Getting the first computer upstairs had not been quite as unproblematic as they had imagined. There were curves and corners and narrow spaces and odd bits where it was hard for both of them to reach. But they succeeded, and decided at that stage not to push their luck too far, but to enjoy their freedom and see how they got on. 'Let's give the adults time to settle down,' they said, displaying that sound grasp of human psychology which is instinctively present in the young and gradually removed by education and the example of their parents, who, poor loves, have totally internalised educational doctrines (even if they're not teachers) and believe them to be the truth and not simply a set of devices for subjugating children to the wills of their elders.
They had just concluded that a second computer was going to be necessary, because the noise-level of their disputes over the single one was likely to give them away, when they heard the sound of their mother being helped up to bed.
Instantly, they behaved like all heroes in the best children's books. They flung a spare blanket over the computer that was in use, covered it in addition with discarded underwear and other clothing, so it looked just like a normal part of a child's bedroom, and hopped into bed. Just in case they were inspected, they lay down, closed their eyes, tossed the regulation three times, muttered in their feigned sleep and began to breathe deeply. After ten minutes, they sprang up, bright-eyed, and went about their business, delighted to have deceived the woolly senses of the adults. Well, this was almost true. Nigel had sprung up, but Jeremy was not particularly used to red wine, and his snores had been the genuine article, and had in fact contributed to saving Nigel from a fate worse than insomnia. Anyway, safely escaped from the land of Nod, they set about carrying out the second part of their plan and in next to no time had both computers up and working.
At this point, it became evident that whilst the spirit was willing, the flesh was weak. Jeremy, who had drunk considerably more than Nigel, had to go for a pee. Nigel's suggestion that he should do it out of the window was not well received. Instead, there was to be a concerted expedition, braving ghosties, ghoulies and long-leggitty beasties. In the course of this, and fortunately on the return journey, a floor-board gave way. Naturally, Nigel's first reaction was to go back to their bedroom and conceal all evidence of computers under a cloak of invisibility made up of Mickey Mouse and Dennis the Menace T-shirts, which done, he went for help.
'You destructive little monkeys!' said Charles. 'You weren't playing about, were you?'
'No!' said Nigel, with righteous indignation born of the rare conviction that he was, for once, speaking the truth. 'We'd just gone to the loo, and were on our way back when it happened.'
'Go to the loo in pairs, do you?' said Charles, sternly.
'In houses like this, yes. You never know what you might meet. Headless ghosts!' said Nigel, standing up for himself because he could sense that Charles was just playing a game.
'More likely to be legless in this place,' muttered Jessica, as the rescue party moved off. Jeremy in fact looked legless when they found him, sitting up to his waist in the floor, with a considerable amount of wood-dust all about him.
'It's like that Beckett play, with the woman up to her neck in a heap of sand!' said Charles, trying not to laugh. 'National Youth Theatre production of Happy Days! How did you get into this?'
'Don't ask him stupid questions, Charles,' said Jessica, 'otherwise, the minute he gets out he'll show you how he got in by stamping on another worm-eaten floorboard and doing it again.'
Richard, meanwhile, was doing his comforting-the-injured-victim-while- the-fire-brigade-cut-him-free bit. He'd found an aged sweet in his pocket and was picking the fluff off before he gave it to his son. However, his son refused it - politely - partly because he didn't actually like the flavour, and partly because, by the time it had been de-fluffed, he had been released from captivity. He hadn't really been caught at all - he'd just not had anything to put his feet on except the plaster of the ceiling below, and he didn't think it would make a good impression if he put his feet through it while attempting to get out. Charles congratulated him on his good sense, after he had pulled him free, and complained to his father that his offspring were really rather too well-fed.
'I'll speak to my wife about it,' said Richard with mock-sternness. 'In fact, come to think of it, as we're up here and making a noise anyway, I'll look in and make sure she's all right.'
He went off to do so, while Jessica shooshed both the boys back to their room (she mercifully stayed outside) and Charles examined the damage.
Anne was still asleep, breathing heavily, her face a little pinched and drawn, as if she were thinking heavy thoughts. He stood and looked at her and remembered other times that he had watched her sleeping, and the emotions he had felt. Desire - very often. More often than he had done anything about it. After all, they had both been so very busy, and there was only time for so much in the day - Anne said so herself, very often. Perhaps he should have taken less notice of her. Protectiveness - yes, he had often felt that, when she slept and he was awake. But when he tried to put it into practice, she called it an attempt at domination, or thoughtlessness about her wishes, and he could see what she meant, but only afterwards, only ever afterwards. Love? Pride? Had he felt those? Funny, he knew he had felt those when he stood over the beds of his children, especially when they had been small, and still his, before they became their own people, when they were still dependent on him, when they were still lost in the big world of noise and light. He had been proud of having produced them - well, having helped - and proud of his deep and instinctive emotions about them. He had been proud of the tears that came to his eyes when he looked at them. If that wasn't love, then what was it? He carried on looking at Anne, waiting for the tears to come to his eyes. They didn't. Then he went out and closed the door very quietly, and only then did he start to cry, just a few drops. He knew that those tears were for him, and for his marriage. He rubbed them away with his fingers, and sniffed a little. Then he went downstairs.
Jessica was alone in the kitchen. Richard was suddenly reminded of those parties of his youth, where the evening dissolved into a kaleidoscope of experiences, and it was vitally important to be alone with X, so that you could make a rendezvous with her, which you didn't dare to do in anyone else's hearing, in case she turned you down, or in case they invited themselves along as well, and if you didn't find yourself alone with X on that particular night, then it was the end of the world. Finding yourself alone with her was as much a matter of luck as good judgement. It depended not least on the capacity of everyone else's bladders, and on judging the queue for the loo, and noticing who'd gone out into the garden and who hadn't and who with. And even if the puzzle of ferrying the missionary and the cannibals across the river in the small canoe actually worked out, you still had to find the right words and get them out. But here was the opportunity, handed to him on a plate.
At that moment, Charles came in, took the last opportunity off the plate and ate it in one gulp.
'Look at these!' he said. 'Look at these!'
He flung a whole set of papers on the table. Clouds of dust arose - the ordinary dust of ages, and the fresher sawdust-like product of beetles, woodworm and dry rot.
'Charles,' said Jessica, 'before we even begin to investigate these insanitary objects, there is a vital question to be asked and answered.'
'Of course we're having some more coffee - but I fancy it with whisky. The Armagnac's a little too civilised for what we're likely to have before us. What's the consensus? Lagavulin, Tomintoul, Scapa Flow? The hell with it, why should we have to choose? Let's get them all out, have an impromptu whisky tasting to keep our brains and our palates alert! Jessica! The crystal tumblers!'
'To hear is to obey, o Lord and Master, from whose nether orifice the daystar sends its effulgent rays!' said Jessica, doing as he asked and giving him the two fingers as she did so.
'Charles,' said Richard, cradling the chocolatey Tomintoul, 'why don't you just tell us what's in these papers? I mean, we all acknowledge that you're a master showman, can date a fresco at forty paces and all that - you don't have to humiliate us with our ignorance. We're very curious, that's true - but I, for one, am feeling too knackered to actually keep up with what's going on unless it's spelled out to me very simply.'
'Have some espresso coffee, Richard,' urged Jessica, putting down the aluminium container beside him. 'Pure black intelligence at this time of morning.'
'The reason I can't tell you what's in these papers, Richard, is that I don't bloody know. I've just found them. Really. The fact that I've been thinking about these things for as long as I have does mean that I can probably give an interpretation faster than you - but why don't you two just leaf through the bundles and tell me what it is you find?'
'My God,' said Jessica, 'Frank Winston's been murdered!'
'What date's that clipping?'
'I don't know, Charles. Oh yes I do. There's something on the back about the Cup Final being held at Wembley for the first time. That makes it 1923. One of the books I edited was all about memorable Cup Finals. Do you want to know about the one where the goalie played with a broken neck because substitutes weren't allowed? Or the first one where substitutes were allowed? Or the first one where a player was sent off?'
'I'd rather know about Frank Winston's murder.'
'Of Street End Cottage - isn't that the name of that ruined one where you said the caretaker was camping out? - leaves a wife, Mrs Lizzie Winston, also Street End Cottage... what the hell was she doing back with him again? You told us she got shot of him because he insisted on his conjugals - well, that was your interpretation, anyway - and here she is, large as life, no longer living in the Big House, though she may well still have been working here, and there he is, small as death, with his head smashed in by person or persons unknown. Come on, Sherlock, what have you got to say for yourself?'
'Nothing at all - yet. Richard - pick a document - any document - '
'Lady Violet Fitzwarren-Beacham-Warner has much pleasure in inviting blank to a séance to be held at Fitzwarren Court on February 19th, 1924, at which the renowned American spiritualist, Dr Arthur J. Spalter, will attempt to contact the spirits of the dear departed. She'd gone doo-lally. She and her trolley had parted company. An inspection of her crockery cupboard would have revealed a grave shortage of mugs.'
'A vivid, but not a profound, comment. Sorry to be so pompous, but it's my normal reaction to extreme flippancy. Any more?'
'My God, she's doing it again, the week after! And the week after that! There's a full-scale pack of these things! You could play bridge with them!'
'I'll tell you one thing, Richard - séances don't come cheap. It's not the beer and crisps that cost - it's the medium.'
'You edited a book on it?'
'No - one of my aunties was so heavily into it, trying to get in touch with her dead husband (though Lord knows why, they'd never communicated particularly well when he was alive, so perhaps that was the reason) that her offspring had to have her certified while there was still enough money in the coffers to pay for the funeral.'
'In this case, though, there was no heir around to protect his patrimony - at least, no heir who could make himself known - and the money was certainly going fast. Here's something which even I have no trouble in interpreting despite my weakened state: A cheque drawn for a rather large sum in favour of Dr Spalter and marked "Insufficient funds. Refer to drawer." Things must have come to a pretty pass when old-established banks refuse to honour the cheques of respectable county families.'
'Don't you be so sure about that, Richard, things aren't always what they seem. A returned cheque can be a very effective way of welshing on a debt which is basically unenforceable. The recipient of the cheque is very careful not to make a public fuss about the matter, because that would deprive the family of whatever credit it might still enjoy and make it absolutely certain that the creditor won't get any of the funds owing to him. What he does is agree to take the money in instalments, without interest, and meanwhile the family books the villa in Nice for an extra month.'
'Not much question of the villa in Nice as far as Lady Violet was concerned. The financial situation seems to have got worse. Here's a letter from her to her stock-brokers asking them to liquidate her stocks and shares on the instructions of Dr Spalter and make the proceeds available to him for investment on the American stock-market.'
'And the date?'
'February 1929. Ouch.'
