he garage was dark and cluttered. It smelt of oil and long-dried grass-clippings, of slowly-rusting tools and mouldering paper. At one end his history lay in a jumble of cardboard boxes. They weren't dated or ordered, but the brand-names of the products they had once contained, the out-of-date slogans and symbols, would have permitted the establishment of a rough chronology. He didn't bother. He had no urge to enquire into his past, unless he wanted some particular object, or a special document for a specific purpose - say, one of his primary school reports to show his children, to prove to them - what? That things were different then? That things were the same now? That the past was the past and the present is the present and that they got on as well together as any two people could be expected to?
His wife constantly urged him to 'deal with' the boxes. He resisted. Ostensibly, by procrastination and prevarication - in reality, on principle.
He was never quite sure whether she meant: order them, or: throw them out. She probably meant: order them and throw half of them out, so there's some room in the garage, so you can get to and from the car with ease, without brushing against the rusty old vice or tripping over the scythe you insisted on buying when we were in Britanny - far too dear - and the old man'll only have bought one of those hideously noisy strimmers which don't do any good to the grass or the environment - I thought you were in favour of tradition -
While the boxes were there - untouched - he felt secure. You don't pull up a rose-tree to look at its roots. History was meant to be a jumble. He knew. He taught it. It was a rubbish-tip, and you scavenged through it for what would be of use to you. To you. The nearest you could get to objectivity was not throwing away all the things you considered to be junk - because they might come in useful sometime, for somebody. Analysis, selection: falsification. He didn't want to discard any of his past, in order to make it fit with his present, because he didn't know what his present might become.
And that was why he had to struggle by the cobwebbed empty wine-bottles and demi-johns (one year the elderflower had really worked - but only one year), by the folded-up baby-walker (his wife's cousin was expecting, wasn't she?), by the boxes of broken or outmoded toys (his children's, not his own which had fallen victim to a series of parental retreats into ever smaller houses, finishing with the smallest of all), in order to reach the car, which his wife insisted be kept in the garage.
He had never quite understood why. Garages were clearly for the past, cars for the present. They transmuted distance into time, and avoided or destroyed everything that was old with by-passes and motorways. Cars proclaimed their age proudly - no discretion possible. You could measure the passage of time with them - and not only by the rust-spots. Maybe she thought you could stop the clock by hiding it away. Like putting a sundial on the north wall of a house.
He waded against time's ever-rolling stream, and reached the car.
'Hello, little box,' he said, and patted it.
It was actually quite a large box, and quite an expensive box, thanks to his wife's salary as a part-time computer programmer, but he wanted to fit it into his image of a world where we live in little boxes, travel in little boxes, and finish up in little boxes - some babies even starting out in little boxes. He was all for consistency when it helped the argument or the joke.
At the end of the garage, beyond the car's bonnet (and he was just by its greedy orifice), there was a slit of light above the up-and-over door that was still down and under. It dazzled him with its intense brightness, blinding him for the garage's gloom, which he had found quite penetrable before. A discarded fairy-cycle took advantage of his temporary incapacity and inflicted minor lacerations on his shin-bone.
That's what happens, he thought. Keep your eyes on the distant goal, and you trip over the ball in front of your feet. Achievable goals, that was the answer - like those ones at the end of Match of the Day, neatly clipped out, the pass, the shot, the kiss, the hug, the goalie's hands to his head, the scorer's hands in the air, then the identifying letter: then again, in slow motion. The O-levels, the A-levels, the degree, the teaching-post, the wife, the kids. Then again, in slow motion. God forbid. Goals you wished you'd never achieved. At the bottom of the list on the postcard. The prize: one of Jimmy Greaves's empties.
At least you weren't disappointed with the distant goals. Until you got nearer. They made you stumble and bark your shins and scuff the leather on your Grensons. But they looked good from a distance. To judge by the light slicing in, it was a fine day outside. It didn't help you see in the garage, it actually hindered you, but it was an enticing promise. Only he'd peeped through the bedroom curtains long enough to see the grey suburban winter morning fudging the issue with its soft focus on the lines and lines of rooftops like lizard scales on the South London hills.
If you got little enough of a thing, it seemed like a lot. That's how it was with light in the garage. And sex (not in the garage). And love (anywhere, from anyone). The grand march of humankind towards the light. From the back of the garage to the front. Leaving behind ignorance, slavery, and a mountain of cardboard boxes. Trampling underfoot the scythe of death, the vice of kings, the rake of progress, and the fairy-cycle of the tyrants. Onward, ever onward, to open the box, rather than take the money. And what happens when they reach the light? Well, you don't know unless you're with them, because they go through this door, and you don't see them again (well, why should they come back?) And you can't distinguish what's going on, because the gap is so narrow that it makes even minimal illumination blinding by virtue of the contrast. And then the door closes, and you're back in the greyness again. But it's familiar. And your eyes adjust. And actually, you can see a lot better than you could when the door was open. Of course they won't come back. They've just gone in to take a shower. They won't want to come back and mix with the dirty likes of you.
He fought free of the trammels of the self-inflicted inner monologue, barged past the wing-mirror that was also like history, in that it showed you what lay behind, but seldom if ever exactly what you wanted to see, for all your adjustments and neck-craning, and opened the garage door.
As the door rose, the concrete counter-weights descended. History, he thought. There's one of the lessons of history that actually is true. Mostly, all you learn from history is that no one ever learns anything from history. But there it is: as one thing goes up, another one comes down. Of course, you don't have to study history to work that out. All you need to do is open a garage door.
He brought the car out on to the driveway, and parked it so as to leave access to all the doors and the boot. Then he went to look at the roses. Packing was his wife's responsibility.
Christmas, thought Anne, as she heard the car engine start and then stop. A time for tradition. All kinds of traditions. Old ones and new ones. Going away for Christmas. Staying at home for Christmas. The Family Christmas. Play-acting, most of it. The Nativity Play and the Naïveté Play. She remembered that test of Thomas Hardy's to see whether a folk-custom was a genuine survival or a recent resuscitation: if the participants were enthusiastic, then it was a fake. How genuine Christmas was! Stuffed Turkey was clearly neolithic in origin, and the collections of small round stones found at certain sites were just fossilised Brussels sprouts, and not ammunition dumps for slingshots at all.
'Nigel, Jeremy!' One to get their attention. Two to retain it. Three to tell them what to do. Four to make sure they were doing it. 'Nigel, Jeremy!' Okay. Four to get any kind of response at all. 'Nigel, Jeremy, the house is on fire!' Silence. 'Your computers are burning!'
'No they're not, Mum,' said the head that popped round the door. 'You're just like the boy that cried wolf, Mum. Pretty soon, we simply won't believe a word you say.' The head disappeared.
'I shall simply turn off the electricity to the whole house, unless you get down here with your suitcases and everything else you're taking.'
'Can we bring both the computers?' said the head, appearing again.
'If there's room in the car. Otherwise, you'll have to share.'
'Yuck, I don't want to share with smelly Nigel!'
'And I don't want to share with smelly Jeremy!' came a voice down the stairs.
'And you! With no returns!'
'Just start packing. I'm sure there'll be room.'
She would make room. At the cost of all her best dresses that shouldn't be crushed, at the cost of Richard's dinner-jacket that he'd last worn five years ago to a Historical Association dinner and had had to have cleaned afterwards (she'd been discreet about it). It was still in the polythene packaging, like a forensic exhibit. She wasn't sure why he was insisting on taking all these things. After all, they were only going away for Christmas, for a few days at most. It was the first time, though. But not as if they were going anywhere lavish or splendid: just an old house on the Wiltshire-Hampshire-Dorset border. It had been a school once - a kind of not too expensive private school - and now it had been taken over by one of those charitable trusts that intended to restore it and open it to the public. Eventually. And one of Richard's friends from university was the curator. And in charge of restoration. Not only that, but he and Richard had been at school together, too - for some of the time. And, wonder of wonders, at the private school that had been in the house that Richard was restoring. What a lot of memories! What a lot of coincidences! What a small world!
Not, however, so small that Richard and his friend Charles had ever kept in touch with each other - certainly not between prep school and university or university and now. The first Richard knew about Charles' appointment was when he read about it in the college magazine. Anne knew how much he affected to despise it, together with all the traditional apparatus of Old Boys' Reunions and College Gatherings. But he insisted on going - just out of curiosity. And he insisted on having a bow-tie that you actually had to tie for yourself - just for the sake of authenticity. And he read the college magazine cover to cover - because of its statistical significance.
So here he was, reviving a friendship - if you could call something a friendship (she wouldn't have) that went into suspended animation for decades at a time, and then blossomed in the unexpected rain, like desert flowers - reviving a friendship out of authentic statistical curiosity. It had to be a revival, because he was so enthusiastic. On those rare occasions when they went out to dinner together, it was all she could do to get him out of his gardening clothes. Now it was the dj and the little black number. Men - always running away from intimacy into novelty. With an excuse. Away from the constrictions of the family (his or hers) which at least you knew about and could handle - into the uncertainty of a completely dormant relationship. Of course, he had reassured her that in such matters time would be completely abolished. 'As if I'd seen him only yesterday,' he'd said. 'That's the way it was at university. That's the way it was when I talked to him on the phone.' She considered delicately pointing out that a relationship between two thirteen-year-olds which could suddenly change into a relationship between two eighteen- or nineteen-year olds, and then metamorphose into a relationship between two forty-six-year-olds couldn't really be terribly mature. Even tadpoles lost their tails when they became frogs, and it was asking quite a lot to believe that nothing would have occurred in the intervening years to modify fairly basic aspects of either participant in the relationship. She knew that her husband was pretty insensitive, but this was rather like asking a mallard to survive the Niagara Falls. With women, who explored each other's make-up (emotional and cosmetic) every week, such a long-term relationship was conceivable. But men? The only reason they thought they knew each other well, was because they didn't know each other at all.
