not have understood. These were not exhibits; they were the friends and companions of his youth: the discus thrower concentrating all his thoughts and hopes on the eternal Olympic now, the young ephebe gentling his horse as it reared before the battle that was the first blooding for them both, the grave senator receiving the news of defeat or victory with the same impassive stoicism.
Those sculpted robes had draped exactly so over those marble limbs for two millenia, those eyes had looked gravely out across the ruin of civilisations which were now no more than names, and still gazed non-judgmentally down at him. For the first time it seemed in years Laurie found himself with space to think at last.
It was some hours before he went out into the streets of London, and now he had a direction to his movements.
Once Laurie had determined on returning to England the notion of going down to his home village and doing something about his mother’s grave had been haunting him as a duty to be performed. The thought of meeting the Rev. Straike had been daunting - and of course, while in ordinary circumstances one might hope to dive in and out of the village without risking the encounter, the churchyard was so much Straike’s particular property, especially since the Vicarage front windows overlooked it, that the encounter was more than probable. Nor could one expect that tact or family feeling would deter the Rev. Straike from pressing it.
It was hardly a meeting to which anyone could look forwards. But Laurie had sternly pushed such doubts away as cowardice, though they had remained as a small, tight, unhappy knot below his midriff.
Beneath the cool archaic scrutiny of the friezes other thoughts had been able to emerge.
What was the point of visiting his mother’s grave at all? A ritualistic piety, like Antigone breaking Creon’s commands to sprinkle dust on her brother’s broken body? A superstitious observance, the placatory appeasement of the household gods? A dare, proving to himself, like a child running up to a house where lives a ferocious watchdog, that he could conquer his fear of Straike’s unctuous disapproval? Or a genuine manifestation of faith?
Laurie had not so much lost his faith as woken up one day at school - sitting in the bluebottle-haunted chapel, with the service droning interminably on - with a vague sense that any God who allowed someone like Jeepers to entreat him at length in that nauseating nasal whine without striking him dead on the spot from a sense of pure aesthetics was a rather poor excuse for a Supreme Being. Later on, of course, the various Buchmanites and OICCU members one encountered in College had done their best to save his soul (especially since he had become known to be associated with Charles Fortescue and his set, whom those types distrusted with a deep instinctive loathing, despite having - Laurie supposed - too much innocence to understand how right they were). They had retreated baffled before Laurie’s unshakeable conviction that their faith existed mainly to convince themselves that they had an importance to the universe which empirical evidence indicated they completely lacked. Even his brief acquaintance with Andrew had served less to convince him that Christianity was a serious belief than that it was one serious people might believe.
At that time it had not occurred to Laurie to wonder how his mother had felt about the same matter. During his childhood she had always appeared thoroughly, conventionally faithful - he would have thought that the sun would stop in its tracks sooner than think of his mother being late for Morning Service on a Sunday, or preferring the easy option of a lie-in. Her marriage had seemed to be an unequivocal throwing of her lot in with the Church, and all that entailed in terms of his perpetual exile.
Nevertheless, during the few scattered, guilty weekends he had been pressured into spending at the Vicarage during the War (conscious of his stepfather’s eye on him as if Straike were a Government spy, and Laurie a fifth columnist dreading a fatal slip) he had started to reach a different conclusion. His mother had been an accomplished actress, much in demand for village pageants and amateur productions ‘got up’ for worthy causes. But Laurie had learned to detect when his mother liked the part allocated to her and when - with infinite grace, as ever - she had accepted a role she did not care for. The parts she liked she threw herself heart and soul into. Those she did not - she adopted with even more conspicuous fervour. The last two or three weekends he had spent at the Vicarage, he had detected a familiar note about her too-energetic embrace of church business.
Would it, in truth, be cowardice if he avoided the encounter altogether? The memorial in the churchyard was a symbol, nothing more; his mother was not there, not in any sense that mattered. And if she were - how would she feel if Straike did see him, and made a scene?
He remembered her long-ago views on the school performance of Hamlet.
“So vulgar, that fight in the grave. You can hardly imagine that Ophelia would have thanked either her young man or her brother for making such exhibitions of themselves.” And then, laying her hand confidingly on his arm, “Not that one can blame you, dear. You played it in a most dignified way.”
There was no help for it. The friezes had given him what counsel they could, but he needed another human mind to help him clarify what he truly wished to do.
Someone with clearer judgment than he, who might cut through the competing claims of self to the bedrock of what was right below.
He found the name in the telephone book without difficulty. It was the same address as the one he’d noted down seven years ago, almost incredibly given how the East End had suffered through the war. He thought, momentarily, of calling ahead to see that there was someone there, but that, suddenly, felt like cheating.
On a whim, throwing himself upon the fates, Laurie made his way towards Holborn tube.
Not enough had changed about the street. There were more gaps between the meanly respectable, double-fronted houses, and fireweed had had time to grow among the rubble, colonising the bomb-sites. Dessicated stalks, caught here and there with the wispy seedfluff of summer’s end, poked up wherever he looked.
But “The Beeches” and the number 50 were still carved deeply into the cement above the doorway, and, as he had found once before, the door remained unlocked, just on the latch, so that when he pushed it he found himself back in the hall, the mingled, once-smelt, never forgotten composite of boiled cabbage, carbolic soap and freshly-made toast filling his nostrils. For a moment he was literally unable to breathe.
