'In the 1640's there was another big change. One lot of people, called the Roundheads, decided to rebel against the King - '
'Come on, come on! Rank prejudice there! Rebellion! They were defending their rights!'
'Stop it, Charles. Stop showing off and being clever and boring the boys. Richard's telling it all beautifully simply. It makes me think I'd like to get him to write me a textbook - if I were still working in that ratrace, that is. Go on, Richard. Don't mind him.'
'And they chopped off his head, and they hunted down the people who supported him. And these people were also hidden in priestholes in these old houses. And it's even more complicated than that, because, for a short time in the sixteenth century, the old religion came back and the new priests were hunted, so they had to have somewhere to hide, so almost everyone had a reason to have these secret rooms.'
'Gosh,' said Nigel again. He was thinking about secret places where no one could find you, and you could play Pacman all day, and need never go to school.
'My turn now, Richard. You'll like this bit. It's about people. And it's also about houses. I have a theory. With houses like this one, that have a life of their own, it isn't just the people that own the house, the house owns the people.'
'Eh?' said Richard.
'Come on, Charles, explain. You're not usually so enigmatic.'
'All right. What I mean, is that they do things to hang on to the house which you wouldn't expect - in rational terms, that is. These things aren't always obvious, but if you're looking for them in the jumble of recorded facts, then they leap out at you. The family that owned this house for almost all of its recorded existence was called Fitzwarren. Well, sometimes. Sometimes, it would drop the Fitz and pretend it hadn't actually come over with the Conqueror. I have a suspicion, too, that there were some members of the family that called themselves Warner, just to put people off the scent.'
'Are you talking about a house, Charles, or a family?'
'Both, Jessica, and they go together. Other families split up, divided, moved away, died out - this one stayed here, stayed in this house.'
'Is that really so very unusual?'
'It is, when you consider how they did it, Anne. Listen. Richard's told us all about the change of religion. When that happened, the Fitzwarrens were already here. They had - four sons, I think. The minute it became clear that the Catholics were about to be viewed with royal disfavour, they sent their youngest son to study for the priesthood in Flanders - Douai, where the English priests always studied.'
'What do you mean, "sent" ? Aren't you talking about the decision the young man made as an act of free will?'
'He was thirteen - now, I know that was older then than now, and people went to university at that age - but he was definitely sent. As an insurance policy. When Mary Tudor came to the throne, and Catholicism was the state religion, he took over the parish church.'
'Only natural. And it meant his parents had no trouble from anyone. Until Elizabeth came to the throne, and Catholicism was persecuted.'
'And then - they turned him in.'
'What?' Even Jeremy had stopped eating, and was staring in amazement.
'Their own flesh and blood?' queried Anne, tears welling in her eyes.
'Needs must, when the devil drives. No priesthole for him, poor lad. Still, he got off relatively lightly. Not very much torture. He recanted quite quickly, was pardoned and sent home.'
'What?' said Jessica. 'He came back to live with the parents who betrayed him to the authorities?'
'Got on very well with them, too, if the letters are any guide. Didn't get on so well with the third brother, who went off to be a Catholic priest in his turn.'
'You're making this up!'
'Wish I were! I don't have that good a gift of invention. The young lad who was a priest recants, the brother above him goes off and is ordained. He drops out of the picture at this point. They didn't need his services again - not as a priest, anyway. This is where the mysterious Mr Warner comes in, who moved into the village towards the end of the century, at the point where it became clear James the First of England and Sixth of Scotland would succeed Elizabeth and the Catholics wouldn't be coming back. The Fitzwarrens effectively gave him a house to live in, and then there was a marriage between his daughter and one of the sons in the next generation that looks like the standard re-unification of property by cousins marrying each other. Even if you persuade me that the thirteen year old suddenly found religion, I can't take the idea that his elder brother was converted by the strength of his younger brother's example.'
'Nor can I!' said Jessica. 'More red wine, anybody?'
Jeremy held out his glass, and when no one was looking Jessica put some more in it.
'How do you know all this?' asked Anne, putting down her knife and fork because she felt a little queasy.
'Never question a historian's sources - just admire his style!' said Richard. 'But how do you know all this?'
'Well, I'm sure this place does have priestholes, probably several, but I've not yet discovered any. When I go knock-knock-knocking round the walls - '
Jeremy started whispering yet another knock-knock joke to Nigel, who kicked him on the shin quite sharply and said, 'Shut up. You're drunk. I want to listen.'
' - what I find are small cavities.'
'I had one of those in a back tooth last month,' said Nigel, 'but they filled it. Without an injection.'
'And in these small cavities, I find documents. It's as if they didn't need to hide people, but they did need to hide papers, perhaps in case something went wrong, and the older members of the family died, and somebody else had to come along and try and understand their intentions - like with Mr Warner. The deed for the house in the village was all made out and dated well before he actually came to live there. And there was a marriage all sorted out in advance for him, even though he was in his sixties - as there was for the re-converted ex-Catholic priest forty years earlier. I have a suspicion that he probably got the girl that the third brother should have married, the one they packed off to Douai as the second insurance policy.'
'He can't have been too pleased about that,' said Jessica, picking bits of crispy turkey skin off the carcasse, and nibbling them.
'Could I have some of that?' whispered Nigel, and she wordlessly turned the parson's nose round to where he could reach it, but Anne couldn't see what he was doing and tell him to stop.
'I suppose not, but I take it he understood. Loyalty to the family.'
'The family,' said Richard, thinking.
'Are you proposing a toast?' said Anne, sliding her empty glass forward. The queasiness had gone, but she still felt incredibly full, and thought that more alcohol would cut through that feeling. Jessica obliged silently, with a certain malevolence. They were into the third bottle of red, which was rather thin Italian stuff. She judged Anne wouldn't notice.
'The family. The clan. The tribe. Could one really feel such unity with all those other people? Sacrifice oneself for future generations? And not expect to have any part in producing those future generations, either. I find that very hard to understand or accept.'
'So do I, Richard, if that gives you any consolation. As you know, I had very little to do with my parents as a child. I suppose I formed other bonds with other people - rather like those ducklings that get fixated on a sheep-dog and follow it around as if it were their mother - but I don't recall them particularly. Schools and colleges try to exploit the same sort of instinct, though, if you think about it. You have the crest and the motto, just like the older families, and the members are initiated into the history of the place and the wonderful achievements of past members, and they're told that they form part of that tradition, and that future generations will be grateful to them - '
'And then they fork out to have the organ repaired, or a new pavilion built, or the car-park re-surfaced. It's not really the same, is it?'
'I think it is,' said Jessica, sloshing the red, with a certain contempt which she felt it deserved, into the men's glasses. 'In principle. It exploits the same kind of emotional blackmail. It tries to give the individual something beyond him or herself that they can identify with - something that will survive the individual's death, and give meaning to the individual's life.'
'Not the meaning of life,' said Anne, quietly to herself, rolling the wine round in her mouth and looking at all the pretty candle flames.
'Perhaps we should ask the young gentlemen,' said Charles, conscious that it had been a while since a priesthole had been mentioned. 'What do you feel about each other? What sort of loyalties do you have?'
Nigel and Jeremy looked at one another, as if they were meeting for the first time. They had never thought about this kind of thing. The brother was there. So was the wallpaper. You didn't complain about it. You didn't rejoice about it. It was just the way things were.
'You should have heard them quarrelling in the back of the car about their computer games,' said Anne, delighted to put down her offspring who seemed to be getting a litle too much of the attention for the moment, with everyone staring at them. She realised that although the wine didn't taste as nice, it was easier to drink, finished off her glass and poured herself another.
'Computer games?' said Jessica with interest. 'When I was still in publishing, I used to play games on the computer in my office - I wasn't supposed to, of course, it was for work, word-processing, consulting catalogues and so on, but it was boring at times, and the interviews I had to do were really boring, so I used to pretend I was looking something up and actually be playing a game. What I forgot, was that there was a mirror behind me, and one day one of my bosses came to see me, and he wasn't into this eye-contact thing, never looked at you when he talked to you - he was much more interested in his own image, so of course he looked into the mirror and saw what I was up to. I persuaded him that I was trying it out with a view to publishing it, but that was the end of the fun.'
'Don't let's get distracted, Jessica, even if you are amusing the boys,' said Charles. 'It's clear that Richard hasn't brought them up with a strong sense of family - '
'Well, let's be fair - it's not as though they're going to be inheriting any sort of patrimony like this place. The links to the soil aren't particularly strong in Eltham Park.'
'I take your point, Richard. The economic prerequisites have gone. I'm glad you're not coming at me with the history of ideas again.'
'They go together, Charles. You can't really divorce the sense of family from the sense of property, and that brings in all kinds of other questions, such as how many children you have or want to have.'
'I see you're getting round to the birds and bees, Richard. Perhaps we should leave that till later. It comes into my story.'
'Are you going to tell us a story?' asked Anne. 'A bedtime story for the boys?'
'I'm telling you a story now. I'm telling you a story all the time. History is a story.'
'With an over-complex plot, and too many characters. I should know. I was a professional editor.'
'All right, Jessica, I take the hint. If you'll trim the wicks of the candles, then I'll trim my story.'
'Will there be priestholes in it?' asked Jeremy, who was beginning to rub his eyes.
'There better had be, if we're ever going to get them to bed,' said Richard.
'We!' said Anne. 'I like that! As if you ever got involved.'
