It all began some time in the last century, in an age when lovers wrote letters to each other sealed up in envelopes. Sometimes they used coloured inks to show their love, or they perfumed their writing-paper with scent.
Darling Ned –
I’m sorry about the smell. I hope you ye opened this somewhere private, all on your own. You’ll get teased to distraction otherwise. It’s called
I wrote that you’re old-fashioned.
One: the first time we met you stood up when I entered the room, which was sweet, but it was the Hard Rock Caf? and I was coming out of the kitchen to take your order.
Two: every time I refer to my mum and dad as Peter and Hillary, you go pink and tighten your lips.
Three: when you first talked to Pete and – all right, I’ll let you off – when you first talked to Mum and Dad, you let them go on and on about private education and private health and how terrible it was and how evil the government is and
That’s what the row today was about, in fact. Your dad was on
‘Where do they find them?’ barked Pete, stabbing a finger at the television. ‘Where
‘Find who?’ I said coldly, gearing up for a fight.
‘These tweed-jacketed throwbacks,’ said Pete.
‘Look at the old fart. What right has he got to talk about the miners? He wouldn’t recognise a lump of coal if it fell into his bowl of Brown Windsor soup.
‘You remember the boy I brought home last week?’ I said, with what I’m pretty sure any observer would call icy calm.
‘Job security he says!’ Peter yelled at the screen. ‘When have
‘The boy I brought home,’ I said. ‘His name was Ned. You remember him perfectly well. It was his half term. He came into the Hard Rock two weeks ago.
‘The Sloane Ranger in the cricket jumper, what about him?’
‘Looked like one to me. Didn’t he look like a Sloane Ranger to you, Hills?’
‘He was certainly very polite,’ Hillary said.
‘Exactly.’ Pete returned to the bloody TV where there was a shot of your dad trying to address a group of Yorkshire miners, which I have to admit
‘Never mind Watford, when did you last go north of
Hillary went all don’t-you-talk-to-your-father-like-that-ish and then got back to her article. She’s doing a new column now, for
‘You seem to have forgotten that I took my doctorate at Sheffield University,’ Pete said, as if that qualified him for the Northerner of the Decade Award.
‘Never mind that,’ I went on. ‘The point is Ned just happens to be that man s son.’ And I pointed at the screen with a very exultant finger. Unfortunately the man on camera just at that moment was the presenter.
Pete turned to me with a look of awe. ‘That boy is Brian Walden’s son?’ he said hoarsely. ‘You’re going out with Brian Walden’s
It seems that Brian Walden, the presenter, used to be a Labour MP. For one moment Pete had this picture of me stepping out with socialist royalty. I could see his brain rapidly trying to calculate the chances of his worming his way into Brian Walden’s confidence (father-in-law to father-in-law) wangling a seat in the next election and progressing triumphantly from the dull grind of the Inner London Education Authority to the thrill and glamour of the House of Commons and national fame. Peter Fendeman, maverick firebrand and hero of the workers, I watched the whole fantasy pass through his greedy eyes. Disgusting.
‘Not him!’ I said.
I love you, Ned. I love you more than the tides love the moon. More than Mickey loves Minnie and Pooh loves honey. I love your big dark eyes and your sweet round bum. I love your mess of hair and your very red lips. They
But still, how I wished this afternoon that your father were a union leader, a teacher in a comprehensive school, the editor of the
That’s not right though, is it? You wouldn’t be you then, would you?
When Pete and Hillary both
‘Oh, Portia!’ she said in what they used to call ‘tragic accents’.
Pete, of course, after going as red as Lenin, swallowed his rage and his baffled pride and began to Talk to me. Solemnly. He Understood my adolescent revolt against everything I had been brought up to cherish and believe. No, more than that, he Respected it. ‘Do you know, in a kind of way, I’m proud of you, Porsh? Proud of that fighting spirit. You’re pushing against authority and isn’t that what I’ve always taught you to do?’
He spread his hands and raised his shoulders with an infernal smugness that will haunt me till the day I die. ‘Okay. You’ve dated the upper-class twit of the year and that’s got your dad’s attention. You’ve got Pete listening. Let’s talk, yeah?’
I arose calmly, left the room and went upstairs for a think.
Well that’s what I
In fact I absolutely yelled at him. ‘Fuck you, Pete! I hate you! You’re pathetic! And you know what else? You’re a
Poo. And more poo.
Anyway, at least they know now. Have you told your parents? I suppose they’ll hit the roof as well. Their beloved son ensnared by the daughter of Jewish left-wing intellectuals. If you can call a part-time history lecturer at North East London Polytechnic an intellectual, which in my book you can’t.
It wouldn’t be love without opposition, would it? I mean, if Juliet’s dad had fallen on Romeo’s neck and said, ‘I’m not losing a daughter, I’m gaining a son, and Romeo’s mum had beamed ‘Welcome to the Montague family, Juliet my precious,’ it would be a pretty short play.
Anyway, a couple of hours after this ‘distressing scene, Pete knocked on my door with a cup of tea. Precision, Portia, precision – he knocked on my door with his knuckles, but you know what I mean. I thought he was going to give me grief, but in fact – well no in fact he
The result of the day is that peace has broken out in the Fendeman home and next week I shall have a brother to talk to. I’ll be able to talk about you.
Which, 0 Neddy mine, is
I know you’re busy with exams, but then so am I. Don’t worry.
But I wish wish
Why can’t they behave like a normal university? Come with me to Bristol. We’ll have a much better time.
I shan’t bully you about it though. You must do whatever you want to do.
I love you, I love you, I love you.
I’ve just had a thought. Suppose your History of Art teacher hadn’t taken your class on a trip to the Royal Academy that Saturday? Suppose he had taken you to the Tate or the National Gallery instead? You wouldn’t have been in Piccadilly and you wouldn’t have gone to the Hard Rock Caf? for lunch and I wouldn’t be the luckiest, happiest, most dementedly in-love girl in the world.
The world is very… um… (consults the Thomas Hardy text-book that she’s supposed to be studying)
I’m kissing the air around me.
Love and love and love and love and love
Your Portia X
Only one X, because a quintillion wouldn’t be anything like enough.
My darling Portia
Thank you for a wonderful letter. After your (completely justified) criticism of my terrible style of letter-writing, this is going to be completely tricky. It just seems to gush out of you like a geezer (spelling?) and I’m not too hot at that kind of thing. Also your handwriting is completely perfect (like everything else about you of course) and mine is completely illegible. I thought of responding to your little extra (which was fantastic, by the way) by spraying this envelope with eau de cologne or aftershave, but I haven’t got any. I don’t suppose the linseed oil I use for my cricket bat would entice you? Thought not.
What terrible news about your uncle in America. I’m so sorry. I hope Gordon turns out to be a nice bloke. It’ll be great for you to have a brother at last. All
I just cannot wait for term to end. Thank God the last exam is over. I’ve been revising so hard that my head is bleeding, but I still don’t think I’ve done as well as I need to.
Boring school gossip, Number One: I’ve been made Head Boy.
We call it ‘Captain of School’ actually. Just for next term but I’ll be too busy revising for Oxford entrance for it to mean much. (More on that subject in a bit.) Anyway, by the time you get to my age all the glamour goes out of authority. It just becomes hard work and endless meetings with the headmaster and school monitors – we call prefects Monitors here, don’t ask me why.
Number Two: the Sailing Club is going to the west coast of Scotland this August. The master in charge has invited me along. For two weeks: the very same two weeks you and your family are going to Italy, so it’s the same two weeks we would have been away from each other anyway. For the rest of the time I’ll be staying in my father’s flat in Victoria and you’ll be there with me as much as possible I hope! Are you going to get a job at the Hard Rock again?
Anyway. Oxford. I can’t bear either that I’ve got to come back here in September while you’ll be as free as a bird. For two pins I’d forget the whole thing and apply to Bristol and be with you. It’s not that I’m really so stuck on Oxford, it’s just that I know it would break my father’s heart if I didn’t go. His great-great-grandfather was at St Mark’s and every Maddstone since. There’s even a quad named after us. You might think that would make it easier for me to get in, but actually it doesn’t work like that any more. I’ll actually have to do better in my entrance exam than virtually anyone, just to prove that I’ve got in on merit not on family name and connections. It would mean so much to him. I hope that doesn’t sound chronically pathetic. I’m his only son and I just know how much he’d love coming to visit me and walking round the colleges and pointing out his old haunts and so on.
