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Part Thirteen

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« on: July 20, 2023, 05:33:54 am »

AND so I left for Ranby Camp and the last part of this story. I expected anything up to three years of discomfort and boredom, but if Peter could face it, I told myself, so could I. It had to be gone through some time; and always there was Lancaster College waiting for me at the end of it. Whatever had been lost, that---and it was much---was still promised.

And now, too, I should be seeing Peter again. He would not be at Ranby much longer, but there he would be. I could seek him out, discuss what had happened, receive his sympathy and applause; then talk with him of friends and enemies in common, of days past and to come. It would be good to see Peter; as the train rumbled over the dreary flats. I cheered myself by thinking of the round face that would be waiting for me and the slow, soothing voice . . .

Today, as for weeks past, the wind has thrust at the island without ceasing. The clouds are coming across so low that the little village on the hill above me has been hidden for hours. Beneath the cloud a swirling drizzle reduces everything to two dimensions and one colour, a drab yellow. But now, just as ten years ago in that train across the Lincolnshire flats, I cheer myself with thinking of Peter, who will be here, in three days' time, with his delegation of M.Ps.

Although the spell still works, it is weaker now than it was then. Then the thought of Peter's calm eyes and kind, clumsy, hands was enough to quicken the dull fens to enchantment, to make the blue war-time bulbs, which darkened rather than lit the carriage, shine out for durbar. But now, glad as I am that he is coming here, I know that such reunions do not, as a general rule, come up to expectation.

+++

At Ranby Camp they squadded me and kitted me, took away my civilian clothes and sent them home for me, and issued me with a card which entitled me to forty cigarettes a week at special rates. There, reluctantly and spasmodically, they began to train me. A Jolly red-nosed sergeant lectured me on procedure for seeking redress of grievance or applying for leave if my wife were to prove unfaithful; an officer in fur-lined suede boots assured me, in a fluting voice, that the Army's skills would stand me well when I returned to my civilian trade; and a neurotic corporal, who had been broken from sergeant-major for striking a Eurasian pimp in a dance hall in Deolali, opined that a properly cleaned rifle was a better friend to me than my mother.

On my second night, I set out to discover Peter. I sloshed through the mud which lapped round the nightmare archipelago of a myriad Nissen huts and at last found a door which said 'A Coy Office'. Inside, working under a dim light with five teacups and five empty plates in from of him, was an immense and flabby colour-sergeant.

'Permission to speak, Colour, please?'

'Put them down on the desk, laddie,' said the colour-sergeant without looking up.

'Put what down?'

'The tea and wads down.'

'I haven't got any tea and wads. I'm afraid. I've come about a friend. Private Morrison----'

'---Not got the tea and wads?'

'I'm from ''H" Company, Colour. But I've got a friend called Morrison in this, and I . . .'

The colour-sergeant held up his hand for silence and began to speak in a mildly hysterical manner.

'I took over as C.S.M. of this shower,' the colour-sergeant said, 'without, I might tell you, being given the acting rank, at 1300 hours dinner time. So I couldn't tell a single one of them from the next, not if it was Jesus Christ Almighty who came round asking. That's why I'm sitting here in the middle of the night, trying to sort out the horrible mess that's been left behind. A tap at the door. Ah, I says, my tea and wads and none too soon. But instead a young gentleman arrives as bold as the colonel on his horse, and starts asking questions. It makes me want to cry.'

He looked as if he really might.

'I'm terribly sorry. If you like. I'll go to the NAAFI and get your tea and wads for you.'

'But then.' said the colour-sergeant after some thought, 'there'd be two lots. The lot that's been ordered already, see. and the new lot that you got.'

'Better two lots than no lots.'

'Yes,' said the colour-sergeant after further thought, 'I do believe you're right. So you go to the NAAFI for me and I'll look up this mucker of yours and see where he beats his meat.'

'Beats his meat?'

'What hut his wanker's in. What did you say he was called?'

