Actions

Work Header

Merton Street

Work Text:

After the war had ended, I felt displaced and hopeless like so many people all over Europe. I was one of the few of my generation who had survived – the flipside of the coin was that I felt utterly useless, having spent the whole of my time in the military in various training camps all over England, never in action. I was lonelier than ever, having lost many friends and relatives and having cut almost all ties to Brideshead and the Marchmains (Cordelia was the only one sending me the occasional letter). My father had died a few years ago and left me, besides the London house, a considerable fortune. I had tried to live in London but found myself incapable of doing so. Either I had changed, or the world I found myself in had changed, but things which brought me joy before left me now exhausted or even disgusted. I had no idea in which direction I should continue. I thought about going back to Paris. More than once, the nagging flicker of a desire to go to Carthage, where Sebastian was last seen alive, troubled my mind. Sleepless nights followed. I hadn‘t seen him in more than twenty years and he never had attempted to find me. I finally would have to accept that I would never see him again. But I couldn‘t stop thinking about our brief time together. Never again had I been this happy, never. And never had I felt so alive.

Feeling alive: that was what was lacking in my life. I had survived, unwounded and seemingly unbroken, but on some days, I felt like a walking corpse. My appetite vanished, my emotions had died without me noticing it. I had stopped painting also. I dragged myself from day to day, telling myself that I only would have to endure some more years, owing to my advanced age, and that I would soon find peace if everything was over. There was nothing I looked forward to.

These were the very dark, dreary years immediately after the war. In 1947, Anthony Blanche, who lived in Florence now, came to London to negotiate about his newest book. We had dinner together. He scolded me where I had left the glowing young man he used to know in Oxford, and I finally confessed to him about my emotional state. He was the first person I told about it ever – so many suffered the same, I didn‘t want to take me more important than others who had lost husbands or children. But it was freeing to share about my mental prison. I immediately felt better. And I must admit: I never had expected flamboyant, eccentric Anthony to be a patient and attentive listener. But he took me very serious and looked at me with his strange dark eyes for a long time before suggesting:

„What you need is a c-c-c-complete change of scenery. Come to me to Florence. If you don‘t feel alive there, you are really as d-dead as you look.“

I shook my head: „No, I don‘t think I could handle the long trip. I have been dispatched in so many trains at night, into unknown training camps, always tired and hungry – I would get nightmares to be on a train too long. Sorry.“

„Then – leave London. You say it doesn‘t suit you. Why don‘t you move? You could rent first before deciding and see if it helps.“

I nodded silently.

He smiled:

„Where have you been happiest in your life? T-T-T-Tell me!“

„Oxford“, I replied without thinking for a second. I was amazed at my answer myself. Anthony raised an eyebrow and grinned. Involuntarily, I did so, too, remembering our wild nights and drunken afternoons. He gave to consider that I wouldn‘t feel young and carefree just by moving there, that I even might feel older because of the thousands of very young people, but he was adamant about me giving it a try.

And so, I ended up in a pretty, smallish house quite in the centre, near High Street, in the shadow of the same towers and spires that had accompanied my youth. I could hear the same bells like in Hertford College, being in walking distance from my old dwelling, and I had been fond of the small garden at the back immediately. That was actually the main reason for me to decide on this particular dwelling. I had the means to afford a much bigger house, a larger garden, but the minuteness of it appealed to me. I feared the unknown garden work might be too much for an ageing man like me, especially as servants and other help in the house were nearly impossible to get in these days. I found someone to come in to clean once a week, but I even had to do without a cook or maid. The war had changed everything.

The little house itself was very old and a bit damp, but charming. All the fireplaces worked, and I even had a rather modern bathroom built in about twenty years ago with every luxury. On the ground floor were the living room and the kitchen in the rear, looking onto the garden. On fine days, I had the backdoor always open. Light flooded in almost all day long as I enjoyed my meals in the kitchen (I rarely used the more elegant dining table in the living room. I always ate alone, anyways). Two neighbouring cats made frequent use of this door to visit me. I had lived without pets all my life and was amazed at how much more they make one feel at home and not as lonely as one was. I never actually knew where they lived, but they became constant visitors.

