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More fools than wise

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Frank had quickly dismissed his initial expectation of Amritsar rugs, printed hangings and intricately-carved occasional tables in rosewood and teak―if Tom had ever owned such things, they would have been lost during the war―without replacing it with any more secure conjecture than that the house would probably not be over-furnished with books. He paid the cabbie and with a trepidation oddly akin to that he felt upon attending a party at which he knew too many of the guests insufficiently well, started up the lane between two timbered townhouses. The huge parish church of St Mary the Virgin loomed over the small dwellings between it and the road, blotting out a winter sunset of the sort he associated with the Royal Academicians of his childhood and did his best not to feel nostalgic about. As he opened the courtyard gate, a red setter leapt to the nearest window and barked; a blonde, unsmiling woman wearing a blue fluffy jumper caught the dog by the collar with one hand and reprovingly drew the curtain with the other.

Tom’s cottage stood in the north-east corner of the yard; on two sides hard by the containing churchyard wall. Frank inched gingerly up the brick path, unbalanced by his gladstone, feeling a fool for letting vanity dissuade him from bringing his stick. His knock brought a muffled response of ‘It’s open―let yourself in!’

Entering, he pushed aside a velvet curtain, the unfaded patches of which revealed it to have once been dark green, and promptly entangled himself with a knitted draught-excluder in the stylised shape of a dachshund. There was a rich, redolent odour, as of some sort of braised game. His stomach, which could be qualmish, lurched in the opposite direction to the outer man. Before Frank could recover his balance, Tom had ducked through from a doorway on the right, dropping the tea-towel on which he was drying his hands to extend a steadying arm. Putting down his bag, Frank made an excruciating point of picking up the rectangle of linen―damp through with some pinkish liquid―and gravely handing it back.

They stared at one another for an agonised moment―during which it entered Frank’s head to turn and go, never see him again―and then seemed simultaneously to conclude that solemnity was more of an indignity in old men than absurdity, and broke into snorts of laughter.

‘You silly owl, Maddox. Fancy falling over your own feet like that.’

‘Why, Topknot, you’re the owl. Don’t you see your house is half a head shorter than you are?’

Tom thrust the tea-towel into the back pocket of his trousers and took Frank’s shoulder in a big raw hand. ‘Christ, Frank, I am glad you came.’ He teetered on the balls of his feet, as if he were about to lean forward and down, then let go with an open-palmed gesture of take your coat? He hung it on one of three mismatched hooks mounted on a panel by the front door. ‘Come into the kitchen. I’m running a bit behindhand with dinner, I’m afraid. Jointing a hare. Extraordinary. Like the old king in Macbeth, you know, who would have thought he had so much blood in him.’ Frank withdrew from his overcoat pocket the bottle of sherry he had brought as a guest-gift and followed.

A surly black-leaded range glowered along one wall of the kitchen; opposite, beneath the window, was a deep galvanized sink and a glass-panelled door leading to a lean-to scullery. A couple of bright rag-rugs decorated the brittle, aged linoleum. Pushed against the back wall were a meat locker, a small dresser and a butcher’s block, the latter scrubbed recently and vigorously clean in a manner that to Frank’s macabre imagination suggested murder more immediately and vividly than could a pool and spray of blood. A bulky pine table and two ladder-back chairs comprised the rest of the furniture. Tom waved vaguely at these on his way to the lean-to. He returned with two earthenware flagons.

‘Cider?’ he suggested brightly. ‘One of the gardeners up at Audley End makes it, or her husband does. Decent.’

The recognition that he was the guest either of a poor man or a mean one could not reasonably be held at bay; he successfully forestalled both speculation as to which and regret at having come. Awkwardly, he deposited the sherry on the table, and himself on the chair that was not occupied by a piece of sacking horrendously stained, which had recently and insufficiently served to protect Tom’s clothes from the bloody hare.

Tom offered him a dimpled glass pot of cloudy golden liquid, replete with suspensive particles, and and tilted the sherry bottle at arm’s length.

‘Thank you. Because I didn’t―’ he grinned in the impish way that sat so oddly on a countenance that was in every aspect an elongated version of a Punch colonel’s, ‘have the chance to taste it, last time.’

Frank realised only at the sight of Tom’s face that his own must have been primly minatory, and cursed himself for an infernal prig. He had not, after all, come here for stewed hare or an under-gardener’s surplus home-brew.

‘I―it was the last of a case.’

‘Well―we’ll have it tomorrow, shall we? Palate’s quite wrecked by Pat Hill’s sauce―how do you find it?’