When I arrived back from the NAAFI twenty minutes later with a large tray of tea and wads, I found a stringy and yellow sergeant-major, who was sitting in the colour-sergeant's chair and lighting an eighth of an inch of Woodbine.

'Permission to speak, sir, please?'

After the sergeant-major had coughed till the tears ran down his face, he nodded his permission.

'I've brought the colour-sergeant's tea and wads.'

'Too late, son. I've just taken over from him.'

'Well, would you like these, sir? It seems a pity to waste them.'

I've been sitting here for ten minutes,' said the sergeant-major after a heroic bout of coughing, 'and three people have come in with trays of tea and wads. Poor Colour Baines can't stop himself, you see. Three days at Anzio without a bite to eat, and now he just can't stop himself, which is why I've had to take over from him.'

'So where's he gone to now, sir?'

They've sent him back to the stores. It doesn't matter so much there, but you can't have it in a company office. What I would like, the sergeant-major said, 'is a cigarette.'

'I'm sorry, sir. I don't smoke. But I could go to the NAAFI for you.'

'That's right, son, you do that.'

I went again to the NAAFI and with the aid of my special card brought twenty cheap cigarettes. I was half afraid lest someone else might have taken over from the sergeant-major by the time I got back, but instead there was no one in the office at all. So I looked in a file called Personnel, Distribution of, and discovered that 14477929 Recruit Lance-Corporal Morrison P., who had applied for and been granted an Indian Army Cadetship, had gone on embarkation leave the day before, having been posted w.e.f. 1st November to the Officer's Training School at Bangalore. He would be back in Ranby en passant, it appeared, in ten days' time. Although the sergeant-major had not paid me for the cigarettes, I obeyed an instinct which twenty-four hours of my new life had already awakened in me, and decided to leave them behind.

A week later I was summoned for interview with a visiting personnage called the Cavalry (Armoured Corps) Selection Officer. This turned out to be Captain Detterling, the only boy in the school who had ever made a double century in a school match. His cherry trousers, which had seemed the last word in elegance on the school terrace last May, were rather tactless, I thought, against a background of denim overalls and mud. He was sitting in a tiny office which was warmed by a stove twice as big as the only stove we had in my Nissen hut; despite which he was wearing his officer's great coat, slung stylishly over his shoulders to resemble a cavalry cloak.

'Permission to enter, sir, please?' I said from the door.

'Good lord,' Detterling said, 'do they still teach recruits to do that?'

'Sir.'

'Well you can knock if off with me, dear boy. After all, we have met before.' He shook hands with me, waved me into a chair and inspected a form in front of him. 'Now let's see. You want to go into the 49th Earl Hamilton's Light Dragoons, it says here.'

'That's right, sir.'

Detterling pondered a while.

'That's my regiment,' he said, as if he had just remembered, and looked down at his trousers as though for confirmation.

'Sir.' (No other comment seemed possible.)

'Well, there'll be no trouble about that. As you probably realize, a lot of us come from the old school for a start. By the way. I was down there last week. Saw your chum Morrison. He's going to India, he says.'

'So I gather.'

'He's looking forward to seeing you here first. Told me to tell you. I don't suppose,' he continued, almost as if there were some connection, 'that I can interest you in taking a regular commission?'

'I'm afraid not. I'm going up to Cambridge, you see.'

'The Army's rather jolly in peace time, you know. I had two years of it before the last show started. Lots of cricket and servants, that sort of thing.'

'Do you suppose it will be the same, sir?'

Captain Detterling looked glum.

'I don't suppose it will ever be quite the same,' he conceded. 'But you might like to think about it.'

'I'm sorry. Cambridge . . .'

'Morrison was talking about that. And the rest of them.'

'The rest of them?'

The Senior Usher. And the head man. As I told them, you're just the sort of chap we'd jump at, if you wanted a regular commission.'

'I'm sorry.'