The hall, however, was curiously cluttered; camp-beds, primus stoves, tent pegs, tea-chests marked “Dry stores” and “Crockery - WITH CARE” were piled everywhere. It looked like the combined preparations for a Boys’ Brigade excursion to the seaside and an expeditionary force.
In the gloom Laurie stubbed his toe on the edge of a tea-chest painted with the Red Cross and, barely, repressed an urge to swear. He raised his voice hesitantly.
“Hello? Is anyone in?”
The door at the end of the hall - the one that led towards the kitchen area at the back - opened, and a figure was outlined against the light.
Recognition was instant. Laurie caught his breath.
Betrayingly, his voice made it not quite a question; part of his mind, raged, furiously at himself. All the time he had been telling himself that it was Dave whose advice had been seeking, his sub-conscious had had another agenda. He knew that now it was too late to turn aside from the meeting.
And now that he had compelled the fates to do his bidding, a little cold voice nagged at him.
What now? For no-one can bathe twice in the same river.
Andrew’s voice sounded unnaturally calm.
“Good heavens. Laurie. I didn’t even realise you were in England.”
It seemed of inordinate importance to achieve the same equanimity.
“I’m sorry. I should have telephoned ahead. I hadn’t expected you were going to be here: I was in London on business, and I was just hoping to have a word with Dave about something -”
The light was too poor for Laurie to be able to tell how Andrew reacted to that, but there seemed - or was it just imagination? - to be a curiously flat note about his voice as he responded.
“Oh? Well, you’d better come through and I’ll put the kettle on, then. I shouldn’t think he’d be too long, but you never know - he’s had to go up to Whitehall, to see if he has another crack at someone else who someone knows it might do some good - ”
“I’m sorry?” Andrew’s rapid flow of speech - the plunge in media res without a shred of background information - betrayed, Laurie thought, an underlying unease about this unexpected interview, which he was striving to conceal. Openess - innocence - had been so central to Laurie’s concept of Andrew that even this - which in anyone else he would have accepted, almost applauded, as a tactful smoothing over an awkward situation - was in Andrew jagged-edged, wrong.
They were in the kitchen now; a thin pale sunshine slanted through the window onto the oilcloth-covered table. Andrew slopped water into the kettle, lit the gas with an audible popping sound, turned away from the stove and smiled, heartbreakingly.
“Of course. We’ve been saturated in it for so long now. I’d forgotten it could have come as news to anyone. Some of us thought it was time we went back to Germany.”
It occurred to Laurie, with something of a shock, that he had only the haziest idea of how Andrew had spent the rest of the War. He made the appropriate enquiries. Andrew, responding with a straightforward matter-of-factness, seemed not to have given any thought to whether Laurie might not, in the circumstances, have taken more of an interest.
Andrew’s account was shorn of dramatics or heroic posturing, but then, it hardly needed it. As a member of an ambulance crew he had been at the forefront of the push back into Europe, and where the armies had gone Andrew and his colleagues had followed a bare half-pace behind, picking up the wreckage. They had seen at first hand the devastation that war had left of Europe, and the crowds of starving people with the hopeless eyes who clung on, barely, to the cracks in the wrecked buildings that had once represented a pinnacle of civilisation.
“And Germany’s the worst,” Andrew said, pouring out the tea. “We simply can’t afford to make the mistakes again that were made in the 1920s. You hear people speaking nonsense on the streets or writing to the newspapers about the Axis powers having done better out of defeat than we’ve done out of victory, and ‘Putting England first’ but that’s worse than selfish: it’s shortsighted. There can’t be another War; there simply can’t. Not after Hiroshima. And if we leave Germany to starve, and let the Russians sweep in everywhere, and then have the Americans having to take their own position - well, I’d don’t have to spell it out.”
His skin glowed from within with the sheer blazing flame of his sincerity; it brought back memories too fragile and painful to have seen the light of day in years. Laurie found himself having to check an unconscious reaching out to put his hand on Andrew’s arm. Fortunately he could convert the gesture to reaching for the milk-jug before Andrew noticed anything.
He hardly knew what to say: the blood thundered in his ears. It was a relief when the back door opened at that moment.
If Dave felt any surprise at seeing Laurie sitting at the kitchen table he didn’t show it.
“Hello, Laurie. Good to see you after so long. Any more in that pot? Talking to civil servants is thirsty work.”
Andrew raised his eyebrows. “Any good?”
Dave shook his head. “No - nothing doing. Though it took a lot of beating about the bush before we established that. But it’s hardly fair to bore our visitor with our problems.”
Laurie felt a faint breath of exclusion. It was that, presumably, that led him to leap in quickly, defensively.
“Oh, it’s not a bore. Andrew’s been explaining all about it. Can I help? What’s the Ministry? My civil service contacts are a bit elderly, but I might be able to drag someone out.”
Dave spread his hands. “It’s kind of you to offer, but I’m not sure the door’s still open. You see; it isn’t a case of our not having the money. There’s been plenty by way of donations - an opportune little legacy - that sort of thing. The fact is, do what we might we can’t persuade the Treasury to let us take enough of it out to do anything effective with it. And there isn’t apparently a space in the regulations for what we want to spend it on.”