On the first floor, there were three rooms: a study looking onto the street, my bedroom and the guest room looking onto the quiet garden. I liked the reclusiveness of the back rooms, and I hadn‘t slept as well in years as in my first night in my new bedroom there. I never knew why I had furnished the guest room at all – I never had any guests – but it was like a promise, like the additional plate on a dinner table for an unexpected guest. A tiny sign of hope in my barren soul.

I liked the upstairs rooms and had taken great care to decorate them, to make a real new beginning, but I spent most of the day downstairs. Reading the paper in the kitchen was my most important morning ritual. It gave me a sense of connectedness with the world, even if there were many days on which I didnt talk with a single soul, the cats excluded. My life was solitary, lonely even, but I gradually started to feel better and see a sort of new perspective for me. Only months before, I was convinced I just had to do my time on earth, hopefully not too many years, until I was released into final peace. Now, I caught myself thinking farther ahead, having ideas or wishes: I looked forward to the publication of Anthony‘s new book, or a concert I had seen announced in the paper, or even spring, like on this day in September 1948 when I had a considerable amount of tulip and daffodil bulbs waiting for me to put them into the soil.

I had not only gotten skilled at cooking and baking, but at advanced gardening also. The work in the kitchen arose from sheer necessity, whereas I have to admit I enjoyed it more than I had expected. I needed something to fill my long days, and the supply in the stores was still fluctuating. Luxuries like before the war couldn‘t be counted upon. Reacting flexible and creatively on what was available had become an art in itself, and I found joy in doing as much myself as possible and using what nature offered. Having planted raspberries and red currants, I even made jams myself, and just this morning, I had given honey buns a try, amusing myself at my great joy and pride when they turned out deliciously. And the garden: it was not for mere spiritual enjoyment, but I cultivated some vegetables and herbs carefully and lovingly. I had the time, and I was grateful for the fresh produce the stores often couldn‘t supply.

 

I was on my knees just outside the kitchen door, about half way done with planting my bulbs when my door bell rang. It rarely happened – usually it was some poor devil, returning from war, offering help in the house in exchange for a hot meal or just plainly begging for some change. It was still a common enough thing in those days, and wiping my hands and making for the front door, I regretted not having some soup on the stove. Sure enough, when I opened, I saw an elderly gentleman, stooped, haggard and leaning on a stick. When he lifted his hat, I noticed thinning strands of greyish hair. One of the poor souls the war had left devastated, despite his rather elegant and new looking clothes. While I looked him over, he shifted on an obviously painful leg and lifted his head:

„Merton Street, eh? You did it at last?“

I felt a pang in my stomach. I knew this voice. And suddenly I was flooded with fire – I hadn‘t recognized Sebastian! I still wasn‘t sure he was an apparition, a trick my most inward desires played on my poor mind. He grinned lopsided, and that‘s what gave him away, the way he raised one side of his lips when smiling.

„I know I look awful, but stop staring at me like a ghost. May I come in?“

Slowly, I regained composure and was able to talk. But I still felt like struck by lightning.

I held him at the shoulders, careful with my soiled hands:

„Dearest. I thought I would never see you again. I cannot believe it!“

We smiled at each other. And suddenly, I was back in Oxford again, in the warm rays of Sebastian‘s smile, the comfort of his presence. All worries of the last years were wiped away.

„I am sorry, I was gardening. Let me just wash my hands.“

He tried awkwardly to lift his hat onto the rack and swayed a bit, holding onto his stick. I took it from him and tried to help him out of his coat. It took longer than expected, he was that frail and unsteady. Finally, I led him trough to the kitchen. He took it in while I washed my hands, silently, but seemingly pleased.

