Volume 5

Chapter 10

Victoria Square was as it should be; children shouted from the railings of the local primary, students sat on benches and in the grass, parents pushed babies in prams and old people strolled, some with small spritely dogs. A father held his little boy’s hand as the child clambered along one of branches. The little boy stumbled and his face twisted with fear but caught by his father, they broke into delightful giggles. Through this frieze St John wandered lightheaded.

The old man from the Socialist Workers Party was out. He preached usually by Tyndall’s Avenue, where posters lined the street asking if ‘Marx was right?’ or ‘What can we learn from 1917?’ One had asked if social revolution was possible without violence; a question illustrated with a fat bourgeois being forked off the ground by two Soviet workers.
The old man’s leaflet caught St John’s agreeable state of mind. The weather was handsome and he had the afternoon to spend.

‘What is this about then?’
As the old man answered, his grizzle sagged, crushing his open collar. ‘ We’r’ ‘aving a demonstration ‘gainst climate change, for the students. ‘ere’s the leaflet.’ His Somerset burr, touchingly friendly, disarmed.
‘Ah, thank you. And could I have the literature please’ nodding towards the newspapers the man held; a thin publication headed by a red banner and a fist, the front page covered with large intriguing headlines such as ‘Tories on Brink of New Euro-explosion’ with the picture of the PM in front of an explosion, like something Private Eye might mock up. At least what the paper lacked in news it would make up in entertainment, St John smiled to himself.
‘Sure, normally it’s a pound but what’ver you ‘ave in your pocket will do.’
In the depths of his coat St John fingered one of the pound coins, settling instead on the long thin edges of a fifty pence. He toyed with it, thought about it and took out a pound ‘How fortuitous, just right.’
‘Thank you, ’ave a good day.’
‘Yes, you too’ he said turning, bemused, having made out his friend by the yew tree. They had not seen each other since before Christmas.

Chapter 11

A single chestnut strand of his had fallen forward from the general sweep onto his brow. Taking time to notice how vast the sky really was, he tried to make out its many blues each lighter, fading into far-off wispy hues.
    Closing his eyes to the sun, he could feel the slight chill in the breeze and the warm gold and green of this pleasant place.
    Bliss swayed through him as he sat for what could have been hours or minutes. Beyond the fast flutter of beating wings, the coo of a wood pigeon and the sound of passersby, life faded to the realm of pure feeling; a plane he often found in the deepest sleep of the bewitching hours, when colours and shapes fudged and thoughts were vividly vague, moved by the passion with which they were felt.
    His mind had stopped hammering and, troubled neither by hunger or ego, he felt simply alive, at ease with all around him.

A cold darkness then clouded his mind and Charles was brought back. A thin cloud scud past the sun. He checked his watch, the small hand ticked furiously, tugging, choked by its own mechanics. Then looking up, saw his friend approach. The familiar unshaven stubble, that thinker’s stare behind horn glasses and the soupçon of a tie under a shabby cabled jumper.

‘Hullo, fancy finding you loafing about.’
‘Yes, what a lovely afternoon, hello. It’s been a while.’ Charles reached to answer the offered hand. ‘Have you lunched? I’ve not had breakfast, I am starving’ returned to humanity he could feel his stomach.
‘No, I came to look for something at Chandos deli. Are you still starving yourself to afford scotch?’
‘Funny! Don’t you?’ Charles yawned ‘Is that a Socialist Worker’s paper in hand?…Anyway, I was actually thinking much the same and then I found this bench. Can we eat at yours? I’d invite you but I cannot quite face my place after last night. I’ll have you next week.’
‘Alright, come on then’ though neither of them moved ‘Did you…go to shooting yesterday?…You have got to stop wasting your time with those people, dressing for dinner only to mutter with your two friends about how much you dislike everybody else.’
‘True, the ankle-biters were at it but we had some fun. I was sat next to Ophelia which was rather pleasant.’
‘You dog, isn’t she already…’
‘Nm…yes, well, uh…there’s nothing happing’ his face twisted into a cheeky, embarrassed smile. Forcing it back, he continued ‘and anyway I am not too proud of it. I don’t think I’ve even got the heart for it right now.’ Charles said this almost like a joke but St John knew and himself felt its weight.
    They stayed for a while longer in each other’s thoughts. A bicycle rung along the path, between the footfall of a hundred other lives.
‘Right, I’ve got plonk at home, come on. We’ll stop at the deli and you can get the cheese.’

Chapter 12

St John’s rooms had high-ceilings and were bare except for an old moustachioed portrait of the Queen, two small sofas, the bed and a couple odd bits of furniture, none of which had been bought or moved.

‘Tuck in!’ Laid out on linen cloth, riotously disordered, St John had set the odd bits which made up lunch; saucisson, cheeses, oranges, a good thick sourdough and a carafe of cold Sancerre rouge.