'Priestholes,' said Charles, ignoring the interruption tactfully, 'well, yes, - I mean, I've told you about what there is hidden away in this house: documents. Tap the walls, tap the floors, and if it sounds hollow - well, maybe you've got a bad attack of rot, or a brick's dropped out because the mortar went long since, or maybe you've found some important papers. There are all those gaps between the ceilings and floors. Of course, the noise gets through, even the old builders realised that, so they filled up the space with all kinds of things: ears of barley, sea-shells - mussels and oysters, mostly, because they were eaten a lot. In this house, it's documents in between the other rubbish. But - ' and he looked very sternly at Nigel and Jeremy - 'there is a priesthole. I don't know where, because I haven't found it. But the documents say it exists.'
'Tell us the story, Charles. Get on with it,' said Jessica, who had appeared with a two litre bottle of really rough Italian red.
'I am getting on with it, Jessica. Do we really have to have that? Can't we move on to the white? I feel my fillings have been attacked already.'
'Very sensible, Charles. I'll get out the dessert for the young gentlemen.'
'And for me, please,' said Anne, who found she had a great sourness in her mouth.
'Cavaliers. Roundheads. And of course the Fitzwarrens made sure they had a son on each side. The family, and the house, stayed as neutral as it could - no use having a son on the winning side if the winning side had to burn the house down in order to win. Well, the King was dead, the battle of Worcester had been fought, and the Roundheads were combing the country, rounding up the last Cavaliers. Who appears at the door but the Cavalier son? Somewhat blood- and travel-stained, and asking for sanctuary. The family is not best pleased. They think they've made their peace with the Roundheads - after all, one of their sons is prominent among them, and they don't want to be reminded of their insurance policy.'
'Dad,' whispered Jeremy, 'what is an insurance policy?'
'It's a kind of bet you make, so that if things go wrong - which isn't likely - then you get some money to put them right.'
'So that if things go right, then you've lost your bet?'
'Yes - but you don't lose nearly as much money that way as you would if things went wrong.'
'I think I see.'
'Nevertheless, they took him in, and hid him in the priesthole, wherever it was. The next person who came knocking at the door was a Roundhead officer searching for Cavaliers. Of course, he knew that one of the sons was a loyal Roundhead, but he also knew that one of the sons was a loyal Cavalier, and he knew that family loyalty was actually more important than political loyalty for most people. So, very politely, he asked for permission to search the house. Said that he knew the family wouldn't be hiding their Cavlier son knowingly, but that in these old houses there were all kinds of ways in and out and secret hideyholes, the kind of things that boys playing alone together could discover, and the parents perhaps never know.'
'There's nothing like that in our house,' said Nigel, wiping the cream from his nose and licking it off his finger.
'Now this worried the mother - the father was out at the time - because she was afraid that the Roundhead officer would find some of the family documents, which were very dangerous. The Fitzwarrens had thought of everything, you see. They had letters - genuine or not, it didn't matter - nobody could be sure what was genuine at that time, a bit of suspicion was enough - to prove that the Roundhead son was a Cavalier spy, and to prove that the Cavalier son was a Roundhead spy. They were thinking of ways to get their sons back in good favour, whatever the outcome of the war, because they only had the two sons - that's another thing I'll have to talk about later when the lads are in bed.'
'This all seems terribly complicated to me,' said Anne, as she began to regret the alcohol she had put in the dessert.
'It is,' said Charles, 'but then so is life.'
'Too true,' said Anne, spooning in the cream and thinking What the hell.
'So what was she to do? Come on, lads, what would you do in a similar situation, you've got these documents which are going to cause trouble for you if they're found, and the likelihood is that they will be found - so what do you so?'
'Eat them?' said Jeremy.
'Burn them,' said Nigel, who wasn't as greedy as his brother.
'Well, the mother didn't have such a good appetite as Jeremy, so she decided to burn them. To do it without too much suspicion, she got the maid to light a fire in one of the rooms, even though it was summer, saying that she wanted to air it, in case the nice Roundhead officer decided he had to stay the night. So far, so good. But one of the important things about priestholes is that they need a good supply of air - otherwise they can easily turn into coffins. The air supply makes them easy to find - if you know what you're doing - because there's always a draught from inside the house going up through the priest-hole to the outside. You go round with a candle and watch the flame.'
Charles picked one up, to demonstrate. The flame wavered as he lifted it from the table, and then was still. He moved towards the door with it, and the flame bent over, inwards, into the room. He went towards the window, and the same happened. Then he went and stood by the Aga. Nothing. He bent down. Everyone craned and twisted to follow his movements. He fumbled with the fire-door and turned a small knob on it. A pinhole opened in the draught-controller. In the dark kitchen, lit only by candlelight, with brown shadows in the corners and under the ceiling, in that kitchen filled with the gloom of the past, the pin-point glow of that tiny hole was clearly visible. Clearly visible, too, was the candle-flame, which leant over and tried to join its burning brother.
'Sometimes, the cruder pursuers tried to smoke people out by setting whole houses alight. A little excessive. The subtler ones went round with a candle at noontide, and saw where the flame led them.'
'And what was this Roundhead like?' asked Jessica. 'Crude or subtle?'
'Lucky,' said Charles, 'which is much more important in the long run. Napoleon, remember, said he preferred lucky generals to skilful ones.'
'So what happened?' said Anne. 'I'm getting impatient.'
'You can't get impatient with history,' said Charles, 'it won't go any faster. One day at a time. That's its pace.'
'You're not going to take a whole day to tell this story, are you?' asked Jessica, stealing a bit of Nigel's cream on her finger.
'The cavalier who was hiding smelt the smoke of the fire that had been lit. Maybe the wood was wet - a typical English summer - maybe the chimney hadn't been swept, or a bird had built its nest on the top - he knew he was being pursued - perhaps he'd heard the Roundheads ride up or listened to the conversation - being a noble fellow, he decided to spare his parents the torment of having their house burnt down over their heads, and revealed himself. As ill luck would have it, he collided in the corridor with his mother, who was carrying both lots of incriminating papers to burn them, and with the officer, who had also smelt the smoke and come to investigate - I think the priesthole must have worked like some kind of chimney and carried the smell up to him. General confusion. Fortunately, the mother realises that there is a way out which still preserves the insurance policy. She reveals the son she has with her as a Roundhead spy and blackens the name of the son who is absent as an agent for the Cavaliers. Luckily, the family made a speciality of keeping carrier pigeons to pass urgent messages between them, so the son in London had plenty of time to make good his escape. Slightly disquieting is the fact that when the mother went to the dovecote - did you notice it on your way in? one of the first things that I restored - the school people used it as a garden shed for the cricket-roller - when she went to the dovecote, to get one of her son's birds to send off to London, she found one of her own birds had come home with a message from her son in London, saying that he had found it necessary to reveal his brother's whereabouts. He didn't say why, but at least he did give a warning.'
'This is all very complicated, isn't it boys?' said Anne. 'Are you following? Do you think you'd better draw diagrams? They're very strong on flow-charts at Richard's school.'
'Are you suggesting,' asked Richard, 'that one brother deliberately betrayed the other? For what motive?'
'I have no idea. With Greek pots, as we have already said this evening, you can scrape the inside to find out what they contained. That method doesn't work with human skulls.'
'But where does that leave the great notion of family loyalty?' asked Jessica. 'I mean - if the previous generations could cope with it all, and swap wives and things, and go off and be priests at the drop of a hat, what changed? What went wrong?'
'Interesting that you say "what went wrong?" - You've clearly accepted the idea of family loyalty as being right, even though you feel none of it in your own life.'
'I'm very fond of Auntie Dot, Charles - and she's all the family I have left.'
'You think it was probably over a woman, Charles? What about plain ambition? Brotherly jealousy?'
'Ask your own sons, Richard, about fraternal feelings. I'd have thought you might want to come back at me with the History of Ideas.'
'Not necessarily, Charles. Even I acknowledge the power and importance of the individual human character. I don't believe we're all determined by the impersonal forces of history.'
'Nor do I. Technologies and legal systems are another matter - but I, too, nourish a quaintly old-fashioned faith in the individual's right - nay, duty - to decide. To make choices. Choices which are not necessarily prescribed by tradition, circumstance and situation, but can in fact create all those things.'
'I think you're leaving the lads behind, Charles.'
'Sorry, Jessica. Sorry, Nigel and Jeremy. I'm getting away from the story, which I've actually finished telling now.'
'Is that all?' asked Jeremy. 'One brother did the dirty on the other brother, but it was all right in the end, because the second brother did the dirty back, but told the first brother in time, and all that really happened was they changed places, but the first brother probably wasn't too happy about it, because he had to run away when he'd been expecting to stay around and now it was the second brother who was staying around when he'd been expecting to run away. Is that it?'
'The boy should be writing dust-jackets,' said Jessica, and started a second round of the white wine. Anne half-covered her glass, but then withdrew her hand and nodded enthusiastically. Jessica was a little more generous with her than she might otherwise have been.
'It could well have been cherchez la femme, but it's hard to tell. Passion doesn't leave traces in the same way as politics and money. At the time it seems all important - but a couple of years later you wonder why you didn't go for the arranged match that would have paid off the mortgage and given you some decent claret in the cellar. Passion is all about the moment.'
'Better than an age without a name,' muttered Jessica. 'I'd no idea you were such a cold fish, deep down, Charles.'
'But, Jessica - I believe in passion when I feel it. We all do. It's a modern thing to do so. It's the one piece of irrationality we still permit in our lives. Religion's out. Fox-hunting's out. Fascism, nationalism and racism are out. That only leaves football and passion - and I'm not going to distinguish between sexual desire and love. There are people who quite rationally decide to take an irrational decision because they feel it's unhealthy not to. A kind of sauna for the soul. It isn't masochism when you get whipped with birch-twigs before the cold plunge.'
