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Part Five

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« on: July 18, 2023, 12:27:18 pm »

DID I know, that morning after Christopher left me, that already my fortunes were turning sour? Certainly, there were several causes for disquiet---my father's attitudes, the Headmaster's fussy moralism; the Senior Usher's suspicions of Constable and Peters suspicions of Somerset; Christopher's distress, and my own uncertainty in the whole realm of love. But if there was a warning latent in all of these, there was urgency in none. I remember feeling no more than rather sad and sick that morning, as I left the Senior Usher's Lodging and walked down the hill to my train.

When I arrived home in Broughton Staithe, late in the afternoon after my drunken awakening, my mother announced that we were to go out to dinner to celebrate the beginning of the holidays. A restaurant had been chosen which was a few miles down the coast and known for its resourceful use of cheap local sea-food. At that time one might spend only five shillings a head on a meal, exclusive of any beverages which one might be lucky enough to obtain, and eat only one main course of fish or meat. The proprietor of The Lord Nelson had overcome these difficulties by combining mussels, prawns and cockles into a variety of stews and sauces; he could thus, provide a full-scale Bouillabaise under the pretence of serving 'soup' (officially a minor course) and garnish a plate of chicken with a rich crustacean compote ('white sauce') which made of the 'main' course a banquet by the standards of the day.

The dinner was mama's idea. My father, who grudged the petrol needed to get there, was in any case mistrustful of what he called 'mucked up' food; and since he was also indiscriminately greedy, he liked his plate to be set before him within a few seconds of sitting down and resented the delays consequent upon the subtle attentions which were paid to the cuisine of The Lord Nelson. Knowing this as I did, being, besides, tired after my journey and feeling, almost to tears, my painful parting from Christopher. I could hardly relish the treat in store for me, the less so as I had the additional burden of simulating pleasure for my mother's sake.

Despite all this, I flatter myself that I played my part quite well. During the drive along the coast I did my best to amuse my father, whose greeting had been civil, with a non tendentious account of the closed quarter. I played down my own successes, though urged by mama to describe them in detail, made light of the important position which I was to assume the next September, and concentrated on mildly derogatory tales, which I knew from experience to be acceptable, of personalities who survived from my father's time at the school. But my father was not one to be fobbed off with a quiet evening when he was in the mood for drama. My return made it imperative for him to assert his own talents and importance, lest mama should be in danger of forgetting them, and indeed he had probably consented to come to The Lord Nelson only because the money he must pay out there entitled him, in his view, to more attention than he would have received at home.

In any event, by the time we were at table it was clear that I had made the mistake of holding the floor too long.

'It's very pleasant.' said my father self-pityingly, 'to come home after a long day with the firm at Torbeach and listen to someone who lives in a different world.'

During the ensuing silence, while mama and I assessed the quality of this gambit, a waitress removed the soup plates.

'Bring the next course quickly,' snapped my father, 'and don't worry about the frills.'

He surveyed his wife and son, waiting for comment. Since we were too experienced to volunteer this, he reverted to his original tactic.

'As I was saying,' my father said heavily, 'it's nice to know that my boring efforts in Torbeach, which neither of you want to know about, produce the means of financing a more gracious existence for my son.'

Mama and I maintained our practised silence. The waitress returned with three plates of chicken blanketed in the famous seafood sauce.

'What's all this?' said my father, waving his hand over the plates. 'I said no frills. Take it away and bring us plain roast chicken. Plain food for plain people.'

The text-book answer to this was, once more, to say nothing and let the waitress do as my father had ordered. But I was fond of the sea-food sauce and did not see why I should be dictated to in the matter. This, of course, was the state of mind which my father's technique was calculated to provoke. He went on and on probing from different angles, until finally his opponent, however strong his resolution to keep silent, was compelled to make some protest, if only in order to prove to himself that he was still alive. And once that protest was made, however reasonably and unemphatically, my father's art would in no time inflate it into an act of treachery or rebellion.

'If you don't mind,' I said, with a sense of throwing away game, set and match. 'I'll have it as it is. It makes a change.'

'I mind?' said my father. 'Why should I? All I've got to do is pay for it. And what about you, dear? Do you share your son's preference for messed up nonsense? Or mine for honest food?'

