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A backward and dilapidated province

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‘Whittier said it might be all right because—' Ralph smiled, bitchily archaic, ‘because—to paraphrase, the best way to be independent is to have all you need at home.’

‘Ouch—but he’s moderately decent, isn’t he? Just blunt. He might be right.’

‘And then he mentioned Robbie.’

Laurie winced and managed, ‘Ralph, darling, I’m so sorry. Scrub decent. So you told him—’

'—to fucking stuff it.’

Laurie, having once received this injunction from Ralph, albeit in a more intimate context, felt a pang of sympathy for Whittier in despite of all.

‘Can you actually do that?’

‘Don’t see why not—it’s a civilian contract.’

‘I know that. I meant without consequences.’

‘But how could I go on with it, knowing I was being tolerated? Men have to trust me, Spud, and to think they couldn’t because’ he made a helpless, encompassing gesture, ‘it turns my stomach.’

Knowing better than to expect his feelings to be spared, Laurie nodded.

‘Remember Alec’s opinings? They still drive me scatty. I think we have to take responsibility. But it’s filthy. When I think of some of the seedy bastards I’ve dealt with over the years, the backs I’ve had—Christ. And I’m the one to’ Ralph’s jaw was clenched tight.  ‘I have done the state some service, eh?’

Laurie lightly contemplated the circumstances in which he would leap up to engage Ralph in what a novel might call a violent demonstration of love; in reality, of course, Ralph was opening the dark-oak secretaire that served them as a drinks cabinet (miniature Triton-caryatids—wherever did landladies obtain these gruesome artefacts?) before Laurie could raise himself six inches out of the armchair.

*

Evening classes? In what? At where?’

‘Radio engineering. Colebridge College. Used to be the RAF base where they—well, never mind. Expansion of educational opportunity and so on. You're supposed to be in favour of that, aren't you?’

Laurie considered how he might tactfully express that night-school teaching might be a less-than-ideal occupation for someone whose glad sufferance of fools ran the gamut from infinitesimal to nil and who was more often than not half-cut by eight in the evening.  

‘My dear, you can’t be serious. You won’t last a week.’

He expected anger, but Ralph looked pained. 

‘I meanlook, don’t get me wrongI don’t doubt you could do the stuff with your eyes shut, but it’s quite another thing to teach it—’

I know. I’ve trained people, though, and tutored—’

That roused some shades. Laurie added quickly, ‘And won’t you want your evenings free toerrelax?’

‘I shan’t be working during the day, shall I?  I’m used to unsocial hours.’

‘No, but—I—’ to say what he meant, that Ralph’s presence during the business day would turn Laurie’s relationship with deadlines from mostly fractious to wholly insupportable could not but sound like but you’ll be under my feet all day, and was impossible.

‘Anyway, I mean to accept, and I'm giving Mrs Doyle notice.  You’ll want to do the same by Tuesday, otherwise you’ll have to pay the extra fortnight. Friend of mine knows someone with a small house going spare in the locality, I'll need to give him an answer by the end of the week—and anyway, it'll give us a bit of time to get comfortable—’

Ralph's voice ran on, proposing and disposing in the same breath.  It had clearly not even occurred to him that Laurie might prefer to stay put. He thought of saying I’m not coming, just to see his face. But to be honest, even the hinterland of a provincial market town was probably an improvement on this cramped, cratered, seedy port. 

It was a pilot course and a correspondingly short contract, Laurie thought, as he retrieved the tea-chests from the cupboard under the stairs.  Perhaps once it was up—he failed quite to suppress the disloyal thought or Ralph got the sack for showing up tight—they might go abroad for a bit. The investments he'd made with the money Great-Uncle Edward had left him, the rents from the cottage and some freelancing would just about get them by until Ralph could find work.  His leg, thoughit had been giving him a bit of bother again lately, and abroad meant no National Health. He couldn’t think of that.  Over that summer of shrill, suffocating speculation about defectors, England had become unbearable.  And poor Anquetil.  It was time to get out. They’d actually agreed that, albeit more or less tacitly. And then somehow Ralph had contrived to immure them in Dorset for the next nine months.  Laurie sometimes questioned the wisdom of their picking things up again (two years ago, now, after a breach of four). For one thing, if they hadn’t, Robbie might not be—

But the emotional experience had never, for either of them, precisely been one of election. Set against what he felt for Ralph, his former attachments—even, especially, those to people with whom he was ostensibly better sorted—seemed trivial, absurd, embarrassing. And for all Ralph might have to say about second thoughts, Laurie knew the sentiment to be mutual.