'Personally,' said Richard, 'I think the cold plunge is the masochism. But Charles, I think it's really time that the boys went to bed, if you don't mind. They've had their story. Say goodnight.'
They didn't protest. Why should they? Being sent to bed meant they could sneak back down and collect their computers and play into the night. But they went with just enough unwillingness to avoid arousing suspicion: don't be so good, that everybody wonders what it is you've done. Anne had sunk into that state of inwardness which normally precedes being sick, so Richard saw them into the hall, watched them begin to climb the stairs and then shut the kitchen door so that the noise of the adults' conversation could not possibly disturb their slumbers. Nigel and Jeremy waited for five minutes on the galleried landing (where what they had thought was armour had turned out to be a dressmaker's dummy) and then crept quietly down. They felt reasonably safe, because they could hear the voices and laughter from the kitchen and they knew that there was a toilet beyond, in the outhouse, so that the adults would have no reason to come out into the hall until they went to bed.
'Of course,' Charles was saying, 'we like to think that passion is significant because it justifies us as individuals. We don't think of it as impersonal, though in some ways it is - just the desire to propagate the species.'
'Propagate!' said Jessica. 'You speak as through it means dipping a cutting in rooting powder and sticking it in a pot of John Innes No. 3!'
'I was intending precisely to be non-romantic. But I acknowledge that it gives us a feeling of intensity almost entirely lacking in our everyday life.'
The light had been left on in the hall. With bated breath and pounding hearts, the boys began to slip the first computer out of its packaging. They had decided not to argue over whose computer should be taken upstairs first. They just took the first one they came to, and let chance decide. They were partners in crime, and neither was likely to betray the other. They put the packaging back carefully in the empty box, and carried the computer to the foot of the stairs, to begin the long and complex journey to their room.
'Well,' said Charles, 'now they've gone, I can tell you the real story that I wanted to tell you.'
'What?' said Richard. 'Do you mean all that was a fraud?'
'Of course not. All genuine. All true. But a little far away in time, I feel, to affect us as it should. A bit like a fairytale. Sons that set out to seek their fortune. Little grey-haired old mothers. Family relations all terribly unreflected.'
'Why on earth do you think they wrote it all down, Charles?' asked Jessica. 'I mean, it's not entirely to their credit.'
'No - but it does help to promote the idea of the family as an organism and a continuity. Look at all the money people are pouring into genealogy nowadays. Scarcely a U.S. president, for instance, that hasn't been back to the little Irish village that his ancestors left - probably under a cloud, though frankly in Ireland it's hard to go anywhere without it being under a cloud, not to say in the pouring rain. It gives you security, knowing where you came from, even if you've no idea where you're going to.'
'But wouldn't they have gone for better stories - ones that provided more of a model for behaviour in the future?'
'Why, Richard? Isn't the cautionary tale as good as the shining example? Look at the Bible - they didn't leave out Cain and Abel in order to encourage brotherly love, did they?'
'I'm sorry to interrupt you,' said Anne, but could I go and sit by an open window? I'm not feeling too well.'
'Of course,' said Jessica, 'you've been sitting with your back to the Aga all evening and the heat builds up without one noticing it. There you are. Glass of water?'
The chill air refreshed them all. It also made the candles gutter. Jessica went round snuffing the ones in the rest of the room before the melting wax could cascade down their sides in shapes that were too grotesque and extravagant. The ones on the table she rescued with tall glass cylinders that stopped the flames dancing and restored them to the fine equilibrium of constant motion in constant stillness. The darker the kitchen was, the older it seemed. The less light, the more it picked out the features of the faces, characterising them more strongly. Anne had a wind-protected candle of her own as she sat at the window, with a shawl round her, since she wanted fresh air and not a chill. The drinkers at the table had forgotten the dessert, only eaten by the boys and now back in the fridge. A cheese-board had magically appeared, a crisp dry white and a strong, dry Normandy cider.
'I'm sure the example of the father is very important,' said Richard, pontificating, 'but nowadays - the father doesn't have the status in the family, so he can't give the example, doesn't want to give the example, isn't expected to give the example, so even if he did, nobody would take any notice - '
'Chicken and egg, eh, Richard?' said Jessica. 'What sort of example have you given as a father?'
'Absent,' said Anne from the window. 'Permissive. He plays games with them. He does the fun things. I do the work. His job's important. Mine's part-time. I get nearly as much money as he does for one-third the hours. But he contributes to society, and I just work for Mammon.' She was looking out into the darkness, her back to the intimate scene at the table, so they found it easy to ignore her, because she expected to be ignored, because she wanted to complain, but didn't imagine that her complaints would change anything. She didn't want to exchange her moral superiority for effectiveness, and the rest were happy to go on with their discussion and pretend they hadn't heard clearly.
'What are homes nowadays?' countered Richard. 'Would you kill for them? Are they really boxes for your deepest memories and feelings? Or just boxes? machines for living in?'
'Don't trespass on my architectural patch, Richard. You're not letting me tell my story.'
'Tell us. Tell us all about it.'
'Let me gloss over two and a half centuries.'
'Primer, undercoat, top-coat, gloss away.'
'They sent a twelve-year-old to be a hanger-on at Monmouth's rebellion. Unfortunately, he was caught and Judge Jeffreys sentenced him to hang.'
'Fortunately, he died of a fever in prison before he could die on the scaffold. That must have salved some consciences. Then they sent a couple of brothers into exile with James II, and they married various cousins who were sent out to them, so that their descendants supplied family representation in both Jacobite rebellions. In addition, the exiles dispatched offspring in their turn to be married back into the main line of the family. All very cosy.'
'And the Napoleonic Wars?'
'They drew the line at becoming French, as far as I can tell. There are limits, you know! And that was more or less the end of the practice of having a Fitz in both camps, because there weren't any significant camps to have feet in by the time you reach the nineteenth-century.'
'So where's your story? Come on, Charles, I've never known you break a promise yet, even if you have bizarre ways of keeping them,' said Jessica.
'Now, Malthus pointed out that population increased geometrically, but food resources only arithmetically - '
'Is there any more Stilton?' asked Richard.
'It's not Stilton, it's Blue Vinny, otherwise you'd be having red wine with it, and yes, there it is,' said Jessica.
' - so, while you needed heirs to make sure of the continuation of the family, you also had to make sure you didn't risk problems because there were too many potential heirs competing. While you had wars and diseases, you could be sure that a fair number would simply drop out, and, as we said, the Warrens had the marriage of cousins as a regular thing to make sure the family stock didn't get too diluted. We all know about the huge Victorian families. Something else which occurs to me, and which isn't irrelevant, is all those bastards the Kings seem to have had in the Middle Ages.'
'Just liked a pretty face, didn't they, Charles?'
'I think it much more likely, Richard, that they were spreading their seed around as far as it could go, in the hope that any of their enemies intent on extinguishing the entire dynasty would miss the odd wayside flower. Then there would be a pretender to the throne to carry on the family.'
'And there was me, thinking it was the victory of passion over class distinctions, bare legs over silken stockings.'
'You're very strong on passion, Jessica. It must be all the red meat.'
'It's more likely to be the red wine, Charles.'
'What about you, Richard?' said Anne, from her seat by the window, speaking into the darkness outside, where there was a quiet and gentle rain falling. 'Did you spread your seed around? I can't say you did it with me particularly.'
'Well - to return to my theme. The calculations about how many children made five became a lot harder. They had to earn some money - land was a problem, agriculture not terribly profitable. If they went abroad and served the Empire, they could easily get finished off by some colourful disease - '
'Yellow fever,' cried Jessica.
'Blackjack,' interjected Richard.
'That's a card-game,' said Anne.
'It's a lethal instrument,' said Jessica, hitting Richard on the head with a half-baguette that showered crumbs down his dinner-jacket.
'Children, children! I was just about to mention the Boer War.'
'Don't be a Boer!' shouted Jessica. 'God, Charles, your introductions are longer than your stories! Thank Christ I only ever edited one of your books. Does this go on for long?'
'And then I was going to allude to the First World War, which was responsible for exterminating a large number of very ancient families. And then I was going to tell the story.'
'Halle-bloody-lujah. Dessert? Liqueur? Coffee? Chocolates? Ices?'
There was movement in the kitchen. Dessert, coffee and liqueurs appeared. Anne had fallen asleep in her chair. Jessica leaned across and gently closed the window without waking her. Charles waved away his dessert, which Jessica shared out between her and Richard, and he continued his tale between alternate sips of black coffee and Armagnac.
'In 1895, Sir Harry Fitzwarren married Lady Violet Beacham-Warner. Here's the newspaper clipping, if you don't believe me, with further material from the Court Circular giving the dirt on the couple. Judging by the letters he wrote to his mother, it was a love match.'
'Do men ever tell the truth to their mothers?' said Jessica. 'Their mothers are all in love with them themselves, and fiendishly jealous. They only go along with the marriage plans to get a bit of vicarious pleasure and put themselves in the place of the bride.'
'I wish you were right, Jessica,' said Charles, ' but my mother was almost as indifferent and distant to me as she was to her husband, my father, and the only reason I have for assuming that she was in any way ever intimately involved with him is the existence of my humble self.'
'Poor Charlie. You didn't have it easy, did you? Even with Richard as your friend.'
'Jessica, you know I don't like diminutives, especially not ones that make me sound like a fool. Have you read the clippings? Good. Then let me have them back, please. Look at these.'