The waitress hovered awkwardly. Mama looked at her husband, her son, and lastly at her plate. Whatever she said now, the damage was done; she was indeed fond of sea-food sauce, but knew that what was coming would prevent her from enjoying that or anything else. Seeking for a neutral factor, she glanced at the waitress.

'It seems unkind to send it back,' she mumbled 'after all that trouble . . .'

Mama had made the fatal mistake of referring to the convenience of someone other than her husband.

'You are quite right.' said my father dangerously 'one must not be inconsiderate. It Is still war-time when all is said and done. That will be quite all right.' he said, grinning fiendishly at the waitress, who took her chance and was off. 'And so.' he continued, 'I And myself eating the kind of food I detest because my family refuses to back me up against a waitress.'

'Why not give it a chance?' I said. 'You knew what kind of food they have here when you arranged to come.'

'I arranged to come because your mother was so keen. She said, and I agreed, that some sort of celebration was in order to welcome you home. I simply hoped that I might be allowed to order the kind of food I like when we got here.'

Even now, perhaps, the situation was not past mending. But the sight of my father, as he messily scraped the sauce to one side and then munched great mouthfuls of chicken and potato with eyes and cheeks bulging, was too much.

'You seemed fierce enough,' I said, 'to make us have what you thought fit. If, just for once, the tables have been turned, it bloody well serves you right.'

Not clever, I thought to myself despairingly, not witty, not even effective; just raucous and crude. Here was another element in my father's technique: he induced such anger that one lost one's head; one answered with a blind violence which, alien from logic and justice, could express only personal animus.

'Thank you for that. Thank you, Fielding my son, for letting me know how you feel about me.'

'Jack. dear, he didn't mean----'

'---I know very well what he meant. That it doesn't matter what I want, because I'm only his stupid father, who doesn't care for Latin and Greek and is only fit to grind away in his factory at Torbeach and produce the money you both spend so freely.'

My father thumped his fist on the table with deliberation and looked quickly over his shoulder to see what impression he was making on the other diners.

'Bring me beer,' he shouted at the decrepit wine-waiter; 'I never really wanted this wine in the first place.'

He snatched the half-full bottle of South African hock off the table and thrust it at the terrified old man. My mother, who loved wine of all things, followed it with miserable eyes.

'Let me tell you this,' said my father, gleefully noticing mama's discomfiture over the wine. 'I built up that business to what it is, and I hold it together, and I keep and feed you both. What I expect in return is a little loyalty and support. Do I get it? No. I get hate. Pure, bitter hate, which I can see in your eyes. I come out to a restaurant, hope for a nice evening----'

'---Please be quiet. Jack. Nobody hates you.'

'They simply,' I said, 'despise you. You've done nothing, at Torbeach or anywhere else, except bully people about and think how marvellous you are.' I had made a great effort to collect myself and my argument, and my matter was certainly well grounded. 'You haven't built that factory up: it's exactly the same as when you inherited it. Inherited it. You don't hold it together: your manager does. You don't feed and keep us. Grandpa's money does that. And as for support, your ideas are so mean, so vulgar, so contemptible that you deserve none. So for God's sake shut up and let us eat our meal in peace.'

My father did not mind being answered back in anger: this was necessary if a scene was to proceed at all, and he liked scenes to proceed for some time before people actually cringed. What he did not like was being told home truths; and the set which I had just advanced, to the prejudice of the fantasy in which he figured as an able and deserving self-made man, caught him on the quick. My father, when really caught on the quick, ceased to bluster and became dangerous, cunning and cool.

'There is something in what you say,' he now calmly remarked.

The wine-waiter brought his beer.

'Please bring back that wine after all,' he said: 'I think my wife would like some . . . Yes,' he went on, There is something in what you say, Fielding. What you must remember, however, is that the factory, inherited or not, is now mine, and that the money is also mine. I can use it how I wish. Now, I was thinking of settling a little on you. A nice little sum, the income to help you through Cambridge, the capital to become yours when you finished there and to help you start up in whatever you chose to do. Because I know you don't fancy the business and I wouldn't dream of compelling you to enter it against your will. So. I thought, I'll give him a nice little sum to start him off. But after what you have just said this evening since it seems you hold me in such contempt . . . I don't suppose you will want to take my money. No. You have made your position clear. I'm very sorry that you won't allow me to help you.'

