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Je tire ma reverence

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Je tire ma révérence

for Raven

*

1.

Charles' memories of his mother are two-dimensional--portraits in his mind of a lovely face, bathed in morning light and turning towards an open window. He cannot say whether he ever actually glimpsed such a thing, or if it is simply that he once saw one of the photographs that his father has locked away in a desk, pretending later they had never existed.

At the age of ten, he does not understand why his mother left, though it isn't long after before he begins to. His aunt leaves them when Charles starts school, and the first few holidays he spends at home, alone with his father for the first time in his life, are strange occasions. Charles blames himself for perceiving vaguely sinister undercurrents in his father's conversation, because of course one's father cannot be suspected of deliberate unkindness, but he can not help feeling uncomfortable, unwelcome.

He takes a train to Norwich during the Easter vac his fourth term, and arrives unannounced on his aunt's doorstep. She admits him with painful sort of abashed courtesy, and inquires after the last six years of his life.

When they've drunk their tea and crumbled ginger biscuits into dusty heaps, his aunt excuses herself for a moment and returns with a large photo album. In its pages Charles finds his mother, young and fair, smiling with an innocence that, to Charles, is not even remotely familiar, but that he instantly longs to possess.

2.

School is a kind of haven. He gets along well enough with the other lads, and though he does not make close friends with ease, he's judged to be an all right sort of fellow--not one to blubber for matron over a bit of fagging, or interfere with anyone else's fun. He finds the work dull and unobtrusive, and in his plentiful spare time he begins, at the encouragement of the drawing master, to approach his own desultory sketching with new seriousness. He doesn't lack for subjects, if one counted the waves of adolescent boys breaking on the cobblestone courtyard every morning, or the idyllic vista of pastoral English life surrounding the school properties.

But he draws little from life. His subjects seem to spring, fully formed, from his mind to the paper--Neapolitan panoramas that resemble nothing in either art or landscape, illuminations for manuscripts no monk ever penned, and fancy's heads, all the same-- sweet features and snub noses and fine, clinging hair.

"Who is that?" asks the drawing master, flipping page after page.

"No one," says Charles. "No one I know."

3.

Oxford bursts across his palate like a fine wine after endless cups of weak, milky tea. He perceives here undreamt-of vistas of potential, new experiences in intellectual and sensual discovery. All the doors of his mind--shuttered, in his dull striving for the unexceptional and unimpeachable life expected of Chatsworth's old students--seem to fly open at once in their yearning to admit sunlight.

After they meet, he never tells Sebastian how he used to watch him--through windows, across courtyards, like a shy girl too well brought up to speak to strangers. Nor how, shortly after seeing him for the first time, the faces in his drawing pad suddenly began to lose their hazy, indistinct sweetness and gain new definition--freshness, a wry smile, a hint of melancholy and cultivated eccentricity.

In later years, in the shipwreck of his marriage, in the staid and dutiful correctness of what he can only sneeringly refer to as an artistic career, he will return to those pictures and wonder whether Sebastian's choices had not been more honest than his own, and whether decline was not, in some ways, less purgatorial than compromise.

He picks up his pencil one day, and attempts to draw Sebastian as he remembers him best, from the summer of their first year together. But, to his eyes, every line he sets down seems to hint at a future of decay. There is more danger in the enterprise than a tired old man is willing to risk, and he throws it on the fire.

4.

"We're so much alike," Sebastian had told him once, when first he met Julia. Charles had not seen it then, or perhaps he had been too much engaged elsewhere to look closely. He sees it now. He tries not to; he has no patience for Freudians and their tiresome generalizations, and if he is drawn to anything in Julia that reminds him of the past, it is merely that in her company he is rested--that she herself is a respite.

Sebastian had perceived only a physical resemblance between himself and his sister, and God knows that was bad enough. But the longer he and Julia are together, the more Charles finds in her elements of the same impulse to self-ruin. She will destroy what they have together because their present happiness, not to mention the prospect--or rather, the certainty--of lasting contentment is a perpetual chastisement to her.

He draws Julia these days, whenever she will pose for him--nude figures, bathing, running, riding. Mostly, he draws her in profile, in a perpetual effort to capture that elusive intersection where the wave of her hair meets the curve of her jaw.

Her eyes, her nose and lips he reproduces effortlessly. Charles has always been drawn to a certain kind of face.

5.

He is startled by the ugliness of the war.

There's no excuse for it, really. He's read all the bloody poems, had seen what wreckage the last one made of all the men of that generation. And yet, nothing had prepared him--nothing could have prepared him--for how it steals into one's mind, invades the private retreat of his memory. He no longer wakes at the sound of an air ride siren in the night, but the sound of it penetrates his dreams, turning a quiet summer's picnic with Sebastian into an anxious and confused flight from some invisible approaching menace.

It is that which wakes him, every time. Not the threat of German bombs, but the lingering suspicion that, had he taken warning earlier they might have fled to a place of safety. But the years have rolled past while he slept, and he knows he has missed that window.