Archive for June, 2016

Queens by Pickles

QPAnyone who was ‘on the scene’ in the mid 1980s will recognise these (stereo)types, like the leather queen who carries a motorcycle helmet but travels by taxi to The Colerherne, the vicar who justifies visiting gay bars as being an opportunity for pastoral work.

One of our members said: I enjoyed Queens in a voyeuristic sort of way and as an historical record of an era. My memories of living in Lambeth predate the time Pickles was writing, being the early 1970s, when my haunts and hunting ground
centred on Kings Road and Vauxhall, but also included The Salisbury in St Martins Lane where much of Queens is based. Such a Grand gay meeting place for intellectual, theatre, church, opera, suited and booted Queens in those days, as well as working class lads and 6th Formers on a day trip to London. There was a wider spread of social and economic class than you could find anywhere else in London.
Members of Parliament, priests of all denominations and lawyers chatting with  builders and soldiers (always lots of soldiers) without any judgement or malice. We were all there for the same reason and it felt safe……but with just a hint of risk.

The descriptions of behaviour and language – high camp as much as Polari – are accurate and bring back wonderful memories. There was an excitement about crossing the threshold of the Salisbury – like emerging from the back of the Wardrobe into another world.
Queens is a surface description of a very special time, after the decriminalization of homosexuality and before AIDS.  The Law had changed, but public opinion was lagging behind. We were free, but still sought the Sanctuary of safe havens (or even Heaven).This book features a diary, some descriptions and some dramatisation of dialogues.

There’s Kevin from Leeds who dislikes London- having lived in Leeds I agree with him.

It was “lambasted by the gay press for its allegedly ‘negative’ portrayal of London’s gay community”. Part of the controversy was due to the depiction of characters in the novel. Many are lonely, bored or superficial. The author’s own interviews contributed to the controversy, both for his insistence that he needn’t present an affirmative picture of gay life in London and also for his unwillingness to publicly come out.

The novel has been described as “a funny, and kind of mean, taxonomy, of gay types in London in the Thatcher years.” Instead of names, the author often refers to characters by their position in gay life: Clone, Opera Queen, Northern Queen, Leather Queen, City Queen, Rent Boy, Insidious Queen. The author also accepts the names that gay men use for each other: Doris Mavis, Gloria.

As our member, above said: The reaction against the book came from the newly politicized wing of the Gay movement – the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE) who sought to paint a different public image of homosexuals.  CHE meetings were not meant to be about sex or finding a fuck; they were sometimes quite serious; a sort of WI for Puffs,   The agendas were about Campaigning and Politics, but there was also a fair smattering of exchanging knitting patterns and cooking recipes, CHE resented Pickles picture of homosexuality based 100% on sex,

Queens is an important social history; a Picture Post painting; an accurate record of a small centre of homosexual life in London at the time. In the rest of the country. there was no Salisbury and cottaging was the easiest way to meet and to pick up guys,
It does not matter that Pickles avoids any deep analysis or intellectual debate.
Enjoy it for what it is. I did.

However, not all ‘Opera queens’ are Tories – one of our former members was rabidly socialist. Mind you, he did claim that ‘Opera is the highest art form.’ (Elsewhere, the author wrote: Opera lovers are to opera what rioting football fans are to the Cup Final: an undesirable element. Almost all of them are boring to distraction, bourgeois vultures so utterly sedentary in their theatrical tastes that it is not surprising to hear their unconsidered applause acknowledging the most dreadful performances. An evening at the opera is still regarded as a special treat, something to do whether informed about it or not. Thus it is that the audience presents a bizarre conjunction of total ignorance and programmed knowledge: the young merchant bankers striving to impress some pale English virgin, as if Covent Garden were on the same circuit as Ascot and the fourth of June; old Tory crows, bejewelled as if it were an official reception or exclusive fascist function.)

It’s relentlessly ‘vinegary’, insidiously snide and I didn’t care much for ‘the plates’ – pictures.

Most of the pubs described have gone. Maybe there should be pink plaques.

Despite the many desperate people described, we get a happy ending. However, although Ben’s diaries started well we can predict that it will become depressing f his romance breaks up and he goes back on the scene.

Jonathan Black wrote: Stephen Pickles keeps on cropping up in my life. When I arrived in Oxford he was already a star. Out of all the scores of dandified young men milling around the Radcliffe Camera and the King’s Arms, trying to draw attention to themselves and to promote themselves as the new Brian Howard – model for Anthony Blanche, the flamboyant one in Brideshead Revisited – Pickles was IT. Very handsome in an Italian sort of way with a great leonine mane, he was decidedly glamorous and very famous – known always as just ‘Pickles’. His waspish witticisms were widely repeated and it was rumored that he’s already designed the sets for an opera in London. I hardly dared speak to him.

Years later we’d see each other in Soho. We shared a fascination for Soho and Fitzrovia bohemianism – Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud, Derek Jarman, Julian Mclaren-Ross – the model for Xavier Trapnel in Dance to the Music of Time – Dan Farson and Jeffrey and Bruce Bernard. Pickles was right at the centre of this – he had a flat above a delicatessen in Old Compton St and a regular seat at the right end of the bar in the Coach and Horses while I was the  boy from the provinces with his nose up against the window. – though I did get some kind of foothold when I became Farson’s publisher.

Pickles then published a book, a book of conversations overheard in pubs, called Queens. It showed an ear for dialogue like, say, Michael Frayn, Julian Mclaren-Ross or Alan Bennett. It’s a kind of masterpiece. (That’s a phrase Colin Wilson used of my own book. I don’t know if he meant to damn with faint praise, but that’s not what I mean – merely that Queens is unclassifiable. It’s not clear what kind of book it is at all.)

Georgia de Chamberet wrote: When I changed jobs, Pickles became my boss. He was a tough but inspirational teacher, and a perfectionist when it came to editing. ickles was divinely charming and witty — and fiercely protective of his privacy. His wickedly funny book, Queens, published in 1984 by Quartet, featured a photo of him on the cover as a wildly handsome young man. I remember a bleak period when Pickles lost friends to AIDS. Derek Jarman came to visit once or twice; he had incredibly clear, almost electric blue eyes, and was beautiful and gaunt like an effigy on a tomb. Pickles was a Soho man, and a regular at the Coach and Horses pub, immortalised in the play Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell.

QP2 Quotations:

 Young queens have a special affection for these visits, using the loo as a convenient meeting place where they can lisp and giggle while helping their friends with cosmetic advice. It is also the centre of operations for many queens, a place to review tactics and commiserate over failures. In the queen’s world the lavatory is no mere convenience: it is almost a shrine.

Queens have become so used to standing around that the shock of a verbal approach finds them with only one idea they can articulate — sex. Queens who want to talk have something wrong with them, and it is probably that they are attempting to give casual sex a little more significance.

 OPERA QUEEN. You like Wagner! What a surprise. I thought you’d prefer disco music, actually. From your appearance, that is. Appearances can be very deceiving though, can’t they?

Have you seen The Ring?

If he asks where the bike is, I’ll say it’s at the garage, or I had a bad smash-up!

Beer guts or pigeon chests — who would want to go to bed with that? What’s the point of being gay if you’re ugly?

At other times they linger beneath fluorescent light, thinking it makes them look tanned and glamorous — especially if they are wearing white. These areas are avoided by queens with dandruff. Otherwise they would have to endure remarks like ‘Is it snowing outside?’

Barmen are the most popular queens in Heaven, and their queenery knows no bounds. Like all people in a position to serve, they can choose to oblige or not, as the mood takes them. It is this aspect of the job which they relish. The slightest offence may be taken, whether it be at your waving a twenty-pound note, or informing him that you have been waiting ten minutes and the guy he is serving has just walked in. The fact that the lucky guy is some American porn star’s double explains but does not help matters. Nostrils flaring, your public servant will either make very heavy weather of slamming down a can of Colt, or simply never look in your direction again and go about his chores. These involve emptying ashtrays and wiping down the counter, neither of which is done too frequently, unless he likes domestic order. Some barmen are trained little housewives, some are not. But if their lacking efficiency does not commend them, which is quite unlikely since they all turn into efficiency queens, their looks cannot fail. Almost all the barmen are handsome, chunky or cute. It is a prerequisite, and accounts for some of their arrogance. If you are going to trap a few individuals behind a bar knowing that everybody is going to have to look at them at least once in a night, it shows impeccable taste and good business sense to employ attractive men and boys. Given the amount of attention they receive, it is hardly surprising that it goes to their heads, along with the power they wield. Most of them would gladly wear T-shirts bearing the slogan: ‘If I’m not perfect, throw me away’ — some with more justification than others.

I wish Sam or somebody would turn up. Heaven’s such hell when there’s no one to talk to.

KATE. They’re foreigners, from America. Here to see the sights.
BLANCHE. Well, they haven’t seen me yet, dear.

KATE. I said the sights, love. Not the ruins!

But I just couldn’t have done it! So we got up quite early, because he had to do some work, and went out for breakfast to a cafe in Soho. I must say I don’t like them cwasson things. French rubbish. There’s nowt like jam on toast, is there?!! It was full of trendy types, right stuck up. I can live without all that at nine in the morning!

GEOFFREY. Oh! That fairy thing — Undine, wasn’t it?

OPERA QUEEN. ‘Undone’, more like. Appalling! All those old bags rolling about on Bakofoil, with bits of tinsel in their wigs, trying to be water-nymphs! I’ve never seen anything like it in my life!.

GEOFFREY. Wasn’t the hero called Hildebrand, or something? I can remember the bit where she goes to the wedding.

OPERA QUEEN. It was a few tatty banners and shields, wasn’t it?

GEOFFREY. And he turns into ice — do you remember? That heap of see-through plastic was thrown over him when the lights went out, and when they came on we were supposed to know he’d turned into ice! Talk about tat!

They have a shop in the West End, but keep a lot of stuff at home. So it’s a bit like a shop, really. At the weekends they toddle off to their country cottage — well, not cottage, but converted church or something. Very House and Garden, dear!

GEOFFREY. I’ve never liked antique dealers. There’s something vulgar about them, isn’t there? And they always think they’re a cut above everybody else. They’re only shopkeepers, when all’s said and done!

It all looks so bleak when the lights go up, and everybody ages about twenty years!

THOMAS. Good evening!

CHRISTOPHER. Hello!

THOMAS. May I join you? You look rather alone, and out of place here.

CHRISTOPHER. I was just finishing my drink. I wouldn’t say you had a great deal in common with the clientele. It’s not exactly a synod, is it?

THOMAS. Ah! Now there you’d be correct. You’re obviously an educated sort of man. A teacher? Or perhaps a journalist, I’d say!

CHRISTOPHER. Quite close, really. And yourself?

THOMAS. The church!

CHRISTOPHER. Really?

THOMAS. You sound surprised. I suppose it is rather odd, meeting a cleric in here, but I duck in occasionally for a G and T.

CHRISTOPHER. You’ve been here before, then?

THOMAS. Heavens, yes! It’s one of my little haunts, after choir practice, you see!

CHRISTOPHER. I see!

THOMAS. Do you sing? You look very musical, I don’t know why — but you do.

CHRISTOPHER. At university I did.

THOMAS. Ah! A choral scholar, eh? Cambridge, or Oxford? I’d say Cam!

CHRISTOPHER. Right.

THOMAS. And King’s, was it? The school for spies!

CHRISTOPHER. I’m afraid so. Although it’s quite some time ago now.

THOMAS. Well, well! You are in a different world, here. I know it’s naughty, but I can’t help thinking you’re a happily married man. Am I right?

CHRISTOPHER. Well — yes, as a matter of fact I am.

THOMAS. I get a little forward after two of these, I’m afraid. So you’ll have to forgive me. I wonder what brings you here, then. Eh?

CHRISTOPHER. I already told you — I was having a drink before dinner.

THOMAS. Ah, yes! So am I. But we both know what sort of person comes here, don’t we? I mean, the sort of person you are perhaps struggling against becoming. Forgive my being so presumptuous, dear chap.

CHRISTOPHER. I’m not sure it’s any of your business, actually.

THOMAS. Come, come. We can be friends, can’t we? I went to Durham, actually. I suppose that’s a touch redbrick for you, but if you count the Venerable Bede, I think we go quite far back. One doesn’t often find someone in here one can make conversation with. Have the boys left, do you know?

CHRISTOPHER. The boys?

THOMAS. Oh, you won’t have missed them if they were here. And they always are. Rather an effeminate lot, and always talking dirty and swearing too much. But actually they’re quite amusing. They call me Mother Teresa!

CHRISTOPHER. I see. Well, actually, some young men answering to that description have just left.

THOMAS. What a pity! Never mind, though. You’re here. My name’s Thomas. And yours?

CHRISTOPHER. Christopher.

THOMAS. Like the saint! A charming name. I can just see you wading through water! That’s a very elegant tweed suit, Christopher. Rather posh for this place. What do you make of the gay boys, then? Very sweet, some of them, don’t you think?