Again, brown and crumbling pieces of newspaper in plastic wallets for safety. The birth of a son to the happy couple. Then, dated ten months after the birth of the son, a birth certificate for an unmarried mother. Also a son. The father's name was given as Sir Harry Fitzwarren.
'She can't have been too pleased about that,' said Richard. 'Randy old bastard. Couldn't he wait for it?'
'For someone who has spoken up for the individual's ability to take decisions, you seem to have a very simplistic view of the relationship between the gonads and the rest of the organism. Do you distinguish carefully between 'they go funny if they don't get it' and 'the red mist of passion' ?'
'Don't be too horrid to him, Charles, he is only a man, after all.'
'God save me from your compliments, Jessica.'
'I'm never sure which ones are the compliments, Charles.'
'Richard - I hope you have been appreciating that my extremely lengthy historical introduction was designed to offer you a way of interpreting this rather bare information, which might otherwise be misunderstood in precisely the way you have managed to misunderstand it.'
'I'll go and stand in the corner at once. What you want me to see, and what you want me to say, is that Sir Harry was not just having a bit of the other, but, in fact, securing the future of the family by providing another heir. My God, the girl's name was actually Warren!'
'Yes. As you say. Now, let me reveal my further information which confirms the surmises to which I have led you. These papers turned up in the back of an old dressing-table that had been in the wood-shed, waiting for the chop, since the nineteen-thirties - I must say, I thoroughly applaud the habit of lining drawers with newspapers. It helps enormously with dating furniture. See the headline, "Madeira for the mob, says Queen", and you know immediately that it's Louis XVI.'
'What on earth does the woman mean by all this stuff? I can read her handwriting, but I can't make sense of the letter at all.'
'Victorian women's delicacy on reproductive matters does border on total obscurity, I must confess. Give it to Jessica.'
'She can't have any more kids. I also suspect it hurts when she does it. But that's instinct on my part.'
'And empathy. Congratulations. I hadn't thought of that. But you're probably right. Obstetrics had its limitations then.'
'It still bloody does. Even if they're not all men any more.'
'What about these further documents?' continued Charles. 'One set from behind a cupboard in the scullery, one set from the stud drawer in a gentleman's dressing-table which I rescued from the headmaster's office, where it was a stationery cabinet, and now use myself.'
'I begin to understand why so little of the house has been restored, even though you've been here nine months.'
'I take that as a friendly remark, Richard. I'm sure it was meant to be so. It's not my job just to rip everything out and get it all back to the 1550's, or back to the 1650's, or even back to the 1890's. What I have to do is document what was done to the house, the purposes it served, the transformations it underwent. I mustn't do anything irreparable or irreversible - '
'What about hacking off all that bloody plaster today?' said Jessica.
'I kept samples to analyse - I know what was in it, and more or less when it went up. If the Trust decides to replace it, well and good, it's a day's work - but what's underneath is far more interesting and unusual. It's not always the case that what's underneath is interesting and unusual. Sometimes the surface is worth preserving, and the stuff underneath is very ordinary - older, of course, but ordinary. That's why it's all taking so long. And the documents go with it.'
'But Charles - why have you been playing these documents so close to your chest? I had no idea until now that you'd found anything like this.'
'It's my Christmas surprise, Jessica. A sad tale's best for winter, you know - and Christmas is the time for ghost stories.'
'Is this a ghost story, then?'
'In the sense that Ibsen's Ghosts is a ghost story. It's about the dead, and how they haunt us. It's about the past, and how it isn't done with.'
'I'm glad it isn't a real ghost story. I still find this house creepy.'
'Did you say creaky?'
'I said creepy and creaky. I can't make sense of all the noises in it, and over the past few weeks I feel it's got worse. Smells that shouldn't be there. Noises of doors closing, when there's no one around. Draughts, when there shouldn't be a window open. Footsteps, that aren't mice and aren't imagination. All the things you think you hear when you're alone. I'm used to nice modern flats, where the wind doesn't make a sound.'
'I won't mock you, Jessica. I've smelt cigarettes - and I know we two don't smoke. I didn't want to mention it, for fear of scaring you, and I hoped you hadn't noticed anything.'
'But now it's Christmas Eve, and I'm fair game for the heeby-jeebies.'
'What do you make of what I've shown you?'
'I find it very confusing,' said Richard. 'One thing is clear: the Warren girl was married off to --- somebody Winston --- and given a job in the house. With her offspring, I assume. Is he the second pupil on the bills for private tutoring?'
'I suspect so. Who else? He was the second rank heir - wouldn't you want him educated to the same standard? But you could hardly send him to public school with his half-brother, could you? So the scandal was kept quietly within the household.'
'I'm more interested in the personal dynamics of the situation, Charles.'
'You would be, Jessica. How do you interpret them?'
'I think poor Sir Harry should have gone to be a missionarry, as the song says. He lost out all along the line. His wife might have understood about his need to have a second string heir - but, with her inability to lie back and think of England any more, she got very jealous and thought that he'd probably enjoyed his propagation more than was proper for an English gentleman of the old school. On the other hand, the Warren girl - look, I don't want to dehumanise her, hasn't she got a Christian name?'
'Elizabeth, then, - '
'I don't want her bourgeoisified. It's patronising to use anything but the names people use for themselves.'
'Bourgeoisified! Where do you get this jargon from, Charles?'
'Direct translation from the German. Or from the Marxo-Freudian French, I forget which. Get on with your view of the human side. And is there any more coffee?'
'I'll put it on after I've pontificated, unless Richard wants to do it now?'
He did. He moved quietly past Anne, who was snoring slightly, and dribbling almost imperceptibly on to her shoulder strap. He thought of her as a very large, overly chubby child, that had cried itself to sleep. He rustled coffee into the cafetière, filled it with hot water from the kettle on the Aga and brought it back to the table.
'Right - Lady Beacham-Warner kicked him out of her bed because she thought he was a randy old bastard, and Lizzie Warren wouldn't let him back into hers, because she felt she'd been used as a breeding-machine. I think the truth was that he probably fancied - and maybe even loved - both of them, but that he would never have made Lizzie pregnant - and might not even have actually gone to bed with her - if he hadn't needed to have another heir.'
'You said he lost all along the line. But he didn't. He still had the two heirs,' said Charles.
'Yes. But if you read between the lines of this letter, and look at the details on some of these tutoring bills, then you find out that he was actually kept away from them.'
'Very well observed, Richard. As you say, the two boys were often away on reading parties, study tours and so on. It must have cost a bomb.'
'What about poor old Lizzie Warren? Didn't she ever get to see her offspring?' asked Jessica
'When he was at home,' said Charles. 'When she served him his breakfast or lit the fire in his room.'
'God! That's bloody inhuman! He was her child! She bore him in blood, mess and pain!'
'You seem very well-informed and very passionate, Jessica.'
'Charles, you are such a bastard sometimes!'
'I can assure you, my parents were married, not only at the time of my birth, but even at the time of my conception, assuming that I was carried in the womb for the customary period. I have seen the certificate, and the wedding pictures.'
'Are there are any pictures of Sir Harry's wedding?'
'Don't anticipate, Richard. Jessica hadn't finished protesting about the way in which Lady Beacham-Warner took over another woman's child as her own, and denied the lower-classes the right to be mothers.'
'You haven't taken all the words out of my mouth, Charles. I was going to say that she probably did it on moral, rather than class grounds. I don't get the impression from her letters that she was particularly snobby - though she may have thought that the second string heir would be spoilt by having too close an association with the servants' quarters - no - I still incline to the moral argument. After all, the kid had half noble blood, and that would be enough for him to know his place in the world.'
'Fine. But do you think she gave him love?'
'God. I've no idea. If she didn't, then who could have?'
'You can survive without it, Jessica. I'm the living proof.'
'I'm glad you call it survival.'
'Perhaps it's time to look at some pictures. What do you say?'
'I say, let's pour the coffee, and stop hogging the Armagnac. Do you think Anne's all right, Richard? Does she do this kind of thing a lot?'
'Yes, I think she's all right - she's sleeping it off, which is always the best, and she's safe here with us - and no, she doesn't do it at all, ever, so maybe it's a good thing, in some way or other. I don't know.'
'Okay. This isn't the inquisition. We haven't stripped your letters out of the back of the built-in wardrobe and the MFI dressing-table. I'll give you a hand to get her to bed when she wakes up.'
'Thanks. I don't know what she'll feel about that.'
'I'll tell you. She'll be far happier to receive help from a woman - any woman - than a man. Women stick together.'
'Are you so sure of that, Jessica? After what you were saying about Lady B-W and Lizzie?'
'Give them their full names, Charles! Don't be so bloody dismissive!'
'Here are the photographs. And don't take all the coffee.'
The past is sepia and faded. The past is stationary, where you would expect motion. The past looks at you knowingly over broad, bushy moustaches, shyly from under the broad brims of hats with veils tucked up on them. The past has eyes that are bright and penetrating. The past has a sharpness of definition that you will seek in vain in a modern photograph. The past is always about to turn round and go back into its own world and get on with its business. In the past, the summer is warm and sunny, the winters are cold and snowy. The past is composed with an artist's eye. The past has the perfection of something that is gone for ever. It is only one step from the Greek marble statue of the discus-thrower to those photographs of summer 1914 in English villages, where the men are lined up from playing cricket against the village down the road, or from mowing the Great Field - lined up, as it happens, ready to go off and not come back again.
'Handsome pair, weren't they? Which one's which? It's not easy to tell them apart, is it? Facially, I mean.'
'No, it isn't, is it, Richard?'