I wish you could come and visit me
And it isn’t a joke for us, is it?
You mention that strange thing about Fate and how it was that our school group was at the Royal Academy and how, if we hadn’t been, we probably wouldn’t have gone into the Hard Rock Caf?. That is such a completely
I really hate to disillusion you on that, by the way, but it wasn’t politeness that made me stand up. I saw you and I stood up. It was like a sort of instinct. This must sound completely crazy – it was as if I had known you for ever. What’s more, if I think about it, I could swear that I
But you must have noticed the other boys there. Most of them surely taller and better looking than me? Ashley Barson-Garland was there, who’s twenty times funnier and twenty times brainier.
That reminds me
When we meet.
When we meet.
When we meet.
I just CANNOT stop thinking about you. All kinds of wicked things start happening to me.
Before I was born my father was a District Commissioner in the Sudan. I remember him telling me once that young men arriving from Britain used to go about in ironed khaki shorts and sometimes, if they happened across one of the beautiful Nubian women who went around bare-topped, or often entirely bare; they would have to turn and face the wall or just sit down on the ground there and then, where they were, to cover the fact, as my father puts it, ‘that they had become a little excited downstairs.’ Well, just imagining you reading this letter, just knowing that these words will soon be in your eyes, that gets
So when I say that I’m thinking of you and thinking
I love you to the power of everything, plus one.
Ned never knew why he had done such a sly and terrible thing. Perhaps it was Fate, perhaps it was the Devil, in whom he believed sincerely.
He had slipped the book from Ashley Barson-Garland’s bag, dropped it onto his knees and opened the first page before he was even aware of what he was doing. His right hand lay on the desk and pretended every now and then to slide backwards and forwards through Advanced Cell Biology.
Lowering his eyes to his lap, he began to read.
It was a diary. He did not know what else he had imagined it might be. It looked at least four years old. He believed that it was its age that had first attracted him to it when he had seen it peeping from the bag. He had seen Ashley carry this book with him everywhere and that had intrigued him.
None the less it was very strange that he should have done such a thing. Ned did not like to think of himself as the kind of person who was interested in other people’s diaries.
It was difficult to read. Not the handwriting, which was very small, but clear and strong: Barson-Garland’s style was – how should one put it? –
With each line that Ned absorbed, the drowsy buzz of the classroom fell further and further away into the background, until he was entirely alone with the words and a vein that throbbed quick and guilty in his neck.
Firstly, it has to be the
Remember how there used to come a hot buzz of blood to your face on the bus every time you heard your name spoken by them? You believed for one heart-jump of a moment as they repeated and repeated your name that they were talking about you. You truly believed that inexplicably they must
Then you twigged. It wasn’t you they were talking about. They had no idea you existed. Theirs was another Ashley altogether. An
Despite the initial bump of disappointment that had jolted you like an electric shock when you realised it wasn’t you they were talking about, it still gave you a little glow of pride and connection. Made you walk with a bit of a swing for a day or so, didn’t it? Maybe your name, the name you hated so much, the name that shamed you, that you had believed to be so
Which one of them was Ashley, though? It was absurd, but you caught the name bandied so often that for a shining day or two you wondered whether they could
There was no Ashley. Ashley did not exist. There was only an
That’s so funny, actually. Actually, that’s a real hoot.
Can you actually, can you actually, Ashley, have ever really believed that they might have been talking about
Yet they registered on you. Oh, how they registered. You looked at their skin and their hair and wondered how it could be so different from
What burned into your mind most deeply of all of course, was the Flag. The Flag of the Blest.
And you only ever shared a bus with them, what, five times? Six at most. You watched them climbing aboard and swinging themselves to the back seat, sometimes a hand would push down on
On the last day, the day before the Move North, you retrieved a boater from under the seat, didn’t you? He didn’t realise at first that he had come onto the bus wearing it. They teased him and laughing he had skimmed it down towards the driver in mock self-disgust. You
How did the Terrible Mistake happen? The terrible
Firstly the name. Ashley.
Ashley. ASHLEY. Write it and say it how you like, it just won’t do. There s a beery, panatella reek of travelling salesmen in tinted glasses and sheepskin car coats. Ashley is a PE teacher: Ashley says ‘Cheers, mate’ and ‘Wotcher, sunshine.’ Ashley drives a Vauxhall. Ashley wears nylon shirts and cotton/polyester mix trousers that are sold as ‘leisure slacks’. Ashley eats dinner at lunchtime and supper at dinnertime. Ashley says ‘toilet’. Ashley hangs fairy lights around the double-glazed window frames at Christmas. Ashley’s wife reads the
Mum and Dad gave you that name.
Mama and Papa, with the emphasis on the final syllable. Mamah and Papah. Well, perhaps not. That might over-egg the pudding.
Mother and Father gave you that name. And the criminal part of it is that, as a name, it’s only
Americans don’t have this trouble do they? With names and the implications of names. The one Ashley, in fact, who might be said to have had a touch of class was American. Ashley in
The word ‘posh’ is right out. Unsayable.
But it isn’t
Look, some males grow up with a feeling that they’re in the wrong body, don’t they? A woman trapped inside a man.
Isn’t it possible then that some people might grow up, as it were patricians imprisoned within plebeian bodies? Knowing,
But it isn’t
Oh but Ashley, you poor sap, can you actually believe that you’re supposed to be of their world? Don’t you know that it’s a world you can only be born into?
But that’s so
The Move North, that was another nail in the coffin. Another element of the Terrible Mistake. Your dad died and Mum got a job teaching at a deaf school in Manchester. Dad had been an officer. In the RAF, it grieves you to admit, not in a smart army regiment. He never flew, so there was no romance to him. But at least he had been an officer. Be honest now, he was compelled to enter the service as a humble Aircraftsman. He wasn’t ever officer class. He had to work his way up through the ranks and Lord that burns you up, doesn’t it? Then he died of complications from diabetes, a rather bourgeois, not to say proletarian disease, and you, your mum and your sister Carina moved north. (Carina! Carina, for God’s sake! What kind of name is
‘Singing’. At school you even rhyme ‘Mud’ with ‘Good’ and ‘Grass’ with ‘Lass’. Fair enough, you would be beaten up as a southern poof otherwise, but you have trailed some of that linguistic mud into the house with you. Not that your mum noticed.
And then this afternoon happened.
She brought some of her deaf kids home for tea this afternoon. After they had gone you said that good God, they even
And I came up and started to write this and… ah. I’ve gone into the first person. I have said ‘I’.
Never mind, all this will be past history soon. Watch out, I am about to join them. I am on my way in. And there’s nothing they can do to stop me. I’m smarter than they are and braver and better too. I am prepared for every paper and they will not be able to refuse me.
But I must be prepared for the wider scholarship. The scholarship that counts. The scholarship of life, if I may be so sententious. I shall add my mother’s maiden name of Barson. Why not?
But firstly, there must come the accent. When I arrive, the accent will be in place and they will never know. I have my exercises all written out:
The outer door to the biology room banged and Ned looked up to see the top of Ashley’s head in the window of the inner door. He slammed the diary shut, pushed it hurriedly back into the bag and hunched himself quickly over his Advanced Cell Biology, both fists pressed hard against his cheeks, hair flopping down like a thick silk curtain.
He was in this attitude of intense study when Barson-Garland resumed his place next to him. Ned looked up and smiled. He hoped that the pressure from his fists would explain any heightened flush.
‘What was all that about?’ he whispered.
‘Nothing of great interest,’ said Barson-Garland. ‘The headmaster wants me to make the Speech Day Oration.’
‘Bloody hell, Ash! That’s completely brilliant.’
‘It’s nothing… nothing.’
Barson-Garland had rhymed the first ‘nothing’ with ‘frothing’ and then quickly corrected himself. Ned tried hard to look as if he hadn’t noticed. Half an hour ago he
‘Bloody proud of you, Ash. Always knew you were a genius.’
Dr Sewell’s high croak intruded. ‘If you have absorbed all that information and have nothing better to do than gossip, Maddstone, then no doubt you will be able to come forward to the blackboard and label this chloroplast for me.’
‘Righto, sir.’ Ned sighed cheerfully and sent Barson-Garland a rueful smile over his shoulder as he went up.
Barson-Garland was not smiling. He was staring at a dried, pressed four-leaf clover on Ned Maddstone’s stool. The same four-leafed clover that had lain undisturbed between the pages of his private journal for three years.
