Chapter 1: A Sunday Morning
They woke to the sound of birds singing and quarreling in the fir trees that lined the southern edge of the pond. Dawn was breaking. It was the end of the third night they had spent together. The first one had been in a guest room in the big house on this estate, the second one in a grubby hotel in London.
The younger man was twenty-two and had deliberately missed the boat from Southampton to Buenos Aires the day before. He had told the older man, who was twenty-four, that he wanted to stay with him.
They were still together now, lying on dusty sofa cushions and under coarse horse blankets in a side room of the boathouse on Mr. Durham’s estate.
Mr. Durham had been friends with the older man, more than that in fact, since their days as students at Cambridge. The younger one had been in Mr. Durham’s service as a gamekeeper for a year. The squire had recently married.
‘Don’t go,’ Alec whispered when Maurice carefully crawled up from under the blankets.
‘I’m not going anywhere,’ Maurice said, bending over to kiss him. ‘It’s just that I have some work to do now.’
From the makeshift bed Alec watched his lover rake the fire and fill a kettle with water from a jug.
A little later, they were sitting on the blankets, wearing undershirts and drawers, sharing an enamel mug of weak tea and discussing their plans. ‘Of course we’ll be on the train by noon,’ Maurice said to Alec. ‘No need to hurry yet. It’s Sunday morning and it’s a quarter to seven now...Would you lend me your shaving gear?’
Alec got soap and a razor from a suitcase that he had meant to take with him to the Argentine. Then he held up a large shard from an old mirror while Maurice removed his black moustache with swift, hard jabs, mumbling that no one would recognize him on their journey.
‘Done!’ he smiled a little later, wiping the remaining soap off his face and looking at Alec with midnight-blue eyes. ‘How do you like me now?’
‘You’re beautiful,’ Alec said.
The morning fog still lay over the pond like a bride’s veil when they stepped out onto the deck in their underclothes to smoke and to get some fresh air. All was quiet but for the distant singing of sparrows, occasionally interrupted by a blackbird.
‘That one’s always around,’ Alec said to Maurice. ‘I come here every morning to feed it breadcrumbs and such.’ He rushed back in and returned with a neatly tied packet of biscuits his mother had made him to take on the ship. He untied the string, crushed a sweet, golden disc between his strong fingers and dropped the bits onto the planks. Presently the bird flew down, landed at the men’s feet and started pecking, making grateful sounds.
‘It’s saying ‘thank you’,’ Maurice whispered. Then he put his arms around his lover and looked into his warm, brown eyes. ‘It’ll miss you when you’re gone,’ he said. Alec nodded. ‘I suppose so…I’d better feed it more later.’
When the little creature soared into the sky, twittering merrily, the two men watched it until it took its usual place on the slate roof of the boathouse. It sang now, telling the other birds that this was his turf.
Maurice and Alec listened, smoking, scratching their feet on the planks, silent.
When Maurice finally spoke softly, it sounded like thunder. ‘You know,’ he smiled. ‘I just got an idea.’
Alec looked at him, shocked at first, then relaxing when his lover pulled his undershirt over his head and stepped out of his drawers.
Maurice walked to the end of the pier. He stopped and turned around. ‘Do you reckon it’s deep enough?’ he asked Alec. ‘It is,’ Alec said. ‘The garden boys and me dug out quite some mud a couple of weeks ago so if would be safe enough for the gentlemen to bathe between innings during that boring cricket match. But none of them would.’
Maurice, naked and powerfully built and earthy in the hesitant sunlight, beckoned him. ‘Are you coming too?’ he asked sweetly.
‘They say all gentlemen learn to dive,’ Alec remarked, muffled because he was struggling out of his undershirt. ‘I never learned to…It seems more natural not to let your head get under the water.’
Maurice’s mirthful laughter rang across the pond. ‘You’ve said so before, my love…I shall no longer be a gentleman as of now, as my current state of dress, or rather undress, aptly proves…Watch me dive, then. It’s quite easy. You might give it a try, too.’
Now Alec laughed. ‘No, I won’t. I’ll watch you, though, from the right angle.’
He was still wearing his drawers when he tiptoed past Maurice, sat down on the edge of the pier and carefully slid into the water, feet first. He rather paddled than swam a few yards, turned around and started bobbing. ‘Yes, it’s deep enough,’ he called out to Maurice. ‘Are you coming?’
Maurice stretched, held his arms over his head for a while, fingers locked, studied the cool surface and then dived in. There was barely a splash. His body undulated under the water as he swam towards his lover with powerful strokes. When he came up for air, he uttered a soft cry and took Alec in his arms.
‘You’re not a good swimmer,’ he laughed. Alec nodded and kissed him.
Maurice moved onto his back and held Alec as he slowly rowed them further onto the pond with his legs. ‘Don’t worry,’ he whispered. ‘Hold on to me and you won’t drown.’
Alec looked into his dark-blue eyes under the long, black lashes that glistened with droplets. ‘Your skin feels cool and warm at the same time, Maurice,’ he said. ‘Wonderfully smooth, almost better than when we make love in bed.’
Maurice threw back his head and uttered a high-pitched, smoky laugh. ‘Oh Alec, my beauty, you’re right…Can you imagine anything more blissful than this?’
He supported Alec like a lifejacket as they slowly drifted on, their chests touching. The blackberry bushes on the edge rustled and then a sweet, tinkling sound could be heard. ‘A wren,’ Alec murmured. ‘I know it well. It always hides there to watch over anyone rowing or swimming.’
Maurice tightened his muscular embrace until Alec’s head was against his neck. ‘Oh, listen,’ he murmured. ‘It’s singing to us...’ Then he gently lifted Alec’s chin and looked him in the eyes with sudden sadness.
‘I feel guilty for taking you away from this paradise this afternoon,’ he whispered. ‘Are you sure you want to come with me, my love?’
Alec did not answer. His lover’s body was around him like a shell. ‘You didn’t get your hair wet,’ Maurice chuckled. ‘Shall I…?’ Alec shook his head and took in the other man's smiling face, so smooth now that the moustache was gone, and covered in tiny pearls of water.
‘Oh, no,’ Alec grinned. ‘I’m not scared or nothing…It’s just that…’ Maurice’s expression grew understanding. ‘It’s just that…’ Alec went on. ‘You know…We’re not in a bathtub, but in a pond. Fish live here…They never clean up after themselves. They have their dinner in the water and then they go to the lavatory in it. Disgusting. I don’t want their mess in my hair, you see.’
Now Maurice was shaking helplessly with laughter, nearly letting go of Alec. ‘Give over with your silly remarks or we’ll both drown,’ he panted.
Then they found one another again, straddling their legs under the water, kissing and talking softly.
The morning fog had cleared now and the sun’s warmth was growing. Maurice closed his eyes and let the benign light caress his face. Alec listened to his lover’s calm breathing and the lapping of the waves and nearly drifted off to sleep until a flock of starlings fled from the treetops screeching and he felt muscles tighten against his own.
Maurice’s eyes were open now and looking into the distance. ‘Oh, blast,’ he snapped. He let go of Alec with a jolt and all grew unrelentingly cold.
Chapter 2: A Stroll before Breakfast
A meeting outside the boathouse.
If I had been the one writing Forster's masterpiece, I would have chosen this scene for a final chapter.
The man who was walking down the path was the owner of the estate. It was Sunday morning and very early, but he was dressed in a suit he usually wore on weekdays. He and his wife Anne had decided they would not attend the church service in the village later on. She was feeling a bit poorly. When he had brought her a cup of tea in her bedroom, she had smiled said she did not want any breakfast.
He himself had slept fitfully in his study that night, constantly woken by cries and laughter that he had heard in his inexplicable dreams. ‘I’m going for an early morning stroll,’ he had told Anne when she had finished her tea. ‘I might as well, since we’re being very naughty and cutting church today.’ This had made them both giggle.
He stopped at a clearing at the edge of a clump of fir trees that was lined with blackberry bushes and sat down on a wooden bench. From there he had a good view of the deck and the pond.
He checked his pocket watch. It was a quarter past seven and all was quiet but for the sounds of Nature – rustling leaves, a myriad of melodies from songbirds, jackdaws quarreling noisily in the poplars beyond.
Lighting a cigarette, he let his eyes wander across the scenery. The morning mist was still over the pond but he felt the specks of sunlight that reached him under the trees gradually growing warmer.
Then two figures appeared outside the boathouse, both wearing only undershirts and drawers. They were about twenty yards away but the brief scraping sound of a match being lit sounded like thunder. A little later a faint waft of smoke from Egyptian cigarettes drifted in his direction.
The two men paced up and down the deck, talking softly. Then the smaller one of them left and returned with a parcel. They stared at the wooden planks and then the merry twitter of a blackbird flying up could be heard.
The taller man now took off his underclothes and walked to the edge of the pier. The other, wearing only drawers now, scuttled past him and lowered himself into the water. When he had paddled a few yards away from the pier, he called out to the man standing on its edge.
The naked figure, broad-shouldered and slightly tanned, stretched and held up his arms over his head. Then there was a supple movement of skin and muscles and limbs as he flew off the pier in a wide arc until he disappeared under the glistening surface of the water.
The man in the weekday suit got up from the bench and walked down the path towards the pond. He hid behind the thick trunk of an old poplar, got out his gilded cigarette case, looked at it and then stuffed it back into his pocket.
The taller of the two swimmers now held the other as they floated on the pond. Their laughter inspired the sparrows to respond with song.
Voices carried far across the water. ‘Will you learn me how to swim?’ the smaller man asked. ‘Of course I’ll learn you how to swim,’ the other replied sweetly, in his unmistakable, neat upper-class London accent.
Now the man in the suit left his hiding place and walked down the path until he reached the deck. He took off his jacket, hung it on a railing post and squatted down on the edge of the pier.
The two other men were floating yards away, talking and laughing and kissing and occasionally keeping silent. After minutes or hours or ages, one of them turned around and looked at the deck. ‘Oh, blast,’ he said loudly. The other one cursed as well and paddled away clumsily, eventually disappearing behind a jetty on the far side of the pond.
The man who had dived in now swam towards the main deck with long, powerful strokes. When he got close to the pier, he stopped and started treading water. ‘Clive,’ he panted. ‘I wasn't expecting this.’
‘Neither was I,’ Clive said.
They stared at one another. ‘I can’t get out now,’ Maurice grinned. ‘I’m not…er…Oh, would you get me that large calico bag from the porch of the boathouse?’
Clive got up, walked around the building and found a large piece of rough cloth, which probably served as a towel, hanging over a rickety kitchen chair. He took it and hung it over another railing post on the pier. ‘I’ll turn around now,’ he said to Maurice, who was still floating, his body below his shoulders only visible as an amber blur in the water.
While Clive kept his gaze averted, taking in the firs and the poplars and the deserted cricket pitch, he could hear splashing, then creaking of boards and the patter of drops on wood. ‘I’m decent now,’ Maurice said.
Clive turned around and saw the other man, with his black hair streaming over his brow and the cloth neatly tied around him like an Indian garment, covering him from his chest to his knees.
‘I thought you had left by now,’ Clive said.
Maurice nodded. ‘We are leaving, never you worry,’ he retorted. ‘We intend to catch the train at noon.’
‘Into London?’ Clive asked. ‘I shan’t tell you,’ Maurice said bluntly.
Clive got out his gilded case and offered Maurice a cigarette. Maurice accepted and bent over to light it from the match the squire had struck. ‘Thank you,’ he muttered.
They stood on the deck, smoking, casting glances at one another, keeping silent.
‘I might still tell on you,’ Clive then said softly as a flock of noisy pheasants flew up from a nearby clearing. ‘Beg your pardon?’ Maurice asked. ‘Oh, never mind,’ Clive stammered.
‘Fair enough,’ Maurice said. ‘I’ll go back to the boathouse and put on my clothes.’
Clive watched him walk to the porch, barefoot but unhindered by the sharp cobblestones. He went inside and returned five minutes later, dressed but not wearing a jacket or tie and with his waistcoat unbuttoned.
‘It’s odd, but I found you looking more decent in that calico cloth just now,’ Clive remarked softly as Maurice stepped onto the pier. ‘Beg your pardon?’ Maurice asked again. ‘Oh, nothing,’ Clive smiled.
They lit up cigarettes and started pacing up the deck. ‘I shan’t write to you,’ Maurice said. ‘You would only burn my letters without reading them. Wherever Alec and I choose to settle will remain oblivious to you.’ ‘Alec?’ Clive asked. ‘Scudder, your former gamekeeper,’ Maurice explained. ‘He has a first name, you know.’
They were both facing the pond. The sun was slowly disappearing behind a haze of clouds. ‘We’re in for rain, I’m afraid,’ Clive observed.
Maurice made a sound that either indicated boredom or suppressed anger. ‘We might be in for a war, Clive,’ he said. ‘The peoples of Austria are growing restless. The Sokol movement is gaining power. There have been uprisings in Bosnia and Herzegovina, never mind the Italian provinces. It’s too much to handle for the old emperor. He can rely on willing help from the German Kaiser if need be. If that happens, Britain will have no choice but to fight on the Continent.’
‘Will you and Scudder be all right?’ Clive asked.
Maurice shook his head and laughed mirthlessly. ‘No, of course we won’t. Good God, not if there’s going to be a war. Don’t you read the newspapers, Clive…? Oh, it was never any use talking sense into you. Whatever will happen, Alec and I will stand it together, and that’s final.’
Maurice crushed out his cigarette, lit another and pointed at the boathouse. ‘He’s in there now, scared out of his wits because he saw you. I told him not to worry, but to no avail, and…’
Clive opened his mouth to speak, but Maurice raised his hand. ‘I wasn’t finished yet, old sport…He and I have a million reasons to flee apart from the legal threats we might face. In a few minutes, you and I shall part ways for good.’
He relaxed his shoulders, drew from his cigarette and watched the first drops of rain fall around him.
‘And that is why I’ll tell you now what I never got around to when I made my announcement to you in your garden last night…You will be happy, Clive. Soon your beautiful house will fill up with sons and daughters. Your political career will face interesting challenges when the time comes to defend our country. I will not be around to congratulate you.’
‘If we should ever meet again,’ Clive said, ‘then it will be purely by chance. We might not even recognize one another then, or we’ll exchange nods and move on. And that will be all.’
‘I do hope that will never happen,’ Maurice said. ‘But if it does, I won’t embarrass you in public. Enduring embarrassment and defying odds or fighting them were never your style, old chap.’
They shook hands. ‘Goodbye,’ Clive whispered. ‘Take care of yourself.’
Chapter 3: The Young Miss
A church charity session in the village.
The man in the tweed suit was at his desk, smoking a cigarette and having coffee. He was looking at the girl opposite him. She had round glasses and unruly dark-blond ringlets held up by two sagging hair pins and she wore a navy-blue wool dress with a tiny lace collar.
‘I’m so sorry, Papa,’ she said demurely as she poured herself some coffee. ‘I haven’t finished my French composition yet and I’d like to prepare for my chemistry test.’
‘It’s Easter holiday, my darling,’ he smiled. ‘You still have plenty of time for your homework, so there is no excuse to chuck this afternoon’s church circle.’ His eyes lit up. ‘In fact, it’s a wonderful opportunity for you to meet girls your age. I spoke of it to Mama on the telephone yesterday and she feels as I do...Besides, Helen Borenius won’t be able to attend because she has a cold. Someone has to show up in her stead. You know how her grandfather always mentions the importance of good deeds in his sermons.’
The girl’s face clouded over. ‘I shall go, Papa,’ she said sadly. Then her slightly myopic eyes brightened. ‘May I borrow the car please? I could take along the fabric for the pinafores.’
Her father laughed mirthfully. ‘Ah, you’re clever, Josie!’ he said, shaking his head. ‘You are ever an apt pupil when I teach you how to drive on the estate, but you cannot handle public roads yet…Perhaps next year, my dear. Robson will take you to the village in the Ford.’
The girls, all between the age of twelve and sixteen, were sitting around a large table in the parish hall, cutting out patterns, quarreling over whose turn it was to use the sewing machine, nibbling on sweets and chattering a mile a minute.
‘So it’s only you today, Miss, an’it?’ a woman in a rough wool dress asked. She was the older sister of one of the girls, married and expecting her third child.
‘Yes, I’m afraid so,’ Josie sighed. ‘Miss Borenius can’t attend today.’
‘These lasses are ‘arder to ‘andle than a bag o’ fleas,’ the woman smirked. ‘But I recken they’ll listen to you all right. Yer old enough to teach ‘em…or…How old are ye?’
‘I’m seventeen,’ Josie stammered, blushing. ‘And I’m not very good at sewing, I’m afraid.’
The woman laughed, showing blackened teeth. ‘Yeah, I thought so. Young estate missies learn nowt but Latin and armetics and playing the piano in school these days.’
