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Part Eleven

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« on: July 20, 2023, 04:56:32 am »

'14477929, Pte. Morrison. P,
3 Platoon, "A" Coy,
99 P.T.C.,
Ranby Camp.
Near Retford. Notts.

'September 15th, 1945.

'My dear Fielding,

'If any letters are to reach me, they should be addressed exactly as above.

'Ranby Camp Is the end of the world. but I'm rather enjoying myself. The thing is that all anyone on the training staff here can think about is how soon he will be demobbed. With the exception of a very few regulars, everyone thinks, talks, eats and sleeps nothing but release numbers and priorities, with the result that no one has much time for training or interfering with us. As far as I can make out, the British Army is one vast Heath-Robinson contrivance which exists only to fall apart, and the days pass in an atmosphere of sloth and cynicism which would, I fancy, amuse you.

'But of course it's all rather futile. I fail to see why I should spend perhaps three years of my life in dodging what are in any case unexacting duties and listening to repetitious stories of Neapolitan whore-shops. Still, one must make the best of a bad job; and so I've decided to apply for the Indian Army, which could be rather exciting. Nothing's settled yet. but when and if it is I shall hope to come down to school and see you all before I go.'

After this, the ink changed colour, and it was clear that what followed had been written some time later.

'The head man has just written about Christopher. I haven't time to say anything about it now. and anyhow I don't yet know what l want to say. I suppose we shall have to talk about it when I see you again.

'Ever, 'Peter.'

'I'm just off to have dinner with the Tucks,' my Mother said. 'I might be quite late, so don't bother to wait up.'

I sat down alone in the kitchen to a tin of cold spam. There were now, I reflected, just five days before I was due to return to school. I had made all my preparations and only one thing more was needed: that my mother should pay the fees, which had to be sent, at latest, by the day before the quarter started. She might, of course, have done so already. But somehow I thought this unlikely. She had made no mention of the matter since her return two days before; indeed, she had made no mention of anything to do with my future. Her manner was of one who had plans about to mature, of one who would have an announcement to make at any minute. Meanwhile, she watched my preparations without comment and did not commit herself. When asked, for example, to drive me and my trunk to the station, so that I might send it off by P.L.A., she had simply shrugged her shoulders and said that it could wait. And so it could, I thought; but not for long. Tomorrow or the next day I must get her to declare herself; and the best way of doing so would be to remind her about the fees.

But it was my mother who took the initiative.

'It's time,' she said, after breakfast the next morning, 'that we had a little talk.'

'Gladly.'

I lowered my paper. Mama came and stood over me as I sat in what had always been my father's armchair. She looked determined and confident; formidable. In the few weeks since my father's death her body had thickened and straightened, while the drooping lines of discontent round her mouth had become strong, sardonic curves.

'Last night,' she said, 'I had a long discussion with the Tucks.'

'What have they to do with us?'

'There's no need to take that tone. Mr. Tuck made some very sensible suggestions.'

'I think I know. They want me to carry on with this absurd tea-planting scheme, and they want you to invest money. The same old story, I wonder you troubled to listen.'

'Angela Tuck has been a very good friend to me. At a time when I needed support and advice.'

'She got at you, mother, that's all.'

'You listen to me,' my mother said, leaning forward and speaking very precisely. 'You think you're going comfortably back to school and then on to Cambridge. All on my money. Well, I'm changing all that. I've written to your Headmaster and told him you won't be coming back, this term or any term.'

'Quarter.'

'It's a pity I had to pay a term's fees in lieu of notice----'

'---A quarter's fees. In that case I may as well get the benefit until Christmas----'

'---But I mean to start as I'm going to go on. No more school. Real life now. No more school and no more Cambridge . . . unless of course you can pay for it yourself.'

'Why, mother? For God's sake, why?'

For a long time I had half-consciously expected this. I had told myself that when the time came my intelligence would show me the solution. But I had been reluctant to envisage more than a token showdown, after which my mother, as she had done for years, would comply with my reasonable requests. I had not considered tactics, I had merely assured myself of my ability to cope with a feeble-minded woman. Now that this woman had made, stated and already acted upon firm plans of her own, I suddenly found myself powerless to do more than entreat.

'Why?' I asked piteously. 'Why?'

'Because I want to see you make a real life for yourself by your own efforts. To see you behave like a man, not sit around, dependent on someone else's money, amusing yourself with Latin and Greek. Latin and Greek'---she mouthed the words grotesquely---'what use could they ever be to anyone?'