'Ouch indeed, Jessica. One in the crystal balls there for Dr Spalter, I feel.'
'I thought we weren't allowed to be flippant, Charles?'
'You aren't. I am. Satisfied? Jessica, what have you got there?'
'It's a private letter. Shaky handwriting. I don't want to read it. I'm scared.'
'Jessica, I think you'd really be the most suitable person. Richard or I might bring some cynicism to the expression of emotions which would be inappropriate and could even be offensive.'
'I'm sorry, Charles. It gives me goose-pimples. It's like looking into an open wound. I'm not scared of the sight of blood. It's that damply shining stuff under the skin that I can't stand - the stuff you have to wipe over repeatedly to get rid of the last traces of grit or glass, before you can close it up. I don't want to go that deep.'
Charles took the letter from her, held it nearer to the glass-cased candle, and began to read:
'My dear Marjory, The doctor has confirmed my diagnosis. There is no hope at all. However, he has assured me that if the pain increases, as it inevitably must, he will increase my dosage of morphine correspondingly, and that if the pain should become unendurable, I shall not have to endure it. In recent years I have suffered from great despair, and even doubted the existence of God, or the afterlife. This was my reaction to the cruel deception practised on me for so long. However, as I approach the divide, I have one great consolation in the knowledge that I shall soon be with my dear dead Harry again. In the past few weeks, he has come to comfort me almost every evening and has stayed with me for a while, holding my hand, often until I fell asleep. You would think that the dead remain just as they were when they died, but Harry has told me that this is not so. He himself looks a fine, healthy, well-set-up young man in his early thirties, just the way he might have been now if he had been spared. That is one of the mysteries of the spirit kingdom, to which Dr Spalter most definitely did not have the key. I am not a vengeful woman, but I cannot help seeing it as a sign of retribution on someone who swindled me out of what little remained of the Fitzwarren family fortune, that he himself has lost virtually everything. Perhaps I was gullible, but a brief vision of my dear dead Harry at that time led me to try any way I could to get in touch with him. I am grateful to my cancer, for it means that I shall be reunited with him sooner than might have been the case. I must close now, as it is nearly the time when he comes to me and I do not wish to keep him waiting.'
There was silence in the kitchen, except for the sound of Jessica's tears falling on the scrubbed deal table. Richard blew his nose noisily to conceal his emotion. Charles rubbed the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger, the way one does to give pinched flesh relief, as if he'd been wearing rather tight glasses to read the letter. But he hadn't.
'Well,' said Jessica, 'at least she saw through the deception before she died. It's a consolation for me that she wasn't permanently taken in by that charlatan.'
'It's nice to come across a humane and enlightened doctor, too,' said Richard. 'I can understand very well why that letter had to be suppressed to protect him.'
'You don't think it was suppressed just because of the hint at euthanasia, do you?' asked Charles.
'Why else? There's nothing incriminating in it. She was a poor sick old woman. The secondary cancers in her brain made her see things. But there was nothing mad or dangerous about her. She simply dreamed her dreams with her eyes open.'
'Richard, I don't know if it's more espresso coffee you need, or more Tomintoul, but you certainly need something to sharpen your wits.'
'Charles, don't be so insulting!'
'Sorry, Jessica, but as far as I'm concerned the reasoning is head-beatingly obvious.'
'Then explain it. To both of us. I'll help Richard comprehend by giving him some Lagavulin. It's lighter, smokier, clears the brain. Tomintoul can be a bit soporific.'
'As I recall, we came to the collective surmise that one of the Fitzwarren half-brothers survived the Great War, but that he was unable to resume his rightful place in society - wherever that was, above or below stairs. We further surmised that he might well have been drawn back to this house. I don't think it requires too great a conceptual leap to realise that when Lady Violet, in the exquisitely painful final stages of cancer, thought she was being consoled by the figure of her dear dead Harry she was in fact being consoled by her dear dead Harry, or, equally possibly, by Lizzie Warren's dear dead Harry, I don't think it really mattered or matters, either to her or to us. Or, probably, even to him.'
'God,' said Richard, taking sips of the Lagavulin that were a little too large to be respectful to its quality, 'just think of it! An only child with two mothers! And no father.'
'As I've said before, that's not a situation on which I am in any way competent to comment, so perhaps we could pass over it.'
'But Charles,' asked Jessica, helping herself to coffee from Richard's pot, 'if dear dead Harry, or, for the sake of argument, dear dead Hal, did, in the long run, make himself known to Lady Violet, why didn't he do so earlier? Why are we assuming that he made his first contact with Lizzie Warren?'
'Jessica, as I find it increasingly painful to repeat, I am not qualified to discuss the psychology of the mother-child relationship in any intimate way. It's possible that if it was dear dead Hal, then he would have preferred to go to his own mother, the voice of nature and so on. But even if it was dear dead Harry, he would have found it infinitely easier to get in touch with Lizzie Warren. She lived just beside the kitchen, he only needed to come tap-tap-tapping at her window. Think about the practical difficulties involved in getting a private audience with the lady of the household in her apartments on the first floor.'
'But Charles, all this history of the house began from a discussion of priest-holes and secret passages - you admitted they existed - surely there must have been other ways in?'
'I see where your boys get it from, Richard. The romanticism of caves and narrow tunnels - don't let Freud hear you. I'm sure you're right. But I can't help feeling that the emergence of a dishevelled tramp from the panelling in the best drawing room would have been more likely to lead to the summoning of the police than an emotional recognition scene. Furthermore, there were very good practical reasons why dear dead Hal or Harry would want to establish contact with Lizzie Warren: cupboard love. She was a source of food. He was sleeping rough in the barns round here and needed to eat. All Lady Violet could have managed without arousing suspicion would have been a couple of extra digestives with her cocoa on the supper tray.'
'Charles, you have such a gift for graphic description, such insight into the lives of ordinary people. But you haven't explained why, fed, watered and washed, Hal/Harry couldn't or wouldn't go and see his other mother? Would she have turned him in?'
'I don't know, Jessica. I doubt it. There may have been motives of jealousy, of course. That is to say - and at this point the reasoning gets quite complex - if Hal/Harry presented himself as Hal to Lizzie Warren, in order to gain her maternal love, sympathy and support, how could he go and present himself as Harry to Lady Violet without kicking Lizzie in the teeth?'
'Hell hath no fury like a mother scorned - that's the correct reading,' said Richard.
'Of course, when the poor love was dying it didn't matter - Lizzie Warren was obviously good-hearted enough to condone the deception, and probably thought it was a lovely thing her boy was doing.'
'You know, Jessica, I'm genuinely grateful to you for some of these emotional insights which would never have occurred to me.'
'Thank you, Charles. I always hoped I'd be able to bring something new into your life. The funny thing is, Richard, we both mean it.'
'There is also another complex of reasons why he would have chosen to make his approach to Lizzie first. Whichever one he was - and I don't think it matters - he had lost - forfeited - the right to be the heir to the family fortune and, more importantly I think, to this house. If he had had anything to do with Lady Violet, even on a fitful and surreptitious basis, he would constantly have been reminded of everything of which he was now deprived - to some degree by his own fault, at the very least by his own misfortune. Regret does not make a sleep-filled pillow, nor a tasty slice of bread, saith the psalmist. The sauce of self-reproach soon turns the stomach. Constant involvement with, or even the close proximity of, those who could or should have been his equals, but were now his superiors - and I'm assuming that some form of rehabilitation was, for various reasons, out of the question - would sour completely an existence that was already tainted with bitterness. He remained with the servants. He stuck to his own class.'
'I'm sorry, Charles, but that sounds terribly snobby.'
'I know it does, Jessica. It also sounds as though I'm assuming the survivor was Hal Warren. But I'm not. And anyway, Hal Warren had been raised in the same way as Harry. It seems to me that if you can't follow in the tradition of owning a house like this - assuming you take that tradition and your part in it seriously - then the next best thing is to serve it. If you can't command, then you obey. The commitment is absolute.'
'All this time, Charles, we've been letting Frank Winston lie around with his head smashed in by person or persons unknown - presumably not football fans on their way to the first Wembley Cup Final. Isn't it time we did something about investigating the crime?'
'Go on, then, Richard. You know my methods. It should be - '
'Elementary,' said Jessica, reaching for the Scapa Flow.
'I'd advise against it,' said Charles, 'it has strength but lacks subtlety. It was, after all, where they scuttled the German High Seas Fleet.'
'From what you say, I imagine it was what scuttled them.'
'Well,' said Richard, 'we know that in 1897 Lizzie Warren didn't want anything to do Frank Winston, but that in 1923 she was living with him in a little cottage.'
'A squalid place,' said Charles.
'What made her move in with him?'
'The charm of the older man?' suggested Jessica.
'The considerably older man,' said Charles. 'When he tried to get his nasty grubby hands on her the first time he was in his early thirties.'
'So, if it wasn't passion, what was it? What was it made Lizzie Warren move in with Frank Winston in 1923?'
'Do you run your classes in school like this, with these endless rhetorical questions? Charles - give him the Scapa Flow - he doesn't need subtlety, he needs strength.'
'I think it was blackmail,' said Richard. 'Blackmail. That's what I think.'
'God,' said Jessica, 'from the sublime to the ridiculous! First of all he beats about the bush, and then he comes out with it plop! like a flasher in an underpass.'
'Where do you get your similes, Jessica?'
'Shall I have them make some in your size, Richard?'
'I must confess, I thought they came off the peg.'
'Touchée, a hit, I do confess it, a very palpable hit. Why don't we let Charles do the elegant narration, while we kibitz?'
Charles leant forward, and looked closely at the candle in front of him.
'Shepherds,' he said, 'are up early and about late. Shepherds see things that other folk don't see. Shepherds see things that other folk aren't meant to see. Shepherds see young men come tap-tap-tapping at the windows of their lady-loves. At the windows of the shepherds' lady-loves, which didn't ought to be. Only the shepherd should come tap-tap-tapping at her window, and he hasn't done that for many a year, because he knows the answer he'll get. But that doesn't stop him coming to look at the window, perhaps. Maybe to make sure that no one else comes tap-tap-tapping. Maybe because he hopes to catch a sight of his lady-love in her slip, that he never saw enough of when he was wed to her. Why, he still is wed to her. There's no one but he has a right to come tap-tap-tapping.'
'So he waits,' said Jessica, 'to see who it is. He stands there, all quiet-like, but jealous inside, and he sees her let him in, but he still hasn't seen the face, and he doesn't know whether to interrupt them or not. Will it be the worse pain for her, to be caught out? Or for him, to see the wife he's barely known in someone else's arms? He thinks he'll shame her, and he bursts in, or perhaps he just pokes his bristly face through the window, into her painfully tiny, painfully neat room.'
