Authors: Marion Husband
Published by Accent Press Ltd â 2012
Copyright Â© Marion Husband 2012
The right of Marion Husband to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
The story contained within this book is a work of fiction. Names and characters are the product of the author's imagination and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, electrostatic, magnetic tape, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the written permission of the publishers: Accent Press Ltd, The Old School, Upper High St, Bedlinog Mid-Glamorgan, CF46 6RY
Cover design by Sarah Ann Davies
|Chapter Twenty One|
|Chapter Twenty Two|
|Chapter Twenty Three|
|Chapter Twenty Four|
|Chapter Twenty Five|
|Chapter Twenty Six|
|Chapter Twenty Seven|
|Chapter Twenty Eight|
|Chapter Twenty Nine|
|Chapter Thirty One|
|Chapter Thirty Two|
Also by Marion Husband
All the Beauty of the Sun
O, how this spring of love resembleth
The uncertain glory of an April day,
Which now shows all the beauty of the sun,
And by and by a cloud takes all away.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona
Act 1, Scene 3
In the pub this evening, a man died. I knew him, a little; he was a man I didn't care for, a braggart; I think he would sometimes beat his wife. Now he is dead, dropped to the pub's bare boards, his beer spilt around him. The other drinkers said that it was a good way to go â the very best way, in fact â fast: one moment happy â content, at least â the next quite dead and gone. Fred, the landlord, asked me to say something over the corpse, and I obliged; just a few words â you could probably recite something like them yourself â such words we have all invented.
Why should I start a letter to you like this? I imagine you reading these lines in your sunny courtyard by the fountain you told me about, but transported by my words to dull, cold England, to a backstreet in London, to a public house where only old men drink. You will kneel beside me, beside the old man's dead body, and catch my eye as I finish my made-up blessing; you will smile that smile you use when you remember how sad and ridiculous the world is, that look in your eye like a lifeline you throw me when I'm drowning. Later, we would walk back to my rooms, we would drink each other's health and not talk of anything at all, not death, not drowning, not even simply getting on with life. You would only tell me about Tangiers, the fountain where the sparrows bathe and the orange tree you inexpertly tend. You would tell me a joke, the one about the corporal and the can-can girl, or the one about the priest who stopped being a priest but couldn't stop
How is dear Patrick? How is your work? The painting of the little Arab boy you sent me hangs above my fireplace but it occurred to me that it should have a much wider audience. I have heard of a man who is about to open an art gallery. His name is Lawrence Hawker â should I show him the portrait? Would you come back to England to exhibit your work? You would be the toast of the London art world, I am sure, and how proud I would be to introduce you as my friend. There is also someone I would very much like you to meet; her name is Ann and she is young and very lovely â perhaps much too young and lovely for me, but all the same, all the same, she is kind and bright and lively and she makes me feel as if I have woken up from a fitful sleep into a sunny day. There now; I am becoming poetical, a sign of something, perhaps.
I know you may not want to come home to England, I know there are difficulties, but I do so feel that your work
to be seen here. You write that you are continuing to work on the soldier portraits â I'm sorry, I don't know what else to call them â the war pictures? â and perhaps an exhibition of these would be timely; there are memorials being built to the dead, but they are so clean and tidy, so stone cold. What else can we do to honour our lost friends?
It goes without writing that it would be wonderful to see you â and Patrick â again. You will write that I should travel to Morocco to see you, that I should be brave,
goodbye Piccadilly, farewell Leicester Square
and all that. I have a small store of bravery I am saving for a rainy day and perhaps when that day comes I shall pack up and head for your sunny shore. But in the meantime, do consider sending your pictures to this Hawker fellow. Cause a stir;
them sit up and take notice.
