By rights, we ought to have been in Oxford, of course we ought. Chiefly at lectures, principally at the library, above all in the bedroom, which for the student must double as the study.
Alas no. I used my books to flatten my ties; my pen and ink went on thank-yous for invites to parties and ironical likenesses of the lectures which were pinned to the Common-Room wall to great acclaim. I polished my shoes only to scuff them again gloriously on a football we found while stumbling across the quad at four in the morning, trailing bow-ties, hat-pins, gloves, scarves.
Really, it was like school; only, without the threat of the cane, there was no disincentive for blackguarding, and every, every reasonable reason to do it!
Candles burned low in the night as we lit from it cigarette after cigarette, fugging up the high dark ceilings of my room, as we argued not over philosophical ideologies, what was wrong with the world and how we! We! As wealthy, intelligent Oxford men were the ones to fix it!
Instead we got heated over who could come up with the most Absurdities. Naturally I lost.
“Of course you can't compete with me, Charles.” In the wintery dim of my bedroom, he made a stab in the box for another piece of crystallized fruit, and licked the fragments from his fingertips. Peach, from the smell. “All of my stories are true, and I have an absolute trove, on account of my family, as you know.”
I knew, yes, because I believed him, and because Anthony Blanche's verbal painting of the abridged Brideshead History had been so vivid, so poisonous; even if his gossip didn't sicken me, there was enough panic in Sebastian's eyes – all the time – that the rumours at least stung slightly like a nettle. Only the company of Sebastian himself was a balm. I needed to know, to be reassured that he was alright.
As if he sensed this, he was freely vivacious and warm. If only I guessed then what I later knew, was part of me – that he was fighting through his own past like thick woodland, like a last, lone soldier, to reach neutral territory, peace – me, gazing at him, chin in hand and goofy grin.
“Once,” Sebastian poured another measure, each: “And once only, mind you - one doesn't traverse the wrong rocky path again, destination be damned – we all got together, we children as conspirators. The occasion was Mummy's birthday, a significant one, I won't say which in case it alters your demeanour when you next meet her; she'll know if you've adjusted imperceptibly from coquette to statesman -”
“Oh do go away, Sebastian. Go on! Birthday.”
“Alright. Right-oh. So. Not usually an occasion for much mirth in our house – don't even know Daddy's birthday – but for us children, generally there was a gentle nudge, each passing year, through the medium of a present or card our outright lecture – one birthday after a particularly woeful term report I received a chemistry set. Disastrous. Anyway, so Julia, Bridey and I – Cordelia toddling in our wake – decided to organize a surprise party for Mummy.
“But where? In the drawing room? No, that was out. She'd guess. A speck of dust would be off kilter. Library? Hardly conducive to high-jinks and loose hair, no? The conservatory? Yes! Among Mummy's beloved petunias and rows of turnips, pews of respectful tendees and recipients of much of her wisdom, no doubt.
“And so we convened in the playroom. We sketched plans. We wrote out giant letters, cut up newspaper confetti, made miles of paper chains. Nanny supervised all – in fact she offered to do it herself, or enlist in the help of the staff, but no! We weren't having it. This must be a personal childish effect, a labour of love, and it must be a surprise, so as to jolt some genuine emotion out of Mummy. God only knows where we got such an idea, likely some tatty novel or other, or sentimental picture show. Trying to paint our lives over as bright.”
I tapped some ash. It was pitch dark except for the candle, his face, his eyes.
He smiled. “Paint – see? I'm tailoring my oration to your sensibilities. So you'll remain engaged. So you won't fall asleep.”
“Oh I wouldn't. I hardly can, these days!”
“Or nights, evidently. Yet look at the state of your bed-covers! Disgraceful!”
“That was you, Sebastian, you had an eight-hour nap there earlier.”
“Oh, yes. Well, of course I'm going to forget a nap, after all, I was asleep. Now. The party is ready. Garden room – festooned. Our good outfits are laid out on the beds upstairs. Julia had a new ribbon and was exercising great restraint in not wearing it straight to breakfast; she kept it in her grubby frock pocket. Tensions are high. Cordelia can barely keep down her minced carrot. Then, when lunch is over and things being clattered away, Bridey stands and claps his hands, 'Right! Well! Jolly good. Shall we go though to your party, Mother?'
“Well, you can imagine. All fell. 'Oh, Bridey,' went the tragic Julia, and she tossed the blindfold she'd brought to mask Mummy's eyes into the middle of the tablecloth. Now that all was crashed and sank, she pulled out her ribbon and tied it obstinately in her hair.
“'What?' goes Bridey. 'What's that fuss, Julia? Now. Shall we, then? Ladies first.' You see, he doesn't learn from these things, and will thus blunder through life like a protected rhino.” Sebastian tapped his cigarette into my house-plant. “After, it transpired that a window had been left open in the greenhouse and some two hundred balloons escaped, bust hither and tither leaving their multi-coloured remains all over the estate. A footman got an ear-tweaking for that, no doubt. So you see, it becomes – it's not worth the effort.”