“Bread upon the waters isn’t a propostion which apparently appeals to the Whitehall mind,” Andrew murmured.
It was at that moment when the idea hit Laurie. Fragments of his discussions with Challans came swirling back -
“They’re only doodles.”
“It doesn’t matter. They’re doodles showing real, complex human beings. True: their daily activities and surroundings might be as far away as you can imagine from the average reader’s. And yet; they’re not caricatures, or exotics, or rare wild beasts, or fancy puppets.”
Challans had gesticulated excitedly - only Laurie’s swift grab had protected his pint from his flailing elbow.
“Most writers who try foreign settings get it wrong. It’s as though they’re saying, ‘Look here. Aren’t they freakish? Isn’t it all tremendously amusing? Come and see the almost human apes.’ You don’t. The middle-to-highbrow American magazines are crying out for that sort of stuff about post-war Europe, provided you found the right mix of subjects. And they’d pay dollar rates and I could probably place the compilation afterwards with no trouble whatsoever. And you’d write yourself back into the groove, and leave the Bishop and all that behind you.”
For an instant as Laurie sat at the table, looking at Andrew’s carved, resolute profile and the weary resignation of Dave’s expression it all seemed breathtakingly simple. Fate had led him here, after all.
The right sort of subject. The right place to be. A second chance. A task of vital importance, to which he could bring a unique contribution. A whole raft of things came together in Laurie’s mind. For too long he had allowed himself to drift where the current took him. It was time and past time for him to start striking out in the direction he chose.
This sudden decisiveness coupled with the sense at last of having found a job to do was exhilarating; almost intoxicating. He pushed back his chair and got to his feet. “I think I might have an idea. You’ll be around during the next few days, if I were to ‘phone?”
Laurie was almost at the Tube station before he remembered that he hadn’t, after all, got round to asking Dave what to do about his mother’s grave. But it was hardly the major dilemma he had been trying to turn it into. He’d overlooked her earlier, but surely Aunt Olive could do whatever the conventions required. She would be flattered to be relied on. He would write her a letter this very evening.
It was only when he opened his writing case and found the most recent of a succession of half-finished, unsent letters on his writing block that another voice made itself heard; familiar and reproachful.
And what of me?
Laurie tore off the top page of the writing block and tossed it into the waste-paper basket. But its presence remained, baleful and accusing, for the rest of the evening.
The next few days were, then and forever afterwards, a blur. Challans’ enthusiasm for the idea had been unbounded, and his energy in promoting it scarcely less so. To his somewhat bewildered amusement, Laurie found himself dragged into a succession of meetings with people Challans thought might be useful, even attending one or two of the infamous cocktail parties. The whole process had culminated in a long discussion in the over-chromed bar of a big hotel somewhere in the West End with an American named Baxter who, from an unfortunate resemblance in features and overall air of well-fed and manicured self-satisfaction, Laurie had initially been inclined to write off as a transatlantic take on the Longenhurst model. Fortunately for the success of the evening, a passing reference to Algeçiras Bay, in the context of one of Laurie’s sketches, had produced the wholly unexpected biographical sidelight thatBaxter had an intimate knowledge of Spain. As a reporter during the Civil War he’d slogged from one end of the country to the other, mostly under fire. Under that slightly too emphatic suit he’d still got the shrapnel scars to prove it. If he looked, now, as though he was enjoying the comforts of home a little too much, no-one could deny he’d earned them.
The evening caught fire in mutual reminsciences of field station expedients and the fantastic grotesqueries of war. Rather later Laurie caught Challans’ bird-bright eyes on him, and the ghost of a small, knowing smile.
Laurie left the bar with a commission for an initial series of six articles, and an ingenious set of proposals for paying expenses and advances in dollars outside the sterling area which led him to suspect that - despite surface appearances - the New Yorker had more in common with Tómas and Philippe that he would ever have with Longenhurst. Laurie wryly recollected past disputes about how the conflict between the pragmatic and the proper course was ever to be resolved, and hoped Andrew would not press him too closely on the financial details.
During the few days that followed, he would at least have welcomed an opportunity to avoid such pressing. There had only been time for two visits out to The Beeches, and he had seen Andrew on neither of them. Even that first time Laurie thought he had detected Dave looking at him with a half-questioning air, as though trying to gauge whether Laurie might, perhaps, have an ulterior motive for his presence.
Once that suspicion rooted itself, it became impossible on Laurie’s later visits even to mention Andrew - no matter in the most prosaic and fleeting of contexts - without the self-consciousness that his tone, his expression - even the tint of his skin which, as ever, blushed betrayingly at the slightest awkwardness - was subject to the scrutiny of those keen, unembarrassed, non-judgmental eyes.
Laurie would have liked to put Dave’s mind at rest, but this was something Laurie was unable to disentangle even for himself. His first sight of Andrew long ago had had such an impact on his own personal universe that in looking back into his own history he found himself mentally assigning events before and after his stay in the EMS hospital near Bridstow.
Their recent reunion had been almost equally disturbing, though not in any way he could have predicted. Laurie played the recollection over and over to himself, as if he was a film projectionist, endlessly sitting through the same show.
