Chapter 1: Getting your wings in time
Jon Marlow remembered vividly the moment he realised that the meaning of his nickname had shifted for good, because he’d responded to the recognition with a ferocious, bald-headed, entirely uncharacteristic determination to fuck F/O Peter Marlowe into the middle of next year.
They’d become friendly soon after Marlowe had arrived at RAF Hornchurch, despite the difference in rank, age and experience. Hence the nickname: No-Relation Marlow, No-Rel. for short. It had originated, of course, in Jon’s invariable pendant to an introduction—and by Christ, there had been a lot of introductions. It had retained that connotation for weeks, months, lifetimes.
It happened one evening in September 1940, when the officers’ mess was being its quite usual self, which was to say a Cubist study in pinprick pupils, creased, asymmetrical faces and agitated hands set to a twelve-tone composition of shrill, deliberate, brittle laughter. Marlowe was telling the story of how he’d been hit in combat with a couple of 109s, nursed his Spitfire back across the Channel and force-landed in a fallow field next to a hop garden. A couple picnicking in the shade of their Austin Ruby had offered him a cup of tea and a lift to a nearby roadhouse.
‘Could have wiped his eye,’ Marlowe drawled, pulling a slip of paper bearing a telephone number from his top pocket. ‘And she was quite—’ he doodled pneumatically in the air. ‘But she had lipstick on her teeth.’ He shuddered fastidiously and set the flame of his lighter to it. ‘To the maintenance of standards, gentlemen.’
Before either paper or ribald acclamation had quite expired, it had become clear to Jon that he was no longer the eccentric cynosure of their group, who with cheerful derision disavowed connection to another of the same name, but himself No Relation to imperturbable, handsome, brilliant, lucky Peter Marlowe. If he could manage to screw him, it wouldn’t matter a bit. If not, Jon thought he may very well have to kill him.
As it happened it was easy, so easy that Jon, waking from the languid drowse that was fortunately their shared response to sexual climax—he couldn’t abide men in whom it provoked expressions of unreserve—quite expected to have to contain and manage self-reproach turned outwardly, violently expressive. But Marlowe came round affectionate and amused, wriggling with pleasure at the promise of coffee.
‘No,’ he said slowly, draining the cup as he perched on the corner of the bed, shivering slightly though the gas fire was on, ‘I don’t think I should have liked to die without having—and,’ he added quickly, ‘I couldn’t imagine it being anyone else.’ Jon reached forward to slap the back of his head and ruffle his lank, fair hair.
‘Really never before? Not at school?’
‘Mmm. That doesn’t count, does it? But actually not. There was a terrific scandal at my place the year before I arrived; the Head of my House, of the whole School in fact, bloke called—Langham, I think—was expelled. So they watched us all like—like—’
‘You can say hawks if you like. I’ll just think of The Gowk and despise you a very little bit.’
Marlowe grinned: he was one of those rare men who enjoyed take as much as give in repartee. ‘The which?’
‘A merlin I kept as a kid. It’s North Country for cuckoo, or idiot. Because she wasn’t a proper hawk at all. Never took as much as a lark. Devoted to me, she was. The Guv’nor thought it was rather excruciating, especially considering the time my sister and I spent tearing about the countryside after his real hawks.’
‘Oh, I see. Um—Jon. I suppose this is as good a time to say it as any. I’ve one a bit like that. Sort of two, actually. One’s at school still, but the other—’
Peter glanced at him shyly, looking every earnest month of his nineteen years. Jon snorted. ‘—Is ready to be entered? Peter. How do you feel about it really?’
‘I don’t know, quite. Men without women; bit of a joke, isn’t it?’
He inched up the bed and let his head fall on Jon’s thigh. Jon stroked his hair and drew him up into his arms.
‘It’s quite all right, you know. Anyone can have a once-off, especially under these conditions. It’s a narrow furrow and not one to plough unless you’re sure you can’t—look, I’ll pack in the agricultural metaphors, they don’t suit me. If you can be happy with women—’
‘Happy,’ he said derisively, ‘I’ve been happy. You—that—was—’
‘—the fascinating metabolic effects of a much closer shave than you’re letting on, if it’s easier to think of it like that,’ Jon announced over Marlowe’s whispered bliss, which he registered and reserved for contemplation in solitude. ‘I’m not complaining, by the way.’
‘No, ass. I’ve wanted you practically since we met.’ He ran a long, tapering index finger along the sparse, sandy trail of hair between Jon’s navel and the root of his cock. ‘And I didn’t think I was that way at all. So it felt fairly bloody for ages, especially once I twigged that you were, oddly enough. Have you always known?’
‘And you never tried to—?’
‘No. I know some men take pride in having made the attempt; me, I’ve always laboured under the quaint delusion that women are people too, and they’d probably rather not with a fellow who’d rather not. I daresay having a face like an overdone mutton chop helps. If I had to beat them off with a mucky stick, like some men I could mention, I might have succumbed once or twice out of vanity.’
‘What if vanity’s all it is, though—’
‘In addition to being very probably untrue if it’s only just occurred to you, that sounds like an unsuccessful first draft of the second verse of Ecclesiastes.’
‘There’s no need to feel you’ve burnt your bridges, is all I’m saying,’ Jon said hardily. ‘Don’t let her—them—go, for Christ’s sake, and may they never meet. And if you really can’t do without the occasional morsel from the other end of the buffet—well, take it from one who’s been around. You’ll hear a lot of bull talked about the confraternity, usually by the ones who made a sort of Greek mystery out of it and then had a hell of crash when they found it full of ordinarily lousy human beings. It can get pretty shady in places, though. Would be a lot less so, if the beaks could be persuaded to keep their beaks out. But you should know what you’re getting yourself into before you do something you regret.’
‘All right. Are you trying to make me feel cheap before you lay on or something? Our Head used to do that like nobody’s business.’
Jon hesitated. He couldn’t see Marlowe’s face properly, pressed to his chest as it was, but he could hear no salaciousness in the boy’s pettish tone. The nine years between them yawned as they never had before. Jon had scant personal taste for the other English vice, but enough devotees passed through his hands that he’d laid hands on a couple of instruments to cater to it; for Marlowe it probably belonged only to smutty postcards and not to the real world at all. His innocence was the invincible touch pitch sort: it would see him through hell on earth. It made Jon desire him jealously and exclusively, and that was the sort of peril he emphatically didn’t go in for.
‘What am I getting myself into, then?’ Marlowe asked.
‘Bloody hell. You had me going for a minute there with that unfrocked scoutmaster routine.’
‘I meant it. But at my back I always hear, you know. I just haven’t time to jaw you any more, especially not if this is our farewell fuck. Which it is.’
Marlowe’s blue eyes clouded. ‘I don’t think I want it to b—’
Jon stopped his mouth with a vigorous kiss.
Chapter 2: Anyone but a Marlow up the hill
Note: brief and inexplicit reference to underage sex, with a typical English public-school power differential.
Few enough people were left to call Jon No Relation by the time Peter Marlowe was posted to Java, and none when Jon heard he’d been reported missing in action. He felt a pang for him, but he’d lost far closer friends and lovers, including a man with whom, for a couple of heady months in 1943, he’d allowed himself to think he could have spent a lifetime—which, of course, in a sense, he had. The thought that his optimism had somehow contrived to fire the torpedoes that sank Jacek’s ship was tenacious, surprisingly difficult to dismiss as the mental luggage of twenty generations of farmers and sailors with the odd actor thrown in for good measure.
Otherwise, Jon had what they called a Good War, almost too Good, for by the end of it he had been promoted to Group Captain and was serving as Station Commander at RAF Marston Moor, a job he loathed and at which he knew himself close to incompetent, though the experience was instructive in convincing him that the peacetime RAF was very emphatically not his bag. His father’s death had rendered him a landowner in name, though Trennels and its six hundred acres were still occupied by War Office functionaries. Demobbed early, he considered a post with BOAC, flying de Havilland Herons and Doves on West African routes. But then he received notification that Trennels too was being released from its war service, and he went south more with the thought of barring the entail than farming the land. Whereupon the War Office had, in its wisdom, abruptly decided it needed the ancestral pile for a bit longer; infuriated, Jon lodged in the estate’s tied cottage and waited upon the insolence of office and the law’s delay.
Having been used to mobility, anonymity and the sex it facilitated, he found rural Dorset intolerable: he went up to town as often as he could, running through his savings faster than he could have thought possible. He even went back to Tockwith, an excursion which, considered sensibly, was practically thrift, requiring only the outlay of a train-fare and an appalling meal in a country hotel for the friend who put him up, and yielding an exhilarating hour with the twenty-one-year-old LAC whose lazy, provoking flint-grey stare, strait waist and tight, high-carrying arse had been one of many small torments in his final, bored months at Marston Moor. Whether the lad was triumphant or embarrassed at having fucked his former Station Commander over a redundant filing cabinet in a disused temporary hut could not certainly be determined from that uncannily steady gaze, some flat Sheffield laconisms and the gift of a peregrine tiercel that was not to be reasonably accommodated along with three schoolgirl sisters and his parents in a two-bedroom terrace in Old Parson’s Cross, but it all left Jon, lounging in the guard’s van with a distinctly unimpressed Rupert shifting in the basket beside him, feeling that he was better positioned than most men to negotiate a world in which social distinction was breaking down.