A heavy knock came on the door of Rufus Cade’s study. After twenty seconds of oath and panic, Cade hurled himself into his armchair, gave a frenzied look about the room and, satisfied that all was clear, shouted a ‘Come in!’ that he hoped mingled relaxedness with boredom.
The sardonic face of Ashley Barson-Garland appeared around the door.
‘Oh, it’s you.
‘None other.’ Ashley sat himself down and watched with amused disdain as Cade thrust half his body out of the window and spat mints from his mouth like a passenger heaving over the side of a ferry.
‘A charming lavender fragrance seems to be pervading the room,’ said Ashley, picking up an aerosol room spray from the desk and inspecting it with benevolent amusement.
Cade, still leaning over the sill, had started to scrabble at the flower-bed beneath his window. ‘You might have said it was you.
‘And deny myself the pleasure of this pantomime?’
‘Very fucking funny…’ Cade straightened himself up holding a battered but expertly rolled joint, from which he began gently to flick away fragments of leaf-mould.
Ashley watched with pleasure. ‘So delicate. Like an archaeologist brushing soil from a freshly unearthed Etruscan vase.
‘I’ve got a bottle of Gordon’s too,’ said Cade. ‘Maddstone paid back the five quid he owed me, would you believe?’
‘Yes I would believe. I happened to see his proud daddy slipping him a tenner just before the match this afternoon.’
Cade took a Zippo from his pocket. ‘What, reward for being made Head Pig next term?’
‘Such, I would imagine, is the case. Reward too for being captain of cricket and for breaking the school batting record. For being winsome and good and sweet and kind. For being –’
‘You don’t like him, do you?’ Cade drew in a huge lungful of smoke and offered the joint to Ashley.
‘Thank you. It is my belief that you don’t like him either, Rufus.’
‘Yeah. Well, you’re right. I don’t.’
‘Nothing to do with the fact that he didn’t select you for the first eleven?’
‘Fuck that,’ said Cade. ‘Couldn’t give a toss about that. He’s just … he’s a prick, that’s all. Thinks he’s God almighty. Arrogant.’
‘So few would agree with you there. I fancy it is the general view of the school that our Nedlet is unflaggingly and endearingly modest.’
‘Yeah. Well. He doesn’t fool me. He acts like he’s got everything.’
‘Which he has.’
‘Apart from money,’ said Cade with relish. ‘His father is dirt poor.
‘Yes,’ said Ashley, quietly. ‘Dirt poor.
‘Not that there’s anything wrong with that,’ Cade added with tactless haste. ‘I didn’t mean to say… I mean, money isn’t … you know …
‘Isn’t everything? I often wonder about that.’ Ashley spoke clearly and coolly, as he always did when angry, which was often. Anger fed him and clothed him and he owed it much. Cade’s clumsiness had pricked him hard, but he used the rage to let his mind fly. ‘Shall we formulate it this way? Money is to Everything, as an Aeroplane is to Australia. The aeroplane isn’t Australia, but it remains the only practical way we know of reaching it. So perhaps, metonymically, the aeroplane
‘Why not?’ From vexation to amusement, at speed. Ashley found it very hard to stay angry with a species as low down the evolutionary ladder as a Cade.
‘Your oration was … it was amazing,’ Cade said, handing Ashley a bottle and a glass tumbler. Ashley noticed that the bottle was half empty while Cade already appeared to be more than half full.
‘You liked it?’
‘Well it was in Latin, wasn’t it? But, yeah. Sounded good.’
‘We aim to please.’
‘Want to stick some music on?’
‘Some music?’ Ashley scrutinised Cade’s proudly filed stack of records with a fastidious and entirely self-conscious disgust. ‘But you don’t appear to have any. I mean what, for example, is a Honky Chateau? A castle filled with geese? A claret that makes you vomit?’
‘Elton John. It’s years old. You must have heard of it –
A gentle, loose-knuckled knock on the door brought Cade bolt upright. Before he had time to embark once more upon his Colditz routine, Ned Maddstone had entered the room.
‘Oh gosh, sorry. Didn’t mean to… Hey, for goodness’ sake, don’t worry. I’m not … I mean bloody hell, it’s almost the end of term. Carry on please. I just…
‘Come in, Ned, we’re just, you know, having a bit of a celebration,’ said Cade, standing up.
‘Wow, that’s really kind, but actually…, well, I’m going off to have dinner with my father. He’s staying at the George. Thought you might be here, B-G, and I wondered if you wanted to come along? Er,
Ashley smiled to himself at the awkward inclusion of Rufus.
‘That’s really kind,’ Rufus was saying, ‘but you know. I’m a bit hammered actually. Don’t think I’d be much use. Probably embarrass you, as a matter of fact.’
Ned turned anxiously to Ashley. ‘Unless you’re doing anything else, Ash?’
‘I should be honoured, Ned. Truly honoured. Will you let me go upstairs and change into something a little more vespertine?’ He pointed mournfully at his speech day garb. ‘You go on ahead. I shall join you at the George if I may.’
‘Great. Great. That’s great,’ said Ned grinning happily. ‘Okay then. And Rufus, till August, then?’
‘Oh. Yeah,’ said Cade. ‘Sure. Absolutely.’
‘I’ll see you in Oban, then. Can’t wait. Right. Okay then. Good.’
There was a silence in Cade’s study after Ned had backed himself out of the room. As if the sun had been blotted out, thought Ashley with great bitterness.
That he, Ashley Barson-Garland, should be
Yet, no secret is ever safe when another has possession of it, Ashley told himself. It was intolerable to imagine his life, any part of his life, having a separate existence inside another person’s head.
His mind considered the possibility that he had left his bag open beside Ned deliberately. When the message had come that the Headmaster wanted to see him, why had he not taken the bag with him? He was certain that he had never been so lax with his diary before. In the first place he almost never carried it around the school. It was always safely locked up inside the desk in his study. It must be noted too that Biology was the only lesson he took in which he sat next to Ned. Did he therefore
What would Ned have done next?
Sympathy. Ashley’s whole body tightened. He wanted to bite Ned’s throat open. Wanted to pull the veins and nerves out with his teeth and spit them over the floor. No, that was wrong. That wasn’t it at all. He didn’t want that. That was a scenario that only ended in Ned’s martyrdom. Ashley wanted something far more perfect. He was feeling a new anger that he had some difficulty in identifying at first. It was hatred.
Cade had finished up the gin. ‘You’re not really going to have dinner with his parents are you?’ he asked.
‘Going? Certainly I am going,’ said Ashley sweetly.
‘Don’t think he wanted to invite me,’ said Cade. ‘Cunt.’ He banged a fist into the arm of his chair, sending up a puff of dust. ‘I mean, what the fuck did I stand up for? Like he’s a master or something. He acts so fucking
‘Typocritical?’ said Ashley. ‘I like that. Typocritical. You surprise me sometimes, Rufus.’
‘Another toke?’ Cade proffered a half inch of joint. ‘I meant hypocritical.’
‘No, you didn’t. You may
‘Bollocks,’ said Cade.
Ashley rose. ‘Well, I had better be going up to change. What a joy to get out of this confining nonsense.
This was a lie. Ashley rarely felt more joy than when dressed in the Sunday uniform of striped trousers, tailcoat and top hat.
‘Arsehole,’ said Cade. ‘Fucking fucking arsehole.’
‘Why thank you, dear.’
‘No, not you. Maddstone. Who the fuck does he think he is?’
‘Quite,’ said Ashley, leaving. ‘Sweet dreams.’
‘Mind you,’ Rufus Cade rumbled to himself, leaning back in his armchair as the door closed. ‘You’re an arsehole too, Ashley Bastard-Garland. let’s face it, we’re all arseholes. Ow!’ He had burnt his bottom lip on the last thin quarter inch of joint. ‘All arseholes, except Ned fucking Maddstone. Which makes him,’ he reasoned to himself, ‘the biggest arsehole of all.’
Pete and Hillary were wearing the insufferably smug look they always assumed when they had made love the previous night. Portia tried to cancel out its atmosphere by moving around the kitchen with extra noise and impatience, banging drawers so loudly that the cutlery inside resonated and jingled like a gamalan. Fierce Tuscan sunlight streamed through the window and lit the big central table where Pete was slitting large batons of bread.
‘This morning,’ he said, ‘we shall feast on prosciutto and buffalo mozzarella. There’s cherry jam, there’s apricot jam and Hills is brewing up some coffee.’
‘We have feasted on exactly the same things every morning since we got here,’ said Portia sitting herself down with a glass of orange juice.
