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The Indian Rope Trick

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At the end, Julian Cain has a habit of forgetting himself in the circumstances and people from near the beginning of his life. As someone who began predicting his own demise from around the age of forty, he is surprised as anyone else that he’s still rolling along in an electrified wheelchair half a century later. A fitting punishment, he thinks, for someone so vain and consistently detached from himself to be trapped for so long in an ageing and increasingly broken-down body.

His carers come around three times a day, regular as clockwork like an army barracks schedule. His meals come pre-made and bland like army food, as well. Julian is sure at least a few of them must find his descent into senility bewildering. England, with her many war veterans, has well-trained nurses in legion, ready to be deployed at moment's notice to attend to the septuagenarians lost again, lost forever at Somme, at Ypres. But caring for the lost children of the Fabian Society is another matter altogether.

The War is a torment for Julian, certainly, but the spook that most resolutely holds him in its grip so many years on is the death that had occurred before any shots were fired. Back then, in the whirlwind of births and mewlish new love, Tom Wellwood's passing was an irritating aberration, a throwback to the tormented late adolescence that Julian had confidently cast off as he had cast off Gerald and the many others from what he later dubbed as his experimental phase. As such, Julian made sure to pay it no mind. He was awfully good at directing his mind to exactly the people and places with which it needed to occupy itself.

And then such intensity driven by distraction and infatuation made no more sense, for The War, in its panoply, made everything before it childish, made the children put away their childish things. For his part, Julian put away his courtly pursuit, his academic preoccupations, the pastoral England of Palmer, never so innocent again. His England once again became the England of Marlowe School, the Northern England of desolate moors. An England that when her veterans asked for bread, gave them stone and marble. This was an England that understood well how to drive out the glow from the golden-most of boys.

At Thiepval (it always starts at Thiepval), he is surrendering to morphine, but it is easiest to walk away from the field ambulance, walk very fast, walk very fast. The sleepier he gets, the faster he can walk, until he's caught up to the boy he hasn't even realized he's been chasing. Hello, Tom, he says.

War poet is a role that rather suits him. War poet and part-time social agitator. Julian finds it possible for the first time in his life to be completely earnest. Turns out conviction is easy, once he’s fully convinced that neither he nor anyone else could possibly have any. What is justice but food in the belly and a roof over the head? What is honour but honest living? What glory if not a body whole and well? Everything else amounts to ulterior motives and the strong and powerful colluding to punish the weak. In a way, it's repentance, but he thinks it’s probably not enough. He wonders for a time if his stilted anger is in any way like the kerosene heat of a Kelly lamp. Whether his righteous blows fall like blisters.

So he takes pleasure in stumping out for the causes that he feels in his bones to be worthy, and says as much. A crippled veteran lends a certain credibility, not to mention the accompanying oration, worthy of an education that was the best England could provide. The optics, as they say, are exemplary.

Tom gestures ahead with a stick. They are nearing a recently abandoned camp, fire still merrily crackling, bathing clothes hung nearby to dry. Julian is hit with the sodden sullen cold of the trenches. His feet and legs are covered with half-frozen mud. The closer they get the harder it is to wade through the muck. Tom is content to dally in the mud, sinking his walking stick as deep as it would go over and over again, but Julian has no patience for the cold anymore. He is determined to make it to the fire, or he thinks he might not make it at all.

Years roll by and Julian struggles to stay relevant and present. Worryingly, the lives of the dead have begun to intrude on the living. In the fog, it is surprisingly easy to shake up his life; put away the verses and placards and pick up the discerning taste of a collector. War poet, agitator, art dealer, curator, and finally British Museum Trustee, all of which will garner him a tidy sum in monthly pension allotments. Investments, though vulgar, are made, and winnings handsomely collected. Wars pass by. Julian finds himself in his twilight years comfortably settling into the caricature of thrice-times-great uncle never once married, the middle of his life having sped by in unreal blazes while he did his best not to dwell on all that he is supposed to have forgotten, or sufficiently eulogized to have been dealt with properly.

It becomes difficult to keep track of who has returned to the never-ending past, and who is still plodding along with him, if he himself is in fact there. Come one Armistice Day, Julian is shocked to find himself still present and a member of the stragglers, increasingly frail men all of them, and too few to number a crowd. As Julian expects to greet death year after decade, the boy he had forgotten makes himself comfortable in the crepuscular light between life and death, and waits. The adolescent Tom goes hunting in that Neverland. He catches shrapnel with his pale hands, follows the tracks of memories and forgotten lines from school poems.

Julian strips down the torn and bloodied clothes by the fire. Tom brings a basin of water and bends to wash the muck from Julian's legs and feet. Gazing down at the halo of hair grown long and bleached by sun, Julian feels he must protest. He should be the one kneeling. The lines of beauty - curlicues of hair, shallow conch shell of nape - crouched at his thigh level renders him speechless in their clarity.

Shall we swim now, Tom asks eagerly. Julian grimaces and shakes his head. Now that the worst of the mud has been washed off, he notices the bloody reddish tinge left in the water. There is a persistent wound in his foot and they both know anyway that they must continue North.