CHRISTOPHER. I think they’re rather a miserable lot. I was just thinking what a profound waste of time, actually.

THOMAS. And I came and rescued you from disillusionment. The good Samaritan!

CHRISTOPHER. I wouldn’t say it was an act of rescue.

THOMAS. Well, pity perhaps. I know how hard it is, you see. When you’re not on the scene, I mean. This is what they call the ‘scene’, you know.

CHRISTOPHER. I didn’t.

THOMAS. Well, it is, Christopher. This is a way of life for most of the people here. Every night, most of them. It’s a little overwhelming the first time, isn’t it? I remember how I felt ­lonely and out of place. Then someone came up and spoke, and it was like unlocking a grand piano — Chekhov, you know. And now I’m speaking to you.

CHRISTOPHER. Actually, I don’t feel at all like a grand piano ­locked or otherwise. I feel mildly sick, if you really want to know.

THOMAS. Understandable. I understand, Christopher. You mustn’t worry about it, dear chap. It must be very hard, leading a secret life. Do you suffer from feelings of guilt and anguish? That’s very common among people of our kind, you know. It takes such courage to break out, doesn’t it. To find the places to go, and dare to walk through the awesome portals, in search of unnatural love. Oh, I know what it’s like, Christopher!

CHRISTOPHER. I’m not sure that you do. I mean, you appear to be quite a celebrity here — Mother Teresa, and all that! You’re not exactly an outsider, are you? I think it’s rather disgusting, considering what you do! It’s just the sort of seedy involvement I couldn’t bear.

THOMAS. Dear, dear! We are in a prickly mood, aren’t we? You’re just struggling to find your real voice, Christopher. I’ve seen it all before. You’re happy with your family, but you want something more — something forbidden. And I can help you. Make no mistake, dear chap — what you need is help!

CHRISTOPHER. Can you stop talking to me as if I were some kind of patient! I find it utterly ridiculous. We’ve only just met, and you’re engaging in some ludicrous in-depth analysis. I was perfectly happy standing on my own, thank you.

THOMAS. But you weren’t, now were you? What you must do is give up struggling and start to live! Let things happen, if they’re going to. Don’t resist, or you’ll be unfulfilled for the rest of your life.

CHRISTOPHER. I can’t believe it!! Do you talk to everyone in this extraordinary way? Have you tried listening to yourself? It’s appalling!

THOMAS. I’ve listened to my heart, Christopher. And I’ve taken my questions to God. And He answered. And now I am hearing what your heart is trying to tell you. And I’m trying to give some help.

CHRISTOPHER. But you’re wrong. I’m not like that — like these people. Like you! I’m just curious, that’s all. Just curious!

THOMAS. And have you wondered why, Christopher? You’re alone, like most of these people! All, all alone. And I am extending the hand of friendship. Are you going to brush it away — you, a choral scholar with an unsung song? I want you to sing, Christopher. I want us to sing together!

CHRISTOPHER. Look! — Oh, what’s the use! Perhaps you’d like a drink?

THOMAS. Another G and T would be awfully nice! And then we can talk about the organ stops at King’s. Ah! That glorious Great Swell! What majesty! We have so much in common, you and I, Christopher. We have so much to talk about. Who would have thought it possible that we might meet here, in

this den of iniquity?

CHRISTOPHER. Who indeed? It’s a pity I have to dash, but

otherwise I’ll be late for dinner. Still, I’ll get your G and T. THOMAS. It really doesn’t matter, thank you. Not if you’re going.

CHRISTOPHER. Oh, I am. I must!

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As Meat Loves Salt – Maria McCann

AMLS 2

(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

While we worry about the advance of ISIL DAESH, we do well to remember that England used to be in the grip of religious people who killed in the name of their god.

It is a gripping portrait of England beset by war. It is also a moving portrait of a man on the brink of madness.

It is narrated by a brooding, intermittently violent young man named Jacob who does not know himself. In flight from a murder and a brief, disastrous marriage, he joins Cromwell’s New Model Army, from which he and his new friend, Ferris, eventually go AWOL. It isn’t until halfway through the novel that Jacob realizes, and we realize, that the tension between the two men is sexual, and they embark on a torrid affair. Yet in the 1640s, the mild, accepting term “gay” had yet to be coined; bookshops didn’t have whole sections cheerfully devoted to “gay literature.” Rather, homosexuality was a hanging offense. Jacob and Ferris’ passionate, fractious relationship courts calamity.

In the seventeenth century, the English Revolution is under way. The nation, seething with religious and political discontent, has erupted into violence and terror. Jacob Cullen and his fellow soldiers dream of rebuilding their lives when the fighting is over. But the shattering events of war will overtake them.
A darkly erotic tale of passion and obsession,

The world of this “gay” novel is far removed from the comfortable modern one in which such books command their own section in bookshops. In Cromwellian England, homosexuality was a hanging offence, and the lovers’ fierce, obsessive relations are whetted by risk. Aptly, each man struggles for dominance over the other, much as royalist and parliamentary forces struggle for England.

After reading Psalm 115, which had been cited by Cromwell in his address to the troops before the assault on Basing, Jacob reflects on its meaning, “We were to leave them like unto their idols, utterly unable to see, hear, smell, touch, walk,” and then thinks, “I knew what it was to send a soul down into silence.”

If Jacob is “The Bad Angel,” Ferris personifies the good one, moderate and thoughtful, respectful of the feelings of others. Ferris hopes to teach Jacob the finer points of self-control and temperance, although Jacob is single-mindedly incapable of subtlety. Yet Ferris is himself seduced by Jacob’s dark desire until they are engaged in a constant struggle for dominance. Part love story, part exploration of the darkness at the heart of a man’s soul, this novel tackles the most difficult aspects of human nature, exposing the many sides of love/obsession. Engaged in a battle between Heaven and Hell, consumed by their endless erotic adventures, Jacob and Ferris’ humanity is stripped to its bare bones and the author dares the reader to flinch.

Ferris, however, is an atheist. It’s interesting to note that this long ago there were people who used religious language to describe their secular hopes to build a new Jerusalem.

The title comes from a Jewish story: Many years ago in Poland, there lived a rabbi who had a wife and three daughters. One day, the rabbi asks his children a powerful question: “How much do you love me?” His older daughters profess their love in gold and diamonds, but his youngest daughter, Mireleh, declares she loves her father the way meat loves salt. For this remark, she is banished from her father’s home.

Apparently, McCann was a schoolteacher when she wrote this novel, and used to get up at 5 a.m. every weekday to write a few more pages. As one reviewer said: There were times when I could almost smell the putridness of the battlefield, the fragrance of splendidly cooked game in Ferris’ Cheapside home and the filth of the sweaty, unwashed colonists as they vainly toiled away for their New Jerusalem.

AMLS 3Quotations:

On the morning we dragged the pond for Patience White, I bent so far down trying to see beneath the surface that my own face peered up at me, twisted and frowning. The three of us had churned up the water until it was half mud and spattered with flecks of weed before I knocked my foot against something loose and heavy that lolled about as we splashed. I tried to push it away from us, but too late.

‘It is she.’ Izzy’s lips were drawn back from his teeth.

I shook my head. ‘That’s a log.’

‘No, Jacob – here, here-‘

He seized my hand and plunged it in the water near his right leg. My heart fairly battered my ribs. I touched first his ankle, then wet cloth wound tight around something which moved.

‘I think that’s an arm,’ Izzy said quietly.

‘I think it is, Brother.’ Feeling along it, I found cold slippery flesh, which I levered upwards to the air. It was certainly an arm, and at the end of it a small hand, wrinkled from the water. I heard My Lady, standing on the bank, cry out, ‘Poor girl, poor girl!’

Zebedee reached towards the freckled fingers. ‘That’s never – Jacob, do you not see?’

‘Quiet.’ I had no need of his nudging, for I knew what we had hold of. Ever since we had been ordered to drag the pond I had been schooling myself for this.

‘You forget the rope,’ called Godfrey from the warm safety of the bank.

I looked round and saw the end of it trailing in the water on the other side of the pond, while we floundered. ‘Fetch it, can’t you?’ I asked him.

He pursed his lips and did not move. A mere manservant like me must not speak thus peremptorily to a steward, though he were hanging by his fingernails from a cliff.

‘Be so kind as to fetch it, Godfrey,’ put in the Mistress.

Frowning, the steward took up the wet rope.

The pond at Beaurepair had a runway sloping down into it on one side, made in past times to let beasts down into the water. It was coated with cracked greenish mud, which stank more foully than the pond itself. We grappled, splashing and squelching, to drag the thing to                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         the bottom of this slope, then Zeb and I crawled to the top, our shirts and breeches clinging heavily to us. Having forgotten to take off my shoes, I felt them all silted up. Izzy, who lacked our strength, stayed in the water to adjust the ties.

‘Pull,’ he called.

Zeb and I seized an end of rope each and leant backwards. Our weight moved the body along by perhaps two feet.

‘Come, Jacob, you can do better than that,’ called Sir John, as if we were practising some sport. I wondered how much wine he had got down his throat already.

‘Her clothes must be sodden,’ said Godfrey. He came over and joined Zeb on the line, taking care to stand well away from my brother’s dripping garments. ‘Or she’s caught on something-‘

There was a swirl in the water and a sucking noise. Izzy leapt back.

The body sat up, breaking the surface. I saw a scalp smeared with stiffened hair. Then it plunged forwards as if drunk, sprawling full length in the shallower waters at the base of the runway. I descended again and took it under the arms, wrestling it up the slope until it lay face to the sky. The mouth was full of mud.

‘You see?’ whispered Zeb, wiping his brow.

The corpse was not that of Patience Hannah White. Our catch was a different fish entirely: Christopher Walshe, late of this parish, who up to now had not even been missed.

‘He is the servant of Mr Biggin, Madam.’ Godfrey tried yet again, his beard wagging up and down. ‘One of the stableboys at Champains.’

The Mistress pressed her veiny hands together. ‘But why? Where is Patience?’

‘Not in the pond. Not in the pond, which is as good news as the death of this young man is sad,’ fluttered Godfrey. ‘Might I suggest, Madam, that it were good for you to lie down? Let me take the matter entirely in hand. I will send the youngest Cullen to Champains and Jacob shall lay out the body.’

My Lady nodded her permission and went to shut herself up in her chamber. Sir John, ever our help in time of trouble, made for the study where he had doubtless some canary wine ready broached.

My brothers walking on either side, I cradled the dead boy in my arms as far as the laundry, and there laid him on a table.

‘Directly I saw the hand, I knew,’ said Zeb, staring at him. He pushed back the slimy hair from Walshe’s face, and shuddered. ‘It must have been after the reading. Two nights, pickling in there!’

‘A senseless thing,’ said Izzy. ‘He went out the other way, we all of us waved him farewell.’

Zeb nodded. ‘And not in drink. Was he?’

‘Not that I saw,’ I said. ‘Unless you gave him it.’

Izzy and Zeb exchanged glances.

‘Well, did you?’ I challenged.

‘You know he did not,’ said Izzy. ‘Come lads, no quarrels.’

‘I have yet to say a harsh word,’ Zeb protested.

In silence we took off our filthy garments in the laundry and washed away the mud from our flesh. Izzy gasped in lifting the wet shirt over his head and I guessed that his back was paining him.

‘Thank God Patience was not in there.’ Zeb, drying himself on a linen cloth, shivered. ‘But this lad! Poor Chris, poor boy. Suppose we had not looked?’

‘You were wise to leave off your shoes. I fear mine are ruined,’ I said.

‘Dear brother, that is scarce a catastrophe here,’ Izzy replied. He found a basket of clean shirts and tossed one in my direction. ‘That’ll keep you decent until we can get back to our own chamber.’

‘Godfrey could have bidden Caro bring clothes down for us,’ said Zeb. ‘What are stewards for, if not to make others work?’

‘I would not have Caro see this,’ I said.

‘What, the three of us in our shirts?’ asked Zeb.

‘You tempt God by jesting,’ said Izzy. He limped over to the boy and stood a while looking at him. ‘Suppose it had been Patience? I would not be you in that case.’

Zeb started. ‘The Mistress doesn’t know, does she?’

‘No, but it is the first thing thought on if a lass be found drowned,’ Izzy replied.

Zeb considered. ‘But there were no signs – if I remarked nothing – if any man had the chance, that man was I-‘ He broke off, his cheeks colouring.

Izzy crossed the room and took him by the shoulders. ‘They can cut them open and look inside.’

‘Are we in a madhouse? Cut what? Look at what?’ I cried.

The two of them turned exasperated faces upon me.

‘Ever the last to know,’ said Zeb. ‘So Caro has told you nothing?’

‘Our brother has been hard at work, Jacob,’ said Izzy. ‘Patience is with child.’

