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Authors: Nigel Dennis

Cards of Identity

BOOK: Cards of Identity
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NIGEL DENNIS

CARDS OF IDENTITY

To
THE OLIVERS OF NORRIS WOOD
with thanks and gratitude

‘W
ILL
you be back for lunch?’ asked Miss Paradise, clipping each word like a bean. ‘I am not going to walk miles in fog to get you sausages, to find you have preferred sandwiches in a pub.’

Her brother began slowly to drum his fingers on the breakfast table and stare out of the window, evading the question by seeming to be groping for an answer to it. But as he had been doing this every morning for a week his sister became impatient at once. She repeated her question, as he had feared, in a form which showed that she had not intended it to be answered at face value in the first place. ‘Do you know what you are going to do now?’ she asked, clipping her words more than ever. ‘Have you any plans at all? You knew Sir Malcolm was going. Did you, in advance, think of someone to take his place? Have you tried Admiral Blair at Wickington? They say he’s a great rider. What about the new people at Little Hall? Don’t the girls want ponies? Don’t you keep up with the times? Every fishmonger’s daughter is a horsewoman. Perhaps you have lost your go. Having Sir Malcolm so steadily all through the war has robbed you of go. I spoke of your sausages; it was your character I meant. And by your character, I mean the bills. They are straining my nerves. Another bill and I shall snap.’

He looked at his pepper-and-salt jacket, his cord breeches, his leggings, and felt that he might never have bothered to put them on, so naked was his sister making him. But he again played for time, looked out of the window, and answered lightly: ‘As a matter of fact, I’ve not got a horse I can lay my hands on at the moment.’

His sister looked very angry. He knew as well as she did the law of question-and-answer – that it is dangerous to turn the first question, fatal to turn the second. Mr Paradise, hoping desperately to evade this law, tried to save himself by reverting to the question in its first form and saying: ‘Forget the sausages, my dear. It’s hard to get good ones, anyway.’

This made her much angrier. While he peered miserably out into the fog, she dug deeper. ‘There was a time when you were
younger
and had more
spirit,
when you got the rich person
first
and the horse
second.
Often you found that the friendship could be made and kept without the help of a horse. Did Mr Truter, your bosom friend, have a horse? No. He had a Rolls. Did old Miss Mallet ride? Only in a bath-chair. But you wheeled her in it. Have you become a coward? Or will you get on your bicycle this very morning and broach the admiral?’

‘Really, dear,’ he said, ‘you talk as if it were my nature to be a kind of parasite.’

This shocking word caused Miss Paradise to burst into tears. ‘I hardly know you any more,’ she cried. ‘I ask myself: who are you? Are you my brother? Or have
I
changed into someone quite different? Something has happened to one of us, and I’m sure it’s you. Why, there’s nothing to recognize you by any more! Everything about you seems to belong to another person. It’s like living with a stranger.’

He was badly frightened by these remarks, which cast doubt on his very existence. To make certain that he was all there, he gave his knee a sharp pinch and let out a hacking cough.

His sister’s sobs were unaffected by this, but the fog responded immediately. It flew right out of the garden of the little lodge, split in two to reveal, a hundred yards away, a huge oak in the centre of the park, and finally, with a flourish, uncovered the middle of the roof and front of the mansion of Hyde’s Mortimer itself.

‘Nobody has any money any more,’ sobbed Miss Paradise, ‘or so they say. Then why is it that every tinker is a steel master, every bricklayer an architect, every taxidriver a garage king? Why do I feel that the very air is reeking with money and that we are the only ones who don’t seem able to grasp it?’

Her brother gave a roar and jumped from his chair.
‘It’s
the
breakfast-
room!’
he cried. ‘What the devil can that mean?’

The strong, eager tone of his voice – so familiar, so
like
him – brought Miss Paradise to her feet with a bound. Her wet eyes, following the trembling pointer of his finger, saw that though fog still lay over the wings of Hyde Mortimer, the central clump of tall chimneys was in evidence and that from it, cutting a tunnel into the sky, rose a splendid pillar of white smoke.

‘Nine o’clock,’ said Mr Paradise, looking at his watch (a farewell present from Sir Malcolm when he took the remains of his capital to Australia). ‘Why, that was breakfast-time in old Miss Mallet’s day!’