‘I know. Isn’t it wonderful? Hills and I were up early this morning and we went into the village for fresh bread. Smell that. Go on. No, go on.’
‘Pete!’ Portia pushed the proffered loaf away.
‘Someone got out of bed the wrong side this morning –’
Portia looked at her father. He wore an unbuttoned batique shirt, an elephant hair bracelet, wooden sandals and, she saw with a shudder, tight maroon swimming trunks that emphasised every bulge and curve of his genitals.
‘For God’s sake – ‘ she began, but was interrupted by the sleepy, shuffling entrance of her cousin.
‘Aha!’ said Pete cheerfully. ‘It’s awake. It’s awake and needs feeding.’
‘So what’s up?’ Gordon said, moving a shopping bag from the seat next to Portia and sitting down.
‘Well now,’ said Hillary brightly, as she set down a coffee jug between them, ‘Pete and I were thinking of maybe checking out the palio.’
‘Its been and gone, Hillary,’ said Portia with the exasperated air of one addressing a child. ‘We met that family who’d seen it last week, remember? A rider fell off his horse right in front of them and there was a bone sticking out of his leg. Even you can’t have forgotten that.’
‘Ah, but there’s more than one palio in Italy, precious,’ said Pete. ‘Lucca has its very own palio this evening. Not as spectacular or dangerous as Siena, but rather fun they tell me.’
‘Lucca?’ said Gordon through a mouthful of bread. ‘Where’s Lucca?’
‘Not too far,’ Pete replied, pouring coffee into a large bowl to which he added hot milk. Fragments of skin floated to the top. Looking at them made Portia want to retch. ‘I wanted to go there anyway. It’s the olive oil capital of the world, they say. You can watch it being pressed. I thought we might swim and read this morning, then make our way slowly there, driving by the local roads and lunching somewhere in the hills. How’s that for a plan?’ Skin from the coffee clung to his moustache. Portia had never felt so ashamed of him. How Hillary could suffer such a thing on top of her had always been something of a puzzle. Now that she knew there was such a man as Ned in the world, it took on the qualities of an eternal cosmic mystery.
‘Sounds good to me,’ said Gordon. ‘Sound good to you, Porsh?’
Portia stopped herself from shrugging moodily. She didn’t mind behaving like a spoiled adolescent in front of her parents, but in front of Gordon she preferred to look more sophisticated. What she really wanted to say was, ‘So we’re going to arrive at Lucca in time to find all the shops and caf?s shut, are we? And as usual we’re going to have to wander around a completely empty and deserted town for five hours until everyone else has woken from their siestas. That’s a great plan, Pete.’
Instead she contented herself with remarking, ‘Arnolfini was from Lucca.’
‘How’s that?’ said Gordon.
‘There’s a painting by van Eyck,’ said Portia, ‘called
‘Yeah? How d’you know something like that?’
‘I don’t know, I must have read it somewhere.’
‘I never studied art history.’
Portia realised that saying ‘Neither did I, you don’t have to “study” something to know about it,’ would sound arrogant, so once again, she curbed her tongue. Really, she was becoming insufferably intolerant these days. And she liked Gordon. She liked his quiet acceptance of the terrible things that had happened to him. He seemed to like her too and it is very easy, she thought, to like someone who likes you. That wasn’t vanity, that was practical common sense.
‘Aha, methinks I hear the musical rattle of a Fiat,’ said Pete, head cocked in the direction of the driveway, ‘bearing, perchance, dispatches from England.’
Portia jumped up. She forgave herself her moodiness.
As a junkie needs a fix, so had she been needing a letter. ‘I’ll go,’ she said. ‘I need to practise my Italian on him.’
Hillary called after her. ‘Porsh, you know your results won’t be coming through for at least another week! Besides, Mrs Worrell said she would telephone us here if anything arrived that looked like it might be from the examination board…’
But Portia was already out of the house and stepping into the harsh whiteness of day. Never mind exam results. Never mind anything. A letter from Ned, let there be a letter from Ned.
A postcard, only a postcard. She fought back her disappointment and took it with trembling hands. He was sailing, she told herself. A letter would be difficult. Besides, looking at the postcard with a growing sense of delight, she saw that he had covered it in the tiniest script he could manage and even put the address of the villa in bright red ink so that it stood out against the minuscule blue handwriting which wormed around almost every square millimetre of the card. He had even managed to weave narrow threads of words between the lines of the address, she saw. It was better than a letter. To see how much care he had taken. A thousand times better. She was so full of delight and love that she almost broke into sobs.
She turned the card over and looked at the photograph on the front, shielding her eyes from the reflective dazzle. A small fishing port glittered in a softer sunlight than the one that glared down on her now. ‘The Harbour, Tobermorey’ the caption read in old-fashioned yellow cursive letters. The photograph looked as if it might have been taken in the nineteen-fifties. There was a small Morris Minor van parked on the quayside. Then Portia noticed that amongst the jostling crowd of fishing boats there was a little yacht there, hand drawn in red ink. A nervous smile and eyes had been sketched in on its hull, giving it the frightened look that Thomas the Tank Engine adopted when he was squeezed between the big scowling locomotives. An arrow pointed down to the boat from the sky and across the top was written, ‘The pirate ship “Nedlet” lies pining at anchor.’
‘News from lover boy?’ Gordon had come out into the sunshine with
She nodded, not trying to disguise her happiness. Gordon crossed his right arm over his chest and scratched his left shoulder-blade. The compressed skin in the V of his elbow, cradled in his chin as he scratched, looked tanned almost to black. When he straightened out his arm again the effect was gone.
‘He’s sailing, right?’
‘I never been on a sailboat.’
‘Nor me. I’m sure I’d be completely sick.’ Portia had started using the word ‘completely’ a lot recently. Ned peppered his letters with it, and she thought of it as his word. Saying it was like wearing an old shirt of his and made her comfortable and proud.
‘Uh-huh,’ Gordon nodded seriously as if she had said a profound and interesting thing. Then he picked up a bottle of Hawaiian Tropic tanning oil. ‘You want to rub some of this on me?’
Portia put down the postcard and took the bottle.
‘I’ll turn around here and you can do my back.’
A wave of coconut arose from the palms of her hands as she rubbed them together. She noticed, smoothing oil over his skin, that Gordon had silvery filaments of hair growing in the small of his back, feathered and whorled like a wheat field after a storm, while darker hairs snaked along his shoulders from the base of the neck. She could feel their slight roughness under her hands. His chest was already dense with tight curly black hairs and his beard line heavier than Pete’s who was more than twice his age. She wondered why this might be. It wasn’t an ethnic thing. Pete was no less Jewish than Gordon. Perhaps it was something to do with the English climate. She thought of Ned and how proudly he had announced that he was ‘going to have a bash’ at growing a moustache over the summer.
Portia poured a small puddle of oil into the hollow at the base of Gordon’s back. Ned was strong, but she did not think he had muscles that were packed as hard and tight under the skin as Gordon’s. Every afternoon Gordon had gone into a routine of press-ups, pull-ups and sit-ups in the shade of the paved courtyard behind the villa, to Pete’s apparent amusement and Hillary’s poorly feigned lack of interest. Portia had watched Hillary watching from the kitchen and Pete had watched Portia watch Hillary watching and Portia knew that Pete had been thinking about his own drooping flab and evolving a socio-political explanation that would justify and ennoble it.
In New York Gordon played regularly on his school’s tennis and lacrosse teams. He had been outraged to learn that in England lacrosse was a game played almost exclusively by girls in private schools. ‘He’s quite right,’ Ned had told Portia in a letter. ‘Lacrosse is a very hard, tough and physical game. It would scare me stiff. That’s why I think it is much better left to you girls.’
Portia smiled as she contemplated the future. She pictured the days when she would be able to rub sun tan lotion on Ned’s back on holidays yet to come in places yet to be imagined. It was strange, she thought, that she didn’t yet know his body. She had never seen him in shorts or swimming trunks. She had never seen him naked. Once, when they had kissed, she had felt something push against her thigh. A hot rush of blood spread across her face at this memory and she giggled inside herself as she recalled the naivety with which she had originally supposed him to have had something in his pocket. Perhaps next week, in his father’s flat they would go upstairs together. Perhaps – ‘Where is “The Harbour, Tobermorey”?‘
‘Hey!’ Portia snatched the card from Gordon’s hands. ‘That’s private! Oh no!’
Portia looked down in horror. Her oily thumb had smeared across the card obliterating a whole trail of Ned’s careful writing.