'So am I,' said Detterling rather oddly, 'and I'm sorry to keep nagging you like this, But I'm afraid it's my job: trying to interest people in the Army as a career. Not very easy, I assure you. And the trouble is,' he prattled on, inexplicably nervous, I thought, 'that I'm meant to explain what a healthy, exciting, useful sort of life it is for good, keen chaps. As if anyone wants to listen to that. I keep telling the Board, if only there were, more talk of hunting and proper dress uniforms instead of all this boring rubbish about tanks, it would make my job easier . . . But I mustn't detain you.'

'There's nowhere I'd sooner be.'

'I suppose not. Tanks,' said Detterling crossly, 'how I hate them. Hideous, noisy, dirty things, spoiling everyone's pleasure.'

'I do see your point.'

'But I oughtn't' said Detterling, 'to be talking like this. You keep your nose clean in this horrible dump, and we'll take good care of you when you get to us. We'll fix you up with an emergency commission or whatever it's called in about six months. And there's no harm,' he pleaded, 'in just thinking about making it permanent, now is there? '

+++

Although I was so preoccupied and even diverted by my new way of life that I had contrived to forget my disappointment at Peter's absence, I was eager for his return. The 'A' Company sergeant-major, gratefully remembering the cigarettes though not offering to pay for them, agreed to pass on a message; and at eight o'clock in the evening, two days after my interview with Captain Detterling, I found Peter waiting for me outside the NAAFI.

'Not here,' said Peter at once; 'I know somewhere quieter.' He was wearing, I now saw, the insignia of an Officer Cadet: a large white celluloid disk behind his cap-badge and a white tape on each shoulder. He would have been less than prudent to show himself in the NAAFI in a get-up like that.

'This way,' Peter said. 'Sorry about the trappings, but I'm leaving tomorrow and this is what we have to wear on the boat,'

'So soon?'

'Yes.'

He led the way across a football pitch two inches deep in yellow slush, past a coal heap, a cookhouse, two rubbish dumps and a discreetly stinking urinal labelled 'Sergeants and Above', and down a path of crazy pavement to a small stone cottage. Above the door a red light-bulb dimly illuminated a text which was surmounted by a Maltese Cross:

    THE CHURCH ARMY
    I bring not peace but the sword.

'Nice and quiet for all that,' Peter said.

Also warm and cheerful. For threepence each we were both given a cup of thick tea and a spicy sausage roll by a woman with a wobbling bust, who invited us to make ourselves comfortable by a huge coal fire.

'So you're off tomorrow,' I said. 'The Indian Army. How long will it last?'

'For two years perhaps. Long enough for me. I do six months at the O.T.S. at Bangalore. Then the Punjab. I've always wanted to go somewhere like that before settling down.' He was anything but settled now. There was a long pause, during which he crumbled his sausage roll. Nervous, I thought, upset. Meeting like this only to say good-bye again. It was not a happy thing.

'Tell me,' Peter said, 'wasn't Detterling here the other day? The chap with the cherry trousers? '

'He interviewed me.'

'Did he give you my message? '

'He said you were looking forward to seeing me.'

'Only that?'

'And that you'd all been talking about me back at school.'

'I don't suppose he really gathered what it was all about. You may as well know straight off. Fielding. There's bad news.'

'Bad news?'

'It's very difficult for me.' He leant forward and started to speak very quickly, not exactly with urgency but more as if he were throwing away essential but embarrassing lines in a carefully rehearsed style. 'When I was home on leave,' he said, 'I went to see your mother. She'd be lonely, I felt, and although I hadn't seen you yet I thought she might like to hear about Ranby . . . She was always very kind to me when we were younger. You remember?'

'She still speaks fondly of you. Such nice manners, she always says.'

'I was . . . am . . . fond of her too. She was so proud of you, Fielding.'

'Victorious, you mean.'

'No. It depends how you see it, I suppose, but to me she seemed proud. She kept talking of the 49th Light Dragoons, how she longed for the day when you'd come home with a commission . . .'

