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Our Library => Simon Raven - Fielding Gray (1967) => Topic started by: Admin on July 19, 2023, 11:51:41 am



Title: Part Ten
Post by: Admin on July 19, 2023, 11:51:41 am
AS we walked on in the silence imposed by increasingly heavy rain, the huge finger once more seemed about to point at me and the voice of the Archangel spoke again, the more resentfully, I thought, for having been interrupted.

'Why did you desert Christopher when he needed your love?' I didn't desert him: I was going to him, and then he told me not to. 'But you weren't going in love: you were going there to use him.' He wanted to be used. 'He wanted to be loved.' Whatever he wanted he forbade me to go to him. That wasn't my fault.

'Perhaps not; but you'd already withdrawn your love and made up your mind to exploit him; so you'd already betrayed him.' He didn't know. 'Didn't he? And what about the relief you felt when you heard he wasn't coming back to school -because that meant he couldn't be a nuisance later on? How's that for betrayal?' He certainly didn't know about that. 'Betrayal nevertheless. And another thing. When you couldn't have Christopher, you went to a whore instead. How do you answer that?' She'd starve if somebody didn't. 'No good. Fielding.' The voice had now turned into Peter Morrison's. 'I've told you before. It is foolish and dangerous (leave alone the moral side of it) to use people, to take advantage. Look where it's got you. Your mother, whom you've used all these years (don't try to deny it) as a shield against your father---your mother is getting ready to hand you over to Tuck. And what is more' ---the voice was blatantly mocking now, no longer Peter's but Somerset's---'that strumpet you picked up may well have passed on the French Worm or the Neapolitan Bone-Ache or (tout court) the Pox.'

Tired, wet, soiled, crumpled, bored, disgusted and afraid, I entered with my companions into the clammy and obscene chill of the cathedral. The organ piped a malignant miserere and the skeletal banners of vanished regiments hung in menace over my head. A gargoyle verger snickered into the ear of a raven priest. In some shadow, surely, the Furies lurked; at any moment they would proclaim my guilt, infest me with the sores of the Lazar, hurl my putrefying flesh into the pit.

Regardless of Somerset and the Headmaster. I hurried away up a side-aisle, turned right, left behind a wooden screen, walked, with a cold sweat all over me, into a deep shadow. There was something which looked like a stone altar looming in front of me (surely stone altars were forbidden?); an outcast seeking sanctuary, I lurched forward and snatched at the stone block with my hands. Looking down. I saw the figure of a knight and shivered all through my body.

'Go on,' said a low, spiteful voice just behind me: 'have a good look while you're at it.'

'There's nothing for me here.' I said without turning.

'On the contrary. You've come this far and now you must face it.'

Still shivering, I looked closer. The tips of the prayerful stone Angers pointed up to a mailed chin, above which was a full mouth, turned slightly downwards, a soft nose, and mild, beseeching eyes. Christopher. From behind me the voice laughed, amused and pitiless. I turned.

'You shouldn't have run off like that,' Somerset said. 'It was very rude.'

+++

And now another church. Smaller than Salisbury Cathedral but having the same traditional appurtenances. The banners, the tablets in the wall. And the coffin where the transept crossed the aisle.

'When faced with untimely death.' the unctuous young clergyman declaimed, 'we do well to reflect on the role played by the unexpected in this realm below. An established way of life, worldly goods, intellectual systems and disciplines---none can stand against the blind hand of fate.'

The Headmaster sat beside me. boot-faced.

'But,' said the greasy ministrant, 'even when the careful structures of our lives are shattered, when our hopes and ambitions are laid low, there is one supreme discipline 'to which we may always turn for comfort and instruction. If, that is, we will only make ourselves humble enough to be received into it. I refer you to the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ.'

I winced and let out a long, hissing breath. The Headmaster turned his head slightly and looked at me with mild curiosity, as if he would be vaguely interested (no more) to see what I did next.