Celebration not worth the effort? Hardly his axiom now. There again, there was little as formal as a birthday needed to encourage us; how daily and commonplace became our cavorting. In fact it was better – even more off-the-wall – to have no reason at all, merely the opportunity, the means, the money in one’s pocket, burning, begging to be spent. It’s possible that my father and benefactor wouldn’t see it that way; but seeing as how he himself was from the wonderfully freeing ‘out of sight, out of mind’ school of social relations (I considered wearing a name-tag to our next family dinner), he, like everyone else who was real, was miles away.
We should have been in Oxford, and that was half the point. “Oh Charles. We can’t stay here in this forever-autumn brown city, where the last crisp leaf crumbles with any hope for the future. What’s next to look to? Slippery footpaths, frost and exams. Even the Botanical Garden is crypt-like in this weather, drawing you in only to have you lay down and perish. Some tooraloo it’ll be if the gardener finds you, and you had to be identified from your chattering dentals. No – it’s nearly Christmas - we ought to be in London, stepping into Dickens.”
“Oh yes? We’ll create our own Papers, is that it?” We were walking towards the library, and note – strolling right past it.
“Yes, that’s the ticket. Well – we’ll not actually write them down – therefore there’ll be no incriminating evidence to use against us in Court.” It was customary for Sebastian to preface any pursuit like so, as if the evening were were going to be the last word in depravity (even when he bundled up to trudge to evening Mass), but it didn’t necessarily indicate the nature of the upcoming jaunt. Certainly not in this case. I could have written to Father and told him all about our plans for Thursday.
In fact there was something of his pompous air about my reply. “You want us to go to a lecture delivered by the Fabian Society, forsooth! Dear me! Are you becoming socialist? Do you think you have enough rags in your wardrobe for a full costume?”
“Socialism isn’t akin to humility.” We walked the icy way to the train station in Oxford, arm in arm and bulky in our brown winter coats and – heaven forfend anyone spy us – boots. “It’s a reaction to a – deep-seated unfairness that rattles the very soul, and the solace is that many others feel likewise, seek change, and are – willing to take arms against a sea of troubles, sort of a thing, old thing. The mobilization of the public conscience.”
I looked at him in surprise – oh, he was reading out of a small tract, the fluttering pages in his leather-gloved hand. All the same as we hopped on the train, I was interested to find out what had prompted Sebastian towards this particular Pickwick, this outing – a Lord, like himself, hardly a likely candidate for the poster-boy and prime example of spreading the wealth. He kept his pencils in a carved turtle shell, for goodness’ sake, right there in the little leg-holes! Still if anyone was born to be an outlier it was he. I wasn’t perhaps the only one in search of love.
Strange how it never occurred to me that he was simply drunk! His eyes were still dark and alert and mellow.
As we settled on the train, shook off our coats, folded our legs, hats on knees, I offered him a cigarette. “Since when to you wish to become one with the public?”
I had to wait for a reply, as the six o’clock bells rang outside, not that he needed them: he murmured away at his Angelus as I waited patiently, paused. His hands were joined, then thumping his chest, then crossing himself. He stuffed the rosary beads back in his pocket and looked up with his old grin, took the cigarette. “Are we not already, like or no?” He leaned close so I could light, and went on. “Did you attend the lecture on Plato’s Republic the other day – Tuesday I believe?”
“Oh dear. I only caught the last five minutes – from whom shall I crib for the exams? Never mind. Let’s focus on what I did hear – likely the gist – unless I misheard – about how society is naturally chaotic, somewhat – well, we can see that ourselves, can’t we, any night of the week, the Christmas wine flowing, not a staircase in the college safe from a tumble – and that a democracy purports care to all, and in so doing tenders – quote, ‘equality to equals and unequals alike.’”
“Good theme for an essay.” I settled back against the soft plum cushions. Outside flashed houses with yellow windows, black forests, small villages. As we neared London, the square window, wet and blurry with rain, suggested dark blue, sparks of white, movement and warmth; a Monet we went through, tracks clacking under our comfortable rumps. I could not have been happier. “If you write it for a term paper, I’ll proofread it for you. And you can check my history essay on ‘Whig Reform of the Nineteenth Century’. You’ll be the expert soon.”
“Oh.” He waved a hand. “I’m not about to go writing things down, Charles. Merely, it captivated my interest. And when things do so, I like to go right to the source.” Wasn’t I glad for it! I returned his lazy smile.
A child’s London was the one I knew, up until now. It was the home of – well, my home, if you could call it that – a few hazy memories of Mother, as busy and industrious as a Matron, and my father, only, now, and dark furniture and long meals of cold fish. London meant getting on the train to school and back again; of course there were also museums, art galleries, structures that slowly began to fill my young, capped, uniformed soul – brushstrokes on canvas at the Tate that made my fingertips rub my thumb with ambition, instead of just picking my nose.
But New London. London as an adult – plays and music-halls, bars and picture-houses; from the seediness of squashed, steaming secret underground parties to the red-carpet, tuxedoed glide towards the Russian Ballet at the Hippodrome – I was sure, somehow, though I was a native and he an interloper – me a city-gent sophisticate, he a forested, fermenting hayseed – ha! - I knew that Sebastian was key to the grand opening of my eyes to the next stage of life’s pleasures.