As Peter talked on, the scene he described flickered in my brain like an old film. Peter and mama, one each side of a fire like the one we sat by now, were mouthing silently at one, another, while what they said appeared in white sub-titles at the bottom of the screen.

'. . . Tell me, Peter dear. What sort of uniform do they wear? In Earl Hamilton's Light Dragoons. I mean.'

'It'll be a little while before he gets to them. Mrs. Gray. He has to finish his Primary Training first.'

'I know. But when he does to the Dragoons?'

'They wear cherry trousers. Mrs. Gray. Most of these cavalry regiments go in for something rather dashing.'

'Will Fielding have boots and spurs?'

'They're trying to discourage those. After all. they're not much good in tanks.'

'But they look very smart . . . Ah well. How soon do you suppose you'll all be released?'

'Hard to say. Three years . . . Two and a half.'

'Because Fielding's got such a good job to go to. Has he told you? He's been offered a splendid position on a tea plantation in India.'

'I heard about it.'

'I expect you were interested, as you're going there too. Yes. it's all been arranged. One of the partners---well, he will be a partner---will take special care of him, and with a little luck he should do very well.'

'Mrs. Gray. You must know as well as I do that Fielding will never go to India.'

'What did you say. Peter dear?'

'I heard from him not long ago. Fielding still means, as he always has, to go up to Lancaster College.'

The screen flickered violently, then went bright and blank.

'Why, Peter?' I said. 'Why in God's name did you tell her that?'

'It's very difficult . . . I suddenly felt that I must speak up on your account. Set the record straight. I couldn't allow you to deceive her any more; I couldn't let this proud, kind old lady just sit there and be made a fool of.'

'Proud, kind old lady. She's behaved wickedly, abominably----'

'---She's your mother. Fielding. You owed her the truth, however hard it was for you.'

'But she's been vicious, vindictive.'

'Because you couldn't see it right. You never tried to understand. You failed in love.'

'God is love.' said a voice behind us. A bald and snuffling old man, carrying a sheaf of tracts.

'God bless,' he snuffled, putting two tracts on the table between us, 'God bless.'

'Christ,' I said, fingering a tract, 'dear Jesus Christ. So what happened then?'

'A few days later I went down to the school to say goodbye. The head man had already heard from Lancaster. Your mother had been to see Constable.'

'What could she do there? Constable doesn't give a damn what I've done. He wrote to me and said so. It's just like the Senior Usher says,' I went on wildly 'Lancaster's not like the school, It's too powerful to be intimidated by some chattering woman.'

'No one was intimidated, Fielding.'

'Well then?'

'You never knew much about Constable. The Senior Usher did, but even he didn't understand him properly. As he now admits. You see, although Constable was a progressive, a liberal---indeed because he was those things---he was a man of deep moral feeling.'

'We knew that. But his brand of morality didn't trouble itself about the petty sexual offences of children.'

'No. But it troubles itself about betrayal. When your mother showed Constable that photo which Christopher sent you . . . and when he thought about what it implied . . . he began to suspect that you had failed Christopher in some way, that you had used him and then deserted him. But he couldn't be sure, and it might not have been your fault, so he was prepared to overlook this---or so he wrote to the head man---had it been an isolated incident. But there was more.'

'What, for God's sake?'

'Constable is a man of honour. A man of his word. You remember when the Senior Usher sneered at him for not getting a good job in the war, for “running around with a lot of black men''?'

'Yes.'

'Well Constable could have had a soft job all right, only he chose to fight because he thought his honour required it. He wouldn't take the easy way out.'

'What's that to do with me?'

'When Constable heard from your mother that you'd first struck her and then, later on, lied to her----'

'---But the old man told me to lie to her. To stop any more trouble.'

'The old man's standards aren't Constable's. When Constable heard how you'd deceived your mother, letting her think you'd fall in with her plans, drawing a handsome allowance on the strength of it, when all the time you had his own letter of acceptance in your pocket, it offended both his morality and his chivalry. Treachery . . . and violence . . . to a woman.'

