Saturday, 31 May 2014

parks and cherwell, morris dancing, stanford george harrington photos online, icarus, chapters 7-8



















Lovely walk to the east of North Oxford this morning instead of my customary west side one. (Working at the Taylor today.)

Every time I stroll through the Parks along the Cherwell, it amazes me that they are in the middle of the city - see photos above.

And I've been walking them for a long while. As an undergraduate in my first year at Keble, they were where I burnt round, mind spinning, desperately trying to make sense of Joyce and Beckett - amongst others.

Spent the first half of this week's bank holiday working in Oxford before heading home to Bampton and the Morris dancing. The dancers kept going despite the rain and it turned out to be one of the most memorable years. Lots of people out and a great atmosphere. A mini beer festival at the Horseshoe too and roast pork rolls outside the butcher's, Patrick Strainge.

This morning, I received the link to an amazing collection of photographs of Argentina and Bolivia from 1921-26 that Stanford have just put online: George Harrington photograph albums and papers.

And now, here is the final extract from my novella, a work in progress, provisionally entitled Icarus. The first extract was posted the Saturday before last and the second a week ago. You can find a brief summary of what the novella is about in the introduction to the first extract, together with an explanation of why surnames are represented by their initial letters only on this blog.


VII
‘Pete, mate!’

Peter turns. A silver flash explodes in his face.

‘Lovely. A bit more cheerful, though. Try and look natural.’

Peter smiles. There is another flash.

Rich lets his camera dangle from his neck and puts out his hand. ‘Good to see you, mate.’

Peter eyes Rich up and down. Not even the pretence of an evening suit – lightweight leather jacket, white shirt open at the collar, an ineffectual boot-lace tie.

Rich pinches the sleeve of his jacket. ‘The gear of the official photographer – comfy and practical, lots of zip-pockets.’

‘All mod cons.’

‘Anyway, dress suits are on the way out. You’ll come across some right looking geezers later on. Here, still on the Contax and chest-of-drawers Gandolfi?’

Peter nods politely.

‘You ought to splash out on one of these old son. You’ll cut the mustard with the big boys, not to mention the modules – after the session.’ Rich winks at him.

Peter glances at the Canon 7. ‘Yes,’ he says, ‘I’ve read about them, but really they don’t have much that the Contax hasn’t got.’

‘Come off it. This’s got a light meter coupled to the shutter speed for starters. Look at the film advance – it speeds up the process. Designed to fit your hand. You just forget about the camera and concentrate on the subject. Right?’

Peter smiles. ‘We’ll have to agree to differ.’

‘What?’ says Rich and rolls his eyes heavenwards.

‘Speed’s all very well, but photography’s an art form, practiced by professionals. It’s the person that matt—’

Rich turns and focuses on a young actress who poses, smiling confidently at the camera, then cries, ‘Richy, darling, come and meet Ronny, he’s just dying to meet you.’

‘Good to see you, mate,’ Rich calls to Peter. ‘Maybe catch you later.’

That wink again. That man. For years I struggled to be accepted as a society portrait photographer – to be considered worthy of this kind of function. Now anybody with a cheeky smile and a box brownie is in on the act.

Peter is beginning to feel like an anachronism. His attention to detail is still appreciated, though, surely?

He searches for a friendly face. The marble-columned hall is full of young people he doesn’t recognise. He is afraid to launch himself into conversation with strangers tonight. It’s sometimes like that, he tells himself. There’s only one thing for it – he must fortify himself with whisky.

--

As he enters the drawing-room he is hailed by his host’s father the Earl of C. Long, wolfish face, grey hair oiled back, green eyes. The earl strides towards him.

‘Good of you to come, Peter. I’m glad I’ve caught you.’

‘Oh?’

‘But first-off – you haven’t got a drink in your hand.’

Peter smiles warmly despite his flagging confidence. Even so, as he follows the earl, he is distracted by unwelcome thoughts.

A year ago everything that the earl represented – the people, the houses – and the very fact that he moved in this circle, was a whirling, inspirational joy. In moments of reverie he imagined he was emulating artists from previous centuries. He could have been Sir Joshua Reynolds calling on the Parkers at Saltram. Last spring such dreams were possible. Now, he cannot allow himself to have them. He is getting old. Perhaps Samantha was right, after all. To retire to the country, to farm sheep, to marry and raise a family... He would never see the likes of the Earl of C again, perhaps, but he might have more chance of happiness.

--

The earl hands him a large whisky.

‘Thanks. Just what I could do with.’

‘Your very good health.’

‘Cheers.’

