Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Writer: Chapter One

The Writer or Burn the English: A novel by Denis Brian

“Do what you will, this life’s a fiction
And is made up of contradictions.” William Blake

Chapter One: London Suburb

Our vicar was a master of shock tactics. Take, for example, his Christmas sermon: "Imagine her surprise," he said, "when Mary opened her legs and out popped God." Now the vicar was popping out of our house as I arrived, prodding me on the shoulder in passing. "Just heard the good news from your mother. You'll have the time of your life. My half-brother went to Oxford and had a splendid time. Everything was downhill after that. So make the most of it."
His stormy-weather eyes and slightly bent stance, as if stuck part way to prayer, had been replicated in the third of his five daughters. I had once shuffled her around at a church dance. Smelling of disinfectant, clinging like a limpet, she remarked that I had no sense of rhythm--no news to me--and said "Shit!" when in lighting her cigarette I almost set her eyebrow alight. Until then I thought of vicars' daughters as cast from the same mold, long-suffering like their mothers, mealy-mouthed like their dads.
The Reverend Hubert Applegate gave a discreet wave, while mother, cheeks flushed, fiddled with her handbag and waited with me in our doorway. We watched him fix bicycle clips carefully over his black silk socks then wobble down our Crescent and out of sight.
I followed mother into the kitchen. "Now what the hell's he collecting for?"
"Birth control."
Knowing mother deplored double-entendres below the waist I resisted "fucking hypocrite" for a mild, "obviously doesn't practice what he preaches."
Her light, bright blue eyes were agleam with tears. "He had heartbreaking photos of starving children in Africa."
"Why not send them food?"
"I didn't ask any questions. Only encourages him."
"What would Jesus Christ think of His church financing the rubber good industry?
"I've had enough sex talk from the vicar." Mother moved to the living room and turned up Handel's Largo on the radio to purify the air. "He's got sex on the brain," she said. "Even tried to sell me a book on how to control Christian children.
"You bought it?"
"No. He just left it."
I skipped to the chapter titled Sin and Sex, in which the author warned parents to inspect with care their children's undergarments. Pieces of fluff, he wrote, might do the devil's work by stimulating the little animals to carnal desire.
As we ate dinner--being Tuesday, stew--mother stared serenely through a diamond-lattice window to catch the evening's Epiphany when the street lamp popped on and suddenly illuminated the nearby silver birch. Our Crescent of fifteen detached and semi-detached two-story houses crowning a wooded hill gave us a King-of-the-Castle view of arrivals and departures.
"Here they come," mother announced.
Adam and Norman, nicknamed Nobby, had arrived in tandem for our regular Tuesday night gabfest. Nobby, the son of elementary school teachers had the build of a rugby forward and the disposition of a Saint Bernard. He was at the height of his Quietism phase: do not exert yourself, do nothing to bring attention to yourself, not even to gain salvation.
Adam, also an only child, was an optical illusion. Only five foot six, he looked gawky. At attention--Adam was rarely at ease--he was a pencil. In action, a stick insect. Under tension, he flapped his arms and the rest of his body went along for the ride.
Mother thought that his oval face, bovine eyes, blue=black eyelashes and fresh complexion were "wasted on a man." So did his classmates, who tainted him with, "In a dress you'd be the belle of the ball." And by calling him Madam instead of Adam. He responded with bony knees and elbows. His father had been a detective, retired early and sold ties. His mother was partly Greek and taught Sunday School at Applegate's church. She had raised Adam to believe that God was like a rich relative: don’t annoy him and you may get lucky.
My brother David interrupted our discussion on Nobby’s recent conversion to quietism, by sticking his head in the living-room doorway and challenging us to define existentialism and when that failed to arouse us, to explain why the world kept turning. Just back from a futile job-hunting expedition in London, he had tanked up for a nighttime tour of local “country clubs” where he hoped to meet willing women.
Is that you, David?” mother called from the garden.
He adopted his angelic voice: “Yes mother. I’ve already eaten. Just off to look up more job prospects.”
“Good luck!’ She called out.
He lingered in the doorway. “So none of you morons can answer my questions.” he said.
“Why don’t you go and fornicate with your fucking job prospects?” I invited him and moved to shut the door.
But he grabbed my wrist. I jerked free, stepped back and kicked for his crotch. He had marvelous reflexes even when tipsy. Moving just enough to escape injury, he grabbed my foot, and twisted it until I was forced to fall onto the couch, where he held me. Nobby ignored my plight, showing interest in the sepia print of Liszt on the wall above our upright piano. Adam sighed.
“You’re too slow,” David taunted me. “At everything.”
Mother entered the kitchen and must have heard the heavy breathing ”What’s going on in there?” she asked,
“We’re discussing the pathetic fallacy,” David answered.
“Don’t break the furniture,” she said. You couldn’t put much past her.
”You’re a good argument for birth control,” I told David as he continued to use my foot as a fulcrum. He soon tired of torture and left us.
We resumed our Bloomsbury-Group stance, pulling the world to pieces in a detached manner, as if the God we hypothesized had been a property developer and we were morally superior government inspectors. We left the Almighty suitably rebuked to discuss why the most rewarding questions began with the letter W. For example: Where? What? When? Why? Who’s? Whose? What the Hell? I said that I often wondered, “Why birds chose to rest on phone or power lines. rather than on nearby tree branches?” “Whatever runs through those lines must give them a thrill, “ Nobby suggested. “Maybe it’s like getting a free massage.”
We even kicked around mother’s complaint that God’s two biggest mistakes were sex and teeth--because of the troubles both caused.
My brother returned late that night soused, accidentally let himself in Mrs. Willet’s identical house next door—
those were the days when it was safe to leave your doors unlocked—and slept in the hall. When he woke, desperate Mrs. Willet with three unmarried daughters offered him breakfast which he declined.
Mother sometimes entered the fray to prevent our “Bloomsbury Group” meetings from becoming Tuesday massacres, even laughing at David’s provocations as if they were funny, or hoping to blunt his poisoned darts with tranquilizing extracts of wit and wisdom she’d picked up from the wireless as we called the radio in those days.
And yet as a kid I had idolized him. Once, meeting me in the street when I was wet and muddy from puddle splashing, he invited me to a cowboy movie in the local flea pit.
“Don’t I have to wash first?”
“Why bother? No one’ll see you in the dark.”
Ah, those golden days!
Mother regarded David as a fallen angel, or a man of great potential derailed; a victim of fate; or bad timing; or the infamy of others. “He’s a natural athlete,” she said proudly. “And if he didn’t drink, he would be playing cricket for the county.”
Ask him and he’d say he was always on the brink of a great job, great adventure, great love affair. He excelled at brinksmanship. Attracted to women more willing and daring than most, he got one pregnant in his last school term. When she had a miscarriage their wedding was called off.
He had mother’s light blue, luminous eyes, that seemed equipped with their own lighting, and a lopsided grin. He’d also inherited dad’s nervous system that made him jumpy and restless. The combination was progressively less charming and at times alarming. A hair under six feet, lean as a lizard, but with broad shoulders, David was slightly taller than I, though I denied it and stretched or raised my heels whenever we stood together.
People were surprised at first to know we were brothers. Where he looked as if he was about to do something illegal, I had an expression you’d expect on the arresting officer. Unlike him I didn’t appear to be on hunger strike.
His response to my acceptance at Worcester College, Oxford, was, “At least you’re not going to a school for traitors” referring to Cambridge men Burgess and MacLean who had betrayed our country and long since hopped it to Russia. And to Philby of Britain’s M.I.5, likewise a product of Cambridge’s Trinity College. “The unholy trinity,” David called them.
Having anticipated an arduous trip to Oxford with multiple changes for cabs, buses and trains, David surprised me. Although broke, he had borrowed a car from a new acquaintance to drive me to college in style. Mother came along for the three-hours plus drive. And to share the glory.
My task was to spot ladies lavatories in small towns en route. A concession to mother’s weak bladder, another of God’s goofs. It was like being in a car race and frequently stopping at the pit for repairs.
No one in mother’s extended family had made it to college, so this was a gala day. And as we approached the Oxford outskirts she repeated like a litany, “Your father must be so proud of you.” He had been dead for almost ten years—-a heart attack—-but she still spoke as if he was alive, as if by saying it would make it so.


The college looked marvelous, built of stone, and with its own lake and playing fields. A young man in a white turtle-neck sweater and wielding a riding crop like an orchestra leader, directed a dress rehearsal of The Knight of the Burning Pestle on the college’s smooth lawn.
A bald, bent old man in a cubby hole like a railroad ticket collectors office, showed us to my room up a flight of stone steps. It was a warm afternoon, but I shivered in the small cell-like place, to be my home for four years. “The cold will keep you awake if you don’t freeze to death,” David reassured me cheerfully..
He borrowed cash from mother and treated us to lunch in an Olde English Inn among what I expected to be Oxford’s best and brightest.
Quite illuminating. The waiter put his dirty thumb in the soup as if doing me a favor, and a regal-looking lady with a lorgnette ostentatiously removed her false teeth before attacking a banana.
”Obviously a direct descendant of Henry the Eighth,” David said so loudly that mother shushed him but she couldn’t avoid laughing.
He left a big tip and the waiter said it was a nice change not to wait on gentlemen. Which David took as a compliment.
“Have a wonderful time,” he said on leaving and shook my hand formally. There were tears in his eyes.
Despite that encounter with the scruffy waiter and toothless crone, I felt like a pious tourist walking breathlessly through a Cathedral. But soon the secular and seedy intruded. Mother often ticked off God for teeth and sex. Nietzsche seemed nearer the mark with his damning: “The world is beautiful, but has a disease called Man.”
That’s the sidewalk where Evelyn Waugh threw up. And, see that “Rooms for Rent” sign? That’s where a few days after my arrival, a High-Church clergyman invited me to continue our coffee-shop conversations about Proust in his digs. He locked the door with a mumbled excuse about “break-ins” and asked me to kiss him for the love of Christ.
“Christ!” I exclaimed. “You’ve got the wrong man. I’m an agnostic.”
He looked aghast as if I had carried perversity too far and unlocked the door somewhat testily, saying that I obviously had a weak grasp of religious symbolism. However, he was still willing to cater to my literary interests. Would I care to see where Lawrence e of Arabia had parked his bicycle?
“Thought he rode a camel,” I said flippantly, but accepted his offer to ease our mutual embarrassment and make a quick exit. My brother shared Churchill’s admiration for Lawrence as one of the world’s great men. I thought he was a bit of a fraud, and an interesting pathological case.
Outside in the street, the clergyman flicked back his lank hair and adjusted his glasses as if uncertain whether to give a mini-sermon, look for someone else to kiss, or to pursue his tour-guide role. As promised, he pointed out where Lawrence as a student had stacked his bike and, as a bonus, where martyrs had been burnt at the stake, one, at his request, hands first.