„You have lots of light here, don‘t you?“

„Yes. Especially now since you are here.“

„Don‘t get sappy, dear Charles“, he scolded, but when I got over to him, I saw that his eyes were misted over. We faced each other, and suddenly, I didn‘t know any more what to do, what was appropriate in such a unique situation. We never had said properly good-bye, and when I had visited him in Morocco, he had held me at arm‘s length, especially when Kurt was present at our last farewell. How do you greet the love of your life after twenty years? I finally put my hands on his shoulders, lightly and gently as he really looked frail, and when he leaned in eagerly, I moved them onto his back and drew him close. He hugged me awkwardly, still clinging onto his stick, but suddenly, we couldn‘t get close enough and pressed into each other. We stood like that silently for a very long time, occasionally swaying and holding onto each other as if our life depended on it. I heard his breath close to my ear, ragged and uneven, and I couldn‘t help but think of the many other occasions I had made him gasping for air. It was so familiar, and yet: now it was old age that caused the irregularity, not excitement. I pressed him fondly before I drew myself away:

„You look exhausted. Would you like to sit down?“

He nodded, and I moved outside. I had just one wicker chair at the small table there, but it was very comfortable. I guided Sebastian there and helped him to sit down before I got myself one of the kitchen chairs. His gaze wandered over my pretty small garden and back to me.

„I cannot believe you did it. We wanted to move here together, you know?“

„Yes, yes. But you liked this house near the tennis courts better. This one has far more light. And a garden. So, since you didn‘t show up, I decided to go ahead...“

He smirked.

„At least, you stuck with the address. And, how is life in Oxford? Are you involved with the university or something?“

„No, not at all. It‘s just – I wasn‘t well, and when I thought about where I had been really happy in my life, I decided to move here. And it helped. Although I missed you here a lot more than I had expected. But I missed you everywhere, so it didn‘t really matter.“

„You missed me?“

„Yes, of course.“

I didn‘t even try to be casual about it, or make a joke about silly me, I just let it stand like the truth it was.

He took my hand over the table:

„I missed you too. But I was too sick to come back. First, I was too drunk, then too sick.“

He let go of my hand and leaned back again in the chair.

„You remember Kurt?“ I nodded. „He had syphilis, and I got it also. First, I didn‘t notice, but towards the end of the war, it got worse. It showed… on the skin. It was painful. The monks advised me to go back to Europe for treatment as they didn‘t have the means there. So I went to Paris and found an amazing doctor who tried a new medicine on me – penicillin? Have you ever heard about it?“ I shook my head. „It`s a sort of wonder cure. I had to stay in the hospital for two weeks, and there, he told me in my face that the syphilis wouldn‘t kill me, but my drinking. Mind you, this chap is younger than us! But suddenly, I realised. It was like an epiphany. I was so low, and sick, and he was just merciless with me. And it stuck. He told me I might die within the next three or four years, or I might live to a fairly old age if I changed course. Somehow, he was so convincing, so sincere in his concern – I mean, I had known this all the time, but I didn‘t care. In Paris, I questioned myself as to why I drank. It didn‘t make me happy. It didn‘t bring me any joy. It was just a habit to make me numb, to escape. And there, all of a sudden, I decided: I had escaped enough. He recommended a sanatorium at Lake Geneva, and I spent more than a year there. And I stopped. Can you believe it? Not a drop since then!“

I shook my head in disbelief: „It must have been tough.“

„It was. But it was my only chance. You know, I had been thinking about my father. He was very much in a similar state like me before he obviously decided to give his life another turn in middle age. He met Cara, he had at least twenty more happy years. And I thought: who was the one person on earth that made me happy? Who made me feel at ease? Where could I be myself?“ He searched my eyes. „And that‘s you, Charles.“ I swallowed. „I really wanted to see you again.“

I felt tears stinging behind my eyes, but tried to stay composed:

„How did you find me?“

„Cordelia.“

I nodded, still moved and with a loud thumping heart.

„I say, something smells delicious from your kitchen. What is it?“

I grinned, got up and behind his chair and hugged him gently from behind. I buried my nose at his collar – he used his old fragrance again – and spoke into his skin:

„Honey buns. Homemade.“

„You know how to make honey buns? Can I move in here?“

I froze, lifted my head and looked straight into his eyes. His eyes wavered a bit, maybe afraid he had been too rash, but he held my gaze.

„Of course. Of course you can move in with me. That has always been the plan with Merton Street, hasn‘t it?“

„No, Charles, I didn‘t want to take you by surprise. I just wanted to visit, look how you are doing. I will take rooms at he Randolph.“

„Don‘t.“

He turned a bit and held his face up to me. I kissed him on the lips, gently and chaste. He sighed:

„Once more. Please.“

While I kissed his lips for the second time, longer and softer, the bells of St. Mary‘s and his old college announced the full hour. Everything was like twenty and more years before. Almost.

