A comic romantic novel, the first third reproduced below.
James puffed his way up the steep slope above Postlethwaite Hall, through the old oaks and towards a long line of beeches. He was feeling his age. There were already leaves underfoot. Autumn was just beginning, and there was that sadness in the air he especially loved. The last few weeks of summer were never to his liking; everything was so dry and living its last, nothing to do but wait for its own slow dying. Then autumn would come, and with it what beauty! The landscape would be lit with subtle colours: reds, yellows, greens and golds. The world would seem glorious once more, the dying of the leaves no more than a flamboyant and temporary setback till spring.
He scrambled up the shortcut to where the beeches began, their great roots clambering across bare earth. As a child he would imagine meeting Rupert Bear here, emerging from some den inhabited by elves or pixies. The real inhabitants, however, were badgers, foxes, squirrels and owls – wild creatures that seemed to him somehow superior to human beings. Not for them the endless consideration of motives, morality and arrangements.
Reaching the top, he stopped to gather breath. He looked out over his temporary domain. The old Hall was soaking up the morning sun and a wisp of smoke meandered vertically into the air from Mrs Duckett’s room at the top. A thousand crows and rooks mingled noisily in the field beyond, and fields and buildings were spread out in their familiar harmony. A thin shadow on the horizon, high on the other side of the valley, signified the creeping advance of the outside world; it was the edge of the new housing estate on the outskirts of Postlethwaite, the small ex-mining town from which the hall and the family took their name.
Maintaining the little world of Postlethwaite Hall HHHhad been Sir James’ business ever since he emerged from the Korean war fifty years ago, with memories full of mechanised carnage. He often thought that, were it not for his experiences during those war years, he would have been bored living in this little earthly paradise. Maintaining it had seemed mostly a duty rather than an adventure; but it was a duty he was grateful for, being also an opportunity to do something fine in a world with more appetite for destroying the old than judgement about what to put in its place.
His father had died while he was away, and responsibility for the estate was thrust upon him on his return. So he had married his childhood sweetheart and they had grown plump and rather boring together, bringing up five stroppy children – four girls and a boy – to keep them alive and connected to the ouside world.
The estate consisted not just of the Hall and its land, but of many ancillary buildings put up over the centuries by those who had lived there. Some of these buildings were now put to other uses. The mill for instance, built for fulling wool, was now an interior design studio. The stables, conveniently located near the main road, were sold some years back to a wine merchant – a rather grand fellow who insisted on inviting the Postlethwaites to gruesomely social wine-tastings. The majority of labourers’ cottages had become redundant during two centuries of farm mechanisation. Some had melted back into the earth; others were now second homes, or lived in by commuters to Postlethwaite and beyond. One or two buildings still retained their old uses: a barn from the sixteenth century still housed bales of hay and a dovecot still housed white doves.
The Hall had been in the Postlethwaite family for over five hundred years, granted them in entail by Henry the Seventh for services rendered at the Battle of Bosworth Field. The terms of the entail – should there be no male heir, the estate would revert to the crown – added extra anxiety to successive generations of Postlethwaites, and was responsible for some strange shenanigans. It was widely believed, for instance, that the tenth Sir Gerald, born in 1725, was not the son of Lady Postlethwaite at all (in twelve years of marriage she had borne no children) but the child of her husband by a serving girl. Lady Postlethwaite had simulated pregnancy, following which the girl’s baby had been smuggled in as a legitimate heir. The girl had emigrated to Canada shortly after, with a handsome endowment and a handsome stable boy to boot.
The conditions of inheritance were on Sir James’ mind as he watched the last wisps of morning mist trail along the valley. Modernisation of the law, and government attempts to rob the dead as well as the living, had produced a new situation; ownership of the Hall had bypassed Sir James entirely; he was merely holding it in trust for his son Eddie who would inherit it in six weeks time, his twenty-first birthday. But should Eddie die without a male heir, the estate would pass to the nearest male relation on Sir James’ death. Not that this would in normal circumstances be a worry; Eddie was a fit young man of eighteen, so there should be no great anxiety about his survival; but the fact was, he was forever getting into scrapes. So bad were his antics, he seemed almost hell-bent on his own destruction.
The nearest male relation was one Gerald Postlethwaite, an Australian cousin whom no one from the immediate family had met; but word had it he was a bit of a rough diamond. So Sir James had invited the Australian Gerald over, ostensibly for all the family to meet him, but secretly in the hope that meeting his roughneck cousin would nudge his errant son into taking a more responsible attitude.
Little did he know the danger he was inviting into all of their lives.
Some hours previously, on the other side of the world, a cold dawn was spreading its glacial light over some dry brown hills near the small Australian settlement of Windiburri Gulch. Lost in those same hills, a man half embedded in a sleeping-bag was prodding the embers of last night’s fire.
Smoke curled up from the fire into the man’s nostrils. He cursed. He pushed his blackened stick through the corpse of a small rabbit, up through its gutted rear end and into its neck. He had caught it by torchlight the night before and it would make a fine breakfast. Then he heard the sound of an engine.
Cursing again, he clambered out of his sleeping bag, unzipped his flies and urinated on the fire. His urine ran out before the fire was properly doused, so he threw dust and dirt over it till the smoke was suppressed. Then he scrambled up to the top of the ridge, taking his binoculars and hunting rifle with him.
Far out in the distance, curling along the bank of the dry creek, he saw an Australia Post van. He followed it with his eyes until it came to the bend just below him, when it stopped. Out of it got – a postman.
The postman cupped his hands and shouted up towards the ridge.
‘Gerald Postlethwaite? Special delivery!’
Gerald cursed. A trap? Surely they wouldn’t use such a ridiculous ploy… if they knew where he was, they’d send ’copters after him… but how the hell had the postman found him?
‘Special delivery!’ the postman shouted. ‘It’s from England!’
From England? Gerald wanted desperately to know what it was. He considered dropping the man then and there, whereupon he would be able to saunter down and collect the letter; but shooting a postman would bring the heavens down upon him sooner rather than later. So he stood up, high against the sky, holding the rifle in such a way that anyone watching could see he was armed.
‘This is Gerald Postlethwaite! Put the letter down where you are. I’ll collect it when I’m ready!’
‘I need your signature!’ the postman shouted back. ‘Don’t worry; you stay there! I’ll bring it up to you! All part of the job!’
The postman scurried up from the creek. It was a good climb; seven minutes at the rate he was going, Gerald estimated. Gerald sat down and watched with contempt as the dutiful little figure scurried up the steep slope. ‘How can people like that originate – let alone survive – in this dog-eat-dog world?’ he wondered.
Eventually the postman arrived at the ridge. He was puffing away and an eager grin covered his face.
‘Australia Post always gets its man!’ he said. Gerald looked neutrally at him, concealing from long habit his contempt. The postman looked him over. ‘Which is more (puff puff) than I can say for the Australian police! Aren’t you wanted for armed robbery?’
‘Must be someone else!’ Gerald said. ‘I guess you’d be a little nervous if it were me!’
‘Not really!’ said the postman. ‘Not much use for you in shooting me! (puff puff) Now, if there was a little more cooperation between us and the police (puff puff), a lot more of your type would be between bars. But government departments (puff puff), not much love lost between us, you know.’
The postman handed over the letter, together with a little book and a ballpoint pen.
‘Would you sign there please, to say you’ve received it?’ he said. ‘Come to think, I have an autograph book somewhere. Could sign that too? (puff puff) The kids will be dead impressed! Otherwise, they won’t believe me!’
The postman patted a pocket. Gerald shifted his rifle.
‘It’s in this pocket,’ the postman said. ‘All right if I get it out?’
Gerald nodded. Then he signed twice – once for the government, once for the kids.
‘Best be on my way,’ the postman said. ‘ A pleasure to meet you, sir! I’ll say nothing to the police, unless of course I am asked!’
The postman turned and went.
‘Unless of course I am asked!’ Gerald repeated the words to himself with contempt as he watched the uniformed man’s back going down the hill.
He kept an eye on the van as it wound its way back along the creek. On either side of the dry creek bed, clumps of stunted saltbush sent long shadows across the desert floor. For miles there was no sign of human presence, other than the little van now buzzing into the distance. It seemed there really was no trap, but it would make sense to get going, to put some distance between himself and the dry brown hills of Windiburri where someone, somehow, had found he was hiding. Even before reading the letter he should get going, so he stuffed it into a shirt pocket which he buttoned down securely. Then he rolled up his sleeping-bag and left for ever his hillside home.
For almost a day he kept going, until he could see the main road in the distance. There he would be able to hitch a lift; so he sat down under the shade of a giant river gum to read the letter.
It was from a firm of solicitors in London called Grogsby and Sprocket. It read as follows:
Dear Mr Postlethwaite,
As the only surviving son of Lewis Grantham Postlethwaite, deceased, you are heir presumptive to the Estate and Manor of Postlethwaite Hall, at Postlethwaite, in Derbyshire, England.
As, in all likelihood, you are not fully conversant with the intricacies of English inheritance law, suffice it to say that for tax purposes the estate is being held in trust for Edward Postlethwaite, who will assume full inheritance upon his twenty-first birthday, which falls upon the twenty-fourth of October this year.
Edward’s father, Sir James Postlethwaite, wishes to invite you to a celebration of his son’s coming of age upon the said twenty-fourth of October. Should you require an airline ticket and funds in order to attend, our Australian colleagues Grogsby and Buffer are holding the wherewithal for you to obtain such, which said wherewithal will be handed to you upon presentation of suitable identification.
Sir James and Lady Postlethwaite wish me to inform you that, should you wish to attend, you would be a most welcome guest at the Hall during the week prior to the celebration,
Gerald puzzled over the letter for quite a while, reading it over and over. The pedantry of the language seemed designed to confuse him. But after a while he decided his initial impression was correct; he was just one human body away from a sizeable inheritance! So, the old man hadn’t been lying after all!
His mind went back to his father’s death. The old bastard had turned up at his mother’s house: to die so he said, and that is exactly what he had done. Three weeks of drinking had done the trick. He had brought the booze with him in the back of an old pick-up truck. Gerald’s mother wouldn’t have let him in, except his promise of an early death seemed likely to bear fruit. The booze was whisky of the very best kind, and what was left over kept Gerald’s mother happy for many months after.
Gerald had been fourteen at the time. Just before he died, his father called him to his bedside. Gerald, he said, was ‘pretty close in line’ to a ‘big estate in England’. When he was grown up, he should go and see if ‘anything was due him’ as a member of the family. Then he asked Gerald to post a letter to England, which he produced; it looked as though it had been written a good while ago. Gerald had posted the letter on the off chance something might come of it. But he hadn’t paid much notice to his old man’s ramblings, which were competing with a strong smell of alcohol and diarrhoea. Besides, his father had made unreliability a lifetime’s devotion.
But now, something had come of it. So he really was… second in line, that must be what ‘heir presumptive’ meant! Just one easy disposal between himself and an English fortune! He perused the letter for another hour, lost in a dreamland of half-watched TV programmes in which English lords addressed their servants and courted beautiful women in luxurious surroundings. Would be able to learn those strange dances they did? He reminded himself that this was the twenty-first century and things would most likely not be like that at all. However, since there was money at stake, and since fate had brought it into his vicinity, it was his duty to do all he could to get hold of it. Quickly and carefully he planned out the next six weeks. He would get to Sydney, find someone to fake him a passport and then go to England. But should he call in at the solicitor’s office? Would they know him as the armed robber, or could he just be another Gerald Postlethwaite? Could it really be that no one would connect the two? The postman had! But he would have to take the risk and everything would depend on luck. During most of his life luck had treated him like a dog treats a lamp-post. But maybe that meant it was his turn for something good.
