Volume 1

Chapter 1

England oppressed him then. The old house stifled him. There were a few sheltered, favoured places like the Daunt Books on Holland Avenue but even the streets no longer quite felt his own. London was Charles' past, the old family home, holding him in childhood ways, his old mansard room piled with things of his which only spoke faintly to him.

Kept in the trance of delayed but certain passage, as letters had to be signed by certain amenable civil servants, his lazy bookish days were broken up like everybody else’s with a walk.
  In Kensington, an eclectic rabble went about in a plasticised bondage of masks and gloves to buy things, their confused activity like the swirls and eddies of a storm-wracked stream.
  The Barkers building, its hard, rectilinear Portland stone, iron and glass moulded by Art Deco, was softened by a mournful saxophone, Autumn Leaves, elegantly and precociously played out by a snazzy busker at its foot; Power & Poverty.
  By the Serpentine, Charles sneered at the arrogant swans who eyed him through a throng of inoffensive coots. Four young ladies in fine hacking coats trotted peacefully past the barracks on their ponies and Hyde Park was as he liked it, in a breeze and on the brink of rain.
  Late this year, it would start quite wickedly. First the rain would fall lightly then whip about softly like a murmuration and afterwards London would give off the musk of summer rain.
  He thought of Cornwall; the cliffs embossed with gorse and rock would now be gilded by the violent colours of summer heather, embroidered where the blossomed meadowsweet met the sea-spray.

Back home, a letter from Ophelia sat carefree, waiting at the threshold.
  She had long struggled with it; how could she tell him? The thought of it, the thought of him reading it, his loving face, those grey eyes of his, so often unflinching which had softened in hers.     
  Every line time they had shared; she remembered a dinner party, a chance thing set by a couple of close friends who knew about their tryst. They had danced with such abandon until late and come home wandering arm and arm as he steadied her. They had laughed and played around for the keys, falling through the door and in the darkness of the room, close enough to hear each other’s whispers, found an honest love.
  They had danced some more, half dressed and less and less, their smart clothes slowly slipped off, unbuttoned where they stood and then they had made to bed, where love had been slow and heavy.
  They had lain for hours after, gossiping about the couple and the stories they made up for them; imagining their married life and their secrets; before talking tenderly of childhood, finding sleep in the slow pace of settled chests, a sleep deep like that of children. Indeed, they had felt like children with their shared secrets between the sheets and their hidden looks, unthinkingly happy; where the only wrong seemed to be apart, to break the play, ignore the other.
  She remembered tenderly their last night together, when he had finally found sleep before her, lulled by whispered kisses. Cradling his head, she had known then and teared quietly in the midnight.
  She had cried again writing.

Dear Charles,                                                                                                                         
It was uncomfortable to rid my house of you. I brought more bottles to the recycling, where lots of other bits of our days already lay; champagne, punnets, scraps of this and that. I have washed and hung the sheets, new ones now lie on my empty bed. Even the towel you used has been cleaned of you. All that remains; the ribbon you gave me, the drinks for a mediocre martini not-made-by-Charles, your blue letters on my shelf and your inscription in the Zhivago you gifted me. Thinking of the bed I will sleep in tonight, the spot where you lay only hours ago, my forearms run hot.

Our last night I had felt a similar feeling; all was not as it should be. I was whelmed, despairing. Tearing next to you I could not truthfully answer your nudging, sleepy worry.
  Only later, breathing deeply with your hand spread, pressed across my chest, did I find calm. You telling me Africa had been set, the whole almost flared again.

I understand why you could not have me in the Cornwall, in your father’s house. I was a little part of your life and as much as I toyed with the idea that I might spend more time with you down there, meet your family, I know this will never be. I had not hoped for much more but still feel a sure frustration that I am not in your life.

I am grateful you touched me with thought and passion, that you allowed me to understand. Our few days in Bristol will live on, always true to me. I was so happy in the long grass with you, lulled as you read aloud. I will cherish the clearing beyond Abbott’s pool, talking endlessly of nothing much. When we did get round to talking seriously, I looked into your eyes and knew what you were saying mattered to me. What you have shared will go on to speak to me, even when you do not.
  I hope that some of what I have shared will do the same to you. I smile to think of those few times you might tell someone about me…tell them who I was to you, even if it was only for a short while.

I am sure I will find strands of your hair about for days or weeks. I will remember you pulling me to dance. I will remember you lying in my arms at peace; calm knowing I had made you feel so. I will remember you cooking as I watched you lazily in my gown. I will remember our late talks, from which I cannot remember finding sleep. I am sorry that I always slept deeper, first, you seemed restless. I would have also liked some longer, slower mornings in that bed but we did not seem to have the time.