'You showed no signs of doing so last time we discussed the matter.'

'Ah. I thought again. There was something to be said. I decided, for the arguments which you and your mother put forward. But now . . . now that you have decided to turn spiteful and insolent . . . I see that I must change my mind once more.'

My father took a long envelope from his pocket and pulled out the contents.

'A cheque for £10,000,' he said meditatively, laying this on the table 'instructions to Japhet the solicitor to hold this in trust for you until the day you graduate as Bachelor of Arts, and in the meantime to pay you quarterly the income it will yield from careful investment. Four per cent, let us say. A pity I've had the trouble of writing this letter for nothing.'

'I'm not too proud to accept £10,000 of Grandpa's money, if that's what you mean.'

'My money,' said my father wistfully, and slowly tore up the cheque. 'Since you despise me so much, you obviously can't accept it.'

I shrugged. All three of us at the table knew that had the evening gone peacefully, had no one risen to my father's bait, then the cheque and the letter would not have appeared and would simply have been destroyed in secret or kept for another occasion. But the fact that the cheque was only a stage prop did not mean that my father could not issue such a cheque if he chose. We all knew this too. And so there was always just the outside chance that this time he had really meant it . . . Ten thousand pounds, an income, a nice bit of capital later . . . Despite myself, I was sweating as at the loss of a genuine offer. Abruptly I pulled myself together: to dwell on this was to play my father's game for him. Best simply to be grateful that now the process of self-assertion had been gone through there would probably be peace for several days. Mama and I would be left alone---until passing time again brought father's self-esteem to the pressure point of orgasm.

At breakfast next morning there was a letter for me. I recognized Christopher's writing on the envelope and left it unopened until I was alone in my own room.

'Dear Fielding (Christopher wrote from his home in Tonbridge),
'I am so sorry for making such a silly row before I left this morning. Of course I understand why you couldn't come last night. And why you are uncertain about coming to stay. If Somerset Lloyd-James is coming to stay with you, even though you told him nothing about staying with me, I think he might sort of sniff things out, as you say. I know this sounds silly, but lately I've felt that there's come to be something rather sinister about L-J. not that I know him very well. I feel that he's the kind of person who wouldn't hesitate to use anything he knew about people, if it could help him, and at the same time would pretend to be doing it because it was his duty or something. Roman Catholics have an odd way of seeing double, I mean of bringing their religion into things when it suits them and otherwise not.

'But even so, if you came here, say just for a night or two, either well before or well after Somerset came to you, need he ever find out? Do think it over and try to come.
'Love from Christopher.
'PS. I thought you might like the enclosed. It was taken during the Eton match.'

My shabby treatment of Christopher had made me feel very guilty; and twenty-four hours' absence from him had revived a raging lust. Now, sooner and more easily than I had any right to hope, both problems were settled. Immediately I sat down to reply. I could come to him any time before 14th August, I said, but must be back in Broughton not later than 16th August to allow three clear days before Somerset's arrival. For there was a strong chance that he would write or ring up just before the 20th to confirm times and days; and if I failed to answer his letter, or if my mother told him on the telephone that I had gone to Tonbridge, then he would instantly become suspicious and start probing when we met.

'. . . So let me know quickly, Christopher, and the sooner I can come, the better, for every possible reason. Much love and many thanks for the photo . . .'

In truth, however, the photograph was rather an embarrassment. The picture itself (Christopher in cricket kit, grinning, sweaty and dishevelled) was more or less all right; but on the back he had written, 'To Fielding with all my dearest love from Christopher. Please come soon, or I shan't be able to bear it.' Not the sort of thing to leave about, I thought: best tear it up and shove it down the loo. But just then I heard my mother coming down the passage towards my room, so I stuffed it at the back of my shirt drawer for future disposal.

+++

My father was genial over the family supper.

'I met an old friend in the club house today,' he said, 'who has just come back on leave from Southern India. He may know just the thing for Fielding.'

Mama and I remained silent.

'He's a tea-planter. He says there are splendid openings. He's coming in later to discuss it.'

'Discuss what?' said mama, biting her lip.