So he set off towards the main road and Sydney with hope and grim determination in his heart.
Had Gerald known what Eddie, his cousin and intended victim, was up to at that very moment, he would have been happy indeed. Eddie was busy in exactly the kind of activity that made everyone who loved him anxious. He was strapping on a harness in an attempt to beat the world bunji-jumping record.
The Dangerous Sports Society had hired a light aeroplane with a parachute hatch. Boris, the only member with a license, was flying the plane. On the floor beside the hatch some two thousand feet of stretchy rope were coiled. One end of this was attached to Eddie and the other was supposedly attached to a fixing bar inside the aircraft.
‘Let’s just check on everything before you jump,’ Arthur shouted over the noise of the engine. Arthur was Club President.
‘I’m sure it’s fine!’ Eddie shouted back. He was anxious to jump before nerves got the better of him.
He leaped out into space. Arthur and Charles, the Club Secretary, watched him soar down and away as the wind took him backwards. The coil was unravelling fast.
Arthur looked at Charles. ‘You did make sure the other end was attached?’
‘I thought that was your job!’ Charles replied.
They exchanged panic-stricken looks, then both dived simulataneously for the G-clasp which was lying loose on the floor.
‘Oh my God!’ screamed Charles. He was trying to open the G-clasp and get it round the fixing bar. ‘It won’t open far enough!’
The coil was getting smaller as it unravelled at speed through the hatch. Arthur grabbed the G-clasp off Charles and dived with it towards the pilot’s seat which was held to the floor by some thin metal tubing. Arthur slipped the clasp round the metal tubing. A second later, the coil ran out and the elasticated rope began to take the strain of Eddie falling at terminal velocity.
The rope taughtened. Charles and Arthur watched the tubing begin to buckle.
Boris in the pilot’s seat turned his head to see what was going on. ‘Everything all right back there?’
‘Fine!’ Arthur and Charles shouted back in suspicious unison.
But as Boris turned back to the controls his seat was ripped from its fixings and he hurtled backwards through the air.
Arthur and Charles would have found his expression quite funny, were it not so likely they were all going to die. In what appeared to be slow motion, Boris and his seat twisted in the air and jammed cross-wise in the hatch. Boris gazed at them in horizontal bewilderment, his arms and legs waving like a fish. The plane lurched.
‘Get Boris out! I’ll hold the chair steady!’ Arthur shouted at Charles.
They leapt towards the hatch and its human bung. Charles unstrapped Boris and pulled him out of the chair. Boris, stunned, staggered forwards. The plane had tipped forwards into a dive. Charles slapped Boris’ startled face and pushed him towards the controls. Boris knelt and gripped the joystick, trying to pull the plane out of what was now becoming a life-threatening dive.
Eddie, on the other end of the rope, was expecting to be pulled upwards well before reaching anything like solid earth, so it was quite a surprise to find himself swooping over a pig farm at very low altitude. Luckily the rope yanked him up just before impact with a large pink sow, after which he crossed the field of munching pigs and little tin houses in a long, low parabolic arch.
He looked up towards the plane, which appeared to be pulling out of a dive. To his relief, the rope above him was still getting tighter. But then he saw a large object – he could have sworn it was a chair – hurtle from the body of the plane, and almost immediately the rope went slack. Looking earthwards, a wooded hillside was approaching fast, and he knew he was fated to become part of that hillside. Was he really to die now? And disappoint his parents terminally, just when they had fixed everything to make him a good son-and-heir? After this thought, anticipation of pain swept all other consideration from his mind, and his last thought as the green wall approached was ‘Why me?’ Then he shut his eyes and crashing branches turned to darkness.
Eddie In And Out Of The Plane
DESCRIPTION OF POSTLETHWAITE HALL and SCENE OF SIR JAMES & LADY POSTLETHWAITE
After his impact with the wooded hillside, Eddie hung in the branches of a tall conifer for several hours going in and out of consciousness. The first time he came to, he was astonished to find himself surrounded by pine needles and supported rather uncomfortably by a branch under his groin. On a nearby branch sat a strange mottled pigeon, gazing at him in expectation. He thought, no one ever told him the Holy Ghost would expect him to feed it, then he realised he might not be in heaven at all.
He spent a little while recovering his memory of recent events, then he struggled to free himself. He immediately blacked out again.
When he next came to, he made tentative movements in each of his limbs. There was some pain in his left leg, but not enough, he thought, to mean it was broken. He tried to struggle free once more. This time he managed to shift his weight to another branch but he was unable to maintain his grip. He fell, and only the rope prevented him hitting the ground. Hanging upside down, blood rushed to his head and once again he blacked out.
The third time he regained consciousness he was being rescued. He heard a remark about people playing silly buggers and risking lives.
‘I’m glad to see you,’ Eddie gurgled, smiling weakly. Then he passed out again.
By the time news reached Sir James and Lady Postlethwaite of Eddie’s latest brush with death it was late evening and they were on their way to bed. The hospital told them their son was fast asleep; there was nothing to worry about, he had a badly sprained leg and some concussion, nothing that lots of rest couldn’t cure. No point them rushing to see him that night; a visit next morning would be much more suitable.
That night was not easy for Sir James and Henrietta. Henrietta could not sleep, and the night was puctuated by tearful conversations tending towards argument. Henrietta felt her husband should put a stop to Eddie’s silliness, and Sir James thought the high spirits of youth should be allowed to play themselves out.
As they dressed next morning, the dispute rumbled on.
‘It’s just a stage he’s going through; it will pass!’ Sir James said.
‘It may well pass – when Eddie’s dead!’ Henrietta replied, with a fresh outbreak of tears.
‘It’s just as dangerous crossing the road these days! If I prevailed upon him to lead a sedate life, he’d probably get depressed, walk out into the road and get run over by a lorry!’
‘Crossing a road isn’t as dangerous as hurtling two thousand feet towards the earth without a parachute!’
Sir James was silent; his wife was patently right.
‘If you’re not going to do something about it, then I am,’ Henrietta continued. ‘We will move out of here when Eddie comes into his inheritance. Then he’ll have to look after things. He won’t have time to throw himself out of aeroplanes.’
‘You don’t know what’s involved!’ her husband said. ‘Nor does he! Anyway, he won’t want to take things over! He doesn’t want to!’ Sir James was feeling anger and panic; he was quite good at managing the estate, and here was his wife doing him out of a his lifetime’s job.
‘Well, it’s high time he finds out what his responsibilities will be,’ said Henrietta. ‘I’d like him to grow up before he dies!’
This was blackmail, thought Sir James; either he gave up his own life or he did not love his son; worse, he would be accused of wanting his son dead! His wife could wangle an argument any way she wanted. Any scenario, no matter how preposterous, became plausible. He thought he should walk out of the room before saying something he would later regret.
In the corridor he came across Bingy, his wife’s favourite dog, sitting right in the middle of the corridor and wagging its tail.
‘What have you got to be so pleased about?’ he asked it. ‘You are even more preposterous than your mistress!’
The dog smiled expectantly up at Sir James and wagged even more enthusiastically.
‘You are a miserable wretch, a sorry apology for the entire nation of dogs! And I shall shortly be just as useless as you are, though I doubt I shall be as happy with it!’
At that moment the butler Jaspers appeared spectrally around the corner. Sir James cut short his monologue.
‘Mrs Duckett would like you to see this, Sir James,’ said Jaspers, handing him a copy of the Daily Sun. ‘It seems young Edward is in the news again.’
‘Thank you, Jaspers.’ Sir James sighed. There indeed was a picture of Eddie on page four, looking a complete nit. ‘Hair-raising escape for hare-brained heir’ was the headline.
As they drove towards the hospital, Sir James agreed to all his wife’s demands. He would tell Eddie they were moving out, and Eddie would have to manage the estate himself.
Eddie, lying in his hospital bed, didn’t feel he could object, though he didn’t like it. He hated the postion the whole inheritance situation put him in vis-a-vis his sisters, his father and the rest of the world. He made a mental note: ‘Over my dead body!’
When they returned, Henrietta thought she should let the rest of the family know of their intention.
Introducing The Rest Of The Family
Introducing Sophia and Eddie
Sophia, most delicate and prettiest of the Postlethwaite children, was waiting in the sitting room of her London flat for Johnny to come back. There was a small piece of stuff she could smoke in her handbag, and however much she tried to forget it, it was preying on her mind. She didn’t really want to smoke it, Johnny would be so cross with her; but then…
Eventually, the temptation got too strong. She prepared a piece of silver foil and put the little brown blob on it ready to burn. Just as she was about to light up, the phone rang. Sophia put everything to one side and answered the phone.
‘Hi!’ she said, crossly.
Oh shit, Sophia thought, recognising her mother’s voice.
‘It’s your mother!’
As if I didn’t know, thought Sophia.
‘Are you all right?’ her mother said. She had an uncanny and irritatingly precise way of picking up on Sophia’s mood without ever acknowledging her own part in creating it.
‘Yes, Mummy, I’m fine,’ Sophia said impatiently, though she hadn’t meant to say it like that.
‘Oh good. Only you sounded a little…’ her mother tailed off, knowing what she wanted to say would only cause trouble. ‘Anyway, I need to talk to you darling because we want everyone to be at home when Daddy hands over to Eddie. We thought we’d make a big family party of it…’
‘Oh really? Why?’ Sophia said crossly. She’d always felt more irritation than her sisters about the whole estate having to go through the male line.
‘Well I thought you might like to know if your parents are moving house…’
‘Moving house?’ Sophia felt hysterical.
‘If the Hall belongs to Eddie, then we shall move out…’
‘You mean you are going to move out, to let one silly young man live there all on his own?’ She knew the Hall would be technically Eddie’s on his twenty-first birthday, but she had presumed things would carry on the same until Eddie got married. She felt a thousand years would come to an end the day her parents left the Hall, the day her mother no longer progressed in stately fashion down the top corridor surounded by her terriers Bingy and Boingy, the day poached eggs no longer arrived in silver tureens to go hard on the sideboard for breakfast…
‘Well, it’s not his fault he’s silly!’ her mother said.
‘It’s ridiculous! Besides, he’s hardly ever there, he’s always off doing something really stupid!’
‘That’s the point. Having a bit more responsibility might encourage Eddie to settle down. And if we’re going to hand everything over, the last thing he’ll want is us hanging around like a couple of King Lears. Besides you’ve always known, dear, it wasn’t going to be yours…’
At this point Sophia rolled her eyes and made faces at the receiver. Though her mother wouldn’t be able to see them, she knew perfectly well she would be able to imagine them.
‘It’s a bit awful, but Eddie’s in hospital at the moment,’ Henrietta continued, hoping she wasn’t going to cry and wishing her third daughter was more sympathetic.
‘Why?’ said Sophia.
‘He’s not badly hurt, but he fell into a tree.’
‘He fell into a tree?’ Don’t people normally fall out of trees?’