'I deem it no more than my duty,' said the preacher, 'to say that the boy whose death we mourn today had strayed outside the knowledge and love of Christ. His plans and pleasures had ends which were inspired by influences hostile to true religion. He was young, suggestible; so we must hope and pray that he will be forgiven where he goes. But had others, whose duty it was. encouraged him to be stronger in the Way, then perhaps he would have lived to walk down it.'

I rose. 'I'll wait for you outside,' I whispered to the Headmaster, who nodded, agreeably, companionably, as if indeed he himself were only remaining in his seat because he wanted a few minutes more of rest.

'. . . Contagion and blasphemy,' the words followed me down the aisle, 'to which this unfortunate boy must have been exposed . . .'

God. I thought as I reached the open air, that bloody parson's having a go at the head man. I sat down on a convenient tombstone. 'Contagion and blasphemy.' Contagion. What was that sentence of Huxley's I had read earlier in the summer? 'Somewhere in my veins creep the maggots of the pox.' No. No. Christ, that poor little coffin. Christopher inside it. the smooth thighs, the full, pretty lips. Cold now, unkissable. Cold and rotting: maggots---though kinder in their way than the maggots of the Pox.

A bell started to toll. On something which resembled an hors d'oeuvres trolley the coffin was wheeled out of the church porch and down the path towards the waiting hearse, the driver of which, having reluctantly stubbed out a cigarette and concealed the butt somewhere in his hat, busied himself with the door at the back. Christopher, oh Christopher. No knight's effigy for you. Only the consuming fire. Christopher, forgive me, for I knew not what I did. The Headmaster stood over me.

'We must take our seats in the car.'

Confess. Tell him everything. Then there will be peace.

'Sir. There is something I must tell you. Several things.'

'In the car.'

We moved slowly down the path, among the not inconsiderable crowd that had gathered for Christopher's obsequies, and watched the coffin as it was handled into the hearse. I saw a tubby little man with a red, resentful face help a gaunt yet complacent looking woman into the first car behind the hearse. Christopher's parents; the thought of meeting them later made me feel, for a moment, physically sick. '. . . He often spoke of you. Tell me, Mr. Gray, as his best friend, what do you think could have made him do such a terrible thing?' 'Having two such horrible parents.' 'Interesting, Mr. Gray, but we happen to know a thing or two----'

'---Come along, Fielding.'

The Headmaster took my elbow and urged me gently towards his car, a black 1935 Saloon of a make now defunct and eminently suitable for a drive to a crematorium.

'Funerals,' the Headmaster was saying, 'are really rather lowering, as you may have found. Particularly if there is a disagreeable sermon. You wanted to tell me something?'

'Yes. sir. I----'

'---Please, gentlemen?' said a whining voice.

We turned to see a ratty little man who was in battle-dress, which was fastened right up to the chin, and huge, wallowing Army boots.

'Please, I don't know anyone, but you looked kind, and I wondered . . .'

'You want to come with us?'

'Please.'

'Of course,' the Headmaster said.

Two heavy drops of rain landed on my neck. The Headmaster opened the back near-side door, and the soldier clambered noisily in. I made for the co-driver's door, then, drawn by some lurking sense of kinship, climbed into the back to sit by the soldier instead. The Headmaster made no comment, but heaved himself into the driving seat and settled there with the gravity of a Royal coachman. It was now raining with almost tropical violence; after some difficulty with the windscreen-wiper, the Headmaster set the car cautiously into motion and then, realizing that he was already well behind the rest of the procession and did not know the way, put his foot down harder than he meant to and rode over a yellow light.

'You knew . . . Mr. Roland?' I said to the soldier.

'I didn't know him. Only I seen him,'

During the pause which followed, I watched the struggle in the man's face between the natural reluctance of the inarticulate to embark on a tricky explanation and the guilty fear that unless he did so he might appear as an interloper.

'Im not just snooping though,' the man said with an effort.

