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Part Two, Chapter Ten

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« on: August 03, 2023, 11:26:14 am »

THE day before Gerald had started at Seafolde House his father had taken him out specially to buy him a wrist-watch. Every night at school Gerald took off the watch and strapped it to the thin iron wrist of his bed-head Sometimes before going to sleep, or if he awoke in the night, he would tilt his eyes backward until he could see the writhing luminous numerals on the watch’s dial and perhaps raise his head to hear the ticking, for him as distinctive as someone’s voice. To the watch had become attached his affection for his father and the pathos of its purchase: it stood, too, for his separation from the easy, unworried, loved existence of the holidays. And because he knew its price---all the more significant in the changed circumstances of his father’s life which, apart from complications beyond his understanding, he had more than once heard involved the exchange for the position in South Africa of an altogether inferior and makeshift one here---it took on the fragility and preciousness of a last heirloom in an impoverished family. During the miserable periods of the early part of the previous term he had sometimes before going to sleep taken the watch from the bed rail and held it to his ear or even his lips for, though without intelligent comprehension, it seemed to have a life of its own and therefore, like a pet animal, the power to comfort.

It was touching to think of its sleepless vigil through the night looking out down the bed over his unconscious form. Occasionally a nightmare would wake him: he would stifle the cry on his lips, instantly aware of the need to hide it from the derision of his room-mates and yet scarcely out of the frightening world of the dream, not daring even to move his head to a safer place under the bedclothes. How familiar the nightmare was and how utterly indescribable! Its preliminaries would have been trivial had he not even in the dream had a sense of the coming terror. And the climax seemed to him, as he strove before going to sleep again to recapture and perhaps exorcise it by a calm dissection, merely an abstract affair of attenuation and swelling, taking place in a black void sprinkled liberally with stars. It was as difficult to accept this unknown drama as part of himself, his own creation, as to accept an X-ray photograph of an ulcer. What processes of gland or brain, what conscious conflicts or fears, transformed themselves into this involuntary and primitive moaning? With such thoughts he would sleepily move and see the glowing dial which would then seem the entrance to an ancestral life stretching through his father, and his father’s dead parents, across the brief span of historical forefathers to the apish creatures which themselves had through time a continuous attachment to the slime of pools, the pools themselves, and the pulsing of single cells under the nebulae-filled night of original creation---he had read the beginning of H. G. Wells’s History of the World during his sessions at the reference library, absorbed as a foundling discovering the secret of his parentage. The violent chemistry of the origin of the earth and of its life, seemed to him significant even beyond its actual function, to have some special poetic worth, and being set an essay into which this subject could be dragged, he had written all he could remember of Wells’s description, embroidering it with colourful words of his own finding; and was astonished to have it returned to him with a mediocre mark, for he could not imagine that others were not as convinced as he was of the intrinsic value of the processes he had depicted.

It struck him eventually that the reason for his awe and pleasure at the gradual and wholly logical steps by which a cool planet and organic life came to exist was his new possession of a truth not only previously hidden but one for which his education had provided no need of discovery, as a nomadic tribe having no occasion to parcel out land fails to evolve the geometry whose demands alone will force their attention to the proper measurement of the movement of heavenly bodies. He realized, too, that though he could recognize truth he seemed incapable of initiating it. Had it been left to him the origin of life would have had to remain for ever mysterious, and even in simpler matters he was astonished by the perspectives revealed by other minds. On the evening following the Westport match, for example, Howarth had casually said to him: “I hope I never have to meet a chap from Westport College.”

“Same here,” he had replied, mentally agreeing that everyone at that school must be tainted through having as a master one who could venally try to save the school from defeat.

“Think of being asked out to tea in the holidays and finding a Westport chap there,” Howarth went on. “He’d be sure to let out that you came from a school where the headmaster had walked on the pitch in the middle of a game.”

“Sure to,” said Gerald, concealing without a tremor his vast amazement at the idea that someone could regard Mr. Pemberton’s action as improper, even disgraceful. He would have liked to question Howarth about it but dare not reveal what Howarth would certainly regard as the inadequacy of his moral code. He managed to get out: “Was it a bump ball, really?”

“Who knows? And what does it matter, anyway?”