'Do you think their mothers could?' asked Jessica, leaning close to Richard to share the photographs with him. Richard suddenly realised how much he liked the nearness, the scent of her, the intimacy of those stray hairs on the back of her neck. He nearly kissed them. In his mind, he did.
'I have no idea,' said Charles. 'I'm not an expert on the subject of mothers.'
'Do you have any other photographs?'
'The wedding. The guests. The parents. The happy bride and groom.'
'They do look happy, actually,' said Jessica.
'They were,' said Charles. 'Then. How long do you think it lasted?'
'Till the birth of the child,' said Jessica. 'Nine months or so isn't bad for the euphoria of a marriage. Helped by the absence of money worries, and the presence of servants.'
'Let me have a look, Jessica. He looks very familiar - doesn't he remind you of someone, Charles? He looks very like - like the caretaker at the school. Do you remember him? Well - you must have seen more of him than I did, because you stayed here during the holidays - a very strong resemblance - so Sir Henry did spread his seed even more widely than we realised, eh? A randy old bastard - I was right all along.'
'Maybe. There are other possibilities. We shall explore them. Here are some more photographs.'
Photographs: fixed moments. Something to look back on and interrogate. Partly: how did I look then? But perhaps more: how did I feel then? Will I ever feel the same way again? Highpoints in life: planting the flag on the summit. The momentary smile of achievement and satisfaction, fled before registered (except by the camera). That second before the consciousness of all triumph's inadequacy and evanescence has made itself known, before you've started thinking about the next goal. In a photograph, you can see the laurels and yourself legitimately resting on them. In life, the laurels have already begun to turn into brittle bay leaves to be tossed into the everyday stew to give it some savour. Photographs record the other people who were there at the time, the witnesses who haven't worn as well. People seldom look at themselves in photographs. It's always old so-and-so, that you didn't remember being there, or who married such-and-such, and has a string of anecdotes attached. Or else the photographs are of the youthful dead, smiling with the fine certainty of those who will never grow old and are still, unlike the rest of us, identical with their photographic image and with the record in the memory. The rest of us change, in reality and in memory, to the point where the photograph is actually of a total stranger, and saying it's a good likeness is a kind of obscene joke.
'Why do young men in uniform always look so handsome?'
'Is that a politically correct observation, Jessica?'
'Charles - there are times when your remarks are so cheap and insensitive that I know you're deliberately trying to alienate me, and then I almost feel like paying you back by letting you succeed.'
'Perhaps they're so handsome because they're going to die - are they Charles?'
'How quaint, Richard! You speak in the tense that's appropriate to the photograph, as if the photograph were the present, and we were somehow outside time - or, rather, in the same time as the photograph, but about to advance into the future, which is in fact our present. The camera as time machine.'
'Why don't you just answer his question? Or don't you know? I thought you knew everything.'
'I know what I'm told. I know what I can find out. Some things I haven't yet been told, or I haven't yet found out.'
'I've only just realised. They're not wearing the same uniform.'
'Aren't they, Richard? Let me look.'
Their hands brushed. Richard did not let go of the photographs, but simply shifted his grip, so that his fingers remained in contact with Jessica's.
'You're absolutely right. The one on the left hasn't got any pips on his shoulders. What does that mean, Charles?'
'You assume I'll know?'
'Of course you will. You've set all this up as a grand scheme of revelation to establish your superiority over us. There's nothing you're going to show to us which could in any way compromise your omniscience. If you don't understand it, you'll keep quiet about it rather than admit ignorance. I know. I've read your books.'
'You're absolutely right, of course. I must admit that I don't have any clear evidence as to which one is which, but the researcher I consulted at the Imperial War Museum told me that the one with the pips is the officer and the one without the pips is his batman - his personal servant.'
'Now what do you make of that, Richard?'
'Well, Jessica - it seems to me that there are two possible conclusions which fit together and are hard to separate. One is that we're dealing with class distinction - the other is that we're seeing a way to protect the family line.'
'Well, officers led charges into battle - no, it's true - many more of them died, proportionately, than ordinary soldiers. They were easily identified because of their puttees. The German snipers were told to aim for the people with the thin knees. So, an officer's life expectancy was quite short. But a batman stood a pretty fair chance, unless an unlucky shell hit the dugout. He'd have to do some standard duties, but not too many of them, and not the really hazardous ones, like the wiring party - and he'd probably be late over the top in any attack, because he didn't really have the training. They'd use him as a messenger and things - not completely safe, because nobody was, but better than the ordinary soldier because simply not so exposed on average.'
'Fine. Fine,' said Jessica. 'But don't you think it's a bit of a shock to be raised as somebody's equal for eighteen years, and then suddenly to be made their servant?'
'How do you know they were raised as equals? They had the same education, went to the same places and did the same things - but how do you know they were treated as equals? Have you ever read The Prince and the Pauper? By Mark Twain? The prince has a double, who's his whipping boy - quite literally - though whenever the whipping boy gets whipped because of the prince, he gives the prince a beating afterwards, to teach him a lesson. What if it was all like that?'
'Pure speculation, Charles - and more informative about your personal make-up than about the facts of the case.'
'I see you have been reading the Beano Book of Human Development, Jessica.'
'Have you got any further evidence or not? And where's the Armagnac?'
'The answers are yes, and behind the cafetière.'
'God, you're so infuriating! If you've got evidence, why don't you come out with it?'
'Because I don't think we're ready for it yet.'
'Can't we make up our own minds about that?'
'Whose story is this, Richard? Yours or mine?'
'Well, I thought it was the story of the Warren brothers.'
'You're being very imprecise. One of them is called Warren, one of them is called Fitzwarren. I think the difference is quite important. It certainly is in the Army Casualty Lists. Then again, I think this is also the story of Sir Harry, and Lady Fitzwarren, and Lizzie Warren. I think they're all involved. But in the long run, I think it's my story, because I'm the one who's found it all out so far, and I'm the one to whom it actually means most, and I'm really quite upset that you're trying to take it away from me.'
'Absolutely, Jessica. You and Richard are in league against me. I've a good mind not to tell you any more. Please pass the Armagnac.'
There was a strained silence, broken only by Anne's breathing, which hovered on the edge of being a snore, but never quite reached it. Her limbs twitched, her head rolled slightly, her lips moved, though she did not actually utter any words. She was dreaming.
It was a fine sunny day, and her fiançée was coming to see her. She was waiting for him in the garden, and wondering whether she would be able to hear the bell that would ring in the house when he pressed the button at the front door. She was fairly sure he would press the button at the front door, because he was a well brought-up young boy and he wouldn't want to be rude by not announcing his presence to her mother before he came into the garden to visit her. Of course, there was a gate that led straight into the garden from the sideway, but the sideway was only ever used by tradesmen and dustmen, and respectable people actually pretended that the sideway didn't exist at all, which was just as well, because the sideway was where the dustbin sat, and that smelled, particularly in the hot weather such as the summer they were having now which was particularly fine and warm, the weather remarkably clement and sunny considering it was the 24th of December, there had never been a summer that lasted so long, and the other thing that was wrong with the sideway and that made it not quite respectable was the fact that all the waste water from the household went down into it, into a large drain that was actually open so that you could see the scum from the washing-up and the bubbles from the bath-water and worst of all the pieces of human hair that came out when you washed it and went down the plug-hole and fetched up against the grating of the drain and made a big matted lump that stopped the water getting through properly, so that it just lay there and stank, and, which was worse, sometimes so much water came down the pipe with that horrid gurgling noise like wind in the bowel (oh those terrible words! why did she think them?) that the drain filled up completely and overflowed with all its scum and made a large wet STAIN that spread across the concrete of the driveway, even though it soaked up very quickly because it was such hot weather, so there was no running water, but there was the big STAIN, which was just like those STAINS that she had sometimes on her knickers, sometimes because of the time of the month, and she didn't think that was her fault, but sometimes because she'd been KISSING too passionately, not that she ever did any more than kissing, she was a good girl, she wouldn't do that, and even if she did do that, she'd tell her mother and her mother would sort it out for her, only of course her mother wouldn't be able to sort it out for her, even if she said she could, because her mother also said that if she ever did anything like that the mere thought of it would KILL her (her mother), so of course her mother couldn't sort it out for her if she was dead, her mother, that is, and once she'd been kissing a boy (was it her FIANCEE? yes, it must be, she hoped it was, she couldn't quite remember, it had to be) and he'd got very carried away and started shouting and suddenly he had a STAIN like that on his trousers and he'd been very embarrassed and she'd been very embarrassed but there was nothing either of them could do because there was nothing either of them had done beyond what either of them had done before, if not with each other then with other people, not of course that either of them were promiscuous and anyway you didn't get diseases or PREGNANT just from holding hands and KISSING, even if it was very passionate and even if you did think very wicked things while you were doing it - God might say He knew what you were thinking, but He couldn't really and you could always deny it afterwards.
So, there she was waiting in the garden for her fiançée, RICHARD, and she heard this ring at the bell, she heard it through the net curtain at the toilet window, the glass was frosted anyway, but her mother always insisted on having a net curtain at it because you could never be too sure, and she heard this ring and she rushed to the back door to be ready for Richard when her mother showed him through, because she was bound to do that, because she liked Richard and she trusted Richard and it was just as well she didn't know what Richard had tried to do to her in the greenhouse that time or what he'd said he'd like to do to her in bed (they weren't in bed, of course - that was where he'd like to do to her what he'd said he'd like to do to her - he'd actually said he'd like to do it to her in front of the herbaceous border, but that certainly wasn't where he wanted to do it to her, because her mother would be able to see it from the lounge, net curtains or no net curtains, to say nothing of the neighbours whose eyes would be out on stalks.)