The girls tittered. ‘Shuddup, all o’ ye,’ the woman roared. ‘And be nice to Miss Durham or I’ll warm yer ears.’
Establishing a circle where young people from the village could exercise their skills making clothes and many other things for the church charity organization had been Mama’s idea. ‘You’ll learn life lessons there that no one will teach you at school, my sweet,’ she had said to Josie on the telephone. ‘As the daughter of an estate owner, you will have no choice but to engage in these activities when you grow up.’
‘These pinafores going to the poor children in Africa?’ Mabel asked, the dim-witted one of the group.
‘Of course not,’ Alice snapped. She was the clever one. ‘It’s roasting ‘ot down there, whatever would they need these for? They’ll be sold at fancy fairs and the money’s going to Africa.’
A discussion ensued. What would the poor people buy with it? Food? Toys? Firewood?
‘It’s for the mission,’ Josie explained. ‘To build churches and to pay the reverends’ wages.’
‘Can’t have the likes of them givin’ sermons in their bleedin’ pyjamas and starving,’ Alice said. ‘I can see that.’
‘Alice,’ Josie said gently. ‘Please concentrate on the hem of your pinafore or else…’
There was more giggling. Now Emily was snipping straight through a perfect patch of fabric.
‘Stop,’ Josie cried. ‘You’re ruining it.’
Emily’s lower lip started to tremble. ‘Let me help you,’ Josie offered. She walked up to the girl and bent over, struggling to get a view of the sewing while trying to keep enough distance.
‘Miss is scared she’ll get our Emily’s ‘ead lice,’ Minnie sneered. ‘And she canna see a thing.’
There was merry howling. ‘Stop it or I’ll skin your hides,’ the woman threatened.
Emily had now cut straight through the fabric. ‘Now look what you’ve done,’ Josie said despondently. ‘We won’t be able to use it anymore. Shall I get the pattern and some calico so that you can make another one? I’ll help you.’
‘No, you bleedin’ won’t,’ Emily said. ‘I ain’t getting paid for this, so I can cut any way I like.’
‘You’re upset,’ Josie murmured. ‘I understand. But really, the church board would be so pleased with a beautiful pinafore that can be sold.’
‘You’re one to talk, Miss,’ Alice grinned. ‘You’re rich. We’re not.’
‘Give over or I’ll tell the Reverend,’ the woman snapped, grabbing a ruler. ‘I’m warning ye.’
‘Warn us any way you bloody like, Florrie,’ Alice laughed. ‘Yer like those estate people, only because you worked there as a scullery maid…Lucky we won’t ever. It’s a rotten place.’
‘I beg your pardon?’ Josie asked. Two girls mimicked her question.
‘I beg your arse on,’ Emily squealed, earning roars of laughter.
The woman stepped up and hit her on the head with the ruler until it broke. ‘Please don’t,’ Josie stammered. ‘Emily was just jesting, I presume.’
Emily had reddened and was bawling now, tearing the fabric in front of her to shreds. ‘See what you made Florrie do to me?’ she shouted at Josie. ‘You, the miss from that rotten place?’
Then her face turned into a fiendish mask. ‘Rotten, yeah…Me uncle wor in your da’s service as a gardener and ‘e told me brother, and so me brother told me, that there’s buggery on the estate.’
‘Yeah, buggery,’ Alice added. ‘Men got ‘anged for it back in the day, that much I know.’
‘Hanged?’ Josie asked.
Before she could speak any further, Florrie patted her on the forearm. ‘Don’t listen to them,’ she said affectionately. ‘They have no idea what they’re talkin’ about.’
Two minutes later, Josie walked down the path past the churchyard to the street where Robson was dozing in Papa’s Ford. He woke up when she rapped on the window. ‘I’d like to go home now, please,’ she said. ‘And I’ll drive.’
‘No, your father doesn’t allow it, Miss Durham,’ Robson groaned, yawning into his handkerchief. ‘But who knows, perhaps next year.’
If you wonder where I got my inspiration for dialects from, please read Orwell's 'The Road to Wigan Pier' or 'A Clergyman's Daughter'.
Chapter 4: The Cliff
Slight change of scenery.
I'm sorry, but I 'm unable to write a fic without bringing up cars - mankind's finest invention.
The gentleman woke when the first light of dawn came through the windows of the hotel room. He got out of bed, took off his pyjamas and quickly put on swimming trunks, flannel trousers, a cotton shirt, a sports jacket and linen shoes. Then he stuffed a towel and a bathrobe in a citybag and went downstairs.
The night clerk at the reception desk gave him a puzzled look. ‘Your car, Monsieur?’ he stammered drowsily. ‘There is no valet now to drive it round.’ ‘Please give me the key to the gate, I’ll do it myself,’ the gentleman said.
The sky was tinged with soft pink and blue stripes when he got into his Rover, but when he had left the village, the orange glow of the sun in the east grew stronger.
No one was awake but for some bread delivery boys on bicycles, who touched their caps when he drove past them.
A few miles further on the rocks came into sight. They marked the end of the public beach and reached far into the Mediterranean Sea. He left the road and slowly drove onto a gravel patch where a single car was parked. When he switched off the engine, he checked the clock on the dashboard. It was a quarter past six.
He took his bag, got out, locked the car and walked onto the beach. The heat from the previous day still lingered in the soft sand. This place was too far away and too shabby for the tourists who stayed at the large hotels. It was mainly used by young locals. There were no parasols or stacks of folding chairs or changing cabins. The beach was deserted, but the gentleman hid behind a rock to strip down to his swimming trunks and put on his bathrobe.
When his clothes were neatly folded and stowed away in the bag, he chose a spot where he had a good view of the cliff, which towered about ten yards over the sea. He slumped down in the sand and lit a cigarette.
The murmur of the waves was gentle, but it carried far on the cool breeze that smelled of salt and seaweed.
The gentleman breathed in the air, exhaled and closed his eyes. When he opened them again, the sun had disappeared behind a veil of clouds in the east. The temperature dropped palpably, which made him shiver and let his eyes wander to the rocks.
A figure appeared, obviously ascending from the other side, dressed in sports clothing. The man stopped on the lowest part of the ridge, looked around and undressed leisurely. Then he slowly walked up the cliff until he reached the peak. There he stood for a while, facing the horizon. When he stretched and held his arms over his head, fingers locked, the clouds moved away from the sun.
The man bent over backwards, hands on hips, catching the warm rays with his naked body. Then he thrust his arms forward, jumped and flew down in a large, supple arc. There was no splashing sound when he disappeared under the water.
Now the gentleman got up from the towel, took off his bathrobe and walked to the shoreline. He stooped down, splashed some water on his face and chest and waded on until a wave rolled towards him. He dived into it, came up for air and started crawling with long strokes.
The other swimmer was alternately floating and diving about fifty yards away from the cliff.
The gentleman slowed down and let the waves carry him until he was close enough to get a look of the other man’s face. The stranger nodded, smiled and called out ‘Good morning,’ in English.
‘Good morning,’ the gentleman said too. ‘The water is lovely today, isn’t it?’
‘Most certainly,’ the other agreed. Then he arched his back and disappeared smoothly under the water.
The gentleman turned around, swam to the shoreline and walked to his spot. Facing the still deserted coastal road, he toweled himself off and put on his clothes and shoes. Without looking back, he plodded up the slope to the patch of gravel. He put his bag in the boot of the Rover, took his gilded case from the glove box and started hunting for his lighter. When he found it, he heard modest footsteps behind him.
He closed the car door, turned around and saw the other swimmer walk by, carrying a sports bag, fully clothed and also wearing a grey linen jacket and glasses.
Their eyes met. ‘I was not expecting this,’ Clive said.
‘Let’s not go into that,’ Maurice retorted, fishing a car key from his pocket.
Clive looked at the vehicle that was parked next to his. German make, British number plates, steering wheel on the right, top down.
‘Is it yours?’ Clive asked. ‘Mmm-hmm,’ Maurice mumbled, bending over to put his bag on the back seat.
Clive opened his cigarette case. ‘Will you have one?’ he asked. Maurice shook his head, produced a crumpled pack of Lucky Strikes and lit up.
‘I’m staying at the Breitner in Le Lavandou,’ Clive then said. ‘In fact, I’m having luncheon with Baron von Tettnigg and Miss Ethel Olson this afternoon. He fled from Vienna a few months ago, only days before the Anschluss came into effect, and she’s from Hollywood and…’
Maurice held up a repelling hand. ‘I’ve no time to keep abreast with yellow press gossip,’ he mumbled, with his cigarette dangling from his lips. Then he got into his Daimler and looked up at Clive.
‘Well, have a pleasant day then,’ he said.
The roar of the engine was deafening when the car shot back in reverse, turned around skidding, sending up a cloud of choking dust and fumes, and sped towards the coastal road.
Chapter 5: Afternoon Tea
People having drinks and refreshments at the hotel.
They were at a table in the garden behind the hotel, having oysters and Chablis. The walls were covered in rose bushes. An Italian band was playing waltzes.
‘I remember that day in September when our empress was taken to her last resting place,’ Baron von Tettnigg mumbled in heavy-accented English. ‘The streets of Vienna were lined with people wanting to watch the carriage with the coffin in it. I had the honour to meet her in person on a few occasions. She would always be incognito, dressed in black, but she would nod and smile. She was already an old woman then, but still so impressive. And beautiful.’
‘These are delicious,’ Miss Olson said with her mouth full, pointing at the oysters. ‘Ten years ago, I shared an apartment with another actress in Los Angeles. We were seventeen and we couldn’t afford a damn decent thing to eat. We lived on day-old milk and canned sardines and apples.’
‘And years later,’ the old man went on, ‘I stood among masses of people outside the Schönbrunn Palace in the cold for hours . The emperor was dying. We saw a priest get out of a carriage and walk in to administer Last Rites…When the church bells began to ring, we knew it was over. It was late in the evening and very cold.’
‘Oh, Freddy,’ Miss Olson cooed, bending over to her lover and patting his blue-veined hand. ‘You are taking me to Monte Carlo tomorrow, aren’t you, honey?’
‘Whatever for?’ the old man mumbled. ‘To squander more dollars at the casino?’
A waiter walked up to the English gentleman, bent over to him and announced discreetly that there was a telephone call.
‘I’m dreadfully sorry,’ Clive said to the couple opposite him. ‘It must me my daughter ringing me from Toulouse…I won’t be long.’
He followed the waiter and was led into a little parlour next to the reception desk. He picked up the receiver, waited for the connecting click from the switchboard and said: ‘Hullo Josie, your Papa speaking.’
‘Clive?’ a deep voice sounded. ‘It’s Maurice Hall. Am I calling at an inconvenient time?’
‘You are, in fact,’ Clive said. ‘My daughter is traveling down and I haven’t heard from her for days.’
He then learned that Maurice was staying in a cottage in a village up in the hills and that he was very welcome to stop there for afternoon tea. ‘But I take it you have other engagements at the Breitner,’ Maurice said. ‘Are you amusing yourself?’
‘I ought to,’ Clive sighed. ‘But truthfully speaking it’s a jolly rotten show. You just had me called away from a table I share with a seventy-year-old widower and his mistress who is younger than his own children.’
Maurice chuckled. ‘Shall I drive up to the hotel then? I’d like to invite you to an apéritif if you can spare the time. But you want to see your daughter, of course.’
‘What about this afternoon?’ Clive suggested. ‘Around five.’
‘And on neutral territory,’ Maurice added. ‘Splendid, old sport. I’ll be there.’
A woman in a navy-blue dress stepped into the garden and looked around, her glasses painfully reflecting the sunlight. A waitress addressed her. The woman blushed, smiled uncomfortably and spoke a few hesitant words.
She looked down at the fox terrier at her feet. The dog wagged its tail, which made her smile and showed she was rather still a girl.
The animal tugged at its leash, for it had detected the gentleman sitting at a table a few yards away. The girl followed it and then Clive rose, holding out its hands. ‘Josie, my dear,’ he smiled. ‘I say, I wasn’t expecting you before tomorrow. Do sit down.’
He kissed her on the cheeks and playfully rearranged her crumpled lace collar. Her hair pins were sagging over her ears. When she sat down opposite him, he offered her a glass of sherry. ‘No, thank you, Papa, I’d rather have a cup of tea, please.’ – ‘You’re awfully early, my princess. Was Toulouse not nice?’ – ‘I’m afraid it wasn’t, Papa. It was very hot and crowded. I only stopped there to get petrol and to have coffee.’ – ‘And you drove straight down after that?’ – ‘I did, Papa.’ – ‘I can tell you had the top down all the time.’ – ‘I had, Papa. Boris put his little paws on the handle of the passenger door and watched the landscape. He enjoyed it.’ – ‘Have you checked in at the Casa degli Angeli?’ – ‘I just have, Papa. The people there are very nice.’ – ‘Did you meet any of the other boarders? Are they all girls?’ – ‘They are, Papa, but I did not get to talk to them yet.’ – ‘I went to see the owners the other day and ascertained there would be a spot to park your car and that they had no objections against Boris staying with you.’ – ‘Thank you, Papa.’ – ‘And how was Deauville? Did Mama manage to rent a nice villa?’ – ‘She did, Papa. It’s near the beach. Mama and Grandmama and Grandpapa told me to give you their love.’ – ‘That’s wonderful, Josie…I say, these waiters are ignoring us. Let me see if I can get one to take our orders.’
Clive half rose from his chair and beckoned. His gesture solicited a responsive motion from a gentleman who had just stepped out into the garden and who was dressed in a light-grey summer suit and holding a felt hat in the same colour. He smiled understandingly and then walked up to the table, his soles clicking on the flagstones.
‘Well, this is very nice, Maurice,’ Clive said. ‘I’d like you to meet my lovely daughter Josephine, studiosa medicinae Universitatis Londinii…Josie, this is Mr. Hall, an old college friend of mine.’
Maurice bent over, probably to kiss her hand, but he stopped midway and shook it. She was still wearing her driving gloves. When she took them off, she accidentally dropped them on the ground. He stooped to pick them up and handed them to her. ‘Thank you, sir,’ she stammered, blushing profusely.
Maurice beckoned a waitress, who promptly stopped next to him. ‘Do let me offer you a drink,’ he said to Clive and Josie. ‘Well, darling,’ Clive smiled at his daughter. ‘I’d like you to order. Let us hear if you speak French well enough to manage.’
Clive and Maurice wanted dry sherry. Josie chose tea. ‘Et un bol de chien pour mon eau, s’il vous plait, Mademoiselle*,’ she said to the girl. The girl nodded, grinned and walked off.
Clive tittered. Maurice smiled. ‘You did very well, Josie,’ Clive then said. ‘I suppose you’re just awfully tired after the long drive.’
The drinks were brought presently. Clive and Maurice toasted to Josie’s future. Maurice asked her many questions. She answered them while staring at her hands or her dog, prompting Clive to tell her to look up and speak up, for they could barely understand her.
It turned out that she had left London straight after the last lecture of the summer term for a holiday. She had spent three days in Deauville with her Mama and her maternal grandparents. After that, she had motored down south, stopping for only one night at a young ladies’ boarding house on the way.
She was bound for Milan now. Professor Stanton from London had recommended her to an Italian colleague of his to assist in the operating theatres of the Ospedale Santa Maria della Consolazione for a few weeks. It would be a summer internship. ‘And an honour that is usually granted to more advanced students,’ Clive remarked to Maurice. ‘Josephine won’t start working on her thesis for at least another year, but she could already qualify as a doctor.’
‘How splendid, Miss Durham!’ Maurice cried. ‘You are a true scholar. And, if I may say so, very pretty. You take after your dear Mama. The same eyes.’
Josie drank her tea, answered some questions about her Mama. When Boris had finished his water, she asked her father if she could be excused. ‘I understand,’ Clive smiled. ‘You drove like a girl possessed and you need to rest a bit. And the dog needs to be taken for a walk, I presume…But you are having supper with me tonight, aren’t you?’
Josie nodded, grabbed the leash and got up, knocking over her teacup. Its contents landed in her lap and a tinkling sound could be heard. She blushed and as a waitress cleared away the shards, she wiped the palm of her hand on her dress and then shook hands with Maurice. Clive kissed her on the cheek and told her to be back by eight.
They both watched her walk away with Boris in tow. The dog yelped when she nearly bumped into a waiter in the doorway. Then she was gone.
‘She’s lovely,’ Maurice said to Clive. ‘Anne and you must be awfully proud of her. How old is she?’
‘Twenty-four,’ Clive answered. Maurice cringed. Then he straightened his shoulders and smiled.
‘Well, old sport, shall I order us some more sherry now?’
*) Translation: 'And a bowl of dog for my water, please, Miss.'
The scene outside the palace described by the old man is inspired on the ending of Axel Corti's screen version of Joseph Roth's 'Radetzkymarsch'.
Chapter 6: The Nobleman's Table
There are more encounters in the garden, now enhanced with the presence of a woman.