On the other hand, there was a woman in the case, Anne mused, as she gathered up a range of eye-liners, eye-shadows, blushers and tinters that, used together, would have made her face look like a Jackson Pollock. Jessica. A nice high-class name like Charles. A name out of Richard's past. A name he thought he'd told her about. The ones they think they've told you about are always more dangerous than the ones they positively know they haven't. If they did, or if they didn't and never had a chance, then they'll keep quiet about it, to avoid humiliation for them or for you. Either way, it's over. But 'might have' and 'would still like to' are powerful magical formulae. They conjure up the past. But especially, the past the way it never was. (History? What could he teach her about history? She knew all about the historical method. It was in every woman's bones.) If you've slept with a woman, and then it's all been over, in twenty-five years' time you'll notice the wrinkles, the sag, the droop, the cackling laugh that used to be like tinkling bells - well, church bells. She's a mirror, and not a magic one.
On the other hand, it was an easy step from 'what if?' to 'why not?' Never having been bitten made men anything but shy. Their fantasies became their memories and created an intimacy that was all the more flattering and effective because it rejuvenated the woman it was applied to: they loved, in her, her former self, and she was not about to deny that identity, by pointing to the distinguishing marks that the years had imprinted on her, such as husband and children. Though in Jessica's case there weren't any, and the exact nature of her relationship with Charles wasn't entirely clear either. It might, of course, only be marriage. But it could be something much more sinister. Anne decided to save the row for the car, where the extra stress of the driving and the absence of escape routes would predispose Richard to involuntary revelations, subconscious or otherwise. She knew he was dissatisfied with her. She knew she was dissatisfied with him. The question was, whether they would both be satisfied with their dissatisfaction: truce, stand-off, stalemate. Stale mate.
'We've got it all in, Mum!'
'We're all in, Mum!'
So am I, she thought, so am I. And the day hasn't even started properly yet. Christmas Eve. At least it's turkey-less. They'd agreed to provide the wine and the desserts. No. Richard had volunteered her ability with chocolate, cream and liqueurs, no doubt implying that it was why he'd selected her for the post from a short-list of two hundred applicants - that and the quality of the little black dress in which she closely resembled an Irish coffee, which, as it happened, she was also very skilled at making. She'd wanted to buy the Christmas puddings - not out of laziness, but out of self-assertion. Strip off the wrappings, and they'll never tell the difference, she'd said. Naked, all Christmas puddings are the same. Put out the lights, pour on the brandy, and who cares where it comes from? He'd been round to his mother's, to beg a couple from her store-cupboard. Since he was an only child, she'd let him have the oldest.
The wine, on the other hand, was the supermarket stuff that the wine-buffs recommended. She'd been responsible for that. Why waste good money on Jessica and Charles? was what she thought. What she said was, any fool could just pay a lot and drink well. He appreciated that. It meant he could display his savoir vivre and savoir boire. But when he said he was worried in case it wouldn't travel well, she only responded by saying, 'What's it going to do? Throw up on the seats?' and offered to grind up a Marzine and inject a little into each bottle.
'Richard! You can bring the cases down!' Fortunately, he needed less shouting at than the kids, when it was a matter of simple tasks. The more complex ones he never even attempted, despite all that she said to him. He produced pre-conditions and ramifications that made them like 'There's a hole in my bucket!' She still asked, of course, and still nagged, just to keep her hand in, and so he wouldn't feel he wasn't wanted. He took wanted in the sense of 'Dead or Alive'.
'Put your things in first!' If Jessica was going to fall in love with him, then it would be with a man clad in a dishrag. The only things allowed to crush and crumple little black numbers were passionate men's hands, and even then not many of those.
The car was full. The washing-up was finished, wiped and put away. The house was ready for its own quiet Christmas, sleepy, with its curtains half-drawn and the security lights flicking on and off. Jeremy liked gadgets and had set the timer-plug to play the Queen's speech to an audience of arm-chairs and plastic fruit. Before they left, there was one little ritual.
'Would you like me to drive, for a change?' asked Anne.
'There's no need,' said Richard.
O, reason not the need, thought Anne, as he let in the clutch, and the suburbs began to slip past the windows.
Jessica was agonising over William Morris. Did his table-mats go with the Aubrey Beardsley serviettes she'd found in this brilliant little shop in Covent Garden? Charles was refusing to tell her, refusing even to discuss it with her, because he was intent on delicately chipping away the plaster in one of the five million rooms in this giant, smelly rabbit warren. What was worse, he'd told her to go away and not bother him, because it turned out that it was rather a special room for him, a room where something rather special had happened when he was a school-boy here, only he didn't seem disposed to tell her what it was. Well, she thought she could probably have a good guess, and especially at why it was more important to him than she was in her present aesthetic predicament. Gentlemen, she thought, why are they always so bloody gentle, all the bloody time, especially when you'd like them to be a little rough, and a little more demanding? On the other hand, rough diamonds are always bloody rough, and the diamonds always turn out to be diamanté. It's very exciting at first, but after a while a girl gets used to the floor of the taxi and wishes they'd choose the seat, or maybe a sofa - even at her place.
'Charles - '
'They're basically contemporaries, so they ought to go. I mean, of course, William Morris was Arts and Crafts and Beardsley was Decadence, but they probably drank in the same pubs in London, and Beardsley was probably only sex-crazed and decadent because of the TB, and as far as I remember tables weren't the only things whose legs attracted Morris - his Socialism did include the theoretical notion of free love - probably so-called, because you normally had to pay for it in those days - '
'Charles - '
'I mean, the basically two-dimensional design of Beardsley, the repeated motifs, you know, that floor in the Rape of the Lock illustrations - that clearly derives from Morris's cod mediaeval, and on the Yellow Book covers there are allusions - I wouldn't say indebtedness, but I would say allusions - '
'Charles, I've made up my mind about the serviettes now.'
'Oh, good - well, as I was saying, a certain synchronicity - '
'Charles, I need some help to move the table, and to get some things down from the cupboards, and I don't know where you keep all the posh cutlery, or the Calvados.'
Charles came into the vast kitchen. His long, straggly, wispy hair, that had slipped down from the top of his head to leave a shiny pink expanse in the middle, was full of plaster dust, which looked like third-rate amateur dramatic ageing powder. The impromptu overall, made from a rather holey sheet, reinforced the impression that he was the star in a school production of Julius Caesar.
'Just as well you don't know where I keep the Calvados, eh? I remember when I met you at that publishers' launch for my book on Hepplewhite. As far as you were concerned, Sheraton was the name of a hotel, and you were all for taking me off to a room in it as fast as you could. You tried to feed me Calvados on the grounds that it was Maigret's favourite tipple, and I'd just come back from France - it took me a long time to explain that it was Petty France, and I'd been valuing things for one of the antique shops just round the corner.'
'Charles, don't keep on. I know very well what you saved me from, and you're not the first man who's tried to save me from it. When I drink, I do it to save me from men who're trying to save me from myself. So don't try joining that club. Not even in play. I've been in this little rural prison with you for nine months now, and if you haven't found me blotto yet, you're not likely to.'
'Jessica - I'm sorry - Let's have a cuddle to make up - '
'Charles - take off that absurd dust-sheet - when you come towards me with your arms stretched out, you look like Hamlet's father's ghost - I escaped from London with one or two decent little frocks - '
'Five suitcases full, I know, I carried them downstairs -'
'One or two decent little frocks - and I'm not about to have them covered with dried mediaeval pig-shit in the name of passion.'
'It was horse-dung they used in wattle and daub, dear - pig-shit would have carried on smelling for far too long. Besides, this is an eighteenth-century wall.'
'They mixed the plaster with urine. I read that somewhere. You see, I did read the books I launched. Not necessarily the ones I edited - there were always secretaries to do that, who were grateful for the training, poor loves, something to go on their CV's - but when I launched a book, I had to talk to the author, and the way to an author's heart is through the text. Repeat what they've written, and they'll think you're a genius - agree with it, and they'll wonder where God's been hiding you all their empty little life.'
'Is that what you did with me?' said Charles, snuggling into her shoulder.
'Of course, baby. It's what I do with all the men. All the ones I want. Like you.' She kissed him hungrily, greedily, held him at arm's length, drew him in and kissed him again. 'And now we have to lay the table.'
'Wouldn't you like to lay anything else?'
'Come on, Charles, that's my line.'
'I thought we'd agreed we wouldn't be so fixed in our roles with each other.' He put his hands on her shoulders and looked into her eyes.
'That doesn't mean you have to parody mine. Besides, your friends could be here any minute.'
'Why do you keep on saying, "Your friends" ? You know Dickie too. In fact, you've actually seen him more recently than I have.'
'More recently? It's been twenty years.'
'Yes, well, it's been nearly twenty-five years in my case.'
'You were closer to him than I ever was.'
'That's not necessarily the way he tells it.'
'What? What's he been saying to you? There was never anything between us.'
'He might have liked there to have been. That's all I know. He wrote to me a lot in those days - I was researching in Europe - Renaissance stucco, that kind of thing - and he was very lonely. He was going to come out and see me in Florence - and he didn't, because he wanted to be near you. So, clearly, he prefers you to Giotto's campanile, the baptistry doors, the Piazza della Signoria, and all the contents of the Uffizi.'
'You should be.'
'But I really had no idea - '
'He probably said more about it to me than he ever did to you. All his letters were full of you. It made me wonder what you must be like.'