‘Well, it was complicated, you see, he started off in an aeroplane…’
‘All right, I don’t want to hear! I suppose his parachute failed to open.’
‘No, he was bunji-jumping and the rope…’
‘Mummy, stop! Anyway, thank goodness he’s all right! But isn’t it time he grew up? And you… honestly, I think you’re mad to move out. And horrid! You know it’s our home too!’
‘Well, when Eddie’s twenty-one it won’t be any of our homes except his, really!’ said Henrietta. ‘But we want to have a nice big houseful of you for one week in October, so we can have a farewell party.’
‘Is Eddie going to have a twenty-first?’
‘No, he won’t,’ Henrietta said. ‘He says it would be like advertising him on the marriage market.’
‘How can he be too timid to give a party, when he wants to take on the whole house?’
‘Oh, he doesn’t want to at all!’ said Henrietta.
‘It’s all so silly,’ Sophia said. ‘Anyway, where are you planning to move to?’
‘Well, Applesby will be empty in January.’
Her parents would move to Applesby! What hardship, Sophia thought to herself. Applesby was a large Elizabethan house about a mile from Postlethwaite, and her father owned all the land in between. Poor dears, they would only have eight bedrooms now; how on earth would the servants squeeze in?
‘Well that won’t be so bad!’ she said.
‘No, of course you’re quite right and it will be a great deal easier to manage for us. We’re hoping that Eddie having to look after the estate will give him a sense of responsibility…’
‘Eddie and responsiblity are like oil and water, Mummy. There’s no point thinking they’ll do anything but find each other repulsive.’
At that moment she heard Johnny letting himself in. When he came into the living room and saw the foil out ready, and the little lump on it ready to smoke, he threw Sophia a furious look. Anger clouding his brows, he went through to the kitchen and dumped the shopping loudly on the draining board.
‘Oh look Mummy, I must go, someone’s come in…’
After some suitable endearments, she put the phone down and stood up ready to face the music. She went through to the little kitchen and said, ‘Cross?’
No reply was forthcoming, so she said, ‘Any particular reason?’
‘One or two,’ Johnny said, kicking shut a cupboard door. ‘Myself being just ‘someone’ for starters, all that gear out for seconds, and… to be thinking of taking it while you were talking to your mother!’
‘My mother! What the hell’s that got to do with it?’ Sophia said scornfully. Sometimes Johnny had pitifully conventional notions, and a sense of filial duty was one of them.
‘You English people are so spoilt! You have your position in the world and your traditions, and you throw them all away by a lack of respect!’
Johnny was putting away the shopping and half-mumbling into a cupboard, as if he was talking to no one in particular. He did not want to look at Sophia, whom he loved, for it would melt his heart to do so.
‘Sometimes I don’t think you understand a thing about my life!’ Sophia said crossly. She was aware that Johnny’s father had been killed; that exile had disinherited Johnny not only from his wealth but from his role in life; that what he envied most in anyone was a sense of purpose. ‘You think I find the world easy to deal with, just because I have parents and they have a big house?’
Johnny looked at Sophia. She was leaning against the doorway, arms folded, watching him. She was very beautiful. He recognised not only that she was troubled, but that her troubles were one of the reasons he loved her. He was not the sort of person to respect others for superficial qualities; but he could not shake off a sense of gratitude that she loved him, a man adrift in the world. Her presence excited him: there was something alive about her, as if a wildness had survived the long process of civilized domestication.
He went to her and put his hands on her arms, which were soft and contoured with animal litheness. He kissed her. ‘Come to bed,’ he said. ‘Forget about the stuff.’
She kissed him hungrily and reached behind his back, pulling his shirt out of his jeans. She ran the palms of her hands up his back, feeling the muscled strength beneath his skin and grabbing at it with her fingertips and nails. She felt a tang of guilt: they would make love, but afterwards she would complete her little ritual of drugs.
Johnny pulled off her cotton top and she was naked underneath as he knew she would be – waiting for him to return, and for just such a moment of passion. He held her waist at arms’ length. Her shoulders arched over her breasts as she reached to kiss him. But he kept her away, moving a hand up under one breast – the most beautiful object in the world! – then his other under her other breast. Cupping the immaculate whitenesses in his dark hands he thought of two earthenware bowls full of milk.
Sophia pulled at the buttons on his jeans, hungry for reassurance that he desired her. She held his penis: it was already hard and alive, intent on possessing her. To be able to love like this, to feel like this, to enjoy like this – surely if life ended this instant, it would all have been worthwhile!
She took him to the bed and climbed on top of him, helping his penis into her while he lay on his back looking intently into her eyes. She moved gently up and down on him, torn between wanting to feel him burst helplessly inside her and wanting to make love on and on until they died in passion and splendour. She began to pull with her hips and vagina against the hardness of his penis, then she dropped her body on to his to feel the young hairs on his chest against her breasts. She kissed his neck and bit it, and they both came.
‘Don’t move,’ Johnny said. ‘It won’t go soft. We can start again in a minute.’
‘That’s promising,’ Sophia said. ‘Tell me when it’s ready.’ She began kissing him on the mouth, unhurried and confident that his desire would carry them to a place where, for a while, nothing else would matter. Threading her fingers into his tightly curled hair she scratched gently at his scalp, then kissed him some more as she felt him harden again in her softness. She sat up.
Keeping her hips still, Sophia swayed her body like a mermaid’s, remembering a childish ballet she had been in where they all pretended to be swans but were not at all like swans to her mind, more like a bed of reeds.
Johnny ran his hands up and down her sides, glorying in the smoothness of her skin and the sculptured shapes of her ribs and breasts. He knew the hardening of his penis would not go down soon. He sat up and held her tight, and she helped him up so they were both standing, with her legs wrapped round his waist and her arms around his neck.
It was exciting but tiring to make love like this, so eventually he lay her back down, half on the bed with her legs on the floor. Kneeling in front of her, he pushed deep inside her. She raised her legs in the air and placed them on his shoulders. He stroked her thighs and again they came shuddering together. Johnny reached forwards and kissed Sophia on the mouth.
After they were done, Sophia lay in silence with her head on Johnny’s chest, loving its smoothness and darkness and the man contained within it and wishing she could be rid of all the bad feelings that followed her around like a dog waiting to pounce.
She told Johnny about her conversation with her mother. She and Johnny had been going out together for three months and were still unfamiliar with some of the most basic things about each other.
‘Why can’t we go to your country for a change?’ she said. ‘It sounds wonderful! You must have plenty of relatives still alive there. Wouldn’t they be pleased to see you?’
‘All too pleased,’ Johnny said. ‘But even if we could go, I don’t know if you’d like it. You probably have some very romantic notions. Anyway, if I went back…’
‘If I went back, there would be civil unrest, and the military might feel obliged to kill me.’ Johnny tried to describe a political situation where a family was so very important that the arrival of its heir-in-exile could start a civil war.
Sophia rolled onto her back, contemplating a reality very remote to her.
‘It all sounds very dramatic!’ she said.
‘It would be!’ he said.
Sophia felt it would be interesting at least, a drama of a kind she had failed to find for herself in twenty-two years of life.
Six months ago, Sophia had finished a year-long stint working as a model. She had thought she might earn some easy money by modelling but she hadn’t imagined what went with it; the men with a bought girl on one arm, ogling the paid floozies on the catwalk; the hard-bitten old women and queens who oversaw the commerce; the supplies of drugs available everywhere so the models could get through the day and the men could imagine they were desirable for more than their money and power. An illusion of creativity was maintained by enfants terribles dangerously dressing women as dustbins or as birds.
The year had left Sophia with a drug habit and a dislike of being alive. This mood could surface at any moment, should some event or some chance remark cut through to her underlying sense of futility.
‘Why don’t you just go home and start the revolution?’ she said flippantly to Johnny.
‘Because there’s enough butchery in the world already,’ said Johnny coldly. He was used to the tribulations of black people being dismissed; or worse, being treated as sentimental capital by those who couldn’t care less. But he knew Sophia well enough to know that her lack of caring was a sham.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said. She felt both envious and respectful of his responsibility, hollow though it may be. She felt a familiarity in his person lying beside her and she hoped he would not leave her. She put her head on his shoulder. He looked down to see her face. She was crying and he forgave her flippancy. For her part, Johnny’s love for her was pulling her back to something she’d lost, or perhaps never fully known.
Gerald Presents Himself at Grogsby and Buffer
On his arrival in Sydney, Gerald booked into a big old cheap hotel under an assumed name. Next he bought hair-dye, clothes and a hair-trimmer; and also a balaclava hat. On his way back to the hotel he donned the balaclava, walked into a liquor store, nutted the shopkeeper and raided the till. Then he retreated to his hotel room, where he effected a transformation in his appearance.
Gone was the rough ginger-haired fellow who had received the letter in the bush and who shaved once a week; replacing him was a dark-haired man with a neatly trimmed black beard. Gone were the dirty, worn jeans and check shirt; replacing them were a neat pin-striped suit, a medium blue pressed shirt and a Paisley tie. Gone was the slouch of a man determined to remain anonymous; in its place was the jaunty and self-confident stride of a man who knows his value in the world.
One idiosyncracy in common to the two figures was a neckerchief. Gerald kept several of these as his most closely guarded possessions: every day he must have access to one. He needed them not for sartorial reasons, but to conceal a deep and hideous scar that stretched right across his neck.
The scar had come to him as a teenager, a gift from a rival gang of drug-dealers. From being a schoolboy drug-dealer, Gerald had hoped to graduate to become the Mr Big of his neighbourhood. He had shot and wounded a rival. One day, as he stood on a street corner with two associates, he was bundled into a car. A man in the back seat was holding a machine pistol. Gerald was taken to a piece of waste land. First he was told in time-honoured fashion that he was not worth the price of a bullet; then his throat was slit from ear to ear. Later that morning, with almost all the blood drained out of him, he was spotted by a police helicopter. He was rushed to the nearest hospital, where at enormous public expense he was nursed back to life.
A craterous purple scar in the shape of a crescent moon was one keepsake of this episode; another was the permanent and anguishing reminder that he could be bested.
In his new guise, Gerald left the cheap hotel by a back entrance and walked to a smarter hotel, where he booked in under his own name.
He spent a lot of time in his new room watching videos of old British films and developing every ounce of acting talent he could muster. His father’s one contribution to his education had been stories and impersonations of the society he’d moved in before ‘circumstances’ forced his move to Australia. Gerald’s father would have been the greatest conman of his time, an old friend of his father’s once said, had it not been for the drink. After each crime, he would not commit another until he’d drunk every drop of the proceeds – which, after a particularly lucrative episode, could take upwards of a year.
Gerald practised imitiating the manners and repeating the dialogue in the videos, until he felt he could pass as a respectable Englishman brought up in Australia. Only then did he go to the offices of Grogsby and Buffer.
Mr Buffer was a smart young man with a quizzical air. Gerald thought it best to be on his guard.
‘Perhaps you could tell me a little bit about my long lost family,’ Gerald asked him.
‘Well, I gather they’re quite the upper-class ticket,’ Mr Buffer said. ‘They have a tidy estate of several thousand acres which is big for England, so I’m told. The family has just one boy but quite a collection of daughters. I guess they want to get to know you, just in case anything happens to the boy, in which case the whole flipping caboodle will pass to you as you know. The boy, Mr Shower informs me, is a member of the Dangerous Sports Society, so I guess that’s one more reason they might want to get to know their Australian cousin.’