‘No!’ she wailed. ‘It’s ruined! Ruined! How could you! You, you fucker!’
‘Hey, I’m sorry. I was only –‘
Portia ran into the house, tears springing from her eyes. Gordon watched her go, shrugged and rearranged his khaki shorts to alleviate the discomfort of a pressing erection.
Gordon wondered if it was the fact of her being in love that awoke such a flood of desire within him. He considered that he might be just as much in love himself, only where he came from the phrase ‘got the hots for’ was more acceptable. Even most British kids, he had noticed, would rather say ‘I fancy her’ than ‘I love her.
The way Portia confided in him so instantly on his arrival in London had done more to disorient him than the strange food, incomprehensible accents and bewildering geography of the place. He had expected from the British Fendemans more of the chilly reticence and uptight reserve that his father used to talk about when explaining the irrefutable logic of his leaving England for America. Portia’s directness not only confused Gordon, it needled him too. It was as if her emotions were more profound than anyone else’s. Her very ability to describe them so freely and expressively stopped him from being able to say anything open and honest about himself and he hated that. He had feelings too and right now he felt like he wanted to take this virgin, lay her in a bed and fuck her till her eyes popped out.
That was the crazy injustice of it. She had painted him so far into a corner that the only territory left him was that of a predatory animal. It was so totally unfair. He wasn’t like that. He was a good man, a feeling man with a feeling man s heart. He could be charming. He could be romantic. But she gave him no chance to be. Mr Wonderful, Mr Perfect absorbed her whole being. Gordon could see in her eyes that whenever she responded warmly to him she was really responding to Ned. By talking about him so much she had planted the faggoty English goy asshole right inside his head. It was like he was the host to a parasite, and the parasite’s name was Ned Maddstone.
If his mother and father had died a year earlier, Gordon would have met Portia just at the moment she was ready to give her whole being to someone. But he had been just too late. By the time he arrived the door was already closed to him. That’s why now he felt like he wanted to batter it down and splinter it into pieces. All he had needed was to have been given a
Ned fucking Maddstone.
Gordon did not think of himself as a bad man, but he knew that lately he had been having bad thoughts. He had stopped being able to think of the shock of seeing his father tumble in a heap to the ground in front of him, roaring in pain and clutching at his throat. He had lost any sense of his mother, retaining only the memory of his suffocating desire to get out of the hospital and into the open air, away from that thin, yellow-skinned woman with a tube up her nose and a frightened look in her eyes.
He had considered his new situation on the flight over.
‘One, these guys are atheists,’ he had said to himself. ‘Saturdays, I won’t have to go to synagogue. Two, they’re anti-Zionist. I won’t be forced to go on kibbutz August. Three, they’re British, I won’t have to talk about my “feelings” like I did after Mom died. Four, these guys are obscenely rich. Aunt Hillary’s family were multimillionaire retailers or something, so I won’t be in that shotgun shit-hole in Brooklyn. I’ll have a car. We’ll vacation twice a year. Barbados and Hawaii.’
But oh no…
‘This will be your bicycle. We don’t believe in cars.
‘E. P. Thompson is delivering a lecture on Cultural Imperialism to the Fabian Society, we’ve forty-five minutes to get there.’
‘We booked a villa in the Tuscan hills. Porsh wants to see the Duccios in Siena and Hills is collecting material for her next novel.’
‘Gordon, let’s consider how you feel about Rose and Leo’s death, yeah?’
‘You’ll enjoy it! CND marches are always good fun. And they’re making a difference too.’
What a fucking joke. But worst of all was …
‘I’ve got this boyfriend…’
‘His name is Ned …
‘There! That’s him, sitting in the middle, holding a cricket ball …’
‘Look, Gordon! He’s done a drawing of himself bored in the middle of a French lesson…’
‘Look at that smile…’
‘Look, another letter already…’
Ned fucking Maddstone.
Ned leant over the
To be a lover was to be part of a group singled out by fate for special attention. Ned had never imagined that he might have possessed such pleasure in simply being himself. His skill at sport, his good looks, his easy-going nature, his popularity – he would never for a moment think of those with satisfaction – if anything they were sources of embarrassment. His being a Lover though, a Lover with the most capital of Ls, made him burst with so much pride he could scarcely recognise himself. He wondered for the millionth time if Portia really felt the same. Perhaps her feelings were stronger. Perhaps his were stronger. Perhaps she imagined that hers were stronger and would never believe how strong –
A sudden sound from below made him turn in surprise. ‘Maddstone!’
Peering astern Ned made out the shape of a head appearing in the hatchway.
‘Hello?’ he called into the darkness. ‘Who is it?’
‘Maddstone, you’ve got to come below.’
‘Rufus? Is that you?’
‘There’s something wrong with Paddy. He’s been making weird noises.’
Ned leapt to the hatch and scrambled down into the galley.
Lit by nothing more than a single tile-lamp and the glow of the radio set, Paddy Leclare’s body was slumped forward in his chair, face down over the charts.
Ned approached him softly. ‘Skipper?’
‘Is he dead?’ whispered Cade.
Leclare suddenly gave a great cough and started to struggle upright. Ned was shocked to see a long trail of bloody saliva suspended between his mouth and the chart table.
‘Is that you Ned? Is it you?’
‘Yes, skipper, it’s me. Is everything all right?’
‘Ah, well now, I wouldn’t say that … who’s that with you?’ Leclare stared over Ned’s shoulder, a look of fright in his eyes.
‘Sir, it’s only Rufus, sir.’
‘Rufus, that you there?’
Leclare’s breath came in short shallow bursts and his skin gleamed with sweat.
‘Well then,’ he panted. ‘I want you to do me a favour, young Rufus. I want you to go astern to the starboard locker.’
Rufus nodded, white-faced.
‘You remember when I showed you the locker where the flares are stowed? Good lad. The locker beside it is padlocked. Here’s the key…’ Leclare pushed a keyring across the table. ‘It’s the bright gold one. I want you to open it up and fetch me out a bottle of Jameson’s.
‘Skipper are you sure?’ said Ned. ‘If you’re not well…
‘I know what I need, so I do,’ said Leclare. ‘You stay with me, young Ned. Off you go, Rufus. Quick as you like.’
Rufus turned and clambered noisily up the ladder to the main deck.
‘What a lump,’ said Leclare. ‘He’ll never make a sailor, that one.’
Ned put a hand on his shoulder. ‘Paddy, please don’t be angry with me, but I really don’t think you should be drinking. Whatever it is that’s wrong with you, I’m sure it won’t be made any better by – ‘
‘Calm down, Ned. There’s no whisky in that locker, and I told him the wrong key too. It gives us a little time.
Laughter at the neatness of his strategy set Leclare off into a renewed fit of coughing that sprayed blood and spittle into Ned’s face.
‘Oh Jesus, Skipper. Look, I’m going to radio for a helicopter.’
‘Pass me that bag over there,’ said Leclare, as if he hadn’t heard.
‘That’s the feller, hand it to me. Now Ned, look into my eyes.
Ned looked into eyes that he recalled as being merrily blue. They were bloodshot now and leaking tears from the effort of coughing.
‘I can trust you, can’t I, Ned?’
‘Of course, Skipper.’
‘Tell me the thing in your life that you hold most holy.’
‘For fuck’s sake will you answer me, boy!’ Leclare grabbed Ned’s wrist and squeezed it hard. ‘What is the thing that matters to you most in all the world? Are you thinking of it, is it in your head right now?’
Ned nodded as a vision of a laughing Portia arose before him.
‘Good. Now I want you to swear on that most holy thing that what I ask you to do you will do without telling a soul. Do you understand? Not a soul.’
Ned nodded once more.
‘Out loud! Swear it out loud.’
‘I swear it, Paddy, I swear it.’
‘Good … good. I trust you. Now then…’ Leclare scrabbled inside his bag. ‘Take this envelope here. It is sealed. If I don’t make it back and healthy to land I want you to deliver it for me. Personally. It must go direct into the hands of…’ Leclare beckoned for Ned to come close and leaned up to whisper a name and address, his hot breath panting into Ned’s ear. ‘There! You’ve got that?’
‘Yes, I think so.’
‘Say it back to me. Whisper it to me now.’
Ned cupped his mouth round Leclare’s ear and breathed, ‘Philip R. Blackrow, 13 Heron Square, London SW1.’
‘You’ve got it. And you’ll not forget?’
‘No, never. I promise.