 

We had tea and honey buns in the warm September sun before taking a slow stroll through the garden. (The injured leg happened to be a riding accident, of all things. Sebastian would have minor problems with his knee for the rest of his life, but he didn‘t need the cane for very long.) I was surprised to learn that Sebastian had eyed my garden with an expert glance all the time – when we inspected my plants, I learned that he had been in charge of the vegetable garden at the monastery in Carthage and had found real joy in it, even if it was as diffcult as it sounds to cultivate a garden in the desert. But he had had a great teacher in an old monk who was too aged to do the real work himself. In the following year, I would be surprised and grateful how Sebastian‘s wisdom transformed my modest garden.

While I prepared dinner, Sebastian rested on the couch in my living room. Suddenly, he looked drained and exhausted again and I started to get concerned how he should manage on his own. He just would have to stay for now, and as far as I was concerned, he could stay forever. I guess we both knew this. But he became self-conscious later in the evening when he aked me if he could have a bath and if I would assist him. He didn‘t dare to get into the tub when he was alone, so having a bath had become a special treat for him.

„Would you rather have me go to the Randolph after all? I am such a bore, I am sorry“, he panted when I helped him up the stairs, one by one. I breathed heavily also:

„Admit it, you just want to have a hot young valet helping you into your bath, just say it as it is. Not such an old bag of bones like me.“

He turned and smirked:

„You are no bag of bones. Just look at me. And I prefer you to the hottest young things in the world.“

So I stayed with him and helped his skinny, pale body into the warm water. Finally sitting in the tub, he leaned forward on his bent good leg and put his head onto his arms. I watched his freckled, bony back. Every tiny knot of his spine showed as well as the sharp little curves of his ribs. He seemed to have shrunk and looked more like a small bird than the luminous young god he had been in our youth. I settled myself on the rim of the tub. Sebastian glanced at me over his shoulder, weary, humble and grateful in a way that almost broke my heart. Noble birth, all the money in the world didn‘t make a difference when it came to the elementary bodily needs and functions – he was as sick and poor as any other human creature, and to see him reduced to this state moved me deeply. I couldn‘t imagine what it meant to be dependent on others in the most basic tasks. I don‘t know if I could have taken it with grace. The humble simplicity with which he endured it touched me. Sebastian had always been kind, generous beyond anything I experienced since and a great joy to be with. If anybody deserved kindness, it was him. I couldn‘t stand the thought that he felt utterly grateful for my tiny act of kindness. I leaned down and let my hand trail over his shoulders. He smiled weakly and sighed a bit. I felt encouraged to continue, warmed my hand in the water and started to caress the whole of his skinny back with my dripping hand. He felt incredibly light, like almost not there anymore. Just skin and bones. But still – Sebastian. This thought brought a sudden spark deep in my stomach, and all of a sudden I sensed a new sort of closeness, mixed with a strange glitter of sensuality. Despite his changed body, it had a certain erotic element to touch him, naked and bare as he was. Maybe he felt it also by a small change of my way of touching him. He looked at me, head still on his arms, and while I graced his body, our eyes caressed each other with an intensity I had never before experienced. We had shared so many exciting, passionate moments. I had dug my nails into this very back and squeezed him as if my life depended on it. We had made love without restraints or sense, until he begged for a day of rest because he was stretched too much or could only walk wobbly like after a whole day on a horse. We had enjoyed the most intense carnal encounters, and yet: this here had a new quality of closeness, of intimacy. It didn‘t end with a firework, but it glowed long afterwards. We stayed silent the whole time, and that added to the almost mystical aspect of this sort of reunion.