With all my very best wishes to you and of course to Patrick,
Soho, London, May 1925
hair, Edmund had the idea that he should ask her how he compared with the other men she slept with. Did she like him more? Was he in some way better or worse? Clumsier perhaps? Or more tender, energetic, desirable? He wondered if he really, truly wanted to know, because of course, no one asked such questions, no one with any pride, or any sense at all of conviction. Lawrence Hawker, for example, would never be so crass. Hawker was older, a careless, sophisticated man, someone who, in Edmund's heart of hearts, he thought of as one of the grown-ups.
Edmund knew he should, conventionally, be jealous of his rival; but jealousy would make him unconventional within their tight little circle. Besides, Hawker and he weren't rivals: Ann slept with them both, and he suspected that Hawker cared even less about this than he did. All the same, Edmund would like to know if she cared more or less about him. He supposed he wanted to know that at least. At least he would like to know that he made some impression, some
Lying on his back in her bed, his hands clasped beneath his head, the sheet crumpled beneath his body, he laughed because there was something absurd in all this that he hadn't realised until now; he had been taking promiscuity seriously when perhaps he should have thought of it as a parlour game:
bed-hopping â the winner the first to finish with his pride intact.
Ann turned from the mirror above the fireplace to frown at him, hairbrush poised mid-stroke. Blonde hairs curled from the bristles, bright in the lamplight. She was naked and her skin was pale and quite perfect, wondrously so. No wonder Joseph Day wanted to paint her so often; they all did, but it was only Day who was skilled enough, whose finished results Ann decided were worth the uncomfortable, boring hours of modelling.
Turning back to the mirror she asked, âWhat are you laughing at?'
He wondered how she might react to his questions,
Who do you prefer, Lawrence Hawker or me? Which of us thrills you most?
He might ask if she had slept with his friend Andrew, too â although he suspected Andrew was queer. He thought of Andrew, decided it would be best not to think about him, not now, but when he was alone, perhaps. For now he imagined asking her,
Am I different in any way?
She would laugh; he imagined she would say, âSilly boy!' But all the same, the thought of differences could not be unthought; he knew that he would return to these differences, worry them over and over; he knew that this worrying could overwhelm him.
The bedcovers were in deep folds at his groin and he pulled them up to his chin, cold suddenly. Her scent lingered on the sheet, warm and touching like cheap violet sweets; earlier he had noticed a blood stain on the side where she slept and had been reassured even as a part of him wanted her to be pregnant, that part that was irrational and boorish and as desperate to be confirmed as virile as any man who had ever lived. But that part of him seemed particularly unconvincing, an under-rehearsed act he was performing for a knowing, critical audience. Besides, paternity couldn't be assured, of course; also there was the used johnnie flaccid on the floor beside the bed; he was always very careful, very afraid of disease. âVD kills in a particularly nasty way,' his father had told him, and he should know, the great doctor having witnessed such deaths. Edmund remembered the rest of this lecture from his father as particularly oblique, even by his father's standard, how he had talked about how he must be sure of himself and not go rushing at windmills. He had been sixteen at the time, his virginity still shaming. Perhaps his father had sensed this shame, although he didn't like to think so.
Ann picked up her knickers from the floor and began to dress. Her room was on the second floor above a pawn shop and was just big enough for the bed and a chest of drawers and a chair strewn with her clothes. A midnight-blue party dress hung from the picture rail beside a pale lemon blouse with a pussy-cat bow and jagged sweat marks under the arms. Face powder dusted the chest of drawers, where an unscrewed lipstick lay beside the crumbling square of mascara he had seen her spit into to moisten the blackness for the spiky brush. A crumbed plate and tea-stained cup, an empty milk bottle and an ashtray were lined up on the windowsill. Her shoes were everywhere: separated, upside down, small hazards of pointed heels and trailing laces. A stocking dangled limply from the bedstead, still holding the shape of her leg and foot, the toe stiffening a little; as she sat on the bed to roll up its pair she said, âGet dressed or we'll be late. I don't want to be late for Lawrence.'
âNo, of course you don't.'