Touched by this delicacy of feeling, I sought about for ways of helping the explanation to birth, only to realize that this was the first time in my life (since the nursery) that a conversation between myself and a member of the lower classes had been other than merely administrative, and that I had no idea whatever how to proceed with it. The Headmaster, who appeared to share this feeling, maintained a prudent silence and kept his eyes squarely into the rain.

'It was like this,' the soldier said, gallant and tortured. 'I was in detention, see, serving a week in the guardhouse. But being a handy kind of man, they didn't put me on rough work but had me paint the place up and fit new lights and things. Get it?'

The Headmaster and I got it.

'So every day,' said the soldier with growing confidence, 'I was working round this guardhouse, inside and out, and every day there was this young fellow, this Christopher Roland, used to come on his bike and stop near the gate, like he was waiting for somebody. A lonely little chap like me, see, because although I was getting it light it's no fun spending twenty-four hours of every day round a guardhouse, with only a wooden bed waiting for you in a damp cell.'

'What makes you say he was lonely?'

'The way he kept looking to see if anyone was coming he could talk to.'

'Did he talk to you?'

'No,' said the soldier bitterly. 'He couldn't come in through the gate and I couldn't go out of it. He used to smile at me, though. Every now and then. I'd look up and see him smiling. Specially when someone had been shouting at me. bawling me out to be quick with this or that, then I'd look up and I'd find him smiling, as if to say he was sorry and he hoped I'd come through.'

We were out of Tonbridge and into the country. The rain, no longer violent, had settled into a steady vertical drench.

"Then one day just before my sentence was up,' the soldier went on, 'he didn't come. I was that upset I thought I should have cried. Afterwards I heard why, about the police and all . . . It wasn't till then I even knew his name. And now this . . .'

The soldier removed the khaki beret from his head and started wringing it in thin, dirty fingers.

'So you see, you must see,' he said urgently, 'what he meant to me and why I'm grieving for him, no matter what he done. Because whatever he came there for, he was good to me. It was him that kept me going, and I can't forget him. Oh, he used to talk to anyone that went in or out---anyone who'd stop and listen---, and there was no doubt what he was after, or so I heard later from the lads. But he never forgot me. Whenever he came or went, he always had a smile for hallo or good-bye. See what I'm trying to tell you, gentlemen?'

Scruffy, sharp yet weak in the face, twitching, undersized, perhaps thirty-five years old, the soldier, I thought, looked like just the sort of man one read about in the Sunday Press. A lonely, repellent little man, who would live unloved and die unlamented, would probably die, indeed, without its even being known, until days or weeks later an employer or chance creditor, scenting something odd, suggested to the police that they might call . . . What could Christopher have seen here? Surely to God there were more attractive people in the world who would have been grateful for his smiles?

'So you came to the funeral,' was all I could think of to say.

'Yes. I'm R.C. myself, so I don't hold with this burning but that's none of my affair. I thought . . . a prayer for him . . . I didn't get dispensation to come to the church, neither, but perhaps God . . .'

'God will hear your prayer,' said the Headmaster, speaking for the first time since the procession started.

'You think so?' said the soldier doubtfully.

The engine died and the car stopped.

'Damn,' said the Headmaster vigorously.

'Petrol-pump.' said the soldier. Before anyone could say anything, he was out of the car and had the bonnet up. He administered a brisk tap.

'Press the starter.' he called, 'and we're away.'

As indeed we were.

'But,' said the soldier knowingly, 'once it starts that trick, it goes on. More and more. Till at last you're getting out every fifty yards.'

'And so?'

'New petrol-pump. Ten minutes to fit. Any proper garage.' The car stopped. Again the soldier went out into the pouring rain and set it going.

'You see?' he said as he got in, smelling deplorably.

After the car had stopped four more times, we came to a small but apparently reputable garage. A sneering, balding man fitted a new petrol-pump.

'That'll be six quid.'

'Robbery,' the soldier said.

'Yes, er, surely----' the Headmaster began.