More twenties than thirties, I'm afraid, but since it's all fictitious, I'll leave it as it is.
The gentleman was having breakfast in bed in his hotel room, wearing cotton pyjamas. While he talked to his wife on the telephone, his eyes wandered from the newspaper next to him to the framed picture of a little girl in school uniform on the nightstand.
‘Oh, I agree with you, my love,’ he said. ‘She must have driven like mad. We had supper here yesterday and I told her to take it leisurely. The last term at university must have been strenuous enough…But what can I do? She’s twenty-four now and…Oh yes, I agree, she’s still quite a child…Boris is her only friend, I believe…Yes, he’s well. He behaved so nicely at teatime yesterday…didn’t bark once…Today? Well, I promised Josie I would take her for a walk on the beach and then have luncheon with her at the port…But she telephoned me ten minutes ago and called it off…She’s feeling rather poorly now….Oh no, no, only tea and lemonade…Too much sun, I presume, she drove all the way with the top down…Yes, she’s staying at that young ladies’ boarding house. It’s a five-minute walk from here…Don’t worry, Anne dear, the landlord and the landlady are Italian and very active in the local parish, for the benefit of their fellow countrymen in this village…Their morning room is lined with ex-votos and statues and an enormous oil painting of the Pope…Josie and Boris are in good hands.’
He shifted in the pillows, sipped coffee, nibbled toast and lit a cigarette while his wife talked on the other end of the line. ‘So when are you and your parents leaving Deauville?’ he then asked. ‘Oh, in two weeks…? That’s a pity…Will I see you in London then or are you going straight back to Turnbridge Wells…? Ah, I see…Please write to me, love…I miss you, I really do…Yes, I’ll tell Josie again to drive safely…Give my love to your Mama and your Papa…Bye, dear.’
The garden was full of people having coffee after luncheon. The man in the light-grey summer suit was talking to Baron von Tettnigg in fluent German. The old Austrian was lively now, happy to be able to converse in his native language and to relate many interesting facts about Vienna. ‘I’ve been there twice,’ Maurice then remarked in English. ‘Have you, Clive?’ ‘Once,’ Clive sighed. ‘Only once. And it rained the whole time. But it was lovely all the same.’
‘I’m looking forward to meeting your daughter, Mr. Durham,’ the nobleman said. ‘She must be remarkable. I hope she is feeling better now.’
‘She was a bit poorly yesterday,’ Clive explained. ‘And she told me on the telephone this morning that she would rest a bit today. She may have supper with me tonight, though.’
‘That’s lovely,’ the old man exclaimed. ‘Would you and your daughter do me the honour of joining me at my table? You as well, Mr. Hall? Miss Olson would very much like to meet you. But I say, she’s very late. Wherever has she gone?’ He looked around in distress and then relaxed. ‘Ah, there she is.’
The same waitress that had been on duty two days earlier was all grins and badly suppressed chortles while she was talking to a tall woman who had just stepped into the garden. The woman was dressed in a sand-coloured linen suit with a braided belt and wide trousers, and high-heeled patent leather shoes. The enormous lace-edged collar of her blouse was folded over her jacket, exposing her long neck. Her short, light-blond curls were largely hidden by a wide-brimmed hat in the same colour as the suit. When the waitress walked off, she turned around to scan the tables, still myopic but now with painted eyelids behind her old glasses.
‘Josie,’ Clive said when she stopped next to him. ‘I wasn’t expecting you today, dear. Do sit down.’
The old man got up and kissed her hand, which made her cringe. He had a moustache. ‘Miss Durham,’ he mumbled. ‘How lovely to meet you. Your dear father told me many things about you.’
Maurice got up and shook hands with her. ‘Good afternoon,’ he smiled. ‘It’s good to see that you are feeling better.’
The old man invited her to sit down next to him, which she accepted with a grin. Now she was opposite her father and his old friend from Cambridge. When drinks were ordered, she chose a cup of coffee and a glass of marc.
While the four of them talked about the weather and the food that was served at this hotel, she took a cigarette from a mother-of-pearl case and rummaged through her bag. She gave Maurice a look and he picked up his lighter, but before he could rise to bend over to her, Clive stalled him by making a sound that probably meant ‘no’. The old man found a box of matches, struck one, waited until she had put her cigarette in an amber holder and then gave her a light. She mumbled ‘thank you’ and let her clear, brown eyes meet his.
All four of them were smoking now, the Austrian nobleman puffing peacefully on a cigar and Josie occasionally coughing drily and modestly into a lace handkerchief. ‘Good heavens, where is Boris?’ Clive then asked. ‘I left him with the landlady,’ she smiled. ‘She’s quite fond of him.’
Some butterflies darted through the garden. ‘That’s a peacock...and that one over there is a brimstone,’ Maurice pointed out. There was no band playing today.
Five minutes later, Miss Olson arrived, tall and with freshly bleached blond ringlets and dressed in a dazzling shocking-pink gown with asymmetric sleeves. ‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ she said to her lover. ‘I was at the hairdresser’s and I completely forgot the time…The reception clerk told me that Dr. Leblanc is waiting for you in the lobby.’
‘He’s early,’ Baron von Tettnigg grumbled. ‘I’m sorry, dear gentlemen, but I have to leave now. I can’t keep the good man waiting.’ He got up and turned towards Josie. ‘Well, Miss Durham,’ he smiled, ‘I’d much rather have you administer pills and potions to me than him…Perhaps next time.’
‘I’d be delighted, sir,’ Josie smirked, accepting a kiss on her hand.
Miss Olson gently took her lover by the arm and smiled at Josie. ‘Oh, that’s Freddy all right…I hope you get to have fun here, Miss. Not many college girls your age about, I’m afraid…Well, see you all later.’
The couple walked off. Josie leaned back in her chair, crossed her legs and lit another cigarette. Her eyes were on Maurice, who was leafing through a minuscule notebook.
There was silence now. Clive yawned discreetly into his handkerchief. ‘I have to go down to the post office to send some wires,’ Maurice then said. ‘I’m most dreadfully sorry.’
‘But you will be back for supper, I hope?’ Clive asked.
Maurice got up, shook hands with him and gave Josie a nod. ‘Yes, I’ll be there.’
The sun was setting when they met again at the Baron’s table in the garden. Presently, they were joined by three or four American lady friends of Miss Olson’s, all dressed in colourful cocktail garments. There was champagne, laughter, smoking, little food or much food that got little attention.
The girls got tipsy and called Maurice a hell of a smart-looking man. ‘You Irish by any chance?’ one of them asked. ‘Black hair and all…’ ‘My maternal grandmother was from Galway,’ Maurice said.
They listened to his stories about his business trips to Baltimore and Pittsburgh and squealed.
‘You got your rouge on all wrong, hon,’ a red-haired girl said to Josie. ‘Swing by in the morning and I’ll show you how it’s done…Hey, careful now, don’t spill your ashes on your new pants, sweetie.’
Maurice was the first to leave. ‘I’m jolly tired,’ he said. ‘Thank you very much for a lovely evening…Gute Nacht, Herr Baron, es war mir eine Ehre*…Goodnight, Miss Olsen, bye-bye gals, cheerio Clive, old sport…and have a safe trip to Milan, Josie. Drive carefully and make sure you learn a lot from the professor and give my regards to Boris.’
The girls were informed that some friends were waiting in their cars outside to take them to a cocktail party in the next village. Miss Olson went with them. The old man said he’d retire and expressed his hope that he would see the charming young prospective doctor again soon. Then he shuffled to the hall with difficulty.
The father and his daughter were the only ones left at the table. It was a mess of half-eaten salmon canapes, chicken bones, champagne glasses, napkins smudged with lipstick and cigarette ends.
‘I’ll walk you to the Casa degli Angeli now, dear,’ he said. ‘You’re not looking well, my princess. You must rest and I’m sure Boris misses you.’
‘Yes, Papa, thank you,’ Josie murmured.
* Loosely translated: 'Good Night, Baron, it was an honour [to dine with you].'
Chapter 7: A Tiny Cottage
An upsetting message in the morning, an afternoon in a little house in the hills.
Largely inspired by the Ypres Salient Tour I did in Flanders in 2017, where so many brave men went to fight and never returned.
The gentleman was shaving when he heard the door of his room open. A maid came in, calling out ‘Bonjour Monsieur'. She put down his breakfast tray. When she had left, he rinsed his face, dried it off with a towel and went to the table.
The mail was crammed between the coffee pot and the sugar bowl. He read a letter from his estate manager informing him that everything was all right, and a post card from his mother. There was also an envelope without a stamp, bearing a careful, feminine handwriting. He opened it and read:
Dear Papa, first of all I’d like to thank you very much for the lovely days I got to spend with you. Unfortunately and unexpectedly, I have to leave now. When I got to the boarding house last night, I found a wire from Professor Carriera telling me about a very urgent upcoming operation. Of course, I shall send you and Mama a message as soon as Boris and I have made it safely to Milan. Love, Josie.
He sat down on the bed, picked up the receiver of the telephone and requested the number of the boarding house. Presently, a very friendly-sounding old lady told him that Mademoiselle Durham had left at a quarter past seven. He thanked her, hung up and checked his alarm clock. It was a quarter to nine.
‘Do come in,’ Maurice said pleasantly. He was standing next to his Daimler in a garden that surrounded a small cottage. The rose bushes must not have been pruned in years and weeds on the lawn had grown a yard high.
He and Clive shook hands and they went into the kitchen. There was a woodstove, an ancient cabinet sporting an enamel coffee set and rows of tinned goods, and a table with stacks of newspapers on it.
One door led directly into the bedroom, another into a tiny parlour crammed with dusty furniture and a rosewood piano. ‘But I’ve got a telephone and a wireless here,’ Maurice said. ‘And you were lucky, Clive. I was just about to leave for the beach when you rang…Oh goodness, you didn’t have to bring me flowers, I’m not a lady.’
Maurice carefully shortened the stems of the pale-pink roses that were already wilting. He found a tin jug, filled it with water, put them in it and placed it on the table. ‘But they’re lovely,’ he smiled. ‘Thank you.’
The back garden was ablaze with bougainvillea, frangipane, oleander and geraniums. The air had a more mountainous quality here than on the coast, bearing scents of burned soil and sage and woodsmoke.
They had coffee and biscuits outside, sitting on rickety deck chairs, smoking and staring at the azure sky. ‘Oh, look, an osprey,’ Maurice pointed. Then his eyes met Clive’s. ‘I say, old boy, you’re not looking well,’ he said softly. ‘Talk to me.’
‘Would it be too much trouble if you talked to me first?’ Clive asked demurely.
‘O.K.’ Maurice said, sounding very American.
Fragments were created and lingered in the scented air. Maurice and Alec left the boathouse on that Sunday afternoon in early September 1913. To the North. Work as woodcutters, no better positions lest their families or the authorities should find out about them. Life in a cottage in the woods, it leaked like a sieve when it rained. Chillblains, sprains and bad colds because of the labour. Then the war. Sent away in two different regiments, Maurice as a lieutenant, Alec as a rankless soldier. Correspondence only through a friendly couple that ran a boarding house in Leeds where they had lived for a while.
Then the letters stopped.
Trenches in the night, flares in the dark, crawling up to enemy lines, so close that the hushed voices of the other men could be heard, and he himself understood German. They never talked about the war but about home, wives, children, sweethearts. Still gunfire and hand grenades.
No more letters, so no more use to take leave. Burning farmyards, the stench of disintegrating human flesh, rats that either became trench pets or attacked in latrines. Three years until he fired a last shot at Amiens and the treaty was signed.
Alec survived, in fact returned to England in 1917. Gas attack at Ypres, bad lungs. Alec didn’t want to stay in the fumes of London. He went to live with a distant cousin of his in Scotland, on a farm. Helping with the shearing, hearding cattle, occasionally assisting at hunting parties on a nearby estate. Slow but steady recovery.
Maurice in London, no other place to get decent positions, war over, considerably less risk to be discovered by his family. Clerk at an international shipping office, French and German required, soliciting new contracts on the Continent and in America, buying out the owner, a flat in Chelsea and a car.
Summer months in Scotland every year, in Alec’s cottage, together day and night, roaming the woods and shooting fowl for the pot and fishing for trout. There was a pond, too, but the locals called it a loch, hoping this would attract tourists, but it was still a pond and the two of them rowed there or dived or sunbathed on the shore. In the winter, Alec in London, which was less cold than Scotland, Christmas dinner at the flat in Chelsea, parting again after New Year’s Day.
‘So you and Scudder are still a couple?’ Clive asked. ‘How old is he now?’
‘Forty-seven,’ Maurice said. ‘But he looks a lot younger…And yes, we’re still a couple.’
‘I turned fifty last month,’ Clive said. ‘Tempus fugit.’
‘That’s correct,’ Maurice nodded, lighting a cigarette. ‘I’m forty-nine now…Shall I make us some more coffee? And then you can tell me all about yourself.’
Chapter 8: A Wilting Flower
A confession is made in the tiny cottage.
Rather distressing to write, I must admit I shed tears sitting at my laptop.
There were no restaurants in the tiny village, so they decided to have luncheon with whatever they could find in the kitchen. Bread, tomatoes, cucumber slices, tinned salmon, figs.
Maurice opened a mysterious-looking jar and fished a golden-yellow wedge from it with a pastry fork.
‘Here, taste this,’ he smiled. Clive caught it on his tongue, chewed and shuddered. ‘Whoah, what’s that?’ he panted, swallowing. ‘Pickled lemon,’ Maurice explained. ‘I bought it in a lovely Tunisian shop on the coast…Do you like it? Why that face, pray tell?’
‘It’s delicious,’ Clive said. ‘But I was just thinking – you settled in Chelsea and I have still got my flat near Temple. London is but a hamlet. You lived under my very eyes for years and I didn’t know.’
‘Let me get this tray of food to the garden first,’ Maurice said. ‘And then you can tell me all.’
Josephine was born in March 1914. A few months later, the war broke out. Clive did not want to leave his wife and daughter so soon. Did not report until late in 1916. An infantry lieutenant, sent to Cambrai. A gunshot wound in the shoulder, ten days into his stint in the trenches. Not a serious injury, but then sepsis in a field hospital, nearly lethal. Return to England in early 1917, recovery in London, a position in a Ministry of Defense office.
In 1919, illness in Anne’s family in Sussex. Both her parents and her younger brother. Anne went there with Josie to look after them. They recovered. Anne did not return to the estate. She was happy in the house where she had grown up.
Josie stayed with her and attended a private school in the nearby village. Precocious, no friends to speak of. Didn’t like the estate either. Clive bought her an Arabian gelding, but she never rode it. He did, though, at night, jumping over hedges and storming down gravel paths until dawn broke and the animal was shivering with exhaustion.
Always nights, brandy in the library, too much brandy in fact, stepping out onto the front porch in between to shoot at the noisy jackdaws in the trees.
And there was the flat in London, two or three times a month, entertaining guests, too much drinking, pretty young ladies. Anne found a position as a legal secretary to a distant cousin who was a solicitor in Sussex. Unheard of, a married woman earning her own money, but her husband was happy for her.
Josie at college, more bored on the estate during holidays than she ever was at school, no friends, no secrets. Invitations to parties from other squires’ sons and daughters. She went because her parents wanted her to. No young man would invite her to dance, which was just as well because she could not even manage a simple waltz. She liked reading. She couldn’t keep her balance on a bicycle. Happy, so unbelievably happy when Papa taught her how to drive and eventually gave her a car. Josie in London, sharing a flat with two cousins, attending lectures, not going out on weekends and not inclined to drive to the estate or to Sussex to see her father or her mother. The so-called lower classes mesmerized her for some reason. She wanted to help them, teach them about health and hygiene and birth control. Odd that she was tending more to phlebology now.
A doctor in the making with a car and a dog, now on her way to Milan to study under Professor Carriera.
‘Whatever got into her?’ Clive asked. ‘Within two days, she took up smoking and drinking and she had her hair cut and bleached and bought new clothes that her family would not approve of – trousers and a gentleman’s hat. She was not poorly, she wouldn’t meet me because she was too busy raiding shops and visiting beauty parlours. And she left this morning, just like that. Meeting the professor on account of an urgent medical case – rot! She’s not even a qualified doctor yet.’
‘Why would you blame her for wanting to be like you?’ Maurice pointed out. ‘Or rather, for being like you? A lone ranger, always on the move but never arriving. But she’s young, she will find a place to land yet. Perhaps she’s socially awkward because she grew up without siblings. You and I did.’
‘That’s the crucial point,’ Clive said. ‘When Anne and I got engaged, we dreamed of having a large family. Many sons and daughters. We were blessed with Josie, she’s the princess of our hearts, but…’
‘What’s the matter?’ Maurice asked worriedly. ‘You’re about to cry now – why?’