She glanced at him, perhaps suspecting his jealousy, if indeed he
jealous. She looked away again, paying attention to her suspenders. âI promised Lawrence I wouldn't be late â this is an important night for the gallery.'
âWhatever time we turn up, we'll be first. I'll be surprised if the others even bother.'
âAndrew's going â he's told everyone they should see this artist's pictures.'
He snorted: how like Andrew to be so impressionable; he had his fancies, his enthusiasms that he would quickly forget. Next week there would be someone else to rave about. The thought of Andrew's excited gushing made him close his eyes in despair.
Ann patted his leg beneath the sheet. âCome on. Don't look so glum. You laugh for no reason and then you look glum like this,' â she pulled a face.
She stood up and returned to the mirror to pin up her hair, humming tunelessly under her breath. Occasionally she sang snatches from a repertoire of music-hall songs â songs that even he, sheltered middle-class boy that he was, recognised as full of double entendre.
he thought, as he often did. The kind of girl he couldn't take home to his mother, the kind of girl a man practised on â as if anyone needed to practise. Perhaps he did. Perhaps the more he practised the more he would straighten himself out. He was using her â the thought had occurred to him before, of course. But didn't everyone use everyone? Agitated, he tossed aside the bed covers and gathered his clothes. Ann went to the window and drew the curtains. The clock on her mantelpiece chimed the hour; the coals on her fire shifted and caved in. Outside a drunk warbled a song he was sure Ann would know. Edmund pulled on his trousers and tucked in his shirt; he buttoned his flies and fastened his collar and noticed a stain on his frayed cuff. He found his tie draped in a pleasingly louche manner on the end of the bed and put it on. Ann straightened the knot, standing back to regard him quizzically.
âDon't be sad,' she said.
She put on her coat, handed him his, held out his scarf, all the while watching him as though she was nursery nurse to his wayward child. Ready, she unlocked the door and stepped out into the dank, dark little passageway, preceding him down the steep flight of stairs.
He was sad, despite his protestation. Yet he knew thYet here was no reason for his sadness. Until the idea he'd had about questioning Ann over how he compared with Lawrence Hawker, he'd been fine, but a feeling of melancholy had crept over him, a feeling he knew had been lying in wait for him for a little time now, only foiled by drink and sex. In the King's Head last night he, Andrew and Day had drunk until Susie would no longer serve them, and then they had staggered to Andrew's rooms and seen off a bottle of port. Port, for Christ's sake, inducing the most savage hangover he'd had for a while. That morning, as he and Barnes had opened the bookshop where he worked, Barnes had wrinkled his nose. âYou smell like my old Aunt Florrie on Christmas night.' Stepping closer he made a show of sniffing him. âYou should wash more, nice boy like you, frequent a decent barber.'
He had instinctively rubbed his chin; it wouldn't have been the first time he'd forgotten to shave. Barnes pulled up the blinds on the front windows and Edmund had stepped back from the sunlight, wincing. âBitten by the vampire, were we?' Barnes had said; then in his ordinarily weary voice added, âGo and make the tea. There are some aspirin behind the caddy.'
Walking along Percy Street, Ann's arm through his, Edmund thought that perhaps sad was not the word for his mood; rather he was disappointed; rather he had walked into a brick wall behind which lay all his hopes and ambitions, everything he had once fondly hoped he would be. If he stepped back and jumped as high as he could, he could just about see over this wall, catch tantalizing glimpses of a life he might lead if only he wasn't so damnably lazy, if only he gave up his job at the bookshop and got down to some serious work.
Serious work. This was his father's expression, the two words always shackled together like prisoners on a chain gang. Serious work was cutting open bodies, delving about in their insides, stitching them back up restored, more often than not. Serious work was not painting, not unless he was deathly intense about it, prepared to work and work and work and still get nowhere, never catching up with the little talent he supposed he had. Seriously, he should paint and do nothing else, caught up in a maniacal mindfulness, not eating, not sleeping, fractured from the ordinary, a transcendental life.