Later, I helped him out of the tub again which was clearly more demanding than getting into it. But we got better at it every night. I even looked forward to this intimate ritual. It reminded me of a vow we had never exchanged, but followed anyway: in sickness and in health, in prosperity and adversity…

I tucked him into bed like a child. Now, I was thankful I had decorated the guestroom so nicely and even invested in good, cozy bedding. It was early, still a bit light outside, but he wanted to lay down. The balmy September dusk lingered over the garden, and while I sat with him, the sky turned lavender blue and then violet. A thin sliver of moon and the first stars hung in the trees beyond my garden when he asked me if I could read something to him. I had all my children‘s books in a pretty little shelve in the guestroom and asked if he possibly wanted to hear one of those – he was delighted by the choice and settled on „Alice in Wonderland“ which became our reading for the following nights. I drew a chair to the bed, he took my hand, and I read slowly and softly while the curtains moved gently in the open window. When I felt the touch of his fingers get lighter, I glanced over the book: his eyes were closed. I stopped reading and just looked at him. He seemed peaceful and serene. I couldn‘t get the two pictures together: was he the beautiful, sweet boy again or the exhausted old man I hadn‘t recognized at my door? He stirred and opened his eyes, apologizing:

„I think I might sleep now. I am tired all of a sudden.“

„Of course, my darling.“

He smiled at the endearment. I leaned in to kiss his forehead and stroke his cheek:

„Sweet dreams.“

„You too. Where is your room, Charles?“

„Right next to you. Do you want me to leave the doors open?“

„Yes, please do.“

He grasped for my hand:

„And, Charles? Thank you.“

I nodded.

 

 

Since our first night in Merton Street together, more than 25 years have passed. Sebastian did crawl into my bed in that first night. I almost had expected this. The guestroom was a real guestroom only for a few hours, at least for him. In later years, Cordelia would stay there whenever she visited. She was the only member of the Flyte family we saw anymore.

The final break had seemed inevitable, but I had hoped it wouldn‘t happen in as ungracious and tactless a manner as it did. We both were not too eager to visit Brideshead. Sebastian just didn‘t want any more attachment to the house of his birth. He claimed that this period of his life was over. I wasn‘t too keen on meeting Julia, either, so we limited our visit to once a year, and always on Bridey‘s urging. He seemed intent on keeping the family together, but Beryl was very visibly adverse to his wishes and obliged only toothgrindingly. She kept nagging why Sebastian always brought me, never any of the marriageable ladies of their circle. Everyone was silent at her constant indelicacies. It was no secret Sebastian and I lived together, and surely it had seeped to Beryl that it was more than splitting rent and food for convenience‘s sake. In the fourth year, she didn‘t even wait until dinner to ferret us, but started over cocktails:

„So, Sebastian, still no heirs in sight? Did you hear, Lady Montdore‘s daughter came out last fall. She is a sensation in London. I am sure you two would fit perfectly.“

Sebastian shot me an exasperated, weary look, and I sensed what he had in mind before he started to speak, chin up, but calm and friendly:

„Beryl, kind of you to be concernded about me, but I love Charles. We live together. Consider us as married as any of your friends.“

Beryl almost turned to stone. Her face went white and expressionsless, the delicate champagne glass in her hand trembled visibly. She stared at me, at Sebastian, and hissed:

„How dare you. I am glad my children don‘t have to hear this.“

She put her glass down with a clink and fled out of the room.

„Well, her children might become a bit worldlier when hearing stuff like this. And deep in her heart, Beryl is glad there are no other heirs on the horizon to compete with her offspring – sorry, Bridey, but you know it‘s true.“ Cordelia couldn‘t suppress a big grin, and her barely concealed chuckling was contagious. After a few seconds, we all laughed, even Bridey. Fifteen years of marriage with a dominating character like Beryl did this to him. I hoped she heard us. I hope she thought we were laughing about her – at least she excused herself from dinner due to a sudden migraine.

Bridey got serious again:

„Charles, I must apologize. You know how glad we are to have you in the family, and Sebastian has never looked better than now. I know the church doesn‘t agree with me in this point, but would they see the two of you - I bet the pope would make an exception.“

Cordelia flinched. Bridey raised an eyebrow to avoid further discussion, laid his hand on my arm and said simply:

„Thank you for loving Sebastian, Charles.“

Sebastian rolled his eyes and hit Bridey:

„That‘s enough, stop being silly! Now where‘s dinner? Cordelia, there is more pudding for you if Beryl won‘t join us. A blessing from heaven on our union?!“

She pinched him:

„Stop being blasphemous, or I will stop praying for you!“

 

This was our last formal visit to Brideshead. Bridey kept sending pompous, meaningless christmas cards on the thickest paper available, but Sebastian threw them often immediately into the fire, although we liked to display cards from dear friends on the mantelpiece.