The passage of people into history, which once sped past critical mass, is now slowing again to reach homoeostasis, simply because the ones remaining are already numerical oddities and too few to sustain any sort of exponential growth. Julian begins to receive reminders in earnest about whether he has adequately guaranteed his philanthropic legacy. His books go out of print and, when asked, his publishers assure him that a posthumous edition is in the works. He weathers, too, that indignity.

Instead, he placates himself with the crowds of well-intentioned children who are awestruck by his authority. The progeny of relations who are willing to wait on him hand and foot for the chance to be near someone so wonderfully but not awfully old. To pick the brains of a living fossil! When he thinks of them, he remembers the growing and changing bodies of babies. Their eternity is such an eternity away from his age that he and they freely wonder at him being from another century entirely.

They are both encumbered with the necessities any sufficiently rustic walking holiday would require. As ever, Tom takes a leisurely pace, even through the numerous towns they pass, tiny and grim in their industry. Even with a buggered foot Julian tries to hurry on. He is anxious with shame and always the pressing feeling that they've lagged too far behind or run too far ahead, time out of joint.

He can't tell whose time it was that didn't match with the place. Tom is sulky and vulpine in way Julian can't ever remember him being. He treads speculatively, like he’s on the lookout for something or someone. When the inhabitants of the town rush past, head down, Julian is struck with the thought that the family Philip left behind, in days long ago, might have lived like these people, grimy, in clothes that never had a chance to get clean. When Tom suddenly pauses mid-step, frozen, Julian is afraid to touch him. He is certain that were he to kiss him, it would taste like soot and ashes. Tom bends down and scoops up a handful of something from the ground. He cups his hands together and holds it for Julian to see. It is a coal-ball neatly lodged on a bed of pebbles.

Julian thinks he cannot not bear to love another Wellwood, and besides, love, like war, is for the young. Yet throughout the 60s, he continues to call on Hedda - both survivors, the two of them, her spinster to his bachelor. They play a game of names.

Philip and Dorothy? Dead. Olive and Humphry? Looooong dead. Wolfgang? Griselda? Florence? Dead, dead, dead. Are we dead? Hedda would laugh in response, "I've got a better one. Is Tom dead?"

And then, in 1978, in the middle of that brutish winter, Hedda too, joins the dead.

Julian finds that they are finally walking in the open again, up in the downs. Or rather Tom was walking, even running ahead now to beat at shrubbery lacing the ground. He limps behind with his cane and plastic foot. This Tom, sly and fox-like, teases him, accusative. This Tom is easier to bear than the one he dreads meeting - young, unspoilt Tom, properly unspoilt and uncertain, following him around South Kensington at midsummer.

When they pass from the gentle dales Northward, Tom turns on him and runs off, leaving him to stumble along the hardened Northland alone. Julian yearns for chalk, for softness, to be South again, to be South and swimming, chasing trout forever.

Living long has its paradoxes. The worst of it is the collection of lives, generations younger, to be swept past him, and be over. Every day is an age and every day resembling the one that passed before it. The facts of his working life slips out, and the declensions not chanted since Marlowe slips back in. There was a time when Julian could number off the major acquisitions of the V&A since his father's days. He doesn’t look back at that time with fondness, exactly, but finds it peculiar that it belonged to him at all. The lives of the dead are infinitely more real than the lives of the living. Innocence he had so treasured long ago and now, beguilingly innocent, the golden-haired boy makes pale mockery of his too-long life.

Other than death, he thinks his chief ambition might be to outlive Larkin.

They reach the North at last, and before them is the head shaft into which they must descend. The little cage they are to climb into. Are we going Under again? Together this time? Tom asks. Julian frantically checks the scenery for cracks, for stage craft. For whether he or Tom or both are manikins of human size with painted-on ceramic faces. He checks for wires, for trapdoors. But this is real. This real thing. He must make a choice this time.

Watching the newsreel of miners' faces streaked with the Underground, Julian is sure that now he must long last follow them into the full weight of the earth to be packed on top of him. His carers try unsuccessfully to calm him. They resort to a drip. A drip is good; morphine will sedate him and let him walk faster.

Underground, the sunken streets tunnel away from the shaft, scooped into the pit-wall at dimensions Julian can’t wrap his head around. The cage stops and Tom confidently sets off. He sees Tom ahead of him as though they are both in the miniature, telescoped in the wrong end of a set of binoculars. As little toy-things brushing against the low roof, Julian wants very badly to go back, to go up and escape the miles of coal and earth pressing on them, and just when he is ready to give up for good, they are suddenly at the mouth of an enormously large and dark cavern.

Beneath the cold, packed earth, the sky is coal black, with glittering stars cast in the stone walls. Julian turns to follow the light beamed out by the tinkling lights of the Great Wheel and finds that he has no shadow either. In a cart together, slowly rising with the coal overhead stretching upwards forever, he reaches over Tom's shoulder and plucks a fern, dewy and green, growing from the vertical walls they scrape past. Shall I pick one for you, or would you prefer some reeds, to make a panpipe? Julian asks, and waits for an answer.