‘Now, I want to speak to you about something. Let’s go to the long gallery – there are one or two things I wish to show you.’

‘How intriguing.’

‘I’ll explain all.’

As they cross the room, the earl looks about him. ‘Party seems a bit flat, don’t you think?’

‘A bit.’

‘Don’t know what’s the matter with everyone. Perfect evening for it.’ He touches Peter’s arm. ‘Better off with the ancestors.’

He opens a door in the panelling and they slip away from the guests. At the top of the plain winding stair they reach a narrow landing with two doors leading off. They take the left hand one and emerge into the gallery. Peter turns and for a few moments cannot see the door in the pattern of the green wallpaper.

‘Good, isn’t it?’ says the earl. ‘God knows why they wanted these secret stairs – probably for getting rid of the mistress!’ He nudges Peter with his elbow.

They begin to walk slowly down the long empty space in between the rows of paintings.

‘The point is,’ says the earl, ‘I want to commission you to do a couple of portraits of Gwen and me.’

Peter smiles. Perhaps there is something of the fantasy remaining. He turns to his patron and nods. In his mind he takes off his tricorn hat and bows with a flourish.

‘I don’t know what to say.’

‘Nonsense. As you know, I’ve admired your work for some time. It’s painterly – completely different to the new lot. Horses for courses, though.’

‘Indeed.’

‘What I want is something old-fashioned and permanent. You see this fellow here.’

Peter reads from the brass plate, ‘Sir Richard Peacock.’

‘He married into the family in the eighteenth century. I like the way he looks, against this rather striking romantic background. What I have in mind is a pair of portraits in costume. I want them for this gallery. They’ll call me a reactionary but modern photographs just wouldn’t look right.’

‘No they wouldn’t.’

The earl lays his hand on Peter’s shoulder. ‘Think you can do it?’

As they discuss the project further, Peter is delighted. This is what he has been getting at all along. He has studied the great masters of portraiture – Reynolds, Lawrence, Kneller, Zoffany – and it is their sense of grandeur and style that he has tried to emulate. But in modern dress there isn’t scope to express such a vision. He is sure this commission will lead to a whole series of portraits that will divert fashion away from its temporary course.

Suddenly there are voices and the large white and gilt doors at the far end are flung open. Harry, the earl’s son, and Cecil P, a treasury minister, stride through.

At first they do not seem to realise anyone else is there but after a few moments Harry stops talking, looks up, and immediately bows his head.

‘Father. Peter.’

‘Evening, Harry,’ says the earl. He looks towards Cecil. ‘Mr P.’

‘My lord.’ Cecil nods, smiling broadly. As ever, his wide eyes appear hooded when he blinks. His dinner suit is a size too big for him but can’t disguise what a compact, athletically dynamic man he is. Not for the first time, Peter notices how his somewhat babyish face becomes egg-like at the crown.

As the men advance Peter hears the earl make a strange, ‘Huh,’ sound before asking, ‘And what have you two been plotting? The overthrow of the Prime Minister?’

‘Not the Prime Minister but we think it’s time the Chancellor went,’ says Harry.

‘Good God, the man’s only been in the job five minutes. What’s wrong with him?’

‘Trying to engineer a boom, importing massive quantities of raw materials, increasing the balance of payments deficit, drawing on reserves and borrowing from the IMF. That do you?’

‘And what is friend P going to do about it when he’s in Number Eleven?’

Unusually, Cecil hesitates before replying.

‘Don’t be shy, Cecil,’ says Harry. We’re all friends here.’ He turns to Peter and smiles.

‘Absolutely,’ says Peter. Is he imagining it or was that smile intended to call his loyalty into question? He feels as if his skin is tightening and his body is shrinking inside his clothes.

‘It’s really quite simple,’ says Cecil.

‘It always is,’ says the earl.

‘Under the Chancellor’s management, the economy is losing its equilibrium. To avoid disaster, he has two options – either devalue or reign back till there’s a balance of payments surplus that’ll cover the already substantial deficit.’

‘All clever stuff, I’m sure,’ says the earl. ‘But if it were that simple surely he’d already be doing what you’ve just said? Dammit, the man’s not a fool!’

‘Well—’

‘Strikes me that the best thing for party and country is continuity – there’s been too much chopping and changing recently. Better for everybody if the Treasury stood firm behind the Chancellor like loyal employees!’

‘With all respect, father, loyalty and continuity are fine when we’re seen as the natural party of government.’

‘Poppycock!’

‘Nowadays we have to use subversion and commando tactics. It’s a messy business.’