So that was the key to their mysterious talk: Patience with child by Zeb. The great secret, taken at its worth, was hardly astonishing – I had been watching Zeb and Patience dance the old dance for some time – yet I was riled at not having been told.

‘Two days and not in the pond. She is run away for sure,’ said Zeb. ‘But why, why now?’

‘Shame?’ I ventured – though to be sure, shame and Patience White were words scarce ever heard together, except when folk shook their heads and said she had none.

‘She would not have been shamed. Zeb agreed to marry her,’ said Izzy.

‘What!’ I cried. ‘Zeb, you’re the biggest fool living.’

‘I like her, Jacob,’ protested my brother.

‘Oh? And would you like her for a sister?’

Zeb was silenced. What he liked, I thought, was the place between her legs, for what else was there? We would be all of us better off without Patience. It was impossible any should miss her braying laugh; for myself, I had always found her an affliction. She was Caro’s fellow maidservant and a mare long since broken in, most likely by Peter, who worked alongside us and was roughly of an age with Zeb. Patience and Peter, now there was a match: loud, foolish, neither of them able to read, neither caring to do so. I had a strong dislike to Peter’s countenance, which was both freckled and pimply and seemed to me unclean, yet I was obliged to admit that in many ways he showed himself not a bad-hearted lad, for he worked hard and was ready to lend and to share. I much preferred him to Patience, whose constant aim was to draw men in.

She had tried it once with me, when I was not yet twenty. Coming through the wicket gate with a basket of windfalls from the orchard, I found her in my way.

‘That’s a heavy load you’ve got,’ she said.

‘Move then,’ I told her. ‘Let me lay it down,’ for my shoulders were aching.

‘An excellent notion,’ Patience said, ‘to lay a thing down on the grass.’

She had never before fastened on me, and though I knew her even then for a whore I was slow to take her meaning. My coat was off for the heat, and Patience put her fingers on my arm.

‘You could give a lass a good squeeze, eh?’ She pressed my shoulder so that I felt her warm palm through my shirt. ‘I’m one that squeezes back. I wager you’ll like it.’

‘I wager I won’t,’ I said. ‘I’ve no call for the pox. Now let me through or you’ll feel my arm another way.’

For some time after that we did not speak, but servants must rub along somehow – they have enough to do coddling the whims of their masters – and besides, I think Izzy said something to soften her. Since then we had behaved together civilly, as our work required. Peter was come next, I was pretty sure, and had consoled her for Jacob; but she could never have engaged Zeb’s interest had there been a comelier woman in the house. There was Caro, of course; but Caro was mine.

Caro. Against Patience’s slovenly dress and coarse speech, my darling girl shone like virgin snow. Naturally, there were huffs and quarrels between the two.

‘She’s lewd as a midwife,’ Caro complained to me once. ‘Forever snuffling after us: does he do this, does he do that.’

But I was no Zeb. I treated Caro always with the respect which is due from a lover and never assumed the privileges of a husband. Thus I again thwarted Patience by my self-command.

Self-command was the unknown word to my brother, and could have put no brake on his doings. Foolish indulgence had ruined Zebedee. He was only four when Father died, and missed a guiding hand all the more in that his beauty tempted our mother to spoil him.

‘Zeb must go on with his lute,’ she announced, when it was clear we had scarce a hat between us. To be just, he played well, and looked well even when he played out of tune. We Cullen men are all like Sir Thomas Fairfax, dark-skinned to a fault, but the fault shows comely in Zeb because of his graceful make and his very brilliant eyes. I have seen women, even women of quality, look at him as if they lacked only the bread to make a meal of him there and then – and Zeb, not one whit abashed, return the look.

I lack his charm. Though I am like him in skin and hair, my face is altogether rougher and my eyes are grey. I am, however, the tallest man I know, and the strongest – stronger than Isaiah and Zeb put together. Not that Izzy has much strength to add to Zeb’s, for my elder brother came into the world twisted and never grew right afterwards. ‘Izzy gave me such a long, hard bringing to bed,’ my mother said more than once, ‘you may thank God that you were let to be born at all.’

Now Zeb was to go to Champains, as being the best rider and also the most personable of the menservants. I did not begrudge him the job, for I rode very ill and was generally sore all the next day. My own task was humbler, but not without its interest: to clean the boy’s body for his master to see it, and for the surgeon. This cleaning should rather be a woman’s work, but I was glad to do it for otherwise, Patience being gone, it would fall entirely upon Caro. In the chamber we dressed according to our allotted duty, Zeb taking a well-brushed cassock and some thick new breeches for riding, myself pulling on an old pair over a worn shirt.

‘Just wait, we will be suspected for this,’ Zeb said to me, combing out his hair. ‘You especially.’

‘Me?’

‘You quarrelled with him that night.’

‘I wouldn’t call it a quarrel,’ I protested. ‘We disagreed over his pamphlets, what of that?’

‘Jacob is right,’ said Izzy. ‘Hardly a drowning matter.’

Zeb ignored him. ‘It will put off your betrothal, Jacob.’

Izzy turned to me. ‘Take no notice. He wants only to tease, when he should be examining his accounts before God.’

‘What!’ Zeb was stung in his turn. ‘Patience isn’t dead, nor did I send her away. I heard her news kindly, sour though it was.’

‘So why would she leave?’ I pressed him.

He shrugged. ‘Another sweetheart?’

Izzy and I exchanged sceptical looks. Like all beautiful and fickle persons, Zeb aroused a desperate loyalty in others.

‘Are you not afraid for her, with a boy found drowned?’ Izzy demanded.

Zeb cried, ‘Yes! Yes! But what can fear do?’ He buttoned up the sides of his cassock. ‘Best not think on it.’

‘Think on your duty to her,’ said Izzy.

Zeb grinned. ‘Let us turn our thoughts rather to Jacob’s betrothal. Now there everything is proper. A little bird tells me, Jacob, that Caro has been asking the other maids about the wedding night.’

‘Away, Lechery,’ said Izzy, ‘and mend your thoughts, lest God strike you down on the road.’

Swaggering in boots, Zeb departed for the stables.

‘Talking of my wedding night and his friend dead downstairs! He’s as shameless as his whore,’ I fumed.

‘He is always thus when he is unhappy.’ Izzy spoke softly. ‘His weeping will be done on the road to Champains.’

I snorted.

As a child I was afraid of the laundry with its hollow-sounding tubs. When later I courted Caro I did it mostly in the stillroom amid the perfume of herbs and wines, or – in fine weather – in the rosemary maze. The room where Walshe lay had a smell of mould and greasy linen, and as a rule I avoided it, not a difficult thing to do for men’s work rarely brought them there.

I dragged off the boy’s wet clothing and arranged him naked on the table. The silt in his mouth looked as if, stifled in mud, he had tried to gorge on it. I let his head droop from the table-end into a bucket of water and swabbed out his mouth with my fingers before squeezing more water through his hair.

When I bent down to check the ears for mud, I saw the nape of his neck strangely blackened, so rolled him onto his side. What I found gave me pause. Great bruises darkened the back of his neck, his thighs and the base of his spine, as if blood was come up to the skin. Perhaps all drowned men were thus marked. Pulling him face upwards again, I then worked down the body to his feet, which were wrinkled and colourless, hateful to the touch. As I went, I dried him on linen sheets found in one of the presses. Caro would be angry with me for that but she must bear it patiently unless she wanted to lay out the corpse herself. That I would not permit, for the thought of her tears unnerved me.

My thoughts being troubled, I was glad to work alone. The turning and lifting came easy to a man of my strength, for he might be sixteen and was as small and light as I was big and heavy. Little warrior. He lay utterly helpless beneath my hands.

‘Where is your knife?’ I asked.

The skin of his breast shone pale as cream where the flesh was unhurt. I stroked it and ran my hand down one of the thighs. So slender, so unformed. No glory in dispatching such. And no defence to say the Voice had urged me on.

Going to the stillroom for bandages, I found some ready torn. First I packed the boy’s fundament, stuffing him tight. Next I bound up his jaw, and weighted down the eyelids with coins. He might as well be laid out for immediate burial, as there would be precious little for the surgeon to discover. Even a natural, I thought, could see what had done for this young man.

Christopher Walshe had been slit from above the navel to where his pale hair thickened for manhood at the base of the belly. The belly itself showed faintly green. The wound was deep, and, now I had rinsed it free of brownish water, a very clean and open one, for the blood had drained off into the pond like wine into a soup, leaving no scab or cleaving together of the flesh. Walshe had a boy’s waist and hips, without any padding of fat to take off the ferocity of the blade, which had pulled right through his guts. His ribs and shoulders were dappled, in places, with blue.

There would be more bruising around his feet and ankles. I examined them, and found long bluish marks which might give the surgeon a hint, unless it were concluded that he had scuffled foot to foot with someone.

I put my finger into the wound. The edges curved a little outwards like the petals of a rose, and after an initial tension my finger slid in full length. He was cold and slippery inside. I withdrew the finger and wiped it on my breeches.

In the scullery every servant, even my gentle Izzy, was grown surly. That was a sign I recognised and had interpreted before I was given the news.

‘Sir Bastard is come home,’ said Peter, who had not been present at the pond-dragging and now stared sulkily at the table.

I groaned. Sir Bastard, or to give him his proper name, Mervyn Roche, was the son and heir and so disliked as to make Sir John popular in comparison.

‘Will he stay long?’ I asked. Much as I hated Mervyn, this once I was glad enough to talk of him, for I dreaded giving a report of the boy’s wounds and seeing the horrified faces of my fellows.

‘Who knows?’ Izzy scratched with his fingernail at a crust of candlewax on Sir Bastard’s coat. ‘Look at this – stained all over and he throws it at me, expects it spotless tomorrow.’

‘Why doesn’t he buy new? He has money enough,’ I said, lifting down the tray of sand.

‘Drinks it away, like father like son,’ said Peter. ‘He is awash already.’

‘Even his father doesn’t go whoring.’ I laid the first plate in the sand and began rubbing at it with my palm until there came a bright patch in the grey, then moved on so that the brightness spread. Usually I liked scouring pewter, but it would take more than a pleasant task to lift my mood with the weight that lay on me. And now Mervyn was in the house.

‘As the pamphlet said, scum rises to the top,’ I went on. It galled me to be a servant to such as he, lecherous, intemperate, devoid of wit or kindness, forever asking the impossible and, the impossible being done, finding fault with the work.

‘Sshh! No word of pamphlets,’ said Izzy.

At that instant Godfrey came into the room. ‘I have talked with both Master and Mistress,’ he announced.

‘And?’ asked Izzy.

‘They have promised to speak to him. Peter, it were better you did not serve at table. Jacob and I will be there.’

‘What’s this?’ I did not understand what was meant.

‘O, you don’t know,’ said Izzy. ‘Sir – ah – our young Master hit Peter in the face this morning.’

Peter turned the other side of his head to me. The eye was swollen.

‘I will not ask what for, since to ask supposes some reason,’ I said, and went on scouring.

‘Humility is a jewel in a servant,’ said Godfrey. ‘It is not for us to cavil at our betters.’

‘Or our beaters,’ the lad muttered.

‘To hear you talk,’ I said to Godfrey, ‘a perfect man were a carpet, soiled by others and then beaten for it.’

‘And hearing you,’ he returned, ‘it is clear you have had some unwholesome reading lately. Take care the Master does not catch you at it.’

‘How should that happen unless I left it lying in a wine jug?’

‘Jacob,’ said Izzy. ‘Get on with your work.’

Such impudent abuses as these Roches put on us, grew out of that slavery known as The Norman Yoke. That is to say, the forefathers of these worthless men, being murderers, ravishers, pirates and suchlike, were rewarded by William the Bastard for helping him mount and ride the English people, and they have stayed in the saddle ever after. The life of the English was at first liberty, until these pillaging Barons brought in My Lord This and My Lady That, shackling the native people and setting them to work the fields which were their own sweet birthright. Now, not content with their castles and parks, the oppressors were lately begun to enclose the open land, snatching even that away from the rest of us. Roche, this family were called, and is that not a Frenchy name?

Though Caro thought our Mistress not bad, I had noted how little My Lady, as well as her menfolk, had trusted us since the war began. When they thought we were listening their talk was all of wickedness and its punishment. The King has Divine Right on his side, one would say, and another, New Model, forsooth. New noddle, more like, and there would be loud laughter. Then Sir Bastard might put in his groatsworth, how the rebels were half fed (for they thought it no shame to rejoice in such hunger), half drilled, half witted, so that the victory could go only one way.

But we heard things from time to time, for all that the Roches kept mum or even spoke in French before our faces – indeed, so stupid was Mervyn that he had been known to do so before Mounseer Daskin, the cook, who could speak better French than any Roche had spoken since 1066 – and we took heart. Servants came to visit along with their masters, and whatever their sympathies they brought news from other parts of the country. We were on our guard, however, in speaking with these, for there were those who made report of their fellows.