The first thing which had struck him, unsurprisingly, had been Andrew’s physical presence.
Over the intervening seven years - which accounted for how many decades of subjective experience for all of them? - Andrew had changed almost beyond recognition.
Grown up, you mean? the baleful inner voice which had been his constant companion these last few weeks commented. But that particular thought was a bitter one, and he shied from it. The voice did not press the matter, though he caught a breath of mocking, bitter laughter.
The man Andrew had become was wholly admirable. And yet, when Laurie, stumbling awkwardly, tried to convey some flavour of the sort of thing one simply did not say, Andrew had merely smiled.
But that, too, merely emphasised how far behind was the past. With a pang Laurie saw Andrew’s features no longer composed themselves into the cool, detached amusement which the sculptors of the Museum friezes had sought to capture in marble. Instead, his expression conveyed a warm, wry appreciation of the excellence of God’s jokes, whether encompassed in the duck-billed platypus or in one’s own absurd mortality. One would have thought it wholly charming, had one not seen what it had replaced.
He’d stretched back in the hard kitchen chair, taller - surely - than Laurie remembered, wholly at ease in his own skin.
“I shouldn’t say I’d got very far. But I daresay I wouldn’t have got anywhere at all if I hadn’t had a boost by people giving me credit for seeming, just long enough for me to realise it was time I started being instead, and that I needed to try to grow into that. Having someone start one off in the right direction; that’s more important than anything. After all, even St Paul didn’t know which end of the road was the right one in the beginning.”
Almost there was a pin-prick of resentment at the carelessness of his ease. Oblivious, Andrew continued.
“You know; I think that book you gave me helped remind me what I’d missed, not keeping on with Greek through everything. After that, I tried to do more. I ended up re-reading The Seven in the ruins of Thebes. On the hillside, with the cicadas whirring and the smell of the wild thyme, and the German guns advancing all the time on the position so we knew we’d be having to get the wounded out before nightfall. About the last place, one would have thought, to need someone like Aeschlyus to tell one what an idiocy war is. The absurd thing was, when I finished, there were tears in my eyes. And then the shelling started again, and we had to run to our stations. Which made the whole mess seem even more futile than it had before.”
Suddenly conscious (cold breath on the back of his neck and hairs rising) of another presence in the room, another’s corner to defend, Laurie had snapped,
“But Aeschylus fought at Marathon, all the same.”
For the first time Andrew’s voice had held the hurt, almost sulky tones of a much younger man, flicked on the raw by some stinging dismissal from his elders, and too unsophisticated - or honest - to disguise it.
“But it was after Marathon he wrote Seven against Thebes. Don’t you think it would have made some difference?”
And Laurie, suddenly remembering perhaps too much, had caught his breath, and then made a business of getting up to make more tea, lest Andrew might have noticed.
No. It was hardly as if he were in a position to enlighten Dave about ulterior motives.
It was easier to avoid mentioning Andrew altogether. And they not were gravelled for want of other matter. With Baxter’s dollars greasing the wheels, and a slight relenting on the part of the Treasury (encouraged by Laurie’s renewed contacts with one or two of his war-time colleagues - he had not imagined, he thought ruefully, that the drier reaches of the Civil Service would be susceptible to the snob-appeal of literary fame, particularly of the scandalous variety) they were in a position to start sooner than he had expected. The pressure of last minute business was frightening. There was enough to keep Laurie occupied so thoroughly until the planned date of embarkation as almost to preclude any hope of further visits to The Beeches.
He wondered, as he made his way to the Tube station on the last occasion, whether Andrew would be sorry about that fact. And whether Dave would be glad of it.
Not without trepidation, Laurie found time to accept Baxter’s unexpected invitation to dinner at the Savoy shortly before his planned departure date. The American, it seemed, was finding post-War London infinitely tedious, and yet pressure of business kept him there. And certainly the horrors of “Evening Dinner” at Laurie’s hotel would have driven the primmest Vestal to sup with Caligula.
Not thirty minutes into the evening Laurie realised he had worried unnecessarily. Once or twice during the evening Baxter looked at Laurie with a quick, subtle glance, as if to say, “Had things been different, we might have shown each other something, you and I. What a pity your thoughts are so evidently bent elsewhere, and I am too much of a pragmatist - and, perhaps, of a romantic - to accept the challenge of trying to turn their direction.” But there was nothing anyone could possibly object to in his manner; the contrast with certain recollections was profound. Laurie tried - to the extent, at least, that it would not lead to further complications - to show that he had noticed, and was grateful.
Both food and conversation flowed more freely than Laurie - with a slight shock - realised he had experienced since Ralph had left Gibraltar. Almost unconsciously, he embarked on the story of Philippe’s notebook, and, seeing nothing but a profound and understanding interest in Baxter’s expression, went to the cloakroom to retrieve it from his overcoat pocket.
It was not a story he had thought either Andrew or Dave would appreciate - Philippe’s values were so far removed from theirs as to make even giving the two things the same name seem somehow wrong. Ralph would have understood, of course, but the burden of that little rectangle of leather and paper, dried blood and obligation was too urgent to wait until Laurie could - he surprised himself with the stubbornness with which his brain refused to say “might” - discuss it with Ralph.