Expecting something on the crabbish brink of potability, Frank took instead a long, sweet draught of poignant reminiscence. ‘It’s very good. I’m―somehow reminded it’s been rather a long time since I bathed in Byron’s Pool.’

‘Not in January, I hope.’ Tom smiled again, with conscious good humour and no intimacy. ‘Don’t wan’t to lose you to pneumonia, particularly. Here, good health. I say―speaking of tomorrow evening. I don’t think I wrote about it. Linda―my great-niece, the elder one―sings a bit, and she’s performing in a concert the Choral Society’s holding at St Mark’s College. Remarkable little place―it was the abbey infirmary before the Reformation, then some cove―a Surrey or a Suffolk, knocked it down and rebuilt it―as something or another. And now it’s a rest home for clapped-out vicars. I’m obliged, naturally, the old avuncular routine, but I’d very much like it if you’d come too. Even if the music’s not up to much, the buildings are worth a look.’

The whole thing passed before Frank’s eyes: draughty hall with a smell of pencil shavings and camphor; board-school chairs; my great friend Mr Maddox; portly accompanist in mothball hat and foxed stole; Who is Sylvia, who is she?; miscellaneous schoolgirl quavering; and I will pledge with mine; tea-urns and Nescafé and Marietta biscuits; here’s to the housewife that’s thrifty; fat, feeling tenor, his patent leather pumps cracked across the toe, groping his way through Schumann; the mauled vowels of Heil sei euch Geweihten!

Ambushed by David’s voice fluting, in imitation of one of his luncheon ladies, ‘un po’ di musica, un po’ di Mozartino’, he surfaced, blinked hard and gasped, ‘Thank you, Tom. I should love to.’

They ate at the kitchen table, from incorrigibly miscellaneous crockery. The casseroled hare was delicious, and Frank said so, which provoked a disquisition, deferentially laced with the apophthegms of the Audley End gamekeeper, on sport in the county. ‘And―’ he continued, ‘of course, up at the allotments we barter, which accounts for most of the vegetables. Not the mushrooms. Churchyard. On the north side. The best ceps grow on the north side.’

Charmed, Frank said, lowering his eyes and allowing his lips to twitch, ‘Unhallowed souls and all that? But what I meant is it’s very well cooked, you know.’

Tom contained a splutter and his colour rose. ‘I didn’t know a thing until I came here. Not really. Messes and canteens all my life. Some―improvisations in the field as necessary, but they were always revolting. But―well, masculine helplessness is rather unattractive, don’t you think? And if you can read, you can cook.’

Frank, who had once or twice flicked through recipe books, but whose course of life had not prepared him positively to identify a ‘gentle simmer’ or ‘stiff peaks’ when he saw them, nor to ‘fold’ an ingredient ‘into’ some other when neither took the form of a continuous tissue, privately doubted this.

‘I do hope,’ Tom said, pushing back his chair and clearing the plates, ‘the pudding’s worked out―excuse me―’

‘Likewise―’

‘'Course. The stairs are tucked into a sort of cupboard in the corner of the sitting-room, but after that it’s obvious―’ he made a swift, downturned moué. ‘I don’t think you need look quite so astonished that I’ve capitulated to the twentieth century to the extent of having an indoor lavatory.’ He grinned, revenged for the unexpected compliment, and affectionate encouragement returned to his eyes.

There were two sort-of cupboards in the sitting-room, flanking the single bookcase, and the one Frank attempted first was the wrong one. He gazed with obscure disquiet upon a densely ranged mass of assorted lumber: carpet remnants, half-rolls of wallpaper, dozens of tins which had once contained everything from biscuits to paint and now held (one knew instinctively) anything but what their legends advertised, lengths of timber of every conceivable size, a tennis racquet with broken strings and a decayed press, coils of twine, string and rope, flowerpots, tiles, small panes of glass, tea-chests, brown paper, saucepans without lids or handles, the gate-legs of a table, backless chairs, old magazines, curtains, jute sacks, oil lamps lacking their glass chimneys, bundles of papers tied with tape. Malevolent yellow eyes glittered from the sloping depths; Frank jumped and stifled a cry before his own adjusted and he saw it was a fox, a rather small one, stuffed, mounted and mangy. He shut the door hurriedly, feeling he had uncovered Tom’s nakedness.