‘It is said Tom Cornish is an intelligencer,’ Izzy told me one day. This Cornish had once been a servingman, and was now risen in the world – too high for any honest means. He farmed land on the far side of Champains, and his name was a byword throughout the country for a dedication to the Royalist cause bordering on that religious madness called enthusiasm, and commonly supposed only to afflict those on the Parliamentary side.

‘You recall the servants who were whipped?’ Izzy went on.

I nodded. Not a year before, two men from Champains had been tried for being in possession of pamphlets against the King.

‘Well,’ Izzy went on, ‘it was Cornish brought them to the pillory.’

‘Impossible,’ I answered. ‘Say rather Mister Biggin.’

Biggin was the master of the accused men, and had made no move to defend them.

‘Him also. But the one they cried out against was Cornish,’ Izzy insisted. ‘Gentle Christians both. More shame to Biggin, that he let them suffer.’

‘You forget they had a serious fault,’ said I.

‘Fault?’

‘Choosing their own reading. But Izzy, Cornish does not live at Champains. How would he know of it?’

‘Tis said, he fees servants. Most likely, some who come here.’

It was not like Izzy to suspect a man without cause. I noted his words carefully, and I guess he spoke to the rest, for we were all of us exceedingly discreet.

Our masters were less so. Sir John, when in his cups, left his private letters lying about, and his son was alike careless. Mercurius Aulicus, the Royalist newsletter, appeared in the house from time to time; lately, we had noted with growing excitement, it was finding less and less cause to exult. Naseby-Fight, in June, had been followed by Langport, not a month later, and the half drilled half fed had triumphed in both. ‘The Divine Right,’ jeered Zeb, ‘seems sadly lacking in Divine Might.’

Izzy pointed out that the soldiers on both sides were much of a muchness, for though the Cavaliers prided themselves on their fighting spirit and high mettle, they had the same peasants and masterless men to drill as their opposites.

‘Besides, Sir Thomas Fairfax is a gentleman,’ he added, ‘and this Cromwell a coming fellow.’

Not that we were reduced solely to Mercurius Aulicus. Godfrey was right, I had found me some reading and was very much taken therewith, considering it not at all unwholesome.

It was begun a few months before, by chance. Peter went to visit his aunt who worked at Champains, and there met Mister Pratt, one of the servants, and had some talk with him.

‘Eight o’clock behind the stables,’ Peter whispered to me that night. I went there after the evening meal, along with my brothers.

Peter held out a sheaf of papers. ‘Here, lads, can you read these?’

Izzy took them and bent his head to the first one. ‘Of Kingly Power and Its Putting Down. Where had you these?’

I snatched at another. ‘Of True Brotherhood – printed in London, look.’

‘Will it do?’ asked Peter. ‘And will you read it me?’

‘We shall all of us read it,’ Izzy promised.

These writings became, in time, our principal diversion. After the first lot, they were brought after dark by ‘Pratt’s boy’, that same Christopher Walshe who later lay in the laundry, naked under a sheet.

It was our pleasure on warm evenings sometimes to take our work outside, behind the stables where Godfrey never went, Zeb and Peter drinking off a pipe of tobacco as part of the treat. There we would read the pamphlets. Printed mostly in London, they spoke of the Rising of Christ and the establishment of the New Jerusalem whereby England would become a beacon to all nations.

‘A prophecy, listen.’ Zeb’s eyes shone. ‘The war is to end with the utter annihilation of Charles the Great Tyrant and the Papist serpent – that’s Henrietta Maria.’

‘I know without your telling,’ I said.

‘Measures are to be taken afterwards. In the day of triumph, er, O yes here ’tis – The rich to be cast down and the poor exalted. Every man that has borne a sword for freedom to have a cottage and four acres, and to live free-‘

We all sighed.

‘There shall be no landless younger brothers, forced by the laws to turn to war for their fortunes, and no younger brothers in another sense neither, that is, no class of persons obliged to serve others merely to live.’

‘A noble project,’ said Peter.

At that time these writings were the closest any of us came to the great doings elsewhere, for at Beaurepair things went on much as they always had, save that the Master and Mistress were by turns triumphant and cast down. We had escaped the curse of pillage and its more respectable but scarce less dreaded brother, free quarter: no soldiers were as yet come near us. Sir John was too fond of his comfort to equip and lead a force as some of the neighbours had done, so he neglected to apply for a commission and his men were kept at home, to pour his drink.

In the reading of our pamphlets we servants were, for an hour or so, a little commonwealth. Though Peter and Patience could not read, the rest of us took turns aloud so that all might hear and understand the same matter at the same moment, and then fall to discussing it. Izzy had taught Caro her letters and she did her part very prettily, her low voice breathing a tenderness into every word she spoke. I would sit with my arm round her, warming to that voice and to the serious expression of her dark eyes as she, perhaps the least convinced of us all, denounced the Worship of Mammon.

‘So, Caro, the Golden Calf must be melted?’ Zeb teased her one time.

‘So the writer says,’ my love answered.

‘And the Roches levelled with the rest of us?’ he pressed. ‘What say you to that?’

Caro returned stubbornly, ‘I say they are different one from another. The Mistress-‘

‘The Mistress favours you, that’s certain,’ put in Patience, whose coarse skin was flushed from too much beer at supper.

‘And not unjustly,’ I said. ‘But what is favour,’ I asked Caro, ‘that you should take it from her hand? Why are not you rich, and doing favours to her? Surely God did not make you to pomade her hair.’

‘She deals kindly with me nonetheless,’ Caro retorted. ‘God will weigh us one by one at judgement, and she is clean different to Sir Bastard.’

‘That may be,’ I allowed, ‘but she trusts us no more than he does. Besides, we cannot put away one and not the other.’

‘If Mammon be pulled down,’ Izzy warned, ‘we must take care the true God be put in his place and not our own wanton desires – the God of simpleness, of truth in our speech and in our doings, the God of a brotherly bearing-‘

He paused, and I saw his difficulty. We Cullens were the only brothers present, and Zeb and myself were constantly at one another’s throats.

The night before Patience ran off, we spoke long on a pamphlet circulated by some persons who farmed land together. Young Walshe had but just brought it, and having some time free he stopped on for the talk – ‘Mister Pratt knows where I am,’ said he – and sat himself down between Zeb and Peter to get a share of their pipe. I thought him overfamiliar, even unseemly, passing his arm around Zeb’s waist, but Zeb liked him well and on that night he sat with his arm round Walshe’s shoulders, and laughed when the lad’s attempts to smoke ended in coughing, though it was he that paid for the tobacco. Patience lolled against Zeb on the other side, and a man would be hard put to it to say which fawned on my brother more, herself or the boy.

Our debate was not strictly out of the pamphlet, but grew out of something beside. The writers freely said of themselves that they shared goods and chattels, but it was rumoured of them that they had also their women in common and considered Christian marriage no better than slavery.

‘Does “women in common” mean that the woman can refuse no man?’ asked Patience, looking round at the men present. Except when she gazed on Zeb, her dismay was so evident that for a moment the talk was lost in laughter, not least at her sudden assumption of chastity. I laughed along with the rest, thinking meanwhile that she had nothing to fear from me. I took none of Zeb’s delight in women who fell over backwards if you so much as blew on them. In Caro I had settled on a virgin, and one whom I would not take to my bed until we had been betrothed.

‘Does it mean that men are held in common too?’ jested Izzy. ‘It seems to me that if no woman is bound to no man there can be no duty of obedience, and so a woman may as well court a man as a man a woman. So may the man refuse?’

Peter considered. ‘Obliged to lie down with all the women!’

‘For the sake of the community,’ said Zeb with relish.

‘But whose would the children be?’ asked my darling.

Zeb answered her, ‘The mother’s who had them.’

‘Fie, fie!’ I said. ‘The rights of a father cast away! Whoredom, pure and simple.’

‘Look here,’ urged Walshe. ‘It is set down, To be bound one to the other, is savagery.’

There was a pause. Everyone, Walshe included, knew I was soon to be espoused to Caro.

‘Am I then a savage?’ I asked.

‘Jacob, it was not Chris that said it,’ replied Patience. ‘He put their case only.’

The rest looked at me.

‘Am I-‘

‘There would be incest,’ put in Izzy, laying his hand on my shoulder. ‘Jacob is right. Brother and sister, all unknowing.’

‘That happens now,’ said Peter. ‘And not always unknowing.’ Zeb looked up at once, seeming to search Peter’s face, but Peter did not observe him and went on, ‘There’s bastardy too, and many a man raising another’s son.’

Zeb ceased staring. The boy, catching my eye upon him, shrank like a woman closer to my brother’s side. I became aware of Izzy’s fingers kneading the back of my neck.

‘Bastardy there may be, but ‘twould be worse where they are,’ Patience insisted. ‘And what of old and ugly persons? None would have ’em!’ She gave her horrible honking laugh.

‘Those do not marry as it is,’ I said through gritted teeth.

Izzy shook his head. ‘Some do, and they have rights invested in the spouse’s estate and on their body. But in such a commonwealth none would live with them. They would be the worse for it.’

‘They might burn, but they wouldn’t starve,’ Peter said. ‘Which they do frequently now.’

‘You cannot get round the incest,’ said Izzy.

Caro said, ‘I want my own children,’ and blushed.

Zeb, sitting opposite her, tapped her foot. ‘Don’t you mean you want your own man? Want him all to yourself?’

‘Stop it,’ she hissed.

‘I shall call you sister,’ said Zeb, ‘and you can call him,’ he assumed a doting expression and spoke in a mincing, squeaky voice, ‘husband. O Husband, I’ve such an itch under my smock-‘

Peter whooped. I gave Zeb a kick that would afflict him with more than an itch.

‘Behold, a tiger roused!’ he shouted, eyes watering. Caro’s cheeks were inflamed. I kicked Zeb again and this time shut him up.

Through it all the boy watched me and said nothing. He had still not begged my pardon, and from time to time I let him see that I was also watching him.

‘Our talk grows foolish,’ said Izzy. ‘An unprofitable choice of reading, but we will do better next time.’ He got up and walked off in the direction of the house.

We were not often so rowdy, for though Zeb’s spirits were usually too high, he loved Izzy and would be quiet for him if not for me. Peter was coarse-minded, but never quarrelsome. A deal of interesting matter and many ideas came first to me in those talks, for example the thought of settling in New England.

Now the date of my betrothal to Caro was fast approaching, and Sir Bastard back among us, the Norman Yoke incarnate. I was no more safe from his blows and pinches than was Peter, my size being no bar to a craven who relied upon my not striking back. Had he and I been servants both, he would have run a mile rather than encounter with me. I did not want to serve him at dinner, for he would be too drunk to care what he did and in this condition he was at his most hateful. That Godfrey would be there was some comfort, for the brute was aware that My Lady listened to her steward more than to any other servitor. But what was My Lady, in that house? Those who should show a manly dignity were sunk into beasts – no, not beasts, for beasts are seemly among themselves, and have even a kind of society, whereas such degenerates as these desire only a bottle.

I pressed hard with the sand, polishing out the knife scratches in the pewter, scouring as if to wipe the Roches from the face of the earth. The burnished plates I stacked in neat piles, for I hated a slovenly workman. When I did a job I did it well, and Caro was the same: I loved her deft grace as she moved about the house. Had we the wherewithal we could have run an inn or shop together, for she was skilled with all manner of things and clever with money.

Not that I was marrying her for that. She seemed to me simply the likeliest girl I ever saw, with a sweet child-like face which gave a stranger no hint of her quick wit. She was good-humoured too, able to charm me out of my melancholy and wrath. Zeb had tried over the years to win her, and failed; I looked on, defeated in advance, until Izzy spoke to me one day.

There is another brother she prefers.

What, Izzy, is she yours?

No, Jacob, nor Zeb’s nor mine. Who does that leave?

At first I would not believe him. It had never fallen out that anyone, man or woman, preferred me to Zebedee. Then at Christmas we played a kissing game and I saw that she managed things so as to get in with me.

‘Forfeit,’ Izzy cried. ‘You must give Jacob a kiss.’

Her mouth was so soft and red that I longed to put mine against it, but was afraid lest I spoil my chances with some clumsiness.

‘Turn,’ she whispered, and tugged at my sleeve so that my back was between us and the company. I bent down and we kissed with open eyes, Caro’s utterly wide awake and innocent even as, unseen by the rest, she put the point of her tongue between my lips.

Afterwards Zeb asked, ‘Did she suck your soul out?’ and laughed; he told me all the company had seen me shake while kissing, and thus roused me to a blushing fit that lasted half an hour.

But I began to keep company with Caro. We had that talk which all lovers have, Why me, and Since when. She said I was a man and Zeb a boy, and during the kiss which followed her hand brushed against my body as if by chance. Like a fool, I spent days wondering did she understand what she had done to me.

