Thursday, March 17, 2011
The old Packard sped along the country lane. Some stubborn fluffy sheep, unwilling to move out of the way, temporarily halted the car. Gavin dismounted from the driver’s seat and parted the flock in two with a large stick like a diminutive and downy Moses. We started again.
Gavin, using his intricate wartime connections, had secured a doctor’s petrol card. Stopping at a pump just outside of Crotchford Downs the gas attendant asked questions about his rheumatism.
“When does it hurt old boy, morning or evening?” Gavin asked clinically.
“Well, your doctorship, sees it hurtz all the time.”
“Mmmm…” Gavin mused, “it would be better, old boy, if it hurt at a particular time of day. Some times are better than others for pain, you know.”
“Really?” he asked.
“Well, can’t you give me sumthing from yur medical bag. Don’t ya have one?”
“Yes, of course, the bag. Where is that bloody bag. Most likely in the trunk. Hold on, old boy.”
Gavin’s slim body, tapered even further by his tight driving tweeds, slipping out of the seat, momentarily stood on the running board and then hopped off. He walked to the trunk and rummaged about for sometime. When he emerged he took the gas attended aside and gave him detailed instructions.
Driving away, Clare asked, “What did you give him?”
“Sugar pills. Harmless but extremely effective. I give them to our footman when he complains of the gout. Perhaps it works well on rheumatism as well. We shall see.”
“How’s your chest, darling?” Clare asked me.
“Oh fine, a little sore,” I answered. I peeked between the buttons of my shirt to the purple stain spreading across my chest.
“That’s the first time a Great War relic actually saved a man in this war, I’m sure. You are a creature of firsts, aren’t you? If we didn’t have a black market car with illegally procured petrol we could put you in for a medal, certainly.”
“Do you want me to look at it?” Lesley said, turning her blue cross eyed stare to me, “I had some nursing training before I chucked it because of the blood en guts’en all.”
“No, really, no fuss, please.” I felt Clare’s small hand resting on top of mine. She leaned close as the car accelerated. Trees were overhanging the road, clumps of tight green waxy buds swayed in the breeze. Grasses shook by the roadside as the car sped by. Hares sprung in front of the car and then disappeared speedily into ditches on the opposite side.
I felt my chest. I was a miracle that such a small metal case could deflect a bullet. It must have ricocheted off the car before hitting, slowing it down. I scanned the immediate area for a dent or a hole and did not find one. I sat back and felt my firm, numb, chest. “You alright darling?” Clare asked again. I smiled and nodded.
Further north the landscape changed appreciably. Gone was the early spring mist, the fresh green nubby growth, the hazy veil of sunshine.
Crotchford Downs sat moodily upon a promontory of fractured stone, lording over a rolling landscape of brown undulating moors.
The car sped up a winding stone paved road flanked on either side by roughhewn, ancient stone houses. They were squat and square and the identical brown hue as the surrounding landscape. Only the chimneys, a more modern chipping red and white brick, added a splash of color to the monochrome dwellings.
Gavin pointed the car to the Manor House and ascended the last slope of the hill. A man in dark overalls and a cap opened and closed the front gate behind us. As the gate closed and latched shut I felt as if my heart were a lute string strung too tight, as I touched it, it resounded. I thought the strange sensation was the shock of the German bullet, but it was something else. I looked up upon the bleak walls --- upon the vacant eye-like windows – upon a few rank sedges --- and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees, and thought I saw, superimposed upon this-all-to English scene, a squat brownstone on Fifth Avenue between the two houses.
There was a duality not of sight but of archetype. Budge Manor, dark, tall, Gothic, choked with rigorous dense ivy, dripping with a peculiar green-black moisture, and our house, longer and taller, cluttered, a maze, were irregular twins gazing at each other in a fun house mirror, held up for mutual inspection. The minute seed within me, the germinating tendency of growth followed by rapid decay, clicked and fastened up yet another ratchet, took a decisive step toward fulfilling its teleology.
Taking our bags out of the car I felt as if I may swoon, not from physical or emotional exhaustion but from the sheer weight of abstract possibility. The terrible knowledge assaulted me that whatever came forth from then on would be a journey not outward into the unknown of the future (which is how most of us experience time) but a return to what I knew already existed. It was as if I had been allowed to float above the limited span of my own slice of determinism for thirty-four years and view my life with a divine detachment.
But I was now steadily descending from that privileged height. I was dovetailing from the abstract to the concrete, the ideal to the real, the general to the particular --- the oppressively specific. It had the weight of a vision, but instead of peeling the layers off reality to give me a fair glimpse of my glimmering future, it merely gummed up the inevitable more. It did not explicate my future, but eradicated it.
Gavin surveyed the front of the manor. “Good God,” he said dejectedly, “even drearier than when I was here last. The country seat has deteriorated. It’s a law of thermodynamics, isn’t it old boy. Things fall apart unless you put energy into them, right’oh?”
“Sometimes they fall apart when you put energy in them, or in spite of putting energy in them,” I answered. “They just can’t handle the added load. No adequate substrate”
“How provocative,” Gavin mused as we entered the oblong entryway.
Gavin ushered us from one dark room to another, adjoining dark room. Tall Gothic ceilings caked in old tallow soot, smeared beveled glass windows looking out over pocked rock outcroppings, and staring vacantly over the moor country, undulating like a frozen brown seascape. The central hall opened into a formal dining room with a massive hearth twice my height. Above us, reaching up a staircase of stone, was an upper landing that led to bedrooms, fitting rooms and the rear, disused part of the house collapsing from decay.
“There’s more to the house, of course, its positively ancient, but we only keep up a sliver of it. The rest is in ruins of sorts. I’ll probably sell it after the war. Out with the old and in with the new, as they say,” Gavin said without a hint of sentiment. “Aristocracy means nothing now. Its brass knuckles that count.” He held up his small fist for emphasis.
The footman with psychosomatic gout limpingly showed Clare and I our room. It was a large, drafty, tastefully decorated bedroom in the neo-medieval style, with a canopied bed and on a far wall a richly depicted tapestry of St. George defeating the dragon. George had his lance drawn and was about to plunge without compunction or hesitation, the glistening point into the beast’s gilled hide. I pulled back the tapestry. Behind the wall was a drafty, dark nook.
Clare sat on the bed and tested its springiness. I stood by the window looking out over the moors. The sky was a typical English gray, but a ring of black clouds, little wisps at the horizon, poked above the ring of hills. I stood tall in the window, blocking out what little light came in; a leafless hedge, scraggly and veiny, rustled in the wind, scratching the window irregularly.
When I turned around Clare had removed her skirt and was nude from the waist down. She was sitting on the edge of the bed, just at the margin of the mattress, with the balls of her feet propped on the thin lip of exposed box spring. She was facing me. Her eyes were fixed on my broad face. I strode toward her and immediately unzipped my pants. Lifting her up, she wrapped her long legs around my waist. I grasped her light body from the bottom. She dug her long nails into my neck. She gulped greedily at me, moving up and down along my length and I placed my hands on her belly, guiding her. Her eyes had a deep yellow cast, her skin, a glistening green.
She leaned forward and sunk her teeth into my shoulder. Her brown hair flung forward into my eyes… I smelled the peppermint fragrance of her shampoo. Her musky breath was on my cheek as I pressed her crushingly close.