'And you waited twenty years to find out. Well?'
'I can't remember now what he said.'
'I don't believe you.'
'He didn't give facts, he gave feelings. They were true for him. Oh, he mentioned where you lived, what you had on the walls, what you liked eating - things that change, or not, and aren't - in the long run - terribly important. But what he said about you, and your nature, even about the way you looked - that was written down for him. That wasn't written down for me. That wasn't about you. That was about what he felt.'
'About what he felt about me.'
'Not necessarily. I think Richard just feels, and then looks round for an object to hang the feelings on. There's lots of people like that.'
'What about you and me?'
'I plead the fifth amendment. But Richard - he's got so many feelings of his own, that there isn't really room to let anybody else's in. And it's worse because he doesn't let his out very often.'
'He did to you.'
'That was different.'
'It always is.'
'No - seriously. He was between two worlds, not at home in either, he'd left university, he'd started teaching - there weren't the intellectual demands, there wasn't the intellectual curiosity he'd known at university, he didn't fit in with the teachers at school too well, because he didn't have the wife and kiddies, and he was the youngest by ten years, and so he moved into your circle, through that other woman he'd known at college, the one who edited History Today for a while in the early seventies - '
'Did he have an affair with her?'
'Richard? Absolutely not. Very old-fashioned, Richard. Felt that whilst you were in love with one woman, you couldn't have a bit of slap-and-tickle with another one.'
'And what do you feel about that?'
'No - theoretically - I'm not asking you whether you draw practical consequences from your views. Go on.'
'Well - restraint is basically unhealthy. Confuses love and sex.'
'Is everybody healthy?'
'Granted. But I thought it separated love and sex?'
'Is that healthy either?'
'Granted again. How do you see it?'
'Well - to put it crudely, which is something I like doing now and again, because most of my life is taken up with putting it refinedly - love is very often the result of not having sex.'
'Tell me more.'
'Only if you'll come and sit on my knee.'
'It's not comfortable.'
'Comfort! Where's the romance in comfort?'
'Where's the romance in discomfort? Can I bring a cushion?'
'Of course. It'll be a good contraceptive. Another barrier between us to be overcome. Makes it all the more exciting.'
'I see what you mean about sex and love.'
'In an ideal world, they'd go together. All the time. In this one, they tend to get separated. Sometimes, you start with love, and lose it on the way to sex. You get lost yourself between the two, and can't find your way back to love. Sometimes, you find sex first, and think it's love, and expect all the things that go with love, and find they're not there, and that makes you dissatisfied, so you badmouth sex, and then you badmouth love. Sometimes, you find them both at the same time - but with different people. Sometimes with different sexes. Let me up.'
'Where's the romance?'
'Gone the way of all sciatica: down the back, into the buttock and along the thigh. Oooh. That's definitely not better. That chair may be authentic, but it's bloody uncomfortable. Give it to the guests.'
'God! They'll be here any minute now!'
She looked across the vast kitchen at the round, brass-bezelled railway clock near the Aga. The difficulty she had in reading it made her turn on the light. 'It's half-past three!'
'Plenty of time. An hour at least. He'll want to look at the barrows on the Downs, then he'll want to have the last of the light on the uplands, then he'll go down into the valleys and find he can't see and get lost. So he'll get here around five. Everybody else will be in a filthy temper. He'll be happy as a sandboy. Or a plaster-remover. Speaking of which...'
She heard him talking over the tap-tap-tapping as she got on with preparing the dinner. They would have to eat at some ludicrously early hour for the sake of the children, even though it was Christmas Eve, and you'd have thought they might have been allowed to stay up. Obviously, the Mother had to preserve her Authority at every season of the year - maybe relenting a little in summer, when the sunshine gave a hint of leniency.
'I'm trying to decide whether this really is a cruck construction, a late mediaeval cottage that they just incorporated, or whether they stole the beams when they demolished one, and just built it in here like a gigantic wishbone to support the upper floors, for want of anything better and straighter...'
She didn't bother to listen properly. It was comforting to hear the sound, like having the radio on in the middle of the night when you were lonely. If you listened too closely, you'd realise it was meaningless, and not directed at you at all, but the presence of the voice was enough to create the illusion of communication: the way you wait, when you're gossiping, saying, 'Yes. Yes. No! Yes! Go on! Well, I never!' until it's your turn to speak, and your partner does the responses that make up the ritual of speaking and listening, the celebration of something that never takes place: mutual understanding.
In a way, the illusion was better. It was easier to respect something you hadn't bothered to listen to, than to listen to something in detail and have to swallow all its misapprehensions and misrepresentations, its bigotry and short-sightedness. 'Yes, dear,' and 'No, dear,' were sublimely non-judgemental utterances, the lubricant that oiled the wheels of most relationships: if you looked closely at clockwork, you could see that the cogs which engaged with each other were actually turning in different directions.
She checked the turkey. All was well. Not quite time yet for the stuffed apples to go in. A final inspection of the cupboards revealed the calvados for the final flambé of the bird, tucked behind the soy sauce. She sniffed it, deeply, for old time's sake. But let it go at nasal stimulation, and got on with preparing the inevitable sprouts.
'This,' said Richard, as he shifted into second gear, 'will be a journey into the past.'
'Surely,' said Anne, in her best sarcastic tone, 'we don't have to go along the M1 to get to Wiltshire?'
'It's actually in Hampshire.'
'On the border, Dad, on the border!' chorussed Nigel and Jeremy from the back.
'I know what you mean about the M1, Anne, those bridges are like a time-warp in terms of design.'
'I thought Charles was the expert in the history of design.'
'We both did the option, Anne. He was the one who did the research.'
'While you settled for the immediate money, and the lower intellectual level.'
'I decided I wanted to work with people.'
'Academics aren't people. I understand.'
'Most of them aren't. And books in libraries certainly aren't. And frescoes on walls aren't.'
'And kids in comprehensives aren't. At least that's what I hear from you most evenings. Animals. Cretins. Subhuman. Those are the nicer adjectives.'
'Two of those are nouns, Anne.'
'I see where your sons get the pedantry from.'
'Dad, can we try and plug our computers into the cigar-lighter socket?'
'No. Don't be so bloody stupid.'
'Don't you call my sons bloody stupid.'
'Your sons now?'
'Well, I've always let you believe they were yours. While you were paying for them. Now it seems that quite a lot of the expense has been falling on me.'
'So you buy the computer games to shut them up.'
'What is it, Nigel?'
'Jeremy won't let me have a go of his portable Pacman. I said I'd swop it for my Space Invaders.'
'Dad, dad! His Space Invaders is really naff! The screen's all scratched where he keeps it in his pocket with his penknife, and it's really old and really slow, and it doesn't make the noises like my Pacman does. I don't want to play with it.'
'I see your son doesn't want to take a voyage into the past and explore the technology of yesteryear.'
'You chose his name. Because you had a yacht called that, which you sailed on the Boating Pond on Blackheath. Ha!'
'You agreed to it. You thought it was very romantic. What about your son? The result of a fixation on Conan Doyle's historical novels. We're lucky he's not called Brigadier Gerard or The White Company.'
'You thought it was very romantic, too, at the time.'
'What does romantic mean? Did we ever look it up in the dictionary?'
'I've got my thesauraus with me, Dad - shall I look it up now? It's got 70,000 words in it.'
'It's all right, thanks, Jeremy, it's a definition I want, not an alternative.'
'On the contrary, Richard, I thought it was precisely an alternative you were looking for. An alternative to me. An alternative to us.'
'Novelistic. Mysterious. Literary.'
'Do shut up, Jeremy, Dad said he didn't want to know.'
'Shut up yourself, Nigel.'
'I'll toss you for custody, Anne, here's my double-headed penny, and I call tails.'
'You're always going on about divorce, so you must be serious.'
'I'm never serious, you know that.'
'To my cost. I always think you mean something, and it turns out to be a joke or an irony or a piece of cynicism. Especially when I'd like to believe in it. You destroy so much. So much of my goodwill. So much of my love for you. Just by being thoughtless. Just by not thinking.'
'I'm thinking now, and I'd like some peace and quiet to do it in.'
'Really? What are you thinking about?'
'About romance, and where it goes to.'
'It gets replaced by knowledge.'
'It gets replaced by familiarity. And familiarity - '
'Breeds contempt. Lads. Pay attention. You have before you a fine example of - '
'Don't try and bring them into it!'
'1930's By-Pass Gothic - the Hoover factory - note the rounded forms within the horizontal lines, compare them with the cinemas of the period, it's all a kind of watered-down Bauhaus, it looks functional, but actually it isn't, it has the romance of the functional without the actuality.'
'Romance of the functional? Are you really trying to inflict this gobbledeygook on them, Richard? Do you think it makes any impression at all?'
'In years to come, they will realise...'
'Dad, I hit one and it didn't explode. Dad, do you think the battery's running down? Couldn't I try to plug into the cigar-lighter?'
'Nigel, there's no connection. If there isn't a connection, I can't make one.'
'Your father can't make a connection, even when there is one to be made.'
'God, I hate your sarcasm! Here am I, just telling them about the Hoover factory...'
'If that was the Hoover factory, five minutes ago, then...'
'Three minutes ago...then we've come too far, and we're going the wrong way.'
'You're absolutely right. I'm on auto-pilot for your bloody mother. It must be the vocal similarity.'
'The excuses you invent! The venom you put into them! Your total incapacity to simply admit you're wrong! You spray blame about as if you were a lawn-sprinkler!'
'Dad, what do you do when Pacman's full and can't eat any more energy packs?'
'You do something to make him lose weight.'
