Volume 2

Chapter 4

As the days without reply lengthened one by one into weeks, Charles’ position became unbearable, even faintly ridiculous. He worried he might find ‘Ha’ written boldly on a card, not that she had that kind of happy cruelty in her.

The weather turned again like an unlucky spate of cards and across the windswept county bare trees parted upwards into a smear of cloud, it too dragged as if by the imposing streak of an oil brush.
    The wind battered the cottage, whistling through the chimney, hissing at the windows. Sleeping, Charles would turn like a thunder-frightened dog, taken by a fear stronger than sense which he only felt in that room, in that bed, on such nights.
    Though the walls were thick, he worried that the cottage, poor thing, could not take the beating; that each blow, more vicious than the last, would break the windows and tear out the slate from the roof and soak and sweep away all that he held dear.
    Even if not, Charles thought he might find the gate door broken or a tree torn down.
    Though the next morning he always found the gate closed, the slates firm, the trees rooted and the birds singing.

Enjoying breakfast in the garden after two such squally days and nights, he saw the postman come and went to meet him at the gate. Flicking through the bundle, a letter had come for him. Seeing its hand…he quickly cast aside his disappointment, why let tenuous hope ruin the heartfelt letter of a friend.

Dear Charles,

Peter told me you had left in a hurry. You are quite right, there was nothing left in Bristol and I soon made back too; to these gloomy northern moorlands whose cold mysteries I have just escaped, ensconced here in the study with a hot tea.

I look back at this past year as one does probably with any great time in one’s life, neither overdosed nor underwhelmed, simply with accepting curiosity, as if I had not lived it. Moments impress and your friendship remains; evenings ended in moonlit walks, grateful, coming back glowing from good food and company.

Look how we live now instead. The lunacy of the current situation is so vile, it sickens me. In this madness I have known someone commit suicide, a friend’s grandfather die from an unchecked cancer, but no-one who has died of Covid.
    ‘Stay at home, save lives’ tell that to those who die quietly, afraid in their homes, too scared to go out, too scared to get the care that Britain owes them too.

People are afraid Charles, scared by the Government. This is what happens when one gives in to fear, what happens when politicians choose life for others, at the cost of other lives. Their fear kills all life; the poor, the young, the shopkeepers and the publicans and their children; none of whom will show on the count, none of whom make policy.

What has always frightened me is that Boris is only a Conservative to save himself. Boris Johnson his only sacrosanct value, his only altar; family, country can crumble as long as he remains, Ozymandias in the sands.
    The apologists will answer ‘What could you do better? Imagine being the PM now.’ I expect better from my leader. The lackeys gleefully say ‘it does not stick to him’ but that does not mean it does not matter. In office as he is at home; a liar and a lecher with such poor taste. Even morally contemptible, one might have forgiven some chic.
  More seriously, the country might have mourned the tragedy of another fatherless child and we are glad he has recovered but the premiership is not owed. Craven, he prostitutes the Party and our politics but those hecatombs can only satisfy so long. The quicksand on which he founds himself, whose hiss is public clamour, will shift. What it will take I cannot say but the people owe him no loyalty and members like myself, bound to Tory principles, no longer can. I should also like to think that some nights, when it is not Miss Symonds’ fingernails, he feels the itch of old scars and sharpened knives. The Party giveth and the Party taketh.

Though most of his Cabinet have staked their reputations on his policy and no matter what nonsense they need say, however glaringly contradictory, they will do it. He lives, they live. Never in our lifetime has Britain looked so rotten right from the top. This toryism of the trough in Whitehall, friends and their families lavished with honours and positions, some even breaking the rules, whilst we wait, powerless.
    They will have it end only on their terms and I am appalled at how they excuse further edicts with ‘non-compliance’. Non-compliance meaning the free, directly democratic choice of not one or two but a great part of the British people, who no longer trust their leaders. What cheek they have, telling us ‘keep off the grass’ when it is our damn lawn!

I have come to a state where I can ignore it all. Out-sourced, infighting, inefficient, British statecraft is reassuringly too bumbling to strictly enforce anything. There are a few older couples in the village, they are being quite careful and rightly so but they also see their grand-children, as I have seen my grandparents. All we can do to check the over-reach of politics is live our lives; I do what is sensible, others can do as they like.

On that other matter, did you see her before going down? Have you spoken to her since? If this is not some frivolous lust then give yourself to her, let her into your life, love her honestly. It should bring the most (un)holy rewards. Though the dreams of men always seem certainties, mere playthings in the hands of friends.