'Ain't you forgetting something?' the sneering man said, thrusting his face at us. 'Ain't you forgetting that there's been a war, and parts like that are hard to come by, and if you don't want it you needn't have it, because it'll only take me two ticks to whip it out again?'

'But we must have it.'

'Then it'll cost you six quid.'

'A cheque?'

'What do you take me for?'

'But I haven't got that much in cash.'

'Then you haven't got a petrol-pump either.'

The garage man made towards the engine, flourishing a spanner. The soldier slammed the bonnet down and said.

This gentleman wilt give you three nicker, which is more than a fair price for the pump and your trouble. If you try to detain us, that is illegal, and we shall be within our rights using force to get away. Get into the car, gentlemen, and start her up.'

The Headmaster and I gaped, then did as we were told. The soldier looked perky and serene. The garage-man scowled and held out his hand.

'Four quid,' he said.

'Three. You give him three, sir.'

The Headmaster gave him three, and once more we were on the road. By this time we had ceased to be strangers, had become companions in adversity and almost confederates in crime. For a number of reasons which I was not anxious to examine, I was finding this complicity irksome.

'I'm very grateful,' the Headmaster said. 'Where did you learn that bit about illegal detention?'

'I'm quite a one for finding out things like that. It helps you get your rights.'

What an abominable little man. I thought. Aloud I said: 'I suppose we're too late. For the cremation.'

At least I should not have to talk to Christopher's parents. 'I suppose so,' the Headmaster said. 'I really can't say I'm sorry.'

With much heavy breathing he managed to turn the car round.

'I was looking forward,' the soldier said, 'to seeing how it worked. The coffin being shot into the furnace and all . . . Ah, well. Perhaps you'd drop me at the camp, sir? It's not far.' When we reached the gate of the camp the soldier said: That's where he used to stand with his bike. Just over there by the tree. Poor little sod.'

He waved cheerfully and strutted through the gate, his huge boots spread wide in a waddle. Two regimental policemen descended on him and ushered him into the guardroom.

'He was absent without leave,' said the Headmaster bleakly. 'He couldn't get leave to come to the funeral. I suppose, so he came without. And we didn't even ask his name.'

'Now he'll be put in detention again. And every time he comes out of that guardroom,' I said with loathing, 'he'll look at that tree and think about Christopher's smile.'

The Headmaster, who seemed saddened by this remark, drove slowly but jerkily away.

'What a foul little man,' I said at length. 'How could Christopher----'

'---What were you going to tell me? Before he asked for a lift.'

Silence.

'Well, Fielding?'

'I was going to say,' I said feebly, 'how sorry I was that that clergyman tried to get at you in his sermon.'

'No, you weren't. You were going to make a confession of some kind. You were going to ask for help. And do you know,' said the Headmaster gravely, 'I was rather pleased. So pleased, that however bad it had been I would have seen you through. But now that poor little soldier has annoyed you so much that you are determined to prove that you don't need help. That you are not like him, prepared to give and receive. For a brief moment, when you were close driven, you thought you would look for comfort. But then you realized that this meant humbling yourself, and your vanity took over.'

'I merely want to be my own man.'

'All your own man. Never to give or receive. So be it then. I only wish it could have been otherwise.'

'It was nothing that really matters, sir. I was hysterical. That service . . . the coffin . . .'

'You don't have to protest,' said the Headmaster. 'I'm not accusing you. I'm simply sorry you did not see fit to honour me with your confidence. That way we might have become friends instead of politely disposed strangers. Now it is too late.'