‘Ever since that night,’ Clive stammered, ‘ever since that night in 1913, when you met me in my garden outside the dining room and told me you loved Scudder and that you would leave with him…Ever since that night, I have taken to sleeping in my study. Anne was in the master bedroom. A few days after you left, she saw a doctor and he confirmed that she was expecting…and so we had Josie…I thought I would eventually regain my strength to share a bed with Anne again, but it never came to pass and that is why she and I never had any more children and that is probably while she moved to Sussex.’
Clive was on the chair, shaking with convulsive sobs, suppressing wails, tears running from under his glasses and steaming them up.
‘Let’s sit on the sofa in the lounge,’ Maurice offered. They shuffled through the kitchen and into the musty room and slumped down. Maurice took him in his arms and put his head against this chest.
Clive stammered, called out Maurice's name a hundred times, weeping loudly.
‘I learned during the war that crying is essential,’ Maurice whispered in his ear. ‘It releases hormones that calm you down and make you feel more serene later on. But you have to go through a crisis first. You’re having one now…But don’t worry, the two of us shall stay put here until it’s over.’
He drew Clive closer to him and softly crooned some melodies his Irish grandmother had taught him long ago, songs of love and longing.
The sun was setting when Maurice and Clive had tea in the garden. The air was full of smells of roses, geraniums and mountains with an alpine hint of snow. ‘Oh rot, I’m out of cigarettes,’ Clive said. ‘There’s another pack in my car. In fact, it would be best if I…’
Maurice looked up at him and shook his head smiling. ‘Oh no,’ he said. ‘Take them from the glove box if you must, but you’re in no state to drive. Stay with me. We’ll share a bed. I will watch over you and look after you. Don’t think you can do this alone.’
Clive rushed out the front door, hurriedly took a pack of cigarettes from his car and ran back in. He stopped in front of Maurice, who was laying the kitchen table for supper, looked him in the eyes and then tumbled into his arms.
Chapter 9: A Budding Rose
A drive in the Provence in an open car.
Yes, this is shocking...or is it?
Josie was at the wheel of her car with the wind rushing through her hair. Boris was on a plaid in the passenger seat, alternately lying with his head on his paws and looking up at her and watching the olive groves, vineyards and villages speed by.
She had left Le Lavandou at a quarter past seven that morning. It was late in the afternoon now and the world was ablaze with southern colours – terracotta soil, hard green-vine leaves, flaming purple bougainvillea.
After a quick luncheon in a tearoom outside Fréjus, she had called at a post office to telephone Papa at the hotel. The reception clerk had told her that monsieur Durham had gone out. She had not dared to ask him if her father had left alone or with company.
Do I need to apologize for leaving Le Lavandou a day earlier, she mused. Oh, no. I’m twenty-four and Papa is not even waiting for a message from me.
That old gentleman from Vienna had been ever so nice, quite like her grandfather and rather charming, like all Austrians. She had laughed when he had told her he wanted her to become his physician.
Papa had found it amusing, too, certainly because it was as harmless as anything. After all, she was no Miss Olson, nor did she intend to become like her. So unbelievably pretty, bubbly, living for parties and dances and never worrying about money because there would always be a suitor who would pay for everything.
It's different with me, she thought, biting her lip. I spent a large part of my allowance on clothes and accessories and a treatment at a hairdresser’s.
Mr. Hall, Papa’s old friend from Cambridge. A name she had not learned until a few days ago.
A peculiar friend indeed, because she could not remember meeting him on the estate, much less Papa or Mama mentioning him. Still, he must be from London. He had talked about his car, a Daimler, so after tea she had scanned the boulevard outside the hotel until she found it. It sported British number plates and a little badge on the boot with the address of a garage in Silvertown on it. A mouth-watering vehicle that had made her cringe with envy and admiration.
So Mr. Hall must be a Londoner and he probably visited Papa at his flat near Temple. Many people went there. She was never allowed to attend. It was unsuitable for a young girl from a patrician family. The other dwellers in the building were all bachelors.
So was Mr. Hall, apparently. He wore no wedding band, only a gold ring with a topaz in it. Someone must have given it to him as a present, and definitely not for his birthday or Christmas.
He was as British as the Tower Bridge and yet there was something outlandish about him, more than his Irish blood could account for. His German and his French sounded like music and his upper-class London accent was not very remarkable, but his melodious baritone voice and his discreet, smoky laughter and his perfect pearl-white teeth did it all.
The night after she had first met him she had woken from inexplicable dreams many times over at the boarding house, covered in sweat and with her heart racing and his first name on her lips – Maurice, every letter of it tasting incredibly sweet. Her cries had alerted the English girl in the bed next to hers. ‘Doesn’t sound like you’re having a nightmare, Miss,’ she had mumbled. ‘But still, shall I get you a glass of water?’
She had drunk some and then lain awake, deciding that she must change completely and immediately. She had been so clumsy in the hotel garden that afternoon, even more than usual, because Maurice had been there. He had exchanged some polite words with her.
She had feigned a slight illness to Papa on the telephone the next morning and had gone out to buy clothes and have her hair styled, with only faint memories of pictures in fashion magazines for a guide. She had even bought cigarettes and a case and had taught herself to smoke in minutes. The only good thing this crazy undertaking had earned her, for she liked it very much. But it had all been to no avail.
She had wanted to appear before Maurice as a cosmopolitan, a London lady he would ache to seduce.
He had never so much as given her an approving look when she had turned up in her new attire. Papa had spoiled the show by forbidding him to give her a light. Even if Maurice had lit her cigarette, it would only have been a polite, meaningless gesture.
If she had gotten what she wanted, she would have wired Professor Carriera telling him that she had been taken very seriously ill and had to cancel her internship. She would have stayed in France with Maurice for weeks. Moreover, she would have chucked her studies in London too to devote herself entirely to him. She had read about love between a man and a woman, but only now could she taste it for the first time – sweet, intoxicating, alluring, exciting beyond belief.
The fact that Maurice, beautiful and divine Maurice, must be going on fifty would not have mattered all that much. After all, that horrid Miss Olson was twenty-seven and she had caught an ancient grandpa in her net.
I’m only three years younger than she but no one acknowledged me as a woman, Josie thought, except for that sweet old Austrian, but that was useless. That red-haired girl had been on to her. ‘You got your rouge on all wrong, hon. Swing by in the morning and I’ll show you how it’s done.’ And Maurice himself, smiling: ‘Drive carefully and make sure you learn a lot from the professor.’ She was still a child to him and he had treated her as if he were her father or her uncle. His parting phrase had made her decide to leave Le Lavandou the next morning.
She had wasted hours for nothing and it had cost her a shitload of money – she cursed now, tasting the beneficially hard words on her barren tongue.
‘I really don’t see why I’d fucking bother to slave away in Italy,’ she said to Boris. The dog looked at her with wise, brown eyes, wagged its tail and then put its paws on the passenger door again to admire the scenery.
Chapter 10: A Bend in the Road
A lovely, sunny morning at the cottage and on the coast.
Maurice woke up to the song of the colourful finches darting through the garden. Sunlight streamed in through the open bedroom window and hurt his eyes.
He carefully shifted onto his side and then his pulse quickened. Clive was still lying next to him, asleep and curled up and with his face on the back of his hand. His long, dark eyelashes twitched as if something had woken him but his breathing remained calm. A faint smell of lavender and spices lingered in the air – his shaving lotion and the natural scent of his matte-ivory skin. Like Maurice, he was only wearing drawers and covered by the sheet from the waist down.
I was afraid you’d be gone when I woke up, Maurice thought, settling comfortably to get a better look of Clive. But as soon as you open your eyes and look into mine, you will realize that you finally surrendered last night and then you’ll flee in shame, perhaps straight back to England.
My incredible, beautiful Clive, how come you tug at my heart so much? Why did I forgive you as soon as I recognized you on the beach three days ago? Is there anything at all I need to forgive you for?
My love, you shed tears in my arms last night, in this bed, shivering and whispering my name and when your crisis had died down, you started kissing me chastely like you used to when we went for walks in Cambridge and when we shared a room in your flat in London before you took your bar exam. We never got to look at one another’s naked upper bodies until a few hours ago. The feel of your soft shoulders and back was so heavenly under my fingers and your hands caressing my neck was all I longed for. Yes, there was longing, but no lust, and so you will wake up presently and have coffee and drive back to the hotel unharmed. And then I’ll miss you, because the most peculiar thing happened. I’ve fallen in love with you again after twenty-five years.
His heart skipped a beat when Clive stirred, moaned softly and slowly opened his eyes. So this would be it. He would regain his senses within a second and then all would be over.
One more minute, Maurice thought, oh, one more minute before the spell is broken. He moved over to Clive, breathed in his smell, kissed his earlobe and whispered: ‘Who had the audacity to crawl into my bed, hm?’
The other man laughed softly and gave him a drowsy smile. ‘Your silly Clive,’ he said hoarsely. ‘Good morning, Maurice…You need a shave as badly as I do and you’re not wearing your glasses…Tell me, why are you looking so beautiful?’
Clive snuggled up to him until their chests touched and kissed him lovingly, only stopping when Maurice burst into sweet, painful tears.
Josie had spent the night in a little hotel on the northern city limits of Nice. It was the first time on her trip that she had had a room to herself. The owner had not frowned at her for traveling without a chaperone or for taking along a dog.
Because or in spite of this, she had slept fitfully, dreaming of cutting lectures and roaming the woods without her textbook bag or a wristwatch and meeting a man who was waiting for her in a clearing, hatless and in shirt sleeves. Before their skins would touch, she had woken up with a jolt in a strange bed. And so she had left, woefully early and without breakfast.
She had driven around Monte Carlo and was back on the coastal road now. When Menton came into sight and signs told her that the border was only ten miles away, she slowed down and looked around until she found a post office. She parked the car, got out and hooked the leash onto Boris’s collar.
The telephone booth was cramped and dark, smelling of carbolic soap, old sweat and cheap tobacco.
She requested a number in Deauville. A housekeeper answered, squealed when she recognized Mademoiselle Durham’s voice and then asked if she was well and if she wore a hat outside. The Provençal sun could be harmful to fair English skin. ‘Madame will talk to you now,’ she then announced.
‘Good morning, Mama,’ Josie said. ‘I am sorry to disturb you so early, but I’m crossing the Italian border in a few minutes and then I won’t be able to ring you again so soon…Are you well? And Grandmama and Grandpapa…? Rain...? How amusing, it’s very hot here…’
While her mother was talking about the beach and seashells and playing golf, a helpless cry made Josie’s gaze wander to the main room through the window of the booth. A young woman was standing in a queue, looking into a pram and gently rocking it.
‘Yes, Mama, Papa is well,’ Josie said. ‘We had a lovely dinner with an Austrian gentleman and an American lady…And Mr. Hall from London joined us. All the people at the hotel were very nice and the food was marvelous…Yes, Mr. Hall was there...Yes, an old college friend.’
While Josie’s mother fell silent and made a sound that could be a gasp or an awkward swallow, the young French woman lifted the screaming baby out of the pram, pursed her lips and then gently cradled it on her bosom. An old man in front of her turned around and smiled.
‘I say, that is a surprise,’ Mama said. ‘Papa and Mr. Hall met at Cambridge. I last saw him when he came to stay at the estate, shortly after your father and I had returned from our honeymoon. That was in the summer of 1913, before you were born, my dear. Then the war broke out and we never heard from him ever since. Someone told me he emigrated to the Dutch East Indies to set up a spice trading business…I remember him as a nice, polite gentleman…And how is my darling Boris?’
The baby had stopped crying and was peacefully drowsing against its mother’s chest and sucking its thumb as she slowly moved the pram towards the counter.
‘Josie…Josie?’ Mama now cried. ‘Oh dear, there’s static on the line…’
‘I’m sorry, Mama,’ Josie stammered. ‘Boris is well, thank you.’
She had to promise her mother to wear a straw hat against the blistering sun all the time and to drive carefully on the ever-busy Italian roads. ‘I will, dear Mama,’ she said. ‘Bye-bye now.’
Boris yelped softly and tugged at his leash when they walked out of the post office. He found a fire hydrant, lifted a hind leg and moaned with relief.
She had left her car outside a grocery shop. She went in and returned five minutes later with a brown paper bag. She put it on the floor behind the driver’s seat, got a cigarette from her mother-of-pearl case and lit up. Then she saw a little café where a rotund waiter was serving wine in spite of the early hour.
When a table became available, she sat down and ordered a quart of white and water for the dog.
Smoking and drinking, she tried to remember the route she had to take to the city where she would spend the night. Then she paid, went back to the post office and crept into the booth again.
The reception clerk at the Breitner answered. He listened to her slightly blurry French words and then said: ‘I’m sorry, Mademoiselle. Monsieur Durham checked out twenty minutes ago.’
Chapter 11: Overlooking the Sea
At the beach and moving towards the border.
I happened to listen to Paul Simon's 'Late in the Evening' in the car this afternoon. The lyrics coincided wonderfully with this part of the fic, even though it's set in 1938.
Clive appeared from behind a rock, barefoot, carrying a citybag and wearing a bathrobe. It was late in the afternoon and the beach was still rather crowded. Young boys played tag or wrestled, little children squealed and dug holes, matronly women lured them with treats and cheered and admonished in French or Italian.
Clive looked around anxiously until someone rose from a blanket and waved. He plodded on until he reached the spot that Maurice had turned into his territory for the day. ‘How could I have missed this, even from the car park up the slope?’ Clive grinned, tapping the cloth with his foot. ‘Tartan on a French beach, and a wee Sassenach picknick basket…That’s grand, laddie.’
‘I say, you’re awfully late,’ Maurice smiled. He was clad in black swimming trunks that went halfway down his thighs. The fact that he was still wearing his glasses and that a German book lay opened next to him suggested that he had spent all afternoon reading. ‘Very American,’ he said approvingly when Clive had taken off his robe, revealing similar bathing attire.
Clive sat down next to him, lit a cigarette and accepted a glass of red wine, explaining to Maurice what had held him up. He had checked out at the hotel and told the clerk he had been invited by a friend to spend a few days in a hunting lodge in the hills. He had left no forwarding address and had promised he would be back to pick up his mail before leaving for England. After that, he had had coffee at the port with Mr. and Mrs. Van Zanten from Rotterdam, who were staying at the Breitner.
When his luggage was stowed away in the Rover, he had driven to the post office and sent a wire to the little hostel in Italy where his daughter was due to arrive that evening. ‘I told her I had decided to spend a few days with my Dutch friends in a remote villa in the hills,’ he said to Maurice.
Maurice drew from his cigarette and stared at the surf, where two little girls were teaching a tiny Maltese dog to swim. ‘Might it be Mr. Joost van Zanten who owns a transport business in the Rotterdam harbour?’ he then asked. ‘The very same,’ Clive acquiesced. ‘A nice man. Speaks English rather well.’
‘He’s a business associate of mine,’ Maurice said. ‘The world is but a hamlet. I was damned lucky not to meet him or his wife at the hotel…I wouldn’t want them to start guessing what you and I are doing now, even though it’s not punishable in Holland or France…However, people still consider it immoral or call it a disease that can be cured if you are willing enough to undergo treatment.’
He poured Clive some more wine and looked into his crystal-blue eyes. ‘But then again,’ he went on. ‘You will be safe, here and at my cottage. And you’ll still be close enough to the village to keep in touch with Josie…Let’s drink now, to her health and her academic success, and to our blissful reunion.’
Alcohol was the Devil’s instrument, known to destroyi mental and physical health and family life and careers. Yet, it was manufactured and sold and consumed on every bloody street corner across the globe.
There was a reason for that. Josie understood now.
Holding the steering wheel with one hand and a small flask of eau-de-vie and a cigarette in the other, she was carefully manoeuvering the car over cobblestones, through busy alleys towards the coastal road.
It was going on noon now but she decided not to stop near the boulevard to have luncheon. She was not feeling hungry. There were tins of stewed meat and bottles of water for the dog in the boot. Boris would not want for anything.
Mr. Hall, beautiful Mr. Hall, had been out of touch with Papa and Mama for nearly twenty-five years. Mama had perhaps been rather shocked than surprised when Josie had mentioned his name on the telephone. Her poor mother must have been lied to. Intuitively, Josie sensed that Mr. Hall had indeed traveled a lot, but never actually established a business in the Dutch East Indies.
She was certain of this because she knew that someone’s absence was often explained by others in quick words to get the subject over with and to nip any further questions in the bud.
Miss Helen Borenius for instance, the clergyman’s granddaughter. A few years older than Josie, very skinny and not overly ladylike, but clever and affectionate and always in good spirits. Josie remembered that afternoon in April 1931, when Papa had coerced her to attend the church sewing circle because the other girl had a cold. A very nasty cold it must have been, for Miss Borenius had cut the following sessions as well. Josie had last seen her during Easter service, in the front pew, singing psalms with a melancholic look on her face. Only weeks later, Mrs. Borenius had told Mama that her daughter had had to leave for Norfolk to tend to an old aunt who had fallen dangerously ill.