He returned to a small, dispiriting pile of post and Mrs Herbert’s voluble consternation over the new acquisition. The Guv’nor’s old hawkhouse was choked with apparatus dating from Trennels’ days as a Commando training school, but the cottage had a brick boilerhouse sufficiently dry and warm to serve as Rupert’s quarters. There was something appallingly melancholy about a mews with only one inmate, though: a gos would be good. Jon had always felt an obscure affinity with goshawks. The Guv’nor had imported one from Germany before the war, but that contact was unlikely still to be viable.
It took until the early hours of the morning to make the outhouse ready for its new resident and acclimatise him to it; Jon consequently slept later than he’d meant. Camp coffee, even accompanied by a substantial dose of nicotine, could not render him equal to the mostly manila stack on the hall table: it was mid-afternoon before he tackled it. Bill, statement, circular, bill, Inland Revenue, circular, discouragingly chirpy letter from Malcolm Blake saying that since they hadn’t been able to engage Julian (who the hell was Julian?) after all, the Summer School had been undersubscribed and all females blah blah unexpected expense of damp-coursing blah blah sure things would pick up after Easter and the Mystery Cycle but so very frightfully sorry but it would be June at the earliest hope he understood he’d been so astonishingly patient scarcely dare to presume upon yours with much love. Jon wondered what on earth had persuaded him to lend actual money to a provincial theatre outfit dedicated to the presentation of Art to the Folk and the training of amateurs in dramatic craft, and remembered that in addition to the claims of ancient affection, Malcolm had exercised his extraordinarily fluent tongue.
The final item was approximately cream-coloured, stiffer than the others, a coarse, flimsy but resourceful iteration of a pre-war invitation. Though the writing was unfamiliar, the lack of stamp or postmark proclaimed its provenance. He turned it over, hesitating before deploying the letter-opener. Jon had called at Mariot Chase upon his return, spending the regulation twenty minutes failing to account for himself and his Good War to Helena Merrick, crisp and pitiless in Double Elevens fashion, but that had been before Anthony’s demob. He’d been back over a fortnight now and somehow their paths hadn’t crossed.
To Anthony Merrick appertained the social constraint peculiar to a person who has occasioned in oneself an irrevocable advance in self-knowledge, and must never know. His intermediate position in the chronological hierarchy of boyhood—he was four years older than Jon and three younger than Geoff—would probably have precluded any very close friendship with the cousins even in the absence of Anthony’s solitary disposition and the sectarian difference which meant they did not meet at church or the various sedate amusements laid on for the youth of the parish (lucky Merrick, not having to stew through the Vicar’s magic lantern shows of New Testament Archaeology). Jon’s sister Katharine, though more of an age with him, regarded his reserve as hauteur and his interests as unmanly affectation. Until his second Christmas holiday from public school, Jon was inclined to find her judgement fair, if harsh: a taste for French poetry and books printed in black-letter was certainly very queer, though Merrick was moderately athletic and by any standard an impressive horseman.
And then, a few days before Christmas, Jon had come in late from an afternoon spent nominally helping Ted Colthard repair fences, though in fact aimlessly swinging a mallet and listening to the morose young cowman’s many grievances against his fiancée’s mother in the hope of eliciting lurid local apocrypha and tobacco, and after perfunctory ablutions in the scullery, had pelted for the drawing-room, colliding with a slim, tall figure emerging from it.
‘Damn, blow, blast and bl—gosh, sorry.’
‘All right—no harm done.’ Merrick brushed a dark lock of hair from his forehead and smiled. His face was squarer and heavier than Jon remembered it.
‘Jon?’ growled the Guv’nor out of the flickering gloom, ‘you clumsy little fool, nearly left Trinity with a vacancy for an exhibitioner. Make yourself useful and see young Merrick out, will you?’
‘What?’ Jon blinked in confusion. A self-conscious grimace had replaced Merrick’s grown-up smile. ‘Oh, yes, I see—congratters. Which?’
‘Cambridge.’ He let the baize door shut behind them.
‘What to read?’
Jon, who had been dismayed to find this subject was not, as an energetic and eccentric prep school master had implied, re-enacting Actium on the Bathing Pond or Agincourt over the schoolroom desks, but a dreary matter of Cinque Ports and alien merchants, nodded dumbly. ‘When did you get home?’ Merrick asked politely.
‘Marchester, isn’t it?’
‘How do you find it? Not too gruesome?’
They had reached the front door. Jon opened it.
‘All right, goodbye.’ Merrick extended his hand, but before Jon could take it, reached into his coat. ‘Oh, damn. Nearly forgot, and it’s what I came for, at least as far as Ma’s concerned. Twelfth Night bunfight. One’s for Geoff, if he’s about.’ It took Jon a moment to work out the flattering significance of the third envelope.
‘Gosh. Thanks, thanks awfully. Merry Christmas.’
‘Merry Christmas.’ Merrick laid a friendly hand on his shoulder, turned, and jogged down the steps to the drive. That was all, but Jon entered the drawing-room dazed, a lover sworn.
That night he had soothed himself into dreams with the thought of riding on the Crowlands at Merrick’s side, descending to the bay where before the War a regatta had been held each year (there was exciting talk of reviving it), stripping off and swimming out to bask among the cradling ripples and susurrations of a sleepy August sea, out away from land, out alone together. They would dive, and their naked bodies would brush as they passed above and below one another, and perhaps they might surface in a hilarious embrace, but no more than that: this was love, virtuous and chaste, nothing like school. Geoff had warned him before his first term that on no account should he agree to meet a fellow more than a year his senior out walking, or anything of that kind, then turned an appraising eye upon Jon’s rough hair, jug-ears and freckled cheerful-monkey features, remarking that in his case it probably wouldn’t apply; stung, Jon made a point of accepting the first invitation he got that wasn’t from a notorious brute. Nothing that Bethune had asked of him was very disagreeable, and—more even than the eclairs that accompanied tea afterwards—Jon had relished the sense of power over someone larger and stronger than himself, power to make him shudder and gasp and eventually relinquish control. He did not want that hold over Anthony Merrick. In fact, quite the opposite. And gradually, over the eight painful, stammering, pigeon-toed, hot-making, water-kneed, staircase-spirit-haunted vacations of Jon’s infatuation, it became increasingly clear exactly what that really meant. Not the temporary consequence of education sequestered from half the human race, not for want of anything better, not to be remedied by Parties With Girls. This was how he was, would be all his life, and he was going to have to make the best of it.
Tessa, perturbed by her master’s reverie, loped across the hearthrug to nudge the card from his hand.
‘Well, that’s all fairly prehistoric, isn’t it?’ he said, scratching her behind the ears as he bent to retrieve it. Anthony had married rather young, then taken his time about producing an heir who—yes, he remembered Helena’s response to his dutiful enquiry—was in his last year at St Martin’s Ampleforth and looking forward to his elevation to the College proper. Odd that they hadn’t turned out even a spare, let alone a veritable rugger side of little left-footers, or perhaps not, no stranger than Geoff’s teeming brood, who would, he reflected, probably want to turn Trennels into their fine and private Butlins again in the summer.
‘Bugger that, eh, darling? Get a tenant in here and sod off to town, Since Before the Conquest or no Since Before the Conquest.’ Tessa raised her head from his lap and barked solemn assent.
In stockinged feet, underpants and boiled shirt, Jon looked down at the dinner jacket laid out on the bed. It still fit him all right—Mrs Bertie had, with more good sense than tact, urged him to verify this a fortnight ago—and, briskly sponged and aired, hardly smelled of mothballs at all. But the wide lapels and drape legs looked callow and ostentatious, impossibly Before The War—or Between The Wars, looked at another way. He shrugged and reached for the trousers. The party was likely to be a pretty motley, made-over affair sartorially speaking anyway, and gastronomically even worse. The sit-down suppers of old were an impossibility: Jon gloomily pictured the buffet of paste sandwiches, sugarless sponge fingers and ‘shape’ the colour of used sticking plaster, and hoped the Merricks had been resourceful about booze at least. The invitation said Dancing, so they probably had turned out the ballroom and hired a band; a gramophone and chairs pushed to the edge of the drawing-room were not, in Helena’s lexicon, Dancing. That he could live with. On the dancefloor, Jon’s fine physical co-ordination compensated for the very inverse of a feeling for music, and in this County milieu his role was an immutable, comforting one: he delivered plain wallflowers from embarrassment, attractive ingenues from pests, and fled for the billiard room whenever there was a slow number. He grinned, buttoning: they should see him at the Swiss. Imagine if they really did: would it be apoplexies all round, or I-told-you-sos?
The capacity of the Land Rover meant he had a wide-ish circuit of lifts to give, looping around Rushton and the Marshalls, Compton and Centaury, to the accompaniment of Mr Lidgett’s commentary on the suspension (admittedly, wretched), Mrs Holden’s concerns about dog hair on her gown (he had swept out the floor and laid clean though threadbare towels across the seats, which he considered above and beyond) and Mrs Prescott’s praise for his astute management of the petrol ration. In anyone else he would have taken this last for insinuation, and replied very shortly indeed, but he could be fairly sure that to the charitable widow, urn-shaped in crepe and jet, the Black Market was a mere murky idea with shadowy Cockneys wearing shiny serge and pencil moustaches flitting in and out of it, not to be connected to her respectable country neighbours at all.