“Over there”-–he indicated a spot being approached by a gaggle of nuns—“Welsh and North of England students teamed up and fought to the death against students from the south of England.” God knows why, and I would, too, I suppose, if I studied medieval mayhem. His parting whispered words were, “And the survivors even pissed on the corpses.” Let’s have a big hand for the old Oxonians of the thirteenth century! Wonder when we Brits earned the reputation for fair play.
Seven hundred years later we post-World War 2 students were much less aggressive. And we were both less eccentric and more sober than the pre-war sodden sodomites in Evelyn Waugh’s circle. Most of us were pallid puritans, cautious Catholics, or like me, nothing, a lack of belief raised to crusader status on official forms as Agnostic.
Stuart Leigh was an outstanding exception. Claiming to be a wizard, he adopted a stray gray cat, baptized it with beer and called it his Familiar. The only preternatural feat I witnessed was when he swallowed a raw egg while smiling. He had the cell adjoining mine and was continually borrowing things. I annoyed him with my frequently repeated, ”You’re a wizard. Teleport it.” His father was something in the Foreign Office and the conventional wisdom was that Leigh was overcompensating by going native.
Another wacko was John Kendall, who looked like and kept a ferret which, after a few days and nights as his houseguest, bit its way to freedom. Soon after he had an influx of mice. He used to keep his used unwashed socks out of his ground-floor window to discourage casual visitors, and as a self-proclaimed expert on French history claimed that we had poisoned Napoleon. “And you’re trying to poison us with your stinking socks,” Bill Stokes protested.
Stokes was generally admired and envied for cuckolding his tailor every Thursday evening—what one wag called “giving the tailor’s wife a fitting.” If you passed a church during the week and heard organ music it was probably Stokes at the keys. His ambition was to put his hands on every church organ and on every willing woman in Oxfordshire. And to hear him talk, he had almost made it.
My eyes were opened at Oxford. Before I went there I assumed that the upper classes were something like meat—metaphorically stamped “choice cut”—isolated from hoi polloi by traveling in first-class railroad carriages, when their Rolls Royces were laid up or their horses hobbled. And that the working class betrayed their lowly status by their godawful speech and atrocious eating habits. If they could fake those, I identified them by their opposing attitudes—either Bolshie or servile. What might be called the British version of the Hun as ridiculed by Churchill: either at your feet or your throat.
Yet the scruffiest student at Oxford with rotten teeth, nails in perpetual mourning, and a penchant for letting others pay for his drinks and his girlfriend’s abortion, turned out to be a peer of the realm. And of all my acquaintances there the one who appeared to be an aristocrat, with a voice so far back he seemed to be strangling himself, tall, lean, and languid, a wine connoisseur and expert on the history of falconry, was the issue of a Liverpool cab driver and a cleaning woman. This was long before Maggie Thatcher, grocer’s daughter, of the ladeeda voice and haughty air, became prime minister.
Still I remained uneasy among upper class individuals of all three sexes who spoke without moving their lips and even when looking up, to my mind¸ were looking down on me. As if I was from another inferior species. Had their been a course in social sophistication I would have flunked it.
Take my tutor, Lord George Teddington. I was supposed to phone him to arrange my first tutorial. But I shirked it for weeks because of the multiple choice: whether to call him Your Lordship, M’Lord, Lord, George, Lord Teddington, Teddington, Sir, or Professor. And I was too embarrassed to ask anyone for advice. When, after a few drinks, I dialed his number, I responded to his curt “Yes?” with, “Is that you?” He replied, “Who am I supposed to be?”
I sensed that he wasn’t moving his lips and was looking down on me.
“I’m Stephen Elliot. I believe you’re my tutor.”
“Belief isn’t enough, Elliot. You should know, dammit. Just a moment.” Sound of shuffling papers and a dry cough. “Yes, you’re on my list. Can you make it on Thursday at three?”
“Three in the afternoon?”
Pause. Sigh. “I’m usually asleep at three in the morning.”
Which was sometimes also the case at three in the afternoon.
He doubtless thought I wasn’t very bright. I modestly judged myself brighter than him. At least more open minded. Despite his international reputation as THE authority on Shakespeare and Marlowe he turned out to be fossilized, challenging any new ideas with an unfailing, “Who’s your authority for that?” Once responding to my, ”I am,” with a snort and a limp hand wave of dismissal. So I saw as little of him as possible.
I learned more about sex vicariously from poltergeist noises in the room above mine occupied by Richard Craig and many years before by Thomas De Quincy author of Confessions of an English Opium Eater. Craig was in the manic phase of his manic-depression, with more on his plate than an entire school of scholars. He was launched on several enterprises at once: rewriting all Shakespeare’s plays and poetry, the comedies into cockney rhyming slang, the tragedies and histories into Mafiosa-style lingo; turning James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake into a TV series—perhaps for a select audience of three; composing the words and music for an opera about Gandhi; and in worldwide correspondence with experts on the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Craig had practically no forehead and put a sizable dent in the theory that the higher the brow the loftier the mind, being as close to a genius as anyone I ever met.
How he found the time to entertain so many women was part of his genius, I guess. He as good as gave me his rejects. And I soon had a coterie of dejected females desperate to re-arouse Craig’s fickle but fervent id. I nearly persuaded one to spend the night with me—at least for mutual warmth--we were both shivering with the cold. And got as far as lying together on my narrow bed. But after the first kiss, she looked up at the ceiling and whispered. “I simply can’t. Craig might hear us.”
For chrissakes I heard HIM at it all the time! In fact, the next evening I was startled from a doze by a female shriek followed by frantic footsteps stumbling down the stone steps past my room. The shriek developed into an anguished cry, “Ca brule! Ca brule!”
It was no burning martyr but Craig’s Parisian conquest. For all his genius he had mistaken Vick’s Vapor Rub for an aid to intercourse and had handed it to her in the dark before their projected romantic interlude. What I in my drowsy state had thought to be Craig rehearsing for his opera was more like the opening scene in a morality play.
Several of Craig’s castoffs hung around with me to be near him, and I got the reputation as a lady killer. Some even showed signs of overcoming their obsession with Craig and settling for me. I had a brief fling with a dynamic young woman who wanted to be a novelist, worked backstage at Oxford Rep. Took her punting on the Isis and pub crawling. But when the flu laid me low for a week I found that she had dumped me for an Australian sheep farmer she met on a blind date.
I decided to avoid attractive females until an irresistible charmer turned up with Garbo’s voice, Vivien Leigh’s flawless face and figure.
And then I met Sylvia.
Oxford and London

We met during a mid-term break at a party in a London suburb where the evening’s high spot was when Sylvia, giving yelps of pain, unscrewed all the light bulbs. Trying to reach her chair in the sudden darkness, she tripped over my foot and damaged both wrists. So I felt Obliged to drive her home to Earls Court in her disorderly little car with a whining stick shift and stink of stale tobacco.
Her large, tired husband insisted that I stay for instant coffee, which I sipped tentatively while Sylvia dipped her fat wrists in a bowl of water and shot me conspiratorial glances. I felt like the innocent dupe—or was it dope?—in a triangle: the square on the hypotenuse.
While he stumbled his way upstairs to subdue their bawling kids (one of each), she kissed me goodnight with such fervor it would have been churlish not to respond. She was obviously bored with her engineering-type husband because he had a crush on his new computer, one of the first on the market.
When she phoned me the next day mother answered.
“A woman,” she announced, red in the face, as if the police were after me.
Sylvia had tickets for Brahms at the Albert Hall and her husband wanted to play with his computer. Could I escort her? It might take her mind off her swollen wrists.
I thought I was in for an agreeable liaison with a woman of the world, cool, calm, and sensual. And safely married.
Her car turned out to be the best guide to Sylvia: hysterical. Often without apparent cause; and demanding constant attention or it would imitate Mount Vesuvius. And her sunshine roof was stuck shut.
By the time I knew Sylvia to be a reflection of her car she was my mistress--in the back seat, the porch of her house, after seeing Coward’s “Brief Encounter,” in her best friend’s apartment. And, like a jalopy you’ve had for some time, despite imperfections, I was attached to her.
Sylvia’s best feature was her cavity-free white, sharp teeth, to which a small purple scar on my shoulder bears witness. Of average shape, with dark-brown eyes, small and feverish when aroused, she sometimes looked as if she’d been nudged when applying her lipstick. Her hair was black and when she shook her head in anger—instant sheepdog. She was intense, her whole body joining in an argument. Nervy, did a dance marathon in her sleep; high-strung, gave a passable simulation of sticking her finger in a light socket--simply because she’d flooded the carburetor. If you knew her you might mock her as a child out of sync with her age, reacting only to things she felt personally and leaving others to take care of the Bomb, the poor, the hungry, and the exploding and increasingly explosive population.
Though, to be fair, she did parade in Trafalgar Square with an environment protection group long before it became a popular cause; walk ten miles for charity, her mother having pledged a pound a mile; and write a monthly letter to a Korean orphan she supported out of her housekeeping allowance. “Repaying the Yanks for their Bundles for Britain,” she quipped. The orphan was half American.
Sylvia’s religion was eclectic, a bit of this and a bit of that, like a visit to a salad bar. But her God was uniquely Sylvia’s, with X-Ray vision, and so concerned with keeping sex within marriage that a few sparrows must have kicked the bucket while He was otherwise preoccupied. When we were comforting each other—her euphemism—she glanced anxiously at the ceiling, car roof or overcast sky. No need to ask her why. She was silently begging His forgiveness.
Otherwise she was a normal, healthy, neurotic young woman who wept indiscriminately through TV news and TV commercials. Even an attentive waiter with a pained expression had her wet-eyed with sympathy.
Although I usually pictured the Creator, if there was one, as a combination of electricity and some celestial substitute for brains, in weak moments I imagined Him staring down at His creations screwing or coveting their neighbors’ wives, putting up bookshelves, and weeping at waiters with hemorrhoids, Sylvia, I realized, was influencing me.
She never stopped pressing me to get down to my planned novel. After our most trivial experiences, searching, for example, under parked cars for a stranger’s lost cat, she urged me to “write it before you forget it.” I resisted. “Has to stew for a while. Otherwise it’s just journalism.”
We found the cat but I tore my pants and borrowed a pair of her husband’s that made me look like Charlie Chaplin.
Embarrassing for a man who was already borrowing his wife.
Sylvia wanted me to write an account of my farewell meeting with my tutor, Teddington. Then I sat uneasily in his armchair listening to church bells chime three, as if he had deliberately timed it to inform the world that I had just scraped through with a third-class degree. And, of course, he had to rub it in. “Most surprising to learn, considering your performance here, that you’ve got a job offer. You must be surprised, too.”
I nodded reluctant agreement.
Sylvia had glimpsed Teddington on a brief trip to Oxford and thought he looked sensitive.
“Your euphemism for dyspeptic, I suppose.”
She laughed and said, “He can’t help being a lord,” as if it was an infirmity.