A hanging staple stabbed down under Laurie's thumbnail; it paled, then bloomed blood.

*

They’d never had a whole house to themselves before. Not that Stable Cottage quite counted as a whole house, though it did have a stable of sorts, containing a variety of Edwardian junk of which Ralph, raging for order, would make a bonfire their first weekend in residence. Its single modern convenience was a telephone line, the place having been commandeered for some purpose or another during the war. The scullery-kitchen was dominated by a black-leaded range with a crouching air of temperament about it. Above a long, deep, old-fashioned sink, which did duty for all household ablutions, hung a crazed mirror. The cracked looking-glass of a servant, Laurie nearly said, and then reflected that although Ralph had almost certainly got at least that far in Ulysses, he wouldn’t admit as much, which rather nullified the pleasure of quotation. The lavatory was in the yard, with a tin hip-bath hanging inside the door. The front door, were it not swelled fast with damp, would have opened straight onto the empty living-room, against the back wall of which two short, bannisterless staircases rose, one to the left, the other to the right, each leading to an attic bedroom. The right-hand room held an iron-framed single bed and a washstand. The one on the left was larger, and housed a double bed with a stained and split horsehair mattress, a warped, woodwormed chest of drawers, and a forlorn boudoir stool wearing a motheaten mauve organza skirt. Laurie took a wondering step into this emphatic desolation while Ralph leaned against the doorjamb.

‘Toss you for it,’ Laurie said.

Ralph, with a grip only approximately playful, seized the back of his neck. ‘Down, wanton, down!’

*

Doing for Mr Lanyon and Mr Odell was another sort of hygiene than the domestic variety, Doris reflected.  There was absolutely nothing to do: they sent their laundry into Colebridge; range and fireplace were leaded and gleaming, fender and doorknobs polished in a manner that made her own stern effort seem lubberly, not a speck of dust on any surface, the beds made up like hospital.  The first couple of weeks, she had made a show, and departed with the discombobulated feeling that she had left the place slightly grubbier than she found it.  The only office at which she definitively outclassed Mr Lanyon was mending, and even there, though he showed proper gratitude for her invisible work—for someone otherwise so particular, he managed to scorch his coats with cigarette ends quite a bit—she had the irritable sense that at base he considered it a tailorish, effeminate art; sewing, like sums, should be impeccably tidy but show the working. Had she just mildly congratulated herself on being better at fancy darning than a man with only half a left hand? She rather thought she had, and smiled over her tea.  

Doris was not an assertive person, but she liked to consider herself a modern woman, who wouldn’t be seen dead doing the trusted old family retainer bit like her Aunty Bertie did.  So she surprised even herself with her defensive response to Bob Penny’s disparaging remark. 

‘Well if he is—what you just said—he’s one who brought three lots out of Dunkirk, Robert Penny.  We could do with a few more like him,’ she added pointedly.

Bob held up his hands.  ‘Blimey, Dor, pipe down.  Reserved Occupation, me.’  Ribaldry spread across his face.  ‘Here, you’re blushing—you’re sweet on him, you daft bint.’

‘Oh, shut up your nonsense,’ she snapped, aware that in a sense, everything Bob had said was true, and also, that none of it was.  She wasn’t a ninny: she knew what they were, and she couldn’t see that it was any business of anyone else’s as long as they didn’t cause a public nuisance.  But she did indeed feel a stab of disappointment when she let herself in the back and the place was empty, or she could hear Mr Odell’s typewriter nattering in the living room; and she felt bad for that, because Mr Odell was easier company all round, always up to have a smoke and a pot of char you could trot a mouse on.  She just liked watching Mr Lanyon move, that was all, the quick, accurate, sailorly step, shoulders low and square, arms close to his sides, the left especially, of course.  Neither of the Marlow gentsboth naval officersquite had it, that was odd. 

*

‘You can have the car, if you like. I can hitch in no trouble.’

‘No, I’d rather the train, really, I can read—’

Ralph pounced with the ferocity of deep concern. ‘It’s your bloody leg, isn’t it?’

‘Well.  On a longish journey.  If it cramped on me, I’d be done for.’

‘Why didn’t you tell me, Spuddy?  Have you been to the quack?’

‘Mmm. There’s a pretty long wait for the clinic.’

‘While you’re back up there you should see Alec.  He’d give you some stuff; tide you over.’