'She was treacherous to me,' I wailed.

'In Constable's eyes that does not excuse you. Nor in mine. I think it is the blow which I cannot bear. You never told me about that when you wrote, did you? And you were quite right. The rest I might have pardoned; not the blow.'

'I never meant to hit her. I was wild with anger and disappointment. I was sorry, terribly sorry, and I told her so.'

'And then went on to express your sorrow by cold-blooded deceit. But my feelings are by the way. To Constable, as he told the head man, all this added up to a pattern of exploitation and betrayal so clear and consistent that he would have nothing more to do with you. He's finished with you. Fielding. You can't go to Lancaster. Ever.'

'He might have written,' I choked out; 'someone might have written.'

'The head man was to have done that. He asked me to tell you instead.'

'But great heavens,' I said, 'if you and the head man and the Senior Usher---if you can all put up with me. why should Constable condemn me? The head man, he's moral enough, God knows, and if he----'

'---The head man,' said Peter patiently, 'like the rest of us, has had time to grow fond of you despite your faults. He's seen the good things, fallen for the charm. Not Constable. He's seen you once and he didn't much like what he saw.'

'God curse Constable,' I snivelled into the fire.

'I did warn you.'

'Yes.'

'Can I help?'

'No. You've done enough. It's your fault. I may have been foolish, but it's your fault. If you'd only held your tongue.'

'It would have come out sooner or later. What did you think you were going to do? Deceive your mother for the rest of your life? Yes, you would if you could. You'd deceive anyone if it suited you, anyone and everyone and all the time. Just as you did Christopher.'

'I didn't deceive Christopher I loved him.'

'Until you got what you wanted, perhaps. Then you just kept him on a string. All your talk of scholarship and truth---your whole life was a lie. You had to learn,' said Peter, rising to his feet, 'if only on a practical level, that you can't get away with it. Never mind that you've failed us, failed us all, in love: I don't expect you to understand that. But what I hope you've learned, now, is that if you cheat you get found out. Sooner or later a man like Constable comes along, a man of truth who isn't put off by charm, and he reads the signs and he finds you out. When that happens, the spell is broken.'

'So you hate me too?'

'No,' said Peter, holding out his hand in farewell, 'I can't hate you after all this. But I've no illusions any more. You've shown yourself as you are this evening. A clever, shallow, charming boy. blubbering with self-pity because he's told a lie and been found out.'

Since that evening I have not seen Peter. Our correspondence, a mere matter of form, trickled, dwindled and then, years ago, ceased. And now tomorrow he will be here on this island. Despite the meagre and long discontinued letters, despite what passed in the Church Army canteen, I am ridiculously, childishly excited. How much will he have changed in ten years? Will time have confirmed his natural gift of sympathy, or will this have yielded, now that he is prominent and even powerful, to self-righteousness and pride?

+++

The visit is over. The Members of Parliament, having expressed themselves interested and gratified by all they have seen, have climbed into their helicopters and departed for Malta.

And Peter Morrison? He was round-faced and solemn as ever; he had always, as I remembered. looked and behaved as though he were shouldering a heavy burden, and the cares of his position have therefore done little to alter his appearance. Nor has time done much. There was still, this afternoon, a bloom in his cheek, a tenderness in his eye which took me back to that summer day when Tiberius died of a broken heart. The years have been kind to Peter Morrison.

When he first saw me, he looked away slightly and waited for our Colonel, who accompanied the delegation from Malta, to make a formal introduction. Then, 'Fielding,' he said heartily. 'You'll excuse us, for a minute or two, colonel? We're old friends.'

The colonel took the hint and pottered off to join another group.

'You've not changed . . . not all that much,' Peter said.

'I try not to let it show.'

'Don't be bitter. Do you like it here? What do you do?'

'I command a Sabre Squadron on detachment. We are responsible for good order on this island.'

'I must say,' Peter said, 'it always surprised me that you chose the Regular Army.'