“Just luck I suppose,” I said to Teddington. I didn’t explain that the job meant teaching kids in a dangerous, decaying section of London’s East End, where apprehensive policeman paroled in pairs, or that the pay was pitiful.
“How did you do with extracurricular activities?” Teddington asked. “I recall something of your flawed nighttime production of The Taming of the Shrew.”
“Yes. I directed that on the college grounds.”
”With no lighting as I recall.”
“There was a full moon.”
“And quite a few clouds.” He pursed his lips as if to smile, then thought better of it. “At least it shows you don’t mind taking risks.”
As he spoke a mouse sniffed at his antiquated Victorian-style boots, then scuffled off to savor something more appetizing. Quite unaware of the uninvited guest, he got up and moved to the lattice windows, saying, “Lewis Carroll had room near here, you know, much like these. So he, too, enjoyed this marvelous view of medieval cottages.” I joined him. His large, drafty study let in the scent of lilacs and overlooked, not only the cottages, but Christ Church meadow and chestnut trees in full flower. I nodded with fake amiability.
During my four years at Oxford I had avoided, by various stratagems, addressing my tutor by name. And the longer I put it off the tougher it became, until it was almost a full-blown phobia. Propernameitus. This was my last chance to show I was no longer intimidated by his social prominence. Otherwise I’d always think of myself as at one with the mouse who had licked his boots.
Now, in saying goodbye I was determined to redeem myself with a confident, unequivocal “Lord George.”
“Well.” He held out his hand. “Good luck.”
“Thank you. And thanks for all your help, Lloyd George.”
He seemed not to notice my having confused him with the late lamented British Prime minister, already looking over my shoulder at the open doorway through which the next graduate, Edward Hardy--destined for the Foreign Office—was about to genuflect and murmur polysyllabic platitudes.
As I strolled across the college lawn, Immaculately cut as if by a hairdresser, Hardy called out to me. I waited for him to catch up, hoping he wouldn’t notice my flushed face.
“That was quite a gaff,” He said, with a superior smirk. “You got it quite wrong. His name is Lord George Teddington.”
“To you, perhaps.” I said. “But he’s an old friend of the family. And I always call him Lloyd George. Seems to amuse him.”
His manner changed. “Oh, really,” he said. “Must have been his influence that got you the substitute teaching job.”
London’s East End

The school had the air of a Dickensian sweatshop with iron bars over windows not yet completely cleared of their World War 11 blackout paint. Opposite, in the doorway of a drab rowhouse three women in hair curlers and bedroom slippers stopped gossiping to give me the once over.
“And you are?” the wiry, bowlegged headmaster greeted me in the school corridor.
“Stephen Elliot.”
“Huh!” he responded, pointing his cane at the room where I was to test my nerves on 10-year-old cockneys, a sprinkling of West Indians and Pakistanis, and a red-headed boy from Belfast.
“You’re substituting in there,” the headmaster said. “Book’s on the table.”
“History or English?”
“You’ll soon find out.” He dismissed me with a tap of his cane.
A girl already has her hand raised as I entered the classroom taking deep breaths as nerve tonic, surprised by the smell of baking bread, from what turned out to be a nearby bakery.
“Please sir, can I change my seat?”
A shrieking chorus followed. I waited for it to fade.
“Take a look, sir.”
I did. Dead frog. “Sure,” I said to a howl of approval.
I raised my hands for silence and to my surprise almost got it. “What was your last history lesson?”
“Friggin boring,” someone yelled.
“The Boer War?”
Cheers and jeers.
I pointed to the dead-frog girl: “What are you studying now?”
“Middle evil times.”
“What do you know about them?
She spoke as if in a trance: “Middle evil people were violet. Everyone killed somebody else. Then merchants sprang up and organized street fairies throughout the land to sell their goods. Finally, the Black Death come over from Europe by inflected foreign rats who polished off most of the middle-aged people.”
“What does that teach you?”
“It’s best not to be middle-aged.”
“Well, I can’t argue with that.” I pointed to a boy in the front row who was picking his teeth. ”What happened to those who survived the Black Death?”
“They reformed. After Martin Luther had nailed a lot of democrats to a church door. And he called monks who didn’t go along with his views a lot of worms.”
“And what happened to Luther?” I asked the boy sitting next to him.
“He died a horrible death after communicating with a Papal bull.”
And what happened in England at the time? Anyone.”
A kid at the back stood on his chair. “The government of England was a limited mockery And Margaret Carter said that no free men should be hanged twice for the same crime. Later, King Henry the Eighth who had too many wives gave birth to Protestants.” Another boy cut in with, “When his daughter, Queen Elizabeth, a virgin, exposed herself before her troops they cheered. Then she ordered Sir Francis Drake, who had circumcised the world with a 100-foot clipper to stop playing with his balls in order to defeat the Spanish Armaadillo.”
“This is all news to me,” I said. “You certainly make history come alive. Any Shakespearian experts in class?
Three boys raised their hands.
“Okay. You first, then you, then you.”
“Hamlet’s the p[ay where he relieves himself in a long talk to himself, his mind being guilty of the filth of incestuous sheets whenever he thinks of his mother.”
“Close enough. Next.”
“Romeo’s dying wish was to be laid by Juliet. It’s a love story.”
“To die together. Right. Anything more?”
“Shakespeare was supposed to be born on his birthday, but his death put an end to a promising career.”
“Uhuh. Now you.”
“He wrote tragedies and comedies. Like when Lady Macbeth tried to talk her husband into bumping off the king by attacking his manhood,”
“I have a feeling some of you get our information from TV comedies. You’ll probably get it straight when you grow older.”
A few days later I gave them a few paragraphs to read on the American Revolution and asked a girl in pigtails: “Why did the colonists in America fight against us?”
“Because we put tax in their tea. The French were revolting, too, And then Lenin revolted the Russians.”
“I see you’ve skipped ahead and almost brought us up to modern times. Queen Victoria and the British Empire. Any experts here on that period?” I pointed to the nearest hand.
“The sun couldn’t set on the British Empire because it’s in the east and the sun sets in the west. And Queen Victoria, who reigned on it, was the longest Queen, sitting on her thorn for sixty glorious years.”
“And in more modern times?”
”Dimocrats took over,” the redhead volunteered. “They set in an anal parliament led by a primal minister like Winsome Churchill.”
“And Hitler had only one ball,” a boy called out. “That’s why he lost the war. Not enough ammunition. So he shot himself.”
“The Germans needed more room,” yelled another. “And Hitler let them do it with a lot of anti-semantics in the rear called a filth column. Nukular fashion then took over and the Japanese used it to blow up Hitler in his bunker.”
“Let me ask you all a question. Let me…” I bowed my head, waiting for the noise level to dip below my shouts. “Hands up those who believe we can trust history books to give us the facts?”
A battle of hands and voices followed. I held up my hands in supplication, a primal minister unable to control his anal parliament.
Driven by cheers and jeers to the blackboard I pretended to ignore flying paper planes, the airborne ink and godknows what else spitballs, slamming desk lids, shrieks of pain real and assumed, and having my IQ and parentage loudly questioned.
As the chalk broke, I wrote with a progressively small stick: MY HISTORYWRITE ABOUT AN EXCITING EVENT IN YOUR LIFE. I underlined YOUR LIFE and turned to face the enemy. A boy was leaning forward and strangling the boy in the desk ahead. I hurried to them not sure how to handle it. “Let him go at once,” didn’t work so I tried, “I’ll give you to a count of three to let him go.” The class counted along with me At three he was still holding on to his sputtering prey, so I grabbed him in a neck hold my brother had taught me and pulled the two of them, still locked together out of their seats. One kicked backwards and anesthetized my kneecap. When I let go, the pair separated like falling chestnuts.
An eerie silence announced the headmaster’s arrival. He blocked the doorway, arms crossed nodding his head, as if confirming that I had lived up to his low expectations. Glancing at the blackboard, then at the two boys scrambling back to their seats, he sucked in air through his teeth.
“Mister Elliot, in this school we never resort to violence. If you have any trouble with the little darlings...” He paused for a raucous response, and got it, and I lip read his, “then report them to me.” He waited for silence but didn’t get it. Then, his face suffused with blood as if from a massive infusion: “SILENCE you little bastards!”
He joined me at the blackboard, the quiet now an accolade. “You can’t treat them like little ladies and gentlemen, Mister Elliot, because they haven’t had your advantages.” He stepped back and pointed at me with his cane. “Mister Elliot is from Oxford University.” One kid hissed. “Well, no doubt you’re from Cambridge.” He gestured for me to come closer, then put his arm on my shoulder. “It is a great privilege for you boys and girls to have this bright young man as your teacher and counselor. Don’t waste the opportunity.”
He briefly waited in the open doorway before moving out of sight. But I sensed that he was still hovering within earshot. And so, I assumed, did the kids, who remained almost subdued.
“Are they all snobs, like my dad says, at Oxford, Mister Elliot?” a girl asked.
“Some are. Others are wonderful human beings like you.” That brought a good-natured titter.
The bruiser I had disentangled from his victim Now sat rigidly in his seat, arms crossed, demonstrating that he had no intention of committing his most exciting experience to paper for my benefit. Several others went through elaborate preparations, licking their pen nibs, flicking through their exercise books, and squinting at the ceiling as if it were a memory bank.
A girl raised her hand. “Please, sir, how do you spell abortion?”
I spelled it, appalled by the thought that I was encouraging pornography and that their accounts would have me jailed for perverting the morals of minors. Or that she was writing about a sister or other relative who would learn of it and sue me for libel.
“Remember,” I pointed out, “the sordid side of life is not necessarily the most exciting.” I sounded like mother.
The piercing end-of-class bell was as welcome as the all-clear air raid signal. I took their mostly unfinished exciting experiences with me to read in the Common Room. I had fifteen minutes before my next shock-treatment session. Its sole occupant handed me a cracked cup of stale, pale, cold coffee.
“Tastes like cat’s piss but it’s on the house,” he said. A prematurely gray man, with gray complexion, and gray suit. “Name’s Sanders. Mathematics. How’d it go, then?” His Yorkshire accent was thick and succulent as Yorkshire pudding. “Little buggers give you any lip?
“As well as a kick in the knee, spit ball in the neck, and a dead frog.”
“Is that all?” He looked disappointed. “Par for the bloody course. You’ve got to control them from the kick off or you’ve lost the game,” he warned. “Can’t blame the little creeps. It’s their modus operandi. They see dad bashing mum or his girl friend or vice versa, and it gets imprinted.”
“What’s your advice?”
“Don’t take any nonsense. The head’ll back you up. If you can’t handle them, threaten to send them to him. He looks like a squirt—looks a bit like General Montgomery, doesn’t he?—but he’s okay. You’re from Oxford, I hear.”
“What went wrong?”
“Aren’t too many jobs around.”
“Yes, but this is the last stop before purgatory.”
“I don’t intend to stay here for ever.”