In fact at that moment, his blonde head resting, bumping on the purple curtained window, we wouldn’t even have had to leave the carriage to experience them.
We should have been at Oxford, there were classes the next day at nine o’ clock. Important ones, where the professors were to give reviews of the terms’ teachings and by tradition, enormous hints as to what was to come up in the exams.
Light rain lit up the footpath shiny on cold cold Essex Street. We walked two abreast, like two great brown bears prowling the lamplight and motor-cars. Every once in a while we had to break apart to single-file, as a merry, feather-hatted shopper or a stalking bowler-hat or ringing messenger-cap zigzagged by us: no less distracting were the bright glowing shop windows with furniture, books, food and drink, glinting chandeliers, typewriters, elegant fur coats on mannequins; lovers, serious, leaning towards one another over coffee behind many-panelled windows, a candle illuminating their joined fingers.
Sebastian looked at them, then looked at me – braced on both sides. “Oh, what a whizz. Wasn’t this exactly the right thing to do tonight! Look – I brought provisions.” He opened his greatcoat to reveal not a flagon or even a hip-flask but a box of Cadbury Mayfair chocolates. “Father Christmas has come early to the suffering students.”
“You are a true nut,” I said, and he tapped his nose and nodded to the side – for we had reached our destination, the edifying edifice – Essex Hall. On one side, to the right, was a three storey redbrick with a shop-front at the bottom - ‘Unitarian Association’, quite polished, with an array of books and pamphlets in the window, and posters advertising meeting after meeting. Jolly sociable bunch, they must be.
As to Essex Hall itself – it had all the makings of the urban National Trust number – taller than it was wide, and some several sturdy stories high, with an assuring worn stone facade and double Romanesque windows, curtained. It stood a little back from the street as it were rather tentative, secretive, unprepossessing - ‘Dear me!’ said the Hall. ‘Wouldn’t want to get one’s foot trodden upon, isn’t the city busy? I’ll retreat a bit; after all, I’m not up to much!’
This was at odds with the true front of the building, a stone archway in miniature jutting out obnoxiously onto the footpath, rather like the large entranceway, rich in carved detail, underwhich one drove up to the front of Brideshead Castle. It was Greek revivalist, right there in the middle of commercial London. Two archways were buoyed up by three columns, on which perched the low triangular pediment with carved figures in some tableau or other. It was dark and there were as many shadows as lamplight when I squinted up; probably two lions roaring at each other over a heart cracked down the middle or somesuch.
If it was baroque, and elaborate, and useless – was not that ironical, given the present purpose of the building, the nature of the debates? Mind you – here we were going in – two would-be students of philosophy who dodged our homework and walked up the temple steps in long Burberry coats rather than sweeping robes.
Sebastian pulled out his false beard and glasses and applied them to his face. I, having lacked his foresight, wound my grey and black striped scarf more about me, up under my nose. Though I was hardly a headliner, unlikely to be recognized, derided; I wouldn’t let Sebastian alone in his pranks.
Inside the reception area of the hall were cold worn tiles, and the walls were covered in framed newspaper pages, posters, portraits of famous Fabians and a large fireplace, flanked by armchairs where visitors tossed their coats. People milled about, greeting and clapping backs and directing long cigarette holders away from faces, elbowing about in the small space. All crowded towards a door to the far left, outside which a large open book was on display, like one would see at a wedding or public funeral. “Sebastian, are you a member?” Seemed hardly worth asking, the boy was so capricious. And as he was signing his name, ‘Tom Sawyer.’
“No. But anyone can dream, for a day, for fifteen shillings!” Sebastian never had any flesh-and-bone money, so Huckleberry dug out his wallet.
“Bob Cratchit’s weekly wage,” he whispered in my ear and took my arm towards the lecture-hall. “Let’s see what we can do about that.”
In the hall proper, shoes squeaked on the wooden floor and the chairs were in haphazard rows in front of a small stage, upon which there were four more chairs and a podium. Flickering electric lights were low above our heads, and on the yellowed walls were faded paintings of the countryside – small stone castle among trees, a twee little bridge, houses nestled in hills, a waterfall. They were crude, with sharp shading to signify dimensions and white blobs for sheep – yet captivating, like illustrations from a children’s book. I recall thinking how exciting it might be to paint a scene directly upon a wall like that – such care, yet such recklessness. One’s progress – if it was that – for all the world to see. I nudged Sebastian. “Do you think they were frescoes?”
He took hold of his glasses between forefinger and thumb and looked up over the rims. “I fear they may still be, these walls are liable to be as damp. Isn’t it perishing in here! Good thing there’s so many people.”
And there were, oh there were. Many a fifteen bob collected that night! Men in suits, women in suits, and in long skirts with stout cardigans, boaters and felt hats – but more caps than any other. And the women with long hair had it piled on their heads, pinned with notes and slogans; another might have short hair and a cigar dangling from her lips. Men in ushankas and fierce expressions, with military-style garb; still more of the intellectual bent with indoor scarves, primary pinstripes and beards. Ah Sebastian, on the ball as always.