But for the meantime this smooth, slightly paunchy individual with the too-groomed hair and the concealed shrapnel scars, Laurie realised, would do. He would understand.
Baxter heard the story and nodded, gravely. Sure there were contacts he could invoke; people he could communicate with. Someone would be bound to know someone. It would be an honour to do what he could. He’d expect first publication rights if Laurie found there was an article in it, mind. That OK? He could contact Laurie by wire, after he left for Europe, of course? Via the F.A.U? Really? Unexpected, but: a fine organisation. He’d known a man who’d been wounded in the assault on Monte Cassino, who - now this might surprise Laurie -
It continued, unexpectedly, a good evening with nothing to mar it. Walking home - it was hardly more than a mile, and the few fugitive taxis were full, or going off duty - Laurie reflected that it had been the longest period he could remember in which he’d not worried over either Ralph or Andrew.
He lay awake beneath the thin blankets of the hotel trying to think why that might be so. But dawn had broken over the smoky slates of London before he abandoned the attempt to puzzle it out, and slept at last.
Laurie’s plans to drive down to Felixstowe with Dave were summarily overturned when Challans called to tell him that after weeks of painstaking diplomacy he had managed to arrange a meeting with Morris. Stomach churning, Laurie automatically begun to demur. He was about to leave the country on a mercy mission - anyone would understand that one couldn’t possibly find the time. Abruptly, a vision of Andrew’s face as he had once seen it above Charlot’s bed stopped his internal excuses before he could utter them.
Conscience apart, procrastination was a fool’s trick anyway.
In the event, it was by no means as bad as he had feared. Morris was more concerned to distance himself pointedly and emphatically from his nephew than to press for his pound of flesh under the contract, and they emerged with a gentleman’s agreement about the novel’s future which, Laurie thought rather ruefully, was far more than he deserved.
Laurie was alive to the irony of the thought that a course he had consistently dismissed as both useless and unthinkable when Ralph had urged it on him - one of their worst rows had been occasioned by Laurie’s having discovered a letter Ralph had drafted for him to send to Morris on the very subject - should have proved so easy once it was presented as the only possible course.
After the successful outcome of the meeting, a celebratory pint or so in the pub with Challans seemed indicated. They were mildly - though not unduly - surprised (the saloon bar at the Ring O’ Bells was well-known as the preferred watering hole for half of literary London) to bump into Baxter, frowning earnestly into a pint of bitter with the air - as Laurie, recollecting a Ralphism of years before about a very different matter, thought - of someone trying solemnly to acquire a fashionable vice.
On finding that it was Laurie’s last evening in London before embarkation Baxter insisted on turning the evening into something of a festivity. All three of them ended up having supper in Soho at a little restaurant whose proprietor’s dealings with the Black Market, on the evidence on their plates before them, would scarcely bear scrutiny. In the course of what became a long, relaxed and hilarious evening Baxter dismissed out of hand Laurie’s protestations that he needed to get away early to catch tomorrow’s boat train from Liverpool Street. He, Baxter, had a car, and thanks to contemporary hunger for dollars he had petrol for it. He might just as well drive it to Felixstowe as not, and would be delighted to do so if Laurie would appreciate the lift.
A little after ten the next morning found them arriving on the quayside. The boat was already being loaded, though it would not sail until the evening, and Laurie had no difficulty in picking out Dave, taking a Customs official armed with a formidable sheaf of dockets painstakingly through their inventories.
Once released from his official duties Dave came over to greet them. Laurie felt he detected a certain polite restraint in Dave’s reception of Baxter; a too-carefully charitable avoidance of reaching conclusions which might, after all, be unfair. He prickled, a little, on Baxter’s behalf, before spotting that Baxter had no need at all of any championship; he had a faint air of amused detachment; the air of a man who had no particular concern about how anyone regarded him, either because his sense of self was unshakeably secure or because to one who was certain to be moving on tomorrow the enmities or suspicions of today were merely fleabites.
Laurie had not thought that this was a way of being which anyone could adopt other than as a conscious pose, but if Baxter had started out acting a part his face had grown to fit his mask. It was Dave who started to look just a little provincial - perhaps, even, a trifle narrow - in the face of Baxter’s urbanity. Laurie, who liked both of them but had debts of loyalty to Dave, began to be sorry he had unwittingly engineered the meeting.
It was a relief when the arrival of a pre-War, battered and exceptionally noisy Baby Austin provided a distraction.
“Ah,” Dave said, “Andrew. I was starting to get worried. There was a lot of ice on the road this morning, and I expect there’d have been more on the Cambridge side.”
Andrew extricated himself from the driver’s seat, and waved cheerfully at them. Laurie was moving towards him before he spotted that Andrew had walked round to the passenger side, and was opening the door to allow a shy, pretty young woman to emerge. The folds of her well-worn navy wool coat were, hanging off so slight a frame, hardly sufficient to disguise the unequivocal jutting statement of her stomach.
Laurie caught his breath. With an unconsciously proprietorial air Andrew slid his arm round her shoulders.
“Rebecca,” he said, “this is Laurie. I’ve told you how we couldn’t have managed a thing without him. But I owe him much more than that, of course. Laurie: my wife, Rebecca.”
Odd, Laurie had thought once when under fire, how the most inconsequential thoughts came to one when one was closest to utter annihilation. It was true now, too.