Anyway, she rushed to the back door, and then rushed away again because she didn't want to seem too forward, neither for mother's sake, nor for Richard's, otherwise he might think he could try to do that thing to her again in the greenhouse - no, he might think he could try again, because of course he hadn't actually done that thing, though she'd lain in bed and imagined him doing it time and time again - imagined time and time again him doing it time and time again - so she rushed away from the back door, and at that moment it opened and her mother ushered Richard into the garden and disappeared herself, leaving the young LOVEBIRDS alone, and at that same moment the gate from the SIDEWAY opened, and there was Richard again, there were two Richards and she couldn't tell which one was which because they were both the same and they were both trying to do that thing to her which they'd only talked about doing to her before, and there was a big STAIN on her dress, and she knew one of them had to be the NICE Richard and one of them had to be the NASTY Richard, but she couldn't tell them apart, she couldn't couldn't couldn't couldn't couldn't
And then she opened her eyes, and she was on the Greek island where they spent their honeymoon, and there were the two Richards again, and they looked just the same as each other and they were saying the same things and doing the same things, it was like an echo, or as if she had double vision or as if she hadn't adjusted a pair of binoculars properly, but they were being very sweet, so she took one on each arm and they all went off to dinner at the little taverna at the top of the island where the wine tasted less of pine disinfectant and there was a little less grease in all the food, and they had dolmades and moussaka and Greek salad and baklavas, and suddenly she turned round as she was sipping her Turkish coffee and both the Richards had gone, and she began to cry, because she was thinking how pleasant it had been with them there, both of them, the NICE one and the NASTY one, even if she couldn't tell the difference, and there'd been these marvellous views and they'd watched the sun rise and they'd watched the sun set, and now they weren't there to share it all with her.
And then she suddenly thought: the sun rises and sets whether I watch it or not, and the sun rises and sets when I do watch it, whether Richard or Richard or Richard or Richard watches it with me or not, so what the hell! My life's there and if I don't live it myself nobody's going to do it for me, so why don't I just get on with it and not worry about which Richard is the NASTY Richard and which Richard is the NICE Richard and just tell the pair of them to piss off, and go back to that Greek island and see if the waiter meant what he said when he hugged me and kissed me goodbye and I didn't understand it at the time but only managed to look it up in the phrase book on the way home, and when I told whichever Richard was sitting beside me at the time what it meant he only said he probably said that to all the girls, but even if he does he certainly said it to me, too, so at least I'm one of the girls and not just a bloody WIFE and MOTHER - and as she said the word MOTHER, there were Nigel and Jeremy in front of her, holding out socks to be darned and buttons to be sewn and underpants with STAINS to be washed and grazed knees to be dabbed with Dettol, and she just screamed DO IT YOURSELF and Nigel and Jeremy turned into Richard and Richard, and Richard and Richard turned to her and zipped up their trousers in unison and shouted at her DO IT YOURSELF and she turned back to them and shouted I WILL and suddenly she was in the little church where she got married, a beautiful little place in the country it was and there was all her family and all of Richard's family and Jessica and Charles and it got to the crucial part of the ceremony and Richard was trying to put his willy in her hand instead of slipping on the ring and the clergyman didn't seem to be paying any attention, unless he was trying to join in, she couldn't be sure, and the best man was Richard as well and he was trying to do the same thing, and in the middle of all this struggle she decided she'd simply had enough and she screamed at the top of her voice I WON'T I WON'T I WON'T and all the congregation stood up and she thought they were going to walk out with embarrassment but instead they applauded her and she took three bows and was showered with flowers and walked up the aisle and out into the churchyard and daffodils started springing up out of the ground at her feet, every step she took, and then she was at the wedding breakfast and proposing a toast herself and the toast was DOWN WITH MARRIAGE and she raised her glass and took a big swallow and her mouth was full of wine and all of a sudden she woke up and started being sick all over the floor, but fortunately not on her little black number. And this bit was real.
'God! Is she all right?' shouted Richard, leaping to his feet and rushing across. Jessica had anticipated him and was wiping Anne's mouth with kitchen roll and making comforting noises. Simultaneously she was shedding kitchen roll on to the floor and kicking it into position to cover up the mess.
'She's fine, she's fine, she's fine. There's nothing to worry about and nothing to scream about, so sit down for the moment until the pair of us get this sorted out.'
'I really must go to bed,' said Anne between deep breaths, 'but I don't want to break up the discussion. I was listening in between times, even if it looked as though I was sleeping, and it seemed to me to have reached a crucial stage, and I wouldn't like to spoil it for you, by dragging Richard away. Richard, please don't leave Jessica and Charles just on my account. I'm feeling much better now. There's no need to worry about me, really there isn't.'
And she was right, of course. There wasn't. There was very little left in her stomach. Jessica carefully fed her some water and gave her a big jug to take with her against dehydration. The hangover would come in its own good time - or not. But alcohol, and the exhaustion which had been behind her reaction to the alcohol, would ensure a fairly sound sleep, now that the body had expressed its displeasure at being poisoned in what it felt to be an immoderate way.
'I'm so sorry, it's really most unlike me, it just goes to show that I've forgotten how to enjoy myself properly - one good drink and I throw up. I was very tired, though - we've had so much extra work on the programming lately, getting new software up and running for the Christmas rush and then the post-Christmas sales - I've not relaxed - and I was up at the crack of dawn today to get the boys' clothes ready for this trip - they were so looking forward to it - and so was I - I'm so sorry - thank you so much for looking after me, Jessica. Sorry about this, Charles.'
The way to bed was paved with apologies. It was clear that any real gentleman would not, could not, have abandoned his wife in such circumstances - a basic unity of the flesh extends to mopping up vomit, blood and other bodily fluids without squeamishness or embarrassment or any sense of indebtedness: it's what you'd do for yourself in the same circumstances. But it was equally clear that there was a separation going on between Richard and his wife. Nothing formal, yet - perhaps nothing consciously suspected on either side - but several things were no longer taken for granted between them and had to be established by explicit agreement, as though they had been the subject of resentment in the past when an inch had been given and a mile had been taken. It was what the older kind of industrial dispute described as 'withdrawal of good will' or, in extreme cases, 'work to rule'.
Richard felt badly about it. Part of him wanted to be generous, friendly, obliging, go to bed and look after his sick wife. Another part of him wanted to stay up latelatelate and talk to Charles, and especially Jessica, and see what came of it. Yet another part felt resentful that Anne was curtailing his personal freedom (even though she had expressly asked him to stay - but he could see through that as one of those tricks designed to show how reasonable she was and how selfish he was - it was an offer that she had to make and he was supposed to refuse, a 'let me pay for this' offer.) A fourth part felt guilty - about every decision he could possibly take: whatever he did, if he stayed or went, he would be being false to some aspect of himself. Subconsciously at any rate he was emancipating himself from his role as husband - so he decided he would be independent and stay, with the possible bonus of Jessica, whatever that might mean, which was not what it might have meant twenty odd years before.
When Anne had been slumped asleep, he had tacitly agreed to Jessica's offer of help to get Anne to bed - indeed, to her offer of shouldering the whole burden. Now, he wanted to salve his own conscience a little, so he helped his wife into the hall, up the stairs, along the dimly-lit corridors and into their room. He helped her undress, he helped her lie down and get comfortable, he put the water within her reach, having poured out a glassful, he adjusted the light so it didn't shine in her eyes, he was a model of sickroom decorum, charm and sensitivity. Finally, he kissed her gently on the forehead and slipped back downstairs with a spring in his step and a warmish glow somewhere under the breastbone. It was so much easier to do one's duty by a sick wife than a well one!
'Do you want him?' said Charles.
'Do you?' asked Jessica.
'Well, you can certainly have him, if you do want him.'
'Are you giving me permission, or stating a fact?'
'I'm sure we're all free agents, and don't need to give each other permission for our own actions. I was simply speculating, as one does. The question that arose in my mind was: Is he going to bed with you or with me?'
'With me. He's looking for a future, not a past.'
'Well. Not a distant past.'
'Charles, you are a bitch.'
'I'm sure that's why you like me.'
'Was there ever anything between you and him?'
'The usual fumblings at school. I doubt if he even remembers them.'
'But you do.'
'I don't have that much else to remember. He had a family and a life outside to go back to. At university there was a lot of emotional intimacy. We talked late into the night. Shared the same coffee cup.'
'Did you tell him any - details about yourself?'
'Darling, where's your historical sense? One didn't talk about those things then. It wasn't even legal. You had to be a Russian spy. Or go to the gents' lavvies on Hampstead Heath. It was all comic opera.'
'So any interest you have in him is based on pure fantasy.'
'Isn't that true of all sexuality? I'm not denying the reality of the flesh in your hands - but the idea you have of the other person is always only your idea - and they yield to their idea of you. If you have ideas of one another that fit together - well and good.'
'You didn't always seem that cold to me, Charles.'
'I don't think I am. But we're all entitled to our moods. And one of yours is clearly getting Richard into bed with you. Where's your female solidarity? I'd have thought his wife needed him.'
'At the moment? Or in general? People need one another a lot less than they think. That's half the trouble in the world. But they want each other far more than they know - and certainly a lot more than they say.'
'And that's the other half of the trouble in the world. How profound we're getting. Where's the mysterious object of our desire got to?'