Once we were seated, pushed cheek-to-jowl, there were claps and a drum-roll for the key speaker, a small, dark man in a beret and a matted, grey, woollen fisherman’s jumper, and a tension of barely suppressed injustice about him that was perceptible even from our spots in the cheap seats at the back.
“Ladies and Gentlemen!” he said, to some jeers. “If there are any of you here, you can leave now. The rest of you – Comrades – are welcome to share in tonight’s lecture, from which you will leave richer – in spirit.” ‘Or else’, he seemed to leave unsaid. I wondered exactly how much money was slumbering contentedly in my bank account and felt a stab of guilt, whatever the figure. Which is just the reaction they wanted to elicit!
Guilt! Now that was much more Sebastian’s department, but he looked fairly cool and calm, glassy-eyed even, as the speaker reminded us all of the Fabian creed, “The moral modern man and woman is a socialist. To what End? ‘The re-organization of society by the emancipation of Land and Industrial Capital from individual ownership, and the vesting of them in the community for the general benefit. In this way only can the natural and acquired advantages of the country we equitably shared by the whole people.’”
Floating to the forefront of my mind again was Brideshead Castle, with its acres upon acres of rolling hills and forestry all around, the lakes and rivers and indentured smallholdings, half of Wiltshire. All the beautiful land in that county was belonging to Lord Marchmain, it had seemed like, on that bright, bursting, fragrant summer-strawberried day when Sebastian had first motored me there. My first and most absolute impulse was to be impressed, awed; all the more so exacerbated by my friend’s indifference.
He leaned to me now. “Chocolate?” he whispered.
“Sebastian, you’re so close you’re not half tickling me with those silly whiskers. Besideswhich you look a perfect ass. Do take it off.”
“Sssshhh!!” said some socialists. Sebastian stuffed away his disguise and was nineteen again, chomping on the chocolate, toffee on his teeth.
Forthwith, we listened to the impassioned lecture, which purported the rights of the working-man, not only to fair wages, and a few hours comfort every day before sleep and the next daily slog, but burrowed specifically into the root of his discontent – as Sebastian had remarked upon earlier, the unfairness, the feeling of being used, rather than appreciated as part of a system. Emotions make voters, so they say.
A demand for higher wages was superseded, actually, by a push for a shorter working week, or rather working day – the Fabians, or this particular one, believed that a six-hour workday was entirely tenable without the masses starving to death for lack of remuneration; however it would, as Ruskin apparently posited, require every able-bodied adult in the country to work. Well, talk about labours. Imagine the administrative effort of enforcing such policy! And pride in professionalism gone out the window! Yet, if it were only a few hours.. I glanced at Sebastian, his fair skin, soft hair, neat nails and sanguine expression.
Oh, a true democracy – or republic, if you’re Socratic – would indeed be something to behold – except, I couldn’t imagine anything more lovely than his well-rested face just then. When something perfect and personal grows in meaning, one may as well toss politics.
“If you had to go out and work, what would be your job?” I whispered.
“A travelling tragic mime.” He widened his eyes and sucked in his cheeks as I muffled my laugher in my hand, to the hushings once more all around us.
Next it was decreed that the working-man is dissatisfied with being treated like a horse, and the belligerent recipient of barked orders; though one could argue that a horse is more inclined towards the Pavlovian promise of food than a fear of being fired.
And in conclusion – that is, the answer to Society’s ills? “Co-operative ownership – public ownership. Yes – in which there is no management and no workforce. Each man and woman is neither – is both. ‘From each according to his ability..’” The crowd recognised and appreciated this old rallying-cry. Yet isn’t that variable so vast as to seem unfathomable, exhaustive? No wonder Socialism is banished to the theoretical, the lecture-theatre so.
That’s to say – in such a case, would not every man – or a certain set – desperately seek to prove and improve his ability – think of those bootlickers, front-deskers in the classroom, apple-polishers – in order to increase his rightful allotment of wealth, which would thereby result in competition – in other words, capitalism? Tipping the scales of equality to tumble? Isn’t that already what we had now?
“I suppose it’s more maybe to put a cap on ownership.” Sebastian buttoned up his overcoat as we left, fumbling with red, cold fingers. “To try and kindle an in-built consideration for one’s fellow man, loving thy neighbour. Oh, I don’t know, I never did finish Les Mis.” He tipped the confectionery box out into our hands. “Foodles, don’t any of these chocolates have booze in them?”
“You’re a slave to the liver,” I said as we gained the city again, a soft carpet of snow underfoot as we walked idly away. It had come down silently while we were inside being educated. The cold got into the feet and against the face; if I hadn’t a flush I’d have felt it more.
“And now, I declare we go to a soup kitchen.” Sebastian propped the lapels of his coat so that they pointed around his jaw like an American.
“Why, are you that famished?”
“No, no, Charles, not to eat. To help.”
“I did, too. Let’s go. There’s a bus station. Put out your arm to indicate. We’re turning left.”
“Well, and where are we going?” But he didn’t answer, it was more important to go, than where to. We clattered coins and fed ourselves onto the bus.
