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Part Seven

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« on: July 19, 2023, 06:48:05 am »

'WHY is it,' said my father the next morning, 'that I never get any co-operation?'

'Co-operation, dear?'

'Yes, dear, co-operation, dear. I've had a letter from the so-called Tutor of Lancaster College, in which he acknowledges mine and begs to inform me that any instructions about Mr. Fielding Gray's place at the college should be sent by Mr. Fielding Gray. Don't they know that I'm his father? And that he isn't twenty-one?'

It was unlike my father to own publicly to a snub. He must have something up his sleeve, I thought. Nevertheless the opportunity to gloat was too tempting to be missed.

'It is a popular fallacy,' I said to my father, 'that parents have a legal right to dictate to their children until they are twenty-one. Provided a person pursues a responsible course of life, he can leave home and suit himself as soon as he is sixteen.'

'Then leave home and suit yourself,' my father said. 'Go on.'

'Jack, dear----'

'---I will have co-operation. And I'll tell you how I'm going to get it. Either you do as I say,' he said, thrusting his face into mine, 'or there'll be no more money for you until you do. You can live here and have your meals, since you're still under twenty-one, but there'll be no money at all for anything else.'

There was a long silence.

'Does that set you straight?' my father said.

'While we're talking of money,' I said, trembling all over, 'let me tell you something to set you straight. Mr. Tuck is not offering me this job to do you a favour, but because his boss in India is after some extra capital which they think you may be persuaded to provide. His wife told me all about it. They don't love you, they don't think you're marvellous, they simply want your cash.'

After this I locked myself into the lavatory and burst into tears.

'. . . I must say [Peter Morrison wrote from Whereham], you seem to be having a most unpleasant holiday. I expect it will be a relief when your parents go away. Meanwhile, I only hope your father stops being so silly over this tea-planting business. I don't see you as a sahib.

'Which reminds me. I'm as glad as you are that there's now no prospect of getting killed in the Far East; but I don't think we should be sanguine about this bomb they've thought up. The terrible thing about it is that it makes its possessor infallible. It does away, you see, with any margin of error or need for selection. In the old days you had to aim at your target. Now, in order to be sure of destroying what you want to, you can simply destroy everything at all. Suppose such a weapon were entrusted to a man like your father (or even Somerset) who knows he's right?

'But I expect you are depressed enough without my raising additional nightmares. I hope things improve, and I look forward to seeing you and Somerset on the 24th or 25th. Please let me know which . . .'

So at least that was all right---though quite what was to happen about money, since my father's threat, was still obscure. One could only hope for the best, I thought; and anyhow, mama would be sure to wangle something. So I wrote to Peter to tell him that Somerset was definitely arriving at Broughton (as I had now heard) on 20th August, and that we would be coming on to him on the 24th. After that, I wrote to Christopher;

'. . . So that all being well I can be with you in Tonbridge on 4th or 5th September and stay till I leave for Wiltshire on the 7th.

'Oh Christopher, how I wish it could be sooner. I've been so lonely without you. I expect you've been lonely too (in a way, I hope you have), but at least you're busy with this tutor of yours. There's a line from a poem by a man called Auden which keeps running in my head----

"I think of you, Christopher, and wish you beside me . . ."

'If only it was that afternoon of the Eton match again, when we sat next to each other in the scoring box . . .'

Having posted these two letters, I settled down to read Dorian Gray; but the afternoon was very hot and the book a sickly bore. Every ten seconds I was interrupted by memories of Christopher in the hayloft: 'Oh . . . oh, oh, oh.' Oh Christ, those long smooth legs with their fluffy down.

And then I thought of another pair of legs. Angela Tuck's. Why not go to the Tucks' bungalow and say to Angela, 'All right. I'll sign on with your husband's plantation provided you'll come to bed with me in exchange'? That was the deal she had held out, so why not take her up? Not in so many words, of course, ('Don't spell it out,' she had said) but in the same veiled terms which she had used on the golf course, so that later on I could always wriggle out of the bargain. They meant to exploit me; why shouldn't I exploit them? All these adults ranged against me made for inequitable odds; I was entitled to any little victory I could win, however treacherously, in their despite. Superior strength in the opposition (as the Senior Usher had once observed) absolved one from obeying the Queensberry Rules.