‘You mean if the young man should…’ Gerald trailed off, not wanting to display the rush of enthusiasm that was making his heart beat faster.
‘Pass away in an accident. Exactly. I gather he has already sustained some serious injuries.’
‘Poor feller!’ said Gerald, oozing insincertity. ‘What about the daughters? Would they have no claim on the estate?’ He was trying to stop his hands twitching.
‘It seems incredible in this day and age, doesn’t it, but no, it seems they don’t.’
Small beads of sweat formed on Gerald’s upper lip and the germ of a plan was forming in his brain. This membership of the Dangerous Sports gizmo would surely make his job easier.
‘Well I never!’ Gerald said eventually. ‘Things are a little old-world over there, of course!’
Mr Buffer was looking at the documents from England. ‘It seems that as soon as the boy takes on his inheritance, he can do what he likes with it. So you won’t be second-in line much longer, I suppose, because once this Edward fellow has inherited he can make a new will.’
‘Oh!’ Gerald’s sweat turned cold all of a sudden. ‘You mean, just until his twenty-first birthday…’
‘Yes. Or of course, if something awful were to happen to him before then you would get the lot!’ Mr Buffer looked up with a laugh; but at the sight of Gerald’s face the laugh froze on his lips. Perhaps he shouldn’t have made such a flippant remark; his client seemed quite stirred up.
‘Yes, yes, I see,’ Gerald said. ‘So what date is the birthday?’
‘I believe it is the twenty-fourth of October,’ Mr Buffer said, with a little anxiety. He was beginning to find the interview uncomfortable.
Gerald felt sick at the pit of his stomach. No time to lose! ‘Well, that’s all very interesting. And I gather you are holding some funds for me? Very generous, that’s for sure!’
Gerald was anxious for the interview to end; he was half-expecting a knock on the door signifying the arrival of the police and an end to all his plans. But it seemed the solicitor had no inkling he might be Gerald Postlethwaite the armed robber, and after signing for the ticket and the funds, which amounted to expenses for his journey and some extra, he left.
He would not trust his luck to the extent of travelling to England under his own name, however, so he purchased a passport from a non-governmental source bearing the name of Hugo de Vere, a character from one of the videos he had become familiar with. Then, after converting his few assets to cash, he took a plane to England.
Geraldine Postlethwaite, oldest of the five children of Sir James and Lady Postlethwaite, sat back in her swivel armchair. She checked her nail varnish. Its red matched perfectly the background of her silk neckscarf. Next, she put the fingertips of her two hands together to create a Gothic arch. Then she swivelled in her chair so she could gaze out of the window, her strong Roman nose and curling black hair making a powerful silhouette against the light from outside.
A foolish and conceited student was reading aloud from her essay. The girl was so intolerably beautiful that Geraldine wanted time off from looking at her. While listening to the drivel that poured somewhat less than melodiously out of her mouth, Geraldine had been studying the fine curve of the girl’s neck, the wisps of hair that fell in curls over her pale skin, which resembled perhaps the bark of some Siberian tree, perhaps the limestone of a classical statue, or perhaps nothing else on earth other than the skin of a particular, this particular, particularly beautiful, girl.
She swung back to observe the girl, hoping to find some interest at least in trying to understand the mind that could spout such nonsense.
‘Shakespeare, being a prisoner of his time, could hardly be aware of what he was writing. In this play he gives us a picture of a world dominated by men, even worse than his own one probably, where girls are just men’s possessions and nothing is done for love, it’s all done for property…’
What was the provenance of this particular brand of drivel? Geraldine wondered. Perhaps some fatuous new book she’d not yet read, some new version of political correctness – in which case she had better get used to it, because no doubt she would be hearing acres and acres of it over the next few years.
‘ …people betray each other because they haven’t learned to value themselves as individuals. They are still just other people’s property, and that applies to men too, though not as much as to women …’
Geraldine looked again at the girl. Camilla was her name. Could Camilla have any idea of the feelings she was giving rise to? She gazed at the exquisitely beautiful hands, which no man had probably ever admired as she did, ditto the down on the upper lip, and ditto the darkness of the eyes she couldn’t see…
‘and if only people like Cressida could do as they felt, and not as they were forced to by war-making patriarchs, everything would have been so different.’
Everything would have been so different! Indeed it would, thought Geraldine. It would probably be like today, when beauty, rather than something to delight in, has just become another excuse to think ‘Oh clever me!’, another commodity to envy, another pseudo-manifestation of self.
But perhaps it was ever thus, she thought. Nothing much changes. The evils of the world are the same only more so; only the virtues change, receding like Arnold’s sea in one melancholy, long, withdrawing roar.
Camilla finished reading and Geraldine decided she would take the path of most irritation.
‘So. You’ve given me a lowdown on the interpersonal stuff, now I want you to relate it to the theories of social governance contained in the play, with particular reference to the speeches of Ulysses, and the importance he attaches to ideas of deference and example.’
Camilla turned like a wounded rabbit, looking up from under hood-like eyebrows. Geraldine had a feeling of satisfaction; her beautiful face looked a little less beautiful now fear had bruised it; but then she realised the girl might well use this opportunity to withdraw enthusiasm from her studies and from her tutor. She changed tack.
‘Or on the other hand, you could do an essay on the difficulties of love across barriers of race and culture, relating it to the same theme in other plays such as Othello and The Merchant of Venice.’
Camilla looked relieved. She gathered her things. Leaning across to put on a shoe she had carelessly discarded she seemed more than anything like a wild fawn caught in a clearing. Diana the huntress came to Geraldine’s mind. Could she pursue this tender fawn through pasture and thicket, not knowing whether love or death was the quarry? Geraldine noticed an anklet, a mark of friendship perhaps, above the beautiful foot. Camilla stood up, straightened her black T-shirt and moved to the door like a gazelle. As she opened the door she turned and threw behind her a smile which had more than a flicker of the flirtatious about it , Geraldine thought.
Once more, love loosens my limbs – that creature irresistable, bittersweet! Thank God for the greatness of poets! thought Geraldine. She closed her eyes and thought of Sappho. How different must Greece have been then – groves of apple trees among the oak forest, teeming with deer and a myriad of wild creatures. Fecundity in Mediterranean heat. A world lost.
Sappho herself was reputedly rather ugly. Would she have taken Camilla as her lover? Would she have led her under the shade of blossoms and leaves, laid her down on a bed of flowers? Would she have gazed at her lovingly, held her hands gently? Would she have lifted a garland of flowers carefully from Camilla’s neck, a wreath gently from her hair? Would Camilla’s entrancing curls then have fallen down – snaking, black, caressing, over the whitest of breasts? Under the translucent skin below Camilla’s neck Geraldine had noticed blue veins, more beautiful by far than any blue in porcelain glaze. Those veins were waterways to a million unknown heavens; each cell of Camilla’s body was a temple of adoration.
What softness of wool or beaten hemp would Sappho have lifted, to unveil the beauty of Camilla’s limbs? Would there have been music? The singing of birds? Would the gentleness of afternoon sun have dappled the lines of those limbs with exquisite movement? – those long and graceful curves all leading to a secret moist and fertile place that was the true religion of the world. Camilla’s lips and breasts would be suffused and coloured as Geraldine – for now she had taken over from Sappho – bruised them with kisses, her hands competing with snaking tresses for possession of those swelling breasts. Camilla’s nipples would be gathered into tender tightness and be almost unbearably sensitive. Then, as their passion advanced, those same nipples would submit to, and demand, rougher and rougher caresses, her breasts straining to capture the hungry possession of Geraldine’s hands.
Geraldine opened her eyes and listened for signs of interruption. She shifted in her chair so she could accompany her fantasy with a gentle movement of her fingers.
To adore beauty was surely no crime! Did it not soften the harshness that held sway everywhere else? Leaving Camilla’s breasts, Geraldine’s mouth was now competing with hair more tightly curled for a treasure more secret, more guarded. Her tongue was snaking against and pushing on the tiny hillock of love that lay unseen and forbidden among Camilla’s limbs. Camilla moved gently over and above her, elegant pure and beautiful, her limbs naked in white simplicity; now Camilla was adoring her too, sucking on the moist flesh that Geraldine squeezed tightly between thumb and forefinger. A shudder raced through Geraldine’s body, saturating every extremity with the extraordinary power of sexual love.
And that was it, Geraldine thought a few moments later, as she listened to the sound of her own rapid breathing. Sexual love.
She looked on her desk and saw the letter she’d received that morning from her mother.
What kind of love did she have for her mother, she wondered? Grudgingly she admitted she did love her mother; envied her even, for her fecundity if for nothing else; but then she had always felt puzzled that her father should have chosen such a large, stupid and good-natured woman for his life’s companion. Perhaps she overestimated her father’s need for intellectual challenge.
She had read the letter already, but now she read it again. Of course, she mused, it had always been a fact that Eddie would inherit, but not that he would take things over straight away. Her father and mother had a good thirty years of life left in them, surely! Or was one of them ill? The thought made her anxious, then she reflected – no, it’s not likely to be that, it’s probably a desperate effort to instil some sense of responsibility into the idiotic Eddie.
Geraldine had a nagging sense of guilt that she didn’t get on with Eddie. She would rebuff him when he made the odd approach. But then, the approaches he made were very odd! There was the time she had arrived at Postlethwaite with a tremendously impressive American feminist academic. Eddie had come rushing up, aged about eleven, and shoved a pencil connected to a wire into her armpit before even saying hello.
‘Now let me see!’ he had said, studying some makeshift dial on the other end of the wire. ‘You score twenty! That is extremely toxic!’
‘What is that?’ said Geraldine, using her sternest tone of voice.
‘It’s my stinkometer! Big sis, you need a bath!’
Eddie had skipped off somewhere else, pursued by the bovine and indulgent smile of his mother.
‘You should do something, before he turns into an extremely rude boy!’ Geraldine had said to her mother.
Annoyingly, Geraldine’s American friend had found the incident funny, confiming as it did her opinions of boys as scurrilous and the upper class as moronic. And yet, like most Americans, she was also impressed by the British upper class – or rather, by their long tenure on affluence and power.
Geraldine thought she had better ring her mother.
‘Hello Mummy. It’s Geraldine, your oldest.’ Geraldine had many ways of irritating her mother, one of which was to infer that her mother had no idea who she was. It was a talent, to make remarks so cryptically offensive that objecting to them would seem hysterical.
‘Oh darling, I’m so glad you rang,’ her mother replied. ‘Eddie’s had an accident.’
Geraldine felt a chill run through her. ‘Is he all right?’
‘They say it’s just a matter of a badly sprained leg and some concussion, though it’s a miracle that he’s still alive. I can’t bear it, I just wish he would give all this silliness up. Couldn’t you give him a stern talking-to? I’ve done everything I can possibly think of, and your father won’t take a strong line…’
‘A stern talking-to?’ Geraldine replied. ‘I could have a go, but has anything I’ve said ever made a difference?’
‘It would be lovely if you’d try.’
‘Anyway, what was he up to this time?’
When Geraldine heard the story, she couldn’t help laughing. She had a sort of grudging respect for such foolish behaviour, and told her mother so.
‘At least it gets him away from that computer of his, and all that maths he’s addicted to,’ Geraldine said. ‘Of course what he really needs is a girlfriend,’ she added, more to herself than anyone else.