By the time they reached Mariot Chase the dining-room and drawing-room were full of guests exclaiming over Helena’s ingenuity (no sign of capitulation to ‘shape’, and what looked promisingly like cream horns, but probably contained some frightful substitute having the approximate texture and flavour of wallpaper paste.) Tuning sounds could be heard in the ballroom: before Jon had managed to secure himself a pink gin and report to his hostess they broke into a swing tune, and the crowd thinned quickly towards the dancefloor. A trim, ineluctably familiar figure in RAF blue (insignia invisible) still stood in the middle of the drawing-room, engaged by that appalling bore Benson and the large, pleasant young woman who owned the riding school—Elizabeth something beginning with A, wasn’t it? The RAF officer shifted and let one arm swing by his side, revealing himself S/L, but that was no help—oh, Jesus Christ, it was Collins. Collins, in whom Jon had confided when news about the extent of the losses to Convoy PQ-17 began to come in, Collins who had reciprocally disclosed that someone he cared for had been taken prisoner early on and not heard from since, Collins with whom he’d gone on a thick-witted, shattered drunk in York, ending in a humiliating, though thankfully mutual, loss of vigour and appetite in the Royal Station Hotel. His last secure memory of Collins was of almost colourless lips, wetly and hopelessly encircling his own slack prick: there must have been more, but the decision to desist and put the twin beds to lawful use, the morning’s embarrassed parting, had been scrubbed out of recollection.
Collins must, in due course, be faced and engaged. But not yet. Jon took a gulp of gin and scanned the room with the social equivalent of a professional reflex—two bandits above and ahead, my one o’clock—except it wasn’t professional, was it, not any more, not even amateur, unless he could swing a few speed tests out at Rushton, where Collins must be newly stationed, hell’s bells—
‘Oh, Jon, good evening. I knew you’d arrived, because Dottie Holden—’ Mrs Merrick let this observation trail tactfully away. Jon smiled.
‘How do you do, Helena? What a splendid show. You must have worked like the devil.’
The dark-haired, skinny lad who was doing his damnedest both to lurk in Helena’s shadow and disclaim any connection to her must be Patrick, but Jon was hanged if he was going to do anything as grossly avuncular as say it. The boy toed the floor mutinously.
‘Thank you; one’s supposed to say it’s the merest nothing, but there honestly was rather a lot of legwork—Pat, for goodness sake stop hacking divots out of the carpet: we shan’t be able to replace it this century as it is. Jon, this churl, believe it or not, is my son, Patrick. Do you remember Group Captain Marlow, Pat?’
‘Of course, Ma. I’m not three.’
‘Well, it’s probably F/L Marlow you remember, to be fair. I’d certainly rather be him. But now, just plain J. L. N. Marlow, farmer, I’m afraid. How do you do?’ Jon extended his hand.
The eyes that now met his turned a face otherwise a replica of Anthony’s at a similar age into something quite different. Anthony’s dark eyes were to drown in, never more than when they glittered with mischief; his son’s were a brown so pale as to be almost yellow, piercing yet rebuffing overture, like a hawk’s. The Guv’nor’s invariable spiel echoed in memory: You don’t own her, she doesn’t like you, she won’t be faithful, she’ll only come back if you make it worth her while. At best, you work together. Good practice for marriage.
Patrick mumbled a salutation. His palm was clammy; Jon well remembered that affliction of the early teens and empathised.
‘Will you be at the Meet tomorrow?’ Jon asked, hoping that he would, since his next conversational resource was school, and he also remembered how foul that line of grown-up enquiry was.
Patrick brightened and nodded, his face still flaring.
‘It’s his first,’ Helena interposed. ‘I can’t say that the suspensions bothered me unduly, but Anthony’s been like one of the wretched gees, champing at the bit, and I think the impatience is hereditary in the male line. Group Captain Marlow will give you some tips, Pat, I’m sure.’ Her posture shifted from neutral into first: Jon realised, amused, that his facility for social rescue had been exploited to a slightly unexpected end. But he also genuinely wanted Patrick to find him amiable, a wish that surprised him: the last time he had felt any desire to be liked by a thirteen-year-old boy he had himself been one. He supposed that really did mean what it seemed to. He had always vaguely assumed that being queer exempted him from paternal urges; he understood now, painfully, that it just stopped him fulfilling them.
‘I absolutely promise I shan’t,’ he said, over-brightly, when Helena was out of earshot, ‘and don’t let me get away with telling you whiskery old anecdotes out of Surtees as if they happened to a friend of mine. What’s your pony like?’
Grinning shyly, Patrick told him. It did not take them long, from there, to start talking hawks.
‘—only one, which is rather lowering, especially as he was trained by someone else. Very well-trained, as it happens. And nothing like him for pluck. I might almost fly him at rook, if he weren’t quite such a shrimp. But I can’t in good conscience go around calling myself a falconer until I’ve trained a hawk again. I’m hoping a Dutchman I know might take a passage gos for me in the spring.’
‘Oh! How splendid.’ Patrick looked at him quickly, sidelong, clearly trying to keep entreaty from his sharp, yellow gaze. Touched, Jon capitulated without thinking.
‘The spring passage comes at a fairly busy time. Not that one’s ever not busy, really, on a farm. But lambing, calving, top-dressing the wheat, slurry-spreading, you know. So if the gos does work out, I could definitely do with an assistant, if such a person were around during his Easter vac, and so on.’
‘You mean me? Really? Be your cadger?’
‘You’ve been reading up. The Guv’nor always said that was a job description with a month’s notice built in, but since you used it of yourself—what have you read, by the way?’
‘Just Gilbert Blaine. Aunt Florence slipped up this Christmas and sent me something decent. I’ve read it through twice already.’
‘Well, that’s an excellent place to start. Quite the best modern book. And you must come and see Rupert before you go back to school, get some practical experience. That is,’ he added quickly, reminded of Patrick’s age by his lip-biting, fist-clenching glee, ‘if your parents say you may.’
‘I’m sure they will. Thanks awfully, Group Captain Marlow.’
‘We’ll have to dispense with that mouthful, for starters. Strictly first name terms.’
Patrick threw him a wild, proud look, Scaevola before Lars Porsena. Jon recognised the desperate insolence born of introversion, and hoped at least a few of Patrick’s schoolmasters did too. ‘You don’t like being reminded of it, frightfully, do you? It must have been mouldy having to chuck the RAF.’
‘Would have been mouldier if I hadn’t ended up flying a mahogany Spit.’
‘Mahogany? Oh—I see!’ Patrick giggled, delightedly tickled as only a child deciphering a hoary bit of jargon for the first time can be. ‘Was it crashingly boring?’
‘Yes. But—’ he looked again at the keen small face, seeing in it some of Anthony’s uncompromising integrity, and decided the boy would not only understand, but perhaps even sympathise. ‘That’s not it really. I could only live with myself as long as I was personally sharing the risk. When it became a matter of despatching others, I lost my nerve rather.’
Patrick nodded solemnly, hands thrust deep in his pockets. He opened his mouth, then shut it again, clearly recognising whatever equivalent schoolboy predicament he had in mind as unutterable bathos. Jon tapped his shoulder lightly. ‘Glum subject for a party. Come on. If we don’t take a turn around the floor we’ll catch it as hardened misogynists.’
‘Who’s Miss Oj—’ Patrick wrinkled his nose and dropped about six years of age.
‘Someone who doesn’t like girls.’
‘Oh. They’re all right in their place, I suppose.’
‘Oh, lots of places. Dancefloors, racing yachts. GC&CS. I’m not joking. On balance women don’t faff anything like we do—speaking of.’ He gave him a little shove between the shoulderblades.
But in short order, buoyed by the heartening prospects of both hunting and hawking, Patrick could be observed engaging a pale flop-haired creature whose promotion from the infants’ party was more a bewilderment to her than an honour, for the Gay Gordons. Jon had barely entered the ballroom before being annexed by Maudie Culver, who only ventured onto the floor for the country dances; he acquiesced to her onslaught in the interest, he supposed, of esprit de corps. Collins, wearing the rictus of someone who has found himself implicated in national stereotype and minds about it, led out Helena’s spinster sister. Jon caught his eye, hoping his social semaphore was up to Yes, it is me, let’s scoot off to the terrace for a smoke as soon as they’ve played the last bar, and earnestly not mention that horrendously shy-making night in ‘43. The riding instructress had snagged herself a distractingly superb officer cadet whom Jon realised with a jolt must be Anthony’s cousin Ronnie, last seen as a knobbly conglomeration of scabs, snot and ink-blots, younger than Patrick was now. 'Here’s to them that shoot and miss,' Jon muttered, and clasped Maudie’s imperiously raised right hand.
'cadger': old term for a falconer's assistant, from 'carrier'.
GC&CS: Government Code and Cypher School, the forerunner of GCHQ. Most of the wartime staff at the Bletchley Park centre were women.