 

Anthony Blanche was one of them, and due to him we had another remarkable epiphany which finally helped Sebastian to cut the last ties to his family – and in retrospect I am immensly grateful for Anthony for being snide and indelicate as always. We regularly spent a month in early summer in his splendid villa in Florence, always the two of us, whereas his love life comprised a whirlwhind throng of different lovers, one younger, cuter, sexier than the next. This made introductions necessary, and one year he drawled lazily:

„Meet Charles and Sebastian Ryder, the most boring couple I know. College sweethearts...“ he added, wrinkling his nose as in disgust.

„Do I hear a hint of jealousy, dear Antoine?“, his newest aquisition remarked drily, smiling at me and Sebastian.

I guess Sebastian didn‘t hear him at all. He seemed struck and entranced, looked from me to Anthony and back again like in disbelief and said:

„Antoine, you are a genius. I am Sebastian Ryder. It just never came to my mind to call me like that. But if I hear it, I know – that‘s me.“

He beamed with happiness and I couldn‘t but smile at his revelation.

„Where‘s the apricot juice? A last toast for Sebastian Flyte – tonight is his funeral. No more to be heard of him from tomorrow on. I am Sebastian Ryder.“

„Are you? No more Lord, Brideshead, the whole Marchmain-magic?“ Anthony had always been fascinated by true aristocrats, a birth privilege he didn‘t share. It would have matched his flamboyant way of life perfectly, and I am sure he would have given anything to swap with Sebastian.

Sebastian held his dainty crystal glass of apricot juice into the setting sun. His hair glowed golden and his eyes sparkled when he declared solemnly:

„Lord Sebastian is dead. Died a very tragic, premature death while standing on the most stunning terrace overlooking Florence and all her marvels. There is a word for people dying in Florence because they are overwhelmed with beauty – what is it, Charles?“

„The Stendhal-syndrome“, Anthony and I said at the same time.

„Exactly. Let‘s cable this to the „Times“.“

„No!“ Now I was really concerned. I didn‘t want to upset anyone at home with what I thought would be the joke of a summer evening.

Thankfully, Sebastian didn‘t sketch his own obituary. But he introduced himself with my – our – surname increasingly and even spread the old story of the two distant cousins now living happily together. My hands got sweaty more than once when he embellished the story too much, mixed up Northumberland with the Outer Hebrides when somebody who had heard it before was present and looked puzzled („Well, the Outer Hebrides – you see, I stayed there just a few months before joining Charles. To see to an old abbey of ours. Awfully lonely there. But originally, it‘s Northumberland.“)

I hadn‘t expected this change of part of his personality would have such beneficient effects on him. The claims of his family must have been even more insupportable than I had witnessed. He once said this was the main reason for his drinking – a severe accusation, but maybe the truth: alcohol never played a role in his life again.

And he thrived in his new role as my – better half, partner, lover, husband? I still don‘t know what to call us. I always knew the two of us belonged together. To me, our visible or audible union in his name didn‘t make that much of a difference. For him, it did. And I enjoyed how happy, deeply happy he looked when somebody adressed him as „Mr. Ryder“. And I have to admit: it made me a tiny bit proud and inwardly very happy also to see how the idea spread and flourished in him and gave him back so much of his former beauty, charm and confidence.

 

It shouldn‘t be until a few months later that I really grasped the extent of this seemingly simple change of name and what it meant to me, also. We had enjoyed making love in the afternoon, in balmy, warm sunshine in our bedroom (I am glad to note that we were not too old for that, after all. It came natural after a needed time of healing and re-aquaintance for both of us). Sebastian smiled at me. His chest was still slightly heaving and covered in small glistening beads, his hair hung sweaty into his face. He had been so enourmously giving, so generous, so open and intent on giving me pleasure that I was still overwhelmed by his devotion. I combed his hair out of his forehead, and when his eyes caught mine, sweet and affectionate, I suddenly realized: he was mine. He really was mine. Not only bodily, but with the whole of his being. It was his conscious decision, and he offered all he had to give. He risked everything in giving himself up like that. I was flooded with love and affection and promised myself to always honour his immense gift to me.