'And what he sees is the young master,' said Richard, 'or one of the young masters, that was supposed to be dead or missing or runned away, it doesn't matter which. But they shouldn't be here, for all kinds of reasons. And what he sees is the rival you can never beat. The rival that's younger, stronger and better loved. From the start. The rival that's related by blood, while you're only related by marriage. The rival that really was and is one flesh. The son.'
'Thank you, Richard,' said Charles, 'I learn all the time. So Frank blackmails her into coming to live with him, in that squalid place that stinks of sheep-grease and sheep-dirts and stinks of human filth and lack of love. I think he degrades her in all kinds of ways, some of which aren't even obvious to him. I think he hurts her more than she's ever been hurt. She tries to keep it from poor dear Hal, or Harry, who, whoever he may really have been, or think he is, has by now become her son through all her sacrifices for him. But he can see the horror and the shame in her face when he comes tap-tap-tapping now at the window of Street End.'
'Would Frank let that go on?' asked Richard.
'Of course he would,' said Jessica. 'God, you don't understand men! He'd enjoy the power he had. If Harry ran away, then maybe they'd catch him or maybe they wouldn't - the Army, the police, whoever was looking for him, or whoever he thought was looking for him. Once they caught him - or once he'd run away - Frank would lose his hold over Lizzie. What could he threaten to tell? She might lose her post - but unlikely. There was a bond between her and the mistress more important than any scandal.'
'There might have been jealousy, because Lizzie had kept Harry to herself,' said Charles.
'Too subtle for Frank to think of that,' said Jessica. 'They'd have to catch him first and prove it was him. Lizzie would deny it all.'
'So Harry was hanging round the district, sleeping rough in barns and hay-lofts, and calling in for food,' said Richard. 'And when he realised the price he was paying for that food - the price his mother was paying for that food - '
'Out with the stick and thwack thwack thwack. That's the way to do it.'
'Charles, that's horrid.'
'I'm sure it was horrid, Jessica. I don't know whether they were in it together. I don't know if Lizzie led Frank on in some way and lured him out to where he met his death - I assume she must have got herself some good alibi, because I'm certain the village and the big house knew that she didn't get on with her husband, however good a face she put on it public.'
'A stick's messy,' said Richard. 'Blood. Bone-splinters. Hair.'
'But why didn't they catch him?' said Jessica. 'That kind of murder - it's the sort you'd always blame on gypsies and vagabonds, if all the members of the community with good reason had alibis. The police would have combed the countryside within hours. Harry wouldn't have stood a chance.'
'Maybe they were cannier than that, Jessica, Harry and Lizzie. Look at this. It's a document for exemption from army service in the Second World War - the kind of thing you show people so they don't think you're a deserter or that you've dodged the draft.'
'It's in the name of Harry Winston - resident at Street End - a relative of Frank's?'
'In a manner of speaking. But only by marriage.'
'My God! You mean that Lizzie got Frank to vouch for Harry, and bring him into the community as a relative of his - living under the same roof - no more tap-tap-tapping - and then they murdered him.'
'You make it sound very cold-blooded. I doubt if it was planned that way. Perhaps when he was living in the house - or, more likely, in the shed at the end of the garden - it became all the more obvious to him what was going on.'
'But Charles,' said Richard, 'wasn't it a fearful risk for Harry to get involved with the police in a murder investigation?'
'I take it that Frank had provided him with some kind of documentation, so that shouldn't have been a problem. What he needed was an alibi. Maybe he took the train somewhere on business for Frank - there used to be a line along the valley, you know - Augustus John used it regularly, to go up to London for his exhibitions, or to see one of his mistresses - Harry stayed away for a couple of days, made sure he was seen - but cycled back secretly - waited in the woods - did the deed - cycled back along footpaths - waited to be notified of his cousin's death, then returned.'
'I don't want this to sound too pat, Charles,' said Jessica, '- but there's an envelope here with rail tickets in it and a boarding-house bill. Also some other financial paper-work that I don't quite understand. Do you want to investigate it?'
'What? And spoil a good supposition by testing it against truth? No, thank you very much.'
'Charles,' said Richard, 'how do you know all these things?'
'I read a lot of Thomas Hardy when I was young. It gave me a deep insight into the grimness of the English peasant mentality. Come to think of it, the aristocracy aren't too good either.'
'That leaves the bourgeoisie like us, then.'
'I vaguely hope that wood-lice will inherit the earth. They're quiet, civilised, tidy, stupid and don't do any conspicuous damage. What do you say, Richard?'
'I was just thinking about Harry, cycling back to Salisbury or wherever, in the pitch dark - '
'There was probably a moon - they could have picked their time - but maybe you're right - better in the dark - '
'Throwing away the stick in the woods, because it would have been a fresh cut one, not anything to associate with anyone at all - taking off the clothes he'd worn in case they had blood on them, burying them there in the woods, deep woods, old woods - maybe even in the Great Yews, they'd have been on his road if he stuck to the high chalk - washing himself in one of the ponds, or maybe one of the troughs for the sheep in a field corner - putting on the town clothes that he'd hidden on the way out - and back down to his boarding-house in the town - up the drainpipe and back into bed - '
'Would he really have worried about all those clues on his clothes?'
'Oh, yes, Jessica - Inspector French books were very popular in the early 1920's. I'm sure Lizzie would have read them, from Boots' threepenny library, or Mudie's. Well, she may have read them after her mistress, but I'm sure that they were the major excitement in both of their lives - beside certain other matters.'
'Charles - how do you manage to be such a cold fish?'
'Practice, Jessica. Effort. Now - is the story over?'
'Do you think he was haunted by his crime?'
'I doubt it. He'd probably seen - and done - worse things in France, and at least this time he knew why he was killing the man. I have the impression that Harry just happened to be at the head of the queue. Any more questions?'
'What became of them all in the end?'
'I actually happen to know that.'
'Is there anything you don't happen to know?'
'Jessica, I detect a hint of sarcasm in your voice, and prescribe Lagavulin for it.'
'But how do you happen to know what happened to them all?' asked Richard. 'Another document?'
'Yes. And one that your parents must once have possessed, but probably discarded well before they began getting rid of your toys.'
'Did I tell you about that?'
'Yes. Only twenty-eight years ago. With embarrassment, because it was evident how much they still meant to you, and you were as ashamed of emotion then as you are now.'
'You can talk!'
'Yes. But I admit it. It doesn't help very much, but it does a little good.'
'So where's this document? What is it? Show us it!'
'Patience, Jessica! We've only just finished our Old Boys' Reunion. Here it is.'
Charles produced from the pocket of his jacket, which had long since been hanging behind him on his chair, a kind of brochure of modest proportions, printed attractively on what seemed like cartridge paper.
'It's the school prospectus,' he said, 'for 1947, the year we came. Look at the names of the staff.'
Taking it between them, Richard and Jessica did. On the back page, in very small type, they read:
Cook: E. Warren; Groundsman/Caretaker: H. Winston.
'When did you realise?' asked Richard.
'Well,' said Charles, 'it's a bit of a cheat actually, because Lizzie Warren never in fact cooked for us. She died in that very cold winter of 1947, before we came in the autumn. My parents got the prospectus early. As for Harry, or Hal - I told you I used to talk to him a lot - he said things that I didn't understand - and now I do. Most of them. The nearest I have to proof, I suppose, is that Army Exemption Certificate. That has the name on. But there's a lot of it that's only surmise - a lot of it that maybe even he isn't sure of any more. The past changes, you know, it doesn't stay the same. The scene you look back at isn't the same one you've just cycled through, and it certainly isn't the one you looked forward to before you free-wheeled down into the valley.'
'If he's still around,' said Jessica, 'don't you think we should go and tell him we - understand? I think that would console him.'
'Jessica,' said Charles, 'you constantly surprise me. Shall we call it our Christmas present to him? The knowledge that there are other people who - understand? That - in some sense - the tradition hasn't died?'
'Let's drink to it,' said Richard. 'The past.'
'The past,' they all said together, and clinked their tumblers.
'But who,' said Richard again, 'do you feel sorriest for?'
'Well,' said Jessica, 'for me it has to be Hal or Harry, who thought he knew who he was and then found he wasn't any more, and didn't know how to be anyone else except the shadow of what he should have been. That's really sad.'
'You mean - when your past goes wrong, you have to cut yourself completely free from it?' said Richard.
'Richard, Richard,' said Charles, in his world-weariest tone, 'I wish they'd issue some fresh metaphors at your school. The past is the wreckage that you cling to after the shipwreck. You don't actually know where it's going to take you, but you have a nasty suspicion it's going out to sea. You won't actually drown, because you can lash yourself to it, and it won't sink, but you'll very likely die of thirst or starvation, unless you happen to be picked up by a passing ship or run on to a little island. On the other hand, visible to you, and not all that far away, is the coast of the future. How well can you swim? How strong are the currents? Are there any sharks? Will the natives be friendly?'
'Do your metaphors shrink in the wash, Charles?' asked Jessica. 'They could do with going in a little.'
'The person I feel sorriest for,' said Richard, 'is Sir Harry, who lost both the women he loved, was never allowed to get close to his sons, and then, when they'd grown to be men, and he might have asserted himself and got to know them and earn their love, had them taken away by war and death.'
'Don't you think,' said Jessica, 'that he must have been a bit of a wimp to put up with being bossed about by those women? Couldn't he just have said, "I'm going down the pub with my two lads, and if you don't like it, you can jolly well lump it!" ? And as for the women, if Lady Violet was right out of the running physically, which is very sad for her, no doubt, but not actually Sir Harry's fault, couldn't he just have said to her, "I'm very sorry, m'dear, but if I don't have it, then I go funny" and gone off tap-tap-tapping on Lizzie's window till she opened it.'
'I'm not sure,' said Richard, 'that you have any inkling of the unfathomable depths of women's resentment.'
'Don't you believe it!' said Jessica. 'It's a bottomless pit - but there are ways of filling it up, if men know how and are prepared to try. Guilt isn't one of them.'
'I,' said Charles, 'feel sorriest for Anne, who has not been here to hear this story and explore all its ramifications. I feel sorry for her, because she will not know what she has missed, and will not imagine that she has really missed anything, except for a bit of white wine, some cheese, whisky and coffee. But we all know that during the past few hours we have become not only older, but wiser - that we have entered into other people's lives and escaped again - that we have experienced the past, and are living to tell the tale. Because living is telling the tale - telling the tale of ourselves, which is susceptible of an infinity of interpretations, depending upon the point at which, and the point of view from which you begin interpreting. Living is also telling the tales of other people, where theirs crosses ours. I think poor Anne did not want hers to cross ours - I think she thinks we are pretentious and sophisticated, and we think she is limited and unsophisticated. I sincerely hope that none of these judgements are accurate in the larger scheme of things, and merely reflect a mutual antipathy such as can arise out of transient moods and emotional circumstances. And with these words, I declare our gathering closed and wish all of us a restful night, what there is left of it.'