One term Carter had set off a craze for dabbling in amateur psychology. Anyone else in the School would instantly have been labelled “crank”, but Carter was too patently the beau ideal of healthy schoolboy normalcy; besides, his mother was American, which was thought to give him leeway as regards matters of that kind. It hadn’t amounted to very much, but there had been a game which had been very popular at the time; passing around printed cards and being asked to identify what one saw in the designs on them, upon which one’s contemporaries would seek to draw rather puerile conclusions about the workings of one’s psyche.
Laurie could still remember with a sharp mix first of revelation and, inexplicably, disappointment how he had felt as the classical lines of the white vase he had originally seen on the page mutated into a pair of human profiles in silhouette, endlessly regarding each other. And, of course, once one had seen it, one could never go back to the pure simplicity of the original vision.
And, little town, thy streets for ever more will silent be/ and not a soul to tell why thou art desolate can e’er return.
But even as he thought it, he realised its absurdity. For the point of the game - if it had any point at all - was that both faces and vase were there from the very beginning. It was all in what one’s eye, under the direction of one’s subconscious, chose either to pick out or to ignore.
All this had passed in a split second; Andrew could have detected nothing of it.
Laurie moved forwards, murmuring some suitable platitudes, feeling as he had after his operations, when the anaesthetic was just wearing off, and he knew the real pain would start any second.
And surely Andrew would guess something was wrong; no doubt Laurie had gone supernaturally white. But - wholly unexpectedly - Baxter was covering for him; moving forward with smooth self-introductions and congratulations. Furthermore, with a detached interest (in any circumstances but these it might have been a blazing antagonism) Laurie noted that Baxter was quite clearly aware of and - if not quite encouraging, at least not doing anything to prevent - the assumptions which the others might be drawing about his precise role with Laurie on the quayside.
In the circumstances Laurie could feel nothing but gratitude for the chance he was being given to make a muttered, temporary escape. He stumbled to a brief sanctuary in the shadow of the lorry.
Dave found him there a few seconds later. His expression of concern was overlying something more complex, something being tamped down with an act of sheer will-power.
“You didn’t get my letter, then, about Andrew’s marriage?”
The tone made it not a question. Laurie shook his head, dully.
“The post out to the Rock’s been - well, never mind. How long - ?”
Dave considered. “Well, they married in February. But they’d known each other for almost a year by then. Rebecca’s brother was a member of our Ambulance unit.”
“Oh. I see.”
Dave’s tone was so consciously gentle that it was, in itself, a reproach. “We were all very fond of James.”
The deliberate emphasis on the past tense told its own story. Laurie blinked: there seemed to be a great weariness pressing down his eyelids.
Dave shrugged. “A landmine. Quick, at least, which is something. You know how these things go. Andrew, of course, wanted to return James’s things to his sister in person once he got back to England; he felt it was the least he could do. I suppose it all happened from there.”
“And is she very like him?” The words slipped out beyond his conscious control; his face must be telling its own story, too. Dave’s face was grave, unjudgmental as always.
“You know, one of the things I’ve thought over my life is that love is as much a mystery as it is a gift, and never more so as when one thinks that the explanation is obvious.” He paused, evidently weighing two competing obligations in his head. His next words seemed as if they had been dragged out of him.
“Does it make any difference? To you, I mean.”
More to buy himself time than anything Laurie thrust his hand into a pocket for his cigarettes and lighter. His hand brushed against something which at first he failed to recognise, but as his fingers closed round it he recognised the scarred and bloodstained leather of the diary.
It recalled him to himself. There were, after all, very much worse things which could happen to one in this world than not knowing which of two distinct varieties of idiot one had made of oneself. Did it matter whether he was mourning something he had had and lost, or something he had never had a chance of having in the first place?
And - another stabbing revelation - how much cruelty had his delusions - if that was the proper word for them - caused elsewhere, over the years?
“He’ll come back in a year or so and tell you about his boyfriend: that one’s a classic, don’t you know?”
Oh, God. The sheer arrogance of youth, not even bothering to distinguish between cynicism and anguish. Too late, he recognised the note Ralph’s voice had had on that evening long ago. It was an effort to keep the same note out of his own voice as he responded to Dave. But the weariness was heavier than anything; it had the weight of his own folly, which was infinite and thus crushing.
“I suppose not.” Laurie found the cigarettes at last, offered the packet to Dave, who accepted, and lit them both from the same match.
He drew the smoke deep into his lungs and exhaled on a long breath that was almost a sigh. ”Could you let Andrew know I expect we can manage to load the lorry and so forth on board between us? I suppose - all things considered - he won’t really want to come on board until the last minute, and - well, neither of them ought to have to worry about anything else at a time like this, should they?”
Something flickered behind Dave’s eyes. Perhaps - Laurie hoped - it was an echo of a grave respect.
“I’ll be sure to let him know,” he said, and was gone.
Laurie had not expected either Dave or Andrew to be poor sailors, but both of them had ducked below and into their cabins as soon as the boat had left Felixstowe. Those cabins were another blessing owing to Baxter: Laurie’s imagination frankly failed him at how he might have coped had he been expected to share, in the circumstances.