Helen had not returned until shortly before Christmas, singing psalms in the front pew as if nothing had happened, joining in the praising of the little Saviour of a Virgin born, with a longing glow on her cheeks and slightly fuller in the bust and across the hips.
Taking another swig from the bottle and belching, Josie considered herself blessed to be equipped with the medical eye, a quality she had striven to enhance and put to practice.
Yet, many things were still undisclosed. The angry words shouted at her by those horrid girls during that pinafore sewing session echoed in her head. ‘…Buggery on the estate.’ ‘Men used to get ‘anged for it back in the day, that much I know.’
Not burdened by the necessity to behave politely all the time, these young village people must have been on to something. It had made Josie decide to devote her holidays to more church circles. It had earned her a vast knowledge of life in decrepit labourers’ cottages, a delicious, secret vocabulary of swear words and, on one occasion, head lice. Her question, however, had remained unanswered.
It was only when she had moved to London for her studies and got to read newspapers that had not been censored by her parents or her nanny that she had come across some articles about men or even gentlemen (never women) being charged with buggery, the plaintiffs often being young dock workers or messengers.
What it actually meant was never mentioned, but she had concluded that it was exclusively a men’s crime, probably including physical violence and blackmailing, in any case nothing that could ever happen on Papa’s estate.
The veil had slowly been lifted when a psychiatry professor had announced an upcoming class that the very few female students were not allowed to attend. Josie had thought it another proof of the many privileges only men got to enjoy. Full of stinking anger, she had offered a young man from her year a fair sum of pounds to borrow his notes.
It had been money down the shitter. What he had written down was utterly pointless. Intimate relationships between members of the same sex – men. Apparently, women never did this.
She remembered the whispered allusions between the maids in the estate kitchen, about how there was swimming in the nude in the pond between cricket innings – again, with no females present.
She had read about outstanding members of society – businessmen, politicians, scientists – taking their own lives in detention before the final verdict was issued. Occasionally, the articles came with pictures.
The men were either ugly or plain-looking or attractive. Whatever the crime constituted could not be attributed to a single stereotype.
Oddly enough, it all reminded her of Mr. Hall. And yes, he had last visited the estate in 1913. Well, there had been years of war after that, so that period justified his absence. But the war had ended nearly twenty years ago and he had not returned to visit Papa, his old friend from Cambridge. Mr. Hall must have made himself invisible for a reason, not even calling at Papa’s flat in London. And that was why Papa had looked so ill at ease at the hotel. Not surprising. Rekindling friendship after such a long time must be a hard task.
Papa was a kind and generous squire, but he would bear no bad behaviour from his staff. Foul talk, petty theft or being too nice to the maids was enough to get any gardener or overseer or labourer fired.
Perhaps Mr. Hall had done something that had made him fall out of favour with Papa. Still, Papa had chosen to associate with him in Le Lavandou.
And now Papa, who was supposed to stay at the Breitner for at least another week, had checked out. To go where? Was he fleeing from Mr. Hall, who had said he had rented a cottage in a nearby hill village?
Anyhow, what did it matter? Maurice, clad in the beauty of a thousand stars, would never be hers.
She had stopped by the side of the road now, on top of a hill facing the endless Mediterranean Sea. She got out and took a tin of meat, a bottle and two enamel bowls from the booth. Boris gobbled his lunch greedily, drank an enormous quantity of water and then lifted his hind leg near a rock.
She lit a cigarette and listened to the murmur of the waves and the distant hooting of ferries and the screeching of ospreys in the sky and the ticking sounds from the cooling engine of her car.
Chapter 12: The Call of the Waves
A wild ride and blissful moments.
Yes, there's another person wondering what the hell is going on. It's only logical.
It was going on nine o’clock and the beach was deserted. The sun was still high in the sky, its warmth occasionally cooled by a breeze from the sea.
Clive and Maurice were standing on the top of the cliff, naked and in each other’s arms. Clive stared into Maurice’s eyes, fearing this beautiful man would disappear if he averted his gaze.
‘One more week,’ Maurice said. ‘One more week and then I’m off to London. I have to see my office manager before he leaves on holiday. And of course, I have to stay put in Silvertown until he gets back.’
Clive felt tears well up in his eyes. Maurice sensed it and gently caressed his shoulders. They kissed wordlessly. A late ferry hooted in the distance, seagulls screamed.
Maurice drew a deep breath, his expanding chest touching Clive’s. ‘How I love this salty air…It’s so invigorating.’ He gave Clive a melancholic smile. ‘I’m more of an outdoor man, anyway. At the end of August, I’ll drive up to Scotland to see Alec and to do some hunting on Lord Brenton’s estate.’
Clive tightened his arms that held Maurice. I’ve finally found you, he thought, why does it have to end so soon?
‘Will you come and visit me in London?’ he asked. Maurice smiled and kissed him. ‘Of course I will,’ he whispered. ‘It’s only a fifteen-minute ride on the tube.’
‘You’re being awfully pragmatic,’ Clive said. Maurice laughed with the same delicious sound that had already been so enchanting at Cambridge. ‘I’m sorry, old sport…It’s just that I still can’t believe this has actually happened…Oh, I wish we could stay in this place forever, in my shabby cottage, sharing frugal meals and being happy…But we will be happy in London too, won’t we?’
‘Will we?’ Clive asked.
Maurice nodded. ‘Yes, we will,’ he whispered. ‘Because I love you.’
‘I love you too,’ Clive stammered, fighting tears again and embracing him tighter.
They stood in each other’s arms for minutes, wordlessly breathing in alluring smells. Then Clive felt something. It was new to him, yet familiar, and delicious. ‘Our sexes are touching,’ he giggled.
‘I love that,’ Maurice moaned. Then he let go of Clive and gave him a pleading look.
‘Please, my love,’ he said. ‘I’ve never seen you dive. It must be the loveliest sight for the human eye.’
Their lips met again. Then Clive walked up to the edge of the cliff, stretched, fingers locked, looked around him, taking in the horizon and the setting sun and the deserted beach and his lover’s adoring eyes. He bent over backwards, hands on hips, to feel the caress of the warm rays and the cooling breeze. Then he thrust his arms forward and flew off the cliff in a wide arc.
Josie was standing at a fence at the edge of the car park, smoking, draining the bottle of eau-de-vie and overlooking the sea.
Bathing in the nude between innings, she thought as her eyes wandered to a distant beach were tiny people could be seen swimming or sitting on towels, that is unbelievably useless, even horrid, and it must have fueled the rumours about buggery on the estate.
There had been many cricket matches before and after the war, with players constantly taking breaks to cool off in the pond. They would mention their bathing suits and towels afterwards, but the ladies and the young girls from the audience were never allowed to check on them.
It was not like Papa to approve of anyone swimming on his premises without any clothes on. He would never play, he was a bad cricketer, but Mr. Hall looked sporty enough.
A chilling breeze came up from the sea. So Mr. Hall and probably a few other men had jumped into the water naked. Papa must have been appalled when he found out and banished him from the estate.
The church circle girls, however, had uttered their allegations in the present tense in 1931. There had still been yearly matches then, but without Mr. Hall, for he had last visited in 1913.
Anyhow, things had happened that were utterly beyond her reach. She felt that there might be a connection between those enigmas and Mama staying in Turnbridge Wells and only visiting the estate at Christmas, Easter and on Papa’s birthday.
She whistled for Boris and waited until he was back in the passenger seat. Then she got behind the wheel and started the car.
People are having fun without me and all I get to do is study and work my fingers to the bone to earn extra credit, she thought, and before she knew, she had violently turned the vehicle around, sending up a cloud of dust and gravel, and was back on the road, speeding downhill towards the border.
I’m twenty-four and already an old spinster, she said to the windscreen, not bothering to wipe away the drunken tears that steamed up her glasses, I’ll die a respectable doctor but a virgin. Swerve off the road at the next cliff then, and all will be over.
Two men in uniform appeared, positioned themselves in front of a red-and-white barrier and signaled in panic, and then Josie floored the break pedal until the car came to a screeching halt.
The lady was sitting at an antique desk in the parlour. The verandah doors were open, letting in a chilly Atlantic breeze. She stared at her embroidered sleeve and then at her wristwatch. It was going on half past nine now. Supper at the hotel must be over.
She put a cigarette in an amber holder, lit it and picked up the receiver of the telephone.
After a few connecting clicks, a very Provençal-sounding voice answered politely. ‘Good evening, Monsieur,’ the lady said. ‘This is Mrs. Durham from Deauville speaking. Would you be so kind as to see if my husband is in? He’s in room 217.’
There was rustling on the other end of the line. ‘I’m sorry, Madame,’ the clerk said. ‘Monsieur checked out this morning.’
The cigarette dropped from the holder and burned a tiny hole in the leather cover of the desk. She put it in the ashtray and asked if Monsieur had left a forwarding address. ‘No, I’m afraid he hasn’t,’ it sounded.
‘Might he be on his way to Deauville?’ she asked. ‘I wouldn’t know, Madame,’ she heard. ‘I was not on duty when Monsieur left.’ There was a sound very much like a chortle being smothered.
‘Thank you, that will be all,’ she sighed. ‘Goodnight.’
She hung up and saw Mr. Dawson standing in the verandah door. ‘Are you coming?’ he asked. ‘We’re just about to open a bottle of champagne.’
‘I’m coming,’ she smiled. ‘And I just learned that Clive is probably driving up here…Isn’t that lovely?’
The man stared at her for a moment, moved his head slightly as if he shook it, then nodded and bit his lip.
Chapter 13: Summer Gardens
A night at the cottage and finally...Italy.
In 'Alec, a novel' there is actually a beautiful reunion on a cliff in the south of France, probably the most fascinating scene in the book.
They were in the garden behind the cottage, dancing to a tune from the wireless inside. The crickets sang like mad in the rose bushes.
‘I owe you an apology,’ Maurice whispered to Clive. ‘I was so beastly to you on the beach that morning.’
Clive smiled and led him in a semicircle. ‘I don’t blame you in the slightest,’ he said. ‘After all, I was even more rotten to you when you bid me goodbye outside the boathouse years ago.’
‘At least you didn’t tell on Alec or me,’ Maurice observed. ‘He and I are forever grateful to you for that.’
‘I couldn’t, I wouldn’t,’ Clive said, gently manoeuvering him further away from the porch. ‘There was enough talk after you left. I didn’t want to lay eyes on you or Scudder ever again, but I didn’t want the two of you of you to come to harm either.’
‘I appreciate that,’ Maurice nodded. ‘But why didn’t you just slam down the receiver when I telephoned you at the hotel and invited you to tea?’
The song had ended and now a reporter was delivering news, repeatedly mentioning Allemagne.
They had stopped on the lawn. The alpine smell of snow from the north had grown stronger, but the heat of the day still lingered between the rose bushes.
‘Because of what I saw on the beach that morning,’ Clive said calmly. ‘I saw a man dive off the cliff.’
‘So you knew,’ Maurice remarked. ‘That place has a reputation…Bachelors meet there.’ Now he grinned. ‘Tell me then, were you looking at someone or for someone?’
‘Not for you,’ Clive stammered. ‘I must admit that the powerfully built man on the rocks reminded me of an old friend, but that was all.’
Maurice threw back his head and uttered a delightful laugh. He then cradled Clive’s hands onto his chest and gave him a loving look. ‘Is that so?’ he asked. ‘Why did you swim in my direction?’
‘To get a closer look of you,’ Clive said. ‘To see if you were indeed like the man I’d once known…Do you remember that morning at the boathouse? Scudder was splashing in the pond and you stood there on the deck, naked and in the sunlight, and then you dived in.’ His voice faltered. ‘You dived in, so gracefully, so beautifully, like a merman…You disappeared under the waves…Only later did I come to understand that you must have looked at your secret kingdom then, secluded from the rest of the world, a deserted place were you and Scudder would live, free from prying eyes and slander and conviction…And the image of you holding him in the water so he wouldn’t drown was so incredibly lovely and sweet…It ended with you and me standing on the deck, talking and smoking. You had shaved off your moustache and you looked like an unburdened creature of Nature wearing that cloth like an Asian garment. When you showed up later in shirt sleeves and trousers, I thought it a bad masquerade. You had finally chosen Nature, and with it, Love, so you no longer needed clothes from Bond Street. A few minutes on a Sunday morning before the war, long ago – that was all I got to keep from you…And that’s why I ventured out to that deserted beach last week, hoping to catch a glimpse of someone diving, to revive the memory.’
It was dark but he could see Maurice’s eyes glistening behind his platinum-rimmed glasses.
Maurice smiled and ran his finger over Clive’s upper lip. ‘It was odd,’ he murmured. ‘I was swimming in the sea and thinking nothing until a man crawled towards me with powerful, elegant strokes. I thought: ah, a gentleman, and obviously a Brit…I say, he does look familiar, like someone I once knew, but that fellow had a moustache and this one hasn’t.’
‘I shaved it off when I quit my military duty at the ministry in 1918,’ Clive explained. The war was over, no more need to be an officer, much less to look like one.’
‘And then, at the car park,’ Maurice said, ‘I could tell you were upset…And I understood instantly. If you hadn’t cared for me, you would have been more at ease, showing your indifference and ennui by chattering about the lovely sights of the Provence like all tourists do…I drove home, sat in this garden, drinking coffee and smoking, realizing that I had behaved so curtly that morning because I could not believe I had actually met you again. I thought the gods had played a nasty trick on me. But you were there, alive, and staying in Le Lavandou. And that was why I telephoned the Breitner a few hours later, and the rest is a deliciously jolly rotten mess.’
They laughed and crept into each other’s arms. The wireless was playing another chanson now.
‘One more Armagnac and then we’re going to bed,’ Maurice whispered in Clive’s ear.
One of the French customs officers, young enough to establish useless significance, gave Josie a stern look. ‘You were speeding, Mademoiselle,’ he admonished her. ‘If a gendarme had seen it, he would have fined you.’ His colleague, much older, nodded in tacit agreement.
‘Oh, I’m dreadfully sorry, Messieurs,’ Josie panted. ‘I am due in Milan to perform an operation.’ The men raised their eyebrows until they disappeared under their caps.
Now she pointed at the two enamel badges screwed to the ledge that held the windscreen, sporting a British Red Cross emblem and the image of the rod of Asclepius.
‘Would you please show us your passport, your driving licence and a health certificate for your dog?’ the older one asked pleasantly. When they leafed through the documents, Boris barked furiously at them.
‘Quiet now,’ Josie said to him in English. ‘These are good gentlemen.’
They must have understood, for now they handed her back the papers and touched the rims of their caps and opened the barrier.
About a hundred yards further on, two Italian customs officers signaled her to stop. They were more elaborately clad than the ones from the others side of the border and spoke heavy-accented French and perhaps smelled the alcohol on her breath, because they wanted to check the whole vehicle. ‘I’m in a hurry,’ Josie explained. ‘I’m on my way to Milan to operate upon Colonel De Santis. It’s very urgent.’
The men gave each other looks, one of them mumbled something sounding like ‘Irredenta’, they both cooed at Boris, who wagged his tail in appreciation, and then they waved her through.
She put the car in first gear and drove on. Men in uniform, she thought with bitter satisfaction, they believe they rule the world but a mere reference to an old revolutionary hero needing to be saved, which was a lie, and the presence of a nice doggie will make them topple over in a split second.
And now Italy lay before her, rows of colourful houses and gardens bursting with oleander and Indian cress and rustling palm trees, and roads clogged with dilapidated lorries and overflowing buses.
The radio played an American ragtime. Josie turned up the volume, lit a cigarette and petted Boris’s head. ‘How do you like this?’ she asked him. ‘It looks lovely, doesn’t it?’
Chapter 14: Carried Away
Breakfast on the Atlantic coast and a night cap in the Provence.
So is it a villa or a cottage? I don't know. Just making stuff up and having a grand time.
Moving on to stay in mountain villa with van zanten couple stop all well stop love clive stop the wire read.
The lady stared at the square of brown paper in her hands, forgetting her coffee and her cigarette that lay smouldering in the ashtray.
‘My dear, no bad news, I hope?’ her mother asked from across the table. ‘Is Josephine all right?’
The lady smiled and buttered some toast. They were having breakfast outside, even though the sky was overcast and the Atlantic breeze felt autumnal.
‘Oh, all is well, Mama,’ she said. ‘I also got a wire from Josie telling me she arrived at a hostel in Imperia.’ Then she sighed. ‘But it looks like Clive will not be able to stop here before we return to England.’
‘How sad,’ her father mumbled. ‘Is he staying in Le Lavandou longer than planned, then?’
She shook her head. ‘No, Papa, he accepted an invitation from a Dutch couple to spend some time in a villa in the hills…I know them, we met them in Cannes years ago…They’re nice and kind-hearted, but rather boring.’