Before the earl can reply, there is the sound of excited voices moving up the main staircase, like a mob. A file of chanting men and women surges into the room. ‘Yippee, yippee, ya,ya. Yippee, yippee, ya,ya. Ya-ya, yaa, yaa. Ya-ya, yaa, yaa.’

‘What the devil?’ shouts the earl, but his voice is drowned by the revellers who weave their tipsy, winding and ox-bowing course through the long gallery, before disappearing unconcernedly the way they came. Before they finally vanish a lone figure disengages itself from column’s tail.

A tall, liquid female figure in long purple and pea-green batik dress, flowing towards them, arms raised above her head in a diamond. Rich dark brown eyes and swishing hair, pale peach skin and palest pink lips. Swaying rhythmically before them, each in turn, spellbinding with her movements and her stare until, with a lingering glance at Peter, she turns and skips from the room.

The earl is the first to speak. ‘Who in heaven’s name was that? Harry, you have some peculiar friends.’

The younger men look at the earl in quiet amazement as if his words are the ravings of a lunatic.

With a shake of his head he strides out of the room, saying, ‘I’m off to bed.’

Cecil turns to Peter and grins lasciviously. ‘Yes,’ he chortles, ‘who in heaven’s name was that?’


VIII
It is a colourless April day. Peter parks his sports car in front of a terrace of tall Victorian houses, climbs the steps of the end one and rings the bell.

The door opens almost immediately and before him stands the girl who danced in the long gallery. Her hair is shorter now and curls forward into blunt points either side of her face. She wears an orange cotton minidress. Her feet are bare.

‘Yes?’ Her voice is unexpectedly deep and a little husky. She looks at him and blinks.

‘R, Peter R. The photographer.’

The girl’s look is blank.

‘You are Cordelia D?’ He is bewitched by her beauty, by her innocence. She is like a child. He remembers being nudged by Cecil. Gutttersnipe!

‘Of course,’ the girl says. Suddenly she seems to remember something. ‘Instead of Rich.’

‘He’s ill.’

‘Poor Richy.’

‘On the mend.’

‘You’d better come in. Do you have—?’ She pauses, wide-eyed. ‘A camera?’

‘In the car. But I thought I’d introduce myself first. Have a look round – see where we can do the shoot.’

‘I suppose you know what you’re doing.’

‘I ought to be offended.’

She ignores the comment. ‘There’s the drawing-room. Or maybe you’d prefer outside. There’s a garden – though to be quite honest, I don’t know what it’s like. I simply haven’t seen it for ages.’

Peter closes the door and follows.

Saturday, 24 May 2014

soaked, flowers, lunch at gee's, morris and folk, icarus, chapters 4-6







Got soaked cycling.

Took some photos of flowers in our garden, which remain bright despite the gloom.

A busy week with not much time for anything other than work - apart from Thursday afternoon, when cousins came to Oxford for lunch. A good meal at Gee's.

This weekend is the Morris dancing one in Bampton. Some student work to comment on and, on Monday, the morning and early afternoon at work in Oxford, but there will still be time to listen to the folk music and watch some dancing.

And here is the next part of Icarus. For intro and chapters 1-3, see last Saturday's post.


IV
The maroon MG follows the sweep of gravel and disappears along the drive.

Samantha waves once and closes the door.

She goes to the kitchen and makes herself a coffee. In her office, she looks through the latest faxes then phones her PA in London.

As they speak, Samantha finds herself going over parts of the meeting with Josh in her mind. When she puts the phone down, she wonders if she has done the right thing by talking to him. All she knows at this stage is that it feels right. If only the memories weren’t so painful.

She returns to the drawing-room, puts more logs on the fire, takes a tumbler from a cabinet and pours herself a large whisky. She flops heavily into her favourite armchair.

For a while the drink is a comfort. The fire quickly takes a hold and she feels warm, secure. She tells herself that the passing years have put the events of nearly thirty years ago into some sort of perspective. She should savour the good times – she is lucky to have had those.

--

Peter is driving a brand new Porsche 75 coupe – white, fixed-head.

Without double-declutching he drops to third and the 102 bhp engine takes them from 40 to 80 miles per hour down the straight past the fuming cattle wagon and on along the deserted road.

He turns to her and smiles.

She is excited by the speed. It seems to express the recklessness of what she is doing perfectly. She jams her left foot to the floor as a corner approaches but Peter only touches the brake and takes the car round effortlessly.

Later Peter slows down. It has just started to snow. It is not late in the afternoon, although it is already dark. The snowflakes flurry into dotted lines in the car’s headlights but it is warm inside and the rushing sound of the hot air blower and the muffled thud of the wipers are strangely comforting.