Yours faithfully,

St John

Chapter 5

Dear St John,

I was so very pleased to receive your letter. I am moved to agree but your green ink is a dangerous outlet which leads to passion and conspiracy, so I shall stick to blue for there is enough already in my life.

Death in ill-health or old age is no more an unexpected than breathing is a bother. As my ninety-five year old grandfather put it ‘I have got to go from something, might as well be this.’

It was only a while ago that I really saw him. I was calling to go there before term and hanging up he muttered 'if I am still around’. Then it struck me, his life as he lived it, what his marriage meant, how he raised his children, how he wanted to live. No longer the childhood fantasy of old age, from beside books and the silly excitement of a weekend at Grandma and Grandpa’s; the night's terror of staying over in a draughty, country house; but a man, frail and unwell. From an old man getting older, I now see an old man, my namesake, waiting for his last breath.

Each fit I feel as such but I find it rather enlivening to wake and go off to see death; to get a call from the darkness of bed and make straight out. Perhaps you have already known such a thing. Makes you hold your head up, wear your best clothes. You feel a knot in your stomach but really you are just hungry having skipped breakfast. All about seem to be living a vastly different life, that you alone are out with serious purpose and they are all just drifting. Though of course they too are going places, maybe even a hospital.

You do not let your imagination move you in a way you have never felt about Grandpa. No point going over and over the thought, working yourself up to heartache and tears now. There is no drama, just jumping across trains and waiting at stations. It feels very civilised in a slick Overground over the Thames, really it is quite primal.
    As the patriarch dies, the family rallies. Away from London, that river-facing narcissus; away from the rail yards and the new builds; to be lost again in a quiet England. An England clear up from the sea across the chalk and iron of stout, once Saxon land. Into the bosom of the Weald and the green and the brick, the timbered and jettied Arts and Crafts and the stable yards and the old matchstick station.

Grandma has always waited at that station. She had been waiting for months the last time I went and still not much had changed. The old woods were different though, now longer alive with playful memories but horribly pockmarked by dieback felling.
    At the door which had always seemed so great as a boy, I heard the echo of frenzied dogs, scrambling, scratching, rattling collars and barking; dogs who have long passed.

Usually we sit by the stove, looking out across the garden and I had not yet seen him at his bedside. How terrifying, now blind and deaf, coughing, kept away in that upstairs bedroom which, for all I can remember, was a place we were let in only once or twice with him, to fetch the airgun or some such other thing he kept safe.

I sat by him alone. He was too tired for chat, struggling with the poor lungs he has always suffered from, what they have called aspirational pneumonia this time.
    He is an old man who has lived an age, leaving many children, many more grandchildren and a host of small animals he has nursed and birds happily fed. Ill for a while, now he dies as old men do. Apart from oxygen, his bed and a couple more blankets, we are not going to treat him. He wants to live out in the comfort of his home. He is right, hospitals are really only places to walk past and look at and hope never to see yourself in.

I spoke a couple words and the fabled ‘it’s not the cough that carries you off…’ He did not hear I think, he mumbled for a chocolate button which I handed to him but I could not take one for myself from his pack.
The silence reminded me that I might have to kill my father when he gets that weak. He once asked me half-seriously. He also said he would one day swim out to sea. Either way, it will be sorted.

Grandma and I had tea, laughing and chatting as we always do by the heat of the stove, looking out at the oak tree. Harold, the escaped pheasant she has tamed, came to the door and we scattered some seed.

On the platform, I still had that knot in my stomach–one of those old pantry biscuits, probably. I was leaving childhood Surrey.

On the other matter, I have written to her and I wait. To think this will only end painfully; to know it was tied only to a moment’s impression; to know I chose and yet my say is powerless; it seems to me quite mad.



The log glowered white and amber, soft, about to crumble like lips on the point of tears. Shrouded in idle smoke, Charles slipped into sleep, his muddled thoughts fading.
    He dreamt she was there, then ran over and over what he had written, doubting she had seen the letter, having gone down before. Why had he written all those things or anything? What did she care? They could not see each other; perhaps even she had gone back to him.
    If she felt the same and had written back, the letter should have come by now…he could write again…why force it when her silence may well be her own.
    Cursing these wild worries he slept in fits and starts, until dawn came softly like a servant, waking him to face the day anew.   

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