'The openings on tea plantations in Southern India. You don't need a degree or anything, he says.'

'Then it would be a waste of Fielding's.'

'Don't you see? He needn't bother to get one. He could just do his Army service and then go right off.'

'To Southern India?' said mama.

'To Southern India. The Nilgri mountains, to be more precise.'

'And waste his place at Cambridge?'

'When a splendid chance like this comes up . . . At his age. I'd have been off like a bullet. Steady money, open air life, plenty of servants, jolly good chaps to work with. What more could anyone want?'

'I could tell you,' I said, 'but I haven't the strength.'

I was bored to death. Although four days had passed since I wrote to Christopher, there had been no answer. That afternoon, desperate to talk to someone of my own age, I had rung up Peter, who had been out when I rang. So now I had put on my Dorian Gray act, which at least (I felt) made something sophisticated, even significant, out of my frustration. ('Why am I so bored, Henry?' 'Boredom, my dear Dorian, is the privilege and burden of a sensitive spirit. Coarser natures are immune.')

'What's that?' said my father.

'I don't think the life would suit me. One must get up early because there is so much to do, go to bed early because there is so little to talk about.'

Well, it would serve.

'I suppose you think that's clever. When you know more about life, you'll realize that it's practical common sense which counts, every time. Every time.'

'I'll settle for uncommon sense. As the term implies, it is a rarer commodity.'

'You don't know what you're talking about.'

'All I'm trying to say,' I said, my pose dissipated by extreme irritation, 'is that I'm damned if I'll be shunted off on the unasked advice of a complete stranger, to plant tea with a pack of whisky-swilling boobies from cheap board schools.'

'Bloody little snob. Intellectual snob. I suppose you'd sooner sit on your behind in Cambridge for three years, talking arty nonsense while I pay the bills. Anything rather than do a proper day's work. Sometimes I think I've got a woman for a son.'

'That's right. A woman with a first eleven batting average of 37.62.'

'They haven't asked you to play for the Rest against the Lord's Schools, I notice. Or shouldn't I mention that?'

'They never asked you to play for any team at all. Or shouldn't I mention that?'

Mama twisted a handkerchief in her thin hands.

'You must both help me with the washing-up,' she said, with all the firmness at her command, 'or your friend will be here, Jack.'

This was not to be denied. Father declared truce by rolling up his napkin, after which, in absolute silence, we carried the dishes to the kitchen.

Mr. Tuck, the tea-planter, got smaller as he got taller. His feet were huge, his legs ample; but his hips were ungenerous, his chest meagre, and his head like a wizened grapefruit. Mr. Tuck was very sure of his opinions, which coincided in most respects with my father's, and he laughed loudly and constantly out of a mouth like a frog's which seemed almost to meet at the back of his head.

'I've brought Angela,' said Mr. Tuck on the doorstep.

Father looked puzzled, as though he had not heard of Angela, who was a real dish. She had what Browning's bishop called huge, smooth, marbly limbs, of which a pair of shorts revealed all but an inch and a half. Her breasts were prominent but not outrageous, her skin was gold with a suggestion of silver down, her hair (blonde) fell over her shoulder like Veronica Lake's, and she had teeth sound enough to chew a raw elephant. Her nose turned up exquisitely. Her ears, when they appeared from behind the curtain of her hair, issued a pressing invitation to insert one's tongue into them, and then slyly hid behind her hair again. Her eyes were the light blue of a summer's dawn. (They were also her weakest feature, being slightly crossed and rather close together.) All in all, she could not have been much more than twenty, and the turned up nose took two years off. I gaped, my father gaped. It was left for mama to restore order.

'Oh. how nice,' she said. 'Please come in, Miss Tuck.'

'Mrs. Tuck,' said Mr. Tuck, and brayed like a donkey.

'Oh . . . I'm so sorry.'

'That's all right, dear lady. I don't need to be told how lucky I am. I acquired this six months ago on local leave in Oute.'

We all trooped into the drawing-room, Mrs. Tuck looking vaguely annoyed, possibly at having been 'acquired' in Oute. When she sat down her shorts rode up another inch. Has she I wondered, got anything on underneath them?

My father absent-mindedly poured quadruple whiskies all round (rather stingy singles were his usual form) and conversation of a kind began.