The goshawk arrived in a lamentable state: more primaries snapped than not, her tail feathers askew. Her first hours in his possession were a hell of rageful bates: fearful that she might hang herself in her jesses on her very first night, Jon settled with his pipe to an obsolete watch, feeling nonetheless satisfyingly Elizabethan about it. He did so at Mariot Chase: upon hearing that Jon was keeping hawks again, Anthony had, he sensed in the teeth of Helena’s opposition, offered the old hawkhouse. The walled garden, meanwhile, might have been designed by an austringer, gradually to accustom a skittish goshawk to humanity.
For a little while, Rupert stolidly watched the palaver from his safe distance at the other end of the hawkhouse, then with great dignity turned his back upon the mannerless new arrival. At three in the morning she began to calm down, to peck, with a pettish and mincing motion, at the split rabbit’s head in Jon’s glove. Around dawn he felt a familiar blankness, as if the pearlescent mists outside had entered, and were scouring out, the inside of his skull. Christ, he was old—practically middle-aged—and soft. Sentimental too, if he was starting to think back on the Benzedrine and Medinal merry-go-round with nostalgia. But he had to be realistic: if he didn’t get some fresh air, he would undoubtedly nod. She would step to the fist voluntarily now, and condescended, with a distant air, to take another morsel of rabbit. He thought he might risk her across the quiet stable-yard, to view her daytime habitation.
Her steely plumage seemed more than half made of the grey dawnlight: tattered and in need of imping as she was, out here Jon could begin to picture her flying low, sloping sideways, slaying by stealth. He stroked her chest. ‘Solace and gladness, much mirth and no madness,’ he murmured optimistically, ‘all good and no badness—’ What was that? Shakespeare, perhaps, something that the Fool or Tom's-a-cold said in King Lear. ‘So maidenly, so womanly, her something, something, far—’
As if offended by this patronising allusion to her sex (though in truth it was probably some barely-audible scuffle behind one of the stable doors that caused it) she chose that moment to bate off, diving impetuously from his fist. Her aggrieved yell tore through the still air, waking whickers and stamps all around. He helped her back onto his fist, and she promptly did it again. Patiently he settled her twice more before deciding it was hopeless; he should have to turn back. But at that moment the blistered green door to the orchard opened and Anthony appeared, in disreputable tweed trousers and a decommissioned olive drab jumper, eyes hollow and jaw blue, as if he had been meditating all night on the rights and wrongs of assassinating Caesar. It was hardly a surprise: Anthony was just the type to suffer chronic insomnia, and he managed to look rather good on it, saturnine and bleakly handsome. For a second Jon was possessed by the ludicrous ghost of his old unrequital, anxious and excited all at once. But it was Anthony’s face that lit into a reverent passion.
‘By God,’ he breathed, ‘isn’t she an absolute ripper!’
And so she was christened.
Patrick returned from school later that week: he proved as fearless with the intimidating Ripper as with polite Rupert, and seamlessly acquired the falconer’s habit of savagely impugning the hawks in the gentlest wheedling voice, as well as quite a lot of ripe RAF slang. Jon hoped he did not carry this latter into the drawing-room presided over by his mother: the source would be shockingly obvious, and though he would sooner forswear all his pleasures by land, air and sea than admit it, Helena rather intimidated him. Today, though, the spectre of an even more fearsome representative of femininity hovered over him: he had received an At Home from Miss Culver. He hadn’t thought such well-bred summonses had survived the war.
Patrick was replenishing sawdust and tidying furniture onto the pegs, softly whistling ‘Lilliburlero’. Jon thought it a curious favourite for an RC, though the sons of English recusant gentry probably viewed these things in a different light from the Irish working men who constituted the unmentionable portion of Jon’s Catholic acquaintance. Like his father, Patrick spoke openly and simply of faith; Jon shared, to a fault, the shyness typical of the religious Establishment. The subject made him feel as if they had swapped places, and Patrick was suddenly twenty years his senior; but it was almost the only one on which there was constraint between them. They spoke mostly objectively, of work and things, not hesitating, however, occasionally to tag them onto an emotion or relationship. In his glummer moments Jon wondered if their easy camaraderie did not denote some profound immaturity in himself, but such introspection was not characteristic: he bucked himself up with the thought that he had no son, nor, barring an entire revolution in temperament, was likely to have, and nor could he, had Patrick been a few years older, have reassured himself that the amity was disinterested. What was it Anthony said, with an ironical twitch of his lips, Tout est pour le mieux dans le meilleur des mondes possibles?
‘I say,’ Jon said, ‘here’s something to test those iron nerves of yours.’
As Patrick turned his head Jon caught the tail-end of an immoderate, thrilled hope of a sail in Surfrider, or even a flight in the Manx Bastard, which was Jon’s light censorship for young and tender ears of the HP.77’s standard Rushton nickname, though actually he found it more accurate too; nothing very kestrel-like about the Bastard, whereas it was illegitimate in almost every way you could think of. He saw he had misstepped in a manner that could only be retrieved by small, but conscious, cruelty.
‘Really test them, I mean,’ he went on remorselessly, ‘how would you like to have tea at Monks’ Culvery on Thursday?’
Patrick made a elaborate John Dory face. ‘No fear.’
‘I thought it might be rather your cup of char, actually. Not making up to Maudie—’ Patrick’s grimace deepened. ‘But there’s some impressive medieval gubbins up there, which she might be persuaded to show us if we coo back at her potty pigeons. There isn’t much left except mossy stones of the original place, all carted away at the—um, the Reformation. And the house is only Georgian. But the dovecote’s 13-something, and I think one could imagine that Richard III stayed at the abbey—didn’t he get prophesied at in Exeter once?’
Patrick’s dark, hectic brows drew together. ‘That’s just Shakespeare,’ he said disgustedly. ‘Ma dragged me along once, and we didn’t see anything except the grotty old drawing room, and Miss Culver kept sort of—wheeling on me and booming about footer and hygiene, by which she apparently meant cold baths, and in the end I got fed up and said I found hot water got the dirt off better, on the whole—what’s the joke?’
‘Oh, nothing. Just imagining the scene. Childe Patrick Defends His Ablutions Before the Queen of the Viragoes, you know.’
‘Ma seemed to find it rather excruciating too. Grown-ups are queer sometimes. But it would be more fun with you, of course,’ Patrick conceded generously.
‘I thought we could use the petrol as an excuse and ride over.’
‘Yes, all right. And I’ll ask Pa to let me have a rummage in Aunt Eulalia—’
‘Rummage in who?’
‘Oh—she did local history. Tomes and tomes. There’s bound to be a bit about Monks’ Culvery. Would you like to come up to the library now?’
‘Better not. I’d like to, but I bet old Shep’s already missed me on the custom’d hill.’
'Shakespeare, perhaps, something that the Fool or Tom's-a-cold said in King Lear': actually, John Skelton, 'To Mistress Margaret Hussey'.
Tout est pour le mieux dans le meilleur des mondes possibles: usually translated 'All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds', Dr Pangloss's motto in Candide.
'the HP.77’s standard Rushton nickname, though actually he found it more accurate too; nothing very kestrel-like about the Bastard': The HP.77 is imaginary, though I had some tailless experimental aircraft of the 1940s in mind. Jon is thinking of the uncommon, but celebrated folk-name for a kestrel, 'fuckwind' or 'windfucker'.
Chapter 5: Massive and Imposing Edifice
Note: some of the period-typical attitudes in this chapter include associations of homosexuality with pedophilia.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
‘Blast the boy. He was here a moment ago. Sorry, Group Captain—’
The tired, overworked-looking housekeeper turned at the sound of footsteps behind her in the tiled hall.
‘Oh, Olwen, there you are. Do us a favour and take these gentlemen’s horses round to the yard, will you? And find that wretched boy, he’s sloped off again.’
‘Mu—um. Just now you said I wasn't to hang round the stable no more and to—’ The pale, lanky girl approached the front door, looking meaningfully from the large wicker laundry basket on her hip to her mother and back again.
‘Well, now I'm saying drop it for a minute,’ the housekeeper said exasperatedly.
‘It’s all right, Mrs Moxon,’ Jon said quickly. I’m sure if you just point us—’
‘Can’t have that—oh, there he is.’ A boy of about fifteen was strolling up the drive, hands deep in the pockets of his buff boiler-suit. As he approached, maintaining the leisurely pace in defiance of Mrs Moxon’s admonitions, Jon saw that he was remarkably good-looking: a fresh complexion and even features under loose, dirty-tow curls. But there was something guarded in the apparently casual posture, echoed and amplified in the face, a have more than thou showest, speak less than thou knowest, ride more than thou goest sort of expression, which, without looking older than its years exactly, might nonetheless have been comfortably worn by a man of thirty.
‘Where were you? You can’t simply slink off whenever you please, you’ve a job of work to do, looking after them birds, and the errands beside, what does Miss Culver pay you—’
‘Stric’ly fews and two,’ he drawled, approximately transatlantic. He had come to the foot of the front steps, and slouched there, one hand on his right hip. ‘The original boracic boy, that’s me.’ Jon tried to make dour return to the lazy, narrow-eyed grin, and failed rather spectacularly.
‘You cheeky rascal, don’t you talk back to me, or cut me off, or I’ll be having words, and not just with Miss Culver, I was going to say for, what does she pay you for—’
‘What do you want me for, missus?’ Some native cadence emerged there, Welsh Marches or Geordie, perhaps, and with it an unsettling jagged edge.