+++

'So you've been with a trollop,' said the Senior Usher. 'Why hunt me down during my hard earned leisure to tell me that?' We were sitting in the Senior Usher's London club, where, unable to go abroad and heedless of falling bombs, he had for five years spent most of his holidays. My visit there was the result of a snap decision. When I had arrived in London the previous evening, depressed by the day's events and so more than ever inclined to remember Somerset's disquieting exegesis on the Pox, I had made my way to the Kensington Public Library and sought out the medical section. Here I had been still further depressed and thoroughly confused: as far as I could make out, venereal disease might announce itself by exhibiting almost any kind of symptom or even none. Advice must clearly be had. Peter was not available to give it; any reputable doctor, if consulted, would want to be put in touch with school or parents; to wait my turn in one of those East End hospitals advertised in lavatories was unthinkable. I needed a tolerant and knowledgeable man of the world who would not betray me, and for such, remembering conversations past, I took the Senior Usher.

'Why,' he said, 'bring this dreary item to me?'

'I want your help, sir.'

'You've gone and got clap?'

'Not yet. But supposing I did?'

'It'll hurt like hell.'

'And the other thing . . . syphilis?'

'You'd show up all the colours of the spectrum.'

The Senior Usher emptied the glass at his side and signed to a septuagenarian steward for another.

'Let's get this settled for good and all,' he said, 'and have no more worry about it. It's very easy if you only keep your head and put the thing in its proper place. You used a French Letter? Right?'

'Right.'

'Then the odds, the overwhelming odds, are that you won't have any trouble at all. But if your old man starts hurting badly or begins to look like a Turner sunset, there's something the matter and you must go to a doctor and get yourself cured. They've discovered a new drug. I'm told, which is both painless and swift. Unlike the old days.'

He gave a perceptible shudder.

'But what doctor, sir? I don't want any trouble at home . . . or with the Headmaster.'

'Quite right. It would only upset him to no purpose. So if anything goes wrong. I'll fix you up with a chap I know who gets his living by not asking awkward questions.'

'Thank you very much, sir.'

'Just remember two things,' said the Senior Usher. 'First, you're not old enough to have whores until you're old enough to cope with the consequences yourself instead of pestering respectable old gentlemen in their clubs. And secondly, don't come running to me the minute you get an itch or a sweat spot. If you've really got it, you'll really know it.'

'But the books say----'

'---Yes, I know they do. So just to be on the safe side, we'll arrange a blood test for you in about six weeks' time. I'll have my chum come down to the school and invite you to meet him in my Lodging.'

'Oh, thank you, sir. It's a great relief.'

'My privilege. Now go away and leave me in peace until next quarter, which God knows will be soon enough.'

So that, I thought, as I caught the train from Liverpool Street, was one matter cleared up. The Senior Usher was quite right: all that was necessary was to keep one's head and look facts in the face, to use one's powers as a rational man. One must not panic, and one must not be tempted (as I had been at Christopher's funeral) to surrender when things got rough. Instead, one must think. Whatever the difficulties which might now ensue, difficulties made by Somerset or the Headmaster, by my mother or the Tucks, all could surely be solved by the power of rational thought.

+++

This morning, just as I was sitting down to carry on with this memoir, I was handed a special signal from the C.O. in Malta. It seems that an all-party delegation of politicians is to tour this area and visit, among other places, this island, and that Mr. Peter Morrison, M.P. for Whereham, is to make one of the delegation. It will be interesting to see him again---and also opportune, as I have spent so much of these last weeks thinking and writing about him as a boy. This exercise has suggested certain questions, which were never asked at the time and might now be usefully answered.

+++

When I reached home, I found a letter from Christopher which was dated the day before bis death.

'Dear Fielding,
'I want you to know how things are with me. Because they're not at all the same as you probably think. By now you'll have heard from the head man what's happened and how I shan't be coming back next quarter. But it isn't that which is making me unhappy, or not so much. And it's not the psychiatrist either, revolting though he is, putting his hand on my knee, asking me to tell him every last detail about "the things you did at school". (Don't worry, Fielding; he's not interested in names.) No. it's none of that, miserable as it all is.