'The way Mum always wants to?'
'You primed him for that! You're always trying to turn them against me!'
'Not at all. You're the one who understands their bloody jargon, I don't. I'm going to try turning left and left again, and see if we can't get back to where we should have turned off - maybe we can cut into the M3 via Bracknell.'
'What do you mean, 'their bloody jargon'? It's just ordinary language, as far as I'm concerned. It's your high-falutin' arty-farty stuff that's jargon.'
'Look, I tried everything to make those kids human - I even bought them a pair of black cats - sisters - the sweetest little things in the world - and they still take more interest in little green figures on screens than they do in anything in the outside world. Now, they don't get that from me.'
'I thought you said you were turning left and left again.'
'So I was - oh, shit! You'd better get in the back and cover their ears. There's some bad language coming up.'
'Are you sure you wouldn't like me to do the driving?'
'No. Thank you. Not least because you'll only grumble at being left in the position that I've got you into, even though it was you that offered and not me that asked, and after you've got us into an even worse position you'll no doubt resign and expect me get us out of it on the grounds that I was the one that got us into it in the first place.'
'You seem to know so well what I'm going to do and say that I wonder you need me around at all.'
'Yes, I wonder that too.'
'It could, of course, be that you're wrong about me.'
'It could. But what I believe is that if I say you're going to do a thing that normally you would do, then you deliberately won't do it, just to prove me wrong. Ah! Bracknell!'
'Ah! Bisto!' came a double chorus from the back.
'Where do the kids hear these things?'
'History of Advertising - it's an OU broadcast in the mornings. They tell me it's better than Loony Tunes.'
'Can't you control your offspring and what they watch?'
'I thought they were your kids. Would you rather they watched Loony Tunes and Merry Melodies?'
'What about Mickey Mouse ? Or Tom and Jerry ?'
'Sexist. Racist. Violent. Caught up in the capitalist cash nexus.'
'Can't one relativise all that, by putting it in a historical context? After all, you're a historian.'
'No way, sunshine. Just give 'em Space Invaders. That way, they're only prejudiced against aliens. And they won't meet too many of those.'
'Are we really driving into the past?'
'Does that mean we're all going to get younger?'
'Reply to the little baby, Richard. If the answer's yes, you'd better start adjusting your own nappy, to judge by your present behaviour.'
'No, son - it's the outside world. We're going to see things that are older than the present day. We're going to be in a world that existed before the present one that we're used to living in.'
'Were there computers then, Dad?'
'No, Nigel. There were adding machines, but no computers.'
'Adding machines? Come on!'
'There are times, Anne, when you're really fun to be with! I just wish they lasted longer.'
'So do I. What about Jessica? Is she really fun to be with?'
'How should I know? I haven't seen her in twenty odd years!'
'But you remember her well?'
'Two eyes. One nose. Two lips, indifferent red.'
'As you like it.'
'Look. It's twenty years. Going by the normal rate of skin loss and cellular exchange, there isn't a single part of her external anatomy that's the same.'
'Ah. So it's the external anatomy you're interested in. No doubt you'll investigate, to see if it is the same.'
'Look. Why don't we let the kids do the arguing, and you and I play some game based on the registration numbers of the cars we see, just to pass the time?'
'I thought you had a thing with Jessica.'
'No. I had a thing about her. Prepositions are terribly important.'
'Oh. You mean you were keen on her, but never keen in her.'
'Which computer language is it you speak? Spitballs ?'
'Not in front of the kids. They understand a lot of this.'
'Oh. I'll get out of the car. We're only doing eighty.'
'Give me the wheel first, and I'll push you.'
'I'm turning off here. I'm going down the back roads. If I really have to concentrate on driving, then maybe you'll shut up and give me some peace.'
When they left the motorway, it was evident how dark it had become. Midwinter was in league with the clouds, and both were abetted by overhanging trees, most of them evergreens. Nigel and Jeremy's instinct for self-preservation manifested itself in a request for food, and, after the sandwiches, a healthy desire for slumber. Anne simply held her peace and tensed her braking foot over the rubber mat.
As though unaware of the fact that his sons were asleep, Richard kept up a frenetic commentary on the passing landscape.
'Chalk upland, that's what it is basically, chalk upland - ideal for primitive farmers, because you can turn over what little soil there is with a wooden plough - and primitive doesn't always mean a particular age, it can mean a particular level of culture, so that the people with the metal-shod ploughs go for the fresh ground in the valley-bottoms, leaving the less-skilled on the heights. Narrow lanes - '
Narrow lanes, all too true, twisting, dark, dangerous, leading into the past and the night, trapped between hedgerows, corkscrewing, sliced by headlights -
'--and the way to estimate the hedgerow's age is to count the species of plants in ten yards of hedgerow and reckon a hundred years per species. That's the ones actually growing in the hedge and forming part of it - look for the layering, the bending over of part-cut stems to grow horizontally and make the hedge impenetrable - '
Look for the construction of a hedge at fifty miles an hour? He was saying what he knew, not what he saw. He was rehearsing his knowledge. He was escaping from the present into the past, from the unknown into the known. It was only the past that he could come to terms with, only the past that he could understand. The clues were there He could tease them out. He could read the signs.
'So of course there are all these 'hill-forts', except they're not all forts - some of them are just cattle-pounds, made for the annual round-up, some of them are places to retreat to in time of war, some of them are proper full-time settlements from which whole areas were administered, places where grain was collected and stored - it all depends, and some of it you can see from on top of the ground, and some of it you have to discover by digging...'
True, true. Not everything is evident. So much is hidden. Found by chance. Seldom deliberately unearthed by calculation, three paces south, four paces west. Nobody knew it was there. And when you've forgotten what it was, you make up stories about it. Call it by different names.
'People dealt with these remnants of the past in various ways - sometimes, they just decided to destroy them, ploughed up the barrows, threw the potsherds to one side, melted down any gold they found - had their comeuppance, though, like the barber-surgeon squashed under the stone they were trying to destroy at Avebury - sometimes they decided to think of the site as something sacred, even though they couldn't quite explain what - you know, Glastonbury - Joseph of Arimathea - mostly, they just gave it a name that put it somewhere in history, not where it belonged, because they didn't know that, but the last thing they did know about. Lots of these forts they called Danebury - nothing to do with the Danes at all - '
Give it a name, thought Anne, nothing to do with it at all. Fifteen-year itch. Mid-life crisis. Male menopause. All much older than that. Much, much older than that. Have to dig into them to find out what they're really for. Dig deep. Surmise. Undermine.
'The names mislead. But they also help. Sometimes. These lanes. If you have old maps, you can find what they were called, and get a sense of when they were used, and that may tell you what for. Sunken lanes. Hard to tell. Saxon boundaries? Old ridgeways, worn down below the level of the other ground by passing feet?'
Hard to drive on. Hard to see. Worn down. Grooves. Furrows. Once you get into them, hard to get out. They lead you on, they lead you on, and you have to submit, because they're deep and you can't climb the banks to see where you're going, and you're following somebody else's path, not your own, and you can only hope they knew where they were going, and that it's somewhere you'll have wanted to go to when you get there. If you do. If you don't wrap the car around a tree on the way.
'Roads like this were always used. By somebody. Ways between villages. Ways between farms. Ways between fields. Drive the cattle to milking down the Roman road. Climb up the barrow to keep an eye on them. You can always use the past for some purpose or other.'
Suddenly, it was light around them. Well, lighter. The deceptive greyness of midwinter twilight, the sky bright in comparison with the darkness of the earth all about. They had emerged from the tunnels of the narrow lanes on to a winding road that contoured round the spurs of hills above a valley. There was a view. Anne felt they had earned it. Richard pulled over into a field-gate on the wrong side of the road and stopped the car. He sprang out straight into the mud without even complaining and strode across to the far side of the road to survey the scene.
Ann leant across and turned off the headlights. She pulled Richard's door gently to, then got out, shutting her own door very quietly, and walked across to him.
'They're asleep, you know,' she said.
'Wake the little buggers up. They ought to come and look at this.'
She loved his enthusiasm, really. It was terribly infectious whilst you were around him. It was one of the few times he seemed really alive, really full of emotion, as though he actually cared about anything. Otherwise, he went through the motions and kept himself in reserve, or was destructively cynical. She could explain it by saying he was scared because he felt vulnerable. Did that mean that when he was being enthusiastic he felt invulnerable? Like some Norse berserker when the battle madness was on him? He didn't care about the wounds, he didn't feel the wounds, he didn't actually have any wounds, he moved too fast, he laid about him too swiftly for anyone to come near him - either for war or love. Not quite a performance, because he didn't actually need an audience outside himself. He didn't mind having an audience, but they were just the excuse to start him off.
She was reminded of various holidays - not all of them going terribly well - that had suddenly taken off when he spotted a lump on a hill or ruined machine in the grass behind an outhouse. Suddenly he was up and away, a spaniel with a scent to chase. Marvellous moments on hill-tops or in smelly barns. Excitement. Togetherness. Except she'd never quite shared. She'd been two paces behind. He hadn't noticed. He never did notice. Certainly not when he was in that state. But she had. And then there had been other times when she didn't want all that frenzy. Quiet times, when she'd deliberately put him down. Made him feel that his enthusiasm was just a kind of intellectual epilepsy - a frothing of the mind. Not practical. Not relevant. Not appropriate. An escape from more important matters. A diversion. They'd left the heights, with the views and the wind and the freedom, and gone down to bicker about the starters and the price of the wine. Sad. But somebody had to take control. And he wasn't going to.
'What is it you want them to see?' She put her hand on his arm, and peered down into the gathering dusk, where swirls of mist were rising from the valley-bottom.