Left to his own devices, Laurie had essayed a drink or so in the grim ship’s bar, and then retreated to his own quarters.
Sleep, however, proved elusive.
A previous passenger had left a slightly bound popular novel in the berth. As the boat thrust its way out over the North Sea Laurie read doggedly onwards.
Last night I dreamed we went to Manderley again.
Gradually the passivity of Maxim de Winter chafed against his spirit. His had been a great crime, no doubt, but one set against a great wrong. Why should society demand of the protagonists that they eke out a futile, etiolated existence on the margins of Europe?
The North Sea was calm: his fragmented glance through the porthole showed an oily dark sea and a blaze of stars above. He recalled Ralph’s words about being able to think more clearly at sea. There was such infinite perspective in those stabbing points of light.
Laurie reached for his writing-case.
Dear Ralph, he began.
*As I expect you’ve guessed, I’ve tried and failed to write this letter half a dozen times or so.
The postmark will probably come as a surprise; and if you were to ask me what I’m doing here I’m not sure I could tell you. But you, above anyone else, showed me that the important thing was to work out as a human being, and part of that has to be finding one’s own purpose in life: something that presents itself as something that must be done, not to impress someone else or to avoid difficulties or anything of that sort, but because the thing is worth doing in itself. I think I’ve found that with what I’m doing now. You may think yourself justified in being sceptical, and maybe even more so when I tell you more of the details but I can only ask you to trust me. After all, that’s all it can ever come down to between two people if anything’s going to mean anything worthwhile. I can see that now.*
Laurie paused and looked out through the porthole at the dark sea heaving sluggishly, the reflected light from the ship only emphasising the incomprehensible blackness of what lay beneath.
They must be coming close to the shoal waters of the Dutch seaboard by now. One still heard of stray mines causing havoc for shipping in these waters, and Ralph had shown him enough charts for him to realise that they were passing over the graveyards of murdered ships which lay on the sea-bed below, thicker than blackberries in autumn.
Laurie, suppressing a twinge of uneasiness, turned back to his writing block.
I expect to be in Germany for the next three months or so, though it may be longer; if this winter is as harsh as last there will be a lot to be done to relieve hardship, even on the smallest scale, and I’ve set myself the task of reporting how that goes. I’m writing for an American magazine -
He gave title and publisher, not for their snob value - though they were prestigious enough - nor even because he imagined Ralph scouring the news-stands in obscure ports in the hope of finding what he had written, but for severely practical reasons. On their way down to Felixstowe Baxter had with calm insistence asked that Laurie gave him next of kin details for, as he observed, while no sensible man went looking for trouble, with the spectres of famine and civil strife hovering over dismembered Germany, and four mutually suspicious occupying Powers jockeying for position amid the ruins of Europe, Laurie had better appreciate now - if he hadn’t already - that whatever could happen in this world could happen to him, and should make his arrangements accordingly.
Laurie added a line or so to the letter, to the effect that contacting him via his publishers was probably the quickest in any crisis.
I’ve made sure that they have your details, too, just in case.
He hesitated for a moment, and then wrote on.
Baxter - my publisher - is going to be back in New York in the next month and you might want to look him up if you get leave. He’s been extremely decent about things and I owe him a lot.
It was tempting to go into detail; during the evening at the Savoy Baxter had made a number of shrewd observations about the state of Spain (he’d met Guittierez in Salamanca, apparently, and been mightily impressed by him) which Laurie had longed to be able to share with Ralph.
But it would only be postponing what he really needed to say. With a sigh Laurie refilled the reservoir of his fountain pen from the ink-bottle, and continued.
The only thing I know is that for the first time I feel I am going towards something rather than away. I almost said, for the first time since the War, but on reflection I realise that even then joining up was a nice tidy way of getting out of the Charles mess and proving something to myself about courage and so forth for people like me. That was a question that shouldn’t, I suppose, have needed asking: they’d have looked at you as if you were mad if you’d even thought of drawing that sort of connection in Athens or in Thebes.
He thought for a moment, and then added,
I see now that things were quite different for you; but then, you had had a chance to see for yourself how things were going on the Continent and in the Far East, and to talk to all sorts of people about it, too, whereas I’d only heard people chattering the sort of idiotic abstractions - Left and Right both - that you get at Oxford, and not thought much of either side. When it came, too, the real thing was such chaos, and over almost for me before I knew what was happening.
Now there was no escaping it: this was the painful bit, and no mistake. Laurie set his teeth and pressed doggedly on.
I suppose that’s why when I came across Andrew, who’d actually given the alternatives thought and was willing to talk about it on a completely different level to anything I’d come across before I was so struck by it, and too ready to assume that because my position was something I’d arrived at through a mess of unexamined assumptions and a blind funk at being seen to be different everyone else on my “side” must be similarly unable to account for themselves. As an assumption about you it was unforgivable, and it caused a lot of trouble in the long run; like in those Mohammedan countries where the testimony of an unbeliever counts for only half, in the courts.
The next bit was even more difficult, for he had loyalties in two directions. He crossed out several false starts. There were things that could only be said, after all, face to face, if he ever got the chance.