Thus, off we trundled to the East End, particulars didn’t matter much, in the dark, and in the damp, snowy windows, it all looked one outside, a bleak obliteration. Sebastian wiped the condensation every so often with his elbow, before he took mine and whipped us down the steps to a stop – so deft was he, it was hardly at random – and down there on the narrow, uneven street the air was colder, surprising the lungs.
Sebastian breathed in his nose wetly, and puffed out a cloud, and paused, his teeth showing behind his top lip, red Russian-doll circles on his cheeks. Eyes vague, he looked maybe a foot in front of him. It was one of those moments where I looked at him myself and wondered, goodness, all’s said, who is this stranger, this beautiful blonde with a play-like past and a head full of invention? Naturally his family was there boldly in Who’s Who. But that doesn’t demystify – who’s in there?
“Painting a picture, Charles?”
“Oh – what?”
“You’re staring at me.” He tucked my scarf into my collar and took my arm. “Come on, they won’t wait.” Away we went, he wouldn't let one rest. As we passed our way down streets and lane-ways, through gaps in houses, the businesses turned into shops turned into pubs, all the more poky and worn and yet crowded. The cobbles underfoot grew more uneven and puddles more and wider. After a certain point of ten minutes’ marching there was no point in trying to avoid them, so saturated were my socks.
And soon we were away from the pubs even, the places where people spent money – because there was none here, clearly, there was only houses – if you could call them that! - and people did nothing there but live – if you could call it that.
To the left, through a round alleyway, one could make out a river, a tributary; on it small boat-wrecks, and great, rusty, retired iron machinery lurking from the depths, all over green lichen and brown, shining slime. The moon illuminated only mere corners of things here and there which only added to the unreality.
Here was an old mill, no longer working; still in the distance were the sharp, steel-black factories of industry – life, one would think, working, wages – yet not so encouraging if the only taste of it was the choking smoke in the bedroom window.
Out in the back-alleys of the tenement houses were columns of mean little gardens, some with dead plants, some full of rubbish, still others had some measure of aspiration with a statue, a wrought iron gate. Protruding too from the buildings were rows of wooden scaffolding – ah, additions to the houses when there were additions inside. A child or two, hatless, hopeless, leaned over the breaking balconies and watched us. In fact there were few people at all around at this hour: it was bitterly cold and like any animal, a person will seek shelter foremost, safe harbour. A pretty dream.
A rat flashed across our path. “In the honour of God, Sebastian!” I didn’t say, but my eyes did, and my grip on his arm,
“I know, if you’ll just come along another little, it’s just here,” said he with a pull on my waist, and we went down another tumbledown street, up to the only place with lights on, a three storey at the end of a terrace with black-stained redbrick and a battered sign: ‘St Vincent de Paul Almshouse.’ And a small rendering underneath of a chalice, grapes or some such and a lamb – the works.
I was rather more the goat or donkey as Sebastian pushed to usher – planted my heels.
“Come on, old boy! We’re here now!” As if it had ever been anything other than his idea!
Inside was more of a canteen than a kitchen. A far cry from the Dining Hall at college – this place couldn’t even touch the Buttery. In a crowded, brown, low-raftered room, people in all stages of vagrancy and dishevellment sat at thick wooden benches and ate; sores on hands, exposed parts of leg, hair either wild and knotty or plastered down with grease. A coat-rack at the side was party to a number of patched hats, so there was some nod to gentility. Some men, not much older than us, still wore their ripped and tattered army uniforms, which concealed any amount of injuries, if the limping and wincing were anything to go by. It smelled warm, and clammy, and very sharply savoury, which went straight to my salivary glands despite myself.
“Welcome, my brothers.” A man in rough robes, sandals and a beard approached with open hands. “Can I take your coats?”
“Yes, and do pass them along to whomsoever is most needful.” Sebastian winked at me as we disrobed – I with reluctance and no small amount of huffing.
“It’s all very well for you,” I grumbled. “You can simply go and get another, charge it to Mummy’s account at Harrods.”
“As can you.” He smartened his suit. “Oh, do pick up your face, Charles, I’ll get you another. We’ll go together. You need a new one anyway – one that more matches mine.”
The monk folded our coats over his arm and smiled. “And what are your names?” Perhaps he thought we were undercover newspaper journalists.
“David and Jonathan,” said Sebastian, his hands on his hips. “We’re here to chuck a helping.”
“Wonderful! God sees, and ye shall be repaid in kind.” Yikes. Less than necessary, if only he knew. The accounts were a little uneven.
At the top of the dining room was a wooden door that led out to an alcove or foyer – the entrance proper to the house. So we had blundered in a side door. Here was a row of tables all over with bowls, spoons, plates, and steaming soup being ladled out by earthy, bracing servers, and meekly received bythe murmuring needy.
We were positioned by the bread rolls. I stood awkwardly. Were not our roles here somewhat superfluous, one would wonder? The food was there, the people were there, could they not – help themselves, spare both of us this embarrassing extension of necessity?
Yet from a practical viewpoint, it might be in the interest of crowd-control that the goodies be divvied. The poor people were thin, beaten, cold, dirty – hungry. Three meals away from anarchy, so they say, and this lot looked like they hadn’t eaten in yonks!