‘You’ve got eyes, haven’t you? Take those horses off of Master Patrick there, and bring them round to the stables.’
The lad straightened up in a parody of keenness. ‘Oh, you should have said!’
Ignoring Mrs Moxon’s splutters, he sprang over to where Prisca and Mr Buster stood. Patrick, visibly trying to make the twenty months or so in age between them seem as negligible as possible, said importantly, ‘You should be fine taking both. They’ve good leading manners, and they know each other practically from foals.’
‘Cheers, noddy-boy,’ he said satirically, and took the reins.
Tea was hideous—bloater paste sandwiches and carrot jam tarts—but passed off with no incident, and (to Jon’s minor disappointment) none of Maudie’s recommendations for the domestication of the Animal Boy. Over a couple of gins in the Compton Arms, Jon had compiled a list of polite, semi-informed questions about Pouters, Russian Trumpters, Carriers, Fantails, Nuns, Almonds and Jacobins from the pigeon-fancying landlord, and these delivered them from the threadbare frowst of the drawing-room to the lofts beyond the west end of the the house. The dome of the medieval dovecote, with its pigeon-shaped windvane, was just visible to their right. Patrick looked longingly after it, more in the spirit of escape than historical curiosity. Come on, Jon mouthed, get this over first.
The lofts were a dramatic contrast to the crumbling house: a great brick-built L, with gleaming woodwork, troughs of running water, abundant nest boxes, pens and perches. It couldn’t be cheap to maintain, Jon thought, especially after the wartime grants of corn and seed to pigeon-keepers had been cancelled. Maybe she still had one of the few remaining contracts with the Air Ministry; he’d even heard things about MI5 keeping a few fanciers on its books: the schemes, for the delivery of explosives or anthrax by pigeon, sounded authentically Box 500 bonkers.
‘Is my little collection of silverware so very amusing, Group Captain Marlow?’
For he had been staring, grinning foolishly as he thought of M. Culver hectoring the Security Service Pigeon Policy Committee, at the small cabinet near the entrance. It was rather a Mother Hubbard affair: a few ribbons and certificates bearing a wan ‘Commended’, a tinny goblet on a Bakelite base, a bronze medal stamped with a laurel wreath and an improbably elongated bird with one huge Mr Punch eye.
‘Oh, no,’ he said, caught off-guard. ‘You keep the rest in the house, I suppose?’
‘The rest of what, pray?’
Her mismatched glare had made stronger men quail, he supposed, but he still blanched. Her barley-husk complexion ripened into blight.
‘Your, er, cups?’ Unnerved into forgetting quite how much shorter than him she was, he made an unfortunate, though innocent, gesture at roughly the level of his lower ribcage.
‘Well!’ she exclaimed. ‘I know you’re an honourable man, Group Captain Marlow, so I expect this will all come as rather a shock to you, but there there are persons in positions of power within the sport—I should not hesitate really, to speak of a cabal—who have a positive prejudice against honourable conduct. The same names recur, Group Captain,’ she emphasised the repetition with a rapidly jabbing finger; Jon leapt back, anxious above all not to catch Patrick’s eye over her head, ‘recur, with a dismaying frequency. The same names. None of them persons of integrity. All of them—connected.’
‘You mean people cheat?’ Patrick asked. ‘Can’t you have them disqualified?’
‘It's not,’ Maudie said, turning with frightening agility on the ball of her brogued foot, ‘quite as simple as that, young man. Here, let me show you. Clark! Cl—ark! Damn and blast the boy. Never about when he’s wanted.’
Of course, it was the handsome young man from earlier. He slouched around the corner of the loft, broom in hand. It seemed to Jon that he returned his gaze most deliberately of all, but everyone, confronted with the half-brazen, half-furtive look, probably felt like that.
‘There you are. Come here.’ She indicated one of the higher boxes. He propped the broom and reached inside, chuckling softly as he retrieved the outlandish inmate. Jon recognised a variant on the falconer’s patter, and drew a breath; he thought he heard Patrick do the same. Maudie began to explain the points of various breeds, with exhaustive illustration, demanding that Clark provide her with specimen after specimen. Jon knew what he would see in the boy’s eye, if he met it again, and knowing it to be mere reflection, magic looking-glass stuff, didn’t need to. But he couldn’t quite avoid noting the patient derision in his movements, the immemorial contempt of the labouring man for the infantile demands of his social superiors, contending with conscientious concern, if no great affection, for the birds themselves.
Jon gathered the gist (minimum of grooming and trimming, once allowed, had become more or less mandatory, Maudie too stiff-necked and old-fashioned to go in for it, stonking losses all round) and let his mind drift to his next meeting with Collins—he wondered if he should start consciously thinking Iain, since they had satisfactorily recouped the mortifications of the York Royal Station Hotel, and (he liked to think) then some. But the man Collins cared for had made it back, and though his mental condition after more than four years of prison camps precluded the immediate establishment of some sort of clandestine domesticity, he was still there, somewhere in the middle hinterland—in fact, Gloucestershire and a sinecure on the family farm, oh, sober, rooted English landowners, six hundred acres or thereabouts, Collins had said, the corners of his mouth doing their thin, independent jive.
No, best keep it dispassionate: shop talk over the shepherd’s pie or other thoughtful reheatable left by Mrs Bertie on her night off, apple turnover and mock custard, whisky and a smoke, and at some indefinable point Iain’s (dammit, well, there it was, no going back) lopsided face would grow lopsided in a specific way, and there would be an agreeable interval of fondling on the sofa, kissing and slipping hands under clothes and frigging through them and all that sort of thing, and Iain would mutter into his ear in a burr slightly deepened by drink and desire, the smidgen of Scots let in, or maybe he did it deliberately, Class and Nation were mixed up in it somehow but that wasn’t supposed to matter now, was it, now he’d cast his quixotic vote less for a Labour government in itself than personal absolution from the increasingly ludicrous estate of local gentry, and against the bloodpressurey H.M. Bateman cartoon who of course still held Colebridge East for the Tories with a majority of fifteen thousand, anyway, he couldn’t pretend it wasn’t right up his alley when Iain said I’m sair needin a good fuck, dunno about you, and then Iain would be, in pretty short order, right up—oh, God—he wondered, if he phoned him tonight—
Maudie’s braying seemed have reached a summative phase, and they’d shuffled around the shed so that the landing board and trap were visible. Clark had a fat tan-and-white brute in his hands, its beak so retracted that it was a marvel it could feed.
‘Would you like to see a flight?’ Maudie asked. Jon jumped, but it was okay, the question had, judging by the patronising cadence, been directed at Patrick, who was doing his best not to fume under it, nor the different challenge to amour propre presented by Clark. Jon felt a bit of a shit for indulging in daydreams when Patrick needed him.
‘Well, if it doesn’t put you to any trouble, Miss Culver.’
‘Not at all. It’s time they had some exercise. Come along!’ Patrick trailed after her, making a face but clearly glad to be out of Clark’s sight. Jon lingered, for reasons he didn’t quite care to submit to scrutiny, watching the boy release the ugly creatures. The familiar tune Clark was humming suddenly connected in Jon’s memory with its artist, and relieved to have something with which to forestall a confrontational stare or gambit, he said, ‘Louis Armstrong.’
‘Yeah. “Sweethearts on Parade.” You dig jazz, pops?’
‘Much as I do any music, I suppose.’
Clark dipped his hand into a nest box, to loud, hostile chirring, and attempted to pass off his hasty withdrawal as a shrug. Jon tried to convey with a smile that he wasn’t fooled, but didn’t blame him either, bloody airborne rats. ‘The second solo in that number sends me, man. But my main cat ain’t ol’ Satchmo. Too many armstrongs, you get me?’
Jon shook his head.
‘Them real high-up shrieky licks. Nah, gimme Duke Ellington an’ his Orchestra every time. That cat got his boots on. Matter of fact, in the—I mean, place I was before here, my buddies dubbed me Dukey, ‘cos I dug him so hard.’
‘Suits you,’ Jon said, touched. It did. There was a queer courtesy about his studied impudence: had he been a public schoolboy it would, if not ground out of him in the first year or two as ‘side’, have been celebrated as brilliant eccentricity.
‘Ta. Ain’t caught on in this joint. ’m just Clark-do-this and Clark-do-that.’ His face hardened into bitterness; yes, Jon thought, it was different from the impersonal surname of school or the forces, it had all the crushing malice of class condescension in it, he saw that. ‘I divvent—’ A small vertical line appeared between the boy’s eyebrows as he perceived he had betrayed himself. He ploughed on, obviously deciding not to care, ‘gan oot much anygait. Drains the brass summat chronic.’
‘Now there I agree.’
Clark—Dukey—stared back in open disbelief and scorn, as well he might: from his perspective Jon had it all, land and money and status, sit on your arse for fifty years and hang your hat on a mortgage. The conversation was clearly at an end. Dukey turned back to the nestbox. ‘Heor, heor, cushy, cushy, cushy, heor, ma hinny.’