Clive had written her many letters since the beginning of his holiday. He had mentioned the names of the people he had met, from European businessmen to American actresses, none of them too interesting.
In 1913, Maurice had alluded to a liaison in London, leading her and her husband to believe that he was planning on getting engaged. But then he had disappeared.
For some reason she felt now that Maurice had never tied the knot. In Mediterranean holiday villages, bachelors got up to all kinds of vices, dragging along their married friends into endless drunken parties and dances and moonlight picnics on the beach. Clive’s flesh was slightly weak. She knew he had had some affairs in London, which had been brief and harmless. That story about a villa in the hills was a lie. Now that Josie was no longer around, he and his former friend were far away from the decent hotel now, having a marvelous time with mischievous married women and struggling starlets.
She stuffed the paper into her handbag, lit another cigarette and looked at her parents.
‘I’m sure the mountain air will do Clive a lot of good,’ her mother smiled.
They were in bed, naked, sipping Armagnac and smoking.
‘You looked so dashing on the cliff tonight,’ Clive murmured, stroking Maurice’s smooth chest.
‘And you!’ Maurice cried. ‘How you dived in – so heavenly…If I hadn’t fallen in love with you before, it would have happened then and there.’
Clive kissed him lovingly. ‘And you came after me, when I had come up for air. I got to watch you from the right angle.’ He ran his fingers gently over Maurice’s body. ‘And you’re tanned all over. You love sunbathing in the nude, hm?’
They both laughed. ‘I don’t mind,’ Clive said, reaching over Maurice to pour some more Armagnac.
‘In fact, after that Sunday morning, I took to diving off the pier into the pond on the estate. I did so many times, always naked, when no one was around…Not anymore now, I’m too old.’
Maurice grinned. ‘A million admiring eyes must have been secretly watching you, my love. Gamekeepers and gardeners can never be deceived.’
‘I expect so,’ Clive smirked. ‘But it was so odd…I didn’t care. I was on my estate, I felt that I could do as I pleased as long as I didn’t compromise anybody else.’
‘How you’ve changed!’ Maurice exclaimed, hugging him wildly.
It was going on midnight, but sleep would not come. They lay there, smoking, musing, occasionally kissing, until Clive sat up and stubbed out his cigarette. ‘Maurice, my beauty,’ he whispered. ‘I’d like to give you something now. You may not appreciate it, but all I ask of you is to please let me have a try.’
He took Maurice in his arms. ‘You must have sensed that I’m not the right man to perform the full act. I take it Scudder is rather proficient, so you don’t want for anything when you’re with him.’
‘That’s true,’ Maurice said with sparkling eyes. ‘He’s wild and delicious and inventive.’
‘I’m not,’ Clive said matter-of-factly. Then he grinned mischievously. ‘But I know something you don’t – ha! Unless you’ve slept with a woman at least once in your life.’
Maurice shook his head. ‘No, never,’ he sighed. ‘Alec has…He had some liaisons with girls before he met me.’
Clive’s face lit up. Then he gently pushed Maurice back into the pillows. ‘Well,’ he breathed, ‘then I shall learn you how it feels to be made love to like a woman… I had some flings with young ladies in London. They were cracking teachers, I tell you.’
Maurice gave him a shocked stare. Then he burst out laughing. ‘Good heavens, Clive, how like you to want to be on top, to be in control…And how unlike you to mimic Alec…Well, what is it you are willing to learn me?’
Clive moved closer to him until his hard member touched Maurice’s thigh. ‘I’ll slowly give you foreplay, court you and initiate you and grant you space to express yourself,’ he smiled. ‘It’s all I can do, actually. I’m sure I could never take intercourse, but this I will give you…the best love I’ve got in store.’
Maurice relaxed now and closed his eyes. Clive softly kissed him, all the way from his mouth to his bellybutton and from there to his groin, caressing and licking and tickling him. ‘Down there,’ Maurice whispered, and then Clive’s lips explored his turgid sex for minutes.
When Maurice murmured that he wanted more, Clive shifted onto him until their lower bodies touched and started rocking gently, never missing a single intimate spot and breathing heavily.
Maurice’s eyes remained closed, his lashes twitched, he groaned and shivered and bit his lip, his hands wandering over Clive’s buttocks.
The crisis hit them both at the same time, leaving them sweaty, weightless, in tears and laughing.
They slept in each other’s arms in a halo of sweat and perfume, often waking up to kiss, and when dawn slowly broke outside, Maurice whispered: ‘I’ve finally surrendered.’
Chapter 15: Terra Mater
A man coming home and a meal in Italy.
The farmhand was cycling up the slope with his game bag dangling from a strap on his shoulder. The fields were of a vivid green under the overcast sky that shut in the clammy summer heat.
‘Four and twenty virgins came down from Inverness,’ he sang as he paddled on. ‘And when the ball was over, there were four and twenty less…Father Patrick, he was there and in a corner sat, amusing himself by abusing himself and catching it in his hat…The village postman, he was there, the poor man had the pox, he couldn’t shag the women so he used the letterbox…Singing ‘Balls to your partner, arse against the wall, if you never get fucked on Saturday night, you never get fucked at all.’’
The song was endless and more verses were added to it every year. He sang any line he could remember until he turned into a side track and slowed down, dodging potholes and puddles, until his cottage came into sight. It was a two-room house with peeling plaster, probably built in the late eighteenth century and too remote to be connected to the power grid or the sewage system. The garden had a vegetable patch and rose bushes. The chickens clucked when they heard him open the gate and wheel his bicycle to the little shed behind the house. He whistled and the cock crowed back. Then he stepped into the kitchen, filled a dented kettle from a large tin jug and put it on a little oil stove.
While the water was heating, he cleared the remains of his breakfast from the table, got out a mug and a sugar pot and a pitcher of milk and turned on the wireless that was fed by a car battery. A BBC Home Service news reporter said Sudetenland. He tuned into another station. American songs.
When the tea was ready, he poured himself a large mug, shoveled spoonfuls of sugar into it, stirred and took the mail he had picked up at the post office from his bag.
There was a letter from his sister in Watford and one from the village minister inviting him again to attend a service at the Presbyterian church, and a brightly coloured post card. It was a collage of pictures, of a busy boulevard with palm trees, a crowded beach, fishing boats and a rocks with a cliff reaching into the azure sea. This image was marked with a fountain pen. Not the same spot, I presume, but very similar and just as romantic the sender had written on the back.
The farmhand looked at the French stamp. The card had traveled for ten days.
He now remembered a sweet old tale about a young trench soldier from Dorset who had roamed the Mediterranean coast in 1919, with no news from his lover whose regiment had been deployed to Turkey. Just when he had been about to dive into the sea from a cliff, naked like many locals did, he had seen an man walk up the ridge, older, a survivor of Gallipoli, but very alive and young with unbroken love, and so they had reunited blissfully.
The farmhand smiled, sipped his tea, blushed, fished a pack of Gold Flakes from his pocket and lit up a cigarette. He smoked, drank and mused until it was time to milk McNulty’s cows. He got up, put the post card on the mantelpiece and left the cottage.
No meals were served at the boarding house in Imperia. Josie fed Boris in the courtyard, cleaned his bowls under a tap and then they walked uphill, away from the boulevard with its cafés and French-looking bistros. She found a taverna bustling with Italian families. There was laughing, shouting and tinkling in a haze of cigarette smoke, coffee, roast meat and garlic.
She sat down at the only vacant table in the middle of the terrace and ordered red wine and sparkling water. ‘Menu?’ she asked the waiter. There was no written one, so he smilingly mentioned all the dishes that were available, as if he were singing. She did not understand all, but eventually chose spaghetti and tomato sauce and a green salad.
The wine was served in a large glass pitcher. She poured, sniffed and drank. It tasted horrid. Darkness crept slowly into the alley. Electric lights flashed on and off.
The noise was deafening. The children, dressed in their finery, ran around, played tag and feasted on ice- cream and quarreled, unburdened by British bedtimes or strictness from parents and nannies who would not abide any sound louder than whispered talking.
She decided to drink the wine because she would have to pay for it anyway, lit a cigarette and leaned back. Five or six young men, probably college students, were seated at the table closest to the pavement. They sang a song a cappella which must be the modern (and probably unsuitable) equivalent of Gaudeamus Igitur, their warm voices floating through the spicy air.
It was so dark now that only the faces and hands of a group of men walking by could be seen, for they were dressed in black and wore caps. They stopped and addressed the lads. She heard words, probably meaning ‘labourers’, ‘new order’ and in any case ‘Italy’.
The students beckoned a waiter, paid and left in silence. The other customers were having their dinner, undisturbed, laughing and chortling in between bites, soaking up sauce with hunks of bread, not wiping their lips before they drank their wine. An old lady in black, surely a widow, beckoned a little girl, who presently ran into her arms and was greeted with a shower of kisses and cooing sounds. At the next table, a young woman gingerly lifted a crying baby from a pram, rearranged a cotton scarf around her shoulders and almost unnoticeably unbuttoned the front of her dress. Soon the infant was at ease, nursing at its mother’s breast, with a father or an uncle next to it, watching it with adoring eyes.
Josie was afloat now, cursing because the delicious wine had run out and letting her eyes wander over the alley, unable to move because Boris had fallen asleep on her feet under the table, weighing a ton and snoring occasionally.
In the wall of the opposite house, a statue stood in a niche, decorated with daisies and some candles that had been lit by passing people. Our Lady, holding her Son, not like a saint but rather like a proud mother enjoying the endeared looks that strangers gave him.
This was Italy, now under the rule of a ridiculous man who was best friends with a misfit Austrian painter who wanted to expand his nation. But here, ancient laws prevailed, for this was Italy, ablaze with flowers and young families praising the little Saviour to a Virgin born, not because he would be king, but because he was a Child, the most precious species in this country where fecundity and food and openly displayed feelings of love stood against Middle-European coldness.
The northern countries would soon hail glorious death in the battle against the so-called lower people. On her way over, she had seen many churchyards in bloom where the departed rested unforgotten, remembered with joy by means of floral gifts in all colours. Here, birth and death were one, united with life between these two stages, lived to the fullest and devoid of the stern decency that reigned beyond the Alps.
By the time her meal was served, she was already halfway down her second pitcher of wine. The waiter was young. He remained standing next to her and filled her tumbler as she unfolded her napkin.
She heard words, spoken in a smoky voice, ‘Buona sera’ and then something that probably meant: ‘What’s your name?’ The audacity, she thought.
Then she looked up, into a pair of warm, dark-brown eyes under long, black lashes, and at a smile showing perfect pearl-white teeth.
‘Sono Dottore Durham,’ she burbled. He laughed as if he sensed that she was not allowed to bear that title yet. ‘Inghilterra?’ he then asked. She nodded and said: ‘Londra.’
He laughed again, tilting his head a little, and sang in broken English: ‘Ennajoy ya meal, Miss.’
Her peals of mirth rang across the terrace. No one gave her looks.
I say, I’m stinking drunk, she mumbled to herself when the man walked away.
The song has many versions and the lyrics vary. Until this very day, it is sung during rugby matches.
Chapter 16: Parents and Lovers
Husband and wife meet again. Bliss is waiting around the corner.
Clive was in his car, carefully overtaking lorries and slowing down when he drove through puddles. The squeaking of the windscreen wipers muted the music on the radio.
Holding the wheel with one hand, he drew up a lapel of his jacket, sniffed it and sneezed. It smelled of mothballs and the suit must be the oldest one he had, worn more regularly in his younger and slimmer years. The waistcoat was tight around his stomach. He had decided not to visit Anne in his grey weekday tweed. It bore Maurice’s scent – his citrus fragrance and his natural perfume of pine needles and wild sweat.
The rain grew heavier, prompting Clive to slow down to a snail’s speed and to try and banish every thought of the previous nights at his flat from his mind. Yes, it was only a fifteen-minute tube ride from Chelsea for Maurice, and he had pledged his word. They had made love without penetration, but it had been delicious and fulfilling and invigorating for both of them.
No, not now, not now, Clive thought as a road sign indicating Turnbridge Wells came into sight, we shall meet again soon anyway. This is what I have to concentrate on: I won’t tell Anne about Josie’s metamorphosis, nor about how she took up smoking and drinking and wearing trousers, and certainly not about how grotesque she looked, our pretty princess, like a nun at a fancy-dress ball. Anne would be shocked and there’s nothing she or I can do about it anyway.
Dear Mama Anne read. First of all, I would like to apologize for not writing sooner, but I have been rather busy. Of course, I hope that you and Grandmama and Grandpapa are well and that you had a safe journey back to England.
My hours at the Ospedale are nothing short of those of a nurse: arriving at seven in the morning, dressing wounds, administering injections, talking to physical therapists and of course, assisting in theatres. I had the honour of participating in the removal of excess tissue from an aorta that was about to become restricted. The patient is on his way to recovery.
My room in the nurses’ lodgings is charming and it overlooks the hospital park. The concierge and his wife look after Boris and he has become best friends with them!
Professor Carriera is a very nice man. He reminds me of Dr. Freud in those famous portraits, with a short white beard and dressed in English suits and always holding a cigar. He invites me to his house for supper very often. His children live there, too, that is his daughter and her husband and his son, who is a seminary student, about to be ordained. Mrs. Carriera never dines with us. She has meals brought up to her rooms and she is not very mobile (onset of necrosis in the right leg, due to diabetes). Professor Carriera suggested that I check her wounds, but she refused, saying that it was unsuitable for a young English lady.
The professor even took me on a visit to his mother, who is ninety and very deaf and who speaks no foreign language apart from a little German. She was ever so nice to me, calling me Giuseppina.
The family own a summer house in the hills. Professor Carriera wants to take me there for a weekend. I offered to drive him, which he liked. His son is coming, too, but he will probably stay indoors to study for his final exams. Mrs. Carriera will remain at home, for she does not want to leave the city.
Boris is well. He loves the leftover ice-creams he finds in the Parco Sempione when I take him there for walks, but I’m afraid he’s gaining weight now. Perhaps he should join the Ladies’ Dieting Club in Mayfair!
It’s so sad that I have to leave for England in a few weeks. Of course, I shall be back in time to stop in Turnbridge Wells on my way to London before the start of autumn term.
Please give my love to Grandmama, Grandpapa, Aunt Pippa, Uncle Archie and the cousins. I’ll write to Papa yet.
With all my love and sunny greetings from lovely Milan – Josie.
The stationery was slightly crinkled as if some liquid had been spilled on it and smelling faintly of fermenting wheat. The handwriting was blurry, quite characteristic of a doctor.
Now Anne took another letter from an open envelope with a London postage stamp, written as if by a printing press, the lines expressing sincerest apologies and about having to leave for Ireland with wife and children on account of urgent family matters and that it was definitely better this way. The name at the bottom of the vellum sheet, Robert Dawson, was jotted down carelessly and joyfully.
I’m not going to show your letter to your Papa, dear Josie, Anne thought. He wouldn’t understand. But I do, my poor, precious princess.
She got up from her chair, took a bottle of brandy from the drinks cabinet, poured herself a glass, drained it in one swig and then heard the slamming of a car door outside.