‘One thing at a time!’ her mother said.
After the conversation ended, Geraldine sat regretting that none of her mother’s children seemed likely to produce a grandchild in the near future. Considering how devotedly fertile her mother had been it seemed a bit ungrateful of fate not to give her a dozen or two grandchildren – not that fate ever numbered gratitude among its vices.
And then there was the strange discovery of Gerald – how dare he misappropriate her name! – spawned in some brothel in Cookaburra, wherever on the Devil’s earth that was. He must have been born to her uncle Lewis when she, Geraldine, was about three. His being called Gerald, a name traditional in the family, rammed home a reminder of the disgusting fact that her parents must have wanted a Gerald when she was born.
Eddie at Home
After twenty-four hours in hospital, Eddie was released to go back home, with strict instructions to spend a week in bed. He arrived in a kerfuffle of ambulancemen and Mrs Duckett and his beloved little sister Cassie making ever such a fuss of him. He was carried up to his bedroom on a stretcher, to eat a delicious Mrs Duckett ‘special’ of gammon steak and poached egg.
With a pile of old science magazines on one side and a box of chocolates courtesy of the Dangerous Sports Society on the other, Eddie thought he would make a reasonable stab at staying in bed for seven days. But only the days; nights were another matter. He longed to get back to his computer and see what developments had been taking place on the internet in his absence. As soon as he was able to walk, he would wait till everyone was asleep then hobble along the corridor and take a look.
Meanwhile his mother brought him his meals and looked at him reprovingly. Eddie managed to promise her that he would be more careful in future.
His father thought his son’s captivity would be a good opportunity for a talk. This kind of thing was not Sir James’s forte, but it was clear even to him that the time had come for some kind of discussion. And so it was that one fine morning, with the sun streaming in through Eddie’s bedroom window, Sir James found himself sitting in a cramped armchair and looking at the assorted posters of skiers and surfers, maps and scientific diagrams which covered Eddie’s walls.
Eddie had rather sporting good looks, a handsomeness which came with an impression of innocence and naivety that, as far as anyone could tell, was not deceptive. Sir James had also been good-looking as a young man, though now he was rather too portly to fit that description. His youth had been so taken up with boarding school and then with fighting a war that his time of good looks had – in his opinion – been rather wasted, unless it had had some mysterious and debilitating effect on the enemy that he was unaware of.
‘I believe it’s years since I was in here!’ he said to his son.
‘I think your last visit was after I blew up the conservatory,’ Eddie said.
‘Was it really? That was years ago! Well, thank goodness you lost interest in that sort of thing.’
‘I suppose you want to give me another talking to,’ Eddie said glumly.
‘I think you’re a bit old for that, aren’t you? Of course, I’d rather you didn’t go round impaling yourself on stray conifers, but mostly I thought this would be a good time to give you some idea of what’s involved in looking after this place.’
Eddie didn’t look at his father; instead, he ate another chocolate.
‘Do you want a chocolate, Dad?’ he said, his mouth full.
‘Thanks.’ Sir James took one. He hated chocolate, but he wanted to make a gesture of solidarity. ‘Look, I think you should tell me now how you feel about taking over the place.’
Eddie looked at his father and said, ‘Well, Dad, to be honest I don’t want to be ungrateful or anything, but it seems to me a bit of a millstone.’
‘That’s how I thought when I came back from the war. But I changed my mind over time, and now I think we’re doing something special. I mean, by keeping a little bit of England away from concrete and smog and chemicals and all that sort of thing.’
‘I don’t mean to disrespect what you’re doing,’ Eddie said. ‘I just don’t necessarily want to do it myself.’ He felt gloom coming over him, a feeling of being trapped; however gilded the cage, he didn’t want to live in it.
Sir James wanted to say, ‘Well, what do you want to do? It would make a difference if there was something you actually wanted to do, rather than just going around making a silly nuisance of yourself and worrying everyone sick.’
What he actually said was, ‘Is there something else you specially want to do?’
‘I suppose I’m spoilt,’ Eddie said. ‘I don’t want to go off and get the kind of job that people with science degrees like me have to go for. I suppose if I manage to get my flying thing working, I might try and sell the idea. Otherwise, the science and maths are terribly interesting… perhaps I can do a PhD somewhere.’
‘Couldn’t you combine that with taking on responsibility for this place?’
‘I can’t see why you don’t carry on doing it, Dad. You’re good at it and you enjoy it! I don’t want to do it!’ Eddie knew that his parents moving out was designed to make him give up his addiction to near-death excitements, but he didn’t want to talk about that. He knew he ought to give it up, but it was his only outside pleasure. It was pointless and stupid, but he loved it. It made him feel completely alive. Each time he did something really dangerous, it was like cocking a snoop at fate. Or was he testing out whether Providence really wanted him to survive?
‘Well, I’d like to tell you what’s involved anyway,’ his father said after a silence. ‘I’ll give you an idea of how everything works, so you can think about it.’
Eddie listened patiently while his father explained all the ruses and schemes he had to resort to to make money out of the estate; the pheasant shoots for wealthy businessmen, the corporate hospitalities, organising the farm to exploit specialist niches in the food market, the tax manipulations, the carefully-timed sell-offs when expenditure went way beyond income. After a while, Eddie found he was having to struggle to keep awake. His father noticed him going pale and drowsy.
‘I’m sorry, Eddie. I seem to be exhausting you!’ his father said. ‘I’d better leave you to sleep, or your mother will give me what for.’
So Eddie slept, and dreamed of the strange mottled pigeon in the tree.
Introducing Mrs Duckett
The powerhouse behind most of the domestic arrangements at Postlethwaite Hall was the formidable Mrs Duckett. Nearly as wide as she was tall, Mrs Duckett had been cook there since Henrietta was pregnant with Geraldine. Once the children were mostly grown up, she took on the role of housekeeper too. To all of the children, life at the Hall was scarcely imaginable without her. She was a fixture even more fixed than the by-and-large happy marriage of their parents.
Jaspers, the ancient white-haired butler, seldom did anything unless he was previously given the go-ahead by Mrs Duckett. And Mrs Duckett terrorised the gardener, an obstinate and sullen old man who would do nothing to please anyone – except Mrs Duckett. When Lady Postlethwaite wanted the gardener not to prune the roses so hard, or to grow some new and outlandish vegetable, she would first persuade Mrs Duckett to lend her weight to the campaign.
And when Lady Postlethwaite wished for some alteration to the domestic order of things, she would talk to Mrs Duckett first. Thus it was one morning she went to the kitchen to ask Mrs Duckett’s advice about getting some extra help in, to get the house clean and dusted for the house party in October.
‘Well, I happen to know my brother’s little girl is looking for a holiday job,’ Mrs Duckett said. She was rolling out pastry, and her hands were covered in flour.
‘Your brother’s little girl?’ Lady Postlethwaite said with surprise. She had no idea Mrs Duckett had a brother.
Mrs Duckett made no answer.
‘I never knew you had a brother, Mrs Duckett!’
‘Well that may be, but it makes no difference that I does!’ Mrs Duckett said bluntly.
‘Indeed!’ said Lady Postlethwaite, quite used to Mrs Duckett’s bluntness. ‘What does he do in life?’
‘University lecturer. Went off to America in the sixties, one of them hippies you know. Came back with no wife and a little girl.’
‘Well I never!’ Lady Postlethwaite looked at Mrs Duckett in a new light, a little embarrassed by how much the news changed the way she viewed her. Mrs Duckett seemed so resolutely uneducated, it was astonishing her brother was a university lecturer.
‘Does he live nearby?’
‘Nope!’ said Mrs Duckett, clearly not wanting to continue the conversation.
Lady Postlethwaite thought she would have a go at finding out some other time. ‘Well, if she would like the job, and seeing as you recommend her, that would be ideal!’ she said.
‘I’ll be seeing her over the weekend, so I’ll let her know,’ Mrs Duckett said. She waddled resolutely over to the sink, her body language letting Lady Postlethwaite know that as far as she was concerned, the interview was over.
Mrs Duckett considered it her sacred duty to look after everyone at the Hall, whether or not she approved of what went on there. Quite often she found the children silly, her ladyship quite ineffectual, and Sir James – well, Mrs Duckett could not imagine what he did with himself all day. And as for those ridiculous little dogs! But it was not her job to approve or disapprove; she was loyal. She would not hear anyone else utter criticism of the family without giving them a piece of her mind. She was also very fond of each of them. When young Sophia came home one time looking terrible, she had words with her ladyship about it, and was glad to hear that her words had been passed on.
Her brother Alan had returned to England when his daughter Vanessa was three. Since then, he’d taught as a University lecturer in Birmngham some sixty miles away. It was only recently he’d bought a house near Mrs Duckett’s, intending that his daughter should get to know some of her relations. Mrs Duckett found her niece a charming and captivating young lady, well-educated and with none of the pretensions that sometimes came with education. And she was full of energy which, unlike so many young people, she seemed determined to put to good use. The fact that Vanessa was – well, she could think of no word polite enough to acknowledge what her beloved niece was, better just say ‘one of them’ – was no fault of hers! Indeed, Vanessa’s example made Mrs Duckett come round to thinking that perhaps there wasn’t so much wrong with them after all.
Gerald Disguing Himslef – The Finest Moment In Gerald’s Life
On his arrival in England, Gerald used some of his bulging wad of cash to buy smart clothes. Wearing plus fours, a deer-stalker and a fox-red dyed moustache, he surveyed from public footpaths the estate which would soon be his. It all looked splendid. Not that he could be doing with all that responsibility and lifestyle for long, of course; he would amuse himself for a month or two before selling up. And before all that, there was the challenging and enjoyable prospect of expunging his rival.
During more sessions in hotel rooms, poring over books, experimenting with materials bought from theatrical shops and remembering his father’s lessons, Gerald was becoming a master of disguise.
He rang the headquarters of the Dangerous Sports Society.
‘Hello?’ he said in a most charming voice.
‘Hello?’ an irritable male voice said at the other end.
‘Ah, hello old chap! I’m new in town after a fair old absence, and was thinking it would be fun to get up to some of the jolly japes I believe you fellows indulge in!’
The voice at the other end sounded dubious. Gerald remembered his father’s advice – ‘No matter what anyone else is thinking, believe in yourself every second. If you believe, then they will too.’
So Gerald soldiered on, and he ended up with an invitation to the next meeting of the society. It was to be an attempt to beat the world human cannonball record, and it was to take place in two weeks time.
Two weeks gave him time to familiarise himself with all the haunts of the upper classes which he had read about, and which were accessible without membership or invitation. Attending sales in posh auction rooms, taking tea in the lobbies of smart hotels, always listening in to the conversation of others, he learnt that a great proportion of the rich who frequent London are foreigners. His occasional attempt to make conversation was invariably rebuffed.
His sense of isolation was alleviated one night by a visit to a prostitute. In Mayfair he had been approached by a lady in a car, but something about his demeanour made her change her mind and she had sped off just as he was negotiating terms. Walking on through Soho, he was approached by a pimp.
‘I got pretty girls for you like you won’t believe!’ the pimp said. He was a friendly black person, not at all cowed like the Aborigines at home.
‘Oh yes,’ said Gerald unimpressed. He was hardly likely to encounter Kylie Minogue where this man was taking him. Mind you, that suited him fine.