As if on cue, Richard came into the kitchen. How sophisticatedly Colour Supplement it all seemed to him - the broad, scrubbed deal farmhouse table, the full-bellied glasses catching the candle-light, the glinting brass utensils, the copper moulds and pans, the bulk of the Aga behind it all. A contrast to his own fitted kitchen with its bright melamine units and the empty work-tops, everything tidily put away because Anne couldn't stand clutter.
He had come down the stairs slowly and reflectively, examining his feelings. Helping Anne out of her dress, he had suddenly found himself not moved by her body. It was a good body, an attractive one - and yet he found himself quite indifferent to it. A stranger's body. Her flesh was cold. Once, he would have felt the urge to warm it - to lie beside her till they were at the same temperature. Now, he simply thought: how far the surface must be from the blood beneath - how the blood vessels must have closed down, so as not lose their warmth to the air. What a thick covering the skin was. How much it shut out and how much it shut in.
As he descended the stairs, that still had the style of grand entries and splendid balls, he remembered Sir Harry: sharing the house with two women who hated him and despised him, while he, presumably, still loved both of them, not least because they had given him children. Shouldn't he love Anne because she had given him Nigel and Jeremy? Given them to him? They belonged to themselves - increasingly. And it wasn't as though they continued his line and were going to succeed to the title and carry on the tradition. All individuals. All on their own. Every man woman and child for himself in this world. Sink or swim. If anyone tries to hang on to you, they're only going to pull you down.
'Any more revelations?' he said, sitting down and pouring himself an Armagnac that was a little more generous than he thought he had intended.
'About what?' said Jessica, not quite sure if he had been standing outside the door and listening.
'The heirs presumptive. Charles took us up to the start of the war. Two young men, going off to to do their duty by their country.'
'All I have are two official letters,' said Charles, producing them in their protective plastic envelopes. 'They're not hard to interpret. One says that Lieutenant Fitzwarren is missing in action, the other that Private Warren is absent without leave.'
'They have the same date,' said Jessica. 'Is that significant?'
'I have no idea. What do you think?'
'Well,' said Richard, 'if we go along with your fantasy - '
'Which fantasy of mine do you want to go along with?'
'The one about the very close resemblance, bordering on confusion - if we go along with that, the Prince and the Pauper scenario, then do we actually know for sure who was missing and who ran away? By the way, did they catch him? The batman?'
'I thought I made that clear at the very beginning. The family died out. Neither of them came back from the war. The news killed Sir Harry.'
'God,' said Jessica, 'how melodramatic, Charles!'
'Sorry, but it's absolutely true - here's the obituary from The Times, which is not normally given to melodrama. '...paralytic stroke which afflicted him at the very moment he received the news that his only son was missing in action...lingered for a few days...' What more do you want?'
'His only son. How discreet.'
'The Thunderer always was discreet.'
'Did they ever find the body?'
'I don't know, Richard. I have no intimate records or papers after these two letters. No doubt it's all somewhere in the house - in another few years it'll turn up. If you have the time, perhaps you could look in the local archives. Something of what happened may have filtered into the local paper.'
'Thank you. I have better things to do with my holidays.'
'Really? I'm disappointed. I thought I'd really captured your imagination with this little tale - especially since it's linked to your schooldays.'
'I'll be frank with you, Charles - I remember very little about my schooldays here, except for sitting in the library reading my way through The Great War in Pictures - do you remember that? Volume after volume, all in red binding, with amazingly sharply focussed photographs of all these soldiers slogging through mud, field-artillery up to their axles in it, distressed horses that looked just like the ones on the Parthenon frieze, flared nostrils, rolling eyes - it gave me nightmares, but I found it absolutely compelling. The slightest excuse, and I got out of games and sat in the library and stared at those pictures. There was page after page of the generals, too - grim buggers they looked, the hard-faced ones less inhuman than the ones who were smiling. And the caretaker was always hovering in the background - I seem to recall he offered to tell me about his experiences in the Great War, but I found him creepy, so I always made excuses to get away, and after a while he stopped offering. But I did see him looking at the books himself, when he thought no one was around, and I think I saw him crying. But when you're a kid you don't actually believe that grown-ups cry because they're always telling you not to, so even if you see it happening, you just ignore it and run away - you don't want your world-view upset.'
'What a pity you thought he was creepy.'
'I didn't just think he was - he was creepy. All the boys thought so. You included.'
'Well, I couldn't disagree with everyone else, could I?'
'You mean you got on with him? In what way?'
'When there was no one else around, he'd take me on walks. In the woods. Show me things.'
'Did he show you things in the house? The secrets?'
'No. He never talked about the house. Never.'
'Did he tell you what he did in the Great War, sonny?'
'Strangely enough, no. He told me it was dreadful, and that he still had nightmares about it, but that was all.'
'How old was he?'
'Richard - you do seem to be interrogating Charles quite ferociously!'
'It'll stimulate his powers of recall. It isn't proper third degree unless you have an anglepoise in their eyes. How old was he? Did he say?'
'No. Wait a minute. He said he was born in the year of the Queen's Jubilee. 1897.'
'You and I were born in 1939 - so we were at school here from 1947 to 1952 - so he was only fifty or so - he seemed older, didn't he?'
'In some ways. You know he's still around?'
'No. Where? How? In his late eighties? Nearly ninety? Surely he's been moved into an old-folks' home by now?'
'There's a ruined cottage down the lane, with a caravan behind it - used to belong to the games-master who ditched his wife and kids and ran off with the matron.'
'Is that what happened? I never really understood why the headmaster suddenly started taking us for cricket and we kept on getting sent on cross country runs instead of having P.T. that summer - and his wife took over the sanatorium. Prosser complained about where she stuck the thermometer and nobody believed him - thought he was having fantasies. Turned out she was French, and that's what they did in France. Thank God they got an English one in before I had measles.'
'I know boys will be boys, but I'm beginning to feel left out. Charles, you were saying the old caretaker lived in a tumbledown cottage - or in the caravan behind it.'
'Yes, I wasn't quite sure which. I suppose he hadn't anywhere else to go after the school closed and the Trust took over the house. I don't think he was too pleased about that, really.'
'I imagine not - put him out of a job.'
'It wasn't just that. I think he didn't like what was going to happen to the house. I was driving past his place one day in the summer - going slowly on the track, as you have to anyway, and perhaps even slower than that, so as not to stir up the dust - and he ran out and shouted at me, 'Bloody museum! Rip it all apart and turn it into a bloody museum! No secrets any more! Bloody museum!'
'Did you ever talk to him? Tell him what you were really going to do?'
'Jessica - what I'm really going to do is rip it all apart and turn it into a bloody museum. He knows that and he doesn't like it.'
'But couldn't you have presented it in some sympathetic way? I mean, couldn't you have told him that you were a schoolboy here? Didn't he recognise you at all?'
'No - how could he? Why should he? I was thirteen when I left here.'
'But why didn't you try sharing memories with him? It might have helped.'
'It never occurred to me. I felt sorry for him, of course, but there was nothing I could do about it. The Trust was very strict about who I could and couldn't employ on this venture, and also about the guidelines. I had no room for manoeuvre. They only permitted you to live here because I presented you as a Public Relations Officer.'
'Thanks. Big deal. Now I know where I stand. Let's have our relations in public.'
'I thought we did.'
'So - you basically just discarded this link with the past of the house?'
'Yes, Richard, I did - a link with my own past, too. Schluß. Finito. Koniec.'
'Was that wise?'
'Richard - I don't mind you interrogating me about the past of this house, because that's my job, and, as you said, it may stir my memories, but I will not be interrogated about any other actions of mine. Perhaps we could get back to the real topic of discussion: what happened to the two half-brothers in the trenches?'
'Frankly, Charles, I don't see that we have any way of knowing what happened. The most we can do is speculate.'
'Go on, then: speculate.'
'I think it's my turn,' said Jessica. 'You two have hogged the conversation for quite long enough. Which has given me the opportunity to think. Charles promised us a story. Well, he hasn't actually given us one, has he? He's given us a kit of events out of which we can construct a story of our own making, by filling in the gaps. It seems to me that there are various different ways to fill in this particular gap. One is to take it all at face value. The heir is missing in action, presumed killed. The half-brother clears off. Now we come to interpretation: was he just scared by the war? Who could blame him! Was he shell-shocked? A disease that normally only officers were allowed to suffer from, other ranks were accused of cowardice in the face of the enemy. Was he actually upset because of his half-brother's disappearance or death? Hardly a reason he could give to anyone who might be sympathetic, because the scandal had been hushed up and, as a loyal member of the family, he wouldn't want to expose it again.'
'Are you sure he was a loyal member of the family?' asked Charles.
'Everything I say is a hypothesis. Let's say he wasn't a loyal member of the family. Let's say he actually shot his brother - '
'Half-brother - '
'Half-brother, Charles, you bloody pedant, in the half-back with a German pistol he'd found in a captured trench - and then something went wrong - the Germans rushed the lines - his plan, to assume his dead half-brother's identity, couldn't be carried out because all the documents had gone under a collapsed parapet and umpteen corpses. Of course, he might have intended to try inheriting in his own name - I have no idea of the further ramifications of the family. But Charles will know, won't you, Charles?'
'Yes. I do. When Lady Fitzwarren died in 1934, the estate was in a bad way financially - I'm not entirely sure why, I'm still waiting for some papers to turn up on that - but it was immediately the subject of litigation between hordes of Warners, Warrens, Fitzwarrens and even one de Warenne who dropped out early on, partly because of the difficulty and expense of pursuing the matter from Australia. There was obviously a limit to how far you could go in re-uniting the branches of the family, and I think some of the nineteenth-century matches were designed to bring in money rather than restrict the gene-pool.'