If there’s one thing I regret more than anything else, it’s not having the gumption - to be honest, the basic common decency - to give any proper thought to what you were going through when we met again after Dunkirk. Yes: a lot of things had overwhelmed me at once, but that’s a fool’s excuse. And it doesn’t let me off my inability to see what should have been right in front of my nose.
So far so good: now for it.
The fact is, I was running away from something I’d brushed up against and detested, and - although it’s taken me long enough to realise it - I was just as ready to lump everything together when it came to the physical side of things as some old buffer of a magistrate, who honestly can’t tell the difference between “Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe” and dirty postcards from some Charing Cross backstreet. And the converse, too. That is; I realised from the first that what I felt for Andrew was impossible - I mean, from his point of view: I wonder now if a Freudian wouldn’t tell me that was the whole point. It gave me the endless luxury of not having to make my mind up, and having Fate do it for me, and giving me the chance to strike high-minded moral attitudes.
He paused; a random inconsistent thought struck him for what felt like the first time.
*I’m surprised you were generous enough to put up with any of it: you never had much time for “highfalutin’ pi nonsense” when people indulged in it at School. Anyway, when everything went smash I should have been honest with you at the time, in the flat, rather than pretending I’d noticed nothing. I dressed it up for myself as not wanting to hurt you any more than you’d been hurt already, and to do myself justice there really was a lot of that in it, but there was also not wanting to admit that all along I’d been treating flesh and blood people as though they were characters in a novel I was writing and could be pushed around into whatever attitudes I chose for them to take up: not that you can really do that to characters in books, either, or Morris would have had his MS long ago!
Anyway: I behaved rottenly, and told myself it was being noble; I made the world’s worst idiot of myself in the process, and nearly tore us both apart. If apologies mean anything at all in such a case, believe me you have all of mine I could possibly offer.
That hurdle over, he succinctly described the current set-up, resisting the urge to add any commentary to the bare information that Andrew was married and shortly to become a father. He dreaded that Ralph would feel that he had gone to seek solace elsewhere, and only been driven to return when he realised it was impossible, but however it had arisen the situation was as it was, and he resisted the temptation to gloss or conceal; the fact that he was going on with his self-appointed task when any possible ulterior motive had been rendered comprehensively moot must speak for itself.
He added a brief paragraph about Philippe’s diary - it was the sort of thing Ralph would be interested in, and might have useful contacts or suggestions.
When he had finished that he found no longer needed the lamp: the porthole was flooding the cabin with a pale grey light. When he looked out he could discern a band of darker grey low on the horizon which might, perhaps, be low cloud but which he felt, instinctively, was land. Dawn was breaking over Europe.
I hope - he began in conclusion, and then struck it through.
*Whatever you want to do, I can’t imagine that I’d come so close to happiness as I have if it hadn’t been for you. I’ve made a mess of a lot of things, but if I’ve made a mess of that then it’s the one I shall regret most truly, and for the rest of my life. But it doesn’t take away what we’ve had, too, however you decide.
I’m not asking for anything other than what you choose to give, and your generosity has already been stretched far more than I deserve, but believe me that if you think we can go on together and you want to take that chance it will make me happier than anything else I can imagine. My love you will always have, whatever happens. If I could be sure that you believed that, it would make everything else insignificant.*
Above his head booted feet rang on the deck, and there was the sound of terse, barked orders, and the swishing sound of water as the decks were hosed down. The boat was waking up around him.
Laurie signed the letter, sealed its envelope and tucked it in his writing-case, ready to post on landing. He had made his throw of the dice; the rest lay with the gods. Drained, grey as the dawn, but curiously at peace he made his way up on deck to watch the boat come safely into port.
The wind blowing off the water had a keen edge. It reminded one that even the majestic passenger liners were still taking due note of ice warnings on their inbound and outbound journeys, and that May was not yet so far advanced as to preclude the possibility of a last, late snowstorm.
This part of the waterfront was far from the patrician enclave reserved to the passenger traffic. Here cranes worked ceaselessly to unload the holds of the incoming freighters and trucks waited to rush the cargo to the rail-heads; the visible part of a vast machine whose unceasing energies were dedicated to slaking the insatiable hungers of the most powerful nation on earth.
The young man passing briskly - despite his visible limp - through the district had turned the collar of his coat against the cold, and kept his soft hat down over his ears. From time to time he consulted directions on a piece of paper.
Not without a false turn or so he young man found his destination at last; a small eating establishment - hard to say, in this mongrel district, how to describe it more precisely. It clearly had pretensions to restaurant status: its clientele was drawn from among the commercial agents and merchant skippers, not the stevedores of the waterfront. But it seemed unlikely that anyone not drawn by business into the neighbourhood would have considered it worth the detour. Accordingly, as the young man entered a few heads turned curiously after him; although strangers were plentiful in this place where the machine demanded the tireless labours of an army of transients few were of his type, and those who were spelled trouble more often than not. A journalist - an earnest and worthy compiler of statistics - even, perhaps, a spy.
There was a visible easing of tension when a diner in one of the booths - who would have been instantly recognisable as a British ship’s officer even if he had not been in uniform - spotted the new arrival and signalled with a lazy wave of his arm.
The young man nodded, and picked his way through the packed tables towards his friend. His mouth had opened to say something when the man in uniform reached out a hand to clasp his wrist firmly.
“Welcome home, Spud,” he said.