Mr. Tuck had gone to London for a few days. My father, having apparently taken my point about Tuck's motives, had sent the wretched man to Coventry; so that Tuck had doubtless felt it expedient to try his talent for recruiting elsewhere. Angela had been distant. But if I were now to present myself and make my offer? She couldn't eat me, after all, and anything was better than hanging around in the house with Dorian Gray gone stale on me.

I went to my room, washed my hands, face and feet, slicked my hair down with water, and substituted my blue 1st XI blazer and scarf for my ordinary coat and tie. Then I walked the three quarters of a mile to the Tucks' one-storey bungalow near the quay.

The curtains of one room were drawn. Angela must be having a siesta (Indian habit). On the whole, good. I was about to knock on the front door, when I reflected that she might be cross if woken up and dragged through the hall to answer. Better surprise her, quieten her as she lay vulnerable on the bed, and then introduce my business. 'I've been thinking over what you said about India, and I see that I've been very silly. It's not a chance to be missed.' Something like that. Whatever else, she could hardly pretend to be shocked.

Very quietly, I tried the front door. The catch was evidently up, for the door opened. The excitement of what was virtually house-breaking had now replaced desire. As the door opened yet further, apprehension replaced excitement. I was about to turn and run, had indeed already turned. Too late.

'Who's there?' said Angela's voice from inside a half-open door a few feet along the hall. My lips were parting to reply, when: 'Nobody's there,' said my father's voice. 'How could they be? I fastened the front door.'

'I thought----'

'---Don't be a silly girl, Angie. Your old Jackie will see you're safe.'

'And Jackie will be a good boy about you know what?'

The voice was childish, wheedling, without irony.

'I'll see that little beast signs up with Tuck. After that . . .'

'If Tuck was in a position to say that you'd guaranteed to invest a few thousand----'

'---Why can't that wait,' said my father crossly 'until the Army's finished with the boy and he's free to join?'

'Now the war's over, they're anxious to expand as soon as possible. If Tuck brings in new money now, they'll be very grateful.'

'Well, I'll see. If Angie's nice to Jackie, Jackie will see what he can do.'

The bed creaked.

'No. Jackie must promise Angie.'

Sweaty and furious as I was. I nevertheless had a clear mental picture of concupiscence struggling with avarice in my father's face.

There was a great wall of randiness.

'All right. Tuck can tell his boss I'll invest five thousand. Perhaps a little more if things go well on the market.'

'There's a dear, good Jackie.'

If she knew him as I do, I thought grimly, she'd get him to sign something this minute. But perhaps she too was keen to start. After all. I'd heard people say my father was a handsome man.

'Jackie. Oh, Jackie.'

A different tone now. all childishness gone. A woman speaking. Either she was a good actress or she was very much in earnest.

'Christ, Christ, Jackie, Christ.'

She was in earnest.

I heard my father's breathing mount. Wait. Time it carefully. You swine. Jack Gray, you disgusting swine,---with your hot, panting breath.

'Soon, Angela, soon'

'Oh yes, Jackie.'

Now. I opened the front door to its full extent and then pulled it to with all the strength in my body.

+++

Having slammed the door on the repulsive idyll in the Tuck bungalow, I went for a walk along the beach in order to calm myself. For a long time I thought, with a mixture of lust and apprehension, of Dixie in the ghost-train. Supposing she or her parents tried to raise a complaint? Suppose the police came making inquiries? In the end, however, I persuaded myself that the police would have neither time nor good reason to look as far afield as Broughton Staithe, and that in any case Dixie probably wanted to forget the whole episode as much as I did. Though there was one aspect of it I could never forget: my first, brief visit to the lotus country of a woman's loins.