'But it was all carefully planned. It was to have been my career.'

'Your career,' A career spent mouldering away under a heap of books, talking arty nonsense to a lot of clever-clever dons, who wouldn't last a minute if they weren't protected from the real world by their cosy college walls?'

My father's voice, I thought.

'It's what I wanted, mother,' I said wearily. 'And you always seemed happy about it'

'Don't you see?' she said. She was now speaking almost into my ear. 'I had to support you against your father, or you wouldn't have wanted me, any more than you wanted him. And I didn't know what was in his will. If it had been different, if you'd been free to do what you planned. I'd have been forced to make the best of it, or lose you altogether. But now . . .'

She stood back and surveyed me, hands on hips.

'My son,' she said. 'My pretty, arty son. I want a man.'

'Mother. There is enough money for me to do what I want. I'm asking you, pleading with you, to let things go on as we'd always agreed.'

'No. Real life now.'

'Do you hate me so much?'

'I simply want what's best for you. I've listened for too long while you've laughed and been so clever about ordinary people, ordinary sensible things. Now you're going to learn what the world's like for most of us. What it's been like for me these last twenty years.'

So that was it. Part morality, part vindictiveness. She wanted to make me into a 'real man' doing a 'useful job', just like anybody else, compelled to join in with 'ordinary' people and to echo their 'sensible' notions, to be bored, to conform. No good arguing now, I thought. Listen to what she says and then think later.

'So what have you arranged?' I asked.

'I've arranged to invest all the money that would have gone on your useless education with the owner of Mr. Tuck's plantation. £5,000, and probably some more later on. You'll do your Army service as soon as possible, and then you'll go out to India to join Mr. Tuck, who will take you under his personal supervision. He hopes to be a partner by then, so you'll have every chance to get on. If you work hard and show the right spirit'---Tuck's phrase, surely?---'you'll become an important man and make good money, like Mr. Tuck. If you don't . . . well, don't think you can fall back on me.'

Money, money. But no good arguing now. Keep your head, I told myself; be patient and rational; look round for a way out. Don't let her have the scene she'd like, not until you have a weapon to silence her. And what could that be? Never mind now.

'All right, mama,' I said. 'I have no choice. What do you want me to do?'

The first thing I must do, as Mr. Tuck officiously explained, was to go to the Registration authorities in Lympne Ducis, there to notify them that I no longer wished to be deferred from call up and would like to volunteer, on grounds of personal urgency, for immediate drafting.

'Now we all know where we are at last,' Tuck said, 'let's get this show on the road.'

Although I had no intention of cancelling my deferment, I was prepared to go through motions enough to stop my mother's tongue for the time, and the next afternoon I took a train to Lympne Ducis. It was, after all, an outing of a kind.

Having gone to the registration office for just long enough to look with loathing at its exterior, I made my way towards the cinema. ('Yes, mama,' I would tell her when I got home, 'they'll do what they can, they say, but it may take some time.') Crossing the empty market place in front of The Duke's Head, I heard a scampering of high heels behind me.

'Christopher . . . Chris.'

Dixie. Walk on and pretend not to notice.

But she was up beside me, panting and flushed, gripping my arm.

'Don't run away, please, Chris. I only wanted to say . . . I'm sorry, so sorry, for behaving like I did that night.'

'You?' I said stupidly. 'Sorry?'

'Yes. So sorry. I don't blame you for rushing off like you did. But please talk to me now. Say you've forgiven me.'

'But after what I did to you----'

'---I led you on. Christopher. I wanted you to. I don't know why I started on like that. Phyllis . . . I don't know.'

I turned towards her and put my hands on her shoulders. The afternoon, gold on the gabled houses, had a chill of dying summer; but it was not this which made me shiver.

'You wanted me to?' I repeated. Then why not now? We'll take a bus out to the pinewoods . . . Go to the cinema . . .'

Dixie drew away.

'No. Christopher.' she said gently. 'Not any more. I'm engaged now. see?'

She held up her hand and the imitation diamonds sparkled in the autumn sun.

'I'm very happy,' she said. 'So when I saw you just now. I wanted for us to part friends like. Say it, Chris. Say we part friends and wish me luck.'