‘That’s that then. Tuck the envelope away, let no one see it and we’ll say not one word more about it. And don’t you forget that name and address. There. Not such a difficult or dreadful thing to ask, after all, was it now?’
Leclare let go of Ned’s wrist and leaned back, gasping for breath. Ned watched the little remaining colour drain from his face.
‘Can I radio for help now, Skipper?’
‘We’ll be ashore in five or six hours. Make no difference either way.’
‘But what is it? What’s wrong?’
‘It’s no more than a touch of illness,’ Leclare said quietly, smiling and closing his eyes. ‘A little kiss of cancer, so it is. No more than that.’
Rufus Cade arrived back in time to witness Ned, with great tenderness, laying a sleeping-bag over the dying man’s shoulders and gently stroking his head.
Ashley Barson-Garland had written seventy letters that morning. Seventy calm, placating and – though he said it himself – beautifully expressed letters. Letters to old ladies unable to understand the changes to the law on pensions, letters to unemployed layabouts who chose to blame the government for their lack of self-respect, letters from delirious fascists who thought Sir Charles Maddstone was Soft On Crime and letters from transcendently sad individuals who were determined to tell the MP about Christ.
So much noise from the populace. So much clamouring for attention. So much inadequacy and resentment. The life of a politician was indeed one of lying, lying and lying. Not the lying that people supposed, not the trail of broken promises and cynical denials complained about by newspaper and bar-stool sceptics, another kind of lying altogether. Allowing people to believe that their bitter and ignorant opinions were of use or importance, this to Ashley was the great lie. There seemed to be millions out there who could not understand that their problem was not this or that injustice or social ill, but the diminished sense of self that caused them to blame anything other than their own bitterness and rage: to bolster this delusion, that was the supreme dishonesty. There were people who believed that their opportunities to live a fulfilled life were hampered by the number of Asians in England, by the existence of a royal family, by the volume of traffic that passed by their house, by the malice of trade unions, by the power of callous employers, by the refusal of the health service to take their condition seriously, by communism, by capitalism, by atheism, by anything, in fact, but their own futile, weak-minded failure to get a fucking grip. Ashley understood Caligula’s disappointment that the people of Rome had between them more than one neck. If only the British, he thought, had one backside. What a kick he would love to give it.
To his right on the desk lay the letters, open flat in their envelopes awaiting signature. They were elegantly typed on parliamentary writing paper, the green House of Commons portcullis above Sir Charles’s name, each letter clean, unblemished and perfect. Ashley moved the four piles to the left of the blotter, a more convenient position for signing for when Sir Charles arrived. Ashley prided himself on these touches. He was the perfect servant, intelligent, thoughtful, thorough and discreet and for the moment, this contented him.
From the briefcase at his feet he pulled his diary. Only five and a half pages to fill before he would need a second volume. He wondered if he would be able to find the same book again. The shop in St Anne’s Square where he bought the first had closed two years ago. Another colour would be ideal, but it must be the same book. If he found a source he would buy at least ten, a lifetime’s supply. Would ten be enough, however? He made a rapid calculation. Twenty would be safer. ‘The Invicta’ it called itself grandly, the kind of Empire name that used to be bestowed upon everything from urinals to pocket-knives. He riffled through, observing with pleasure the growth in confidence and style of his handwriting. The last entry had been made five weeks ago. There was much to squeeze into the final pages. He should pick up from his last sentence: ‘For the moment I must put this obscene invasion out of my mind, for I have the School Address to concern myself with.’
Can it really be only five weeks since the end of term? The Oration, of course, was a triumph of wit, knowledge, flair and – as you might say – address. As such, it was understood by no one in the hall, not even by those who could decipher the Latin. The assembled parents, staff and boys knew just enough to imagine that it was clever and treated me afterwards to the embarrassed, sympathetic and bravely smiling looks which the British habitually save up for those afflicted with terminal cancer or with brains, brains being by far the more unfortunate condition in their eyes. Most people, after all, can imagine having terminal cancer, they can’t begin to imagine having brains. Ned introduced me to his father who came as near to bowing as one can these days.
‘Your own parents not here today, Mr Barson-Garland?’
‘My mother teaches, sir,’ I said, liking the ‘sir’ and liking the fact that Sir Charles liked it. I liked too Ned’s discomfiture and watched him trying to think of something to say which wouldn’t draw attention to the idea of my mother or my family.
‘Ah well,’ his father said. ‘She must be very proud of you.’
Ned delivered a feeble matey punch to my arm as they passed on. He knew of course what kind of teaching it is my mother does. He probably even guessed that I had told her to stay away.
‘Very few parents come to Speech Day,’ I had written to her. ‘You’ll find it a bore.’
What I had meant was, ‘You dare turn up and disgrace me in a bright print dress, cheap scent and a loathsome hat and I shall disown you.
I dare say Mother read all that between the lines because mothers do and I dare say that I had meant her to because sons do.
Having endured the sickly congratulations and sherry of the headmaster, (‘Ah, here comes our pocket Demosthenes!’) I escaped after lunch to the cricket match, only to find myself forced to witness the spectacle of Ned Maddstone distinguishing himself with unquestionable style against the Old Boys. Every time someone talked to me, they kept half an eye on him at the wicket and I could smell their minds weighing his tallness, blondness and smiliness against my squat, dark seriousness. The stench of that drove me back to the house where I looked up Rufus Cade whom I found in his study weltering in his own mephitic fug – cannabis, vodka and resentment. Now here’s an interesting thing. Whether to please me or not he professed a severe dislike of Maddstone. No, it cannot have been to please me, I had already sensed the fact and asked him outright. It had been instinct. And I was right. He
Who should then turn up, flushed and triumphant in scarlet and green stained flannels, hot from glory in the field, but Maddstone himself? He invited me to dine with his father at the George. The transparent guilt in his eyes was almost hilarious. ‘You may think of yourself as an outsider,’ his eyes said, ‘but I think of you as one of us.’
Balls. If he had thought of me as One Of Us he would have said, ‘Ashley, bloody bore, but how d’you fancy joining me and my father at the George?’ instead of which he got all flustered and asked Rufus to come too while managing to make it painfully obvious that he only asked out of politeness. Rufus declined on the grounds of intoxication, which I think embarrassed him into hating Ned all the more. I accepted with entirely sincere pleasure.
I wore my one suit.
‘Very good of you to join us, Mr Barson-Garland,’ said Sir Charles, shaking my hand in courtly style. ‘How absurd of me, I can’t keep calling you that. Ned hasn’t told me your Christian name.
‘Ashley, sir,’ I said, as Ned buried himself in confusion and the menu.
I talked a lot over dinner. Not so much or so greedily as to appear to monopolise the conversation or to boast, but enough to impress.
‘You seem to know a great deal about politics,’ said Sir Charles over the cheese.
I shrugged with open hands as if to suggest that, while I may have picked up the odd pebble of interest on the shore, like Newton I was all too aware of the great ocean of knowledge that lay undiscovered before me.
‘I don’t suppose this would interest you…
There and then he offered me a summer job as his political researcher.
‘A great deal of it is really not much more than a kind of secretarial work,’ he warned. ‘But it is, I think, an unrivalled opportunity to find out how the system operates. If it works out over the summer, I’ll be happy to keep the place open for when you leave here in late autumn. Ned tells me that you are sitting Oxford entrance next term too.’
‘Father, that’s a brilliant idea,’ Ned gasped admiringly (as if it hadn’t been his idea in the first place! How big a fool can he possibly take me for?). ‘I’m Pa’s biggest disappointment,’ he added, turning to me. ‘Never could summon up much interest in politics.’
‘Sir Charles,’ I said, ‘I don’t know how to begin to thank you…
‘Tshush, tshush,’ said Sir Charles, waving a hand. ‘If you’re as good at the job as I suspect you might be, then the thanks will be mine. Do I take it you accept?’
‘Well, sir. I live in Lancashire. I don’t have any…’ Lancashire, indeed. I was used to saying that. Any ‘shire’ sounded better than Manchester.
‘I’m hoping you will consider staying in Catherine Street. It’s a small house, but has been a political one for over a hundred years. It has its own Division Bell, not that you will hear it ring much at first. The House doesn’t sit over the summer. If you’re still with us next year however, you’ll get so used to its ringing that you’ll want to sabotage the damned thing. Isn’t that right Ned?’ He waggled an eyebrow at his son in a way that suggested some private joke.
