Le Spleen Londonien
Oliver Briscoe

His legs were heavy, as if he had lost the use of them over night. His mind alert, his eyes fresh yet he could not rise. When he did it was only a quick stagger to grasp at his ratty gown.

A family portrait overlooked the dining room, he seated to the right of his father, that piercing stare straight and life-like. He liked to sit at the head of the table, turned away from it, feeling the portrait intensely at his back.
  A thick dust covered most things, glaucous in a morning light, caught too in the cobwebs of the corners. The flowers had wilted in their vases.

‘Only Tuesday’ he muttered to himself, thinking then ‘What day would you rather it be? You have nothing happening this weekend.’ February had been, thankfully as always, a blissfully short month. He turned to the paper. ’Boring!’ He sighed and trumpeted ‘Why is The FT so bourgeois?’ breakfasting like every morning in a monologue.
  Down in the garden square the daffodils had come out in chorus. Soon the cherries would blossom and the berries would be back, he thought with some warmth, looking past the polite carnage of two egg shells. As soon and for as long as they were in season, he enjoyed a bowlful of berries every morning. Then when autumn came, he would take back to apples and allow himself oranges from Spain, until the berries came back.
  He stared out blankly for a while longer, thinking of those warmer months. He had wintered in the country and thought of the Easters and summers spent in the South, hot and cool and idle. He had not been abroad for years, mourning the thought as if resigned to it.

Coming back to himself, in the silence of that empty morning, he heard a patter like fingers lightly drumming across the parquet. He turned, the nasty thing stopped. He stood, the drumming quickened, on the run. Poised, he struck out and reeled back. There it lay like a clump of dirt and he shivered all over.

Knotting his tie in the standing mirror, he noticed a small stain on the cuff of his shirt. Out, no-one would notice, ‘Of course they might’ and the thought itched him until his mind turned to other things. “Do sneezes become as mean as their person. Innocent children have hearty, light sneezes but bitter, down and out older men sneeze so gruffly.”

It was nearing midday and he felt like walking there. He would sometimes glimpse himself in a shopfront, for a moment at the height of himself, like he was going somewhere, with something to do.
  Everything else around him seemed dispiriting, rushing, loud, draining. Why was he wearing that? What was she buying that? A beggar fat like a Buddha was sat cross-legged with a splif stub in his pudgy hand. Unkempt, the sweet smoke hung knotted in his hair. Why was no one else bothered? His peering look spoke of a man not so much offended as concerned by the way of things, muttering to himself as an advert fluttered past on a bus “Spend, spend, credit, bored of your job, too tired to cook, go abroad.”  Or why for example pale English women had this dreadful habit of dark purple shadow. He just wanted to give in and be swept or fade or waste, as he leant into his umbrella to stand him up.

Then past the sound of traffic and tourists at the top of Green Park, London slowly breathed easy again. The young women on their way were spring light if not yet summer free. He fancied he recognised one. They did not share a word, knocked back by each other’s stare. She walked past with a man he assumed was her father. Caught by her bemused look, he had answered it bewildered, struck by the familiarity of an English girl’s face but that one? That one? and when it was too late, harrumph ‘Izzy’. He turned and watched her go along, as he vaguely hoped she would turn too, see if he had finally realised. Stood, watching her fleeting, she leaned into her father as if to explain ‘That young man there, I knew him at university.’
‘Oh, yes.’

He liked to drop in for an afternoon, at least once, if not twice a week. He came for the still silence, apart from a polite shuffle sometimes and the ormolu ticking and the quarterly chime across the rooms. It was one the last rooms of the great London houses, gilt edge acanthus on Corinthian pilasters, marble fireplaces penned by old leather fenders, the one in the entrance hall always burning, a grand staircase and dim old portraits, faded in their own chiaroscuro.
  It was as they had put it his first day ‘leaving the general public behind.’ Walking in the stress fell of his shoulders, swept away by the familiar. He liked that the porter was French, that he could walk up and share a couple of the words he knew so well and never used.

The place was empty and he made straight to find his favourite chair by the window, in the drawing room of the second floor. Languorously he leafed through the Spectator, sat with a whisky, tired from the rush of having done little in amongst activity, slipping out of time. In a couple years time he feared he would not even be able to afford that. He sometimes worried, aware the terms by which he lived would not last, unacceptable to the life he had to get through. He had become so fragile, slowly cut off from living, which in his more settled moods, he suffered like the English saint of a dying breed.

When they asked what he was doing, to his friends it was ‘this and that’. To his tailor it had even been he had ‘got something maybe’ which was just a coffee and he knew would end with ‘let me help you in any way’ and ‘ah, sorry. Maybe in a couple months but I can introduce you but do please feel free to stay in touch’ which would go nowhere too. After each such meetings he would still away gripped by the dreadful thought that he was becoming worth less and less to more and more people. Anyway, he felt it was a sign of desperate intent when someone offered help in passing, to hold them to it a fortnight later.
  Of course he could do something, musing that if he could find something he accepted, he would be quite good at it.

He went through all these thoughts again, here the silence did not bother him but apart from the these visits on these empty afternoons, he did not much care for club life. Attending a couple dinners but rarely stayed in the evenings. Only once had he taken part in club politics; a hit job against a young Widmerpool, a couple years beneath him at university. Thoroughly unsuitable and the last man he wanted to see across the stairs, smiling and nodding fawningly, ever climbing. The kind of man who looked over one’s shoulder to see if there was anyone else he should be talking to instead. Thank goodness that out of all the things lost, the blackball had survived. Power without reason, based on character, so that he could stop those other keen young men.
  When he had seen that name up on the board, he had immediately jumped to the study and scratched out a damning tirade which had come so quickly to mind. He could act when he wanted to.
  The mantle clock chimed ‘Quarter past six. An hour…’ he let out ‘another hour on a Tuesday’ almost in a sigh.

Chargé d'affaires - Depuis 2020