‘WellI—’

‘Christ, Spud, you don’t think I still mind, do you?’

‘No, I supposebut

‘Well then. I’ll phone him if you don’t fancy it.’

‘God, no. I’ll do it.’

Alec was as resourceful as ever, and he was able to help quite a bit.  They spent a genial evening together, and Laurie left in the morning with the feeling of having thoroughly renewed old connexions.

*

Laurie took his mother and Olive (who now lived at the Rectory) for lunch. The severest misfortunes of Revd Straike’s parishioners had come, over eleven years, to coincide most unhappily with his visits.  It gave his mother pain, and him some on her account, but it was better than the alternative.   

‘Why, Colebridge and East Wade—’ said Lucy, ‘isn’t that Anthony Merrick’s constituency?’

‘Yes, that’s our chap,’ Laurie said, ‘He’s the new MFH, as well—I believe—’  Aware that the interest in field sports was manifestly not his, he broke off awkwardly.

‘What an extraordinary coincidence. His mother was a dear friend of mine at school,’ Olive said, ‘I knew Anthony when he was in the nursery.  We still write, a little.  He’s kind to remember an old woman who doesn’t get about much. I daresay I could give you a letter, should you care to know him—’

‘Thank you, Aunt Olive—it really isn’t necessary—’ The whole thing was just too ludicrously Before the War for words—was he supposed to leave a card or something?

‘Are you not a bit dull out there, my dear, though?  I know what the provinces can be—all right for me, of course, but for an educated young man—and you’ll find Anthony is very amusing company.’

‘That’s important, dear,’ Lucy added, ‘if you’re to have a country life, and not a town one.’

Laurie shifted uncomfortably at his mother’s aptitude to regard the most contingent circumstance as permanent, settled choice, but also because her remark somehow brought to mind that winter, three years ago, when he’d seen quite a lot of Andrew Raynes—that was a town life: there had been art, music, books and the exchange of ideas about them.  In other departments, though, it had been something of a washout.  The impulses to self-assertion and self-annihilation that in Laurie were harnessed like a barouche pair Andrew found extreme and bewildering; while Andrew’s bent to good-humoured, relaxed mutuality struck Laurie as blasphemously detached.

‘Mariot Chase has a most singular library too—’ Olive continued, ‘some rather extraordinary sixteenth century material. Fenella was so very brilliant, and Anthony inherited all her wit. When she fell ill she was translating—well, decrypting, almost, it was written in cypher, you see, yes, a manuscript which she said would change our view of the life and times of Henry VIII absolutely beyond measure—oh dear—’ she dabbed her eyes, ‘I’m growing rather labile in my dotage, do forgive me.  Poor Fen—she was so young, the two poor boys—and, my goodness, Anthony is married himself, with a son at school now.’

Laurie’s last frail hope extinguished, he gave in.  Aunt Olive had done a lot to make his life easier, most especially when he was making hers more difficult by the exercise of what he believed stern and stoic virtue.  If it pleased her to introduce him to shire Tories as crusted as their port, what the hell could it possibly matter?

*

It mattered quite a bit, he discovered, when the shire Tory concerned had an uncommonly thoroughgoing intellect, a mischievous wit, a high though critical opinion of the bits and pieces one had written for Horizon and scripted for the Third, and a tall, loose-limbed seventeen-year-old son with eyes the colour and intensity of a goshawk’s. And who was just about as queer as one too. 

After an afternoon gently lubricated with good pre-war claret, Laurie found he had an invitation to use the library as he pleased a couple of days a week, and if he wished to render a small service in return, a commission discreetly to oversee and encourage Patrick’s somewhat lackadaisical self-directed studies.  The boy had been asked to leave his progressive London day school after an irregularity with an examination; the result, Anthony confessed, of his friendship, and illicit telephone communication, with one of the daughters of a neighbouring family, the Marlows of Trennels. Laurie received this dissimulation—to his mind, a convoluted one (either the cheating or the girl would have done; both was de trop)—with an entirely straight face and gravely, of a motive as confused and perverse as any he had ever entertained in his life, accepted his charge.

*

It was not much of an autumn evening: nothing to evoke special emotions; if anything, rather dank.  And yet something urged Laurie out of the library, where he’d been fitfully composing a short notice for most of the day—he’d write a few sentences, find he needed to consult some work of reference, which offered its usual distractions for half an hour, return to find that his prose was stuffy and condescending, score it out, and repeat.  Some days nothing helped much, it was just compounding pain with sickly, unwarranted euphoria. He knew better than to skip it too often though; that would merely be to anticipate in little the hypersensitive, puking, sweating prostration that must eventually be faced in its full.  