And from an impractical stance. Out of the corner of my eye, as hot soup burned my clumsy fingers and steam stuck my hair down to my forehead, I glimpsed Sebastian not only insisting an extra portion of bread onto the plate of an old woman, but also pat her on the shoulder of her matted fur-coat and point her in the direction of the food-hall, as if this were the Ally-Pally and we were cloakroom-boys.
Some two hours later we were in rolled-up shirtsleeves and braces and quite indistinguishable from our patrons.
Outside the front door, I shook out a fag, and leaned back on the wet bricks to take it in. Still was as Arctic as before. Through the night air came shouts in the distance, bobby and robber no doubt, and a layer of fresh snow lay all around, covering all the rubbish. It looked quite homely.
Sebastian appeared and took his share of the cigarette. “Come on, you. Let’s get going. That’s as good as my works get for one night.” He wore a red and blue blazer much too big for him, and held out a black donkey-jacket to me. It smelled of potash.
“Hadn’t we ought to pay them some money?” I shook my shoulders into the coat. “We ate a fair amount of soup and bread.”
“Oh foodles. We worked for it! Gave them our – serving expertise! A fair trade.”
“Hardly in the spirit of charity, that, is it? Or volunteering..”
Some way away – but not too far away, not yet the real world, where one might conceivably meet a Ryder – we came upon a friendlier row of stone-fronted terraced buildings – shops again, with bushes and plants about the doors, and trees in the small park opposite, and snow dusted on everything, lit up and gleaming by the glow of the yellow street-lights. Christmas decorations in the windows, a sign jutting out from the wall - ‘La Perle.’
“French! Trés sophistiqué! Onward.” Sebastian banged on the red-wreathed door and snow fell from the windowsill above onto his head.
Inside we were shown to our corner of the tavern, edging past the Christmas tree to sit close on worn felt chairs at a small table with a candle sticking up out of its wax. The walls were dark wood and the fire in the hearth crackling pleasantly, more than enough heat for the small room. A stuffed pheasant presided over a dresser of delph and faded books. The bar was behind a door. It was more like being a guest than a customer.
“Too darling of a place, isn’t it?” Sebastian lounged on his chair, elbow over the back, legs folded, though we were unlikely to bump into anyone we knew, anything bright or young. He tapped his cigarette. “Let’s revisit our earlier theme.”
He might have been talking about anything. “Indeed, let’s.”
“Charity. Loaded term. We give out ‘alms’ on Boxing Day at home you know. To the staff and tenants. A frightful humiliation on all parties.”
“I rather love your house.”
“I suspected as much.” He pointed the fiery tip of his fag at me. “Then, my dear darling, you rather love ‘inequality.’ Did nothing of the Fabians reach you? Weren’t you listening?”
“Well – well, I suppose, I’d believe religion, more so than the bare-knuckle Labour movement, to be the agent provocateur to good works.”
“Ah! This again. Round and round the mulberry and back to the church. Would that it were that simple. Do you know the point of weekly Mass, Charles?”
I shrugged, a helpless hand out. “Communion?”
“Noooo, not quite. Jolly good too; there are only five Flytes who attend our chapel, could hardly deem us a community. Try again?”
“I couldn’t fathom.” I thought back to school choirs, dull funerals. “The Gospel. The Bible!” I tapped the tabletop.
“The sermon. The priest, my love, and what he’s been jottering down on his notepad all week and is simply dying to impart. Usually some story of a waif who makes the best of it. That it will all come good in the end, if he behaves himself, he’ll get his. I’ve often wondered if it were always the same wretched waif. And if he exists at all.” He looked away, a rest, sipping his drink.
There was something plaintive in his tone. Sebastian gave the impression, through his grimacing over his family, embarrassment over money and, apparently, curiosity over Socialism, that he rather resented his wealth even as he revelled in it. No doubt it would be be spiritually easier to be poor. Less to think about. The thing was – Sebastian had the option, to go from rich to poor – if he so wished. One walk, one scandal, that’d do it. Not such a straightforward feat to climb back up the ladder, if it was later considered a mistake. If he jumped, it would be only once. Lady Marchmain’s influence loomed invisibly everywhere, keeping him where he was – and perhaps, too, he was afraid of suffering.
Still, he didn’t hesitate to put his poor body through the torturous rigours every Saturday night!
I took his arm and looked at him. “Confession.”
“Ah – yes, you’re quite right. The Box. Where tongues thicken and resolves broken. That is a unique weekly requirement too, you have done your homework, old chum. Has Anthony been churching you?”
“No, I’ve kept myself pure. A blessed virgin.”
“There’s no other kind.” Sebastian bit into a sandwich.
“So you really must recite all your sins of the previous seven days? You have them listed in advance? Tally them as you go along?” I had some sandwich too – cheese and Branston. “Come on then – let’s have them.”
He wiped his mouth. “A peep at my diary, as that what you’re after? Or worse – my diseased mind.”
“Perish.” And then: “I could help you, you know, prepare them. Dress rehearsal.”