He tells her that it’s not far to go now. They will arrive at the cottage in a quarter of an hour or so. Then they will be safe.

When they draw up and scramble from the car for the back door the snow is almost an inch thick. Inside Peter strikes a match and lights the oil-lamp that hangs from a beam. In the centre of the flagged floor there is a square table covered with a red and white checked cloth on which stands a small churn of milk. Opposite the range is a pine dresser replete with china. Samantha is enchanted. She follows Peter up a short flight of steps into the living-room. He turns on the electric light. She blinks and looks about her. The scene reminds her of an image of old-fashioned rural domesticity she has seen in a book. Delighted, she throws her arms around his neck and pulls his face towards hers. ‘I do love you,’ she exclaims and kisses him.

--

For a few moments, Samantha wonders what use memories serve. Sometimes they can be so vivid it is like stepping back in time but the times themselves have gone – and in any case, you know what happened next. Yet she cannot help asking herself what it would be like if Peter was still alive. She has been on her own now for ten years and Peter died well over double that many years ago but if he had lived would he have sought her out? Would the restlessness have passed – that fear of being confined that took him away from her? She cannot believe that he could have forgotten her. He would have come back – not then, perhaps, but one day. Maybe now when he was on the threshold of old age he would have thought, ‘Samantha?’ and the question would grow bigger and bigger until he ached to recapture those moments when he experienced love.

--

In the inglenook a huge fire blazes, casting irregular leaps of orange light into the room. Samantha takes off her dressing gown and slips between the smooth cotton sheets. She nestles into the mattress and pulls the covers around her head. She draws up her knees and waits. She almost wants to scream but suddenly she is aware of his approach. There is an almost imperceptible shift in the mattress and then he is beside her pressing his warmth against her. His caresses are gentle. He kisses her neck.

--

The whisky tumbler falls to the floor but does not break.

--

Four days later, they are standing opposite each other in the kitchen. Samantha tries to make Peter look at her with her smile. He will respond, he must. Why is his face so expressionless? Those eyes are blank, neither kind nor angry. Not a hint of emotion, nothing. She kisses him but his lips part involuntarily. Her heart is a lump in her chest. She cannot understand - they were so happy but since the last snowfall he has become indifferent. What about their plans? What about all the love that she felt and knows he felt too?

Peter smiles at her but only politely as he steps round her. What place does formality have between two people who have been so intimate?

‘I want to clear the path so we can get milk,’ he says but before going to the outhouse for his coat and boots, he seems to relent. He kisses her forehead. ‘Little angel,’ he whispers.

--

Samantha gets out of her armchair and retrieves her glass. She fetches the decanter from the trolley, arranges the cushions from the sofa in front of the fire and lies down. After a while she will fall asleep and the pain will pass.


V
Peter glances at Samantha. She is pretty in her short tartan skirt and white Arran sweater.

She turns to him. ‘Let’s stay here forever. We could get married and farm sheep.’

He smiles across the room at her.

Her eyes are searching.

He lights a cigarette and tosses the match into the fire.

He feels sorry for her. She’s young and inexperienced – and bored in all probability. If only there’d been a gap in the weather they’d be back in town by now and everything would be in perspective.

At thirty-five he’s in his prime – he doesn’t want to think of ‘settling down’ until he’s at least fifty. No, more like seventy, if the booze doesn’t get him first. Speaking of which – he reaches for the whisky bottle.

Samantha is lying on the sofa, turning the pages of a magazine, even when she’s gazing at him. She’s been through it fifty times already. Doesn’t she ever get bored of looking at those pictures of swim suits?

Time for a walk.

‘Just going to the farm for the milk.’ He pauses briefly before adding, ‘Darling.’ He grins. She smiles back. ‘Coming?’ he asks then kicks himself for being so polite.

She sits up, looks out of the window and shakes her head. She pats the cushion next to her. ‘Why don’t you just stay indoors.’

Peter turns. ‘Won’t be long. Then we can have some tea.’

Outside the light is fading, although on the western horizon the sky remains bright. There will be a hard frost but he thinks the air feels warmer. Yes, the icicles on the eaves are dripping. He is seized by the desire to skip along the path he has cleared so painstakingly and vault the garden gate. The thaw! Spring! Who believes the weather people anyway? They weren’t much good last Friday night – warm front, mists.

Spring. Days getting longer. Girls opening like rose buds. That light in the west is announcing a new beginning. There’ll be a thaw and after that the whole world will be freed from the snow. The grass will be green and the capital will be filled with the excited hubbub and bustle of a people waking to a new generation.