Patrick had not appeared all day; and it was not within Laurie’s remit to seek him: he was nobody’s schoolmaster.  This was more often than not the case, to Laurie’s relief; though the few conversations they’d had were cordial, he found the shy, tawny eyes glancing down at him through a swatch of dark hair unsettling.  He had difficulty seeing him in the character of tart or bully: he was either impossibly naïf (though Andrew’s amused commentary on Laurie’s presumptions of innocence had discouraged him from making them as freely as he used) or impossibly sophisticated for his age.  He gathered that a couple of convalescences had kept Patrick away for long periods from the conformism and brutality of school; sect perhaps made a difference too.  As far as Laurie was concerned, Catholicism was synonymous with degeneracy and English Catholicism with the most repulsive affectation, but the Merricks, though proud, seemed sincere—well, Anthony and Patrick did, at any rate. Helena was the sort of polished bitch that Ralph approved of—he could not imagine she believed in anything but snappy wrist-length gloves and discreetly applied scent.

Laurie’s usual resort was the service areas of the estate; here could usually be found someone with whom to exchange cigarettes and inconsequential words.  But now he was in a reciting humour, and he made for a copse beyond the rough ground behind the Walled Garden.  He encountered an unexpected deep dip, invisible almost until you were on the edge of it—down was more painful than up, and he was breathless and regretful of his restlessness by the time he reached level ground again.  Perforce he began softly, but was in full recitative with,  ‘And of nurture the child had good, /  He ran up hall and bower free—'  when a rather sweet, unpractised tenor capped it from about three feet above Laurie’s head, to an air something like ‘Clerk Colvill’,  ‘And when he came to this lady fair, /  Says, God you save and see!’

Laurie yelped.  There was a scuffle as Patrick swung down from one of the stunted, crooked elms.  ‘Sorrow—was I startling?’

‘Just a bit.’

‘You do it awfully well,’ Patrick said, ‘Will you go on?’

‘Not, I think. Why don’t you?’

‘I forget where we were.  How about:  ‘This ae nighte, this ae nighte, /  Every nighte and alle,’

 Laurie joined in, ‘Fire and fleet and candle-lighte, / And Christe receive thy saule.’

Patrick dropped out and let him finish it.  

'Do you know the Britten setting? Not bad, I think—I happened to hear it, a few years ago when I was going to rather a lot of concerts—’ Laurie saw he’d said absolutely the wrong thing.

‘I don’t hear music at all, I’m sorry—tone deaf.’

‘But you can’t be!’ Laurie exclaimed, more vociferously than he’d meant. ‘I mean—you actually sang just now—you couldn’t do that if you were.’ 

‘Beginner’s luck?’

‘I suppose—’

Embarrassed, Laurie reached for his cigarettes, reflexively offered the packet.

‘Thanks. D’y’have a light?‘  Laurie thought he should like to see Patrick bend to his cupped match, just for the chiaroscuro of it really, hair and eyes and sallow skin, but better not. He handed the matches.  

‘I say, we should probably stroll back. My lift will be here soon.’

In the safety of gathering shadows, Patrick said abruptly, ‘Music—I do hear it, actually, and I rather can’t stand it. When it’s finished, I always find that I’m—you know—overwhelmed.’

‘Yes,’ Laurie replied, ‘I never get away with anything like that myself.’

They grinned at one another, suddenly acquainted.

Patrick became gradually less elusive; most days that Laurie was at Mariot Chase they met to smoke, chat and fling shattered tennis balls for Patrick's spaniel Bucket.  Directing the boy's studies, however, was another matter: he was widely, eccentrically read in English literature and had dabbled in French, knowledgeable about history, but with a puerile tendency to partisanship; his Latin seemed competent but so polluted with medievalisms it was hard to tell, and his Greek still at the selections-from-Homer stage, where Laurie was firmly inclined to leave it; one didn’t want to live in a damned echo chamber, after all.  He had no ambition beyond inheriting and managing Mariot Chase; representations as to the inadvisability of such a course, especially since the war, were met with a silence more mute than mutinous; he simply seemed not to hear.  The better Laurie got to know him, the more curious the question of his expulsion became. To Laurie at least he made neither a secret nor a point of his inclinations, but it was also quite clear that the sordid traffic of school was something with which he’d had nothing to do.  Either he had the immense ill-luck to be discovered in flagrante with someone he cared for, or he really had been falsely accused. Whichever it was, he bore it with a lightness Laurie found incredible: he didn’t know whether to be impressed or faintly repelled. 