He rose, bowed, blew out the candle in front of him and left the room.
Charles's bedroom, which was the other way along the corridor from the room he had assigned to Anne and Richard, was ascetic, but far from uncomfortable. The bare dark wood floor (he had carefully chosen one of the few rooms free from active worm and rot) was dominated by a circular Greek goatskin rug, pure white, except for what looked like an eye in the centre, a pattern that had clearly grown in the hair of the original goat. The rug was six feet in diameter. Charles called it his 'magic circle', and lay naked on it when he wanted to concentrate and 'be in tune with himself'.
The plain white walls, which had not yet had their plaster stripped, were interrupted by four pictures: a two foot by four foot canvas of one single colour, a dark blackish-blue, which in fact shaded almost imperceptibly from top to bottom; a reproduction of Breughel's Tower of Babel, busy with scurrying figures and activity, curling up neatly and pointedly into the clouds; a reproduction of Nicolas Poussin's Dance to the Music of Time, which, like the majority of his pictures, was a study in the juxtaposition of large areas of blue, orange and yellow, disguised as the richly draped garments of historical, mythological or Biblical protagonists; finally, a work of his own, a composition, on a pale blue background, of cut-out pieces of white, green and dark blue tissue paper, in the style of Matisse, which wavered between being abstract and a representation of the sea and cliffs, with just a hint of some other subject that might have been a naked human body, but a very schematic one.
His bed lay diagonally in the room, so that he could look at all the pictures on the walls. A triangular table neatly filled the space behind the head of the bed, between it and the corner. On this table were: a carafe of water and a glass, a functional black alarm clock, a lamp on a stalk that folded back into its base to make what looked like a large metal mollusc, and a small green-patinaed bronze owl, with the first three letters of the name Athene in Greek capitals on the base. Charles knelt on the bed naked, having taken off his clothes in the little lobby to his room, which served as a wardrobe and dressing-space. He picked up the bronze owl and kissed it, saying aloud, 'But let me most of all praise understanding.' Then he slid under the duvet and went to sleep.
He found himself in a museum, but one with which he was not familiar, among Greek statuary, and since, for once, no attendant was visible, and there were no signs of closed-circuit cameras, tripwires or the paraphernalia of public collections, he gave in to a long-standing temptation and got in among the chaste white statues and began feeling them, beginning with their buttocks and then progressing to their thighs, knees, ankles, feet, torsoes, nipples and so on. He felt the muscles beneath the skin, he felt the curves of the ribs in the rib-cage and more than once had the sensation that the statues were actually alive and the rib-cages were moving up and down. He sensed breath on his cheek, and began therefore to take an interest in the faces of those statues that had heads. He stroked them, and discovered that when he moved his hand against the normal nap of the skin he could feel bristles, which he found to be an agreeable sensation. He felt the cheek-bones and the curve of the edge of the eye-sockets and the flap at the front of the ear itself. As he finished stroking the upper lip of one statue, he became aware that the other statues which had lacked heads now had them. In his excitement, he pressed a kiss on the lips of the statue he was presently embracing, only to feel in response a tongue pressing against his own lips and seeking urgently and feverishly to enter his mouth.
Uncertain whether or not to respond, he felt himself gripped firmly from behind by a pair of powerful arms, and thought, 'Aha, the authority figures have intervened at last to save me from my worst instincts,' but as he turned round to face up to his responsibilities, he found he was being clasped by the Venus de Milo, who had acquired a pair of beautifully shaped white marble arms that matched her breasts in firmness and suppleness.
'But those can't be genuine,' he heard himself saying, 'adequate testing will, I'm sure, demonstrate that they are later, and probably inferior, additions. My duty as an art historian compels me to - ' and at this point he felt himself being released and toppling backwards, only to be retrieved from falling by a brawny and hairy male arm, that pulled him back up on to what he now perceived to be a fairly flimsy scaffolding a long way up from a very hard-looking marble pavement. Reluctant to look down any longer, he looked up and saw an extremely familiar sight less than three feet above his head: it was the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and there was God, passing the spark of life to Adam with a touch of finger to finger, rather like a baton change in a relay race, or a one-handed pass from scrum-half to fly-half. Taking a swig from the can of Guinness in his right hand, he passed it on to the burly bearded figure seated on the scaffolding beside him, with a clutch of fine to medium paint-brushes lodged in the curly hair above his left ear, and said, 'Look here, Mick, why don't you come out properly, and have God and Adam holding hands with each other?' 'Tell that to the Pope!' replied Michelangelo in a broad Irish accent, as he turned into his own angry statue of Moses, and with one large gesture of his stone-hewing arm swept Charles from the scaffolding.
As he closed his eyes in despair and tumbled earthwards, the air rushing past, he felt a gentler fluttering around him and smelt the sweet scent of cabbage roses. On opening his eyes, he saw that seraphim and cherubim and, disdaining any distinction on the grounds of religion, hosts of putti and amoretti had freed themselves from the frescoes and plaster-work and were not only breaking his fall, but lowering him gently into his very own bed, where he woke up, drank two glasses of water, and fell asleep again dreamlessly.
Left alone in the darkened kitchen, Richard and Jessica looked at one another. The two remaining candles were nearing the end of their life.
'Well,' said Jessica, 'are we going to bed together?' She leant forward and blew out the candle in front of her. 'No sense in wasting light.'
'What about Anne?'
'That's her problem. And yours. No. Sorry. That's cruel. No. It's not cruel. It just sounds it. I wouldn't have asked you if I didn't know that that was what you wanted. Since you want it, that says something about your relationship with Anne. It may be something that you are unwilling to admit to yourself. It may be something that you are unwilling to admit to Anne. But it won't just go away, so you'd better face up to it. One way of facing up to it is to give me an answer to the question I just asked you.'
'I'm not sure I want to take that decision now.'
'If you're not sure, then you've taken it already, somewhere inside. Mostly, we don't take decisions consciously. What we do consciously is understand the decisions we've already taken, so that we can stop fighting against them. Another thing I should remind you of is that not all decisions are long-term ones. Some are just for the moment.'
'But some decisions that we take for the moment pre-empt - quite incidentally - other decisions, things that we didn't yet want to decide.'
'You've been in the staff-room too long, Richard, you talk like the headmaster's bulletin. The decision between us is about what we - you and me and nobody else - do now - no other time. This is not about a long-term relationship. This is not about a short-term relationship. This is about our feelings towards each other at this particular moment and how we intend to express them.'
'But - '
'"What about Anne?" Look, that's your question and you ought to be the one to answer it. But since I feel about you at the moment as I do, I will give you some pointers to the answer that you have inside you and that you are unwilling to let out. I will tell you about the effect of our going to bed together.'
'Tell me,' said Richard, and he reached across and took her hand. Gently, she took it away from him.
'No,' she said, 'we must do these things separately and properly. What we are saying to each other now is not part of any foreplay, or courtship ritual. If you think it is, then you will misunderstand it and not take it seriously. You shouldn't look at emotions emotionally. Let me start again. What will going to bed with me mean?'
'A great deal of pleasure,' said Richard, staring at the one candle still left alight.
'Not necessarily. Wait and find out. Anticipation is often three-quarters of the fun. If not nine-tenths. There is a German proverb that says, Do not praise the day before the evening - and there is a rider to it, which says: Nor the woman before the following morning. Let's start again. Stop trying to find the 'right answer'. I'm not Anne you know. I'm not expecting you to get it wrong. You don't have to say what you think I want to hear. You have to say what you want to hear. What will going to bed with me mean?'
'It will be something I want to do.'
'Hallelujah. Say it again.'
'It will be something I want to do. Do you know, it wasn't easy for me to say that.'
'I know it wasn't easy. You're not used to saying what you want, let alone to doing what you want. Next stage. What will going to bed with me do to your marriage?'
'Why? Take your time. You answered that last one a little quickly. There's no need to rush. You've got all the rest of your life.'
Richard looked at the candle in front of him. Its flame was dancing just above the blackened tip of the wick. He could see the wax melting steadily and running down into the pool around the wick itself. He knew that it then turned into vapour and rose up and ignited just above the charred end of that piece of string, and there it made that beautifully curved shape of light and heat, that had no existence itself, but was just the place where the wax that had become a gas turned mysteriously into heat, light, water vapour and soot. Solid, opaque whiteness became the eternal pairing of light and dark.
'Because there's not much left for it to do anything to. Habitual actions, with no content.'
'Do you want to try and put a content back into them?'
'I think we've tried that a few times. It works for a while. Then the habits take over. They're stronger than we are. The past. Traditions. Ways of behaving.'
'You were saying not so long ago that you thought Harry should have just got the hell out and never come back.'
'I think he should. I think I should. I feel so trapped in my past. I feel so trapped by my past.'
'So. What are you going to do?'
'I'm going to let go of the wreckage and start floundering around with you.'
'That's quite a compliment. I'm not sure it's accurate. I'm not at all sure that I've let go of my wreckage in order to strike out for the shore. And even if I have - it's probably because my wreckage has sunk. I'd also better remind you about D.H. Lawrence's Women in Love.'
'What? You want me and Charles to wrestle naked by candlelight in front of the Aga?'
'I was thinking about the couple that get drowned in the lake because they cling to each other too tightly, and don't swim.'
'Lawrence says it was the woman that drowned the man by hanging on to him.'
'That's Lawrence for you, bugger him. He tends to blame the women, whether they're wives, mothers or lovers, for screwing the men up. Men can screw themselves up perfectly well, thank you, without any help from us.'
'What about Charles?'
'I was wondering when you were going to ask that.'
'It seemed like a gentlemanly question.'
'It is. Charles and I don't sleep together. That is, we don't sleep together unless we want to. I sometimes think it'd be a nice change to have to sleep with somebody every night - you'd explore different moods. But then I forget that I've tried that way too, and it didn't work any better either.'
'Perhaps it all depends who you sleep with.'
'They all say that. I told you, this is the truth-time. Save the other stuff for when we're actually in bed. In the dream-time. What about Anne? If she finds out?'
'I won't tell her.'
'No. I think you probably need a little more practice at finding what it is you want, and doing it, without guilt, before the full-scale confrontation.'
'But if something goes wrong, and she does find out, I think it will only confirm what she already feels but refuses to admit.'