'That,' he said, portentously, 'is where the Saxons crossed the Avon in their conquest of what became Wessex.'
'What? By that rather ratty bungalow?'
'That's right. That's a Saxon bungalow. And that's a Celtic garage. Well, Romano-British. There were some civilised villas round here.'
'Is that really what you want to wake them up to show them?'
'Look. Not every battle site can be as impressive as Culloden - wind, moorland, heather, hawks, spirits of the dead hovering in the air and the sense of bones poking out of the bracken. Some of them are part of the London Underground, or commuter stations in Greater Manchester. At least with this one you can see the bend in the river and the ford they must have fought over.'
'You're sure the river hasn't changed its course in the past two thousand years?'
'Fourteen hundred and sixty-four years. It's in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.'
'I don't care if it's in the bloody News of the World. I'm not waking my sons up just to look at a nineteen-thirties bungalow and a nineteen-forties filling-station and be told that some bloody monk in the ninth century or later, who was into whitewashing his ancestors and legitimising his archbishop's claim to supremacy, as well as doing propaganda against the Danes, said that this was the spot where the bloodthirsty Saxons stained the water red with the vital fluid of a load of peace-lving, wimpish Romano-Brits.'
'So you do remember the things I tell you!'
'A bloody sight more than you remember any of the things that I say to you. Probably because you don't consider any of the things that I say to you to be important, because they're not about history, they're just about you and me.'
'War-crimes. That's what you tell me about. Tribunals. What I have done, what I haven't done, what I ought to do, what I ought not to do.'
'You just don't understand. Dead people, you do comprehend. They can't make demands on you that you feel guilty about not fulfilling, about not even wanting to fulfil. People who're alive, who want things from you - they trap you. And when you feel trapped, you flail out, just to get free. But it's you that feels trapped - you aren't, you know. You just don't want to move along, when everyone else does. So of course they barge into you. They don't do it deliberately. You're just in their way.'
'That sounds like the kind of thing the Saxons must have said to the Celts. March of history. Inexorable force. Inevitable development.'
'Richard, things change.'
'Everything changes, but God changes not.'
He stared out over South Charford. Tussocky grass. An unkempt garden. Discarded oil-drums. The carcasse of a rusting Anglia. A heap of tyres. Barbed wire. Just like any other battlefield. Life was a battlefield. What made this place special? What made any place special? Memories. And did they belong to the place? Or the people? He turned away from the slowly vanishing scene.
'I'm going into the yew-wood,' he said.
'You could have a pee here behind the hedge.'
'I'm not going for a pee. I'm going to commune with nature.'
'Well, you go and commune with her, whilst I answer her call. And don't drive off without me.'
'As if I would. Who'd make the sweet, after all?'
The wood was silent, dark and deep. And he had promises to keep. But not too many miles to go. And yew woods were so rare that he was not about to pass up the chance of walking in one. Well, strolling. They were rare and small. He had never bothered to discover why, never investigated the ecology of yew woods, found out whether it was the longevity of the trees that meant they didn't bother to reproduce with the fecundity of, say, sycamores, that, simply left alone, would have turned his back garden into a sycamore forest inside two years.
What he loved was the total peace, the total seclusion, the sense of shelter and protection inside a yew wood. They arched up and away, you didn't spend your time ducking and bobbing and weaving to avoid the lower branches that wanted to take your eye out or lacerate your cheek. There was no undergrowth to tangle your feet - absolutely no undergrowth whatever, just a very fine carpet of discarded yew needles, which were softer and less prickly than pine needles. And the trees, though they grew up out of your way, and made a fine canopy to keep out sun, wind and rain, stayed visible: they didn't try to dwarf and humiliate you, like beech and oak. It was like walking through a cloister with particularly fine and tasteful fan-vaulting, and a carpet on the floor.
Maybe it was the lack of life inside the yew-wood which stopped the trees from spreading very far. He knew many fine yew-trees which grew along the banks of old sunken lanes, but they might have been especially planted to mark the way, or for some religious reason, like the yews in churchyards, though he had never been able to understand what that reason might be, beyond the longevity and the sense of permanence. Of course, they used yew wood to make longbows, but that didn't explain very much at all, especially when you discovered that it was all imported from France and Spain.
Quite abstractedly, he noticed that it was now pitch-dark, and that he could not see at all where he was putting his feet, or how he could get out of the wood. He felt no alarm whatsoever. It was warm, dry, womb-like in here. As he turned, enjoying the sense of isolation, he saw a distant light, jagged, aggressive, intrusive. Anne had put on the headlamps to draw him back. He obeyed, reluctantly.
When he arrived at the car, the boys were awake, eating sweets, squabbling over games. Anne was sitting quietly, reading a magazine.
'They woke up all on their own. But by then it was far too dark to see anything, so I didn't bother to drag them over to the view.'
'Fine,' he said. 'Would you like to drive?'
'No, thanks. It can't be far now, and I'm sure you know the way far better than I do.'
'Dad, can we have a computer game that's like the way you drive - you know, going fast round bends and all that?'
'Maybe, Nigel, maybe. Did you put him up to that?'
'I didn't need to. He has eyes and semi-circular canals.'
The rest of the journey was uneventful. They missed a hedgehog, thought they saw a badger, were absolutely sure they saw at least three foxes, one of them a cub, and Nigel and Jeremy were able to look out the back and confirm the eyes of an owl high up in a tree, which the headlights had caught as they came up out of a dip. Driving in the dark bound them together as a family. Them in their little box against the rest of the world. They passed round sweets and joked.
At last, the headlights caught one of those old roadsigns, with cat's eyes in the letters like diamanté, and its pointing finger directed them up even narrower lanes and abrupter turnings on to rutted, unmade roads which suddenly widened into a formal driveway, with impressive gateposts visible on either side, and a sense of large lawns and formal shrubs, with maybe a distant pergola. The drive curved. As it straightened, the headlights lit up a large red-brick building, like a giant doll's house in its regularity, and on the steps in front of it, their host and hostess. They had arrived.
The adults went through the ritualistic mutual hugging procedure which seemed designed to prove they spent their summers in France, where everyone did that sort of thing, my dear. Anne took the opportunity to assess Jessica's perfume, and was disappointed not to smell alcohol on her breath. Jessica had the kind of broken veins and slightly puffy eyes which suggested she looked in the gin bottle more often than she looked in the mirror. Something slightly swimmy and filmy about the look in the eyes, too. An unprejudiced observer - if they'd been making them any more - might have called it dreamy. Nowadays the question was: what are they on?
Charles's after-shave, on the other hand, was very pleasant and unusual. Not effeminate, not aggressive - rather like his Harris Tweed jacket, a little rough at first, yet basically soft and warm. Anne took to him at once. She invested him with all the things about her husband that had attracted her. She was unlikely to get to know him well enough to discover that his knees and his elbows were only glued together.
Charles, on the other hand, found Anne very presentable, but a little boring. A bit too straight for his taste. Reliable. Sedate. Too much in control, and happy to be so. An excellent housekeeper, if you wanted a housekeeper. He didn't let her notice this, of course, and made a subconscious resolution to flirt with her, just to stir things. Not to annoy Richard - if that were possible - but just for the sake of entertainment. She would not be taken in, and would only let things go as far as she wanted.
Jessica's view of Anne was very similar to Charles's. Frumpy hadn't been a politically correct word for several decades now, and she didn't even allow it in her mental vocabulary, so she opted for 'self-contained'. Of course, that might just have been the impression she received because Anne was on her guard, but she had the deeper feeling that Anne wouldn't have anything of value to give, because she refused to admit that she needed anything from other people. What she gave would be donations, and not gifts: things she could dispense with, that she didn't want herself, that she had second copies of - the generosity of the circumspect. Jessica tended to give all or nothing.
Richard made her waver between these two extremes. Young men are generally so vulnerable, that you look for the strong and seek them out. But men on the threshold of middle age are so armoured and secure, that the rare quality of vulnerability gives them at least a temporary charm, until it mutates into weakness and unreliability. When Jessica said to Richard, with an eye-crinkling smile, 'Why, you haven't changed a bit!' she spoke truer than she knew. Charles raised a quizzical eyebrow, that nobody noticed, as an endorsement of her judgement, and a prophecy of consequent trouble.
Richard found Charles in the flesh a reminder of mortality - he looked older than Richard liked people of his own age to appear - and a reproach to his own lack of development. Charles seemed so much at ease in his own body and his own life, as if he had the space to turn round inside them. No constraint, and yet a perfect fit, without any looseness. He was clearly a man who made choices, and let nothing be forced on him. And yet he could make the first thing he picked up - the jacket, the tie, the shirt - look as though he had hunted it night and day in Saville Row.
The envy was only partly to do with Jessica. Richard was fair enough to acknowledge that Charles was entitled to her, and that Charles had made no special effort to get her, that she was what he deserved, because of the way he was. Because of the advantages he had had. Because of the way his life had been. Whereas he, Richard - for various historical reasons - had been deprived of all these favourable factors, had been unable to go out and acquire them, and so on, and so forth.
But that didn't mean that he didn't want Jessica himself, or that he regarded Charles's title to her as inviolable. On the contrary. Because Charles deserved her, he could equally well do without her. What did she give to him? Nothing. Just the validation of his own status. He didn't need that. Standing there, chatting nonchalantly to Anne, he was clearly all too conscious of it. The person who deserved Jessica was the person who needed her, the person who could never have won her, the person who would benefit from possessing her. The books he would have written, the papers, the articles, the emotional depth and inner complexity he would have acquired and developed through those endless nocturnal conversations, as they explored the fibres of each other's being - not, as he had thought, gone for ever, but just postponed till he was ready for it and could appreciate it properly. Ripeness was all. And Jessica was ripe. And he was ripe for Jessica.