“Why, Charles. What an extraordinarily generous proposal, but we haven't got all night!”
“Why Sebastian. That’s just what we do have!” And I poured another, and we clinked. So we did! We could talk all night and sleep in forever!
I sat up importantly. “I’ll be the priest.”
“Alright then. Bless me Father, for I have sinned.” Obviously. I have a magnanimous nod. He continued: “It has been – four days since my last Confession. Father, these are my sins.”
Swallowed my titters, blew out smoke. “Go on, my child.”
Sebastian hunched over, his hands joined under his chin, eyes trained to the carpet, and spoke slowly. “Sometimes it rather plagues and frightens me that my parents don’t love one another.”
My smile iced. “You – what?”
He shrugged one shoulder, still looking at the ground. “We’re glib about it, yes – to a fault – won’t ever discuss it, but -” He looked up at last, and I startled at his big, clear, bright brown eyes. “Surely it ought to be the case, really? To love, to marry, to stay? ‘Never pass into nothingness’ - sort of a racket?”
I thought back to my own parents, what little I could recall of their relationship. “It’s normal for things to – go normal. To fade out, simmer down, disappear.”
“But ought it be?” He leaned forward earnestly, hand on my knee. I had no idea priests had to prepare for such debate! “Why do people fall in love if they don’t stay? It’s counter-intuitive. A deliberate fooling.”
Words failed me. Thought all but did too. All I could do was to feel, as he spoke, how my stomach jolted with ice-water, a shock of excitement more pure than when I laughed at his jokes, heard him call my name across the quad, wink at me secretly. Here he was, doling – shovelling – out such brutal honesty, no sugaring, it was an almost unbearable honour. On the one hand I silently urged him not to open the Tinderbox. On the other, if he was going somewhere real – like a child seeing the makings of an outing, I wanted to go with him.
“At home – on some dresser, or in some drawer – there are wedding photos, family portraits too. The paintings on the wall, the poetry on the shelf – all lies. I’ve long accepted it. Merely – it’s fascinating.” He didn’t sound too engaged however, as he leaned back and lit another cigarette, scratched his head. More like a doctorate student who has discovered that their thesis can’t be proven.
“So is that what you want?” I said. “A long-lasting marriage with a lady-wife?”
He laughed. “None so specific as that! I just think.. There’s a lack of honest wanting in the world, that’s all, between everyone. Look at the girls and Bridey and I! What ill-fitting jigsaw pieces. We’re akin, but not close.. All in the same boat, but, broken, fragments. The parts between us missing. If Mummy and Daddy ever sought to deliberately deliver a family, well it was a shitty execution.”
Idly he took a chocolate-covered teacake and popped it in his mouth, chewed it luxuriously. I watched his cheeks bulge around it and his lips moving, and he licked them. Brushed the crumbs off his fingers. “Do you know, I knew a boy at school – several actually – but this particular fellow was best friends with his brother – they did everything together. Cricket, skating, camping, hols – can you imagine Bridey and I at that sort of caper? Like hauling a bag of potatoes everywhere.
“Julia and I, now, we used to be quite matey – can you imagine? Now it’s hard to get a meeting with her unless one has a card to drop on a silver tray. Even then you’re not sure which one in a dress is her. Cordelia’s in a world of her own. Castles in the air. One would need a giant kite to visit her.”
I ate my own French fancy, the sugar bolstering. “You ask if I can imagine – well, I can’t really. I was – am – an only child, always a bit of a foreigner.”
“You led the sad, lonely existence of the hermit?”
“Not now. Not – right now.” I reached out and took his cigarette to my own lips.
“You common robber,” he said, and another part of his expression said: Stay unaware. I beg you.
Coughing, he shook his head. “You were as well. Quite sensible of you to be an only child. Bridey and I, and Julia, and Cordelia, we never managed to get on the same track, though we were all thrown on this earth in the same squalid way.”
“From a repeated loving communion of the wedding night?”
“Please. Daddy probably lobbed it at Mummy from across the room.” He mimed the croquet mallet. “‘Here it comes! Across the critical distance! Hoop or heaven, I’ll be bound!’”
“Oh, Lord!!” And through my laughter I had to wrap his coat around his face and tussle him to the floor. “Sebastian, can’t you control that mouth of yours?”
“I can’t, I’m quite hopeless.” He waved an arm from the rug. “Perhaps I’ll become a priest.”
“I’d rather you didn’t,” I said.
“I won’t, then.”
Comfortable darkness crept in from the corners as the fire burned low; we were being shadowed out of the spotlight like the end of an Act at the theatre.
Sebastian settled up with the innkeeper. “Come on, we must both sign this cheque. You’re an honorary Flyte, you unfortunate bastard, or would that be matriculated Marchmain?”
Face warm, I bent over to sign my name with his pen, whisking it away grandly with the leg of the ‘R’.
“Beautiful!” Sebastian studied it before handing it back over his shoulder to the keeper. “Oh Charles, you are full of flourish. Ought I be worried about your deviousness? Vice and virtue and the rest?”
I smiled. “I took calligraphy in school.”