‘Clive Durham speaking.’ – ‘Hullo, old sport.’ – ‘Maurice, oh Maurice, are you at home?’ – ‘I am, dear. Listening to the wireless and having a cup of tea.’ – ‘Are you coming tonight?’- ‘No, I’m afraid not. I’m coming down with a cold…Just checking if you made it back safely from Tantalizing Turnbridge Wells…How is Anne?’ – ‘She’s well, thank you. It’s odd, but she was quite pale, as if there had been no sun in Deauville. She told me many times over how good I was looking, healthy and tanned and relaxed…Her parents were out, so we spent all afternoon in each other’s arms on the sofa, leafing through old albums with pictures of Josie.’ – ‘How lovely! By the way, is she all right, too?’ – ‘Oh yes, she is…I got a letter from her this morning. She wrote about the operating theatre, which was rather disgusting, and about the dinners she has after work. Spaghetti, bistecca alla fiorentina, pasta in brodo, which was lovely to read. Anne told me she had gotten a similar letter. Our princess is doing really well in Milan.’ – ‘I’m happy to hear that, Clive. You and Anne must be worried. Italy is not exactly a safe country now.’ – ‘We know, but Josie’s internship is for a few weeks only, and she is visiting on a student visa…She’s utterly medical, which means she has no eye for politics anyway.’ – ‘All her stories about surgery and the lovely food may also indicate that she’s deliberately omitting things, even to her parents. Letters can be read by others than the addressees.’ – ‘Come on now, Maurice, she’s just too busy, and she’s got Boris to fuss and cluck over. He's her best friend…Tell me, what are you wearing now?’ – ‘A grey flannel dressing gown and a silk tucker.’ – ‘Anything underneath?’ – ‘Cotton pyjamas, you rotter.’ – ‘Did you have supper yet?’ – ‘No, I couldn’t be bothered…As I said, I’m having tea now, and some treats to nibble on…I got a delivery from Rotterdam for my own use at my warehouse this morning. Cinnamon cake, tamarind sweets and jars of ginger in sugar syrup. All the ingredients are from the Dutch East Indies, of course…And I got some things sent up from a Tunisian wholesale company in Paris. Almond biscuits, pickled olives, sheep’s cheese in tins, and boxes and boxes of Turkish delight. Come over as soon as I’m feeling better and I’ll feed you these delicacies in bed.’ – ‘Will we be naked?’ – ‘No, we’ll be wearing winter coats…Of course we’ll be naked, you fool.’ – ‘Do you miss me, my beautiful Maurice?’ – ‘I do, sorely. In fact, I hung that tartan plaid over the sofa as soon as I got home from France. It’s got your smell in it. Arabian Nights and lavender and sweat…I sit there, drinking tea and smoking and musing and burying my nose in the fabric and conjuring up the moments we spent lying on it.’ – ‘When we made love on the beach at dawn, before we would go for a swim…God, I don’t know how I can get through the night without you beside me, even though the bed smells of you.’ – ‘My goodness, Clive, resort to yourself then…I learned you some tricks, didn’t I?’ – ‘You did, and you were a heavenly teacher.’ – ‘You were a very apt pupil, I must admit…But being together feels much more wonderful…How I’ll miss you tonight! Come to me, Clive, in a few days, when my cold has gone. We’ll be happy, so happy…But my voice is wearing down now, I’ll take an aspirin and then I’m going to bed…So would you please hang up, my love?’ – ‘No, you should hang up.’ – ‘Oh no, you should.’ – ‘Kiss me all over.’ – ‘Pleasure me through the receiver then.’ – ‘This is getting sordid. Let’s hang up now.’ – ‘One more kiss…’
As for the references to Indonesian food - being a Dutch woman, I can't but hail the dishes and delicacies that have been a part of our national cuisine for centuries. Since I'm also half Brazilian, rice is prominent in my kitchen anyway. My boyfriend loves my cooking, but his favourite dish is microwaved lasagna from Albert Heijn, Holland's largest supermarket chain. I must be doing something wrong!
I wonder if Maurice likes that stuff too.
Chapter 17: Return of the Princess
A reunion between mother and daughter.
The maid walked in and announced demurely that the chauffeur had driven the car round and that all was ready. The old lady rose and stared at her husband. ‘Well, dear,’ she said. ‘We don’t want to be late for tea at Mrs. Ashenden’s house, do we? And I suppose Anne and Josephine have a lot of catching up to do.’
The old gentleman reluctantly got up from his chair and shuffled to the sofa where his granddaughter was sitting. ‘Do come back and see us real soon, my pretty angel.’ ‘I will, Grandpapa,’ Josie smiled, hugging him and accepting a kiss on her forehead.
When the couple had left, Anne went to the trolley by the fireplace and poured two cups of tea. Then she sat down in a chair opposite the sofa and looked at her daughter. Josie was wearing a new cotton dress of a decent coral-red and with an embroidered Spanish collar under a tailored black blazer. You are looking well, Anne thought, but why did you have your hair cut and bleached? Your natural dark-blond shade is already showing at the roots and I know you’re not given to spending hours at beauty parlours like your cousins. The food in Italy must have been lovely, because I can tell you’ve gained weight, too. And there’s a blush on your cheeks – rouge, of course, for you are as fair-skinned as your dear Papa.
Boris was asleep on a cushion in a corner of the room, the place he always used whenever he stayed in this house.
‘Enough of the hospital,’ Anne said. ‘Do tell me about the nice people you met in Le Lavandou.’
Josie grinned, rummaged through her bag as if to look for cigarettes, but she only got out a handkerchief and discreetly blew her nose. She then delivered some brief tales about pretty American ladies in cocktail dresses, very sweet but slightly boring, and again about the old Austrian nobleman and the staff and the girls at the boarding house who had had nothing but tea parties and horseback riding on their minds.
Then she rose from the sofa. Boris woke up and ran to the door. ‘I’m sorry, Mama,’ she said, ‘but I really ought to be going. I’d like to get home before the rush hour and I’m feeling rather tired.’
‘You only just arrived,’ Anne sighed. ‘Oh, fair enough, I understand…I’ll walk you to your car then.’
When Josie opened the passenger door to let Boris hop in, Anne saw a large, cylindrical box with Christmas holly sprigs printed on it on the back seat. ‘What’s in there?’ she asked. Josie gently pulled out something black and shiny and put it on.
‘My goodness,’ Anne gasped. ‘Real mink…You could never afford that on your allowance.’
Josie smiled. ‘It’s second-hand, Mama. When I was preparing to leave Milan, Mrs. Carriera learned that I would drive back through Switzerland. She insisted that I take a warm coat…She wanted to give me a parting present anyway, but she could not go out and buy one. So she told the professor and their daughter to take me shopping. I wanted wool, or rather nothing, because they had been so generous already, but they both saw this coat and they wanted it for me. So I had no choice but to accept. And how right Mrs. Carriera turned out to be! A few days later, I had a puncture on the Simplon Pass. I had to wait in the snow for hours for someone from a nearby village to change the tire. If I had only had my mackintosh…I can’t even think of that! And it’s ever so practical. I can still drive with the top down now and I won’t be cold.’
As she spoke, Josie undid the fastenings of the canvas cover and shoved it towards the boot.
Mother and daughter embraced and there was the roar of an engine and loud barking, and then all was quiet again.
Anne drew her stola closer around her shoulders and watched the car drive down the street and turn the corner. She sighed, breathed in some petrol-infused summer air and then slowly walked up the steps to the front door.
She was sitting at her desk in her bedroom, a pristine sheet of paper in front of her. The air was cloyed with cigarette smoke. She poured herself a glass of brandy and gnawed the tip of her fountain pen.
Her parents had not been surprised when she had told them she was not feeling well and would not have supper with them. Especially her mother must have understood tacitly.
Clive and I wanted to do everything right, she thought. We didn’t want our daughter to grow up to become a spoiled woman with only a year at a Swiss finishing school as her highest qualification. We wanted her to have a real education and learn life lessons as she went along.
Logically, we were both proud and worried when Josie told us her mentor had recommended her to a surgeon in Milan. Professor Stanton himself was an outstanding man. Clive and I invited him to have luncheon at the club to discuss the undertaking. We asked all about Milan and about his honoured colleague. We were relieved when we learned that Professor Carriera had a wife and two children – a married daughter and a son who was preparing for priesthood. The family was pious and belonged to the Milanese gentry. Besides, the very few female students that spent their internships at the hospital were given rooms at the nurses’ lodgings, run by a couple that attended early mass every day.
We would not have allowed Josie to go there if all this had not been so. And yet, we failed. Academically speaking, she did extremely well, as professor Carriera pointed out in his letter to me, written in elegant French. Our daughter returned from the Continent with a boyish haircut and bleached curls and a mink coat, an item only suitable for ladies over forty or actresses. Who gave it to her? Mrs. Carriera and her daughter must be too decent to even suggest such a thing for a present. It came in a Christmas box, as if it had been smuggled to England. Second-hand? I doubt it, it looked too new. A decadent gift from…someone who felt that the usual box of chocolates was not enough.
Yes, Clive and I planned Josie’s journey so carefully, inquiring with friends at the club and studying travel guides. Only boarding houses for young ladies on the way, the Casa degli Angeli in Le Lavandou for instance. Run by devout Catholics who were charitable to their fellow countrymen in the parish.
Where did Josie have her hair ruined? Surely not on the way to the Provence, rather in the village where Clive was staying. He never mentioned anything about it to me, but I’m afraid men are like that. As long as their wives and daughters don’t look like chorus girls on duty, they won’t interfere. They are blind to the fact that a student with sagging hair pins and crumpled collars is far less compromising than a young woman trying to copy Marlene Dietrich.
Why, of course, why didn’t I think of this before? Josie is highly intelligent, a scholar, a doctor in the making, but woefully friendless and therefore unaware of social graces you can only learn from peers.
She wanted to be like the pretty women at the Breitner. Perhaps those girls jeered at her for looking like a modern Jane Eyre, even though she drove an elegant car. Clive and I did our best, coercing her to accept invitations to tea parties and dances and even to attend charity circles – any occasion where she could associate with girls her age and learn to distinguish between what was good for a patrician like herself and what wasn’t.
Hang on a minute…my goodness…Maurice Hall…He came to visit at the hotel a few times. A bachelor.
I remember him as a pleasant gentleman, not very attractive, but charming and witty and clever. It was so odd that he clearly felt so ill at ease when Clive’s mother or Pippa or I would address him at supper. He was more comfortable around staff, all smiles and thankful remarks to the butler and the maids. A member of the London upper middle class with a heart for the less fortunate.
And that is what must have caused his downfall. I remember talking to Clive in September 1913, when the first rumours about Maurice were already circulating. ‘He’s a stockbroker, probably a case of fraud, he’s fleeing from the police,’ someone had said. Clive and I dismissed this as nonsense. Maurice was too straight-minded to do such a thing. ‘Perhaps he had a liaison with a girl and put her in an awkward situation,’ I mused. Clive then nodded and smiled broadly. ‘That must be it,’ he said as if he had made a marvelous invention. ‘He was always rather kind to maids and shop assistants. And those girls are not fools. If the man cannot marry them on account of differences in class, they know how to sue him for child support and such…And that’s why he traveled to London so often while he stayed here, not to arrange to be engaged, but to try and settle the situation out of court, or rather, to devise means to avoid any responsibilities. Yes, that must be it. I couldn’t think of another reason.’
I even saw a connection with our former gamekeeper disappearing at the same time. Maurice had been ever so friendly with the staff, so the two of them must have decided to leave together.
Yes, there were allusions about them being more than friends. Clive and I were upset. ‘Slander,’ he said. ‘Why, of course,’ I agreed. ‘Vile talk has brought down many innocent men.’ In order to put the case to rest, we then cooked up a tale about how Maurice had unexpectedly found a business opportunity in the Dutch East Indies and had taken our former gamekeeper along as a personal servant. And we never spoke of him again. Out of sight, out of mind.
And nearly twenty-five years later, Maurice turned up on the French Mediterranean coast, a bachelor, and obviously wealthy, because otherwise he would not have gone further than Blackpool for the summer.
A bachelor, a perfect suitor for any woman…Maurice, you acted a bit like a cavalier to Josie, didn’t you? Quite modestly, of course, only when Clive was away to make telephone calls or to use the lavatory.
As an aspiring doctor, Josie knows every part of the male body, but everything beyond that is a mystery to her. In her formative years, Clive and I were not around often enough as a couple to show her what married life is about.
It’s all my fault, dear Josie, my precious princess. I should have told you more about the nature of the other sex. Maurice, ever clumsy and polite, must have liked you very much. And you mistook it for a genuine attempt at courtship and so you left for Italy in panic a day earlier than planned.
Poor Josie, I never even taught you how to lie, and you are so bad at it. I could smell brandy and tobacco on your breath when I kissed you goodbye this afternoon. You never even concealed the fact that the professor had invited you to his summer house. And then the mink coat. The secret of growing up is doing things without your parents knowing. You are still such a child, my dear. I should have stayed on the estate or even rented a flat in London so that you could live with me while you attended college, but it’s too late now. Your own mother would be a rotten example, and so would be your father.
He and I believe in the benefits of education and independence for women. There are many like us, boasting about our daugthers’ achievements at the club and fearing for their health and safety as soon as they have taken the plunge. Double standards are the very pillars of Western society, my dear. But your Papa and I love you very much. You are the greatest gift God granted to us. I’m sure you experienced some kind of happiness in Italy. There will be more to come, because someone as good and sweet as you will be rewarded in time.
The story about the garment is inspired on Theodore Fontane's novel 'Effi Briest' (1898). In this work, a young girl from a noble family, engaged to be married to a much older man, expresses the wish to have a mink coat. Her mother argues that this item is only worn by older ladies, but eventually gives in.
Chapter 18: Summer in Britain
Crises and musings.
There's an explanation for (almost) every phenomenon.
The weather was unbelievably hot, very uncommon in these latitudes. The farmhand was sweating under his corduroy jacket as he cycled up the hill. There was a letter from London in his game bag. ‘Better read it straight away when I get home,’ he said aloud. ‘But it’s a large one, I wonder if anything is amiss.’
He stopped, got off his bicycle and put it against a stone wall that bordered a pasture. A ewe and her lamb slowly trotted up, sniffing the scent of the human with questioning looks in their eyes.
He tore open the envelope, leaned against the fencing, lit a cigarette and started to read the elegantly written lines.
By the time he got to the second page, he was cursing. ‘Damn you, this is bollocks. What do you expect me to do, eh? You never ordered me about before, so why start now? Oh, really, sod this, mate, and mind your own business.’ The ewe bleated in agreement.
When he was done reading, there was a glow on his cheeks. He grinned and lit another cigarette. Then he rummaged through the bag to see if the wire from London with the money order for ten pounds was still there.
Better cash it now, he thought, and while I’m at the post office anyroad, I might as well make a telephone call. Settle things. I mean, it’s wonderful and all, but what the dickens is all the rest about?
Smoking and blushing, he read some lines on the last page of the letter again. Then he stuffed the sheets in his bag, wheeled his bicycle to the road and rode back to the village.
‘What’s on your mind, love?’ Maurice asked, kissing Clive’s shoulder and stroking his stomach. Clive pushed the hand away, shifted in the pillows and started staring at the ceiling. ‘You’re one to ask,’ he muttered.
‘You’ve been acting like a bear with a sore head ever since I made arrangements to go to Scotland,’ Maurice said. ‘Why all this fuss? You know I’ll only be gone for two weeks…Good God, you’re like a spoiled child. Can’t you be content with what you’ve got? A lovely wife, a wonderful daughter, an estate and two cars, and a man who’s completely smitten with you. Some people have too much, I dare say. Try and earn your stale bread working as a bloody woodcutter like I did before the war, then you’ll grow to appreciate things.’
‘I’ve been thinking,’ Clive said. ‘A lot of memories have come back to me lately. Our days at Cambridge. We fell in love and hid it from the rest of the world. All we did was exchange chaste kisses when no one else was around. You could have had it all, but you just trotted along. You never even had the decency to try and force yourself on me – why didn’t you?’
Maurice laughed. ‘I made an attempt once. It was in the smoking room at my mother’s house. I flew at you when I suspected you had taken an interest to my sister…Don’t you remember? I do. You served me with a punch in the stomach, very clumsily, but it hurt…It hurt a lot. Even more so afterwards, when I learned you had met Anne on a guided tour in Athens only weeks earlier.’
Maurice sat up, put on his glasses and lit a cigarette. He blew out a plume of smoke, reflected in silence and then grinned. ‘The same could be said of you, Clive. You could have set the police on Alec and me when we fled, if only to get me back. I would have gotten away with it.’
‘It would have meant years in a workhouse for Scudder, though,’ Clive remarked. ‘And that never happened.’
‘It never did indeed,’ Maurice said. ‘And as I said before, he and I are so thankful to you for that. But you married Anne and that was the end of our story…And still, you swam into my net rather effortlessly in France. You could have said no, but you didn’t. A few days into our reunion, we were, pardon my language, screwing to beat the band. I’m not complaining, though. You’re brilliant.’
Now Clive laughed. Maurice joined in. ‘We’re men,’ he said. ‘We can’t bear to lose what we’ve got. You have a daughter to love and cherish, but she’s grown up now. She’s finding her own way in the world and that’s the hardest thing to accept for any father – or so I’ve been told.’
‘It’s not that,’ Clive moaned. ‘It’s just…’
‘Her state of dress?’ Maurice interrupted. ‘Good God, clothes are only accessories, you know that. Milan is a city full of life, varying from up-scale tearooms to grubby public houses where they serve delicious, rustic food. But everywhere you will find locals dressed up in their Sunday best, even on weekdays. Italian life is not about plainness and modesty like in Britain. Josie must have read a lot about it before she went there, and she acted accordingly. I presume she also wanted to look older, to prevent being treated like a nurse in training at the hospital. She’s about to enter a profession in a men’s world. And I thought that suit and that hat looked really nice on her. She is pretty, she takes after Anne. Would you rather have a scarecrow for a daughter? I wouldn’t.’
Clive lit a cigarette, slid a bit further under the sheets and mused for minutes. ‘You’re right,’ he said almost inaudibly after minutes.
‘But…?’ Maurice asked with a smile playing on his lips.
Clive nodded towards the framed picture on the nightstand. A man in a hunting jacket, wearing his cap askew, with his head slightly tilted, smiling into the camera with warm, dark eyes and perfect pearl-white teeth.