Having, with some difficulty, dismissed Dixie, I reverted to the problem of my father. He had now given Angela a definite promise that myself plus 5,000 would be signed, sealed and delivered over to Tuck. It was always possible that my father had no intention of trying to keep his bargain; but equally, why should he not? The 5,000 would probably be quite a sound investment: the arrangement would get me off his hands for good; and more than all this, he would have had the satisfaction of destroying my most cherished plans and ambitions.

Quite why my father was so set against Cambridge, I was unsure. It was not, I suspected, just a simple matter of meanness about money or jealousy of my success; there was an intensity in his attitude, an element (however perverse) of morality, the clue to which, I thought, might possibly lie in something that I had once been told by the Senior Usher.

'If there is one thing people cannot stand,' the old man had said, 'it is that someone should achieve happiness and distinction by doing work which they despise. Their indignation is grounded in genuine moral feeling: it is like the resentment which dully married women feel at the success of a famous courtesan.'

'And why,' I had asked, 'are you telling me this?'

'My dear Fielding. You propose to spend your life doing intellectual work. You may as well learn now as later that many people---most people---regard such work as effeminate and degrading.'

Yes, I thought now, it fitted near enough '. . . effeminate and degrading.' 'Sometimes,' my father had said, 'I think I've got a woman for a son.' My father clearly regarded Cambridge and all it stood for as immoral or at least unmanly; the work was not proper work at all (it was far too pleasant, for a start) and no son of his was going to make a living by it. So much, I thought, for diagnosis. But what, in heaven's name, was I going to do? If my father wanted to cut off supplies, no one could stop him. The Headmaster's talk of government grants and subsidies was all very well; but hitherto I had been accustomed to ample provision and I now shrank from the prospect of going through Cambridge on a meagre official pittance, of which, in any case, I had yet to be definitely assured. And quite apart from all that, if my father persisted in his present intention it would mean no last year at school, and on this I had set my heart.

Calmer than when I had set out but even more depressed, I arrived at our front door. Just inside the hall, on a hard chair by the telephone, sat my mother, looking very peculiar indeed.

'Mama . . . Why on earth are you sitting out here?'

'Something rather funny has happened,' my mother said. Her eyes glinted weirdly, part in amusement and part in shock. 'Angela Tuck rang up. Your father's just died of a heart attack.'

Quite how much my mother knew or guessed, I never found out for sure. The official version, which mama apparently accepted, was that my father had gone to Angela to ask where he could get in touch with her husband in London, as he wanted some more information about the tea-planting scheme. Angela, while entertaining him to a cup of tea, had suggested that I myself might make difficulties about this; upon which father had flown into a rage, choked, gone into violent spasms, and then relapsed into a kind of coma. Angela had rung for a doctor, but by the time he arrived my father was dead.

This seemed to me a very convenient version of the affair; inaccurate but on the whole equitable. I was glad that I myself was mentioned as in some sort contributing to father's demise; for since I had good reason to believe that this might indeed be the case, some reference to me, however wide of the actual facts, was both ironic and just. Guilt I felt none; my father had been a pestilential bully and now, by a happy accident, had been permanently removed. Even if one assumed that my own act of slamming the door had been the mortal factor (and who was ever to say that this was so?), the act had been excusable and its consequence unforeseen.

To Angela I did not speak of the matter. If she suspected that I had been the intruder that afternoon, she had yet to give any sign of it. For my part, my feelings towards her were unaltered, save that they now included considerable admiration of her resource: she must have had a most difficult and disagreeable job rigging the scene into decency against the arrival of the doctor. No doubt about it: a slut she might be but a slut to be reckoned with.

The coroner was soon satisfied that death was due to natural causes, and arrangements for the funeral were briskly made, Mama, once she had had a few hours to get over her surprise, showed more efficiency and character than in all the years I could remember.

'Tell the undertaker,' she instructed me: 'opening time tomorrow.'

'Opening time?'

'As soon as he opens his shop or whatever he calls it. No point, Fielding dear, in hanging about.'

Or again, while kneeling in the church before the service.

'The people from the firm,' she decreed, 'must come in for drinks afterwards. But not the soaks from the golf club.'