“So you did! What a little cherub. Quite the model pupil, then.”
“Not exactly. I was rather a bounder. Went around with a set who used to bully the drips something terrible.”
“Oh dear. Tsk, tsk. Naughty! I can tell by the tilt of your head and half-smile and helpless brow that you are really ashamed.”
“Oh, contrite. But absolutely.”
“You are forgiven.” He blessed me.
“And you, in school?” I said.
“Aaaah..” He stretched his arms above his head, flopped back on the chair. “Not now. Not yet. There’s been enough confessing for one night. I have to keep something back to retain your interest, haven’t I? That or keep committing ever-more lavish sins..”
I stood. “You’ve never committed a one in my book. Come on, let’s go to bed.”
“Just a mo, hang about – you’ve not given me my penance yet.”
“I’ll make you plump the pillows. Come on, old man!”
He drained his cup and followed.
The stairwell was thickly carpeted and frightfully narrow and dim, and as we lumbered upward Sebastian sang, “Keep the home-fires burning, while your hearts are yearning, though your lads are far away, they dream of hoooome..” In the distance, behind walls and doors, people laughed, joined in.
Dear Sebastian! What a day. Yes, he had his fluctuating moods, all so definite and intriguing.. Thrumming on the train, thoughtful at the lecture, surprisingly brisk and warm at the soup kitchen. The gaps between the changes were open season for melancholy.
And yet he was so attractive. Everyone who encountered him imbued in him their own youth – why was I the only one to realize this? The only one with him, generally? To see the toll it took. His mother and her cool piety – Sebastian’s vitality was not the converse to this.
In the tired, cozy, lamp-lit bedroom of the tavern, we plucked off our outer-wear – what remained was what was left of our own garb. The candle flickered when I tossed my coat on a worn foot-stool. Outside the criss-cross patterned window snow still fell lightly.
We climbed into the patchworked bed, and rummaged around quite a bit because it was hard to fit the both of us in, distribute the weight, without either crushing the other or falling out. Curled up I’d get awful cramp, so I lay on my back with my arm folded over the pillow, and Sebastian lay on his side facing me, his head resting somewhere between my chest and shoulder. My own breath moved the fair hairs of his crown.
Sleep began to sally from the body to the brain when I got a strange, surreal feeling that something was missing, was different, there was a very odd hue to the excursion, our relations -
Then I realized – Sebastian hadn’t drunk any alcohol all evening. All day! Impossible – but – no, not on the train, nor before it – not at the Fabians, the kitchen; downstairs in the sitting-room of the tavern we had been refilling cup after cup of tea from an endless cracked china pot.
How on earth could he have been so energetic, so playful all day, then? How could anything that happened be justified, explained away? Maybe a residual amount of alcohol was ever-present in his system? Maybe water (or tea) turned to wine in his stomach? Could he have snuck off to the jacks in the almshouse and snorted something to take the edge off?
“Charles.. What’re you doing?”
“Looking at your eyes.”
“You mind awfully not holding them open with finger and thumb? I do need to blink..”
Ah, what a fool honesty is! And a bigger fool to doubt him. With a sigh, I edged around in the creaky bed, and put my arm around him – there was nowhere else for it to go. “Would you put one here, Sebastian? A crock of gold?”
“Hmm..? A what? Oh – yes, certainly.” A yawn. “Need a spade of course, and a bucket for the soil, cutters for the roots, wretched things. The absolute framework and wreck of a plot – the existing planters.”
“You’re very knowledgable of what’s underground.”
“Burial rites..” His voice drowsy. “Last orders..”
No imposter, then.
Next morning, on the train home through the white clouds of the capital, Sebastian slid down in his seat in the carriage, hat over his eyes, arms crossed, his socked feet in my lap. “Not a famous night of debauchery I’m afraid. This city-jaunt won’t go down in history as another great story for Anthony to tell.”
“You’d do well to stay away from Anthony’s annals,” I said.
“I will if you will.”
Back at Oxford, we were of course frightfully late to our lectures, as predicted, as planned. We swore, cross our hearts, that we’d rush to the library straight-away and inhale the dusty air and make it up, and we weren’t believed.
Likely right. Cobbles curved towards the bubbles in the bottle. It only now occurred to me that I’d not had a drink myself in two days! Youth was the time for prattling masquerade – one has all the time in the world, in the future, to make it up. In those rude, smooth days, a drink was not only to escape but to be wilfully unconventional. Where does convention ever get one?
In the humdinger headache of my rooms the following morning, Sebastian swept in, snow on his padded shoulders, red scarf rakish. “Oh Charles – this work, it’s inspired! Á la mode! Your finest piece yet!”
“Sebastian, that’s the paper that you just now wiped your shoes on.”
“... I’m going to get it framed.” And off he flurried.
I went to sit down. “Why not?”
He poked his head back in the doorway. “Well, do come along then, Charles. Shake a leg. Why a portrait when we can make an assembly?” Off he went again crunching.
I managed to sigh and grumble for perhaps ten seconds; I jumped to unhook my coat, tug out the scarf from the sleeves where Lunt had tucked it neatly, and slip and slide out the door to make company.