“That’s what we all say. Anyway, good luck”
I glanced through the pitiful-hilarious efforts of my class—“My sister thawt it was shiek to where the latest fashuns”….”My hole life is exiting”…”My dad cuming home from the war all in wun peese is the top of my list.” “Seeing a fight in the street and one man never got up.”
I was about to leave when a fat woman literally danced in humming a Cole Porter tune. ”Don’t go,” she said. ”We must get acquainted. I’m botany and biology. If you want to pick up extra cash you can help me take some youngsters on field trips sometimes as far Orpington.” She rested her hand on my arm to reach for a stale doughnut. “I hope you can stand it out here in the Gulag,” she said. “We need a few people with class to compensate for this Marxist maniac.” She looked at him with obvious affection and I noticed her face unlike her body was quite beautiful.
He patted her rear and she squawked on leaving.
Soon after I had to sub for Nellie Anderson, the bouncy biology/botany teacher who was at home babysitting her sick cat with diarrhea, or her arthritic mother. Standing too near their cage to feed the hamsters was a mistake. One of them, maybe to change my religion, bit me on the prick. What a way to go? I panicked and rushed to the can to inspect the damage. No blood. Blessed relief.
The kids were so stunned by emergency exit that only the chronic agents provocateurs were going through the motions on my return.
Several times, especially that winter when the smell of damp rubber overwhelmed the aroma of baking bread, and when the kids hawked, sniffed, and spoke in the same adenoidal voice, I thought of quitting. “Do whatever you think best.” Mother advised. “Why not teach private students, like Adam?”
Adam had taught the son and daughter of an affluent import-export merchant in Chislehurst, a leafy stronghold of stockbrokers, lawyers, and retired lieutenant-colonels. And Nobby, though working for a member of parliament in a menial capacity, was getting to know the political leaders and losers of our time.
My brother, David, wasn’t much help. “It’s all experience,” he said once. “Sylvia’s right. You should take notes. One day you’ll turn them into a novel or a TV series.” But later he taunted me with, “You’re a sucker to stay.”
Had he been alive I’d have asked Sam Houston for advice. Our most interesting neighbor, he lived in the first house in the Crescent. Ours was the eighth. Sam had died suddenly of malnutrition, victim of his self-inflicted inadequate diet. He could have married several times but fought for his bachelor state with the vigor of a Victorian spinster defending her virginity. A wife and good home cooking would certainly have prolonged his life past fifty-three. He had fired a series of housekeepers including a cousin when it became clear that they had “designs on him,” as mother put it. So, the last few years he took care of himself. And that proved the death of him.
Eighteen avaricious relatives claimed Sam’s Pontiac. Because it guzzled gas it went for a song and they barely got a grace note each.
At the funeral service in our local church, Applegate gave him a syrupy sendoff: “A loving and generous man, a man of spirit and of good intent. His life was noble and the elements so mixed in him that Nature might stand up and say to all the world: This was a man.” He’d pinched that from Shakespeare, of course, and without attribution. I had to applaud Applegate, though, for saying anything positive, knowing as he did that the dead man had been a Spiritualist who bypassed Applegate to speak directly with Higher Authority.
Sylvia came to the funeral saying that she felt she knew Sam because once when she was passing his home he raised his hedge clippers in salute. Of course, she wept all through the service. But what a change outside. Then she literally hit the roof-- of the car--when I implied I was fed up with trying to train animals.
‘Restless, eh? Want to get away from it all? Me especially.”
“Why do you always take things personally?”
“Why do you always avoid answering direct questions?”
”Try me again.”
She repeated her innuendo.
“Nonsense,” I said.
“If you ask me you’re simply scared to death of little ten-year-olds.”
“But I’m not asking you.”
I went back to school to prove that I wasn’t scared, though I was, especially the morning a girl tried to knife the Marxist math master in the groin, a near miss. And I decided to leave for good before she improved her aim.
Oxford and London

Sylvia drove me back to Oxford one June scorcher on a tip from Nobby. He’d heard of a place there that found a whole range of temporary work for Oxford graduates, from sitting babies to walking dogs.
I’d told her of my brief encounter with the kissing clergyman and as we drove over familiar ground I said, “Look, quick. That’s where Lawrence parked his bicycle.”
“Lawrence who?”
“Are you mocking me?” She was in a very touchy mood.
“Thomas Edward.”
“Ah, yes. Sons and Lovers.”
“That was D.H.”
“I thought he called himself Shaw.”
“Not at Oxford”
She waited outside the nondescript hole-in-the-wall job placement office in her tormented car, her head stuck out for air, while a wizened little woman questioned me at a wobbly table. “I don’t know about this one,” she said, doubtfully. “We’ve sent several promising prospects down there. Mister Underwood must be hard to please.”
“What’s he after?”
“He’s a poet and needs a literary assistant.”
“Sounds up my street.”
“And immensely wealthy, I understand, though he’s obviously not willing to share his wealth.” She gave a sweet smile. “Five pounds and all found. But look here. this may have more appeal to you. A small film unit off to a location in Portugal. Need what they call a go for. I take it that’s a jack of all traders.”
“Poetry’s more my line.”
She handed me a phone and a phone number. “Call Miss Randolph. She’s his secretary. See if she likes the sound of you.” Miss Randolph had a husky voice and an easy manner. They’d be pleased to see me that weekend.
“Just take a toothbrush and a change of clothes,” the appointments woman advised. Then leaned forward and shielded her mouth. “He’s something of a mystery man. Said to be connected to the Royal Family. But don’t say I said so.”
I decided not to tell Sylvia anticipating her response: “You’ll have to take groveling lessons.” Or, “If he’s a poet and royalty then he’s probably a queen.”
“Rather exciting,” I said on emerging. “They gave me a choice. Portugal on location with a film unit Or I could be a poet’s literary assistant.”
“What a waste of time,” she protested. “How ridiculous it will look on your job resume. I held a poet’s hand while he was composing. Or I looked up what rhymes with moon in a thesaurus.”
“If that’s what it is I won’t take it.” I sat beside her, sticking to the hot seat, “We could toast bread in here,” I said, “Instead of stopping somewhere for a bite.”
She was in no mood for banter. With a twist of the wrist she started the car, and trembled towards the road back to London.
“Look at that beech tree,” I said after a long silence. “Flanks like. . .What dogs are gray with blue eyes?”
“I’m driving,” she snapped. “Keeping my eye on the road.”
“Just take a quick look. It’s fabulous. King Charles might have hidden in it.”
“And you taught children history,” she scoffed.” Charles hid in an oak, idiot.”
“Who, me?”
“You haven’t got gray flanks.”
She handled her loose little car as though taking a driving test. Intent. Uptight.
“All right, Sylvia, let me describe the rolling countryside to you.” I hoped to divert her with my travelogue. “The shining towers and spires, majestic beeches and chestnuts, the sparkling Isis, cool and calm, and the air rich with the scent of lilacs.”
“Which d’you fancy?” she asked, her eyes locked on the road ahead, “Film floosy or poet’s flunky?”
“With that alliteration I fancy the poet might fancy you.”
“Be serious, idiot.”
“I’ve already arranged with his right-hand woman to meet him so he can give me the once over.”
“When did that happen?”
“On the phone. In the job placement office.”
We hit cobblestones. She spoke shakily. “You might have discussed it with me first.” She waited until we stopped doing the rumba. ”How can a poet afford you? Unless he’s getting you cheap. Poet’s are all raggedy assed types who live off women in garrets.”
“Who are in the garrets? The poets or the women?”
“Be serious, for chrissakes.”
“He isn’t poor. Worth billions, apparently.”
She braked hard with nothing ahead, and our long slide betrayed the almost tread-less tires. The car stalled. She started again at a crawl. “Sounds screwy, to me,” she said, playing the brake as if it were a trombone.
“Take your foot of the break, love.”
”Who’s doing the bloody driving?”
“Couldn’t describe it better myself.”
She stopped the car, hitting her head on the windshield and got out. She was aquiver, I gave her the suicide seat. Though she never articulated her criticism of my driving for the rest of the way, her breathing and body language spoke volumes.
We cooled off later that evening in Leicester Square’s Lyons Corner House, the poor man’s Savoy Grill. Sylvia’s eyebrows looked sorry for themselves. “Just coffee and a small slice of fruit cake,” she ordered, as if her appetite was shot. In fact, that’s all we could afford. Spirited gipsy music filtered to us from the more expensive steak-and-imported-wine section overhead, and changed Sylvia’s mood.
“My dear,” she crooned in a flutey voice, ”his lisping will drive you to distraction. He’ll obviously be queer.”
“It’s an old tradition. Carried on by Oscar Wilde. He was one of you Oxford types, too, wasn’t he? And all his pals will be queer, as coots too. What is a coot, by the way? Didn’t your Oxford buddy keep one?”
“Kendall kept a ferret, but not for long.”
“So, you know everything. What’s a coot?”
“A Scotsman’s coat.” I quote myself verbatim with confidence, because for once I took Sylvia’s literary advice and made a note of our loony-tunes conversation before my memory grew furtive.
At two in the morning her menthol cigarettes got the better of her voice and my eyes. We searched Covent Garden for her car, and finally found it, lights on and battery near death.
“Push, darling! Push!” she croaked like an exhausted Tallulah Bankhead, as I almost ruptured myself moving the car. The last I saw of her was a shower of shooting stars from the car window as another menthol cigarette hit the dust. If she didn’t break down she’d reach home just before her husband returned from his poker game with the boys. No need to worry about their kids, who were safe with her mother-in-law.
After walking the few miles through deserted London streets to Blackfriars railroad station, I caught a train lightly peopled with nightshift Fleet Street reporters and editors going home, with a few partygoers carrying wrinkled balloons, Some women carrying their high-heeled shoes, looked whacked out
Just this once, I resolved to reach my room without waking ever-alert mother. I got as far as my bedroom door, gently turned the handle an. . .”Is that you, Stephen?”
I sat on the foot of her bed. She put on her reading glasses. “You look tired.”
“I’ve landed an interview. Looks promising.” I gave her a brief rundown.
“What a wonderful chance,” she said, eyes alight.’ He might turn out to be another Yeats or T.S. Eliot.”
“Or Byron.”
“Then you can turn him down.”
I was too tired to laugh.
When I woke next morning, Nobby and Adam had already phoned and hearing the news from mother left messages wishing me luck. Sylvia phoned as I was half way through a boiled egg and the news headlines.
“A woman for you,” mother announced, handing the phone over without looking at me. Sylvia was off to Spain with husband and kids for at least three weeks, sure that we were finished. She began to sob and I couldn’t always make out what she was saying, I imitated her still husky voice, and I think the sound she made was more a laugh than a groan.
I slept fitfully the night before my weekend at the billionaire poet’s estate in Wiltshire, waking up answering questions in my head. I crept downstairs and rearranged books in the shelves to keep occupied, putting Madame Bovary next to Renan’s Life of Christ, which fact which fiction? Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom next to Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, which fiction, which fact?