'Look - I don't want you to think that love - or passion - or sex - or whatever it is - Charles has all the distinctions and definitions off pat - is the most important thing in the world, just because it sometimes feels like it. There are other things, to do with friendship and honesty and loyalty, which are actually longer lasting. I've known marriages where they became much more important than the love and the sex, which just faded away a bit, as they do, with time.'
'I don't think my marriage is one like that. It's more mutually combative than mutually supportive. Even where the kids are concerned. I think Anne will blossom when she hasn't got me to pull apart. I draw down the corners of her mouth, automatically, like biting into a lemon.'
'Well, you don't draw down the corners of my mouth. Look, I feel particularly bad about leaving the kitchen in this kind of mess. I've not internalised anything, and I'm not scared that Anne will think I'm a slut when she comes down in the morning, and I'm not taking over the traditional female role because Charles is too chauvinistic - but do you mind if we clear up a bit? I read the Catholic Truth Society's pamphlet on marriage once, and the most sensible thing in it was the statement that you can't make love successfully if you've left a saucepan on the stove. The orgasm may be like milk boiling over, but it's not improved if milk is boiling over. That last bit wasn't in the pamphlet - that's my gloss on it.'
She began stacking plates, gathering glasses, putting cutlery in piles into empty tureens and bowls. Richard re-lit the candles so that they could both see, and began to help her. As he did so, he considered how he felt about it. He had never been an idle husband - and yet he had quietly resented helping. It had never - before - been what he wanted to do. It had been a duty. Duties are mostly impositions. And what they are imposed on, resists. What he found himself doing now was a free offer of help, for which there was free gratitude. She kissed him.
'If only there were a dishwasher,' she said. 'I moved flats in London just to get a place where I could have one. But Charles believes in the dignity of human labour, and says it binds the guests together socially. When he invites people, he genuinely does put it in the small print that they have to do the dishes afterwards.'
'He invited us by telephone, and there wasn't a word of it.'
'Then he really has slipped up! How are Nigel and Jeremy at these things? If we stood them on stools? Alan Ladd had to be stood on a box to kiss most of his leading ladies. It's no disgrace being too small to reach the sink.'
'You've seen what Jeremy does to floorboards. Nigel's speciality are mugs. He runs settees over them and grinds the contents into the carpet out of sight. Cast-iron I'd trust them with.'
'Good. Then they can clean the Aga. They're small enough to get right inside. And then they can climb up the chimney and clean that. It needs it. I knew I hadn't read The Water-Babies for nothing.'
The scrubbed deal table lay bare and clean. The history of the Fitzwarrens was neatly piled behind the tea-cosy. The crystal whisky tumblers had been rinsed, dried and put away. The malts themselves were taking a well deserved rest in the darkness of the drinks cupboard. Brass utensils, copper pots and moulds glowed against the walls with the shimmer that all old objects possess. They put the Aga on its lowest setting. They opened the windows wide for a few moments to let out the old air, and let in some fresh. It had stopped raining, but the bushes were dripping steadily. The candles flickered and burnt more brightly. Then they closed the windows again.
Hand in hand, and both of them breathless with anticipation, they went round to each candle, kissed, and blew it out. The last they picked up and carried off, to light them to bed.
Meanwhile, the boys had indulged themselves to satiety in their computer-games, restrained of course by the need for silence. They had slain dragons and crawled through labyrinths. They had conquered the forest of Zonmar and the poisonous dwarves of Omri. They had found all the rings of Zutphen three times, and given up in disgust on the fourth attempt when it transpired that it was exactly the same as the first (avoid cheap Korean muck was Nigel's mental note to himself). They had ridden black steeds from the stables of Gom and freed the chained-up princess of Almadovar (a particularly well-endowed piece of software, that made full use of the programme's potential for 3D).
Jeremy's penchant was more for inter-galactic space than sword and sorcery. Although he had shared Nigel's grapplings with the manifestations of the Jungian collective sub-conscious, he preferred the hard-tech challenges of astral navigation and the new improved form of Space Invaders, where the Invaders could disguise themselves as your own ships until it was almost too late. A tiny purple dot was the only clue you had in this self-directed learning course in paranoia.
When these delights were over, they moved into the realm of the twee. Desert islands. Floating clouds. Schematic canoes that rolled over and over and over and over. Little cars whose wheels came off and carried on rolling when the car hit a bump - the steerable chassis flew in the air and had to be manoeuvred so as to drop back in place. Dogs who wagged their tails till they flew off, and then chased round after them. Stick figures who performed anatomically impossible antics. The Swedish apostles of mental hygiene who banned Tom and Jerry would have been reaching for the petrol-can and the matches in no time. (Though there was no sign of the pornographic, racist or fascist games that, rumour had it, circulated on disc in other playgrounds than theirs; National Front Software Very Limited had not made many inroads south-east of the river).
No, it was just good old violence and accuracy at shooting that dominated. Sometimes there was skill, anticipation and judgement. But mostly what was required was speed of reaction and co-ordination between the two hands. So they came back to the old favourites: Western-style shoot-outs and the non-paranoid Space Invaders. Down from the sky they came streaming, to be blasted into nothingness and points scores in their thousands. You wondered where all the dead ones and the bits of them went to - at least, you would have done if you hadn't been so busy shooting down the next wave.
Just as unrestricted access to a confectioner's establishment can only result in severe digestive discomfort, so the computer-game binge brought its own retribution. Children are not designed for nineteen hours of ceaseless activity - it only seems that way. Their reactions began to slow. Earth's prospects of surviving the all-out alien onslaught grew bleaker. Their eyes grew blearier and blearier. Trigger-thumbs and joy-stick fingers ached. Their arms became tired. GAME OVER GAME OVER GAME OVER it said on the screens. They looked at each other in despair, disappointment and exhaustion. But neither could draw consolation, inspiration or new strength from the other. In a daze, in a trance, in a twilight state, they crept into their beds and lay, benumbed, watching the automatic trailers for their favourite games cross and re-cross the gently glowing screens, until the screens of their eyes went dark.
The fact that they had virtually the same dream doesn't mean that they had identical personalities. But the differences between the immediate stimuli were infinitesimal.
It began with the mess behind the computers. You or I may wonder idly where the dead Space Invaders all go to. But Jeremy and Nigel's mother, Anne, knew. They dropped out of the back of the computer and the computer had to be turned off, whatever they were in the middle of, and moved, so that they could be swept up. Vacuumed up, with that dreadful noise, and that dreadful interference that spoilt all their attempts to tape the pop record that happened to be playing on Radio 1, and it had to be done just then, no, it couldn't be done three minutes later, even if the whole day was available for the operation.
With all that resentment, it wasn't actually surprising that one of the brothers (and it wasn't clear which) should have the idea of picking up the remote control for the television and video (which was a clever one, and could learn things; it had started off only being the telly control, but had done a YTS course in controlling the video and Dad said it would soon get an HNC in the central heating and an HND in doing the lights or the garage door), and see what effect it had on other things in the room. Well, one quick burst revived the dead Space Invaders and they swarmed all over Anne - how she screamed! - as if they were ants or other little black insects. But then the figure of Anne seemed to be made up entirely of Space Invaders, like those computer print-outs with a shape made of letters, and yet she was behaving just like their mother and they couldn't shoot her down with the special gun or control her movements with the joy-stick. She just came for them, screaming and shouting about how they should put away their toys and clear up properly after them and not leave the top off the marmalade or the margarine out of the fridge, and they ran.
First of all, they ran into the bathroom, which seemed a good move, since it was the only room in the house where you could shut the door so that nobody could open it. But then they saw the Space Invaders sneaking through the frosted glass at one corner, and filling it up as if it were a screen, and slowly the figure of Anne formed on it, and they turned round, and there she was, on the frosted glass of the window as well.
Suddenly, they heard the noise of the family car outside, which meant their father, Richard, had come home. He would probably want to go up to the recreation ground and play football, which meant showing off how hard he could kick, and how he could always beat them when they were goalies and always save the balls they kicked at him when they took penalties. But it was better than the slow death of a thousand vacuum cleanings, so they usually went along, since he meant well and didn't try to control them too much.
So they ran out to greet him, and to get away from the noise of the vacuum cleaner, which had begun to make a funny tap-tap-tapping sound as well as its normal fearful row, and was moving up and down quite independently of anybody directing it. But when they got outside, they saw that the figure of their mother, still made up of all those Space Invaders, had got there first, and had started having a quarrel with their father, and it was just like those fighting figures that kicked their limbs at each other: they flailed and shouted and hit out at one another, till their heads and their arms and their legs came off, and then they picked them up and put them back on and started again, all the time with this funny tap-tap-tapping sound.
And, just before their mother had appeared and attacked him, their father had been holding two little black kittens, and he'd put them down on the ground and shooshed them over to the boys, and the two little kittens were so frightened by what was going on outside that they ran into the house and saw the heap of little black Space Invaders crawling around on the carpet where the computers had been, and they ate them all up, and then they belched.
And then they began to fight with each other, standing on their hind legs, cuffing at one another with their front paws, pulling out tufts of fur, and each piece of fur, as it fell on the carpet, turned into a Pacman and ran through all the rooms of the house, eating whatever it fancied as it went, and belching afterwards, its jaw making this funny, wooden tap-tap-tapping noise. They ate all the books on the bookshelf in the lounge, all the records, all the cassettes, all the CDs. They ate the morning newspaper and the evening newspaper and the instructions for the video- recorder that were always kept with it. They ate all the games that Nigel and Jeremy never played with any more, and all the cook-books in the kitchen.
Then they looked round, thinking about what else they could eat, and looked at Nigel and Jeremy, with their jaws going tap-tap-tap - but they thought better of it, and started in on Anne's sewing patterns, and when those were gone, they turned to the heap of computer-games in the corner, that Nigel and Jeremy were too lazy to put back in their proper boxes, and they chomped at those, with their jaws going all the time tap-tap-tap. And that was just too much.
Meanwhile, Jessica and Richard had undressed each other slowly by candlelight. They stroked one another and caressed one another, both clothed and unclothed, kissed chastely at first, and then passionately, and then chastely again.
'This is always new,' said Jessica. 'When I do these things, I never remember how they were with anyone else. There's only ever now.'
'Don't say the word: remember. I don't want to know there's such a thing. I only want one time: now. I want to think that I only came to consciousness in this moment. I don't want any world outside this room, outside this bed.'
'You are all the world I want. They say the world is round, and you are round: look - I put my arms around you, and my hands join. I can trace a path over your chest with my fingers, and then over your back and my fingers come back to where they started.'
'The world has hills and forests and plains - or so I've heard - and so have you. And I want to explore them. Here are my ten little explorers.'
'And here are mine. Shall we go together for a while? First we can both explore me, then we can both explore you.'
'What do we do, when we've explored each other?'