Meanwhile, Nigel and Jeremy, left out of the hugging and chit-chat, stared about them in the hallway, hoping their computers were safe in the unlocked car outside. They certainly knew they were in a baronial mansion, which was quite exciting. There were the usual weapons on the walls - as usual, well out of reach - and somewhere up in the dark of the galleried landing above, what looked like a suit of armour, but they'd have had to barge past the grown-ups to get to it, and then the grown-ups would have noticed and issued some kind of prohibition. So they had to be content with looking round, and speculating on priest-holes in undertones, since if they'd been heard, somebody would have told them not to go round poking their noses into things, and if they weren't expressly forbidden they counted it as tacit permission. A large dog would have been fun - they had recently been bought a computer game based on The Hound of the Baskervilles - but there didn't seem to be one. No cats either - but then they found cats in general silly and soppy and disruptive when they walked across the keyboard, and they always interfered when you wanted to concentrate because they were so jealous. They were glad their father had taken the little black kittens away to be re-homed.
It was Charles who noticed their predicament, and interrupted Richard's disquisition on the wines that were in store for them, interrupted as it already was by Anne's corrections, since she was the one who had actually bought them, and knew what they were.
'I think we'd better show you all to your rooms. The young masters look as though they might be getting hungry.'
The young masters certainly knew they were being patronised. But they didn't particularly object to it; firstly, because they were actually getting what they wanted, the chance to have a look round the rest of the house; and secondly, because they found that the tone of the words went with the style of the house - they could pretend that they were little masters, out of some Dickensian novel, with mufflers and miniature top hats, the diminutive heirs to some estate, vulnerable to skullduggery and deception, subject to plots and chicanery. They hadn't quite decided whether to cast Charles as the loyal retainer, the clever lawyer, or the superficially engaging, but basically hypocritical and dastardly villain, whose jovial manner concealed a heart as black as basalt.
Upstairs went the whole party, carrying only hand luggage, enough to change for dinner. The staircase to the gallery was broad, made for grand entrances and grand departures. Its bannister rail and spindles were finely carved and looked as though they might once have been gilded in a rather vulgar and nouveau riche fashion. The landing, however, was not the broad and splendid gallery it appeared from below. Bewildering is an adjective that usually goes with variety; here, it went with uniformity. A range of seemingly identical doors, at equal intervals, led off what was actually quite a narrow corridor. Like a conjuror proving that the box was empty and he had nothing up his sleeve, Charles ran up and down the row, revealing that some of the doors opened on to rooms, some on to blank walls, some on to staircases that went up, some on to staircases that went down, some on to corridors that were just holes into blackness.
'It's like a nightmare,' said Richard. 'I don't remember it being like that.'
'It wasn't,' said Charles, 'at least, it was, of course, but we didn't see it, because they covered it all up with plasterboard and used the alternative routes - well, alternative routes into the rooms they actually used, which were by no means all the ones they had available. Kept down costs - if you don't use a room, you don't have to heat it, furnish it, carpet it, paint it.'
'Come on, don't tell me they ever heated them. Or painted them. Not while we were here.'
'You're right, of course - but then, I'm only talking theoretically, and as you'll be the first to admit, most education is only a matter of theory.'
Anne laughed out loud, which Richard didn't find very supportive.
'Theory,' said Charles, following up his advantage as he ran along the row of doors, slamming them shut before the boys could begin to remember which one led where, 'is what they teach you for the PGCE, and practice is the grim truth of Dotheboys Hall, which you pick up in the first week, unless you intend to finish up in the local madhouse.'
'Charles, you exaggerate,' said Richard, bemused by the row of doors opening and closing in front of him, as if it was a game of Pelmanism played with giant cards, 'when I teach history, I'm very conscious of using many of the theoretical practices that I learnt about - I take it as one of my goals to give the kids hands-on experience - '
'Hands on what?' said Anne, getting a giggle from Jessica.
'I let them find out for themselves,' said Richard, turning on his wife, with an ember of fury in his eyes.
'I seem to remember that we, too, found out for ourselves, without anybody "letting" us,' said Charles, in an enigmatic, but suggestive way. 'But let's carry on. This will be the staircase that you and I remember.'
And he strode to the end of the gallery and drew back an almost pileless dark brown velvet curtain. 'This way, ladies and gentlemen.'
It was, in fact, not unlike entering a cinema. Charles turned on lights as they went, but they failed to give any real illumination.
'What's wrong with the lighting?' asked Richard. 'Economy measures?'
'Safety measures,' said Charles. 'The wiring is extremely old, and very hard to follow - as you can imagine, that's one of the jobs I have to look forward to - but we need light, and we need power, so we can't just turn it off at the mains, and we can't just rip it out bodily, because we have no idea what it may be running through or over or under - give a good tug and the worm-riddled joist gives way and down comes a perfectly sound Jacobean ceiling that's been hidden under some dubious plasterboard. The temporary solution is to put no strain at all on the whole system - fifteen watt bulbs everywhere. If you want to read in bed, get a torch. Jessica tried a set of hair-curlers and smelled the smoke from the skirting-board in time. The Trust wouldn't be too pleased if the whole place burnt down. Of course, it's insured, and if the Trust's other investments were to take a nosedive, they might send me a three-bar electric fire under plain wrapper, but until then - '
'Charles,' said Jessica, who was wilting a little under the weight of one of the suitcases she had generously offered to carry, 'aren't you taking our guests rather the long way round?'
'This is the orientation tour,' said Charles, with an infuriating smarminess that disarmed by its self-parodying nature. 'I'm the very best of guides, old ladies, young ladies, all feel at home with me - Seriously, though, I'm very sorry it's such a rabbit warren, but so much of it is in such a peculiar state. Each room has a different history. Some of them are in good condition, in modern terms - and those are the ones that you'll be using. Others have bad damp penetration from the roof, down the walls - others have bad worm, or beetle, or the plaster's gone or going - and some of the good ones are impossible of access because of the floor outside them - it's a maze. So, I'm afraid you can't actually all be together. Anne and Richard are in here, and Nigel and Jeremy are at the far end of this corridor.'
Nigel and Jeremy were extremely pleased to be referred to by their names. Too many adults, introduced to them for the first time, resorted to 'your sons' or 'the children' or 'the kids, the lads, the boys'. They were also very pleased to be separated from their parents. The moment the door was closed, Nigel said to Jeremy, 'How much current do the computers use?'
'They can run off batteries.'
'Which we don't have. You're not proposing to nick the one out of the car? I think Dad would notice when he opened the door and the light didn't go on.'
'It'll say somewhere on the back. I don't think they're rated above thirty watts. At most.'
'Does that mean we share one?'
'Not likely, smelly. It means we use separate sockets. A place this size has to have a ring main, however old it is, they couldn't run spurs everywhere. That halves the risk.'
'If you say so.'
'I do. But, of course, there's no way Dad's going to bring the computers up here.'
'No way. So what do we do?'
'You distract them all - if it's necessary - I frankly think they're not going to close their mouths between now and New Year, the way they're going on - but anyway, you keep watch, and have a fit or something if they look like wondering what I'm up to.'
'And what will you be up to? If we take the computers out of the car, they'll notice they've gone, and there'll be a hoo-ha.'
'Not if I leave the boxes in there, and just bring the computers themselves up here.'
'Won't there be trouble when we have to pack to go?'
'Yes. Is there a way round that?'
'Suppose we tell them we're not happy with the computers being left in the car, and we bring them in and put them somewhere out of the way - and out of sight of wherever we're all eating tonight. Then, we can sneak down and bring them up, and sneak back down and put them away before anyone else is stirring. That way, they're not likely to pick up empty boxes and wonder why they're so light. Especially if we offer to do all the carrying ourselves.'
'Nigel, you're almost as clever as I am. I'm really proud of the way that you followed the clues I gave you and came to that conclusion, without falling into any of the traps I set you on the way.'
'Boil your head, bigmouth, and give me a go on the Pacman. It's the least I deserve.'
'They seem very well brought up, very well-behaved, Anne,' said Jessica, as she heaved the suitcase up on to the bed.
'Yes, well, it's the example the parents give them, I always think,' said Richard from the far side of the room. Anne pursed her mouth expressively.
'Such - such - traditional names. Why did you choose them, Anne?' asked Jessica, teaching Richard a lesson.
'Oh - I don't know - they were in the family, weren't they, Richard? In his and mine.'
'Yes, well, we weren't going to call them Kevin and Wayne, were we?' said Richard dismissively, flailing at his dinner-jacket in a vain attempt to make the creases drop out by sympathetic magic.
'Well, I'll leave you now to freshen up and get ready. Do you still want to do the dessert, Anne? You must be tired after your long journey.'
'The journey wasn't long,' said Anne, 'the driving was. But I'd actually love to show off my skills. I'll be down in ten minutes. You can show me where things are, and what I have in mind will only take a quarter of an hour to prepare. Put it in the freezer for half an hour, then in the fridge for another hour, and there you are.'
'Right,' said Jessica, 'so if we start dinner in, say, forty minutes, that'll be all right with you, Richard, will it?'
She took the grunt he made as affirmative (he was looking at the bow-tie instructions as if he had to produce a running half-sheepshank out of two inches of parcel-string) and scurried out of the room and down the corridor before the voices rose to a pitch which she could not manage to ignore.
In the kitchen, Charles had begun to lay the table.