‘When I was a boy I used to get really hacked off by that bell,’ Ned explained in answer to my questioning look. ‘The House sits at the weirdest times and it was always waking me up at two or three in the morning. So one night I wedged a piece of cardboard between the bell and the clapper. Pa missed a vote and got into a bucket load of trouble.’
‘I passed a quarter hour in the Whips’ Office that I shall never forget,’ said Sir Charles.
Ned added to me in a pretend whisper, ‘He still says that nothing the Gestapo did to him in the war came close.’
‘It’s true I tell you, absolutely true.’
Ned was letting me into his life. A life in which casual mention of Division Bells and sticky moments with the Gestapo came as easily as references to buses and episodes of
They found me a flat in Kensington which I share with a researcher from Conservative Central Office. Flats in Kensington seem to be a staple currency of this world. There is a lazy sense of –
Between the two sounds of the front door opening and the front door closing Ashley had swiftly returned the diary to his briefcase, opened a copy of Hansard and begun copying one of Sir Charles’s speeches into a notebook.
He heard the sounds of people moving up the stairs and wondered if his not coming halfway to greet them would Look strange. Could he pretend not to have heard their arrival? He decided not.
‘Ned?’ he called over his shoulder from his desk. ‘Ned, is that you?’
Ashley was standing shyly at the desk with a look of pleased surprise on his face as Ned entered the room in the company of a girl and boy of about the same age, both darkly handsome and deeply tanned.
‘This is Portia. Actually you’ve met.’
‘How do you do?’ said Ashley, with becoming gravity. ‘We have indeed met. The Hard Rock Caf?, although you won’t remember me – your eyes I think were elsewhere.’
‘Of course I remember. Hi!’
Portia shook his hand. Ashley had not had time to wipe it against his trousers and he looked at her closely to see if she reacted to what he knew was the unusually moist clamminess of his palms.
‘And this is Gordon, Portia’s cousin.
‘How do you do?’ said Gordon. Ashley registered with amusement the fact that English Portia had made do with ‘Hi’ while American Gordon preferred a formal ‘How do you do?’ It always amused him when people presented themselves as the opposite of what they were.
‘Surprised?’ said Ned, biffing Ashley clumsily on the shoulder. He too was tanned, but in that lightly golden style of the fair-skinned, as if anything more would be foreign and in poor taste.
‘Well, your father did say that you wouldn’t be back until tomorrow.’
‘The trip, er, ended early in fact,’ Ned’s face looked troubled for a moment. ‘We all decided to take the night train from Glasgow.’
‘Really?’ said Ashley, who knew this perfectly well.
‘Anyway,’ said Ned brightening. ‘I was in London in time to meet the Fendemans off their plane at Heathrow. Not bad, eh?’
‘What a pleasant surprise for them,’ said Ashley.
Gordon was looking awkwardly around the room. Ashley had the feeling that he felt out of place. Indeed, the electrical sparks that crackled between Ned and Portia were little short of embarrassing even for Ashley.
‘The old man been keeping you busy?’ said Ned tearing himself away with an effort from Portia’s smile.
‘It’s been fascinating. Truly fascinating.’
‘You work for Ned’s dad, right?’ said Gordon.
‘That’s right. In fact I ought really … well, actually, here’s an idea… I don’t suppose you’d like to come with me? I’ve got to go over to the House now. Maybe I could show you round?’
‘Of Commons. Parliament. Of course, only if it would interest you…’
‘Sure. That sounds great.’
‘What a brilliant idea!’ Ned grinned with pleasure. ‘Ash, that’s completely decent of you. I bet Gordon would love to see where it all goes on. The cradle of democracy and all that.’
‘Very well then. I’ll just get my briefcase,’ said Ashley, prickling with annoyance at Ned’s fatuous remark. ‘Cradle of democracy’ indeed. Did he not know that Americans regard Washington as the cradle of democracy, just as the French did Paris and the Greeks Athens, and no doubt the Icelanders Reykjavik, each with as much reason? Such typically casual arrogance.
‘Er, we’ll stay here, if that’s okay,’ Ned was saying. ‘Portia has to be at a job interview at four. The Knightsbridge College. Thought I’d … you know, take her there.’
‘It sounds grand but it just means teaching foreigners how to say “This tomato is too expensive”,’ Portia said. ‘It does pay better than the Hard Rock Caf?, though.’
She and Ned were holding hands now. It was apparent that every second Out of each other’s arms was agony to them. Ashley supposed that much of the agony came from a traditional lovers’ quandary that they were too dull-witted to interpret. They wanted to conceal their passion but they couldn’t understand why they also wanted desperately to show it off.
Ashley felt an intense desire to be violently sick.
‘Thought it best to leave them to it,’ he said, closing the front door and looking up at the top-floor window with what he trusted was a reasonable approximation of laddish worldliness. ‘They’ll be at it like knives before we’ve taken two steps.’
Gordon did not respond, but looked down at the ground with pursed lips. Ashley watched him curiously, was this American puritanism or something deeper?
Good God! The instant the possibility struck Ashley he knew it to be right. He could have laughed aloud at his perception. Cousin Gordon is in love with Portia, he told himself with absolute assurance.
The essential truth that people always failed to understand about intelligence, Ashley believed, was that it allowed its possessor deeper intuition and keener instincts than those granted to others. Stupid people liked to delude themselves that while they may not be clever, they were at least able to compensate with
They turned and walked along Catherine Street towards Westminster. Perhaps feeling that his silence was brutish, Gordon began to talk. He confided to Ashley that at the airport his aunt and uncle had more or less forced him onto Ned and Portia.
‘Why don’t you guys take the bus into town together?’ Hillary had said. ‘Have a bite to eat somewhere. Maybe take in a movie. We’ll take care of the luggage.’
Pete had slipped Gordon ten pounds and patted him on the shoulder while Portia bit her lip petulantly and Ned had done his best to look pleased.
‘Just as well we did the tactful thing, then,’ said Ashley. ‘You really don’t have to come to the House of Commons if you don’t feel like it, by the way. It’s most people’s idea of hell. I’d quite understand.’
‘Will they let an American in?’
‘I just have to wave this,’ said Ashley, flourishing his pass and trying not to look proud about it.
‘You gonna be a politician?’
‘Ned’s gonna follow his father, right?’
‘I hardly think so,’ said Ashley, amused. An image came to him of Ned Maddstone in grass-stained cricket whites, flicking the golden flop out of his eyes and rising to speak from the government benches on the subject of currency fluctuations and interest rates. ‘Politics and Ned don’t quite go together.’
‘Really? Only that’s not what Portia said to me.’
‘What do you mean exactly?’
‘She said Ned had told her he was going to follow his father into Parliament one day.’
‘Well, maybe he will,’ Ashley said casually, while something inside him snapped with a familiar fury. Did Ned seriously imagine political seats could be passed on from father to son, like writing-desks and shooting-sticks?
Well, perhaps they could, he reflected bitterly; this is, after all,
‘You all right?’
‘Mm? Yes, fine, fine … miles away,’ Ashley smiled vaguely at Gordon as if emerging from a gently eccentric daydream. ‘So,’ he said brightly. ‘First time you’ve met the great Ned then?’
Gordon nodded cautiously. ‘The Great Ned?’
‘Forgive the promptings of a sarcastic heart,’ said Ashley. ‘He’s very popular of course. Very talented, but … oh, you don’t want to listen to me. None of my business.’
‘Hey, if he’s dating my cousin, I want to know everything there is to know,’ said Gordon. ‘Portia thinks his shit don’t stink. But you’re in school with the guy. You’ve known him longer than she has.’
‘Well, let’s just say I wouldn’t like
‘Hey, look, if I’m in the way…’
‘Not at all. You’ll like Rufus. And he’ll like you. Well, he’ll like your ten pounds. You can buy a lot to drink with ten pounds.’
‘Oh well, if…’
‘I’m joking. He’s as rich as God. And I’m sure you’ll find that you have a great deal in common.
Ned lay in bed gazing up at the ceiling. With a fist clenched over her cheek, Portia slept tightly curled like a kitten beside him.
He hadn’t yet told her about the nightmare of watching Paddy Leclare dying on board the
Sailing back to Scotland with a dead man below had not been pleasant for him. Rufus Cade had behaved oddly too. It seemed natural that Ned should skipper the boat back to Oban and everyone but Cade agreed that it was right and sensible. Ned, without vanity he knew it to be true, was the best sailor amongst them, and surely Leclare’s last bestowal of trust in him proved his right to command? Not that he was able to repeat that secret to Cade or anyone else. For five hours, as dawn broke and they made their miserable way back to harbour, Cade had sullenly criticised all Ned’s decisions and gone out of his way to undermine his authority at every turn. This had never happened to Ned before and had left him feeling hurt and puzzled.