'Forget, and do it all over again. I've found a cave I want you to explore. Deeper, deeper, all the way. There may be riches there, or a hidden river.'
'The river is beginning to flow.'
'It must be dammed. A great rock must be put there to seal the cave. Do you have a great, firm rock in your world that will seal the flowing cave in my world? Then bring it, bring it, bring it, as quickly as you can, and place it there. You must make sure it fits tightly - you must slide it out and slide it in again, just to make sure it fits, just to make sure it fits and fits and fits...'
'Your hills and valleys - '
'Your peaks and troughs - '
'Your cave is trembling - is that an earthquake?'
'Not yet - not yet - be patient - your rock is trembling - will it split and a violent spring gush forth?'
'Not yet - not yet - be patient - '
'I want to be. I want to wait like this till the rivers have rubbed at the mountains, and washed them away and filled the sea with them, and new mountains rise up from the sea, and the rivers start to rub them away, too.'
'I want to wait like this for ever, while the tides roll to and fro, to and fro, turning the stones they rub against this way and that, this way and that, to and fro - '
'What do you want to say? Say what you want to say. Say what you want.'
'I want to say I love you, but I'm scared.'
'Say it. It's true. It's true now. Say it now. Say : I love you - now.'
'I love you now.'
'I love you now. Kiss me. Lick me. Suck me. Now.'
'Take me. Love me. Own me. Now. Not before. Not after. Now.'
'Not before. Not after. Now. I love you now.'
'Now - now - now!'
'FIRE! FIRE! FIRE! FIRE!'
Wrenched from the dreamless, weightless, formless aftermath of ecstasy, hand in hand, not hiding their nakedness in their confusion, like Adam and Eve summoned by policeman God with ''Allo, 'allo, 'allo, what's all this 'ere then? Been eatin' apples, 'ave we?", Jessica and Richard, still firmly hand in hand in fact as in mind, stumbled into the corridor to meet whatever disaster they were about to encounter together.
In the light that spilt from the door of her room, intended for two but only occupied by one, Anne, who had been nearer the top of the pool of unconsciousness and had surfaced more rapidly, Anne, who stood there suave and secure and composed and collected, despite the alarm, her well-formed body enticingly swathed in a champagne towelling night-robe (not a dressing-gown), Anne, from her position of moral and mental superiority, looked at the frail and naked human bodies exposed to her view in their fright and uncertainty, their shivering and mutual clutching.
She noted Richard's more than incipient paunch and wondered why it was that God seemed to have designed men to be pear-shaped on principle, whatever they did about it. She was even more scathing about Jessica: scrawny, sagging, droopy were the nicest words in her mental catalogue; at a subconscious level, she warned herself to take care and exercise over the next few years that would bring her up to Jessica's age. Only after these observations had been made, and etched into her mind with sufficient acid, did it occur to her to register what the disturbance had been that had brought her, and, in addition (but she had nothing to do with them and wanted to make that clear) these sorry specimens of humanity into the corridor from their snug bedrooms.
At that moment, Charles, elegant as ever, in one of those kimonos whose design must be a haiku by Basho, Charles, above all this, strode past in the direction of the shouting, taking command by the mere force of his passing. There was a distant smell of smoke.
The smell grew stronger as he approached the boys' room, and when he opened the door to it, he could see that the atmosphere inside was definitely not as clear as it should be. The lads were sat up in bed, coughing, staring ahead, uncertain of what they should do. They had raised the alarm on the strength of what they smelt and saw about them, but not seeing any flames to which they could respond directly - (their father had once found them reading a censored version of Gulliver's Travels, and had tried to win them for literature by telling them how Gulliver really put the fire out) - they had simply retired to bed and waited for the adults to take charge.
Charles did. The sight of the two computers plugged in and running from the same socket told him a great deal of what he needed to know. He unplugged them brutally, toppling the gambolling figures into an abyss of jagged lines as they faded from view. 'Fools!' he shouted, and went away to turn off the electricity at the mains and investigate, if he could, where the over-heating had occurred and a fire might at this moment be burning. The boys, who had just come to realise the nature of their predicament, were not reassured when the lights went out, and the tap-tap- tapping sound, which had woken them and let them realise their danger, continued.
Anne, left in the dark without explanation, stuck by her post, but felt somewhat betrayed. Richard and Jessica retreated into their room, where, by the advantage of a candle, they dressed themselves to face, if not the world or their Maker, at least the events of the immediate future.
Fortunately, the problem with the wiring had occurred in the room immediately below the boys', where Charles had already stripped out the decayed modern plasterboard ceiling to reveal the electrical circuit in all its vulnerability. There was some superficial singeing to the wood of the joists, but most of the smell and the smoke had come from burning dust, and the stench had spread through the house via the cracks and crannies with which he had grown familiar. But as he stood and pointed his powerful torch at the ceiling, and listened to the boys in the room above chattering to each other with fear and excitement, he, too, heard the tap-tap-tapping that had roused them. It was getting slower now, and softer, but it was still audible.
Gathering an armful of electric torches, which he passed out to those he met on the way, Charles set off in search of the noise. He strode into the boys' room, looked at them quizzically and said, 'That tapping noise. What do you know about it?'
They answered, plainly and simply, 'It woke us up.'
'Hmm,' said Charles, ' well, it seems to be coming from the room above this one, doesn't it. And it's almost stopped now. I'd better see what's making it. My guess is that it's connected with the fire you've just nearly caused, you pair of little horrors.' And he went out, leaving them with a torch between them, which they fought over, because they both wanted to do shadow-plays, and somebody had to hold the beam in the right place.
Charles went up to the room above. The noise had indeed almost stopped, but very infrequently and very faintly he could just discern a tapping sound behind the panelling on one of the walls. He rapped across it with his fingertips - and lo and behold! In the centre there was a place that sounded hollow. Momentarily, he wished he had brought up the small crow-bar he used for opening packing-cases. But that was just impatience resulting from the time of night or morning. The panelling was far too good to injure in that way. He drummed his fingers across it again, and, seduced by the quality of the workmanship and the attractiveness of the grain, started to fondle the carved linen-folds.
As in all the best books, a section of the panelling pivoted outwards, nearly knocking him over, to reveal a body that was hanging by the neck from the floor joist of the room above, and was slowly swinging this way and that, so that its feet would have periodically touched the inside of the panelling that had just opened.
'Jessica! Richard!' he shouted. 'Come up here!'
Anne, ignored, excluded, betrayed, humiliated, sat in her room, clutching her torch, and felt aggrieved. She picked up a magazine, but the effort of holding the heavy torch and reading was too great, so she put the torch on to the bedside table, pointing up to the ceiling to give some light, and lay back on her pillow to think black thoughts.
'Here's the end of the story,' said Charles, gesturing to the body which hung completely motionless now, its grey and lifeless face, with slightly poppy and staring eyes, looking out into the room at the three of them. 'It's Harry Winston - or Hal - or the last of the Fitzwarrens - or whoever. It's the caretaker. I'd not seen him for a little while. I didn't know what had happened. I should have thought - I should have thought.'
Charles moved forward and began touching the body, running his hand up and down the stiff, bony old man's arm, as if he could chafe it back to life. 'Poor old Harry,' he said, 'poor old Harry. I wasn't good to you, was I? I could've been much nicer to you. Nobody was good to you, were they? Except, perhaps, your mother - but I bet she kept you under her thumb, didn't she? Hung on to all your documents - wouldn't let you have them in case you lost them - and when she died you could never find them. I was ever so fond of you. I liked what we did together. I never knew what a father was like - but you were like a father to me. I loved you. I did. I really did. And I never told you. And now it's too late.'
Charles's face crumpled, he dropped his torch and began to cry with great shrieking sobs as he drew in his breath. Richard and Jessica hugged and cuddled him between them and gently took his hand off the body of Harry Winston.
'He was very old,' said Richard, feeling foolish and useless and insulting even as he said it. But Charles gave no sign that he had heard. He was sitting on the floor now, his legs out in front of him, his back resting against the wall, crying normally. Jessica was squatting beside him, holding his hand. Their two torches lay beside them, forming a jagged v of light across the room that illuminated nothing in particular.
Richard went across to the body in the priesthole and looked at the face. There was no clue to anything in it. It was drawn and gaunt and aged and stubbly. The lips were drawn back from the teeth, which did not seem to fit. Alive or dead, it looked ineffably sad. Now, Richard thought to himself, now, surely, you must be at peace. Now you must have fulfilled what tradition imposed on you. There's nothing more to be asked of you. It was never an easy task, and it became impossible. There's no disgrace. He had an overwhelming desire to kiss the stretched skin of the forehead, where age had flattened the furrows into shallow lines. He did so. It was cold. As he did so, he pointed his torch down and caught sight of a folded piece of paper on the floor. He picked it up and took it across to Jessica and Charles. Charles was hugging his knees to his chest and rocking silently to and fro.
'Look,' said Richard quietly to Jessica.
'Read it to me,' said Charles, without turning his head. He had stopped crying and the tears were drying on his cheeks.
'It says: "They took the house away from me, but they can't take me away from the house,"' said Jessica.
'Is it signed?' asked Charles.
'Yes,' said Richard. 'The last of the Fitzwarrens.'
'He always was a cagey bastard, that Harry,' said Charles. 'He'd never let you into any of his secrets. He always said, That's for me to know, and you to find out. Well, we did find out, didn't we?'
'Bloody nearly,' said Richard.
'As much as one can find out,' said Jessica, 'about anyone.'
'My God, there's a body in here!' said Anne, stumbling into the room and shining her torch straight in Harry Winston's face.
'Yes,' said Charles, 'it's going to be one of next season's attractions - a variant on the skeleton in the cupboard. Look, Anne, I don't want to seem flippant or dismissive, but we've all just had quite a shock, because we actually know this dead person - and you don't. And it's really a very long story and if you want to hear it, then I'm sure that Richard will tell it to you on a long drive into the past some time.'
'There aren't going to be any more long drives into the past, because I've decided I'm divorcing him. I've felt it coming for a long time, but his disgusting and disgraceful behaviour this evening was the last straw. We shall be leaving very shortly - as soon as we've packed - well, perhaps we'll wait till it's light. I'm sorry if I'm offending you, but I'm sure you realise that my children and I could not possibly spend Christmas in the same house as - as - '
'Do let me save you the trouble of completing that sentence in a way which would undoubtedly be grossly offensive to my friends here. I make it a matter of principle never to take sides in a matrimonial dispute, but if not out of respect for the living, then please, out of respect for the dead, I should like you to refrain from being abusive - though I well understand the provocation that you have received. Your decision to spend Christmas elsewhere is, in the circumstances, the only sensible one, I do not feel in the least offended by it, and I shall do my utmost to speed you on your way, as a good host should - which is what I hope I am. I am now asking you to leave this room. All of you. Don't worry. I'll be down in a moment.'