'It's this, Fielding. I was afraid, at the end of last quarter, that you'd gone away from me. But then you wrote and seemed so anxious to come here and I thought, it's all right, he still loves me, those last few days at school were just a bad patch. That was until I started talking to the tutor who came. After a time we got to be friendly; and because I didn't have anyone else to tell I told him about you. He encouraged me to talk about these things, you see. I think he was fond of me and wanted to get closer, and this was the only way I'd let him get close. Anyway, I told him. And he said you weren't coming because you loved me, that was obvious from what had happened, you were coming because you were bored at home and wanted me in bed. At first I wouldn't believe him, but he kept on and on, he said he only wanted me to know the truth. And at last I thought I'd ask you straight out when you came and settle it like that.

'Then the tutor left, earlier than he'd been meant to, I don't think my parents liked him. It war then I started going up to that Army camp. At first I just passed it by accident, then I saw the men going In and out, and I thought . . . well, you know what I thought. I was so lonely, Fielding, even the tutor was gone, and I wanted someone, anyone, to be with and hold them. In the end I didn't find anyone, they were quite kind, most of them, and just went away without understanding - though I suppose one of them must have reported me because of what the police said later.

'But apart from all that, something horrible happened. There was a soldier under punishment, a horrid little man with a thin face and hands like claws, who used to be doing jobs round the gate. He used to look at me with long imploring looks, and I was sorry for him, in a way, so I did my best to smile back. And then one day I realized something. I realized that even if my tutor was wrong and you did still love me, very soon you wouldn't and I'd be to you what that soldier was to me, someone loathsome but always there, someone you had to smile at to keep him happy while all the time you just wanted him to go away and never come back. That's what you'd feel about me, perhaps you'd felt it already, because sometimes I'd seen in your smiles the same strain, the same hidden disgust which I now felt in my own.

'And then there was the police and all the rest which the head man will have told you. So of course you couldn't come here and I couldn't ask you whether you loved me or not, though I knew the answer anyway, I'd always really known it since after that time in the hay-loft. Ivan Blessington called in a day or two later, which made things worse, because it reminded me of everything I wasn't going back to. But it's not that which has made me despair. It's because of that soldier, it's knowing, from what I thought of him, what you really thought of me. Oh. I'm young and nice to look at, not like him, but in the end that's all I was to you or will be to anyone.

'So now I'm going out to post this letter---they'll let me go that far if I tell them first. I'm sending it to your home, not to the head man's house in Wiltshire, which is where you'll be, because I don't want to embarrass you. You can't say I've ever really been a nuisance yet, and I pray I never shall be.

'Love, yes, love, 'Christopher'

Those peaceful days at Whereham, I thought: it must have been about then that Christopher was hanging round the barrack gate, waiting. Why hadn't he sent for me if the tutor had left? Perhaps he didn't want to disturb me at Whereham ('You can't say I've ever really been a nuisance yet'), or perhaps it was because he already knew all he needed to---I'd always really known since after that time in the hay-loft.' That time in the hay loft: the one and only time: and now this.

I tore Christopher's letter into very small pieces and let the wind carry them away over the September sea.

+++

'Mama . . . It's nice to see you back,'

'Yes it, dear? How have you been getting on?'

'Quite well, thank you . . . Mama, I'd better tell you straight away. I'm afraid I had to ask the hotel in London to send you the bill. Two nights.'

'Two nights?'

'There and back.'

'But I thought. Fielding, that I gave you money for all that.'

'Yes. mother, but it wasn't quite enough. And I'm afraid I owe Peter Morrison some money. You see----'

'---How much?'

'Fifteen pounds. You see----'

'---I'm not much interested,' my mother said, 'in whatever story you've thought up to tell me. I shall pay the hotel bill because I don't want to feel uncomfortable when I go there. As for Peter, he should have known better than to lend you so much. He'll just have to wait until you can pay him back yourself.'

'But mama----'

'---It's high time,' she said, 'that we got a few things straight, you and I.'

'What things, mother?'

'Your extravagant habits. This idea that you can have what you want for the asking. But just now I'm rather tired. We'll talk about it all later on.'