Next to Caro, Patience showed cumbersome as a cow. Impossible, I thought, that she should hold Zeb, who was constantly seeking new pleasures. Whereas Caro, delectable Caro, should hold me for ever. More than once of late I had been woken at night by Izzy laughing and punching me, and when I asked him what was ado he would not tell.

‘Haste and get married,’ was all the answer he would give. Peter and Zeb, who shared the other bed (only Godfrey had a chamber of his own) laughed along with him. In the dark I blushed worse than before, for I suffered hot, salt dreams and had some idea of what I might have done.

I was slow with her. After Kiss Day, as I afterwards thought of it, after she called me a man to Zeb’s boy, I was still unsure and sometimes thought that for all she said, she must like Zeb better than me, for all women did. At times I even fancied, God forgive me, that she had perhaps turned to me following an earlier adventure with him.

One day I looked out of the window and saw her talking most earnestly with Zeb some yards off. I rose and quietly opened the window a crack before ducking beneath the sill.

Caro’s voice came to me: ‘…and sees nothing of my difficulty.’

‘Jacob all over,’ Zeb said. ‘But to the purpose. He must be put out of hope, you know.’

‘I cannot do it!’ she cried. ‘Two brothers…(here I missed some words, for my ears were throbbing)…to do something so cruel.’

‘But the longer it goes on, the crueller,’ said Zebedee.

There followed a silence. I rose and peeped out of the window: they had joined hands.

‘Shall I undertake to tell him?’ asked Zeb.

Caro cried, ‘Indeed, Zeb, you are too kind!’ and then, before my very eyes, they embraced, out there in the garden where any might see. I pulled the window to and sank to the floorboards, trembling.

The rest of that afternoon was passed in planning Zeb’s death, various ways, and devising punishments for Caro. During the evening meal I spoke not a word to either, even when directly addressed, and saw my fellow servants exchange puzzled or offended looks. Afterwards, when all was cleared away, I sat by myself at the kitchen fire polishing the Master’s boots. Zeb and Caro were most likely keeping out of my sight, and they were wise, for every time I thought of Zeb taking her in his arms, my jaw set and my own arms and shoulders became hard as iron.

The door opened and I glared upwards. It was Izzy.

‘I have made a discovery today,’ I said at once.

‘Have you?’ His voice was mild. ‘Will you tell me what?’

‘Acting the ambassador? Be straight. You are come to make their excuses.’ I bent forward and spat into the grate.

Izzy contemplated me. ‘Who are they? My business with you concerns no excuses.’ He pulled up a chair next to mine.

‘Well?’ I snapped.

‘Nay, I can’t talk to you in that style. Would you rather I went away?’

‘Zeb is courting Caro,’ I burst out before I could stop myself. ‘Don’t you know it?’

‘You amaze me. How did you make this – discovery?’

I told him what I had seen and heard. Izzy’s face quickened with some inner revelation before I was halfway through.

‘This is – none of it what you think,’ he began slowly.

‘What, not the embrace!’

He scratched his nose. ‘Jacob…there’s a thing I must break to you. Somewhat ticklish.’

I thought, You are in the right of it there.

‘Caro has sought Zeb’s counsel.’

‘Why not mine?’

‘It concerns you.’ Izzy glanced up at the ceiling as if wishing himself anywhere else in the world. ‘She has sought mine also, and her difficulty is-‘

‘How to break off with me!’

‘She wonders why you wait so long to declare yourself.’

I was silenced.

He took a great breath and went on, ‘If I may speak my mind – take note, this is none of her saying! – you make a fool of her, keeping company so long and the day not settled on. She has never wanted any but you. I thought you had a great mind to her also, and you can be sure the Mistress would be pleased. Where then lies the impediment?’

‘She is mighty familiar with Zeb,’ I answered slowly, and then, filling with stubborn anger, ‘I will not espouse her, or any, where I think my brother might have been before me.’

That was the only time in my entire life I saw Isaiah in a passion.

‘Do you ever raise your eyes and look about you?’ he hissed. ‘Everyone knows where Zeb’s delight lies, except the hulking idiot who is his brother.’

I gaped at him.

‘Besides, now is too late,’ Izzy went on, his eyes gleaming, ‘for such talk! You have kept company with her for months and given no hint. I repeat, you make a fool of her, and – I promise you! – if one word of your – madness – gets out, you’ll make such a fool of yourself as you’ll never live down.’

‘He embraces her.’

‘Because he sees her unhappy! And should they kiss, what is it to you? You are not espoused, and if you like it not the remedy lies in your own hands.’

I was stunned, partly at this view of the matter, but mostly at what he had said of Zeb. ‘Zeb in love? Who?’

‘O, a certain maid whose ear he has been nibbling, full in your view, these past months. She has two eyes and a mouth and her name begins with P.’

Things that I had taken for jests came back to me: Zeb arm-wrestling Patience, or begging a lock of her hair ‘for lying on a maiden’s hair brings a man sweet sleep’.

‘Caro does not wish to break off, then-?’ I faltered.

Izzy rolled his eyes.

I went on, ‘Yet they spoke of cruelty – said it was cruel.’

‘You. You’re cruel to Caro.’

‘To Caro…?’ They had talked of a he. I was about to explain his mistake when the truth came to me. The cruelty Zeb had spoken of was my own, and the sufferer Izzy. My elder brother had never ceased to love Caro, that was it; he had but loved her more tenderly as she turned away from the shared kindnesses of their early years towards something different with me. O Izzy, Izzy: he was the better man of us two, I own it freely, but he was not the sort of man a maid dreams of taking to her bed, and he had been forced to learn it over and over as he watched me win her. I could hardly bear to look at him as he sat there, smiling in defeat.

‘Cruel to Caro, yes.’ I must now conceal my pity.

‘I would see her happy,’ he returned simply. ‘I thought her happiness must lie with you.’

He it was, I remembered now, who had first told me of her preference.

‘But I begin to think I was mistaken.’ Izzy stared ahead of him. ‘Lord, what brothers I have. One eats women and the other starves them.’ His voice trembled as he rose to leave the room.

‘Don’t go, Izzy.’ I flung my arms round him from behind. ‘Wait and see – I will declare myself.’ Even as I said it I felt what a bittersweet promise this must be to him.

He turned to me and we pressed our faces together, the way we had always made up our quarrels as children. I had to bend down now, having so far outgrown my childhood protector. His face was damp around the eyes and for a moment I felt with horror that he was about to cry, but his gaze was bright and steady.

As he put me away from him, Izzy said quietly, ‘You are near as handsome as he, and bigger.’

‘Don’t make me more of a fool than I am,’ I answered.

‘There, I knew you would not hear it.’

‘You love me too well, Izzy.’

He sighed. ‘Very well, think yourself ugly. But Jacob,’ he went on, ‘be not so harsh with Zeb.’

I said I would not.

Going to seek out Caro, I found Zeb and Patience in the scullery, his arms about her as she scraped at a dirty dish, and I wondered at my blindness for so long. My own darling I discovered moping in the great hall. When she saw me she rose, and would have quitted the room, but I stepped up to her and begged her forgiveness. Before we parted that night, our betrothal was a settled thing.

The Mistress furnished Caro with a good dowry. All the money I could afford for her portion had been put by out of my own sweat, and was not bad considering the little that servants such as ourselves could scratch together. Neither of us could fairly hope for more if we meant to stay where we were.

My brothers and myself had been born to better fortunes than we enjoyed, but our father, though godly, was strangely improvident. I found my inheritance wasted and my estate encumbered, was his constant cry throughout my childhood. Yet all shall be paid off, and you, Isaiah, shall inherit-

AMLS 5Dust and debt. There was nothing else for Izzy to come into. The day after we buried Father, I found Mother weeping in her chamber, the steward standing over her and papers scattered all around.

‘Jacob,’ she screamed at me as if it were my doing, ‘O my boy, my boy,’ and fell to tearing her lace collar. I took it for the grief, and wept along with her, until the steward came forward saying, ‘Pray, young master, send your brother Isaiah to us.’

When Izzy came out from the chamber he told me that we were nine-tenths ruined. The house and lands were certain to be seized. The steward was at that instant writing a letter for Mother to sign, begging our neighbour Sir John that of his goodness he succour a distressed widow of gentle birth and her three helpless children.

Sir John Roche was not in those days the wineskin he is since become, and his wife (who inclined to a somewhat Papistical style of worship) was known for her rather short-sighted charity. Our mother was given a cottage in the village and the three helpless children were put to work in the fields on Sir John’s estate. This was perhaps not what Mother had in mind.

Margett, who was at that time the cook at Beaurepair, later enlightened me. We were in the kitchen together and her forehead shone greasily as she bent over a pig she had on the spit. I thought her grey hair very ugly, but her face was kind, if wrinkled, and from her I could find out things the others kept secret.

‘Your father owed Sir John a deal of money,’ Margett said. ‘Turn the handle there, it’s about to catch. Lost a fortune by him, the Master did.’

And so he wished us to work his fields. It was every inch my mother, not to have understood this. She understood nothing but weeping, coaxing and prayer.

When we were let fall into the furrow, I was ill prepared for my new life. For one thing, I was then accustomed to the attentions of servants (though unlike Mervyn Roche, I had been taught always to address them with respect). Now I found a great abatement of rest and of comfort, whether I were in the field or cooped up in the dark cramped place that was become our home.

Most unendurable was the utter loss of all means of raising myself from the earth. My books were left behind in our old house. Weary as I was, I would gladly have had them by me. I could read well and was skilled in reckoning, knew my rhetoric and Scripture, and had begun the ancient tongues some years before.

‘A forward lad for his age,’ our tutor, Doctor Barton, had told my father. ‘He might be trained up in the law perhaps, and become secretary to some great man.’

Now the forward lad found himself grubbing at roots, spreading dung, pulling thistles. When there was nothing else to do a boy could always be set to scare crows. Alone in the field where none could see me at it, I wept. Zeb, too young to grasp that we would be wasted in this valley of humiliation, was less wretched, though from time to time he would whine, ‘When are we going home?’

The other workers were at first somewhat in awe of us, but when they understood that for all our polish we were penniless, things altered. Very soon they made no difference between us and themselves.

‘Here, young Cullen, take this off-a me; don’t stand there gawking,’ said a man who could not read. I felt myself bitterly degraded. When I perceived that I was forgetting what I had been taught, that my only study now would be scythes and manures, terror seized me.

Izzy, finding me one day in a fit of despair, knelt by me in the field and crooked his arm about my neck. ‘A man’s value lies in his obedience to God’s will,’ he said. ‘We are as precious to Him now as ever we were.’

‘He does not show it.’

‘Indeed He does. We eat and drink; we have good health, and one another,’ he reproached me. But I lacked his greatness of heart.

Margett also told me that about this time, My Lady passing by in the carriage was struck by the sight of the three ‘black-boys’ labouring in her field. She made enquiries, and found that while she had thought us to be living on the charity of the Roches, her husband had reduced us to peasants.

‘That was an evil day for him. The sermons!’ Margett gloated. ‘Table lectures, fireside lectures, pillow lectures! – until he said she might bring you to the house. A fellow was sent for you directly, before the Master could change his mind.’

I remembered that. When the man came into the field and bade us follow him, for we were now to work indoors at Beaurepair, he must have thought we would never move off. Izzy stood motionless and speechless, while I dropped to my knees thanking God, for I knew what we had escaped. Servitude inside the house was still bondage in Egypt, but we were now shaded against the noonday heat.

Caro’s fortune was even humbler than my own. Margett told me that Caro’s mother, Lucy Bale, had been a maid at Beaurepair in time past, a woman about the Mistress’s own age and her entire favourite.

‘It ended sadly, though,’ the woman said. ‘In the same year that the Mistress married Sir John, Lucy found herself with child. That’s a fault easily wiped out, to be sure! – but her Mathias was killed. An unlucky fall.’

Later, Godfrey told me more. Lucy, it seemed, bore up under her shame with no little dignity. Sir John would have sent her away, but his wife argued that provided she showed herself repentant, she should stay, else she would surely sink to a most degraded condition. In the event she had no chance to sink, for she died in giving birth to her daughter.

The child, which was of a rare white-and-gold beauty (both Lucy and Mathias were, said Godfrey, bright as sovereigns), was christened Caroline and put under the care of the then steward’s wife, to be raised up a servant. I remembered her being shouted for, and once, when she might be six or seven, dragged by her hand through the great hall, trembling, for the steward’s wife was sharp of tongue and temper. Had Mathias lived, Caro should have been called Caroline Hawks, but none of his kin wished to claim her, so she kept the name of Bale. Izzy, finding her one day weeping in the garden, took her in his arms and dried her eyes and nose on his shirt. He called her Caro for short, and Caro she became.

‘Come along, Jacob.’ Godfrey stood before me, smoothing down his collar. ‘Leave that for later and wash your hands. The meat is ready to go out.’