The man led him up a narrow staircase past shabby corridors lit by naked red, green and orange lightbulbs. The staircarpet was filthy. Another black man, much larger than the first, stood with his arms crossed on the first floor landing. Gerald brushed past the man, eyeing him up as a possible combatant. His look was returned in kind.
‘You ok, Barney?’ the large man said.
Reaching the top floor, the pimp knocked loudly on a door. There was no reply. He knocked again. A peep-hatch in the door opened and an eye, black make-up all smudged, peered out. It belonged to a young white woman. Gerald tried to see more. The girl looked young, pretty and about as far down life’s pecking order as a young, pretty girl can look.
‘Can’t you see I’m with a fucking client!’ she said savagely.
‘I brought you a…’
‘Tell him to fucking wait!’
The hatch slammed shut. Gerald waited, the man jigging from foot to foot beside him.
‘She won’t be a minute,’ said the pimp.
A couple of minutes later the door opened and a young drunk emerged, fumbling with his belt. He left the door open. ‘Fuck,’ he said simply, his import unclear.
‘Everyfink tidy?’ said the large man below.
‘Yuh,’ said the girl. The import of this exchange was clear to Gerald; the man had paid and would be allowed out.
His mind raced with possibilities; would he neglect to pay, and gain an opportunity to do some damage to the man on the stairs? On the other hand he – Gerald – might come off worse, especially if the man had a knife. He might be floating dead in the river that very night. He would not risk such an outcome, with so many rosy possibilities ahead.
Gerald entered the room. Such encounters were like tight-rope walks for him – between expressing enough violence to find physical satisfaction, and not going so far he would be wanted for murder.
The girl looked her client in the face. She could tell by his look he was likely to be a bad one. She had a technique for this type, taught her by a friend; simulate pain before it happens; act out what he would like you to feel before you’re forced to feel it.
‘What’s your name?’ Gerald asked rather charmingly.
‘Sally,’ the girl answered matter-of-factly. She ran through the list of options and Gerald chose oral sex followed by anal penetration. Sally went off to the bathroom.
Returning, she unbuttoned his shirt and swiftly undid enough of his trousers to access his penis. She simulated a great deal of discomfort as Gerald manipulated her impaled head; true, there was some genuine discomfort too, as he made it hard for her to breathe.
Gerald looked down on the top of her head and shoulders. It excited him to be so vulnerable in her mouth but her too scared or in his power to take advantage.
The discomfort Sally experienced during the second part of the ordeal was somewhat abated by the smallness of Gerald’s penis. She was able to simulate discomfort while thinking of other things. Her flatmate had gone schizo and was in hospital, no longer paying the rent. Her mum was coming to London and wanted to see her: her sister was causing trouble at home, out all hours and shouting and screaming when she got back.
Sharp tugs and twistings to Sally’s hair kept bringing her mind back to the job, however, and when she felt the man approach satisfaction she gave one last savage whimper. It would have out-competed the finest tragic actress as an expression of the humiliated hopelessness a woman put-upon by fate can feel, and Gerald came.
He paid up in full and passed the man on the stairs with regret and no assault.
When the big day arrived – Human Cannonball Day at the Dangerous Sports Society – Gerald woke at four in the morning to get ready. Applying final touches to his makeover in front of the bathroom mirror, he felt so unaccountably happy that he thought he might burst into song. How much he was looking forward to inheriting the Postlethwaite estate! It would surely be the finest moment in his life. It would even outdo the memorable occasion of the rejected gift.
On his sixth birthday, his mother had given him a puppy. It was a terrier, like one of the two which lived on the label of his mother’s favourite whisky bottle. It’s arrival had filled Gerald with a hideous rage. It was obviously everything Gerald was supposed to be. Friendly, affectionate, playful, and… cute, his mother had called it.
For days, he had put up with its loathesome habits: crawling up and wanting to play, pissing on his combat jacket, leaving toothmarks on the handle of his favourite hunting knife. He had put up with his mother’s delight. He had put up with his own hatred and fury that the present was obviously not for him at all but for his mother – so typical of her to give herself a present on his birthday. He had toyed with the idea of killing her, and had despised himself for making a substitute by killing the puppy. But his delight at her reaction when she found the puppy on the table, head and body separated by an inch, magically no mess in between, looking just like it was ready to play except for the odd configuration of head and body – his delight had been such that he had not regretted the substitution at all.
He sewed a hair specially plucked from another region through the outer skin of his eyebrow. He was beginning to look unrecognisable even to himself. Now came the bit he hated – injecting collagen into various locations, under his cheekbones, into his lips, and under his jawline.
To take his mind of the horrid discomfort, he re-lived another nurturing memory – the first time he’d killed a man.
Aged eleven, he’d woken in the middle of the night to a commotion. This wasn’t unusual; it would be his mother returning drunk and alone, crashing around among the pots and pans. This time, though, there was a man with her. Gerald could hear his loud, coarse and brutal voice, and the noise of it seemed a challenge; his job would be to get rid of its owner.
Gerald knew his mother kept a small handgun in a box under her bed. He knew there were bullets in the box too, and he knew, from frequent secret practice sessions, how to load the gun, how to release the safety catch and – though he had never yet fired it – how to aim with two hands and pull the trigger.
He crept quietly out of bed. The door was open a crack, jammed by clothes. His mother was very drunk. She belched. The man was swaying and taking his clothes off. Gerald knew he wouldn’t be able to get the gun out without someone noticing.
His mother sat down on the bed. ‘I don’t take money for sex!’ she said proudly and matter-of-factly – giving herself airs, Gerald thought.
‘Well that’s lucky,’ the man said, ‘’cause you so goddam ugly no one in their right mind would pay!’ The man was stark naked. His huge torso, hairy back and arse filled Gerald’s mind like an animated monolith.
‘Get out of my house!’ Gerald’s mother said loudly, in a slurred and angry voice. The man must have thought her change of heart rather late, for he slapped her hard across the face and pursued his business. While his mother whimpered and moaned, Gerald watched the gigantic torso press down on top of her, and he determined he would kill the man.
He returned and sat on his bed. Soon, no noises except snoring were audible from the room. He crept in and retrieved the shoebox with the gun and the ammunition. He took the gun from its cloth and sat on the edge of his bed, considering what to do. Then he wrapped the gun up again and placed it in his coat pocket. He hid the shoebox in his cupboard. He got dressed, put on the coat, and went outside into the street. It was obvious which vehicle belonged to the man; an unfamiliar pickup was parked just outside the house under a streetlight. He peered into the back. A cement-mixer was tied down with frayed orange rope, and next to it a large plastic tarpaulin, part-covering a pile of sand. He climbed in under the tarpaulin, where he fell into a fitful sleep.
He awoke to the sound of an engine. The pickup was moving. Carefully, he put his head out to see where they were going. They were travelling downtown; it was morning, still early. Through the back window of the pickup cab he could see the balding pate of the man from the night before. After about a mile, the pickup drew into a parking place. Gerald hid again. He heard the man get out and slam the door shut. Peeking out again, he saw the man walk with a lumbering motion up the road, dragging his left foot slightly. They were parked in a side-street, next to half-a-dozen small shops. The man turned into a diner; it was early enough that the other shops were still closed.
Gerald reckoned the man would have breakfast and be back. He climbed out from under the tarpaulin. Seeing a doorway set back from the road and in shadow, he sat down there to wait for the man’s return. He held the gun with both hands, cradled in his lap and still covered with the cloth. His one fear was that he would not dare use it.
After what seemed like an eternity, he heard the same lumbering footsteps come out of the diner and down the street towards him. He peered out. The man was hitching up his pants; he wiped a smear of ketchup from his mouth with the back of his hand, then he wiped his hand on the back of his pants. He reached in his pocket for his key. By now, Gerald had forgotten all thought of his mother; it was merely a question of whether he dared kill.
The man approached the doorway. Gerald heard a shot. The man looked around, then rubbed the side of his temple. Gerald could see there was a hole and a smear of blood where the man had wiped. Slowly, the man sank to his knees as if possessed of a terrible headache. Then he slumped on all fours, staring at the pavement. Next moment, he was face down. His body made a jerking spasm, then it was still.
Gerald got to his feet. He could see the wound from the other side now, and it was substantial. A lingering smell of cordite and an ache in his wrists told him he himself must have pulled the trigger. The cloth-covered gun was already back in his pocket. Grown-ups were beginning to appear on the scene. Gerald stood riveted by what he had done. In the background he heard voices, variously asking if the man was dead, if anyone else had heard a shot, was anyone calling for an ambulance?
Then a middle-aged lady was leaning in front of him, talking to him.
‘Young man, you shouldn’t be seeing this,’ she said. ‘Go home to your mum, there’s a good boy.’
Gerald took her advice.
So that had been his first kill. As he threaded a final hair through the skin of his left eyebrow, Gerald reflected that each of his killings had been different. Each was immaculate, a small drama perfected as if by some force outside of himself, some force of fate or destiny. Perhaps that’s what people meant by God, he thought. Whether it went according to plan or threw up some surprise, each murder attained its own perfect structure, a combination of expectations fulfilled and surprise delivered by Providence. It was Nature’s perfection, and it was the only thing he ever really looked forward to.
He stepped back from the mirror and threw a casual glance at the man in the mirror. Yes, there was another perfection, right in front of his eyes. There was Hugo de Vere!
The youngest child of Sir James and Lady Postlethwaite was Cassandra. Mrs Duckett called her approvingly ‘a bit of a wild one’, partly because of her masses of dark curls and fierce eyes, partly because she was in the habit of speaking her mind. Because Sir James and Henrietta had three daughters already and then a son before they had Cassandra, opinion was divided as to what she was doing in the world. Some thought her parents must have been hoping for another boy, a back-up heir. Others thought she must have been a mistake. The real reason – that Sir James and his wife were fond of sex, and fond enough of their existing children to be a bit careless – was never divulged by the two who knew it, and gossip wasn’t benevolent enough to suggest it.
Cassandra grew up with a degree of freedom the others hadn’t enjoyed. There was no weight of expectation on her – or diappointment attending on her being ‘another girl’. Her mother was thrilled to have another girl, whom she could appreciate without the anxiety of not having produced an heir. Alone of the siblings, Cassandra had gone to the village school and made friends in the neighbourhood. Aged twelve, however, her parents had sent her to boarding school, because her father wanted her to get a classical education and because her mother wanted her to make friends among a ‘wider social spectrum’, which in practice meant reducing the possibility of Cassandra marrying the (very handsome) local car thief.
During her first term at boarding school, Cassandra had rung home in a fury about her name.
‘Why did you call me such a horrid name, Mummy? Do you know what happened to the original Cassandra?’
‘Well, sort of. Actually, I’ve forgotten. What did happen?’
‘First her home was burnt and all her family killed, then she was raped by a horrid king and murdered by his wife!’
‘That’s beastly! But darling, that’s hardly likely to happen to you.’
‘And what’s more, she always knew that terrible things were going to happen to her, but no one ever believed her. She could see into the future.’
‘That must have been awful for her. Can you see into the future too, darling?’
There was a pause. ‘No.’
‘Well that goes to show, you shouldn’t read too much into a name! We just called you that because it sounds lovely.’
‘You still shouldn’t have called me such a beastly name! How do you know all those things won’t happen to me?’