VI
Peter flicks through some contact sheets. A cabinet minister, an elderly baroness, two distinguished peers and an actor. They are good portraits and certainly he is proud of his work, but today that thrill in the air he anticipated in January really is here, defying him to ignore its message of vitality and sensual pleasure. The brittle light streams into the flat through the net curtains, silvering where it falls – pale but welcome herald of blue skies and a warm summer-like day by noon.

Peter slips the photographs into a buff envelope, which he tosses onto the carpet. He picks up the tall mustard-yellow coffee pot. As he drinks he glances at the front page of his newspaper. He is determined to go through some of the civilising rituals of his Saturday before giving in to anarchy but before he can drain his cup he has folded the paper and leaped from the table. He saunters briskly to the bedroom where he selects a dark green knitted tie, puts on his sports jacket and pockets his keys.

In the street, the city is alive with traffic and happy people. This is not a day for hatred or anger but a day for love. And everybody feels it. Further down the street there is a screech of brakes. A cab skids to a halt beyond an old lady who is wheeling a trolley across the road. When the cabby moves off he gives a cheery wave.

Confirmed in his belief that all is right with the world Peter heads for the park and lights his first cigarette of the day, inhales the smoke deeply and is sure that a cigarette hasn’t tasted this good for an age.

In the park there is still dew on the grass. Peter narrows his eyes so that the bare trees become a blur. In the foreground the light is strong and bright. It could be late May or early June, although the first girl he passes is in red headscarf and black and white checked overcoat. Yet that face – it is luminous with spring. Its richness and beauty, the fullness of the lips, the sparkling chestnut eyes – these are not winter’s, but badges of spring. If he were drunk he would take her in his arms and tell her how wonderful she is and how they should escape together to some tropical island where it is always summer. He turns his head and watches her back. The overcoat is knee length. The legs are so smooth and shapely.

Later he enters a pub and orders a pint of bitter. He sits down near a window. Beyond the frosted glass he can see the shapes of the passers-by – vague forms and colours. The beer tastes delicious, his cigarette is almost as satisfying as the first but he is lonely.

On a day like today you need friends to share it with. The day is getting confused. He should have stuck to his routine, taken it easy, got himself sorted out. Should he call someone? No, people will be out by now and he couldn’t bear the Russian roulette of ringing phones. In any event, he will see some of them tonight.

He wishes he’d arranged to do something this afternoon – that he didn’t was all his own fault. He wanted to be alone. Still, he was right about the weather. He could give Samantha a ring.

There’s no reply. He returns to his table with another pint. He is glad she wasn’t there, in a way. He’d given in to a momentary whim.

Later he will buy a paper and walk on to another pub. He will spend lunch-time smoking and getting quietly drunk, and watching the world go by. Before tonight.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

red campion, shorts, mite/might!


















Saw this gorgeous red campion when cycling this morning near Black Bourton. Actually, I suspect it is a red-white hybrid.

More course reviewing this morning, though getting up early to work on a day like this is no hardship.

Got the shorts out for the first time since Australia yesterday.

Thanks, Margaret, for pointing out that 'mite' should have been 'might' in the first chapter of Icarus!

Saturday, 17 May 2014

ridging spuds, the poetry of tractor driving, l'étranger, instituto cervantes, aclaiir blog, new novella, icarus, chapters 1-3



















Up to the allotment early to ridge the spuds.

A job that reminds me of a time many years ago, when I'd left school and was working on a farm in Shropshire for nine months. For weeks, I drove up and down the huge fields on my Massey Ferguson tractor with the ridger. Sometimes it took nearly half an hour to drive from the top of the field to the bottom. You'd start work early and finish at dusk, concentrating all the while in case you got out of line and knocked the spuds from their rows.

It could a poetic experience, though, potato ridging. At dusk, say, driving past the remains of an iron parkland fence and a hunting gate with curls either side like treble clefs; fading light on an old dew pond; the sun setting beyond the Welsh hills. And a lot of the time, I told myself stories to make the day go quicker. Or think through the scenes of the film I would one day make of Albert Camus' L'Étranger.

Well my film remains a dream, although the story-telling continues - see the opening chapters of my new novella, Icarus, below.

Went to London on Thursday for the ACLAIIR committee meeting (Advisory Council on Latin American and Iberian Information Resources), which this time was held at the Instituto Cervantes in Eaton Square. What a location! It was lovely to see fellow members of the committee again and to look at the new library, which was opened by Queen Sofia of Spain the day after she visited Oxford a couple of weeks ago. A colleague from the Taylor has co-written a great piece for the ACLAIIR blog, which she also edits, that covers both events and more.

For some of the week I've been reviewing a new online course that's in development for the Oxford University Department for Continuing Education.