They ate in silence. Then, with the red cheeks and Pantagruelan lips from the portrait of a Dutch burgher, strikingly mystic in his smoking cap, St John pushed back from the garden table and lit his pipe. Blowing out a long stream of smoke, he mused winefully ‘You know what you said earlier’ Charles looked up from his cigar and gave a stare “well, I was at this party the other night and at some point I stared around and thought ‘what the fuck’. There were guys doing cut up ketamine in the bathroom, at least they didn’t look like their budget stretched to cocaine, but one never knows, and a girl outside was having her stomach pumped.”
‘So? That’s the “student experience” we pay for here.’
‘Well, quite.’

Charles decided to take him seriously ‘You know, its left to the sway of mental anguish, they sedate themselves to pacifying their worries. Never so much as allowing themselves to reach original thought, they do not need to engage in the necessary struggle for personal overcoming. No-one expects anything of them, and eventually they can go back home and recover in some pleasant Shire.’

They listened to each other’s many months of little thoughts, confused and now put together. A bit tight, loose-lipped, so much St John would want to make some further point, one which he had so fittingly thought of only just before, still speaking the last, that at the moment of voicing it his mind blanked. Contrived to make one, he searched for another to disembarrass himself. Finding a lone one floating along, perhaps not his best, one maybe he had until then only said to himself but was looking to try on others, he launched it uncertain.

Charles, also tight, sunbathed and happy, did not hurry him

‘I was at that club last night…’
‘Oh yes, you mentioned you knew people in that. You’re not joining the splitters are you?’
‘No, not really my thing but it was still nice to be invited. Anyway walking home, I was really thinking’ and St John drew again, having not quite cleared his chest before ‘that with Religion weak, universities, these lauded civic cathedrals, have failed as seats of secular guidance. They’re now temples to our new fetish; the degree. We have ruined soulful curiosity for a promise of employ which is no longer even true. The whole thing is a joke, a frog-march, as we are stamped into a specialised cohort who go on to undercut one another, reinforcing employer expectations, furthering this rot.
    For example, yesterday, one girl in my optional unit excused herself for having no opinion on Art because she studied physics. Can you imagine, to live so pitifully, limited by one’s self. They’re taught, better informed, but are they really better people? They’ll earn more, have easier lives and yet they’re no happier. They live in activity, not progress, on drugs, gap years and panic masters.’
    The thought revived Charles ‘What always strikes me is how unbothered they all seem by it. The irony of their tolerance is that they reassure themselves by denying that another may disagree.’
    ‘Exactly, the papers I forced myself to write the other day were utter nonsense.’ St John snorted incredulously, almost pitifully, at the thought of it. ‘They try to feed students careered purpose instead of helping them understand their natural doubts, which just leaves them without the wherewithal to figure it out.’
‘And you have another year of it!’ Charles cried teasingly.

Another listening to that conversation might have found the young men foolish but in the drink and the smoke of the afternoon, they were pleased that they had been able to voice the frustrations which had dogged them, finding that happy comfort when friends know they agree with more than they can say.

Chapter 13

The few people around carried themselves with the empty step of the last hours of a day. Along the greying streets, Charles could feel the pitter-patter. The sky was ashen-faced, on the cusp of tears and looking up, Charles saw the clouds storm furiously across, darker ones with knit brows chasing a clear sky beyond.
    Scatterbrained, repeating a couple lines, he felt what St John had meant and then, as it did sometimes pondering, wandering, the thought came to him so casually, each step falling on either side of indecision. He made up past the Observatory; its door creaked, yawning and slamming with alarm. Across the stygian river, the mist seeped through Leigh Woods. Against the plane, beech, yew, oak and ivy covered ash, hunting peregrines tumbled. The bridge struck with usual steadfast resignation; vegetation beneath spilling out along the gorge into the Avon.
    He felt the railing bite at his stomach, he felt the tip of his toes, his body lean. He liked to peer down, eye the drop, see how he felt. Some days he felt it was the only thing he could still decide to do.

Theodore was late but like a borzoi, having seen his friend from afar, which often happened in the Village, ran up, called to from a couple paces and made to embraced him. ‘Hullo, hullo my friend. What are you doing, wandering about on such an ugly evening? I was just off to māss’ as he liked to stress the word.

‘Oh, yes, hello…tonight…to māss.’ Charles startled, mocked and let out mindlessly ‘Oh, you might see my friend de Machin-Machin.’
‘Ah yes, Benoît-Marie.’
‘Round nose, black hair, thick eyebrows. He’s an old friend from school.’
‘One of the french boys, yes I know. Good, good, well…I just thought I’d say hello, it’s been too long. You should come next week, there’s a dinner with a Knight of Malta’ and now like a dog bored with the catch, Theodore stood silent. There was not much to say and nothing to add.
‘No…good to see you Theodore. We should definitely do dinner one night soon’ and led by his own disquiet, Charles made home.
    He could never quite push off, nor deep down did he want to. Thinking it over, he became chokingly afraid. Every time finding he rather the life he had over the greater unknown; thinking of all the good, warmth, love and even, though he tried not to let it take him, hope which filled it.
    Yet these things never quite comforted him and again and again, no nearer to ending it, he lived caught in fits of despairing misanthropy.

Finding his bed in a stupor like the night before, he incanted his boyhood prayers breathlessly. He had to or he could not sleep but for some time now, he had felt like he was talking to himself.

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