‘There have been lots of Cassandras since and I’m sure they’ve had perfectly happy lives. No one would want to do those things to you!’
‘They won’t if I can help it!’ Cassandra said.
‘Let’s hope not, darling! How’s school?’
‘Horrid. From now on everyone’s got to call me Cassie, OK?’
And from that moment she answered only to Cassie.
Cassie was extremely fond of her older brother Eddie. Eddie always treated her as the world’s most delightful object, and Cassie would bear no criticism of Eddie. She believed completely in her brother’s ability to survive his adventures as a member of the Dangerous Sports Society. Since he was bound to survive, she saw no reason why he should stop. That meant, by one more simple step of logic, that anyone who suggested he should stop was tantamount to being a criminal by imagining his death.
Cassie’s school term had just finished when Eddie came out of hospital, so she was there to welcome him. Soon he was hobbling around on crutches, working on bits and pieces for the flying machine he was making on the roof. This was Eddie’s pride and joy. From a young age, making things and science were his passions. But none of his family had the slightest interest in things scientific, and they all thought his flying machine was another prank.
Cassie was quite content to spend time with Eddie, holding bits and pieces for him while she chatted to him about school and asked him about Sophia and Johnny. Johnny and Eddie were good friends.
‘So do you think they’ll get married?’ she asked him.
‘I don’t know. It’s a bit complicated,’ Eddie said. ‘Johnny wants to get a doctorate in political science then move to America. Sophia doesn’t want to go to America, but she doesn’t seem happy here either.’
‘I think Sophia’s changed,’ Cassie said. ‘I don’t want to be like her when I’m older.’
‘She’s unhappy,’ Eddie said.
‘She shouldn’t be unhappy if she’s in love.’
‘If it wasn’t for Johnny she’d be a lot worse.’
‘Well she’s not very nice to me.’
‘You could be nice to her. Just because she’s your older sister doesn’t mean you can’t be nice to her, even if she’s not nice to you first.’
‘She doesn’t talk to me any more,’ Cassie said.
Soon Eddie’s bandage was off. He started walking on his bruised and sprained leg and getting it back to normal. Within a week he had stopped limping, and one lunch he announced he was off next day to attend a meet of the Dangerous Sports Society. There was silence; not even the clink of knives on plates.
‘Not so soon after they nearly killed you, darling!’ said his mother.
‘Can I come?’ said Cassie.
‘It’s OK Mum, I won’t be doing anything,’ Eddie said. ‘It’s Arthur this time. He’s going to be fired as a human cannonball across the River Trent.’
‘What on earth is to be gained by that?’ said his father.
‘Well, it’s a new world record,’ Eddie replied.
‘What’s wrong with the old one? Geraldine said. In truth, she didn’t mind if Arthur was propelled into outer space.
‘What happens if he doesn’t make it?’ asked his father.
‘If he falls short, he lands in the river,’ Eddie replied. ‘It will all be perfectly safe. Charles has employed a man who masterminded an Italian attempt at the record. He’s going to set it all up.’
‘Oh, and what happened at the Italian attempt?’
‘Well, that’s why we’re doing it across a river,’ Eddie said. ‘It seems the last one fell a little short…’
‘And instead of a river, there was…?’
‘Mmm. Not sure,’ said Eddie circumspectly.
‘I can come too, can’t I, Eddie?’ said Cassie.
‘That would be great!’ said Eddie.
Next day, Eddie and Cassie set out at tea-time. They were to meet Arthur, Charles and Boris for supper at the the clubhouse of the Statherton and Hacksop Golfclub, where the attempt was to take place. Just as they were leaving the house, Cassie stopped to watch a little beaten-up Peugeot coming tentatively up the drive. It was being driven by a girl. Cassie went to say hello.
Eddie was about to get into his car. He looked over to see what was holding up Cassie, and saw her talking to a black girl with curly hair and dark flashing eyes. The girl looked his way and smiled. Eddie felt an uncomfortable lurch in his insides, the lurch of dead feelings coming to life. He stood leaning on his car, the driver’s door open behind him, and watched the girl talk to his sister. He was all eyes for her. He wanted the moment to continue, and he liked it when the girl and Cassie seemed to be laughing together.
Then the girl went into the house, and Cassie came over to him.
‘Who was she?’ Eddie said, starting the car, hoping that he wasn’t too shaky to drive without hitting a wall.
‘Oh apparently she’s come about a job,’ Cassie said, putting on her seatbelt. ‘Mummy said she wanted some extra help in the holidays.’
‘I hope she gets the job!’ Eddie said after a moment’s silence.
‘Ooh, Eddie fancies her!’ Cassie whooped. ‘What’s it worth, for me not to tell her?’
‘You better not! I’ll murder you! Anyway, I was just asking!’
‘I think she’s got the job already,’ Cassie said, ‘She’s Mrs Duckett’s niece. She seems very nice!’
‘Mrs Duckett’s niece!’ Eddie was astonished that Mrs Duckett should have a niece who was not only beautiful but black.
‘I know!’ said Cassie. ‘I wonder how Mrs Duckett feels about having a black niece.’
‘The mind boggles,’ Eddie said.
‘Not that Mrs Duckett’s a racist!’ Cassie said quickly, being one of Mrs Duckett’s staunchest fans. ‘But anything even a little bit modern sets her frothing at the mouth!’
It was a two hour drive to the Statherton and Hacksop golfclub. Cassie and Eddie found the little hotel they had booked into, then they went to the golf club for supper. As they approached the clubhouse they saw Charles coming out. He was looking pale and frantic.
‘Eddie!’ he said, not even waiting to be introduced to Cassie. ‘Everything’s a disaster! It’s all off!’
‘Why? What’s happened?’
‘Arthur’s been whisked off on some secret adventure,’ Charles said. ‘So it looks like the whole thing’s got to be cancelled.’
Arthur’s dayjob was as a member of a secret military outfit, so secret no one even knew if he worked for the government or for some even more dubious private enterprise.
‘Well that’s a pity!’ said Eddie. It wasn’t everyday the Society set up an attempt to challenge a world record and this would be the second time things had gone embarrassingly wrong. ‘Can’t anybody take his place?’
‘It’s all a question of weights,’ Charles said. ‘I’m much too heavy, and Boris has a bad back.’ Charles lowered his voice. ‘There’s this peculiar chap who wants to join us. The Society, I mean. You’ll meet him, he’s in the clubhouse. I suggested he did it, and he went quite white!’
‘Well it’s obvious, I should do it!’ Eddie said.
‘You can’t possibly, you silly twit!’ Charles replied. ‘You’re still recovering from the last disaster!’
‘That’s only my leg!’ Eddie said. ‘Everything else is perfectly fit. I shan’t need my leg when I’m flying across the river. We can’t let everyone down now!’
For the first time, listening to the two of them talk, Cassie thought there was perhaps something odd about her brother.
‘You’re probably about the same weight as Arthur!’ Charles said, inspecting Eddie.
‘Just a few pounds in it!’ Eddie agreed.
‘Arthur’s two-o-six. What are you? One-eight-five?’
‘The other day, just before the drop, I was one eighty-seven.’
‘We’ll have to adjust the firing load, I suppose,’ Charles said. ‘No, I’ll tell you what, we’ll just add a few pounds when we bandage you up. Anyway, I’ll have a word with Sergio; he should be able to sort something out! I’ll postpone the launch till tomorrow afternoon. That’ll give us time to get things ready!’
Charles went off to make some phone calls from his car. Cassie was feeling something unexpected; she wanted Eddie not to do it. But it was such an unfamiliar feeling that she didn’t know what to say. She just went silent.
She followed Eddie into the clubhouse. She felt dazed and sulky. When Boris said hello to her, she just looked at him crossly. This kind of behaviour was unlike her, and she didn’t like herself for it, but she couldn’t help it. Then she noticed a man standing beside Boris and a feeling of loathing took possession of her. She felt sick to the pit of her stomach.
‘Sad the event’s off, eh!’ Boris said. ‘Oh, by the way, Eddie, this is Hugo de Vere who wants to join our club. Hugo, this is Eddie Postlethwaite. Oh – and Cassie, his little sis.’
‘Nice to meet you!’ Eddie said, scarcely noting the newcomer. ‘Oh, by the way the attempt’s back on,’ he said to Boris. ‘I’m going to do it!’
Cassie’s eyes were fixed on the stranger – there was something so weird about him – and she witnessed something strange and startling in his reaction to Eddie’s words. A flash of joy, a flash of cruelty, a flash of evil intent – these were the subtle fluctuations which passed across his features and which Cassie, had she not been in such a strange mood, would never have noticed. As it was, she allowed her eyes to stay transfixed on the stranger while she tried to work out if her imagination had supplied the impressions. The stranger noticed her look and fixed her with an odiously familiar smile, extending his hand at the same time to be shaken.
‘Pleased to meet you!’ the stranger said meaningfully.
Cassie took his hand. It seemed dry and wet at the same time. She pulled her hand away.
That evening, there was a strange dinner at the clubroom. The normal jollity of such an occasion was missing. Cassandra’s mood certainly had something to do with it, and the stranger Hugo only opened his mouth to tell the company peculiar tales about the behaviour of wild animals which were supposed to be funny but were in reality just disconcerting.
Next day, Gerald alias Hugo de Vere was up early. In his little hired car he travelled for many miles purchasing small amounts of chemicals – saltpetre, sulfur, sodium chlorate and fine powdered charcoal. He also purchased some unusual items, one of them being an impact-activated release mechanism for a automobile safety airbag. On returning to his hotel he quickly and carefully constucted an impact-detonating explosive charge. His next job would be to introduce the charge to the cannon, so that Eddie would be propelled rather farther than anyone (except Gerald) intended.
By lunchtime, Gerald’s device was ready. The cannon was sitting prepared and covered in a tarpaulin near the sixteenth green of the golf course, right by the river. While members of the Dangerous Sports Society treated Sergio the human-cannonball specialist to lunch, Gerald sauntered over to inspect the cannon. Finding no one else around, he lifted the tarpaulin and inserted the soft cloth bag containing the device into the mouth of the cannon. With his walking stick he prodded the bag down, so that it sat flush with the prepared wad at the base of the cannon. He was careful not to push too vigorously lest the whole thing suffer a premature detonation.
Eddie was rather gloomy at lunch. He picked at his food, and wondered if he was losing his appetite for danger. He kept thinking of the girl he had seen arriving at his parents’ house. He wanted to get to know more about those unfamiliar feelings she had aroused. Now if something was to go wrong that afternoon, he might never even get a chance to talk to her…
Lunch dragged on. Eddie knew he would not pull out and disappoint his friends, even though Cassie had told him she was worried.
After lunch, he said he was just going outside to stretch his legs, and Cassie went out to join him. They sat on a picnic bench and looked in uncomfortable silence at the grey day. A car arrived in the car park. Two men got out, probably a reporter and a photographer, thought Eddie, from the look of the large shoulder bag on one of them.
On the lawn in front of the clubhouse a boy and a girl were playing a stick-ball game. The object was to hit a ball round and round a stick. It was attached to the stick by some string, and eventually the one who hit it harder made the other player miss enough times to win the game. The little boy was playing viciously, and the girl got fed up. They wandered off.
‘I bet I could beat you at that!’ said Cassie.