And Shelley’s poems and Mary Shelley’s prose. Cover to cover, keeping them in the family.
At the first stab of dawn I began to make breakfast, suppressing the whistling kettle before it woke Mrs. Willett and her three daughters next door. Mother was down in her dressing gown before I took my first bite of toast, reminding me that her father came from Wiltshire She had a beatific expression whenever she mentioned “my dear old dad,” and wondered if fate was taking me back there.
“With what in mind?”
“Why, you know what I mean.”
“No I don’t. Your mind is rarely an open book.”
Had I pressed her I feel sure she would have come up with some theory, wacky enough to make me scoff or laugh. But I knew what she meant. I was the one to redeem the family’s failure to somehow make its mark.
As I was leaving she tried to persuade me to take two more shirts.
“For godssake, I’ve already packed two. This isn’t a trip too the moon.”
We stood in the doorway of our suburban home six cloned station stops from Charing Cross. As I pecked her on the cheek, she tried to flatten my hair with a gesture of benediction, but I was too quick for her.

The Writer: Chapter Two

Chapter Two: Wiltshire and the Interview

Sitting on the railroad platform in the wilds of Wiltshire, the air still but not stuffy, the sun scintillating if you squinted, dazzling if you didn’t, I dipped into my worn paperback copy of The Canterbury Tales. In a few minutes a well-preserved Rolls surfaced on the hill a quarter of a mile away, in a heat haze of its own fumes. A porter carrying a basket of suntanned eggs, announced,“Mister Underwood’s car.”
Its liveried chauffeur about my age, chewing a cigar, asked, “Wanna sit up front?”
“I’m the shuttle surface and you’re number fifteen.”
“Has he turned down the other fourteen?”
He seemed not to have heard.
“What’s he looking for?”
“Ah, if I let you on you’d get the job.”
“Is that bad?”
“Wouldn’t be cricket.” He laughed energetically, as if he’d scored a point
Blackberry bushes scratched the Rolls as we drove through narrow, winding lanes. A bee flew through the car—-all windows were open—-in a zigzag panic back to freedom. Honeysuckle made the afternoon air smell like the bakery near my old school. He drove as if he expected the lanes to be empty, and they were. We skirted a village of thatch-roofed cottages with stone walls and colored shutters, and approached a stone bridge spanning a small

railroad track. The chauffeur nodded at it, “One of his majesty’s toys.”
“This is royal land?”
“In a manner of speaking. Don’t quote me, but on very good authority, Lockwood’s the bastard son of Edward the fornicator, Victoria’s wayward son.”
He slowed the car so I could see a small locomotive come into view, its carriages, judging by the waving arms and hats, loaded with kids.
“Orphans,” he explained. “There’s a fresh group almost every weekend and I have to feed the little buggers when they arrive at the final station.” He glanced at his watch. ”I’d better get a move on.”
After two hills and two valleys he picked up a phone. “Coming in,” he said, and a hundred yards ahead two black iron gates jerked open. We raced through at sixty. It was suddenly cool and almost dark as we followed a serpentine path bordered by rhododendrons that arched into a roof over us. I shivered.
“Nervous, eh?” He chuckled. “He’s often a royal pain, but he doesn’t bite.”
As we emerged into shimmering sunshine we were still on high ground, and below was a Renaissance painting--open fields, a beech wood springing from a sea of bluebells and, about a mile ahead, the mansion. The color of afternoon tea biscuits, it was set in a sea of flower and vegetable gardens big enough to feed a village.
“Quite a sight.”
“You get used to it.” He adjusted his peaked cap and appraised himself in the rearview mirror, saying, “Underwood owns everything you can see in every direction, The villages, a river, the railroad track circling his land. He pointed to deer grouped like people at a garden party waiting to be entertained, all heads turned towards us, then at a frantic hare that sprinted under the car, to emerge, miraculously, untouched.
The flower gardens could have modeled for a big-budget movie of Alice in Wonderland, with a hint of maze. I’d met the March Hare. What next? The Mad Hatter? Something moved among the irises, partly shielded by a man-high screen of hollyhocks. “The man himself,” the chauffeur announced, and braked. “The gardeners are working elsewhere, so he’s going it alone here. Out you get.” He drove off with my weekend bag and my copy of Chaucer.
“Underwood,” he said, in a slightly over-cultivated voice.
He had taken off a scruffy gardening glove and offered me his hand. A firm grip. Fair hair, blue eyes. He wore a torn khaki shirt and kneed corduroys, and the sun was highlighting bald patched on his scalp. He reeked of geraniums and manure. Shorter than me, five nine at most, lean and leathery. Thin, widish mouth. Sensitive, mother would say. I’d reserve judgment. In fact he looked a bit lie one of her brothers, killed in the first World War.
A woman waved energetically from the mansion doorway. “My secretary,” he said, as though identifying a high-flying aircraft. Shortsighted, perhaps. “She’ll take care of you. See you later.”
I stepped over a colorful obstacle course of pinks, poppies and peonies, dahlias and delphiniums, early for the time of year, towards the massive, masculine house, sidestepping a steaming mound of horse manure. I focused on the house, searching for a simile to fix it in my memory—this might be my last sight of it—and had almost reached the front door before I got it: wisteria and rambler roses clung to its walls like possessive females.
“Stephen Elliot, I believe.”
I recognized her seductive voice from our brief phone conversation. She had a slight, almost subliminal lisp, greeting me so exuberantly, I should have been a close friend, or at least the plumber. Her eyes moved eagerly as she spoke, like a spaniel’s sensing it is about to go for a walk. She gave me her first name, but I was too nervous to catch it.
She touched my arm lightly. “I’ll lead the way, Stephen.”
Bouncy walk, too high heels, showing off her ankles. Can’t blame her. Yellow dress. Mustard? Buttercup. Pixie hair style. Blue-black hair. I’d cast her as Madame Bovary at Bromley Rep, or, if she straightened her shoulders and lost two pounds, to double for Vivien Leigh in Anna Karenina. Mother would have called her, “Fetching.” David would already have had his arm around her waist—=in friendly fashion but with amorous intent. I still had Sylvia on my mind.
She led me through a hall with a tapestry on one wall-Rape of the Sabine Women? The Inquisition?--up a wide, curving stone staircase, “What do you think of this place?”
“Fabulous. A little bigger than I’m used to.”
She gave a silent chuckle or was it a suppressed cough? We clattered along mellow red-tiled floors passing door after antique door, each with one-of-a-kind handles. I said: “It’s not unlike Brighton’s Majestic Hotel.” But she didn’t respond.
There were nine rooms before we reached mine, and still more corridor lay ahead. My door was oak, its handle a lion’s head, or ugly old fogy in a wig, or a monkey. The room, though sparse as a monk’s cell, or Van Gough’s bedroom, was several times the size. My bed suggested a Russian sleigh.
She joined me at the open lattice windows, her lily-of-the-valley scent mingling with the aroma of just cut grass, Two horses, one black, one white, sheltered from the late afternoon sun under a giant sycamore almost within our reach, and in the distance, tree-covered twin hills stood like sentinels.
“The view seems familiar,” I said.
“Have you been to Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum?”
“Then look again.”
I didn’t get it, so she told me. “It’s a close copy of a French landscape by Pissarro that’s in the museum,” she explained. “Mister Underwood’s idea. He wanted to buy the painting but it wasn’t for sale. So he decided to restore this view to the land Pissarro chose as his subject so many years ago. A living painting, so to speak. If he couldn’t get the painting, he’d always have the view, always be able to see what had inspired the painter. Those specks in the distance are gardeners pruning the trees to stay the shape they were in Pissarro’s time. Mister Underwood even had an entire wood moved from one spot to another to get a perfect match.”
I could hear Sylvia’s, ”And half the world’s starving!”
Underwood’s secretary came across as part pleased, part preoccupied, and maybe a bit too gung-ho about everything.
It was almost as if she was trying to sell me the job.
Her stockings shushed as we moved to the bathroom.
“Is there time for a bath?” I asked. “They left the heat on in the train by mistake, and I’m slightly parboiled.”
“Plenty of time. We’ll phone you when tea’s ready. Though, I must warn you, Mister Underwood’s s stickler for punctuality.”
A gray, bent figure shuffled in with my weekend bag and Chaucer, then left without catching my eye.
“Any questions?” the secretary asked.
“If it’s not too personal, why are you giving up this job?”
“I’m not. You’re not my replacement. Wasn’t it explained? He also needs someone with him in California on the William Blake project. I take care of things here while he’s abroad.” First I’d heard of foreign travel. “Is that a problem?”
“On the contrary.”
“I tried to look up Mister Underwood in Who’s Who and reference books on poets and never found his name.”
“If you agree to join us I’ll explain why.”
I suspected that was her stock reply to all inquisitive applicant but wondered why it was such a mystery.
I listened to her high heels do a fandango, slow along the corridor, fast one quarter time down the curving stairs.
The bathroom alone was almost worth the trip. Rose, violet, yellow, and green bath salts in glass containers like those in old-world sweet shops; homemade oddly-shaped. exotically-scented soaps. I resisted and used my own lifebuoy. The sunken bathtub was flush with the floor, the taps a hybrid of reindeer and buffalo heads. And when I turned them on they howled like an animal in distress or anxious for company. I used one of three thick bath towels --Egyptian cotton, no doubt—-to mop the floor I’d inadvertently swamped.
Mother had triumphed again. She had sneaked in two extra shirts and my old school tie. I wore it for luck, and waited for the phone to call me to tea, as I watched the white horse in the field. It cantered and stopped, then started up again as if programmed. The other horse shared my curiosity at this performance.
Funny if mother was right: that I’d also been programmed—-to visit her “dear old dad’s” stomping ground. And this was my date with destiny.
I felt lighthearted and lightheaded as if I’d just drunk three beers non-stop. Maybe because I hadn’t eaten since breakfast, not enough blood was going to my brain.
My phone rang and a sepulchral voice announced, “Tea is served.” In my nervous hurry not to be late I turned in the wrong direction, only realizing my mistake when the wall on my left disappeared to make way for a minstrels’ gallery and a pigeon’s eye view of Underwood’s scalp. He was sitting at the head of an enormously long banqueting table, his dark-haired secretary, facing in my direction, at the halfway mark, and they were talking too quietly for me to overhear.
“I’ve ordered fresh tea,” Underwood said evenly.
“I got lost.” I took the only vacant seat, at the foot of the table. “Not unlike William Randolph Hearst’s spread,” I said.
“You were at San Simeon?” Underwood asked doubtfully.
“I saw the movie, Citizen Kane.”
“You mean the travesty,” he replied. “Well, Hearst pirated this table, by the way. Must have smuggled one of his minions in here to copy it, then had a replica made. But his was a fake and this is the genuine article.”
Despite the distance between us the acoustics were so good there was no need to raise our voices.
A maid brought a silver teapot dripping its contents onto the tiles, put it near me and sniffed.