'I got the starters out of the fridge,' he said, 'and put them over there, well away from the Aga, in the draught from the back door, so they'll be cool, but not too cold. Oh, these people in the past, they really knew how to build houses, with air-conditioning for serving-spaces. If only we had architects like that nowadays! Just think! Windows that aren't square, and doors that don't fit - liberation from the tyranny of the right-angle! I also stirred the soup, in case it was sticking, which it wasn't, because you're far too good a cook.'
'Charles, dear, there's no need to take the piss out of your guests to me because you don't quite dare to do it to their faces. Thank you for doing that to the starters. Last time, I tried putting them in the conservatory to get the temperature right, and they finished up with whitefly all over them. It may have made the guests think we grew the avocadoes ourselves, but I doubt it. Thank you, also, for stirring the soup, which otherwise certainly would have stuck. You have no need to flatter me, even if you do believe what you say.'
'Jessica, dear, I never believe what I say, except for the things I say about the composition of plaster used for frescoes and plaster used for stucco, because I know those things are true. And I know that there are some things we do better nowadays, and some things they did then, which we don't understand, and can't yet analyse, which are bloody marvellous. Your avocado starter is, in fact, one of those.'
'Do we really need all those glasses?'
'Jessica, you listened, as I did, to Anne's account of the wine - she may have used Richard as her ventriloquist, but it was her account. The least I can do is match her punctiliousness by providing the appropriate glassware. Flutes for the champagne, beg its pardon, sparkling white, that we're having with the starter. Sherry glasses, for the soup. White wine glasses, to trap the fruity nose. Red wine glasses, easy to fondle and warm, to release the bouquet. Dessert wine glasses. Liqueur glasses. Digestif glasses. Do we need apéritif glasses?'
'Not if they're going to walk away from the table. Why do you like to overface people?'
'It's just tradition, my dear. It's culture. It's what's required.'
'No, it isn't. It's what you do to put people down. If they try to do it to you, then you sneer at it.'
'You're right. I can afford to sneer at it, because I know all about it. Therefore I can see through it. Therefore I can transcend it. Knowledge is power.'
'Do you always play power-games?'
'Is there any other kind of game to play?'
'Does one always have to play games?'
'Games are much more interesting than anything else.'
'Such as what?'
'Such as - '
'Can I come in?' asked Anne. The little black number had travelled well. Charles and Jessica complimented her on it. She began on the dessert with a liberal hand and sureness of touch.
'Where did you get the recipe?' asked Jessica, with unfeigned interest, while Charles was busy dealing scrupulously with the vast range of wine and its different requirements.
The truth was that she had found it in a Good Housekeeping at her dentist's three years before, but that seemed too simple. 'Oh,' she said, a little coyly, 'a man taught it to me. He said it was very special, and very private, the usual things, you know.'
'A man,' said Jessica, taking the hint.
'Yes,' said Anne. 'Before Richard, of course. I didn't tell him before we were married, and it seems a bit late now. He's the one for history, and it never crosses his mind that I might have a history of my own.' She simpered a little, but not too much, and carried on whipping the cream.
Richard had wrestled successfully with intractable brute matter, though he was reluctant to lower his chin in case he squashed his achievement, and had then remembered the computers left in the car, all packed neatly in their boxes and ready for the sneak-thief. He found his way back down the stairs without too much difficulty, passed the inviting kitchen where his wife and Jessica were engaged in laughing conversation, and went out into the darkness. The sneak-thieves were already at work. In the light that spilled from the kitchen-window he recognised them as Jeremy and Nigel.
'Oy! What do you think you're doing? You're not taking those upstairs into your rooms, you know! The wiring won't stand it! You heard what Charles said!'
'We're just taking them into the house,' said Jeremy, refusing to be put off his stride by this peremptory challenge, and continuing to help his brother to manoeuvre the box out of the tail-gate.
'Yes, we thought they wouldn't be safe in the car,' said Nigel, as he leapt off the back of the car itelf, and began pulling the box after him.
'We had a word with Charles,' added Jeremy, who was now round beside his brother, taking half the weight in unwonted fraternal cooperation.
'And he told us where we could put them,' concluded Nigel, who had lowered the first box to the ground and had scrambled back into the car to get the second.
'If you play with them anything like the way you do at home, then Charles really will tell you where you can put them!' said Richard. Then he relented, and said, 'Come on, I'll give you a hand.' He took one box, and the boys took the other between them, and they stowed both safely out of the way, near the foot of the stairs, round the corner from the kitchen. Then he went out again, to lock up the car.
From outside, the house looked so neat and orderly and simple. Row upon row of square windows, evenly spaced, the panes within them also square and evenly spaced, a central door at the head of a flight of very modest steps. But he had seen inside, and he knew how little inside and outside corresponded. Were there windows there, to which no door led? He recalled the tale of the secret room in Glamis Castle, where the monstrous heir was housed: the window without the handkerchief, when the guests banded together to reveal the truth. There was always something you couldn't fathom, somewhere you couldn't get to, because you didn't even know it existed, somewhere inside yourself that was shut off, a space stolen from you, between two walls, at the narrow turning of a stair. Hidden things. Unwanted things. Unknown things. The products of confusion. The products of a past that you had wanted to forget.
What did he remember about this house? What did he want to forget about his time here? So long ago - over thirty years. Nearly forty since he had first come here, and found himself isolated from all that was familiar. He recalled the first pillow, on which he had cried himself to sleep, with no one to comfort him. Or had Charles been kind to him then? Hard to recall. He knew that later on he and Charles had become very good friends. That he and Charles had been inseparable. That they had found secret hideaways in the house that no one else knew about. Charles had implied that he learnt about the secret places from the old caretaker, in return for - some - favours, it was never quite clear what. Charles talked to the old man - everyone else thought he was queer in the head, but Charles had to talk to him, because Charles's parents lived out of the country, and he couldn't always go home for the holidays, and there was some kind of arrangement, whereby he could stay on in the school, even when the proprietors went away for their holidays. They could afford to do that, because, although they didn't charge a fortune (otherwise Richard's parents, who wanted the best for their little darling, couldn't have afforded to send him there), they paid next to nothing to lease the house, which was tangled up in some law-suit over the absence of an heir. Charles would know all about it. Charles always knew all about things. Though sometimes he made demands before he would share his knowledge. Richard tried to remember what he and Charles had done together in those secret hideyholes, but all that came back to him was darkness and spiders.
He looked up again at the house. Was that a face at one of the windows? A trick of the moonlight and the clouds. His memories of Jane Eyre - Lowood School, called up by his own schooldays, and then Mrs Rochester. Dangerous stuff, the past. Like wine, there was truth in it, but sometimes more truth than you wanted, and certainly more than you could swallow without vomiting and bringing up everything inside you. Wine. Food. Warmth. Company. He needed all those things. So why was he standing outside here, observing?
The kitchen was already full of talk and laughter when he came into it. Charles had just told his sons some fearfully risqué and juvenile joke and they were threatening to fall off their chairs. Crackers had already been pulled - at Nigel and Jeremy's insistence, Anne was swift to point out, so that they could have their paper hats, and everyone else had a paper hat, too. Anne pulled a cracker with Richard as he stood there beside her, and he had the bigger piece and was able to find the little plastic novelty when it rolled under the Aga, and it was a nightingale imitator and he promised to use it with the wine, because it needed liquid to work, but champagne would have too many bubbles and it would all be a fearful mess. The joke was one about elephants with red toe-nails hiding in cherry-trees, which everyone had heard, but it started off Nigel and Jeremy on the elephants with yellow soles to their feet hiding upside down in custard jugs and that led on to a whole routine of terrible knock-knock jokes, which they told partly to each other, and partly to the whole company, but without really demanding attention beyond a groan or a laugh at the right point, and since everyone knew the jokes already, or could work out when to respond by the intonation patterns, it let all the adults get on with their conversations without the boys feeling left out of it. Richard put on his purple paper hat with the gold star and slipped into his place beside Jessica on the long side of the table. The two boys were opposite him, Anne on his left, and Charles on Jessica's right. It was a scene for a Christmas card.
'Don't you trust the wiring in here, either?' joked Richard, as he pointed at the candles on the table. The whole kitchen, in fact, was lit by nothing but candles.
'I thought you liked the past, Richard,' said Charles. 'You remember the three-day week? Winter of 1972? The Winter of Discontent, which turned into the glorious summer of a Labour victory? Well, my mother, bless her soul, was down at the public library changing her books, when this rather snobby old bag - my words, not my mother's, but I can't remember hers, which were far more telling - this snobby old bag said, "How terrible it is, not being able to read properly, because of the power-cuts - after all, how can one read by candlelight?" And my mother turned to her and said, "Shouldn't you consider that most of what's actually worth reading was in fact written by candlelight?" She had her there. I just wish she'd said that kind of thing to me when I was at an impressionable age. Maybe some of it would have rubbed off.'
'Of course he likes the past! He goes on about nothing else! When we were driving down here, you know what he called it?' said Anne, and Richard began to suspect that she had been sampling the liqueur that went into her speciality dessert. 'You know what he called it? A journey into the past. I ask you. A journey into the past. Well. You know what it reminded me of? You know what it reminded me of? We went to that new visitor centre at Stonehenge in the summer, and they have all those signs up, saying you're now entering the past, right? And they go back in five hundreds of years or so, so there's a sign for the Armada, and a sign for the Norman Conquest, and the sign that says 750 A.D. is stuck slap in front of an electricity sub-station, so it looks as though Alfred the Great invented the Southern Electricity Board and burnt the cakes on Economy 7! I mean!'