‘Too bad, old sport,’ Maurice said. ‘He’s mine and I’m his. You were never one to chase what you wanted. I presume Josie takes after you in that department, or else she would have invited many suitors to tea at the estate already to meet you and Anne…I say, you are really making a mountain out of a mole hill.’
‘But you’ll be back, won’t you?’ Clive asked as Maurice got out of bed and picked up his dressing gown from a chair.
‘Of course I will,’ Maurice said. ‘I’m only going to the lavatory now…And oh yes, I’m going to make us some tea and serve up some delicacies. What you need is sweetness and there’s plenty of that here.’
He walked around the bed, drew away the sheets and lovingly teased Clive’s nipples with his tongue.
‘There now,’ he said. ‘Well, I never…You’re smiling like you just won the sweepstakes…Will you kiss your silly Maurice…? Why are your lips so wonderful…? Believe me, I shall miss you when I’m in Scotland.’
Chapter 19: The Pond
Another change of scenery.
They were sitting on the tartan plaid, wearing outdoor clothes. The sun was pleasantly warm. Bees were humming in the bramble bushes. Jays were singing and quarreling in the firs and the birches that lined the pond.
‘How lovely,’ Maurice said, drawing Alec closer to him. ‘It’s September but this feels like a full-blown summer.’
Alec pointed at the distant Glen Coe peaks that were streaked with white. ‘There’s snow on the tops already,’ he remarked. ‘We might be in for a rough winter.’
Maurice kissed him. ‘Never mind that, my love,’ he whispered. ‘You’ll be with me in London then.’
Alec nodded and beamed.
Maurice pulled a dented case out of his hunting bag and offered him a cigarette. They both lit up and stared over the pond where dragonflies danced. A fish darted up from the water, caught one and disappeared. ‘Did you see that?’ Alec asked in amazement.
‘Mmm-hmm,’ Maurice answered. ‘Listen, dear, we’ve got to talk. It's about what I wrote to you some time ago.’
Maurice then delivered a long list. Alec was under no circumstances to mention to the squire what he knew now: the fact that he and his wife lived all but separated and had done so for years, that there was only one daughter and that he spent many days, even weeks in his London flat. The girl was wrapped up in her studies and barely had time to see him. ‘He’s very lonely,’ Maurice concluded.
‘I understand,’ Alec said. ‘But don’t expect me to be nice to him or anything. When I was in his service before the war, I was the doormat he could wipe his feet on. Scudder-do-this and Scudder-do-that. Young Mrs. Durham was grand, though. She would always smile at me and the other servants and she would often leave dishes of scones or crumpets in the kitchen for us…She must have chucked him for a reason. I don’t blame her. Your Clive Durham Squire Snot can rot in Hell for all I care.’
He took another cigarette from Maurice’s case without asking first, got up and walked to the jetty. There he turned around and looked at his lover with piercing eyes. ‘And of course no law forces me to smile and go about my work like nothing bloody happened – you and him. He kicked you off the estate as far as I can remember.’
‘You and I kicked ourselves out,’ Maurice said patiently. ‘And it was all for the best. There were enough rumours after we left and Mr. Durham could not prevent them. He never told on us. He wishes you all the best and he said more than once that you were a good gamekeeper. He means no harm.’
‘Still no reason for you to drag him to bed in bloody France,’ Alec growled, spitting on the ground. ‘But I suppose it’s only natural. Two gentlemen with too much time and money and booze on their hands getting bored out of their bollocks under the palm trees…I could have my pick of young farm workers here, because more than one of them is like us. And still I won’t. I have my standards, you know.’
‘So have I,’ Maurice said calmly. ‘And that’s why I have seen to it that you would never want for anything ever since you came to live here. I even bought you a cottage.’
‘Yeah, that’s nice,’ Alec agreed. ‘Except that the roof is leaking and that there’s no power and that I have to draw water from a well. But apart from that, it’s grand. It’s just very sad that my servants are lazy and that I can barely stand on my feet after a round of golf or croquet or a drive in my exquisite motor car.’
Maurice’s laughter rang across the pond. ‘I say, dear, you’re the best.’
‘Don’t ‘dear’ me,’ Alec hissed. ‘I’m clearing out before the wave of shite from London hits this place. I’m going to Watford by train tomorrow to see my sister and I expect you to pay for the return ticket. Second class. I’m not greedy, so I would never take first, but I’m too much of a respectable man to settle for third. You can afford it, you have a business in Silvertown. We can meet again at Christmas and have a pint in a pub in London, but that will be all.’
Maurice took off his glasses, polished them with a handkerchief and put them back on. ‘It’s no trouble at all,’ he smiled. ‘I’ll drive you to the station tomorrow and I’ll get you a first-class ticket, and enough money to have meals on the way and to buy gifts for your sister and her family…And if you should like to visit London in my absence, you’re always welcome to stay in my flat. You’ve still got the key, haven’t you? You can order up meals and have them charged to my account. Or you can use my kitchen. Just don’t blow up the gas range, that’s all I ask of you.’
Alec was shivering now. His eyes were blurred with tears. ‘Damn you, Maurice…’ Then his face turned into a stern mask. ‘Or rather…Fuck you, Maurice…You’ll be doing that from now on, because Alec Scudder won’t be at your service anymore. Nor will Clive Rotten Durham. I’m going to see him and then I’ll tell on him. He’ll like that, and so will all of Wiltshire.’
‘I see,’ Maurice said earnestly. ‘Then I shall give you enough money to travel to the estate and to stay at a boarding house in the village. I’ll even pay for new clothes. You have to look the bit when you go for an interview with the squire. You’ll be a great success, my dear.’
‘Forget it,’ Alec snapped. Then he walked along the shore to a track that led away from the pond and disappeared in the woods.
The sun was setting over the treetops. There were no sounds but for the rustling of the leaves, the whirring of gnats and the distant wailing of a train whistle.
They were on the blanket, wearing overcoats and scarves now, sipping whisky.
‘That was brilliant,’ Alec said. ‘Imagine me doing all those things…I would never want to hurt anybody, but the whole idea is good for a film or a book. People would love it and you and I would be rolling in money from the royalties.’
‘Oh yes,’ Maurice giggled. ‘I believe we’ve got a solid plan now. Great minds think alike.’
They toasted and kissed. An owl hooted. A small creature dashed from one clump of bushes to the other.
‘A weasel,’ Alec said. ‘It’s always around. I sometimes feed it bits from my brawn sandwiches. I can never find it in my heart to trap the little bugger, even though I ought to. It’s part of a mob that robs the eggs on Lord Benton’s estate.’
They laughed. Then there was some silence as they kissed slowly and languidly. ‘Let’s go to bed,’ Maurice whispered. ‘We shall continue our lessons. I wrote to you how the squire learned me a thing or two about lovemaking. You really enjoyed it last night, didn’t you?’
Alec drew Maurice closer to him. His cheeks were flushed with whisky and bliss. ‘Oh yes, I adore it,’ he murmured. ‘But isn’t Lord Brenton expecting you back for a night cap?’
‘He knows I’m staying elsewhere again tonight,’ Maurice said. ‘He doesn’t mind. He’s a really nice squire, isn’t he?’
The mists on the pond were slowly lifting. They were in the water, wearing no swimming trunks, bobbing and occasionally going under to see what was happening. Alec held on to Maurice, relaxed in his arms, with their cheeks touching.
‘We needed a wash anyway,’ Maurice then said. ‘We were covered in stains when we woke up…But last night was delicious…I love you, Alec.’
They floated on, trying to catch dragonflies or feeling fish dart past their legs. The sun grew warmer. Alec dozed off against Maurice’s chest. He woke with a start when he felt muscles tighten. ‘I say, that’s a surprise,’ Maurice said. ‘Alec…Alec! Come back! Have you gone mad?’
But Alec was already crawling towards the far side of the pond where a clump of accessible rocks led directly into the woods. ‘Come back!’ Maurice yelled.
Alec turned around, started treading water and looked at the man standing on the jetty, dressed in a hunting jacket, flannel trousers and a cap, wearing glasses and carrying a leather bag and a picknick basket.
‘Well, you’re early,’ Maurice said to the stranger. ‘But it’s lovely to see you.’
‘Hullo, Maurice, old chap,’ the squire said. Then he looked across the pond and his eyes caught Alec’s.
‘Scudder, my good man, how are you?' he called out. 'Please come back so that you and I can shake hands.’
I am aware that there's probably no snow on the Glen Coe mountains in September, but exceptions are always possible.
Chapter 20: Autumn
A blissful day at the pond.
I'm deeply sorry, this is the last chapter, but rest assured that I'll write more Maurice fics yet!
Alec swam back to the jetty and stopped at a fair distance, but close enough to be heard. ‘Good morning, sir,’ he said. ‘It’s good to see you. Did you have a pleasant journey?’
‘I’m sorry, Clive, but neither Alec or I are decent,’ Maurice said matter-of-factly. He was bobbing next to Alec now.
The squire squatted down. ‘I don’t mind,’ he smiled. ‘You don’t need to get out if you don’t want to. Good heavens, Scudder, it’s been twenty-five years since you quit my service. And look at you now…You’re thriving in the Highland air.’ ‘Thank you, sir,’ Alec mumbled.
The squire pointed to the patch of sand behind him. ‘I brought some drinks and refreshments. Please join me for breakfast later. Take your time.’
Maurice laughed. ‘Don’t tell me you drove all night to get here. The roads in this district are hell in the dark.’ The squire then explained that he had arrived at Brenton’s estate late in the evening. The charming hostess had told him that Maurice would spend the night elsewhere. ‘I would have loved to have a nightcap with you before the fireplace,’ he said. ‘But I understood. I spent the night in a lovely guest room and I set out before breakfast. The map you drew me in London was very accurate. I found Scudder’s cottage and the car park outside the woods and this place just now…A paradise indeed. No one ever comes here, I suppose…I say, it’s getting a bit stuffy.’
The sun was warmer now, reflected in a million shards on the waves of the pond. He got up and took off his jacket. Then his boots. His waistcoat. His shirt. He wore no singlet under it. His trousers. His socks. He put his glasses on the picknick basket. Then he stepped out of his drawers.
‘Sir, perhaps…’ Alec stammered. ‘It’s all right,’ Maurice whispered.
A man with neatly combed walnut-brown hair and a lean, matte-ivory-tinted body and pale-pink nipples was now standing on the edge of the jetty. ‘Be careful, Clive,’ Maurice said. ‘It’s perhaps only two yards deep and they never dredge here.’
The man caught the sunlight with his body, bending over backwards, holding his arms over his head, fingers locked, eyes closed. Then he dived in, cautiously and noiselessly.
He came up for air a few yards away from the jetty, his hair plastered to his forehead, and crawled towards Maurice and Alec. He shook hands with his former gamekeeper and gave him a look with a pair of crystal-blue eyes. Then he drifted into Maurice’s arms. They kissed and whispered.
‘Sir, perhaps…’ Alec stammered. Clive looked at him again. ‘Oh please, give over with your ‘sir’,’ he laughed. ‘Do call me Clive. I shall call you Alec. We’re equal and times have changed.’
‘Alec never liked his first name,’ Maurice said. ‘But I love it. It’s music to my ears. His parents used to call him Licky, but that would be too childish.’
Mr. Durham chortled. ‘Very well. Then I shall call you Scuddie. A nice wee Scottish name. Yer forty-seven and nae longer a Wiltshire lad...Come to me, won’t you give your old master a hug?’
Alec swam to him and stopped when he felt the other man’s arms around him. ‘Hold on to me,’ Mr. Durham whispered. ‘Maurice told me you’re a good swimmer, but you might feel safer with me for a buoy.’
Alec looked into the crystal-blue eyes that bore happiness and a trace of pain. ‘May I ask, sir,’ he began hesitantly. ‘How is Mrs. Durham, and how is Miss Durham?’ ‘My name is Clive, dear,’ the other man said. ‘Mrs. Durham is well. She’s currently staying with her parents in Turnbridge Wells. My daughter is well, too…She returned from an internship at a hospital in Milan two weeks ago. Would you believe it – she drove all the way there. And on her way back, she had a puncture on the Simplon Pass. She stood in the snow by the side of the road for hours, with only a cardigan and a macintosh over her dress to keep her warm, until someone turned up who could change the tire…So brave...remarkable, isn’t it?’
Alec looked at Maurice, who merely smiled and gave him something that must be a wink.
‘It certainly is,’ Alec said. ‘You must be very proud of her.’
Clive lovingly brushed a stray curl from Alec’s brow. ‘Your hair is getting grey,’ he whispered. ‘No, it’s more like silver. You look stunning.’
The rays of the sun were burning now. Alec counted the droplets on Clive’s shoulders. Then he ran his fingers over a pink patch that was stretched over a collarbone. ‘What’s that?’ he asked.
‘Gunshot wound,’ Clive answered. ‘Cambrai, 1916.’
Now Alec softly kissed the spot. Clive drew him closer to him and folded his legs around him.
A little later, Alec felt Maurice’s warm body against his back. He relaxed and the two other men sensed it and held him. The trees rustled softly, a very distant train whistle howled, a V-shaped flock of geese sailed through the air. They were starting their trek for the south very early, a sure sign that winter would be harsh. Alec shivered. ‘Let’s get out before we shrivel up,’ Maurice said sweetly and hoarsely, his voice sounding like thunder in the silence.
They were on the tartan plaid, naked, with the picknick basket in front of them. Clive and Alec were sharing a mug of tea and a cigarette. Maurice was lying on his back, dozing.
‘You’re beautiful, Alec,’ Clive said. ‘And so resilient. Roughing it in the woods, so to speak. But I can tell you’re happy.’ ‘I am,’ Alec smiled. ‘Whenever that one over there is around, I feel like a king. He’s grand.’
‘I agree,’ Clive said. ‘I never got to tell him so until it was almost too late. But I did.’
Alec gave him a look, from his face down to his waist.
‘You still don’t trust me, do you?’ Clive muttered.
Alec grinned now. ‘I do, Clive, never you worry. Why else would the three of us sit here stark naked while there’s a good chance that the local deputy of the Forestry Department will see us?’
Clive burst into delicious peals of laughter. Maurice woke up. ‘What’s the matter?’ he groaned. ‘Any more tea going? I’m thirsty.’
They filled the mug and shared it, rubbing shoulders and whispering and warming up in the sunlight.
There was lemonade after that. Maurice took sips and alternately fed Alec and Clive from his mouth.
They chortled and coughed.
Around noon, they lined up on the jetty and pissed in the water. Then they washed their hands and returned to the plaid. Alec wriggled until he was lying against Clive’s chest, his back and buttocks covered by Maurice’s heavy body. They dozed until hunger woke them at two.
After they put on their drawers, they laid out all their treasures on the blanket. Alec had hard-boiled eggs from his own hens and some apples. Clive contributed slices of cured ham from a butcher in Kensington and lemon marmalade. Maurice took a loaf of bread, tomatoes and some tins of olives and a box of Turkish delight from his hunting bag. They agreed that this meal was better than those at any snotty restaurant near Grosvenor Square.
When all was cleared away, the sun disappeared behind a veil of clouds. They put on their shirts and huddled together. Plans were made.
‘We’re in for another war,’ Clive said. ‘And since our nation will never condone Hitler taking even one inch of land that belongs to others, we will be facing terror again.’
‘With more modern warfare than in 1914,’ Maurice added. ‘Holland and Belgium are easy to conquer. They’ll reach the Channel before we know…Alec will be quite safe here, but I’ve got a business in London I can’t leave. And the enemy will attack port cities first…If the threat grows worse, Clive, please, return to your estate. You’ll come to no harm there. Take Anne and Josie with you.’
‘Josie won’t want to leave London,’ Clive said sadly. ‘She lives for her studies only. I’ve tried to telephone her in the evenings over the past few days, but only her cousins answered. She must be amusing herself. I don’t want to take that away from her, she works hard and she deserves some distraction.’
He mused, lit a cigarette and stared at the pond. ‘But still,’ he went on, ‘we ought to remain together, no matter what…I’ll talk to Anne and Josie yet, but since the two of you are here with me now, I am telling you this: please feel very welcome to seek shelter on my estate. My door is always open.’
Maurice embraced Clive behind Alec’s back. ‘Thank you, my love, thank you very much.’
Alec drank the last of the lemonade and turned around. ‘Will the two of you have tea at my cottage tonight?’ he asked. ‘Early, of course, you can’t drive back to Brenton’s manor in the dark.’
Clive ran his fingers through Alec’s hair and kissed him. ‘That sounds lovely. We should be together whenever your work schedule and Maurice’s and my hunting duties allow it…This is the only place where we can be completely secluded from the world, and we deserve it.’
Maurice got up, rummaged through his hunting bag and then triumphantly held up a bottle.
‘Whisky, my dear men…’ he said with sparkling eyes. ‘Let’s drink while we still can…Let’s drink to peace, and to happiness, and to love.’