Poor tyke, Jon thought, making his way back through the coos and scratchings, the dusty fug of sawdust, feed and pigeon crap. He must be wretchedly lonely. How had he ended up here, from the North-East? Might be better not to find out. He remembered a detail from the landlord’s involved account of the kerfuffle over the Great North Road race, that some over-keen hand had done the fixing without Maudie’s knowledge. At the time he thought it fitted four-square into the category described by his old nanny as A Story, but now he wondered. Had the poor boy been trying to ingratiate himself with Maudie, or more likely, felt a bit sorry for her, with her forlorn integrity, that she nullified at every turn simply by being unable to keep her big buck-toothed gob shut about it?
Patrick and Maudie were standing at the head of the slope, Maudie gesturing into the air. Jon followed the line of her finger and saw the Tumblers in their unlikely frolic. Another one shot out of the loft to join its fellows, zipping upwards in a kind of inverse stoop. He watched, fascinated despite himself by the corkscrew manoeuvres: what imbalance of the brain and torsion of the ear canal, how many generations of inbreeding, did you need to get a self-preserving animal to do that? He grinned in ironic appreciation, but looking down towards the other two saw that their posture and stance had changed radically: Maudie jabbing her finger, this time in direct accusation, and Patrick backing off.
‘Hullo!’ Jon shouted, picking up his pace, ‘What’s to do?’
‘Group Captain Marlow!’ she bellowed, squaring up to him, arms akimbo.‘Is it true?’
He shook his head, smiling a benign, but only conditionally friendly, request for specifics.
She blew like a bull. ‘That you’re keeping hawks again?’
Patrick tried to interject; he stalled him with a raised hand.
‘Why was I not informed?’
‘Because,’ Jon said, admitting just a dash of Station Commander starch to his tone, ‘you didn’t have to know.’
‘Didn’t have—didn’t have—but, my pigeons!’ she expostulated.
‘I don’t think there’s all that much to fear. I only mean to fly Rupert at rook.’ That he was, first of all, he, and likely not to be of a size for the job, and second, had been raised by hand on a diet of luscious airfield dickie, Jon decided, was definitely gen of the need-to-know class. ‘And the gos isn’t even trained yet. Anyway,’ he added sinuously, aware of an offence against chivalry, but to hell with it, that too had gone out with the Labour landslide, ‘I understand you aren’t racing your pigeons at present?’
To be fair to her, she could certainly absorb a low blow. The ends of her pudding-bowl haircut sprang in a clownish fringe around the brim of her bombproof hat. He wished he didn’t know that pinkish colour was what happened to a neglected, washed-out henna job, but he did. ‘I must insist,’ she said in a low, dangerous voice, ‘that you keep your predators well clear of my estate, and preferably, within the bounds of the Crowlands.’
Jon blinked, considered just where he might begin with this, and took a breath. A rhythmic creak, like the wings of geese overhead, but closer to and a little higher in pitch, broke the perilous silence, and he glanced over to see Patrick clutching his sides, his mouth a black half-moon of mirth, and his eyes smaller, inverted reflections of it.
Jon’s successful suppression of the first jolt of laughter set his shoulders shaking; bubbles of hilarity rose in his throat and behind his nose—he had to regain composure before he breathed again, but he wasn’t at all sure he could manage it without risking brain damage.
‘Miss Culver, I’m terribly sorry, but that’s—that’s—’ he wheezed, and gulped back a juvenile, epidemic giggle. ‘That’s not how hawks work, you know.’
‘It is how you will make them work, Group Captain Marlow, or I shall be obliged to consult my solicitor for a legal remedy.’
It was too much: such mad-dog pomposity, issuing from the roughened, scarecrow face. An image of the tall, thin, dessicated senior partner of Spender & Tapertoe solemnly spooning bituminous Legal Remedy from a jar and bending double to feed it to Maudie with a murmur of three times a day, after meals, and we’ll soon have you nice and regular again assailed him; he threw back his head and yowled uncontrollable laughter. That was the thing about gargoyles: they only had power over you when you felt obliged to treat them with the manners due an ordinary person.
The spasm seemed to take an age to pass; in fact, it was about twenty seconds, ample time to forge an enmity for the generations, except there wouldn’t be generations—at that, he felt a stab of remorse and said, ‘Look, I really will do my best to see they don’t fly your pigeons. And if they do, naturally I’ll compensate—’
Miss Culver’s button-box eyes regarded him steadily. Her jowls settled out of self-important outrage into something precariously resembling human dignity. She still looked like the offspring of a toad and a trout, conceived on a dark night, but— Out of the corner of his eye he caught Patrick's widened eyes and narrow muzzle, pinched and fixed with concern.
‘Group Captain Marlow, I’m afraid I must ask you and your young friend to leave.’
The emphasis on the good old Anglo-Saxon noun was the merest tap, that only nous autres could transmit or receive. Not the heavy sneer of the majority, that congratulates itself on its perceptiveness in knowing where to bring down a bludgeon, but a bee’s frail sting, that tears the frightened aggressor in two to administer a five-minute smart. Some people are allergic to bee venom, though, Jon thought dimly, and die. Had she been a man, he should certainly have knocked her down, which wouldn’t have been easy to explain to Patrick, so in that, if nothing else, he was fortunate.
‘We were just going,’ he said, feeling as if his dialogue had suddenly been translated to a quota film. On exhibitionist impulse, he opened his arm to Patrick to usher him away. ‘Come on, old chap.’ He flung a brittle, tarty smile over their shoulders at Maudie’s frozen glower. Mutton and mint sauce, mutton and fucking mint sauce.
He was halfway across the lawn before he remembered that they would have to cool their heels in the stable-yard while Buster and Prisca were saddled, and offered up a silent prayer to the God in whom he had ceased to believe at the age of four that it wouldn’t be Dukey doing it. In an overdue stroke of luck, it was Olwen, and she had the horses nearly ready. Perhaps, Jon thought half-hysterically, Maudie operated a strict schedule when unceremoniously booting her guests, and all the servants knew it.
When they were a safe, though uncomfortably silent, half-mile or so along the bridleway over the downs, he burst out, ‘Patrick, I really am most terribly sorry. Ghastly waste of an afternoon, and you didn’t even see the dovecote.’
Patrick reined in Mr Buster, who was always twice as brisk on a return journey as he was on the way out. ‘Oh no,’ he said rapturously. ‘I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I’ve been in more stupendous rows, of course, at school, but that was my first real grown-up one. It was blissful. Wigs on the green. I say, what was that bit about her not racing these days?’
His cheerful vehemence startled Jon into a very atypical misgiving: had his company in fact roused some strain of bitchery that in an English gentleman should remain decently dormant? But Anthony’s imperturbability and Helena's pitilessness came quickly and rescuingly to mind, and he settled to dishing the the dirt on the clock-tampering scandal.
Patrick whistled. ‘Coo. No wonder she went off atomic-like. But, you know,’ he paused, looking shy and absently gripping a hank of Buster’s mane. ‘Never mind.’
‘Well, it’s just that I thought—her sitting it out for a year as a sort of apol—if you don’t mind me saying so—would be the sort of thing you’d approve of.’
Jon considered. ‘Well, if you don’t mind me saying so, there is such a thing as being more Catholic than the Pope.’
'have more than thou showest, speak less than thou knowest, ride more than thou goest': actually is Lear's Fool.
Chapter 6: Unexpected places
Note: animal death, mention of institutionalisation for mental health issues, period-typical mental illness stigma, hospital scenes involving a young person in a critically-ill condition, suicidality.
Rupert died, as unexpectedly as a hawk ever could die—because opening a hawkhouse door to find all well was always in a sense a reprieve—in the last week of July. Looking back on it, there had always been a deracinated melancholy about him, beneath the courage and schooling. There was at least no distressing illness, croak, cramp or apostume: unhappy, the raptor simply chooses to die.
It was Patrick who found him: at the time, Jon couldn’t regret the inevitable initiation at all. It had to happen, better to get it over with, and Patrick was probably glad of the interval before Jon showed up, to blot any tears and get used to thinking and speaking the hawk's name without being ambushed by feeling. It was a luxury Jon had been conspicuously denied. Psychology, of course, would say that his shameful exhibition over the Gowk’s corpse was a delayed response to Mama’s departure, which he had not been meant to see, and thus of which he could never speak: the small, trim figure as pretty as ever in primrose-yellow, but moving with a conscious, alien dignity under the direction of the nurse, looking around as if Trennels were new to her, and she were arriving, not leaving (as it turned out) forever. But he disagreed with psychology: there had been times when some grief or disappointment had excavated the rainfall smell of the potted palms among which he hid, the muggy, musty warmth of the conservatory on that cool March day, the crunch of the gravel as the car turned in the drive. But The Guv’nor’s withering, wordless look and Katharine’s venomous intercession—He can’t help it, Pa, remember how Mama used to be whenever she lost a kitty—were their own pain, then and now.
It was of Katharine he thought as they buried Rupert in the walled garden: she had always sided with their father’s gruff hatred of anything womanish, so the blaze of feminism in which she had had disappeared first to London, and then to the Purdah Hospital in Mayapore, had seemed uncharacteristic, though of course it was really all of a piece.
‘One feels one ought to say words, somehow,’ Patrick remarked, as they sat on the curved stone seat, watching the Ripper ruffle her feathers after a bath. Tessa lay a little way off, placidly dozing in the shade of the fountain. ‘But anything that’s dignified enough for a hawk seems a bit blasphemous. Still, I suppose I don’t have to worry about neglecting him—’ he efficiently mastered the hitch in his voice, ‘for that barmy old hen while you’re on holiday. What is it you’re doing in Scotland again?’