‘But that was twenty years ago,’ said Miss Paradise. ‘Are you sure it’s the breakfast-room?’

‘My dear,’ he replied, drawing himself up haughtily, the better to enjoy revenge; ‘I may be frail on bills and horses, but credit me with knowing every major chimney within twenty square miles…. No smoke, I note, from the drawing-room. Perhaps he is not married.’

‘That would be useful.’

‘Or else the wife is an outdoor type…. Alas! fog still hangs over the nursery.’

‘A widower, perhaps.’

‘Don’t build castles in the air. I have often heard of widowers; I have never met one.’

‘That’s what Mr Truter said of blue-eyed poets.’

He opened a drawer and took out an old-fashioned pair of binoculars: he had chosen them when asked by the widow of one of his patrons what he would like ‘to remember him by’: the choice had not been large. Grasping an extensive wheel between the lenses he wound away until the apparatus thrust forward like twin cannon. His sister having opened the lattice window, he held the monster steadily to his eyes while the little room filled with wet March air and heavy breathing. Miss Paradise took position behind her brother and did her best, as she peered over his shoulder, to check the pictorial envy that the user of binoculars provokes in those who have but eyes. Hopefully, she magnified her vision to match his: she saw the tight, pitted, mortared texture of the red-brick façade, the sparrow perched on the fold of roof-lead, even the python line of a bell-rope glimpsed at the edge of a tall window-frame. Then, in a burst of hallucination, she created the perfect image in her mind’s eye and set by the breakfast-room window a fine old gentleman of the old school, plastered with shining decorations (he was going to a levee) but glowing still more with the generous dignity, the matchless dawn-colour, with which a large bank balance suffuses the complexion. In her heart she gave little cries, in tones that matched the hues she had conjured up: ‘a little tucked away’, ‘a nest-egg’, ‘something for a rainy day’. Aloud, she cried impatiently: ‘Well? Can’t you see
anything?’

Her brother, bound closer to reality by his use of a machine, replied carefully: ‘The maids’ rooms appear to be empty. But the blind is up in the butler’s pantry. The Blue Room is definitely in use; someone
has left a towel right on the bed. The shutters are still nailed on most of the other windows, including the kitchen: it is all very odd, as if they were sure of a butler but had yet to find a cook. I wonder if it’s not some agent or auctioneer temporarily camping.’

‘You must go and find out, mustn’t you?’

‘Of course. It might be somebody who has absolutely no right.’

‘Exactly. Burglars on our doorstep.’

‘I shall say something to that effect if it turns out to be a real owner. That I dropped in because I know the old place so well and would hate to see it a den of thieves.’

‘How clearly you see things! Now, let me see
you
before you go.’

He stepped back with a tolerant smile, and she ran her eyes – quite dry now – over his small, neat face and brisk little moustache. Now that he was going into action they had exchanged roles: she was a fussy old lady again, pulling at a corner of his coat, conning him for soup-stains, giving his sword and armour the last rub-up. He, for his part, had assumed the stance of a modest officer and gentleman; his sister noted with pride that even after a patronless twelvemonth his old clothes looked trim and clean; he was not the kind to respond to hardship with buckled trousers and slopped foods. He was really, after all, the good, dear, brave little brother with whom she had lived for thirty-five years, a man who had borne excruciating humiliations and always exacted a good profit from them. ‘Look what I’ve saved for you,’ she said with a burst of tenderness, producing a Woodbine from a cupboard. ‘Light it up and have a good puff.’

He had to punish her for the doubts she had cast on his identity before the fog broke, but he did it gently and correctly. ‘Naturally, I can’t be sure about lunch,’ he began, blowing out a plume of smoke.

‘Of course you can’t. Your work must come first.’

‘And don’t indulge in hopes; that’s always a weakness of yours.’

‘I’m afraid it is. I’m a woman, I suppose.’

‘Often a man is most himself when he least appears to be.’

‘I tend to forget that.’

‘You yourself are not always the same person.’

‘One always imagines it’s the other who’s changed.’

Honours now being even, a pause followed to allow the new stability to take effect. Then Miss Paradise said: ‘Will you go on your bike? It always looks so clean and sets you off.’

‘I think I’ll walk. Then I can take my riding-crop. It never looks well across handlebars.’

‘Yes, yes. Foot and crop; very nice.’