She laughed a great deal, with everyone else supporting her, so as not to feel embarrassed, and then something went the wrong way, so that Richard slapped her on the back a little harder than was necessary, which she felt and resented, so she shook off his hand.
'But what is history?' asked Charles, as he went round with the champagne.
'Isn't it a bit early in the evening for that kind of question?' asked Jessica. 'After all, for some of us this is the first glass.' She didn't look at Anne when she said that, but Richard still took it as a kind of solidarity.
'Let Nigel and Jeremy answer first,' said Charles. 'Are they allowed champagne?'
'A thimbleful,' said Anne, articulating clearly.
'History's everything that's past,' said Jeremy.
'That's right,' said Nigel, trying his champagne, not liking it and screwing up his face.
'A fair definition,' said Charles. 'So my question, and your answer, are now history.'
'Yes,' said Nigel, speaking for both of them, since Jeremy was swilling his champagne round his mouth in a desperate effort to enjoy it.
'Good. But it's also the name of a subject at school. And the name of something you study at university. As your father and I know. And when you study the subject, a choice has to be made. A choice out of everything in the past. Someone else makes most of the choices for you. But, in the end, you have to make a choice, too.'
'I'm ready to join in this discussion, now,' said Richard, finishing his avocado starter. 'There are some people who study the past who are called archaeologists, and they spend all their time just finding out how things worked. They go to work and they come home and they say, 'I had a good day today, dear, I made three stone axe-heads', and their wives say, 'That's nice, dear,' and they say, 'I think I might invent the wheel tomorrow,' and their wives say, 'That's nice, dear, I could do with a rotary clothes line, or a washing machine, or a tumble-drier' - and then the archaeologists go off to New Guinea or somewhere to find out how really primitive people do it.'
'Richard, Richard! That's a great exaggeration, and you know it!' said Jessica, joining in with the spirit of the thing. 'Real archaeologists spend a lot of their time on their knees in the dust, removing earth with paint-brushes, in order to decide which fragment of vase was made five minutes later than which other fragment of vase. Then they put all the fragments in big glass cases, in the right order, all beautifully named, labelled and classified, like dead butterflies, but not nearly so pretty, nor so cruel.'
'I see you have reservations about the history of concrete objects,' said Richard, draining his champagne. Anne reached for the bottle, and, after an almost imperceptible hesitation, he passed it to her.
'Well, as I see it, there are objects and objects,' said Richard, getting the bottle back from Anne and pouring the dribble that was left into his own glass.
'Journey into the past!' snorted Anne to herself. 'Get into our car, and you're already three years in the past.'
'And the point,' continued Richard, 'is not the objects themselves, nor the former technologies, but how they all fit together with attitudes and events and developments in people's thinking.'
'Ah,' said Charles, going round with the sherry as Jessica began serving the soup, 'the History of Ideas. Tell me, when did you last hear of an idea being dug up, whole or in fragments? I mean, we know that the ordinary Greeks had large vessels for holding wine and smaller ones for pouring and drinking it from, and vessels for grain and olive oil, because we can analyse the traces left inside the potsherds we find - but ideas? We know they had plays and poetry and philosophy, because we have texts - but Ideas? With names on? Datable? Locatable?'
'Sherry, Nigel? Sherry, Jeremy?' asked Jessica, who had taken over the job from Charles as his own rhetoric paralysed him, in order to prevent the soup from getting cold.
'Just a thimbleful,' they chorussed together, but she gave them considerably more.
'Come on, Charles, how do you begin to talk about the Renaissance without Ideas?'
'Very well, Richard, I can see you're about to come down on me with the embarrassing style of some of my fellow art-historians, who are obsessed with "world-pictures" and "visions". Perhaps you will do me the justice to admit that I am concerned with things that are more objectively verifiable, such as the composition of paint, or the kind of bristles in a brush, or its width, or, in extreme cases, the sort of perspective used? I did, after all, invent a scale of fairly precise measurement to describe the quantity of perspective in a drawing.'
'But you never go into why!'
'No. And you seldom go properly into how. As far as you're concerned, history is just some vast treasure-house of vicarious experience from which you take the lives you fancy and live them through for as long as it pleases you. You may take them as models, but you don't actually live them through to the very end and see what the consequences are. Fine examples. Marvellous instances. All seen from a modern perspective, if you'll forgive the pun.'
'That's not entirely fair, Charles,' said Anne, lowering her soup-spoon. 'I've seen the homework he had to mark on the Spinning Jenny - you know, the unmarried textile working girl - it really was a bit like 1066 and all that - but he tries to teach them about real things, he really does.'
'Charles, I do feel you're overstating your case. You actually have no more idea than Richard why everybody started developing and adopting the techniques that you describe as characterising the Renaissance - that is, unless you're going to bring up some discredited idea such as "progress".'
'God forbid, Jessica! I do have some pride, even when I'm playing devil's advocate. There's a poem by Hardy which describes the invention of the Gothic style of architecture: chalk drawings of the old round arches get left out in the rain, and the master-builder decides he likes the new shapes which seem to have been sent to him by divine intervention. There you are. They just liked it that way. Do you want to go any deeper?'
'It seems to me,' said Richard, as he began clearing up the soup plates to help Jessica, who had started preparing to serve the main course, 'that what we're arguing about is whether history is the history of people or the history of things.'
'Marvellous, marvellous! So we've got away from the idea of history tout court, and recognised that it has to be the history of something. Good. But I think I'd probably go back to the question I asked you about Ideas. How do you separate things and people? And aren't things easier to deal with? Categorise? Classify? Analyse? Dissect? They don't wriggle, for one thing.'
'Don't you find this a bit boring, lads? I certainly do! Have some red wine. The turkey will be round in a moment. I'll try and change the subject.'
Nigel and Jeremy smiled up at Jessica. She wasn't particularly motherly - she didn't nag, for one thing - but she did take them seriously, and they found something very appealing in those large, sad, Clytemnestra-Jeanne Moreau eyes.
'Okay - pass the gravy, can you, Anne? - I accept that there wasn't some committee that said, "The Renaissance starts Wednesday, any Mediaeval stock you've got left over, unload it at 50% discount" - and I don't want to get into the notion of doing some kind of cultural psycho-analysis of the movement as a whole, though I think it would be fascinating - but - '
'Sorry to interrupt you, Richard,' said Jessica, putting her hand on his, to apologise - in full view, but nevertheless - ,'but I was wondering whether it wouldn't be a lot more interesting for Nigel and Jeremy if Charles told us all something about the history of this house. I mean, this is a very abstract argument, and what we need are some concrete facts, isn't it? Something we can all get hold of.'
'Mmmmmmm,' said Anne in agreement, her mouth full of turkey and roast potato, as she ate furiously, in a desperate but vain attempt to counteract the alcohol she had already ingested on a pretty empty stomach. She knew that if she lost control now, there would be no stopping her, and food was the only possible remedy. Conversation might help against mental disintegration, but the physical would supervene, she knew from experience.
'Very well, Jessica, an excellent suggestion! Where shall I begin?'
'At the beginning? Precedent speaks in favour of it.'
The boys smiled. They sensed that Jessica was on their side and taking the mickey out of the pompous adults. They cut up some of their vast helpings of turkey and laid it ready, so they could fork it in without having to look away from the contest that was evidently about to begin.
'There was a house on this site by the early sixteenth century - fifteen hundred and so and so - okay? - and it would probably have looked quite a bit like the present one, because it would have been built in the same red brick, to a basically similar design. In fact, some of the older and more peculiar and irregular parts of this building may have belonged to the earlier house. Precise dating is quite difficult, because the techniques of domestic carpentry - you know, the crummy joints at the back of things that nobody's meant to see - didn't change very much over the hundred and fifty odd years between then and the big reconstruction that we know about. Here's a basic point to remember, lads: Tudor houses tend to be rambling; Jacobean and later tend to follow a clear order. There aren't any funny little irregular rooms.'
'What?' said Nigel, who had just swallowed a large piece of turkey, and was having trouble breathing properly afterwards. 'No priestholes?'
'Priestholes!' exclaimed Charles. 'What sort of books do you let them read, Richard?'
'Anne's the one who takes them to the library.'
'What's a priesthole, then, Nigel?'
'Dunno. That's why I asked.'
'Place where a priest goes. Rabbit lives in a rabbit-hole. Fox lives in a foxhole. Priest lives in a priesthole - doesn't he?'
'Tell them all about it, Richard, it's a father's job to educate his children.'
'Do you want me to tell them about the birds and bees at the same time?'
'That's going to come later in the tale that I tell them.'
'Right. You know that there are different kinds of religion. Just answer yes or no.'
They both nodded.
'Well, there was a time in England when we changed the religion and we hunted down the priests who belonged to the old religion. Not everybody wanted to change religion, so they hid the priests who were being hunted.'
'Wasn't that dangerous for them?' asked Jeremy, who was wondering how he could get some more red wine unobtrusively.
'Yes. So they had to hide them very well. And they hid them in places in their houses called priestholes, which were sometimes up chimneys and sometimes under floorboards, and sometimes in hollow walls between two rooms.'
'Gosh! How exciting!' said Nigel, and he meant it.
'It is,' said Anne, 'it really is. Tell us some more.'
'Well, the problem with the priests was around the middle and the second half of the sixteenth century - Charles, do I have to tell them all about Spain and the Armada, or can I leave that bit out?'
'What do you think? You're the teacher!'
'Bastard! All right - I'll suppress it. Firstly, it's too complicated, secondly it's not relevant, because by no means all Catholics were in favour of a Spanish invasion, and thirdly - the whole thing makes sense even without it. Right. Are you still listening?'
'Absolutely,' said Anne.
'All ears,' said Jessica.