„Sebastian Ryder“, I said. He smirked. „I am the happiest man on earth.“

„So am I, my love“, he replied.

 

In the following years, our life was uneventful, but serene and as happy and content as we only could wish for. Sebastian Flyte really had disappeared – we maintained no connection to society and it‘s pressure of dinner or weekend invitations. Instead, Sebastian enjoyed to be as anonymous as possible. We had purchased a motor car in the early Fifties, and the freedom it gave us was a constant source of pleasure. Sometimes, we just motored out to the majestic old tree in whose shade we had enjoyed our first memorable picknick, on the June day when Sebastian introduced me to Brideshead. Sometimes with a hamper to lay there all afternoon, sometimes on a whim and just with a blanket to sit and watch the sunset. Sebastian also liked to dine in quaint, little secluded pubs on our outings. As for vacation, the motorcar allowed us to take extended and leisurely trips of Britain, staying in modest inns and enjoying the beauty in front of our doorstep. I had turned to flower paintings, of all things, so famous parks or Botanical gardens were included in our travels as much as possible.

Sebastian, who had loved his horses and dogs back at Brideshead, grew increasingly fond of the tiny creatures living in our garden. It was comforting and soothing to see how good it was for him to have somebody, even as tiny as hedgehogs or birds, to look after and to feed. Supplying the birds with seed in the winter was one of his joys, and the greatest was when the hedgehogs had babies – sometimes up to six little ones – and he helped fattening them and their mother by feeding them in the dusk when thy started to roam the garden. We often sat together, silently, and watched the cute little creatures. And needless to say, the cats loved Sebastian. Much more than me. They always hopped into his lap whenever he sat down on the sofa or in the garden chair, and he beamed. And I was happy when he was happy.

 

As I said, our life was serene and calm. We had the usual smaller ailings approaching age brought with it, but nothing to be concerned about. So it was a cruel shock when I came back from running errands one fine morning in April to find Sebastian motionless on the lounge chair in the garden. I already saw from the kitchen that his arm hung stiffly out at a strange angle. When I approached him rapidly, I saw that one of our teacups and saucer must have fallen from his hand – it lay in pieces under his hand. His head hung awkwardley to the side, and he didn‘t stir when I shouted his name. His eyes were open, unseeing and fixed and a little surprised. It gave him an eery look. Later, I tried to close them, but without success. His beautiful eyes. I touched him and knew immediately: he was dead. He felt so different, so heavy and frozen. I cried his name several times, shaking him by the shoulder, and groped frantically at his neck for his pulse. Nothing, as I had feared. I tried the other side, I ripped open his buttons not very lovingly and slid my hand down his chest: nothing. He even felt a bit cool already. I had been away ninety minutes at the most, but death chose right this slip in the door to touch him gently and take him away from me. And I knew, from a strange animal instinct, that this was final. No need to rush for a doctor. I did, of course, later on, and he confirmed my suspicion: either a stroke, which was more probable as one side of his face hung down slighty, or a heart attack. In either case, death came quickly and immediately, and I wouldn‘t have been able to help had I been there.

Completely shaken, I lowered myself next to him onto the lounge chair. The first thought that crossed my mind was, strangely enough: „And we had planned to motor this afternoon!“ I gently stroked him, his dear face, his beloved features, and finally started to cry. Resting my head on his shoulder and touching his limp arm with my hand, I cried until his shirt was soaked. And I stayed like that for a long time, even if it was uncomfortable and wet, holding him one last time, while a blackbird sang in the trellis above us and the first daffodils shone in the tentative sun.

 

The first months after Sebastian‘s death were painful and hard. I thought I was used to loneliness and loss, having experienced it several times in my life, but this was different. And one never gets really better at it. I had to walk this cruel path alone. But I was thankful he was the first to go and didn‘t have to endure what I did. And gradually, very gradually, grief and loss mixed with a sincere feeling of thankfulness for everything we had had, and so unexpected and late in life. The last twenty years were the most generous bonus fortune could have afforded us. All in all, we had had twenty-five years together. And happy years they were, full of love and laughter. Who could ask for more.