‘Watching my friend’s brother be something called the Common Riding Cornet.’
‘What, like an ice-cream? Isn’t it just a crime there’s no ice-cream now? On a day like this.’ Patrick rubbed his belly childishly.
‘Like a hunting horn, I think. It’s from when all the land was being enclosed, in 17-odd. The landowners kept pinching bits of the commonage, so eventually there was a big legal kerfuffle. As part of the settlement of the common rights, the town drummer, who was a bloke called Baldy Beattie—’
Patrick rocked delightedly. ’You’re having me on!’
‘No—or I suppose Iain might be having me on, but that’s what he said—isn’t it a super name for a drummer, true or not? Dickens couldn’t have done better. And anyway, old Baldy had to go around every once in a while, banging his drum, checking the boundary markers, otherwise they’d be at risk of losing the rights again: they called it beating the bounds. One of the regular beating days was right after a big fair, when I suppose everyone had plenty of money to spend from selling their wool and livestock, so they started to make a party out of it. Now it’s all ceremonial, of course, but everyone in the town gets up at the crack of dawn to parade around and do all sorts of baffling immemorial symbolic type things—there’s an embroidered standard, a crown and a giant thistle—’
A mild heat rose into Jon’s cheeks at the memory of the conditions under which the paraphernalia of the Common Riding had been explained to him: mention of the eight-foot processional thistle had occasioned an interlude that made Iain’s elucidation of the significance of the the heather besoms, the salted herring and the twa’penny nail a trifle mazy to recollection.
‘What about this ice-cream chap, though?’
‘Oh, well—he leads the parade and everything. It’s not as sedate as it sounds: part of it’s an uphill gallop through very narrow streets, with the whole town out in force, and another bit is a race. And he has to stand on the horse’s back to—no, I think that’s the other bloke, the Fair Cryer. But the Cornet has to be a crack horseman, as well as an all-round upstanding citizen, so it really is a massive honour.’
‘It all sounds completely mad, if you don’t mind me saying.’
‘But well worth seeing, if not actually going to see.’ Jon pushed away a twinge of anxiety, for what he could not say was that it was also the occasion devised for him to meet the man Iain cared for—he must think the name, Farrier: and why the hell had he let Iain get away with an encounter on anything less than neutral ground? The but-and-ben cottage, borrowed from a fisherman friend, was a sanctuary too good to chuck up, he supposed: things could be thrashed out there that could not be approached even in the most talkative of London pubs and clubs.
Patrick smiled at the allusion to Dr Johnson, a favourite between them for its precision and wide applicability, but his pleasure quickly dropped away.
‘Oh, but it will be foul,’ he said, beating a brief tattoo on his bare knees. ‘No company for nearly a week.’
'There’s Jeremy Holden. And Brian Spender—’
‘They,’ replied Patrick with infinite scorn, ‘are not company.’
Jon was more touched—flattered, even—by that than he would ever care to admit, even after the memory of what those half-acknowledged emotions had made him say and do had ceased to make his blood run quite so thick with cold.
‘Look, I say. I was going to save this until I came back—and especially with Rupert not cold in his grave—but I’ve found something I think will cheer you up.’
‘What?’ Patrick said, dully, all too obviously thinking of Monks' Culvery.
‘There’s a nest of peregrines on the side of Leeper’s Bluff. I’ve got to go and talk silaging with Mr Tranter now—he’s being most awfully good about me slipping the traces at this time of year—but come and call for me at, say, half past four—and we’ll go and have a shufti.’ Jon looked at his watch and jumped to his feet, whistling for Tessa.
‘Jon.’ Patrick’s outstretched hand stopped just short of grasping his, with all the petrified horror of early adolescence at a babyish impulse barely forestalled. ‘Can we—do you think we could—?’ There was no need for him to finish the sentence: Jon knew exactly what he meant. Nor could he bear to see the yellow eyes full of passionate entreaty, so he looked, with falconer’s tact, just past them.
‘Not today, I wouldn’t have thought. When I looked on Monday, their new feathers were just beginning to come down. But maybe when I’m back—look, you know it’s rather madly illegal? Has been since about Henry the Eighth—when you could be hanged for it. But then, that’s true of a lot of life’s pleasures.’
Jon reasoned that he had been here—or hereabouts—before. The first blank, nodding calm in front of Mrs Herbert’s bad news, I’m afraid, Mr Jonathan, which had got him into the Landrover, onto the Valley Road and down the long straight drive to Mariot Chase. The needling shudders, assailing him as he stood in the hall staring up the staircase at the display of rapiers, daggers, pistols and powder-horns, sharp as sea-spray, but that left him feeling soiled rather than invigorated. The nausea, the washy gut that nearly made him bolt back outside between Nellie’s departure from and Anthony’s arrival in the hall. The lightheadedness that washed the colour and density out of everything, then brought it roaring back, causing him to stumble as Anthony invited him into the library. All those were familiar: and it wasn’t as if he hadn’t made mistakes that got somebody injured or killed; they all had, which was its own collective comfort.
What was new was the galloping, thunderous refrain: it should have been me, take me instead. He’d heard people say something of the sort, of course, and always thought it was pious eyewash, born of an ignorance of what death really meant. There were losses he had bitterly grieved, and those he had more bitterly reproached himself for, but it had never before presented itself in the stark terms of an exchange: a crowded life, that no-one could call long, but drunk down to the guilty lees, for an innocent one, hardly begun. Had those terms been offered, there and then, he would not have hesitated for a heartbeat. Did that mean he had never, in all his life before, loved anyone at all? Or that he now knew the love that would willingly mount the gallows at Tyburn, knowing only that the alternative was worse? They weren’t, he realised, different questions.
The thought dragged him back to Anthony’s bent head.
‘Helena’s there every moment they’ll let her,’ he said to the desktop. ‘I can’t quite stand to be.’
Jon murmured some platitude about maternal instinct—privately, if he had been asked to predict, he would have said it would have been the other way about. But who can know?
‘When—if I may ask?’
Anthony looked up from the blotter, like an exhausted interrogator who knows he has heard important information, but can’t distinguish it from incidentals.
Jon felt a sudden animus against Mrs Herbert—why hadn’t she wired?—and almost immediately withdrew it: she thought of him only as the Merrick boy, who helps Mr Jon look after that horrid great bird of his —not—not what he was. Jon's own Sunday afternoon had been spent in astoundingly satisfactory, if profoundly hungover, triangulation of interpersonal tensions—feeling dog-sick that he could even think of that in these circumstances, he put it quickly from his mind.
‘He was lucky—insofar as some kids messing about in a dinghy saw him and clocked him as conspicuously deranged enough to remember ten minutes later that they didn’t see him, as it were, and raised the alarm accordingly. It was just around the east side of the Bluff, there’s an overhang, and a tree—’
‘I know where it was.’
‘Of course you do. When, not where or why. Better not let Helena know.’
‘You think she doesn’t?’
‘You have a point. Jon—’
The telephone on the desk rang, unimaginably shrill. Anthony stared at it, then jumped, before picking up the receiver: the effect of the scrambled reflex was creepy, as well as pathetic.
‘Colebridge 259. Yes, speaking.’ He listened to the tiny, tinny cackle for a minute of impossible duration, but his face did not change to indicate the worst. ‘Very well,’ he said, ‘I’ll be there as soon as I can.’
‘I’ll give you a lift,’ Jon said, thankful that there was something, at last, he could do.
‘Thanks, Jon. It’s kind of you.’
The small waiting room on the other side of the half-panes of safety glass positively leaked bad news: faded silk flowers and one easy chair, institutional issue. When they came to the door Helena was standing with her back to it, poised in some uncertain moment of suspension. Jon, who had not expected to come this far before being challenged for his family credentials, said to Anthony, ‘I’ll wait for you out here. Scare up some tea, maybe?’
‘Oh Lord no, not tea. I can't take any more tea.’
Jon sank onto the hard, narrow bench in the corridor. He took out his cigarettes and was patting his pockets for matches (he had left his lighter, tenaciously guarded through six years of officers’ messes, on the sleeper) when a nurse swept past with, ‘No smoking in this corridor, please!’ Why this corridor? Were there corridors you could smoke in? Where were the corridors you could smoke in? He wanted a bloody cigarette, was that too much to ask? Whatever had possessed the stupid, lunatic little bastard, and on his own—he capitulated easily to the familiar anger of deflected self-reproach; it was a stage that had to be got through anyway, and it muted the suicidal clamour to a distant hoofbeat.
He paced until he found a french window leading onto a paved area containing dead potted plants and a convalescent in a hairy, urine-coloured dressing-gown, who gave Jon a light and a detailed bulletin about his ‘rupture.’ Jon stared after him as he shuffled back into the building. It never took very long in hospital for everything to start seeming like an hallucination, even if you were perfectly well. But the infusion of nicotine did its stale, stimulant thing: for the first time since he had heard, he thought things might be all right after all, though he had no idea how.