'Some of them were friends of father's.'

'You mean they'd let him buy them drinks. Not that he was so quick to do that.'

'They'd resent it, mother.'

'I don't doubt it, dear.' said mama, as she concluded her devotions and resumed a sitting position: 'but since I never want to see any of them again, it doesn't matter, does it?'

The Rector, irritated by the flippancy with which mama had convened the ceremony, cut his address to a minimum. Even what little could be said in favour of the deceased he threw away rapidly, like a bored actor whose new mistress was waiting for him in his dressing-room. 'John Aloysius Gray,' he snorted, 'served from 1940 to 1945 as captain, later major, in the Army Ordnance Corps.' An undistinguished record, it now sounded infamous.

After John Aloysius Gray had been fed to the worms, the widow stood to receive condolences. Last in the line was Angela Tuck, to whom mama was more than gracious.

'You're not to feel it was your fault, Angela dear.' (Did she then know more than she let on?) 'You come home with me and Fielding. And when I've got rid of those nuisances from the firm we can all have a nice talk.'

From that day on my mother seemed increasingly eager for the company of Angela Tuck. Since Tuck himself was still away, presumably recruiting, Angela was free to indulge mama, and was indeed invited to be present on the most intimate occasions, such as the family discussion with little Mr. Japhet, the solicitor from Lympne Ducis, about my father's will.

With the exception of a few minor bequests to old friends and senior employees of the firm, everything was left to my mother, with the suggestion that she should 'take what steps she thought fit' as to the education and subsequent provision of myself. Although this was broadly in accordance with bourgeois custom, I was disconcerted that no more definite arrangements had been made. Knowing my father as I did, I had expected either to be provided for under some restrictive form of trust, or, quite possibly, to be spitefully disinherited: what I had not expected was that the will should be merely casual. (Here, of course. I had badly misread my father's character: I should have realized that he would have seen no point in restricting or spiting people by means of his will, as he himself would not be there to enjoy their discomfiture.) Again, quite apart from the vagueness of the immediate arrangements, my father had shown a disquieting unconcern for the future: there was no kind of entail, no stipulation that mama should regard myself as her heir, indeed nothing whatever, as far as I could see, to stop her giving away the whole lot that very afternoon. While I did not doubt her good will. I had no very high opinion of her good sense: mama was simply not a person who should be allowed to control a fortune.

Little Mr. Japhet clearly thought the same and was busily trying to persuade her to put her affairs entirely in the discreet hands of himself and the bank manager. But mama, true to the spirit which she had shown since father's death and strongly supported by Angela, was being difficult.

'You say,' she said, 'that after death duties there'll be about 50,000 in cash and investments?'

'That's right, dear lady.'

'And what's the firm at Torbeach worth?'

'To you, dear lady, about 5,000 in a good year.'

'I don't mean yearly profits. I mean lock, stock and barrel.'

Mr. Japhet looked shocked. My stomach stirred uneasily.

'Surely, mother----' I began.

'Don't interrupt, dear.' said mama. 'Now then. Angela. Tell Mr. Japhet what you were telling me yesterday.'

'Just at the moment,' said Angela, 'there's more money around than materials or plant. It follows that a going concern like this one, fully staffed and equipped and with half a century's good will behind it, would fetch an abnormally high price.'

Shrewd enough, I thought: but I wish you'd mind your own business instead of ours.

'But,' continued Angela, 'the seller's market won't last for ever. As soon as things settle down again and they start producing more modern kinds of machinery, your bucket shop at Torbeach will be a back number.'

'Bucket shop?' said Mr. Japhet.

That's what it makes, doesn't it? Buckets?'

'General hardware, madam.'

'What the hell,' said Angela.

'Anyway,' said mama, quiet but firm, 'I've made up my mind. Sell the firm . . . for money down. Not for shares in anything else or deferred bills or whatever they call them, but for money down. I've been living to the shadow of that factory for twenty years, and I never want to hear of it again.'

'But,' said Mr. Japhet primly, 'it is a family firm. The employees of the factory are also the loyal employees of your family. They will be distressed.'