Engaged. To a 'real' man no doubt, who had a 'proper' job. Engaged to grow older and older in a deadly routine of begetting and boredom and the weekly wage-packet. Engaged to watch the children grow up and leave, to slobber through loose dentures at the grand-children on their Christmas visit, engaged to die and to rot. 'Before I go, I'd like Clarry's eldest to have my engagement ring. The jewels always looked so pretty in the sun. I remember one day, many years ago in the market place . . .'

'Don't they look a treat in the sun?' Dixie said.

'And in the shadow?' (My dear Dorian.)

'Christopher? What----'

'---Never mind. Dixie. Of course I wish you luck. And if we're to part as friends, you should know my proper name. I'm called Fielding. Fielding Gray.'

'What a nice name. Funny but nice. Why did you say it was Christopher?'

'I thought you'd laugh.'

'Not that sort of funny. Thank you for telling me. though. It means . . . that what you say is real.'

'Real?'

'That I'm not just anybody you picked up one evening at a fair. Give us a kiss. Fielding Gray.' She pointed to her cheek. 'There.'

I made to kiss her. At the last moment she altered the angle of her head and gave me her closed lips.

'I must run now,' she said. 'Ta-ta. Be good.'

The high heels clicked away across the square. Begetting and boredom. Reality. And warmth. Was that what made the long years endurable for Dixie and her kind, engaged only to parturate and die? Michael Redgrave and John Mills, the cinema poster said: The Way to the Stars. How Dixie would thrill to the sham title, as she thrilled to the fake diamonds in the sun. But who was I to pity or condemn? I, who had only dared to let her know my real name when I was quit of her for good?

+++

When I came home that evening, there was a letter from the Senior Usher.

'. . . The Headmaster has told me of your mother's decision, and I can well imagine how disagreeable you must find your predicament. Not that the feeling can be anything but salutary: set-backs, once in a while, are excellent therapy. Provided, that is, they are not unduly prolonged and destructive. To come to the point without more ado, I object to waste and I cannot stand by while a scholar of your promise is lost to us at the whim---forgive me---of a foolish woman. There has been enough loss these last years: scholars will be rare: our side, the humanists' side, needs all the support it can get. And so, since I am a bachelor and not a poor one, I propose, if you will permit me, to undertake the expense of your further education: the expense, that is, of another year at the school here and later of whatever provision you may need, within reasonable though not frugal limits, at Cambridge. My motive is not entirely one of high-minded patronage; if I wish to keep a scholar, I also wish to oblige a friend. The loss, you see, would be personal as well as academic.

'I realize that your mother's attitude will be, to say the least of it, hostile, and that she will withhold money, I enclose an encashable money order for your immediate needs, and I will make arrangements, which we can discuss later, to see you all right during future school holidays. Since I have chosen to interfere, I shall interfere amply, and place you altogether beyond the reach of---forgive me once more---your mother's palpable malice.

'The Headmaster, whom I have of course informed of my intentions, is dubious of the scheme but prepared to accept it. I think he is afraid your mother will make trouble, will claim that I have illicitly seduced you away from her control. Legally, however, she can do nothing. You are nearly eighteen: provided your course of life is respectable and you have visible means to support it, you are entirely free to leave her as soon as you wish.

'In the present circumstances, I think you would be well advised to do so immediately. If ties are to be cut, they should be sharply cut. You will be welcome at my Lodging for the last few days before the quarter begins . . .'

+++

'And so what did they tell you at the Registration office?' my mother asked.

'Nothing. I didn't go in and now I never intend to.'

'Well, my lord. And what do you intend?'

'To leave here,' I said, 'tomorrow.'

'Very forceful all of a sudden. What will you use for money?'

'I have a friend,' I said triumphantly, 'a master at the school, who will see me through my last year there. And through Cambridge.'

'How kind of him. But suppose, just suppose, that I object? After all, you're under twenty-one.'

'There's nothing you can do. Provided I have proper means and occupation, I can go where I wish.'

'Yes,' my mother said quietly, 'I expect you're right. We'll talk about it in the morning.'

'There's nothing to talk about, mother.'

'Well talk about it in the morning. What time,' she inquired, 'are you off?'

'Early.'

'But I expect we'll still have time, dear, for a little talk first.'

Trunk. I thought. That can come with me in the taxi and go in the guard's van. Stop at the post office on the way to the station, cash the money order, and wire the Senior Usher to expect me in the evening. Suitcase: socks, shirts, hanks, pants; washing things in the morning. All set. Just as I had told myself: use your brains: wait until you see the way out and then take it---fast. True, I had been lucky; but I had kept my head, bided my time, avoided excessive unpleasantness and contrived, though under heavy pressure, not to commit myself. A victory for intelligence and reason. With the thrill of impending departure in my belly I went to my fitful rest.