I rinsed the sand off my fingers in a bowl of water before following him into the kitchen. The roast was set upon a wheeled table, and as fragrant as the stalled ox must have smelt to the Prodigal – a fine piece of mutton stuck with rosemary. Around it stood dishes of carrots and peas, a pigeon pie and sweet young lettuces dressed with eggs, mushrooms and oil.

‘Let us hope they leave plenty over,’ I said to Godfrey.

‘Amen to that.’ The steward poured wine from a decanter, held it up to the light and sipped it. ‘Very pleasing. I will help you with the dishes and then come back for the drink.’

We trundled in with the mutton, my mouth watering. Someone, most likely Caro, had set up the table with such precision that every cup and dish was in absolute line, not a hair’s breadth out. No pewter today; instead, the plate glittered. At one end of this perfection sat My Lady, her hair like string and face flaky with white lead; at the other, Sir John, bloated and purplish. To his mother’s right Mervyn sprawled like a schoolboy in a sulk, tipping the chair back and forth on two of its four legs. He was far gone in drink. I silently thanked Godfrey, grate on me as he might, for keeping Caro away. Only men and whores should serve Mervyn Roche.

When he saw us he shifted in the seat with annoyance and almost fell backwards.

‘Mother!’

‘Yes, my darling?’

‘Mother, why don’t you get a proper butler? Here’s the steward serving the wine – what does he know of it? – and none but that booby to help him. If there be any wine.’

‘It is decanted, Sir, and I am going back for it directly,’ Godfrey soothed.

‘I saw a man at Bridgwater carve in a new way entirely,’ Mervyn announced. ‘It was a wonder to see how he did it – here-‘

To my amazement he leapt from his seat and held out his hands for the carving knife and fork.

Godfrey kept his hands on the trolley but dared do no more; he looked helplessly at My Lady. Sir John, seemingly oblivious, stared at the ceiling.

‘Do you think you should, my sweet?’ Lady Roche implored. On receiving no reply she tried for help elsewhere. ‘Husband, if I may speak a word? Husband?’

‘Might a man eat in peace?’ the husband grunted.

Mervyn glared at his mother, then snapped his fingers to me. ‘You, Jacob. Give it over here. Christ’s arse, if I can’t carve a joint of meat-!’

The Mistress winced at her son’s foul tongue. I took the roast to him and laid the knife and fork ready. Godfrey disappeared through the door leading to the kitchen. I stood back, arms by my sides as I had been taught. He made a fearful butchery of it, hacking in chunks the sweet, crisp flesh which the cook had so lovingly tended. I saw his mother sigh. When the best part of the meat was ruined I brought forward the plates and shared out the tough lumps between the diners. Why, O God, I was thinking, do You not let slip his knife?

‘A butler, I say,’ he persisted, cutting into the pigeon pie with rather more finesse than he had displayed in carving the mutton.

‘Where is the need?’ asked his mother. ‘We live in a very small way here.’

‘Aye, I’ll say you do!’ He pushed off with his legs from the table, almost dropped backwards onto the floor, but retrieved the balance of the chair just in time. ‘Where is Patty?’ This was his name for Patience.

‘Patty is no longer with us,’ came the reply.

‘What! Dead!’

‘No.’ My Lady began crying.

‘What, then?’

‘Run away. Or-‘ She shook her head.

Mervyn glanced at her, took a gobbet of flesh and chewed on it. ‘If she’s run away she’s a fool. You,’ he again snapped his fingers at me, so that I itched to twist them off, ‘tell that Frenchified capon I’ve had better mutton in taverns.’

AMLSI bowed and took my chance to escape him a while. Going out of the door I met Godfrey returning with the wine and I hoped it might find better favour than the meat. Best of all would be if it were poisoned. One thing was cheering: Sir Bastard might scorn me but I had beaten him to the woman he desired. Setting aside his sulks and his drink-stained eyes, Mervyn was handsome, especially round the mouth, with its fierce scarlet lips hemming in very white teeth. In him a man might see what his father had been when young, just as in Sir John his son’s fate was laid out plain – if the son were fortunate, for his whoring was proverbial and a lucky pox or clap might yet shorten his days. He had always had a thirst for Caro. If I could think at all on my wedding night, I should take a minute to exult over him.

In the kitchen the cook, used to madness in his masters, shrugged when I told him the insults heaped on the roast.

‘I have a syllabub for that lad,’ he told me. ‘A special one. Don’t you go tasting, Jacob. Barring Godfrey, everyone’s helped with it.’

‘Not me,’ I said. I took my turn and spat in the thing too, stirring in the spittle. A voice like Father’s somewhere in my head said, Sweetly done, my boy. I carried in the syllabubs, placed the defiled one before Mervyn and stood the picture of submission, watching him eat it.

The man who had joined with us servants in taking this small but choice revenge was called Mister, or Mounseer, Daskin. Between him and Mervyn was deadly hatred. We were out of the ordinary in having a foreign cook. Margett, who had told me of my father’s debt to Sir John, dropped dead one day while arranging a goose on the spit, and the Mistress, who clung still to some pretence of elegance, tormented Sir John for a French cook, such as were just then starting to be known in London.

‘I will have my meat done in the good old English way,’ said the husband, who had no hankerings after hautgousts, hachees or dishes dressed a-la-doode. ‘There will be no French cooks at Beaurepair while I am master.’

His next dinner taught him better: the meat was bloody, and the sauces full of grit. Sir John glared about him. ‘Is the wine spoilt?’ he asked.

‘Not at all,’ his wife replied.

‘Then why have we none on the table?’

‘The cellar key is lost.’

Sir John knew when he was beaten, and bade the Mistress do what she would.

His wife let him down gently. Letters of enquiry to her friends in Town brought forth a number of likely men, but she settled on Mister Daskin who was but half French, could speak our language and cook in the English way beside. He arrived in the coach one wet October afternoon, a small dapper man in London clothes, looking about him with pleasure. It was said that fashionable life had hurt his health.

‘Up all night, and then working again all day,’ he told me. ‘Never, Jacob, never go to London!’

‘You will find it very dull here,’ I answered.

‘Now that is exactly what I like.’

It seemed he found promise of saner living in our old stone house with its surrounding fields and trees. The first meal he cooked for the household was served to Mervyn, and I guess he was never so pleased with his bargain since.

Daskin was not bad for someone half French. He was a Protestant, and he gave good food to the servants as well as the masters. Peter sometimes assisted him in the kitchen, but more often it was either Caro or Patience, and Caro told me she had picked up a great deal of knowledge concerning preserves and puddings from Mounseer, who was not jealous of others seeing what he did. Most of what was cooked was done in the English style, for after a week or so during which her pride would not let her speak, the Mistress was forced to admit that she did not care for French feeding, and Sir John’s roasts were restored to him.

When Mervyn had given his final belch and strewn bread about the table, the Mistress joined her hands and offered up thanks. Her son rattled off the words through force of habit, so that by happy accident I was able to hear him thank God for what he had just received.

After they had got down from the board Peter came to help me clear away.

‘Look at that.’ I pointed out the roast, now stiffening as it cooled. ‘That’s how he carves.’

‘Still alive, was it? Kept running about?’

The room felt cleaner with Mervyn gone. Daskin came in and wheeled off the meat, muttering words in French that any man could translate only by studying his face. We returned the plate to the sideboard and carried the slipware to the scullery to be washed along with ours.

In the room where we had our own food there was a smell of onions and cider. Caro was laying out the dishes; Daskin bent over the mutton, trying to save what he could. I was suddenly very hungry. The syllabub could not be spoken of before Godfrey, who was there examining a fork which Mervyn had bent out of shape, but it hung in the air between us all, a secret pleasure to set against the gloom of that morning’s discovery.

‘There’s nothing wrong with this meat,’ said the cook. ‘If I myself carve what’s left you’ll find it as tender a roast as you’ve had.’

‘We never thought otherwise,’ Izzy assured him.

‘I have made onions in white sauce,’ added Caro, looking sweetly on me because she knew how I relished this dish. I sat on the end of the bench next to the place she would take when she left off serving.

The meal was set before us and Godfrey led us in asking God’s blessing. As soon as folk began spooning up onions and handing about the bread, the talk turned to Chris Walshe, and to Patience.

‘Is Zeb back from Champains yet?’ I asked.

‘No,’ said Peter. ‘I guess they’ll keep him there awhile.’

‘What for? All he did was drag the pond.’

‘This is fine mutton, Mounseer,’ said one of the dairymaids, who seemed to have got the sheep’s eyes into her own head to judge by her glances at him.

‘Did Chris – was Chris hurt, Jacob?’ asked Caro.

‘He was,’ I answered. ‘Has nobody been to look?’

‘I locked the laundry after you laid him out,’ said Godfrey. ‘It is neither seemly nor respectful for everyone to go goggling at the lad.’

‘There’s something in that,’ said Izzy. ‘But tell us, Godfrey, how was he wounded?’

The steward hesitated.

‘Jacob knows already,’ urged Peter.

Godfrey said, ‘Well. It was no accident.’ He looked at me.

‘Stabbed,’ I supplied.

A general gasp and then a buzz, not unlike pleasure, rose from the company.

‘There are bad men about,’ said Godfrey. ‘Be watchful. The Mistress has instructed me to look over all the locks and bolts, and I should be obliged if you would bring me to any weak ones.’

‘And still no sign of Patience,’ said Caro.

‘Did she quarrel with one of you? Had she any trouble?’ the steward asked.

‘None,’ Caro said. ‘No trouble.’

I turned to her and saw her face quite innocent. I pictured Zeb, how he would have answered, perhaps mopping up sauce on a bit of bread, and his eyelashes lying modest on his cheek like a girl’s.

The great hall by torchlight was now a gilded slaughterhouse, with pictures everywhere, filthy idolatries in paint and in stone. I glanced up in blinking the warm water from my eyes and saw wood carved fine as lace. Velvet and gold tissue ran with gore or were caught on pikes and torn from the walls: men were blown up and fell in gobbets through jewelled windows. I saw one soldier ram a sword down another’s throat, and heard the scream grow shrill and then choke off as the blade was driven home. Above them, high on the far wall, a marble Christ pale in death looked down from the cross upon His people.

“it is a curious thing to be reading such matter as this and have a woman serve us. The last time I read such things I was a servant myself, and now I have one.”

“There was once a man who heard his wife and her lover together. He heard the secret things the wife whispered to the lover, and said only, ‘yes, that is she.’But then the lover pleaded to be touched, and the husband clenched his fists; and when the man cried aloud then the husband’s nails cut deep into the palms of his hands.”

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With Angels and Furies – John Sam Jones

WAAF(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

Having read his “Crawling Through Thorns”,”Welsh Boys Too” and “Fishboys of Vernazza”, I wanted to read this, his first full-length novel. However, to start with it didn’t ‘grip’ me as much as they did and there were too many characters, which became confusing. Then it all came together, rapidly, in the last third of the novel. Many of them are types of people or roles in his other books and many of the places ain them are revisited here.

The author’s description of male bodies from a female point of view is actually a male appreciation *

We are taken back to the homophobic taunts and bomb scares of the late 20th Century. And we get a lesbian vicar at a time when women priests didn’t exiost here but did in the USA.

* With only limited experience of men’s charming ways, however unsubtle, Bethan was flattered by his attention. When she joined him again at the top of the stairs he put his arm around her waist to escort her down to the dance floor. His touch set off a chain of tingles that were as delicious as they were disconcerting.

Cigarette smoke, mingled with an evocative, humid blend of perfumes and colognes that exuded from the press of dancers, clung in the air of the low brick-ceilinged vaults. They wove together into the knot of dancing bodies and Bethan felt the frantic rock music propel her charged body into an energetic dance. The fluid movements of Ben’s body washed over her and the sway and thrust of his hips seemed to resonate through the space between them, fusing his body to hers. When their eyes met, they lingered. Bethan read the suggestions and interpreted the intentions evoked in the deep pools of green, and she relished the possibilities.

Beginning to overheat with all the energy, Ben unbuttoned his shirt and tugged its tails from inside his jeans. Bethan tried not to stare, but she found herself fascinated by his tight brown nipples, as tempting as two sun-ripened raisins, and she wondered whether her experiences with women would count for anything as she fantasised about arousing Ben’s body. Surprising herself, she reached forward and traced the outline of muscle on his chest with her fingertips and allowed her thumb to rest momentarily at his nipple. She teased it coyly and felt its contractions. Its erect hardness thrilled her. The skin on his lightly downed chest and belly, taut across toned muscles, glistened in the flashing disco lights and his navel, a moist pitted cherry, looked good enough to suck and probe with her tongue. Below the cherry, like the twinkling lights hung up in the shrubs along Portland’s Peacock Lane through the Christmas holiday period, tiny diamonds of sweat sparkled through a thin hedge of hairs. Her insides churned.