Anne preceded Jessica and Richard out of the room, but Richard had barely had time to shut the door before she turned on him and said, quite loudly, 'Go and tell the children to start packing. I'll tell you when I want you to come and get your bags and mine.' Then, in the direction of Jessica, whom she did not actually look at, 'I hope we'll be having breakfast in three quarters of an hour or so.' She swung away and went noisily down the stairs. Jessica said nothing, but gave Richard's hand a squeeze, and they, too, went down the stairs, parting at the bottom for Richard to go to the boys' room.
They were sitting up in bed, taking it in turns to hold the torch under their chins, pointing upwards, and pulling grotesque faces for one another, laughing uproariously.
'Nigel, Jeremy - I'm sorry about this, but we shall be leaving almost at once. Do you think you could get your things packed? I know it won't be easy without lights, but here's a spare torch to help you - that means one each, which should make it all go faster. Come and get me from the kitchen if you need help to carry anything - though, frankly, since you got it all up here without any help and against all instructions, I'm very much inclined to just let you get on with it.'
He had expected some kind of questioning or some kind of protest, but to his extreme surprise they simply stopped what they were doing, climbed out of bed and began doing what they had been asked. He assumed that this absolute obedience must be the product of a deep-seated sense of guilt - actually a completely appropriate one, unlike most. It was Jeremy who stopped, half into his underpants, and turned to him and said, 'We will get our presents, though, won't we, Dad?' His question was echoed in the concerned look of Nigel, balancing one-socked and one-legged in a slow, Nijisnkian pirouette.
Richard thought about it for a moment. What was his own position now? Had he lost all his rights as paterfamilias? What rights, indeed, had he ever exercised? Was this divorce his opportunity to become the father he had never quite had the courage to be? The one who actually found out what the children wanted and needed, instead of knowing better in advance. What would Anne have said? Should he say the exact opposite? Or would it be better to wait until the forces were disengaged before launching full-scale hostilities? Bugger the calculations, he thought. Certainly bugger the presents of Damocles held over the poor kids' heads, like baubles on a Christmas tree, shiny and just out of reach. That was the way to turn carrots into sticks. What did he feel? Did Anne have a right to have a say? Reluctantly, yes. But he wouldn't give in.
'I imagine so.' And don't drop her in it as the ogre - none of this 'we'll have to see what your mother says.' Let the mother say it - in front of the kids, if need be. Maybe the kids don't feel they deserve them, either. Well, not till Boxing Day, anyway.
Nigel had put his foot down now (so he didn't have the stuff to be a second Nureyev, after all - or a second Long John Silver) and Jeremy had stopped looking like a child porn star - but they were still motionless, so Richard said, as gently as he could, 'Get on with the packing,' and left the room.
The moment he was outside, he regretted his generosity with the torch. Anne's door at the far end was shut fast, and in the long, dark corridor the only light he had to guide him was a dim and distant glow from Jessica's room. As he approached it, fumbling, stumbling, groping, confirming with hands, feet and knees what his brain remembered of the passage's shape, he wondered what the light could be. Drawing level with the fully opened door, he looked in and saw the candle they had brought up from the kitchen. It had burnt very low, there was only an inch-long stump projecting above the brass holder, but the flame burnt steadily and upright, protected from the many unexpected and mysterious draughts of the house by its tall glass tube. Its light fell across the rumpled sheets of the bed. He went in and picked it up carefully. The movement made the flame shudder, but it steadied quickly and burnt no less brightly. With a certain confidence now, he carried it before him, to light his way along the rest of the corridor and down the imposing staircase into the hall.
The kitchen door was open, but offered little immediate illumination. As he entered, he saw why: like some High Catholic altar, the Aga was decked with all the candles, and Jessica was preparing a classic English breakfast.
'Hallo,' she said, 'wipe the mushrooms.'
'I don't want to,' said Richard, after a moment's hesitation.
'Hoity-toity! My, we are uppity this morning! Bet you wouldn't speak to Anne that way.'
'You're absolutely right. That's why we're getting a divorce.'
'Right, then,' said Jessica, taking bacon rashers and trimming from them the rinds and a sliver of fat which she threw into a vast cast-iron frying pan to render down and provide the wherewithal for frying eggs and bread, 'what is it you want to do?'
'I'll wash the tomatoes and halve those - then I'll do the mushrooms.'
'Okay - whoever finishes first can start chopping the bread. There's stale stuff there for frying, and some soda bread in the oven.'
'You have been busy.'
'Yes. I thought: I'll show the bitch. And I will. Besides which, I'm hungry. You give me an appetite. Kiss me. Thanks. Only one. I'm busy. And besides all that - when someone dies, you have to eat. To remind yourself that you're alive, and that there are good reasons for staying that way.'
On the altar of the Aga, the rinds began to pop and sizzle and crinkle, shrivelling into crispness as the fat left them and spread itself over the large cast-iron frying pan. A savour rose from the burnt-offering which was favourable to the nostrils of the Gods, and also to those of mortals, especially to the youngest of humankind, who were just bringing the first of their computers downstairs with great difficulty - shining their way first, and then moving a few paces, and then pausing.
'Dad', they called, cautiously at first, and then again, more loudly, since the first cry had not been answered with irritation, or, indeed, at all. The third cry brought Richard out to help them. Nigel held a torch in front, Jeremy behind, so that wherever Richard trod or looked there was light for his feet. They shifted the second computer in the same fashion, and he left his sons to put them back in their boxes while he went back to the mushrooms and the tomatoes.
As he was shifting the first load on to a plate to keep them warm in the small oven, Anne appeared in the doorway.
'You can come and get the bags now,' she said, and then, realising what was going on, she added, 'Oh. You shouldn't have bothered.'
'No,' said Jessica, 'I probably shouldn't. But I have. Shall I put the eggs in now? Are you ready to eat?'
'I'll just have some dry toast, thank you,' said Anne, 'but I'm sure the boys will enjoy a cooked breakfast - it will make it feel like a holiday. My mother always spoils them like that, too. There just isn't time in the normal run of things, you know. Nigel, Jeremy! Breakfast!'
They came scampering in, and had to be sent out again, to make sure they hadn't left their suitcases in dangerous places in the dark hallway. Under Jessica's whispered instruction, Richard learnt the art of toasting bread on an Aga. He kept the mock bow under control as he presented it silently to Anne, and placed knife, butter and marmalade uncommented beside her - just in case. He agonised inwardly, but then he asked, 'How's the hangover?'
'Stomach upsets always leave me with quite a severe headache, as you know, Richard.'
Good eating is always silent. Conversation proceeds from the digestive process, and corresponds to it: analysis, the breaking down of the world into usable components by application of the acid of thought, and the agitation of the exchange of opinion. Nigel and Jeremy asked for seconds and got them. Charles appeared in the middle of it all, motioned Jessica back to her plate, cooked his own eggs and helped himself to the rest in silence. The boys thought about thirds, but their mother had stopped half-way through her third slice of toast and was only toying with her fourth cup of tea. She pushed it away and stood up.
'It's time we were going.'
Everyone helped to pack the car - an exercise in solidarity. It all went in more easily and neatly than it had on the first packing. There had been no more rain. The air felt damp but fresh. The sense of being awake before anyone else brought some excitement with it: adventure, a long journey, a destination that would be very different, a change. Once they were all outside, packing the car in the light from the ornate wrought iron lamp that overhung the front steps, the tension between everyone disappeared - they just co-operated on the job in hand. The slamming of the rear door had the healthy finality of a decision well-taken - even if the nature of the decision was entirely unclear.
'When you've gone,' said Charles, 'I'll ring the police. I'll say I discovered it all by myself. There's no need to mention anything about your presence at all.'
'That's a little sad, really,' said Richard, 'being left out like that, because I'd like to feel I was involved.'
'You were involved,' said Jessica, 'we all know that - but there's no need for the police to know. It'd just be a fearful nuisance and a complication.'
'I hope,' said Anne, standing on the edge of the group, keeping an eye on Nigel and Jeremy, who were looking up at the house and arguing about which window had been theirs, 'that somebody will let me in on this secret.'
'It really is a very long and complicated story,' said Charles, 'but I'm sure that Richard will tell it to you admirably.'
'Yes,' said Anne, 'Richard does like telling stories. I just wish he'd stick a little closer to reality sometimes. But perhaps that's not going to be my problem any more. In a little while, anyway. Nigel, Jeremy, have you been to the toilet? Come and say goodbye.'
They had. They did. They were packed into the back and parcelled up in their seat-belts with their sweets and their games. Once she had made sure they were strapped in, Anne stood by the car and waited, watching what the others were doing. Richard hugged Charles very tightly, then shook his hand. Then he hugged Jessica, but without kissing her. Anne was surprised - she had expected more passion - but these professional women were cold. Sex, yes; love, no. They picked up a man for a night, used him, wrecked his marriage, then cast him aside. There they were, just holding hands. She would never understand such people or such behaviour. Just as well she would never have anything more to do with any of them. She didn't like to think what part Charles had played in the whole business - he seemed respectable, but too respectable. That smooth patina had to be false. Well, not her problem any more. She opened the rear door, to check that the boys were all right, slammed it noisily to give a hint, and marched towards the little group.
'I'll stay with Charles until all this business is over,' Jessica was saying, 'and then I don't know. My London job is always open, if I want to go back. Or I may stay on here and help Charles properly. There are all kinds of possibilities.'
'Yes,' said Richard, 'all kinds of possibilities.'
'What will you do?' said Charles.
'Sort myself out a bit, see what it is I want to do, see what it is I can do, and negotiate a working compromise between the two.'
'Don't lose touch for another twenty-odd years,' said Charles. 'I think we've re-acquired a taste for one another's company.'
'Yes,' said Jessica, 'don't lose touch. I'll definitely be in London for New Year, staying with friends. Let me give you my number. Charles - have you the necessary?'
He had - a stub of pencil and a scrap of paper which had a shopping list for the DIY store on it, but the back was empty. Jessica wrote the number in large figures that filled the whole space.
'There,' she said, 'I'll hope to hear from you.'
'Thanks,' said Richard. 'You will. Goodbye.'
Anne was at his elbow. She nodded at Jessica and Charles, as if that meant 'and everything he said, but especially goodbye.' Then they got into the car and closed the doors.
'Are you sure you don't want to drive?' asked Richard. 'I take it we're going to your mother's in Reading. I really feel it might be more appropriate if you drove.'
'You're so stupid and so inconsiderate. You saw how ill I was last night. I'm in no fit state. I'm probably still over the limit. Perhaps you're going to tell me that you're too tired. Well, that's your fault. Some of us actually slept last night, instead of doing other things. Let's go. Nigel, Jeremy - wave!'