'Thank you, Charles. An admirable summary. So the half-brother would have had to hope for exceptional circumstances. Either a convincing deception, or else formal adoption by Sir Harry, which might, I take it, have happened, if Sir Harry had survived.'
'It might. I don't know how Lady Fitzwarren would have felt about it.'
'Those were unenlightened days. She wouldn't have had to put her name to anything.'
'Jessica, you spoke about murder. It needn't have been. The half-brother - look, Charles, do these people have names? I'm getting very bored with half-brothers and batmen and so on.'
'Why not 'the legitimate' and 'the illegitimate'? Fine word, legitimate. Well, my legitimate, you will thrive - '
'Charles, do stop quoting King Lear just to show off. It's not relevant. What were their names?'
'It won't help you at all, Jessica. They were both called Harry.'
'No! The family would never have allowed it.'
'It wasn't the family that had the say in the christening. If you remember, young Lizzie Warren was married off shortly after the birth to some aged shepherd who had his eye on her - all right, I don't know he had his eye on her, but it's a good guess, because I don't see why he'd have done it otherwise. There's some correspondence on the subject - '
'You produce these letters out of your hat!' said Jessica. 'Are you sure you aren't just making all this up as you go along?'
'You and Richard are the ones who keep wanting to explore other avenues and ask these different questions. It happens that I have the information and that I'd been keeping it out of the way so as not to confuse the issue.'
'Oh, very witty that! Excellent pun! Congratulations!'
'Thank you, Richard. Quite unintentional, I'm afraid. Anyway, the shepherd, Frank Winston, obviously chose the name Harold to embarrass Sir Harry himself - especially as he doesn't seem to have been granted the conjugal rights he was expecting.'
'Oh no. Lizzie Warren moved into the house here, and the indentures specifically stated that she should not receive male visitors. She also resumed her maiden name immediately. Frank had a little cottage as part of the marriage settlement, but it doesn't seem that she lived there. She obviously preferred to be near her son. Lady Fitzwarren seems to have understood that.'
'So poor old Frank went short because of mother-love. A tragic tale. And a reasonably common one. Perhaps a little unjust, because he didn't even have the fun of actually engendering his successful rival. But what were the kids called?'
'They signed their names on the back of the picture, Jessica. Harry and Hal. But no indication - as far as I can see - of which was which.'
'Charles - I have been unjust to you - you did absolutely right to try and keep us out of this particular mare's nest. Let them be known as Warren and Fitzwarren in future.'
'Carry on, then, Richard, with your surmises.'
'It needn't have been murder. Warren finds Fitzwarren dead. Tries to take over his identity. This, for some reason, goes awry. Too little time. I don't know. He goes awol and disappears into some other life. Maybe haunted by guilt and unachieved ambitions. I don't know.'
'It suddenly strikes me that we're looking at this in a very classist way. We're always branding Warren as the villain. Suppose Fitzwarren wanted to get out of the war, and swapped identities?'
'It could be worse than that, Jessica. Suppose Fitzwarren - for some reason, maybe cowardice, maybe because he had an assignation with a little demoiselle - swapped identities with his batman on a very temporary basis? Then there is an emergency - the batman is taken for the officer - goes missing in the attack? This leaves Fitzwarren trapped as his own batman. Would you be surprised if he went absent without leave? If only to try and think out what he could do? Of course, he could always try to come back and say he'd been hit on the head and all the rest of it - except he hasn't got any of the right documents because they're all with the body of Warren, wherever that may be. And isn't somebody somewhere going to say, "That's not Fitzwarren, that's Warren! Fitzwarren is missing in battle, probably dead and buried in the mud! This snivelling little batman just ran away. Breeding will out! This is deception! Shoot him for desertion!"'
All of a sudden, everything went very quiet. Outside, rain was falling, very gently. The drainpipe emptied into the soakaway with the busy murmur of a little stream. But the iron guttering had rusted through at a bend where the leaves always clogged it, and there was an insistent drip that splashed on the glistening flagstones. Even that wasn't regular, though, because every now and then the wind took it to one side and wiped it against the bright red, porous brickwork, where it soaked in and disappeared into a dark, slowly growing stain.
Stillness and darkness seemed to be creeping in round the candles as they burned lower. The slight singing of the flames was audible. All three of them sat thinking about the situation that they had conjured up. Alone in a foreign country. In the middle of a war. Rain falling. Mud everywhere - as if God had broken his promise to Noah. And you had lost your own name. Thrown away, foolishly and by accident, the purpose of your whole existence: your right to inherit. This was what you'd been bred for. This was what your ancestors had suffered and died for. This was what you had to hand on, if your own life was to have any significance. Gone. Somewhere in the mud. Ingloriously lost. Irretrievable.
How absolutely like those nightmares, where you wake up and have no idea where you are or who you are, and all you want to do is go and find your mummy, who will cuddle you and take you into her warm bed and hug you to sleep. A long road to your mummy, though. Through the mud of Northern France. Stow away on one of the many boats from Boulogne, Dunkerque, Dieppe. Pretend to be someone else - someone who's lost his papers - but make sure you aren't around when they come to check up on you. Sneak ashore in Folkestone or Newhaven, and take to the road. Discard your army uniform at the first opportunity. Maybe keep the great-coat - you'll need the warmth - enough of those around for it not to be suspicious in itself. Tear off the shiny buttons that Hal had kept so well-polished for you. Rub even more mud on it. English mud. Mud without the blood in it.
Start walking. Walking, not marching. Keep the swagger out of your step. Put in the limp of weariness and age. Add twenty years at least to your appearance. More mud, on the face this time. Rub chalk mud into the hair, and into the beard that's disguising your features more and more. Grizzled, that's how you want to look. Put on a tubercular cough, to explain why they didn't want to take you in the army. Don't worry. It'll be genuine before long. Move from farm to farm. Do odd jobs. Do them well. Get your hands rough. Don't be ashamed to offer to do the intellectual jobs, too. It's Hal Warren they'll be looking for, not you. Though he could write and reckon just as well as you could. He was bolder, too, more devil-may-care - climbed trees faster and better - chased the women faster and better, and caught them. Only natural. He didn't have as much to lose as you did. In fact, he had nothing to lose. He only had something to win by impersonating you. Why didn't you see that, before it was too late? Was this his revenge? No - there was no vengefulness in Hal - he was a great lad - he was a good friend - he was the only real friend you had - he was the only real friend you're ever going to have.
Move slowly westward. Go with the seasons. Lambing. Shearing. Reaping. Ploughing. Sowing. The war's over now. They'll not be looking for you. But that still doesn't mean you can reveal yourself, because - who are you? You can't tell the truth, and you don't want to lie. If you tell the truth, they'll lock you up. Either because they think you're a criminal, or because they think you're mad. Whatever happens, you'll never get your inheritance. Don't even think about it.
But you do think about it. Most of all, you want to see it. To be there. To see the house that your family has owned for nearly four centuries. You may never be able to own it yourself, but you want to be part of it. Move slowly westward, like the sun. The shepherd's trade on the South Downs. A good life. Then the white road again. Pruning in the apple orchards by Wickham. Hump sacks at Botley Mill. Work in Southampton Docks. Porterage for the big liners. Herd pigs in the New Forest - let them out in the autumn for the acorns.
One bright winter's day, up on Castle Hill. Look out over the Avon valley. No leaves on the trees. You can see for miles. Is that it? That bright red dot under the bending plume of smoke? Which room have they lit the fire in? Does it matter? It's not lit for you. Give up the thought of seeking work now. Just walk. Not far. Then you'll be home. You've been away six years. Will they know you? Fear and hope chase each other. That sense of nightmare returns as you come to the beginning of the long, curving drive. It's all familiar, and not familiar. The trees have grown, the bushes have been clipped in different shapes. The big white gate has begun to rot. Push it open gently. Close it again softly. No fireworks. No festivities. You're just coming home. You don't want anyone to make a fuss. There's the house. Just the same. It's late. Everyone's in bed. Nobody knows you're there. All the doors are shut. All the windows are shut. That sense of nightmare floods over you again. You're shut out. You're all alone. It's dark. It's cold. You don't know who you are. You want your mother. You want to cry out for your mother. Which mother?
There's only one you'll be able to reach. The other one sleeps too high. Round the back to the kitchen. The dog kennel's empty, thank goodness. That was always her window - beside the kitchen, so that she would be up and stirring first. Hal used to talk to her through it, because he knew it wasn't approved if he spoke to her in front of the other servants, him in his fine gentleman's clothes. He used to mock them by saying 'gennulmen's cloze' in the local accent, when he could speak as well as you. You both used to mock the local tongue. You've had to learn to speak it yourself, day in day out, these past few years. For real. Without mockery.
This is the window. Do you want to do it? Or do you want to go back into total namelessness? That might hurt less. You're a clever lad, still young. You could stay on a farm, instead of always moving on. Marry the farmer's daughter. Raise children. Make money. Buy a little house. Send the sons into trade of some sort, the girls could go into school-teaching, that's better than service. Then they'd all have that bit of learning. Get the cousins to marry each other. Look around for a real bit of property. Country houses are always coming on the market now - families died out because of the War - Sir Harry's gone, you heard - not that you ever saw much of him - your mother kept him away from you - a sad man, a lonely man - tap on the window - go on - tap - tap - tap -
There was a tapping at the kitchen door and it opened a tiny way. In the crack, Nigel's face appeared.
'Jeremy's fallen through the floorboards,' he said. 'Can you come and help me get him out, please?'