'So this is your young hopeful,' said Mr. Tuck. 'Your father says---turning fiercely on me---'that you've got brains.'

I concentrated on keeping my eyes away from Mrs. Tuck's loins.

'What are you going to do with yourself?' Mr. Tuck continued with a snarl.

'It's uncertain. The Army for a time, of course. And then Cambridge. Or Cambridge,' I stammered, 'and then the Army.'

'I told you,' my father said 'he's got Cambridge on the brain.'

'He has a scholarship to Lancaster,' said mama defensively.

'What in?' asked Mr. Tuck with contempt,

The classics. Latin and Creek.'

'Never went in for that sort of thing myself. Keener on practical things.'

'That's what I always say,' my father said.

Mrs. Tuck, looking bored, set her empty glass firmly down.

'More whisky?' said my father.

Mrs. Tuck nodded and said nothing.

'Ice, dear?' said mama, then seemed to think she had somehow used the wrong idiom. 'Ice, Mrs. Tuck?' she emended.

'Call her Angela,' said Mr. Tuck. 'I call her Ange,' he added aggressively, as though warning everyone that the privilege was exclusive; 'don't I, Ange?'

Mrs. Tuck took a long drink of whisky.

'Your father tells me,' said Mr. Tuck turning back to myself, 'that you might like to join us. We're looking for young chaps with the right background.'

'What background is that?'

'Well, you know, decent school, decent parents . . . all this,' said Mr. Tuck, gesturing round the room at two water colours by mama and some hunting prints which father had bought cheap in a sale. 'Solid,' Mr. Tuck expanded; 'nothing flashy. Reliable young chaps who can do a sound job of work. And keep the Indians in their proper place.'

'Won't they be wanting their plantations back fairly soon?'

'What gave you that idea?'

'There seem to be suggestions of that kind in the air just now,' I said.

'They can't do without us, and they know it. Why only the other day I was talking to one of their own chaps----'

'---Jesus Christ,' said Mrs. Tuck, speaking for the first time, 'you do bore me. I think you must be the biggest bore in the world.'

She got up, put down her empty glass, and retreated to the French window.

'Steady on, old girl,' Mr. Tuck began.

But his mem-sahib was trying the handle.

'Let me,' I said. I slipped the catch and held the door open for her. 'Ill show you the garden.'

'That's right, dear,' said mama, 'you show Angela the garden.'

'But what about the discussion?' my father complained.

'It'll keep for a minute,' said Mr. Tuck. 'Let 'em go out for a blow. Leave us old fogies to the booze.' He paused for a moment. Then, 'Old Ange often blows up like that,' he said hilariously, and started to laugh more loudly than ever, straining out guffaw after guffaw as though he was taking part in some kind of endurance test.

'I'm glad you gave me an excuse to get out of that,' I said to Mrs. Tuck as the laughter died behind us.

'What have you got to complain about? At least you're not married to any of them.'

Mrs. Tuck was plainly too full of her own woes to sympathize much with anyone else's. We walked down a well kept lawn, the pride of my father, who was an assiduous amateur gardener, and then through some prettily arranged shrubs to a little pond. Mrs. Tuck sat down on a stone seat. She put her hands on her elbows and straddled heavily.

'No need for you to hang about.' she said.

'I'd like to. If I'm not in your way.'

Mrs. Tuck shrugged, not unkindly, then patted the seat by her side.

'I dare say,' she said after a little while, 'that you're surprised at me for making a scene.'

'We have them all the time in our family.'

'At least you're not hooked. You can leave any day you want to.'

I let this pass.

'Can't you?' I said.

'Daddy,' she remarked abruptly, 'was a colonel in the Indian Army Pay Corps. One day they found his accounts were rather odd. So they took him away to arrange a Court Martial and I was left alone in the bungalow. With all those spiteful women---you know the sort---coming in all the time to ask if there was anything they could do. "You poor creature”, she mimicked badly,' "you must think of me as a mother.” I had to get out. And then Tuck turned up, on leave from his plantation. Just my luck. It was Tuck or nothing,' she said, as though it were a line of a repertory play which she was repeating for the seven hundredth time.

'And your father?'