In fact, they all waved. It might almost have been the Royal Family as the car swept in a large circle over the gravel, and sped away down the long drive.
The trees were grey and ghostly in the headlights. Shadows danced in the bushes beside the road. Richard was always expecting one of the shadows to turn into a fox, or another kind of animal, and dash out in front of his wheels, but they stayed just shadows and were still again when the car and its lights had passed.
What sort of journey was this now? he wondered. He had been in the past, had lived through it, had seen what it did to people. Could he still be as attracted to it, as trapped by it as he had been? The daylight was a long time coming - he could not see the things he had spoken about with such frenetic enthusiasm on the way down. That road of escape - the tunnel into that particular cage - was closed to him. His wife, on the other hand, was returning to the lion's den: the parental home. He knew the things he had been told about Anne's early life, and wondered at the force of tradition in luring her back to a place which she had left with such thankfulness.
'Don't drive so fast,' she said, 'there's no hurry.'
He slowed down, and found that he was enjoying the landscape for itself. All the meaning he had found before was still there, but he no longer felt the compulsion to articulate and communicate it: it just worked on him and filled him with emotion, rather than knowledge. Slowly, greyness began to replace blackness as the dominant tone of the surroundings.
'So what was this story all about that kept you up half the night, and seems to have led you to Jessica's bed?'
Richard had thought she had fallen asleep, had forgotten she was in the car with him. The boys had dropped off almost the minute he had driven away. What could he give her as an answer, without telling the whole story again, with all the surmises, the hopes, fears and recognitions of self that it involved? How could he recapture it for her? He felt he ought at least to try a little, to be honest with her, and fair.
'It was a story about the past,' he said. 'About the strength of the past.'
'Oh,' said Anne, 'about anybody's past in particular?'
'About one person in particular, but about the effect of the past in general.'
'And what does the past do in general?'
'It misleads you.'
'In what way?'
'It says all the good things are behind you, and gone for ever.'
'And of course they're all in the future - with Jessica.'
Richard was silent for a short while, because he wanted to be honest. He wanted to think about what he was going to say, and how he was going to say it. He didn't want to respond to provocation.
'No,' he said, 'they're not all in the future either. There are some in both places. But the only place you can enjoy the good things is in the present. Wherever they are, you have to bring them into the present. That's not always easy, but it can be done.'
'Is this the sort of conversation you were having with your friends? I'm glad I was asleep through most of it.'
The world was grey and empty. They had reached a motorway now. A Christmas Day motorway. Roads might have decorations in the windows of the houses - the service areas here would have the regulation tree and tinsel, but so far away you'd never see it from the carriageway. Motorways just passed through, without ever experiencing. They joined past and future, by-passing the present. As he drove, Richard remembered that very intense present he had experienced with Jessica.
'I don't know what you're going to do, when we get to my mother's. I can't say I'm looking forward to spending Christmas with you - really, I haven't the slightest intention of doing so.'
'Then what do you expect me to do? Drive home and spend Christmas on my own? Or drive back to Charles and the police?'
'Oh no. You can't drive anywhere. You can't leave me without the car.'
'So how am I to transport myself away from you?'
'That's your problem - you should have thought of that before.'
'Before. But perhaps the boys will want to have you around - perhaps they'll need you to help them play with their presents.'
'Maybe I'd like that, too.'
'I'm not sure that what you'd like comes into it.'
'I don't think it has done very much in the past.'
'That's your opinion - I've lost count of the concessions I've made to you and your ways - your sloppiness, your untidiness, your unreliability - I wouldn't be surprised if you'd already lost the phone number that woman gave you.'
For once, he thought about what she was saying. He didn't need to go into elaborate defences, he didn't need to excuse himself and deny the truth - this didn't have to be a battle in the course of the life-long war. This could be a discussion, a dispassionate piece of analysis. Theoretically, the war was about to be over; the ceasefire had been agreed, the armistice would not be long, and then would come the negotiations over the peace-treaty - which might not be too pleasant. But now was a time to take stock.
He thought about the garage, filled with his past, the garage that had all that symbolic value locked up in it; the past, that he didn't use, couldn't face up to, and was loth to throw away. Would he ever 'deal with' the boxes? Married or not married? Was he going to jettison all those un-realised potentialities? He thought not. He thought he might explore them - whether in reality or metaphorically. He had to be richer than his life or his house showed him to be. There were secret rooms. That even he had never entered. Boxes whose contents he could not know - might never know - and yet they belonged to him and made him what he was. But he had to find out what he was - he could not take someone else's word for it.
Anne - did she know what or who she was? She seemed to - to some degree: wife, mother, controller of the household, active principle, taker of decisions, organiser. She defined herself more easily by her actions than he ever could. He didn't define himself - defining meant limiting, leaving out, excluding. He felt he wanted to include things, to be more than he was. Actions alone would never be enough.
His silence and lack of response were unusual. Anne didn't really know how to cope. She was tired. The grey world outside the car didn't demand involvement. The regular speed and the hum of the engine lulled her. She joined her children in sleep.
Richard enjoyed the solitude and the peace. He felt useful and purposive - after all, he was driving everybody to their Christmas. And even if Anne's mother's place was as unendurable as he knew it was going to be, there had to be pubs he could escape to - neutral meeting-places. The nuclear family, like the nuclear deterrent, was not the end of the world.
As he drove, he thought about the story he had explored with his friends from the past who had become his friends in the present. He thought about the way they had related to one another, and to the story they had told between them. He thought, most of all, about Harry Winston.
It seemed strange to give him that name, which for so many reasons should never have been his - certainly not when his real name was so important to his essence. Richard's own name - surname or Christian name - only identified him in a very technical sense, as regarded the outside world. It had nothing to do with what he was or what he could be. His name was familiar and fitted easily, like a pair of trousers, shoes or gloves: a new one would feel odd for a while, but could also be exciting, and open up new possibilities. But Harry had lived a lie, had had to live a lie, had let himself be defined by an enemy and persecutor; even though he had taken revenge on him, he had not been free of him to the end of his days.
Harry had never been free. Not from the start. Born into a cage. And then, in a strange reversal of the usual image, he had become a tiger pacing round the bars of the cage on the outside, yearning to get back in. He had been just as trapped as before - that was clear. An indissoluble tie linked him to the house and its surroundings. It was not, Richard thought, the physical tie of mother-love (whichever one was his mother), but something much more complex and harder to describe. Not at first, perhaps, when he may have believed that there was some chance of proving who he was (who was he?) and becoming who he was meant to be - but as time went by, and it became clear that he could only ever look on from the outside: at that stage, description of what was going on in him became difficult.
But maybe it didn't. Maybe Harry was far from being the only person who spent his life walking round his potentialities without realising them. Maybe there were many people who clung to a past that was gone, instead of looking for a future that was there, somewhere. He was a ghost, even while he lived, because he was dead, and he re-visited the scenes of what should have been his life. In some ways, one could admire his tenacity, his single-mindedness. In other ways, one pitied him, in still other ways one was deeply annoyed by his stubbornness and obstinacy. And one was also haunted, in the mind, by the unresolved mystery, which, in fact, he shared with everyone. Who are we? What were we? Who will we become?
He noticed the turn to his mother-in-law's road late, and swung into it in a wide arc which jolted Anne awake.
'Typical,' she said, 'you never get any better. Will you never change?'
'Not while I'm with you, I'm afraid,' said Richard, without any malice or bitterness in his voice. It was just true.
'I take it you'll be moving out?'
'Sooner or later - probably sooner.'
'Into some rented room - the way things were when we met.'
'Yes - in some ways I'll be moving back into my past.'
'The carefree bachelor!'
'But only in some ways. I also have to move into my future.'
'The future comes, whether we want it or not - you don't have to move into it.'
'That's not true, Anne. Look at your mother's house, and how long she's lived there. When did the future last have anything to do with it?'
'She has the outside painted every five years, and she had it re-wired only three years ago. The front room was re-decorated last Christmas - don't you remember the terrible smell of paint?'
'I don't think you quite understand me, but it doesn't matter. Well, it does, actually, but I don't think I'm going to make you understand, so I suppose we'd better just stop talking and go in.'
'I'd like to go in first myself, if you don't mind, just so I can explain to her what's going on, and why we're here and so on, and I think it'd probably be much better if you weren't there while I did that.'
'Of course. She's your mother, I'm glad to say.'
'There's no need for cheap remarks like that, Richard.'
'I have no idea what kind of remarks you'll be making about me inside, Anne - I thought I might get one in in advance.'
'I think you can trust me not to say anything that isn't true.'
'I can trust you not to say anything that you don't think is true. I've never known you be consciously malicious.'
She obviously wanted to slam the door, but restrained herself, in order to avoid waking up the boys.
Left alone in the suburban street, Richard looked around. Christmas Day, and the Christmas tree lights flashing - some merely twinkling, others just shining fixedly. House upon house, family upon family, celebrating something in which they believed in theory, but which in most cases was a disaster in practice, relieved only by the undeniable delights of oral gratification, for children and adults. Bugger Father Christmas, bring on the nuts and the dates and the figs and the pudding, till we can't move! A pity they put the family bit first. If they announced that it was a festival of gross over-indulgence to begin with, and that was made the prime reason for it, then the family members would discover that they got on far better with each other with full stomachs and tipsy heads - whereas in the normal course of things, the alcohol only further inflamed passions already aroused, and the arguments took away appetites - either in reality, or for the sake of a good exit-line in the well-known Christmas drama 'Martyr and Persecutor', loosely adapted from the classic, A Christmas Quarrel.
Anne opened the door and slid in beside him.
'Well,' she said, 'Mother's prepared to have you in the house - '
'But I sleep in the potting shed.'
' - as you can imagine, she said that she'd known it wouldn't last - she didn't think you were good enough for me - '
'Who did she expect you to marry? God? Even the Virgin Mary didn't actually marry Him - she got fobbed off with Joseph - '
'Do you mind keeping your voice down? I don't want to wake up the boys. Mother said that although all this was distressing, she thought it was probably for the best in the long run.'
'That must be the first time she and I have ever agreed.'
'Will you be seeing Jessica again? Mother was curious.'
'She is. I've often said so - you've always denied it.'
'There's no need to be flippant,' said Anne.
'I wasn't. I was being witty.'
'That's what you think. Mother also said, she hoped you'd learn a lesson out of all this.'
'I have,' said Richard. 'That's what last night was.'
'Really?' said Anne, bristling visibly.
'Yes,' said Richard. 'You may find it hard to believe, or think I'm trying to hurt you, but I'm not. That's what it was - a lesson. One huge history lesson.'