She would have liked a parting hug from her knight, but of course he was too much a man for that. One of the many sad things about living with a man was that one had no wish to hug him when he was in flight and he had no wish to be hugged when he had faced about. She gave a large sigh.

‘So settle yourself comfortably until I return, my dear,’ he said with grace. ‘Worry and anxiety are a woman’s worst enemies. If I am not back by one o’clock …’

‘I shall know …’

‘I should think …’

He moved out into the garden, and Miss Paradise, after hesitating a moment, called after him: ‘You know, coal is high and the evenings still chilly. One quite small load of wood, just to start with …’

‘We’ll see, we’ll see,’ he called back.

*

He hoped he would not be rusty in today’s approach. How, he asked himself, had he broken the ice on entering his previous anchorages? What had he said? What had they replied? Mr Paradise had a perfect memory and as he now flashed over his first meetings with Sir Malcom, Theodore Truter, General Pugh, Sir Thorn Browne, and the rest, he recalled with interest that the first conversation in each case had been about
money
– how much the Government took and was wasting, how much was getting into the hands of the wrong people, how much it was to be desired but how small was its purchasing power, how spendthrift of it were countless people the speakers could name (this led to many harmonious anecdotes). But the point, above all, to be reckoned with in this first conversation was the near-penury of the patron himself. Mr Paradise would always remark, when poverty came up, that he, too, was pretty well penniless; but having thus shown, as it were, that his hands were clean, he would withdraw from any further competition, allowing the distressed magnate to assume the whole title and freehold of poverty and range into the most cruel details of his taxation and penury. The rich had a grudge against people who
claimed to be poorer than themselves: they were generous only to those whom they believed secretly to be doing very well. So, on reaching the first shrubberies of Hyde’s Mortimer, Mr Paradise had his notes well in order: (1) Am here to prevent theft. (2) Jest about worst thieves being in the Treasury nowadays. (3) Pleased surprise at seeing the old place in good hands again, a circumstance almost miraculous in view of Government’s desire to destroy rural this-and-that by taxes. (4) His love for, and intimate knowledge of, Hyde’s Mortimer. (5) A friendly warning that all the local shopkeepers, without exception, were swindlers.

He emerged on to the broad carriage sweep before the front entrance. Two pretty iron-railed flights of stone steps, very delicate in comparison with the grossness of the mansion, led to a small balustraded terrace on to which the door of the breakfast-room opened – or rather, had once opened, for no one in Mr Paradise’s memory had ever used this big door. For this reason, he was making his way to the side entrance when he heard voices and saw three figures standing on the terrace, looking out over the balustrade.

They were a middle-aged man, dressed in a purple dressing-gown whose knotted waistband fell in thick golden hanks almost down to his furred slippers; a handsome woman in a sable coat of which the collar, turned up all round her head, made a pretty frame for her white skin; a lounging youth, dressed elegantly but very lightly in comparison with the other two and braving the chilly air by leaning the fingers of one hand on the cold grey stone of the balustrade. A pale sun –
which presumably was what had brought them out – lit them as with a soft spotlight, throwing a sheen over the lady’s complexion and fur and lighting a small blaze on the gentleman’s golden tassels. The three of them were watching the fog’s efforts to resist the sun in the impersonal, detached way that aristocrats have when confronted by natural elements: Mr Paradise was impressed.

Suddenly the young man spoke, in a low, amused tone. ‘Father,’ he said, ‘I
think
the butler’s come.’

The older man appeared not to hear. Reaching into a deep pocket he produced a small object in fine leather, like a diary, turned a few pages in it, and announced in a deep, clear voice: ‘In ten days’ time it will be National Savings Week. Let’s celebrate with an orgy. Three thousand pounds of reckless fun.’

‘Beaufort is right, dear,’ said the lady, still staring into the writhing mist. ‘I have noticed him myself.’

Still the older man appeared to hear nothing. Raising his head, as one who is floating up into a dream, he said: ‘To me, such an orgy should have an air of profound
mystery
about it. It should represent a large sum of hard cash wreathed around with mists of ethereal unreality. There should be about it the sense of combined wizardry and substantialness that one feels on hearing the phrase “invisible exports” – an expression whose impressiveness is in no way lessened, but rather increased, by seeming to be a form of intangible profiteering performed entirely by ghosts.’

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