I've also been working on my novella (isn't that a perfect form for the internet age?), which has the working title, Icarus. I've decided to post the first eight chapters of the story here in three instalments. The first appears below. Icarus is set in the early 1960s and the late 1980s. It's about a young film maker who is researching a political scandal that happened nearly twenty years earlier and who is interviewing the people that were involved. The title doesn't refer to just one character but to nearly all the main ones, who each has certain Icarus-like sides to them.

So, here are the first three chapters. [The piece is a work in progress and surnames are represented by initial letters only, pending standard libel checks.]


I
Icarus soars then, right wing inclined, wheels in the air. Below him, far, far below, lie the parched shapes of the Ancient World and the blue of the sea.

His father, the only movement in the apparently still air, flaps uneasily and ungracefully like some ancient, scrawny, bird of prey. The old man tries to raise his head, fails, tries again, succeeding briefly, mouthing something to his child.

Above him the sun, below him the earth, Icarus soars and tilts, plucking up courage, each tilt bringing him fractionally closer until, almost without meaning to, he hurls himself into the corkscrew. Sun and earth and water mix, blur and lose meaning. His muscles scream and the flimsy frame that sustains him creaks and buckles but with a sudden surge of power he breaks free. Heart exploding, fear in his limbs, he gulps the air. He is almost on top of his rapt father who, with all his might, arches his neck, his face scowling.

Icarus swoops down and away from the old man, the fool, as a voice cries out laughingly in his head. The boy regains his composure and begins another ascent, passing on his way a single golden feather see-sawing downwards. A brief inspection of his plumage shows it to be intact. It was a very small feather, he muses.

The air is warmer. He cannot see the speck that was his father. He is alone. Like a god he surveys the world. For a moment he achieves wisdom. As the globe turns he perceives the shape of the earth. He sees that the distinctive shape of his own land, which had formed itself as he rose, is but a fragment. As he marvels he is lifted by the air until his thoughts are pierced by searing pain. His skin blisters and smoulders. Vainly, he fights to aim himself into a dive but the inexorable column of air carries him, votive and diminishingly hubristic, ever upwards. Vainly he remembers his father’s scowl. Vainly he recalls how he had sneered inwardly. He can feel his face contorting in a grimace of death. Wax melts. The burning feathers choke him. The sun licks the moisture from his body. He screams and beats frenziedly with his puny arms.


II
Coughing and spluttering, not knowing where he is, or what is happening, Josh pushes himself up and bumps heavily against Sheelagh who, waking, screams and slaps his shoulder.

The room in the light from the streetlamp is unfamiliar yet familiar. A room Josh knows, but only recently. The duvet is on fire. The corner on his side is glowing and there is black smoke.

‘Shit!’ he shouts at the top of his voice and feels Sheelagh pushing away.

He grabs the duvet and dives forward, attempting to smother the glowing corner, simultaneously pulling the whole cover away from the bar fire.

There is someone coming through the open door. Sheelagh – but for a moment Josh wonders who it is.

Icy water splatters his tummy.

‘The fire!’ he beseeches. ‘The bloody electric fire!’

He yanks the plug from the socket with the snake-like flex, leaps up and manhandles Sheelagh through the doorway onto the landing. They lean against each other and gasp for breath.

‘You could have electrocuted us!’

Sheelagh begins to cry.

‘I’m sorry,’ breathes Josh, ‘I’m sorry.’ He places his palm against her belly.


III
Josh watches Samantha cross her drawing-room to the drinks trolley.

He sits in a green velvet armchair beside a carved fireplace. In the grate two large logs smoulder. He remembers the duvet and shudders when he thinks what could have happened. He is angry with himself but forces his gaze back to the room.

The sofa and four armchairs must create quite a cosy effect in some lights but today the sun streaming through the sash windows accentuates a vast emptiness – despite the beautiful paintings and pieces of furniture round the walls.

Samantha returns with two small glasses of sherry. Before sitting down, she looks into his eyes and raises her glass. He is about to say something – cheers, or sláinte. (Convent-school holidays in Ireland when her parents were fighting. Irish blood in the family.) She looks down on him as if he is a child she finds amusing.

Josh raises his glass, says nothing and drinks.

Samantha sits, angling herself towards him, her arm along the back of the sofa, her hand resting in her lap. She is poised yet gives the impression of being relaxed. Her clothes are smart - classic, she would say. Dark colours, blues and greens, only set off by the hard gleam of a string of pearls. Josh is still surprised that her hair is quite so dark. She has kept the style she had as a girl – swept back, shoulder length, held in place by a band - but what is now brown, streaked with grey, was once honey-blond.