'So you think,' said my mother the next morning, 'that you're going to walk out of here just like that?'

'I don't want to part with bad feelings, mother. You've got one idea for my future and I've got another. You can hardly blame me for preferring mine.'

'A mother knows what's best for her son. Don't you see,' said mama, with something of her old whine, 'that I'm doing all this for your sake? The Army will make a man of you, and in India you'll have a job for which any boy should be grateful.'

'The Army will have its chance in any case,' I said. 'But not yet. You know what I want to do, mother---what I've always wanted to do. Let's not have any more argument.'

'I'm your mother.' Self-righteous now. 'It's for me to give you money and help you with your future. Not for some interfering master at that damned school.'

'Then give me money and help me. Stop listening to the Tucks all day long and help me do what I want.'

'I bore you. I brought you up, protected you. fought for you----'

'---Yes, yes, and I'm grateful. But now----'

'---And in return I've a right to have my wishes respected.'

'It's no good, mother. There's a taxi coming for me in ten minutes. Just as soon as you change your mind and try to see things sensibly, I'll be glad to come back to you. Until then . . . well, for heaven's sake let's be nice to each other.'

'Nice to each other. As if you'd ever been nice to me in your whole life. As if you'd ever thought of me at all, except as someone to get money for you out of your father. Well, you're going to think of me now for once. Oh yes. You're going to think of me now, Fielding Gray, because you're going to have to do what I tell you. You're not going back to that school, money or no money, because I'm going to show them this.' She fumbled in her bag.

'This' She waved a photograph in front of her. Christopher in cricket kit. "To Fielding with all my dearest love from Christopher",' she read from the back in an obscene, mimicking voice. ' "Please come soon, or I----"'

'---Stop it, mother.'

'---“Or I shan't be able to bear it." That ought to be quite enough, after what's happened. That wretched boy dead, after offering himself to soldiers like a common whore in the street----'

'---STOP IT----'

'---Yes, this ought to be quite enough. I think. Mind you, we knew already what you'd been up to, Angela and I. She's kept in touch with your friend who came here, Somerset Lloyd-Thing----'

'---Lloyd-James----'

'---and he told her all about Christopher. It's a funny thing, but he seems to want to stop you going back too. Nice friends you have. So when he heard that Angela and I had a plan for you, he wrote back helpfully to tell her about this Christopher . . . only there was no real proof yet, he said. Until I found this. While you were slopping around in Lympne yesterday, not doing what you were told.'

'So you were snooping, prying?'

'Not at all. Simply doing my duty as your mother and going over your clothes. This was at the bottom of your shirt drawer. Rather careless, rather forgetful for someone so very clever.'

'Mother,' I said. 'Christopher's dead and the whole dismal story's finished. All we want to do, all of us, is to forget it.'

'Oh? I wonder whether Somerset Lloyd-Thing wants to forget it. Anyway, you won't be able to forget it now, because I've got proof and I won't let you. I'm going to tell your headmaster what I know; and if he lets you back into his school after that, then I'll start writing round to the parents and telling them that their esteemed Headmaster is condoning sodomy. Sodomy,' she hissed, like a dry tap.

I lurched forward.

'You mean, spiteful bitch,' I shouted. I thrust my hand out to seize the photograph, but she drew away from me and brandished it above her head.

'Oh no, my lad,' she said. 'Anyhow Angela's seen it. Even if you tear it up, we can make such a scandal between us that that Headmaster of yours will never want to hear your name again.'

'Bitch.' I screamed, 'Bitch, bitch, BITCH.'

I lowered the hand which was reaching for the photograph and hit her with a back swing of my knuckles across her cheek. Her lips parted and the blood welled up through her teeth.

'Mama. I'm sorry, so sorry. Please, mama. I didn't mean----'

'---Nasty little pansy,' she lisped through the streaming blood; 'nasty, vicious little pig.'

The door bell rang. I offered my handkerchief.

'Don't you come near me,' she said. The blood poured over her chin and dripped down on to her dress. 'You get into your taxi and run away back to school. And when they turn you out, you can just come back here. You'll have to grovel, Christ, how you'll have to grovel, but you're under twenty-one, so I'll let you come back here.'

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