He could see, certainly, that facts were unimportant: conduct was the criterion. But how to judge conduct? His opinions and values were all in separate compartments, at different stages of evolution, like the specimens in some biological laboratory, or like the civilizations of the earth where the sophisticated citizen of a declining empire exists simultaneously with Stone Age man. And so were his emotions. One night as he was brushing his teeth before going to bed he thought of the episode at the Westport match when Miss Pemberton had come to sit between himself and Mr. Percy. He remembered the pale blue cotton of her dress tightening as she tucked her legs under her and her initial remark. How easily, it seemed to him, he could, if Mr. Percy had not been there, have replied! And more---have awakened in her a response to himself similar to that she aroused in him, so that in her eyes as he leant towards her would have disappeared the polite reflection of himself in the character of a schoolboy and shone instead the naked, physical being he desired to be.

Lost in this vision he returned to the dormitory and in hanging his watch on the bedrail, dropped it. He picked it up as though the swiftness of the action could somehow save it from damage, but saw that the glass had smashed against the linoleum. With false nonchalance he immediately strapped it to the rail since he felt he had to hide the disaster from his companions as though guilt or shame were attached to it, and through his outwardly normal actions until he fell asleep he thought of nothing else but his misfortune and what seemed to him the impossibility of ever retrieving it. For as our minds admit of no other possibility than parting when we detect in our beloved some cataclysmic amatory delinquency, never imagining that the love affair can be patched up and continue indefinitely, so it did not at first occur to Gerald that the watch could be repaired, still less that the mechanics of achieving that utopian end were, even for a boarder at Seafolde House, relatively simple. No doubt in the depth of his feelings was the sense that the pristine integrity of the watch represented his concerned but fragile relationship with his father, and that to treat it as though it were something capable of being, in the ignorance of his father, broken and patched up was subtly to deny its primary importance.

It was therefore only after much heart-ache that he was able to say to Howarth, as on the ensuing Wednesday evening they set out for the town, that he had broken his watch-glass and wanted to try to get it mended. Surprisingly enough the words slipped out easily, nor did Howarth appear to think them of much moment, for he merely remarked that a jeweller’s existed just before one got to the fish and chip shop. Despite his long cogitation about it Gerald had never formulated the problem in such precise terms and had vaguely envisaged embarrassing calls at several establishments---an ironmonger’s, say, and a glazier’s---in order to try to have the repair effected. The proceedings at the jeweller’s were, too, amazing in their concreteness and normality. The shopkeeper, on being presented with the watch, brought a box of watch-glasses out from under the counter and in a few seconds had clicked one into place: the cost, moreover, was negligible. Gerald came out of the shop, the watch once more back on his wrist, its hands again inviolate, with an infinitely sweet sense of relief and happiness.

Over their fish and chips, anxious to prolong his felicity, he speculated aloud on his chance of being moved up again at the beginning of next term which, of course, was the time of the school year for general promotion. Howarth was so unresponsive that Gerald imagined that since his friend had already become a form behind him the subject was distasteful. Immediately he dropped it, but Howarth, a moment after, pushing a burnt and inedible fragment of chip about his plate with his fork, said: “I’m not coming back next term.”

“Not coming back?” Gerald quickly envisaged Howarth in terrible disgrace, the bankruptcy of Howarth’s parents, Howarth’s mortal illness.

“My father gave notice at half term. I’m going to Deighton.”

To Gerald the word, the school it signified, was meaningless, but he suffered a great pang of envy at what seemed, despite his loyalty to Seafolde House, Howarth’s future translation to a more mature sphere, as a boy will envy another’s assumption of long trousers though he knows that his own familiar short ones are far more comfortable. “Are you?” he made his paralysed lips remark.

Howard steered the chip through a sea of vinegar. “My father wanted me not to tell anyone until the end of term. So keep it under your hat. I haven’t told anyone else.”

“I won’t say a word.”

“Don’t you want to know why I’m leaving?”

The utterance of the strange and pregnant syllables “Deighton” had driven the question from Gerald’s mind but he saw now that the reasons he had at first adumbrated were all untenable. “Of course I do,” he replied.

“My father says that Seafolde House is going downhill.”

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