In her photographs she looked so young and innocent: wide eyes, round smiling face and a turned up nose that he felt sure he would have liked to touch with his forefinger.

Curiously, though the rest of the face has tightened, the nose has kept its shape and softness, seeming out of place.

‘What I don’t understand,’ Samantha says, ‘is why you want to make a film about Peter. After all, who’s heard of Peter R nowadays?’ She puts up her hand, palm upwards, and shrugs her shoulders. Her eyes widen, looking youthful again for an instant.

Josh smiles.

She continues. ‘Far be it from me to tell you what to do but really, I should have thought that there were much more interesting subjects. Surely people want to be uplifted by films not presented with some sad little tale.’

When he spoke to her on the phone, he learnt nothing other than what is common knowledge. Can he draw her out?

He leans forward, feeling cool sherry splash onto his hand but managing to stop himself looking down. He frowns at her. ‘But surely your time with Peter R wasn’t sad? Well not all of it.’

Samantha’s gaze fixes on him. ‘I suppose what intrigues me is your motive for making the film. Is it sensationalism? If so, you’ll be disappointed.’

‘I’ve read the newspapers.’

‘A lot was made up. Sheer invention.’

‘A lot of facts there too – you know that.’

‘If you libelled me, I’d sue.’

‘You said. That’s why I’m here – to get things right.’

‘Such as?’

Josh breaths in, holds, takes aim and squeezes the trigger.

‘In an interview in ‘65 you said your affair with Peter ended not long before the Menton fracas.’

‘I don’t remember.’

‘This was slightly different to what you said in other interviews. I’ve started to wonder whether you broke up when you were snowed in at that cottage.’

--

The defences behind Samantha’s eyes shatter. The bullet ricochets down the tunnel of her memory. Her mouth twitches.

--

Josh senses he has hit the target. He smiles. ‘If we work together we can tell people the truth – about Peter.’

Samantha takes a sip of sherry and looks into the grate.

‘More logs?’ Josh says.

‘Why not.’

--

For a few moments she sees images different from the long-haired young man in black jeans and sneakers, crouching in front of the fire.

It has just started to snow. It is not late in the afternoon, although it is already dark. The snowflakes flurry into dotted lines in the car’s headlights but it is warm inside and the rushing sound of the hot air blower and the muffled thud of the wipers are strangely comforting.

He tells her that it’s not far to go now. They will arrive at the cottage in a quarter of an hour or so. Then they will be safe.

Peter puts his hand on her leg and gives a little squeeze. He turns and smiles at her. ‘No regrets?’

His voice is utterly reassuring. She shivers happily. She leans against his shoulder and replies, ‘None. Oh absolutely no regrets.’

Did she say that? She can’t remember exactly. Her memory has supplied these words without her will – she supposes she must have said them, or at least something very similar.

--

Josh sets the poker on the hearth and resumes his seat.

He is about to ask Samantha another question but she speaks first. ‘Actually, that was a very happy weekend. I must have been misquoted – or maybe I was still in shock. It took years for me to get over everything. You’ve read David M’s book, I assume.’

Josh nods.

‘He says we split up the night Peter drove to Menton – and the “fracas”, as you put it. That’s the honest truth. Some unkind people said I was the reason it all happened, of course, but David set them straight. Peter was unstable then anyway – he always was a bit odd, poor boy. That’s why it was so sad.’

--

An image flashes through Samantha’s mind. Peter wears his neatly-cut dinner jacket. His skin smells deliciously of tobacco. ‘I have to go now,’ he whispers and kisses her forehead. She smiles submissively.

She snaps her memory shut like a battered suitcase.

--

‘More sherry?’

Before Josh has time to reply she is up and walking towards him, hand outstretched urgently.

Josh has only taken a few sips. He wants to keep a clear head. He feels she is trying to divert his attention, although he also thinks that he has made progress in establishing a rapport with her. He drains his glass.

Before Samantha returns, she begins to talk about being snowed in at the cottage in the West Country with Peter. She has regained her composure.

‘As I say, that weekend was bliss – one of the few times when we were truly happy with each other. It was quite thrilling, actually.’ She laughs. ‘You see I was hardly nineteen – past it these days, but then I was considered very daring by my friends—’

‘I can imagine.’

‘Yes. And thoroughly bad by my mother and father, although they didn’t know about it all, of course, until much later.’

‘Did they meet Peter?’

‘They’d met him socially a few times. In the fifties, I believe. My father thought Peter was a wicked man.’

‘This was before you and him?’