Such seriousness seemed preposterous to him. Slowly Edmund had come to realise that he was possessed of a clerk's self-conscious heart. There were times when he could even bring himself to feel content working in the bookshop, the slow hours ticking by in steady, companionable quiet. He liked the smell of the books, particularly the old, next-to-worthless ones, those they left out in boxes on the pavement in front of the window, their spines fading without the protection of lost dust jackets. He liked the pathos of those books and their forgotten authors, those many who had tried and not quite failed; he knew he couldn't work in an art gallery, where that same, soft feeling would be unbearable.
Like it or not, however, he couldn't entirely escape into the bookshop and pretend he had never had an ambition. He knew those who did work and work and didn't give up in a fit of horrible self-awareness and pique: Andrew, who had actually sold some of his seascapes; he knew, in a way, Day, who would probably be famous some day, if he didn't kill himself first. And of course, he knew Ann, their muse. He was surprised when she decided she would like to go to bed with him, but her enthusiasm for his body did help to relieve the depleting ennui that lately he couldn't shake off, even if afterwards he was pestered by questions and doubts.
He was aware of Ann's arm through his, her warm, vital closeness. She walked quickly, easily matching his pace, although she was so much shorter. She'd once laughed, âDon't I look like the scullery maid out with the young master?' He was six foot three inches and broad shouldered. As blond as her, he looked younger than his years, and as she was older than he was, he knew that she didn't take him seriously. There, that word again. Andrew, Day, and all his other friends were serious. He was not.
They turned into a street where once-grand houses had been converted into flats: the cold, damp basements for the poorest; the larger, drafty rooms with their cracked window panes and bare, creaking floorboards for those who were a little less desperate. When he had first left home, he had lived on this street, in a room he thought must have been the maid's in better times: cramped beneath its sloping ceiling it was certainly like the maids' rooms in his parents' house. His window had looked out over rooftops; if he craned his neck, he could see the dome of St Paul's. Through the gaps in the floorboards he could eavesdrop on his downstairs neighbours â Russian Jews, whose exoticness made him feel as though he had arrived at a place even further away from home than they were.
As they passed his old flat, and he looked up at the attic window to see if there was a light, Ann squeezed his arm. âThis artist â Lawrence said his work is all about the war.'
There was no light; he imagined that the attic room â where he had once, with such hope and enthusiasm, painted the rain-darkened view of roofs â was unoccupied, settling even further into disrepair. There would be dead flies on the sills, the undisturbed dust no longer agitating in the deep shaft of light that fell at noon across the sagging bed. There would be a stronger smell of damp, more evidence of mice and a colder draught beneath the door. Perhaps he could go back there, start again as if the last year had never even begun; as if he was still that enthusiastic boy, the money his father had given him for this
miraculously unspent, his naivety still happily in place.
As if he could be that time traveller, he promised himself he would work; he would put his weight behind breaking the stubbornly unyielding shell of his talent. But he remembered that the money was spent; he remembered the bookshop, its easy cosiness; he thought about his new room, its tidiness because he had realised he couldn't pretend to be a man who didn't care about a certain level of comfort and order; he recalled how cold and lonely, how
of him, that first little flat had been.
Cautiously Ann persisted, âThis artist. His name is Paul Harris â he fought during the war, Lawrence told me. That's what he paints â the war. Battle scenes. Dead soldiers.'
He glanced down at her, her head at the level of his heart, her face turned up to his, her cheeks pink from the cold. In a certain light she could look very young, younger than he was. He would paint her like this; recreate these exact circumstances â close to her, looking down at her as she looked up at him â to capture her vulnerability, her occasional, surprising shyness of him. The portrait would catch only a moment of truthfulness, such a fleeting moment it would hardly be true at all. He put his arms around her, pulling her close so that he wouldn't have to see how anxious she looked.
âI heard the paintings were controversial.'