'What else was there? Cambridge, as you may recall, was out. And I never intended to go to India.'

'I liked it.'

'So you said---in your one letter.'

'Don't be bitter,' said Peter again. 'Why did you choose the Army?'

'Because it offered something rather the same as Lancaster. A closed, comfortable and privileged society. Without the intellectual interest, of course; but that, as you know, was never really important to me. I simply wanted to shine in agreeable surroundings. I hardly do that here, but at least I am obeyed.'

'Did your mother not mind? She seemed, I remember, so determined on India for you.'

'My mother died.'

'She was always delicate. When?'

'I wrote and told you.'

'I'm sorry. It's been such a long time. When?'

'About two years too late. Two years after she'd done all the damage.'

'And . . . the money?'

'She'd invested a lot of it in that Indian plantation she wanted me to go to. First of all one of the partners---a friend of hers called Tuck---tried to embezzle a lot of the capital. They rumbled him just in time, but he gave them the slip and disappeared . . . They hushed it all up to save themselves looking damned silly.'

'But the investment was still safe?'

'At first, yes. But oddly enough Tuck had been a very good manager, the only one of them who really understood anything. Soon after he'd gone the place just ran downhill and packed up altogether at Independence in '47.'

'But there was other money?'

'It was mostly in a merchant bank recommended by Japhet, the family lawyer. That went bust too, just before my mother died. I think it was what finally killed her.'

'So there was nothing left?'

'Just a little. Enough to reassure the Colonel-in-Chief when I applied to have my commission made permanent. But that's gone as well now.'

'How?'

'We won't discuss it, if you don't mind. Tell me about yourself, Peter. Your parents? I always liked your father.'

'Both dead like yours. The land's all mine now.'

'And your land is fertile?'

He smiled. For the first time I had said something which pleased him.

'You remember?' he said.

'I remember.'

'That evening on the cricket ground with Somerset . . . I see him a lot, you know. We have political circles in common. You read his magazine?'

'With admiration. Has Somerset,' I inquired, 'got political ambitions?'

'I shouldn't wonder.'

'Then let me give you back your own advice. Watch him.'

Peter gestured amiably. 'I've no objection to furthering Somerset's ambitions,' he said.

'He'll make a very good politician.'

'A better politician than friend.'

'There you wrong him. Somerset values good order, and always did. He never harmed anyone unless his sense of order was offended first.'

'The only trouble was that his sense of order required that Somerset should do all the ordering.'

'Why are you being so tough with me?' Peter said. 'Aren't you pleased to see me?'

'I've looked forward to it for weeks.'

'Then why this hostility?'

A political trick, I thought. He wants to spare himself embarrassment by getting me to say it first. Then the truth will be out, but he can pretend to deny it for the sake of politeness. The important point will have been made without his having committed himself to a single harsh word. He wants it both ways; very well, he's the guest; let him have it so, and then we can part with the appearance of decorum, with a mutual saving of face.

'You've shown me, now you're here at last,' I said, 'that to you I've become alien, totally alien. I realized, of course, that I was no longer the person you once knew. But I had hoped that there might still be . . . something which remained, something to which you could respond. It seems that there isn't. Or rather, there might be, but it's no longer in me, in myself as I am here and now, but only in memories of the past.'

I waited for the expected denial, for the formal protest of continued affection. But Peter nodded briskly.

'That's it,' he said. 'To me you're now alien, as you say. You have been since that night in Ranby Camp. To me, Fielding Gray is the beautiful and brilliant hero of the first summer of the new peace: an illusion, as it turned out, but a bright and memorable one. After that---nothing.'

He turned and walked away towards the Land Rovers which would carry the delegation back to their helicopters down on the beach.

This evening, for once, there is no wind on the island, so that I can hear the bell from the village up on the hill. Since it is tolling very slowly, I assume that it rings for a death. To me it rings for all the alien dead: for my parents and for Peter's; for Christopher and for the brave Tiberius; and for Fielding Gray.

THE END

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