She looks over her shoulder. ‘Absolutely. A lot people didn’t like him.’

Is there a gleam of satisfaction in her eyes?

Josh notices that there are two decanters containing amber liquid on the drinks trolley. He thought he’d caught a whiff of strong alcohol when she had greeted him. Whisky maybe? Yet she doesn’t appear to be drunk. Topping up?

She hands him his glass and sits down.

Whisky. Definitely.

‘It was a lovely cottage,’ she says. ‘It looked so pretty in the snow, and we were warm and happy. Peter suggested we should get married and live there. He’d be in London for part of the week and I could have babies and look after lambs and chickens.’

‘Not very PC.’

Samantha laughs. ‘PC didn’t come into it. It was a romantic dream. Even I knew that...’

As she talks Josh picks up his notebook from the floor and begins to write – Samantha has forbidden the use of a tape recorder and he isn’t sure she will be happy with him taking notes, though she seems not to notice.

Occasionally he stops her and asks a question. Far from objecting to this, she seems glad to have the opportunity of explaining things.

Josh realises that the structure of his film will have to change. The cottage is still a good starting point but the opening will not now be tempestuous and violent but peaceful and pastoral. Of course, though, there will be a sense of unease.

‘...Then the snow melted,’ she says. ‘Almost overnight. We woke up and realised straight away – you know how the light in the room is so much sharper when there is snow outside? I realised that we would have to drive home.’

Josh notices how her eyes harden suddenly.

‘I suppose I knew deep down that it would come to an end, even then – so what you read in that article was right up to a point. Looking back, it was beastly of me to keep him on the hop, because I was moving up to London permanently and things were happening, and I was young, and bound to meet someone else, someone my own age etcetera.’

She puts the glass which she has been cupping with both hands onto a side-table. She sighs and smiles at Josh.

‘Any good?’ she says.

He realises that the interview has come to a close. Reluctantly he shuts his notebook.

He nods enthusiastically. He gets up, following her example, and grins encouragement. ‘Yes that gives me lots to work on – though obviously I’d love to have another meeting. So many questions. I do realise how harrowing this must be for you and really appreciate—’

Samantha waves her hand. ‘No, I’m sure I can cope. You can make the necessary arrangements with my secretary.’

Beside his car, they shake hands.

Her face seems much softer now. When she speaks her look is almost coy. ‘I trust you, you know. I think you’ll treat what I’ve said with respect. In a way I’m glad that the truth is going to come out.’

Saturday, 10 May 2014

may blossom, downpours, sowing, creative writing, term up-and-running, novella

















Saw this beautiful may blossom when cycling earlier.

Blustery weekend so far, though, with heavy downpours - makes blossom seem distinctly ephemeral. Some cheering intervals of lovely warm sunshine, even so.

Managed to put in an hour on the allotment yesterday evening after work, knowing I wouldn't be able to get much done up there today and tomorrow. Swiss and rhubarb chard in plus some mixed radishes and two varieties of runner bean (there are early-sown runners growing in pots in the garden, which will be planted out next weekend).

Lots of creative writing teaching being done, meanwhile. The term is definitely up-and-running. Oh, and the novella is growing.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

working weekend, autumn king, cold start, sir robert taylor, digital icons, queen sofia, diary management




















Something of a working weekend, despite having Monday off. Lots of work to do, although it is nice to be doing this at home.

Not all work, nevertheless. Planted some Autumn King carrots and some Boltardy beetroots just now on the allotment, as well as doing a bit of tidying, in the beautiful summer-seeming sunshine.

A cold start to the day, however, when I went cycling. A sharp frost in places - photos above. Relieved to have put the runner bean plants in the shed overnight.

Went to a fascinating talk at the Taylor Institution on Wednesday that was organised by a colleague. Its subject was the private collection of books on architecture that were once owned by the building's benefactor, the architect and sculptor Sir Robert Taylor (famous for his designs of parts of the Bank of England, now long since demolished). It was wonderful to have the chance of looking at the books themselves after the talk. (Hopefully some photos of the books will be available online soon - if they appear, I'll post the link.)

Met with a friend for a drink on Thursday after work. She has recently joined the editorial team at a wonderful online journal called Digital Icons, which focuses on Russian, Eurasian and Central European new media. A brilliant example of so-called born-digital academic publications that exist online only and represent the very best aspects of the web.

On Tuesday, the Queen of Spain visited the Taylor to attend a lecture given by Professor Edwin Williamson, prior to attending 700th anniversary celebrations at Exeter College, where she is an honorary fellow. I'd wanted to go to the lecture too but had a Research Data Management meeting instead (really must improve my diary management...).