'Dismissed the service. Some old friend found him something in Hong Kong. God knows what he'll get up to there.'

You ran out, I thought: as soon as things got tough, you ran out. And you didn't even have the sense to look where you were running.

'It was lovely up there before Daddy got into trouble,' she was saying: 'race meetings, dances, golf. They had a real grass course. New people on leave all the time. And I had to get Tuck.'

'Why?'

'What do you mean, why?'

'With all those other people passing through on leave?'

'The word had gone round about Daddy. But Tuck was so potty for a juicy young woman that he just didn't care.'

'So you took advantage of him and now you're being well paid out.'

'If you're keen on golf,' I said, 'perhaps we might play? The course here is very good. And very beautiful. Between the sea and the saltmarshes.'

'You're rather sweet.' she said. Was it my imagination, or was her knee pressing against mine?

'Fielding? Fielding?' It was mama from the lawn.

'When?' I said gruffly.

'When what?' said Mrs. Tuck, and withdrew her knee unhurriedly, leaving me in doubt whether or not it had been there by accident.

'Golf. Tomorrow?'

'Not before Wednesday.'

'That's nearly a week.'

'I know.' She patted my hand. 'I don't want Tuck to be jealous. If we make it too soon . . .'

Delicious thought.

'All right,' I said: 'Wednesday. Half past two?'

She nodded. 'I'll look forward very much.'

'Fielding.' Mother was growing urgent.

'We must go,' said Mrs. Tuck softly, and held my hand until we came in sight of my mother on the lawn.

'There you are, dear. Angela too . . . I'm afraid you must come in, Fielding, because Mr. Tuck wants to ask you some questions. About your School Certificate and things.'

'For Christ's sake, mother. Father must know I won't go out there.'

'Yes, yes, dear, but if you could---well---humour him till he gets over it. You know how he is. If you pretend to fall in with the idea, he'll forget it almost at once.'

'What's the matter with going out there?' said Mrs. Tuck, puzzled.

'Nothing, I suppose. But I've got other plans. Cambridge.'

'Well, if that's what you fancy . . .' Mrs. Tuck shook her head, as if troubled by a fly. 'India can be great fun, you know.'

'I'm sure. But it's not for me.'

Mrs. Tuck looked at me blankly, then smiled a smile that turned my inwards over.

'I'll go on home,' she said, moving away easily on her strong, lovely legs. Tell Tuck to stay out as late as he wants so long as he doesn't disturb me when he gets in.'

'Yes, dear,' said mama, rather shocked.

Mrs. Tuck turned to smile once more.

'Wednesday,' she cooed back at me, and was gone into the night.

'Dear Fielding (Christopher wrote),
'Sorry I've been so long answering your letter, but something awkward's happened. As you know, I only just managed in my exams, and the head man's suggested to my parents that l ought to have tuition during the holidays. They've found someone from Oxford who's to come and stay and be my tutor for three or four weeks in August. It's realty a good idea, I suppose, but I do wish to God it wasn't happening because it means you can't come until September. I mean, there'd be room all right, but my parents think I ought to concentrate on this tuition, and anyhow it wouldn't be the same. I'm miserable about this, but there's nothing to be done.
'I remember you saying that you were going to stay with the head man in Wiltshire on 7th September or thereabouts. Why not come here for a few days before going there? It's not far out of your way, only ¾ of an hour from London, which you'll have to pass through anyway. I feel ghastly about putting you off like this, and terribly disappointed, but what can l do? Please let me know that you can come in early September.
“All my love, Christopher'
'PS. (Two hours later) The new tutor's just arrived. He seems quite decent, but he's very ugly, rather like Somerset L-J, though no spots. Also. I'm afraid he's rather an oik, and he seems very intense. Oxford Group or something? Keep your fingers crossed for me.
'Christopher.'

This letter was a blow, but perceptibly less of a blow than it would have been had I not now met Angela Tuck. Although there had been something ambiguous about the encouragement which she offered me, encouragement it had certainly been; and she had made it very plain that her marriage was not to be regarded as an inhibiting factor. Angela, in a word, was fair game; even if nothing came of the chase, the days would pass the quicker when it started. Meanwhile. I looked forward to our golf match with a mixture of acute nervousness and unbridled reverie.

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