'I doubt it,' said mama. 'Loyalty to families is going to be a thing of the past, if my newspaper is anything to go by.'

Despite my uneasiness, I had to admit that my mother and Angela between them had made some telling points. Now I must put in a word for myself.

'Excuse me, mother,' I said politely, 'but while Mr. Japhet is here, do you think we might come to some firm arrangement about my allowance? Could it be paid into a bank every month or something?'

'Your allowance, dear?' said mama softly. 'I thought your father gave you pocket money?'

'Yes, mother. But now . . .'

'I think the same sort of arrangement will still do very well, dear. For the time being . . . And now, Mr. Japhet. In a day or two I propose going away on a little holiday. I've got a lot of things to think over, and I need a change and a rest. You can arrange, I think, to have money placed at my disposal in the bank?'

'The bank will allow you to draw as you wish,' said Mr. Japhet, 'against repayment when we obtain probate.'

'That,' said mama dismissively, 'will be exceedingly convenient.'

'Mama?'

'Yes, Fielding dear?'

'Would you like me to come with you? On this holiday, I mean?'

'Oh no, dear. I wouldn't dream of asking you to put yourself out. Not that you would, would you?'

'What can you mean?'

'Simply that there's a lot of your father in you.'

'If you want me to. I'll put off----'

'---No, dear. I'll do very well by myself for a while. What day is your friend coming? Somerset Lloyd-Thing?'

'Lloyd-James. Thursday.'

'Then I'll be off on Wednesday so as to be out of your way, How long will Somerset Lloyd-Thing be staying?'

'Lloyd-James. Only a few days. Then we go to Peter at Whereham.'

'Such nice manners Peter always had. How kind of him to ask you.'

'And then, later on. I'm going to stay with the Headmaster in Wiltshire. So you see, mother----'

'---The Headmaster? I should have thought he saw enough of you in term time.'

'He wants to discuss arrangements for next year.'

'Does he?' said mama blankly.

'Yes. So you see, mother. I'm going to be away a lot and I shall need some money.'

'But you'll be staying with people all the time.'

'Yes, but fares and so on . . .

'We mustn't be extravagant, dear, must we? And if the Headmaster wants to talk to you, perhaps he might be the one to pay your fare.'

'For Christ's sake, mother.'

'It's not Christ's money, dear, but mine. So I'll write you out a little cheque. But you do understand---don't you?---that just because your father's dead you can't automatically have everything you want. As it is, there'll be the extra food for Somerset Lloyd-Thing.'

+++

An unsatisfactory letter from Christopher at Tonbridge. He was enjoying his tuition, it seemed, as his tutor from Oxford was a very kind and interesting man. He was looking forward to telling me about some of the things they had discussed. Until when, he was 'yours ever'.

If that was all he had to say, I could see no reason why he had written at all. He hadn't even remembered to confirm the dates which I had suggested for my stay in Tonbridge. So I wrote him a quick note, repeating that I could be with him on 4th or 5th September, even a day or two earlier if he liked, and asking him to reply at once as I was anxious to have it settled.

Angela dined with mama and me on both the last two nights previous to mama's departure. Indeed, I gathered that had not Tuck's return been daily expected, Angela would probably have accompanied my mother on part at least of her holiday.

Up to this time, I had been no more than vaguely irritated by this new friendship, putting it down to the loneliness of the two women. But on the night before my mother left, I began to feel almost as if the association were turning into a league---a league against myself. The women paid me none of the deference which the senior male in a household, however young, is usually accorded. They were deaf to my small requests and combined to disregard my preferences. The off-hand manner which Angela had lately adopted towards me had now become something more like contempt; while my mother's old self-effacement now seemed nearer to indifference. All in all, I was relieved that they were about to part; their influence on one another was clearly unwholesome. Yet I saw no need of worry. My mother would return from her holiday rested and in her right senses (in so far as she had any); and Angela, no doubt, would soon be swept back to India by Tuck. Meanwhile, I was to see Somerset and Peter again: at last, the longed for company of old friends.

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