Monday, March 28, 2011
Before dinner I nosed around the kitchen to get a peek at the victuals. There was not much fresh food around, owing, of course, to wartime shortages. Much of what was there was in cans and jars, most of it of some age. McVitie’s Digestives and Walker’s Shortbread Fingers were being daintily laid out on a serving tray. There was a opened can of Batchelor’s Mush Peas and Broadland Vegetable Suet, and generous amount of Gentlemen’s Relish, and a massive jar of Norfolk Manor Mincemeat.
When we finally sat down to eat, a Welsh rarebit was served up on a slice of bread that was left too long in the broiler. It was singed and scored by flame scars. Next, a bowl of bangers and mash that was too watery on the top, and correspondingly viscous on the bottom. Then, in quick bewildering succession, Tatties and Bashed Neaps, Toads-in-the-whole, and as the avez-vous faim, a supposedly choice bit of game bird, a Barbary duck shot that morning, or I suppose more specifically, a duck breast fried.
Duck has a solid layer of fat under the skin, and consequently needs a lengthy cooking time, but the inside of the beast should be red and juicy. Fantastically, this carcass seemed to be prepared in the opposite manner, its insides were burned, while the layer of exterior fat remained pink and gamey. The pudding served for dessert had a host of mysterious suspended particles in its milky contents, and the surface layer, which I broke with a spoon, an uneven, questionable sheen.
In fact these dinner parties, when I view them from my present vantage, now seem like the dividing line between what people were like before the war and what they would be forced to transform into after the war.
And I am not talking about stage props like dress, sexual mores, aesthetic tastes or habitual inclinations. These are the mere surface fringe of the creature known as human. No, what was at stake was far more sinister. Like all clever and acute people whose basic desires go largely unsatisfied --- I am a perfect medium to sense the barely perceptible stirrings of a human sea change, and the first tugs at the strings of epoch turning --- of shape shifting toward the unknown, next avatar of homo sapien sapiens. I am much like an animal before an earthquake: for inscrutable reasons I sense the tremor, for my middle ear vibrates like a minute harp long before the side walk begins to crack.
“Quite to the contrary,” Gavin continued speaking, trying to cut his meat with one arm, for the other was in a sling, as he had been thrown from his horse in the hunt, “I do not believe that this war will bring a lasting peace. This century will be marked by almost perpetual war. Once this conflict is over we shall be butting heads against the Bolsheviks, and how do you suppose that will turn out?”
“But the Russians are our allies.” Lesley said, turning her cross eyes to Gavin.
“Oh Lesley, darling, you’re so naive. Allies and enemies are not some intrinsic state, but situational. One’s enemy today is one’s friend tomorrow, and vice-versa. One never knows what is in the cards. In fact, I’d go so far to call it my life’s philosophy: everything transforms into its opposite, eventually.”
“That maybe true in politics, old boy,” said Edmund Fitzroyce, a slight man in an RAF uniform who was at the hunt that morning, “after all England is now fighting with the United States and we came damn near close to coming in on the side of the Confederates in their Civil War for all that cotton, but human nature is entirely a different matter. People just don’t change. There is nothing new under the sun when it comes to people. The model always remains the same the world over.”
“There I would most vociferously disagree,” I chimed in, pointing a meaty finger at my fellow guests like a visually suspended accusation, “so called human nature is the most malleable of all things --- more than politics, more than that shape shifting whore known as history. In fact, I would go so far to state that there is nothing called human and nothing called nature.”
“Oh really,” Lesley said, “then what are we, if not human.”
“Langley thinks we are what we believe we are,” Clare said flatly.
“Not entirely true,” I said, “I would never make facile generalizations about what it means to be what we are. Whether we construct or own realities or it is constructed for us isn’t really the point, actually, it’s the crushing weight of reality that matters, what makes you feel alive and dead, what is empty and what is full. Its up to you to run to the side that gives you what you desire. People say ‘human nature’ and pin attributes on it as if it were a coat rack. But what the coat rack is no one really investigates. Are we only attributes? If that is so I’m deadly afraid. I’m fearful to my bones. I think if anyone decided to move the coats aside what they saw at the center would so shake them to the core they would jump off the cliffs of Dover.”
Luckily, more dreadful foodstuffs were brought in by limping and gouty servants. As I was quickly discovering, Budge Manor and Crotchford Downs, with its cool mists and perpetual cloud cover, was a breeding ground for English diseases supposedly eradicated in the last century. Gout brought the mutton; scurvy the potatoes and giblets; a mild case of consumption the overstuffed, bland dessert. My diatribe, painfully out of sync with the general flow of conversation, had down shifted the discussion to mere pleasantries about the weather. Even my impish Clare, not completely of this earth, had gripped my hand during my monologue as if to say “There, there love, don’t let everything out.”
After dinner we retired to the front hall. Although it was a chilly night I found myself bathed in hot sweat. I held a cigar in one hand and a brandy in the other and tried to control the tremors and spasms passing over my body like uncontrollable waves. I saw Gavin looking at me and politely trying to ignore my state.
“I’ve heard through some chums of mine at the BBC that some sort of decisive battle is taking place near some town in Tunisia known as El-Alamein. Its so hot down there that those lads can fry eggs atop their tanks. Can you imagine being inside one of those dreadful boxes in those conditions?” My shaking had managed to spill some cognac on the floor. Gavin looked at me with a disapproving, concerned eye.
“Langley you look horrid. Are you coming down with a chill? For heaven’s sake get yourself to bed, will you.”
“Yes, I think I will” I said, my field of vision was tunneling down a narrow funnel and then widening again and then back on the same circular path, heading down the narrow funnel once more.
“Shall I take you?” Clare asked.
“No,” I said, “I can make it myself. Stay here and enjoy myself --- yourself I mean.”
I mounted those calamitously steep stone stairs to the upper wrap around landing above the central hall. My vision was tunneling funneling in the narrow corridor. Instead of finding our bedroom door I must have slipped through one of the openings leading to the disused, crumbling sections of the house.
At first I was in a narrow corridor that resembled the hall leading to our room, but when I reached the end I was in a round, crumbling chapel. The central altarpiece was conspicuously missing, but some of the stained glass windows were still in place. Apostles hauling fish in a net, Jesus walking on a storm tossed Sea of Galilee, St. Peter being crucified upside down.
Broken pews littered the floor. I started stumbling over them, cartwheeling, end over end, as if I were drunk, and when I finally found my footing I had been transported outside the chapel into a long vaulted hallway.
I followed it; it kept crumbling until there was no roof but merely a series of blocks and stones cascading forward over a low hill. Looking back I saw the hulking black bulk of the manor. In front of me was the black sea of moors. Only the sky, a peppered gray of racing clouds, offered any contrast to the utter darkness. I looked at my large black hands. They pulsed before my disbelieving eyes.