He folded her into his arms and moved her with him into the more “OK, but hurry,” Ben said, beginning to dance coquettishly and giving her his come-to-me eyes.

gentle rhythm of a nineties ballad. Lightly gripping his shoulders, she felt the firmness of his deltoids through the gauzy cotton skin of his shirt; she squeezed with her fingers unconsciously, probing the density of the muscles, and concluded that his body felt so different from those of the women she’d known. Pulled close into him, her cheek brushing against his, she breathed in his smell: a gentle spicy mix of a not inexpensive cologne, laced with some unique, masculine pheromone that stirred her with startling urgency, churning her insides again with a potency more keen than had ever been true with any of those Berkeley girls. The languorous cadence of the ballad swayed their bodies into sensuous closeness — then he kissed her cheek, tentatively at first. She turned her face gently into his and, carried on the rushes of passions coursing through her body, she tasted him deeply, becoming intoxicated as his presence surged through each of her senses.

After two more hectic dances, Ben beckoned Bethan to follow him across the dance floor to where a wide passage, dimly lit and lined with couples being intimate, led to the toilets, a bank of telephones and a spiral staircase that went back up to the atrium. They kissed for a while, leaning against the wall. Now she concentrated on the taste of his mouth and was surprised that it wasn’t at all unpleasant, though why she’d thought that boys might taste odious was beyond her. Ben’s lips and tongue were a heady mixture of mango and apricot, basil and cilantro, fresh and pleasing. She knew from the way he pressed against her that he was aroused and when she felt his delicate fingers, first at her breasts, tentatively teasing her nipple, and then pushing under her skirt to stroke the inside of her thigh, she cupped the swelling in his pants and felt the hard ridge. The feel of the metal studs in his fly confused her, but, when Ben moaned gently and said, “That feels nice,” she let her hand linger. And they kissed some more.

Bethan’s body responded to his touch and her mind raced with the possibilities that might be realised between them. If only it had been another time, she thought, when her mother wasn’t there, and after she’d had some time to think about what she wanted from someone like Ben — and how she wanted it.

“You’ll spoil it all if you do that for too long,” Ben said, breaking into her misgivings.

“But I thought you said it felt good,” Bethan alleged, suddenly raked with self-doubts and pulling away from him.

“It does feel good Bethan — wonderful,” Ben reassured her over a disco remix, the dimple coming back to his cheek.

Bethan was even more confused by his mixed messages, and her face was slow to break from the scowl that furrowed her brow. Her diffidence puzzled him, and, pulling her back to him, he kissed her.

“It really was very nice, Bethan,” he said. “But when you’re bursting for a pee it’s not so cool. Why don’t I meet you back upstairs?”

“I’ll be with Mari and my mom, then, in the Dyke,” she shouted back as he pulled away from her, the music suddenly too loud.

She watched him disappear between the groping couples. For a few moments, before mounting the spiral steps, she felt abandoned and disconcerted. Her eyes lingered on the couple closest to her. The girl sucked her boyfriend’s nipple through his shirt, leaving a lipstick stain, and with her long, slender fingers she massaged his buttocks. He kissed and licked her earlobes, and under her hitched-up miniskirt the fingers of his left hand were lost beneath the scarlet cotton of her panties. Her crimson nail extensions writhed like an upturned crab’s legs. Ridiculous as they looked, Bethan caught a fleeting glimpse of herself and Ben in their embrace and the feverish pitch of her excitement startled her. What she wanted from him began to take shape in her mind — and, now that the possibility of it seemed within her reach, she began to question her motives. She tried to stifle the ethics of it and her confusion became palpable; she’d never experienced such moral qualms with any of the women she’d slept with, so why was it suddenly so different with a man?

 

She watched him undress. She knew that he slept naked but now she wondered if he’d leave anything on; she’d take his lead. Not wanting her watching to seem too obvious, she sat on his bed and picked up the poetry book she’d lent him.

“Are you still learning one a week?” she asked.

“I’m struggling with ‘The Whitsun Weddings’,” he said, stepping out of the khaki chinos.

“Do you like Larkin, then?” she asked, kicking off her shoes and thinking to herself that the reason his buns looked so good in those pants was that he didn’t wear briefs.

“Well enough,” he said, scratching among his pubic hairs without embarrassment and wondering whether he’d tell her about what had happened the previous afternoon when he’d sat in the quiet of Llan Illtud church. He moved over to the French windows.

“Shall I leave these open?”

“Yes,” she said, pulling her top over her head. “The lilacs smelt lovely and it’s still so warm.”

Folding her clothes neatly and laying them over the back of the chair, she wondered whether he’d notice her nipples and whether he figure it out.

“I hate it when some sentence drifts into my head, though,” he said, pulling back the duvet on his side of the bed. “You know, when you just can’t fit it into the right poem, but it stays with you, and torments you.”

“But that really gets your brain working,” she offered, wondering he’d noticed the fluster in her voice as she took off her wet-creased panties.

“What are you reading now?” he asked, lying back and resting his head in his hands.

“I’m working hard on T H Parry-Williams’s sonnets,” she said, noticing how his penis had flopped back to rest on the thick tuft of black hairs. “But his use of the language is so rich and my Welsh vocabulary is still pretty limited. I’m really struggling.”

“Do you want me to read them aloud for you?”

“That would help me a lot, I think,” she said, fascinated by how much the wrinkled opening of his foreskin looked like the polo neck of one of her sweaters in miniature, and unsure whether she’d prefer that he were circumcised.

“How many of his sonnets are you doing?”

“Six or eight,” she said, counting them off on her fingers. “Let me think: there’s `Dychwelyd’, `Cyngor’ and Tyr Ysgol’.”

” `Tyr Ysgol’,” he said with enthusiastic nostalgia. “I remember that one from school; it’s one we did for GCSE: ‘Mae r cyrn yn mygu er pob awel groes, a rhywun yno weithiau n sgubo r llawr ac agor y ffenestri..! ”

She tried to concentrate on the poem but Gwion’s body stole her thoughts. She wanted to touch him. Not just a sisterly hug or the offer of a reassuring pat with her hand, but to really touch the different parts of him: to hold his hand in hers and kiss his fingertips; to trace circles with her fingers around each of his nipples and delight at seeing them peak; and brush her lips over the hairs that guarded his navel and probe

its mystery, gently, hungrily with her tongue. And she wanted to take his penis in her hands; she imagined its eye winking playfully at her from somewhere beneath its sheath and she let her mind linger, rolling back the polo neck to explore a territory that was new to her, as intriguing as a foreign country, if not a little frightening. It looked benign enough, lolling on its bed of softness, but just how big would it

grow and would it then seem menacing? And would he hurt her? Would he touch her body as he touched a man’s and would that be hard and rough? And she surprised herself by how little she knew of the intimacy there might be between two men and chastised herself for assuming their sex would be without grace or warmth. And a desire to feel the qualities of his touching enveloped her and she yearned for him to reach for her, to reassure, to encourage, beckoning her to him. But Gwion stared at the roses in the ceiling cornice and recited the sonnet.

He lay quietly, after finishing the recitation, pleased that his memory hadn’t failed him and content in Bethan’s company. After a while he felt her move next to him and her fingers began to trace delicate lines along his thigh. It felt nice. Realising how grateful he was for her friendship, he turned into her embrace.

“Thank you for being such a friend,” he whispered into her ear. “I don’t know what I’d have done without you those couple of days last week after Gareth dumped all his shit on me.”

“Thank you for being here for me this afternoon,” she said, and kissed him.

She’d never kissed him like that before, on his lips. He noticed it was a different kind of kiss, somehow loaded with possibilities, a kiss that made him think of Gareth, who was such a good kisser. What if Gareth came home and found them together? How would he explain their intimacy? And the thought of Gareth pushed Bethan away from him, although they remained tightly embraced, and Gwion began to understand. Her hand, the one that had stroked his thigh, had become trapped between his legs when he’d turned into her; now its touch was too intimate, nuzzled against his balls. Her other hand was on his chest, the fingers playing a gentle melody on an imaginary keyboard. And she was kissing him again, her tongue tickling his lower lip.

“Please, Bethan, let’s not do this,” he said, not wanting to reject her, but wanting it to stop. “I don’t want you to touch me there, like that,” he said, shifting onto his back and releasing her hand from between his legs.

“Haven’t you ever wondered what it would be like, though?” she asked, sitting up and taking his hand in hers.

“No,” he said, more out of shock at the suggestion than any certainty that he might not like to try. “I’m Gareth’s lover,” he added quickly, perhaps to convince himself.

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Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris – E. White

IAP(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

Edmund White moved to Paris in 1983, wanting to leave New York City in the midst of the AIDS crisis. Michel Foucault told him that he didn’t believe there was a disease that targeted gays – but he later died of it.

White was forty-three years old, couldn’t speak French, and only knew two people in the entire city. But in middle age, he discovered the new anxieties and pleasures of mastering a new culture. When he left fifteen years later to take a teaching position in the U.S., he was fluent enough to broadcast on French radio and TV, and in his work as a journalist, he’d made the acquaintance of everyone from Yves Saint Laurent to Catherine Deneuve, though he admits he didn’t recognise rock stars or models at a party of Elton John’s 50th birthday. Notwithstanding, he does a lot of name dropping.

He’d also developed a close friendship with an older woman, Marie-Claude, through which he’d come to understand French life and culture in a deeper way.

The title evokes the Parisian landscape in the eternal mists and the half-light, the serenity of the city compared to the New York White had known (and vividly recalled in City Boy). White fell in love with the city and its culture: both intoxicated and intellectually stimulated. He became the definitive biographer of Jean Genet, wrote lives of Marcel Proust and Arthur Rimbaud and he received the French Order of Arts and Letters.

This book recounts gossip and enchantment. There is some stuff about paedophiles and I’m surprised there hasn’t been any legal action.

Proust gets mentioned a lot because White wrote a biography of him. There are moments, such as a sketch of the ancient Rothschilds “tottering forth for yet another dinner party – beautifully dressed, slender, on time, impeccable”, when the writing appears to be slipping into a parody of Proust.

Sex laces its way through the book, until the advent of Aids. He tells the story of his lovers who fall to the disease, two of them weirdly yoked together with him as their health rapidly declines. Though he – a “slow progressor” – remains healthy, they die. “Even though I’m an atheist, for a long time I lit candles in every church I visited.”

At the centre of the book is his friendship with the literary critic Marie-Claude de Brunhoff, who embodies much of what it is about the French that White loves, staying with her on the Île de Ré the epitome of French rural life. But like many of the relationships described in the book, it comes and goes rather fitfully. Promising character studies often just stop, pushed aside by someone else whose story is, for the present, more interesting.

I can’t see why he thinks that chicken cooked in peanut butter is some sort of culinary faux pas.

He gets things wrong: .When my born-again cousin Dorothy Jean came to Paris, I took her to a museum entirely devoted to the work of Gustave Moreau and pointed out a painting of Judith cutting off the head of Holofernes. “It’s a biblical scene,” I said optimistically.

“That’s not in my Bible,” she scoffed.

And it isn’t in the protestant canon.

But there are many wonderful moments: the distinguished, discreetly gay homme de lettres Bernard Minoret meets une tante (an old queen, as White tells us), who asks “Do you know my nephew?” “Yes,” replies Minoret, “he was my nephew last year.” He begins to embrace the quintessentially French idea of the milieu, an attachment to the group rather than to individuals, and he knows which side he comes down on in the choice between “healthy but bland America, deep but diseased France”. On the other hand, perhaps, as he says, “I’m the kind of guy who’s always wanted to be elsewhere.”

We’ve learned to be wary of those who ‘teach writing’ and justifiably so:

  1. 97, ” . . . he’d sold another Hubert Robert painting so that for another six months he could invite his likable band of layabouts out to dinner for another month.” (What was it, six months or one month?)
    p. 112, “We were bitten alive by bedbugs . . . .” (Were you dead to start with? Were the bedbugs? What does this mean?)
    p. 112, ” . . . and Petra astonished us all.” (Not another word about Petra or how it astonished them.)
    p. 149, ” . . . like many oily-skinned Mediterraneans he had some interesting facial scars and the odd boil on his back.” (Yes, so many have that odd boil.)

 IAP 2Quotations:

“You are making no sense, Edmund. No one can understand anything you are saying.”

In the center of the village stood a church that had a bumpy, tapering steeple, half black and half white for maximum contrast and visibility for those at sea. Around the church were the post office, a newsstand, a cafe, and a snack bar. Down by the harbor were a couple of good restaurants and a shop selling expensive nautical wear and equipment (such as a brass circular compass and cut-glass liqueur bottles set in a mahogany caddy that would always right itself when the boat was severely listing to one side).

“For me a current lover has always been like whatever current book I’m writing – an obsessive project orienting all my thoughts.”