It was only as they were making their way through Oban harbour towards the quayside and the flashing blue lights of the ambulance and police-cars awaiting them that he had understood.
Cade had approached him shyly. ‘Look, I’m sorry, Maddstone,’ he said, staring down at the decking. ‘I suppose I was a bit upset by it all. Didn’t mean to criticise you. It’s right for you to be in charge.’
Ned had laid a hand on Cade’s arm. ‘Bloody hell, Rufus, don’t give it another thought. Under the circumstances you’ve been amazing.’
The rest of the day had passed in a confused dream of witness statements, telephone calls and interminable waiting before Ned had finally been allowed to lead the party off to Glasgow to catch the night train to Euston. Leadership was exhausting.
Portia’s head stirred on his chest and he found himself looking into her eyes.
‘Hello,’ he said.
And they laughed.
Ashley watched as Gordon drained his second Guinness.
‘You seen her, Ashley,’ he said, belching as he wiped the froth from his mouth. ‘She’s beautiful. Wouldn’t you say she’s beautiful?’
‘Very beautiful indeed, Gordon,’ said Ashley who possessed several very old Greek textbooks that he considered infinitely more exciting.
‘Sides,’ Gordon continued. ‘Where I come from you don’t marry out. You just don’t do that. It’s wrong.
Rufus was glowering into a pint of Director’s that he had already chased with three triple whiskies. ‘Marry out? What’s that mean when it’s at home?’
‘Gordon and Portia are Jewish,’ Ashley explained. ‘It isn’t done to marry outside the faith.’
‘I’m a catholic,’ said Rufus. ‘It’s the same with us.’
‘And she won’t look at me,’ said Gordon. ‘She won’t fucking look at me. You know what I’m saying?’
‘You’re saying she won’t look at you?’ said Rufus.
‘Right. You got it. Won’t look at me.
‘I see. That must piss you right off.’
‘Piss me off is right.’
‘It would piss me off too, I can tell you.’
Ashley was pleased to see Gordon and Rufus relaxed with each other, but he dreaded having to cope with two drunks. Although he was in the process of teaching himself everything there was to be known about wine, Ashley took little pleasure in alcohol, and none at all in drunkenness in himself or others. He knew enough not to show it, however and could nurse a drink through several rounds without looking like a prude.
‘So what exactly happened, Rufus? You say Leclare was dead when you returned?’
‘Jesus, Ash, I told you. He sent me off looking for a bottle of fucking Jameson’s that wasn’t there and by the time I got back, there was Saint Ned cradling him in his arms, cooing like a fucking pigeon. Next thing you know he’d helped himself to the command. Treated me like dirt too. Then had the fucking nerve to tell me that “under the circumstances I’d been brilliant. Meaning of course, that under the circumstances
‘Why not?’ said Ashley. ‘Same again please. Gin and tonic, ice but no lemon.’
‘This stuff really gets to your gut,’ said Gordon handing his empty glass to Rufus. ‘Maybe just a half pint this time.’
‘A half of gin and a pint of Guinness and lemon. No ice, but tonic. I’ve got you.’ Rufus began weaving his way to the bar.
‘He’s not half as drunk as he appears,’ said Ashley. ‘His father’s an alcoholic and he’s trying it on for size.
Gordon watched Rufus’s retreating form and then turned to Ashley. ‘You like to see through people, don’t you?’
‘Well,’ said Ashley, in some surprise. ‘Judging from that remark, so do you.
‘Right. Touch?. So tell me, who was this guy, anyway?’
‘The school used him as some sort of sailing-instructor,’ Ashley said with a dismissive wave, as if describing the local cesspit operative. ‘Those who sailed were very fond of him in that insufferably matey way that the yachting fraternity adopts. He was endlessly organising trips in the holidays for boys who could afford it – or cared to busy themselves with an occupation so imponderably tedious,’ Ashley added quickly.
‘I heard of cases in the States where these guys are perverts,’ said Gordon. ‘You know, sailing round the Caribbean with school kids. Kind of weird thing to do.’
‘Yes, but I hardly think so in this case. Whatever you may have read about English public schools that kind of thing is pretty rare.
‘Where’d they go?’
‘From the west of Scotland round to the Giant’s Causeway apparently and then back again. The year before that it was … where did you go last year, Rufus?’ Rufus had returned, and was setting drinks on the table, a bag of peanuts between his teeth.
‘Last year. Where did the Sailing Club go?’
‘The Hook of Holland,’ said Rufus, tearing open the packet with his teeth and pushing it towards Gordon. ‘From Southwold across the North Sea to Flushing. Then up the inland waterways to Amsterdam and all the way back.’
‘And I take it Leclare never molested you in any way? Never threatened the delicate flower of your virginity?’
‘Just a thought we had.’
‘As a matter of fact, I’ve been thinking of going back,’ said Rufus. ‘Amsterdam that is. They have naked girls in the windows and more dope than you’ve ever seen in your life.’
‘You smoke?’ Gordon asked Rufus.
‘Does the Pope shit in the woods?’ Ashley murmured, helping himself to a single peanut.
Gordon lowered his voice excitedly. ‘You couldn’t put me on to someone, could you?’ he asked. ‘I haven’t had a smoke since I got here. I mentioned it to Portia one time and she looked at me like I was shit.’
‘Be a pleasure,’ said Rufus genially waving a hand. ‘You a grass man or a hash man?’
‘Grass,’ said Gordon.
‘No problem. As a matter of fact, I just happen to have on me the most seriously…
Ashley’s heart sank at the prospect of the conversation descending into drug talk. It was so much more amusing to hear Rufus and Gordon swapping complaints about Ned. Ned and drugs, unfortunately, did not mix in conversation. Mind you, of course …
‘Wouldn’t it be fun,’ said Ashley, sipping his gin and tonic primly, ‘to watch Maddstone being busted by the Drug Squad? Bit of a scandal, bit of a disgrace, bit of a come down for the holy one and his father, don’t you think? And just
Rufus giggled and Gordon’s mouth fell open.
‘He’s going to be taking her to – what was it called? Something absurdly pretentious – the Knightsbridge College, that was it,’ Ashley continued dreamily. ‘Suppose the police were told that a wicked drug dealer had been seen hanging around outside the college most afternoons, distributing illegal substances to the students. Imagine witnessing the golden boy being led away in handcuffs.’
‘Yeah, but how…
‘His jacket’s at the bottom of the stairs. All we have to do, surely, is use a little intelligence.’
Ned stood naked at the window of his bedroom looking out over London. In an hour or so he might go down and scramble some eggs. Otherwise why would he ever want to leave this room for the rest of his life? They could stay here for ever. Only Portia had to be ready for her job interview. But they’d come back from that and run straight back up here again. Of course tomorrow morning his father was coming down from the country and they must be presentable then, but tomorrow was a world away. He couldn’t wait for Portia to meet his father, he felt they would become instant friends. A vista of their future years together appeared before him. Portia and Pa at Christmas, in the maternity ward, on holiday together. The smiling, the laughing, the affection, the love … he wanted to weep with ecstasy.
A movement in the street below caught his eye. Ashley and Gordon were returning to the house, a third person between them. Ned smiled when he recognised the lumbering gait of Rufus Cade. How on earth had they bumped into him? Any other time it would be fun to welcome them in, but…
Never usually unsociable or selfish, Ned crept to the door and gently turned the key in the lock. The very delicacy of the sound woke Portia.
‘Did you just lock the door?’
“Fraid so,’ whispered Ned. ‘The others are coming back. Thought we might pretend to have gone out.’
Portia watched Ned crossing the room towards her and an intense happiness rushed through her like wind through grasses and she shivered and rippled with so much pleasure that she almost believed it was pain.
‘Don’t ever leave me.
‘No fear,’ Ned whispered, climbing back into bed.
They heard Ashley’s voice calling up the stairs.
‘We won’t disturb you both. Something I had to fetch. You young people enjoy yourselves!’
The smothered laughter of Gordon and Rufus delighted them. How wonderful it was to be giggled about.
Ned sighed with the completest fulfilment and joy. Where in all the universe was anyone so unfathomably lucky? He was young, healthy and happy and without a care or an enemy in the world.