”Tell us something of yourself,” the secretary said. “After Oxford, what?”
“I tried to teach history and English to 10-year-old Londoners.”
“Why did you quit?” Underwood asked.
I thought of repeating my, “It was like teaching cats to bark” quip. Instead I said, “I wasn’t getting anywhere. Their response to history was to call the Boer War boring. And in English, for example, they persisted in saying ”I don’t know nothing.’ Of course they’d say ‘muffin.’”
I felt like a bloody snob, that my answer had been a fatal mistake, especially as Underwood himself seemed so unpretentious. I anticipated his answer being something like: “Isn’t it up to you, with your superior education to make learning interesting for these poor, under-privileged
little bastards?”
To my relief he was otherwise engaged: apparently hadn’t
been listening to me. He turned t his secretary: “I’ll give
that woman a one-way ticket out of here if she doesn’t stop sniffing.”
“It’s her nerves,” she said. “You intimidate her,”
“Rubbish.” He looked at me. “Do I intimidate you?”
“You might if I were a maid,” I said.
“She lost her husband recently,” the secretary explained. ”She may be sobbing rather than sniffing.”
“I sent a wreath, didn’t I?”
“Of course.”
After a few desultory exchanges—-my life and interests-- in which his response to my replies seemed to indicate that I, not the maid, was destined to get a one-way ticket out of there. The secretary, Gwen—-I now remembered her name--came to my rescue, with “Let me show Stephen around the place.”
The sunlight had softened as we walked through a cobbled courtyard at the back of the mansion which my bedroom overlooked, where twenty or so horses were stabled.
“I liked the way you responded to his questions,” she said. “He likes spontaneity.”
We were walking in a closely cropped field when I thought I was hallucinating. “Did you hear that?” I asked. “Like a wounded buffalo.”
She laughed. ”It’s his train. “He missed the haunting cry of locomotives he heard as a boy in America. So he had two models built one-half scale, and laid down miles of track all around his property. At night he has it run on automatic”
A skylark rose from the grass and climbed as if being pulled vertically into space.
“Do you know this part of the world?” she asked.
“My mother’s father came from Trowbridge, about ten miles from here. But this is my first visit. I saw some fabulous buildings and the odd castle or two from the train, all haunted no doubt.”
“We don’t believe in leprechauns, but some of the locals expect Kind Arthur to reappear any moment now.”
“As a matter of fact I have an aunt and uncle who own a small grocery not far from here. I believe they deliver to some of the villages nearby. Maybe even to you.”
“That’s interesting.”
She walked slightly ahead of me so that she might have been mocking what I said with facial expressions I couldn’t catch. No, she was too straightforward for that. In contrast to her ingenuous manner, Underwood was aloof and guarded, although there was a hint in his light blue eyes of a boy confronting a challenging new toy. Was she in love with him?
We crossed a rickety bridge over a stream, the water moving so fast and smoothly it gave the illusion of standing still As we made our way in the muted evening light towards a copse of sycamores she stopped and turned to face me. “You haven’t got any entanglements, have you>”
“Such as?”
“To prevent you from going abroad?”
“No. I’m completely free.”
“Good. When I first spoke with you on the phone I sensed that you’d be right for this work. I’d hate to be wrong.”
“The chauffeur hinted there was tough competition.”
“Don’t worry. You’ve a good chance.”
What I took for a demented sparrow turned out to be a bat on the hunt for its supper. She laughed when she put me right about it, saying, “You’re obviously not a country boy.”
As we walked back the house lights came on in orderly sequence bringing the windows to cheerful life, as if the servants had been standing on duty at every light switch waiting their master’s orchestrated command.
Before we went in, she said, “Almost every contemporary you’re likely to discuss tonight is likely to be known by Mister Underwood, many of them good friends, not all fellow poets or writers. But people like Einstein, Jung, and Churchill. So tread softly.”
I wondered how Churchill would have taken his exclusion from the writing fraternity.
“Oh, you know what I mean.” She gave a playful slap on my arm.
“Any more advice?”
“Just be yourself.”
After a surprisingly plain dinner, not much different from a meal at home, Underwood led me to his study.
He and I sat not quite facing each other in worn leather armchairs, Colombian coffee and Napoleon brandy at our elbows. Everything in his study had the mellow look of antiques except for the clean lines of his desk top, a huge slab of light gray marble.
“I take it you haven’t a criminal record.”
I gave an innocent smile, thought better of it and said.
“Yes, you have?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“I wouldn’t expect you to admit to it. But I’ve trusted a few unsavory characters in my time,” he added.
After a nervous sip of coffee, best I’d ever tasted, I held his gaze, trying to follow up with a light or lively riposte.
“Just a few speeding and parking tickets. No shoplifting or murder charges.” I was following Gwen’s advice and it seemed to be working out.
Was he testing me by seating me in a chair that hissed every time I moved? Had he noticed that the muscle under my right eye started to twitch like an insect in distress?
“Do you think of William Blake as a lunatic?” he asked. Talk about a quick change of gear|
“If he was I wish there were more of them.”
“Don’t be evasive,” he said.
The room seemed suddenly hot. Was this the big test?
Would he want to spend years of work on the life of a lunatic? I felt the job depended on how I answered his question.
“In a sense, yes, he was a lunatic, if you call a child crazy who sees fairies or talks with people who aren’t there. I’d say he had a compelling imagination. Like a supersensitive person from another world, able to see what we can’t. As well as see through them.”
“Hold on!” he interrupted. “I’m not after a Ph.D. dissertation. Though if you tackle it I suggest the title should be Mystic or Maniac? But I’m glad we think something alike. I anticipate some savage criticism of my take on Blake, especially from those who consider Blake the greatest English poet and artist of all time, not to mention his reputation as a visionary. Ranking him only next to God himself”
He made a few notes on a pad on his knee, then asked, “How accurate should we be? How much poetic license do we dare to use? You know of course about the infamous battle of the Oxford historians.”
“Well it was before your time there, and mine, too, for that matter. The battle of Froude and Freeman. Apart from lecturing the students, James Anthony Froude wrote biographies of Julius Caesar, Thomas Carlyle and Cicero. The critic panned him for being wildly inaccurate, accused him of being incapable of understanding or correctly interpreting his source material. But he was so entertaining that his books were bestsellers. His rival, Edward Freeman, professor of modern history at Oxford, wrote biographies of William the Conqueror and Frederick the Second. He insisted on accuracy. But he was such a dull writer that his books failed. Froude’s success and his own failure drove Freeman to call him “the vilest beast that ever wrote a book,” and to express his wish to disembowel his rival. The final irony was that on Freeman’s death, Froude succeeded him as Oxford’s professor of modern history. Where do your sympathies lie?”
“With neither. Froude was a fraud and Freeman a rotten teacher. But it does expose the standard of teaching at Oxford, at least in the history department in those days. Froude’s students were listening to tall tales instead of history—entertaining as they might have been-—and Freeman’s students were falling asleep.”
“But, in the case of Blake, do you incline to use Poetic license to achieve success, or absolute accuracy and face possible failure?”
“It hardly applies to Blake. In his case, the unembellished facts about his life and work are so intriguing it would take an almost deliberate effort to make it dull.”
“It’s still a formidable undertaking—-to bring a dead man back to life. Almost like emulating Jesus Christ.”
“if you believe the New Testament is an accurate account of events.”
“Good point. I knew a psychoanalyst who wrote a book about Hitler. And he compared him to Christ in this respect: both were driven by unconscious motives through all kinds of life-threatening experiences to attain an unconscious goal which cost them their lives. So I may have to hire a psychoanalyst to delve into Blake’s unconscious. A difficult but, I hope, not impossible task.”
I wasn’t not enjoying our exchanges, although there seemed to be an edge to almost everything he said.
He lit the cigar I’d declined and was ready for round two. “How do you rate James Joyce?”
“Marvelous, when I understand him.”
“Dull in person. Almost tongue-tied. Makes me speculate that Shakespeare, too, may have been a bore.”
“The Einstein or Freud of writers,” I suggested.
“And not a little off his rocker.”
Did he mean Freud, Einstein, Joyce, of Shakespeare?
“Never met Freud and only met Einstein briefly,” he continued. “Knew Jung fairly well. Great listener. Extremely suggestible, too, Probably an hysteric. Joyce, of course, suffered from verbal diarrhea, after his early luminous works, and tried to inflict it on others. Ulysses is good in spots, but even the most sophisticated reader needs a codebook to read Finnegan’s Wake.”
He was on a roll.
“Jung told me that he had treated Joyce’s daughter, Lucia, unsuccessfully for schizophrenia in the thirties and implied that Joyce himself also needed help, saying something to the effect that they were both headed for the bottom of the river—the daughter by falling in and Joyce by diving in.”
He was not as monosyllabic as I first thought. Obviously had no gift for or interest in small talk. But get him on his pet subjects and he’d let rip.
“Evelyn Waugh called Joyce crazy,” he went on, “and said that in Finnegan’s Wake he was getting crazier by the page. Another critic called it the greatest novel of the twentieth century most likely to be abandoned by the reader after the first few pages. Others call it a joke. So, where d’you stand?”
Where did I stand? I began an inane, stuttering response, when Nobby, thank God, came to my rescue. As if my mind had gone into a photographic-memory mode, I recalled one of our “soirees,” when Nobby had mentioned a Canadian critic’s comments on the BBC’s Third Program. Now I quoted him quoting the Canadian with no intention of letting Underwood know it wasn’t my bright idea.
“Joyce proved he could write in his first books,“ I said. “No one disputes that. Finnegan’s Wake, however, was an experiment by a man with a sense of humor, infatuated with music, punning, and foreign languages, and he made use of them all in Finnegan. And spent seventeen years on it. Going blind in the process. I’m inclined to agree with the Finnegan fan who said it should be read aloud and with an Irish accent, and perhaps a glass of Irish whisky. Go with the flow, as they call it”
“But what the hell is it about?”
Again I cribbed form Nobby quoting the critic: “A dream of the history of the world.”
He sighed. “I’ll go to Freud for dreams, and historians for world history. Literature isn’t meant to be absorbed with a code-breaker in hand.”
“You wouldn’t say that he stretches the mind?”
He wouldn’t say anything.
“Or covers new territory?” I grasped at a straw and came up, still breathing, with what I’d once read in a science magazine I rescued from the toilet of the school where I had masqueraded as a teacher. “In a sense it’s the literary equivalent of string theory or even more, quantum physics. It intrigues many scientists as being of great value, but none of them understand it well enough to explain it. I once heard a physicist say if anyone tells you they understand quantum physics they’re lying.”
“Good try,” he said, almost to himself. ”I spoke to his former secretary, Samuel Beckett, once, and he confirmed the story that while Joyce was writing his book someone tapped on the door and Joyce wrote, ‘A knock on the door.’ Into the manuscript.”
”Perhaps that shows his sense of humor.”
“Or exposes his book as nonsense.”