It was not until he had met a Marlownot Ginty, the girl implicated, but her younger sister Nicola, home from school for half-termthat Laurie had an opportunity to allude to it, and discovered, rather to his shame, that the story Anthony had told was quite true.  A year before, Ginty had taken to sneaking into the school secretary’s office and telephoning Patrick most evenings.  On the last such occasion she had been found doing so surrounded by the next day’s School Certificate papers, carelessly left lying about by a secretary who'd tipped coffee all over them. 

‘It seems rather a flimsy thing to sack you for, if I may say so. Schools don’t usually like the scandal of it.'

'The Head never expels except for beastliness or stealing, you mean? At a conventional public school, maybe. The filthy shop I was at was more—fastidious. Not guilty of either charge, by the way. I can't imagine how a fellow could be such a flaming clot as to think he'd get away with it.'

That hurt more than Laurie could possibly have prepared for, and it must have showed, because Patrick looked quizzical.

'She’s still at her school?’ he asked hurriedly.

‘Oh yes, she is. It did cause a bit of a flap, people phoning up and down the country, and anyone us lepers might have touched having to do their Certs in the sicker. And I do think there was a touch of Caesar's wife must be beyond reproach, because of Pa being in the Commons. He thinks I was a b.f. not to have realised she couldn’t possibly be allowed to telephone so often, and should’ve said cheerio and put down the receiver on her, but how should I know what goes on in these nunneries? I do think my crowd thought of me as a sort of indefinably—subversive type, though, and jumped at the chance. Can’t imagine why, but it's made it pretty much imposs. to find me another billet.’

‘Probably for the best.  At my old place you’d have been considered a plough the school had put its hand to,’ Laurie said, applying the balm of treachery to the unexpected smart, ‘and handed over to the Head of House to have your character moulded.’

 Patrick laughed. ‘It sounds like you have someone particular in mind.  I daren’t ask.’

Laurie judged that in Nicola’s company, Patrick might safely be invited to Stable Cottage; mildly disgusted at feeling obliged to make this calculation, he hoped vainly that its rationale did not occur to Ralph on the level of consciousness that might induce anger or pain.  

Ralph was inclined to treat Patrick with the courtesy that only those who knew him well could distinguish from friendliness, but Nicola seemed positively to delight him.  A very proper little chaperone, Laurie thought vinegarishly, and then regretted it; she was unpretentiously intelligent and likeable.  He’d had gathered from Patrick’s conversation that the Marlows were a naval family—father and sons in the Service—but he had not expected this junior female member unerringly to identify the 36-gun fifth-rate in the print on the living room wall as Phoenix, and embark on a brisk account of her action against Didon (40) off Cape Finisterre in August 1805.   

'And Baker's hat was shot right off his—' she turned to Patrick, suddenly stricken. 'I'm showing off.'

Patrick bit his lip and looked sidelong at the floor, obviously agreeing with her.

'You can't call it showing off when it's your thing,' Ralph interjected kindly. 'After all, there's some stuff one can't help knowing.'

Asked about her family, Nicola looked comical and said ‘oh, lor’, it’s rather an epic’, and so it proved. Laurie, peevish with pain to which the stated dose was inadequate, took in little other than the circumstance that he shared his given name with one of Nicola’s sisters, named for a great-uncle in defiance of her sex.  Ralph, despite being on his knees softly but colourfully despairing of the range throughout, was able to reel back name, rank and serial number for the entire brood.  Giles, Lieutenant RN, the eldest, whom Nicola patently idolised; Karen, married to a widower name of Dodd, twenty years her senior, with three step-children; Rowan, whose unusual name rang a bell—yes, she was taking a preliminary Ag. Sci. course and managing the family farm, pretty formidable (Laurie winced at Ralph’s emphasis on the third syllable) by the sounds of her; Ann, in her first year of nursing college; the infamous Ginty, in the Sixth at school; Peter, Dartmouth; Nick and Lawrie, identical twins.  When they were alone, Laurie pointed out that the seamless absorption of this class of information while engaged in tedious but moderately complex manual tasks was a specialist knack rather than a normal human capacity. Ralph turned aquarelle eyes on him and murmured, ‘Oh, Spud—’ and Laurie chose, for once, to be very warmly endeared.