The tiny wedge-shaped bathroom, (austere white fittings, pipes boxed in tidily but with no thought to making the work inconspicuous) seemed nonetheless a sort of sanctuary. At the basin, Frank rebuked himself for fastidiousness―not to have accumulated some junk by the time one entered the eighth decade of one’s life would be the remarkable thing; he had, indeed, his own propensity in that direction, and to think that his was the more respectable because it tended to literature was the merest snobbery.

He returned to the kitchen to find Tom had laid out pudding in glass dishes, the first matching tableware he had hitherto seen in the household.

‘Good Lord, îles flottantes! How did―’

‘My dear fellow, no-one who ever saw them could forget the vinegar faces that Maddox made at plum duff and figgy-dowdy.’

Frank, who had made the grave error of denigrating these delicacies in his first weeks at prep school and never quite recovered the social standing thereby lost, confessed that he thought that at Marchester he had adequately concealed his half-Gallic distaste. Tom’s bellow of laughter carried them into the hazardous territory of reminiscence; few men with less than half-a-century’s experience apiece of unintrusive officers’ mess and common room conversation could have steered so tightly and adroitly about the dangerous topics, but then, no man with any less would see the need to.

They retired to the sitting-room for brandy; Tom put more coal on the lowering fire and excused himself. Neither a cigarette nor perusal of the bookshelves, with their freight of anthologies, bestsellers, memoirs and manuals, their literal handful of 78s and about the same of long-playing records, offered sufficient refuge from knowledge of the conglomeration pent between the left-hand cupboard door and the friendly dead of St Mary’s churchyard. He examined instead a series of hunting prints hung between the stairs and the chimneypiece―no, not hunting exactly, but a midnight steeplechase, according to the legend the first of its reckless kind. The naïve, dashing style of the aquatint and the spindly disproportionate limbs of horses and riders conjured the world of careless, compulsive rakishness that preceded Victorian respectability, now itself entirely swept away; Frank, chuckling at the fustian of the captions―returned him full rations of his raillery... subjection of their refractory steeds...but his lot was not cast with a “white” bean...like devil-rid maniacs...which brought the villagers affrighted from their beds―found himself suddenly and painfully consumed by a desire to enter it. Removing his spectacles and replacing them in his pocket, he noticed that the picture-frames had been made by a careful, but definitely amateur hand, and the mountings of woodchip wallpaper stiffened with paint of a bilious institutional hue.

Frank sat down heavily on the unyielding horsehair sofa. He thought he had an intimation, now, of what went on―a word came to him from Old Mortality or Witch Wood, ‘jalouse’, which to him inevitably suggested furtive squinting through louvred slats. And what he saw there were concrete bungalows and atap go-downs, their thatch and their inmates tortured by every manner of creeping thing, courtyards and cellblocks louring with heat and humidity, and everywhere men, four times as many as the compound’s maximum capacity, etiolated figures engaged in the graft of an economy artificially delimited but as real and functioning as any other. The magical thinking of privation: throw nothing away, find an ingenious use for everything that passes through your hands, and you’ll live―no, whom you love will live. And when he did not live, that meant not that the logic was faulty but that there was some flaw in the execution of the rite, some trivial squandering: redouble your efforts. Waste not, and thou shalt not be laid waste. He had never got free of it.

‘Hullo, Frank.’

Frank blinked and looked up, lost for even a commonplace in reply. An an inch and a half of ash canted precariously from his cigarette; he stubbed it out.

‘Rather a brown study―I shan’t ask, though.’

Time was short. And they had none to waste. ‘I was thinking about you, actually. Do come and sit beside me.’ Frank patted the sofa cushion.

Tom’s quizzical smile ignited into radiance. ‘Hang on.’ Of cautious habit, he made all safe, shutting the door connecting the kitchen and the sitting room, locking the front door, kicking the preposterous draught-excluder against it and drawing the curtain, closing a chink between the window drapes. Frank remembered the grim-faced female next door, her baby-blue angora and repressive static just yards away, and felt a foolish, transgressive thrill.

Leaning back from an embrace quickly grown urgent as those begun in the intention of tender solace often do, Frank said, breathlessly, unsteadily, ‘I will take―the very greatest care of you, Tom.’

His eyebrows shot up, turning his long forehead into the cartographical signifier of a steep slope. ‘You said that to me once before. And, oddly enough, I believe you this time too.’

‘I―I’m so―’

Tom pressed his thumb against Frank’s lips, cradling his jaw in a toil-hard palm. ‘And then, if I recall aright, you did this.’ His other hand moved decisively and efficiently, and Frank gave himself up to it, groaning.