We were bathed in separate circles of light as if under observation by a third party overhead. I thought of Sylvia.
During the moment I’d glanced at the wide floorboards he vanished. His voice came from below and behind his desk. “Ah, here it is.” He surfaced with a single sheet of paper: “Enough of Joyce. Read this.” He floated it across the desk top and by luck I caught it. I started to read the perfectly typed poem to myself.
“Aloud,” he commanded.
I read: “The walls that once a throne enclosed
Are cracking now and out of line,
Home for the ant and celandine,
Nest for the swift and porcupine,
Night lights come from the starlit skies,
The dances led by fireflies,
Banquets are catered by the trees,
Quince, apple, plum, and apricot,”

“It ends on a comma,” I said.
“That’s because the damned thing isn’t finished yet. I’ve given you the wrong one. Here, take this. To yourself, if you prefer.”
‘There’s more to this than meets the eye,” I said.
“Could it wait till morning?”
He twirled the last of his brandy. “Why not? All right, Elliot, sleep on it. You’ve got your reprieve. Until breakfast”
I followed him to the door and when he turned back we almost collided. “Wait,” he said, mildly amused. “You’re not through yet.”
I imitated an obedient bird dog until I no longer heard his footsteps, then scoured his bookshelves to place the man. Pushkin, P. G. Wodehouse, Flaubert, Waugh, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Nabokov, Swift by Leslie Stephen-- Virginia Woolf’s father. Eclectic, all right. But the same could be said of mine.
Gwen came in beaming as if she enjoyed clasping the ancient typewriter to her shapely bosom. I stepped aside and she plunked it onto the marble slab.
“Now,” she said, “The real test. Mister Underwood expects his work to be perfectly typed.”
Despite a slight lisp she dictated with exceptional clarity, her enunciation cajoling me to succeed, like a mother with a three-year-old. To catch up I had to type faster than she spoke—above my cruising speed. The keys stuck fast several times and I had the feverish feeling of prolonging a fiasco.
“Times up,” she said cheerfully, and pulled the page in mid-word from the machine. While I prayed for a deux ex machina or even an earthbound miracle.
“Quite impossible!” she said at last, her voice awobble.
Her face had faded from pink to putty and she looked into infinity. “Jesus Christ!” she said. ”If I wasn’t so disappointed, I’d laugh.” She screwed up the page and threw it at me. “You’re so right in every other way. Exactly what we want. You’ll have to practice your typing day and night. Promise me you’ll do that. I’ll give you the name of a typing school near your home. Promise me that you’ll go every day and practice day and night.”
“How long will I have?”
“A few weeks.”
I promised.
“I can trust you?”
“Yes, you can.”
She exhaled sharply as if she had hair in her eyes. But I think she was nervous at the risk she was taking. “You’re still in the running. But you still have to see Mister Underwood tomorrow. You’ll find a questionnaire in your room for you to complete. Take my advice and write in block letters. I’ve seen your handwriting. You should have been a doctor.”
We separated in the hall where a mellow-ticking grand father clock was pleasant company.
What a delightful woman! I’d made a good impression on her. Perhaps I reminded her of a favorite brother or cousin. Even her retreating heel clicks sounded like applause.
But what had I got that the other applicants lacked? Why was I what he wanted?
As I climbed the wide, curving steps to my room-—tenth door on the right-—the haunting train whistle gave its wounded buffalo cry. On automatic for one last circuit of the estate.
After a struggle my bedroom window shot open and I caught the end of a distant chime and a refreshing whiff of some night flower. Horses moved restlessly in the stables below. A clock struck a surprising twelve. I thought it was at least two. Faintly I heard contending voices and a door close abruptly. An argument. She wants me. He doesn’t.
Might I redeem myself with a perceptive interpretation of his poem? Too critical and he’d banish me back to No-Man’s-Land, too generous and he’d tap me as a toady.
I took it slowly, phrase by phrase, reading:
“A light that winds its patterned trails,
Thin and sinuous as a snail’s,
Dim and broken, like a token
Of Man’s courage in the wilderness,
Then caught my eye.
We climbed to even greater heights
From which the trails were out of sight,
Hour after hour into the night.
Signs other moods and motives,
Palaces, frozen locomotives
Now littered the livid landscape,
Scattered like broken children’s toys,
Lit by lightning jolts,
Gutted by man-made thunderbolts,
Recalled today with mouth agape,
As if on God’s magnetic tape.”
Wordsworth and T. S. Eliot had nothing to fear, but it wasn’t bad. Wordsworth. Interesting that a poet’s name begins with word. And ends with worth. Just a simple transposition and you get Worthwords.
The poet, Underwood perhaps, is in a plane or up a mountain in wartime, watching bombs explode far below. He’s reflecting on war and life. Life is a tape recording with God at the on-off switch. Underwood’s got a thing about locomotives. Wonder why loco also means nuts. Tracks. Going around in circles. So am I. I’ll sleep on it.
Despite the fit-for-a-fakir mattress, I put myself to sleep resurrecting tranquil scenes from age seven to last year’s trip to the Isle of Wight, drifting off as I strolled down a cobblestone street near a shop of flags, wooden spades and plastic buckets. As a threatening steam train came around the bend I shouted a warning and woke myself. I hoped no one else had heard my heart beating at the speed of the train—-but I didn’t worry for long, because I had the answer.
“God’s magnetic tape is Man’s brain,” I wrote on one of the three sheets of notepaper Underwood had provided. “The sights and sounds of life still exist as long as his brain is active, and can be recalled at will. Using God’s tape, his brain, the poet recalls his sight of a convoy of vehicles traveling at night along winding roads, their lights dimmed for fear of enemy bombers. Like daring explorers in the wilderness they press on. Then the poet realizes that their courage has been misused, not for survival or to explore new frontiers, but to destroy as a child in a rage smashes toys.”
Trying to avoid smarm, but to accentuate the positive, feeling not so much con man as convert, I began again:
“This deceptively simple poem. . .”
Anxious not to be late for breakfast I got up early, hovering outside the dining room, killing time by examining almost every stitch of the tapestry, telling myself to take it easy, that it was hardly a matter of life or death or even of serious injury. The butler told me that breakfast would be on the patio and indicated the general direction.
It was on the second floor, reached by another stairway, I sat on a low protecting wall there, looking down on a winding stream almost hidden by a field of clover under bee attack. The servants, checking the contents of a side-table ignored me after their first “Good morning,”
Gwen took my review and glanced through it before Underwood arrived, and admired her blue dress, so flimsy it floated in the slight breeze. She stood to curtsy playfully, then went to serve herself from the side-table. He merely acknowledged my “Good morning,” with a nod as if I was a meteorologist giving the weather report.
After eating at the rugby-pitch of a table last night, we now squatted around a small glass-topped contraption white iron chairs, so close together that I almost kissed Gwen’s ear when she unexpectedly turned her head as I was about to answer a question. And once Underwood’s cigar ash landed in the butter. Though, almost before it landed a servant had whisked it away, and replaced it.
Underwood’s almost euphoric mood in contrast to last night’s inquisition put me at ease and after a while I relaxed enough to sample both the kidneys and the kippers. Gwen sent the maid for fresh coffee, then read out my analysis of Underwood’s high-flying poem, her slight lisp subtly changing the nuance of the words, if anything in my favor, occasionally nodding in approval. She had the air of a child reading an eviction notice, taking it seriously but not aware of its significance.
Underwood gave nothing away. He might have been listening to a stranger’s funeral service, or his own muse. He took the page from her before she’d finished. “Enough,” he said, anchoring it under a salt cellar. “I get the picture.”
The maid hovered with the fresh coffee nobody wanted now. A bee took an aggressive interest in three flavors of jam. And I waited in limbo.
”Follow me,” Gwen said, tapping me on the wrist. I followed her. Her rear end had creased her flimsy dress into a badly folded map. Rather pathetic, because she acted jauntily as if it was smooth. She closed the study door behind her. “I’m so pleased. He seems to approve of your effort.”
I was no longer on guard. She had been so supportive as if she was my agent, or an older sister.
“Now,” she said, “he wants to take you for a ride.”
I followed her directions. The daisy-speckled grass at first cleaned my shoes, then gave them a wet gloss. Underwood waited near a gleaming railroad track, shaded by a silver birch. “Two minutes,” he said. He was almost dead on. A wrinkled, walrus-mustached old gaffer in regulation peaked cap, and dungarees was at the controls of a miniature steam engine. He touched the peak of his cap, ”Mister Underwood, sir.”
“George,” Underwood said, “let’s give our visitor the grand tour.”
We sat behind George on a wooden bench, Waw! Waw!
And we were off, a V of geese overhead, as if Underwood had arranged a flying send off.
“I call this Switzerland.” Underwood pointed as we struggled uphill, both of us leaning forward as if that would help, then dipped towards a lake of water lilies and giant goldfish; and on our other side, woods of elms, oaks and sycamores. “The Black Forest,” Underwood said. “No need to go to Europe. It’s all here.” We went from bursts of light to cool shade, and past two miniature fully equipped railroad stations. Forty minutes later we were back near the stables
“Your bag’s in the car,” he said. “Incidentally, if I decide to hire you and things work out, you’ll get a bonus of fifty thousand dollars.”
Was it then or much later that I first wondered: Will that be a bribe or a reward?
“With that you can support yourself for awhile and write the Great American Novel. Isn’t that what young people want these days?”
Implying, I supposed, that the Great English Novel had already been written.
But I was at a loss for a moment to respond to the prospect of a small fortune. With fifty thousand dollars I could buy a house in the country back home on a few acres. and teach kids who didn’t bring sharp knives to school.
“Sounds great,” I said at last.
“Well, thanks for coming.” He shook hands and walked away.
The moment I sat beside him, the chauffeur grunted and took off with a jerk and smell of burning rubber. In case I never saw it again, I looked back at the house a few times until it was hidden by a hill. Soon after we left the grounds we were held up by a convoy of trucks and trailers transporting huge trees with diapered roots and frantically waving branches, a red flag on the tail of each tree,
“Operation Macbeth,” the chauffeur said.
“How’s that?”
“Underwood is moving another wood. The trees don’t always survive so he had to ship in a fresh batch.”
Once free to move, he picked up speed, and sped past a flash of color in a valley on our left.
“What was that?” I asked. “Like a multicolored handkerchief or a flower nursery planted by a drunk.”
“He screwed up his face in distaste. “You’re too poetic for your own good, mate. He’s after an assistant to do the donkey work not a resident rival bard.”
“I take it you don’t know what it was.”
“The workers reward,” he explained. “Squire Underwood rewards his serfs once a year with a fete, a band, a few sideshows and all the grub you can eat. The colors are the tents.” He drove with abandon now, as though trying to dump me quickly so that he could return quickly to the grub and candy floss. I hit the roof lightly.
“Aren’t you afraid of killing an animal?” I asked.
“Great brakes,” he said. “Hold tight. I’ll show you.” He accelerated, then braked. And I hit the windshield, No blood but I felt nose-less for a while.