“Many French people were difficult conversationalists. Asking them not only where they were originally from but what they did in life was considered rude—I suppose because many of them did nothing (many Parisians are rentiers, people who live off the rents of their properties) or because they weren’t proud of their jobs, which simultaneously supported and interfered with their intellectual and artistic passions.”

I heard an aging French male author, Patrick Grainville, argue that all experience could be reduced to the symbol of the octopus (le pieuvre)­which in his 2010 novel, Le Baiser du pieuvre, embraces a Japanese woman and brings her down to his watery realm. He spoke with such fervor about the sea creature that he seemed to have hypnotized himself into believing what he was saying. As one French critic asked, “Is the octopus a projection of the female sex or should we see in its tentacles a phallic allusion? Definitely, this animal spitting ink—wouldn’t that be a fine metaphor for the writer?”

One day we’d eaten so heartily that I told Marie-Louise I thought I would skip the dessert. We were the only customers. The queen of England was nowhere in sight. Marie-Louise leaned slightly in my direction and whispered, “Then would you possibly be willing to order the dessert with the chocolate leaves ?”

“Sure. Of course. But why ?”

“You could leave it for me. I’ve never tasted it.”

“You’ve worked here how many years?”

“Twenty-five. Madame never lets the servants taste the desserts.”

Another day Marie-Louise had obviously been weeping. She wasn’t her usual brisk, tidy self wearing her fake pearl necklace and with her hair up. Her eyes were smaller and her voice subdued, and I said, “Is anything wrong, Marie-Louise?”

“My brother died yesterday and he’s to be buried tomorrow in Brittany. I asked Madame for the day off. I could make it there and back in a day by train but she said no. ‘Mademoiselle, je ne peux pas vous epargner.’ [I can’t spare you.] It was the first time in twenty-five years I’d asked for a day off. I’d even found a young man in the village to fill in for me.”

This asked me if I’d been “careful” and of course I said yes, though just the night before I’d slept with a young Spaniard who’d worked my nipples so hard they were still aflame and I winced whenever they were touched. But at that time, in the early eighties, there was no test for AIDS and no one knew exactly what caused it. We suspected it was caused by sex, but how? It seemed too unfair to us that a single expo­sure could infect someone; in our guilt-ridden way we wanted the disease to be the punishment for a long life of vice.

But even by those standards I’d been what the French called vicieux (a compliment in the world of gay French small advertisements). I’d slept with some three thousand men, I figured, and big-city gay men of my generation asked, “Why so few?” My figures were based on the rate of three a week for twenty years, between the ages of twenty-two and forty-two in New York, but many of my coevals “turned” two or three “tricks” a night, using the whore’s slang of the period (a “trick” was a once-only encounter, a word I had to explain recently to gay grad students). Truth be told, I would often go to the sauna, where I’d meet a dozen men a night. But to This I pretended to be far more innocent. He was reassured and thought of me as a sort of responsible gay leader thanks to my work with Gay Men’s Health Crisis.

I wasn’t ready to change my ways. I was so used to undressing mentally almost every man I met (and often went on to do so literally) that promiscuity was my first response to the least sign of reciprocity. I loved sex, but I never experienced it in its “pure” state; to me, it was always blended with at least some shred of romantic fantasy.

Neil (Bartlett) also became one of England’s finest writers. He wrote a land­mark book, Who Was That Man?, about Oscar Wilde and fin de siecle gay London. His novels Ready to Catch Him Should He Fall, Mr. Clive and Mr. Page, and Skin Lane all had their historical dimensions. He might have dedicated himself just to fiction, but he was also attracted to directing theater pieces of an extravagant, stylized, somewhat campy variety, such as Balzac’s Sarrasine, Racine’s Berenice and Neil’s own adaptation of Camille. A Vision of Love Revealed was based on Simeon Solomon’s 1871 prose poem, and Neil himself performed it in the nude in a warehouse. He did adaptations and translations of plays by Moliere and Racine and farces by Labiche, as well as the English-language premiere of Genet’s posthumous gangster play, Splendid’s, which I had told him about during my research for Genet.

Neil found a lover, James Gardiner, a collector of vintage postcards who produced a book of letters and photographs called A Class Apart that documented an Edwardian affair between an amateur gentleman photographer and his well-hung “butler” who was willing to indulge his employer’s taste for uniforms; the butler wrote touching, misspelled love letters to him when he went off to fight in the First World War. Neil and James bought a bijou residence in Brighton where they entertained me more than once.

When Neil got hepatitis, he had a liver transplant, but at first the new liver refused to kick in. Neil never succumbed to convalescence completely, and even when he seemed close to death kept busy and artistically active—until miraculously, at seemingly the last possible minute, the liver began to function. I’ve often thought of Neil’s courage in facing these travails during my own health scares and emergencies.

Once Neil, when he was still in his twenties, came to visit me in Paris. Because his plane was delayed (this was before the Eurostar Chunnel train running under the English Channel), I told him to take a taxi directly from the airport to MC’s. She had also invited to dinner Yannick Guillou, an elegant, uptight (or guinde, as the French say in reference to spats) Gallimard editor, who played the harpsichord for half an hour each morning before going to work, and who owned a castle in Normandy.

Neil arrived in a black leather biker jacket and jeans with the whole seat torn out and no underwear. Yannick was astonished by this vesti­mentary oddity but charmed by Neil’s Oxford accent, education, and exquisite manners. Neil’s personality was both outrageous and decorous.

Equally odd were the clothes of the gay English writer and critic Adam Mars-Jones, who wore striped military pants and an officer’s tunic. Because in France there was no youth culture, these costumes looked particularly strange to Parisians. But Adam also spoke beautiful French, was tall and slim, wonderfully polite and sortable (meaning you could take him anywhere). He met some of my ladies, such as Didi d’Anglejan, an American who’d married an aristocrat and gained a title. I’d told my ladies that Adam’s father was a judge and a lord—that worked wonders. Nor did it hurt that he’d attended Westminster and Cambridge.

IAP 3 Nigella Lawson has become such a symbol of glamour, the domestic goddess of television, that it feels presumptuous to claim friendship with her. When I met her, she worked as an editor for the Spectator. I was enough older than her and her friends that I played the role of an eccentric uncle. Nigella was very extravagant. I always stayed in Durrants Hotel behind the Wallace Collection off Marylebone High Street, and Nigella (who was named after her father, Nigel Lawson, Mrs. Thatcher’s chancellor of the exchequer) once filled my room at Durrants with a giant bouquet of blue nigellas, a flower sometimes called “love in a mist.”

Later she was the deputy literary editor of the Sunday Times. I remember writing a review for her comparing Joe Orton to Oscar Wilde, both of them living out their homosexuality in North Africa. Of course I recognized there were differences—Orton was working class and Wilde, I said, was upper class. Nigella called me in Paris and asked if I’d change upper class to upper middle class. I’d forgotten that these nuances meant so much to Brits.

Her mother, a famous beauty, divorced her father and married the philosopher A. J. Ayer, the popular author of Language, Truth and Logic. He had been married previously to a woman called Dee Wells, someone I met once at a dinner party given by Natasha Spender, shortly after Stephen Spender’s death. After the early death from cancer of Nigella’s mother, Ayer remarried Dee Wells.

Nigella has sold hundreds of thousands of cookbooks, which contain her airy, lighthearted remarks. She has always rejected the term “professional cook.” She’s had her share of tragedy. Her mother died in her forties, her sister, Thomasina, died in her thirties of breast cancer, and her husband, John Diamond, a journalist, died of throat cancer. I can remember eating with them in Nobu in New York. His meal had to be ground into a liquid he could ingest through his tracheotomy. Nigella said that given the amount of cancer in her family, she was virtually placing a curse on her two children. Once John, who was reduced to writing everything he wanted to say in conversation, heard a maddening voice chattering away on the radio—and he realized it was his own voice in a rebroadcast of an old program. Now he said he regretted the years of what he called wasting his words. Nigella once invited my partner Michael and me over for a lamb roast in her kitchen, where the star guests were Stephen Fry and Salman Rushdie. Before publishing his second novel, Midnight’s Children, Salman had worked in advertising at Ogilvy & Mather as a copywriter and he told us that his great triumph at the firm had been a slogan for a cream cake: “Naughty but Nice.”

Nigella was my date for the dinner, and her father had resigned from Thatcher’s Tory government that very day. Nigella had earlier created a scandal by revealing she voted Socialist.

Alan’s friend and former TLS colleague Alan Hollinghurst was another person who’d once negatively reviewed my work before we met, which didn’t keep me from reviewing his first novel, The Swimming Pool Library, in the Sunday Times, calling it the best gay book yet written by an Englishman.

When I finally met Alan, he struck me as someone rather dignified, but with a slyly frivolous side. Alan’s favorite writer was and is Ronald Firbank, a taste we share. Alan had written his Oxford thesis on Firbank.

Alan knows everything about architecture, one of his specialties at the TLS, and he’s one of the few people I know who thinks London is more beautiful than Paris—it certainly has more varied extant archi­tecture from more different periods. It’s true that what gives Paris its unity—the uniform look of Haussmann’s apartment buildings, the orientation of streets radiating out from monuments like the Arc de Triomphe, and the repetition of its street furniture and Wallace foun­tains—can make it dull to the historical connoisseur. As anyone who’s read his novels knows, Alan has a Proustian fascination with titles and stately homes, although, like Proust, he is also critical of snobbism. I envy him his flat in Hampstead; everything in it peaceful, beautiful, and neatly organized. Now the definition of the professional novelist (especially since he won the Booker Prize for The Line of Beauty), he’s arranged his life so that he has to do nothing but write his next perfectly phrased and carefully considered narrative—usually over the course of five or six years. Perhaps he’s the most consistently polished writer in the UK today. Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t travel much.

Bruce Chatwin would come through Paris, suffering from a mysterious “wasting” syndrome, though he never named it. He said it was a rare disease you got either from eating whale meat or from being around Chinese peasants in Fukien. Bruce couldn’t bear to be afflicted with an ordinary disease that was killing everyone around him. He always wanted to be rare, exotic, unique. Robert Mapplethorpe had first sent him to me in New York and we’d had sex immediately, standing by the front door, half undressed. That was what people did in the late seventies in New York. I’d been impressed by Bruce’s odorless body, constant laughter, and jewel-bright eyes, but we never slept together again. Every time I saw Bruce after that, usually while we were dining in an expensive Paris restaurant, I’d recall us that first time sniffing each other’s genitals like dogs—and he’d be regaling the table with his latest anecdote, sounding out and working up a version of the novel he was working Black Hill and The Songlines, his Australian novel. Interestingly, or tellingly, the real-life stories he told me were much gayer in the original than those ending up in the book.

Bruce was a relentless raconteur; you felt that his audience didn’t matter as much to him as his need to polish and reshape the same story at a different table the following evening. He lived in London in a tiny flat on the top floor of an Eaton Square mansion. He was more concerned with the address than with the actual living space.

One evening he had what I took to be a peroxided rent boy with him, but later, I realized was Jasper Conran, the wildly successful cloth­ing designer, son of the famous designer Sir Terence Conran, and favorite of Princess Diana. Bruce and Jasper were lovers, it seemed, for a long time, though ultimately Bruce went back to his wife, who nursed him until he died. Since he was a connoisseur as much as he was a compulsive raconteur and writer, and since he had worked as an auctioneer at Christie’s, he had an almost pharaonic urge to pile up goods to be used in the afterlife; his wife would have to return the extravagant daily purchases.

John Purcell, when he was still my roommate, couldn’t bear Bruce’s monologues, which demanded too much respectful silence and close listening. John wanted to drink and be casually merry with an older man who would ask him questions about himself, and he hated Bruce’s long involved narratives about Australian aboriginals, which amounted to drafts of his next book. His art seemed to be entirely oral, a form of performance art. I assured John that Bruce kept crowned heads mesmerized with his soliloquies. John’s only reply was a spat-out “They can have him.”

Paulin took the novel to task for its “sexual boasts,” and Greer described a sexual scene I hadn’t written. A few years before, A. S. Byatt and Germaine Greer, also on TV, had condemned the erotic pursuits of the narrator of Alan Hollinghurst’s novel The Folding Star. And now Greer described a moment of “anal jackhammering” on an elevator in The Farewell Symphony that I’d never even imagined, much less rendered. More recently, Greer attacked my Rimbaud biography for its supposed advocacy of anal sex, which she for one was categorically opposed to.

She was worried about being unmasked as a fraud. When she failed to pick up on how blasphemous The Satanic Verses would be consid­ered, she tormented herself endlessly about this lapse in judgment, and yet I doubt if many or even any literary scouts like her around the globe had foreseen this horrible development. Certainly Salman himself hadn’t, but MC took the fatwa as a very public exposure of her incom­petence. I assured her that no one could blame her for not anticipating the evil whims of some flea-bitten cleric in Iran, but at the same I wondered whether or not she might have been more sensitive to cultural clashes if she’d come from a religious melting pot like America instead of the completely secularized France.

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