I have been sleepless thinking about how I am to make my time worthwhile, if I have enough. I do know that I cannot afford my love for my husband to undermine me. I cannot be yours, I cannot give you the love you need Charles and you will not happily be mine otherwise. What we had served me in many ways but I feel I do not need these things from you; I do not need you, though I am awfully sad.

Strangely one night when you had me and then turned away, you felt so cold and unkind. I lay there worried again that I was some little thing of yours; someone you kept, enjoyed, and then fucked off. It did not bother me so much in those few fleeting days and I wanted to see if you would respect me, rather than beg for attention.

I feel I should say sorry but I have nothing to apologise for. If my words seem harsh, I hope you will take them as honest truth, as you stream down rivers and beat across the dambos. I never intend to be dishonest with you and I hope you will understands this is as honest as all that has come before. It feels wrong to indulge in your tender dreaming when I do not feel the same.

I would be very upset not to hear your voice again. If you choose to upset me so, I will pour over your letters and forever love the young man I once had.

It breaks my heart to think of you reading this but I know you will move on quickly, distracted by the beauties out there. Part of me intensely wishes I could join you. Part of me already mourns what we had.

With love & rage,

Chapter 2

Charles went to cards that evening. Earlier he had let his cheeks run hot and his eyes tear for a moment, almost to just once feel deeply and because he did not quite understand and nothing else would do.
  On St Peter’s Square, an old boy from one of the neighbouring houses hobbled past on crutches with a pleasant whiff of lavender. It was hot that evening. The square though was kept cool between its small ionic porticos and worn Georgian stone. A blue NHS banner draped the flagpole in the garden.
  By the subway under the Great West Road, a Rastafarian staring out broke into a smile ‘This is da west of London, da centre of West London.’ Charles amused answered in passing ‘I know, I live here.’ ‘Have I changed that much’ he thought.

‘Yeah man’ the man smiled again and at once seemed no longer there.

Charles always thought the back-broken bridge marked the end of modern London, into the gentility of Chiswick and the quiet, parochial Barnes beyond. A quaint waterfront of elegant leisurely decadence with the odd gothic-stoned or timber-beamed wall. A leafy, almost suburban London left in the dappled shade, turned away from city life, subdued in communion with a much older flow, the river and its eyots.
  He found the riverside a lockdown scene in the saffron hours; people mingling, talking, drinking, sitting beneath the willow tree, above the water like gold leaf which seemed it might shatter at a stone’s throw, lanced by rowers deployed in squadrons. Charles even smiled and people smiled back.
  He could see the beauty of it all, London was still home to him.

As she would throughout those summer months, she came to him so casually; by his side in amongst the crowd or in moments alone, those moments he wanted to keep sharing.
  When he thought of marriage, he saw her. When he went about the day she was there, then he thought of old age and she would share it too. Ophelia had become his happiness.
  He thought she could love him too, that she was keeping herself from a love she felt but did not trust he had. He wanted her to give in. He wanted to talk to her again, write to her, press her thoughts, follow her feelings. He read her words blindly, seeing one sense for another or not giving reason to a line at all. If he could see her he was sure she would change her mind.

Over cards he indulged in old schoolboy jokes, held back from not so long ago. It was easy to find old friends and be awkward and juvenile again.
  He would tell them his stories and of his plans, thinking how little had changed in them since that summer after school.
  Looking back at those years, he was unable to make out the change in himself, though the whole was clearly so. Each age, each scene, each person a necessary passage with the hindsight of his present self. It is trite to say we change, a few moments mean more than others but all had been approached, enacted, understood by him, vaguely in line with the immutable person he had long been. Perhaps the truth lay there, that he had not changed but, aware of his upbringing, become himself. The boy brought up, an inheritance happily kept.
  Those moments in which he would now act differently, when he should have done so then, they were not him, they fell short of him and though he had lived them, acted them, he no longer saw them as part of him. ‘I am not a person who does those things, who says those things, who acts in that way and the fact that I did does not mean the contrary’ he tried to reason with adolescence. More than that, what he now saw otherwise, would not do again, he could not call wrong, how could he when he had acted himself then.

More pressingly in those weeks, Charles felt that for the restrictions of Covid to prevail, for Africa to fail would be proof that life imposed by others, the life he had always rejected, was to triumph over his own view of things.
  As he saw it, his life was once again in turmoil and again he feared, as impatient young men do when things take time, that should he not rescue it all at once he would lose it all, forever fallen, a ‘social wastrel’.

Confined to London, without the fields, without the coast, he felt the hours elapse, the days pass with the frustration of wasting youth and privilege. He grew desperate for Africa; out there, where he could get away; where once, lost young men were made.

Chargé D'affaires - Depuis 2020