“Great brakes,” I agreed.
“If you can still breathe it’s not broken.” He gave a snort of a laugh, a sideways glance at me and a flip, “You’ll live.” He was more talkative than on the drive in, which, grasping at straws, I took as a good sign. A part-time film extra, he had fenced with “Larry” Oliver, doubled for James Mason for a rowing scene in “The Flying Dutchman,” fallen from a horse in a “Henry the Fifth,” battle scene, and driven a police car in various films.
“How can you find time for Underwood?”
“I fit it in when he’s abroad. He encourages me to do it rather than hang about here doing nothing. But on his next trip he’s taking me with him.”
He described Gwen as from an upper crust family up north, ”up north,” being said with the good-natured scorn of a southerner.
“She’s extremely attractive,” I said.
“Oh, you noticed did you?”
My train was waiting at the little country station.”
“Thanks,” I said. “And enjoy your fete.”
“And yours,” he said.
London Suburb

Adam and Nobby were opening our garden gate when they saw me homeward bound at the bottom of Crescent and waited for me. As I reached them, the street gas lamp popped on gently, illuminating the silver birch and laburnum around it. The evening’s epiphany we never tired of. Mother already had the door open, the adjoining hall window reflecting the gaslight, “How did it go?” she asked.
“Won’t know for a few days. He has to see others.
But I can’t believe I have a chance. I made such a bloody mess of the typing test.”
We entered the house, dodging climbing roses in need of pruning.
“A woman called,” mother said. ”Wouldn’t leave a message.”
“With a slight lisp?”
“No. It must have been Sylvia.” She went to the kitchen to make coffee. “Don’t talk about your weekend until I get back.”
“Where’s your brother?” Nobby asked.
“In Cardiff selling shoes and living with a prostitute. At least, mother implies that she’s a whore. I think she just overdoes the lipstick and pads her bra.” To tell the truth I missed David’s verbal blitzkriegs. Our danger-free discussions had lost the warlike fervor that put us on our mettle.
When mother emerged I relived the Wiltshire Odyssey, from the Turkish-bath train ride there, to the bashed-nose-on-the-windshield on return.
Mother was puzzled why Gwen seemed so eager to help me, despite my typing fiasco. “It must be your winning personality. You’ve got your father’s charm,” she added.
Then, after a silence, “I wonder what she’s up to?”
“It’s not that Stephen’s unattractive to women,” Nobby explained to mother. “But he’s not that attractive.”
Adam, caught up in the detached manner in which I was being discussed, said, “It is odd. It’s not as if women are breaking down doors to get at him.”
Mother looked offended. “Sylvia is,” she said.
“Isn’t it rather,” Adam suggested, “that she’s trying to get away from her husband?”
We left the subject to explore Underwood’s personality and history. My friends thought that everything he said and did that weekend was to put me to the test. When I mentioned the possibility of a royal connection, Adam scoffed, “Same thing is said about Jack the Ripper.”
As the fish-and-chip shop closed a eleven, we left at twenty to, walking briskly along the now misty, lamp-lit streets. We all agreed that it was surprising, considering my failure at Oxford and at teaching kids, that I was still in the running.
Eight days later I returned home from typing-to-waltz- music lessons to be greeted by mother’s. “I couldn’t resist opening the telegram. You’ve got the job. They’re booking you a berth of the U.S. United States. And it’s signed Gwen.”
Sylvia was having trouble with her kids when I phoned and she gave a quick. “Good luck, I’m too tied up to talk now.”
That night I dreamed that I was standing on the local train station waiting for a train to the coast while an orchestra in the waiting room rehearsed Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, the music overwhelming flocks of birds overhead. I could interpret the frantic cacophony
as, ”Whyyou,whyyou,whyyou,whyyou?”
What on earth was mother doing driving the train with such aplomb? She swooshed past in a cloud of steam, calling out, ”I’ll give you your instructions when you get there.”
Sylvia phoned as I was in the garden transplanting phlox to a more congenial spot. “I told her you’d call her back,” mother said when I got in. She speaks so quickly I could hardly understand her. I hope she’s not on that fast thing.”
“You make her nervous. Thinks you’re trying to protect my virginity.”
Pause. Regroup to attack. ”It’s her poor, neglected children I worry about.”
“Don’t. She’s a wonderful mother. And her kids adore her.”
Mother imitated Queen Victoria sucking a lemon.
No, Sylvia couldn’t possibly tell me on the phone She had to see me. As I walked down our Crescent to meet her I sensed mother’s well-wishing eyes on my neck, heels and elbows. To let her know she was a rotten spy, before the sharp turn that would take me out of sight, I jumped and clicked my heels together. Then fell awkwardly. I limped up the hill to the railroad station newsstand where I read the New Statesman’s cover article, until startled by Sylvia’s raspy car horn.
Her face flushed from the Spanish sun, car a month rustier, wireless not quite transmitting Rachmaninoff’s Second, though loud enough to preclude normal conversation—she drove, always above the speed limit, to Caesar’s Well, her favorite corner of Keston Ponds. It was where my brother once fished for minnows and planned world conquest.
We sat back to back on a smooth tree stump, almost submerged in stinging nettles and meadowsweet and a rendezvous for over-familiar ants. We were floating, if you lowered your eyelids and stretched the point, in a green and yellow ocean.
“I’m pregnant,” she said.
“Oh!” I responded, staring at the sun, hoping the pain would camouflage my concern.
“May I quote you?”
I longed to be back on my hands and knees shifting the phlox. “I’m glad, if you are,” I lied.
“I bet.”
“How did it happen?” I asked inanely.
“The usual way.” She turned and put her hand on my shoulder, where she had once bitten me so fiercely with less provocation. “No need to look morose or paternal,” she said. “You’re not the father.”
My heart did dangerous aerobatics.
“Jim and I overdid the Spanish wine one night,” she explained. “And threw caution to the winds. And don’t ask me if caution is another word for contraceptives,” she said, anticipating the response I might have made in different circumstances. ”I’ve yet to spring it on him,” she went on. “But for the sake of this new baby, I’m giving our marriage another chance.”
A swarm of bees enhanced the feeling of fecundity. The sun gave nettles golden linings. Or can relief bring near-mystical, transcendental visions?
“So I’m leaving you,” she said, “before you can pull the rug from under me.”
I kissed her chastely on the cheek. “Congratulations.”
“I’m sure you’re in a hurry to get away to your Brave New World,” she said, without sounding resentful.
When the wasps made dummy runs at us, she flinched and yelled, “Let’s get out of here!”
As we drove back we’d rarely been in such harmony. I’d learned not to criticize her driving any more, as a survival technique. Because she had always responded angrily, while taking her eyes off the road.
She slowed near the railroad station and patted me on the cheekbone. “If we don’t meet again, it’s been fun. I’ll hear of your progress from those weird pals of yours.” No tears. Not even a lip quiver.
When we squealed to a shuddering stop, I kissed her quickly behind her ear. “I’ll miss your driving. My pulse is already slowing to normal.” This time she took it with a weak smile, pretended to punch me as I got out, and drove off without clashing gears. She didn’t wave or look back as far as I could tell. Maybe she was looking at me in the rear-view mirror.
A blast of air from a steam train hotfooting it to the coast replaced Sylvia’s lingering scent with an acrid stench,
My last evening at home coincided with our weekly “literary soiree,” as Adam still called it, with progressively less mockery in his voice. Mother fortified us with coffee and Welsh rarebit and fumigated our conversation with bursts on the piano of Liszt and Chopin.
While Nobby and Adam saw my departure as a shrewd career move, mother saw me as going on a mission, not as consequential as the Crusades or the D-Fay invasion perhaps, but pretty close. Wasn’t my future at stake?
That night I didn’t expect to sleep without a struggle. Several trains rattled by, two stopped and a motorcycle with a broken muffler woke a baby two houses down. The night sky was lighting up when I dropped off, but I woke soon after and went down to make toast and coffee, surprised that I could get away with it without waking mother. I couldn’t, of course.. She joined me in the kitchen, wide awake, though in her dressing gown.
“Did you hear the Whelan’s baby?” she asked.
“Almost as loud as the motorcycle.”
“I couldn’t sleep, either.” She took the bread from me and popped it in the toaster. ”I was thinking of you as a baby.”
“Did I ruin your sleep then?”
“Oh, no. You were nothing like the Whelan’s baby. I was remembering your first funny, stumbling steps and how your father was so proud of you. You’d often fall down, of course, but get up again and again. And when you fell heavily, you’d look up at us to see if you should cry. And all we had to do was smile and you’d go on your way like an eager little robot. You were a lovely little thing.”
“I never heard anyone call me lovely.”
She seemed about to answer, but didn’t. That was how she usually won these verbal jousts. Quite a neat trick. You remain silent and look as if you’ve triumphed.
‘Your silence is deafening.”
“Mrs. Willet thinks you’re very good looking.”
“But she’d got no taste. Look at her wallpaper.”
“It was there when she bought the house.”
“Okay, forget the wallpaper. Have you seen the photo of her late lamented husband?”
We talked such nonsense I suppose to avoid becoming maudlin.
I took the toast and coffee into the living room and she supplied the musical entertainment-—mostly Liszt played pianissimo so as not to re-arouse the Whelan kid.
She went back upstairs to sleep for a couple o hours, and I dozed on the sofa.
I woke about six.
She was waiting in the hall when I carried my cases downstairs. When I reached her she tried to jerk my tie center.
“For Christ’s sake, mother?”
“You’ll only have to put up with me for a few more seconds. Your taxi’s here.”
“If you strangle me Ill need a coffin, not a cab.’
She seemed smaller, as though she’d shrunk in the night.
Outside the front door I dropped the cases and to keep mother preoccupied as well as to fix them in my memory, briefly commented on the flourishing lilac bush, and roses and wisteria still in need of pruning. “Look at that, mother!” I imitated her ecstatic intonation at the sign of new life. “There’s a bud on your peony!”
Should have got a laugh, but didn’t.
“Thanks for all your work in the garden,” she said. “Worth it, wasn’t it?”
“Sure. Any last advice?”
“Just do your best. Make your father and me proud of you. And have a good time.”
“Maybe I’ll try two out of three.”
She laughed.
I gave her a twig of lilac to replace the wilting asters in a vase next to dad’s photo on her dressing table.
As I kissed her goodbye, a next-door window opened so hard it hit the wall. Mrs. Willet called out, “Good luck, Stephen! And don’t forget us! We all expect great things of you!”
I whispered to mother, “First sign of mawkish tears and I’ll let rip in Anglo-Saxon that will horrify Mrs. Willet.”
Mrs. Willet waved a duster from her bedroom window shaking down a cloud of dust that made my eyes tear.
The cab driver took my cases. “Let’s make a quick getaway,” I said.
As we were about to turn the corner on the way to the railroad station, mother was waving the lilac twig and Mrs. Willet was still polluting the neighborhood.