Returning to the corridor, Jon saw a red-haired woman doctor and a nurse going into the waiting room. He loitered and dithered, his mind refusing interpretation for good or ill. In a short time—five minutes, ten, twenty?—he would know. It was no good. There were all those minutes to be got through first. He sat down again, head in hands, thinking of the psychiatric cases that had crossed his desk, his part in administering a blundering, blunt, brutal, necessary system, the torrent of acronyms and euphemisms: LMF, NYDN, aeroneurosis, aviator’s neurasthenia—funny, that there should be so many words, variously shameful, for what he had never suffered from, and none for what he—no less a waverer—did: a lifelong, chronic substitution of physical courage for moral responsibility. That ultimate, terminal, sacrificial deal wasn’t on the table any more: in fact, it hadn’t been for quite some time. He was going to have to start living with things.
The nurse was standing over him, her approach unnoticed in the to-ings and fro-ings of a hospital corridor.
‘Mr Merrick asked me to tell you that Patrick’s regained consciousness. It will be a long recovery, and there might have to be more operations, but Mrs Fleming—the surgeon—is hopeful. Mr and Mrs Merrick have gone in to see him now.’
His eyes flooded without warning: he yawned for an excuse to rub them, rocking on the balls of his feet. He must look half-witted; it was certainly how he felt.
‘Thank you. Do you mean he'll be all right?
'That's all the information I have on his condition, Mr Marlow. I can't say any more than I know.'
'I suppose there’s no chance I could—no.’
She looked at him as if he’d made a dirty pass. ‘Close family only. But Mr Merrick did make a point of saying how close you were to your godson—’ (God bless Anthony and his queer, Roman flexibility!) ‘So Sister made a very great exception—’ she paused simultaneously to frown in deep disapproval of this course of action and graciously to accept Jon’s gratitude for it. ‘You may come in tomorrow. Visiting hours are between two and four, but you are to telephone beforehand in any case. The boy may not be up to it. That’s all, Mr Marlow. Oh—and Mr Merrick said they will get a taxi home. Good afternoon.’
She swung around and marched off, leaving Jon to begin the business of living with things. First on the list: himself.
Jon's account of the history and ceremonial of the Langholm Common Riding is, broadly, accurate.
LMF, NYDN: Lacking Moral Fibre, Not Yet Diagnosed Neuropsychiatric; stigmatising terms used to describe RAF personnel suffering from PTSD and other stress conditions during the Second World War.
Chapter 7: Epilogue: Ways of gentleness
Patrick wasn’t sure what took him to the churchyard. He’d meant only to slip into the Post Office for a postal order to cover his sub. to the British Falconers’ Club—he’d decided to view the ten shillings in the character of a burnt offering to Nicola’s continued enthusiasm for the sport, rather than a horrendous waste. He hadn’t seen her since the funeral, standing very shipshape, eyes front, singing ‘I Vow To Thee My Country’, which, he gathered, was sort of the C of E equivalent of ‘Faith of Our Fathers’, a hymn that was all about human set-ups, and not really about God at all. He didn’t think Jon would have chosen it for himself: he never said anything conspicuously patriotic.
So perhaps it was the thought of Nicola, not her cousin, that drew him across the road and down the unfamiliar path, for the second time in a fortnight, and only perhaps the fourth or fifth in his life. Or maybe it was to test himself: he was fine with the walled garden now, and pretty good with the spot on the Crowlands where he’d so casually dismissed Nicola’s claim that the air went solid.
He fished a bit of rope from his pocket and looped it around Bucket’s collar, instinctively tying a falconer’s knot. The first grave you came to was a Marlow, Henry, the one Nellie told ghost stories about. The admittance to consecrated ground did look a bit grudging, it had to be said. And there were other, older Marlows up around the church door, 18th century graves swarming with yellow lichen and carved with cherubs or memento mori.
He couldn’t do it. Who was he trying to fool? He couldn’t even turn his head towards the north-eastern end of the churchyard, where the newer graves were, where the newest, a bare mound with a temporary wooden cross for a marker, was. He felt a tug at the end of the rope: Bucket, whose disdain for being on the lead was legendary, was butting the side of his head against the ground in an attempt to free himself. He rolled onto his back and gave a great doggy yawn.
‘Oh, get up, you ridiculous beast.’
It would be beyond feeble to turn tail and scoot now. He could do it in stages. Sit down under that gnarly yew, where the east end of the church just blocked the view of—of him, get up and stroll around to look from a decent distance, and then, when he was sure he could do that, walk up and pay respects.
The shade was pleasant after the heat of the downs and the dust of the road, and Bucket settled to it too, after only a token protest. Patrick suppose he must have dozed, because he definitely woke up, to the spaniel’s bark and tug on the rope wound around his wrist, and an inchoate feeling of dread which resolved into the prospect of explaining himself to Vicar, verger, or flower-arranging lady.
The man who entered the churchyard was, however, a stranger. Tall and fair-haired, with an almost comically loose-limbed stride, as if he could only with effort keep his arms and legs all going in roughly the same direction, he was nonetheless oddly graceful.
‘Hullo,’ he said, nodding at Patrick with a passing air of approval, as if he thought dossing down in a graveyard for a quick kip an eminently sound notion, one he might try himself sometime. ‘Don’t get up on my account.’
He smiled, revealing teeth in rather poor shape in an otherwise attractive, if heavily lined and weathered face. For all that, he didn’t look very old: his hair was fine, but not thinning on top or receding from the tanned brow. The effect was slightly uncanny, as if he had put on an old-man mask and it had got stuck. He was dressed, too, like someone young: in open-necked white shirt, grey flannels, and tennis shoes.
Bucket, uncharacteristically, sniffed, bridled and growled.
‘Manners, Bucket!’ Patrick said, scrambling to his feet.
The man seemed unperturbed, and Bucket seemed to lose interest for the time being. ‘Dogs don’t like me much,’ he said. ‘Daresay it’s the rats, mainly.’
‘The—rats?’ Patrick said uncertainly.
‘Mm. I breed fancy rats. It’s something to do. While I break into Hollywood. Or Pinewood. Pinewood would be okay.’
‘Oh. Are you an actor?’ He would have to get his teeth fixed, Patrick thought dubiously, if he wanted to be in pictures.
He laughed, causing Patrick immediately to grin back. He thought it just might be the nicest laugh he had ever heard: rich and deep, but easy and inviting too. ’Lord no. With this mug? No, I’m a screenwriter. When I’m not shredding newspaper for the rats’ nests, which takes up a lot of my time. They breed like rats, you see. But that’s also why I’m here.’
‘The—rats?’ Patrick said again, starting to feel a bit foolish.
‘No, the newspaper. I was ripping the Times of about ten days ago into strips, and I saw the obit. of a chap I’d known early on in the war. Ghastly bad luck: made it unscathed through the whole show—’
Patrick would have said at that moment he felt quite all right, but when he tried to preempt his interlocutor, he found he could make only a queer creaking sound, barely audible.
‘—bumped up to Groupie, must say that surprised me. Crack pilot, despite having a good few years on most of us, but a visible allergy to bumph and bullshit—only to go and buy the farm in a test flight prang—I say, are you okay? You’ve gone a sensational shade of cheap.’
Patrick nodded. His knees felt a bit watery, but he was oddly heartened by the man’s cheerfully impersonal précis of Jon’s life. ‘Yes. I knew him, you see. He was really quite a good friend of mine. Strange as that might seem.’ He stuck out his hand. ‘Patrick Merrick.’
‘Not at all. Jon had very good taste in friends. Peter Marlowe.’
‘Oh!’ Patrick broke the handshake abruptly, less for the coincidence than because this raffish person could hardly be more unlike his tetchy young namesake if he tried.
‘No, no relation.’ Peter Marlowe paused, and then suddenly burst into laughter again. Patrick joined him, even though he had no idea what it was about. It was just that sort of laugh. ‘That’s what we used to say, so often that it became a sort of nickname. But I can’t remember if it was me who they called No-Relation, or him. I suppose it was both of us.’
Coming from the humorous old-young mask, this struck Patrick as funnier, perhaps, than it really was. But another bout of laughter fortified him properly.
‘I thought you might be the cousin from Australia.’
‘No, Portsmouth. My father was seconded to the RAN in the first lot, though. I say,’ he said with a sharp Antipodean twang, ‘Don’t sound Strine, do I?’
Patrick doubled up again. ‘Not a bit,’ he spluttered, recovering. ‘You do that awfully well. You could be an actor, you know. So, your family’s Navy too?’
‘Yes, same as Jon’s bunch. I’d forgotten that. Proud disrupter of immemorial tradition of service in the Service, at your service.’ He bowed over pressed-together hands, swaying slightly at shoulder and hip. ‘But here—are they expecting an Australian cousin, or something?’
‘No, not really. But I think Jon’s actual cousin wouldn’t mind. He’s just been promoted captain, and—’ Patrick explained about Trennels.
‘Gosh. Do you think I could do a Tichborne Claimant? Not that I want to. I have a house and garden. Just the right size for me. And the rats. No use for six hundred acres.’
‘I sometimes think Jon didn’t, either. Not that he’d ever say so.’
‘He did say, once—to me. Sort of. But a thousand years isn’t something you can just cast off. Wish I’d known he was just down the road. Or at least found out in time for the funeral.’
Bucket, exasperated by his master’s persistence in making friends with a person who smelled of the enemy, barked peremptorily.
‘Come on,’ Patrick said, pulling Bucket into line. ‘I’ll show you his grave.’