‘Rubbish!’ said Eddie.
They began to play. The ball whizzed round. Cassie was playing fiercely and winning. Eddie had to reach right down to get one shot, whereupon then he caught sight of a most extraordinary pair of shoes, pale brown lizard-skin with gold buckles, coming round from behind a bush. Just as he looked up and saw the grinning face of Hugo de Vere, the ball returned and hit him hard on the temple. He passed out.
He came to seconds later. Hugo was leaning over him.
‘Oh, I don’t think that’s too bad!’ Hugo was saying. ‘Must’ve fainted!’
Cassandra was holding his hand. Eddie noticed that she was staring in fascination at Hugo’s neck. Then she seemed to gather herself.
‘Eddie?’ she said. ‘Are you OK?’
Eddie sat up. ‘Yes. I feel a bit weird.’
‘You shouldn’t do this cannonball thing!’ Cassie said. ‘You’re not well!’
‘Oh, I’m sure he’ll be all right!’ Hugo said, with a nauseating simper.
‘Yes, I’ll be OK,’ Eddie said. He got to his feet. ‘Don’t say anything to the others about it!’
‘Look, you’re concerned about letting them down, but what about letting down everyone who loves you? Don’t you care about that?’ Cassandra was beginning to feel hysterical.
Hugo tried to intrude a communication, but for once he was at a loss for words. Eddie, strongly affected by what Cassie had said, came unknowingly to Hugo’s rescue.
‘Well, let me go ahead with this one, and I promise I won’t do another,’ he said.
‘What a splendid idea!’ said Hugo, confident that another one would be superfluous.
Cassie gave Hugo a furious look. ‘You shouldn’t do it! You’re only just getting over your compression from the last one!’ She stalked off.
‘I think she means concussion,’ said Eddie with a weak smile at Hugo. He stood up, and Hugo brushed some bits of grass off his jacket. Charles came out of the clubhouse. ‘All set to get ready, then?’ he asked Eddie.
Eddie was just about to say ‘yes’ when a screech of tyres claimed their attention. An Aston Martin had turned off the main road and came hurtling along the short tarmac drive toward the clubhouse. It skidded to a halt on the gravel – and out leapt Arthur.
‘Sorry to cut things a little fine, chaps!’ he said. ‘Hope you haven’t already cancelled!’
And so it was that Eddie was saved, at the very last minute.
To soften the distress a sensitive reader might feel at Arthur’s demise, mention might be made of the mission which had detained him, involving the sale of small arms and other equipment to the internal security of a military dictatorship. Arthur’s end had at least the virtue of quickness; hurled across the river Trent and way past his prepared landing sight, he crashed into a complex of glasshouses then into soft earth between two rows of tomatoes. Only his feet were sticking out when they found him. Given the nature of his dayjob, some readers might shed more tears over the lost tomatoes than over the telescopically curtailed existence of Arthur himself.
The Italian human-cannonball specialist made a quick disappearance, and for many years no circus would re-employ him.
Arriving at the Hall
‘What?’ said Sir James when he read in the papers next day of Arthur’s demise. ‘This really is it! I’ve had enough, I’m putting my foot down! No more of this bloody nonsense with Eddie, I just won’t have it!’
For the immediate future, Sir James needn’t have worried. The impact of the hard little ball on Eddie’s temple, possibly exacerbated by witnessing Arthur’s death two hours later, had done more damage than could be reasonably expected. Eddie had fainted twice since, and after driving back home he felt so strange that he took to his bed.
The doctor was called.
‘It’s nothing especially to worry about,’ the doctor said. ‘He obviously didn’t take things easy enough after his first accident. He’s got a delayed and aggravated concussion. He must stay in bed for at least five days, but if he looks after himself properly this time, there should be no bad after-effects.’
Cassie elected herself minder-in-chief of Eddie’s recovery. She undertook to bring him meals and generally make sure he stayed in bed. She told him she would get him anything he wanted; he was absolutely not to get out of bed for any reason whatsoever. The following five days would see the rest of the clan assemble at Postlethwaite Hall, but they would have to come and say hello to him in his sickbed.
Belinda Suarez, née Postlethwaite and second of the daughters, was first to arrive, driving an old lorry stuffed full of furniture and belongings. She had decided the time was ripe for a move back to England, and the family re-union would be a good opportunity to make the move.
Her marriage to a South American industrialist had fallen apart. After walking out on him, Belinda spent several months in the jungle, supposedly with a team of anthropologists, but gossip (reaching Sophie via a friend-of-a-friend who worked in the embassy) said that in fact she was the mistress of a particularly handsome Marxist freedom fighter.
Belinda’s picturesque old lorry, bought in the vehicle market at San Juan and covered in wild and exotic pictures of fruit and mustachioed men in wide-brimmed hats, rolled gently up the gravel drive of Postlethwaite Hall and came to a rest. Belinda gave the gas pedal a little boost to prime the engine should she need to start it again, and clouds of filthy smoke erupted with a loud burst of gunfire-like noise over the lawn.
Belinda’s mother was writing letters in the morning room. She looked out of the window and as soon as she saw the funny lorry she knew it must be Belinda. Bingy and Boingy bounced up to go with her and see what was afoot.
Belinda climbed out of the van and stretched. It was a pretty summer’s day and large white clouds were sailing in a blue sky. She looked around at the peace of the English countryside; the lush green of the fields, the cooing of doves, the crows flying with lazy caws, the stately cedar of Lebanon they used to climb as children; boring maybe, but what a kind of heaven! Everything, as far as she could tell, was the same as she had left it five years ago. The house seemed a little smaller, the cedar a little bigger, but it was all, if anything, even more beautiful than she had remembered it.
How wonderful! And yet… what would become of it all with Eddie in charge?
Her mother erupted with much yapping from the front door.
‘Mummy! It’s lovely to be back!’
Henrietta hugged her tight, hardly daring to let go and take stock of the daughter she hadn’t seen for five years, dreading that the lines inflicted by time and harrowing life would have spoiled the beauty, drowned the enthusiasm and crippled the innocence of a beloved child.
When she finally let go, she looked into Belinda’s face. There indeed were the lines, but there too was the fresh and freckled beauty and walnut-coloured skin, surrounded by the same mass of auburn hair. Belinda was perhaps a little plumper, she thought, but in her extravagant hippy dress it was hard to tell.
There was a thumping noise from inside the van, which went unnoticed for a minute or so while mother and daughter exchanged greetings. Then the thumping was accompanied by an uncouth grunt. Henrietta, not liking to ask, looked quizzically at the van.
‘Callate!’ Belinda said loudly, which means ‘shut up!’ in Spanish. The thumping stopped. Belinda placed a hand on her mother’s arm, and looked her intently in the eye.
‘Mummy, have you seen anything suspicious?’
‘Like what, darling?’
‘Like men with rifles, or helicopters circling overhead?’
‘Of course not darling,’ her mother replied. ‘This is England! Such things don’t happen here! What have you got in the van? An orang-utang?’
‘Mummy, when you meet Eduardo, you will realise that’s very rude. Eduardo and I are…’ – she paused to look around for the right expression – ‘in love!’
Belinda opened up the back of the van, and lifted out a couple of chairs.
‘Bel darling, let me find Jaspers to help you do that.’
‘Is Jaspers still alive? Good lord no, we don’t want him spraining his back! I’m doing fine!’
Belinda lowered an armchair out of the van and onto the gravel. Then she retrieved a small key from her bosom, which she used to open the door of a large cupboard. The squat khakhi-dressed figure of a black-bearded man was revealed.
‘Good lord, it’s not an orang-utang at all,’ Henrietta exclaimed. ‘It’s a… guerrilla!’ Delighted with her joke, she overlooked the potential horror of her daughter being in love with the man.
‘Eduardo… mi madre. Mother… Eduardo,’ Belinda said.
Eduardo greeted his intended mother-in-law in a flood of Spanish, giving the first hint of what what would be his most persistently annoying habit over the next few days. He continually addressed everyone – family, servants, animals – in fluent Spanish, no matter how little sign they gave of understanding. When anyone complained to Belinda, she would just say, ‘Well it’s no worse than the English abroad; do they ever bother to learn how other people speak?’ During their short acquaintance with Eduardo, none of her family managed to establish a proper objection to this; besides, Eduardo would soon be giving them a great deal more to worry about.
Geraldine and Norma
Geraldine was next to arrive. Sir James always looked forward to seeing his oldest. They would sit and smoke together, discussing things. Conversation at Geraldine’s level was in short supply among the society he was used to. They would talk of Shakespeare, the London theatre and the puzzlingly vertiginous collapse of Western civilization. He would enjoy her caustic tongue – guiltily sometimes, when it turned against his wife and other children.
After the usual hugs and kisses, father and daughter went off to have a smoke. They passed Vanessa in the corridor, and Sir James introduced the two.
‘Good lord, Daddy, you must have the prettiest maid in Derbyshire! I’m surprised Mummy will have her in the house!’
‘Whatever my faults, I’m hardly the kind to go leaping on maids!’ Sir James said.
‘Not you Daddy, you nit!’ said Geraldine. ‘I mean Eddie; how can he help falling in love with her!’
‘Do you know, I hadn’t thought of that! Well, I suppose it’s about time he fell in love with someone. Goodness knows he’s had enough opportunity among his own kind…’
‘I bet he has,’ Geraldine said. ‘They’re all after his inheritance.’
‘Your brother does have some attractions apart from his inheritance. I believe he’s rather good-looking, or am I just speaking as a doting father?’
‘I suppose there’s a market for his kind of boyish charms.’
‘O come on, we were all young once!’ her father said.
‘But not all quite as silly,’ Geraldine said.
‘I don’t know, you were pretty silly at his age,’ her father said. ‘The airs you gave yourself! I remember you sitting downstairs and unleashing scorn upon poor old F. R. Leavis, fresh in his grave that very morning I seem to remember. I thought to myself, just humour her, she’ll grow out of it!’
‘At least that was evidence of some kind of cerebral activity,’ Geraldine said. ‘If you ran a brain scan on Eddie, would it show any activity at all?’
‘Geraldine,’ her father said cheerfully, ‘you are incorrigible!’
By now they were in the smoking room. Sir James offered his daughter a medium-size cigar.
‘No, I’ve taken up smoking these,’ Geraldine said, taking out a smaller one from her pocket. ‘I inhale them,’ she said, looking at her father conspiratorially. ‘My students complain of the smell. Apparently there is something called ‘passive smoking’ that is going to give them all cancer. If only!’ She took a light from her father. ‘One has to do something to annoy people in this world of horrible conformity!’
‘Is that how things are in academe?’
‘It is utterly ghastly, Daddy, you wouldn’t believe it. The career academic is possibly the most depressing manifestation of humanity yet. They are the SS without gas and bullets. By a culture of ruthless political correctness, anything that smacks of truth is confined to the outer darkness.’
‘What sort of things do they approve of?’
‘Lies that sound good and get them some position of petty power. They sell themselves every second of the day, and if you’re not one of them or in a position to do something for them you’re of no interest. It’s impossible to imagine one of them looking at a beautiful sky, or crying for a beloved – or even going to the toilet.’
‘One presumes they still do have to go to the toilet?’ Sir James said.
‘One does rather hope so, doesn’t one!’ said Geraldine, smiling and blowing a long stream of smoke into the air.